MESSENGERS OF EVIL
BEING A FURTHER ACCOUNT OF THE LURES AND DEVICES OF FANTOMAS
THE FANTOMAS DETECTIVE NOVELS
BY PIERRE SOUVESTRE AND MARCEL ALLAIN
AUTHORS OF "FANTOMAS," "THE EXPLOITS OF JUVE," ETC.
NEW YORK BRENTANO'S 1917
COPYRIGHT, 1917, BY BRENTANO'S
I. THE DRAMA OF THE RUE NORVINS
II. THOMERY'S TWO LOVES
III. UNEXPECTED COMPLICATIONS
IV. A SURPRISING ITINERARY
V. MOTHER TOULOUCHE AND CRANAJOUR
VI. IN THE OPPOSITE SENSE
VII. PEARLS AND DIAMONDS
VIII. END OF THE BALL
IX. FINGER PRINTS
X. IDENTITY OF A NAVVY
XI. AN AUDACIOUS THEFT
XIII. RUE RAFFET
XIV. SOMEONE TELEPHONED
XV. VAGUE SUSPICIONS
XVII. AN ARREST
XVIII. AT THE BOTTOM OF THE TRUNK
XIX. CRIMINAL OR VICTIM?
XX. UNDER THE HOODED MASK
XXI. IN A PRISON VAN
XXII. AN EXECUTION
XXIII. FROM VAUGIRARD TO MONTMARTRE
XXIV. AT SAINT LAZARE
XXV. A MOUSE TRAP
XXVI. IN THE TRAP
XXVII. THE IMPRINT
MESSENGERS OF EVIL
THE DRAMA OF THE RUE NORVINS
On Monday, April 4th, 19—, the evening paper La Capitale published the following article on its first page:—
A drama, over the motives of which there is a bewildering host of conjectures, was unfolded this morning on the heights of Montmartre. The Baroness de Vibray, well known in the Parisian world and among artists, whose generous patroness she was, has been found dead in the studio of the ceramic painter, Jacques Dollon. The young painter, rendered completely helpless by a soporific, lay stretched out beside her when the crime was discovered. We say 'crime' designedly, because, when the preliminary medical examination was completed, it was clear that the death of the Baroness de Vibray was due to the absorption of some poison.
The painter, Jacques Dollon, whom the enlightened attentions of Doctor Mayran had drawn from his condition of torpor, underwent a short examination from the superintendent of police, in the course of which he made remarks of so suspicious a nature that the examining magistrate put him under arrest then and there. At police headquarters they are absolutely dumb regarding this strange affair. Nevertheless, the personal investigation undertaken by us throws a little light on what is already called: The Drama of the Rue Norvins.
The Discovery of the Crime
This morning, about seven o'clock, Madame Beju, a housekeeper in the service of the painter, Jacques Dollon, who, with his sister, Mademoiselle Elizabeth Dollon, occupied lodge number six, in the Close of the rue Norvins, was on the ground-floor of the house, attending to her customary duties. She had been on the premises about half an hour, and, so far, had not noticed anything abnormal; however, astonished at not hearing any movements on the floor above, for the painter generally rose pretty early, Madame Beju decided to go upstairs and wake her master, who would be vexed at having let himself sleep so late. She had to pass through the studio to reach Monsieur Jacques Dollon's bedroom. No sooner had she raised the door curtain of the studio than she recoiled, horrorstruck!
Disorder reigned in the studio: a startling disorder!
Pieces of furniture displaced, some of them overturned, showed that something extraordinary had happened there. In the middle of the room, on the floor, lay the inanimate form of a person whom Madame Beju knew well, for she had seen her at the painter's house many a time—the Baroness de Vibray. Not far from her, buried in a large arm-chair, motionless, giving no sign of life, was Monsieur Jacques Dollon!
When the good woman saw the rigid attitude of these two persons, she realised that she was in the presence of a tragedy.
Stirred to the depths, she redescended the stairs, calling for help: shortly afterwards, the entire Close was in a state of ferment: house porters, neighbours, male and female, crowded round Madame Beju, endeavouring to understand her disconnected account of the terrifying spectacle she had come face to face with but a minute before.
Sudden death, suicide, crime—all were plausible suppositions. The more audacious of these gossip-mongers had ventured as far as the studio door; from that standpoint, a rapid glance round enabled them to get a clear idea of the truth of the housekeeper's statements: they returned to give a confirmation of them to the inquisitive and increasing crowd in the principal avenue of the Close.
'The police! The police must be informed!' cried the Close portress.
Whilst this woman, with considerable presence of mind, and aided by Madame Beju, exerted herself to keep out the people of the neighbourhood who had got wind of the tragedy, two men had set off to seek the police.
Lodge Number 6
On the summit of Montmartre is the rue Norvins. In shape it resembles a donkey's back, and at one particular spot it hugs the accentuated curve of the Butte. The Close of the rue Norvins is situated at number 47. It is separated from the street by a strong iron gate, the porter's lodge being at the side. The Close consists of a series of little dwellings, separated by wooden railings, up which climbing plants grow. Fine trees encircle these abodes with so thick a curtain of leafage that the inhabitants might think themselves buried in the depths of the country.
Lodge Number 6 is even more isolated than the others. It consists of a ground floor and a first floor, with an immense studio attached. Three years ago, Number 6 was leased to Monsieur Jacques Dollon, then a student at the Fine Arts School. It has been continuously occupied by the tenant and his sister, Miss Elizabeth Dollon, who has kept house for her brother. For the last fortnight the painter has been alone: his sister, who had gone to Switzerland to convalesce after a long illness, was expected back that same day, or the day following.
The reputation of the two young people is considered by their neighbours to be beyond criticism. The artist has led a regular and hard-working life: last year the Salon accorded him a medal of the second class.
His sister, an affable and unassuming girl, seemed always much attached to her brother. In that very Bohemian neighbourhood she is highly thought of as a girl of the most estimable character.
The Baroness de Vibray visited them frequently, and her motor-car used to attract attention in that high, remote suburb—the wilds of Montmartre. The old lady liked to dress in rather showy colours; she was considered eccentric, but was also known to be good and generous. She took a particular interest in the Dollons, whose family, so it was said, she had known in Provence. Jacques Dollon and his sister highly valued their intimacy with the Baroness de Vibray, who was known all over Paris as a patroness of artists and the arts.
Already slander and imagination between them had concocted the wildest stories, when Monsieur Agram, the eminent police superintendent of the Clignancourt Quarter, appeared at the entrance to the Close. Accompanied by his secretary, he at once entered Number 6, charging the two policemen, who were assisting him, on no account to allow anyone to enter, excepting the doctor, whom he had at once sent for.
He requested the portress to hold herself at his disposal in the garden, and made Madame Beju accompany him to the studio. Barely twenty minutes had elapsed since the housekeeper had been terror-struck by the dreadful spectacle which had met her eyes there. When she entered with the superintendent of police nothing had been altered. Madame de Vibray, horribly pale, her eyes closed, her lips violet-hued, lay stretched on the floor: her body had assumed the rigidity of a corpse. That of Jacques Dollon, huddled in an arm-chair, was in a state of immobility.
Monsieur Agram at once noticed long, intersecting streaks on the floor, such as might have been traced by heavy furniture dragged over the waxed boards of the flooring. A pungent medicinal odour caught the throats of the visitors: Madame Beju was about to open a window: the superintendent stopped her:
'Let things remain as they are for the present,' was his order. After casting an observant eye round the room he questioned the housekeeper:
'Is this state of disorder usual?'
'Never in this world, sir!' declared the good woman. 'Monsieur Dollon and his sister are very steady, very regular in their habits, especially the young lady. It is true that she has been absent for nearly a month, but her brother has often been left alone, and he has always insisted on his studio being kept in good order.'
'Did Monsieur Dollon have many visitors?'
'Very seldom, monsieur. Sometimes his neighbours would come in; and then there was that poor lady lying there so deathly pale that it makes me ill to look at her....'
Jacques Dollon lives
The conversation was interrupted by the arrival of the doctor employed in connection with relief for the poor. The superintendent of police pointed out to this Dr. Mayran the two inanimate figures. A glance of the doctor's trained eye sufficed to show him that Madame de Vibray had been dead for some time. Approaching Jacques Dollon, Dr. Mayran examined him attentively:
'Will you help me to lift him on to a bed or a table?' he asked. 'It seems to me that this one is not dead.'
'His bedroom is next to this!' cried Madame Beju. 'Oh, heavens above! If only the poor young man would recover!'
Silently the doctor, aided by the superintendent and a policeman, transported young Dollon into the next room.
'Air!' cried the doctor, 'give him air! Open all the windows! It seems to me a case of suspended animation! There is partial suffocation. This will probably yield to energetic treatment.'
Whilst good Madame Beju, whose legs were shaking under her, was carrying out the doctor's orders, the superintendent of police kept watch to see that nothing was touched. The doctor's attention was concentrated on Jacques Dollon. Monsieur Agram was searching for some indication which might throw light on the drama. So far he had been unable to formulate any hypothesis. Should the moribund painter return to consciousness, the explanation he could give would certainly clear up the situation. At this point in the superintendent's cogitations, the doctor called out:
'He lives! He lives! Bring me a glass of water!'
Jacques Dollon was returning to consciousness! Slowly, painfully, his features contracting as at the remembrance of a horrible nightmare, the young man stretched his limbs, opened his eyes: he turned a dull gaze on those about him, a gaze which became one of stupefaction when he perceived these unknown faces gathered round his bed. His eyes fell on his housekeeper. He murmured:
'Mme ... Be-ju ... je...,' and fell back into unconsciousness.
'Is he dead?' whispered Monsieur Agram.
The doctor smiled:
'Be reassured, monsieur: he lives; but he finds it terribly difficult to wake up. He has certainly swallowed some powerful narcotic and is still under its influence; but its effects will soon pass off now.'
The good doctor spoke the truth.
In a short time Jacques Dollon, making a violent effort, sat up. Casting scared and bewildered glances about him, he cried:
'Who are you? What do you want of me?... Ah, the ruffians! The bandits!'
'There is nothing to fear, monsieur. I am simply the doctor they have called in to attend to you! Be calm!... You must recover your senses, and tell us what has happened!'
Jacques Dollon pressed his hands to his forehead, as though in pain:
'How heavy my head is!' he muttered. 'What has happened to me?... Let me see!... Wait.... Ah ... yes ... that's it!'
At a sign from the doctor, the superintendent had stationed himself beside the bed, behind the young painter.
Keeping a finger on his patient's pulse, the doctor asked him, in a fatherly fashion, to tell him all about it.
'It is like this,' replied Jacques Dollon.... 'Yesterday evening I was sitting in my arm-chair reading. It was getting late. I had been working hard.... I was tired.... All of a sudden I was surrounded by masked men, clothed in long black garments: they flung themselves on me. Before I could make a movement I was gagged, bound with cords.... I felt something pointed driven into my leg—into my arm.... Then an overpowering drowsiness overcame me, the strangest visions passed before my eyes; I lost consciousness rapidly.... I wanted to move, to cry out ... in vain ... there was no strength in me ... powerless ... and that's all!'
'Is there nothing more?' asked the doctor.
After a minute's reflection Jacques answered:
'That is all.'
He now seemed fully awake. He moved: the movement was evidently painful: 'It hurts,' he said, instinctively putting his hand on his left thigh.
'Let us see what is wrong,' said the doctor, and was preparing to examine the place when a voice from the studio called:
It was Monsieur Agram's secretary. The magistrate left his post by the bed and went into the studio.
'Monsieur,' said the secretary, 'I have just found this paper under the chair in which Monsieur Dollon was: will you acquaint yourself with its contents?'
The magistrate seized the paper: it was a letter, couched in the following terms:
If you do not fear to climb the heights of Montmartre some evening, will you come to see the painted pottery I am preparing for the Salon: you will be welcome, and will confer on us a great pleasure. I say 'us,' because I have excellent news of Elizabeth, who is returning shortly: perhaps she will be here to receive you with me.
I am your respectful and devoted Jacques Dollon.
The magistrate was frowning as he handed back the letter to his secretary, saying: 'Keep it carefully.' Then he went into the bedroom, where the doctor was talking to the invalid. The doctor turned to Monsieur Agram:
'Monsieur Dollon has just asked me who you are: I did not think I ought to hide from him that you are a superintendent of police, monsieur.'
'Ah!' cried Jacques Dollon. 'Can you help me to discover what happened to me last night?'
'You have just told us yourself, monsieur,' replied the magistrate.... 'But have you nothing further to tell us? Can you not recollect whether or no you had a visitor before the arrival of the men who attacked you?'
'Why, no, monsieur, no one called.'
The doctor here intervened:
'The pain in the leg, Monsieur Dollon complained of, need not cause any anxiety. It is a very slight superficial wound. A slight swelling above the broken skin possibly indicates an intra-muscular puncture, which might have been made by someone unaccustomed to such operations, for it is a clumsy performance. It is a queer business!...'
Monsieur Agram, who had been steadily observing Jacques Dollon, persisted:
'Is there not a gap, monsieur, in your recollections of what occurred?... Were you quite alone yesterday evening? Were you not expecting anyone?... Are you certain that you did not have a visitor? Did not someone pay you a visit—someone you had asked to come and see you?'
Jacques Dollon opened his eyes—eyes of stupefaction—and stared at the superintendent:
'It is that——' went on Monsieur Agram. Then stopping short, and drawing the doctor aside, he asked:
'Do you consider him in a fit state to bear a severe moral shock?... A confrontation?'
The doctor glanced at his patient:
'He appears to me to be quite himself again: you can act as you see fit, monsieur.'
Jacques Dollon, astonished at this confabulation, and vaguely uneasy, was, in fact, able to get up without help.
'Be good enough to go into your studio, monsieur,' said the magistrate.
Jacques Dollon complied without a word. No sooner did he cross the threshold than he recoiled, terror-struck.
He was shaking from head to foot; his lips were quivering; every feature expressed horrified shrinking from the spectacle confronting him.
'The—the—the Baroness de Vibray!' he barely articulated: 'how can it be possible?'
The superintendent of police did not lose a single movement made by the young painter, keeping a lynx-eyed watch on every expression that flitted across his countenance. He said:
'It certainly is the Baroness de Vibray, dead—assassinated, no doubt. How do you explain that?'
'But,' retorted Jacques Dollon, who appeared overwhelmed: 'I do not know! I do not understand!'
The magistrate replied:
'Yet, did you not invite her to your studio? Had you not asked her to come some evening soon? Had you not certain pieces of painted pottery to show her?'
'That is so,' confessed the painter: 'but I was not aware.... I did not know....' He seemed about to faint. The doctor made him sit down in the chair where he had been found unconscious. Whilst he was recovering, Monsieur Agram continued his investigations. He opened a little cupboard, in which were several poisonous powders: this was shown by the writing on the flasks containing them. He spoke to the doctor, taking care that Jacques Dollon should not overhear him:
'Did you not say that this woman's death is due to poison?'
'It certainly looks like it.... A post-mortem will ...'
Interrupting the doctor, Monsieur Agram went up to Jacques Dollon:
'In the exercise of your profession, monsieur, do you not make use of various poisons, of which you have a reserve supply here?'
'That is so,' confirmed Jacques Dollon, in a faint voice: 'But it is a very long time since I employed any of them.'
'Very good, monsieur.'
Monsieur Agram now made Madame Beju leave the room. He asked her to transmit an order to his policemen: they were to drive back the crowd. Soon a cab brought by a constable entered the Close, and drew up before the door of Number 6.
Jacques Dollon, supported by two people, descended and entered the cab.
Immediately a rumour spread that he had been arrested.
This rumour was correct.
Our Inquiry—Silence at Police Headquarters—Probable Motives of the Crime
Such are the details referring to this strange affair, which we have been able to procure from those who were present. But the motives which determined the arrest of Monsieur Dollon are obscure.
There are, however, two suspicious facts. The first is the puncture made in Monsieur Jacques Dollon's left leg: this puncture is aggravated by a scratch. According to the doctors, soporific, injected into the human body by the de Pravaz syringe, acts violently and efficaciously. It is beyond a doubt that Monsieur Jacques Dollon has been rendered unconscious in this manner.
To begin with, the painter's first version was considered the true one, namely, that he had been surprised by robbers, who rendered him unconscious; but, on reflection, this explanation would not hold water. Murderous house-thieves do not send people to sleep: they kill them. Add to this that nothing has been stolen from Monsieur Dollon: therefore, mere robbery was not the motive of the crime.
Besides, Monsieur Dollon maintained that he was alone; yet at that time Madame de Vibray was in his studio, and was there precisely because the artist himself had asked her to come. We know that the Baroness de Vibray, who was very wealthy, took a particular interest in this young man and his sister.
We should consider ourselves to blame, did we not now remind our readers that the names of those personages—Dollon, Vibray—implicated in the drama of the rue Norvins, have already figured in the chronicles of crimes, both recent and celebrated.
Thus the assassination of the Marquise de Langrune cannot have been forgotten, an assassination which has remained a mystery, which was perpetrated a few years ago, and brought into prominence the personalities of Monsieur Rambert and the charming Therese Auvernois....
Madame de Vibray, who has just been so tragically done to death, was an intimate friend of the Marquise de Langrune....
Monsieur Jacques Dollon is a son of Madame de Langrune's old steward....
We do not, of course, pretend to connect, in any way whatever, the drama of the rue Norvins with the bygone drama which ended in the execution of Gurn, but we cannot pass over in silence the strange coincidence that, within the space of a few years, the same halo of mystery surrounds the same group of individuals....
[Footnote 1: See Fantomas.]
But let us return to our narrative:
Monsieur Jacques Dollon, interrogated by the superintendent of police, declared that he very rarely made use of the poisons locked up in the little cupboard of his studio....
Notwithstanding this, it was discovered, during the course of the perquisition, that one of the phials containing poison had been recently opened, and that traces of the powder were still to be found on the floor. This powder is now being analysed, whilst the faculty are engaged in a post-mortem examination of the unfortunate victim's body; but, at the present moment, everything leads to the belief that there does not exist an immediate and certain link between this poison and the sudden death of the Baroness de Vibray.
It might easily be supposed, and this we believe is the view taken at Police Headquarters, that for a motive as yet unknown, a motive the judicial examination will certainly bring to light, the artist has poisoned his patroness; and, in order to put the authorities on the wrong scent (perhaps he hoped she would leave the studio before the death-agony commenced), he has devised this species of tableau, invented the story of the masked men.
In fact, the doctor who first attended him has declared that the puncture, clumsily made, might very well have been done by Jacques Dollon himself.
It is worth noting that not a soul saw the Baroness de Vibray enter Monsieur Dollon's house yesterday evening: as a rule, she comes in her motor-car, and all the neighbourhood can hear her arrival.
It seems evident that Jacques Dollon will abandon the line of defence he has adopted: it can hardly be described as rational.
There is little doubt but that we shall have sensational revelations regarding the crime of the rue Norvins.
Mademoiselle Elizabeth Dollon, to whom Police Headquarters has telegraphed that a serious accident has happened to her brother, has sent a reply telegram from Lausanne to the effect that she will return to-night.
The unfortunate girl is probably ignorant of all that has occurred. Nevertheless, we believe that two detectives have left at once for the frontier, where they will meet her, and shadow her as far as Paris, in case she should get news on the way of what had occurred, and should either attempt to escape, or make an attempt on her life.
Decidedly, to-morrow promises to be a day full of vicissitudes.
* * * * *
This article, published on the first page of La Capitale, was signed:
THOMERY'S TWO LOVES
Two days before the sinister drama, details of which Jerome Fandor had given in La Capitale, the smart little town house inhabited by the Baroness de Vibray, in the Avenue Henri-Martin, assumed a festive appearance.
This did not surprise her neighbours, for they knew the owner of this charming residence was very much a woman of the world, whose reception-rooms were constantly opened to the many distinguished Parisians forming her circle of acquaintances.
It was seven in the evening when the Baroness, dressed for dinner, passed from her own room into the small drawing-room adjoining. Crossing a carpet so thick and soft that it deadened the sound of footsteps, she pressed the button of an electric bell beside the fireplace. A major-domo, of the most correct appearance, presented himself.
"The Baroness rang for me?"
Madame de Vibray, who had instinctively sought the flattering approval of her mirror, half turned:
"I wish to know if anyone called this afternoon, Antoine?"
"For the Baroness?"
"Of course!" she replied, a note of impatience in her voice: "I want to know if anyone called to see me this afternoon?"
"No one has telephoned from the Barbey-Nanteuil Bank?"
Repressing a slight feeling of annoyance, Madame de Vibray changed the subject:
"You will have dinner served as soon as the guests arrive. They will not be later than half-past seven, I suppose."
Antoine bowed solemnly, vanished into the anteroom, and from thence gained the servants' hall.
Madame de Vibray quitted the small drawing-room. Traversing the great gallery with its glass roof, encircling the staircase, she entered the dining-room. Covers were laid for three.
Inspecting the table arrangements with the eye of a mistress of the house, she straightened the line of some plates, gave a touch of distinction to the flowers scattered over the table in a conventional disorder; then she went to the sideboard, where the major-domo had left a china pot filled with flowers. With a slight shrug, the Baroness carried the pot to its usual place—a marble column at the further end of the room:
"It was fortunate I came to see how things were! Antoine is a good fellow, but a hare-brained one too!" thought she.
Madame de Vibray paused a moment: the light from an electric lamp shone on the vase and wonderfully enhanced its glittering beauty. It was a piece of faience decorated in the best taste. On its graceful form the artist had traced the lines of an old colour print, and had scrupulously preserved the picture born of an eighteenth-century artist's imagination, with its brilliancy of tone and soft background of tender grey. Madame de Vibray could not tear herself away from the contemplation of it. Not only did the design and the treatment please her, but she also felt a kind of maternal affection for the artist: "This dear Jacques," she murmured, "has decidedly a great deal of talent, and I like to think that in a short time his reputation...."
Her reflections were interrupted by the servant. The good Antoine announced in a low voice, and with a touch of respectful reproach in his tone:
"Monsieur Thomery awaits the Baroness in the small drawing-room: he has been waiting ten minutes."
"Very well. I am coming."
Madame de Vibray, whose movements were all harmonious grace, returned by way of the gallery to greet her guest. She paused on the threshold of the small drawing-room, smiling graciously.
Framed in the dark drapery of the heavy door-curtains, the soft light from globes of ground glass falling on her, the Baroness de Vibray appeared a very attractive woman still. Her figure had retained its youthful slenderness, her neck, white as milk, was as round and fresh as a girl's; and had the hair about her forehead and temples not been turning grey—the Baroness wore it powdered, a piece of coquettish affection on her part—she would not have looked a day more than thirty.
Monsieur Thomery rose hastily, and advanced to meet her. He kissed her hand with a gallant air:
"My dear Mathilde," he declared with an admiring glance, "you are decidedly an exquisite woman!"
The Baroness replied by a glance, in which there was something ambiguous, something of ironical mockery:
"How are you, Norbert?" she asked in an affectionate tone.... "And those pains?"
They seated themselves on a low couch, and began to discuss their respective aches and pains in friendly fashion. Whilst listening to his complaints, Madame de Vibray could not but admire his remarkable vigour, his air of superb health: his looks gave the lie to his words.
About fifty-five, Monsieur Norbert Thomery seemed to be in the plenitude of his powers; his premature baldness was redeemed by the vivacity of his dark brown eyes, also by his long, thick moustache, probably dyed. He looked like an old soldier. He was the last of the great Thomery family who, for many generations, had been sugar refiners. His was a personality well known in Parisian Society; always first at his office or his factories, as soon as night fell he became the man of the world, frequenting fashionable drawing-rooms, theatrical first-nights, official receptions, and balls in the aristocratic circles of the faubourg Saint-Germain.
Remarkably handsome, extremely rich, Thomery had had many love affairs. Gossips had it that between him and Madame de Vibray there had existed a tender intimacy; and, for once, gossip was right. But they had been tactful, had respected the conventions whilst their irregular union had lasted. Though now a thing of the past, for Thomery had sought other loves, his passion for the Baroness had changed to a calm, strong, semi-brotherly affection; whilst Madame de Vibray retained a more lively, a more tender feeling for the man whom she had known as the most gallant of lovers.
Thomery suddenly ceased talking of his rheumatism:
"But, my dear friend, I do not see that pretty smile which is your greatest charm! How is that?"
Madame de Vibray looked sad: her beautiful eyes gazed deep into those of Thomery:
"Ah," she murmured, "one cannot be eternally smiling; life sometimes holds painful surprises in store for us."
"Is something worrying you?" Thomery's tone was one of anxious sympathy.
"Yes and no," was her evasive reply. There was a silence; then she said:
"It is always the same thing! I have no hesitation in telling you that, you, my old friend: it is a money wound—happily it is not mortal."
"Well, I declare it is just what I expected! My poor Mathilde, are you never going to be sensible?"
The Baroness pouted: "You know quite well I am sensible ... only it happens that there are moments when one is short of cash! Yesterday I asked my bankers to send me fifty thousand francs, and I have not heard a word from them!"
"That is no great matter! The Barbey-Nanteuil credit cannot be shaken!"
"Oh," cried the Baroness, "I have no fears on that score; but, as a rule, their delay in sending me what I ask for is of the briefest, yet no one has come from them to-day."
Thomery began scolding her gently:
"Ah, Mathilde, that you should be in such pressing need of so large a sum must mean that you have been drawn into some deplorable speculation! I will wager that you invested in those Oural copper mines after all!"
"I thought the shares were going up," was Madame de Vibray's excuse: she lowered her eyes like a naughty schoolgirl caught in the act.
Thomery, who had risen, and was walking up and down the room, halted in front of her:
"I do beg of you to consult those who know all the ins and outs, persons competent to advise you, when you are bent on plunging into speculations of this description! The Barbey-Nanteuil people can give you reliable information; I myself, you know..."
"But since it is really of no importance!" interrupted Madame de Vibray, who had no wish to listen to the remonstrances of her too prudent friend: "What does it matter? It is my only diversion now!... I love gambling—the emotions it arouses in one, the perpetual hopes and fears it excites!"
Thomery was about to reply, to argue, to remonstrate further, but the Baroness had caught him glancing at the clock hanging beside the fireplace:
"I am making you dine late," she said in a tone of apology. Then, with a touch of malice, and looking up at Thomery from under her eyes, to see how he took it:
"You are to be rewarded for having to wait!... I have invited Princess Sonia Danidoff to dine with you!"
Thomery started. He frowned. He again seated himself beside the Baroness:
"You have invited her?..."
"Yes ... and why not?... I believe this pretty woman is one of your special friends... that you consider her the most charming of all your friends now!..."
Thomery did not take up the challenge: he simply said:
"I had an idea that the Princess was not much to your taste!"
The eyes of Madame de Vibray flashed a sad, strange look on her old friend, as she said gently:
"One can accustom oneself to anything and everything, my dear friend.... Besides, I quite recognise that the Princess deserves the reputation she enjoys of being wonderfully beautiful and also intellectual...."
Thomery did not reply to this: he looked puzzled, annoyed....
The Baroness continued:
"They even say that handsome bachelor, Monsieur Thomery, is not indifferent to her fascinations!... That, for the first time in his life, he is ready to link ..."
"Oh, as for that!..." Thomery was protesting, when the door opened, and the Princess Sonia Danidoff rustled into the room, a superbly—a dazzlingly beautiful vision, all audacity and charm.
"Accept all my apologies, dear Baroness," she cried, "for arriving so late; but the streets are so crowded!"
"... And I live such a long way out!" added Madame de Vibray.
"You live in a charming part," amended the Princess. Then, catching sight of Thomery:
"Why, you!" she cried. And, with a gracious and dignified gesture, the Princess extended her hand, which the wealthy sugar refiner hastened to kiss.
At this moment the double doors were flung wide, and Antoine, with his most solemn air, his most stiff-starched manner, announced:
"Dinner is served!"
"... No," cried she, smiling, whilst she refused the arm offered by her old friend; "take in the Princess, dear friend; I will follow ... by myself!"
Thomery obeyed. He passed slowly along the gallery into the dining-room with the Princess. Behind them came the Baroness, who watched them as they went: Thomery, big, muscular, broad-shouldered: Sonia Danidoff, slim, pliant, refined, dainty!
Checking a deep sigh, the Baroness could not help thinking, and her heart ached at the thought:
"What a fine couple they would make!... What a fine couple they will make!"
But, as she seated herself opposite her guests, she said to herself:
"Bah!... I must send sad thoughts flying!... It is high time!"
"My dear Thomery!" she cried playfully: "I wish—I expect you to show yourself the most charming of men to your delicious neighbour!"
Ten o'clock had struck before Madame de Vibray and her guests left the dinner-table and proceeded to the small drawing-room. Thomery was allowed to smoke in their presence; besides, the Princess had accepted a Turkish cigarette, and the Baroness had allowed herself a liqueur. A most excellent dinner and choice wines had loosened tongues, and, in accordance with a prearranged plan, Madame de Vibray had directed the conversation imperceptibly into the channels she wished it to follow. Thus she learned what she had feared to know, namely, that a very serious flirtation had been going on for some time between Thomery and the Princess; that between this beautiful and wealthy young widow and the millionaire sugar refiner, the flirtation was rapidly developing into something much warmer and more lasting. So far, the final stage had evidently not been reached; nevertheless, Thomery had suggested, tentatively, that he would like to give a grand ball when he took possession of the new house which he was having built for himself in the park Monceau!... And had he not been so extremely anxious to secure a partner for the cotillion which he meant to lead!... Then Madame de Vibray had suggested that the person obviously fitted to play this important part was the Princess Sonia Danidoff! Who better!
The suggestion was welcomed by both: it was settled there and then.
"Yes," thought the Baroness, "Thomery's marriage is practically arranged, that is evident!... Well, I must resign myself to the inevitable!"
It was about half-past eleven when Sonia Danidoff rose to take leave of her hostess. Thomery, hesitating, looked first at his old friend, then at the Princess, asking himself what he ought to do. Madame de Vibray felt secretly grateful to him for this momentary hesitation. As a woman whose mourning for a dead love is over, she spoke out bravely:
"Dear friend," said she, "surely you are not going to let the Princess return alone?... I hope she will allow you to see her safely home?"
The Princess pressed the hands of her generous hostess: she was radiant:
"What a good kind friend you are!" she cried in an outburst of sincere affection. Then, with a questioning glance, in which there was a touch of uneasiness, a slight hesitation, she said:
"Ah, do let me kiss you!"
For all reply Madame de Vibray opened her arms; the two women clung together, sealing with their kiss the treaty of peace both wished to keep.
When the humming of the motor-car, which bore off the Princess and Thomery, had died away in the distance, Madame de Vibray retired to her room. A tear rolled down her cheek:
"A little bit of my heart has gone with them," she murmured. The poor woman sighed deeply: "Ah, it is my whole heart that has gone!"
There was a discreet knock at the door. She mastered her emotion. It was the dignified mistress of the house who said quietly:
It was Antoine, who presented two letters on a silver salver. He explained that, believing his mistress to be anxiously awaiting some news, he had ventured to bring up the last post at this late hour.
After bidding Antoine good night, she recalled him to say:
"Please tell the maid not to come up. I shall not require her. I can manage by myself."
Madame de Vibray went towards the little writing-table, which stood in one corner of her room; in leisurely fashion she sat down and proceeded to open her letters with a wearied air.
"Why, it's from that nice Jacques Dollon!" she exclaimed, as she read the first letter she opened: "I was thinking of him at this very minute!" ... "Yes," she went on, as she read, "I shall certainly pay him a visit soon!"
Madame de Vibray put Jacques Dollon's letter in her handbag, recognising on the back of the second letter the initials B. N., which she knew to be the discreet superscription on the business paper of her bankers, Messieurs Barbey-Nanteuil. It was long and closely written, in a fine, regular hand. When she began to read it her attention was wandering, for her mind was full of Sonia Danidoff and Thomery, and what she had ascertained regarding their relation to each other; but little by little she became absorbed in what she was reading, till her whole attention was taken captive. As she read on, however, her eyes opened more and more widely, there was a look of keenest anguish in them, her features contracted as if in pain, her bosom heaved, her fingers were trembling under the stress of some intense emotion:
"Oh, my God! Ah! My God!" she gasped out several times in a half-choked voice.
* * * * *
Silence had reigned for a long while in the smart town house of the Baroness de Vibray in the Avenue Henri-Martin....
From without came no sound; the avenue was quiet, deserted; the night was dark. But when three o'clock struck, the bedroom of Madame de Vibray was still flooded with light. She had not left her writing-table since she had read the letter of her bankers, Messieurs Barbey-Nanteuil. She wrote on, and on, without intermission.
At nine o'clock in the morning, the staff of that great evening paper, La Capitale, were assembled in the vast editorial room, writing out their copy, in the midst of a perfect hubbub of continual comings and goings, of regular shindies, of perpetual discussions.
A stranger entering this room, which among its frequenters went by the name of "The Wild Beasts' Cage," might easily have thought he was witnessing some thirty schoolboys at play in recreation time, instead of being in the presence of famous journalists celebrated for their reports and articles.
Jerome Fandor had no sooner appeared on the threshold than he was accorded a variety of greetings—ironical, cordial, fault-finding, sympathetic. But he ignored them all; for, like most of those who came into the editorial room at this hour, he was preoccupied with one thing only—where the caprice of his editorial secretary would send him flying for news, in the course of a few minutes? On what difficult and delicate quest would he be despatched? It depended on the exigencies of passing events, on how questions of the hour struck the editorial secretary, in relation to Fandor.
Just as he had expected, the editorial secretary called him.
"Hey! Fandor, come here a minute! I am on the make-up: what have you got for to-day?"
"I don't know. Who has charge of the landing of the King of Spain?"
"Maray. He has just left. Have you seen the last issue of l'Havas?"
"Here it is...."
The two men ran rapidly through the night's telegrams.
"Deplorably empty!" remarked the editorial secretary. "But where am I to send you?... Ah, now I have it! That article of yours on the rue Norvins affair, yesterday evening, was interesting—it made the others squirm, I know! Isn't there anything more to be got out of that story?"
"What do you want?"
"Can't you stick in something just a little bit scandalous about the Baroness de Vibray? Or about Dollon? About no matter whom, in fact? After all, it's our one and only crime to-day, and you must put in something under that head!..."
Jerome Fandor seemed to hesitate.
"Would you like me to rake up the past—refer to what happened before?"
"Come now, you must have an inkling of what I refer to!"
"Ah, my dear fellow, it will not be the first time we have had to mention these personages in our columns!... Just cast your mind back to the Gurn affair!..."
"Ah, the drama in which a great lady was implicated ... to her detriment! Lady ... Lady Beltham?"
"You have got it! These Dollons—Jacques and Elizabeth—did you know it?—happen to be the children of old Dollon, who was murdered in the train—an extraordinary murder!—when on his way to Paris, to give evidence in the Gurn case?"
"Why, of course! I remember perfectly!" declared the editorial secretary: "Dollon, the father, was the Marquise de Langrune's steward!... The old lady who was murdered!... Isn't that so?"
"That's it!... But, after the death of his mistress, he entered the service of the Baroness de Vibray, she who was assassinated yesterday!"
"Well, I must say they have not been favoured by fortune," said the secretary jokingly. "But, look here, Fandor—like father, like son, eh?... If this young Dollon has murdered Madame de Vibray, doesn't that make you think that his father was the murderer of the Marquise de Langrune?"
Jerome Fandor shook his head:
"No, old boy, yesterday's crime was ordinary, even common-place, but the assassination of the Marquise de Langrune, on the contrary, gave the police no end of bother."
"They did not find out anything, did they?"
"Why, yes!... Don't you remember?... Naturally enough, it must all seem rather remote to you, but I have all the details as clearly in mind as if they had happened only yesterday.... The Gurn affair was one of the first I had a hand in, with Juve ... it was in connection with that very affair I made my start here on La Capitale."
[Footnote 2: See Fantomas.]
Fandor grew pale:
"And you were jolly proud of it, eh, Fandor?... Good Heavens, how you did hold forth about this Juve! And you regularly fed us up with this villain, so mysterious, so extraordinary, who was never run to earth, could not be captured, was capable of the most inhuman cruelties, capable of devising the most unimaginable tricks and stratagems—this Fantomas!"
Fandor grew pale:
"My dear fellow," said he, "never speak sneeringly or jokingly of Fantomas!... No doubt it is taken for granted, by the public at any rate, that Fantomas is an invention of Juve and myself: that Fantomas never existed!... And that because this monster, who is a man of genius, has never been identified; because not a soul has been able to lay hands on him ...; and because, as you know, this fruitless pursuit has cost poor Juve his life...."
"The truth is, this famous detective died a foul death!"
"No! You are mistaken! Juve died on the field of honour! When, after a terribly difficult and dangerous investigation, he succeeded (by this time it was no longer the Gurn-Fantomas affair, but that of the boulevard Inkermann at Neuilly) in cornering Fantomas, he was well aware that he risked his life in entering the bandit's abode. What happened was that the villain found means to blow up the house, and to bury Juve underneath the ruins. Fantomas has proved the stronger; but, according to my ideas, Juve has had, none the less, the finest death he could desire—death in the midst of the fight—a useful death!"
[Footnote 3: See The Exploits of Juve.]
"Useful? In what way?..."
"My dear fellow," cried Fandor, in a tone of vigorous denial, "in the opinion of all unprejudiced minds, the death of Juve has proved, proved up to the hilt, the existence of Fantomas.... More, it has forced this villain to disappear; it has restored peace, tranquillity to society.... At the cost of his life, Juve has scored a final triumph, he has deprived Fantomas of the power to do harm—pared his claws in fact."
"The truth is he is never mentioned now by a soul ... for all that, Fandor, only to see you smile! Why—," and the editorial secretary shook a threatening finger at his colleague: "I'll wager you still believe in Fantomas!... That one fine day you will write us a rattling good article, announcing some fresh Fantomas crime!"
Jerome Fandor made no direct reply to this—it was useless to try and convince those who had not closely followed the records of crimes perpetrated during recent years: you could not make them believe in the existence of Fantomas. Fandor knew; but, Juve dead, was there another soul who could know the true facts?
All he said was:
"Well, my dear fellow, this does not tell us what we are to fill up the paper with now!... If the doings connected with Fantomas are frightful, rousing our feelings in the highest degree, I repeat that yesterday's crime bears no resemblance to them: we can put in a paragraph or so—that is all!"
"No way, is there, of compromising anyone with our Baroness de Vibray?"
"I don't think so! It's a perfectly common-place affair. An elderly woman patronises a young painter, whose mistress she may or may not be, and she ends up by getting herself assassinated when the young man imagines he is mentioned in her will."
"Ah! good! Well, I think you will have to fall back on the opening of the artesian well. That suit you?"
"Oh, quite all right!... If you like I can give you my copy in half an hour. I know who are going to speak at the inauguration ceremony, and I can add names this evening! You know I am a bit of a specialist as regards reports written beforehand!"
Fandor had got well on with his article: at the rate he was going he would have finished that morning, he thought with pleasure, and would have a free afternoon. Just then an office boy appeared:
"Monsieur Fandor, you are being asked for at the telephone."
Like most journalists, Fandor was accustomed to reply in nine cases out of ten, in similar cases, that he was not to be found. On this occasion, however, some interior prompting made him say:
"I will come."
A few minutes later Fandor went up to the editorial secretary:
"Look here, old fellow, something unexpected has happened.... I must go to the Palais de Justice ... you don't want me for anything else this morning, do you?"
"No, go along! But what's up?"
"Oh ... this Jacques Dollon, you know, the assassin of the rue Norvins? Well, this imbecile has gone and hanged himself in his cell!"
* * * * *
At the exit door of La Capitale, in the noisy rue Montmartre, crowded with costermongers' barrows, Jerome Fandor hailed a taxi.
"To the Palais!"
Some minutes later he was crossing the hall of the Wandering Footsteps (as it is called), giving rapid, cordial greetings to all the barristers of his acquaintance—one never knew when they might impart a special piece of information which let an enterprising journalist into the know, or put him early on to a good thing—and finally reached the lobbies of the Law Courts proper. He was saying to himself as he went along:
"He is a good fellow, Jouet! The news is not known yet! He telephoned me first!"
His friend Jouet met him, with a warm handshake:
"You did not seem to be in a good temper at the telephone just now, although I was giving you a nice bit of information!"
"Yes," retorted Fandor, "but information which simply proved how much the administrators of justice, to which you have the misfortune to belong, can make egregious mistakes! When, for once, you succeed in immediately arresting the assassin of someone well known, and are in a position to bring into play all the power and rigour of the law, you are clumsy enough to give the fellow a chance of punishing himself, you let him commit suicide on the very first night of his arrest!"
Fandor had been speaking in a fairly loud voice, as usual, but, at imperative signs made by his friend, he lowered his tones:
"What is it?" he murmured.
His friend rose:
"What we are going to do, old boy, is to take a turn in the galleries! I have something to say to you, and, joking apart, you are not to breathe a word of it to a soul—sh?"
"Count on me!"
Presently the two friends found themselves in one of the corridors of the Palais, known only to barristers and those accused of law-breaking.
"Come now!" cried Fandor, "your assassin has hanged himself, hasn't he?"
"My assassin!" expostulated the junior barrister: "My assassin! Allow me to inform you that Jacques Dollon is innocent!"
"Innocent?" Jerome Fandor shrugged a disbelieving shoulder: "Innocent! It is the fashion of the day to transform all murderers into innocents!... What ground have you for making such a declaration of innocence?"
"Here is my ground! I have just copied it out for you! Read!..."
Fandor hastened to read the paper handed to him by his friend. It was headed thus:
"Copy of a letter brought by Maitre Gerin to the Public Prosecutor, a letter addressed to Maitre Gerin by the Baroness de Vibray."
"Oh, it's a plant!" cried Fandor.
"Go on reading, you will see...."
"My dear Maitre,—
You will forgive me, I am certain of that, for all the inconvenience I am going to cause you; I turn to you because you are the only friend in whom I have confidence.
I have just received a letter from my bankers, Messieurs Barbey-Nanteuil, of whom I have often spoken to you, who you know manage all my money affairs for me.
This letter informs me that I am ruined. You quite understand—absolutely, completely ruined.
The house I am living in, my carriage, the luxurious surroundings so necessary to me, I shall have to give it all up, so they tell me.
These people have dealt me a terrible blow, struck me brutally....
My dear maitre, I learned this only two hours ago, and I am still stunned by it. I do not wish to wait for the inevitable moment when I shall begin to console myself, because I shall begin to hope that the disaster is exaggerated. I have no family, I am already old; apart from the satisfaction it gives me to use my influence on behalf of youthful talent, and to help forward its development, my life has no sense in it, it is without aim or object. My dear maitre, there are not two ways of announcing to one's friends resolutions analogous to that I now take: when you receive this letter I shall be dead.
I have in front of me, on my writing-table, a tiny phial of poison which I am going to drink to the last drop, without any weakening of will, almost without fear, as soon as I have posted this letter to you myself.
I must confess that I have an instinctive horror of being dragged to the Morgue, as happens whenever there is some doubt about a suicide. It is on account of this I now write to you, so that, thanks to your intervention, all the mistakes justice is liable to make may be avoided.
I kill myself, I only; that is certain.
No one must be incriminated in connection with my death, if it be not Fatality, which has caused my ruin. I once more apologise, my dear maitre, for all the measures you will be forced to take owing to my death, and I beg you to believe that my friendship for you was very sincere:
BARONESS DE VIBRAY."
"Good for you!" cried Fandor. "Here's a go! What a pretty petard in prospect!... Jacques Dollon was innocent; you arrest him; he is so terrified that he hangs himself! Well, old boy, I must say you make some fine blunders on Clock Quay!"
"It is nobody's fault!" protested the young barrister.
"That is to say," retorted Fandor, "it is everybody's fault! By Jove! If you let innocent prisoners hang themselves in their cells, I am no longer surprised that you leave the guilty at liberty to walk the streets at their sweet will!"
"Don't make a joke of it, old boy!... You understand, of course, that so far no one in the Palais has seen the letter! It has just been brought to the Public Prosecutor's office by Madame de Vibray's solicitor, Maitre Gerin. You came on the scene only a few minutes after I had sent up the original to the examining magistrate. The case is in Fuselier's hands."
"Is he in his office?"
"Certainly! He should proceed with the examination relative to poor Dollon this morning."
"Very well then, I will go up. I shall jolly soon get out of this booby of a Fuselier the information I need to make one of the best reports I have ever written. And you know, I am ever so obliged to you for the matter you've given me! But, mind you, I am going to put together a bit of copy that will not deal tenderly with our gentlemen of the robe—the lot of you! No, it is a bad, unlucky business enough, but it is even more funny—it is tragi-comedy!"
"For my part ..." began Fandor's barrister friend.
"Yes, yes! Good day, Pontius Pilate!" cried Fandor. "I am going up to Fuselier.... We must meet to-morrow!"
Hastening along the corridors, Fandor gained the office of the examining magistrate.
* * * * *
Fandor had known the magistrate a long while. Was not Fuselier the justice who, with Detective Juve, had had everything to do with the strangely mysterious cases associated with the name of Fantomas? In the course of his various judicial examinations he had often been able to give Fandor information and help. At first hostile to the constant preoccupation of Juve and Fandor—for long the arrest of Fantomas was their one aim—the young magistrate had gradually come to believe in what had seemed to him nothing but the detective's hypothesis. Open-minded, gifted with an alert intelligence, Fuselier had carefully followed the investigations of Juve and Fandor. He knew every detail, every vicissitude connected with the tracking of this elusive bandit. Since then the magistrate had taken the deepest interest in the pursuit of the criminal. Thanks to his support, Juve had been enabled to take various measures, otherwise almost impossible, avoid the many obstacles offered by legal procedure, risk the striking of many a blow he could not otherwise have ventured on.
Fuselier had a high opinion of Juve, and his attitude to Fandor was sympathetic.
Our journalist was going over the past as he hastened along:
Ah, if only Juve were here! If only this loyal servant of Justice, this sincerest of friends, this bravest of the brave, had not been struck down, Fandor would have been full of enthusiasm for the Dollon affair; for its interest was increasing, its mystery deepening! But Fandor was single-handed now! He had had a miraculous escape from the bomb which had blown up Lady Beltham's house on that tragic day when Juve had all but laid hands on Fantomas!
But Fandor would not allow himself to become disheartened—never that! In the school of his vanished friend he had learned to give himself up with single-minded devotion to any task he took up; his sole satisfaction being duty well fulfilled.... Well, the Dollon case should be cleared up!... To do so was to render a service to humanity! Having come to this conclusion he hastened to interview Monsieur Fuselier.
* * * * *
"Monsieur Fuselier," cried Fandor as he shook hands with the magistrate, "you must know quite well why I have come to see you!"
"About the rue Norvins affair?"
"Say rather about the Depot affair! It is there the affair became tragic."
Monsieur Fuselier smiled:
"You know then?"
"That Jacques Dollon has hanged himself? Yes. That he was innocent? Again, yes!" confessed Fandor, smiling in his turn: "You know that at La Capitale we get all the information going, and are the first to get it!"
"Evidently," conceded the magistrate. "But if you know all about it, why put my professional discretion to the torture by asking absurd questions?"
"Now, what the deuce are they about on Clock Quay? Don't they supervise the accused in their cells?"
"Certainly they do! When this Dollon arrived at the Depot he was immediately conducted to Monsieur Bertillon: there he was measured and tested, finger marks taken, and so on."
"Just so," said Fandor. "I saw Bertillon before coming on to you. He told me Dollon seemed crushed: he submitted to all the tests without making the slightest objection; but he never spoke of suicide, never said anything which could lead one to imagine such a fatal termination."
"Well, he would not cry it aloud on the housetops!... When he left Monsieur Bertillon, what then?"
"After!... Oh, the police took him to a cell, and left him there. At midnight the chief warder made his rounds and saw nothing abnormal. It was in the morning they found this unfortunate Dollon had hanged himself."
"What did he hang himself with?"
"With strips of his shirt twisted into a rope.... Oh, my dear fellow, I see what you are thinking! You fancy that there has been a want of common prudence—that the warders were lax—that they had let him retain his braces, his cravat or his shoe laces!... Well, it was not so—precautions were taken."
"And this suicide remains incomprehensible!"
"Well!... This wretched youth must have been ferociously energetic, because he had fastened these shirt ropes of his to the iron bars of his bed, and strangled himself by lying on his back. Death must have been long in coming to release him from his agony."
"Can I not see him?" asked Fandor.
"Why not photograph him?" asked the magistrate in a bantering tone.
"Oh, if it were possible!..." Fandor stopped short. A youth knocked and entered:
"A lady, who wishes to see you, monsieur."
"Tell her I am too busy."
"She asked me to say that it is urgent."
"Ask her name."
"Here is her card, monsieur."
Monsieur Fuselier looked at the card: he started!
"Elizabeth Dollon!... Ah ... Good Heavens, what am I to say to this poor girl? How am I to tell her?"
Just then the door was pushed violently open, and a girl, in tears, rushed towards him:
"Monsieur, where is my brother?"
Whilst the magistrate mechanically asked his distracted visitor to sit down, Jerome Fandor discreetly withdrew to the further side of the room; he was anxious that the magistrate should forget his presence, so that he might be a witness of what promised to be a most exciting interview.
"Pray control yourself, mademoiselle," begged the magistrate. "Your brother has perhaps been arrested through a mistake...."
"Oh, monsieur, I am sure of it, but it is frightful!"
"Mademoiselle, the dreadful thing would be that he was guilty."
"But they have not set him at liberty yet? He has not been able to clear himself?"
"Yes, yes, mademoiselle, he has vindicated himself, I even ..." Monsieur Fuselier stopped short, intensely pained, not knowing how to tell Elizabeth Dollon the terrible news.
At once she cried: "Ah, monsieur, you hesitate! You have learned something fresh? You are on the track of the assassins?"
"It is certain ... your brother is not guilty!"
The poor girl's countenance suddenly brightened. She had passed a horrible night after her return to Paris, and the receipt of the wire from Police Headquarters.
"What a nightmare!" she cried. "But the telegram said he was injured—nothing serious, is it?... Where is he now? Can I see him?"
"Mademoiselle," said the magistrate, "your brother has had a terrible shock!... It would be better!... I fear that!..."
Suddenly Elizabeth Dollon cried:
"Oh, monsieur, how you said that! How can seeing me do him harm?"
As Monsieur Fuselier did not reply, she burst into tears:
"You are hiding something from me! The papers said this morning that he also was a victim! Swear to me that he is not?"
"You are hiding something from me!" The poor girl was frantic with terror: she wrung her hands in a state of despair: "Where is he? I must see him! Oh, take pity on me!"
As she watched the magistrate's downcast look, his air of discomfiture, the horrid truth flashed on Elizabeth Dollon:
"Dead!" she cried. She was shaken with sobs.
"Mademoiselle!... Oh, mademoiselle!" implored the magistrate, filled with pity. He tried to find some words of consolation, and this confirmed her worst fears:
"I swear to you!... It is certain your brother was not guilty!"
The distracted girl was beyond listening to the magistrate's words! Huddled up in an arm-chair, she lay inert, collapsed. Presently she rose like a person moving in some mad dream, her eyes wild:
"Take me to him!... I want to see him! They have killed him for me!... I must see him!"
Such was her insistence, the violence with which she claimed the right to go to her brother, to kneel beside him, that Monsieur Fuselier dared not refuse her this consolation.
"Control yourself, I beg of you! I am going to take you to him; but, for Heaven's sake, be reasonable! Control yourself!"
With his eyes he sought for the moral support of Fandor, whose presence he suddenly remembered. But our journalist, taking advantage of the momentary confusion, had quietly slipped from the room.
Evidently some unpleasant occurrence had upset the routine existence of the functionaries at the Depot. The warders were coming and going, talking among themselves, leaning against the doors of the numerous cells. The chief warder called one of his men:
"There must be no more of this disorder, Nibet!"
The chief warder was furious: he was about to hold forth to his subordinate, when an inspector approached.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Sergeant, it is Monsieur Jouet. He has a gentleman with him. He has a permit. Should I allow him to enter?"
"Who? Monsieur Jouet?"
"No, the gentleman accompanying him!"
"Hang it all! Why, yes—if he has a permit!"
The sergeant moved away shrugging his shoulders disgustedly.
"Not pleased with things this morning, the chief isn't," one of the warders remarked.
"Not likely, after last night's performance!"
"It's he who will catch it hot over this business!" The warder rubbed his hands, laughing.
Meanwhile, Fandor had appeared at the entrance of the corridor, under the guidance of a warder. He was thinking of the splendid copy he had secured: he was hoping that when Fuselier learned that a journalist had obtained admittance to the Depot, and had seen the corpse of Jacques Dollon in his cell, that he would not turn vicious: "But after all," said he to himself, "Fuselier is not the man to give me the go-by out of spite."
Fandor walked up and down the hall of the prison. He had informed the warders that he was waiting for the magistrate. "How strange life is!" thought he. "To think that once again I should be brought into close contact with Elizabeth Dollon, and that there is no likelihood of her recognising me—we were such children when we parted—she especially! Had she any recollection of the little rascal I was at the time of poor Madame de Langrune's assassination?" And, closing his eyes, Fandor tried to call to mind the features of the Jacques Dollon he used to know: it was useless! The body of Jacques Dollon he would be gazing at in a few minutes would be that of an unknown person, whose name alone awakened memories of bygone days....
So to pass the time Fandor continued his marching up and down.
Monsieur Fuselier appeared at the entrance to the Depot, supporting the unsteady steps of poor Elizabeth Dollon. Fandor quickly drew back into an obscure corner:
"Better not attract attention to myself just at present," thought Fandor; "I will wait until the cell door is opened. If Fuselier does not wish to give me permission to remain, I can at any rate cast a rapid glance round that ill-omened little cell!"
Fandor followed, at a distance, the wavering steps of the poor girl whom Monsieur Fuselier was supporting with fatherly care.
When they paused before one of the cells pointed out by the head warder, Monsieur Fuselier turned to Elizabeth Dollon:
"Do you think you are strong enough to bear this trial, mademoiselle?... You are determined to see your brother?"
Elizabeth bent her head; the magistrate turned towards the warder:
"Open," said he. As the key was turned in the lock he said: "According to instructions from the Head, we have placed him on his bed again.... There is nothing to frighten you ... he seems to be asleep.... Now then!"
But as he opened the door, stretching his arm in the direction of the bed where the body of Jacques Dollon should be, an oath escaped him:
"Great Heavens! The dead man is gone!"
In this cell with its bare walls, its sole furniture an iron bedstead and a stool riveted to the floor, in this little cell which the eye could glance round in a second, there was no vestige of a corpse: Jacques Dollon's body was not there!
"You have mistaken the cell," said the magistrate sharply.
"No, no!" cried the astounded warder.
"You can see, can't you, that Jacques Dollon is not there?"
"He was there a few minutes ago!"
"Then they must have taken him somewhere else!"
"The keys have never left me!"
"Oh, come now!"
"No, sir. He was there ... now he isn't there! That's all I know!... Hey! You down there!" yelled the warder: "Who knows what has become of the corpse of cell 12?... The corpse we laid out just now?"
One after the other the warders came running. All confirmed what their chief had said: the dead body of Jacques Dollon had been left there, lying on the bed: not a soul had entered the cell: not a soul had touched the corpse!... Yet it was no longer there! Jerome Fandor, well in the background, followed the scene with an ironical smile. The frantic warders, the growing stupefaction of Monsieur Fuselier, amused him prodigiously. The magistrate was trying to understand the how, why, and wherefore of this incredible disappearance:
"As this man is not here, he cannot have been dead ... he has escaped ... but if he wanted to escape he must have been guilty!... Oh, I cannot make head or tail of it!"
Seizing the head warder by the shoulders, almost roughly, Monsieur Fuselier asked:
"Look here, chief, was this man dead, or was he not?"
Elizabeth Dollon was repeating:
"He lives! He lives!" and laughing wildly.
The warder raised his hand as though taking a solemn oath:
"As to being dead, he was dead right enough!... The doctor will tell you so, too: also my colleague, Favril, who helped me to lay out the body on the bed."
"But how can a dead body get away from here? If he was dead, he could not have escaped!" said the magistrate.
"It is witchcraft!" declared the warder, with a shrug.
Fuselier flew into a rage:
"Had you not better confess that you and your colleagues did not keep proper watch and ward!... The investigation will show on whose shoulders the responsibility rests."
"But, sakes alive, monsieur!" expostulated the warder: "There aren't only two of us who have seen him dead!... There are all the hospital attendants of the Depot as well!... There is the doctor, and there are my colleagues to be counted in: the truth is, monsieur, some fifty persons have seen him dead!"
"So you say!" cried the impatient magistrate: "I am going to inform the Public Prosecutor of what has happened, and at once!"
As he was hurrying away, he spied Jerome Fandor, who had not missed a single detail of the scene.
"You again!" exclaimed the irate magistrate: "How did you get in here?"
"By permit," replied our journalist.
"Well, you have learned what there is to know, haven't you? Be off, then! You are one too many here!... Frankly, there is no need for you to augment the scandal!... Will you, therefore, be kind enough to take yourself off?" And Fuselier, almost beside himself with rage, raced off to the Public Prosecutor's office.
After the magistrate's furious attack, Fandor could not possibly linger in the corridors of the Depot. The warders, too, were pressing their attentions on him and on Elizabeth Dollon:
"This way, monsieur!... Madame, this way!... Ah, it's a wretched business!... Here, this way! This way!... Be off, as fast as you can!"
Presently Fandor was descending the grand staircase of the Palais, steadying the uncertain steps of poor Elizabeth Dollon.
"I implore you to help me!" she cried: "Help me: help us! My brother is guiltless—I could swear to that!... He must—must be found!... This hideous nightmare must end!"
"Mademoiselle, I ask nothing better, only ... where to find him?"
"Ah, I have no idea, none!... I implore you, you who must know influential people in high places, do not leave any stone unturned, do all that is humanly possible to save him—to save us!"
Intensely moved by the poor girl's anguish of mind, Fandor could not trust himself to speak. He bent his head in the affirmative merely. Hailing a cab, he put her into it, gave the address to the driver, and as he was closing the door Elizabeth cried:
"Do all that is humanly possible—do everything in the world!"
"I swear to you I will get at the truth," was Fandor's parting promise. The cab had disappeared, but our journalist stood motionless, absorbed in his reflections. At last, uttering his thoughts aloud, he said:
"If the Baroness de Vibray has written that she has killed herself, then she has killed herself, and Dollon is innocent. It's true the letter may be fictitious ... therefore we must put it aside—we have no guarantee as to its genuineness.... Here is the problem: Jacques Dollon is dead, and yet has left the Depot! Yes, but how?"
Jerome Fandor went off in the direction of the offices of La Capitale so absorbed in thought that he jostled the passers-by, without noticing the angry glances bestowed on him:
"Jacques Dollon, dead, has left the Depot!" He repeated this improbable statement, so absurd, of necessity incorrect; repeated it to the point of satiety:
"Jacques Dollon is dead, and he has got away from the Depot!"
Then, in an illuminating flash, he perceived the solution of this apparently insoluble problem:
"A mystery such as this is incomprehensible, inexplicable, impossible, except in connection with one man! There is only one individual in the world capable of making a dead man seem to be alive after his death—and this individual is—Fantomas!"
To formulate this conclusion was to give himself a thrilling shock.... Since the disappearance of Juve, he had never had occasion to suspect the presence, the intervention of Fantomas in connection with any of the crimes he had investigated as reporter and student of human nature.
Fantomas! The sound of that name evoked the worst horrors! Fantomas! This bandit, this criminal who has not shrunk from any cruelty, any horror—Fantomas is crime personified!
Fantomas! He sticks at nothing!
Pronouncing these syllables of evil omen, Fandor lived over again all the extraordinary, improbable, impossible things that had really happened, and had put him on the watch for this terrifying assassin.
It was certain that to whatever degree he had participated in the assassination of the Baroness de Vibray, one must not be astonished at anything; neither at anything inconceivable, nor at any mysterious details connected with the murder.
He was the daring criminal—daring beyond all bounds of credibility. And whatever might be the dexterity, the ingenuity, the ability, the devotion of those who were pursuing him, such were his tricks, such his craft and cunning, such the fertility of his invention, so well conceived his devices, so great his audacity, that there were grounds for fearing he would never be brought to justice, and punished for his abominable crimes!
Ah, if life ever brought Jerome Fandor and this bandit face to face, there would ensue a struggle of every hour, day, and moment—a struggle of the most terrible nature, a struggle in which man was pitted against man, a struggle without pity, without mercy—a fight to the death! Fantomas would assuredly defend himself with all the immense elusive powers at his command: Jerome Fandor would pursue him with heart and soul, with his very life itself! It was not only to satisfy his sense of duty at the promptings of honour that the journalist would take action: he would have as guide for his acts, and to animate his will, the passion of hate, and the hope of avenging his friend Juve, fallen a victim to the mysterious blows of Fantomas.
* * * * *
In his article for La Capitale Fandor did not directly mention the possible participation of Fantomas in the crime of the rue Norvins. When it was finished he returned to his modest little flat on the fifth floor in the rue Bergere. He was about to enter the vestibule, when he noticed a piece of paper, which must have been slipped under his door. He stooped and picked up an envelope:
"Why, it is a letter—and there is no name and no stamp on it!"
Entering his study, he seated himself at his table and prepared to begin work. Then he bethought him of the letter, which he had carelessly thrown on the mantelpiece. He tore it open, and drew out a sheet of letter paper.
"Whatever is this?" he cried. His astonishment was natural enough, for the message was oddly put together. To prevent his handwriting being recognised, Fandor's correspondent had cut letters out of a newspaper, and had stuck them together in the desired order. The two or three lines of printed matter were as follows:
"Jerome Fandor, pay attention, great attention! The affair on which you are concentrating all your powers is worthy of all possible interest, but may have terribly dangerous consequences."
Of course there was no signature.
Evidently the warning referred to the Dollon case.
"Why," exclaimed Fandor, "this is simply an invitation not to busy myself hunting for the guilty persons!... Who has sent this invitation and warning? Surely the sender is the assassin, to whose interest it is that the inquiry into the rue Norvins murder should be dropped!... It must be Jacques Dollon!... But how could Dollon know my address? How could he have found time between his flight from the Depot and the present minute, to put this message of printed letters together, and take it to the rue Bergere?... And that at the risk of encountering someone who could recognise him, and might have him arrested afresh? Had he accomplices?"
Fandor was puzzled, agitated:
"But I am mad!... mad! It cannot be Dollon!... Dollon is dead—dead as a door nail—dead beyond dispute, because fifty men have seen him dead; dead, because the Depot doctors have certified his death!"
Daylight was fading; evening was coming on; Fandor was still turning the whole affair over in his mind. Every now and again he murmured:
"Fantomas! Fantomas has to do with this extraordinary, this mysterious affair! Fantomas is in it!... Fantomas!"
A SURPRISING ITINERARY
Jerome Fandor had passed a bad night!
Visions of horror had continually arisen in his troubled mind. Between nightmare after nightmare he had heard all the horrors of the night sound out in the darkness and the glimmering dawn. Then he had fallen into a heavy sleep, which had left him on awaking broken with fatigue. He had given himself a cold douche, and this had calmed his nerves; then he had dressed quickly. When eight o'clock struck he was at his writing-table, thinking things over:
"It's no laughing matter. I thought at first that the Dollon affair was quite ordinary; but I am mistaken. The warning I received last night leaves me no doubts on that head. Since the guilty person thinks it necessary to ask me to keep quiet, it is evident he fears my intervention; if he is afraid of that it is because it must be hurtful to him; if disastrous to him, a criminal, it is evident that it must be useful to honest folk. My duty, then, is to go straight ahead at all costs...."
There was another motive besides this of duty which incited him to follow more closely the vicissitudes of the rue Norvins drama, a motive still indefinite, vague, but nevertheless terribly strong....
Jerome Fandor had sworn to Elizabeth Dollon that he would get at the truth.
He recalled the girl's entreaty, her emotion; and when he closed his eyes, now and again, he seemed to see before him the tall, graceful, fair and fascinating sister of the vanished artist.... All Fandor would admit to himself was a chivalrous feeling towards her—Elizabeth Dollon was worth putting himself out for—that was all!
Our journalist spent the entire morning seated at his writing-table, his head between his hands, smoking cigarette after cigarette, arranging his plans for investigating the Dollon case:
"What I have to find out is how the dead man left the Depot. It is the first discovery to be made, the first impossibility to be explained—yes, and how am I to set about it?"
Suddenly Fandor jumped up, marched rapidly up and down his room, whistled a few bars of a popular melody, and in his exuberant gaiety attempted an operatic air in a voice deplorably out of tune.
"There are eighty chances out of a hundred that I shall not succeed," cried he; "but that still leaves me twenty chances of arriving at a satisfactory result—let us make the attempt!"
As Fandor was hurrying off, he called to the portress in passing:
"Madame Oudry, I don't know whether I shall be back this evening or no. Perhaps I may have to leave Paris for awhile, so would you be kind enough to pay particular attention to any letters that may come for me—be very particular about them, please!"
Fandor went off. A thought struck him. He turned back. He had something more to say to the good woman:
"I forgot to ask you whether anyone called to see me yesterday afternoon!"
"No, Monsieur Fandor, no one!"
"Good! If by any chance a messenger should bring a letter for me, look very carefully at him, Madame Oudry. I have a colleague or two who are playing a joke on me, and I should not be sorry to get even with them!"
This time Fandor really went off, having set his portress on the alert. In the rue Montmartre he hailed a cab:
"To the National Library! And as quick as you can!"
* * * * *
"By Jove! It's three o'clock! I've not a minute to lose!" cried Fandor as he got back his stick from the cloak-room of the National Library: he had handed it in there some hours ago. He entered the rue Richelieu. Now for an ironmonger's shop! He caught sight of one and went in:
"I should like fifty yards of fine cord, please; very strong and very pliable," said Fandor.
The shopkeeper stared at the smart young man:
"What do you want it for, sir?... I have various qualities."
Without the trace of a smile, and as if it were the most natural thing in the world, he replied:
"It is for one of my friends: he wants to hang himself!"
A shout of laughter was the response to this witticism, and the amused shopkeeper forthwith displayed various samples of cords. Fandor promptly made his choice and left the shop.
"Now for a watchmaker's!" said our journalist. He entered a jeweller's close by:
"I want an alarum clock—a small one—the cheapest you have!"
Provided with his alarum, Fandor looked at his watch again:
"Confound it all! It's half-past three!" he cried. He signalled to a closed cab:
"To the Palais de Justice! As hard as you can lick!"
Directly Fandor was well inside the vehicle, he drew down the blinds; took off his coat; unbuttoned his waistcoat!...
* * * * *
The great clock of the Palais de Justice had just struck four, and its silvery tones were echoing harmoniously along the corridors when Jerome Fandor entered the tradesman's gallery. He turned to the right, and gained the little lobby in which the cloak-room is. He quietly entered it. Barristers were coming and going, full of business, throwing off their gowns, inspecting the letters put aside during the sittings of the Courts. Fandor made his way among the groups with the ease of custom. He seemed to be looking for someone, and finished by questioning one of the women employed in the cloak-room:
"Is Madame Marguerite not here?"
"Oh, yes, monsieur, she is down below."
Madame Marguerite was an old friend of Fandor's. She was head of the cloak-room staff, and by her kind offices she had often obtained an interview for our journalist with one or other of the big-wigs of the bar, who generally object strongly to being questioned by journalists. When she appeared, Fandor told her he only wanted a little bit of information from her.
"Oh, yes, I know all about that! There is someone you wish to see, and you want me to manage it for you!"
"No! Not a bit of it! What I want to know is, where these gentlemen of the Court of Justice robe and unrobe? I mean the Justices of the Assize Courts!"
This seemed to astonish Madame Marguerite considerably:
"But, Monsieur Fandor, if you wish to interview one of the puisne judges, it would be ten times quicker for you to go and see him at his own home: here, at the Palais, it's almost certain he will refuse to answer you...."
"Don't bother about that, Madame Marguerite! Just tell me where these worthy guardians of order, defenders of right and justice, divest themselves of their red robes?"
Madame Marguerite was too much accustomed to our young journalist's ridiculous questions and absurd requests and remarks to argue with him any longer.
"The robing-room of these gentlemen," said she, "is in one of the outer offices of the court, near the Council Chamber."
"There is an assistant in that room, isn't there?"
"Yes, Monsieur Fandor."
"Ah! That is just what I wanted to know! Many thanks, madame," and Fandor, grinning with satisfaction, made off in the direction of the Court of Assizes. He ran up the steps leading to the Council Chamber, and spying the messenger asked:
"Can President Guechand see me, do you think?"
"Monsieur le President has gone."
Fandor seemed to be reflecting. He gazed searchingly round the room. As a matter of fact, he was verifying the correctness of Madame Marguerite's information. All round the room Fandor saw the little presses where the men of law kept their red robes. Yes, it was the robing and unrobing room of the puisne judges, the magistrates, right enough!
"So the President has gone? Ah, well ..." Fandor hesitated: he must think of some other name. He noticed the visiting cards nailed to each press, indicating the owner. He read one of the names and repeated it:
"Well, then, could Justice Hubert see me—could he possibly? Will you ask him to let me see him for five minutes?"
"What name shall I say?"
"My name will not tell him anything. Please say it is with reference to the—er—Peyru case—and I come from Maitre Tissot."
"I will go and see," said the messenger, moving off.
Whilst he was in sight Fandor walked up and down in the regulation way, murmuring:
"Maitre Tissot!... The Peyru case!... Go ahead, my good fellow! You will have a nice kind of reception down below there—with those made-up names."
Some minutes later, the messenger returned to his post, prepared to inform the importunate young man that he could not possibly be received by Justice Hubert. He stopped short on the threshold: not a soul was to be seen!
"Wherever has that young man got to? Taken himself off, most likely!... I expect he was one of those lawyer's clerks—confound them! A nice fool I should have looked if his Honour, Justice Hubert, had said he would receive him!"
With this reflection the messenger went back to his newspaper, not without having ascertained that it was four o'clock, and therefore he had still an hour to wait before he could have his coffee and cigar at the "Men of the Robe."
* * * * *
Through the great windows of the Court of Assizes, carefully closed as they were, not a ray of moonlight filtered into the court room. And this obscurity lent an added terror to a silence as profound as the grave, a silence which, with the falling shades of night, assumed possession of the vast hall, where so many criminals had listened to the fatal sentence—the sentence of death.
* * * * *
When the Court had risen, the assistants had, as usual, proceeded to put the place in order; then the police sergeant had made his rounds, and had gone away, double locking the doors behind him. After this the chamber had gradually sunk into complete repose: a repose which would be broken the following morning when the bustling routine of the legal day commenced once more.
Little by little, too, the many and varied noises, which had echoed and re-echoed the whole day through in the galleries of the Palais de Justice, had died down, and sunk into silence.
The custodians had made their last round; the barristers had quitted the robing-room; the poor wretches who had slunk in to warm themselves at the heating apparatus in the halls had shuffled back to the cold street, and the whistling blasts of the north wind. The immense pile was entirely deserted.
A clock began to strike.
Then, hardly had the last stroke of eleven sounded, awakening the echoes of the empty galleries, than in the Court of Assizes itself, under the monumental desk, before which the justices sat in state by day, a noise made itself heard, long, strident, nerve-racking—the noise of an alarum clock!
Just as the alarum ceased its raucous call, a loud yawn resounded through the empty spaces of the chamber. The sleeper, who had selected this spot that he might indulge, all undisturbed, in a revivifying sleep, evidently took no pains to smother the sound of his voice, for, after yawning enough to dislocate his jaws, he uttered a loud: "Ah!" He accompanied his yawns with exclamations:
"It's a fact, the Republic doesn't do things up to the scratch! The rugs here are of poor quality!... I'm aching all over!... The floor is strewn with peach kernels—surely?... At any rate, it's a quiet hotel, and one is not disturbed—a truly delectable refuge to have a jolly good snore in!"
The sleeper sat up:
"What's the time exactly? Let us have a light on it!" A match was struck, and a tiny flare of light shone from under the desk of the presiding judge:
"Ten past eleven! I've still five minutes to be lazy in—and I shall need all of it, for I've a rough night before me! I can rest awhile, and think things over!"
The speaker calmly lay down again, trying to find a comfortable position on what he christened mentally: "The administrative peach kernels":
"Let me see, now!" he went on aloud. "At five in the afternoon it was known that Jacques Dollon had committed suicide; was probably innocent, and that his corpse had disappeared. Yesterday, at half-past five, La Capitale announced that he had a very pretty sister.... To-night at ten past eleven behold me, shut up quite alone in the Palais de Justice, free to proceed to the little investigation I think of making.... Jerome Fandor, my dear friend, I congratulate you! You have not managed badly!...
"Yes," went on our journalist, "what a joke it is! Here have I got myself shut up in the Palais without the slightest difficulty! It is true, that if the assistant had been obliged to open, and verify, the contents of all the robing-rooms of all the judges, he would never have finished. As for me, in my cupboard, I followed all the good fellow's movements, and he never suspected my presence. If I am to be congratulated, he cannot be blamed for it! There I was, there I remained, and now I must be off!"
Fandor drew a small wax taper from his pocket and lighted it with a match.
"What's to be done with the alarum?" he went on. "To leave it will be to betray my having passed this way—what of it?... In any case, even if this reporting job fails, I shall make a story out of it ... and how can they accuse me of stealing if I leave my cloak as a gift for his judgeship!"
Laughing, Fandor piled up the law books lying on the desk, and placed the alarum on the top; that done, he went to the principal entrance, the only one with double doors. He seized the heavy iron bar placed across the door and worked it loose. He drew the two leaves of the door towards him; and, although it had been locked as usual, he effected his escape, after a considerable trial of strength.
Out on the stairs, lighted taper in hand, the laughing Fandor closed the two leaves of the door with the utmost care, and went forward whistling a marching tune. His objective was a certain little staircase leading to the top story of the Palais, and this he mounted with vigorous determination. There was no likelihood of chance encounters, for there was not a soul in the vast building: the police were making their rounds outside it. Our adventurous journalist did not make his way upwards with stealthy tread—there was no need for that. Having gained the top floor, he went straight to a corner where an ebony ladder was ensconced, a ladder which had long been the joy and pride of the grand master of this part of the Palais, the amiable Monsieur Peter.
"Pretty heavy!" grumbled Fandor, as he carried it upwards. Under the roof he caught sight of a skylight, rested his ebony ladder against it, and climbed briskly on to the roof.
From thence Fandor had a view that was fairy-like. Spread out in the distance were the sparkling lights of Paris. He was divided from them by the vast mass of roofs about him, by a gulf of empty space, and beyond, by a dark blur—the two arms of the Seine flowing on either side of the Palais de Justice.... The mysterious darkness! The fascination of the sparkling points of light!... Fandor gave himself a mental shake.... This was no moment for dreaming under the stars!
From his pocket he took a tiny, folding dark lantern; from his pocket-book he drew a paper, which he spread out and proceeded to study. As he bent over it, he murmured:
"A bit of good luck that I was able to get hold of a complete and detailed plan of the Palais de Justice! Without it I never could have found my way among these roofs!"
He examined the plan for some minutes; made a note of various landmarks; then refolding it, he gained one of the sloping roofs facing the quay of the Leather Dressers:
"Now," thought Fandor, "I must be just above the Depot! And now to find out how Jacques Dollon, dead or living, has got out of the Depot! No use thinking of a window, for the cell has not got one! Fuselier has reason on his side when he declares that you do not get out of the cells of the Depot, nor out of the Palais!... Well, now—to carry off Dollon, dead or living, by way of the Palais Square, or by the boulevard, is out of the question: there are too many people about!... To carry him off by one of the exits, on to either of the quays, is equally out of the question: there are the sentries, in the first place, and then comes the Seine—then Jacques Dollon has left the Depot, or he has not, or, at any rate, he is still somewhere in the Palais—unless ..."
Fandor interrupted his cogitations to light a cigarette: smoking helped him to think things out:
"It is equally certain that if Dollon is still in the Palais, he cannot be in the Depot, for the Depot has been rigorously searched since his disappearance, and he would most certainly have been found, had he been anywhere about the Depot. It is also certain that he is not inside the Palais, because the only means of communication between the Depot and the Palais is a single staircase, and it is certain that a corpse could not have been taken that way unperceived.... Then it follows that Jacques Dollon must have got out by the only ways which are in communication with the Depot: that is to say, the drains and the chimneys!"
"How could he have got out, or been got out by the drains? As far as I know, there is no system of pipes large enough to allow of the passage of a man through the pipes which join the main sewers; but, as a set-off to that, there is a chimney—the ancient chimney of Marie Antoinette—which communicates with the Depot, and the roof I am now on: it must have been by this chimney that the escape was made! Let us see whether this is so or not!"
By the light of his tiny dark lantern Fandor studied afresh the plan of the Palais, and tried to identify the various chimneys about him. He soon picked out the orifice of Marie Antoinette's chimney. After a considering glance at it, he remarked:
"That's odd! Here is the only chimney whose opening is below the ledge of the roofs! It is certain that unless one had been warned, and had examined this roof from some neighbouring building, the orifice of this chimney would not be noticed. If Jacques Dollon passed out by it, no one would notice his exit!"
Our journalist continued his examination, full of excitement. Surely he was on the right track!
"Ah! Ah! Here are stones freshly scraped and scratched!" he cried delightedly. "And this white mark is just the kind of mark which would be made by a cord scraping against the wall! And look what a size this chimney is! It's not only one Jacques Dollon who could pass out by it, but two! But three! A whole army! Ah, ha, I believe I am on the right track! Now for it!"
Fandor bent over and looked down the interior of the chimney; and, at the risk of toppling over, he managed to reach something he saw shining in the darkness of the opening; he drew himself up, radiant:
"By Jove! There are irons fixed in the walls of the chimney to climb up and down by; and, what is more, they bear traces of a recent passage—the rust has been rubbed off here and there!... Yes, it is by this way Dollon has come out!... To whom else could it be an advantage to use this as an exit from the interior of the Palais, on to the roofs?"
Fandor was keen on the scent! Here, indeed, was matter for an article which would bring him into notice—good business for a journalist!
"If Dollon had been alive," reflected Fandor, "it is evident that, once on the roofs, he had a choice of three ways to escape: he could do what I have just done, but the other way about; he could break a skylight, jump into a garret, and lie hidden under the tiles, awaiting the propitious moment when he could gain the corridors below and, mingling with the crowd, slip unobserved into the street; or, he could hide among the roofs, and stay there; or, he could search for an opening—one of those air holes which put the cellars and drains in communication with the exterior.... But I have come to the conclusion that Dollon is dead! Then his corpse could only remain up here; or, it has been put down into some place where nobody goes. The garrets of the Palais are so incessantly visited by the clerks and registrars that no corpse could remain undiscovered in any of them. Therefore, either Jacques Dollon's corpse is somewhere on the roofs of the Palais, or there is some sort of communication between the roofs and the drains—it is obvious!"
Evidently the next step was to search every hole and corner of these same roofs. Armed with revolver and lantern, Fandor started on his tour of investigation; but prudently, for he was now almost certain that there were a number of accomplices involved in this Dollon affair.
To go carefully over the enormous roof of the Palais de Justice was no light task! One has only to consider the immensity of this monumental pile, its complicated architecture, the numberless little courts enclosed within its vast confines, to understand the difficulties with which our intrepid journalist had to contend. But Jerome Fandor was not the man to be discouraged in the face of difficulties: he was determined to brave them—conquer them! He examined, minutely, the entire roofing of the Palais; he did not leave a corner or a morsel of shadow unexplored; there was not a gutter which he had not searched from end to end. When, after two hours of strenuous exertion, he returned to his starting-point, the chimney of Marie Antoinette, he was fain to confess that if Jacques Dollon had mounted to the roof of the Palais de Justice he certainly had not remained there.