ALREADY at eight o’clock on that holiday-making mid-Lent Thursday, when all the offices of the Home Department were empty, Monferrand, the Minister, sat alone in his private room. A single usher guarded his door, and in the first ante-chamber there were only a couple of messengers.
The Minister had experienced, on awaking, the most unpleasant of emotions. The “Voix du Peuple,” which on the previous day had revived the African Railway scandal, by accusing Barroux of having pocketed 20,000 francs, had that morning published its long-promised list of the bribe-taking senators and deputies. And at the head of this list Monferrand had found his own name set down against a sum of 80,000 francs, while Fonsegue was credited with 50,000. Then a fifth of the latter amount was said to have been Duthil’s share, and Chaigneux had contented himself with the beggarly sum of 3,000 francs-the lowest price paid for any one vote, the cost of each of the others ranging from 5 to 20,000.
It must be said that there was no anger in Monferrand’s emotion. Only he had never thought that Sagnier would carry his passion for uproar and scandal so far as to publish this list-a page which was said to have been torn from a memorandum book belonging to Duvillard’s agent, Hunter, and which was covered with incomprehensible hieroglyphics that ought to have been discussed and explained, if, indeed, the real truth was to be arrived at. Personally, Monferrand felt quite at ease, for he had written nothing, signed nothing, and knew that one could always extricate oneself from a mess by showing some audacity, and never confessing. Nevertheless, what a commotion it would all cause in the parliamentary duck-pond. He at once realised the inevitable consequences, the ministry overthrown and swept away by this fresh whirlwind of denunciation and tittle-tattle. Mege would renew his interpellation on the morrow, and Vignon and his friends would at once lay siege to the posts they coveted. And he, Monferrand, could picture himself driven out of that ministerial sanctum where, for eight months past, he had been taking his ease, not with any foolish vainglory, but with the pleasure of feeling that he was in his proper place as a born ruler, who believed he could tame and lead the multitude.
Having thrown the newspapers aside with a disdainful gesture, he rose and stretched himself, growling the while like a plagued lion. And then he began to walk up and down the spacious room, which showed all the faded official luxury of mahogany furniture and green damask hangings. Stepping to and fro, with his hands behind his back, he no longer wore his usual fatherly, good-natured air. He appeared as he really was, a born wrestler, short, but broad shouldered, with sensual mouth, fleshy nose and stern eyes, that all proclaimed him to be unscrupulous, of iron will and fit for the greatest tasks. Still, in this case, in what direction lay his best course? Must he let himself be dragged down with Barroux? Perhaps his personal position was not absolutely compromised? And yet how could he part company from the others, swim ashore, and save himself while they were being drowned? It was a grave problem, and with his frantic desire to retain power, he made desperate endeavours to devise some suitable manoeuvre.
But he could think of nothing, and began to swear at the virtuous fits of that silly Republic, which, in his opinion, rendered all government impossible. To think of such foolish fiddle-faddle stopping a man of his acumen and strength! How on earth can one govern men if one is denied the use of money, that sovereign means of sway? And he laughed bitterly; for the idea of an idyllic country where all great enterprises would be carried out in an absolutely honest manner seemed to him the height of absurdity.
At last, however, unable as he was to come to a determination, it occurred to him to confer with Baron Duvillard, whom he had long known, and whom he regretted not having seen sooner so as to urge him to purchase Sagnier’s silence. At first he thought of sending the Baron a brief note by a messenger; but he disliked committing anything to paper, for the veriest scrap of writing may prove dangerous; so he preferred to employ the telephone which had been installed for his private use near his writing-table.
“It is Baron Duvillard who is speaking to me? . . . Quite so. It’s I, the Minister, Monsieur Monferrand. I shall be much obliged if you will come to see me at once. . . . Quite so, quite so, I will wait for you.”
Then again he walked to and fro and meditated. That fellow Duvillard was as clever a man as himself, and might be able to give him an idea. And he was still laboriously trying to devise some scheme, when the usher entered saying that Monsieur Gascogne, the Chief of the Detective Police, particularly wished to speak to him. Monferrand’s first thought was that the Prefecture of Police desired to know his views respecting the steps which ought to be taken to ensure public order that day; for two mid-Lent processions-one of the Washerwomen and the other of the Students-were to march through Paris, whose streets would certainly be crowded.
“Show Monsieur Gascogne in,” he said.
A tall, slim, dark man, looking like an artisan in his Sunday best, then stepped into the ministerial sanctum. Fully acquainted with the under-currents of Paris life, this Chief of the Detective Force had a cold dispassionate nature and a clear and methodical mind. Professionalism slightly spoilt him, however: he would have possessed more intelligence if he had not credited himself with so much.
He began by apologising for his superior the Prefect, who would certainly have called in person had he not been suffering from indisposition. However, it was perhaps best that he, Gascogne, should acquaint Monsieur le Ministre with the grave affair which brought him, for he knew every detail of it. Then he revealed what the grave affair was.
“I believe, Monsieur le Ministre, that we at last hold the perpetrator of the crime in the Rue Godot-de-Mauroy.”
At this, Monferrand, who had been listening impatiently, became quite impassioned. The fruitless searches of the police, the attacks and the jeers of the newspapers, were a source of daily worry to him. “Ah!-Well, so much the better for you Monsieur Gascogne,” he replied with brutal frankness. “You would have ended by losing your post. The man is arrested?”
“Not yet, Monsieur le Ministre; but he cannot escape, and it is merely an affair of a few hours.”
Then the Chief of the Detective Force told the whole story: how Detective Mondesir, on being warned by a secret agent that the Anarchist Salvat was in a tavern at Montmartre, had reached it just as the bird had flown; then how chance had again set him in presence of Salvat at a hundred paces or so from the tavern, the rascal having foolishly loitered there to watch the establishment; and afterwards how Salvat had been stealthily shadowed in the hope that they might catch him in his hiding-place with his accomplices. And, in this wise, he had been tracked to the Porte-Maillot, where, realising, no doubt, that he was pursued, he had suddenly bolted into the Bois de Boulogne. It was there that he had been hiding since two o’clock in the morning in the drizzle which had not ceased to fall. They had waited for daylight in order to organise a
“I know the great interest you take in the arrest, Monsieur le Ministre,” added Gascogne, “and it occurred to me to ask your orders. Detective Mondesir is over there, directing the hunt. He regrets that he did not apprehend the man on the Boulevard de Rochechouart; but, all the same, the idea of following him was a capital one, and one can only reproach Mondesir with having forgotten the Bois de Boulogne in his calculations.”
Salvat arrested! That fellow Salvat whose name had filled the newspapers for three weeks past. This was a most fortunate stroke which would be talked of far and wide! In the depths of Monferrand’s fixed eyes one could divine a world of thoughts and a sudden determination to turn this incident which chance had brought him to his own personal advantage. In his own mind a link was already forming between this arrest and that African Railways interpellation which was likely to overthrow the ministry on the morrow. The first outlines of a scheme already rose before him. Was it not his good star that had sent him what he had been seeking-a means of fishing himself out of the troubled waters of the approaching crisis?
“But tell me, Monsieur Gascogne,” said he, “are you quite sure that this man Salvat committed the crime?”
“Oh! perfectly sure, Monsieur le Ministre. He’ll confess everything in the cab before he reaches the Prefecture.”
Monferrand again walked to and fro with a pensive air, and ideas came to him as he spoke on in a slow, meditative fashion. “My orders! well, my orders, they are, first, that you must act with the very greatest prudence. Yes, don’t gather a mob of promenaders together. Try to arrange things so that the arrest may pass unperceived-and if you secure a confession keep it to yourself, don’t communicate it to the newspapers. Yes, I particularly recommend that point to you, don’t take the newspapers into your confidence at all-and finally, come and tell me everything, and observe secrecy, absolute secrecy, with everybody else.”
Gascogne bowed and would have withdrawn, but Monferrand detained him to say that not a day passed without his friend Monsieur Lehmann, the Public Prosecutor, receiving letters from Anarchists who threatened to blow him up with his family; in such wise that, although he was by no means a coward, he wished his house to be guarded by plain-clothes officers. A similar watch was already kept upon the house where investigating magistrate Amadieu resided. And if the latter’s life was precious, that of Public Prosecutor Lehmann was equally so, for he was one of those political magistrates, one of those shrewd talented Israelites, who make their way in very honest fashion by invariably taking the part of the Government in office.
Then Gascogne in his turn remarked: “There is also the Barthes affair, Monsieur le Ministre-we are still waiting. Are we to arrest Barthes at that little house at Neuilly?”
One of those chances which sometimes come to the help of detectives and make people think the latter to be men of genius had revealed to him the circumstance that Barthes had found a refuge with Abbe Pierre Froment. Ever since the Anarchist terror had thrown Paris into dismay a warrant had been out against the old man, not for any precise offence, but simply because he was a suspicious character and might, therefore, have had some intercourse with the Revolutionists. However, it had been repugnant to Gascogne to arrest him at the house of a priest whom the whole district venerated as a saint; and the Minister, whom he had consulted on the point, had warmly approved of his reserve, since a member of the clergy was in question, and had undertaken to settle the affair himself.
“No, Monsieur Gascogne,” he now replied, “don’t move in the matter. You know what my feelings are, that we ought to have the priests with us and not against us-I have had a letter written to Abbe Froment in order that he may call here this morning, as I shall have no other visitors. I will speak to him myself, and you may take it that the affair no longer concerns you.”
Then he was about to dismiss him when the usher came back saying that the President of the Council was in the ante-room.*
* The title of President of the Council is given to the French
“Barroux!-Ah! dash it, then, Monsieur Gascogne, you had better go out this way. It is as well that nobody should meet you, as I wish you to keep silent respecting Salvat’s arrest. It’s fully understood, is it not? I alone am to know everything; and you will communicate with me here direct, by the telephone, if any serious incident should arise.”
The Chief of the Detective Police had scarcely gone off, by way of an adjoining
With a nicely adjusted show of deference and cordiality, Monferrand stepped forward, his hands outstretched: “Ah! my dear President, why did you put yourself out to come here? I would have called on you if I had known that you wished to see me.”
But with an impatient gesture Barroux brushed aside all question of etiquette. “No, no! I was taking my usual stroll in the Champs Elysees, and the worries of the situation impressed me so keenly that I preferred to come here at once. You yourself must realise that we can’t put up with what is taking place. And pending to-morrow morning’s council, when we shall have to arrange a plan of defence, I felt that there was good reason for us to talk things over.”
He took an armchair, and Monferrand on his side rolled another forward so as to seat himself with his back to the light. Whilst Barroux, the elder of the pair by ten years, blanched and solemn, with a handsome face, snowy whiskers, clean-shaven chin and upper-lip, retained all the dignity of power, the bearing of a Conventionnel of romantic views, who sought to magnify the simple loyalty of a rather foolish but good-hearted
For a moment Barroux drew breath, for in reality he was greatly moved, his blood rising to his head, and his heart beating with indignation and anger at the thought of all the vulgar insults which the “Voix du Peuple” had poured upon him again that morning. “Come, my dear colleague,” said he, “one must stop that scandalous campaign. Moreover, you can realise what awaits us at the Chamber to-morrow. Now that the famous list has been published we shall have every malcontent up in arms. Vignon is bestirring himself already-“
“Ah! you have news of Vignon?” exclaimed Monferrand, becoming very attentive.
“Well, as I passed his door just now, I saw a string of cabs waiting there. All his creatures have been on the move since yesterday, and at least twenty persons have told me that the band is already dividing the spoils. For, as you must know, the fierce and ingenuous Mege is again going to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for others. Briefly, we are dead, and the others claim that they are going to bury us in mud before they fight over our leavings.” With his arm outstretched Barroux made a theatrical gesture, and his voice resounded as if he were in the tribune. Nevertheless, his emotion was real, tears even were coming to his eyes. “To think that I who have given my whole life to the Republic, I who founded it, who saved it, should be covered with insults in this fashion, and obliged to defend myself against abominable charges! To say that I abused my trust! That I sold myself and took 200,000 francs from that man Hunter, simply to slip them into my pocket! Well, certainly there
But Monferrand interrupted his colleague in a clear trenchant voice: “He never handed me a centime.”
The other looked at him in astonishment, but could only see his big, rough head, whose features were steeped in shadow: “Ah! But I thought you had business relations with him, and knew him particularly well.”
“No, I simply knew Hunter as everyone knew him. I was not even aware that he was Baron Duvillard’s agent in the African Railways matter; and there was never any question of that affair between us.”
This was so improbable, so contrary to everything Barroux knew of the business, that for a moment he felt quite scared. Then he waved his hand as if to say that others might as well look after their own affairs, and reverted to himself. “Oh! as for me,” he said, “Hunter called on me more than ten times, and made me quite sick with his talk of the African Railways. It was at the time when the Chamber was asked to authorise the issue of lottery stock.* And, by the way, my dear fellow, I was then here at the Home Department, while you had just taken that of Public Works. I can remember sitting at that very writing-table, while Hunter was in the same armchair that I now occupy. That day he wanted to consult me about the employment of the large sum which Duvillard’s house proposed to spend in advertising; and on seeing what big amounts were set down against the Royalist journals, I became quite angry, for I realised with perfect accuracy that this money would simply be used to wage war against the Republic. And so, yielding to Hunter’s entreaties, I also drew up a list allotting 200,000 francs among the friendly Republican newspapers, which were paid through me, I admit it. And that’s the whole story.”**
* This kind of stock is common enough in France. A part of it is
extinguished annually at a public “drawing,” when all such
shares or bonds that are drawn become entitled to redemption
at “par,” a percentage of them also securing prizes of various
amounts. City of Paris Bonds issued on this system are very
popular among French people with small savings; but, on the
other hand, many ventures, whose lottery stock has been
authorised by the Legislature, have come to grief and ruined
** All who are acquainted with recent French history will be
aware that Barroux’ narrative is simply a passage from the
life of the late M. Floquet, slightly modified to suit the
requirements of M. Zola’s story.-Trans.
Then he sprang to his feet and struck his chest, whilst his voice again rose: “Well, I’ve had more than enough of all that calumny and falsehood! And I shall simply tell the Chamber my story to-morrow. It will be my only defence. An honest man does not fear the truth!”
But Monferrand, in his turn, had sprung up with a cry which was a complete confession of his principles: “It’s ridiculous, one never confesses; you surely won’t do such a thing!”
“I shall,” retorted Barroux with superb obstinacy. “And we shall see if the Chamber won’t absolve me by acclamation.”
“No, you will fall beneath an explosion of hisses, and drag all of us down with you.”
“What does it matter? We shall fall with dignity, like honest men!”
Monferrand made a gesture of furious anger, and then suddenly became calm. Amidst all the anxious confusion in which he had been struggling since daybreak, a gleam now dawned upon him. The vague ideas suggested by Salvat’s approaching arrest took shape, and expanded into an audacious scheme. Why should he prevent the fall of that big ninny Barroux? The only thing of importance was that he, Monferrand, should not fall with him, or at any rate that he should rise again. So he protested no further, but merely mumbled a few words, in which his rebellious feeling seemingly died out. And at last, putting on his good-natured air once more, he said: “Well, after all you are perhaps right. One must be brave. Besides, you are our head, my dear President, and we will follow you.”
They had now again sat down face to face, and their conversation continued till they came to a cordial agreement respecting the course which the Government should adopt in view of the inevitable interpellation on the morrow.
Meantime, Baron Duvillard was on his way to the ministry. He had scarcely slept that night. When on the return from Montmartre Gerard had set him down at his door in the Rue Godot-de-Mauroy, he had at once gone to bed, like a man who is determined to compel sleep, so that he may forget his worries and recover self-control. But slumber would not come; for hours and hours he vainly sought it. The manner in which he had been insulted by that creature Silviane was so monstrous! To think that she, whom he had enriched, whose every desire he had contented, should have cast such mud at him, the master, who flattered himself that he held Paris and the Republic in his hands, since he bought up and controlled consciences just as others might make corners in wool or leather for the purposes of Bourse speculation. And the dim consciousness that Silviane was the avenging sore, the cancer preying on him who preyed on others, completed his exasperation. In vain did he try to drive away his haunting thoughts, remember his business affairs, his appointments for the morrow, his millions which were working in every quarter of the world, the financial omnipotence which placed the fate of nations in his grasp. Ever, and in spite of all, Silviane rose up before him, splashing him with mud. In despair he tried to fix his mind on a great enterprise which he had been planning for months past, a Trans-Saharan railway, a colossal venture which would set millions of money at work, and revolutionise the trade of the world. And yet Silviane appeared once more, and smacked him on both cheeks with her dainty little hand, which she had dipped in the gutter. It was only towards daybreak that he at last dozed off, while vowing in a fury that he would never see her again, that he would spurn her, and order her away, even should she come and drag herself at his feet.
However, when he awoke at seven, still tired and aching, his first thought was for her, and he almost yielded to a fit of weakness. The idea came to him to ascertain if she had returned home, and if so make his peace. But he jumped out of bed, and after his ablutions he recovered all his bravery. She was a wretch, and he this time thought himself for ever cured of his passion. To tell the truth, he forgot it as soon as he opened the morning newspapers. The publication of the list of bribe-takers in the “Voix du Peuple” quite upset him, for he had hitherto thought it unlikely that Sagnier held any such list. However, he judged the document at a glance, at once separating the few truths it contained from a mass of foolishness and falsehood. And this time also he did not consider himself personally in danger. There was only one thing that he really feared: the arrest of his intermediary, Hunter, whose trial might have drawn him into the affair. As matters stood, and as he did not cease to repeat with a calm and smiling air, he had merely done what every banking-house does when it issues stock, that is, pay the press for advertisements and puffery, employ brokers, and reward services discreetly rendered to the enterprise. It was all a business matter, and for him that expression summed up everything. Moreover, he played the game of life bravely, and spoke with indignant contempt of a banker who, distracted and driven to extremities by blackmailing, had imagined that he would bring a recent scandal to an end by killing himself: a pitiful tragedy, from all the mire and blood of which the scandal had sprouted afresh with the most luxuriant and indestructible vegetation. No, no! suicide was not the course to follow: a man ought to remain erect, and struggle on to his very last copper, and the very end of his energy.
At about nine o’clock a ringing brought Duvillard to the telephone installed in his private room. And then his folly took possession of him once more: it must be Silviane who wished to speak to him. She often amused herself by thus disturbing him amidst his greatest cares. No doubt she had just returned home, realising that she had carried things too far on the previous evening and desiring to be forgiven. However, when he found that the call was from Monferrand, who wished him to go to the ministry, he shivered slightly, like a man saved from the abyss beside which he is travelling. And forthwith he called for his hat and stick, desirous as he was of walking and reflecting in the open air. And again he became absorbed in the intricacies of the scandalous business which was about to stir all Paris and the legislature. Kill himself! ah, no, that would be foolish and cowardly. A gust of terror might be sweeping past; nevertheless, for his part he felt quite firm, superior to events, and resolved to defend himself without relinquishing aught of his power.
As soon as he entered the ante-rooms of the ministry he realised that the gust of terror was becoming a tempest. The publication of the terrible list in the “Voix du Peuple” had chilled the guilty ones to the heart; and, pale and distracted, feeling the ground give way beneath them, they had come to take counsel of Monferrand, who, they hoped, might save them. The first whom Duvillard perceived was Duthil, looking extremely feverish, biting his moustaches, and constantly making grimaces in his efforts to force a smile. The banker scolded him for coming, saying that it was a great mistake to have done so, particularly with such a scared face. The deputy, however, his spirits already cheered by these rough words, began to defend himself, declaring that he had not even read Sagnier’s article, and had simply come to recommend a lady friend to the Minister. Thereupon the Baron undertook this business for him and sent him away with the wish that he might spend a merry mid-Lent. However, the one who most roused Duvillard’s pity was Chaigneux, whose figure swayed about as if bent by the weight of his long equine head, and who looked so shabby and untidy that one might have taken him for an old pauper. On recognising the banker he darted forward, and bowed to him with obsequious eagerness.
“Ah! Monsieur le Baron,” said he, “how wicked some men must be! They are killing me, I shall die of it all; and what will become of my wife, what will become of my three daughters, who have none but me to help them?”
The whole of his woeful story lay in that lament. A victim of politics, he had been foolish enough to quit Arras and his business there as a solicitor, in order to seek triumph in Paris with his wife and daughters, whose menial he had then become-a menial dismayed by the constant rebuffs and failures which his mediocrity brought upon him. An honest deputy! ah, good heavens! yes, he would have liked to be one; but was he not perpetually “hard-up,” ever in search of a hundred-franc note, and thus, perforce, a deputy for sale? And withal he led such a pitiable life, so badgered by the women folk about him, that to satisfy their demands he would have picked up money no matter where or how.
“Just fancy, Monsieur le Baron, I have at last found a husband for my eldest girl. It is the first bit of luck that I have ever had; there will only be three women left on my hands if it comes off. But you can imagine what a disastrous impression such an article as that of this morning must create in the young man’s family. So I have come to see the Minister to beg him to give my future son-in-law a prefectoral secretaryship. I have already promised him the post, and if I can secure it things may yet be arranged.”
He looked so terribly shabby and spoke in such a doleful voice that it occurred to Duvillard to do one of those good actions on which he ventured at times when they were likely to prove remunerative investments. It is, indeed, an excellent plan to give a crust of bread to some poor devil whom one can turn, if necessary, into a valet or an accomplice. So the banker dismissed Chaigneux, undertaking to do his business for him in the same way as he had undertaken to do Duthil’s. And he added that he would be pleased to see him on the morrow, and have a chat with him, as he might be able to help him in the matter of his daughter’s marriage.
At this Chaigneux, scenting a loan, collapsed into the most lavish thanks. “Ah! Monsieur le Baron, my life will not be long enough to enable me to repay such a debt of gratitude.”
As Duvillard turned round he was surprised to see Abbe Froment waiting in a corner of the ante-room. Surely that one could not belong to the batch of
Just then the usher appeared, and hastened up to the banker. “The Minister,” said he, “was at that moment engaged with the President of the Council; but he had orders to admit the Baron as soon as the President withdrew.” Almost immediately afterwards Barroux came out, and as Duvillard was about to enter he recognised and detained him. And he spoke of the denunciations very bitterly, like one indignant with all the slander. Would not he, Duvillard, should occasion require it, testify that he, Barroux, had never taken a centime for himself? Then, forgetting that he was speaking to a banker, and that he was Minister of Finances, he proceeded to express all his disgust of money. Ah! what poisonous, murky, and defiling waters were those in which money-making went on! However, he repeated that he would chastise his insulters, and that a statement of the truth would suffice for the purpose.
Duvillard listened and looked at him. And all at once the thought of Silviane came back, and took possession of the Baron, without any attempt on his part to drive it away. He reflected that if Barroux had chosen to give him a helping hand when he had asked for it, Silviane would now have been at the Comedie Francaise, in which case the deplorable affair of the previous night would not have occurred; for he was beginning to regard himself as guilty in the matter; if he had only contented Silviane’s whim she would never have dismissed him in so vile a fashion.
“You know, I owe you a grudge,” he said, interrupting Barroux.
The other looked at him in astonishment. “And why, pray?” he asked.
“Why, because you never helped me in the matter of that friend of mine who wishes to make her
Barroux smiled, and with amiable condescension replied: “Ah! yes, Silviane d’Aulnay! But, my dear sir, it was Taboureau who put spokes in the wheel. The Fine Arts are his department, and the question was entirely one for him. And I could do nothing; for that very worthy and honest gentleman, who came to us from a provincial faculty, was full of scruples. For my own part I’m an old Parisian, I can understand anything, and I should have been delighted to please you.”
At this fresh resistance offered to his passion Duvillard once more became excited, eager to obtain that which was denied him. “Taboureau, Taboureau!” said he, “he’s a nice deadweight for you to load yourself with! Honest! isn’t everybody honest? Come, my dear Minister, there’s still time, get Silviane admitted, it will bring you good luck for to-morrow.”
This time Barroux burst into a frank laugh: “No, no, I can’t cast Taboureau adrift at this moment-people would make too much sport of it-a ministry wrecked or saved by a Silviane question!”
Then he offered his hand before going off. The Baron pressed it, and for a moment retained it in his own, whilst saying very gravely and with a somewhat pale face: “You do wrong to laugh, my dear Minister. Governments have fallen or set themselves erect again through smaller matters than that. And should you fall to-morrow I trust that you will never have occasion to regret it.”
Wounded to the heart by the other’s jesting air, exasperated by the idea that there was something he could not achieve, Duvillard watched Barroux as he withdrew. Most certainly the Baron did not desire a reconciliation with Silviane, but he vowed that he would overturn everything if necessary in order to send her a signed engagement for the Comedie, and this simply by way of vengeance, as a slap, so to say,-yes, a slap which would make her tingle! That moment spent with Barroux had been a decisive one.
However, whilst still following Barroux with his eyes, Duvillard was surprised to see Fonsegue arrive and manoeuvre in such a way as to escape the Prime Minister’s notice. He succeeded in doing so, and then entered the ante-room with an appearance of dismay about the whole of his little figure, which was, as a rule, so sprightly. It was the gust of terror, still blowing, that had brought him thither.
“Didn’t you see your friend Barroux?” the Baron asked him, somewhat puzzled.
This quiet lie was equivalent to a confession of everything. Fonsegue was so intimate with Barroux that he thee’d and thou’d him, and for ten years had been supporting him in his newspaper, having precisely the same views, the same political religion. But with a smash-up threatening, he doubtless realised, thanks to his wonderfully keen scent, that he must change his friendships if he did not wish to remain under the ruins himself. If he had, for long years, shown so much prudence and diplomatic virtue in order to firmly establish the most dignified and respected of Parisian newspapers, it was not for the purpose of letting that newspaper be compromised by some foolish blunder on the part of an honest man.
“I thought you were on bad terms with Monferrand,” resumed Duvillard. “What have you come here for?”
“Oh! my dear Baron, the director of a leading newspaper is never on bad terms with anybody. He’s at the country’s service.”
In spite of his emotion, Duvillard could not help smiling. “You are right,” he responded. “Besides, Monferrand is really an able man, whom one can support without fear.”
At this Fonsegue began to wonder whether his anguish of mind was visible. He, who usually played the game of life so well, with his own hand under thorough control, had been terrified by the article in the “Voix du Peuple.” For the first time in his career he had perpetrated a blunder, and felt that he was at the mercy of some denunciation, for with unpardonable imprudence he had written a very brief but compromising note. He was not anxious concerning the 50,000 francs which Barroux had handed him out of the 200,000 destined for the Republican press. But he trembled lest another affair should be discovered, that of a sum of money which he had received as a present. It was only on feeling the Baron’s keen glance upon him that he was able to recover some self-possession. How silly it was to lose the knack of lying and to confess things simply by one’s demeanour!
But the usher drew near and repeated that the Minister was now waiting for the Baron; and Fonsegue went to sit down beside Abbe Froment, whom he also was astonished to find there. Pierre repeated that he had received a letter, but had no notion what the Minister might wish to say to him. And the quiver of his hands again revealed how feverishly impatient he was to know what it might be. However, he could only wait, since Monferrand was still busy discussing such grave affairs.
On seeing Duvillard enter, the Minister had stepped forward, offering his hand. However much the blast of terror might shake others, he had retained his calmness and good-natured smile. “What an affair, eh, my dear Baron!” he exclaimed.
“It’s idiotic!” plainly declared the other, with a shrug of his shoulders. Then he sat down in the armchair vacated by Barroux, while the Minister installed himself in front of him. These two were made to understand one another, and they indulged in the same despairing gestures and furious complaints, declaring that government, like business, would no longer be possible if men were required to show such virtue as they did not possess. At all times, and under every
“Why, of course! You are right, a thousand times right!” exclaimed Monferrand. “Ah! if I were the master you would see what a fine first-class funeral I would give it all!” Then, as Duvillard looked at him fixedly, struck by these last words, he added with his expressive smile: “Unfortunately I’m not the master, and it was to talk to you of the situation that I ventured to disturb you. Barroux, who was here just now, seemed to me in a regrettable frame of mind.”
“Yes, I saw him, he has such singular ideas at times-” Then, breaking off, the Baron added: “Do you know that Fonsegue is in the ante-room? As he wishes to make his peace with you, why not send for him? He won’t be in the way, in fact, he’s a man of good counsel, and the support of his newspaper often suffices to give one the victory.”
“What, is Fonsegue there!” cried Monferrand. “Why, I don’t ask better than to shake hands with him. There were some old affairs between us that don’t concern anybody! But, good heavens! if you only knew what little spite I harbour!”
When the usher had admitted Fonsegue the reconciliation took place in the simplest fashion. They had been great friends at college in their native Correze, but had not spoken together for ten years past in consequence of some abominable affair the particulars of which were not exactly known. However, it becomes necessary to clear away all corpses when one wishes to have the arena free for a fresh battle.
“It’s very good of you to come back the first,” said Monferrand. “So it’s all over, you no longer bear me any grudge?”
“No, indeed!” replied Fonsegue. “Why should people devour one another when it would be to their interest to come to an understanding?”
Then, without further explanations, they passed to the great affair, and the conference began. And when Monferrand had announced Barroux’ determination to confess and explain his conduct, the others loudly protested. That meant certain downfall, they would prevent him, he surely would not be guilty of such folly. Forthwith they discussed every imaginable plan by which the Ministry might be saved, for that must certainly be Monferrand’s sole desire. He himself with all eagerness pretended to seek some means of extricating his colleagues and himself from the mess in which they were. However, a faint smile, still played around his lips, and at last as if vanquished he sought no further. “There’s no help for it,” said he, “the ministry’s down.”
The others exchanged glances, full of anxiety at the thought of another Cabinet dealing with the African Railways affair. A Vignon Cabinet would doubtless plume itself on behaving honestly.
“Well, then, what shall we do?”
But just then the telephone rang, and Monferrand rose to respond to the summons: “Allow me.”
He listened for a moment and then spoke into the tube, nothing that he said giving the others any inkling of the information which had reached him. This had come from the Chief of the Detective Police, and was to the effect that Salvat’s whereabouts in the Bois de Boulogne had been discovered, and that he would be hunted down with all speed. “Very good! And don’t forget my orders,” replied Monferrand.
Now that Salvat’s arrest was certain, the Minister determined to follow the plan which had gradually taken shape in his mind; and returning to the middle of the room he slowly walked to and fro, while saying with his wonted familiarity: “But what would you have, my friends? It would be necessary for me to be the master. Ah! if I were the master! A Commission of Inquiry, yes! that’s the proper form for a first-class funeral to take in a big affair like this, so full of nasty things. For my part, I should confess nothing, and I should have a Commission appointed. And then you would see the storm subside.”
Duvillard and Fonsegue began to laugh. The latter, however, thanks to his intimate knowledge of Monferrand, almost guessed the truth. “Just listen!” said he; “even if the ministry falls it doesn’t necessarily follow that you must be on the ground with it. Besides, a ministry can be mended when there are good pieces of it left.”
Somewhat anxious at finding his thoughts guessed, Monferrand protested: “No, no, my dear fellow, I don’t play that game. We are jointly responsible, we’ve got to keep together, dash it all!”
“Keep together! Pooh! Not when simpletons purposely drown themselves! And, besides, if we others have need of you, we have a right to save you in spite of yourself! Isn’t that so, my dear Baron?”
Then, as Monferrand sat down, no longer protesting but waiting, Duvillard, who was again thinking of his passion, full of anger at the recollection of Barroux’ refusal, rose in his turn, and exclaimed: “Why, certainly! If the ministry’s condemned let it fall! What good can you get out of a ministry which includes such a man as Taboureau! There you have an old, worn-out professor without any prestige, who comes to Paris from Grenoble, and has never set foot in a theatre in his life! Yet the control of the theatres is handed over to him, and naturally he’s ever doing the most stupid things!”
Monferrand, who was well informed on the Silviane question, remained grave, and for a moment amused himself by trying to excite the Baron. “Taboureau,” said he, “is a somewhat dull and old-fashioned University man, but at the department of Public Instruction he’s in his proper element.”
“Oh! don’t talk like that, my dear fellow! You are more intelligent than that, you are not going to defend Taboureau as Barroux did. It’s quite true that I should very much like to see Silviane at the Comedie. She’s a very good girl at heart, and she has an amazing lot of talent. Would you stand in her way if you were in Taboureau’s place?”
“I? Good heavens, no! A pretty girl on the stage, why, it would please everybody, I’m sure. Only it would be necessary to have a man of the same views as were at the department of Instruction and Fine Arts.”
His sly smile had returned to his face. The securing of that girl’s
“Dauvergne! Who’s he?” exclaimed Monferrand in surprise. “Ah! yes, Dauvergne the senator for Dijon-but he’s altogether ignorant of University matters, he hasn’t the slightest qualification.”
“Well, as for that,” resumed Fonsegue, “I’m trying to think. Dauvergne is certainly a good-looking fellow, tall and fair and decorative. Besides, he’s immensely rich, has a most charming young wife-which does no harm, on the contrary-and he gives real
It was only with hesitation that Fonsegue himself had ventured to suggest Dauvergne. But by degrees his selection appeared to him a real “find.” “Wait a bit! I recollect now that in his young days Dauvergne wrote a comedy, a one act comedy in verse, and had it performed at Dijon. And Dijon’s a literary town, you know, so that piece of his sets a little perfume of ‘Belles-Lettres’ around him. And then, too, he left Dijon twenty years ago, and is a most determined Parisian, frequenting every sphere of society. Dauvergne will do whatever one desires. He’s the man for us, I tell you.”
Duvillard thereupon declared that he knew him, and considered him a very decent fellow. Besides, he or another, it mattered nothing!
“Dauvergne, Dauvergne,” repeated Monferrand. “
He jested, well knowing that gaiety often hastens difficult solutions. And, indeed, they merrily continued settling what should be done if the ministry were defeated on the morrow. Although they had not plainly said so the plan was to let Barroux sink, even help him to do so, and then fish Monferrand out of the troubled waters. The latter engaged himself with the two others, because he had need of them, the Baron on account of his financial sovereignty, and the director of “Le Globe” on account of the press campaign which he could carry on in his favour. And in the same way the others, quite apart from the Silviane business, had need of Monferrand, the strong-handed man of government, who undertook to bury the African Railways scandal by bringing about a Commission of Inquiry, all the strings of which would be pulled by himself. There was soon a perfect understanding between the three men, for nothing draws people more closely together than common interest, fear and need. Accordingly, when Duvillard spoke of Duthil’s business, the young lady whom he wished to recommend, the Minister declared that it was settled. A very nice fellow was Duthil, they needed a good many like him. And it was also agreed that Chaigneux’ future son-in-law should have his secretaryship. Poor Chaigneux! He was so devoted, always ready to undertake any commission, and his four women folk led him such a hard life!
“Well, then, it’s understood.” And Monferrand, Duvillard and Fonsegue vigorously shook hands.
However, when the first accompanied the others to the door, he noticed a prelate, in a cassock of fine material, edged with violet, speaking to a priest in the ante-room. Thereupon he, the Minister, hastened forward, looking much distressed. “Ah! you were waiting, Monseigneur Martha! Come in, come in quick!”
But with perfect urbanity the Bishop refused. “No, no, Monsieur l’Abbe Froment was here before me. Pray receive him first.”
Monferrand had to give way; he admitted the priest, and speedily dealt with him. He who usually employed the most diplomatic reserve when he was in presence of a member of the clergy plumply unfolded the Barthes business. Pierre had experienced the keenest anguish during the two hours that he had been waiting there, for he could only explain the letter he had received by a surmise that the police had discovered his brother’s presence in his house. And so when he heard the Minister simply speak of Barthes, and declare that the government would rather see him go into exile than be obliged to imprison him once more, he remained for a moment quite disconcerted. As the police had been able to discover the old conspirator in the little house at Neuilly, how was it that they seemed altogether ignorant of Guillaume’s presence there? It was, however, the usual gap in the genius of great detectives.
“Pray what do you desire of me, Monsieur le Ministre?” said Pierre at last; “I don’t quite understand.”
“Why, Monsieur l’Abbe, I leave all this to your sense of prudence. If that man were still at your house in forty-eight hours from now, we should be obliged to arrest him there, which would be a source of grief to us, for we are aware that your residence is the abode of every virtue. So advise him to leave France. If he does that we shall not trouble him.”
Then Monferrand hastily brought Pierre back to the ante-room; and, smiling and bending low, he said: “Monseigneur, I am entirely at your disposal. Come in, come in, I beg you.”
The prelate, who was gaily chatting with Duvillard and Fonsegue, shook hands with them, and then with Pierre. In his desire to win all hearts, he that morning displayed the most perfect graciousness. His bright, black eyes were all smiles, the whole of his handsome face wore a caressing expression, and he entered the ministerial sanctum leisurely and gracefully, with an easy air of conquest.
And now only Monferrand and Monseigneur Martha were left, talking on and on in the deserted building. Some people had thought that the prelate wished to become a deputy. But he played a far more useful and lofty part in governing behind the scenes, in acting as the directing mind of the Vatican’s policy in France. Was not France still the Eldest Daughter of the Church, the only great nation which might some day restore omnipotence to the Papacy? For that reason he had accepted the Republic, preached the duty of “rallying” to it, and inspired the new Catholic group in the Chamber. And Monferrand, on his side, struck by the progress of the New Spirit, that reaction of mysticism which flattered itself that it would bury science, showed the prelate much amiability, like a strong-handed man who, to ensure his own victory, utilised every force that was offered him.