For twenty years Busch had occupied

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  For twenty years Busch had occupied a small logement, comprising two chambers and a kitchen, high up, on the fifth floor. Born at Nancy, of German parents, he had come here[pg 27] from his native town, and had gradually extended the circle of his business, which was wonderfully complicated, without feeling the need of a larger office. Relinquishing the room overlooking the street to his brother Sigismond, he contented himself with a little chamber on this side of the courtyard of the house—a little chamber in which old papers, batches of documents, packages of all kinds were so piled up, that there was no room left except for a single chair beside the desk. One of his principal lines of business was a traffic in depreciated shares and debentures, thousands of which he collected together, serving as an intermediary between the Little Bourse of the 'Wet Feet' and the bankrupts embarrassed to account for their real or imaginary losses. He accordingly followed the market, at times buying direct, but more frequently supplied with batches of stock that were brought to him. In addition also to usury and a secret traffic in jewels and precious stones, he particularly occupied himself with the purchase of 'bad debts.' This it was that filled his office with old paper to overflowing, this it was that sent him forth to the four corners of paris, sniffing and watching, with connections in all circles of society. As soon as he heard of a failure, he hurried off, prowled around the liquidator, and ended by buying up everything which could not immediately be realised. He kept a watch on the notaries' offices, looked out for inheritances difficult of settlement, and attended the sales of hopeless claims. He himself published advertisements, in this wise attracting impatient creditors who preferred to get a few coppers down rather than run the risk of prosecuting their debtors. And from all these manifold sources this chiffonnier of bad debts derived supply upon supply of paper, huge basketfuls, an ever-increasing pile of unpaid notes of hand, unfulfilled agreements, unredeemed acknowledgments of liability, unkept engagements of every kind. Then a sorting-out became necessary, a fork had to be thrust into this mess of broken victuals, a special and very delicate scent being required in the operation. To avoid waste of effort, it was necessary to make a choice in this ocean of debtors, who were either insolvent or had disappeared. In principle, Busch[pg 28] asserted that every claim, even the most seemingly hopeless, may some day become valuable again; and he had a series of portfolios, admirably classified, to which corresponded an index of names, which he read over from time to time to refresh his memory. However, naturally enough, among the insolvent ones, he more closely followed those who seemed to him to have near chances of fortune. prosecuting his inquiries, he stripped people bare, discovered what means they possessed, penetrated family secrets, took note of all rich relatives, and especially of such newly-acquired situations as allowed of an attachment of salary. He thus often allowed a man to ripen for years, in order to strangle him at his first success. As for the debtors who disappeared, these stimulated him to yet greater energy, threw him into a fever of continual search, with his eyes on every signboard as he scoured the streets, and on every name printed in the newspapers. He hunted for addresses as a dog hunts for game, and as soon as he held the vanished and insolvent ones in his clutches, he became ferocious, clearing their pockets with bills of costs, sucking them dry, getting a hundred francs for what had cost him ten sous, brutally explaining the while what risks he ran as a speculator, forced to extort from those whom he caught all that he pretended to lose by those who slipped like smoke through his fingers.

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  In hunting for debtors, La Méchain was one of the helpers whom Busch was fondest of employing; for although he was obliged to have a little band of 'game-beaters' in his service, he lived in distrust of these disreputable, famishing assistants; whereas La Méchain had property of her own—an entire cité behind the Butte Montmartre, the Cité de Naples, as it was called, a vast tract of land covered with tumble-down shanties, which she let out by the month, a nook of frightful poverty, where starvelings were heaped together in filth, a crowd of pigsties which the wretched fought for, and whence she pitilessly swept away her tenants and their dung-heaps as soon as ever they ceased to pay her. However, her unfortunate passion for speculation consumed her, ate up all the profits of her cité. And she had also a taste for financial[pg 29] losses, ruins, and fires, amid which melted jewels can be stolen. When Busch charged her with obtaining some information, or ferreting out a debtor, she would sometimes even spend money out of her own pocket in view of furthering her researches, such was the pleasure she took in them. She called herself a widow, but no one had ever known her husband. She came, too, no one knew whence, and seemed always to have been about fifty years old, and monstrously fat, with the piping voice of a little girl.

  On this occasion, as soon as La Méchain had taken her seat on the single chair in Busch's office, the room became full, blocked up by her mass of flesh. Busch stood like a prisoner at his desk, buried, as it were, with only his square head showing above the ocean of papers. 'Here,' said she, removing from her old bag the huge pile of papers that distended it, 'here is what Fayeux has sent me from Vend?me. He bought everything for you at that sale in connection with the Charpier failure, which you told me to call to his attention—one hundred and ten francs.'

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  Fayeux, whom she called her cousin, had just established an office down there as a collector of dividends. His ostensible business was to cash the coupons of the petty bondholders of the district; and, as the depositary of these coupons and the cash they yielded, he speculated in the most frenzied manner.

  'The country isn't worth much,' muttered Busch, 'but there are discoveries to be made there all the same.'

  He sniffed the papers, and began sorting them out with an expert hand, roughly classifying them in accordance with a first appraisement, in which he seemed to be guided by their mere smell. As he proceeded, his flat face grew dark, and he paused at last with an expression of disappointment.

  'Humph! there is no fat here, nothing to bite. Fortunately it did not cost much. Here are some notes, and here some more. If they are signed by young people, who have come to paris, we shall perhaps catch them.' Then, with a slight exclamation of surprise, he added: 'Hallo, what's this?'






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