Another reason why Busch had delayed action so long was that he had just spent several weeks of frightful anxiety by the side of his brother Sigismond, who was in bed stretched low by consumption. For a fortnight especially, this terrible 'stirabout' had neglected everything, forgotten the thousand and one complicated skeins which he was unravelling, no more appearing at the Bourse, and no longer pursuing a single debtor—never indeed leaving the bedside of his patient, but watching over him, caring for him, and changing his linen like a mother. Becoming prodigal, he who was so stingy, he summoned the best doctors of Paris, and would have paid an enhanced price for drugs if by this means they could only have been rendered more efficacious; and, as the doctors had forbidden all work, and Sigismond in this respect was obstinate, he carefully hid all the young fellow's papers and books. A war of ruses was then carried on between them. As soon as his nurse, overcome by fatigue, fell asleep, the young man, drenched with perspiration and devoured by fever, would manage to find a bit of pencil, and on the margin of a newspaper would again begin making his calculations, distributing wealth according to his dream of justice, and assuring to one and all a due share of happiness and life. And Busch, on waking, was irritated to find him worse, and felt heartbroken at the thought that he thus bestowed on his chimera the little life that was left him. He allowed him to play with these stupid theories, as he called them, just as one allows a child to play with jumping-jacks, when he was in good health; but to kill himself with such mad, impracticable ideas, really it was imbecile! At last, however, having consented to be prudent through affection for his elder brother, Sigismond had recovered some strength and was beginning to get up.

Then it was that Busch, going back to his work, declared that it was time to settle the Saccard matter, especially as Saccard had re-entered the Bourse as a conqueror, and had again become a personage of indisputable solvency. The report which Busch had received from La Méchain, whom he had sent to the Rue Saint Lazare, was excellent. Nevertheless, he still hesitated to attack his man in front, and was delaying[Pg 149] matters in the hope of discovering some method by which he might conquer him, when a word dropped by La Méchain with regard to Madame Caroline, the lady who kept the house, and of whom all the shopkeepers in the neighbourhood had spoken to her, started him on a new plan of campaign. Was this lady perchance the real mistress, the one who held the keys of the cupboards and of the heart? He frequently obeyed what he called the stroke of inspiration, yielding to sudden divination, starting upon the chase with a mere indication due to his scent, and then collecting facts which would bring him certainty, and enable him to form a resolution. Thus it was that he betook himself to the Rue Saint Lazare to see Madame Caroline.

Upstairs in the work-room, she stopped short in surprise at sight of this stout, ill-shaven man, with a flat dirty face, greasy frock-coat, and white cravat. He, on the other hand, searched her very soul, finding her such as he desired her to be, so tall and healthy-looking, with her wonderful white hair, which, so to say, illumined her young face with gaiety and gentleness; and he was especially struck by the expression of her rather large mouth, such an expression of kindliness that he at once made up his mind.

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'Madame,' said he, 'I wished to see Monsieur Saccard, but they just told me he was not in.'

He lied; he had not even asked for Saccard, for he knew very well that he was not in, having watched his departure for the Bourse.

'And so,' he resumed, 'I ventured to apply to you, really preferring this, for I am not ignorant who it is that I address. It is a question of a communication so serious and so delicate——'

Madame Caroline, who had so far not asked him to sit down, pointed out a chair with anxious alacrity.

'Speak, monsieur, I am listening.'

Carefully lifting the skirts of his coat, which he seemed to be afraid of soiling, Busch settled in his own mind that this woman must be Saccard's mistress.

'You see, madame,' said he, 'it is not an easy thing to[Pg 150] say, and I confess to you that at the last moment I ask myself if I really ought to confide such a matter to you. I hope that you will see in the step I am taking nothing but a desire to enable Monsieur Saccard to repair old wrongs.'

With a gesture she put him at his ease, having, in her turn, understood with what sort of personage she had to deal, and desiring to curtail all useless protests. For the rest, he did not insist, but began to tell the old story in great detail—the seduction of Rosalie in the Rue de la Harpe, the birth of a child after Saccard's disappearance, the death of the mother in poverty and debauchery, and the fate of Victor left in the charge of a cousin too busy to watch him, and growing up in the midst of abomination. She listened to him, astonished at first by this romance which she had not expected, for she had imagined that it was a question of some shady financial transaction; and afterwards she visibly softened, moved by the mother's sad fate and the abandonment of the child, deeply stirred in the maternal instinct which was so strong within her, childless though she was.

'But,' said she, 'are you certain, monsieur, of the things that you tell me? Very strong proofs are needed, absolute proofs, in support of such stories.'

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He smiled. 'Oh, madame, there is a certain proof, the extraordinary resemblance of the child to Monsieur Saccard. Besides, there are the dates—everything agrees and proves the facts beyond a doubt.'

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She was trembling, and he observed it. After a pause he continued: 'You will understand now, madame, how embarrassing it was for me to address myself direct to Monsieur Saccard. I would say that I have no personal interest in the matter; I only come in the name of Madame Méchain, the cousin, whom chance alone has put on the track of the father; for, as I have had the honour to tell you, the twelve notes of fifty francs each given to the unfortunate Rosalie were signed with the name of Sicardot, a thing which I do not permit myself to judge—excusable, mon Dieu! in this terrible life of Paris. Only Monsieur Saccard, you see, might have misunderstood the nature of my intervention. And it was[Pg 151] then that I was inspired with the idea of seeing you first, madame, so that I might be guided entirely by you as to the best course to follow, knowing what an interest you take in Monsieur Saccard. There! you have our secret. Do you think that I had better wait for him and tell him all to-day?'

Madame Caroline evinced increasing emotion. 'No, no, later on,' she replied.

But she herself did not know what to do, so strange was the story told her. Meanwhile, Busch continued to study her, well pleased with the extreme sensibility that placed her in his power, perfecting his plans, and henceforth feeling certain that he should be able to get from her far more than Saccard would ever have given.

'You see,' he murmured, 'it is necessary to come to some decision.'

'Well, I will go—yes, I will go to this Cité you speak of. I will go to see this Madame Méchain and the child. It is better, much better, that I should first see things for myself.'