It was a Thursday evening, the fifteenth of October; and although only half-past six o'clock, it had been dark for some time already. The weather was cold, and the sky was as black as ink, while the wind blew tempestuously, and the rain fell in torrents.
The servants at the Hotel de Chalusse, one of the most magnificent mansions in the Rue de Courcelles in Paris, were assembled in the porter's lodge, a little building comprising a couple of rooms standing on the right hand side of the great gateway. Here, as in all large mansions, the "concierge" or porter, M. Bourigeau, was a person of immense importance, always able and disposed to make any one who was inclined to doubt his authority, feel it in cruel fashion. As could be easily seen, he held all the other servants in his power. He could let them absent themselves without leave, if he chose, and conceal all returns late at night after the closing of public balls and wine-shops. Thus, it is needless to say that M. Bourigeau and his wife were treated by their fellow-servants with the most servile adulation.
The owner of the house was not at home that evening, so that M. Casimir, the count's head valet, was serving coffee for the benefit of all the retainers. And while the company sipped the fragrant beverage which had been generously tinctured with cognac, provided by the butler, they all united in abusing their common enemy, the master of the house. For the time being, a pert little waiting-maid, with an odious turn-up nose, had the floor. She was addressing her remarks to a big, burly, and rather insolent-looking fellow, who had been added only the evening before to the corps of footmen. "The place is really intolerable," she was saying. "The wages are high, the food of the very best, the livery just such as would show off a good-looking man to the best advantage, and Madame Leon, the housekeeper, who has entire charge of everything, is not too lynx-eyed."
"And the work?"
"A mere nothing. Think, there are eighteen of us to serve only two persons, the count and Mademoiselle Marguerite. But then there is never any pleasure, never any amusement here."
"What! is one bored then?"
"Bored to death. This grand house is worse than a tomb. No receptions, no dinners—nothing. Would you believe it, I have never seen the reception-rooms! They are always closed; and the furniture is dropping to pieces under its coverings. There are not three visitors in the course of a month."
She was evidently incensed, and the new footman seemed to share her indignation. "Why, how is it?" he exclaimed. "Is the count an owl? A man who's not yet fifty years old, and who's said to be worth several millions."
"Yes, millions; you may safely say it—and perhaps ten, perhaps twenty millions too."
"Then all the more reason why there should be something going on here. What does he do with himself alone, all the blessed day?"
"Nothing. He reads in the library, or wanders about the garden. Sometimes, in the evening, he drives with Mademoiselle Marguerite to the Bois de Boulogne in a closed carriage; but that seldom happens. Besides, there is no such thing as teasing the poor man. I've been in the house for six months, and I've never heard him say anything but: 'yes'; 'no'; 'do this'; 'very well'; 'retire.' You would think these are the only words he knows....