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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Ink-stain (tache D'encre: A Spot Of Ink) - BOOK II - Chapter XIII. STARTLING NEWS FROM SYLVESTRE
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The Ink-stain (tache D'encre: A Spot Of Ink) - BOOK II - Chapter XIII. STARTLING NEWS FROM SYLVESTRE Post by :wm123 Category :Long Stories Author :Rene Bazin Date :April 2012 Read :3303

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The Ink-stain (tache D'encre: A Spot Of Ink) - BOOK II - Chapter XIII. STARTLING NEWS FROM SYLVESTRE

MILAN, June 18th.

The examination of documents began this morning. I never thought we should have such a heap to examine, nor papers of such a length. The first sitting passed almost entirely in classifying, in examining signatures, in skirmishes of all kinds around this main body.

My colleagues and I are working in a room in the municipal Palazzo del Marino, a vast deserted building used, I believe, as a storehouse. Our leathern armchairs and the table on which the documents are arranged occupy the middle of the room. Along the walls are several cupboards, nests of registers and rats; a few pictures with their faces to the wall; some carved wood scutcheons, half a dozen flagstaffs and a triumphal arch in cardboard, now taken to pieces and rotting--gloomy apparatus of bygone festivals.

The persons taking part in the examination besides the three Frenchmen, are, in the first place, a little Italian judge, with a mean face, wrinkled like a winter apple, whose eyelids always seem heavy with sleep; secondly, a clerk, shining with fat, his dress, hair, and countenance expressive of restrained jollity, as he dreams voluptuous dreams of the cool drinks he means to absorb through a straw when the hour of deliverance shall sound from the frightful cuckoo clock, a relic of the French occupation, which ticks at the end of the room; thirdly, a creature whose position is difficult to determine--I think he must be employed in some registry; he is here as a mere manual laborer. This third person gives me the idea of being very much interested in the fortunes of Signore Porfirio Zampini, for on each occasion, when his duties required him to bring us documents, he whispered in my ear:

"If you only knew, my lord, what a man Zampini is! what a noble heart, what a paladin!"

Take notice that this "paladin" is a macaroni-seller, strongly suspected of trying to hoodwink the French courts.

Amid the awful heat which penetrated the windows, the doors, even the sun-baked walls, we had to listen to, read, and compare documents. Gnats of a ferocious kind, hatched by thousands in the hangings of this hothouse, flew around our perspiring heads. Their buzzing got the upper hand at intervals when the clerk's voice grew weary and, diminishing in volume, threatened to fade away into snores.

The little judge rapped on the table with his paperknife and urged the reader afresh upon his wild career. My colleague from the Record Office showed no sign of weariness. Motionless, attentive, classing the smallest papers in his orderly mind, he did not even feel the' gnats swooping upon the veins in his hands, stinging them, sucking them, and flying off red and distended with his blood.

I sat, both literally and metaphorically, on hot coals. Just as I came into the room, the man from the Record Office handed me a letter which had arrived at the hotel while I was out at lunch. It was a letter from Lampron, in a large, bulky envelope. Clearly something important must have happened.

My fate, perhaps, was settled, and was in the letter, while I knew it not. I tried to get it out of my inside pocket several times, for to me it was a far more interesting document than any that concerned Zampini's action. I pined to open it furtively, and read at least the first few lines. A moment would have sufficed for me to get at the point of this long communication. But at every attempt the judge's eyes turned slowly upon me between their half-closed lids, and made me desist. No--a thousand times no! This smooth-tongued, wily Italian shall have no excuse for proving that the French, who have already such a reputation for frivolity, are a nation without a conscience, incapable of fulfilling the mission with which they are charged.

And yet.... there came a moment when he turned his back and began to sort a fresh bundle with the man of records. Here was an unlooked-for opportunity. I cut open the envelope, unfolded the letter, and found eight pages! Still I began:

"MY DEAR FRIEND:

"In spite of my anxiety about my mother, and the care her illness demands (to-day it is found to be undoubted congestion of the lungs), I feel bound to tell you the story of what has happened in the Rue Hautefeuille, as it is very important--"

"Excuse me, Monsieur Mou-il-ard," said the little judge, half turning toward me, "does the paper you have there happen to be number twenty-seven, which we are looking for?"

"Oh, dear, no; it's a private letter."

"A private letter? I ask pardon for interrupting you."

He gave a faint smile, closed his eyes to show his pity for such frivolity, and turned away again satisfied, while the other members of the Zampini Commission looked at me with interest.

The letter was important. So much the worse, I must finish it:

"I will try to reconstruct the scene for you, from the details which I have gathered.

"The time is a quarter to ten in the morning. There is a knock at Monsieur Plumet's door. The door opposite is opened half-way and Madame Plumet looks out. She withdraws in a hurry, 'with her heart in her mouth,' as she says; the plot she has formed is about to succeed or fail, the critical moment is at hand; the visitor is her enemy, your rival Dufilleul.

"He is full of self-confidence and comes in plump and flourishing, with light gloves, and a terrier at his heels.

"'My portrait framed, Plumet?'

"'Yes, my lord-yes, to be sure.'

"'Let's see it.'

"I have seen the famous portrait: a miniature of the newly created baron, in fresh butter, I think, done cheap by some poor girl who gains her living by coloring photographs. It is intended for Mademoiselle Tigra of the Bouffes. A delicate attention from Dufilleul, isn't it? While Jeanne in her innocence is dreaming of the words of love he has ventured to utter to her, and cherishes but one thought, one image in her heart, he is exerting his ingenuity to perpetuate the recollection of that image's adventures elsewhere.

"He is pleased with the elaborate and costly frame which Plumet has made for him.

"'Very nice. How much?'

"'One hundred and twenty francs.'

"'Six louis? very dear.'

"'That's my price for this kind of work, my lord; I am very busy just now, my lord.'

"'Well, let it be this once. I don't often have a picture framed; to tell the truth, I don't care for pictures.'

"Dufilleul admires and looks at himself in the vile portrait which he holds outstretched in his right hand, while his left hand feels in his purse. Monsieur Plumet looks very stiff, very unhappy, and very nervous. He evidently wants to get his customer off the premises.

"The rustling of skirts is heard on the staircase. Plumet turns pale, and glancing at the half-opened door, through which the terrier is pushing its nose, steps forward to close it. It is too late.

"Some one has noiselessly opened it, and on the threshold stands Mademoiselle Jeanne in walking-dress, looking, with bright eyes and her most charming smile, at Plumet, who steps back in a fright, and Dufilleul, who has not yet seen her.

"'Well, sir, and so I've caught you!'

"Dufilleul starts, and involuntarily clutches the portrait to his waistcoat.

"'Mademoiselle--No, really, you have come--?'

"'To see Madame Plumet. What wrong is there in that?'

"'None whatever--of course not.'

"'Not the least in the world, eh? Ha, ha! What a trifle flurries you. Come now, collect yourself. There is nothing to be frightened at. As I was coming upstairs, your dog put his muzzle out; I guessed he was not alone, so I left my maid with Madame Plumet, and came in at the right-hand door instead of the left. Do you think it improper?'

"'Oh, no, Mademoiselle.'

"'However, I am inquisitive, and I should like to see what you are hiding there.'

"'It's a portrait.'

"'Hand it to me.'

"'With pleasure; unfortunately it's only a portrait of myself.'

"'Why unfortunately? On the contrary, it flatters you--the nose is not so long as the original; what do you say, Monsieur Plumet?'

"'Do you think it good?'

"'Very.'

"'How do you like the frame?'

"'It's very pretty.'

"'Then I make you a present of it, Mademoiselle.'

"'Why! wasn't it intended for me?'

"'I mean--well! to tell the truth, it wasn't; it's a wedding present, a souvenir--there's nothing extraordinary in that, is there?'

"'Nothing whatever. You can tell me whom it's for, I suppose?'

"'Don't you think that you are pushing your curiosity too far?'

"'Well, really!'

"'Yes, I mean it.'

"'Since you make such a secret of it, I shall ask Monsieur Plumet to tell me. Monsieur Plumet, for whom is this portrait?'

"Plumet, pale as death, fumbled at his workman's cap, like a naughty child.

"'Why, you see, Mademoiselle--I am only a poor framemaker.'

"'Very well! I shall go to Madame Plumet, who is sure to know, and will not mind telling me.'

"Madame Plumet, who must have been listening at the door, came in at that moment, trembling like a leaf, and prepared to dare all.

"I beg you won't, Mademoiselle,' broke in Dufilleul; 'there is no secret. I only wanted to tease you. The portrait is for a friend of mine who lives at Fontainebleau.'

"'His name?'

"'Gonin--he's a solicitor.'

"'It was time you told me. How wretched you both looked. Another time tell me straight out, and frankly, anything you have no reason to conceal. Promise you won't act like this again.'

"'I promise.'

"'Then, let us make peace.'

"She held out her hand to him. Before he could grasp it, Madame Plumet broke in:

"'Excuse me, Mademoiselle, I can not have you deceived like this in my house. Mademoiselle, it is not true!'

"'What is not true, Madame?'

"'That this portrait is for Monsieur Gonin, or anybody else at Fontainebleau.'

"Mademoiselle Charnot drew back in surprise.

"'For whom, then?'

"'An actress.'

"'Take care what you are saying, Madame.'

"'For Mademoiselle Tigra of the Bouffes.'

"'Lies!' cried Dufilleul. 'Prove it, Madame; prove your story, please!'

"'Look at the back,' answered Madame Plumet, quietly.

"Mademoiselle Jeanne, who had not put down the miniature, turned it over, read what was on the back, grew deathly pale, and handed it to her lover.

"'What does it say?' said Dufilleul, stooping over it.

"It said: 'From Monsieur le Baron D-----to Mademoiselle T-----, Boulevard Haussmann. To be delivered on Thursday.'

"'You can see at once, Mademoiselle, that this is not my writing. It's an abominable conspiracy. Monsieur Plumet, I call upon you to give your wife the lie. She has written what is false; confess it!'

"The frame-maker hid his face in his hands and made no reply.

"'What, Plumet, have you nothing to say for me?'

"Mademoiselle Charnot was leaving the room.

"'Where are you going, Mademoiselle? Stay, you will soon see that they lie!'

"She was already half-way across the landing when Dufilleul caught her and seized her by the hand.

"'Stay, Jeanne, stay!'

"'Let me go, sir!'

"'No, hear me first; this is some horrible mistake. I swear'

"At this moment a high-pitched voice was heard on the staircase.

"'Well, George, how much longer are you going to keep me?'

"Dufilleul suddenly lost countenance and dropped Mademoiselle Charnot's hand.

"The young girl bent over the banisters, and saw, at the bottom of the staircase, exactly underneath her, a woman looking up, with head thrown back and mouth still half-opened. Their eyes met. Jeanne at once turned away her gaze.

"Then, turning to Madame Plumet, who leaned motionless against the wall:

"'Come, Madame,' she said, 'we must go and choose a hat.' And she closed the dressmaker's door behind her.

"This, my friend, is the true account of what happened in the Rue Hautefeuille. I learned the details from Madame Plumet in person, who could not contain herself for joy as she described the success of her conspiracy, and how her little hand had guided old Dame Fortune's. For, as you will doubtless have guessed, the meeting between Jeanne and her lover, so dreaded by the framemaker, had been arranged by Madame Plumet unknown to all, and the damning inscription was also in her handwriting.

"I need not add that Mademoiselle Charnot, upset by the scene, had a momentary attack of faintness. However, she soon regained her usual firm and dignified demeanor, which seems to show that she is a woman of energy.

"But the interest of the story does not cease here. I think the betrothal is definitely at an end. A betrothal is always a difficult thing to renew, and after the publicity which attended the rupture of this one, I do not see how they can make it up again. One thing I feel sure of is, that Mademoiselle Jeanne Charnot will never change her name to Madame Dufilleul.

"Do not, however, exaggerate your own chances. They will be less than you think for some time yet. I do not believe that a young girl who has thus been wounded and deceived can forget all at once. There is even the possibility of her never forgetting--of living with her sorrow, preferring certain peace of mind, and the simple joys of filial devotion, to all those dreams of married life by which so many simple-hearted girls have been cruelly taken in.

"In any case do not think of returning yet, for I know you are capable of any imprudence. Stay where you are, examine your documents, and wait.

"My mother and I are passing through a bitter trial. She is ill, I may say seriously ill. I would sooner bear the illness than my present anxiety.

"Your friend,

"SYLVESTRE LAMPRON.

"P. S.--Just as I was about to fasten up this letter, I got a note from Madame Plumet to tell me that Monsieur and Mademoiselle Charnot have left Paris. She does not know where they have gone."

I became completely absorbed over this letter. Some passages I read a second time; and the state of agitation into which it threw me did not at once pass away. I remained for an indefinite time without a notion of what was going on around me, entirely wrapped up in the past or the future.

The Italian attendant brought me back to the present with a jerk of his elbow. He was replacing the last register in the huge drawers of the table. He and I were alone. My colleagues had left, and our first sitting had come to an end without my assistance, though before my eyes. They could not have gone far, so, somewhat ashamed of my want of attention, I put on my hat, and went to find them and apologize. The little attendant caught me by the sleeve, and gave a knowing smile at the letter which I was slipping into my pocketbook.

"E d'una donna?" he asked.

"What's that to you?"

"I am sure of it; a letter from a man would never take so long to read; and, 'per Bacco', you were a time about it! 'Oh, le donne, illustre signore, le downe!'"

"That's enough, thank you."

I made for the door, but he threw himself nimbly in my way, grimacing, raising his eyebrows, one finger on his ribs. "Listen, my lord, I can see you are a true scholar, a man whom fame alone can tempt. I could get your lordship such beautiful manuscripts--Italian, Latin, German manuscripts that never have been edited, my noble lord!"

"Stolen, too!" I replied, and pushed past him.

I went out, and in the neighboring square, amicably seated at the same table, under the awning of a cafe, I found my French colleagues and the Italian judge. At a table a little apart the clerk was sucking something through a straw. And they all laughed as they saw me making my way toward them through the still scorching glare of the sun.

MILAN, June 25th.

Our mission was concluded to-day. Zampini is a mere rogue. Brought face to face with facts he could not escape from, he confessed that he had intended to "have a lark" with the French heirs by claiming to be the rightful heir himself, though he lacked two degrees of relationship to establish his claim.

We explained to him that this little "lark" was a fraudulent act which exposed him at least to the consequence of having to pay the costs of the action. He accepted our opinion in the politest manner possible. I believe he is hopelessly insolvent. He will pay the usher in macaroni, and the barrister in jests.

My colleagues, the record man and the translator, leave Milan to-morrow. I shall go with them.

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