THE INTERNATIONAL ADVENTURE LIBRARY
THREE OWLS EDITION
THE CONFESSIONS OF ARSENE LUPIN
An Adventure Story
BY MAURICE LEBLANC Author of "Arsene Lupin"
W. R. CALDWELL & CO. NEW YORK
Copyright, 1912, 1913, by Maurice Leblanc
All rights reserved, including that of translation into foreign languages, including the Scandinavian
I. TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND FRANCS REWARD! 1
II. THE WEDDING-RING 36
III. THE SIGN OF THE SHADOW 66
IV. THE INFERNAL TRAP 101
V. THE RED SILK SCARF 138
VI. SHADOWED BY DEATH 177
VII. A TRAGEDY IN THE FOREST OF MORGUES 210
VIII. LUPIN'S MARRIAGE 228
IX. THE INVISIBLE PRISONER 266
X. EDITH SWAN-NECK 291
THE CONFESSIONS OF ARSENE LUPIN
THE CONFESSIONS OF ARSENE LUPIN
TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND FRANCS REWARD!...
"Lupin," I said, "tell me something about yourself."
"Why, what would you have me tell you? Everybody knows my life!" replied Lupin, who lay drowsing on the sofa in my study.
"Nobody knows it!" I protested. "People know from your letters in the newspapers that you were mixed up in this case, that you started that case. But the part which you played in it all, the plain facts of the story, the upshot of the mystery: these are things of which they know nothing."
"Pooh! A heap of uninteresting twaddle!"
"What! Your present of fifty thousand francs to Nicolas Dugrival's wife! Do you call that uninteresting? And what about the way in which you solved the puzzle of the three pictures?"
"Yes, that was a queer puzzle, certainly. I can suggest a title for you if you like: what do you say to The Sign of the Shadow?"
"And your successes in society and with the fair sex?" I continued. "The dashing Arsene's love-affairs!... And the clue to your good actions? Those chapters in your life to which you have so often alluded under the names of The Wedding-ring, Shadowed by Death, and so on!... Why delay these confidences and confessions, my dear Lupin?... Come, do what I ask you!..."
It was at the time when Lupin, though already famous, had not yet fought his biggest battles; the time that preceded the great adventures of The Hollow Needle and 813. He had not yet dreamt of annexing the accumulated treasures of the French Royal House[A] nor of changing the map of Europe under the Kaiser's nose[B]: he contented himself with milder surprises and humbler profits, making his daily effort, doing evil from day to day and doing a little good as well, naturally and for the love of the thing, like a whimsical and compassionate Don Quixote.
[A] The Hollow Needle. By Maurice Leblanc. Translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos (Eveleigh Nash).
[B] 813. By Maurice Leblanc. Translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos (Mills & Boon).
He was silent; and I insisted:
"Lupin, I wish you would!"
To my astonishment, he replied:
"Take a sheet of paper, old fellow, and a pencil."
I obeyed with alacrity, delighted at the thought that he at last meant to dictate to me some of those pages which he knows how to clothe with such vigour and fancy, pages which I, unfortunately, am obliged to spoil with tedious explanations and boring developments.
"Are you ready?" he asked.
"Write down, 20, 1, 11, 5, 14, 15."
"Write it down, I tell you."
He was now sitting up, with his eyes turned to the open window and his fingers rolling a Turkish cigarette. He continued:
"Write down, 21, 14, 14, 5...."
He stopped. Then he went on:
"3, 5, 19, 19 ..."
And, after a pause:
"5, 18, 25 ..."
Was he mad? I looked at him hard and, presently, I saw that his eyes were no longer listless, as they had been a little before, but keen and attentive and that they seemed to be watching, somewhere, in space, a sight that apparently captivated them.
Meanwhile, he dictated, with intervals between each number:
"18, 9, 19, 11, 19 ..."
There was hardly anything to be seen through the window but a patch of blue sky on the right and the front of the building opposite, an old private house, whose shutters were closed as usual. There was nothing particular about all this, no detail that struck me as new among those which I had had before my eyes for years....
And suddenly I understood ... or rather I thought I understood, for how could I admit that Lupin, a man so essentially level-headed under his mask of frivolity, could waste his time upon such childish nonsense? What he was counting was the intermittent flashes of a ray of sunlight playing on the dingy front of the opposite house, at the height of the second floor!
"15, 22 ..." said Lupin.
The flash disappeared for a few seconds and then struck the house again, successively, at regular intervals, and disappeared once more.
I had instinctively counted the flashes and I said, aloud:
"Caught the idea? I congratulate you!" he replied, sarcastically.
He went to the window and leant out, as though to discover the exact direction followed by the ray of light. Then he came and lay on the sofa again, saying:
"It's your turn now. Count away!"
The fellow seemed so positive that I did as he told me. Besides, I could not help confessing that there was something rather curious about the ordered frequency of those gleams on the front of the house opposite, those appearances and disappearances, turn and turn about, like so many flash signals.
They obviously came from a house on our side of the street, for the sun was entering my windows slantwise. It was as though some one were alternately opening and shutting a casement, or, more likely, amusing himself by making sunlight flashes with a pocket-mirror.
"It's a child having a game!" I cried, after a moment or two, feeling a little irritated by the trivial occupation that had been thrust upon me.
"Never mind, go on!"
And I counted away.... And I put down rows of figures.... And the sun continued to play in front of me, with mathematical precision.
"Well?" said Lupin, after a longer pause than usual.
"Why, it seems finished.... There has been nothing for some minutes...."
We waited and, as no more light flashed through space, I said, jestingly:
"My idea is that we have been wasting our time. A few figures on paper: a poor result!"
Lupin, without stirring from his sofa, rejoined:
"Oblige me, old chap, by putting in the place of each of those numbers the corresponding letter of the alphabet. Count A as 1, B as 2 and so on. Do you follow me?"
"But it's idiotic!"
"Absolutely idiotic, but we do such a lot of idiotic things in this life.... One more or less, you know!..."
I sat down to this silly work and wrote out the first letters:
I broke off in surprise:
"Words!" I exclaimed. "Two English words meaning...."
"Go on, old chap."
And I went on and the next letters formed two more words, which I separated as they appeared. And, to my great amazement, a complete English sentence lay before my eyes.
"Done?" asked Lupin, after a time.
"Done!... By the way, there are mistakes in the spelling...."
"Never mind those and read it out, please.... Read slowly."
Thereupon I read out the following unfinished communication, which I will set down as it appeared on the paper in front of me:
"Take no unnecessery risks. Above all, avoid atacks, approach ennemy with great prudance and...."
I began to laugh:
"And there you are! Fiat lux! We're simply dazed with light! But, after all, Lupin, confess that this advice, dribbled out by a kitchen-maid, doesn't help you much!"
Lupin rose, without breaking his contemptuous silence, and took the sheet of paper.
I remembered soon after that, at this moment, I happened to look at the clock. It was eighteen minutes past five.
Lupin was standing with the paper in his hand; and I was able at my ease to watch, on his youthful features, that extraordinary mobility of expression which baffles all observers and constitutes his great strength and his chief safeguard. By what signs can one hope to identify a face which changes at pleasure, even without the help of make-up, and whose every transient expression seems to be the final, definite expression?... By what signs? There was one which I knew well, an invariable sign: Two little crossed wrinkles that marked his forehead whenever he made a powerful effort of concentration. And I saw it at that moment, saw the tiny tell-tale cross, plainly and deeply scored.
He put down the sheet of paper and muttered:
The clock struck half-past five.
"What!" I cried. "Have you succeeded?... In twelve minutes?..."
He took a few steps up and down the room, lit a cigarette and said:
"You might ring up Baron Repstein, if you don't mind, and tell him I shall be with him at ten o'clock this evening."
"Baron Repstein?" I asked. "The husband of the famous baroness?"
"Are you serious?"
Feeling absolutely at a loss, but incapable of resisting him, I opened the telephone-directory and unhooked the receiver. But, at that moment, Lupin stopped me with a peremptory gesture and said, with his eyes on the paper, which he had taken up again:
"No, don't say anything.... It's no use letting him know.... There's something more urgent ... a queer thing that puzzles me.... Why on earth wasn't the last sentence finished? Why is the sentence...."
He snatched up his hat and stick:
"Let's be off. If I'm not mistaken, this is a business that requires immediate solution; and I don't believe I am mistaken."
He put his arm through mine, as we went down the stairs, and said:
"I know what everybody knows. Baron Repstein, the company-promoter and racing-man, whose colt Etna won the Derby and the Grand Prix this year, has been victimized by his wife. The wife, who was well known for her fair hair, her dress and her extravagance, ran away a fortnight ago, taking with her a sum of three million francs, stolen from her husband, and quite a collection of diamonds, pearls and jewellery which the Princesse de Berny had placed in her hands and which she was supposed to buy. For two weeks the police have been pursuing the baroness across France and the continent: an easy job, as she scatters gold and jewels wherever she goes. They think they have her every moment. Two days ago, our champion detective, the egregious Ganimard, arrested a visitor at a big hotel in Belgium, a woman against whom the most positive evidence seemed to be heaped up. On enquiry, the lady turned out to be a notorious chorus-girl called Nelly Darbal. As for the baroness, she has vanished. The baron, on his side, has offered a reward of two hundred thousand francs to whosoever finds his wife. The money is in the hands of a solicitor. Moreover, he has sold his racing-stud, his house on the Boulevard Haussmann and his country-seat of Roquencourt in one lump, so that he may indemnify the Princesse de Berny for her loss."
"And the proceeds of the sale," I added, "are to be paid over at once. The papers say that the princess will have her money to-morrow. Only, frankly, I fail to see the connection between this story, which you have told very well, and the puzzling sentence...."
Lupin did not condescend to reply.
We had been walking down the street in which I live and had passed some four or five houses, when he stepped off the pavement and began to examine a block of flats, not of the latest construction, which looked as if it contained a large number of tenants:
"According to my calculations," he said, "this is where the signals came from, probably from that open window."
"On the third floor?"
He went to the portress and asked her:
"Does one of your tenants happen to be acquainted with Baron Repstein?"
"Why, of course!" replied the woman. "We have M. Lavernoux here, such a nice gentleman; he is the baron's secretary and agent. I look after his flat."
"And can we see him?"
"See him?... The poor gentleman is very ill."
"He's been ill a fortnight ... ever since the trouble with the baroness.... He came home the next day with a temperature and took to his bed."
"But he gets up, surely?"
"Ah, that I can't say!"
"How do you mean, you can't say?"
"No, his doctor won't let any one into his room. He took my key from me."
"The doctor. He comes and sees to his wants, two or three times a day. He left the house only twenty minutes ago ... an old gentleman with a grey beard and spectacles.... Walks quite bent.... But where are you going sir?"
"I'm going up, show me the way," said Lupin, with his foot on the stairs. "It's the third floor, isn't it, on the left?"
"But I mustn't!" moaned the portress, running after him. "Besides, I haven't the key ... the doctor...."
They climbed the three flights, one behind the other. On the landing, Lupin took a tool from his pocket and, disregarding the woman's protests, inserted it in the lock. The door yielded almost immediately. We went in.
At the back of a small dark room we saw a streak of light filtering through a door that had been left ajar. Lupin ran across the room and, on reaching the threshold, gave a cry:
"Too late! Oh, hang it all!"
The portress fell on her knees, as though fainting.
I entered the bedroom, in my turn, and saw a man lying half-dressed on the carpet, with his legs drawn up under him, his arms contorted and his face quite white, an emaciated, fleshless face, with the eyes still staring in terror and the mouth twisted into a hideous grin.
"He's dead," said Lupin, after a rapid examination.
"But why?" I exclaimed. "There's not a trace of blood!"
"Yes, yes, there is," replied Lupin, pointing to two or three drops that showed on the chest, through the open shirt. "Look, they must have taken him by the throat with one hand and pricked him to the heart with the other. I say, 'pricked,' because really the wound can't be seen. It suggests a hole made by a very long needle."
He looked on the floor, all round the corpse. There was nothing to attract his attention, except a little pocket-mirror, the little mirror with which M. Lavernoux had amused himself by making the sunbeams dance through space.
But, suddenly, as the portress was breaking into lamentations and calling for help, Lupin flung himself on her and shook her:
"Stop that!... Listen to me ... you can call out later.... Listen to me and answer me. It is most important. M. Lavernoux had a friend living in this street, had he not? On the same side, to the right? An intimate friend?"
"A friend whom he used to meet at the cafe in the evening and with whom he exchanged the illustrated papers?"
"Was the friend an Englishman?"
"What's his name?"
"Where does he live?"
"At No. 92 in this street."
"One word more: had that old doctor been attending him long?"
"No. I did not know him. He came on the evening when M. Lavernoux was taken ill."
Without another word, Lupin dragged me away once more, ran down the stairs and, once in the street, turned to the right, which took us past my flat again. Four doors further, he stopped at No. 92, a small, low-storied house, of which the ground-floor was occupied by the proprietor of a dram-shop, who stood smoking in his doorway, next to the entrance-passage. Lupin asked if Mr. Hargrove was at home.
"Mr. Hargrove went out about half-an-hour ago," said the publican. "He seemed very much excited and took a taxi-cab, a thing he doesn't often do."
"And you don't know...."
"Where he was going? Well, there's no secret about it He shouted it loud enough! 'Prefecture of Police' is what he said to the driver...."
Lupin was himself just hailing a taxi, when he changed his mind; and I heard him mutter:
"What's the good? He's got too much start of us...."
He asked if any one called after Mr. Hargrove had gone.
"Yes, an old gentleman with a grey beard and spectacles. He went up to Mr. Hargrove's, rang the bell, and went away again."
"I am much obliged," said Lupin, touching his hat.
He walked away slowly without speaking to me, wearing a thoughtful air. There was no doubt that the problem struck him as very difficult, and that he saw none too clearly in the darkness through which he seemed to be moving with such certainty.
He himself, for that matter, confessed to me:
"These are cases that require much more intuition than reflection. But this one, I may tell you, is well worth taking pains about."
We had now reached the boulevards. Lupin entered a public reading-room and spent a long time consulting the last fortnight's newspapers. Now and again, he mumbled:
"Yes ... yes ... of course ... it's only a guess, but it explains everything.... Well, a guess that answers every question is not far from being the truth...."
It was now dark. We dined at a little restaurant and I noticed that Lupin's face became gradually more animated. His gestures were more decided. He recovered his spirits, his liveliness. When we left, during the walk which he made me take along the Boulevard Haussmann, towards Baron Repstein's house, he was the real Lupin of the great occasions, the Lupin who had made up his mind to go in and win.
We slackened our pace just short of the Rue de Courcelles. Baron Repstein lived on the left-hand side, between this street and the Faubourg Saint-Honore, in a three-storied private house of which we could see the front, decorated with columns and caryatides.
"Stop!" said Lupin, suddenly.
"What is it?"
"Another proof to confirm my supposition...."
"What proof? I see nothing."
"I do.... That's enough...."
He turned up the collar of his coat, lowered the brim of his soft hat and said:
"By Jove, it'll be a stiff fight! Go to bed, my friend. I'll tell you about my expedition to-morrow ... if it doesn't cost me my life."
"What are you talking about?"
"Oh, I know what I'm saying! I'm risking a lot. First of all, getting arrested, which isn't much. Next, getting killed, which is worse. But...." He gripped my shoulder. "But there's a third thing I'm risking, which is getting hold of two millions.... And, once I possess a capital of two millions, I'll show people what I can do! Good-night, old chap, and, if you never see me again...." He spouted Musset's lines:
"Plant a willow by my grave, The weeping willow that I love...."
I walked away. Three minutes later—I am continuing the narrative as he told it to me next day—three minutes later, Lupin rang at the door of the Hotel Repstein.
* * * * *
"Is monsieur le baron at home?"
"Yes," replied the butler, examining the intruder with an air of surprise, "but monsieur le baron does not see people as late as this."
"Does monsieur le baron know of the murder of M. Lavernoux, his land-agent?"
"Well, please tell monsieur le baron that I have come about the murder and that there is not a moment to lose."
A voice called from above:
"Show the gentleman up, Antoine."
In obedience to this peremptory order, the butler led the way to the first floor. In an open doorway stood a gentleman whom Lupin recognized from his photograph in the papers as Baron Repstein, husband of the famous baroness and owner of Etna, the horse of the year.
He was an exceedingly tall, square-shouldered man. His clean-shaven face wore a pleasant, almost smiling expression, which was not affected by the sadness of his eyes. He was dressed in a well-cut morning-coat, with a tan waistcoat and a dark tie fastened with a pearl pin, the value of which struck Lupin as considerable.
He took Lupin into his study, a large, three-windowed room, lined with book-cases, sets of pigeonholes, an American desk and a safe. And he at once asked, with ill-concealed eagerness:
"Do you know anything?"
"Yes, monsieur le baron."
"About the murder of that poor Lavernoux?"
"Yes, monsieur le baron, and about madame le baronne also."
"Do you really mean it? Quick, I entreat you...."
He pushed forward a chair. Lupin sat down and began:
"Monsieur le baron, the circumstances are very serious. I will be brief."
"Yes, do, please."
"Well, monsieur le baron, in a few words, it amounts to this: five or six hours ago, Lavernoux, who, for the last fortnight, had been kept in a sort of enforced confinement by his doctor, Lavernoux—how shall I put it?—telegraphed certain revelations by means of signals which were partly taken down by me and which put me on the track of this case. He himself was surprised in the act of making this communication and was murdered."
"But by whom? By whom?"
"By his doctor."
"Who is this doctor?"
"I don't know. But one of M. Lavernoux's friends, an Englishman called Hargrove, the friend, in fact, with whom he was communicating, is bound to know and is also bound to know the exact and complete meaning of the communication, because, without waiting for the end, he jumped into a motor-cab and drove to the Prefecture of Police."
"Why? Why?... And what is the result of that step?"
"The result, monsieur le baron, is that your house is surrounded. There are twelve detectives under your windows. The moment the sun rises, they will enter in the name of the law and arrest the criminal."
"Then is Lavernoux's murderer concealed in my house? Who is he? One of the servants? But no, for you were speaking of a doctor!..."
"I would remark, monsieur le baron, that when this Mr. Hargrove went to the police to tell them of the revelations made by his friend Lavernoux, he was not aware that his friend Lavernoux was going to be murdered. The step taken by Mr Hargrove had to do with something else...."
"With the disappearance of madame la baronne, of which he knew the secret, thanks to the communication made by Lavernoux."
"What! They know at last! They have found the baroness! Where is she? And the jewels? And the money she robbed me of?"
Baron Repstein was talking in a great state of excitement. He rose and, almost shouting at Lupin, cried:
"Finish your story, sir! I can't endure this suspense!"
Lupin continued, in a slow and hesitating voice:
"The fact is ... you see ... it is rather difficult to explain ... for you and I are looking at the thing from a totally different point of view."
"I don't understand."
"And yet you ought to understand, monsieur le baron.... We begin by saying—I am quoting the newspapers—by saying, do we not, that Baroness Repstein knew all the secrets of your business and that she was able to open not only that safe over there, but also the one at the Credit Lyonnais in which you kept your securities locked up?"
"Well, one evening, a fortnight ago, while you were at your club, Baroness Repstein, who, unknown to yourself, had converted all those securities into cash, left this house with a travelling-bag, containing your money and all the Princesse de Berny's jewels?"
"And, since then, she has not been seen?"
"Well, there is an excellent reason why she has not been seen."
"This, that Baroness Repstein has been murdered...."
"Murdered!... The baroness!... But you're mad!"
"Murdered ... and probably that same evening."
"I tell you again, you are mad! How can the baroness have been murdered, when the police are following her tracks, so to speak, step by step?"
"They are following the tracks of another woman."
"The murderer's accomplice."
"And who is the murderer?"
"The same man who, for the last fortnight, knowing that Lavernoux, through the situation which he occupied in this house, had discovered the truth, kept him imprisoned, forced him to silence, threatened him, terrorized him; the same man who, finding Lavernoux in the act of communicating with a friend, made away with him in cold blood by stabbing him to the heart."
"The doctor, therefore?"
"But who is this doctor? Who is this malevolent genius, this infernal being who appears and disappears, who slays in the dark and whom nobody suspects?"
"Can't you guess?"
"And do you want to know?"
"Do I want to know?... Why, speak, man, speak!... You know where he is hiding?"
"In this house?"
"And it is he whom the police are after?"
"And I know him?"
"Who is it?"
Lupin had not been more than ten minutes with the baron; and the duel was commencing. The accusation was hurled, definitely, violently, implacably.
"You yourself, got up in a false beard and a pair of spectacles, bent in two, like an old man. In short, you, Baron Repstein; and it is you for a very good reason, of which nobody has thought, which is that, if it was not you who contrived the whole plot, the case becomes inexplicable. Whereas, taking you as the criminal, you as murdering the baroness in order to get rid of her and run through those millions with another woman, you as murdering Lavernoux, your agent, in order to suppress an unimpeachable witness, oh, then the whole case is explained! Well, is it pretty clear? And are not you yourself convinced?"
The baron, who, throughout this conversation, had stood bending over his visitor, waiting for each of his words with feverish avidity, now drew himself up and looked at Lupin as though he undoubtedly had to do with a madman. When Lupin had finished speaking, the baron stepped back two or three paces, seemed on the point of uttering words which he ended by not saying, and then, without taking his eyes from his strange visitor, went to the fireplace and rang the bell.
Lupin did not make a movement. He waited smiling.
The butler entered. His master said:
"You can go to bed, Antoine. I will let this gentleman out."
"Shall I put out the lights, sir?"
"Leave a light in the hall."
Antoine left the room and the baron, after taking a revolver from his desk, at once came back to Lupin, put the weapon in his pocket and said, very calmly:
"You must excuse this little precaution, sir. I am obliged to take it in case you should be mad, though that does not seem likely. No, you are not mad. But you have come here with an object which I fail to grasp; and you have sprung upon me an accusation of so astounding a character that I am curious to know the reason. I have experienced so much disappointment and undergone so much suffering that an outrage of this kind leaves me indifferent. Continue, please."
His voice shook with emotion and his sad eyes seemed moist with tears.
Lupin shuddered. Had he made a mistake? Was the surmise which his intuition had suggested to him and which was based upon a frail groundwork of slight facts, was this surmise wrong?
His attention was caught by a detail: through the opening in the baron's waistcoat he saw the point of the pin fixed in the tie and was thus able to realize the unusual length of the pin. Moreover, the gold stem was triangular and formed a sort of miniature dagger, very thin and very delicate, yet formidable in an expert hand.
And Lupin had no doubt but that the pin attached to that magnificent pearl was the weapon which had pierced the heart of the unfortunate M. Lavernoux.
"You're jolly clever, monsieur le baron!"
The other, maintaining a rather scornful gravity, kept silence, as though he did not understand and as though waiting for the explanation to which he felt himself entitled. And, in spite of everything, this impassive attitude worried Arsene Lupin. Nevertheless, his conviction was so profound and, besides, he had staked so much on the adventure that he repeated:
"Yes, jolly clever, for it is evident that the baroness only obeyed your orders in realizing your securities and also in borrowing the princess's jewels on the pretence of buying them. And it is evident that the person who walked out of your house with a bag was not your wife, but an accomplice, that chorus-girl probably, and that it is your chorus-girl who is deliberately allowing herself to be chased across the continent by our worthy Ganimard. And I look upon the trick as marvellous. What does the woman risk, seeing that it is the baroness who is being looked for? And how could they look for any other woman than the baroness, seeing that you have promised a reward of two hundred thousand francs to the person who finds the baroness?... Oh, that two hundred thousand francs lodged with a solicitor: what a stroke of genius! It has dazzled the police! It has thrown dust in the eyes of the most clear-sighted! A gentleman who lodges two hundred thousand francs with a solicitor is a gentleman who speaks the truth.... So they go on hunting the baroness! And they leave you quietly to settle your affairs, to sell your stud and your two houses to the highest bidder and to prepare your flight! Heavens, what a joke!"
The baron did not wince. He walked up to Lupin and asked, without abandoning his imperturbable coolness:
"Who are you?"
Lupin burst out laughing.
"What can it matter who I am? Take it that I am an emissary of fate, looming out of the darkness for your destruction!"
He sprang from his chair, seized the baron by the shoulder and jerked out:
"Yes, for your destruction, my bold baron! Listen to me! Your wife's three millions, almost all the princess's jewels, the money you received to-day from the sale of your stud and your real estate: it's all there, in your pocket, or in that safe. Your flight is prepared. Look, I can see the leather of your portmanteau behind that hanging. The papers on your desk are in order. This very night, you would have done a guy. This very night, disguised beyond recognition, after taking all your precautions, you would have joined your chorus-girl, the creature for whose sake you have committed murder, that same Nelly Darbal, no doubt, whom Ganimard arrested in Belgium. But for one sudden, unforeseen obstacle: the police, the twelve detectives who, thanks to Lavernoux's revelations, have been posted under your windows. They've cooked your goose, old chap!... Well, I'll save you. A word through the telephone; and, by three or four o'clock in the morning, twenty of my friends will have removed the obstacle, polished off the twelve detectives, and you and I will slip away quietly. My conditions? Almost nothing; a trifle to you: we share the millions and the jewels. Is it a bargain?"
He was leaning over the baron, thundering at him with irresistible energy. The baron whispered:
"I'm beginning to understand. It's blackmail...."
"Blackmail or not, call it what you please, my boy, but you've got to go through with it and do as I say. And don't imagine that I shall give way at the last moment. Don't say to yourself, 'Here's a gentleman whom the fear of the police will cause to think twice. If I run a big risk in refusing, he also will be risking the handcuffs, the cells and the rest of it, seeing that we are both being hunted down like wild beasts.' That would be a mistake, monsieur le baron. I can always get out of it. It's a question of yourself, of yourself alone.... Your money or your life, my lord! Share and share alike ... if not, the scaffold! Is it a bargain?"
A quick movement. The baron released himself, grasped his revolver and fired.
But Lupin was prepared for the attack, the more so as the baron's face had lost its assurance and gradually, under the slow impulse of rage and fear, acquired an expression of almost bestial ferocity that heralded the rebellion so long kept under control.
He fired twice. Lupin first flung himself to one side and then dived at the baron's knees, seized him by both legs and brought him to the ground. The baron freed himself with an effort. The two enemies rolled over in each other's grip; and a stubborn, crafty, brutal, savage struggle followed.
Suddenly, Lupin felt a pain at his chest:
"You villain!" he yelled. "That's your Lavernoux trick; the tie-pin!"
Stiffening his muscles with a desperate effort, he overpowered the baron and clutched him by the throat victorious at last and omnipotent.
"You ass!" he cried. "If you hadn't shown your cards, I might have thrown up the game! You have such a look of the honest man about you! But what a biceps, my lord!... I thought for a moment.... But it's all over, now!... Come, my friend, hand us the pin and look cheerful.... No, that's what I call pulling a face.... I'm holding you too tight, perhaps? My lord's at his last gasp?... Come, be good!... That's it, just a wee bit of string round the wrists; do you allow me?... Why, you and I are agreeing like two brothers! It's touching!... At heart, you know, I'm rather fond of you.... And now, my bonnie lad, mind yourself! And a thousand apologies!..."
Half raising himself, with all his strength he caught the other a terrible blow in the pit of the stomach. The baron gave a gurgle and lay stunned and unconscious.
"That comes of having a deficient sense of logic, my friend," said Lupin. "I offered you half your money. Now I'll give you none at all ... provided I know where to find any of it. For that's the main thing. Where has the beggar hidden his dust? In the safe? By George, it'll be a tough job! Luckily, I have all the night before me...."
He began to feel in the baron's pockets, came upon a bunch of keys, first made sure that the portmanteau behind the curtain held no papers or jewels, and then went to the safe.
But, at that moment, he stopped short: he heard a noise somewhere. The servants? Impossible. Their attics were on the top floor. He listened. The noise came from below. And, suddenly, he understood: the detectives, who had heard the two shots, were banging at the front door, as was their duty, without waiting for daybreak. Then an electric bell rang, which Lupin recognized as that in the hall:
"By Jupiter!" he said. "Pretty work! Here are these jokers coming ... and just as we were about to gather the fruits of our laborious efforts! Tut, tut, Lupin, keep cool! What's expected of you? To open a safe, of which you don't know the secret, in thirty seconds. That's a mere trifle to lose your head about! Come, all you have to do is to discover the secret! How many letters are there in the word? Four?"
He went on thinking, while talking and listening to the noise outside. He double-locked the door of the outer room and then came back to the safe:
"Four ciphers.... Four letters ... four letters.... Who can lend me a hand?... Who can give me just a tiny hint?... Who? Why, Lavernoux, of course! That good Lavernoux, seeing that he took the trouble to indulge in optical telegraphy at the risk of his life.... Lord, what a fool I am!... Why, of course, why, of course, that's it!... By Jove, this is too exciting!... Lupin, you must count ten and suppress that distracted beating of your heart. If not, it means bad work."
He counted ten and, now quite calm, knelt in front of the safe. He turned the four knobs with careful attention. Next, he examined the bunch of keys, selected one of them, then another, and attempted, in vain, to insert them in the lock:
"There's luck in odd numbers," he muttered, trying a third key. "Victory! This is the right one! Open Sesame, good old Sesame, open!"
The lock turned. The door moved on its hinges. Lupin pulled it to him, after taking out the bunch of keys:
"The millions are ours," he said. "Baron, I forgive you!"
And then he gave a single bound backward, hiccoughing with fright. His legs staggered beneath him. The keys jingled together in his fevered hand with a sinister sound. And, for twenty, for thirty seconds, despite the din that was being raised and the electric bells that kept ringing through the house, he stood there, wild-eyed, gazing at the most horrible, the most abominable sight: a woman's body, half-dressed, bent in two in the safe, crammed in, like an over-large parcel ... and fair hair hanging down ... and blood ... clots of blood ... and livid flesh, blue in places, decomposing, flaccid.
"The baroness!" he gasped. "The baroness!... Oh, the monster!..."
He roused himself from his torpor, suddenly, to spit in the murderer's face and pound him with his heels:
"Take that, you wretch!... Take that, you villain!... And, with it, the scaffold, the bran-basket!..."
Meanwhile, shouts came from the upper floors in reply to the detectives' ringing. Lupin heard footsteps scurrying down the stairs. It was time to think of beating a retreat.
In reality, this did not trouble him greatly. During his conversation with the baron, the enemy's extraordinary coolness had given him the feeling that there must be a private outlet. Besides, how could the baron have begun the fight, if he were not sure of escaping the police?
Lupin went into the next room. It looked out on the garden. At the moment when the detectives were entering the house, he flung his legs over the balcony and let himself down by a rain-pipe. He walked round the building. On the opposite side was a wall lined with shrubs. He slipped in between the shrubs and the wall and at once found a little door which he easily opened with one of the keys on the bunch. All that remained for him to do was to walk across a yard and pass through the empty rooms of a lodge; and in a few moments he found himself in the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore. Of course—and this he had reckoned on—the police had not provided for this secret outlet.
* * * * *
"Well, what do you think of Baron Repstein?" cried Lupin, after giving me all the details of that tragic night. "What a dirty scoundrel! And how it teaches one to distrust appearances! I swear to you, the fellow looked a thoroughly honest man!"
"But what about the millions?" I asked. "The princess's jewels?"
"They were in the safe. I remember seeing the parcel."
"They are there still."
"They are, upon my word! I might tell you that I was afraid of the detectives, or else plead a sudden attack of delicacy. But the truth is simpler ... and more prosaic: the smell was too awful!..."
"Yes, my dear fellow, the smell that came from that safe ... from that coffin.... No, I couldn't do it ... my head swam.... Another second and I should have been ill.... Isn't it silly?... Look, this is all I got from my expedition: the tie-pin.... The bed-rock value of the pearl is thirty thousand francs.... But all the same, I feel jolly well annoyed. What a sell!"
"One more question," I said. "The word that opened the safe!"
"How did you guess it?"
"Oh, quite easily! In fact, I am surprised that I didn't think of it sooner."
"Well, tell me."
"It was contained in the revelations telegraphed by that poor Lavernoux."
"Just think, my dear chap, the mistakes in spelling...."
"The mistakes in spelling?"
"Why, of course! They were deliberate. Surely, you don't imagine that the agent, the private secretary of the baron—who was a company-promoter, mind you, and a racing-man—did not know English better than to spell 'necessery' with an 'e,' 'atack' with one 't,' 'ennemy' with two 'n's' and 'prudance' with an 'a'! The thing struck me at once. I put the four letters together and got 'Etna,' the name of the famous horse."
"And was that one word enough?"
"Of course! It was enough to start with, to put me on the scent of the Repstein case, of which all the papers were full, and, next, to make me guess that it was the key-word of the safe, because, on the one hand, Lavernoux knew the gruesome contents of the safe and, on the other, he was denouncing the baron. And it was in the same way that I was led to suppose that Lavernoux had a friend in the street, that they both frequented the same cafe, that they amused themselves by working out the problems and cryptograms in the illustrated papers and that they had contrived a way of exchanging telegrams from window to window."
"That makes it all quite simple!" I exclaimed.
"Very simple. And the incident once more shows that, in the discovery of crimes, there is something much more valuable than the examination of facts, than observations, deductions, inferences and all that stuff and nonsense. What I mean is, as I said before, intuition ... intuition and intelligence.... And Arsene Lupin, without boasting, is deficient in neither one nor the other!..."
Yvonne d'Origny kissed her son and told him to be good:
"You know your grandmother d'Origny is not very found of children. Now that she has sent for you to come and see her, you must show her what a sensible little boy you are." And, turning to the governess, "Don't forget, Fraeulein, to bring him home immediately after dinner.... Is monsieur still in the house?"
"Yes, madame, monsieur le comte is in his study."
As soon as she was alone, Yvonne d'Origny walked to the window to catch a glimpse of her son as he left the house. He was out in the street in a moment, raised his head and blew her a kiss, as was his custom every day. Then the governess took his hand with, as Yvonne remarked to her surprise, a movement of unusual violence. Yvonne leant further out of the window and, when the boy reached the corner of the boulevard, she suddenly saw a man step out of a motor-car and go up to him. The man, in whom she recognized Bernard, her husband's confidential servant, took the child by the arm, made both him and the governess get into the car, and ordered the chauffeur to drive off.
The whole incident did not take ten seconds.
Yvonne, in her trepidation, ran to her bedroom, seized a wrap and went to the door. The door was locked; and there was no key in the lock.
She hurried back to the boudoir. The door of the boudoir also was locked.
Then, suddenly, the image of her husband appeared before her, that gloomy face which no smile ever lit up, those pitiless eyes in which, for years, she had felt so much hatred and malice.
"It's he ... it's he!" she said to herself. "He has taken the child.... Oh, it's horrible!"
She beat against the door with her fists, with her feet, then flew to the mantelpiece and pressed the bell fiercely.
The shrill sound rang through the house from top to bottom. The servants would be sure to come. Perhaps a crowd would gather in the street. And, impelled by a sort of despairing hope, she kept her finger on the button.
A key turned in the lock.... The door was flung wide open. The count appeared on the threshold of the boudoir. And the expression of his face was so terrible that Yvonne began to tremble.
He entered the room. Five or six steps separated him from her. With a supreme effort, she tried to stir, but all movement was impossible; and, when she attempted to speak, she could only flutter her lips and emit incoherent sounds. She felt herself lost. The thought of death unhinged her. Her knees gave way beneath her and she sank into a huddled heap, with a moan.
The count rushed at her and seized her by the throat:
"Hold your tongue ... don't call out!" he said, in a low voice. "That will be best for you!..."
Seeing that she was not attempting to defend herself, he loosened his hold of her and took from his pocket some strips of canvas ready rolled and of different lengths. In a few minutes, Yvonne was lying on a sofa, with her wrists and ankles bound and her arms fastened close to her body.
It was now dark in the boudoir. The count switched on the electric light and went to a little writing-desk where Yvonne was accustomed to keep her letters. Not succeeding in opening it, he picked the lock with a bent wire, emptied the drawers and collected all the contents into a bundle, which he carried off in a cardboard file:
"Waste of time, eh?" he grinned. "Nothing but bills and letters of no importance.... No proof against you.... Tah! I'll keep my son for all that; and I swear before Heaven that I will not let him go!"
As he was leaving the room, he was joined, near the door, by his man Bernard. The two stopped and talked, in a low voice; but Yvonne heard these words spoken by the servant:
"I have had an answer from the working jeweller. He says he holds himself at my disposal."
And the count replied:
"The thing is put off until twelve o'clock midday, to-morrow. My mother has just telephoned to say that she could not come before."
Then Yvonne heard the key turn in the lock and the sound of steps going down to the ground-floor, where her husband's study was.
She long lay inert, her brain reeling with vague, swift ideas that burnt her in passing, like flames. She remembered her husband's infamous behaviour, his humiliating conduct to her, his threats, his plans for a divorce; and she gradually came to understand that she was the victim of a regular conspiracy, that the servants had been sent away until the following evening by their master's orders, that the governess had carried off her son by the count's instructions and with Bernard's assistance, that her son would not come back and that she would never see him again.
"My son!" she cried. "My son!..."
Exasperated by her grief, she stiffened herself, with every nerve, with every muscle tense, to make a violent effort. And she was astonished to find that her right hand, which the count had fastened too hurriedly, still retained a certain freedom.
Then a mad hope invaded her; and, slowly, patiently, she began the work of self-deliverance.
It was long in the doing. She needed a deal of time to widen the knot sufficiently and a deal of time afterward, when the hand was released, to undo those other bonds which tied her arms to her body and those which fastened her ankles.
Still, the thought of her son sustained her; and the last shackle fell as the clock struck eight. She was free!
She was no sooner on her feet than she flew to the window and flung back the latch, with the intention of calling the first passer-by. At that moment a policeman came walking along the pavement. She leant out. But the brisk evening air, striking her face, calmed her. She thought of the scandal, of the judicial investigation, of the cross-examination, of her son. O Heaven! What could she do to get him back? How could she escape? The count might appear at the least sound. And who knew but that, in a moment of fury ...?
She shivered from head to foot, seized with a sudden terror. The horror of death mingled, in her poor brain, with the thought of her son; and she stammered, with a choking throat:
She stopped and said to herself, several times over, in a low voice, "Help!... Help!..." as though the word awakened an idea, a memory within her, and as though the hope of assistance no longer seemed to her impossible. For some minutes she remained absorbed in deep meditation, broken by fears and starts. Then, with an almost mechanical series of movements, she put out her arm to a little set of shelves hanging over the writing-desk, took down four books, one after the other, turned the pages with a distraught air, replaced them and ended by finding, between the pages of the fifth, a visiting-card on which her eyes spelt the name:
followed by an address written in pencil:
CERCLE DE LA RUE ROYALE.
And her memory conjured up the strange thing which that man had said to her, a few years before, in that same house, on a day when she was at home to her friends:
"If ever a danger threatens you, if you need help, do not hesitate; post this card, which you see me put into this book; and, whatever the hour, whatever the obstacles, I will come."
With what a curious air he had spoken these words and how well he had conveyed the impression of certainty, of strength, of unlimited power, of indomitable daring!
Abruptly, unconsciously, acting under the impulse of an irresistible determination, the consequences of which she refused to anticipate, Yvonne, with the same automatic gestures, took a pneumatic-delivery envelope, slipped in the card, sealed it, directed it to "Horace Velmont, Cercle de la Rue Royale" and went to the open window. The policeman was walking up and down outside. She flung out the envelope, trusting to fate. Perhaps it would be picked up, treated as a lost letter and posted.
She had hardly completed this act when she realized its absurdity. It was mad to suppose that the message would reach the address and madder still to hope that the man to whom she was sending could come to her assistance, "whatever the hour, whatever the obstacles."
A reaction followed which was all the greater inasmuch as the effort had been swift and violent. Yvonne staggered, leant against a chair and, losing all energy, let herself fall.
The hours passed by, the dreary hours of winter evenings when nothing but the sound of carriages interrupts the silence of the street. The clock struck, pitilessly. In the half-sleep that numbed her limbs, Yvonne counted the strokes. She also heard certain noises, on different floors of the house, which told her that her husband had dined, that he was going up to his room, that he was going down again to his study. But all this seemed very shadowy to her; and her torpor was such that she did not even think of lying down on the sofa, in case he should come in....
The twelve strokes of midnight.... Then half-past twelve ... then one.... Yvonne thought of nothing, awaiting the events which were preparing and against which rebellion was useless. She pictured her son and herself as one pictures those beings who have suffered much and who suffer no more and who take each other in their loving arms. But a nightmare shattered this dream. For now those two beings were to be torn asunder; and she had the awful feeling, in her delirium, that she was crying and choking....
She leapt from her seat. The key had turned in the lock. The count was coming, attracted by her cries. Yvonne glanced round for a weapon with which to defend herself. But the door was pushed back quickly and, astounded, as though the sight that presented itself before her eyes seemed to her the most inexplicable prodigy, she stammered:
A man was walking up to her, in dress-clothes, with his opera-hat and cape under his arm, and this man, young, slender and elegant, she had recognized as Horace Velmont.
"You!" she repeated.
He said, with a bow:
"I beg your pardon, madame, but I did not receive your letter until very late."
"Is it possible? Is it possible that this is you ... that you were able to ...?"
He seemed greatly surprised:
"Did I not promise to come in answer to your call?"
"Yes ... but ..."
"Well, here I am," he said, with a smile.
He examined the strips of canvas from which Yvonne had succeeded in freeing herself and nodded his head, while continuing his inspection:
"So those are the means employed? The Comte d'Origny, I presume?... I also saw that he locked you in.... But then the pneumatic letter?... Ah, through the window!... How careless of you not to close it!"
He pushed both sides to. Yvonne took fright:
"Suppose they hear!"
"There is no one in the house. I have been over it."
"Your husband went out ten minutes ago."
"Where is he?"
"With his mother, the Comtesse d'Origny."
"How do you know?"
"Oh, it's very simple! He was rung up by telephone and I awaited the result at the corner of this street and the boulevard. As I expected, the count came out hurriedly, followed by his man. I at once entered, with the aid of special keys."
He told this in the most natural way, just as one tells a meaningless anecdote in a drawing-room. But Yvonne, suddenly seized with fresh alarm, asked:
"Then it's not true?... His mother is not ill?... In that case, my husband will be coming back...."
"Certainly, the count will see that a trick has been played on him and in three quarters of an hour at the latest...."
"Let us go.... I don't want him to find me here.... I must go to my son...."
"One moment!... But don't you know that they have taken him from me?... That they are hurting him, perhaps?..."
With set face and feverish gestures, she tried to push Velmont back. He, with great gentleness, compelled her to sit down and, leaning over her in a respectful attitude, said, in a serious voice:
"Listen, madame, and let us not waste time, when every minute is valuable. First of all, remember this: we met four times, six years ago.... And, on the fourth occasion, when I was speaking to you, in the drawing-room of this house, with too much—what shall I say?—with too much feeling, you gave me to understand that my visits were no longer welcome. Since that day I have not seen you. And, nevertheless, in spite of all, your faith in me was such that you kept the card which I put between the pages of that book and, six years later, you send for me and none other. That faith in me I ask you to continue. You must obey me blindly. Just as I surmounted every obstacle to come to you, so I will save you, whatever the position may be."
Horace Velmont's calmness, his masterful voice, with the friendly intonation, gradually quieted the countess. Though still very weak, she gained a fresh sense of ease and security in that man's presence.
"Have no fear," he went on. "The Comtesse d'Origny lives at the other end of the Bois de Vincennes. Allowing that your husband finds a motor-cab, it is impossible for him to be back before a quarter-past three. Well, it is twenty-five to three now. I swear to take you away at three o'clock exactly and to take you to your son. But I will not go before I know everything."
"What am I to do?" she asked.
"Answer me and very plainly. We have twenty minutes. It is enough. But it is not too much."
"Ask me what you want to know."
"Do you think that the count had any ... any murderous intentions?"
"Then it concerns your son?"
"He is taking him away, I suppose, because he wants to divorce you and marry another woman, a former friend of yours, whom you have turned out of your house. Is that it? Oh, I entreat you, answer me frankly! These are facts of public notoriety; and your hesitation, your scruples, must all cease, now that the matter concerns your son. So your husband wished to marry another woman?
"The woman has no money. Your husband, on his side, has gambled away all his property and has no means beyond the allowance which he receives from his mother, the Comtesse d'Origny, and the income of a large fortune which your son inherited from two of your uncles. It is this fortune which your husband covets and which he would appropriate more easily if the child were placed in his hands. There is only one way: divorce. Am I right?"
"And what has prevented him until now is your refusal?"
"Yes, mine and that of my mother-in-law, whose religious feelings are opposed to divorce. The Comtesse d'Origny would only yield in case ..."
"In case ...?"
"In case they could prove me guilty of shameful conduct."
Velmont shrugged his shoulders:
"Therefore he is powerless to do anything against you or against your son. Both from the legal point of view and from that of his own interests, he stumbles against an obstacle which is the most insurmountable of all: the virtue of an honest woman. And yet, in spite of everything, he suddenly shows fight."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that, if a man like the count, after so many hesitations and in the face of so many difficulties, risks so doubtful an adventure, it must be because he thinks he has command of weapons ..."
"I don't know. But they exist ... or else he would not have begun by taking away your son."
Yvonne gave way to her despair:
"Oh, this is horrible!... How do I know what he may have done, what he may have invented?"
"Try and think.... Recall your memories.... Tell me, in this desk which he has broken open, was there any sort of letter which he could possibly turn against you?"
"No ... only bills and addresses...."
"And, in the words he used to you, in his threats, is there nothing that allows you to guess?"
"Still ... still," Velmont insisted, "there must be something." And he continued, "Has the count a particularly intimate friend ... in whom he confides?"
"Did anybody come to see him yesterday?"
"Was he alone when he bound you and locked you in?"
"At that moment, yes."
"His man, Bernard, joined him near the door and I heard them talking about a working jeweller...."
"Is that all?"
"And about something that was to happen the next day, that is, to-day, at twelve o'clock, because the Comtesse d'Origny could not come earlier."
"Has that conversation any meaning that throws a light upon your husband's plans?"
"I don't see any."
"Where are your jewels?"
"My husband has sold them all."
"You have nothing at all left?"
"Not even a ring?"
"No," she said, showing her hands, "none except this."
"Which is your wedding-ring?"
"Which is my ... wedding—..."
She stopped, nonplussed. Velmont saw her flush as she stammered:
"Could it be possible?... But no ... no ... he doesn't know...."
Velmont at once pressed her with questions and Yvonne stood silent, motionless, anxious-faced. At last, she replied, in a low voice:
"This is not my wedding-ring. One day, long ago, it dropped from the mantelpiece in my bedroom, where I had put it a minute before and, hunt for it as I might, I could not find it again. So I ordered another, without saying anything about it ... and this is the one, on my hand...."
"Did the real ring bear the date of your wedding?"
"Yes ... the 23rd of October."
"And the second?"
"This one has no date."
He perceived a slight hesitation in her and a confusion which, in point of fact, she did not try to conceal.
"I implore you," he exclaimed, "don't hide anything from me.... You see how far we have gone in a few minutes, with a little logic and calmness.... Let us go on, I ask you as a favour."
"Are you sure," she said, "that it is necessary?"
"I am sure that the least detail is of importance and that we are nearly attaining our object. But we must hurry. This is a crucial moment."
"I have nothing to conceal," she said, proudly raising her head. "It was the most wretched and the most dangerous period of my life. While suffering humiliation at home, outside I was surrounded with attentions, with temptations, with pitfalls, like any woman who is seen to be neglected by her husband. Then I remembered: before my marriage, a man had been in love with me. I had guessed his unspoken love; and he has died since. I had the name of that man engraved inside the ring; and I wore it as a talisman. There was no love in me, because I was the wife of another. But, in my secret heart, there was a memory, a sad dream, something sweet and gentle that protected me...."
She had spoken slowly, without embarrassment, and Velmont did not doubt for a second that she was telling the absolute truth. He kept silent; and she, becoming anxious again, asked:
"Do you suppose ... that my husband ...?"
He took her hand and, while examining the plain gold ring, said:
"The puzzle lies here. Your husband, I don't know how, knows of the substitution of one ring for the other. His mother will be here at twelve o'clock. In the presence of witnesses, he will compel you to take off your ring; and, in this way, he will obtain the approval of his mother and, at the same time, will be able to obtain his divorce, because he will have the proof for which he was seeking."
"I am lost!" she moaned. "I am lost!"
"On the contrary, you are saved! Give me that ring ... and presently he will find another there, another which I will send you, to reach you before twelve, and which will bear the date of the 23rd of October. So ..."
He suddenly broke off. While he was speaking, Yvonne's hand had turned ice-cold in his; and, raising his eyes, he saw that the young woman was pale, terribly pale:
"What's the matter? I beseech you ..."
She yielded to a fit of mad despair:
"This is the matter, that I am lost!... This is the matter, that I can't get the ring off! It has grown too small for me!... Do you understand?... It made no difference and I did not give it a thought.... But to-day ... this proof ... this accusation.... Oh, what torture!... Look ... it forms part of my finger ... it has grown into my flesh ... and I can't ... I can't...."
She pulled at the ring, vainly, with all her might, at the risk of injuring herself. But the flesh swelled up around the ring; and the ring did not budge.
"Oh!" she cried, seized with an idea that terrified her. "I remember ... the other night ... a nightmare I had.... It seemed to me that some one entered my room and caught hold of my hand.... And I could not wake up.... It was he! It was he! He had put me to sleep, I was sure of it ... and he was looking at the ring.... And presently he will pull it off before his mother's eyes.... Ah, I understand everything: that working jeweller!... He will cut it from my hand to-morrow.... You see, you see.... I am lost!..."
She hid her face in her hands and began to weep. But, amid the silence, the clock struck once ... and twice ... and yet once more. And Yvonne drew herself up with a jerk:
"There he is!" she cried. "He is coming!... It is three o'clock!... Let us go!..."
She grabbed at her cloak and ran to the door ... Velmont barred the way and, in a masterful tone:
"You shall not go!"
"My son.... I want to see him, to take him back...."
"You don't even know where he is!"
"I want to go."
"You shall not go!... It would be madness...."
He took her by the wrists. She tried to release herself; and Velmont had to employ a little force to overcome her resistance. In the end, he succeeded in getting her back to the sofa, then in laying her at full length and, at once, without heeding her lamentations, he took the canvas strips and fastened her wrists and ankles:
"Yes," he said, "It would be madness! Who would have set you free? Who would have opened that door for you? An accomplice? What an argument against you and what a pretty use your husband would make of it with his mother!... And, besides, what's the good? To run away means accepting divorce ... and what might that not lead to?... You must stay here...."
"I'm frightened.... I'm frightened ... this ring burns me.... Break it.... Take it away.... Don't let him find it!"
"And if it is not found on your finger, who will have broken it? Again an accomplice.... No, you must face the music ... and face it boldly, for I answer for everything.... Believe me ... I answer for everything.... If I have to tackle the Comtesse d'Origny bodily and thus delay the interview.... If I had to come myself before noon ... it is the real wedding-ring that shall be taken from your finger—that I swear!—and your son shall be restored to you."
Swayed and subdued, Yvonne instinctively held out her hands to the bonds. When he stood up, she was bound as she had been before.
He looked round the room to make sure that no trace of his visit remained. Then he stooped over the countess again and whispered:
"Think of your son and, whatever happens, fear nothing.... I am watching over you."
She heard him open and shut the door of the boudoir and, a few minutes later, the hall-door.
At half-past three, a motor-cab drew up. The door downstairs was slammed again; and, almost immediately after, Yvonne saw her husband hurry in, with a furious look in his eyes. He ran up to her, felt to see if she was still fastened and, snatching her hand, examined the ring. Yvonne fainted....
* * * * *
She could not tell, when she woke, how long she had slept. But the broad light of day was filling the boudoir; and she perceived, at the first movement which she made, that her bonds were cut. Then she turned her head and saw her husband standing beside her, looking at her:
"My son ... my son ..." she moaned. "I want my son...."
He replied, in a voice of which she felt the jeering insolence:
"Our son is in a safe place. And, for the moment, it's a question not of him, but of you. We are face to face with each other, probably for the last time, and the explanation between us will be a very serious one. I must warn you that it will take place before my mother. Have you any objection?"
Yvonne tried to hide her agitation and answered:
"None at all."
"Can I send for her?"
"Yes. Leave me, in the meantime. I shall be ready when she comes."
"My mother is here."
"Your mother is here?" cried Yvonne, in dismay, remembering Horace Velmont's promise.
"What is there to astonish you in that?"
"And is it now ... is it at once that you want to ...?
"Why?... Why not this evening?... Why not to-morrow?"
"To-day and now," declared the count. "A rather curious incident happened in the course of last night, an incident which I cannot account for and which decided me to hasten the explanation. Don't you want something to eat first?"
"No ... no...."
"Then I will go and fetch my mother."
He turned to Yvonne's bedroom. Yvonne glanced at the clock. It marked twenty-five minutes to eleven!
"Ah!" she said, with a shiver of fright.
Twenty-five minutes to eleven! Horace Velmont would not save her and nobody in the world and nothing in the world would save her, for there was no miracle that could place the wedding-ring upon her finger.
The count, returning with the Comtesse d'Origny, asked her to sit down. She was a tall, lank, angular woman, who had always displayed a hostile feeling to Yvonne. She did not even bid her daughter-in-law good-morning, showing that her mind was made up as regards the accusation:
"I don't think," she said, "that we need speak at length. In two words, my son maintains...."
"I don't maintain, mother," said the count, "I declare. I declare on my oath that, three months ago, during the holidays, the upholsterer, when laying the carpet in this room and the boudoir, found the wedding-ring which I gave my wife lying in a crack in the floor. Here is the ring. The date of the 23rd of October is engraved inside."
"Then," said the countess, "the ring which your wife carries...."
"That is another ring, which she ordered in exchange for the real one. Acting on my instructions, Bernard, my man, after long searching, ended by discovering in the outskirts of Paris, where he now lives, the little jeweller to whom she went. This man remembers perfectly and is willing to bear witness that his customer did not tell him to engrave a date, but a name. He has forgotten the name, but the man who used to work with him in his shop may be able to remember it. This working jeweller has been informed by letter that I required his services and he replied yesterday, placing himself at my disposal. Bernard went to fetch him at nine o'clock this morning. They are both waiting in my study."
He turned to his wife:
"Will you give me that ring of your own free will?"
"You know," she said, "from the other night, that it won't come off my finger."
"In that case, can I have the man up? He has the necessary implements with him."
"Yes," she said, in a voice faint as a whisper.
She was resigned. She conjured up the future as in a vision: the scandal, the decree of divorce pronounced against herself, the custody of the child awarded to the father; and she accepted this, thinking that she would carry off her son, that she would go with him to the ends of the earth and that the two of them would live alone together and happy....
Her mother-in-law said:
"You have been very thoughtless, Yvonne."
Yvonne was on the point of confessing to her and asking for her protection. But what was the good? How could the Comtesse d'Origny possibly believe her innocent? She made no reply.
Besides, the count at once returned, followed by his servant and by a man carrying a bag of tools under his arm.
And the count said to the man:
"You know what you have to do?"
"Yes," said the workman. "It's to cut a ring that's grown too small.... That's easily done.... A touch of the nippers...."
"And then you will see," said the count, "if the inscription inside the ring was the one you engraved."
Yvonne looked at the clock. It was ten minutes to eleven. She seemed to hear, somewhere in the house, a sound of voices raised in argument; and, in spite of herself, she felt a thrill of hope. Perhaps Velmont has succeeded.... But the sound was renewed; and she perceived that it was produced by some costermongers passing under her window and moving farther on.
It was all over. Horace Velmont had been unable to assist her. And she understood that, to recover her child, she must rely upon her own strength, for the promises of others are vain.
She made a movement of recoil. She had felt the workman's heavy hand on her hand; and that hateful touch revolted her.
The man apologized, awkwardly. The count said to his wife:
"You must make up your mind, you know."
Then she put out her slim and trembling hand to the workman, who took it, turned it over and rested it on the table, with the palm upward. Yvonne felt the cold steel. She longed to die, then and there; and, at once attracted by that idea of death, she thought of the poisons which she would buy and which would send her to sleep almost without her knowing it.
The operation did not take long. Inserted on the slant, the little steel pliers pushed back the flesh, made room for themselves and bit the ring. A strong effort ... and the ring broke. The two ends had only to be separated to remove the ring from the finger. The workman did so.
The count exclaimed, in triumph:
"At last! Now we shall see!... The proof is there! And we are all witnesses...."
He snatched up the ring and looked at the inscription. A cry of amazement escaped him. The ring bore the date of his marriage to Yvonne: "23rd of October"!...
* * * * *
We were sitting on the terrace at Monte Carlo. Lupin finished his story, lit a cigarette and calmly puffed the smoke into the blue air.
"Why, the end of the story...."
"The end of the story? But what other end could there be?"
"Come ... you're joking ..."
"Not at all. Isn't that enough for you? The countess is saved. The count, not possessing the least proof against her, is compelled by his mother to forego the divorce and to give up the child. That is all. Since then, he has left his wife, who is living happily with her son, a fine lad of sixteen."
"Yes ... yes ... but the way in which the countess was saved?"
Lupin burst out laughing:
"My dear old chap"—Lupin sometimes condescends to address me in this affectionate manner—"my dear old chap, you may be rather smart at relating my exploits, but, by Jove, you do want to have the i's dotted for you! I assure you, the countess did not ask for explanations!"
"Very likely. But there's no pride about me," I added, laughing. "Dot those i's for me, will you?"
He took out a five-franc piece and closed his hand over it.
"What's in my hand?"
"A five-franc piece."
He opened his hand. The five-franc piece was gone.
"You see how easy it is! A working jeweller, with his nippers, cuts a ring with a date engraved upon it: 23rd of October. It's a simple little trick of sleight-of-hand, one of many which I have in my bag. By Jove, I didn't spend six months with Dickson, the conjurer,[C] for nothing!"
[C] The Exploits of Arsene Lupin. By Maurice Leblanc. Translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos (Cassell). IV. The Escape of Arsene Lupin.
"But then ...?"
"Out with it!"
"The working jeweller?"
"Was Horace Velmont! Was good old Lupin! Leaving the countess at three o'clock in the morning, I employed the few remaining minutes before the husband's return to have a look round his study. On the table I found the letter from the working jeweller. The letter gave me the address. A bribe of a few louis enabled me to take the workman's place; and I arrived with a wedding-ring ready cut and engraved. Hocus-pocus! Pass!... The count couldn't make head or tail of it."
"Splendid!" I cried. And I added, a little chaffingly, in my turn, "But don't you think that you were humbugged a bit yourself, on this occasion?"
"Oh! And by whom, pray?"
"By the countess?"
"In what way?"
"Hang it all, that name engraved as a talisman!... The mysterious Adonis who loved her and suffered for her sake!... All that story seems very unlikely; and I wonder whether, Lupin though you be, you did not just drop upon a pretty love-story, absolutely genuine and ... none too innocent."
Lupin looked at me out of the corner of his eye:
"No," he said.
"How do you know?"
"If the countess made a misstatement in telling me that she knew that man before her marriage—and that he was dead—and if she really did love him in her secret heart, I, at least, have a positive proof that it was an ideal love and that he did not suspect it."
"And where is the proof?"
"It is inscribed inside the ring which I myself broke on the countess's finger ... and which I carry on me. Here it is. You can read the name she had engraved on it."
He handed me the ring. I read:
There was a moment of silence between Lupin and myself; and, noticing it, I also observed on his face a certain emotion, a tinge of melancholy.
"What made you tell me this story ... to which you have often alluded in my presence?"
"What made me ...?"
He drew my attention to a woman, still exceedingly handsome, who was passing on a young man's arm. She saw Lupin and bowed.
"It's she," he whispered. "She and her son."
"Then she recognized you?"
"She always recognizes me, whatever my disguise."
"But since the burglary at the Chateau de Thibermesnil,[D] the police have identified the two names of Arsene Lupin and Horace Velmont."
[D] The Exploits of Arsene Lupin. IX. Holmlock Shears arrives too late.
"Therefore she knows who you are."
"And she bows to you?" I exclaimed, in spite of myself.
He caught me by the arm and, fiercely:
"Do you think that I am Lupin to her? Do you think that I am a burglar in her eyes, a rogue, a cheat?... Why, I might be the lowest of miscreants, I might be a murderer even ... and still she would bow to me!"
"Why? Because she loved you once?"
"Rot! That would be an additional reason, on the contrary, why she should now despise me."
"I am the man who gave her back her son!"
THE SIGN OF THE SHADOW
"I received your telegram and here I am," said a gentleman with a grey moustache, who entered my study, dressed in a dark-brown frock-coat and a wide-brimmed hat, with a red ribbon in his buttonhole. "What's the matter?"
Had I not been expecting Arsene Lupin, I should certainly never have recognized him in the person of this old half-pay officer:
"What's the matter?" I echoed. "Oh, nothing much: a rather curious coincidence, that's all. And, as I know that you would just as soon clear up a mystery as plan one...."
"You seem in a great hurry!"
"I am ... unless the mystery in question is worth putting myself out for. So let us get to the point."
"Very well. Just begin by casting your eye on this little picture, which I picked up, a week or two ago, in a grimy old shop on the other side of the river. I bought it for the sake of its Empire frame, with the palm-leaf ornaments on the mouldings ... for the painting is execrable."
"Execrable, as you say," said Lupin, after he had examined it, "but the subject itself is rather nice. That corner of an old courtyard, with its rotunda of Greek columns, its sun-dial and its fish-pond and that ruined well with the Renascence roof and those stone steps and stone benches: all very picturesque."
"And genuine," I added. "The picture, good or bad, has never been taken out of its Empire frame. Besides, it is dated.... There, in the left-hand bottom corner: those red figures, 15. 4. 2, which obviously stand for 15 April, 1802."
"I dare say ... I dare say.... But you were speaking of a coincidence and, so far, I fail to see...."
I went to a corner of my study, took a telescope, fixed it on its stand and pointed it, through the open window, at the open window of a little room facing my flat, on the other side of the street. And I asked Lupin to look through it.
He stooped forward. The slanting rays of the morning sun lit up the room opposite, revealing a set of mahogany furniture, all very simple, a large bed and a child's bed hung with cretonne curtains.
"Ah!" cried Lupin, suddenly. "The same picture!"
"Exactly the same!" I said. "And the date: do you see the date, in red? 15. 4. 2."
"Yes, I see.... And who lives in that room?"
"A lady ... or, rather, a workwoman, for she has to work for her living ... needlework, hardly enough to keep herself and her child."
"What is her name?"
"Louise d'Ernemont.... From what I hear, she is the great-granddaughter of a farmer-general who was guillotined during the Terror."
"Yes, on the same day as Andre Chenier," said Lupin. "According to the memoirs of the time, this d'Ernemont was supposed to be a very rich man." He raised his head and said, "It's an interesting story.... Why did you wait before telling me?"
"Because this is the 15th of April."
"Well, I discovered yesterday—I heard them talking about it in the porter's box—that the 15th of April plays an important part in the life of Louise d'Ernemont."
"Contrary to her usual habits, this woman who works every day of her life, who keeps her two rooms tidy, who cooks the lunch which her little girl eats when she comes home from the parish school ... this woman, on the 15th of April, goes out with the child at ten o'clock in the morning and does not return until nightfall. And this has happened for years and in all weathers. You must admit that there is something queer about this date which I find on an old picture, which is inscribed on another, similar picture and which controls the annual movements of the descendant of d'Ernemont the farmer-general."
"Yes, it's curious ... you're quite right," said Lupin, slowly. "And don't you know where she goes to?"
"Nobody knows. She does not confide in a soul. As a matter of fact, she talks very little."
"Are you sure of your information?"
"Absolutely. And the best proof of its accuracy is that here she comes."
A door had opened at the back of the room opposite, admitting a little girl of seven or eight, who came and looked out of the window. A lady appeared behind her, tall, good-looking still and wearing a sad and gentle air. Both of them were ready and dressed, in clothes which were simple in themselves, but which pointed to a love of neatness and a certain elegance on the part of the mother.
"You see," I whispered, "they are going out."
And presently the mother took the child by the hand and they left the room together.
Lupin caught up his hat:
"Are you coming?"
My curiosity was too great for me to raise the least objection. I went downstairs with Lupin.
As we stepped into the street, we saw my neighbour enter a baker's shop. She bought two rolls and placed them in a little basket which her daughter was carrying and which seemed already to contain some other provisions. Then they went in the direction of the outer boulevards and followed them as far as the Place de l'Etoile, where they turned down the Avenue Kleber to walk toward Passy.
Lupin strolled silently along, evidently obsessed by a train of thought which I was glad to have provoked. From time to time, he uttered a sentence which showed me the thread of his reflections; and I was able to see that the riddle remained as much a mystery to him as to myself.
Louise d'Ernemont, meanwhile, had branched off to the left, along the Rue Raynouard, a quiet old street in which Franklin and Balzac once lived, one of those streets which, lined with old-fashioned houses and walled gardens, give you the impression of being in a country-town. The Seine flows at the foot of the slope which the street crowns; and a number of lanes run down to the river.
My neighbour took one of these narrow, winding, deserted lanes. The first building, on the right, was a house the front of which faced the Rue Raynouard. Next came a moss-grown wall, of a height above the ordinary, supported by buttresses and bristling with broken glass.
Half-way along the wall was a low, arched door. Louise d'Ernemont stopped in front of this door and opened it with a key which seemed to us enormous. Mother and child entered and closed the door.
"In any case," said Lupin, "she has nothing to conceal, for she has not looked round once...."
He had hardly finished his sentence when we heard the sound of footsteps behind us. It was two old beggars, a man and a woman, tattered, dirty, squalid, covered in rags. They passed us without paying the least attention to our presence. The man took from his wallet a key similar to my neighbour's and put it into the lock. The door closed behind them.
And, suddenly, at the top of the lane, came the noise of a motor-car stopping.... Lupin dragged me fifty yards lower down, to a corner in which we were able to hide. And we saw coming down the lane, carrying a little dog under her arm, a young and very much over-dressed woman, wearing a quantity of jewellery, a young woman whose eyes were too dark, her lips too red, her hair too fair. In front of the door, the same performance, with the same key.... The lady and the dog disappeared from view.
"This promises to be most amusing," said Lupin, chuckling. "What earthly connection can there be between those different people?"
There hove in sight successively two elderly ladies, lean and rather poverty-stricken in appearance, very much alike, evidently sisters; a footman in livery; an infantry corporal; a fat gentleman in a soiled and patched jacket-suit; and, lastly, a workman's family, father, mother, and four children, all six of them pale and sickly, looking like people who never eat their fill. And each of the newcomers carried a basket or string-bag filled with provisions.
"It's a picnic!" I cried.
"It grows more and more surprising," said Lupin, "and I sha'n't be satisfied till I know what is happening behind that wall."
To climb it was out of the question. We also saw that it finished, at the lower as well as at the upper end, at a house none of whose windows overlooked the enclosure which the wall contained.
During the next hour, no one else came along. We vainly cast about for a stratagem; and Lupin, whose fertile brain had exhausted every possible expedient, was about to go in search of a ladder, when, suddenly, the little door opened and one of the workman's children came out.
The boy ran up the lane to the Rue Raynouard. A few minutes later he returned, carrying two bottles of water, which he set down on the pavement to take the big key from his pocket.
By that time Lupin had left me and was strolling slowly along the wall. When the child, after entering the enclosure, pushed back the door Lupin sprang forward and stuck the point of his knife into the staple of the lock. The bolt failed to catch; and it became an easy matter to push the door ajar.
"That's done the trick!" said Lupin.
He cautiously put his hand through the doorway and then, to my great surprise, entered boldly. But, on following his example, I saw that, ten yards behind the wall, a clump of laurels formed a sort of curtain which allowed us to come up unobserved.
Lupin took his stand right in the middle of the clump. I joined him and, like him, pushed aside the branches of one of the shrubs. And the sight which presented itself to my eyes was so unexpected that I was unable to suppress an exclamation, while Lupin, on his side, muttered, between his teeth:
"By Jupiter! This is a funny job!"
We saw before us, within the confined space that lay between the two windowless houses, the identical scene represented in the old picture which I had bought at a second-hand dealer's!
The identical scene! At the back, against the opposite wall, the same Greek rotunda displayed its slender columns. In the middle, the same stone benches topped a circle of four steps that ran down to a fish-pond with moss-grown flags. On the left, the same well raised its wrought-iron roof; and, close at hand, the same sun-dial showed its slanting gnomon and its marble face.
The identical scene! And what added to the strangeness of the sight was the memory, obsessing Lupin and myself, of that date of the 15th of April, inscribed in a corner of the picture, and the thought that this very day was the 15th of April and that sixteen or seventeen people, so different in age, condition and manners, had chosen the 15th of April to come together in this forgotten corner of Paris!
All of them, at the moment when we caught sight of them, were sitting in separate groups on the benches and steps; and all were eating. Not very far from my neighbour and her daughter, the workman's family and the beggar couple were sharing their provisions; while the footman, the gentleman in the soiled suit, the infantry corporal and the two lean sisters were making a common stock of their sliced ham, their tins of sardines and their gruyere cheese.
The lady with the little dog alone, who had brought no food with her, sat apart from the others, who made a show of turning their backs upon her. But Louise d'Ernemont offered her a sandwich, whereupon her example was followed by the two sisters; and the corporal at once began to make himself as agreeable to the young person as he could.
It was now half-past one. The beggar-man took out his pipe, as did the fat gentleman; and, when they found that one had no tobacco and the other no matches, their needs soon brought them together. The men went and smoked by the rotunda and the women joined them. For that matter, all these people seemed to know one another quite well.
They were at some distance from where we were standing, so that we could not hear what they said. However, we gradually perceived that the conversation was becoming animated. The young person with the dog, in particular, who by this time appeared to be in great request, indulged in much voluble talk, accompanying her words with many gestures, which set the little dog barking furiously.
But, suddenly, there was an outcry, promptly followed by shouts of rage; and one and all, men and women alike, rushed in disorder toward the well. One of the workman's brats was at that moment coming out of it, fastened by his belt to the hook at the end of the rope; and the three other urchins were drawing him up by turning the handle. More active than the rest, the corporal flung himself upon him; and forthwith the footman and the fat gentleman seized hold of him also, while the beggars and the lean sisters came to blows with the workman and his family.
In a few seconds the little boy had not a stitch left on him beyond his shirt. The footman, who had taken possession of the rest of the clothes, ran away, pursued by the corporal, who snatched away the boy's breeches, which were next torn from the corporal by one of the lean sisters.
"They are mad!" I muttered, feeling absolutely at sea.
"Not at all, not at all," said Lupin.
"What! Do you mean to say that you can make head or tail of what is going on?"
He did not reply. The young lady with the little dog, tucking her pet under her arm, had started running after the child in the shirt, who uttered loud yells. The two of them raced round the laurel-clump in which we stood hidden; and the brat flung himself into his mother's arms.
At long last, Louise d'Ernemont, who had played a conciliatory part from the beginning, succeeded in allaying the tumult. Everybody sat down again; but there was a reaction in all those exasperated people and they remained motionless and silent, as though worn out with their exertions.
And time went by. Losing patience and beginning to feel the pangs of hunger, I went to the Rue Raynouard to fetch something to eat, which we divided while watching the actors in the incomprehensible comedy that was being performed before our eyes. They hardly stirred. Each minute that passed seemed to load them with increasing melancholy; and they sank into attitudes of discouragement, bent their backs more and more and sat absorbed in their meditations.
The afternoon wore on in this way, under a grey sky that shed a dreary light over the enclosure.
"Are they going to spend the night here?" I asked, in a bored voice.
But, at five o'clock or so, the fat gentleman in the soiled jacket-suit took out his watch. The others did the same and all, watch in hand, seemed to be anxiously awaiting an event of no little importance to themselves. The event did not take place, for, in fifteen or twenty minutes, the fat gentleman gave a gesture of despair, stood up and put on his hat.