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11: Theft

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« on: March 17, 2023, 05:39:33 am »

"La fortune ne laisse rien perdre pour les hommes heureux."

I thus returned Alphonse Giraud's visit sooner than either of us anticipated, for I had to go and tell him what had happened in the Rue des Palmiers. I delivered my news in as few words as possible, and cannot tell how he took the evil tidings, for when I had spoken I walked to the window, and there stood looking down into the street.

"Have you told me all?" asked Giraud at length, wondering, perhaps, that I lingered.

"No."

I turned and faced him, the little French dandy, in his stiff collar and patent-leather boots---no bigger than a girl's. The politeness of our previous intercourse seemed to have fallen away from us.

"No---I have not told you all. It seems likely that you, like myself, have been left a poor man."

"Then we have one reason more for being good friends," said Giraud, in his quick French way.

He rose and looked round the room.

"All the same, I have had a famous time," he said. "Come, let us go to my father."

We found the Hôtel Clericy in that state of hushed expectation which follows the dread visit in palace and hut alike. The servants seemed to have withdrawn to their own quarters to discuss the event in whispers there. We found the Vicomte in my study, still much agitated and broken. He was sitting in my chair, the tears yet wet upon his wrinkled cheek. There was a quick look of alertness in his eyes, as if the scythe had hissed close by in reaping the mature grain.

"Ah! my poor boy---my poor boy," he cried when he saw Alphonse, and they embraced after the manner of their race.

"And it is all my fault," continued the broken old man, wringing his hands and sinking into his chair again.

"No!" cried Alphonse, with characteristic energy. "We surely cannot say that, without questioning---well---a wiser judgment than ours."

He paused, and perhaps remembered dimly some of the teaching of a good, simple bourgeoise who had died before her husband fingered gold. I sought to quiet the Vicomte also. Old men, like old clothes, need gentle handling. I sat down at my table and began to write.

"What are you doing?" asked the Vicomte, sharply.

"I am telegraphing to Madame de Clericy to return home."

There was a silence in the room while I wrote out the message and despatched it by a servant. The Vicomte made no attempt to stop me.

"Here," he said, when the door was closed---and he handed Giraud the key of his own study. "The doctors and---the others---have placed him in my room---that is the key. You must consider this house as your own until the funeral is over; your poor father's house, I know, is in disorder."

Monsieur de Clericy would have it that the Baron should be buried from the Rue des Palmiers, which Alphonse Giraud recognised as in some sort an honour, for it proclaimed to the world the esteem in which the upstart nobleman was held in high quarters.

"I am glad," said my patron, with that air of fatherliness which he wore towards me from the first, "that you have telegraphed for my wife---the house is different when she is in it. When can she be here?"

"It is just possible that she may be with us to-morrow at this time---by driving rapidly to Toulon."

"With promptitude," muttered the Vicomte, musingly.

"Yes---such as one may expect from Madame."

The Vicomte looked up at me with a smile.

"Ah!---you have discovered that. One is never safe with you men who know horses. You find out so much from observation."

But I think it is no great thing to have discovered that one may usually look for prompt action in men and women of a quiet tongue.

Lucille's name was not mentioned between us. My own desires and feelings had been pushed into the background by the events of the last few days, and he is but half a man who cannot submit cheerfully to such treatment at the hand of Fate from time to time.

During the day we learnt further details respecting the theft of the money, amounting in all to rather more than eight hundred thousand pounds of our coinage. Miste, it appeared, had been instructed to leave Paris by the eight o'clock train that morning for London, taking with him a large sum. The Vicomte had handed him the money the previous evening.

"I carelessly replaced the remainder in the drawer of my writing-table," my patron told us, "before the eyes of that scoundrel. I went to the drawer this morning, having been uneasy about so large a sum---it was arranged that I should see Miste off from the Gare du Nord. Figure to yourselves! The drawer was empty. I hastened to the railway station. Miste was, of course, not there."

And he rocked himself backwards and forwards in the chair. What trouble men take for money---what trouble it brings them! So distressed was he that it would perhaps have been wiser to change the current of his thoughts, but there was surely work here for an idle man like myself to do.

"How was the money to be conveyed?" I asked.

"In cheques of ten thousand pounds each, drawn by John Turner on various European and American bankers in favour of myself."

"And you had indorsed these cheques?"

"No."

"Then how can Miste realise them?" I asked.

"By forgery---my friend," replied the Vicomte sadly. Which was true enough. I thought of Monsieur Miste's graceful figure---of his slim neck, and longed to get my fingers around it. I had only seen his back, after all---and had a singular desire to know the look of his face. I am no great reader, but have met some words which go well with the thoughts I harboured at this time of Monsieur Charles Miste, for I could

     "Read rascal in the motions of his back,
      And scoundrel in the subtle sliding knee."


Seeing that I had risen, the Vicomte asked me where I was going, in a tone of anxiety which I had noted in his voice of late, and, in my vanity, attributed to the fact that he was in some degree dependent upon myself.

"I am going to see John Turner, and then I am going to seek Charles Miste until I find him."

Before I knew what had happened, Alphonse Giraud was shaking my hand, and would have embraced me had he not remembered in time his English clothes, and the reserve of manner usually observed inside such habiliments.

"Ah! my friend," he said, desperately, "the world is large."

"Yes; but not roomy enough for Monsieur Charles Miste and your humble servant."

I spent the remainder of the day with John Turner, who was cynical enough about the matter, but gave me, nevertheless, much valuable information.

"You may be sure," he said, "that I did not sign the cheques until Clericy and the Baron had handed over the equivalent in notes and gold. One man's scare is another man's profit."

And my stout friend chuckled. He heard my plans and laughed at them.

"Very honourable and fine, but out of date," he said. "You will not catch him, but you will, no doubt, enjoy the chase immensely, and in the mean time you will leave a clear field for Alphonse Giraud auprès de Mademoiselle."

I instituted inquiries the same evening, and determined to await the result before setting off to seek Miste in person. Nor will I deny that this decision was brought about, in part, by the reflection that Madame de Clericy and Lucille might arrive the following morning.

At the Lyons station the next morning I had the satisfaction of seeing the two ladies step from the Marseilles express. Lucille would scarcely look at me. During the drive to the Rue des Palmiers I acquainted Madame with the state of affairs, and she listened to my recital with a grave attention and a quiet occasional glance into my face which would have made it difficult to tell aught but the truth.

When we reached home Alphonse Giraud had gone out; the Vicomte was still in his room. He had slept little and was much disturbed, the valet told us. As we mounted the stairs, I saw the two ladies glance instinctively towards the closed door of the Vicomte's study. We are all curious respecting death and vice. Madame went straight to her husband's apartment. At the head of the stairs the door of the morning-room stood open. It was the family rendezvous, where we usually found the ladies at the luncheon hour.

Lucille went in there, leaving the door open behind her. I have always rushed at my fences, and have had the falls I merited. I followed Lucille into the sunlit room. She must have heard my footsteps, but took no notice---walking to the window, and standing there, rested her two hands on the sill while she looked down into the garden.

"Mademoiselle!"

She half turned her head with a little haughty toss of it, looking not at me, but at the ground beneath my feet.

"Well, Monsieur?"

"In what have I offended you?"

She shrugged her shoulders, and I, looking at her as she stood with her back to me, knew again and always that the world contained but this one woman for me.

"Since I told you of my feeling towards yourself," I went on, "and was laughed at for my pains, I have been careful not to take advantage of my position in the house. I have not been so indiscreet again."

She was playing with the blind-cord in an attitude and humour so youthful that I had a sort of tugging at the heart.

"Perhaps, though," I continued, "I have offended in my very discretion. I should have told you again---that I love you---that you might again enjoy the joke."

She stamped her foot impatiently.

"Of course," she said, "you are cleverer than I---you can be sarcastic, and say things I do not know how to answer."

"You can at least answer my question---Mademoiselle."

She turned and faced me with angry eyes.

"Well---then. I do not like the ways of English gentlemen."

"Ah!"

"You told me that you were not poor, but rich---that you had not become my father's secretary because such a situation was necessary, but---but for quite another reason."

"Yes."

"And I learn immediately afterwards from Mr. Gayerson that you are penniless, and must work for your living."

"Merely because Alfred Gayerson knew more than I did," I replied. "I did not know that my father in the heat of a passing quarrel had made such a will---or, indeed, could make it if he so desired. I was not aware of this when I spoke to you---and, knowing it now, I must ask you to consider my words unsaid. You may be sure that I shall not refer to them again, even with the hope of making you merry."

She laughed suddenly.

"Oh," she said, "I find plenty to amuse me---thank you. You need not give yourself the trouble. D'ailleurs," she paused and looked at me with a quick and passing gravity, "that has never been your rôle, Monsieur l'Anglais---you are not fitted for it."

She pulled a long face---such as mine, no doubt, appeared in her eyes---and left me.

I had business that took me across the Seine during the morning, and lunched at a club---so did not again see the ladies until later in the day. The desire of speech with Alphonse Giraud on a matter connected with his father's burial took me back to the Rue des Palmiers in the afternoon, when I learnt from the servant that the Baron's son had returned, and was, so far as he knew, still in the house. I went to the drawing-room and there found Madame alone.

"I am seeking Monsieur Alphonse Giraud," I said.

"Whose good genius you are."

"Not that I am aware of, Madame."

"No," she said, slowly, "that is just it. In a crowded street the strongest house does not know how many weaker buildings are leaning against it. Alphonse Giraud is not a strong house. He will lean against you if you permit it. So be warned."

"By my carelessness," I answered, "I have done Alphonse Giraud a great injury---I have practically ruined him. Surely the least I can do is to attempt to recover for him that which he has lost."

Madame de Clericy was of course engaged in needlework. I never saw her fingers idle. It appeared that at this moment she had a difficult stitch to execute.

"One never knows," she said, without looking up, "what is the least or the most that men can do. We women look at things in a different light, and therefore cannot say what is right or what is wrong; it is better that men should judge for themselves."

"Yes," I said.

"Of course," said Madame de Clericy quietly, "if you recover Alphonse's fortune you will earn his gratitude, for without it the Vicomte would never recognise his pretensions to Lucille's hand."

"Of course," I answered; and Madame's clever eyes were lifted to my face for a moment.

"You think it the least you can do?"

"I do," said I. "Can you tell me if Alphonse Giraud is in this house?"

"No; I cannot."

"Perhaps Mademoiselle Lucille----"

"Perhaps. You can ask her---if you like."

Madame looked at me again. And I made my inquiries elsewhere.

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