Meanwhile the hall was emptying; there would soon be nothing left in the air but the cigar-smoke, a bluish cloud, thickened and yellowed by all the flying dust. Mazaud and Jacoby, resuming their prim deportment, had gone back into[Pg 331] the brokers' room together, the latter more worried by his secret private losses than by the defeat of his customers; while the former, who did not gamble, was filled with delight at the gallant way in which the last quotation had been carried. They talked for a few minutes with Delarocque in order to exchange engagements, still holding their memorandum-books, full of notes, which their settlement clerks would classify that afternoon, in order to debit or credit the various customers with the transactions that had been effected. Meantime, in the clerks' hall—a low, pillared hall, looking not unlike an ill-kept school-room, with its rows of desks and a cloak-room at the farther end—Flory and Gustave Sédille, who had gone there to get their hats, began noisily rejoicing while waiting to know the mean quotation, which the employees of the syndicate, taking the highest and lowest quotations, were now calculating at one of the desks. Towards half-past three, when the placard had been posted on a pillar, Flory and Gustave neighed, and clucked, and crowed, in their satisfaction with the fine result of their deal in Fayeux' orders to purchase. This meant a pair of solitaires for Chuchu, who was now tyrannising Flory with her demands, and six months' allowance in advance for Gustave's inamorata. Meantime the uproar continued in the clerks' hall, what with a succession of silly farces, a massacre of hats, and jostling such as that of school-boys just released from their lessons. And, on the other side, under the peristyle, the coulisse completed various transactions; while Nathansohn, delighted with his deal, wended his way down the steps through the ranks of the last speculators, who were still hanging about in spite of the cold, which had become terrible. By six o'clock all these gamblers, brokers, coulissiers, and remisiers, after calculating their gain or loss, or preparing their brokerage bills, had gone home to dress, in order to wind up the day with relaxation in restaurants, theatres, fashionable drawing-rooms, or cosy boudoirs.

That evening, the one subject of conversation among those Parisians who sit up and amuse themselves was the formidable duel upon which Gundermann and Saccard had entered.[Pg 332] The women, whom passion and fashion had entirely given over to gambling, made a show of using such technical terms as settlement, options, carry over, and close—without always understanding them. They talked especially of the critical position of the 'bears,' who, for many months, had been paying larger and larger differences at each settlement in proportion as Universals went up and up beyond all reasonable limits. Certainly, many were gambling without cover, getting their brokers to carry them over, as they were altogether unable to deliver; and they kept on at it, still and ever playing for a fall, in the hope that the collapse of the shares was near at hand; but, in spite of all the carrying over—the charges for which increased as money became more and more scarce—it seemed as if the already exhausted 'bears' would be annihilated if the rise continued much longer. The situation of Gundermann, who was reputed to be their chief, was different, since he had his milliard in his cellars—an inexhaustible supply of money which he could keep on sending to the massacre, however long and murderous the campaign might be. That was the invincible force: the power to keep on selling, with the certainty of being always able to pay his differences, until the day of the inevitable fall came and brought him victory.

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People talked and calculated the considerable sums which he must have already parted with, the sacks of gold which he had had to bring to the front on the fifteenth and thirtieth of each month, and which had melted away in the fire of speculation like ranks of soldiers swept away by bullets. Never before had he sustained at the Bourse such a severe attack upon his power, which he wished to be sovereign, indisputable; for if, as he was fond of repeating, he was a simple money merchant, and not a gambler, he was on the other hand fully conscious that, to remain this merchant, the first of the world, disposing of public fortune, he must also be absolute master of the market; and he was fighting, not for immediate profit, but for his royalty itself, for his life. Hence the cold obstinacy, the grim grandeur of the struggle. He was to be met upon the Boulevards and in the Rue[Pg 333] Vivienne, walking with the step of an exhausted old man, his face pale and impassive, nothing in him betraying the slightest anxiety. He believed only in logic. Madness had set in when Universals had risen above two thousand francs; to quote them at three thousand was sheer insanity; they were bound to fall, even as the stone thrown into the air inevitably falls to the ground; and so he waited. Would he go on with the game even to the end of his milliard? People trembled with admiration around him, with the desire also to see him devoured at last; while Saccard, who excited a more tumultuous enthusiasm, on his side had the women, the drawing-rooms, the whole fashionable world of gamblers, who had pocketed such handsome sums since they had begun coining money with their faith, trafficking with Mount Carmel and Jerusalem. The approaching ruin of the big Jew bankers was decreed; Catholicism was about to acquire the empire of money, as it had acquired that of souls. Only, although his troops were winning heavily, Saccard himself was getting to the end of his cash, emptying his vaults for his continual purchases. Of the two hundred millions at his disposal nearly two-thirds had thus been tied up, so that his triumph was an asphyxiating one, a triumph which suffocates. Every company that seeks to become mistress at the Bourse, in order to sustain the price of its shares, is doomed. For that reason he had only intervened with prudence in the earlier stages. But he had always been a man of imagination, seeing things on too grand a scale, transforming his shady dealings as an adventurer into poems; and this time, with this really colossal and prosperous enterprise, he had been carried off into extravagant dreams of conquest, to so crazy, so vast an idea, that he did not even clearly formulate it to himself. Ah! if he had only had millions, endless millions, like those dirty Jews! The worst was that he already saw his troops coming to an end; he had but a few more millions for the massacre. Then, if the fall should come, it would be his turn to pay differences; and he would be obliged to get someone to carry him over. Despite his victory, the smallest bit of gravel must upset his vast[Pg 334] machine. There was a secret consciousness of this, even among the faithful, those who believed in the rise as in the Divinity. And Paris was impassioned the more by this, by the confusion and doubt amid which it tossed, in this duel between Saccard and Gundermann—this duel in which the conqueror would lose all his blood, this hand-to-hand struggle between two superhuman monsters, who crushed between them the poor devils who risked following their game, and seemed likely to strangle one another at last on the heap of ruins which they were accumulating.

All at once, on January 3, on the very morrow of the day when the accounts of the last settlement had been balanced, there was a drop of fifty francs in Universals. This caused great excitement. In truth, everything had gone down; the market, so long over-taxed, inflated beyond measure, was giving way in every direction; two or three rotten enterprises had collapsed with a bang, and, moreover, people ought to have been accustomed to these violent fluctuations, since prices sometimes varied several hundred francs in the same day's Bourse, shifting wildly like the needle of the compass in the midst of a storm. In the great quiver which passed, however, all felt the beginning of the crash. Universals were going down; the cry rose and spread with a clamour, made up of astonishment, hope, and fear.

The next day Saccard, firm and smiling at his post, sent the price up thirty francs by means of large purchases. But on the 5th, despite his efforts, the fall was forty francs. Universals stood merely at three thousand. And from that time each day brought its battle. On the 6th Universals went up again; on the 7th and 8th they again dropped. An irresistible movement was dragging them, little by little, into a slow fall. The Bank was about to be made the scapegoat, offered up in atonement for the folly of all, for the misdeeds of less prominent ventures, all that swarm of shady enterprises, ripened by puffery, raised like monstrous mushrooms in the fermenting compost of the reign. But Saccard, who no longer slept, who every afternoon took up his post of combat, near his pillar, lived in the hallucination of always possible victory. Like[Pg 335] the commander of an army who is convinced of the excellence of his plans, he yielded his ground only step by step, sacrificing his last soldiers, emptying the Bank's coffers of their last sacks of money, to obstruct the progress of the assailants.

On the 9th he again won a signal advantage, and the 'bears' trembled and recoiled. Would the settlement of the 15th, like so many before it, be effected at their expense? And he, already without resources, reduced to launching paper into circulation, now dared, like those starving wretches who, in the delirium of their hunger, see immense feasts spread out before them, dared confess to himself the prodigious and impossible object towards which he was tending, the giant idea of repurchasing all the Bank's shares in order to hold all vendors bound hand and foot at his mercy. This had just been done in the case of a little railway company; the Bank which had issued its stock having cleared the market, so that vendors, being unable to deliver, had been forced to surrender as slaves and humbly offer their fortunes and their persons. Ah! if he could only have hunted down Gundermann to such a point as to hold him powerless, unable to sell since he could not deliver! If he could only have seen the Jew bringing him his milliard one morning, and begging him not to take the whole of it, but to leave him enough to buy the half franc's worth of milk which constituted his daily nourishment. But from seven to eight hundred millions would be necessary for such a feat as that. He had already cast two hundred into the abyss; and if he was to succeed, five or six hundred more must be marshalled in battle array. Yes, with six hundred millions he would sweep away the Jews, become the gold king, the master of the world. What a dream! And it seemed so simple; his fever had reached such a degree of intensity that it all appeared a mere question of moving some pawns on a chess-board. During his sleepless nights he raised this army of six hundred millions, and, after sending it forth to fight and be destroyed for his glory, at last found himself victorious, environed by general disaster, and erect upon the ruins of everything.

Unfortunately, on the 10th, Saccard had a terrible day. He was always superbly gay and calm at the Bourse; and yet never had there been such a war of silent ferocity, of hourly slaughter, of ambuscades upon every side. In these secret, cowardly money battles, in which the weak are ripped up in silence, the combatants are influenced by no ties, whether of relationship or friendship. The atrocious law of might prevails, and men devour those around them for fear lest they should themselves be devoured. And thus Saccard felt that he was absolutely alone, with no other support than that of his insatiable appetite, which still kept him erect and ever ravenous.

He especially dreaded the afternoon of the 14th, when the answers on the options would come in. However, he still found money enough for the three preceding days, and instead of bringing a smash-up the 14th strengthened Universals, so that on the morrow, the 15th, which was settling day, they were quoted at two thousand nine hundred and sixty francs, or only a hundred francs below the quotation of December 31. Saccard had feared a perfect disaster, and he pretended to construe this as a victory. In reality, success for the first time rested with the 'bears,' who now received differences after paying them during several months; and, the situation being reversed, Saccard had to get Mazaud to carry him over. From that time the broker found himself heavily involved. The second fortnight of January threatened to prove decisive.

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Since he had been struggling in this way amid these daily ups and downs, now falling into the abyss and again rising from it, Saccard had every evening felt an uncontrollable desire for diversion, something which should enable him to shake off his worries, forget the precarious nature of his position. He could not remain alone, but dined out and showed himself everywhere, making the round of the theatres and swell supper-rooms, and affecting the extravagance of a man who has more money than he can spend. He avoided Madame Caroline, whose remonstrances embarrassed him, and who, besides always speaking of the anxious letters which she[Pg 337] received from her brother, was herself in despair at the game he was playing, thinking it frightfully dangerous. And he now more frequently saw the Baroness Sandorff at a little place he had taken in the Rue Caumartin, in this wise obtaining the hour of forgetfulness which was necessary for the relaxation of his tired, overworked brain. Sometimes, also, he took refuge there to examine certain papers and reflect upon certain affairs, happy in the thought that no one would come to disturb him. And then sleep would overtake him there; he would doze off for an hour or two, and then the Baroness would not scruple to search his pockets and read the letters in his pocket-book; for he had become completely dumb, she could no longer extract the smallest piece of useful information from him, and, moreover, even when she did contrive to wring a word or two from him, she felt so convinced that he was lying to her that she did not dare to play in accordance with his indications. And while thus stealing his secrets she discovered the pecuniary embarrassment in which the Universal was now beginning to struggle—a vast system of kite-flying, of raising the wind by means of accommodation paper, which it was cautiously getting discounted abroad. One evening, however, Saccard, waking up too soon, had caught her in the act of searching his pocket-book, and had then and there boxed her ears. And subsequently in his moments of worry he took to beating her, by way of relieving his feelings.

However, after the settlement of January 15, in which she had lost ten thousand francs, the Baroness began to nurse a project of treachery. It grew upon her, and at last she went to consult Jantrou about it.

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'Well,' the latter answered, 'I believe that you are right; it is time to pass over to Gundermann. So go and see him, and tell him of the matter, since he promised that, on the day when you should bring him some good counsel, he would give you some in exchange.'

On the morning when the Baroness presented herself in the Rue de Provence, Gundermann was as surly as a bear. Only the day before Universals had gone up again. Would[Pg 338] he never end, then, with that voracious beast, which had devoured so much of his gold and so obstinately clung to life? That wretched Bank was capable of recovering its position, and its shares would perhaps be on the rise again at the end of the month. He growled at himself for having entered upon this disastrous rivalry, when perhaps he would have done better to have taken a share in the new establishment at the start. Shaken in his ordinary tactics, losing his faith in the inevitable triumph of logic, he would at that moment have resigned himself to a retreat, if he could have effected it without loss. These moments of discouragement, which even the greatest captains at times experience on the very eve of victory, when men and things are really plotting their success, were very rare with Gundermann. If his powerful perceptive powers, usually so clear, were thus disturbed, it was due to the fog that at times envelopes the mysterious operations of the Bourse, which one can never with absolute certainty ascribe to any particular person. Certainly Saccard was buying, gambling; but was he acting for serious customers or for the Bank itself? Upon this point Gundermann could not make up his mind amid all the contradictory gossip which was brought to him. So he was in a rage, and that morning the doors of his spacious office kept slamming, all his employees trembled, and he received the remisiers so brutally that their customary procession was turned into a galloping rout.

'Ah! it is you!' he said to the Baroness, without any pretence at politeness. 'I have no time to lose with women to-day.'

She was so disconcerted that she dropped all the preliminaries which she had devised, and then and there blurted out the news she had to impart. 'And if I could prove to you,' said she, 'that the Universal is at the end of its cash, after all the large purchases which it has made, and that it is reduced to the point of getting accommodation paper discounted abroad in order to continue the campaign?'

The Jew had suppressed a start of joy. His eyes remained lifeless, and he answered in the same grumbling voice: 'It isn't true.'

'What! not true? Why, I have heard it with my own ears, seen it with my own eyes.'

And she sought to convince him by explaining that she had held in her hands the notes signed by men of straw. She named the latter, and also gave the names of the bankers who had discounted the paper at Vienna, Frankfort, and Berlin. His correspondents could enlighten him; he would see that it was no mere gossip which she was retailing. And she further asserted that the Bank had been buying and buying on its own account, for the sole purpose of keeping up the rise, and that two hundred millions of francs had already been swallowed up.

Whilst he listened to her with his dismal air Gundermann was already planning his campaign of the morrow, so quick at all mental work that in a few seconds he had distributed his orders and determined upon the amounts. He was now certain of victory, for he well knew from what miry depths this information had come to him, and felt full of contempt for that pleasure-loving Saccard, who was so stupid as to trust a woman and allow himself to be sold.

When she had finished, he raised his head, and, looking at her out of his large dim eyes, exclaimed: 'Well, why should I be interested in what you say? How does it concern me?'