What Love Costs an Old Man/Section 12
Five days after Derville's return, Lucien one morning had a call from Rastignac.
"I am in despair, my dear boy," said his visitor, "at finding myself compelled to deliver a message which is intrusted to me because we are known to be intimate. Your marriage is broken off beyond all hope of reconciliation. Never set foot again in the Hotel de Grandlieu. To marry Clotilde you must wait till her father dies, and he is too selfish to die yet awhile. Old whist-players sit at table—the card-table—very late.
"Clotilde is setting out for Italy with Madeleine de Lenoncourt-Chaulieu. The poor girl is so madly in love with you, my dear fellow, that they have to keep an eye on her; she was bent on coming to see you, and had plotted an escape. That may comfort you in misfortune!"
Lucien made no reply; he sat gazing at Rastignac.
"And is it a misfortune, after all?" his friend went on. "You will easily find a girl as well born and better looking than Clotilde! Madame de Serizy will find you a wife out of spite; she cannot endure the Grandlieus, who never would have anything to say to her. She has a niece, little Clemence du Rouvre——"
"My dear boy," said Lucien at length, "since that supper I am not on terms with Madame de Serizy—she saw me in Esther's box and made a scene—and I left her to herself."
"A woman of forty does not long keep up a quarrel with so handsome a man as you are," said Rastignac. "I know something of these sunsets.—It lasts ten minutes in the sky, and ten years in a woman's heart."
"I have waited a week to hear from her."
"Go and call."
"Yes, I must now."
"Are you coming at any rate to the Val-Noble's? Her nabob is returning the supper given by Nucingen."
"I am asked, and I shall go," said Lucien gravely.
The day after this confirmation of his disaster, which Carlos heard of at once from Asie, Lucien went to the Rue Taitbout with Rastignac and Nucingen.
At midnight nearly all the personages of this drama were assembled in the dining-room that had formerly been Esther's—a drama of which the interest lay hidden under the very bed of these tumultuous lives, and was known only to Esther, to Lucien, to Peyrade, to Contenson, the mulatto, and to Paccard, who attended his mistress. Asie, without its being known to Contenson and Peyrade, had been asked by Madame du Val-Noble to come and help her cook.
As they sat down to table, Peyrade, who had given Madame du Val-Noble five hundred francs that the thing might be well done, found under his napkin a scrap of paper on which these words were written in pencil, "The ten days are up at the moment when you sit down to supper."
Peyrade handed the paper to Contenson, who was standing behind him, saying in English:
"Did you put my name here?"
Contenson read by the light of the wax-candles this "Mene, Tekel, Upharsin," and slipped the scrap into his pocket; but he knew how difficult it is to verify a handwriting in pencil, and, above all, a sentence written in Roman capitals, that is to say, with mathematical lines, since capital letters are wholly made up of straight lines and curves, in which it is impossible to detect any trick of the hand, as in what is called running-hand.
The supper was absolutely devoid of spirit. Peyrade was visibly absent-minded. Of the men about town who give life to a supper, only Rastignac and Lucien were present. Lucien was gloomy and absorbed in thought; Rastignac, who had lost two thousand francs before supper, ate and drank with the hope of recovering them later. The three women, stricken by this chill, looked at each other. Dulness deprived the dishes of all relish. Suppers, like plays and books, have their good and bad luck.
At the end of the meal ices were served, of the kind called plombieres. As everybody knows, this kind of dessert has delicate preserved fruits laid on the top of the ice, which is served in a little glass, not heaped above the rim. These ices had been ordered by Madame du Val-Noble of Tortoni, whose shop is at the corner of the Rue Taitbout and the Boulevard.
The cook called Contenson out of the room to pay the bill.
Contenson, who thought this demand on the part of the shop-boy rather strange, went downstairs and startled him by saying:
"Then you have not come from Tortoni's?" and then went straight upstairs again.
Paccard had meanwhile handed the ices to the company in his absence. The mulatto had hardly reached the door when one of the police constables who had kept watch in the Rue des Moineaux called up the stairs:
"What's up?" replied Contenson, flying down again.
"Tell Papa that his daughter has come home; but, good God! in what a state. Tell him to come at once; she is dying."
At the moment when Contenson re-entered the dining-room, old Peyrade, who had drunk a great deal, was swallowing the cherry off his ice. They were drinking to the health of Madame du Val-Noble; the nabob filled his glass with Constantia and emptied it.
In spite of his distress at the news he had to give Peyrade, Contenson was struck by the eager attention with which Paccard was looking at the nabob. His eyes sparkled like two fixed flames. Although it seemed important, still this could not delay the mulatto, who leaned over his master, just as Peyrade set his glass down.
"Lydie is at home," said Contenson, "in a very bad state."
Peyrade rattled out the most French of all French oaths with such a strong Southern accent that all the guests looked up in amazement. Peyrade, discovering his blunder, acknowledged his disguise by saying to Contenson in good French:
"Find me a coach—I'm off."
Every one rose.
"Why, who are you?" said Lucien.
"Ja—who?" said the Baron.
"Bixiou told me you shammed Englishman better than he could, and I would not believe him," said Rastignac.
"Some bankrupt caught in disguise," said du Tillet loudly. "I suspected as much!"
"A strange place is Paris!" said Madame du Val-Noble. "After being bankrupt in his own part of town, a merchant turns up as a nabob or a dandy in the Champs-Elysees with impunity!—Oh! I am unlucky! bankrupts are my bane."
"Every flower has its peculiar blight!" said Esther quietly. "Mine is like Cleopatra's—an asp."
"Who am I?" echoed Peyrade from the door. "You will know ere long; for if I die, I will rise from my grave to clutch your feet every night!"
He looked at Esther and Lucien as he spoke, then he took advantage of the general dismay to vanish with the utmost rapidity, meaning to run home without waiting for the coach. In the street the spy was gripped by the arm as he crossed the threshold of the outer gate. It was Asie, wrapped in a black hood such as ladies then wore on leaving a ball.
"Send for the Sacraments, Papa Peyrade," said she, in the voice that had already prophesied ill.
A coach was waiting. Asie jumped in, and the carriage vanished as though the wind had swept it away. There were five carriages waiting; Peyrade's men could find out nothing.
On reaching his house in the Rue des Vignes, one of the quietest and prettiest nooks of the little town of Passy, Corentin, who was known there as a retired merchant passionately devoted to gardening, found his friend Peyrade's note in cipher. Instead of resting, he got into the hackney coach that had brought him thither, and was driven to the Rue des Moineaux, where he found only Katt. From her he heard of Lydie's disappearance, and remained astounded at Peyrade's and his own want of foresight.
"But they do not know me yet," said he to himself. "This crew is capable of anything; I must find out if they are killing Peyrade; for if so, I must not be seen any more——"
The viler a man's life is, the more he clings to it; it becomes at every moment a protest and a revenge.
Corentin went back to the cab, and drove to his rooms to assume the disguise of a feeble old man, in a scanty greenish overcoat and a tow wig. Then he returned on foot, prompted by his friendship for Peyrade. He intended to give instructions to his most devoted and cleverest underlings.
As he went along the Rue Saint-Honore to reach the Rue Saint-Roch from the Place Vendome, he came up behind a girl in slippers, and dressed as a woman dresses for the night. She had on a white bed-jacket and a nightcap, and from time to time gave vent to a sob and an involuntary groan. Corentin out-paced her, and turning round, recognized Lydie.
"I am a friend of your father's, of Monsieur Canquoelle's," said he in his natural voice.
"Ah! then here is some one I can trust!" said she.
"Do not seem to have recognized me," Corentin went on, "for we are pursued by relentless foes, and are obliged to disguise ourselves. But tell me what has befallen you?"
"Oh, monsieur," said the poor child, "the facts but not the story can be told—I am ruined, lost, and I do not know how——"
"Where have you come from?"
"I don't know, monsieur. I fled with such precipitancy, I have come through so many streets, round so many turnings, fancying I was being followed. And when I met any one that seemed decent, I asked my way to get back to the Boulevards, so as to find the Rue de la Paix. And at last, after walking——What o'clock is it, monsieur?"
"Half-past eleven," said Corentin.
"I escaped at nightfall," said Lydie. "I have been walking for five hours."
"Well, come along; you can rest now; you will find your good Katt."
"Oh, monsieur, there is no rest for me! I only want to rest in the grave, and I will go and wait for death in a convent if I am worthy to be admitted——"
"Poor little girl!—But you struggled?"
"Oh yes! Oh! if you could only imagine the abject creatures they placed me with——!"
"They sent you to sleep, no doubt?"
"Ah! that is it" cried poor Lydie. "A little more strength and I should be at home. I feel that I am dropping, and my brain is not quite clear.—Just now I fancied I was in a garden——"
Corentin took Lydie in his arms, and she lost consciousness; he carried her upstairs.
"Katt!" he called.
Katt came out with exclamations of joy.
"Don't be in too great a hurry to be glad!" said Corentin gravely; "the girl is very ill."
When Lydie was laid on her bed and recognized her own room by the light of two candles that Katt lighted, she became delirious. She sang scraps of pretty airs, broken by vociferations of horrible sentences she had heard. Her pretty face was mottled with purple patches. She mixed up the reminiscences of her pure childhood with those of these ten days of infamy. Katt sat weeping; Corentin paced the room, stopping now and again to gaze at Lydie.
"She is paying her father's debt," said he. "Is there a Providence above? Oh, I was wise not to have a family. On my word of honor, a child is indeed a hostage given to misfortune, as some philosopher has said."
"Oh!" cried the poor child, sitting up in bed and throwing back her fine long hair, "instead of lying here, Katt, I ought to be stretched in the sand at the bottom of the Seine!"
"Katt, instead of crying and looking at your child, which will never cure her, you ought to go for a doctor; the medical officer in the first instance, and then Monsieur Desplein and Monsieur Bianchon——We must save this innocent creature."
And Corentin wrote down the addresses of these two famous physicians.
At this moment, up the stairs came some one to whom they were familiar, and the door was opened. Peyrade, in a violent sweat, his face purple, his eyes almost blood-stained, and gasping like a dolphin, rushed from the outer door to Lydie's room, exclaiming:
"Where is my child?"
He saw a melancholy sign from Corentin, and his eyes followed his friend's hand. Lydie's condition can only be compared to that of a flower tenderly cherished by a gardener, now fallen from its stem, and crushed by the iron-clamped shoes of some peasant. Ascribe this simile to a father's heart, and you will understand the blow that fell on Peyrade; the tears started to his eyes.
"You are crying!—It is my father!" said the girl.
She could still recognize her father; she got out of bed and fell on her knees at the old man's side as he sank into a chair.
"Forgive me, papa," said she in a tone that pierced Peyrade's heart, and at the same moment he was conscious of what felt like a tremendous blow on his head.
"I am dying!—the villains!" were his last words.
Corentin tried to help his friend, and received his latest breath.
"Dead! Poisoned!" said he to himself. "Ah! here is the doctor!" he exclaimed, hearing the sound of wheels.
Contenson, who came with his mulatto disguise removed, stood like a bronze statue as he heard Lydie say:
"Then you do not forgive me, father?—But it was not my fault!"
She did not understand that her father was dead.
"Oh, how he stares at me!" cried the poor crazy girl.
"We must close his eyes," said Contenson, lifting Peyrade on to the bed.
"We are doing a stupid thing," said Corentin. "Let us carry him into his own room. His daughter is half demented, and she will go quite mad when she sees that he is dead; she will fancy that she has killed him."
Lydie, seeing them carry away her father, looked quite stupefied.
"There lies my only friend!" said Corentin, seeming much moved when Peyrade was laid out on the bed in his own room. "In all his life he never had but one impulse of cupidity, and that was for his daughter!—Let him be an example to you, Contenson. Every line of life has its code of honor. Peyrade did wrong when he mixed himself up with private concerns; we have no business to meddle with any but public cases.
"But come what may, I swear," said he with a voice, an emphasis, a look that struck horror into Contenson, "to avenge my poor Peyrade! I will discover the men who are guilty of his death and of his daughter's ruin. And as sure as I am myself, as I have yet a few days to live, which I will risk to accomplish that vengeance, every man of them shall die at four o'clock, in good health, by a clean shave on the Place de Greve."
"And I will help you," said Contenson with feeling.
Nothing, in fact, is more heart-stirring than the spectacle of passion in a cold, self-contained, and methodical man, in whom, for twenty years, no one has ever detected the smallest impulse of sentiment. It is like a molten bar of iron which melts everything it touches. And Contenson was moved to his depths.
"Poor old Canquoelle!" said he, looking at Corentin. "He has treated me many a time.—And, I tell you, only your bad sort know how to do such things—but often has he given me ten francs to go and gamble with . . ."
After this funeral oration, Peyrade's two avengers went back to Lydie's room, hearing Katt and the medical officer from the Mairie on the stairs.
"Go and fetch the Chief of Police," said Corentin. "The public prosecutor will not find grounds for a prosecution in the case; still, we will report it to the Prefecture; it may, perhaps, be of some use.
"Monsieur," he went on to the medical officer, "in this room you will see a dead man. I do not believe that he died from natural causes; you will be good enough to make a post-mortem in the presence of the Chief of the Police, who will come at my request. Try to discover some traces of poison. You will, in a few minutes, have the opinion of Monsieur Desplein and Monsieur Bianchon, for whom I have sent to examine the daughter of my best friend; she is in a worse plight than he, though he is dead."
"I have no need of those gentlemen's assistance in the exercise of my duty," said the medical officer.
"Well, well," thought Corentin. "Let us have no clashing, monsieur," he said. "In a few words I give you my opinion—Those who have just murdered the father have also ruined the daughter."
By daylight Lydie had yielded to fatigue; when the great surgeon and the young physician arrived she was asleep.
The doctor, whose duty it was to sign the death certificate, had now opened Peyrade's body, and was seeking the cause of death.
"While waiting for your patient to awake," said Corentin to the two famous doctors, "would you join one of your professional brethren in an examination which cannot fail to interest you, and your opinion will be valuable in case of an inquiry."
"Your relations died of apoplexy," said the official. "There are all the symptoms of violent congestion of the brain."
"Examine him, gentlemen, and see if there is no poison capable of producing similar symptoms."
"The stomach is, in fact, full of food substances; but short of chemical analysis, I find no evidence of poison.
"If the characters of cerebral congestion are well ascertained, we have here, considering the patient's age, a sufficient cause of death," observed Desplein, looking at the enormous mass of material.
"Did he sup here?" asked Bianchon.
"No," said Corentin; "he came here in great haste from the Boulevard, and found his daughter ruined——"
"That was the poison if he loved his daughter," said Bianchon.
"What known poison could produce a similar effect?" asked Corentin, clinging to his idea.
"There is but one," said Desplein, after a careful examination. "It is a poison found in the Malayan Archipelago, and derived from trees, as yet but little known, of the strychnos family; it is used to poison that dangerous weapon, the Malay kris.—At least, so it is reported."
The Police Commissioner presently arrived; Corentin told him his suspicions, and begged him to draw up a report, telling him where and with whom Peyrade had supped, and the causes of the state in which he found Lydie.
Corentin then went to Lydie's rooms; Desplein and Bianchon had been examining the poor child. He met them at the door.
"Well, gentlemen?" asked Corentin.
"Place the girl under medical care; unless she recovers her wits when her child is born—if indeed she should have a child—she will end her days melancholy-mad. There is no hope of a cure but in the maternal instinct, if it can be aroused."
Corentin paid each of the physicians forty francs in gold, and then turned to the Police Commissioner, who had pulled him by the sleeve.
"The medical officer insists on it that death was natural," said this functionary, "and I can hardly report the case, especially as the dead man was old Canquoelle; he had his finger in too many pies, and we should not be sure whom we might run foul of. Men like that die to order very often——"
"And my name is Corentin," said Corentin in the man's ear.
The Commissioner started with surprise.
"So just make a note of all this," Corentin went on; "it will be very useful by and by; send it up only as confidential information. The crime cannot be proved, and I know that any inquiry would be checked at the very outset.—But I will catch the criminals some day yet. I will watch them and take them red-handed."
The police official bowed to Corentin and left.
"Monsieur," said Katt. "Mademoiselle does nothing but dance and sing. What can I do?"
"Has any change occurred then?"
"She has understood that her father is just dead."
"Put her into a hackney coach, and simply take her to Charenton; I will write a note to the Commissioner-General of Police to secure her being suitably provided for.—The daughter in Charenton, the father in a pauper's grave!" said Corentin—"Contenson, go and fetch the parish hearse. And now, Don Carlos Herrera, you and I will fight it out!"
"Carlos?" said Contenson, "he is in Spain."
"He is in Paris," said Corentin positively. "There is a touch of Spanish genius of the Philip II. type in all this; but I have pitfalls for everybody, even for kings."