only comment was more or less enigmatical—"And I think，
The aspect of the place fittingly explained the habits and manners of the inmates. What sinister fears must have haunted them! for how could this extreme destitution in one part of the establishment be reconciled with the luxury noticeable in the other, except by the fact that a desperate struggle to keep up appearances was constantly going on? And this constant anxiety made out-door noise, excitement, and gayety a necessity of their existence, and caused them to welcome anything that took them from the home where they had barely sufficient to deceive society, and not enough to impose upon their creditors. "And they keep three servants," thought Mademoiselle Marguerite--"three enemies who spend their time in ridiculing them, and torturing their vanity."
Thus, on the very first day after her arrival, she realized the real situation of the General and his wife. They were certainly on the verge of ruin when Mademoiselle Marguerite accepted their hospitality. Everything went to prove this: the coachman's insolent demand, the servants' impudence, the grocer's refusal to furnish a single bottle of wine on credit, the milliner's persistence, and, lastly, the new sheets on the visitors' beds. "Yes," thought Mademoiselle Marguerite to herself, "the Fondeges were ruined when I came here. They would never have sunk so low if they had not been utterly destitute of resources. So, if they rise again, if money and credit come back again, then the old magistrate is right--they have obtained possession of the Chalusse millions!"
On this side, at least, Mademoiselle Marguerite had no very wide field of investigation to explore. Her common sense told her that her task would merely consist in carefully watching the behavior of the General and his wife, in noting their expenditure, and so on. It was a matter of close attention, and of infinitesimal trifles. Nor was she much encouraged by her first success. It was, perhaps, important; and yet it might be nothing. For she felt that the real difficulties would not begin until she became morally certain that the General had stolen the millions that were missing from the count's escritoire. Even then it would remain for her to discover how he had obtained possession of this money. And when she had succeeded in doing this, would her task be ended? Certainly not. She must obtain sufficient evidence to give her the right of accusing the General openly, and in the face of every one. She must have material and indisputable proofs before she could say: "A robbery has been committed. I was accused of it. I was innocent. Here is the culprit!"
What a long journey must be made before this goal was reached! No matter! Now that she had a positive and fixed point of departure, she felt that she possessed enough energy to sustain her in her endeavors for years, if need be. What troubled her most was that she could not logically explain the conduct of her enemies from the time M. de Fondege had asked her hand for his son up to the present moment. And first, why had they been so audacious or so imprudent as to bring her to their own home if they had really stolen one of those immense amounts that are sure to betray their possessors?" They are mad," she thought, "or else they must deem me blind, deaf, and more stupid than mortal ever was!" Secondly, why should they be so anxious to marry her to their son, Lieutenant Gustave? This also was a puzzling question. However, she was fully decided on one point: the suspicions of the Fondege family must not be aroused. If they were on their guard, it would be the easiest thing in the world for them to pay their debts quietly, and increase their expenditure so imperceptibly that she would not be able to prove a sudden acquisition of wealth.
But the events of the next few days dispelled these apprehensions. That very afternoon, although it was Sunday, it became evident that a shower of gold had fallen on the General's abode. The door-bell rang incessantly for several hours, and an interminable procession of tradesmen entered. It looked very much as if M. de Fondege had called a meeting of his creditors. They came in haughty and arrogant, with their hats upon their heads, and surly of speech, like people who have made up their minds to accept their loss, but who intend to pay themselves in rudeness. They were ushered into the drawing-room where the General was holding his levee; they remained there from five to ten minutes, and then, bowing low with hat in hand, they retired with radiant countenances, and an obsequious smile on their lips. So they had been paid. And as if to prove to Mademoiselle Marguerite that her suspicions were correct, she chanced to be present when the livery stable-keeper presented his bill.
Madame de Fondege received him very haughtily. "Ah! here you are!" she exclaimed, rudely, as soon as he appeared. "So you are the man who teaches his drivers to insult his customers? That is an excellent way to gain patronage. What! I hire a one-horse carriage from you by the month, and because I happen to wish for a two-horse vehicle for a single day, you make me pay the difference. You should demand payment in advance if you are so suspicious."
The stable-keeper, who had a bill for nearly four thousand francs in his pocket, stood listening with the air of a man who is meditating some crushing reply; but she did not give him time to deliver it. "When I have cause to complain of the people I employ, I dismiss them and replace them by others. Insolence is one of those things that I never forgive. Give me your bill."
The man, in whose face doubt, fear, and hope had succeeded each other in swift succession, thereupon drew an interminable bill from his pocket. And when he saw the bank-notes, when he saw the bill paid without dispute or even examination, he was seized with a wondering respect, and his voice became sweeter than honey. They say the payment of a bad debt delights a merchant a thousand times more than the settlement of fifty good ones. The truth of this assertion became apparent in the present case. Mademoiselle Marguerite thought the man was going to beg "Madame la Comtesse to do him the favor to withhold a portion of the small amount." For the Parisian tradesman is so constituted that very frequently it is not necessary to pay him money, but only to show it.
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