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His long, emaciated hands were straying among the papers on his table, and he grew quite excited, dreaming of the many milliards reconquered for humanity and equitably divided among all; of the joy and health which with a stroke of the pen he restored to suffering mankind, he who no longer ate, who no longer slept, but, without a want, was slowly dying in that bare room.

A harsh voice, however, suddenly made Saccard start. 'What are you doing here?'

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It was Busch, who had just come back, and who in his perpetual fear that his brother might be sent into a fit of coughing by being made to talk too much was darting at his visitor the oblique glances of a jealous lover. However, he did not wait for Saccard's reply, but in a maternal, almost despairing fashion began to scold. 'What! you have let your fire go out again. Is there any sense in it, on such a cold damp day as this!'

And, already bending on his knees, despite the weight of his huge frame, he began breaking up some small wood and relighting the fire. Then he went to fetch a broom, swept up the litter, and saw to the medicine which his brother had to take every two hours. And it was only when he had prevailed on him to lie down on the bed to rest that he again became tranquil.

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'If you will step into my office, Monsieur Saccard,' said he.

Madame Méchain was now there, seated on the only chair there was. She and Busch had just been down to make an important call, with the complete success of which they were delighted. At last, after a delay which had well-nigh driven them to despair, one of the affairs which they had most at heart had been set afoot again. For three years, indeed, La Méchain had been tramping the pavements in search of Léonie Cron, that girl in whose favour the late Count de Beauvilliers[Pg 301] had signed an acknowledgment of ten thousand francs, payable on the day when she should attain her majority. Vainly had La Méchain applied to her cousin Fayeux, the dividend-collector at Vend?me, who had bought this acknowledgment for Busch in a lot of old debts belonging to the estate of a certain Charpier, a grain merchant and occasional usurer. Fayeux knew nothing, and simply wrote that Léonie Cron must be in the employ of a process-server in Paris; at all events, she had left Vend?me more than ten years before and had never returned, and it was impossible to obtain any information from any of her relatives, as they were all dead. La Méchain had managed to discover the process-server, and had even succeeded in tracing Léonie to a butcher's house, next to a fast woman's, and next to a dentist's; but then the thread abruptly broke, the scent was lost. It was like searching for a needle in a haystack. How can one hope to find a girl who has fallen, disappeared amid the mire of a great city like Paris? In vain had she tried the servants' agencies, visited the low lodging-houses, ransacked the haunts of vice, always on the watch, turning her head and questioning as soon as the name of Léonie fell upon her ears. And this girl, for whom she had searched so far, she had that very day, by chance, discovered in the Rue Feydeau itself, in a disreputable house, where she had called to hunt up an old tenant of the Cité de Naples who owed her three francs. A stroke of genius had led her to recognise the wench under the distinguished name of Léonide, and Busch, being notified, had at once returned with her to the house to negotiate. Stout, with coarse black hair falling to her eyebrows, and with a flat, flabby face, Léonie had at first surprised him; then, with a feeling of delight that she had fallen so low, he had offered her a thousand francs if she would relinquish to his hands her rights in the matter. She had accepted the offer with childish delight, like the simpleton she was; and by this means they would at last be able to carry out their scheme of hunting down the Countess de Beauvilliers. The long-searched-for weapon was in their grasp, a weapon hideous and shameful beyond their wildest hopes.

'I was expecting you, Monsieur Saccard,' said Busch. 'We have to talk. You received my letter, of course.'

Meantime La Méchain, motionless and silent, did not stir from the only chair in that little room, which was littered with papers and lighted by a smoky lamp. And Saccard, who had to remain standing and did not wish it to be supposed that he had come there in response to any threat, at once entered upon the Jordan matter in a stern, contemptuous voice.

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'Excuse me,' said he, 'I came up to settle the debt of one of my contributors—little Jordan, a very nice fellow, whom you are pursuing with red-hot shot, indeed with really revolting ferocity. This very morning, it seems, you behaved towards his wife in a way in which no man of good breeding, would behave.'

Astonished at being attacked in this fashion when he was on the point of assuming offensive tactics himself, Busch lost his balance, forgot the other matter, and became irritated on account of this one. 'The Jordans!' said he; 'you have come on account of the Jordans. There is no question of any wife or any good breeding in matters of business. When people owe, they ought to pay, that is my rule. Scamps, who have been humbugging me for years past, from whom I have had the utmost trouble to extract four hundred francs, copper by copper! Ah! thunder, yes! I will sell them up! I will throw them into the street to-morrow morning, if I don't have the three hundred and thirty francs and fifteen centimes which they still owe me upon my desk to-night!'

Thereupon, Saccard, in order to drive him quite wild, declared that he had already been paid his money forty times over, for the debt had certainly not cost him ten francs. These tactics succeeded, for Busch almost choked with anger. 'There it goes again! That is the only thing that any of you can find to say!' he exclaimed; 'and what about the costs, pray? This debt of three hundred francs which has increased to more than seven hundred? However, that does not concern me. When folks don't pay me, I prosecute. So much the worse if justice is expensive; it is their fault! But[Pg 303] according to you, when I have bought a debt for ten francs, I ought to receive ten francs and no more! And what about my risks, pray, and all the running about that I have to perform, and my brain-work—yes, my intelligence? For instance, in this Jordan matter you can consult Madame, who is here. She has been attending to it. Ah, the journeys and the applications which she has made! She has worn out no end of shoe-leather in climbing the stairs of newspaper offices, where folks showed her the door as if she were a beggar, without ever giving her the address she wanted. Why, we have been nursing this affair for months, we have dreamed about it, we have been working on it as one of our masterpieces; it has cost me a tremendous sum, even if I only calculate the time spent over it at ten sous an hour!'

He was becoming excited, and with a sweeping gesture pointed to the papers that filled the room. 'I have here more than twenty millions of debts, of all ages, owed by people in all stations of life—some very small amounts, others very large ones. Will you pay a million for them? If so, I will willingly let you have them. When one thinks that there are some debtors whom I have been hunting for a quarter of a century! To obtain a few paltry hundred francs, and sometimes even less from them, I wait in patience for years until they become successful or inherit property. The others, the unknown and most numerous, sleep there—look! in that corner, where that huge heap is. That is chaos, or rather raw material, from which I must extract life—I mean my life, and Heaven alone knows after what an entanglement of search and worry! And when I at last catch one of these folks in a solvent condition, you expect me not to bleed him? But, come, you would think me a fool if I didn't do so; you would not be so stupid yourself!'

Without waiting to discuss the question any further, Saccard took out his pocket-book. 'I am going to give you two hundred francs,' said he, 'and you will give me the Jordan papers, with a receipt in full.'

Busch's exasperation made him start. 'Two hundred francs! Not if I know it! The amount is three hundred[Pg 304] and thirty francs and fifteen centimes, and I want the centimes!'

But with the tranquil assurance of a man who knows the power which money has when it is spread out before one, Saccard, in a voice which neither rose nor fell, repeated: 'I am going to give you two hundred francs.'