Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1142
Prosper Bertomy, a trusted cashier, came into the bank rather late one morning. Louis de Clameran was impatiently waiting, for the bank had agreed to have his three hundred and fifty thousand francs ready for him that day. Prosper hurried to the safe to get the money, but when he opened the door, he discovered that the money was gone.
In great agitation, he called for M. Fauvel. When a search failed to reveal the missing money, M. Fauvel called the police. During a preliminary questioning, it was learned that only Prosper and his employer, M. Fauvel, had keys to the safe. Only they knew the word to use on the alphabetical combination. Either M. Fauvel or Prosper had taken the money.
It was unthinkable that dignified, upright M. Fauvel would steal from himself. Prosper, on the other hand, had lost heavily at the gaming tables and he was the intimate of Raoul de Lagors, the dissolute nephew of Madame Valentine Fauvel. Prosper’s richly furnished apartment was presided over by the beautiful but notorious woman known as Gypsy. In the light of these facts, M. Fauvel raised no objection when the police took Prosper off to jail.
As Prosper left the bank, he contrived to throw a folded note to Cavaillon, a young friend. Following the directions, Cavaillon set off to deliver the message. Fanferlot, a detective, followed Cavaillon until the youth turned into an apartment building. There the detective easily cowed Cavaillon and took away the note, which warned Gypsy to flee immediately. Fanferlot, posing as Prosper’s friend, delivered the note and induced the frightened girl to move into lodgings at the Archangel, a hotel run by Madame Alexandre, secretly Fanferlot’s wife. Well pleased with himself, Fanferlot went back to headquarters to report.
Convinced of Prosper’s guilt, the examining judge pried into the cashier’s financial affairs with detailed knowledge of that unhappy man’s speculations. He even knew that Gypsy’s real name was Chocareille and that she had once been in prison. The judge brought out the fact that Prosper had also been the favored suitor of Madeleine, the niece of the Fauvels, but that the intimacy had been broken off suddenly. Throughout the investigation, Prosper stoutly maintained his innocence. Unable to shake his story, the judge sent Prosper back to his cell.
At the Archangel, Fanferlot kept a close watch on Gypsy. One day she received a note asking her to meet an unknown man at a public rendezvous. Fanferlot trailed her to the meeting and saw her talking to a fat man with red whiskers. When they left in a cab, Fanferlot jumped on the springs behind them. As soon as the horses pulled up, he withdrew into an areaway to watch; but no one got out. Gypsy and her escort had given him the slip by getting in one door of the cab and out the other. Dejected at his failure, Fanferlot went to report to Lecoq, his chief.
To his amazement, the fat man with red whiskers was in Lecoq’s apartment. Lecoq himself, with his great talent for disguise, had been Gypsy’s mysterious companion. Then Lecoq showed Fanferlot a photograph of the safe and pointed out a scratch on the door. With sure logic, he explained that two people had been involved in the robbery. One held the key and started to open the door; the second tried to draw away the hand of the first. In the struggle, the door was scratched.
After Lecoq had convinced the judge that there was no strong case against Prosper, the cashier was released in the company of Lecoq, who had become transformed into the clownish M. Venduret. Prosper put himself completely in the hands of his new friend, and the two of them began the work of locating the guilty parties.
Suspicion pointed to Raoul de Lagors and Louis de Clameran. They had a great deal of influence in the Fauvel household, and Valentine Fauvel seemed greatly taken with her brilliant, handsome nephew. Suspecting a clandestine love affair, Lecoq went to the south of France to ferret out the backgrounds of de Lagors and de Clameran. There he learned that in 1841 the de Clameran family had lived on the banks of the Rhone near Tarascon. The family consisted of the old marquis, his older son Gaston, and his younger son Louis. Across the river lived the Countess de la Verberie and her daughter Valentine. Between the two families there had been a feud for generations.
Gaston, the older brother, fell in love with Valentine and often met her secretly. When their affair became known, Gaston defended her honor in a public brawl in which he killed two men. After the fight, he fled to South America. The old marquis died from the shock, and Louis left home to lead a life of depravity. Within a few months Valentine gave birth to Gaston’s child in England, and her mother sternly took the baby away and placed him with an English family. Later Valentine married M. Fauvel without telling him about her child.
By chance Louis de Clameran discovered Mme Fauvel’s secret. Her son, he claimed, was the man known as Raoul de Lagors. With de Clameran’s help, the conscience-stricken woman introduced Raoul to her husband as her nephew and made him one of the Fauvel household. Raoul, at the instigation of de Clameran, extorted large sums of money from her.
At last the time came when she had neither money nor jewels left, and de Clameran threatened to expose her. Madeleine, overhearing his threats, loyally stood by her aunt and promised to marry de Clameran to buy his silence. Raoul, playing on his mother’s sympathies, persuaded her to give him the key to the bank safe, and she even went with him to rob her husband. At the last moment Valentine regretted her decision, and in her attempts to take away the key she scratched the door. Ignoring her pleas, Raoul took the money from the safe.
When Lecoq told the whole story to Prosper, the cashier was shocked. In an anonymous letter, he had told M. Fauvel that Raoul was Valentine’s lover.
Angry and grief-stricken after reading the letter, M. Fauvel confronted Raoul and his wife. He was threatening to shoot Raoul when Lecoq appeared, unmasked Raoul as an impostor, and returned the stolen money to M. Fauvel. Valentine’s real son had died years ago; Raoul had been coached in the part by de Clameran. M. Fauvel forgave his wife’s past and was reunited with her.
With his innocence established, Prosper was free to marry Madeleine. De Clameran went mad in prison. At last, Lecoq revealed that he had saved Prosper merely to shame Gypsy, who had deserted Lecoq to become Prosper’s mistress.
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