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After the settlement of December 15, Universals rose to two thousand eight hundred, and then to two thousand nine hundred francs. And on the 21st the quotation of three thousand and twenty francs was proclaimed at the Bourse, amid the uproar of an insane multitude. There was no longer any truth or logic in it all; the idea of value was perverted to the point of losing all real significance. A report was current that Gundermann, contrary to his prudent habits, had involved himself in frightful risks. For months he had been nursing a fall; and so each fortnight his losses had increased by leaps and bounds in proportion to the rise Indeed, people were beginning to whisper that his back might be broken after all. All brains were topsy-turvy; prodigies were expected.

And at that supreme moment, when Saccard, at the summit, felt the earth trembling under him, and secretly feared that he might fall, he was king. When his carriage reached the Rue de Londres, and drew up outside the triumphal palace of the Universal, a valet hastened down and spread out a carpet, which rolled across the footway from the vestibule steps to the gutter; and then Saccard condescended to alight from his brougham, and made his entrance into the Bank, like a sovereign, spared from treading on the common pavement of the streets.

That day, the last of the year, the day of the December settlement, the great hall of the Bourse was already full at half-past twelve o'clock, and the agitation as displayed by voice and gesture was extraordinary. For several weeks the effervescence had been increasing, and now came this last day of struggle with its feverish mob, through whose ranks the growl of conflict already sped, the growl of the decisive battle which was on the point of being fought. Out of doors there was a terrible frost; but the oblique rays of a clear winter's sun penetrated through the high windows, brightening the whole of one side of the bare hall with its severe-looking pillars and dreary arched roof, the cold aspect of which was increased by the grey allegorical paintings that decorated it. And from end to end of the arcades were the apertures of the air-stoves, disseminating warm breath amid the cold currents of air which were admitted by the grated doors ever and ever on the swing.

'Bear' Moser, looking even more anxious and yellow than usual, chanced to run against 'Bull' Pillerault, who stood in the hall, arrogantly planted on his long, heron-like legs. 'You know what they say,' began Moser. But he had to raise his voice in order to make himself heard amid the growing hubbub of conversation, a regular, monotonous rolling sound, like the clamour of overflowing water running on without cessation. 'They say that we shall have war in April. With all these formidable armaments matters cannot end otherwise. Germany won't leave us time to carry out the[Pg 312] new Army Law which the Chamber is about to vote. And besides, Bismarck——'

Pillerault burst into a laugh. 'Oh, go to Jericho with your Bismarck! I myself had five minutes' conversation with him whilst he was here during the summer. He seemed a very pleasant fellow. If you are not satisfied with the crushing success of the Exhibition, what is it that you want? Why, my dear fellow, Europe is ours!'

Moser shook his head despondently, and again began venting his fears in sentences which were interrupted every second by the jostling of the crowd. The market might seem to be prosperous, but its prosperity was of a plethoric nature, of no more use than the surplus fat of those who are over-stout. Owing to the Exhibition, too many enterprises had sprouted up, people had become infatuated, and they were now reaching the pure madness of gambling. Take Universals, for instance; was it not madness to have run them up to such a price as three thousand and thirty francs?

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'Ah, that's what you don't like!' exclaimed Pillerault; and, drawing nearer and emphasising every syllable, he continued: 'My dear fellow, we shall close this afternoon at three thousand and sixty. Mark my word, you fellows will all be knocked into a cocked hat.'

Although extremely impressionable, Moser indulged in a slight whistle of defiance. And to emphasise his pretended ease of mind he gazed up into the air, momentarily scrutinising a few women who, leaning over the railing of the gallery near the telegraph office, appeared greatly astonished by the aspect of this hall which they were not allowed to enter. Above them were scutcheons bearing the names of towns, and capitals and columns stretching away in pale perspective, which the infiltration of rain water had here and there stained yellow.

'What, is it you?' resumed Moser as, lowering his head, he recognised Salmon, who was standing before him, smiling his deep, eternal smile.

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Then, quite disturbed, interpreting this smile as an approval of Pillerault's predictions, he resumed: 'Well, if you[Pg 313] know anything, out with it. My reasoning is simple. I am with Gundermann because Gundermann, eh? is—Gundermann. Things always end well with him.'

'But how do you know that Gundermann is playing for a fall?' asked Pillerault with a sneer.

So scared was Moser by this question that his eyes dilated and started from his head. For months past it had been current gossip at the Bourse that Gundermann was watching Saccard, that he was fostering a fall in Universals pending the moment when, at the approach of some settling day, he would suddenly decide to strangle it by overwhelming the market with the weight of his millions. And so, if that last day of the year threatened to be so warm, it was because everybody believed and repeated that the battle was now at hand, one of those merciless battles in which one of the contending armies is left prostrate on the field, annihilated. However, can one ever be certain of anything in that sphere of falsehood and strategy? The surest things, the things prophesied with the most certainty, became, at the slightest breath, subjects of distressful doubt.

'You deny the evidence?' murmured Moser. 'To be sure, I haven't seen the orders, and one can assert nothing positively. What do you say, Salmon? Surely Gundermann cannot let go now!'

And he no longer knew what to believe at sight of the silent smile of Salmon, which seemed to him to grow keener and keener until it expressed extreme cunning.