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Almost all the directors of the Universal, moreover, had carved themselves large slices—some, like Huret and Kolb, realising at a high figure before the collapse; others, like the Marquis and Daigremont, adopting treacherous tactics and going over to the 'bears;' to say nothing of the fact that at one of the last meetings, when the Bank was already in difficulties, the board had credited each of its members[Pg 377] with a bonus of a hundred and odd thousand francs. Finally, at the corbeille, Delarocque and Jacoby were reputed to have won large sums, while Nathansohn was said to have become one of the kings of the coulisse, thanks to a profit of three millions which he had realised by playing on his own account for a fall, while playing for Saccard for a rise. The extraordinary feature of his luck was that, having made very large purchases on behalf of the Universal which could no longer pay, he would certainly have failed, and have been 'posted,' if it had not been found necessary to pass the sponge over all the transactions of the coulisse, making it a present of the sums which it owed since it was undoubtedly insolvent. So little Nathansohn earned the reputation of being both very lucky and very adroit. And what a pretty and amusing adventure it was to be able to pocket one's winnings without being called upon to pay what one has lost!

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However, all the figures remained vague; Madame Caroline could not form an exact estimate of the gains, for the operations of the Bourse are carried on with great mystery, and professional secrecy is strictly observed by the brokers. Even their memorandum-books would have told her nothing, no names being inscribed on them. Thus she in vain tried to ascertain what amount Sabatani had carried off with him on disappearing after the last settlement. That was another ruin, and a hard blow for Mazaud. It was the old story: the shady client, at first received with distrust, depositing a small security of two or three thousand francs, playing cautiously until he had established friendly relations with the broker, and the insignificance of his cover had been forgotten; then launching out, and taking to flight after perpetrating some brigand's trick. Mazaud talked of posting Sabatani, just as he had formerly posted Schlosser, a sharper of the same band, the eternal band which 'works' the market, in the same way as the robbers of olden time 'worked' a forest. And the Levantine, that half-Oriental, half-Italian, with velvet eyes, over whom all the women had grown crazy, had now gone to infest the Bourse of some foreign capital—Berlin, so it was said—pending the time when he should be forgotten at the[Pg 378] Bourse of Paris, and could come back again, ready to repeat his stroke, amid general toleration.

Besides her list of the gains, Madame Caroline had drawn up one of the disasters. The catastrophe of the Universal had been one of those terrible shocks that make a whole city totter. Nothing had remained firmly standing. Other establishments had begun to give way; every day there were fresh collapses. One after another the banks went down, with the sudden crash of bits of walls left standing after a fire. In silent dismay folks listened to these repeated falls, and asked where the ruin would stop. But what struck Madame Caroline to the heart was not so much the downfall of the bankers, the companies, the men and things of finance, all destroyed and swept away in the tempest, as the ruin of the many poor people, shareholders, and even speculators, whom she had known and loved, and who were among the victims. After the defeat she counted her dead. And these were not only her poor Dejoie, the imbecile, wretched Maugendres, the sad Beauvilliers ladies, whose misfortune was so touching. Another tragedy had upset her, the failure of the silk manufacturer, Sédille, announced on the previous day. Having seen him at work as a director, the only one of the board, she said, to whom she would have entrusted ten sous, she declared him to be the most honest man in the world. What a frightful thing, then, was this passion for gambling! Here was a man who had spent thirty years in establishing, by dint of labour and honesty, one of the firmest houses in Paris, and who, in less than three years, had so cut and eaten into it that at one stroke, it had fallen into dust! How bitterly he must now regret the laborious days of former times, when he had still believed in the acquirement of fortune by prolonged effort, before a first chance gain had filled him with contempt for work, consumed him with the dream of gaining in an hour, at the Bourse, the million which requires the whole lifetime of an honest merchant! And the Bourse had swept everything away—the unfortunate man remained overwhelmed, fallen from his brilliant position, incapable of resuming business and disqualified from doing so, with a son, too, whom poverty[Pg 379] might perhaps turn into a swindler—that Gustave, the soul of joy and festivity, who was living on a footing of from forty to fifty thousand francs worth of debts and was already compromised in an ugly story of some promissory notes signed in favour of a woman.

Then there was another poor devil who distressed Madame Caroline, the remisier Massias, and yet God knew that she was not usually tender towards those go-betweens of falsehood and theft! Only she had known Massias also, known him with his large, laughing eyes and the air of a good dog who has been whipped, at the time when he was scouring Paris seeking to obtain a few small orders. If, for a moment, in his turn, he had at last believed himself to be one of the masters of the market, having conquered luck in Saccard's wake, how frightful had been the fall which had awakened him from his dream! He had found himself owing seventy thousand francs, which he had paid, when, as so many others did, he might have pleaded that the matter was one of gambling, and that payment therefore could not be legally enforced. However, by borrowing from friends, and pledging his entire life, he had committed that sublime and useless stupidity of paying—useless, since no one felt the better of him for it; indeed, folks even shrugged their shoulders behind his back. His resentment, however, was only directed against the Bourse, for he had relapsed into his disgust for the dirty calling which he plied, and again shouted that one must be a Jew to succeed in it. Nevertheless, as he was in it, he resigned himself, still hoping that he might yet win the big prize provided he had a keen eye and good legs.

It was the thought, however, of the unknown dead, the victims without a name, without a history, that especially filled Madame Caroline's heart with pity. They were legion, strewn in the thickets, in the ditches full of weeds, and in this wise there were lost ones, wounded ones, with the death rattle in their throats, behind each tree-trunk. What frightful silent tragedies were here!—the whole throng of petty capitalists, petty shareholders, who had invested all their savings in the same securities, the retired door-porters, the pale old[Pg 380] maids living with their cats, the provincial pensioners who had regulated their lives with maniacal rigidity, the country priests stripped bare by almsgiving—all those humble beings whose budgets consist of a few sous, so much for milk, so much for bread, such precise and scanty budgets that a deficiency of two sous brings on a cataclysm! And suddenly nothing was left, the threads of life were severed, swept away, and old trembling hands incapable of working groped in the darkness in bewilderment; scores and scores of humble, peaceful existences being at one blow thrown into frightful want. A hundred desperate letters had arrived from Vend?me, where Fayeux, the dividend collector, had aggravated the disaster by flight. Holding the money and shares of the customers for whom he operated at the Bourse, he had begun to gamble on his own account at a terrible rate; and, having lost, and being unwilling to pay, he had vanished with the few hundred thousand francs which were still in his hands. All round Vend?me, even in the remotest farms, he left poverty and tears. And thus the crash had reached even the humble homesteads. As after great epidemics, were not the really pitiable victims to be found among these people of the lower middle class whose little savings their sons alone could hope to reaccumulate after long years of hard toil?

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At last Madame Caroline went out to go to Mazaud's; and as she walked towards the Rue de la Banque she thought of the repeated blows which had fallen upon the broker during the last fortnight. There was Fayeux, who had robbed him of three hundred thousand francs; Sabatani, who had left an unpaid account of nearly double that amount; the Marquis de Bohain and the Baroness Sandorff, both of whom refused to pay differences of more than a million; Sédille, whose bankruptcy had swept about the same amount away; to say nothing of the eight millions which the Universal owed him, those eight millions for which he had carried Saccard over, that frightful loss, the abyss into which from hour to hour, the anxious Bourse expected to see him tumble. Twice already had a catastrophe been reported. And, in this unrelenting fury of fate, a last misfortune had[Pg 381] just befallen him, which was to prove the drop of water that would make the vase overflow. Two days previously his clerk Flory had been arrested, convicted of having embezzled a hundred and eighty thousand francs. The demands made upon the young man by Mademoiselle Chuchu, the little ex-figurante, the grasshopper from the Parisian pavements, had gradually increased: first, pleasure parties representing no great expense, then apartments in the Rue Condorcet, then jewels and laces; and that which had ruined the unfortunate, soft-hearted fellow had been his first profit of ten thousand francs, after Sadowa, that pleasure-money so quickly gained, so quickly spent, which had made him long for more and still more in his feverish passion for the woman who cost him so dear. But the extraordinary feature of the story was that Flory had robbed his employer simply to pay his gambling debt to another broker; a singular misconception of honesty due to the bewilderment that had come over him in his fear lest he should be immediately posted. And no doubt he had hoped he would be able to conceal the robbery, and replace the money by some miraculous operation. He had wept a great deal in prison, in a frightful awakening of shame and despair; and it was related that his mother, who had arrived that very morning from Saintes to see him, had been obliged to take to her bed at the house of the friends with whom she was stopping.

What a strange thing is luck! thought Madame Caroline, as she slowly crossed the Place de la Bourse. The extraordinary success of the Universal Bank, its ascent to triumph, conquest, and domination, in less than four years, and then its sudden collapse, a month sufficing to reduce the colossal edifice to dust—all this stupefied her. And was not this also Mazaud's story? Never had a man seen destiny smile upon him in such an engaging way. A broker at the age of thirty-two, already very rich through the death of his uncle, and the happy husband of a woman who adored him and who had presented him with two beautiful children, he was further a handsome man, and daily acquired increased importance at the corbeille by his connections, his activity, his really[Pg 382] surprising scent, and even his shrill voice—that fife-like voice which had become as famous as Jacoby's thunder. But suddenly the ground began cracking around him, and he found himself on the edge of the abyss, into which a mere puff of air would now suffice to blow him. And yet he had not gambled on his own account, being still protected from that passion by his zeal for work, by his youthful anxiety. This blow had fallen on him through his inexperience and passion, through his trust in others. Moreover, people keenly sympathised with him; it was even pretended, with a deal of confidence, that he would come out of it all right.

When Madame Caroline had gone up to the office, she plainly detected an odour of ruin, a quiver of secret anguish in the gloomy rooms. On passing through the cashier's office, she noticed a score of persons, quite a little crowd, waiting, while the cashiers still met the engagements of the house, though with slackening hands like men who are emptying the last drawers. The 'account' office, the door of which was partially open, seemed to her asleep, for its seven employees were all reading their newspapers, having but few transactions to attend to, now that everything was at a standstill at the Bourse. The cash office alone showed some signs of life. And it was Berthier, the authorised clerk, who received her, greatly agitated himself, his face pale, through the misfortune which had fallen on his employer.

'I don't know whether Monsieur Mazaud will be able to receive you, madame,' said he. 'He is not well, for he caught cold through obstinately working without a fire all last night, and he has just gone down to his rooms on the first floor to get a little rest.'

Madame Caroline insisted, however. 'Oh, pray, monsieur, try to induce him to see me just for a moment,' she said. 'The salvation of my brother perhaps depends upon it. Monsieur Mazaud knows very well that my brother was never concerned in the transactions at the Bourse, and his testimony would be of great importance. Moreover, I want to get some figures from him; he alone can give me information about certain documents.'

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At last, in a hesitating way, Berthier asked her to step into the broker's private office. 'Wait there a moment, madame,' he said. 'I will go and see.'

On entering this room Madame Caroline felt a keen sensation of cold. The fire must have gone out during the previous day, and no one had thought of lighting it again. But what struck her even more was the perfect order that prevailed here, as if the whole night and morning had been spent in emptying the drawers, destroying the useless papers, and classifying those which ought to be kept. Nothing was lying about, not a paper, not a letter. On the writing table there were only the inkstand, the pen-rack, and a large blotting-pad, on which there had merely remained a package of the fiches which Mazaud used—green fiches, the colour of hope. And with the room thus bare, an infinite sadness fell with the heavy silence.

In a few minutes Berthier reappeared. 'I have rung twice, madame,' he said, 'but there was no answer, and I do not dare to insist. Perhaps you will ring yourself on your way down. But I advise you to come again.'

Madame Caroline was obliged to retire; nevertheless, on reaching the first-floor landing, she again hesitated, and even extended her arm in order to ring the bell. But she had finally decided to go away, when loud cries and sobs, a muffled uproar, coming from the apartments, rooted her to the spot. And all at once the door opened, and a servant rushed out, with a scared look, and vanished down the stairs, stammering: 'My God! my God! Monsieur——'

Madame Caroline stood motionless before that open doorway, by which a wail of frightful grief now distinctly reached her. And she became very cold, divining the truth, a clear vision of what had happened arising before her. At first she wanted to flee; then she could not, overcome as she was by pity, attracted by the calamity she pictured, experiencing a need to see and contribute her own tears also. So she entered, found every door wide open, and went as far as the salon. Two servants, doubtless the cook and the chambermaid, stood at the doorway with terrified faces, stretching their necks[Pg 384] into the room and stammering: 'Oh, monsieur! O God! O God!'