A TALE OF INTERNATIONAL INTRIGUE
BURTON E. STEVENSON
Author of "The Holladay Case," "The Marathon Mystery," "The Mystery of the Boule Cabinet," etc.
NEW YORK DODD, MEAD AND COMPANY 1921
BY DODD, MEAD & COMPANY
I THE TWENTY-FIFTH OF SEPTEMBER 1
II FRANCE IN MOURNING 14
III TWO GREAT MEN MEET 31
IV THE ALLIES AT WORK 47
V AT THE CAFE DES VOYAGEURS 60
VI THE MYSTERIOUS SIGNALS 77
VII THE HUT IN THE GROVE 88
VIII THE SECOND INSTALLATION 108
IX CHECKMATE 124
X THE LAND OF FREEDOM 137
XI SHIPMATES 147
XII UNDER RUSSIAN RULE 158
XIII IN THE WIRELESS HOUSE 170
XIV THE MESSAGE 182
XV A WORD OF WARNING 196
XVI A CHARGE TO KEEP 208
XVII THE FIRST CONFERENCE 221
XVIII THE SUBSTITUTE SENTRY 239
XIX THE SECOND CONFERENCE 256
XX THE PRINCE SEEKS DIVERSION 269
XXI ON THE EDUCATION OF PRINCES 283
XXII THE EVENTS OF MONDAY 296
XXIII THE LANDING 310
XXIV PACHMANN SCORES 321
XXV THE TRAP 334
XXVI THE TURN OF THE SCREW 346
XXVII THE VOICE AT THE DOOR 357
XXVIII CROCHARD, THE INVINCIBLE! 370
XXIX THE ESCAPE 382
XXX COUNCIL OF WAR 397
XXXI THE ALLIANCE ENDS 407
XXXII STRASBOURG 420
THE TWENTY-FIFTH OF SEPTEMBER
Monsieur Aristide Brisson, the fat little proprietor of the Hotel du Nord—a modest house facing the Place Puget at Toulon—turned uneasily in his sleep, as though fretted by a disturbing dream; then he awoke with a start and rubbed his eyes. A glance at the dark windows showed that the dawn was yet far distant, and he was about to turn over and go thankfully to sleep again when a sudden remembrance leaped into his brain. In an instant, he had bounded from the bed, struck a match, and, after a look at his watch, lighted a candle. Then he returned to the bed, and, without compunction, grasped the plump arm of Madame Brisson, who was sleeping peacefully, and shook her roughly.
"Wake, Gabrielle, wake!" he cried—in French, of course.
Madame Brisson, who was also little and fat with a white skin that was her pride, opened her eyes, stared an instant, and then sat up in bed.
"Heavens, Brisson!" she cried, her hand to her throat. "What is it? What has happened? Have you illness?"
"No, no!" said her husband, who was struggling with his trousers. "But rise, quickly!"
Madame Brisson glanced at the dark windows.
"I do not understand," she said.
"Ah, Gabrielle," said her husband reproachfully, "I should never have believed you could have forgotten! It is to-day, at sunrise, that our guests depart!"
"Heavens!" cried Madame Brisson again, and she, too, bounded from the bed and began to don her clothes with trembling fingers. "That I should have forgotten! Forgive me, Aristide! What hour is it?"
"It is almost four and a half. At five, the coffee must be ready."
"It shall be!" Madame promised, and hurried from the room, to complete her toilet in the kitchen.
"Fortunately," M. Brisson muttered to himself, "the fire is laid!"
Then, having held his collar to the light and decided that it was clean enough, he buttoned it about his neck, attached his shiny ready-made tie, donned his little white coat, picked up the candle and left the room. Passing along the corridor to the front of the house, he tapped at a door.
"Who is there?" called a rough voice.
"Your coffee will be ready in twenty minutes, sir," said Brisson.
"Very well; and thank you," answered the voice, and Brisson descended to the dining-room, opened the shutters, lighted the lamp, and spread the cloth.
He was contemplating his handiwork, his head to one side, when heavy steps sounded on the stair, and a moment later two men entered. They were both of middle-age, somewhat stocky and heavily-built, their hair close-cropped, their faces smooth-shaven and deeply tanned. They had, indeed, that indurated look which only years of exposure to wind and rain can give, except that their upper lips were some shades lighter than the remainder of the face, betraying the fact that they had, until recently, been protected by a moustache. They were dressed in somewhat shabby tweed walking-suits, and wore heavy well-worn shoes. At this moment, each carried in his hand a little knapsack.
M. Brisson greeted them bent double, hoped that they had slept well, foretold a fine day, and assured them that coffee would be ready in a moment.
"Our bags are in our room, properly labelled," said one of them, finding his words with apparent difficulty and accenting them most queerly. "They are to go to Nice, where we will claim them."
"I will attend to it. And you, sirs?" asked Brisson.
"It is our intention to walk."
"By way of the Cornice?"
"You will find it a most beautiful road; even in your own America you will find nothing more beautiful. And how fortunate that you will have so fine a day! Where will you rest to-night?"
"At Frejus, probably."
"A beautiful town, well worth a visit. Permit me to recommend you, sirs, that you stop at the Hotel du Midi. The proprietor is a relative of mine—a nephew, in fact; he will treat you well."
"Thank you," responded the stranger, and at that moment Madame Brisson entered, flushed but triumphant, bearing a tray on which was a small pitcher of very black coffee, a large pitcher of very hot milk, a plate of rolls and "crescents," some pats of butter and a jar of honey. She placed the tray upon the table, greeted the travellers with the brightest of smiles, and then, as she flitted about attending to their wants, M. Brisson retired to his bureau to put the finishing touches to the bill.
This was a weighty business. It was not often that the little Hotel du Nord had the privilege of entertaining guests from America, and M. Brisson was thriftily determined to make the most of it. The price of the room, unfortunately, had been agreed upon in advance; but there were the meals and, above all, the extras—baggage, lights, attendance, one special breakfast at five o'clock—one must be paid for rising in the middle of the night!—confitures, bath—had there been a bath? No matter! Wine, cigars—M. Brisson licked his lips as he put them all in. Then he made a mistake of five francs in the addition, and the thing was done. He contemplated it for a moment with satisfaction, then folded it, slipped it into his pocket, and returned to the breakfast-room.
His guests were just rising from the table, and a glance told him that they had done but scant justice to the meal—fully half the rolls remained uneaten! They were in haste, then; so much the better! He assisted them to adjust their knapsacks.
"And now the bill," said one of them, taking out his purse.
M. Brisson presented it with a bow. The other took it, glanced at the total, and his face flushed. He opened his lips to speak, closed them again, and his eyes ran up the column of figures. The flush deepened, and again he opened his lips; but when he met Brisson's ferret-like gaze, he again closed them. Without a word, he extracted from his purse a note for a hundred francs and placed it in Brisson's hand.
"You may keep the change," he said.
"Oh, thanks, sir!" Brisson cried, and he bowed again to hide the triumphant smile upon his lips. "Many thanks! A pleasant journey! And when you come again to Toulon, remember the Hotel du Nord!"
The other nodded glumly, and started for the door, followed by his companion. Brisson and his wife accompanied them, again bade them adieu, and stood for a moment watching them, as they went down the street in the direction of the quays.
"A hundred francs!" said Madame Brisson, and gazed with veneration at her lord and master. "But what was your bill, then, Aristide?"
"Ninety-six francs," said Brisson, sourly, "and, for a moment, I thought the swine was going to protest it!"
"If they had not been Americans," began Madame.
"Americans!" burst in Brisson. "Bah! They are not Americans! Germans, perhaps, or Austrians; but Americans, no! Those men, Gabrielle, have something to conceal!" and Brisson, frowning darkly, went back into the house.
* * * * *
Meanwhile the two pedestrians made their way rapidly along the dark and silent street without exchanging a word. There was in their faces a strange excitement, and they stared straight ahead, as though they dared not meet each other's eyes. At the end of a few moments, they came out upon the quays. Here the darkness of the narrow street gave place to the grey of the approaching dawn, and one of them took his watch from his pocket and looked at it.
"Nine minutes!" he said in guttural English, and in a voice strangely thick, as with some deep and barely repressed emotion.
The other nodded, and with common accord they turned to the right toward the great basin, where three or four men-of-war lay at anchor. The light increased from minute to minute, the horizon turned from grey to pearly white, and over the hills to the east a golden halo marked the spot where the sun would rise. They stopped to look at it, and then, stepping back into the recess of a doorway, directed their gaze toward a great battleship, anchored perhaps three hundred yards away. As the minutes passed, they seemed scarcely to breathe, and their lips were twitching with nervous excitement.
Suddenly over the trees shot a long ray of yellow light, gilding the house-tops, gilding the mast-heads of the vessels in the harbour; and then, as though in answer to a signal, came a muffled roar from the anchored battleship. There was an instant's silence, then the shrill voices of sentries sounding the alarm, the whirring of a gong....
A second roar drowned all lesser sounds, and then the high, thin notes of a bugle echoed across the water. The deck of the ship was alive with men; from her open ports wisps of angry smoke swirled upward into the morning air....
Above the babble of excited voices, rose a shout of command, the bugle shrilled "Sauve qui peut! Sauve qui peut! Sauve qui peut!" and the crew began leaping over the side; and then, straight in front of where stood the breathless watchers, a mighty column of black smoke leaped high into the air, mushroomed and drifted slowly away before the breeze. At the same instant came a frightful, rending crash, which seemed to shake the earth, and a foam-capped wave swept across the harbour and dashed angrily against the quay. For one tense instant, all nature held her breath, and then came the splash and clatter of debris falling into the water and on the docks, the rattle of broken glass from the houses along the quay; and finally, quivering through the air, rose the shrill, inhuman cry of men in mortal anguish.
The smoke, drifting lazily away, disclosed a mass of twisted wreckage where, a moment before, La Liberte, the pride of the French navy, had swung at anchor.
"Ach Gott! Es ist doch wahr!" breathed one of the men, and stared rigid, fascinated; but the other laid a trembling hand upon his arm.
"We must hasten!" he whispered. "We must not stay here!"
"True!" agreed the other, and with a last glance at the wreck, strode away along the quay.
Already the city was awake; already frightened faces were peering from shattered windows, half-clothed men were bursting into the streets, and voices shrill with fear were demanding to know what had occurred. But our travellers heeded them not. At the first corner they separated, and one of them made his way rapidly up into the town, while the other hastened along a dark and narrow lane parallel with the quay, and stopped at last before a tall, decrepit house, whose plaster, black with age, was flaking from its walls. On the door-step sat a girl of eighteen or twenty, a dark shawl about her head, from whose shadow her face peered, strangely white.
"Is it by this way one gains the Frejus road?" he asked in English.
"Straight on to the end of the street, then to the left," answered the girl in the same tongue, speaking it readily and without accent.
"Thank you. This for your father," and thrusting his hand quickly into his pocket, he drew out a fat envelope, sealed with many seals, placed it in the girl's hand, and hurried on.
An hour later, the two travellers, reunited, Toulon well behind them, strode along a beautiful road skirting the Mediterranean, which stretched, a sheet of greenish-blue, away to the south. But, strangely enough, they did not even glance at this panorama. Instead, they walked with heads down, as though still fearing to meet each other's eyes.
* * * * *
Back in the narrow Rue du Plasson, the girl, her face still very white, re-entered the house, closed and bolted the crazy door, and slowly mounted the dark staircase. From the street outside came excited cries, hoarse shouting, the clatter of running feet; but she did not stop to listen. Indeed, she did not seem to hear, but dragged herself up from step to step as though a weight was on her feet.
The house was of four stories, and she did not pause until she reached the top one. A stream of yellow light poured through an open door, and she entered and closed the door behind her. A lighted candle stood on a table in the centre of the narrow room, but already the rays of the sun were beating against the single window. Besides the table, the room contained two chairs, a rusty stove, and a cupboard in which were a few dishes. Against one wall stood a cot, and the back of the room was curtained off, no doubt for the girl's sleeping-chamber.
She stood for a moment staring listlessly before her, as though trying to remember what she should do next; then she laid the envelope on the table, blew out the candle, started a fire in the stove, and placed a kettle upon it. Finally she drew a chair to the window, sat down, and looked out across the harbour.
Opposite the house was a long, low building, the wine-market, so that her view of the harbour was unobstructed. It was alive with boats, circling around or speeding towards a black and shapeless mass, above which some shreds of smoke still lingered. Her lips were moving as she stared at it, and her face was bloodless; and she pressed her hands to her breast, as though in pain.
At last the singing of the kettle roused her. She seemed to pull herself together; then she rose, made the coffee and placed some rolls upon the table. Finally she picked up a knife and with the handle smote sharply against the wall. A moment later, the door opened and a man came in.
At first glance, one thought him very old, for his hair was white as snow, his body shrivelled and bent, his face lined and sallow. But at the second glance, one perceived that these were not the marks of age but of the ravages of the fiery spirit which dwelt within the body and which peered from the burning eyes. At this moment, they gleamed with a lustre almost demoniacal.
"Breakfast is ready, father," said the girl. "And—and the man came past, as you expected, and gave me that for you," she added, with a little gesture toward the sealed envelope.
The man advanced to the table, picked up the envelope, and walked on to the window. For a moment he stood staring out across the harbour; then there was the sound of ripping paper, a moment's silence, and he thrust the envelope into his pocket and turned back to the table.
"It is well!" he said, and sat down. "It is well, Kasia!"
"I am glad of that, father," she answered, in a low voice, and poured his coffee.
He ate rapidly and as though very hungry; but the girl made only a pretence of eating. At last the man looked at her.
"We leave at once," he said. "We are to take the first boat for America. Are you not glad?"
"Very glad, father."
"Why is it you so love America, Kasia?" he asked.
"You also love it, father. It is the land of freedom—even for us poor Poles, it is the land of freedom!"
"The land of freedom!" he echoed. "And I love it, as you say. It is because of that I hasten back; I have in store for her a great honour, which will make her more than ever the land of freedom! For she is not free yet, Kasia—not for poor Poles, nor for poor Jews, nor for the poor of any nation. The poor cannot know freedom—not anywhere in the whole world. They must labour, they must sweat, they may not rest if they would live, for the greater part of what they earn is stolen from them. But I will change all that! Oh, you know my dream—no more poverty, no more suffering, no more cruelty and tyranny and injustice—but all men, all the nations of the world, joined in brotherhood and love! This day at dawn I struck the first blow for freedom! Do you know what it was, my daughter? Did you hear the roar of the waters as they opened? See!"
He caught her by the wrist and dragged her to the window.
"See!" he cried again, and pointed a shaking finger toward the black hulk in the harbour.
But she did not look. Instead she shrank away from him and pressed her hands before her eyes, and shook with a long shudder.
And after a moment, the light faded from her father's face, and left it old and worn; his eyes grew dull and moody; his lips trembled.
"Every cause must have its martyrs," he said, as though answering her thought, and his voice was shaking with emotion; "even the cause of freedom; yea, that more than any other, for the battle against tyranny is the most desperate of all!"
And dropping her wrist, he went slowly from the room.
FRANCE IN MOURNING
To M. Theophile Delcasse, Minister of Marine, and first statesman of the Republic, slumbering peacefully in his bed at Paris that morning, came the sound of urgent knocking. He sat up in bed and rubbed the sleep from his eyes, for he knew that not without good cause would any one dare disturb him at that hour. Then he stepped to the floor, thrust his feet into a pair of slippers, his arms into the sleeves of a dressing-robe, and opened the door.
"A telegram, sir, marked 'Most Important,'" said his valet, and passed it in to him.
It was from Vice-Admiral Bellue, commander at Toulon, and a moment later M. Delcasse had learned of the terrible disaster.
He ordered his carriage and dressed rapidly with trembling hands. He was shocked and distressed as he had rarely been before. Would these disasters never cease? First the Jenaow the Liberte—both ships the pride of their country, the last formidable word in marine architecture! He gulped down the cup of coffee which his valet brought him, seized hat and gloves, hastened to his carriage, and drove straight to the Elysee Palace.
The President was already up, and his broad face, usually so placid and good-humoured, was convulsed with grief as he greeted his Minister. He held in his hand a telegram, which he had just opened.
"See," he said, after the first moment, "the sad news is already abroad," and he held out the message.
Delcasse took it and read it with astonished eyes. It was from the German Emperor, and expressed his grief at the catastrophe, and his sympathy with France, which he had directed his ambassador to call at once in person to convey more fully.
"The Kaiser is certainly well-served!" muttered Delcasse, reading the message again, his lips twitching with emotion. "There is something ironical in this promptness. He must have had the news before we did!"
The President nodded gloomily. Then the other members of the cabinet came whirling up, and were convened at once by their chief in secret session.
Not many hours later, as a result of that session, a special train rolled out of the Gare de Lyon, and headed away for the south, with a clear track and right-of-way over everything. Aboard it were the President himself, the Minister of Marine, the Minister of War, and a score of minor officials. There was also a thin little man with white hair and yellowish-white beard—M. Louis Jean Baptiste Lepine, Prefect of Police, and the most famous hunter of criminals in the world; and in the last car were a dozen of the best men of his staff, under command of his most trusted lieutenant, Inspector Pigot.
At each station, as the train rolled on, great crowds gathered to meet it—crowds strangely silent, inarticulate with grief, furious, suspicious of they knew not what. Terrible rumours were abroad—rumours of treachery, of treason striking at the very heart of France. No one dared repeat these rumours, but nevertheless they ran up and down the land. The Jena and now the Liberte! True, the Board of Inquiry, which had investigated the destruction of the Jena, had decided that that catastrophe was due to the spontaneous combustion of the powder in her magazines. France had accepted the verdict; but now a second battleship was gone. It would be too much to ask any one to believe that this was spontaneous combustion, also! Such things do not happen twice.
And at every station telegrams were handed in giving fresh details of the disaster—horrible details. The ship was a total loss; of that splendid mechanism, built by years of toil, by the expenditure of many millions, there remained only a twisted and useless mass of wreckage; and in that wreckage lay three hundred of France's sailors. Small wonder that the President sat, chin in hand, staring straight before him, and that the others spoke in whispers, or not at all.
At Dijon, which was reached about the middle of the afternoon, there was a tremendous crowd, thronging the long platforms and pressing against the barriers, which threatened at every moment to be swept away. The President went out to say a few words to them, but at the first sentence his voice failed him, and he could only stand and look down upon them, convulsive sobs rising in his throat. Suddenly a little red-legged Turco, weeping too, snatched off his fez and shouted "Vive la France!" and the cheer was taken up and repeated and repeated, until it swelled to a vast roar. As the train rolled out of the station, the crowd, bareheaded, was singing the Marseillaise.
M. Delcasse's eyes, behind his heavy glasses, were wet with tears.
"It is the same people still!" he said, pressing the President's hand. "They are as ready to spring to arms as they were a hundred years ago. Now, as then, they need only to know that their country is in danger!"
His voice had grown vibrant with emotion, for the passion of his life was and always had been revenge upon Germany. He made no effort to conceal it or to dissimulate. Alsace and Lorraine were always in his thoughts. To placate Germany, indeed, France had once been compelled to drive him from the Quai d'Orsay, where, for so many years, he had been to his contemporaries a sort of Olympian in the conduct of her foreign affairs. But even in retirement he remained the most powerful man in France; and now he was back in the cabinet again, a giant among Lilliputians, building up the navy, building up the army, strengthening the forts along the frontier, increasing the efficiency of the artillery, experimenting with air-ships, devoting his days and nights to the study of strategy, the discussion of possibilities, always with the same idea, the same hope! And now, this catastrophe!
As he sat gnawing his nails, the President glanced at him, read his thoughts, and shook his head.
"No, my friend," he said, sadly, "the country is not in danger; or, if it is, the danger is from within, not from without. This is an accident, like all the others."
"You believe so? But it seems to me that we have had more than our share of accidents!"
"So we have," the President agreed. "Let us hope that this will be the last—that it will teach us to guard ourselves, in future, from our own carelessness."
"England, America, Germany," Delcasse went on, speaking half to himself, "these nations, with navies greater than ours, never have such accidents. Small explosions, sometimes, it is true, wrecking a gun or damaging a turret—but never destroying a whole ship! Is it merely because they are never careless?"
"There was the Maine," the President reminded him.
Delcasse's hand went to his moustache to hide the ironic smile upon his lips. In that close-cropped head of his, along with many other such secrets, was that of the cause of the catastrophe in Havana harbour. In all the chancellories of Europe, it was agreed that the Maine had been destroyed by the spontaneous explosion of her own magazines. Four men knew the truth, and Delcasse was one of them. There had been a fifth, but an assassin's bullet killed him.
In an instant Delcasse's face was composed, and his eyes, behind their immense glasses, as inscrutable as ever. The President, so ingenuous and child-like, must never suspect the truth!
"True!" Delcasse agreed. "There was the Maine! I had forgotten that," and he relapsed into thoughtful silence.
Evening came, and still the train rolled southward, past Macon, past Lyons, past Vienne, everywhere greeted by surging crowds. At the latter place, Delcasse arose and, with an almost imperceptible nod to Lepine, entered the last car. The Prefect followed him, and a few minutes later, they were closeted together in a compartment, where, at a word from his superior, Inspector Pigot had joined them.
"And now," began Delcasse, when the door was closed and the train had started again, "tell me what you think of this affair, Lepine."
The little grey man spread his hands wide with a gesture of helplessness.
"At this moment I know no more than you, sir," he answered; "probably not so much. By morning, I shall have a report ready for you."
"We shall not arrive until after midnight," the Minister pointed out.
"Nevertheless, my report will be ready, sir," said Lepine, quietly. "Between midnight and dawn there are six hours."
Delcasse looked at him. He knew that this little man never made an empty promise.
"Did you go through the papers at the time of the Jena disaster?" he asked.
"I did, sir. I assisted the investigating board."
"You are, then, familiar with the theories in that case?"
"There were four theories," answered Lepine. "The first was that the ship had been blown up by treachery; that is always the first thought! But in the case of the Jena, it was quickly discovered that treachery was impossible, unless it was that of the highest officers, for only they had access to her magazines. That was unthinkable, for all of them had served France for many years. More than half of them were killed. I myself investigated the life of every one of these men, for it was necessary to be absolutely certain—but not a breath could be raised against them."
"And the second theory?"
"That there had been carelessness of some sort. That, too, was disproved, for no one had entered the magazines for many hours previous to the explosion. It is a rule of the service that, except when in use, the keys of all magazines shall be in keeping of the commander, who is responsible for them. At the inquiry, the commander of the Jena testified that the keys had not left his possession during the two days preceding the accident. There had been no occasion to enter the magazines during that time. The Jena, you will remember, was at anchor in Toulon harbour, just as the Liberte was."
Delcasse glanced at his companion keenly.
"Does that fact suggest nothing to you, Lepine?" he asked.
"Nothing, sir," said Lepine firmly. "I have thought of it all day, and I can see in it nothing except coincidence."
"Coincidence! Coincidence! I detest the word—I do not believe in coincidence!" muttered the Minister.
"Nor I," agreed Lepine; "but even less do I believe in vague theories and vague suspicions. We must have a firm foundation before we begin to build."
"Well, and the third theory?" said Delcasse, at last.
"The third theory was most interesting. It was that the explosion had been caused by waves from the wireless telegraph. It was asserted that these waves had upset the unstable equilibrium, either chemical or electrical, which sometimes exists in the components of modern powder, and that the explosion had resulted."
"And this theory also was disproved?"
"The most exhaustive tests failed to confirm it."
"Ah," said Delcasse; "but to fail to confirm a thing is not to disprove it."
"Our wireless experts agreed in pronouncing the theory absurd."
"Wireless waves penetrate metal, do they not?"
"Every metal except lead."
Delcasse turned this over for some moments in his mind.
"If that had been the cause," went on Lepine, at last, "there would have been other explosions, many of them—and our navy would not have been the only one to suffer. The whole atmosphere is charged with such waves, of every length and every degree of intensity."
"Perhaps you are right," agreed the Minister. "What was the fourth theory?"
"The fourth theory was that finally adopted by the board. It was that a certain kind of powder, known as 'B' powder, degenerates under heat, and becomes, in time, extremely combustible, so that it will sometimes explode apparently without any exciting cause."
"In what manner was the truth of this theory demonstrated?" demanded Delcasse.
"In a most convincing manner. A certain amount of this powder, which the board was examining, did explode in this way, under their very hands. Had the amount been larger, not a member of the board would have escaped. But, sir, you know all this as well as I."
"I wish to refresh my memory," Delcasse explained. "I wish to see if your memory, which I admire so much, agrees with mine. Now tell me this: what was done to prevent a recurrence of such an accident?"
"The powder in all French magazines was overhauled, and that which there was any reason to suspect was destroyed. To prevent future deterioration, the magazines of all our battleships were equipped with a special cooling apparatus. In this, we were soon followed by all other nations."
"And yet," said Delcasse, in a low voice, "the latest and best of our battleships blew up this morning!"
"I have brought my best men with me, as you suggested, sir," said Lepine. "If there were any suspicious circumstances attending this explosion, depend upon it, they will be laid before you when you awake!"
"Do not wait for me to awake!" cried the Minister. "If any such circumstance comes to light, wake me—wake me on the instant!"
"I will do so, sir," he promised.
* * * * *
It was some time past midnight when the train reached Toulon; but apparently no one of her hundred thousand inhabitants had thought of sleep. The streets before the station were crowded from house-front to house-front. The carriage containing the President and his Ministers had the greatest difficulty in proceeding. Everywhere there were cries for vengeance, shouts of treason, threats, wild imprecations. Men stood with arms extended cursing the heavens. The Place de la Liberte was massed with people, facing the fountain in honour of the Revolution, bareheaded, singing the Ca Ira. It seemed as though the wheels of time had rolled back a century, and that at any moment the Sea-green Incorruptible himself might arise to thunder denunciation. But at last the President and his staff reached their hotel.
M. Lepine, after final instructions to Pigot, joined them there, and listened to the reports made by the surviving officers of La Liberte. They were in despair, these men, ready to kill themselves at a word; their faces were blackened, their uniforms in tatters, their hands torn and bleeding, for they had laboured all day at the work of rescue. They spoke between sobs, but it was little they had to tell.
Commander Jaures, it seemed, had been absent on leave, the second in command was ashore, so that Senior Lieutenant Garnier was in charge of the ship. Just before dawn, the watch had discovered a small fire in one of the store-rooms, but it was so insignificant that no one thought of danger; the fire was not near the magazines; in any event, the magazines were all securely closed—the officer in charge had seen to that. Suddenly, apparently without cause, there had been three explosions, about a minute apart, first of the forward magazine, then of the after magazine, then of the main magazine—it seemed almost as though they had been fired at spaced intervals, like a heavy gun. There had been time to get the crew on deck, but the final explosion had come before the boats could be lowered. It had broken the ship in two; the forward part had turned over and sunk with all on board; the after part was a mere mass of twisted wreckage. The explosion had been so violent, that the neighbouring ships also suffered—La Republique so seriously that it was only by hurrying her to a dry-dock she was kept from sinking. No one had any theory, any explanation; there had been no warning, no premonition. An instant, and it was over. But all agreed that the fire could have had nothing to do with it.
Pigot, meanwhile, had spread his men out along the docks, where they listened to every one, asked questions of every one. Not a rumour escaped them, but, alas, for no rumour could they find foundation. The wreck in the harbour was illuminated by the searchlights of the other battleships, and Pigot caused himself to be rowed out to it, introduced himself to Admiral Marin-Dabel, Maritime Prefect of Toulon, who had taken personal charge of the rescue work, and spent half an hour inspecting the melancholy scene. Then he landed again, and listened for a time to the reports of his lieutenants. There was among them not a single ray of light—not the slightest evidence to show that the disaster had been anything but an accident. The fire in the store-room had, it was whispered, been much more serious than the officers would admit.
Pigot made his way slowly toward the hotel to report to his chief, but as he crossed the Place d'Armes, a hand was laid upon his sleeve. He turned, expecting to see one of his men. Instead, he found himself looking into a face he did not know.
"Pardon, sir," he said. "You are, perhaps, mistaken."
"Oh, no, Pigot," said the stranger, with a little smile, "I am not mistaken. It is you whom I wish to see."
"I do not remember you, sir," said Pigot, looking at him more closely. "Have we met before?"
"Many times!" echoed Pigot, incredulously. "Surely not!" and he looked again to make certain that the stranger was not intoxicated. "Where have we met?"
"We met last," said the stranger, smiling again, "on La Savoie, in the harbour of New York City. To be sure, I was not in this incarnation, but I am sure you will recall the incident."
Pigot drew a deep breath, and his face flushed.
"Ah," he said quietly, after a moment. "I remember. I wish you good evening, M. Crochard."
"One moment," Crochard commanded, his grasp tightening on Pigot's arm. "Forgive my recalling that meeting to your memory. It was indelicate of me. Nevertheless you would do well to listen to what I have to say."
Pigot stopped and turned.
"Well," he said, after gazing for a moment into Crochard's eyes, "speak quickly. What is it you have to say?"
"I wish to say to you, Pigot, that I have come to offer you my help."
"In solving the mystery of this disaster."
Pigot looked at him coldly.
"We do not require your help," he said, at last.
"Perhaps not; and yet you would be mistaken to refuse it. I was at Nice; I have been on the ground since morning; I have discovered...."
"Well, what have you discovered?" asked Pigot, as Crochard hesitated.
"I have discovered," Crochard continued slowly, "what I can reveal only to M. Delcasse himself. I demand that you cause me to be introduced to him at once."
Pigot shrugged his shoulders impatiently.
"Impossible!" he said, and started on.
"Wait!" said Crochard sternly. "Consider whether you are willing to take the responsibility of this refusal!"
"Responsibility!" Pigot burst out, his anger getting the upper hand at last. "Responsibility! Yes, I take it! Who are you? A notorious character—a thief...."
Crochard's eyes were blazing, and his hand grasped Pigot's arm with a vise-like grip.
"And with it all," he sneered, "a better man than you, Pigot! Is it not so? A better man than you! How often have I proved it!"
Pigot's hand turned and closed like a flash upon the other's wrist.
"You will come with me," he said.
The anger faded from Crochard's face, and an ironic amusement took its place.
"Where would you conduct me?" he asked.
"To the Prefecture!"
"You are mistaken. You will conduct me to M. Delcasse. You cannot conduct me to the Prefecture, Pigot; I will not allow it!"
"Allow it!" sneered Pigot, and pressed forward.
"Fool!" hissed Crochard in his ear. "Thick-headed fool! Have you learned no wisdom yet? I would smite you, Pigot, but that I have need of you. Listen! I and only I can save France! I demand that you take me to M. Delcasse."
Pigot felt himself waver; a vague uneasiness stirred within him as he met his companion's flaming gaze.
"On what pretext can I introduce you to M. Delcasse?" he asked at last.
"You will leave me outside the door," said Crochard rapidly, almost in a whisper. "You will go in to M. Delcasse alone; you will say to him, 'Sir, I have outside a man who asserts that La Liberte was blown up by the Germans, and that he can prove it!' Then let M. Delcasse decide whether or not he will receive me!"
Pigot was staring at the speaker with distended eyes.
"By the Germans!" he repeated, hoarsely. "By the Germans!"
Crochard answered with an impatient pressure of the arm.
"You are wasting time," he said.
"You are right," Pigot agreed. "Come with me," and he led the way across the square.
[Footnote 1: See "The Mystery of the Boule Cabinet."]
TWO GREAT MEN MEET
M. Delcasse and M. Lepine were still in conference when Pigot was announced. He was admitted without delay, and made his report briefly and clearly. It could have been summed up in a sentence: neither by him nor by his agents had anything been discovered to indicate, even remotely, that the catastrophe had been the result of intention; every rumour to that effect had been sifted and disproved; La Liberte had been destroyed from within and not from without.
"Another 'accident,' then," grunted Delcasse gloomily. "But I do not believe it! Something—something here"—and he smote his forehead—"tells me that it was not an accident!"
Pigot, as a practical detective, had no faith in intuition; but whatever his thoughts may have been, he managed to mask them behind an impenetrable countenance.
"Our investigations have but just begun," Lepine pointed out. "They will be continued without pause. I will conduct them in person. No circumstance, however trivial, will be overlooked."
"I know you are a good man, Lepine," said the Minister wearily; "I know there is none more clever. But something more than cleverness is needed here—we need genius, inspiration." He stopped abruptly and rose from his chair. "I am sure you will do your best. Remember, if there is any discovery, I am to be told at once."
Pigot, who had been standing with lips compressed, undergoing a violent inward struggle, at last managed to open them.
"I have a man outside," he said, as though repeating a lesson, "who requests an audience with M. Delcasse. He asserts that La Liberte was blown up by the Germans, and that he can prove it."
Delcasse whirled as on a pivot and stared at the speaker.
"But, name of God!" he stammered, barely able to speak for excitement, "why have you not introduced this man at once? Why have you wasted our time...."
He stopped and took a rapid turn up and down the room. When he spoke again, his voice was quite composed.
"Introduce the man at once," he commanded.
"I think it would be well," said Pigot tonelessly, "that M. Delcasse should first be informed as to the name and character of this man."
Again Delcasse stared.
"Explain yourself!" he cried. "Who is the man?"
"His name is Crochard, sir," Pigot replied.
Delcasse evidently did not recognise the name, but Lepine's face was suddenly illumined.
"Crochard," he explained, "is the most adroit, the most daring, the most accomplished scoundrel with whom I have ever had to deal. Surely Monsieur remembers the affair of the Michaelovitch diamonds?"
"Ah, yes!" cried Delcasse, his face, too, lighting. "So that was Crochard!"
"Crochard the Invincible, he calls himself," growled Pigot. "He is a great braggart."
"And with some reason," added Lepine. "We have never yet been able to convict him."
"He restored the Mazarin diamond to the Louvre, did he not?" queried the Minister. "And also the Mona Lisa?"
"The Mazarin certainly," assented Lepine. "As for the Mona Lisa, I have never been quite certain. There is a rumour that the original is now owned by an American millionaire, and that the picture returned to the Louvre is only a copy—a wonderful one, it is true. Where did you meet him, Pigot?"
Pigot related the story of the meeting, while Delcasse listened thoughtfully.
"Is he to be trusted?" he asked, when Pigot had finished.
"In this affair I believe so," answered Lepine quietly. "He may be as good a patriot as you or I. If he is really in earnest, he can be of immense assistance. He has absolute command of the underworld, and a thousand sources of information which are closed to the police. At least, it can do no harm to hear what he has to say."
Delcasse agreed with a nod, and sat down again.
"Bring him in," he said, and a moment later Crochard entered.
If M. Delcasse had expected to perceive anything of the criminal in the man who bowed to him respectfully from the threshold, he was most thoroughly disappointed. What he did see was a well-built man in the very prime of life, with clear and fearless eyes of greenish-grey flecked with yellow, a face singularly open and engaging, and a manner as easy and self-possessed as Delcasse's own. The only sign of approaching age was the sprinkle of grey in the crisp, brown hair, but this served rather to accentuate the youthfulness of the face, covered now by a coat of tan which bespoke a summer spent in the open. In any company, this man would have been notable.
"M. Crochard, I believe," said Delcasse, and involuntarily the great Minister arose and returned his visitor's bow. "Be seated, sir."
"Thank you," said Crochard, and sat down. "I see that we are going to appreciate each other," he added, and looked at Delcasse with a friendly smile.
That gentleman's eyes were twinkling behind his glasses, and his lips twitched under his heavy moustache.
"It always pleases me to meet a distinguished man," he said, "in whatever field of endeavour. M. Lepine tells me that you are most distinguished."
"M. Lepine has every reason to know," agreed Crochard, and glanced smilingly toward the Prefect.
"Though, since I have eyes, I can see that for myself," added the Minister. "Why did you wish to see me?"
"I wished to see you, sir," answered Crochard, suddenly serious, "because I have long recognised in you the only man whom France possesses who sees clearly the struggle which is ahead of her, who prepares ceaselessly for that struggle, and who is strong enough to guide her through it triumphantly."
"To what struggle do you refer?" inquired the Minister, but his shining eyes belied his careless tone.
"The struggle to regain possession of Alsace-Lorraine and to avenge ourselves upon the nation which once humiliated us."
A slow flush crept into Delcasse's cheeks, and his lips tightened.
"You foresee such a struggle?" he asked.
"As clearly as you do yourself, sir."
"Well, yes!" cried Delcasse, and smote the arm of his chair a heavy blow. "I do foresee such a struggle—I have never denied it; and for twenty years I have laboured to prepare for it. You can understand, then, what a blow it is to me—how terrible, how disheartening—to have all my calculations blasted by such accidents as that of to-day!"
"Pardon me, sir," said Crochard, in a low tone, "but the destruction of La Liberte was not an accident!"
"You assert that?"
"I do. And furthermore I assert that it was the work of Germany!"
Delcasse sprang from his chair, his face livid.
"The proof!" he cried. "The proof!"
"The proof, sir, is this: at five minutes before dawn, this morning, two strangers, attired as pedestrians, with knapsacks on their backs, stopped in the recess of the doorway of Number Ten, Quai de Cronstadt. They stepped well within the shadow, as though not wishing to be seen, and stood gazing out on the harbour. Directly before them, at a distance of not more than three hundred yards, La Liberte was moored. It was at her they stared, with eyes expectant and uneasy. At dawn, La Liberte blew up, and one of these men cried out some words of German."
"What were they?"
"Unfortunately the person who overheard them does not know German. He understood only the first two words, 'Ach Gott!'"
"And the men?" cried Delcasse. "What became of them?"
"They strode rapidly away along the quay, and were lost to sight."
Delcasse dropped into his chair, his face dark with passion.
"What do you infer from this circumstance?" he demanded.
"There is only one possible inference," answered Crochard. "At five minutes before dawn this morning, there were, in this city of Toulon, two Germans who knew that La Liberte was to be destroyed."
A moment's silence followed. Those words, terrible as they were, astounding as they were, carried conviction with them.
"Tell me," said Delcasse, at last, "how you discovered all this."
"I have been spending the month at Nice," Crochard explained. "I learned of the disaster as soon as I was up this morning, and I came at once to Toulon. Monsieur will understand that, in the many years during which I have been at variance with society, I have made many friends and gained a certain power in quarters of which Monsieur knows little. One of these friends is the proprietor of the cafe which occupies the ground floor of the house on the Quai de Cronstadt. I stopped to see him, because his house is close to the scene of the disaster—so close, indeed, that all of its windows were shattered. It was he who gave me the first clue."
"Go on," said Delcasse, who had been listening intently. "I need not say how deeply all this interests me."
"My friend had arranged to go to Marseilles this morning," Crochard continued, "to make a purchase of wine. The train, he tells me, leaves at six o'clock. It was about fifteen minutes before that hour when, as he started to open his door, two men stepped into the little vestibule, as though to screen themselves from observation. He peered through the curtain, thinking they might be friends, and found that he did not know them. Gazing from the darkness of the interior, he could see them very well. They were staring at La Liberte, as I have said, their faces rigid with emotion; and then came the explosion, which, without question, they anticipated."
"You have a description of them?" broke in Delcasse.
"An excellent description. They were men of middle age, heavily built and clean-shaven. Their faces were deeply tanned, as with long exposure, and had that fulness about the lips which bespeaks the German. They wore caps and walking-suits with knee trousers. Each had strapped upon his back a small knapsack."
Lepine, who had been taking rapid notes, looked up with gleaming eyes.
"We shall find these men," he said. "It will not be difficult."
"More difficult than you suppose, M. Lepine," said Crochard dryly.
Lepine looked at him.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
Crochard turned to Delcasse with a little deprecating gesture.
"Before I proceed," he said, "I must be certain of my position here. With you, sir, no explanations are necessary; we understand each other and we have no past to prejudice us. But M. le Prefect and I are old enemies. We respect each other, but we always welcome an opportunity to try conclusions. Until this affair is ended, I propose a truce."
"I will go further than that," retorted Lepine, "and call it an alliance. I shall welcome your help. I have already told M. Delcasse that you are probably as good a patriot as he or I."
"I shall try to prove that you are right," said Crochard, his eyes shining. "There is one more condition. In this affair, it may be necessary for me to call to my assistance certain persons for whom the police are looking. Should they be recognised while so engaged, no effort must be made to arrest them."
"I agree," said Lepine, instantly.
Crochard leaned back in his chair with a sigh of satisfaction.
"I am ready to proceed," he said. "Let us, for the time, forget our differences."
"I have already forgotten them," said Lepine.
Delcasse had listened to this interchange with smiling lips.
"Magnificent!" he cried. "I shall remember this scene all my life. And now to work!"
"First," said Lepine, "permit me to inquire of Inspector Pigot how it happened that neither he nor his men heard anything of these two strangers?"
Pigot flushed darkly and opened his lips to defend himself, but Crochard silenced him with a little gesture.
"I can explain that," he said. "Pigot is not a genius, it is true, but neither is he quite a fool, and I should grieve to see him blamed for something not his fault. I was careful to warn my friend to repeat his story to no one. That, I think, was the wisest course. Those men must not know that we suspect them."
"You are right," he agreed. "Are you possessed of any further information?"
"I had only a few hours," Crochard apologised; "but I did what I could. I learned that two men resembling these, and undoubtedly the same, had been staying since Friday at the Hotel du Nord. The proprietor of that house informed me that they left before daybreak this morning to walk to Frejus."
"Ah, then," began Delcasse.
"But they did not go to Frejus," Crochard added. "They stopped at Salins, which they reached about ten o'clock, boarded a small steam-yacht which was waiting there, and at once put out to sea. I fear they are beyond our reach."
Delcasse stamped his foot.
"What, then, is to be done?" he demanded.
"It seems to me most important that we identify these men," said Crochard; "then we shall know where to look for them."
"Yes," agreed Delcasse; "but how are they to be identified?"
"There are, no doubt, in the files of your department, photographs of the most prominent German officers, both of army and navy. I believe these men to be officers—one, at least—the other may belong to the secret service. I would suggest that these photographs be brought to Toulon, and that it also be ascertained which officers are on leave of absence, or not with their commands. Probably it will be necessary to search only among the general officers. An affair so important would not be entrusted to a subordinate."
Delcasse made a quick note.
"The photographs will be here to-morrow," he promised.
"I would further suggest that the innkeeper be strictly interrogated," Crochard went on. "I ventured to ask him only a careless question or two; he does not know me, and I did not wish to arouse his suspicions."
"I will see him at once," he said.
Crochard rose also.
"And I will accompany you. That is all the information I have at present, sir," he added to Delcasse.
"It is a great deal," said the Minister quickly. "Just before you came, I was remarking to Lepine that what we needed in this affair was a man of genius. Well, I think that we have found him!"
Crochard flushed with pleasure.
"I thank you, sir," he said.
"And I thank you for coming to me," said Delcasse. "You are doing France a great service. I shall not forget it. Until morning, then."
Crochard bowed and left the room with the two detectives.
Delcasse sat for a moment deep in thought; then he summoned his secretary, gave the necessary order about the photographs and dictated a cipher telegram to the chief of his secret service at Berlin. That done, he bade his secretary good night, dismissed him and went to bed.
But not to sleep. Turning at full length upon his back, his arms above his head, he stared steadily up into the darkness until his brain, freed of all lesser problems, all vagrant thoughts, was concentrated upon the great problem which now confronted it:
How had the destruction of La Liberte been accomplished?
It was, of course, the work of Germany. Those two strangers, who spoke German in a moment of great excitement, who had arrived five minutes before the disaster, who had hastened away immediately afterwards, who had lied about their destination, and for whom a steam-yacht had been waiting—all this, as Crochard said, could have but one meaning.
And then Delcasse fairly bounded in the bed. Fool that he had been not to think of it! There was another proof! The telegram from the Emperor!
He lay a moment trembling, then calmed himself by a mighty effort. How was it the Emperor had learned so promptly of the disaster? There was only one possible answer: an emissary had hastened to flash the news to him—an emissary dressed, prepared, who needed to delay for no investigation, since the roar of the explosion told him everything—one of the men, perhaps, who had waited on the quay. And Delcasse, biting his nails, his face wet with perspiration, pictured to himself the Emperor also waiting, pacing restlessly back and forth, until the word should come! He gnashed his teeth with rage, this good Frenchman, and shook trembling fists up into the darkness. Ah, Germany should pay! Germany should pay!
But again he calmed himself, wiped his forehead, and composed himself for thought.
How had La Liberte been destroyed? There was the question which must be answered, and at once.
By a mine, set to explode at a certain hour? Delcasse shook his head. It was absurd to suppose that a mine could be planted in a harbour as strictly guarded and policed as that of Toulon. By a torpedo, then, which could be launched some distance away? But that was even more absurd. The launching of a torpedo required a complex mechanism; as well suppose that an enemy would be able to install a cannon on the docks unobserved. By a submarine? But La Liberte had lain at anchor in an enclosed basin; besides there were the outer basins, patrol boats, sentries, the constant coming and going of sailors and marines, of launches, of boats of all kinds. How could an enemy creep unobserved past all these?
True, the accident had occurred at dawn, when every one but the sentries was asleep. But even at that hour the harbour was strictly guarded. An enemy, to enter unseen, would have to be impalpable, invisible....
Besides, how could a mine or a torpedo or a submarine have caused the explosion of the magazines, one after the other, at regular intervals—"spaced," one of the officers had said, "like the reports of a heavy gun." First one had been fired, and then a second, and then a third; Delcasse, closing his eyes, had a vision of a ghostly figure stealing from one to another, torch in hand....
His mind roved back again over his talk with Lepine. Could it have been done by wireless? Not the ordinary wireless, but some subtle variant of ether waves, some new form of radio-activity, which in some way caused combustion? There was an enemy which could flit unseen from magazine to magazine, which no locks nor bars could guard against....
His heart faltered at the thought. The possessor of such a secret would have the world at his mercy. No ship would be safe, no fort, no artillery-caisson. Armies and navies alike would melt before him, destroyed by the explosion of their own ammunition. Ah, if France possessed that secret....
He shook his head impatiently and turned on his side.
"I am dreaming foolish dreams," he told himself. "It is time to sleep."
THE ALLIES AT WORK
It was nearly four o'clock when Crochard, Lepine and Pigot took their leave of M. Delcasse and made their way through the dark and silent streets in the direction of the Hotel du Nord. The people who had leaped from their beds at sunrise, wearied at last by the emotions of the day and dampened by the fine rain which had begun to fall, had gone to bed again. Only about the harbour were there any signs of life. There the searchlights of the battleships still played about the wreck, where squads of marines were searching for the bodies of their comrades.
The three men, their coats buttoned about them, their hats pulled down, hurried on in silence, each busy with his own thoughts. Crochard and Lepine were planning the campaign; Pigot had not yet recovered from his confusion at the sight of these two working hand in hand.
Five minutes brought them to the door of the Hotel du Nord, and Lepine applied to it a vigorous fist. There was no response, and he pounded again. At last there came the sound of a window being raised, and a night-capped head was thrust out from the upper story.
"Who is there?" asked a voice.
"Are you the proprietor?" demanded Lepine.
"Then come down at once."
"But what is wrong, sir?" stammered Brisson, to whose frightened eyes those three dark figures huddled in his doorway appeared most sinister. "What is it you require?"
"No matter," said Lepine, sternly. "Come down at once and open the door."
The window was lowered and some minutes passed. Had the three men at the door been able to see inside the house, they would have been amused at what occurred there, could anything have amused them at that moment. As it was, they merely stamped with impatience and crowded closer to the door, for the rain was falling more heavily.
Brisson retreated from the window, his fat countenance fallen into creases of dismay, and plunged back into his bedroom, where his wife, who had also been awakened by the knocking, was sitting up in bed.
"What is it, Brisson?" she asked.
"There are three men below," gasped Aristide, fumbling for his trousers. "They command that I descend at once and admit them. There is something which tells me it is the police—the police at this hour!"
"The police?" and Madame Gabrielle cast a rapid mental glance over their affairs. "Well, admit them; we have no reason to fear the police."
"There is that little matter of the wine from your nephew which did not pay the octroi," Brisson reminded her.
"Bah!" retorted Madame, who was by far the stronger spirit; "it cannot be that! No one could suspect that; besides, even if they did, they would not come hammering here in the middle of the night. Descend at once and admit them. Assume a bold front, Brisson! Do not let them suspect that you have fear! Go at once! Hasten! I will come as soon as I have found a petticoat."
Thus encouraged, Brisson descended and opened the door, holding a lighted candle above his head and presenting as bold a front as his not-too-courageous spirit could muster. The three men crowded past him, without waiting for an invitation or saying a word, and one of them took the door from his hand and closed and bolted it. The horrible thought flashed through Brisson's head that they were robbers, bandits, and he had opened his mouth to cry for help, when one of them, the little, lean, grey-bearded one, with the fierce eyes, spoke.
"We belong to the police," he said. "We desire a few moments' conversation with you."
"Certainly, sir," stammered Brisson, thinking, as he met those eyes, that perhaps he would have preferred the bandits. "Come this way, if you please, sirs," and he led the way into his bureau.
He placed the candle on the table and dropped into a chair. His visitors remained standing, facing him. Brisson realised that for him to sit while they stood was anything but courteous, and he struggled to arise, but the strength seemed departed from his legs, and he sank helplessly back again.
"What is your name?" asked the little man, looking at him with those gimlet eyes.
"Aristide Brisson, sir."
"You have been long in this house?"
"For twenty years, sir. My record is of the best."
"We will investigate it," said Lepine curtly.
"Do so!" cried a voice behind them. "Nothing would please us better!" They turned to find Madame Brisson on the threshold, her eyes flashing, her bosom heaving, one plump hand holding together at the throat the garment which threatened every moment to disclose her still plumper shoulders. "We are honest people—our neighbours will speak a good word for us—all of them!"
"I do not doubt it, Madame," said Lepine, courteously, realising that here he had to do with the head of the house. "Meanwhile we wish to make certain inquiries of you, which you need not hesitate to answer. But I wish first to warn you that of these inquiries you must not breathe so much as a word to any one. Do you understand?"
"We understand, sir; you may rely upon us," said Madame Brisson, and sat down beside her husband.
"Our inquiry," pursued Lepine, "concerns the two gentlemen who departed so early yesterday morning."
At the words, Brisson bounded in his chair, and the colour swept back into his cheeks. He was himself again.
"So!" he cried, and suddenly found that he could stand erect, and did so. "So! It is about those swine! I knew that all was not right; I knew that they were not as they pretended!"
"What was it they pretended?"
"That they were of America. But it did not deceive me—no, not for one instant. They had not the air of Americans. Besides, do Americans go tramping about the country with knapsacks on their backs? No; only Germans do that! To Gabrielle, as they departed, I said, 'Americans, no; Germans perhaps, or Austrians—but not Americans!'"
"Yes, gentlemen, those were his very words!" said Madame Brisson, with an emphatic nod.
"And there is a final proof," went on Brisson, excitedly; "a proof conclusive. When I present my bill, the one who takes it grows quite red with anger. It was a most reasonable bill—ninety-six francs for three days, with many extras—a most reasonable bill, for Americans. It was then that I knew there was something wrong—that they were imposters who feared the police. It was only that which prevented a scene. 'Gabrielle,' I said, as they went away down the street, 'those men have something to conceal.'"
"Yes, gentlemen," put in Gabrielle, "he said just that."
"There is even worse to come, sirs," and Brisson dropped his voice as one does in speaking of great horrors. "You will scarcely credit it, but, after having had us at their heels for three days, upstairs, downstairs; after compelling us to arise in the dark of night to prepare their breakfasts—this person handed me a note for a hundred francs and said with a lordly air, 'You may keep the change.' The change—four francs! And yet from his manner you would have thought he was giving me a fortune!"
"Have you still that hundred-franc note?" Lepine inquired.
"But certainly, sir," answered Madame Gabrielle, and, turning her back to the company, she stooped quickly and arose with the bill in her hand.
Lepine took it and examined it carefully by the light of the candle. It was a new note, apparently fresh from the bank, and the Prefect's eyes were shining with satisfaction when he raised his head.
"I shall have to retain this," he said. "One moment," he added, as Madame Brisson opened her lips to protest; "I shall, of course, give you another for it," and he drew out his purse, placed the new note carefully in a flapped compartment, selected another and handed it to the anxious lady, who received it with a sigh of relief. "And now!" went on Lepine, "please tell us all that you can remember about these men—every small detail."
Both Monsieur and Madame Brisson grew voluble at once, for rarely had it been their fortune to address so attentive an audience. But there were few grains of wheat among the chaff. The two strangers had arrived, it appeared, on the evening of the twenty-second, Friday. They were Americans, they said, on a walking tour. Their names? Brisson did not remember; but they would be found on the police registration slip which he had caused them to fill out at once and had sent to the Prefecture that very evening. He had noticed on the slip that they had come from Marseilles and were on their way to Nice. Their bags had already arrived from Marseilles, and, at their direction, he had had them brought up from the station.
"Where are the bags now?" asked Lepine.
"They directed that they be sent to Nice," explained Brisson. "I despatched them yesterday morning, as I agreed."
"You have the receipt?"
"But certainly, sir," and Brisson, while his wife held the light, rummaged in his desk and finally produced the paper in question.
Lepine placed it in his purse beside the hundred-franc note.
"Proceed," he said. "In what way did these strangers occupy themselves during their stay?"
They were absent from morning till night, it appeared, walking about the streets, about the docks, visiting the ships in the harbour, climbing the hills back of the town, and even going as far as Cape Cepet, where the great fort is—penetrating, in a word, to every nook and corner which it is possible for visitors to enter. In fact, in the two days of their stay, they had seen more of Toulon than had Brisson in the twenty years of his residence.
The details of these expeditions Brisson had learned with the greatest difficulty, for his guests had talked but little, had kept to themselves, had discouraged his advances, resented his questions, and often pretended that they did not understand—all of which was in itself suspicious. When talking together, they used a language which Brisson supposed to be English; but he was not familiar with English; knew only a few words of it, indeed—"money," "damn,"—such words as every one knows. Their French, also, was very bad,—much worse at some times than at others....
Lepine finally stopped this flow of language, when it became apparent that nothing but chaff remained.
"Do any further questions suggest themselves?" he asked, looking first at Crochard and then at Pigot. "No? You understand, my friends," he added, turning back to the innkeeper and his wife, "that of all this you will say nothing—not even to each other. An incautious word, and you may find yourselves in a most difficult position. On the other hand, if you are careful, if you are reticent, you will not be forgotten."
"We understand, sir," said they both in a breath, and Brisson added, with venom in his voice, "They were swine! I rejoice that they did not get their telegram!"
Lepine jumped as though a pin had been driven into him.
"Their telegram? What do you mean?" he cried.
"About an hour after they were gone," Brisson hastened to explain, "or perhaps two hours—I do not know—a messenger appeared with a telegram addressed to a grotesque name—Zhones, Smeet—I do not remember—in care of the Hotel du Nord. I concluded it was for one of them, and told the messenger it was too late, that the man had departed—to Frejus, to Nice—I did not know whither. So he took the telegram back again."
Lepine's eyes were gleaming as he glanced at Crochard.
"I am glad that you have mentioned this detail, M. Brisson," he said. "I thank you—and you also, Madame!" and with that, he and his companions bade the worthy couple adieu.
Once in the street, Crochard paused.
"I will leave you now, M. Lepine," he said. "You have your work to do—but you do not need me. Should I have anything further to communicate, you will hear from me."
"And if we wish to find you?"
"For the present, I am staying with my friend on the Quai de Cronstadt."
"Very good," said Lepine. "Good night," and in a moment he and Pigot were lost in the darkness.
The rain had ceased and a chill wind had arisen, but Crochard did not seem to feel it, as he walked slowly toward the quays, his head bent in thought. An ironical smile curved his lips, as he pictured Lepine off upon the scent first to the Prefecture, then to the post-office. He would follow it well, of course; he would run it to the end. He would discover, no doubt, the identity of the two travellers; that would not be difficult. Crochard himself had pointed out the way.
But what then? Even if they were found to be men high in the German service, that was of small importance. It proved nothing. They were at liberty to visit Toulon, if they wished to do so; and, after all, their arrival at the quay five minutes before dawn might have been an accident; they might have lingered for a last look at La Liberte without any suspicion of what was about to occur. Such a coincidence, if not probable, was, at least, conceivable; and such, of course, would be their explanation, if an explanation was ever asked for. There was no way to disprove it.
As to the yacht on which they had embarked—well, that, too, may have been an accident—a boat belonging to a friend whom they had come upon unexpectedly and upon which they had been persuaded to take a cruise. Suspicious circumstances—yes, many of them; but no proof, no absolute proof. And nothing, absolutely nothing, to show that the explosion had been caused by any outside agency.
Arrived at the water-front, Crochard walked on until he was opposite the wreck. There he sat down, with his legs overhanging the quay. Two or three searchlights were still focussed on the ruin, but the rescue parties had been withdrawn, and only a few sentries remained. He could see how that formidable monster of a ship had been torn and twisted into an inextricable and hideous mass of iron and steel. One turret remained above the water, blown over on its side, its great guns pointing straight at the zenith; but the rest was a mere tangle of metal.
Such destruction could have been wrought only by the explosion of the magazines; no mine or torpedo could have done it. And as he gazed at the mass of wreckage visible above the water, he perceived a certain resemblance to photographs he had seen of the wreck of the Maine. The Maine's forward magazine had exploded; but Crochard knew, as well as M. Delcasse himself, what had caused that explosion.
Perhaps history was repeating itself, as, proverbially, it is supposed to have a way of doing. But Crochard shook his head. If the catastrophe was not an accident, then it was the result of some agency far more subtle than mine or torpedo. And, also, if it was not an accident, those two men who had waited in the shadow of the doorway back of him for the deed to be accomplished, must have had an accomplice. They could not destroy the ship merely by staring at her! Somewhere, somewhere, concealed but not far distant, that accomplice must have awaited the first beam of the rising sun as the signal to hurl his thunderbolt, to loose his mysterious power!
What was that power? How had the thing been done? Those, Crochard felt, were the questions to be answered. As to who had done it, or why it had been done—that could wait. But if there existed in the world a force which, directed from a distance, noiseless, invisible, impalpable, could destroy a battleship asleep at her anchorage, then indeed did it behoove France to discover and guard against it!
At last, his head still bent, Crochard arose, crossed the quay, opened the door of Number Ten, and entered.
No doubt it would have interested both him and M. Delcasse to know how nearly parallel the channels of their thoughts had run!
AT THE CAFE DES VOYAGEURS
M. Delcasse was scarcely out of bed, next morning, when Lepine's card was brought in to him. He smiled as he read the line scrawled across it: "My report awaits Monsieur."
"Show M. Lepine into the breakfast-room," said the Minister, "and inform him that I shall be down at once. Also inquire if he has breakfasted. If not, see that he is served."
He hastened on with his toilet, and, five minutes later, joined Lepine, whom he found at his favourite amusement of standing at a window and gazing into the street—an amusement which occupied every idle moment, sometimes with the most astonishing results. Chance plays a larger part in life than most people are willing to admit; Lepine believed in it; went half-way to meet it—and, more than once, had seen drifting past him along the pavement the face for which his best men had been searching vainly.
Lepine, it appeared, had already breakfasted, and, while the Minister ate, told of the interrogation at the Hotel du Nord. He had sent one of his men to Nice, with the receipts for the bags, and if, as seemed probable, they were still uncalled for, they would be examined at once.
"Though, even if they are still there," Lepine added, "we shall probably discover nothing of moment. One does not place anything of value in a bag and then abandon it. But I have another clue of the first importance," and he produced the hundred-franc note. "Here is the note given to Brisson by one of the strangers. You perceive that it is quite new. I suggest that you send the number of this note to the Bank of France, ascertain when and to whom it was issued, and if any other notes of the series were issued at the same time."
"I will do so," said M. Delcasse, and made a note of the number. "I agree with you that this is most important."
"One thing more," went on Lepine, replacing the note in his pocket-book and extracting a slip of paper; "a small thing, but of significance. I have here the police blanks which the two men filled out upon arriving at the Hotel du Nord. Their names, you see, are given as George Arnold and William Smith, their home as New York City, United States of America. If you will notice the 'S' of the word 'Smith,' you will see that it is made in the German manner."
"That is true; but it may mean nothing. There are many Germans who are citizens of the United States."
"Yes; but the German name is Schmidt, not Smith. I conclude that this man is a German, but was trying to conceal it."
"You may be right," Delcasse assented, with a trace of impatience in his manner; "no doubt you are right. Is there anything more?"
"There is one thing," said Lepine, colouring a little, "which I have kept until the last, because it seems to upset M. Crochard's theory."
"What is that?"
Lepine drew two sheets of yellow tissue-paper from his pocket-book.
"An hour after our men left the Hotel du Nord," he said, "a telegram arrived, addressed to this William Smith. Here it is," and he spread out one of the sheets on the desk before the Minister.
Delcasse bent forward eagerly and read:
"William Smith, Hotel du Nord, Toulon, France.
"Our mother requests that you abandon trip, cancel all arrangements, and return at once.
"Well?" and Delcasse looked up at his companion.
"That would seem to show, sir," said Lepine, "that William Smith was only an ordinary traveller, after all. You will see that it was filed at Brussels at noon of Sunday, the twenty-fourth. It was delayed in transmission, and for some reason was not received at Toulon until nine o'clock in the evening. Messages here are not delivered on Sunday evening after eight o'clock, and this was held until seven the next morning. At that hour, William Smith was no longer at the hotel."
"Well?" asked Delcasse a second time.
"Well," Lepine continued, "at ten minutes past six on Monday morning, this message was filed at the office here," and he spread out the second sheet of tissue.
Again Delcasse bent forward, and read:
"Alfred Smith, Restante, Brussels.
"We continue our trip as planned. All well. Next address Nice.
"You will see," Lepine went on, "that these messages are such as an ordinary tourist would send and receive."
But Delcasse was not listening. He was reading the messages a second time and yet a third, and there was a wrinkle of perplexity between his brows. At last he looked up, and the Prefect was astonished at the expression of his face.
"There is one thing I forgot to tell you last night, Lepine," he said. "I did not myself see its significance until I had got to bed. The first telegram received from any foreign power in reference to the disaster was from the German Emperor."
"The German Emperor was the first to get word of it," he said. "I examined the other telegrams filed Monday morning. At ten minutes to seven, the German consul here notified the Minister of State at Berlin of the explosion. Admiral Bellue did not file his message to you until forty minutes later. No doubt he wished to assure himself of the extent of the disaster, in order not to alarm you needlessly. You should have received it not later than eight o'clock."
"It was, in fact, a few minutes before that hour. And when I reached the Elysee Palace, I found the President with a message from the Kaiser in his hand. It struck me as most peculiar."
"It was ironic, certainly," agreed Lepine, "but, under the circumstances, easily explained."
"You think, then—"
"I think that Crochard has assumed too much; I think that, before we accuse these men, we need more proof."
Delcasse pushed back his chair and paced for some moments nervously about the room. At last he sat down again, and rolled and lighted a cigarette.
"You are right," he said; "we need more proof. It is for you to find it, if it exists. And at this moment, I am interested not so much in the movements of these men, as in the cause of the explosion. Even supposing that they had a hand in it, how was it accomplished?"
Lepine returned the telegrams to his pocket.
"I agree with you," he said, "that that is the vital question. And I am unable to answer it."
"I shall institute a Board of Inquiry at once," went on the Minister; "I have, in fact, already summoned the officers who will compose it. I will arrange for it to visit the wreck and begin to take evidence to-day, as it is important that the evidence be secured while the event is still fresh. I would suggest that you place some of your men at the disposition of the Board."
"Very well, sir," Lepine agreed, and withdrew.
Toulon was awake again, and the streets were thronged as on a fete day. The first shock of the disaster had passed, and the inborn cheerfulness of the people was asserting itself. The excuse for a holiday was not to be overlooked, and every one who could take a day, or even an hour of leisure, did so, and spent it partly on the quays staring at the wreck, partly in the Place de la Liberte listening to the orators, partly in the Place d'Armes watching the men at work draping with black the Maritime Prefecture, where the Board of Inquiry was to sit, and the church of Saint Louis, where requiem High Mass was to be celebrated. Finally as much as remained of the holiday was spent at a cafe before a glass of coffee or aperitif, with the satisfaction of a sacred duty conscientiously performed.
Lepine, as he made his way through the crowd, noticed that there was no longer any talk of treachery or treason,—even the word "sabotage" was no longer uttered. Every one agreed that the affair was another accident, deplorable indeed, but unavoidable and without dishonour, and so not to be taken too deeply to heart. France could build other battleships! The mercury in the national temperament was asserting itself.
For an hour Lepine walked about with thoughtful face, listening to the talk, watching the crowd, joining a group here and there, catching chance words from passers-by. He had had only three hours' sleep, but he showed no trace of fatigue. Certainly nothing was farther from his thoughts at this moment than that he needed rest.
He made his way at last to the Quai de Cronstadt and joined the crowd which was staring at the wreck. A barge had been moored alongside, and a heavy crane was lifting the detached debris into it and clearing the way for the searching parties. On the quay opposite the wreck, at Number Ten, was a cafe, the Cafe des Voyageurs as its sign announced, and to this Lepine presently crossed, sat down at a table and ordered a bock.
The cafe was crowded, for its situation could not have been more fortunate; a steady stream of money had poured into the pockets of its proprietor ever since the disaster. The shattered windows were in themselves an advertisement, and no effort had as yet been made to replace them. Lepine looked about the place with interest. It was not large, but it had a certain air of prosperity bespeaking a good patronage, even at ordinary times. At the Prefecture, Lepine had made some discreet inquiries concerning its proprietor, who, he was told, had the reputation of being an honest fellow and had never been in trouble with the police. Nevertheless, as a friend of Crochard's, Lepine would have welcomed a look at him; but the place at the moment was apparently in charge of the head-waiter. It was the head-waiter himself who responded when Lepine rapped for the "addition," and, as he paid it, slipped a note into his hand. Lepine opened it, under cover of his hat, and found that it contained a single line:
"Monsieur C. will welcome a conference with Monsieur L."
Without a word, Lepine arose and followed the man, who crossed the room, opened a door at the farther end of it, stood aside for him to pass, and then gently closed it. Lepine found himself in a little room with a single window opening upon a court. It was furnished with a table and three chairs, and at the table sat Crochard. He motioned Lepine to a seat.
"I was expecting you," he said, with a little smile; "and I am glad you came. In the presence of that good Pigot, one cannot talk freely. Indeed, it was with the greatest difficulty that I maintained a sober countenance. He was so astonished, so overwhelmed, that you and I should be working together—that we should be able to sit in the same room without flying at each other's throats. If he only knew—"
"Is it necessary to go into that?" asked Lepine.
"Why not? You have no reason to be ashamed of it. If you have sought my aid from time to time, it was because you realised that Crochard the Invincible has sources of information which are closed to the police."
"I said as much to M. Delcasse. It was not of myself I was thinking, but of you. What if your friends knew?"
"My friends? I have never betrayed my friends, as you know well. Surely, Lepine, you have understood that, if I assisted you, it was only because it suited me to do so!"
"Yes, I have understood that," assented Lepine, flushing a little at the other's tone. "You always had a bargain to propose. What is the bargain, this time?"
"There is no bargain," retorted Crochard, curtly. "I ask nothing."
Lepine cast at him an astonished glance.
"What!" cried Crochard, his face suddenly red, "you cannot believe the truth, then? It seems incredible to you that I should love my country? Well, I do love her, and I am going to prove it by saving her!"
"Is she in need of saving?" queried Lepine, ironically.
Crochard's eyes gleamed; then, in a moment, his anger passed.
"Delcasse believes so; Lepine does not: behold the difference between a great man and a clever one," he said, and looked at Lepine with pity in his eyes.
"Well, yes," said the Prefect; "I admit it; I make no claim to greatness. I perceive no danger—nor, for the matter of that, does M. Delcasse."
Crochard looked at him for a moment.
"Let me see the registration slip from the Prefecture," he said, at last.
Without a word, Lepine got out his pocket-book, produced the slip, and handed it to his companion.
Crochard studied it closely.
"You have, of course, remarked the German 'S,'" he said, at last "I thought so. Now the telegram which arrived too late."
Lepine passed it over obediently.
Crochard read it and re-read it, a strange light in his eyes.
"And now the other one," he said, finally.
Lepine stared at him.
"How do you know there is another one?" he demanded.
"Of course there is another one!" retorted Crochard, impatiently. "Any fool would know that!"
Still staring, Lepine handed him the second sheet of tissue.
Crochard took one glance at it; then he looked at his companion.
"Do you mean to say, Lepine," he asked, "that, in the face of these telegrams, you remain unconvinced—that you do not see the danger?"
"I see no danger," repeated the Prefect, doggedly.
"And yet I tell you, Lepine," said Crochard, leaning forward across the table and speaking in deadliest earnest, "that the danger is desperate. You are blind to it, a thing which astonishes me; M. Delcasse can do nothing—his hands are tied by the red tape of his position. There remains only Crochard! If I sit idle, if I fold my hands, within a month Germany will declare war and will sweep over France like a pestilence. Yesterday she struck the first blow; I tremble to think what the second may be!"
"But war!" protested Lepine. "Nonsense! For war there must be a cause."
"A pretext will do—and a pretext can always be found. Already Germany is preparing her pretext: she has demanded equal rights with France in Morocco—a preposterous demand, and one which France can never grant. What cares Germany about Morocco? Nothing! But the pretext must be ready. And now, Lepine," he added, pushing back the papers, and speaking in another tone, "I will tell you why I have come to you: I should prefer to work alone; but, in the first place, it was necessary to provide a means of access to M. Delcasse; in the second place, you got these papers, where I might have failed; in the third place, there are certain questions to which you can get an answer more easily than I."
"What are the questions?" asked Lepine, moved, in spite of himself, by Crochard's manner.
"There are two to which I would ask you to get answers at once. The first: does the government maintain, or has it authorised, any wireless stations in the town or in the neighbourhood? The second: have the wireless operators on any of the battleships noticed any unusual interference during the past few days? How long will it take you to secure answers to those questions—authoritative answers?"
Crochard glanced at his watch.
"It is now ten o'clock. At eleven, you will arrange for a conference with M. Delcasse. There must be no one present but we three."
"M. Crochard," said Lepine, drily, "I do not like your imperatives. I am not accustomed to them."
"M. Lepine," Crochard retorted, "my way of speaking is my own, and I am too old to change. In this affair, it is you who work with me, not I with you. Shall we go on, or shall we stop here?"
Lepine trembled with a severe inward struggle. Crochard impressed and fascinated him; but his terms were humiliating.
Crochard met his gaze, read what was behind it, and leaned forward again across the table.
"Lepine," he said, "have I ever failed to do a thing I promised?"
"I shall not fail this time."
"What is it you promise?"
"I promise," said Crochard, and raised his right hand solemnly, as though registering an oath, "I promise to find the man who destroyed La Liberte, and to save my country!"
Lepine gazed at him for a moment, then pushed back his chair and rose to his feet. The patriot in him had triumphed.
"Where shall the conference with M. Delcasse take place?" he asked.
Crochard smiled at the question and at the little man's impassive face.
"Lepine," he said, "on my word, you touch greatness sometimes, and I find myself admiring you! Let the conference take place at M. Delcasse's apartment. Oh, yes; you will have a closed carriage waiting at the private entrance."
"At eleven o'clock," agreed Lepine.
"At eleven o'clock," repeated Crochard, and waved his adieu. Then, as the door closed behind that erect little figure, he sank back into his seat with a chuckle and touched a bell.
An inner door, concealed so cleverly in the wall that even Lepine's sharp eyes had not perceived it, opened and a man looked in.
"He has gone," Crochard said. "Bring some wine, Samson, and two glasses."
The door closed, but opened again in a moment to admit the man, with bottle and glasses. He placed them on the table, went back to make sure that the door was closed, and then sat down opposite Crochard. Why he should be called Samson, unless in derision, was hard to understand, for he was a mere skeleton of a man, with a face like parchment. But the brow was high and the eyes bright and the mouth as tender as a woman's.
Crochard glanced at the label on the cobwebbed bottle, and nodded as he filled his glass.
"You are good to your friends, Samson," he said. "Your health!"
"Yours!" said Samson, and drained his glass. "Everything I have is yours, my master; you know that!"
"Even your life?"
"You have only to ask it."
Crochard looked at him with smiling eyes.
"I believe you, my friend," he said. "Some day I may have to ask it—but not yet. Did you see the man who just left me?"
"It was M. Lepine," said Samson, quietly.
"Did he see you?"
"No; but if he had, it would make no difference. He would not know me now."
"Perhaps not," Crochard agreed, and glanced at the other's wasted face. "And yet he has sharp eyes and a wonderful memory."
"I will keep out of his way," said Samson.
"At worst, it is only a question of another rescue; but avoid him, if you can. You have a good station here, the business pays; you can lead a quiet life—and, from time to time, be of use to me."
"The last is the most important," said Samson, and filled his glass again.
"Have you learned anything more of the white-haired man?"
"No; but I will know more before evening."
"I wish especially to find his lodging. If he is no longer there, I must know when he departed and where he went."
"All that you shall know; I will see to it."
"No detail is too unimportant."
"I shall remember."
"And perhaps," added Crochard, "if things go well—for this is an affair of great importance, where for once I am working on the side of the law—I shall be able to secure for you that for which you have longed—pardon from the State, rehabilitation, so that you can resume your own name and live again openly with your family. That is worth working for, is it not?"
"Ah!" cried Samson, his voice quivering with emotion. "If you could do that! But it is impossible!"
"It is not impossible!" said Crochard, and struck the table with his open hand. "I promise it!"
Samson stared at him, his lips working, and two large tears formed slowly in the corners of his eyes, brimmed over and ran down his cheeks. If Crochard said "I promise it!" the thing was as good as done. Suddenly he sat upright and brushed the tears away.
"What is it I must do?" he asked. "Tell me!"
And Crochard, drawing his chair closer, began his rapid instructions.
THE MYSTERIOUS SIGNALS
M. Delcasse was a busy man, that morning, and he snorted with derision when Lepine, having secured admission for a moment, told him of Crochard's request for an audience at eleven o'clock.
"Impossible!" he said. "The Board of Inquiry is to convene at that hour, and I must be present to address them."
"Perhaps it would be possible to adjourn the meeting until afternoon," Lepine suggested.
Delcasse stared at him in astonishment.
"Possible, yes," he said; "most things are possible. But do you know what it is you are proposing?"
"I am proposing," said Lepine boldly, "that you permit nothing to interfere with the conference which Crochard requests."
"But Crochard—who is Crochard that I should disturb all my arrangements for him?"
"I will tell you who he is, sir," said Lepine, gently; "he is the man whom, next to yourself, I consider the most remarkable in France."
Delcasse softened. The compliment was, perhaps, not delicate, but it was at least deserved.
"You believe that?" he asked.
"Yes, I do believe it. I must tell you more of Crochard, some day. Beside him, I am a mere bungler—I realise it more deeply each time I meet him. And I assure you that I am not one to underestimate myself."
Delcasse looked at him with a little smile.
"It seems to me that your note has changed," he said. "This morning—"
"I have seen Crochard since then," explained Lepine, simply.
"And you are in earnest about this conference?"
"In deadly earnest, sir. So is Crochard."
Delcasse pondered a moment.
"You may bring him here at seven o'clock to-night," he said, finally. "That is the first moment I have at leisure."
"It will not do, M. Delcasse," said Lepine, firmly. "The other inquiry must wait. It is not that inquiry which is important, it is this one."
Again the Minister stared.
"But it seems to me that you are telling me what I must do," he said. "Explain yourself."
"Your official inquiry," answered Lepine boldly, "for all the famous men who take part in it, will discover nothing—it will be like that other inquiry into the affair of the Jena."
"And what will yours discover?"
"It is not mine—it is Crochard's," Lepine corrected. "It is he who is in command. And it seems to me that he has already made a beginning. I am convinced that he has something more to tell us. He has charged me to secure answers to two questions."
"What are they?"
"Whether there are any wireless stations in the town, or in the neighbourhood, and whether there has recently been any peculiar interference with the working of the instruments on our battleships."
"Ah!" said Delcasse, whose expression had changed from irritation to one of absorbed attention. "So he has thought of that, also!" and he fell into a moment's revery. "Very well, Lepine," he added. "I believe that you are right. I will arrange for the President to open the sitting, and I will summon the man who can answer the questions."
He rang for his secretary, and Lepine hastened away to secure the closed carriage. He smiled to himself as he did so. How incredulous Pigot and all the rest would be should they ever hear that their chief had obeyed blindly the instructions of The Invincible, and that the first Minister of France had altered his plans in accordance with them!
The carriage engaged and one of his own men placed in charge of it, Lepine took his station at the principal entrance, to watch the crowd until Crochard should appear. The corridors were thronged with people, hurrying in and out. Lepine knew many of them, for a whole staff had been brought from Paris to carry on the business of the State, and more than one august individual paused for a word with him. But to their questions he could only respond by a shake of the head.
At the stroke of eleven, Crochard mounted the steps to the door, and, at a nod from the Prefect, followed him up the stairs into the anteroom of Delcasse's suite. An attendant, who was evidently on the watch for them, showed them at once into the Minister's private office. He was deep in correspondence, but he instantly pushed it to one side and dismissed his secretary.
"Well, M. Crochard," he said, "Lepine tells me you have more news for us. Be seated. What is the news?"
"I requested that M. Lepine should make certain inquiries—"
"Yes, about the wireless," and Delcasse looked at him closely. "Tell me, why did you think of that?"
"I do not know," answered Crochard, rubbing his forehead slowly; "but as I sat last night gazing at the wreck, a thought came to me—a vague thought—not to be put into words...."
"Well," said Delcasse, as he paused, "I had the same thought last night, before I slept. It seems to me a most striking coincidence. Are you aware that, in the case of the Jena, wireless was mentioned as a possible cause?"
"Yes," answered Crochard; "I am aware of that."
The eyes of the two men met in a long glance. Then Delcasse touched a bell.
"Introduce General Marbeau," he said to his secretary.
The latter returned in a moment with a dark little man in full uniform. Then he went out again and closed the door. The little man bowed deeply to the Minister of Marine.
"Be seated, General," said Delcasse. "M. Lepine, I think you already know—as who does not! This other gentleman I will not name—I will only say that he is a coadjutor whose services we value very highly. He has certain questions to ask you, which I wish you to answer as though I myself were asking them. Proceed, sir," and he nodded to Crochard. "General Marbeau is the chief of our wireless service."
"What wireless stations are there in the city of Toulon, General?" Crochard began.
"None, sir, except the one at the arsenal," Marbeau answered, looking at his questioner with discreet curiosity.
"And in the neighbourhood?"
"None nearer than Marseilles."
"There are no private installations?"
"The government does not permit private installations."
"Yet there might be some, clandestinely built?"
"That is possible."
"However, you can assure me of this: if any such do exist, they are outside the law?"
"Why are private stations prohibited?"
"They are prohibited because they would interfere with the government stations. You understand, sir, that wireless waves clash in the air, as it were; when they cross or intermingle, the result is a confusing chatter, until the sending and receiving instruments have been carefully tuned with each other. Even that does not always overcome it. A few private stations have been authorised strictly for scientific purposes, but there is none nearer than that at the University of Lyons."
"Do you ever suffer from interference here?"
"Oh, yes; the English have a very powerful station at Gibraltar and another at Malta; their battleships are all equipped with it, as are those of Italy. So are most of the passenger steamers which enter the Mediterranean. The air is often filled with messages."
"Has there been any such interference during the past few days?"
"Yes, a great deal of it; one instance in particular of which my operators have complained."
"Ah!" said Crochard. "Will you tell us exactly what it was?"
"Last Saturday," explained Marbeau, "about three in the afternoon, there came from somewhere a series of long dashes, lasting nearly half a second, and spaced about two seconds apart. This continued for perhaps half an hour."
"You had no idea as to their origin?"
"We thought that perhaps the English were tuning up a new and very powerful instrument at Gibraltar."
"You had no way of verifying this?"
"We did not try to do so."
"Was this interruption repeated?"
"Yes; our automatic recorder shows that the signals began again a little before five o'clock yesterday morning and continued for nearly two hours."
Crochard's eyes were shining.
"At what hour was La Liberte destroyed?" he asked.
"The first explosion was at 5:50. There were two others, a few minutes apart. The main magazine exploded at very close to six o'clock."