The Two-Edged Secret: A Diverting French Tale: 1893

Dolche Far Niente by Auguste Toulmouche, painter of the fashionable French world.

Dolce Far Niente by Auguste Toulmouche, painter of the fashionable French world.

A TWO-EDGED SECRET.

People who Live in Glass Houses should not Hire Detectives.

Breakfast was nearly over, and the Baron and Baronne Silber were chatting as affectionately as lovers. She had just come from her boudoir and he from his racing stables, training-courses, paddocks, etc., at Viroflay. Absorbed all day long in business in Paris, he had fallen into the habit of visiting his stud of evenings, in order to be present at dawn during the speeding of his horses.  

Baron Karl Silber, an Austrian banker and financier, was an unknown nobody ten years before. Now you could not open a morning journal of commerce, sport, or anything else without running across some mention of his business, his races and racers, his balls, or his wife’s beauty.  

Above all, his wife’s beauty, for Silber, who denied himself nothing, had indulged himself at forty in the dangerous luxury of marrying charming Marguerite de Francmont, with whom all Paris had danced during four successive seasons, but whose poverty had reserved her for a marriage of this kind.  

They lived happily enough, and Silber, recognizing his wife’s really uncommon intelligence, did nothing— save in matters of finance — without consulting her with a frank and tender deference.

“Then,” said he presently, rolling a last strawberry in sugar, “Guerin did come?”  

“Yes, last night, just after you had started for Viroflay. I saw him and explained to him fully how you were the victim of indiscretions that brought suspicion upon you. ‘Everything that passes at the stable,’ said I, ‘is reported straightway to the book-makers of the Rue Vivienne. They know in advance what horse will run or be withdrawn; what horse carries the stable’s money or is meant to win; briefly, daily and regularly, we are betrayed by some one. But by whom?  Know this we must, for they are beginning to accuse us of dishonest practices.'”  

“And he said?”  

“Nothing, but asked if you suspected any one of your men?”  

“No special one, by Jove! I simply suspect them all.”  

“Precisely what I told him. Whereupon he took notes and his departure, assuring me that a special agent would be at once put in charge of so delicate a matter. He will report so soon as he discovers anything.”  

“Which will be soon, I hope. You have had no other visitor, my dear?”  

“Not one; I dined alone and spent the evening with mother. But you, Karl, what did you do at Viroflay?”  

“Always the same thing; audited accounts, paid out money, examined the colts, and by three o’clock was out with the trainers speeding the racers. Kronstadt is not doing as well as he should; we shall have a hard pull to keep him in shape for the twenty-fifth. Why, hello! it’s ten o’clock; I must go, it’s time for business.” 

 “But you seem so fatigued, my poor Karl!”  

“Zounds! I ought to be; I was up before the sun.”  

“But need you go to Viroflay so often, Karl?”  

“Every day, if I could, my dear; ‘the eye of the master,’ you know — above all, in the care of race-horses. And I have, praise heaven, an eye that sees clearly.”  

“Undoubtedly, my dear,” Marguerite assented calmly, tracing the table-cloth with the tip of her rosy nail; “but Geurin, I trust, will see clearer still. It is really as amusing as a play to me, dearest, to have anything to do with a detective whom they talk so much of as they talk of this Guerin.”  

Two hours later, Karl Silber, lying back in an easy-chair in his office in the Rue Richelieu, smoked, with half-closed eyes, the purest products of the Havana tobacco-fields. Near him, in a chair no less luxurious and with a weed drawn from the same source between his lips, young De Payzac — with a somewhat doubtful past — lolled and talked with wide open eyes, making the most of his position of intimate friend of so rich and renowned a man as the Baron Silber.  

“The fact is, Baron,” said he, continuing the subject upon which he was launched, “you are, or ought to be, the happiest man in Paris to-day. Just think of it, the pot of money you’ve made at a single stroke — more than I would need to amuse me a whole long year.”  

“One would say that fact annoyed you,” Silber returned, lazily, without stirring himself.  

“Annoyed me? Not the least in the world, baron. I’m too much your friend for that. But when I contrast our two destinies! Why, everything in the world succeeds with you. Your business, look at it; it goes like a conflagration. Your racing, too, which heaven knows why you took it into your head to try; whether your own horses win or lose, it matters not; you find a way to win with the horses of others.”  

“In a word,” Silber interrupted, with some show of temper, “you mean to imply, like the rest, that I purposely allow my own horses to be beaten?”  

Payzac continued with an imperturbable calm and a lightly shrugged shoulder.  

“But all of which is as nothing,” said he, “compared with the fact that not only are you the legitimate possessor of the most beautiful woman in Paris, but you also know one not less lovely who lives in a more mysterious quarter of the city.”  

This time the banker sat erect, as if pulled with a spring, and looked about him uneasily.  

“Payzac,” said he, “s-s-sh! You risk too much at times. You, and you only, are to know that side of my life, a secret that must not be noised abroad.”  

“Of course,” said Payzac, “I know it, for to whom else than me do you owe the acquaintance of the fair and beautiful Wanda?”  

“Also the happiness of being loved for myself alone,” assented Silber, gratefully. “That poor foreign girl, with her sensitive soul — positively, Payzac, she loves me like a faithful dog, though I seek always to treat her like a companion and friend. Nothing so binds women to us as letting them believe they fully share in our lives. The Baronne, for instance, who thinks I tell her everything, because I’ve the air of deciding nothing without consulting her. The result? An occupied mind for her and an affection for me — calm, possibly, but solid and devoted.”  

“Who could doubt it?” cried Payzac, fervently, diligently blowing smoke-rings above his head. “But then, as I said, Baron, everything succeeds with you. Your Viroflay combination is simply a masterpiece; which, by the way, reminds me, Silber, that I’ve a favor to ask of you.” And the needy parasite, judging the ground well prepared, came to the true object of his visit.  

A fortnight later the Baron and Baronne were again finishing breakfast in the little breakfast-room where we met them first, and where, now as then, the Baron had just come in from a night at his stables.  

“Haven’t you lost something, Karl?” demanded the Baronne, suddenly, at the same time drawing from her pocket a railroad pass.  

“Parbleu! yes,” said the Baron, “and a hunt I had for it, too, last night. Where did you find it, love?”  

Before the Baronne could answer, the door opened and a servant entered, hearing a card on a salver.  

“Ah, Guerin!” said Karl. “May he come in here, dearest? A personage so potent should be treated like a family friend.”  

And Madame consenting, the world-famed detective was ushered in. Freshly shaven, sedately dressed, monocle in eye, and portfolio in hand, he looked like the head-clerk of a legal firm, and beamed upon his employers with the satisfied air of a bearer of good news.  

“Well, Monsieur,” said the Baronne, in fine humor herself, “have you discovered anything?”  

“Everything, Madame,” Guerin returned calmly, depositing his portfolio on the table. “A curious story it is, too, and with a woman in it, of course, as I thought from the start.” 

“Perhaps, then,” said the Baron, with a meaning look at his wife, “you would desire, monsieur, to be alone with me a while?” 

But Guerin, priding himself upon his skill as a raconteur, and preferring two auditors to one, made signs that he could gloss over things when necessary, and plunged into his story.  

“The truth is, Baron,” said he, alter a little thought, “we never have had a case that gave us so much trouble as this. Usually we have to trail people who, suspecting nothing, take no precautions. Here, on the contrary, all were under cover. It took us nearly a week to learn that Wilhelm, the book-maker of the Rue Vivienne, had a lady-love, and to find out who she was took us longer still, as Wilhelm visits her very irregularly. She is a foreigner — a Polish girl — who lives a secluded life in a little gem of a house in the vicinity of La Muette .”  

“The vicinity of La Muette!” mechanically repeated the Baron, going red and white by turns; “La Muette! — the little wretch!”  

“Yes,” said Guerin, though not comprehending; “but what will interest you most of all is that Wanda — the Polish girl’s name, you know — on certain evenings receives another visitor, and that he — this visitor — comes from your Viroflay stables. You see the mouse in the cheese, do you not, Baron?” and Guerin smiled significantly.  

“The little wretch!” cried Silber again, starting up in his chair.  

“Exactly,” said Guerin, carelessly; “but you would see more than one of the same kind, Baron, were you a week in my place. Well, it is she — this Wanda — who sells to Wilhelm — for a round sum, of course — the secrets of your stable, by which every one profits but you, baron. Nothing remains to be done, now, but to learn the name of this man who gives this girl the information that she, in turn, imparts to the book-maker.”  

“Ah!” said Silber, with sudden vivacity, “you do not know his name then.”  

“And nothing is done after all, then, monsieur,” chimed in the Baronne, with resentful surprise.  

“On the contrary, everything is done, Madame,” firmly declared Guerin, pouring his demi-tasse of brandy into his coffee-cup and draining it at a gulp; “everything, I repeat, because you do not know my agent, Coutourier. This is the way it happened: you see.” 

“But we don’t — we don’t see, Guerin, or want to see, either!” Silber cried, recklessly. “We see too much already — more than is necessary.”  

“On the contrary, M. Guerin,” Marguerite protested, sweetly, “your story is most interesting; proceed, if you please.”  

“Then, as I said,” continued Guerin, “it happened in this way. They go to bed very early at Viroflay, and, last night — other nights, also — when all were asleep, a man slipped out of there with great precautions, went to the station, took a train for Paris, and reached the La Muette house about eleven P. M. Two hours later he came out again, took a fiacre, and was driven back to Viroflay, where his absence had been noticed by no one.”  

“The name of this man — you do not know it, you say?” demanded the Baronne, becoming thoughtful.  

“Not yet, Madame; but…”  

“Pooh!” said Silber, “it must have been my trainer, Hawkins; he’s a great hand for girls and the only man at Viroflay rich enough to have a nest in the Muette quarter.”  

“And has Hawkins a railroad pass, do you know, Baron — as this man last night had?” Guerin pursued, eagerly.  

“A pass? You are sure he had a pass, Monsieur?” cried Marguerite, considering intently the great red face of her husband, suddenly beaded with perspiration.  

“Absolutely, for Coutourier shadowed him all the way from Viroflay, trying to see his face, which he kept concealed, and heard him tell the Saint Lazare officials that he had somehow misplaced it. With a detail like that to work on, it won’t take long to nab the fellow.”  

“M. Guerin,” interrupted the Baronne with sparkling eyes, “no — go no further. We know all we need to know; we shall do the rest. Decidedly, with your assistance one can learn anything!”  

“It is my trade, Madame,” replied Guerin, modestly; “but if Madame likes and has time to spare, there are other details of this business that it would amuse Madame greatly to hear.”  

“Go on; I am not at all hurried. Give us the details, Monsieur,” and Mme. Silber smiled invitingly, with her eyes fixed always on the Baron’s face with an indefinable gaze. Proud of his success and warmed by his demi-tasse of eau-de-vie, Guerin settled back in his chair and crossed his legs comfortably.  

“Two words, Madame,” said he, “and the milk of the cocoa-nut is yours. That Viroflay personage, first befooled by the book-maker and the book-maker’s lady-love, is a second time befooled by his — would you guess it? — by his wife, who has a lover.”  

Guerin paused for the laugh that did not come.  

Silber and his wife were evidently indisposed to hilarity. White as the cloth her fingers drummed on, the Baronne bit her lips and gazed straight before her, and Karl, with an effort to pull himself together, called tremulously for the brandy.  

“Wanda, I must tell you,” continued Guerin, “for my agent watched her house, too — Wanda, of course, numbers among her other friends a certain M. Rene de Payzac.”  

The Silbers started, each in a different way.  

“De Payzac! He makes three, then!” the Baron gasped out, losing all vestige of self-command.  

“Oh, no, not at least as you mean, Baron. Payzac is merely an old friend of Wanda’s, who limits himself now to replenishing his pockets through his one-time idol. Coutourier overheard them one night in the garden, and learned the whole story. He wanted forty louis, and she wouldn’t give them to him, and he threatened, if she didn’t, to tell her ‘ friend ‘ how she sold to the book-maker the secrets of his stable. ‘Tell him if you dare,’ says she, ‘and I will in turn tell him with whom his wife spends her evenings when they believe him safely engaged with his horses!'”  

Guerin broke off to laugh heartily. But still no one imitated him, and vexed at this lack of interest in his amusing “details,” he rose, took his hat, and began a cool adieu. He was tired of talking thus to the walls.  

“What do we owe you, sir?” said Silber, stiffly. “It is useless to trouble you to call here again. We’ll drop this business where it stands.” 

“A thousand francs, Baron,” replied the chief of the Guerin agency; “but the name of the Viroflay unknown — you still lack that?”  

“We do not need it, sir,” growled Silber; “and a thousand francs, Guerin! You’re wrong; you can’t be serious; you’ll surely make a reduction?”  

Guerin did not at once reply; he was carefully selecting a cigar from the box before him. This done, he raised his eyes, fixed them upon the discomfited couple and read the situation.  

“No,” said he, firmly, “a thousand francs, Baron, just as I said. And if you haven’t the worth of your money at that, you are, indeed, hard to please!”  

Whereupon Guerin, the bill buttoned safe in his pocket, smilingly bowed himself out, leaving the Baron, the Baronne, and, unluckily for himself, De Payzac, who chanced in at the moment, to explain things at their ease.  

Translated for the Argonaut from the French of Leon de Tinseau by E. C.  Waggener.

The Argonaut [San Francisco, CA] 3 July 1893 

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Leon de Tinseau [1844-1921], also known as Count Antoine Joseph Leon Tinseau, was a 19th-century French aristocrat and literary personage, best known for his novels of Parisian manners. Mrs Daffodil thinks that this tale would have furnished a plot tailor-made for one of M. Feydeau’s comic farces.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

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