Moncharmin's last phrase so dearly expressed the suspicion in which he now held his partner that it was bound to cause a stormy explanation, at the end of which it was agreed that Richard should yield to all Moncharmin's wishes, with the object of helping him to discover the miscreant who was victimizing them.
This brings us to the interval after the Garden Act, with the strange conduct observed by M. Remy and those curious lapses from the dignity that might be expected of the managers. It was arranged between Richard and Moncharmin, first, that Richard should repeat the exact movements which he had made on the night of the disappearance of the first twenty-thousand francs; and, second, that Moncharmin should not for an instant lose sight of Richard's coat-tail pocket, into which Mme. Giry was to slip the twenty-thousand francs.
M. Richard went and placed himself at the identical spot where he had stood when he bowed to the under-secretary for fine arts. M. Moncharmin took up his position a few steps behind him.
Mme. Giry passed, rubbed up against M. Richard, got rid of her twenty-thousand francs in the manager's coat-tail pocket and disappeared ... Or rather she was conjured away. In accordance with the instructions received from Moncharmin a few minutes earlier, Mercier took the good lady to the acting-manager's office and turned the key on her, thus making it impossible for her to communicate with her ghost.
Meanwhile, M. Richard was bending and bowing and scraping and walking backward, just as if he had that high and mighty minister, the under-secretary for fine arts, before him. Only, though these marks of politeness would have created no astonishment if the under-secretary of state had really been in front of M. Richard, they caused an easily comprehensible amazement to the spectators of this very natural but quite inexplicable scene when M. Richard had no body in front of him.
M. Richard bowed ... to nobody; bent his back ... before nobody; and walked backward ... before nobody ... And, a few steps behind him, M. Moncharmin did the same thing that he was doing in addition to pushing away M. Remy and begging M. de La Borderie, the ambassador, and the manager of the Credit Central "not to touch M. le Directeur."
Moncharmin, who had his own ideas, did not want Richard to come to him presently, when the twenty-thousand francs were gone, and say:
"Perhaps it was the ambassador ... or the manager of the Credit Central ... or Remy."
The more so as, at the time of the first scene, as Richard himself admitted, Richard had met nobody in that part of the theater after Mme. Giry had brushed up against him...
Having begun by walking backward in order to bow, Richard continued to do so from prudence, until he reached the passage leading to the offices of the management. In this way, he was constantly watched by Moncharmin from behind and himself kept an eye on any one approaching from the front. Once more, this novel method of walking behind the scenes, adopted by the managers of our National Academy of Music, attracted attention; but the managers themselves thought of nothing but their twenty-thousand francs.
On reaching the half-dark passage, Richard said to Moncharmin, in a low voice:
"I am sure that nobody has touched me ... You had now better keep at some distance from me and watch me till I come to door of the office: it is better not to arouse suspicion and we can see anything that happens."
But Moncharmin replied. "No, Richard, no! You walk ahead and I'll walk immediately behind you! I won't leave you by a step!"
"But, in that case," exclaimed Richard, "they will never steal our twenty-thousand francs!"
"I should hope not, indeed!" declared Moncharmin.
"Then what we are doing is absurd!"
"We are doing exactly what we did last time ... Last time, I joined you as you were leaving the stage and followed close behind you down this passage."
"That's true!" sighed Richard, shaking his head and passively obeying Moncharmin.
Two minutes later, the joint managers locked themselves into their office. Moncharmin himself put the key in his pocket:
"We remained locked up like this, last time," he said, "until you left the Opera to go home."
"That's so. No one came and disturbed us, I suppose?"
"Then," said Richard, who was trying to collect his memory, "then I must certainly have been robbed on my way home from the Opera."
"No," said Moncharmin in a drier tone than ever, "no, that's impossible. For I dropped you in my cab. The twenty-thousand francs disappeared at your place: there's not a shadow of a doubt about that."
"It's incredible!" protested Richard. "I am sure of my servants ... and if one of them had done it, he would have disappeared since."
Moncharmin shrugged his shoulders, as though to say that he did not wish to enter into details, and Richard began to think that Moncharmin was treating him in a very insupportable fashion.
"Moncharmin, I've had enough of this!"
"Richard, I've had too much of it!"
"Do you dare to suspect me?"
"Yes, of a silly joke."
"One doesn't joke with twenty-thousand francs."
"That's what I think," declared Moncharmin, unfolding a newspaper and ostentatiously studying its contents.
"What are you doing?" asked Richard. "Are you going to read the paper next?"
"Yes, Richard, until I take you home."
"Like last time?"
"Yes, like last time."
Richard snatched the paper from Moncharmin's hands. Moncharmin stood up, more irritated than ever, and found himself faced by an exasperated Richard, who, crossing his arms on his chest, said:
"Look here, I'm thinking of this, I'M THINKING OF WHAT I MIGHT THINK if, like last time, after my spending the evening alone with you, you brought me home and if, at the moment of parting, I perceived that twenty-thousand francs had disappeared from my coat-pocket ... like last time."
"And what might you think?" asked Moncharmin, crimson with rage.
"I might think that, as you hadn't left me by a foot's breadth and as, by your own wish, you were the only one to approach me, like last time, I might think that, if that twenty-thousand francs was no longer in my pocket, it stood a very good chance of being in yours!"
Moncharmin leaped up at the suggestion.
"Oh!" he shouted. "A safety-pin!"
"What do you want a safety-pin for?"
"To fasten you up with! ... A safety-pin! ... A safety-pin!"
"You want to fasten me with a safety-pin?"
"Yes, to fasten you to the twenty-thousand francs! Then, whether it's here, or on the drive from here to your place, or at your place, you will feel the hand that pulls at your pocket and you will see if it's mine! Oh, so you're suspecting me now, are you? A safety-pin!"
And that was the moment when Moncharmin opened the door on the passage and shouted:
"A safety-pin! ... somebody give me a safety-pin!"
And we also know how, at the same moment, Remy, who had no safety-pin, was received by Moncharmin, while a boy procured the pin so eagerly longed for. And what happened was this: Moncharmin first locked the door again. Then he knelt down behind Richard's back.
"I hope," he said, "that the notes are still there?"
"So do I," said Richard.
"The real ones?" asked Moncharmin, resolved not to be "had" this time.
"Look for yourself," said Richard. "I refuse to touch them."
Moncharmin took the envelope from Richard's pocket and drew out the bank-notes with a trembling hand, for, this time, in order frequently to make sure of the presence of the notes, he had not sealed the envelope nor even fastened it. He felt reassured on finding that they were all there and quite genuine. He put them back in the tail-pocket and pinned them with great care. Then he sat down behind Richard's coat-tails and kept his eyes fixed on them, while Richard, sitting at his writing-table, did not stir.
"A little patience, Richard," said Moncharmin. "We have only a few minutes to wait ... The clock will soon strike twelve. Last time, we left at the last stroke of twelve."
"Oh, I shall have all the patience necessary!"
The time passed, slow, heavy, mysterious, stifling. Richard tried to laugh.
"I shall end by believing in the omnipotence of the ghost," he said. "Just now, don't you find something uncomfortable, disquieting, alarming in the atmosphere of this room?"
"You're quite right," said Moncharmin, who was really impressed.
"The ghost!" continued Richard, in a low voice, as though fearing lest he should be overheard by invisible ears. "The ghost! Suppose, all the same, it were a ghost who puts the magic envelopes on the table ... who talks in Box Five ... who killed Joseph Buquet ... who unhooked the chandelier ... and who robs us! For, after all, after all, after all, there is no one here except you and me, and, if the notes disappear and neither you nor I have anything to do with it, well, we shall have to believe in the ghost ... in the ghost."
At that moment, the clock on the mantlepiece gave its warning click and the first stroke of twelve struck.
The two managers shuddered. The perspiration streamed from their foreheads. The twelfth stroke sounded strangely in their ears.
When the clock stopped, they gave a sigh and rose from their chairs.
"I think we can go now," said Moncharmin.
"I think so," Richard a agreed.
"Before we go, do you mind if I look in your pocket?"
"But, of course, Moncharmin, YOU MUST! ... Well?" he asked, as Moncharmin was feeling at the pocket.
"Well, I can feel the pin."
"Of course, as you said, we can't be robbed without noticing it."
But Moncharmin, whose hands were still fumbling, bellowed:
"I can feel the pin, but I can't feel the notes!"
"Come, no joking, Moncharmin! ... This isn't the time for it."
"Well, feel for yourself."
Richard tore off his coat. The two managers turned the pocket inside out. THE POCKET WAS EMPTY. And the curious thing was that the pin remained, stuck in the same place.
Richard and Moncharmin turned pale. There was no longer any doubt about the witchcraft.
"The ghost!" muttered Moncharmin.
But Richard suddenly sprang upon his partner.
"No one but you has touched my pocket! Give me back my twenty-thousand francs! ... Give me back my twenty-thousand francs! ..."
"On my soul," sighed Moncharmin, who was ready to swoon, "on my soul, I swear that I haven't got it!"
Then somebody knocked at the door. Moncharmin opened it automatically, seemed hardly to recognize Mercier, his business-manager, exchanged a few words with him, without knowing what he was saying and, with an unconscious movement, put the safety-pin, for which he had no further use, into the hands of his bewildered subordinate ...