Friday, 11 April 2014

"I Have Woven a Web of Gigantic Proportions"

"Please, M. Beaumarchef, register my name as Caroline Scheumal, and get me a real good place. ... It must be a cook, you understand, and I want to do the marketing without the missus dodging around. ... Try and find me a wealthy widower, or a young woman married to a very old fellow." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 2).

Caroline Schimmel (as she is called in the rest of the novel, this may be a type setter's error rather than the author's) is using the services of Mascarin's "registry office for the engagement of both male and female servants. ... Employers say that he sends them the best of servants, and the domestics in their turn assert that he only despatches them to good places." (Ibid.)  The applicant servants are carefully managed; Gaston de Gandelu's cook is "registered under class D, that is, for employment in rather fast establishments." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 10).

The registry office is a front, which allows Mascarin to place his spies in any of the respectable and noble households of Paris. As Mascarin explains: "The police pay enormous sums to their street agents, while I, without opening my purse, have an army of devoted adherents. I see perhaps fifty servants of both sexes daily; calculate what this will amount to in a year." (Caught in a Net, Chapter 18) Mascarin is a crafty businessman, and his business is information.

In his office, "busily engaged in arranging those pieces of cardboard" that he uses to file his information Mascarin mutters:

"What a stupendous undertaking! but I have to work single-handed, and hold in my hands all these threads, which for twenty years, with the patience of a spider, I have been weaving into a web. No one, seeing me here, would believe this. People who pass me by in the street say, 'That is Mascarin, who keeps a servants' registry office;' that is the way in which they look upon me. Let them laugh if they like; they little know the mighty power I wield in secret. No one suspects me, no, not one." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 10)

In a chapter entitled "An Infamous Trade" (Caught in the Net, Chapter 18), Mascarin explains his business plan to Marquis de Croisenau:

"Marquis, as the summer goes on, you know that the ripest and reddest cherries are the fullest flavored, just so, in the noblest and wealthiest of families in Paris there is not one that has not some terrible and ghostly secret which is sedulously concealed. Now, supposed that one man should gain possession of all of them, would he not be sole and absolute master? ... I will be that man!" (Ibid.)

Marquis sums it up as "nothing but an elaborate and extended system of blackmail." "Just so, Marquis, just so," Mascarin replies "with an ironical smile." He practices an ancient and well-established trade: "I know, at least, two thousand persons in Paris who exist by the exercise of this profession; for I have studied them all, from the convict who screws money out of his former companions, in penal servitude, to the titled villain, who, having discovered the frailty of some unhappy woman, forces her to give him her daughter as his wife." (Ibid.)

Paris, according to Mascarin, is a vast anthill of victims and those who prey on them, with an economic cycle where wealth and money is leeched out of respectable citizens to a gallery of rogues, who in turn aspire to respectability (like Mascarin and his partners) and become potential victims themselves for the next generation of blackmailers. Toto Chupin, a petty criminal in Mascarin's employ, is a member of this new generations scrabbling up through the criminal ranks driven by greed and ambition.

Now Mascarin has something planned something greater and more extraordinary than the run-of-the-mill business of a blackmailer. His twenty years of scheming are coming to fruition in "a serious undertaking ... full of peril." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 3)

Mascarin, Dr Hortebise and Catenac  have been in cahoots ever since they were young men - in Chapter 17 Mascarin gives "a short account of the rise and progress of this association." Catenac, is a lawyer with a "special line of business. He assayed rather risky matters, which might bring both parties into the clutches of the criminal law, or at any rate, leave them with a taint upon both of their names" (Caught in the Net, Chapter 16). He is a gangsters' lawyer, Dr Hortebise is a medical charlatan: "He had recently taken to homeopathy, and started a medical journal, which he named The Globule, which died at its fifth number." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 3)

Now, Mascarin explains: "we are getting old, and therefore have the greater reason for making one more grand stroke to assure our fortune. ... I have said this for years, and woven a web of gigantic proportions." (Caught in the Net, Chapter 3) Mascarin has concocted two separate plots to secure himself a comfortable old age: "If only one out of two operations ... succeeds, our fortune is made." (Ibid.) One involves Marquis de Croisenau and the second is "the affair of the Duke de Champdoce" (Ibid.)

Somehow Paul Violaine is to be involved in these plots. "What do you think of Paul Violaine?" Mascarin asks Dr. Hortebise. "Suppose we found that he was honest!" Hortebise replies. "I do not think that there is any chance of that," Mascarin reassures him, "He is as weak as a woman, and as vain as a journalist. Besides, he is ashamed at being poor." (Ibid.) Paul is on his way to becoming a criminal apprentice without knowing it.

In Caught in the Net, we sit in at the meetings with the villains; we hear them explain their motivations, outline their plots and we see them squabble amongst themselves. But because Mascarin is holding his cards close to his chest, he does not reveal his entire scheme to us at any stage. Gaboriau is performing a skilful balancing act allowing the reader learn just enough of the villain's plans to keep us hooked. The villains discuss names, drop hints and refer to details that have not been explained. It is left to us to try and piece together this monstrous plot. As Dr Hortebise says at the end of Chapter 3: "If you are ready, ... we will make a start."

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