The Middle Classes/Part I/Chapter XV
The house in which Toupillier lived is one of those which have lost half their depth, owing to the straightening of the line of the street, the rue Honore-Chevalier being one of the narrowest in the Saint-Sulpice quarter. The owner, forbidden by the law to repair it, or to add new storeys, was compelled to let the wretched building in the condition in which he bought it. It consisted of a first storey above the ground-floor, surmounted by garrets, with two small wings running back on either side. The courtyard thus formed ended in a garden planted with trees, which was always rented to the occupant of the first floor. This garden, separated by an iron railing from the courtyard, would have allowed a rich owner to sell the front buildings to the city, and to build a new house upon the courtyard; but the whole of the first floor was let on an eighteen years' lease to a mysterious personage, about whom neither the official policing of the concierge nor the curiosity of the other tenants could find anything to censure.
This tenant, now seventy years of age, had built, in 1829, an outer stairway, leading from the right wing of the first floor to the garden, so that he could get there without going through the courtyard. Half the ground-floor was occupied by a book-stitcher, who for the last ten years had used the stable and coach-house for workshops. A book-binder occupied the other half. The binder and the stitcher lived, each of them, in half the garret rooms over the front building on the street. The garrets above the rear wings were occupied, the one on the right by the mysterious tenant, the one on the left by Toupillier, who paid a hundred francs a year for it, and reached it by a dark staircase, lighted by small round windows. The porte-cochere was made in the circular form indispensable in a street so narrow that two carriages cannot pass in it.
Cerizet laid hold of the rope which served as a baluster, to climb the species of ladder leading to the room where the so-called beggar was dying,—a room in which the odious spectacle of pretended pauperism was being played. In Paris, everything that is done for a purpose is thoroughly done. Would-be paupers are as clever at mounting their disguise as shopkeepers in preparing their show-windows, or sham rich men in obtaining credit.
The floor had never been swept; the bricks had disappeared beneath layers of dirt, dust, dried mud, and any and every thing thrown down by Toupillier. A miserable stove of cast-iron, the pipe of which entered a crumbling chimney, was the most apparent piece of furniture in this hovel. In an alcove stood a bed, with tester and valence of green serge, which the moths had transformed into lace. The window, almost useless, had a heavy coating of grease upon its panes, which dispensed with the necessity of curtains. The whitewashed walls presented to the eye fuliginous tones, due to the wood and peat burned by the pauper in his stove. On the fireplace were a broken water-pitcher, two bottles, and a cracked plate. A worm-eaten chest of drawers contained his linen and decent clothes. The rest of the furniture consisted of a night-table of the commonest description, another table, worth about forty sous, and two kitchen chairs with the straw seats almost gone. The extremely picturesque costume of the centenarian pauper was hanging from a nail, and below it, on the floor, were the shapeless mat-weed coverings that served him for shoes, the whole forming, with his amorphous old hat and knotty stick, a sort of panoply of misery.
As he entered, Cerizet gave a rapid glance at the old man, whose head lay on a pillow brown with grease and without a pillow-case; his angular profile, like those which engravers of the last century were fond of making out of rocks in the landscapes they engraved, was strongly defined in black against the green serge hangings of the tester. Toupillier, a man nearly six feet tall, was looking fixedly at some object at the foot of his bed; he did not move on hearing the groaning of the heavy door, which, being armed with iron bolts and a strong lock, closed his domicile securely.
"Is he conscious?" said Cerizet, before whom Madame Cardinal started back, not having recognized him till he spoke.
"Pretty nearly," she replied.
"Come out on the staircase, so that he doesn't hear us," whispered Cerizet. "This is how we'll manage it," he continued, in the ear of his future mother-in-law. "He is weak, but he isn't so very low; we have fully a week before us. I'll send you a doctor who'll suit us,—you understand? and later in the evening I'll bring you six poppy-heads. In the state he's in, you see, a decoction of poppy-heads will send him into a sound sleep. I'll send you a cot-bed on pretence of your sleeping in the room with him. We'll move him from one bed to the other, and when we've found the money there won't be any difficulty in carrying it off. But we ought to know who the people are who live in this old barrack. If Perrache suspects, as you think, about the money, he might give an alarm, and so many tenants, so many spies, you know—"
"Oh! as for that," said Madame Cardinal, "I've found out already that Monsieur du Portail, the old man who occupies the first floor, has charge of an insane woman; I heard their Dutch servant-woman, Katte, calling her Lydie this morning. The only other servant is an old valet named Bruneau; he does everything, except cook."
"But the binder and the stitcher down below," returned Cerizet, "they begin work very early in the morning—Well, anyhow, we must study the matter," he added, in the tone of a man whose plans are not yet decided. "I'll go to the mayor's office of your arrondissement, and get Olympe's register of birth, and put up the banns. The marriage must take place a week from Saturday."
"How he goes it, the rascal!" cried the admiring Madame Cardinal, pushing her formidable son-in-law by the shoulder.
As he went downstairs Cerizet was surprised to see, through one of the small round windows, an old man, evidently du Portail, walking in the garden with a very important member of the government, Comte Martial de la Roche-Hugon. He stopped in the courtyard when he reached it, as if to examine the old house, built in the reign of Louis XIV., the yellow walls of which, though of freestone, were bent like the elderly beggar they contained. Then he looked at the workshops, and counted the workmen. The house was otherwise as silent as a cloister. Being observed himself, Cerizet departed, thinking over in his mind the various difficulties that might arise in extracting the sum hidden beneath the dying man.
"Carry off all that gold at night?" he said to himself; "why, those porters will be on the watch, and twenty persons might see us! It is hard work to carry even twenty-five thousand francs of gold on one's person."
Societies have two goals of perfection; the first is a state of civilization in which morality equally infused and pervasive does not admit even the idea of crime; the Jesuits reached that point, formerly presented by the primitive Church. The second is the state of another civilization in which the supervision of citizens over one another makes crime impossible. The end which modern society has placed before itself is the latter; namely, that in which a crime presents such difficulties that a man must abandon all reasoning in order to commit it. In fact, iniquities which the law cannot reach are not left actually unpunished, for social judgment is even more severe than that of courts. If a man like Minoret, the post-master at Nemours [see "Ursule Mirouet"] suppresses a will and no one witnesses the act, the crime is traced home to him by the watchfulness of virtue as surely as a robbery is followed up by the detective police. No wrong-doing passes actually unperceived; and wherever a lesion in rectitude takes place the scar remains. Things can be no more made to disappear than men; so carefully, in Paris especially, are articles and objects ticketed and numbered, houses watched, streets observed, places spied upon. To live at ease, crime must have a sanction like that of the Bourse; like that conceded by Cerizet's clients; who never complained of his usury, and, indeed, would have been troubled in mind if their flayer were not in his den of a Tuesday.
"Well, my dear monsieur," said Madame Perrache, the porter's wife, as he passed her lodge, "how do you find him, that friend of God, that poor man?"
"I am not the doctor," replied Cerizet, who now decidedly declined that role. "I am Madame Cardinal's business man. I have just advised her to have a cot-bed put up, so as to nurse her uncle night and day; though, perhaps, she will have to get a regular nurse."
"I can help her," said Madame Perrache. "I nurse women in childbed."
"Well, we'll see about it," said Cerizet; "I'll arrange all that. Who is the tenant on your first floor?"
"Monsieur du Portail. He has lodged here these thirty years. He is a man with a good income, monsieur; highly respectable, and elderly. You know people who invest in the Funds live on their incomes. He used to be in business. But it is more than eleven years now since he has been trying to restore the reason of a daughter of one of his friends, Mademoiselle Lydie de la Peyrade. She has the best advice, I can tell you; the very first doctors in Paris; only this morning they had a consultation. But so far nothing has cured her; and they have to watch her pretty close; for sometimes she gets up and walks at night—"
"Mademoiselle Lydie de la Peyrade!" exclaimed Cerizet; "are you sure of the name?"
"I've heard Madame Katte, her nurse, who also does the cooking, call her so a thousand times, monsieur; though, generally, neither Monsieur Bruneau, the valet, nor Madame Katte say much. It's like talking to the wall to try and get any information out of them. We have been porters here these twenty years and we've never found out anything about Monsieur du Portail yet. More than that, monsieur, he owns the little house alongside; you see the double door from here. Well, he can go out that way and receive his company too, and we know nothing about it. Our owner doesn't know anything more than we do; when people ring at that door, Monsieur Bruneau goes and opens it."
"Then you didn't see the gentleman who is talking with him in the garden go by this way?"
"Bless me! no, that I didn't!"
"Ah!" thought Cerizet as he got into the cabriolet, "she must be the daughter of that uncle of Theodose. I wonder if du Portail can be the secret benefactor who sent money from time to time to that rascal? Suppose I send an anonymous letter to the old fellow, warning him of the danger the barrister runs from those notes for twenty-five thousand francs?"
An hour later the cot-bed had arrived for Madame Cardinal, to whom the inquisitive portress offered her services to bring her something to eat.
"Do you want to see the rector?" Madame Cardinal inquired of her uncle.
She had noticed that the arrival of the bed seemed to draw him from his somnolence.
"I want wine!" replied the pauper.
"How do you feel now, Pere Toupillier?" asked Madame Perrache, in a coaxing voice.
"I tell you I want wine," repeated the old man, with an energetic insistence scarcely to be expected of his feebleness.
"We must first find out if it is good for you, uncle," said Madame Cardinal, soothingly. "Wait till the doctor comes."
"Doctor! I won't have a doctor!" cried Toupillier; "and you, what are you doing here? I don't want anybody."
"My good uncle, I came to know if you'd like something tasty. I've got some nice fresh soles—hey! a bit of fried sole, with a squeeze of lemon on it?"
"Your fish, indeed!" cried Toupillier; "all rotten! That last you brought me, more than six weeks ago, it is there in the cupboard; you can take it away with you."
"Heavens! how ungrateful sick men are!" whispered the widow Cardinal to Perrache.
Nevertheless, to exhibit solicitude, she arranged the pillow under the patient's head, saying:—
"There! uncle, don't you feel better like that?"
"Let me alone!" shouted Toupillier, angrily; "I want no one here; I want wine; leave me in peace."
"Don't get angry, little uncle; we'll fetch you some wine."
"Number six wine, rue des Canettes," cried the pauper.
"Yes, I know," replied Madame Cardinal; "but let me count out my coppers. I want to get something better for you than that kind of wine; for, don't you see, an uncle, he's a kind of father, and one shouldn't mind what one does for him."
So saying, she sat down, with her legs apart, on one of the dilapidated chairs, and poured into her apron the contents of her pockets, namely: a knife, her snuff-box, two pawn-tickets, some crusts of bread, and a handful of copper, from which she extracted a few silver bits.
This exhibition, intended to prove her generous and eager devotion, had no result. Toupillier seemed not to notice it. Exhausted by the feverish energy with which he had demanded his favorite remedy, he made an effort to change his position, and, with his back turned to his two nurses, he again muttered: "Wine! wine!" after which nothing more was heard of him but a stentorous breathing, that plainly showed the state of his lungs, which were beginning to congest.
"I suppose I must go and fetch his wine!" said the Cardinal, restoring to her pockets, with some ill-humor, the cargo she had just pulled out of them.
"If you don't want to go—" began Madame Perrache, always ready to offer her services.
The fishwife hesitated for a moment; then, reflecting that something might be got out of a conversation with the wine-merchant, and sure, moreover, that as long as Toupillier lay on his gold she could safely leave him alone with the portress, she said:—
"Thank you, Madame Perrache, but I'd better make acquaintance with his trades-folk."
Then, having spied behind the night-table a dirty bottle which might hold about two quarts,—
"Did he say the rue des Canelles?" she inquired of the portress.
"Corner of the rue Guisarde," replied Madame Perrache. "Monsieur Legrelu, a tall, fine man with big whiskers and no hair." Then, lowering her voice, she added: "His number-six wine, you know, is Roussillon, and the best, too. However, the wine-merchant knows; it is enough if you tell him you have come from his customer, the pauper of Saint-Sulpice."
"No need to tell me anything twice," said the Cardinal, opening the door and making, as they say, a false exit. "Ah ca!" she said, coming back; "what does he burn in his stove, supposing I want to heat some remedy for him?"
"Goodness!" said the portress, "he doesn't make much provision for winter, and here we are in the middle of summer!"
"And not a saucepan! not a pot, even! Gracious! what a way to live. I'll have to fetch him some provisions; I hope nobody will see the things I bring back; I'd be ashamed they should—"
"I'll lend you a hand-bag," said the portress, always ready and officious.
"No, I'll buy a basket," replied the fishwife, more anxious about what she expected to carry away than what she was about to bring home to the pauper. "There must be some Auvergnat in the neighborhood who sells wood," she added.
"Corner of the rue Ferou; you'll find one there. A fine establishment, with logs of wood painted in a kind of an arcade all round the shop—so like, you'd think they were going to speak to you."
Before going finally off, Madame Cardinal went through a piece of very deep hypocrisy. We have seen how she hesitated about leaving the portress alone with the sick man:—
"Madame Perrache," she said to her, "you won't leave him, the poor darling, will you, till I get back?"
It may have been noticed that Cerizet had not decided on any definite course of action in the new affair he was now undertaking. The part of doctor, which for a moment he thought of assuming, frightened him, and he gave himself out, as we have seen, to Madame Perrache as the business agent of his accomplice. Once alone, he began to see that his original idea complicated with a doctor, a nurse, and a notary, presented the most serious difficulties. A regular will drawn in favor of Madame Cardinal was not a thing to be improvised in a moment. It would take some time to acclimatize the idea in the surly and suspicious mind of the old pauper, and death, which was close at hand, might play them a trick at any moment, and balk the most careful preparations.
It was true that unless a will were made the income of eight thousand francs on the Grand Livre and the house in the rue Notre-Dame de Nazareth would go to the heirs-at-law, and Madame Cardinal would get only her share of the property; but the abandonment of this visible portion of the inheritance was the surest means of laying hands on the invisible part of it. Besides, if the latter were secured, what hindered their returning to the idea of a will?
Resolving, therefore, to confine the operation to the simplest terms at first, Cerizet summed them up in the manoeuvre of the poppy-heads, already mentioned, and he was making his way back to Toupillier's abode, armed with that single weapon of war, intending to give Madame Cardinal further instructions, when he met her, bearing on her arm the basket she had just bought; and in that basket was the sick man's panacea.
"Upon my word!" cried the usurer, "is this the way you keep your watch?"
"I had to go out and buy him wine," replied the Cardinal; "he is howling like a soul in hell that he wants to be at peace, and to be let alone, and get his wine! It is his one idea that Roussillon is good for his disease. Well, when he has drunk it, I dare say he will be quieter."
"You are right," said Cerizet, sententiously; "never contradict a sick man. But this wine, you know, ought to be improved; by infusing these" (and lifting one of the covers of the basket he slipped in the poppies) "you'll procure the poor man a good, long sleep,—five or six hours at least. This evening I'll come and see you, and nothing, I think, need prevent us from examining a little closer those matters of inheritance."
"I see," said Madame Cardinal, winking.
"To-night, then," said Cerizet, not wishing to prolong the conversation.
He had a strong sense of the difficulty and danger of the affair, and was very reluctant to be seen in the street conversing with his accomplice.
Returning to her uncle's garret, Madame Cardinal found him still in a state of semi-torpor; she relieved Madame Perrache, and bade her good-bye, going to the door to receive a supply of wood, all sawed, which she had ordered from the Auvergnat in the rue Ferou.
Into an earthen pot, which she had bought of the right size to fit upon the hole in the stoves of the poor where they put their soup-kettles, she now threw the poppies, pouring over them two-thirds of the wine she had brought back with her. Then she lighted a fire beneath the pot, intending to obtain the decoction agreed upon as quickly as possible. The crackling of the wood and the heat, which soon spread about the room, brought Toupillier out of his stupor. Seeing the stove lighted he called out:—
"Who is making a fire here? Do you want to burn the house down?"
"Why, uncle," said the Cardinal, "it is wood I bought with my own money, to warm your wine. The doctor doesn't want you to drink it cold."
"Where is it, that wine?" demanded Toupillier, calming down a little at the thought that the fire was not burning at his expense.
"It must come to a boil," said his nurse; "the doctor insisted upon that. Still, if you'll be good I'll give you half a glass of it cold, just to wet your whistle. I'll take that upon myself, but don't you tell the doctor."
"Doctor! I won't have a doctor; they are all scoundrels, invented to kill people," cried Toupillier, whom the idea of drink had revived. "Come, give me the wine!" he said, in the tone of a man whose patience had come to an end.
Convinced that though this compliance would do no harm it could do no good, Madame Cardinal poured out half a glass, and while she gave it with one hand to the sick man, with the other she raised him to a sitting posture that he might drink it.
With his fleshless, eager fingers Toupillier clutched the glass, emptied it at a gulp, and exclaimed:—
"Ah! that's a fine drop, that is! though you've watered it."
"You mustn't say that, uncle; I went and bought it myself of Pere Legrelu, and I've given it you quite pure. But you let me simmer the rest; the doctor said I might then give you all you wanted."
Toupillier resigned himself with a shrug of the shoulders. At the end of fifteen minutes, the infusion being in condition to serve, Madame Cardinal brought him, without further appeal, a full cup of it.
The avidity with which the old pauper drank it down prevented him from noticing at first that the wine was drugged; but as he swallowed the last drops he tasted the sickly and nauseating flavor, and flinging the cup on the bed he cried out that some one was trying to poison him.
"Poison! nonsense!" said the fishwife, pouring into her own mouth a few drops of that which remained in the bottle, declaring to the old man that if the wine did not seem to him the same as usual, it was because his mouth had a "bad taste to it."
Before the end of the dispute, which lasted some time, the narcotic began to take effect, and at the end of an hour the sick man was sound asleep.
While idly waiting for Cerizet, an idea took possession of the Cardinal's mind. She thought that in view of their comings and goings with the treasure, it would be well if the vigilance of the Perrache husband and wife could be dulled in some manner. Consequently, after carefully flinging the refuse poppy-heads into the privy, she called to the portress:—
"Madame Perrache, come up and taste his wine. Wouldn't you have thought to hear him talk he was ready to drink a cask of it? Well, a cupful satisfied him."
"Your health!" said the portress, touching glasses with the Cardinal, who was careful to have hers filled with the unboiled wine. Less accomplished as a gourmet than the old beggar, Madame Perrache perceived nothing in the insidious liquid (cold by the time she drank it) to make her suspect its narcotic character; on the contrary, she declared it was "velvet," and wished that her husband were there to have a share in the treat. After a rather long gossip, the two women separated. Then, with the cooked meat she had provided for herself, and the remains of the Roussillon, Madame Cardinal made a repast which she finished off with a siesta. Without mentioning the emotions of the day, the influence of one of the most heady wines of the country would have sufficed to explain the soundness of her sleep; when she woke darkness was coming on.
Her first care was to give a glance at her patient; his sleep was restless, and he was dreaming aloud.
"Diamonds," he said; "those diamonds? At my death, but not before."
"Gracious!" thought Madame Cardinal, "that was the one thing lacking,—diamonds! that he should have diamonds!"
Then, as Toupillier seemed to be in the grasp of a violent nightmare, she leaned over him so as not to lose a word of his speech, hoping to gather from it some important revelation. At this moment a slight rap given to the door, from which the careful nurse had removed the key, announced the arrival of Cerizet.
"Well?" he said, on entering.
"He has taken the drug. He's been sound asleep these two hours; just now, in dreaming, he was talking of diamonds."
"Well," said Cerizet, "it wouldn't be surprising if we found some. These paupers when they set out to be rich, like to pile up everything."
"Ah ca!" cried the Cardinal, suddenly, "what made you go and tell Mere Perrache that you were my man of business, and that you weren't a doctor? I thought we agreed this morning that you were coming as a doctor?"
Cerizet did not choose to admit that the usurpation of that title had seemed to him dangerous; he feared to discourage his accomplice.
"I saw that the woman was going to propose a consultation," he replied, "and I got out of it that way."
"Goodness!" exclaimed Madame Cardinal, "they say fine minds come together; that was my dodge, too. Calling you my man of business seemed to give that old pilferer a few ideas. Did they see you come in, those porters?"
"I thought, as I went by," replied Cerizet, "that the woman was asleep in her chair."
"And well she might be," said the Cardinal, significantly.
"What, really?" said Cerizet.
"Parbleu!" replied the fishwife; "what's enough for one is enough for two; the rest of the stuff went that way."
"As for the husband, he was there," said Cerizet; "for he gave me a gracious sign of recognition, which I could have done without."
"Wait till it is quite dark, and we'll play him a comedy that shall fool him finely."
Accordingly, ten minutes later, the fishwife, with a vim that delighted the usurer, organized for the innocent porter the comedy of a monsieur who would not, out of politeness, let her accompany him to the door; she herself with equal politeness insisting. Appearing to conduct the sham physician into the street gate she pretended that the wind had blown out of her lamp, and under pretext of relighting it she put out that of Perrache. All this racket, accompanied by exclamations and a bewildering loquacity, was so briskly carried out that the porter, if summoned before the police-court, would not have hesitated to swear that the doctor, whose arrival he had witnessed, left the house between nine and ten o'clock.
When the two accomplices were thus in tranquil possession of the field of operations Madame Cardinal hung up her rabbit's-hair shawl before the window to exclude all possible indiscretion on the part of a neighbor. In the Luxembourg quarter life quiets down early. By ten o'clock all the sounds in the house as well as those out of doors were stilled, and Cerizet declared that the moment had come to go to work; by beginning at once they were certain that the sleeper would remain under the influence of the drug; besides, if the booty were found at once, Madame Cardinal could, under pretence of a sudden attack on her patient, which required her to fetch a remedy from the apothecary, get the porter to open the street gate for her without suspicion. As all porters pull the gate-cord from their beds, Cerizet would be able to get away at the same time without notice.
Powerful in advice, Cerizet was a very incapable hand in action; and, without the robust assistance of Mere Cardinal he could never have lifted what might almost be called the corpse of the former drum-major. Completely insensible, Toupillier was now an inert mass, a dead-weight, which could, fortunately, be handled without much precaution, and the athletic Madame Cardinal, gathering strength from her cupidity, contrived, notwithstanding Cerizet's insufficient assistance, to effect the transfer of her uncle from one bed to the other.
On rummaging the bed from which the body was moved, nothing was found, and Madame Cardinal, pressed by Cerizet to explain why she had confidently asserted that her uncle "was lying on one hundred thousand francs in gold," was forced to admit that a talk with Madame Perrache, and her own fervid imagination were the sole grounds of her certainty. Cerizet was furious; having for one whole day dallied with the idea and hope of fortune, having, moreover, entered upon a dangerous and compromising course of action, only to find himself, at the supreme moment, face to face with—nothing! The disappointment was so bitter that if he had not been afraid of the muscular strength of his future mother-in-law, he would have rushed upon her with some frantic intention.
His anger, however, spent itself in words. Harshly abused, Madame Cardinal contented herself by remarking that all hope was not lost, and then, with a faith that ought to have moved mountains, she set to work to empty the straw from the mattress she had already vainly explored in all directions. But Cerizet would not allow that extreme measure; he remarked that after the autopsy of a straw mattress such detritus would remain upon the floor as must infallibly give rise to suspicion. But the Cardinal, who thought this caution ridiculous, was determined to, at least, take apart the flock bedstead. The passion of the search gave extraordinary vigilance to her senses, and as she raised the wooden side-frame she heard the fall of some tiny object on the floor. Seizing the light she began to search in the mound of filth of all kinds that was under the bed, and finally laid her hand on a bit of polished steel about half an inch long, the use of which was to her inexplicable.
"That's a key!" cried Cerizet, who was standing beside her with some indifference, but whose imagination now set off at a gallop.
"Ha! ha! you see I was right," cried the Cardinal. "But what can it open?" she added, on reflection; "nothing bigger than a doll's house."
"No," said Cerizet, "it is a modern invention, and very strong locks can be opened with that little instrument."
With a rapid glance he took in all the pieces of furniture in the room; went to the bureau and pulled out the drawers; looked in the stove, in the table; but nowhere did he find a lock to which the little key could be adapted.
Suddenly the Cardinal had a flash of illumination.
"See here!" she said. "I remarked that the old thief, as he lay on his bed, never took his eyes off the wall just opposite to him."
"A cupboard hidden in the wall!" cried Cerizet, seizing the light eagerly; "it is not impossible!"
Examining attentively the door of the alcove, which was opposite the bed's head, he could see nothing there but a vast accumulation of dust and spiders' webs. He next employed the sense of touch, and began to rap and sound the wall in all directions. At the spot to which Toupillier's constant gaze was directed he thought he perceived in a very narrow space a slight sonority, and he presently perceived that he was rapping on wood. He then rubbed the spot vigorously with his handkerchief, and beneath the thick layer of dust and dirt which he thus removed he found a piece of oak plank carefully inserted in the wall. On one side of this plank was a small round hole; it was that of the lock which the key fitted!
While Cerizet was turning the key, which worked with great difficulty, Madame Cardinal, holding the light, was pale and breathless; but, oh! cruel deception! the cupboard, at last unlocked and open, showed only an empty space, into which the light in her hand fell uselessly.
Allowing this bacchante to give vent to her despair by saluting her much-beloved uncle with the harshest epithets, Cerizet quietly inserted his arm into the cupboard, and after feeling it over at the back, he cried out, "An iron safe!" adding, impatiently, "Give me more light, Madame Cardinal."
Then, as the light did not penetrate to the depths of the cupboard, he snatched the candle from the bottle, where, in default of a candlestick, the Cardinal had stuck it, and, taking it in his hand, moved it carefully over all parts of the iron safe, the existence of which was now a certainty.
"There is no visible lock," he said. "There must be a secret opening."
"Isn't he sly, that old villain!" exclaimed Madame Cardinal, while Cerizet's bony fingers felt the side of the safe over minutely.
"Ha!" he exclaimed, after groping for ten minutes, "I have it!"
During this time Madame Cardinal's life seemed actually suspended.
Under the pressure which Cerizet now applied, the iron side rose quickly into the thickness of the wall above, and in the midst of a mass of gold thrown pell-mell into a large excavation that was now exposed to view, lay a case of red morocco, which, from its size and appearance, gave promise of magnificent booty.
"I take the diamonds for myself," said Cerizet, when he had opened the case and seen the splendid jewels it contained; "you won't know how to get rid of them. I'll leave you the gold for your share. As for the house and the money in the Funds, they are not worth the trouble it would be to get the old fellow to make a will."
"Not so fast, my little man!" replied the Cardinal, who thought this decision rather summary; "we will first count the money—"
"Hush!" exclaimed Cerizet, apparently listening to a sound.
"What is it?" asked the Cardinal.
"Don't you hear some one moving below?"
"No, I hear nothing."
Cerizet, making her a sign to be silent, listened attentively.
"I hear a step on the stairs," he said, a moment later.
Then he hastily replaced the morocco case, and made desperate but unavailing efforts to lower the panel.
"Yes!" cried Madame Cardinal, terrified; "some one is really coming." Then, fastening to a hope of safety, she added, "I dare say it is that insane girl; they say she walks at night."
At any rate, the insane girl (if it were she) had a key to the room, for a moment later, this key was inserted in the lock. With a rapid glance Madame Cardinal measured the distance to the door; should she have time to push the bolt? No; certain that it was then too late, so she blew out the candle to give herself at least some chances in the darkness.
Useless effort! the intruder who now appeared had brought a candle with him.
When Madame Cerizet saw that she had to do with a small, old man of puny appearance, she flung herself before him with flaming eyes, like a lioness from whom the hunter is seeking to take her cubs.
"Be calm, my good woman," said the little man, in a jeering tone; "the police are sent for; they will be here in a moment."
At the word "police" the Cardinal's legs gave way.
"But, monsieur," she said, "why the police? we are not robbers."
"No matter for that; if I were in your place I shouldn't wait for them," said the little old man; "they make unfortunate mistakes sometimes."
"Can I clear out?" asked the woman, incredulously.
"Yes, if you empty your pockets of anything which has, by accident, got into them."
"Oh! my good monsieur, I haven't a thing in my hands or my pockets; I wasn't here to harm any one,—only to nurse my poor dear uncle; you can search me."
"Come, be off with you! that will do," said the old man.
Madame Cardinal did not oblige him to repeat the order, and she rapidly disappeared down the staircase.
Cerizet made as though he would take the same road.
"You, monsieur, are quite another thing," said the little old man. "You and I must talk together; but if you are tractable, the affair between us can be settled amicably."
Whether it was that the narcotic had ceased to operate, or that the noise going on about Toupillier put an end to his sleep, he now opened his eyes and cast around him the glance of a man who endeavors to remember where he is; then, seeing his precious cupboard open, he found in the emotion that sight produced the strength to cry out two or three times, "Help! help! robbers!" in a voice that was loud enough to rouse the house.
"No, Toupillier," said the little old man; "you have not been robbed; I came here in time to prevent it; nothing has been taken."
"Why don't you arrest that villain?" shouted the old pauper, pointing to Cerizet.
"Monsieur is not a thief," replied the old man. "On the contrary, he came up with me to lend assistance." Then, turning to Cerizet, he added, in a low voice: "I think, my good friend, that we had better postpone the interview I desire to have with you until to-morrow. Come at ten o'clock to the adjoining house, and ask for Monsieur du Portail. After what has passed this evening, there will, I ought to warn you, be some danger to you in not accepting this conference. I shall find you elsewhere, infallibly; for I have the honor to know who you are; you are the man whom the Opposition journals were accustomed to call 'the courageous Cerizet.'"
In spite of the profound sarcasm of this remark, Cerizet, perceiving that he was not to be treated more rigorously than Madame Cardinal, felt so pleased with this conclusion that he promised, very readily, to keep the appointment, and then slipped away with all the haste he could.