On this occasion, as soon as La Méchain had taken her seat on the single chair in Busch's office, the room became full, blocked up by her mass of flesh. Busch stood like a prisoner at his desk, buried, as it were, with only his square head showing above the ocean of papers. 'Here,' said she, removing from her old bag the huge pile of papers that distended it, 'here is what Fayeux has sent me from Vend?me. He bought everything for you at that sale in connection with the Charpier failure, which you told me to call to his attention—one hundred and ten francs.'

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Fayeux, whom she called her cousin, had just established an office down there as a collector of dividends. His ostensible business was to cash the coupons of the petty bondholders of the district; and, as the depositary of these coupons and the cash they yielded, he speculated in the most frenzied manner.

'The country isn't worth much,' muttered Busch, 'but there are discoveries to be made there all the same.'

He sniffed the papers, and began sorting them out with an expert hand, roughly classifying them in accordance with a first appraisement, in which he seemed to be guided by their mere smell. As he proceeded, his flat face grew dark, and he paused at last with an expression of disappointment.

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'Humph! there is no fat here, nothing to bite. Fortunately it did not cost much. Here are some notes, and here some more. If they are signed by young people, who have come to Paris, we shall perhaps catch them.' Then, with a slight exclamation of surprise, he added: 'Hallo, what's this?'

At the bottom of a sheet of stamped paper he had just found the signature of the Count de Beauvilliers, and the sheet contained only three lines of large handwriting, evidently traced by an old man: 'I promise to pay the sum of ten thousand francs to Mademoiselle Léonie Cron on the day she attains her majority.

'The Count de Beauvilliers,' he slowly continued, thinking aloud; 'yes, he had several farms, quite a large estate, in the vicinity of Vend?me. He died of a hunting accident, leaving a wife and two children in straitened circumstances. I held some of his notes formerly, which with difficulty I got them to pay—he was a wild droll, not good for much——'

Suddenly he burst into a loud laugh, reconstructing in his mind the story attaching to the note.

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'Ah! the old sharper, he played the little one a nice trick with this bit of paper, which is legally valueless. Then he died. Let me see, this is dated 1854, ten years ago. The girl must be of age now. But how could this acknowledgment have got into Charpier's hands? He was a grain merchant, who lent money by the week. No doubt the girl left this on deposit with him in order to get a few crowns, or perhaps he had undertaken to collect it.'

'But this is very good,' interrupted La Méchain—'a real stroke of luck.'

Busch shrugged his shoulders disdainfully. 'Oh no, I tell you that it is legally worth nothing. If I should present it to the heirs, they may send me about my business, for it would be necessary to prove that the money is really due. Only, if we find the girl, I may induce them to be reasonable, and come to an understanding with us, in order to avoid a disagreeable scandal. You understand? Look for this Léonie Cron; write to Fayeux, and tell him to hunt her up down there. That done, we may perhaps have a laugh.'

He had made two piles of the papers, with the intention of thoroughly examining them when he should be alone, and now sat motionless, with his hands open, one resting on each pile.

A spell of silence followed; then La Méchain resumed: 'I have been attending to the Jordan notes. I really thought[Pg 31] that I had found our man again. He has been employed somewhere, and now he is writing for the newspapers. But they receive you so badly at the newspaper offices; they refuse to give you addresses. And besides, I think that he does not sign his articles with his real name.'

Without a word, Busch had stretched out his arm to take the Jordan portfolio from its place. It contained six notes of hand of fifty francs each, dated five years back and maturing monthly—a total sum of three hundred francs—which the young man had undertaken to pay to a tailor in days of poverty. Unpaid on presentation, however, the capital sum had been swollen by enormous costs, and the portfolio fairly overflowed with formidable legal documents. At the present time the debt had increased to the sum of seven hundred and thirty francs and fifteen centimes. 'If he has a future before him,' muttered Busch, 'we shall catch him one of these days.' Then, some sequence of ideas undoubtedly forming in his mind, he exclaimed: 'And that Sicardot affair, are we going to abandon it?'

La Méchain lifted her fat arms to heaven with a gesture of anguish. A ripple of despair seemed to course through her monstrous person. 'Oh, Lord!' she wailed, with her piping voice, 'it will cost me my very skin.'

This Sicardot affair was a very romantic story which she delighted to tell. A cousin of hers, Rosalie Chavaille, a daughter of her father's sister, living with her mother in a small lodging on the sixth floor of a house in the Rue de la Harpe, had fallen a victim to a married man, who occupied with his wife a room sublet to him on the second floor. There were some abominable circumstances in connection with the affair, but the girl's mother, consenting to silence, had merely required that the evil-doer should pay her the sum of six hundred francs, divided into twelve notes of fifty francs each, payable monthly. Before the first month was at an end, however, the man—an individual of gentlemanly appearance—had disappeared, and all trace of him was lost, whilst misfortunes continued falling thick as hail. Rosalie gave birth to a boy, lost her mother, and fell into a life of vice and[Pg 32] abject poverty. Stranded in the Cité de Naples, her cousin's property, she had dragged about the streets till the age of twenty-six; but at last, during the previous year, she had been lucky enough to die, leaving behind her her son Victor, whom La Méchain had to keep; and of the whole adventure there only remained the twelve unpaid notes of hand. They had never been able to learn more of the individual who had signed them than that he called himself Sicardot.

With a fresh gesture, Busch took down the Sicardot papers, contained in a thin grey paper wrapper. No costs had accumulated, so there were merely the twelve notes.

'If Victor were only a nice child!' explained the old woman in a sorrowful voice. 'But he's dreadful! Ah! it is hard to be encumbered with such inheritances—an urchin who will end on the scaffold, and those bits of paper which will never bring me anything!'