Vautrin's Last Avatar/Section 12
As Jacques Collin left Monsieur de Granville's room, the Comte des Lupeaulx, Secretary-in-Chief of the President of the Council, and a deputy, made his appearance, and with him a feeble-looking, little old man. This individual, wrapped in a puce-colored overcoat, as though it were still winter, with powdered hair, and a cold, pale face, had a gouty gait, unsteady on feet that were shod with loose calfskin boots; leaning on a gold-headed cane, he carried his hat in his hand, and wore a row of seven orders in his button-hole.
"What is it, my dear des Lupeaulx?" asked the public prosecutor.
"I come from the Prince," replied the Count, in a low voice. "You have carte blanche if you can only get the letters—Madame de Serizy's, Madame de Maufrigneuse's and Mademoiselle Clotilde de Grandlieu's. You may come to some arrangement with this gentleman——"
"Who is he?" asked Monsieur de Granville, in a whisper.
"There are no secrets between you and me, my dear sir," said des Lupeaulx. "This is the famous Corentin. His Majesty desires that you will yourself tell him all the details of this affair and the conditions of success."
"Do me the kindness," replied the public prosecutor, "of going to tell the Prince that the matter is settled, that I have not needed this gentleman's assistance," and he turned to Corentin. "I will wait on His Majesty for his commands with regard to the last steps in the matter, which will lie with the Keeper of the Seals, as two reprieves will need signing."
"You have been wise to take the initiative," said des Lupeaulx, shaking hands with the Comte de Granville. "On the very eve of a great undertaking the King is most anxious that the peers and the great families should not be shown up, blown upon. It ceases to be a low criminal case; it becomes an affair of State."
"But tell the Prince that by the time you came it was all settled."
"I believe so."
"Then you, my dear fellow, will be Keeper of the Seals as soon as the present Keeper is made Chancellor——"
"I have no ambition," replied the magistrate.
Des Lupeaulx laughed, and went away.
"Beg of the Prince to request the King to grant me ten minutes' audience at about half-past two," added Monsieur de Granville, as he accompanied the Comte des Lupeaulx to the door.
"So you are not ambitious!" said des Lupeaulx, with a keen look at Monsieur de Granville. "Come, you have two children, you would like at least to be made peer of France."
"If you have the letters, Monsieur le Procureur General, my intervention is unnecessary," said Corentin, finding himself alone with Monsieur de Granville, who looked at him with very natural curiosity.
"Such a man as you can never be superfluous in so delicate a case," replied the magistrate, seeing that Corentin had heard or guessed everything.
Corentin bowed with a patronizing air.
"Do you know the man in question, monsieur?"
"Yes, Monsieur le Comte, it is Jacques Collin, the head of the 'Ten Thousand Francs Association,' the banker for three penal settlements, a convict who, for the last five years, has succeeded in concealing himself under the robe of the Abbe Carlos Herrera. How he ever came to be intrusted with a mission to the late King from the King of Spain is a question which we have all puzzled ourselves with trying to answer. I am now expecting information from Madrid, whither I have sent notes and a man. That convict holds the secrets of two kings."
"He is a man of mettle and temper. We have only two courses open to us," said the public prosecutor. "We must secure his fidelity, or get him out of the way."
"The same idea has struck us both, and that is a great honor for me," said Corentin. "I am obliged to have so many ideas, and for so many people, that out of them all I ought occasionally to meet a clever man."
He spoke so drily, and in so icy a tone, that Monsieur de Granville made no reply, and proceeded to attend to some pressing matters.
Mademoiselle Jacqueline Collin's amazement on seeing Jacques Collin in the Salle des Pas-Perdus is beyond imagining. She stood square on her feet, her hands on her hips, for she was dressed as a costermonger. Accustomed as she was to her nephew's conjuring tricks, this beat everything.
"Well, if you are going to stare at me as if I were a natural history show," said Jacques Collin, taking his aunt by the arm and leading her out of the hall, "we shall be taken for a pair of curious specimens; they may take us into custody, and then we should lose time."
And he went down the stairs of the Galerie Marchande leading to the Rue de la Barillerie. "Where is Paccard?"
"He is waiting for me at la Rousse's, walking up and down the flower market."
"Also at her house, as my god-daughter."
"Let us go there."
"Look round and see if we are watched."
La Rousse, a hardware dealer living on the Quai aux Fleurs, was the widow of a famous murderer, one of the "Ten Thousand." In 1819, Jacques Collin had faithfully handed over twenty thousand francs and odd to this woman from her lover, after he had been executed. Trompe-la-Mort was the only person who knew of his pal's connection with the girl, at that time a milliner.
"I am your young man's boss," the boarder at Madame Vauquer's had told her, having sent for her to meet him at the Jardin des Plantes. "He may have mentioned me to you, my dear.—Any one who plays me false dies within a year; on the other hand, those who are true to me have nothing to fear from me. I am staunch through thick and thin, and would die without saying a word that would compromise anybody I wish well to. Stick to me as a soul sticks to the Devil, and you will find the benefit of it. I promised your poor Auguste that you should be happy; he wanted to make you a rich woman, and he got scragged for your sake.
"Don't cry; listen to me. No one in the world knows that you were mistress to a convict, to the murderer they choked off last Saturday; and I shall never tell. You are two-and-twenty, and pretty, and you have twenty-six thousand francs of your own; forget Auguste and get married; be an honest woman if you can. In return for peace and quiet, I only ask you to serve me now and then, me, and any one I may send you, but without stopping to think. I will never ask you to do anything that can get you into trouble, you or your children, or your husband, if you get one, or your family.
"In my line of life I often want a safe place to talk in or to hide in. Or I may want a trusty woman to carry a letter or do an errand. You will be one of my letter-boxes, one of my porters' lodges, one of my messengers, neither more nor less.
"You are too red-haired; Auguste and I used to call you la Rousse; you can keep that name. My aunt, an old-clothes dealer at the Temple, who will come and see you, is the only person in the world you are to obey; tell her everything that happens to you; she will find you a husband, and be very useful to you."
And thus the bargain was struck, a diabolical compact like that which had for so long bound Prudence Servien to Jacques Collin, and which the man never failed to tighten; for, like the Devil, he had a passion for recruiting.
In about 1821 Jacques Collin found la Rousse a husband in the person of the chief shopman under a rich wholesale tin merchant. This head-clerk, having purchased his master's house of business, was now a prosperous man, the father of two children, and one of the district Maire's deputies. La Rousse, now Madame Prelard, had never had the smallest ground for complaint, either of Jacques Collin or of his aunt; still, each time she was required to help them, Madame Prelard quaked in every limb. So, as she saw the terrible couple come into her shop, she turned as pale as death.
"We want to speak to you on business, madame," said Jacques Collin.
"My husband is in there," said she.
"Very well; we have no immediate need of you. I never put people out of their way for nothing."
"Send for a hackney coach, my dear," said Jacqueline Collin, "and tell my god-daughter to come down. I hope to place her as maid to a very great lady, and the steward of the house will take us there."
A shop-boy fetched the coach, and a few minutes later Europe, or, to be rid of the name under which she had served Esther, Prudence Servien, Paccard, Jacques Collin, and his aunt, were, to la Rousse's great joy, packed into a coach, ordered by Trompe-la-Mort to drive to the Barriere d'Ivry.
Prudence and Paccard, quaking in presence of the boss, felt like guilty souls in the presence of God.
"Where are the seven hundred and fifty thousand francs?" asked the boss, looking at them with the clear, penetrating gaze which so effectually curdled the blood of these tools of his, these ames damnees, when they were caught tripping, that they felt as though their scalp were set with as many pins as hairs.
"The seven hundred and thirty thousand francs," said Jacqueline Collin to her nephew, "are quite safe; I gave them to la Romette this morning in a sealed packet."
"If you had not handed them over to Jacqueline," said Trompe-la-Mort, "you would have gone straight there," and he pointed to the Place de Greve, which they were just passing.
Prudence Servien, in her country fashion, made the sign of the Cross, as if she had seen a thunderbolt fall.
"I forgive you," said the boss, "on condition of your committing no more mistakes of this kind, and of your being henceforth to me what these two fingers are of my right hand," and he pointed to the first and middle fingers, "for this good woman is the thumb," and he slapped his aunt on the shoulder.
"Listen to me," he went on. "You, Paccard, have nothing more to fear; you may follow your nose about Pantin (Paris) as you please. I give you leave to marry Prudence Servien."
Paccard took Jacques Collin's hand and kissed it respectfully.
"And what must I do?" said he.
"Nothing; and you will have dividends and women, to say nothing of your wife—for you have a touch of the Regency about you, old boy!—That comes of being such a fine man!"
Paccard colored under his sultan's ironical praises.
"You, Prudence," Jacques went on, "will want a career, a position, a future; you must remain in my service. Listen to me. There is a very good house in the Rue Sainte-Barbe belonging to that Madame de Saint-Esteve, whose name my aunt occasionally borrows. It is a very good business, with plenty of custom, bringing in fifteen to twenty thousand francs a year. Saint-Esteve puts a woman in to keep the shop——"
"La Gonore," said Jacqueline.
"Poor la Pouraille's moll," said Paccard. "That is where I bolted to with Europe the day that poor Madame van Bogseck died, our mis'ess."
"Who jabbers when I am speaking?" said Jacques Collin.
Perfect silence fell in the coach. Paccard and Prudence did not dare look at each other.
"The shop is kept by la Gonore," Jacques Collin went on. "If that is where you went to hide with Prudence, I see, Paccard, that you have wit enough to dodge the reelers (mislead the police), but not enough to puzzle the old lady," and he stroked his aunt's chin. "Now I see how she managed to find you.—It all fits beautifully. You may go back to la Gonore.—To go on: Jacqueline will arrange with Madame Nourrisson to purchase her business in the Rue Sainte-Barbe; and if you manage well, child, you may make a fortune out of it," he said to Prudence. "An Abbess at your age! It is worthy of a Daughter of France," he added in a hard tone.
Prudence flung her arms round Trompe-la-Mort's neck and hugged him; but the boss flung her off with a sharp blow, showing his extraordinary strength, and but for Paccard, the girl's head would have struck and broken the coach window.
"Paws off! I don't like such ways," said the boss stiffly. "It is disrespectful to me."
"He is right, child," said Paccard. "Why, you see, it is as though the boss had made you a present of a hundred thousand francs. The shop is worth that. It is on the Boulevard, opposite the Gymnase. The people come out of the theatre——"
"I will do more," said Trompe-la-Mort; "I will buy the house."
"And in six years we shall be millionaires," cried Paccard.
Tired of being interrupted, Trompe-la-Mort gave Paccard's shin a kick hard enough to break it; but the man's tendons were of india-rubber, and his bones of wrought iron.
"All right, boss, mum it is," said he.
"Do you think I am cramming you with lies?" said Jacques Collin, perceiving that Paccard had had a few drops too much. "Well, listen. In the cellar of that house there are two hundred and fifty thousand francs in gold——"
Again silence reigned in the coach.
"The coin is in a very hard bed of masonry. It must be got out, and you have only three nights to do it in. Jacqueline will help you.—A hundred thousand francs will buy up the business, fifty thousand will pay for the house; leave the remainder."
"Where?" said Paccard.
"In the cellar?" asked Prudence.
"Silence!" cried Jacqueline.
"Yes, but to get the business transferred, we must have the consent of the police authorities," Paccard objected.
"We shall have it," said Trompe-la-Mort. "Don't meddle in what does not concern you."
Jacqueline looked at her nephew, and was struck by the alteration in his face, visible through the stern mask under which the strong man generally hid his feelings.
"You, child," said he to Prudence Servien, "will receive from my aunt the seven hundred and fifty thousand francs——"
"Seven hundred and thirty," said Paccard.
"Very good, seven hundred and thirty then," said Jacques Collin. "You must return this evening under some pretext to Madame Lucien's house. Get out on the roof through the skylight; get down the chimney into your miss'ess' room, and hide the packet she had made of the money in the mattress——"
"And why not by the door?" asked Prudence Servien.
"Idiot! there are seals on everything," replied Jacques Collin. "In a few days the inventory will be taken, and you will be innocent of the theft."
"Good for the boss!" cried Paccard. "That is really kind!"
"Stop, coachman!" cried Jacques Collin's powerful voice.
The coach was close to the stand by the Jardin des Plantes.
"Be off, young 'uns," said Jacques Collin, "and do nothing silly! Be on the Pont des Arts this afternoon at five, and my aunt will let you know if there are any orders to the contrary.—We must be prepared for everything," he whispered to his aunt. "To-morrow," he went on, "Jacqueline will tell you how to dig up the gold without any risk. It is a ticklish job——"
Paccard and Prudence jumped out on to the King's highway, as happy as reprieved thieves.
"What a good fellow the boss is!" said Paccard.
"He would be the king of men if he were not so rough on women."
"Oh, yes! He is a sweet creature," said Paccard. "Did you see how he kicked me? Well, we deserved to be sent to old Nick; for, after all, we got him into this scrape."
"If only he does not drag us into some dirty job, and get us packed off to the hulks yet," said the wily Prudence.
"Not he! If he had that in his head, he would tell us; you don't know him.—He has provided handsomely for you. Here we are, citizens at large! Oh, when that man takes a fancy to you, he has not his match for good-nature."
"Now, my jewel," said Jacques Collin to his aunt, "you must take la Gonore in hand; she must be humbugged. Five days hence she will be taken into custody, and a hundred and fifty thousand francs will be found in her rooms, the remains of a share from the robbery and murder of the old Crottat couple, the notary's father and mother."
"She will get five years in the Madelonnettes," said Jacqueline.
"That's about it," said the nephew. "This will be a reason for old Nourrisson to get rid of her house; she cannot manage it herself, and a manager to suit is not to be found every day. You can arrange all that. We shall have a sharp eye there.—But all these three things are secondary to the business I have undertaken with regard to our letters. So unrip your gown and give me the samples of the goods. Where are the three packets?"
"At la Rousse's, of course."
"Coachman," cried Jacques Collin, "go back to the Palais de Justice, and look sharp——
"I promised to be quick, and I have been gone half an hour; that is too much.—Stay at la Rousse's, and give the sealed parcels to the office clerk, who will come and ask for Madame de Saint-Esteve; the de will be the password. He will say to you,'Madame, I have come from the public prosecutor for the things you know of.' Stand waiting outside the door, staring about at what is going on in the Flower-Market, so as not to arouse Prelard's suspicions. As soon as you have given up the letters, you can start Paccard and Prudence."
"I see what you are at," said Jacqueline; "you mean to step into Bibi-Lupin's shoes. That boy's death has turned your brain."
"And there is Theodore, who was just going to have his hair cropped to be scragged at four this afternoon!" cried Jacques Collin.
"Well, it is a notion! We shall end our days as honest folks in a fine property and a delightful climate—in Touraine."
"What was to become of me? Lucien has taken my soul with him, and all my joy in life. I have thirty years before me to be sick of life in, and I have no heart left. Instead of being the boss of the hulks, I shall be a Figaro of the law, and avenge Lucien. I can never be sure of demolishing Corentin excepting in the skin of a police agent. And so long as I have a man to devour, I shall still feel alive.—The profession a man follows in the eyes of the world is a mere sham; the reality is in the idea!" he added, striking his forehead.—"How much have we left in the cash-box?" he asked.
"Nothing," said his aunt, dismayed by the man's tone and manner. "I gave you all I had for the boy. La Romette has not more than twenty thousand francs left in the business. I took everything from Madame Nourrisson; she had about sixty thousand francs of her own. Oh! we are lying in sheets that have been washed this twelve months past. That boy had all the pals' blunt, our savings, and all old Nourrisson's."
"Five hundred and sixty thousand."
"We have a hundred and fifty thousand which Paccard and Prudence will pay us. I will tell you where to find two hundred thousand more. The remainder will come to me out of Esther's money. We must repay old Nourrisson. With Theodore, Paccard, Prudence, Nourrisson, and you, I shall soon have the holy alliance I require.—Listen, now we are nearly there——"
"Here are the three letters," said Jacqueline, who had finished unsewing the lining of her gown.
"Quite right," said Jacques Collin, taking the three precious documents—autograph letters on vellum paper, and still strongly scented. "Theodore did the Nanterre job."
"Oh! it was he."
"Don't talk. Time is precious. He wanted to give the proceeds to a little Corsican sparrow named Ginetta. You must set old Nourrisson to find her; I will give you the necessary information in a letter which Gault will give you. Come for it to the gate of the Conciergerie in two hours' time. You must place the girl with a washerwoman, Godet's sister; she must seem at home there. Godet and Ruffard were concerned with la Pouraille in robbing and murdering the Crottats.
"The four hundred and fifty thousand francs are all safe, one-third in la Gonore's cellar—la Pouraille's share; the second third in la Gonore's bedroom, which is Ruffard's; and the rest is hidden in Godet's sister's house. We will begin by taking a hundred and fifty thousand francs out of la Pouraille's whack, a hundred thousand of Godet's, and a hundred thousand of Ruffard's. As soon as Godet and Ruffard are nabbed, they will be supposed to have got rid of what is missing from their shares. And I will make Godet believe that I have saved a hundred thousand francs for him, and that la Gonore has done the same for la Pouraille and Ruffard.
"Prudence and Paccard will do the job at la Gonore's; you and Ginetta—who seems to be a smart hussy—must manage the job at Godet's sister's place.
"And so, as the first act in the farce, I can enable the public prosecutor to lay his hands on four hundred thousand francs stolen from the Crottats, and on the guilty parties. Then I shall seem to have shown up the Nanterre murderer. We shall get back our shiners, and are behind the scenes with the police. We were the game, now we are the hunters—that is all.
"Give the driver three francs."
The coach was at the Palais. Jacqueline, speechless with astonishment, paid. Trompe-la-Mort went up the steps to the public prosecutor's room.