TO A great many in the Quebec village of Beauval the death of Simon Laroche, the little watchmaker, who had become the great Senator Laroche, brought passing sorrow; to one man, however, it brought the greatest joy and sense of release from bondage he had known in 20 years.
Twenty years! Almost 20 years ago to the night, thought Jules Piton, the mayor of Beauval, also the local magnate and, next to the departed senator, most prominent man in the county. He had been sitting in this same office in the rear of his big general store when there had come a knock at the side door and when Jules Piton boomed, “Oui—entrez,” it was little Laroche who entered and took, without being bidden, the chair facing Jules Piton’s desk—the suppliant’s chair, for Jules was likewise a moneyleader, a holder of mortgages, a man who knew well how to make a dollar, still better how to hold onto it. A hard, grasping man he was at that time, his only love, his only soft spot, being MarieGermaine, his pretty dark-eyed daughter, whom he was marrying off to a rich and elderly farmer of Beauce, when everyone knew her real love was young Paul Allain, the schoolmaster.
“Now, what the devil!” thought Jules, staring with gimlet sharp grey eyes from under grey furry brows, at the watchmaker—“What the devil does this little monkey want? Money I won’t give him, not on the security of his dingy little clock shop anyway.”
Still he tried to be affable, letting his granite hard face come as near to smiling as it ever did, when he said, “Ah, Monsieur Laroche, it is a pleasure to see you. Not often do you come to call on me.” “Never,” amended Simon, and there was a look in his eyes, a grin on his wide lips as if he hugged to himself some great and joyous secret. “Never before have I been here and I would not be here now but for the fact that on my day off I roam the deep woods.”
Jules Piton looked puzzled. What foolery was this? Maybe Simon had gone crazy from listening to the ticking of those infernal clocks.
“I roam the deep woods, Monsieur Piton,” went on Simon softly, “and so it was I came one hot afternoon to Lac Perdu.”
Jules Piton stiffened, his every nerve on the alert, his strong heart suddenly stilled then beating with blows like a sledge hammer. Still he did not speak, but did not yield to the urge to moisten his dry lips with his tongue.
“You were swimming in Lost Lake, monsieur,” said Simon. “It was such a lovely summer day you could not resist—and you had forgotten your bathing suit—”
To himself Piton swore an oath. He should not have taken such a chance that day; he knew that at the time, but 19 years of immunity, of a good successful life in this lost Quebec township, had lulled him into a sense of security that now, in this blinding moment, he knew to have been an illusion. Laroche’s next words were the atom bomb of his life.
“What does it signify, Monsieur Piton—that letter ‘M’ branded so cleanly and beautifully on your back?”
Piton’s hand reached into the top drawer of his desk and his trembling fingers closed on the automatic revolver he always kept there. His mind worked at fever clip: he could shoot this Laroche, he could say Laroche had tried to rob him, had gone suddenly crazy and attacked him—. “I would not use the gun.” Simon’s voice showed that he was still enjoying himself. “Before I came here I took the precaution to write a letter and leave it in safe hands—a letter telling what that ‘M,’ that brand of yours, means, mon ami—and the letter will be opened if anything untoward should happen to me.”
Jules Piton spoke now—one word—one ugly word.
The little watchmaker shrugged it away. “I was always fascinated by tales of the French penal colony—Devil’s Island—Ile du diable. I have read many, many books about it. That ‘M’ of yours, monsieur, is worn only by the most distinguished alumni of that harsh school—by men who tried to escape once and failed. You evidently made it the second time. The ‘M’ stands for meurtrier —murderer—is it not?”
Jules Piton’s face was grey. Nineteen years of peace, of successful living, of being honored and bowed to, if not loved. He had come to Beauval without a sou, he had worked hard, married a lovely girl—dead these seven years—he had Marie-Germaine, a beautiful home, a car, money—and now, before the quiet laughter in Simon Laroche’s sharp blue eyes, all these good things were turning to shadows. Once in anger he had killed a man in Marseilles—a seamen’s brawl.
“What do you want of me, Laroche?” he asked quietly. In a voice that seemed not his own. “You know I could deny all this. No eye but yours—no, by the good God, not even my dead wife’s or my daughter’s has seen that cursed thing—”
‘You could deny it,” conceded Simon. “But these peasants would not believe you. Anyway, I fancy you could be extradited. France does not forget its bad boys, you know.”
Piton knew it well. Sometimes, still, he would awaken in the darkness, covered with icy sweat, from a dream of the hideous swamps of Cayenne, or, worse still, from the very shadow of the guillotine.
“How much?” he said harshly. “Damn you for this! I have led a good fife since I came here—”
“Good! You have the reputation of being the hardest and meanest man in five counties. You ask what I want of you? Ha! Ha! I want many things of you. Now first of all there is your daughter Marie-Germaine, whom you are forcing to marry a worse skinflint than yourself, Gilbert Trudel, of Beauce, when you know as well as the rest of us that she loves young Paul Allain the poor schoolmaster.”
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Piton felt the veins swell in his forehead, felt his blood run thick, and in his eyes was a light unholy. “What business is this of yours, you— ”
“Now, I want you to have the match broken off at once and the banns published between your sweet MarieGermaine and young Paul Allain.”
“I will never— Not!”
“Oh, yes, you will,” grinned Simon. “You would not care so much if the little world here knew your crime, but for Marie-Germaine, who adores you, who is your universe, to learn that her father is a—’’
There are far handsomer faces in the pit of hell than Jules Piton’s was then. It would have driven most people to the holy water fount, but little Simon Laroche just smiled and said, “That is the first thing, mon vieux', I have many more in mind.”
HE WAS an imp, a devil, that small clockmaker. The things he though! up for Jules Piton could emanate only from a mind that received its instructions direct from hell itself. Beauval, also the entire counties of Bellechasse, Beauce and Dorchester, were quite sure Piton had gone mad when the wedding of Marie-Germaine and Gilbert Trudel was abruptly called off and instead, miracle of miracles, the lovely one was given in marriage by Jules himself to the young schoolmaster.
Then, shortly after, a big school was built to take in all the little ones and Paul, at a handsome salary, was named its principal. Behind all this were the prestige and power of that silent, grimfaced man, Jules Piton.
And more ah, so much more. Poor but deserving boys and girls who lacked the funds to go to Laval or the University of Montreal suddenly found that Piton’s purst; was open to them; others, the really brilliant ones, he sent to the Sorbonne; no poor family in the district suffered if Piton’s money could help them.
Vraiment, said the curé, said everyone, the hand of God has touched that flint-heart of Jules Piton’s, has made of him a veritable St. Vincent de Paul, a great alms-giver, a grand philanthropist, one who loves his fellowman so much that he grudges the time lost in sleep when he might be doing some good deed. Strange, though, they said, all his good works didn’t seem to make him happy; in fact the more good he did, the more miserable he became himself.
And look, too, at what he did for the poor little clockmaker, Simon Laroche, and his 12 children. Simon soon had a jewelry store that rivaled anything on St. Catherine Street in Montreal, a lovely new house, a car. All his children at the best schools.
In politics, too, Piton abruptly switched from Jacques Meunier, the candidate he had supported so long, and threw all his weight behind young Rhéal Plourde, who had never been conceded a chance. It was remarked that at a big banquet Jules had started to sing the praises of Jacques Meunier and that Simon Laroche, sitting next to him, had spilled a bit of Beaujolais on the table and idly traced the letter “M” in the red liquor, whereat Jules had dropped Meunier like a potato hot from the oven and said most beautiful things about Rhéal. Of course Rhéal was elected.
Finally, to cap it all, Jules turned down the chance of being appointed to the Senate and gave that great honor to Simon Laroche. And now, covered with years and wreaths of. laurel, honored by all his countrymen and beloved by many, the good Senator Laroche was dead.
“Damn his soul!” muttered Jules Piton after he had put down the telephone over which Marie-Germaine’s still sweet voice with a sob in it had told him the news of Simon’s death. “May the devil set him a thousand tasks, a million times more distasteful than the ones he set me. The fiend! The devil! How I have paid! How I have expiated my sin! A hundred thousand dollars I have given away— ah, mon Dieu! But now—now it is over—unless—”
A terrible fear seized him. Suppose Laroche had left that letter that had always hung like the great knife of the guillotine over Piton’s head. But for that letter he would have killed the devil a thousand times. Suppose now that letter should expose him—now when he had no money left, no more to give away.
THERE was a sharp knock at his side door. It reminded him of Laroche’s knock that night 20 years ago. He raised his head from his arms outflung on the desk, stared bitterly at the door for a moment, then bellowed, “Oui—entrez.”
This time, though he had halfexpected the ghost of Simon Laroche and would not have been at all surprised to see it, the visitor was the doctor, Antoine Langevin, who had been attending the departed senator. He came in with his cat walk—he had always reminded Jules of a fat tabby —and plunked himself down in the suppliant’s seat.
“It is sad,” he observed. “A great man has passed away.”
Piton made a spire of his two hands and set his sharp chin on the point of it.
“Is that what you came here to tell me, Monsieur le médecin?”
“Not really. Before our good friend passed away he entrusted to me a message for you.”
“Ah!” Piton’s brows went up. “What sort of a message?”
“A letter. Here it is.” The fat Langevin squirmed a little as he drew the enve’ope from his pocket, then passed it across the desk to Piton who took it with steady hand.
“Mind if I read this now, doctor?” Langevin waved a pudgy hand. “No better time.”
Piton with great deliberation, though he wanted to tear the thing with his big fingers, took his paper knife, slit the envelope and took out the single sheet—
My Dear Piton: this is to say, not good-by, for you and I will meet again, I think. I write this, too. to relieve your mind of what, I feel, will be a worry to you. Listen, my old one, there never was any letter written by me about you and to be opened in case, etc. etc. I was ever a master of the bluff. Again, au revoir. Simon.
Piton’s lips shaped a word as he folded the letter, put it back in its envelope and shoved it in his desk. In the top drawer he put it and there was the revolver staring at him. Ah, if he
had only followed His instinct to kill, that long ago night—
“What does it signify, that letter ‘M’ branded on one’s back?”
“Eh!” He shot erect in his chair and stared at Dr. Langevin. “What do you say? What is this—?” His big hand closed on the gun. This time, by God, with this new blackmailer, he would not fool. His fingers were firm on the pistol. So Simon had doublecrossed him; had told this swollen
“What is this you ask me, doctor?” “What could it mean, the letter ‘M’ deeply branded right in our good departed Senator Laroche’s back?”
“In—” The room seemed to whirl, to spin crazily about Piton’ . head. Then his mind clea ad and he began to laugh—to laugh so crazily that the doctor was afraid.
“Please, Monsieur Piton !” he pleaded. “Surely it is not funny.”
But Jules took moments to control himself. “No?” he said at last. “Not funny that this man so honest, so respected, so saintly, was a branded murderer! You think that’s not funny.” “del!” Langevin sat up sharply now. “Is it that? I thought as much when I saw it, when I removed his shirt after —Do you know, I always thought, Monsieur Piton, that there was something funny about Laroche—that sly look in his eyes, the way he seemed always to be laughing as if he was enjoying some huge private joke”.
“He was,” said Jules bitterly. “Make no mistake about it. He was.” ★
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