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Produced by Dagny; John Bickers; David Widger





CAUGHT IN THE NET

By Emile Gaboriau




CHAPTER I.

PUTTING ON THE SCREW.

The cold on the 8th of February, 186-, was more intense than the
Parisians had experienced during the whole of the severe winter
which had preceded it, for at twelve o'clock on that day Chevalier's
thermometer, so well known by the denizens of Paris, registered three
degrees below zero. The sky was overcast and full of threatening signs
of snow, while the moisture on the pavement and roads had frozen hard,
rendering traffic of all kinds exceedingly hazardous. The whole great
city wore an air of dreariness and desolation, for even when a thin
crust of ice covers the waters of the Seine, the mind involuntarily
turns to those who have neither food, shelter, nor fuel.

This bitterly cold day actually made the landlady of the Hotel de Perou,
though she was a hard, grasping woman of Auvergne, gave a thought to the
condition of her lodgers, and one quite different from her usual idea of
obtaining the maximum of rent for the minimum of accommodation.

"The cold," remarked she to her husband, who was busily engaged in
replenishing the stove with fuel, "is enough to frighten the wits out of
a Polar bear. In this kind of weather I always feel very anxious, for
it was during a winter like this that one of our lodgers hung himself, a
trick which cost us fifty francs, in good, honest money, besides giving
us a bad name in the neighborhood. The fact is, one never knows what
lodgers are capable of doing. You should go up to the top floor, and see
how they are getting on there."

"Pooh, pooh!" replied her husband, M. Loupins; "they will do well
enough."

"Is that really your opinion?"

"I know that I am right. Daddy Tantaine went out as soon as it was
light, and a short time afterward Paul Violaine came down. There is no
one upstairs now but little Rose, and I expect that she has been wise
enough to stick to her bed."

"Ah!" answered the landlady rather spitefully. "I have made up my mind
regarding that young lady some time ago; she is a sight too pretty for
this house, and so I tell you."

The Hotel de Perou stands in the Rue de la Hachette, not twenty steps
from the Place de Petit Pont; and no more cruelly sarcastic title could
ever have been conferred on a building. The extreme shabbiness of the
exterior of the house, the narrow, muddy street in which it stood,
the dingy windows covered with mud, and repaired with every variety of
patch, - all seemed to cry out to the passers by: "This is the chosen
abode of misery and destitution."

The observer might have fancied it a robbers' den, but he would have
been wrong; for the inhabitants were fairly honest. The Hotel de Perou
was one of those refuges, growing scarcer and more scarce every day,
where unhappy men and women, who had been worsted in the battle of life,
could find a shelter in return for the change remaining from the last
five-franc piece. They treat it as the shipwrecked mariner uses the rock
upon which he climbs from the whirl of the angry waters, and breathes
a deep sigh of relief as he collects his forces for a fresh effort.
However wretched existence may be, a protracted sojourn in such a
shelter as the Hotel de Perou would be out of the question. The chambers
in every floor of the house are divided into small slips by partitions,
covered with canvas and paper, and pleasantly termed rooms by M.
Loupins. The partitions were in a terrible condition, rickety and
unstable, and the paper with which they were covered torn and hanging
down in tatters; but the state of the attics was even more deplorable,
the ceilings of which were so low that the occupants had to stoop
continually, while the dormer windows admitted but a small amount of
light. A bedstead, with a straw mattress, a rickety table, and two
broken chairs, formed the sole furniture of these rooms. Miserable
as these dormitories were, the landlady asked and obtained twenty-two
francs for them by the month, as there was a fireplace in each, which
she always pointed out to intending tenants.

The young woman whom M. Loupins alluded to by the name of Rose was
seated in one of these dreary dens on this bitter winter's day. Rose was
an exquisitely beautiful girl about eighteen years of age. She was very
fair; her long lashes partially concealed a pair of steely blue eyes,
and to a certain extent relieved their hard expression. Her ripe, red
lips, which seemed formed for love and kisses, permitted a glimpse of
a row of pearly teeth. Her bright waving hair grew low down upon her
forehead, and such of it as had escaped from the bondage of a cheap
comb, with which it was fastened, hung in wild luxuriance over her
exquisitely shaped neck and shoulders. She had thrown over her ragged
print gown the patched coverlet of the bed, and, crouched upon
the tattered hearthrug before the hearth, upon which a few sticks
smouldered, giving out hardly a particle of heat, she was telling her
fortune with a dirty pack of cards, endeavoring to console herself for
the privations of the day by the promise of future prosperity. She had
spread those arbiters of her destiny in a half circle before her, and
divided them into threes, each of which had a peculiar meaning, and her
breast rose and fell as she turned them up and read upon their faces
good fortune or ill-luck. Absorbed in this task, she paid but little
attention to the icy chilliness of the atmosphere, which made her
fingers stiff, and dyed her white hands purple.

"One, two, three," she murmured in a low voice. "A fair man, that's
sure to be Paul. One, two, three, money to the house. One, two, three,
troubles and vexations. One, two, three, the nine of spades; ah, dear!
more hardships and misery, - always that wretched card turning up with
its sad story!"

Rose seemed utterly downcast at the sight of the little piece of painted
cardboard, as though she had received certain intelligence of a
coming misfortune. She soon, however, recovered herself, and was again
shuffling the pack, - cut it, taking care to do so with her left hand,
spread them out before her, and again commenced counting: one, two,
three. This time the cards appeared to be more propitious, and held out
promises of success for the future.

"I am loved," read she, as she gazed anxiously upon them, - "very much
loved! Here is rejoicing, and a letter from a dark man! See, here he
is, - the knave of clubs. Always the same," she continued; "I cannot
strive against fate."

Then, rising to her feet, she drew from a crack in the wall, which
formed a safe hiding-place for her secrets, a soiled and crumpled
letter, and, unfolding it, she read for perhaps the hundredth time these
words: -

"MADEMOISELLE, -

"To see you is to love you. I give you my word of honor that this is
true. The wretched hovel where your charms are hidden is no fit
abode for you. A home, worthy in every way to receive you, is at
your service - Rue de Douai. It has been taken in your name, as I am
straightforward in these matters. Think of my proposal, and make what
inquiries you like concerning me. I have not yet attained my majority,
but shall do so in five months and three days, when I shall inherit my
mother's fortune. My father is wealthy, but old and infirm. From four to
six in the afternoon of the next few days I will be in a carriage at the
corner of the Place de Petit Pont.

"GASTON DE GANDELU."


The cynical insolence of the letter, together with its entire want of
form, was a perfect example of the style affected by those loiterers
about town, known to the Parisians as "mashers;" and yet Rose did not
appear at all disgusted by the reception of such an unworthily worded
proposal, but, on the contrary, rather pleased by its contents. "If I
only dared," mused she, with a sigh, - "ah, if I only dared!" For a time
she sat deeply immersed in thought, with her face buried in her hands,
until she was aroused from her meditations by the sound of an active and
youthful step upon the creaking stairs. "He has come back," she gasped;
and with the agile movement of a cat she again concealed the letter
in its hiding-place, and she had scarcely done so, when Paul Violaine
entered the miserable room. He was a young man of twenty-three, of
slender figure, but admirably proportioned. His face was a perfect oval,
and his complexion of just that slight olive tint which betrays the
native of the south of France. A slight, silky moustache concealed his
upper lip, and gave his features that air of manliness in which they
would have otherwise been deficient. His curly chestnut hair fell
gracefully over a brow upon which an expression of pride was visible,
and enhanced the peculiar, restless glance of his large dark eyes. His
physical beauty, which was fully equal to that of Rose, was increased by
an aristocratic air, popularly believed to be only found in the scions
of noble families. The landlady, in her moments of good humor, used to
assert her belief that her lodger was a disguised prince; but if this
were the case, he was certainly one that had been overtaken by poverty.
His dress, to which the closest attention had been paid, revealed the
state of destitution in which he was, - not the destitution which openly
asks for alms, but the hidden poverty which shuns communication and
blushes at a single glance of pity. In this almost Arctic winter he wore
clothes rendered thin by the constant friction of the clothes brush,
over which was a light overcoat about as thick as the web of a spider.
His shoes were well blacked, but their condition told the piteous tale
of long walks in search of employment, or of that good luck which seems
to evade its pursuer.

Paul was holding a roll of manuscript in his hand, and as he entered
the room he threw it on the bed with a despairing gesture. "A failure
again!" exclaimed he, in accents of the utmost depression. "Nothing else
but failures!"

The young woman rose hastily to her feet; she appeared to have forgotten
the cards completely; the smile of satisfaction faded from her face and
her features, and an expression of utter weariness took its place.

"What! no success?" she cried, affecting a surprise which was evidently
assumed. "No success, after all your promises when you left me this
morning?"

"This morning, Rose, a ray of hope had penetrated my heart; but I have
been deceived, or rather I deceived myself, and I took my ardent desires
for so many promises which were certain to be fulfilled. The people that
I have been to have not even the kindness to say 'No' plain and flat;
they listen to all you have to say, and as soon as your back is turned
they forget your existence. The coin that passes around in this
infernal town is indeed nothing but idle words, and that is all that
poverty-stricken talent can expect."

A silence of some duration ensued, and Paul was too much absorbed in
his own thoughts to notice the look of contempt with which Rose was
regarding him. His helpless resignation to adverse circumstances
appeared to have turned her to stone.

"A nice position we are in!" said she at last. "What do you think will
become of us?"

"Alas! I do not know."

"Nor I. Yesterday Madame Loupins came to me and asked for the eleven
francs we owe here; and told me plainly that if within three days we did
not settle our account, she would turn us out; and I know enough of her
to be sure that she will keep her word. The detestable old hag would do
anything for the pleasure of seeing me on the streets."

"Alone and friendless in the world," muttered Paul, paying but little
attention to the young girl's words, "without a creature or a relative
to care for you, or to lend you a helping hand."

"We have not a copper in the world," continued Rose with cruel
persistency; "I have sold everything that I had, to preserve the rags
that I am wearing. Not a scrap of wood remains, and we have not tasted
food since yesterday morning."

To these words, which were uttered in a tone of the most bitter
reproach, the young man made no reply, but clasped his icily cold hands
against his forehead, as though in utter despair.

"Yes, that is a true picture of our position," resumed Rose coldly,
her accents growing more and more contemptuous. "And I tell you that
something must be done at once, some means discovered, I care not what,
to relieve us from our present miserable state."

Paul tore off his overcoat, and held it toward her.

"Take it, and pawn it," exclaimed he; but the girl made no move.

"Is that all that you have to propose?" asked she, in the same glacial
tone.

"They will lend you three francs upon it, and with that we can get bread
and fuel."

"And after that is gone?"

"After that - oh, we will think of our next step, and shall have time to
hit upon some plan. Time, a little time, is all that I require, Rose, to
break asunder the bonds which seem to fetter me. Some day success must
crown my efforts; and with success, Rose, dear, will come affluence, but
in the meantime we must learn to wait."

"And where are the means to enable us to wait?"

"No matter; they will come. Only do what I tell you, and who can say
what to-morrow - - "

Paul was still too much absorbed in his own thoughts to notice the
expression upon the young girl's face; for had he done so, he would at
once have perceived that she was not in the humor to permit the matter
to be shelved in this manner.

"To-morrow!" she broke in sarcastically. "To-morrow, - always the same
pitiful cry. For months past we seem to have lived upon the word. Look
you here, Paul, you are no longer a child, and ought to be able to look
things straight in the face. What can I get on that threadbare coat of
yours? Perhaps three francs at the outside. How many days will that
last us? We will say three. And then, what then? Besides, can you not
understand that your dress is too shabby for you to make an impression
on the people you go to see? Well-dressed applicants only have
attention, and to obtain money, you must appear not to need it; and,
pray, what will people think of you if you have no overcoat? Without one
you will look ridiculous, and can hardly venture into the streets."

"Hush!" cried Paul, "for pity's sake, hush! for your words only prove to
me more plainly that you are like the rest of the world, and that want
of success is a pernicious crime in your eyes. You once had confidence
in me, and then you spoke in a very different strain."

"Once indeed! but then I did not know - "

"No, Rose, it was not what you were then ignorant of; but it was that in
those days you loved me."

"Great heavens! I ask you, have I left one stone unturned? Have I
not gone from publisher to publisher to sell those songs of my own
composing - those songs that you sing so well? I have endeavored to get
pupils. What fresh efforts can I try? What would _you_ do, were you in
my place? Tell me, I beg you."

And as Paul spoke, he grew more and more excited, while Rose still
maintained her manner of exasperating coolness.

"I know not," she replied, after a brief pause; "but if I were a man, I
do not think I would permit the woman, for whom I pretended that I had
the most sincere affection, to be in want of the actual necessities of
life. I would strain every effort to obtain them."

"I have no trade; I am no mechanic," broke in Paul passionately.

"Then I would learn one. Pray how much does a man earn who climbs the
ladder with a bricklayer's hod upon his shoulders? It may be hard work,
I know, but surely the business is not difficult to learn. You have, or
say you have, great musical talents. I say nothing about them; but had
I any vocal powers and if there was not a morsel to eat in the house,
I would go and sing in the taverns or even in the public streets, and
would earn money, and care little for the means by which I made it."

"When you say those things, you seem to forget that I am an honest man."

"One would really suppose that I had suggested some questionable act to
you. Your reply, Paul, plainly proves to me that you are one of those
who, for want of determination, fall, helpless, by the wayside in the
journey of life. They flaunt their rags and tatters in the eyes of the
world, and with saddened hearts and empty stomachs utter the boast,
'I am an honest man.' Do you think that, in order to be rich, you must
perforce be a rogue? This is simple imbecility."

She uttered this tirade in clear and vibrant accents, and her eyes
gleamed with the fire of savage resolution. Her nature was one of those
cruel and energetic ones, which lead a woman to hurl a man from the
brink of the abyss to which she had conducted him, and to forget him
before he has ever reached the bottom.

This torrent of sarcasm brought out Paul's real nature. His face
flushed, and rage began to gain the mastery over him. "Can you not
work?" he asked. "Why do you not do something instead of talking so
much?"

"That is not at all the same thing," answered she coolly. "I was not
made for work."

Paul made a threatening gesture. "You wretch!" exclaimed he.

"You are wrong," she replied. "I am not a wretch; I am simply hungry."

There seemed every prospect of an angry scene, when a slight sound
attracted the attention of the disputants, and, turning round, they saw
an old man standing upon the threshold of their open door. He was tall,
but stooped a good deal. He had high, thick brows, and a red nose; a
long, thick, grizzly beard covered the rest of his countenance. He wore
a pair of spectacles with colored glasses, which, to a great extent,
concealed the expression of his face. His whole attire indicated extreme
poverty. He wore a greasy coat, much frayed and torn at the pockets, and
which had carried away with it marks of all the walls against which it
had been rubbed when he had indulged a little too freely in the cheerful
glass. He seemed to belong to that class who consider it a work of
supererogation to disrobe before going to bed, and who just turn in on
such spot as the fancy of the moment may dictate. Paul and Rose both
recognized the old man from having continually met him when ascending
or descending the staircase, and knew that he rented the back attic, and
was called Daddy Tantaine. In an instant the idea flashed across Paul's
mind that the dilapidated state of the partition permitted every word
spoken in one attic to be overheard in the other, and this did not tend
to soothe his exasperated feelings.

"What do you want here, sir?" asked he angrily. "And, pray, who gave you
permission to enter my room without leave?"

The old man did not seem at all put out by the threatening language of
his questioner. "I should be telling a fib," answered he calmly, "if I
were to tell you that, being in my own room and hearing you quarrelling,
I did not hear every word of what you have been saying."

"Sir!"

"Stop a bit, and don't be in such a hurry, my young friend. You seem
disposed to quarrel, and, on my faith, I am not surprised; for when
there is no corn in the manger, the best tempered horse will bite and
kick."

He uttered these words in the most soothing accents, and appeared
utterly unconscious of having committed any breach of etiquette in
entering the room.

"Well, sir," said Paul, a flush of shame passing across his face, "you
see now how poverty can drag a man down. Are you satisfied?"

"Come, come, my young friend," answered Daddy Tantaine, "you should not
get angry; and if I did step in without any notice, it was because, as a
neighbor, I find I might venture on such a liberty; for when I heard how
embarrassed you were, I said to myself, 'Tantaine, perhaps you can help
this pretty pair out of the scrape they have got into.'"

The promise of assistance from a person who had not certainly the
outward appearance of a capitalist seemed so ludicrous to Rose that she
could not restrain a smile, for she fancied that if their old neighbor
was to present them with half his fortune, it might possibly amount to
twenty centimes or thereabouts.

Paul had formed a somewhat similar idea, but he was a little touched by
this act of friendliness on the part of a man who doubtless knew that
money lent under similar circumstances was but seldom returned.

"Ah, sir!" said he, and this time he spoke in softer accents, "what can
you possibly do for us?"

"Who can say?"

"You can see how hard we are pushed. We are in want of almost
everything. Have we not reached the _acme_ of misery?"

The old man raised his hand to heaven, as if to seek for aid from above.

"You have indeed come to a terrible pass," murmured he; "but all is not
yet lost. The pearl which lies in the depths of the ocean is not lost
for ever; for may not some skillful diver bring it to the surface? A
fisherman may not be able to do much with it, but he knows something of
its value, and hands it over to the dealer in precious stones."

He intensified his speech by a little significant laugh, the meaning
of which was lost upon the two young people who, though their evil
instincts led them to be greedy and covetous, were yet unskilled in the
world's ways.

"I should," remarked Paul, "be a fool if I did not accept the offer of
your kind assistance."

"There, then, that is right; and now the first thing to do is to have a
really good feed. You must get in some wood too, for it is frightfully
cold. My old bones are half frozen; and afterward we will talk of a
fresh rig out for you both."

"Yes," remarked Rose with a faint sigh; "but to do all that, we want a
lot of money."

"Well, how do you know that I can't find it?"

Daddy Tantaine unbuttoned his great coat with grave deliberation, and
drew from an inner pocket a small scrap of paper which had been fastened
to the lining by a pin. This he unfolded with the greatest of care and
laid upon the table.

"A banknote for five hundred francs!" exclaimed Rose, with extreme
surprise. Paul did not utter a word. Had he seen the woodwork of the
chair upon which he was leaning burst into flower and leaf, he could not
have looked more surprised. Who could have expected to find such a sum
concealed beneath the old man's tatters, and how could he have obtained
so much money? The idea that some robbery had been committed at once
occurred to both the young people, and they exchanged a meaning glance,
which, however, did not escape the observation of their visitor.

"Pooh, pooh!" said he, without appearing in the slightest degree
annoyed. "You must not give way to evil thoughts or suspicions. It is
a fact that banknotes for five hundred francs don't often grow out of
a ragged pocket like mine. But I got this fellow honestly, - that I can
guarantee."

Rose paid no attention to his words; indeed, she took no interest in
them. The note was there, and that was enough for her. She took it up
and smoothed it out as though the crisp paper communicated a pleasant
sensation to her fingers.

"I must tell you," resumed Daddy Tantaine, "that I am employed by a
sheriff's officer, and that, in addition, I do a little bill collecting
for various persons. By these means I have often comparatively large
sums in my possession, and I can lend you five hundred francs for a
short time without any inconvenience to myself."

Paul's necessities and conscience were fighting a hard battle, and
he remained silent, as a person generally does before arriving at a
momentous decision.

At length he broke the silence. "No," said he, "your offer is one that I
cannot accept, for I feel - "

"This is no time, my dear Paul, to talk of feelings," interrupted Rose;
"besides, can you not see that our refusal to accept the loan annoys
this worthy gentleman?"

"The young lady is quite right," returned Daddy Tantaine. "Come, let
us say that the matter is settled. Go out and get in something to eat,
sharp, for it has struck four some time ago."

At these words, Rose started, and a scarlet flush spread over her
cheek. "Four o'clock," repeated she, thinking of her letter; but after a
moment's reflection she stepped up to the cracked mirror, and arranging
her tattered skirts, took up the banknote and left the room.

"She is a rare beauty," remarked Daddy Tantaine with the air of one who
was an authority in such matters, "and as clever as they make them.
Ah! if she had only some one to give her a hint, she might rise to any
height."

Paul's ideas were in such a wild state of confusion, that he could
make no reply; and, now that he was no longer held in thrall by Rose's
presence, he began to be terrified at what had taken place, for he



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