From that day forward, his life was spent in demanding money and waiting for it. He employed in quick succession every pretext that could soften the hearts of obdurate relatives, or find the way to the most closely guarded cash-box. He was ill--he had contracted a debt of honor--he had imprudently lent money to an unscrupulous friend--he was about to be arrested for debt. And in accordance with the favorable or unfavorable character of the replies his manner became humble or impertinent, so that his friends soon learned to judge very accurately of the condition of his purse by the way he wore his mustaches. He became wise with experience, however; and on adding all the sums he had received together, he decided that his family must be very rich to allow him so much money. And this thought made him anxious to fathom the mystery of his birth and his infancy. He finally persuaded himself that he was the son of a great English nobleman--a member of the House of Lords, who was twenty times a millionaire. And he more than half believed it when he told his creditors that his lordship, his father, would some day or other come to Paris and pay all his debts. Unfortunately it was not M. Wilkie's noble father that arrived, but a letter from M. Patterson, which was couched as follows:
"MY DEAR SIR, a considerable sum was placed in my hands to meet your unexpected requirements; and in compliance with your repeated appeals, I have remitted the entire amount to you. Not a penny remains in my possession--so that my instructions have been fulfilled. Spare yourself the trouble of making any fresh demands; they will meet with no reply. In future you will not receive a penny above your allowance, which in my opinion is already too large a one for a young man of your age."
This letter proved a terrible blow to Wilkie. What should he do? He felt that M. Patterson would not revoke his decision; and indeed he wrote him several imploring letters, in vain. Yet never had his need of money been so urgent. His creditors were becoming uneasy; bills actually rained in upon his concierge; his next quarterly allowance was not due for some time to come, and it was only through the pawnbroker that he could obtain money for his more pressing requirements. He had begun to consider himself ruined. He saw himself reduced to dismissing his carriage, to selling his third share of Pompier de Nanterre and losing the esteem of all his witty friends.
He was in the depths of despair, when one morning his servant woke him up with the announcement that the Viscount de Coralth was in the sitting-room and wished to speak with him on very important business. It was not usually an easy task to entice M. Wilkie from his bed, but the name his servant mentioned seemed to have a prodigious effect upon him. He bounded on to the floor, and as he hastily dressed himself, he muttered: "The viscount here, at this hour! It's astonishing! What if he's going to fight a duel and wishes me to be his second? That would be a piece of grand good luck and no mistake. It would assure my position at once. Certainly something must have happened!"
This last remark was by no means a proof of any remarkable perspicuity on M. Wilkie's part. As M. de Coralth never went to bed until two or three o'clock in the morning, he was by no means an early riser, and only some very powerful reason could explain the presence of his blue-lined brougham in the street before nine o'clock A.M. And the influence that had made him rise betimes in the present case had indeed been extremely powerful. Although the brilliant viscount had discovered Madame d'Argeles's secret, several months previously, he had so far disclosed it to no one. It was certainly not from any delicacy of feeling that he had held his peace; but only because it had not been for his interest to speak. Now, however, the sudden death of the Count de Chalusse changed the situation. He heard of the catastrophe at his club on the evening after the count's death, and his emotion was so great that he actually declined to take part in a game of baccarat that was just beginning. "The devil!" he exclaimed. "Let me think a moment. Madame d'Argeles is the heiress of all these millions-- will she come forward and claim them? From what I know of her, I am inclined to think that she won't. Will she ever go to Wilkie and confess that she, Lia d'Argeles, is a Chalusse, and that he is her illegitimate son? Never! She would rather relinquish her millions, both for herself and for him, than take such a step. She is so ridiculously antiquated in her notions." And then he began to study what advantages he might derive from his knowledge of the situation.
M. de Coralth, like all persons whose present is more or less uncertain, had great misgivings concerning his future. Just now he was cunning enough to find a means of procuring the thirty or forty thousand francs a year that were indispensable to his comfort; but he had not a farthing laid by, and the vein of silver he was now working might fail him at any moment. The slightest indiscretion, the least blunder, might hurl him from his splendor into the mire. The perspiration started out on his forehead when he thought of his peril. He passionately longed for a more assured position--for a little capital that would insure him his bread until the end of his days, and rid him of the grim phantom of poverty forever. And it was this desire which inspired him with the same plan that M. Fortunat had formed. "Why shouldn't I inform Wilkie?" he said to himself. "If I present him with a fortune, the simpleton ought certainly to give me some reward." But to carry this plan into execution it would be necessary to brave Madame d'Argeles's anger; and that was attended by no little danger. If he knew something about her, she on her side knew everything connected with his past life. She had only to speak to ruin him forever. Still, after weighing all the advantages and all the dangers, he decided to act, convinced that Madame d'Argeles might be kept ignorant of his treason, providing he only played his cards skilfully. And his matutinal visit to M. Wilkie was caused by a fear that he might not be the only person knowing the truth, and that some one else might forestall him.
"You here, at sunrise, my friend!" exclaimed Wilkie, as he entered the room where the viscount was seated. "What has happened?"
"To me?--nothing," replied the viscount. "It was solely on your account that I deviated from my usual habits."