Owen Johnson.

Murder in Any Degree online

. (page 13 of 14)
Online LibraryOwen JohnsonMurder in Any Degree → online text (page 13 of 14)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


candlesticks. We should be very much obliged - very grateful if you
could find room for them."

Often since I have thought of that burglar and what must have been his
sensations. At the time I was too engrossed with my own feelings. Never
have I enjoyed a situation more. It is true I noticed as I proceeded our
burglar began to edge away towards the door, keeping the lantern
steadily on my face.

"And one favor more," I added, "there are several flocks of individual
silver almond dishes roosting downstairs - "

"Forty-two," said Clara, "twenty-four in the dining-room and eighteen in
the parlor."

"Forty-two is the number; as a last favor please find room for them; if
you don't want them drop them in a river or bury them somewhere. We
really would appreciate it. It's our last chance."

"All right," said the burglar in an altered tone. "Don't you worry now,
we'll attend to that."

"Remember there are forty-two - if you would count them."

"That's all right - just you rest easy," said the burglar soothingly.
"I'll see they all get in."

"Really, if I could be of any assistance downstairs," I said anxiously,
"I might really help."

"Oh, don't you worry, Bub, my pals are real careful muts," said the
burglar nervously. "Now just keep calm. We'll get 'em all."

It suddenly burst upon me that he took me for a lunatic. I buried my
head in the covers and rocked back and forth between tears and laughter.

"Hi! what the - - 's going on up there?" cried a voice from downstairs.

"It's all right - all right, Bill," said our burglar hoarsely, "very
affable party up here. Say, hurry it up a bit down there, will you?"

All at once it struck me that if I really frightened him too much they
might decamp without making a clean sweep. I sobered at once.

"I'm not crazy," I said.

"Sure you're not," said the burglar conciliatingly.

"But I assure you - "

"That's all right."

"I'm perfectly sane."

"Sane as a house!"

"There's nothing to be afraid of."

"Course there isn't. Hi, Bill, won't you hurry up there!"

"I'll explain - "

"Don't you mind that."

"This is the way it is - "

"That's all right, we know all about it."

"You do - "

"Sure, we got your letter."

"What letter?"

"Your telegram then."

"See here, I'm not crazy - "

"You bet you're not," said the burglar, edging towards the door and
changing the key.

"Hold up!" I cried in alarm, "don't be a fool. What I want is for you to
get everything - everything, do you hear?"

"All right, I'll just go down and speak to him."

"Hold up - "

"I'll tell him."

"Wait," I cried, jumping out of bed in my desire to retain him.

At that moment a whistle came from below and with an exclamation of
relief our burglar slammed the door and locked it. We heard him go down
three steps at a time and rush out of the house.

"Now you've scared them away," said Clara, "with your idiotic humor."

I felt contrite and alarmed.

"How could I help it?" I said angrily, preparing to climb out on the
roof of the porch. "I tried to tell him."

With which I scrambled out on the roof, made my way to the next room and
entering, released Clara. At the top of the steps we stood clinging
together.

"Suppose they left it all behind," said Clara.

"Or even some!"

"Oh, George, I know it - I know it!"

"Don't be unreasonable - let's go down." Holding a candle aloft we
descended. The lower floor was stripped of silver - not even an
individual almond dish or a muffineer remained. We fell wildly,
hilariously into each other's arms and began to dance. I don't know
exactly what it was, but it wasn't a minute.

Suddenly Clara stopped.

"George!"

"Oh, Lord, what is it?"

"Supposin'."

"Well - well?"

"Supposin' they've dropped some of it in the path."

We rushed out and searched the path, nothing there. We searched the
road - one individual almond dish had fallen. I took it and hammered it
beyond recognition and flung it into the pond. It was criminal, but I
did it.

And then we went into the house and danced some more. We were happy.

Of course we raised an alarm - after sufficient time to carefully dress,
and fill the lantern with oil. Other houses too had been robbed before
we had been visited, but as they were occupied by old inhabitants, the
occupants had nonchalantly gone to sleep again after surrendering their
small change. Our exploit was quite the sensation. With great difficulty
we assumed the proper public attitude of shock and despair. The
following day I wrote full particulars to the Insurance Company, with a
demand for the indemnity.

"You'll never get the full amount," said Clara.

"Why not?"

"You never do. They'll send a man to ask disagreeable questions and to
beat us down."

"Let him come."

"You'll see."

Just one week after the event, I opened an official envelope, extracted
a check, gazed at it with a superior smile and tendered it to Clara by
the tips of my fingers.

"Three thousand dollars!" cried Clara, without contrition, "three
thousand dollars - oh, George!"

There it was - three thousand dollars, without a shred of doubt.
Womanlike, all Clara had to say was:

"Well, was I right about the wedding presents?"

Which remark I had not foreseen.

We shut up house and went to town next day and began the rounds of the
jewelers. In four days we had expended four-fifths of our money - but
with what results! Everything we had longed for, planned for, dreamed of
was ours and everything harmonized.

Two weeks later as, ensconced in our city house, we moved enraptured
about our new-found home, gazing at the reincarnation of our silver, a
telegram was put in my hand.

"What is it?" said Clara from the dining-room, where she was fondling
our chaste Queen Anne teaset.

"It's a telegram," I said, puzzled.

"Open it, then!"

I tore the envelope, it was from the Insurance Company.

"Our detectives have arrested the burglars. You will be overjoyed to
hear that we have recovered your silver in toto!"




THE SURPRISES OF THE LOTTERY




I


The Comte de Bonzag, on the ruined esplanade of his Château de
Keragouil, frowned into the distant crepuscle of haystack and multiplied
hedge, crumpling in his nervous hands two annoying slips of paper. The
rugged body had not one more pound of flesh than was absolutely
necessary to hold together the long, pointed bones. The bronzed,
haphazard face was dominated by a stiff comb of orange-tawny hair, which
faithfully reproduced the gaunt unloveliness of generations of Bonzags.
But there lurked in the rapid advance of the nose and the abrupt,
obstinate eyes a certain staring defiance which effectively limited the
field of comment.

At his back, the riddled silhouette of ragged towers and crumbling roof
reflected against the gentle skies something of the windy raiment of its
owner. It was a Gascon château, arrogant and threadbare, which had never
cried out at a wound, nor suffered the indignity of a patch. About it
and through it, hundreds of swallows, its natural inheritors, crossed
and recrossed in their vacillating flight.

Out of the obscurity of the green pastures that melted away into the
near woods, the voice of a woman suddenly rose in a tender laugh.

The Comte de Bonzag sat bolt upright, dislodging from his lap a black
spaniel, who tumbled on a matronly hound, whose startled yelp of
indignation caused the esplanade to vibrate with dogs, that, scurrying
from every cranny, assembled in an expectant circle, and waited with
hungry tongues the intentions of their master.

The Comte, listening attentively, perceived near the stable his entire
domestic staff reclining happily on the arm of Andoche, the
Sapeur-Pompier, the hero of a dozen fires.

"No, there are no longer any servants!" he exclaimed, with a bitterness
that caused a stir in the pack; then angrily he shouted with all his
forces: "Francine! Hey, there, Francine! Come here at once!"

The indisputable fact was that Francine had asked for her wages. Such a
demand, indelicate in its simplest form, had been further aggravated by
a respectful but clear ultimatum. It was pay, or do the cooking, and if
the first was impossible, the second was both impossible and
distasteful.

The enemy duly arrived, dimpled and plump, an honest thirty-five, a
solid widow, who stopped at the top of the stairs with the distant
respect which the Comte de Bonzag inspired even in his creditors.

"Francine, I have thought much," said the Comte, with a conciliatory
look. "You were a little exaggerated, but you were in your rights."

"Ah, Monsieur le Comte, six months is long when one has a child who must
be - "

"We will not refer again to our disagreement," the Comte said,
interrupting her sternly. "I have simply called you to hear what action
I have decided on."

"Oh, yes, M'sieur; thank you, M'sieur le Comte."

"Unluckily," said Bonzag, frowning, "I am forced to make a great
sacrifice. In a month I could probably have paid all - I have a great
uncle at Valle-Temple who is exceedingly ill. But - however, we will hold
that for the future. I owe you, my good Francine, wages for six
months - sixty francs, representing your service with me. I am going to
give you on account, at once, twenty francs, or rather something
immeasurably more valuable than that sum." He drew out the two slips of
paper, and regarded them with affection and regret. "Here are two
tickets for the Grand Lottery of France, which will be drawn this month,
ten francs a ticket. I had to go to Chantreuil to get them; number
77,707 and number 200,013. Take them - they are yours."

"But, M'sieur le Comte," said Francine, looking stupidly at the tickets
she had passively received. "It's - it's good round pieces of silver I
need."

"Francine," cried de Bonzag, in amazed indignation, "do you realize
that I probably have given you a fortune - and that I am absolving you of
all division of it with me!"

"But, M'sieur - "

"That there are one hundred and forty-five numbers that will draw
prizes."

"Yes, M'sieur le Comte; but - "

"That there is a prize of one quarter of a million, one third of a
million - "

"All the same - "

"That the second prize is for one-half a million, and the first prize
for one round million francs."

"M'sieur says?" said Francine, whose eyes began to open.

"One hundred and forty-five chances, and the lowest is for a hundred
francs. You think that isn't a sacrifice, eh?"

"Well, Monsieur le Comte," Francine said at last with a sigh, "I'll take
them for twenty francs. It's not good round silver, and there's my
little girl - "

"Enough!" exclaimed de Bonzag, dismissing her with an angry gesture. "I
am making you an heiress, and you have no gratitude! Leave me - and send
hither Andoche."

He watched the bulky figure waddle off, sunk back in his chair, and
repeated with profound dejection; "No gratitude! There, it's done: this
time certainly I have thrown away a quarter of a million at the
lowest!"

Presently Andoche, the Sapeur-Pompier, the brass helmet under his arm,
appeared at the top of the steps, smiling and thirsty, with covetous
eyes fastened on the broken table, at the carafe containing curaçoa that
was white and "Triple-Sec."

"Ah, it's you, Andoche," said the Comte, finally, drawn from his
abstraction by a succession of rapid bows. He took two full-hearted
sighs, pushed the carafe slightly in the direction of the
Sapeur-Pompier, and added: "Sit down, my good Andoche. I have need to be
a little gay. Suppose we talk of Paris."

It was the cue for Andoche to slip gratefully into a chair, possess the
carafe and prepare to listen.




II


At the proper age of thirty-one, the Comte de Bonzag fell heir to the
enormous sum of fifteen thousand francs from an uncle who had made the
fortune in trade. With no more delay than it took the great Emperor to
fling an army across the Alps, he descended on Paris, resolved to
repulse all advances which Louis Napoleon might make, and to lend the
splendor of his name and the weight of his fortune only to the Cercle
Royale. Two weeks devoted to this loyal end strengthened the Bourbon
lines perceptibly, but resulted in a shrinkage of four thousand francs
in his own. Next remembering that the aristocracy had always been the
patron of the arts, he determined to make a rapid examination of the
_coulisses_ of the opera and the regions of the ballet. A six-days'
reconnaissance discovered not the slightest signs of disaffection; but
the thoroughness of his inquiries was such that the completion of his
mission found him with just one thousand francs in pocket. Being not
only a Loyalist and a patron of the arts, but a statesman and a
philosopher, he turned his efforts toward the Quartier Latin, to the
great minds who would one day take up the guidance of a more enlightened
France. There he made the discovery that one amused himself more than at
the Cercle Royale, and spent considerably less than in the arts, and
that at one hundred francs a week he aroused an enthusiasm for the
Bourbons which almost attained the proportions of a riot.

The three months over, he retired to his estate at Keragouil, having
profoundly stirred all classes of society, given new life to the cause
of His Majesty, and regretting only, as a true gentleman, the frightful
devastation he had left in the hearts of the ladies.

Unfortunately, these brilliant services to Parisian society and his king
had left him without any society of his own, forced to the consideration
of the difficult problem of how to keep his pipe lighted, his cellar
full, and his maid-of-all-work in a state of hopeful expectation, on
nothing a year.

Nothing daunted, he attacked this problem of the family bankruptcy with
the vigor and the daring of a D'Artagnan. Each year he collected
laboriously twenty francs, and invested them in two tickets for the
Great Lottery, valiantly resolved, like a Gascon, to carry off both
first and second prizes, but satisfied as a philosopher if he could
figure among the honorable mentions. Despite the fact that one hundred
and forty-five prizes were advertised each year, in nineteen attempts he
had not even had the pleasure of seeing his name in print. This result,
far from discouraging him, only inflamed his confidence. For he had
dipped into mathematics, and consoled himself by the reflection that,
according to the law of probabilities, each year he became the more
irresistible.

Lately, however, one obstacle had arisen to the successful carrying out
of this system of finance. He employed one servant, a maid-of-all-work,
who was engaged for the day, with permission to take from the garden
what she needed, to adorn herself from the rose-bushes, to share the
output of La Belle Etoile, the cow, and to receive a salary of ten
francs a month. The difficulty invariably arose over the interpretation
of this last clause. For the Comte was not regular in his payments,
unless it could be said that he was regular in not paying at all.

So it invariably occurred that the maid-of-all-work from a state of
unrest gradually passed into open rebellion, especially when the garden
was not productive and the roses ceased to bloom. When the ultimatum was
served, the Comte consulted his resources and found them invariably to
consist of two tickets of the Lottery of France, cash value twenty
francs, but, according to the laws of probability, increasingly capable
of returning one million, five hundred thousand francs. On one side was
the glory of the ancient name, and the possibility of another descent on
Paris; opposed was the brutal question of soup and ragout. The man
prevailed, and the maid-of-all-work grudgingly accepted the conditions
of truce. Then the news of the drawing arrived and the domestic staff
departed.

This comedy, annually repeated, was annually played on the same lines.
Only each year the period intervening between the surrender of the
tickets and the announcement of the lottery brought an increasing agony.
Each time as the Comte saw the precious slips finally depart in the
hands of the maid-of-all-work, he was convinced that at last the laws of
probability must fructify. Each year he found a new meaning in the
cabalistic mysteries of numbers. The eighteenth attempt, multiplied by
three, gave fifty-four, his age. Success was inevitable: nineteen, a
number indivisible and chaste above all others, seemed specially
designated. In a word, the Comte suffered during these periods as only a
gambler of the fourth generation is able to suffer.

At present the number twenty appeared to him to have properties no
other number had possessed, especially in the reappearance of the zero,
a figure which peculiarly attracted him by its symmetry. His despair was
consequently unlimited.

Ordinarily the news of the lottery arrived by an inspector of roads, who
passed through Keragouil a week or so after the announcement in the
press; for the Comte, having surrendered his ticket, was only troubled
lest he had won.

This time, to the upsetting of all history, an Englishman on a bicycle
trip brought him a newspaper, an article almost unknown to Keragouil,
where the shriek of the locomotive had yet to penetrate.

The Comte de Bonzag, opening the paper with the accustomed sinking of
the heart, was startled by the staring headlines:


RESULTS OF THE LOTTERY

A glance at the winners of the first and second prizes reassured him. He
drew a breath of satisfaction, saying gratefully; "Ah, what luck! God be
praised! I'll never do that again!"

Then, remembering with only an idle curiosity the one hundred and
forty-three mediocre prizes on the list, he returned to the perusal.
Suddenly the print swam before his eyes, and the great esplanade seemed
to rise. Number 77,707 had won the fourth prize of one hundred thousand
francs; number 200,013, a prize of ten thousand francs.




III


The emotion which overwhelmed Napoleon at Waterloo as he beheld his
triumphant squadrons go down into the sunken road was not a whit more
complete than the despair of the Comte de Bonzag when he realized that
the one hundred and ten thousand francs which the laws of probability
had finally produced was now the property of Francine, the cook.

One hundred and ten thousand francs! It was colossal! Five generations
of Bonzags had never touched as much as that. One hundred and ten
thousand francs meant the rehabilitation of the ancient name, the
restoration of the Château de Keragouil, half the year at Paris, in the
Cercle Royale, in the regions of art, and among the great minds that
were still young in the Quartier - and all that was in the possession of
a plump Gascony peasant, whose ideas of comfort and pleasure were
satisfied by one hundred and twenty francs a year.

"What am I going to do?" he cried, rising in an outburst of anger. Then
he sat down in despair. There was nothing to do. The fact was obvious
that Francine was an heiress, possessed of the greatest fortune in the
memory of Keragouil. There was nothing to do, or rather, there was
manifestly but one way open, and the Comte resolved on the spot to take
it. He must have back the lottery tickets, though it meant a Comtesse de
Bonzag.

Fortunately for him, Francine knew nothing of the arrival of the paper.
Though it was necessary to make haste, there was still time for a
compatriot of D'Artagnan. There was, of course, Andoche, the
Sapeur-Pompier; but a Bonzag who had had three months' experience with
the feminine heart of Paris was not the man to trouble himself over a
Sapeur-Pompier. That evening, in the dim dining-room, when Francine
arrived with the steaming soup, the Comte, who had waited with a spoon
in his fist and a napkin knotted to his neck, plunged valiantly to the
issue.

"Ah, what a good smell!" he said, elevating his nose. "Francine, you are
the queen of cooks."

"Oh, M'sieur le Comte," Francine stammered, stopping in amazement. "Oh,
M'sieur le Comte, thanks."

"Don't thank me; it is I who am grateful."

"Oh, M'sieur!"

"Yes, yes, yes! Francine - "

"What is it, M'sieur le Comte?"

"To-night you may set another cover - opposite me."

"Set another cover?"

"Exactly."

Francine, more and more astonished, proceeded to place on the table a
plate, a knife and a fork.

"M'sieur le Curé is coming?" she said, drawing up a chair.

"No, Francine."

"Not M'sieur le Curé? Who, then?"

"It is for you, Francine. Sit down."

"I? I, M'sieur le Comte?"

"Sit down. I wish it."

Francine took three steps backward and so as to command the exit,
stopped and stared at her master, with mingled amazement and distrust.

"My dear Francine," continued the Comte, "I am tired of eating alone. It
is bad for the digestion. And I am bored. I have need of society. So sit
down."

"M'sieur orders it?"

"I ask it as a favor, Francine."

Francine, with open eyes, advanced doubtfully, seating herself nicely on
the chair, more astonished than complimented, and more alarmed than
pleased.

"Ah, that is nicer!" said the Comte, with an approving nod. "How have I
endured it all these years! Francine, you may help yourself to the
wine."

The astonished maid-of-all-work, who had swallowed a spoon of soup with
great discomfort, sprang up, all in a tremble, stammering with defiant
virtue:

"M'sieur le Comte does not forget that I am an honest woman!"

"No, my dear Francine; I am certain of it. So sit down in peace. I will
tell you the situation."

Francine hesitated, then, reassured by the devotion he gave to his soup,
settled once more in her chair.

"Francine, I have made up my mind to one thing," said the Comte, filling
his glass with such energy that a red circle appeared on the cloth.
"This life I lead is all wrong. A man is a sociable being. He needs
society. Isolation sends him back to the brute."

"Oh, yes, M'sieur le Comte," said Francine, who understood nothing.

"So I am resolved to marry."

"M'sieur will marry!" cried Francine, who spilled half her soup with the
shock.

"Perfectly. It is for that I have asked you to keep me company."

"M'sieur - you - M'sieur wants to marry me!"

"Parbleu!"

"M'sieur - M'sieur wants to marry me!"

"I ask you formally to be my wife."

"I?"

"M'sieur wants - wants me to be Comtesse de Bonzag?"

"Immediately."

"Oh!"

Springing up, Francine stood a moment gazing at him in frightened
alarm; then, with a cry, she vanished heavily through the door.

"She has gone to Andoche," said the Comte, angrily to himself. "She
loves him!"

In great perturbation he left the room promenading on the esplanade, in
the midst of his hounds, talking uneasily to himself.

"_Peste_, I put it to her a little too suddenly! It was a blunder. If
she loves that Sapeur-Pompier, eh? A Sapeur-Pompier, to rival a Comte de
Bonzag - faugh!"

Suddenly, below in the moonlight, he beheld Andoche tearing himself from
the embrace of Francine, and, not to be seen, he returned nervously to
the dining-room.

Shortly after, the maid-of-all-work returned, calm, but with telltale
eyes.

"Well, Francine, did I frighten you?" said the Comte, genially.

"Oh, yes, M'sieur le Comte - "

"Well, what do you want to say?"

"M'sieur was in real earnest?"

"Never more so."

"M'sieur really wants to make me the Comtesse de Bonzag?"

"_Dame!_ I tell you my intentions are honorable."

"M'sieur will let me ask him one question?"

"A dozen even."

"M'sieur remembers that I am a widow - "

"With one child, yes."

"M'sieur, pardon me; I have been thinking much, and I have been thinking
of my little girl. What would M'sieur want me to do?"

The Comte reflected, and said generously: "I do not adopt her; but, if
you like, she shall live here."

"Then, M'sieur," said Francine, dropping on her knees, "I thank M'sieur
very much. M'sieur is too kind, too good - "

"So, it is decided then," said the Comte, rising joyfully.

"Oh, yes, M'sieur."

"Then we shall go to-morrow," said the Comte. "It is my manner; I like
to do things instantly. Stand up, I beg you, Madame."

"To-morrow, M'sieur?"

"Yes, Madame. Have you any objections?"

"Oh, no, M'sieur le Comte; on the contrary," said Francine, blushing
with pleasure at the twice-repeated "Madame." Then she added carefully:
"M'sieur is quite right; it would be better. People talk so."




IV


The return of the married couple was the sensation of Keragouil, for the
Comte de Bonzag, after the fashion of his ancestors, had placed his
bride behind him on the broad back of Quatre Diables, who proceeded
with unaltered equanimity. Along the journey the peasants, who held the
Comte in loyal terror, greeted the procession with a respectful silence,


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 13

Online LibraryOwen JohnsonMurder in Any Degree → online text (page 13 of 14)