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It was growing dark; the night was cold, and she walked slowly, fearing that people might arrest her, taking her for a murderess, with her haggard look. Everything rose up before her—the whole story of that monstrous crash, which had piled up so many ruins and crushed so many victims. What mysterious force was it then which, after building that golden tower so quickly, had just destroyed it? The same hands that had constructed it seemed to have become infuriated with it, seized with a fit of madness, determined not to leave one stone of it standing on another. Cries of sorrow arose on all sides; fortunes crumbled with a sound akin to that which is heard when the refuse of demolished houses is emptied into a public 'shoot.' The last domains of the Beauvilliers, the savings of Dejoie scraped together sou by sou, the profits which Sédille had realised from his silk-works, the bonds of the[Pg 386] Maugendres, who had lately retired from business, were all flung pell-mell, with a crash, into the depths of the same cloaca, which nothing seemed to fill up. There were also Jantrou, drowned in alcohol; La Sandorff, drowned in mire; Massias, again forced to lead the wretched life of a dog, chained for ever to the Bourse by debt; Flory, a thief, in prison, expiating the weaknesses of his soft heart; and Sabatani and Fayeux, fugitives, galloping off in fear of the gendarmes. And there were the unknown victims, still more distressing and pitiable, the great flock of all the poor that the catastrophe had made—the poor, shivering in abandonment, crying with hunger. Then, too, there was death—the pistol-shots that re-echoed from the four corners of Paris; there was Mazaud's smashed head and Mazaud's blood, which, drop by drop, amid the luxury of a drawing-room and the perfume of roses, bespattered his wife and his little ones, shrieking with grief.

And then all that she had beheld, all that she had heard during the last few weeks poured forth from Madame Caroline's wounded heart—found vent in a cry of execration for Saccard. She could no longer keep silent, no longer put him aside as if he did not exist, so as to avoid judging and condemning him. He alone was guilty; it was shown by each of these accumulated disasters, the frightful pile of which terrified her. She cursed him; her wrath and her indignation, so long repressed, overflowed in a revengeful hatred, the hatred of evil itself. Did she no longer love her brother, then, that she had waited until now to hate the terrible man who was the sole cause of their misfortune? Her poor brother, that great innocent, that great toiler, so just and so honest, now soiled with the indelible stain of imprisonment, the victim whom she had forgotten, though he was dearer than all the others! Ah, that Saccard might find no pardon! that no one might dare to plead his cause any further, not even those who continued to believe in him, not even those who had only known his kindness!—that he might some day die alone, spurned and despised!

Madame Caroline raised her eyes. She had reached the Place de la Bourse, and saw the Temple of Money in front of[Pg 387] her. The twilight was falling. Behind the building a ruddy cloud hung in the fog-laden wintry sky—a cloud like the smoke of a conflagration, charged with the flames and the dust of a stormed city. And against this cloud the Bourse stood out grey and gloomy in the melancholiness born of the catastrophe which, for a month past, had left it deserted, open to the four winds of heaven, like some market which famine has emptied. Once again had the inevitable, periodical epidemic come—the epidemic which sweeps through it every ten or fifteen years—the Black Fridays, as the speculators say, which strew the soil with ruins. Years are needed for confidence to be restored, for the great financial houses to be built up anew, and time goes slowly by until the passion for gambling, gradually reviving, flames up once more and repeats the adventure, when there comes another crisis, and the downfall of everything in a fresh disaster. This time, however, beyond the ruddy smoke on the horizon, in the hidden distant parts of the city, it seemed as though one could hear a vague sound of splitting and rending, betokening the end of a world—the world of the Second Empire.

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The investigation of the case progressed so slowly that seven months had gone by since the arrest of Saccard and Hamelin, and the case had not yet been entered on the roll. It was now the middle of September, and that Monday Madame Caroline, who went to see her brother twice a week, was to call at the Conciergerie at about three o'clock. She now never mentioned Saccard's name, and had a dozen times replied to his pressing requests to come and see him by formal refusal. For her, rigidly resolved on justice, he was no more. But she still hoped to save her brother, and became quite gay on visiting days, happy at being able to tell him of the last steps that she had taken, and to bring him a bouquet of his favourite flowers.

So that Monday morning she was preparing a large bunch of red carnations when old Sophie, the Princess d'Orviedo's servant, came down to tell her that her mistress wished to speak to her at once. Astonished and vaguely anxious, Madame Caroline hurried up the stairs. For several months she had not seen the Princess, for she had resigned her position as secretary of the Institute of Work immediately after the catastrophe of the Universal. She now only went to the Boulevard Bineau from time to time, and then merely to see Victor, who at present seemed to have been mastered by the rigid discipline, though he still retained an artful expression, with his left cheek larger than the right one, and his mouth twisted into a ferocious grimace. A presentiment at once came to Madame Caroline that she had been sent for by the Princess on his account.

The Princess d'Orviedo was at last ruined. Less than ten years had sufficed her to restore to the poor the three hundred millions of her husband's estate stolen from the pockets of over-credulous shareholders. Although she had required five years to spend the first hundred millions on extravagant works of charity, she had managed in four years and a half to sink the other two hundred in founding establishments of still greater luxury. To the Institute of Work, the St. Mary's Infant Asylum, the St. Joseph's Orphan Asylum, the Chatillon Asylum for the Aged, and the St. Marceau Hospital, she had added a model farm near évreux, two convalescent homes for children on the banks of the Marne, another Asylum for the Aged at Nice, hospitals, model dwellings, libraries, and schools in the four corners of France, to say nothing of large donations to charities already in existence. She was still swayed, moreover, by the same desire of princely restitution; it was no question of flinging a crust to the wretched out of compassion or fear; she was bent upon giving all that is nice and beautiful, the enjoyments and superfluities of life, to humble folks possessed of nothing, to weak ones whom the strong had despoiled of their share of delight—in a word, it was as though the palaces of the wealthy had been flung wide open to the beggars of the high roads, so that they also might sleep in silk and feast off golden plate.

During ten years there had been no pause in the rain of millions which, amid endless complications with contractors and architects, had provided marble dining-halls, dormitories enlivened with bright paintings, fa?ades as monumental as Louvres, gardens blooming with rare plants, indeed superb works of every kind; and the Princess now felt very happy, carried away by intense joy at finding her hands to be at last clean, unsoiled by the possession of even a centime. Indeed, she had actually managed to run into debt, and was being sued for a balance of accounts amounting to several hundred thousand francs, which her lawyers were unable to get together, so utterly had her vast fortune been frittered away, flung to the four winds of charity. And now a board nailed over the carriage entrance in the Rue Saint-Lazare announced the[Pg 390] approaching sale of the mansion, the final sweep which would carry away the last vestiges of that accursed money, picked up in the mire and blood of financial brigandage.

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Old Sophie was waiting for Madame Caroline on the landing in order to usher her in. Quite furious with the turn things had taken, the good creature scolded all day long. Ah! she had prophesied that her mistress would end by dying a beggar! Ought she not rather to have married again, so as to have children by another husband, since the one secret desire of her heart was to become a mother? Sophie herself had no reason for complaint or anxiety, as she had long since been provided with an annuity of two thousand francs, on which she was now going to live in her native village near Angoulême. Nevertheless, it made her angry to think that her mistress had not even kept back for herself the few sous that were needed every morning to pay for the bread and milk upon which she now subsisted. Incessant quarrels broke out between them. The Princess smiled, with her divine smile of hope, answering that she would need nothing but a winding-sheet when at the end of the month she should have entered the convent where her place had long been marked out for her, a convent of Carmelites walled off from the entire world. Rest, eternal rest! that was her goal.

Madame Caroline found the Princess as she had seen her for the last four years, clad in her everlasting black dress, her hair concealed by a lace fichu, still looking pretty at the age of thirty-nine, with her round face and pearly teeth, but having a yellow complexion, as after ten years of cloister life. And the small room, like the office of a provincial process-server, was littered with countless papers all jumbled together—plans, accounts, portfolios, all the waste paper connected with the squandering of three hundred millions of francs.

'Madame,' said the Princess, in her slow, gentle voice, which no emotion now could cause to tremble, 'I desired to acquaint you with some news that was brought to me this morning. It relates to Victor, the boy whom you placed at the Institute of Work.'

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Madame Caroline's heart began to beat violently. Ah![Pg 391] the wretched child, whom his father, in spite of his formal promises, had not even gone to see, during the few months that he had known of his existence, prior to being imprisoned in the Conciergerie. What would become of the lad henceforth, she wondered. And she, who forbade herself all thought of Saccard, was continually compelled to think of him through the disturbing influence of her adoptive motherhood.

'A terrible thing happened yesterday,' continued the Princess—'a crime which nothing can repair.'

And thereupon, in her frigid way, she began to relate a frightful story. Three days previously, it seemed, Victor had obtained admission into the infirmary by complaining of insupportable headaches. The doctor of the Institute had suspected this to be the feigned illness of an idler, but in point of fact the lad was really a prey to frequent neuralgic attacks. Now on the afternoon in question it appeared that Alice de Beauvilliers had come to the Institute without her mother, in order to help the sister on duty with the quarterly inventory of the medicine closet. Victor happened to be alone in the adjoining infirmary, and the sister, having been obliged to absent herself for a short time, was amazed on her return to find Alice missing. She had begun to search for her, and at last, to her horror and amazement, had found her lying in the infirmary most severely injured—in fact, more dead than alive. Beside her, significantly enough, lay her empty purse. She had been attacked by Victor, and, brief as had been the sister's absence, the young miscreant had already contrived to flee. The astonishing part of the affair was that no sound of struggle, no call for help, had been heard by anyone. In less than ten minutes the crime had been planned and perpetrated, and its author had taken to flight. How could Victor have thus managed to escape, vanish, as it were, without leaving any trace behind him? A minute search had been made throughout the establishment, but it had become evident that he was no longer there. He must have gone off by way of the bathroom, which was entered from the infirmary corridor, and have jumped out of a window overlooking a series of roofs which gradually became lower and lower as they approached[Pg 392] the Boulevard. However, this route seemed such a perilous one that many refused to believe that a human being could have traversed it; and thus the mode of Victor's escape remained somewhat doubtful. As for Alice, his unfortunate victim, she had been taken home to her mother, and was now confined to her bed, delirious, in a high fever.

Madame Caroline was so profoundly astounded by this awful story that it seemed to her as if all the blood in her heart were freezing. She thought of the young miscreant's parentage, and shuddered at the remembrance that Saccard was his father.