THE TEETH OF THE TIGER
An Adventure Story
BY MAURICE LEBLANC
Author of "Arsene Lupin," "The Hollow Needle," "The Crystal Stopper"
I. D'ARTAGNAN, PORTHOS ... AND MONTE CRISTO II. A MAN DEAD III. A MAN DOOMED IV. THE CLOUDED TURQUOISE V. THE IRON CURTAIN VI. THE MAN WITH THE EBONY WALKING-STICK VII. SHAKESPEARE'S WORKS, VOLUME VIII VIII. THE DEVIL'S POST-OFFICE IX. LUPIN'S ANGER X. GASTON SAUVERAND EXPLAINS XI. ROUTED XII. "HELP!" XIII. THE EXPLOSION XIV. THE "HATER" XV. THE HEIR TO THE HUNDRED MILLIONS XVI. WEBER TAKES HIS REVENGE XVII. OPEN SESAME! XVIII. ARSENE I EMPEROR OF MAURETANIA XIX. "THE SNARE IS LAID. BEWARE, LUPIN!" XX. FLORENCE'S SECRET XXI. LUPIN'S LUPINS
The Teeth of the Tiger
D'ARTAGNAN, PORTHOS ... AND MONTE CRISTO
It was half-past four; M. Desmalions, the Prefect of Police, was not yet back at the office. His private secretary laid on the desk a bundle of letters and reports which he had annotated for his chief, rang the bell and said to the messenger who entered by the main door:
"Monsieur le Prefet has sent for a number of people to see him at five o'clock. Here are their names. Show them into separate waiting-rooms, so that they can't communicate with one another, and let me have their cards when they come."
The messenger went out. The secretary was turning toward the small door that led to his room, when the main door opened once more and admitted a man who stopped and leaned swaying over the back of a chair.
"Why, it's you, Verot!" said the secretary. "But what's happened? What's the matter?"
Inspector Verot was a very stout, powerfully built man, with a big neck and shoulders and a florid complexion. He had obviously been upset by some violent excitement, for his face, streaked with red veins and usually so apoplectic, seemed almost pale.
"Oh, nothing. Monsieur le Secretaire!" he said.
"Yes, yes; you're not looking your usual self. You're gray in the face.... And the way you're perspiring...."
Inspector Verot wiped his forehead and, pulling himself together, said:
"It's just a little tiredness.... I've been overworking myself lately: I was very keen on clearing up a case which Monsieur Desmalions had put in my hands. All the same, I have a funny sort of feeling—"
"Will you have a pick-me-up?"
"No, no; I'm more thirsty."
"A glass of water?"
"No, thank you."
"I should like—I should like—"
His voice faltered. He wore a troubled look, as if he had suddenly lost his power of getting out another word. But he recovered himself with an effort and asked:
"Isn't Monsieur Desmalions here?"
"No; he won't be back till five, when he has an important meeting."
"Yes ... I know ... most important. That's what I'm here for. But I should have liked to see him first. I should so much have liked to see him!"
The secretary stared at Verot and said:
"What a state you're in! Is your message so urgent as all that?"
"It's very urgent, indeed. It has to do with a crime that took place a month ago, to the day. And, above all, it's a matter of preventing two murders which are the outcome of that other crime and which are to be committed to-night. Yes, to-night, inevitably, unless we take the necessary steps."
"Sit down, Verot, won't you?"
"You see, the whole thing has been planned in such an infernal manner! You would never have imagined—"
"Still, Verot, as you know about it beforehand, and as Monsieur le Prefet is sure to give you full powers—"
"Yes, of course, of course. But, all the same, it's terrible to think that I might miss him. So I wrote him this letter, telling him all I know about the business. I thought it safer."
He handed the secretary a large yellow envelope and added:
"And here's a little box as well; I'll leave it on this table. It contains something that will serve to complete and explain the contents of the letter."
"But why don't you keep all that by you?"
"I'm afraid to. They're watching me. They're trying to get rid of me. I shan't be easy in my mind until some one besides myself knows the secret."
"Have no fear, Verot. Monsieur le Prefet is bound to be back soon. Meanwhile, I advise you to go to the infirmary and ask for a pick-me-up."
The inspector seemed undecided what to do. Once more he wiped away the perspiration that was trickling down his forehead. Then, drawing himself up, he left the office. When he was gone the secretary slipped the letter into a big bundle of papers that lay on the Prefect's desk and went out by the door leading to his own room.
He had hardly closed it behind him when the other door opened once again and the inspector returned, spluttering:
"Monsieur le Secretaire ... it'd be better if I showed you—"
The unfortunate man was as white as a sheet. His teeth were chattering. When he saw that the secretary was gone, he tried to walk across to his private room. But he was seized with an attack of weakness and sank into a chair, where he remained for some minutes, moaning helplessly:
"What's the matter with me? ... Have I been poisoned, too? ... Oh, I don't like this; I don't like the look of this!"
The desk stood within reach of his hand. He took a pencil, drew a writing-pad toward him and began to scribble a few characters. But he next stammered:
"Why, no, it's not worth while. The Prefect will be reading my letter.... What on earth's the matter with me. I don't like this at all!"
Suddenly he rose to his feet and called out:
"Monsieur le Secretaire, we've got ... we've got to ... It's for to-night. Nothing can prevent—"
Stiffening himself with an effort of his whole will, he made for the door of the secretary's room with little short steps, like an automaton. But he reeled on the way—and had to sit down a second time.
A mad terror shook him from head to foot; and he uttered cries which were too faint, unfortunately, to be heard. He realized this and looked round for a bell, for a gong; but he was no longer able to distinguish anything. A veil of darkness seemed to weigh upon his eyes.
Then he dropped on his knees and crawled to the wall, beating the air with one hand, like a blind man, until he ended by touching some woodwork. It was the partition-wall.
He crept along this; but, as ill-luck would have it, his bewildered brain showed him a false picture of the room, so that, instead of turning to the left as he should have done, he followed the wall to the right, behind a screen which concealed a third door.
His fingers touched the handle of this door and he managed to open it. He gasped, "Help! Help!" and fell at his full length in a sort of cupboard or closet which the Prefect of Police used as a dressing-room.
"To-night!" he moaned, believing that he was making himself heard and that he was in the secretary's room. "To-night! The job is fixed for to-night! You'll see ... The mark of the teeth! ... It's awful! ... Oh, the pain I'm in! ... It's the poison! Save me! Help!"
The voice died away. He repeated several times, as though in a nightmare:
"The teeth! the teeth! They're closing!"
Then his voice grew fainter still; and inarticulate sounds issued from his pallid lips. His mouth munched the air like the mouth of one of those old men who seem to be interminably chewing the cud. His head sank lower and lower on his breast. He heaved two or three sighs; a great shiver passed through his body; and he moved no more.
And the death-rattle began in his throat, very softly and rhythmically, broken only by interruptions in which a last instinctive effort appeared to revive the flickering life of the intelligence, and to rouse fitful gleams of consciousness in the dimmed eyes.
The Prefect of Police entered his office at ten minutes to five. M. Desmalions, who had filled his post for the past three years with an authority that made him generally respected, was a heavily built man of fifty with a shrewd and intelligent face. His dress, consisting of a gray jacket-suit, white spats, and a loosely flowing tie, in no way suggested the public official. His manners were easy, simple, and full of good-natured frankness.
He touched a bell, and when his secretary entered, asked:
"Are the people whom I sent for here?"
"Yes, Monsieur le Prefet, and I gave orders that they were to wait in different rooms."
"Oh, it would not have mattered if they had met! However, perhaps it's better as it is. I hope that the American Ambassador did not trouble to come in person?"
"No, Monsieur le Prefet."
"Have you their cards?"
The Prefect of Police took the five visiting cards which his secretary handed him and read:
"Mr. Archibald Bright, First Secretary United States Embassy; Maitre Lepertuis, Solicitor; Juan Caceres, Attache to the Peruvian Legation; Major Comte d'Astrignac, retired."
The fifth card bore merely a name, without address or quality of any kind—
DON LUIS PERENNA
"That's the one I'm curious to see!" said M. Desmalions. "He interests me like the very devil! Did you read the report of the Foreign Legion?"
"Yes, Monsieur le Prefet, and I confess that this gentleman puzzles me, too."
"He does, eh? Did you ever hear of such pluck? A sort of heroic madman, something absolutely wonderful! And then there's that nickname of Arsene Lupin which he earned among his messmates for the way in which he used to boss them and astound them! ... How long is it since the death of Arsene Lupin?"
"It happened two years before your appointment, Monsieur le Prefet. His corpse and Mme. Kesselbach's were discovered under the ruins of a little chalet which was burnt down close to the Luxemburg frontier. It was found at the inquest that he had strangled that monster, Mrs. Kesselbach, whose crimes came to light afterward, and that he hanged himself after setting fire to the chalet."
"It was a fitting end for that—rascal," said M. Desmalions, "and I confess that I, for my part, much prefer not having him to fight against. Let's see, where were we? Are the papers of the Mornington inheritance ready for me?"
"On your desk, Monsieur le Prefet."
"Good. But I was forgetting: is Inspector Verot here?"
"Yes, Monsieur le Prefet. I expect he's in the infirmary getting something to pull him together."
"Why, what's the matter with him?"
"He struck me as being in a queer state—rather ill."
"How do you mean?"
The secretary described his interview with Inspector Verot.
"And you say he left a letter for me?" said M. Desmalions with a worried air. "Where is it?"
"Among the papers, Monsieur le Prefet."
"Very odd: it's all very odd. Verot is a first-rate inspector, a very sober-minded fellow; and he doesn't get frightened easily. You might go and fetch him. Meanwhile, I'll look through my letters."
The secretary hurried away. When he returned, five minutes later, he stated, with an air of astonishment, that he had not seen Inspector Verot.
"And what's more curious still," he added, "is that the messenger who saw him leave this room saw him come in again almost at once and did not see him go out a second time."
"Perhaps he only passed through here to go to you."
"To me, Monsieur le Prefet? I was in my room all the time."
"Then it's incomprehensible."
"Yes ... unless we conclude that the messenger's attention was distracted for a second, as Verot is neither here nor next door."
"That must be it. I expect he's gone to get some air outside; and he'll be back at any moment. For that matter, I shan't want him to start with."
The Prefect looked at his watch.
"Ten past five. You might tell the messenger to show those gentlemen in.... Wait, though—"
M. Desmalions hesitated. In turning over the papers he had found Verot's letter. It was a large, yellow, business envelope, with "Cafe du Pont-Neuf" printed at the top.
The secretary suggested:
"In view of Verot's absence, Monsieur le Prefet, and of what he said, it might be as well for you to see what's in the letter first."
M. Desmalions paused to reflect.
"Perhaps you're right."
And, making up his mind, he inserted a paper-knife into the envelope and cut it open. A cry escaped him.
"Oh, I say, this is a little too much!"
"What is it, Monsieur le Prefet?"
"Why, look here, a blank ... sheet of paper! That's all the envelope contains!"
"See for yourself—a plain sheet folded in four, with not a word on it."
"But Verot told me in so many words that he had said in that letter all that he knew about the case."
"He told you so, no doubt, but there you are! Upon my word, if I didn't know Inspector Verot, I should think he was trying to play a game with me."
"It's a piece of carelessness, Monsieur le Prefet, at the worst."
"No doubt, a piece of carelessness, but I'm surprised at him. It doesn't do to be careless when the lives of two people are at stake. For he must have told you that there is a double murder planned for to-night?"
"Yes, Monsieur le Prefet, and under particularly alarming conditions; infernal was the word he used."
M. Desmalions was walking up and down the room, with his hands behind his back. He stopped at a small table.
"What's this little parcel addressed to me? 'Monsieur le Prefet de Police—to be opened in case of accident.'"
"Oh, yes," said the secretary, "I was forgetting! That's from Inspector Verot, too; something of importance, he said, and serving to complete and explain the contents of the letter."
"Well," said M. Desmalions, who could not help laughing, "the letter certainly needs explaining; and, though there's no question of 'accident,' I may as well open the parcel."
As he spoke, he cut the string and discovered, under the paper, a box, a little cardboard box, which might have come from a druggist, but which was soiled and spoiled by the use to which it had been put.
He raised the lid. Inside the box were a few layers of cotton wool, which were also rather dirty, and in between these layers was half a cake of chocolate.
"What the devil does this mean?" growled the Prefect in surprise.
He took the chocolate, looked at it, and at once perceived what was peculiar about this cake of chocolate, which was also undoubtedly the reason why Inspector Verot had kept it. Above and below, it bore the prints of teeth, very plainly marked, very plainly separated one from the other, penetrating to a depth of a tenth of an inch or so into the chocolate. Each possessed its individual shape and width, and each was divided from its neighbours by a different interval. The jaws which had started eating the cake of chocolate had dug into it the mark of four upper and five lower teeth.
M. Desmalions remained wrapped in thought and, with his head sunk on his chest, for some minutes resumed his walk up and down the room, muttering:
"This is queer ... There's a riddle here to which I should like to know the answer. That sheet of paper, the marks of those teeth: what does it all mean?"
But he was not the man to waste much time over a mystery which was bound to be cleared up presently, as Inspector Verot must be either at the police office or somewhere just outside; and he said to his secretary:
"I can't keep those five gentlemen waiting any longer. Please have them shown in now. If Inspector Verot arrives while they are here, as he is sure to do, let me know at once. I want to see him as soon as he comes. Except for that, see that I'm not disturbed on any pretext, won't you?"
* * * * *
Two minutes later the messenger showed in Maitre Lepertuis, a stout, red-faced man, with whiskers and spectacles, followed by Archibald Bright, the Secretary of Embassy, and Caceres, the Peruvian attache. M. Desmalions, who knew all three of them, chatted to them until he stepped forward to receive Major Comte d'Astrignac, the hero of La Chouia, who had been forced into premature retirement by his glorious wounds. The Prefect was complimenting him warmly on his gallant conduct in Morocco when the door opened once more.
"Don Luis Perenna, I believe?" said the Prefect, offering his hand to a man of middle height and rather slender build, wearing the military medal and the red ribbon of the Legion of Honour.
The newcomer's face and expression, his way of holding himself, and his very youthful movements inclined one to look upon him as a man of forty, though there were wrinkles at the corners of the eyes and on the forehead, which perhaps pointed to a few years more. He bowed.
"Yes, Monsieur le Prefet."
"Is that you, Perenna?" cried Comte d'Astrignae. "So you are still among the living?"
"Yes, Major, and delighted to see you again."
"Perenna alive! Why, we had lost all sight of you when I left Morocco! We thought you dead."
"I was a prisoner, that's all."
"A prisoner of the tribesmen; the same thing!"
"Not quite, Major; one can escape from anywhere. The proof stands before you."
The Prefect of Police, yielding to an irresistible attraction to resist, spent some seconds in examining that powerful face, with the smiling glance, the frank and resolute eyes, and the bronzed complexion, which looked as if it had been baked and baked again by the sun.
Then, motioning to his visitors to take chairs around his desk, M. Desmalions himself sat down and made a preliminary statement in clear and deliberate tones:
"The summons, gentlemen, which I addressed to each of you, must have appeared to you rather peremptory and mysterious. And the manner in which I propose to open our conversation is not likely to diminish your surprise. But if you will attach a little credit to my method, you will soon realize that the whole thing is very simple and very natural. I will be as brief as I can."
He spread before him the bundle of documents prepared for him by his secretary and, consulting his notes as he spoke, continued:
"Over fifty years ago, in 1860, three sisters, three orphans, Ermeline, Elizabeth, and Armande Roussel, aged twenty-two, twenty, and eighteen respectively, were living at Saint-Etienne with a cousin named Victor, who was a few years younger. The eldest, Ermeline, was the first to leave Saint-Etienne. She went to London, where she married an Englishman of the name Mornington, by whom she had a son, who was christened Cosmo.
"The family was very poor and went through hard times. Ermeline repeatedly wrote to her sisters to ask for a little assistance. Receiving no reply, she broke off the correspondence altogether. In 1870 Mr. and Mrs. Mornington left England for America. Five years later they were rich. Mr. Mornington died in 1878; but his widow continued to administer the fortune bequeathed to her and, as she had a genius for business and speculation, she increased this fortune until it attained a colossal figure. At her decease, in 1900, she left her son the sum of four hundred million francs."
The amount seemed to make an impression on the Prefect's hearers. He saw the major and Don Luis Perenna exchange a glance and asked:
"You knew Cosmo Mornington, did you not?"
"Yes, Monsieur le Prefet," replied Comte d'Astrignac. "He was in Morocco when Perenna and I were fighting there."
"Just so," said M. Desmalions. "Cosmo Mornington had begun to travel about the world. He took up the practise of medicine, from what I hear, and, when occasion offered, treated the sick with great skill and, of course, without charge. He lived first in Egypt and then in Algiers and Morocco. Last year he settled down in Paris, where he died four weeks ago as the result of a most stupid accident."
"A carelessly administered hypodermic injection, was it not, Monsieur le Prefet?" asked the secretary of the American Embassy. "It was mentioned in the papers and reported to us at the embassy."
"Yes," said Desmalions. "To assist his recovery from a long attack of influenza which had kept him in bed all the winter, Mr. Mornington, by his doctor's orders, used to give himself injections of glycero-phosphate of soda. He must have omitted the necessary precautions on the last occasion when he did so, for the wound was poisoned, inflammation set in with lightning rapidity, and Mr. Mornington was dead in a few hours."
The Prefect of Police turned to the solicitor and asked:
"Have I summed up the facts correctly, Maitre Lepertuis?"
"Absolutely, Monsieur le Prefet."
M. Desmalions continued:
"The next morning, Maitre Lepertuis called here and, for reasons which you will understand when you have heard the document read, showed me Cosmo Mornington's will, which had been placed in his hands."
While the Prefect was looking through the papers, Maitre Lepertuis added:
"I may be allowed to say that I saw my client only once before I was summoned to his death-bed; and that was on the day when he sent for me to come to his room in the hotel to hand me the will which he had just made. This was at the beginning of his influenza. In the course of conversation he told me that he had been making some inquiries with a view to tracing his mother's family, and that he intended to pursue these inquiries seriously after his recovery. Circumstances, as it turned out, prevented his fulfilling his purpose."
Meanwhile, the Prefect of Police had taken from among the documents an open envelope containing two sheets of paper. He unfolded the larger of the two and said:
"This is the will. I will ask you to listen attentively while I read it and also the document attached to it."
The others settled themselves in their chairs; and the Prefect read out:
"The last will and testament of me, Cosmo Mornington, eldest son of Hubert Mornington and Ermeline Roussel, his wife, a naturalized citizen of the United States of America. I give and bequeath to my adopted country three fourths of my estate, to be employed on works of charity in accordance with the instructions, written in my hand, which Maitre Lepertuis will be good enough to forward to the Ambassador of the United States. The remainder of my property, to the value of about one hundred million francs, consisting of deposits in various Paris and London banks, a list of which is in the keeping of Maitre Lepertuis, I give and bequeath, in memory of my dear mother, to her favourite sister Elizabeth Roussel or her direct heirs; or, in default of Elizabeth and her heirs, to her second sister Armande Roussel or her direct heirs; or, in default of both sisters and their heirs, to their cousin Victor Roussel or his direct heirs.
"In the event of my dying without discovering the surviving members of the Roussel family, or of the cousin of the three sisters, I request my friend Don Luis Perenna to make all the necessary investigations. With this object, I hereby appoint him the executor of my will in so far as concerns the European portion of my estate, and I beg him to undertake the conduct of the events that may arise after my death or in consequence of my death to consider himself my representative and to act in all things for the benefit of my memory and the accomplishment of my wishes. In gratitude for this service and in memory of the two occasions on which he saved my life, I give and bequeath to the said Don Luis Perenna the sum of one million francs."
The Prefect stopped for a few seconds. Don Luis murmured:
"Poor Cosmo! ... I should not have needed that inducement to carry out his last wishes."
M. Desmalions continued his reading:
"Furthermore, if, within three months of my death, the investigations made by Don Luis Perenna and by Maitre Lepertuis have led to no result; if no heir and no survivor of the Roussel family have come forward to receive the bequest, then the whole hundred million francs shall definitely, all later claims notwithstanding, accrue to my friend Don Luis Perenna. I know him well enough to feel assured that he will employ this fortune in a manner which shall accord with the loftiness of his schemes and the greatness of the plans which he described to me so enthusiastically in our tent in Morocco."
M. Desmalions stopped once more and raised his eyes to Don Luis, who remained silent and impassive, though a tear glistened on his lashes. Comte d'Astrignac said:
"My congratulations, Perenna."
"Let me remind you, Major," he answered, "that this legacy is subject to a condition. And I swear that, if it depends on me, the survivors of the Roussel family shall be found."
"I'm sure of it," said the officer. "I know you."
"In any case," asked the Prefect of Police of Don Luis, "you do not refuse this conditional legacy?"
"Well, no," said Perenna, with a laugh. "There are things which one can't refuse."
"My question," said the Prefect, "was prompted by the last paragraph of the will: 'If, for any reason, my friend Perenna should refuse this legacy, or if he should have died before the date fixed for its payment, I request the Ambassador of the United States and the Prefect of Police for the time being to consult as to the means of building and maintaining in Paris a university confined to students and artists of American nationality and to devote the money to this purpose. And I hereby authorize the Prefect of Police in any case to receive a sum of three hundred thousand francs out of my estate for the benefit of the Paris Police Fund.'"
M. Desmalions folded the paper and took up another.
"There is a codicil to the will. It consists of a letter which Mr. Mornington wrote to Maitre Lepertuis some time after and which explains certain points with greater precision:
"I request Maitre Lepertuis to open my will on the day after my death, in the presence of the Prefect of Police, who will be good enough to keep the matter an entire secret for a month. One month later, to the day, he will have the kindness to summon to his office Maitre Lepertuis, Don Luis Perenna, and a prominent member of the United States Embassy. Subsequent to the reading of the will, a cheque for one million francs shall be handed to my friend and legatee Don Luis Perenna, after a simple examination of his papers and a simple verification of his identity. I should wish this verification to be made as regards the personality by Major Comte d'Astrignac, who was his commanding officer in Morocco, and who unfortunately had to retire prematurely from the army; and as regards birth by a member of the Peruvian Legation, as Don Luis Perenna, though retaining his Spanish nationality, was born in Peru.
"Furthermore, I desire that my will be not communicated to the Roussel heirs until two days later, at Maitre Lepertuis's office. Finally—and this is the last expression of my wishes as regards the disposal of my estate and the method of proceeding with that disposal—the Prefect of Police will be good enough to summon the persons aforesaid to his office, for a second time, at a date to be selected by himself, not less than sixty nor more than ninety days after the first meeting. Then and not till then will the definite legatee be named and proclaimed according to his rights, nor shall any be so named and proclaimed unless he be present at this meeting, at the conclusion of which Don Luis Perenna, who must also attend it, shall become the definite legatee if, as I have said, no survivor nor heir of the Roussel sisters or of their cousin Victor have come forward to claim the bequest."
Replacing both documents in the envelope the Prefect of Police concluded:
"You have now, gentlemen, heard the will of Mr. Cosmo Mornington, which explains your presence here. A sixth person will join us shortly: one of my detectives, whom I instructed to make the first inquiries about the Roussel family and who will give you the result of his investigations. But, for the moment, we must proceed in accordance with the testator's directions.
"Don Luis Perenna's papers, which he sent me, at my request, a fortnight ago, have been examined by myself and are perfectly in order. As regards his birth, I wrote and begged his Excellency the Peruvian minister to collect the most precise information."
"The minister entrusted this mission to me," said Senor Caceres, the Peruvian attache. "It offered no difficulties. Don Luis Perenna comes of an old Spanish family which emigrated thirty years ago, but which retained its estates and property in Europe. I knew Don Luis's father in America; and he used to speak of his only son with the greatest affection. It was our legation that informed the son, three years ago, of his father's death. I produce a copy of the letter sent to Morocco."
"And I have the original letter here, among the documents forwarded by Don Luis Perenna to the Prefect of Police. Do you, Major, recognize Private Perenna, who fought under your orders in the Foreign Legion?"
"I recognize him," said Comte d'Astrignac.
"Beyond the possibility of a mistake?"
"Beyond the possibility of a mistake and without the least feeling of hesitation."
The Prefect of Police, with a laugh, hinted:
"You recognize Private Perenna, whom the men, carried away by a sort of astounded admiration of his exploits, used to call Arsene Lupin?"
"Yes, Monsieur le Prefet," replied the major sharply, "the one whom the men called Arsene Lupin, but whom the officers called simply the Hero, the one who we used to say was as brave as d'Artagnan, as strong as Porthos...."
"And as mysterious as Monte Cristo," said the Prefect of Police, laughing. "I have all this in the report which I received from the Fourth Regiment of the Foreign Legion. It is not necessary to read the whole of it; but it contains the unprecedented fact that Private Perenna, in the space of two years' time, received the military medal, received the Legion of Honour for exceptional services, and was mentioned fourteen times in dispatches. I will pick out a detail here and there."
"Monsieur le Prefet, I beg of you," protested Don Luis. "These are trivial matters, of no interest to anybody; and I do not see the reason...."
"There is every reason, on the contrary," declared M. Desmalions. "You gentlemen are here not only to hear a will read, but also to authorize its execution as regards the only one of its clauses that is to be carried out at once, the payment of a legacy of a million francs. It is necessary, therefore, that all of you should know what there is to know of the personality of the legatee. Consequently, I propose to continue ..."
"In that case, Monsieur le Prefet," said Perenna, rising and making for the door, "you will allow me ..."
"Right about turn! Halt! ... Eyes front!" commanded Major d'Astrignac in a jesting tone.
He dragged Don Luis back to the middle of the room and forced him into a chair.
"Monsieur le Prefet," he said, "I plead for mercy for my old comrade-in-arms, whose modesty would really be put to too severe a test if the story of his prowess were read out in front of him. Besides, the report is here; and we can all of us consult it for ourselves. Without having seen it, I second every word of praise that it contains; and I declare that, in the course of my whole military career, I have never met a soldier who could compare with Private Perenna. And yet I saw plenty of fine fellows over there, the sort of demons whom you only find in the Legion and who will get themselves cut to bits for the sheer pleasure of the thing, for the lark of it, as they say, just to astonish one another.
"But not one of them came anywhere near Perenna. The chap whom we nicknamed d'Artagnan, Porthos, and de Bussy deserved to be classed with the most amazing heroes of legend and history. I have seen him perform feats which I should not care to relate, for fear of being treated as an impostor; feats so improbable that to-day, in my calmer moments, I wonder if I am quite sure that I did see them. One day, at Settat, as we were being pursued—"
"Another word, Major," cried Don Luis, gayly, "and this time I really will go out! I must say you have a nice way of sparing my modesty!"
"My dear Perenna," replied Comte d'Astrignac, "I always told you that you had every good quality and only one fault, which was that you were not a Frenchman."
"And I always answered, Major, that I was French on my mother's side and a Frenchman in heart and temperament. There are things which only a Frenchman can do."
The two men again gripped each other's hands affectionately.
"Come," said the Prefect, "we'll say no more of your feats of prowess, Monsieur, nor of this report. I will mention one thing, however, which is that, after two years, you fell into an ambush of forty Berbers, that you were captured, and that you did not rejoin the Legion until last month."
"Just so, Monsieur le Prefet, in time to receive my discharge, as my five years' service was up."
"But how did Mr. Cosmo Mornington come to mention you in his will, when, at the time when he was making it, you had disappeared from view for eighteen months?"
"Cosmo and I used to correspond."
"Yes; and I had informed him of my approaching escape and my return to Paris."
"But how did you manage it? Where were you? And how did you find the means? ..."
Don Luis smiled without answering.
"Monte Cristo, this time," said M. Desmalions. "The mysterious Monte Cristo."
"Monte Cristo, if you like, Monsieur le Prefet. In point of fact, the mystery of my captivity and escape is a rather strange one. It may be interesting to throw some light upon it one of these days. Meanwhile, I must ask for a little credit."
A silence ensued. M. Desmalions once more inspected this curious individual; and he could not refrain from saying, as though in obedience to an association of ideas for which he himself was unable to account:
"One word more, and one only. What were your comrades' reasons for giving you that rather odd nickname of Arsene Lupin? Was it just an allusion to your pluck, to your physical strength?"
"There was something besides, Monsieur le Prefet: the discovery of a very curious theft, of which certain details, apparently incapable of explanation, had enabled me to name the perpetrator."
"So you have a gift for that sort of thing?"
"Yes, Monsieur le Prefet, a certain knack which I had the opportunity of employing in Africa on more than one occasion. Hence my nickname of Arsene Lupin. It was soon after the death of the man himself, you know, and he was much spoken of at the time."
"Was it a serious theft?"
"It was rather; and it happened to be committed upon Cosmo Mornington, who was then living in the Province of Oran. That was really what started our relations."
There was a fresh silence; and Don Luis added:
"Poor Cosmo! That incident gave him an unshakable confidence in my little detective talents. He was always saying, 'Perenna, if I die murdered'—he had a fixed notion in his head that he would meet with a violent death—'if I die murdered, swear that you will pursue the culprit,'"
"His presentiment was not justified," said the Prefect of Police. "Cosmo Mornington was not murdered."
"That's where you make a mistake, Monsieur le Prefet," said Don Luis.
M. Desmalions gave a start.
"What! What's that? Cosmo Mornington—?"
"I say that Cosmo Mornington did not die, as you think, of a carelessly administered injection, but that he died, as he feared he would, by foul play."
"But, Monsieur, your assertion is based on no evidence whatever!"
"It is based on fact, Monsieur le Prefet."
"Were you there? Do you know anything?"
"I was not there. A month ago I was still with the colours. I even admit that, when I arrived in Paris, not having seen the newspapers regularly, I did not know of Cosmo's death. In fact, I learned it from you just now, Monsieur le Prefet."
"In that case, Monsieur, you cannot know more about it than I do, and you must accept the verdict of the doctor."
"I am sorry, but his verdict fails to satisfy me."
"But look here, Monsieur, what prompts you to make the accusation? Have you any evidence?"
"Your own words, Monsieur le Prefet."
"My own words? What do you mean?"
"I will tell you, Monsieur le Prefet. You began by saying that Cosmo Mornington had taken up medicine and practised it with great skill; next, you said that he had given himself an injection which, carelessly administered, set up inflammation and caused his death within a few hours."
"Well, Monsieur le Prefet, I maintain that a man who practises medicine with great skill and who is accustomed to treating sick people, as Cosmo Mornington was, is incapable of giving himself a hypodermic injection without first taking every necessary antiseptic precaution. I have seen Cosmo at work, and I know how he set about things."
"Well, the doctor just wrote a certificate as any doctor will when there is no sort of clue to arouse his suspicions."
"So your opinion is—"
"Maitre Lepertuis," asked Perenna, turning to the solicitor, "did you notice nothing unusual when you were summoned to Mr. Mornington's death-bed?"
"No, nothing. Mr. Mornington was in a state of coma."
"It's a strange thing in itself," observed Don Luis, "that an injection, however badly administered, should produce such rapid results. Were there no signs of suffering?"
"No ... or rather, yes.... Yes, I remember the face showed brown patches which I did not see on the occasion of my first visit."
"Brown patches? That confirms my supposition Cosmo Mornington was poisoned."
"But how?" exclaimed the Prefect.
"By some substance introduced into one of the phials of glycero-phosphate, or into the syringe which the sick man employed."
"But the doctor?" M. Desmalions objected.
"Maitre Lepertuis," Perenna continued, "did you call the doctor's attention to those brown patches?"
"Yes, but he attached no importance to them."
"Was it his ordinary medical adviser?"
"No, his ordinary medical adviser, Doctor Pujol, who happens to be a friend of mine and who had recommended me to him as a solicitor, was ill. The doctor whom I saw at his death-bed must have been a local practitioner."
"I have his name and address here," said the Prefect of Police, who had turned up the certificate. "Doctor Bellavoine, 14 Rue d'Astorg."
"Have you a medical directory, Monsieur le Prefet?"
M. Desmalions opened a directory and turned over the pages. Presently he declared:
"There is no Doctor Bellavoine; and there is no doctor living at 14 Rue d'Astorg."
A MAN DEAD
The declaration was followed by a silence of some length. The Secretary of the American Embassy and the Peruvian attache had followed the conversation with eager interest. Major d'Astrignac nodded his head with an air of approval. To his mind, Perenna could not be mistaken.
The Prefect of Police confessed:
"Certainly, certainly ... we have a number of circumstances here ... that are fairly ambiguous.... Those brown patches; that doctor.... It's a case that wants looking into." And, questioning Don Luis Perenna as though in spite of himself, he asked, "No doubt, in your opinion, there is a possible connection between the murder ... and Mr. Mornington's will?"
"That, Monsieur le Prefet, I cannot tell. If there is, we should have to suppose that the contents of the will were known. Do you think they can have leaked out, Maitre Lepertuis?"
"I don't think so, for Mr. Mornington seemed to behave with great caution."
"And there's no question, is there, of any indiscretion committed in your office?"
"By whom? No one handled the will except myself; and I alone have the key of the safe in which I put away documents of that importance every evening."
"The safe has not been broken into? There has been no burglary at your office?"
"You saw Cosmo Mornington in the morning?"
"Yes, on a Friday morning."
"What did you do with the will until the evening, until you locked it away up your safe?"
"I probably put it in the drawer of my desk."
"And the drawer was not forced?"
Maitre Lepertuis seemed taken aback and made no reply.
"Well?" asked Perenna.
"Well, yes, I remember ... there was something that day ... that same Friday."
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. When I came in from lunch I noticed that the drawer was not locked, although I had locked it beyond the least doubt. At the time I attached comparatively little importance to the incident. To-day, I understand, I understand—"
Thus, little by little, were all the suppositions conceived by Don Luis verified: suppositions resting, it is true, upon just one or two clues, but yet containing an amount of intuition, of divination, that was really surprising in a man who had been present at none of the events between which he traced the connection so skilfully.
"We will lose no time, Monsieur," said the Prefect of Police, "in checking your statements, which you will confess to be a little venturesome, by the more positive evidence of one of my detectives who has the case in charge ... and who ought to be here by now."
"Does his evidence bear upon Cosmo Mornington's heirs?" asked the solicitor.
"Upon the heirs principally, because two days ago he telephoned to me that he had collected all the particulars, and also upon the very points which—But wait: I remember that he spoke to my secretary of a murder committed a month ago to-day.... Now it's a month to-day since Mr. Cosmo Mornington—"
M. Desmalions pressed hard on a bell. His private secretary at once appeared.
"Inspector Verot?" asked the Prefect sharply.
"He's not back yet."
"Have him fetched! Have him brought here! He must be found at all costs and without delay."
He turned to Don Luis Perenna.
"Inspector Verot was here an hour ago, feeling rather unwell, very much excited, it seems, and declaring that he was being watched and followed. He said he wanted to make a most important statement to me about the Mornington case and to warn the police of two murders which are to be committed to-night ... and which would be a consequence of the murder of Cosmo Mornington."
"And he was unwell, you say?"
"Yes, ill at ease and even very queer and imagining things. By way of being prudent, he left a detailed report on the case for me. Well, the report is simply a blank sheet of letter-paper.
"Here is the paper and the envelope in which I found it, and here is a cardboard box which he also left behind him. It contains a cake of chocolate with the marks of teeth on it."
"May I look at the two things you have mentioned, Monsieur le Prefet?"
"Yes, but they won't tell you anything."
Don Luis examined at length the cardboard box and the yellow envelope, on which were printed the words, "Cafe du Pont-Neuf." The others awaited his words as though they were bound to shed an unexpected light. He merely said:
"The handwriting is not the same on the envelope and the box. The writing on the envelope is less plain, a little shaky, obviously imitated."
"Which proves, Monsieur le Prefet, that this yellow envelope does not come from your detective. I presume that, after writing his report at a table in the Cafe du Pont-Neuf and closing it, he had a moment of inattention during which somebody substituted for his envelope another with the same address, but containing a blank sheet of paper."
"That's a supposition!" said the Prefect.
"Perhaps; but what is certain, Monsieur le Prefet, is that your inspector's presentiments are well-grounded, that he is being closely watched, that the discoveries about the Mornington inheritance which he has succeeded in making are interfering with criminal designs, and that he is in terrible danger."
"He must be rescued, Monsieur le Prefet. Ever since the commencement of this meeting I have felt persuaded that we are up against an attempt which has already begun. I hope that it is not too late and that your inspector has not been the first victim."
"My dear sir," exclaimed the Prefect of Police, "you declare all this with a conviction which rouses my admiration, but which is not enough to establish the fact that your fears are justified. Inspector Verot's return will be the best proof."
"Inspector Verot will not return."
"But why not?"
"Because he has returned already. The messenger saw him return."
"The messenger was dreaming. If you have no proof but that man's evidence—"
"I have another proof, Monsieur le Prefet, which Inspector Verot himself has left of his presence here: these few, almost illegible letters which he scribbled on this memorandum pad, which your secretary did not see him write and which have just caught my eye. Look at them. Are they not a proof, a definite proof that he came back?"
The Prefect did not conceal his perturbation. The others all seemed impressed. The secretary's return but increased their apprehensions: nobody had seen Inspector Verot.
"Monsieur le Prefet," said Don Luis, "I earnestly beg you to have the office messenger in."
And, as soon as the messenger was there, he asked him, without even waiting for M. Desmalions to speak:
"Are you sure that Inspector Verot entered this room a second time?"
"And that he did not go out again?"
"And your attention was not distracted for a moment?"
"Not for a moment."
"There, Monsieur, you see!" cried the Prefect. "If Inspector Verot were here, we should know it."
"He is here, Monsieur le Prefet."
"Excuse my obstinacy, Monsieur le Prefet, but I say that, when some one enters a room and does not go out again, he is still in that room."
"Hiding?" said M. Desmalions, who was growing more and more irritated.
"No, but fainting, ill—dead, perhaps."
"But where, hang it all?"
"Behind that screen."
"There's nothing behind that screen, nothing but a door."
"And that door—?"
"Leads to a dressing-room."
"Well, Monsieur le Prefet, Inspector Verot, tottering, losing his head, imagining himself to be going from your office to your secretary's room, fell into your dressing-room."
M. Desmalions ran to the door, but, at the moment of opening it, shrank back. Was it apprehension, the wish to withdraw himself from the influence of that astonishing man, who gave his orders with such authority and who seemed to command events themselves?
Don Luis stood waiting imperturbably, in a deferential attitude.
"I cannot believe—" said M. Desmalions.
"Monsieur le Prefet, I would remind you that Inspector Verot's revelations may save the lives of two persons who are doomed to die to-night. Every minute lost is irreparable."
M. Desmalions shrugged his shoulders. But that man mastered him with the power of his conviction; and the Prefect opened the door.
He did not make a movement, did not utter a cry. He simply muttered:
"Oh, is it possible!—"
By the pale gleam of light that entered through a ground-glass window they saw the body of a man lying on the floor.
"The inspector! Inspector Verot!" gasped the office messenger, running forward.
He and the secretary raised the body and placed it in an armchair in the Prefect's office.
Inspector Verot was still alive, but so little alive that they could scarcely hear the beating of his heart. A drop of saliva trickled from the corner of his mouth. His eyes were devoid of all expression. However, certain muscles of the face kept moving, perhaps with the effort of a will that seemed to linger almost beyond life.
Don Luis muttered:
"Look, Monsieur le Prefet—the brown patches!"
The same dread unnerved all. They began to ring bells and open doors and call for help.
"Send for the doctor!" ordered M. Desmalions. "Tell them to bring a doctor, the first that comes—and a priest. We can't let the poor man—"
Don Luis raised his arm to demand silence.
"There is nothing more to be done," he said. "We shall do better to make the most of these last moments. Have I your permission, Monsieur le Prefet?"
He bent over the dying man, laid the swaying head against the back of the chair, and, in a very gentle voice, whispered:
"Verot, it's Monsieur le Prefet speaking to you. We should like a few particulars about what is to take place to-night. Do you hear me, Verot? If you hear me, close your eyelids."
The eyelids were lowered. But was it not merely chance? Don Luis went on:
"You have found the heirs of the Roussel sisters, that much we know; and it is two of those heirs who are threatened with death. The double murder is to be committed to-night. But what we do not know is the name of those heirs, who are doubtless not called Roussel. You must tell us the name.
"Listen to me: you wrote on a memorandum pad three letters which seem to form the syllable Fau.... Am I right? Is this the first syllable of a name? Which is the next letter after those three? Close your eyes when I mention the right letter. Is it 'b?' Is it 'c?'"
But there was now not a flicker in the inspector's pallid face. The head dropped heavily on the chest. Verot gave two or three sighs, his frame shook with one great shiver, and he moved no more.
He was dead.
The tragic scene had been enacted so swiftly that the men who were its shuddering spectators remained for a moment confounded. The solicitor made the sign of the cross and went down on his knees. The Prefect murmured:
"Poor Verot!... He was a good man, who thought only of the service, of his duty. Instead of going and getting himself seen to—and who knows? Perhaps he might have been saved—he came back here in the hope of communicating his secret. Poor Verot!—"
"Was he married? Are there any children?" asked Don Luis.
"He leaves a wife and three children," replied the Prefect.
"I will look after them," said Don Luis simply.
Then, when they brought a doctor and when M. Desmalions gave orders for the corpse to be carried to another room, Don Luis took the doctor aside and said:
"There is no doubt that Inspector Verot was poisoned. Look at his wrist: you will see the mark of a puncture with a ring of inflammation round it."
"Then he was pricked in that place?"
"Yes, with a pin or the point of a pen; and not as violently as they may have wished, because death did not ensue until some hours later."
The messengers removed the corpse; and soon there was no one left in the office except the five people whom the Prefect had originally sent for. The American Secretary of Embassy and the Peruvian attache, considering their continued presence unnecessary, went away, after warmly complimenting Don Luis Perenna on his powers of penetration.
Next came the turn of Major d'Astrignac, who shook his former subordinate by the hand with obvious affection. And Maitre Lepertais and Perenna, having fixed an appointment for the payment of the legacy, were themselves on the point of leaving, when M. Desmalions entered briskly.
"Ah, so you're still here, Don Luis Perenna! I'm glad of that. I have an idea: those three letters which you say you made out on the writing-table, are you sure they form the syllable Fau?"
"I think so, Monsieur le Prefet. See for yourself: are not these an 'F,' an 'A' and a 'U?' And observe that the 'F' is a capital, which made me suspect that the letters are the first syllable of a proper name."
"Just so, just so," said M. Desmalions. "Well, curiously enough, that syllable happens to be—But wait, we'll verify our facts—"
M. Desmalions searched hurriedly among the letters which his secretary had handed him on his arrival and which lay on a corner of the table.
"Ah, here we are!" he exclaimed, glancing at the signature of one of the letters. "Here we are! It's as I thought: 'Fauville.' ... The first syllable is the same.... Look, 'Fauville,' just like that, without Christian name or initials. The letter must have been written in a feverish moment: there is no date nor address.... The writing is shaky—"
And M. Desmalions read out:
"MONSIEUR LE PREFET:
"A great danger is hanging over my head and over the head of my son. Death is approaching apace. I shall have to-night, or to-morrow morning at the latest, the proofs of the abominable plot that threatens us. I ask leave to bring them to you in the course of the morning. I am in need of protection and I call for your assistance.
"Permit me to be, etc. FAUVILLE."
"No other designation?" asked Perenna. "No letter-heading?"
"None. But there is no mistake. Inspector Verot's declarations agree too evidently with this despairing appeal. It is clearly M. Fauville and his son who are to be murdered to-night. And the terrible thing is that, as this name of Fauville is a very common one, it is impossible for our inquiries to succeed in time."
"What, Monsieur le Prefet? Surely, by straining every nerve—"
"Certainly, we will strain every nerve; and I shall set all my men to work. But observe that we have not the slightest clue."
"Oh, it would be awful!" cried Don Luis. "Those two creatures doomed to death; and we unable to save them! Monsieur le Prefet, I ask you to authorize me—"
He had not finished speaking when the Prefect's private secretary entered with a visiting-card in his hand.
"Monsieur le Prefet, this caller was so persistent.... I hesitated—"
M. Desmalions took the card and uttered an exclamation of mingled surprise and joy.
"Look, Monsieur," he said to Perenna.
And he handed him the card.
Hippolyte Fauville, Civil Engineer. 14 bis Boulevard Suchet.
"Come," said M. Desmalions, "chance is favouring us. If this M. Fauville is one of the Roussel heirs, our task becomes very much easier."
"In any case, Monsieur le Prefet," the solicitor interposed, "I must remind you that one of the clauses of the will stipulates that it shall not be read until forty-eight hours have elapsed. M. Fauville, therefore, must not be informed—"
The door was pushed open and a man hustled the messenger aside and rushed in.
"Inspector ... Inspector Verot?" he spluttered. "He's dead, isn't he? I was told—"
"Yes, Monsieur, he is dead."
"Too late! I'm too late!" he stammered.
And he sank into a chair, clasping his hands and sobbing:
"Oh, the scoundrels! the scoundrels!"
He was a pale, hollow-cheeked, sickly looking man of about fifty. His head was bald, above a forehead lined with deep wrinkles. A nervous twitching affected his chin and the lobes of his ears. Tears stood in his eyes.
The Prefect asked:
"Whom do you mean, Monsieur? Inspector Verot's murderers? Are you able to name them, to assist our inquiry?"
Hippolyte Fauville shook his head.
"No, no, it would be useless, for the moment.... My proofs would not be sufficient.... No, really not."
He had already risen from his chair and stood apologizing:
"Monsieur le Prefet, I have disturbed you unnecessarily, but I wanted to know.... I was hoping that Inspector Verot might have escaped.... His evidence, joined to mine, would have been invaluable. But perhaps he was able to tell you?"
"No, he spoke of this evening—of to-night—"
Hippolyte Fauville started.
"This evening! Then the time has come!... But no, it's impossible, they can't do anything to me yet.... They are not ready—"
"Inspector Verot declared, however, that the double murder would be committed to-night."
"No, Monsieur le Prefet, he was wrong there.... I know all about it.... To-morrow evening at the earliest ... and we will catch them in a trap.... Oh, the scoundrels!"
Don Luis went up to him and asked:
"Your mother's name was Ermeline Roussel, was it not?"
"Yes, Ermeline Roussel. She is dead now."
"And she was from Saint-Etienne?"
"Yes. But why these questions?"
"Monsieur le Prefet will tell you to-morrow. One word more." He opened the cardboard box left by Inspector Verot. "Does this cake of chocolate mean anything to you? These marks?"
"Oh, how awful!" said the civil engineer, in a hoarse tone. "Where did the inspector find it?"
He dropped into his chair again, but only for a moment; then, drawing himself up, he hurried toward the door with a jerky step.
"I'm going, Monsieur le Prefet, I'm going. To-morrow morning I'll show you.... I shall have all the proofs.... And the police will protect me.... I am ill, I know, but I want to live! I have the right to live ... and my son, too.... And we will live.... Oh, the scoundrels!—"
And he ran, stumbling out, like a drunken man.
M. Desmalions rose hastily.
"I shall have inquiries made about that man's circumstances.... I shall have his house watched. I've telephoned to the detective office already. I'm expecting some one in whom I have every confidence."
Don Luis said:
"Monsieur le Prefet, I beg you, with an earnestness which you will understand, to authorize me to pursue the investigation. Cosmo Mornington's will makes it my duty and, allow me to say, gives me the right to do so. M. Fauville's enemies have given proofs of extraordinary cleverness and daring. I want to have the honour of being at the post of danger to-night, at M. Fauville's house, near his person."
The Prefect hesitated. He was bound to reflect how greatly to Don Luis Perenna's interest it was that none of the Mornington heirs should be discovered, or at least be able to come between him and the millions of the inheritance. Was it safe to attribute to a noble sentiment of gratitude, to a lofty conception of friendship and duty, that strange longing to protect Hippolyte Fauville against the death that threatened him?
For some seconds M. Desmalions watched that resolute face, those intelligent eyes, at once innocent and satirical, grave and smiling, eyes through which you could certainly not penetrate their owner's baffling individuality, but which nevertheless looked at you with an expression of absolute frankness and sincerity. Then he called his secretary:
"Has any one come from the detective office?"
"Yes, Monsieur le Prefet; Sergeant Mazeroux is here."
"Please have him shown in."
And, turning to Perenna:
"Sergeant Mazeroux is one of our smartest detectives. I used to employ him together with that poor Verot when I wanted any one more than ordinarily active and sharp. He will be of great use to you."
* * * * *
Sergeant Mazeroux entered. He was a short, lean, wiry man, whose drooping moustache, heavy eyelids, watery eyes and long, lank hair gave him a most doleful appearance.
"Mazeroux," said the Prefect, "you will have heard, by this time, of your comrade Verot's death and of the horrible circumstances attending it. We must now avenge him and prevent further crimes. This gentleman, who knows the case from end to end, will explain all that is necessary. You will work with him and report to me to-morrow morning."
This meant giving a free hand to Don Luis Perenna and relying on his power of initiative and his perspicacity. Don Luis bowed:
"I thank you, Monsieur le Prefet. I hope that you will have no reason to regret the trust which you are good enough to place in me."
And, taking leave of M. Desmalions and Maitre Lepertuis, he went out with Sergeant Mazeroux.
As soon as they were outside, he told Mazeroux what he knew. The detective seemed much impressed by his companion's professional gifts and quite ready to be guided by his views.
They decided first to go to the Cafe du Pont-Neuf. Here they learned that Inspector Verot, who was a regular customer of the place, had written a long letter there that morning. And the waiter remembered that a man at the next table, who had entered the cafe at almost the same time as the inspector, had also asked for writing-paper and called twice for yellow envelopes.
"That's it," said Mazeroux to Don Luis. "As you suspected, one letter has been substituted for the other."
The description given by the waiter was pretty explicit: a tall man, with a slight stoop, wearing a reddish-brown beard cut into a point, a tortoise-shell eyeglass with a black silk ribbon, and an ebony walking-stick with a handle shaped like a swan's head.
"That's something for the police to go upon," said Mazeroux.
They were leaving the cafe when Don Luis stopped his companion.
"What's the matter?"
"We've been followed."
"Followed? What next? And by whom, pray?"
"No one that matters. I know who it is and I may as well settle his business and have done with it. Wait for me. I shall be back; and I'll show you some fun. You shall see one of the 'nuts,' I promise you."
He returned in a minute with a tall, thin man with his face set in whiskers. He introduced him:
"M. Mazeroux, a friend of mine, Senor Caceres, an attache at the Peruvian Legation. Senor Caceres took part in the interview at the Prefect's just now. It was he who, on the Peruvian Minister's instructions, collected the documents bearing upon my identity." And he added gayly: "So you were looking for me, dear Senor Caceres. Indeed, I expected, when we left the police office—"
The Peruvian attache made a sign and pointed to Sergeant Mazeroux. Perenna replied:
"Oh, pray don't mind M. Mazeroux! You can speak before him; he is the soul of discretion. Besides, he knows all about the business."
The attache was silent. Perenna made him sit down in front of him.
"Speak without beating about the bush, dear Senor Caceres. It's a subject that calls for plain dealing; and I don't mind a blunt word or two. It saves such a lot of time! Come on. You want money, I suppose? Or, rather, more money. How much?"
The Peruvian had a final hesitation, gave a glance at Don Luis's companion, and then, suddenly making up his mind, said in a dull voice:
"Fifty thousand francs!"
"Oh, by Jove, by Jove!" cried Don Luis. "You're greedy, you know! What do you say, M. Mazeroux? Fifty thousand francs is a lot of money. Especially as—Look here, my dear Caceres, let's go over the ground again.
"Three years ago I had the honour of making your acquaintance in Algeria, when you were touring the country. At the same time, I understood the sort of man you were; and I asked you if you could manage, in three years, with my name of Perenna, to fix me up a Spanish-Peruvian identity, furnished with unquestionable papers and respectable ancestors. You said, 'Yes,' We settled the price: twenty thousand francs. Last week, when the Prefect of Police asked me for my papers, I came to see you and learned that you had just been instructed to make inquiries into my antecedents.
"Everything was ready, as it happened. With the papers of a deceased Peruvian nobleman, of the name of Pereira, properly revised, you had faked me up a first-rate civic status. We arranged what you were to say before the Prefect of Police; and I paid up the twenty thousand. We were quits. What more do you want?"
The Pervian attache did not betray the least embarrassment. He put his two elbows on the table and said, very calmly:
"Monsieur, when treating with you, three years ago, I thought I was dealing with a gentleman who, hiding himself under the uniform of the Foreign Legion, wished to recover the means to live respectably afterward. To-day, I have to do with the universal legatee of Cosmo Mornington, with a man who, to-morrow, under a false name, will receive the sum of one million francs and, in a few months, perhaps, the sum of a hundred millions. That's quite a different thing."
The argument seemed to strike Don Luis. Nevertheless, he objected:
"And, if I refuse—?"
"If you refuse, I shall inform the solicitor and the Prefect of Police that I made an error in my inquiry and that there is some mistake about Don Luis Perenna. In consequence of which you will receive nothing at all and very likely find yourself in jail."
"With you, my worthy sir."
"Of course: on a charge of forgery and tampering with registers. For you don't imagine that I should take it lying down."
The attache did not reply. His nose, which was a very big one, seemed to lengthen out still farther between his two long whiskers.
Don Luis began to laugh.
"Come, Senor Caceres, don't pull such a face! No one's going to hurt you. Only don't think that you can corner me. Better men than you have tried and have broken their backs in the process. And, upon my word, you don't cut much of a figure when you're doing your best to diddle your fellowmen.
"You look a bit of a mug, in fact, Caceres: a bit of a mug is what you look. So it's understood, what? We lay down our arms. No more base designs against our excellent friend Perenna. Capital, Senor Caceres, capital. And now I'll be magnanimous and prove to you that the decent man of us two is—the one whom any one would have thought!"
He produced a check-book on the Credit Lyonnais.
"Here, my dear chap. Here's twenty thousand francs as a present from Cosmo Mornington's legatee. Put it in your pocket and look pleasant. Say thank you to the kind gentleman, and make yourself scarce without turning your head any more than if you were one of old man Lot's daughters. Off you go: hoosh!"
This was said in such a manner that the attache obeyed Don Luis Perenna's injunctions to the letter. He smiled as he pocketed the check, said thank you twice over, and made off without turning his head.
"The low hound!" muttered Don Luis. "What do you say to that, Sergeant?"
Sergeant Mazeroux was looking at him in stupefaction, with his eyes starting from his head.
"Well, but, Monsieur—"
"Well, but, Monsieur, who are you?"
"Who am I?"
"Didn't they tell you? A Peruvian nobleman, or a Spanish nobleman, I don't know which. In short, Don Luis Perenna."
"Bunkum! I've just heard—"
"Don Luis Perenna, late of the Foreign Legion."
"Enough of that, Monsieur—"
"Medaled and decorated with a stripe on every seam."
"Once more, Monsieur, enough of that; and come along with me to the Prefect."
"But, let me finish, hang it! I was saying, late private in the Foreign Legion.... Late hero.... Late prisoner of the Surete.... Late Russian prince.... Late chief of the detective service.... Late—"
"But you're mad!" snarled the sergeant. "What's all this story?"
"It's a true story, Sergeant, and quite genuine. You ask me who I am; and I'm telling you categorically. Must I go farther back? I have still more titles to offer you: marquis, baron, duke, archduke, grand-duke, petty-duke, superduke—the whole 'Almanach de Gotha,' by Jingo! If any one told me that I had been a king, by all that's holy, I shouldn't dare swear to the contrary!"
Sergeant Mazeroux put out his own hands, accustomed to rough work, seized the seemingly frail wrists of the man addressing him and said:
"No nonsense, now. I don't know whom I've got hold of, but I shan't let you go. You can say what you have to say at the Prefect's."
"Don't speak so loud, Alexandre."
The two frail wrists were released with unparalleled ease; the sergeant's powerful hands were caught and rendered useless; and Don Luis grinned:
"Don't you know me, you idiot?"
Sergeant Mazeroux did not utter a word. His eyes started still farther from his head. He tried to understand and remained absolutely dumfounded.
The sound of that voice, that way of jesting, that schoolboy playfulness allied with that audacity, the quizzing expression of those eyes, and lastly that Christian name of Alexandre, which was not his name at all and which only one person used to give him, years ago. Was it possible?
"The chief!" he stammered. "The chief!"
"No, no, because—"
"Because you're dead."
"Well, what about it? D'you think it interferes with my living, being dead?"
And, as the other seemed more and more perplexed, he laid his hand on his shoulder and said:
"Who put you into the police office?"
"The Chief Detective, M. Lenormand."
"And who was M. Lenormand?"
"You mean Arsene Lupin, don't you?"
"Well, Alexandre, don't you know that it was much more difficult for Arsene Lupin to be Chief Detective—and a masterly Chief Detective he was—than to be Don Luis Perenna, to be decorated in the Foreign Legion, to be a hero, and even to be alive after he was dead?"
Sergeant Mazeroux examined his companion in silence. Then his lacklustre eyes brightened, his drab features turned scarlet and, suddenly striking the table with his fist, he growled, in an angry voice:
"All right, very well! But I warn you that you mustn't reckon on me. No, not that! I'm in the detective service; and in the detective service I remain. Nothing doing. I've tasted honesty and I mean to eat no other bread. No, no, no, no! No more humbug!"
Perenna shrugged his shoulders:
"Alexandre, you're an ass. Upon my word, the bread of honesty hasn't enlarged your intelligence. Who talked of starting again?"
"All your maneuvers, Chief."
"My maneuvers! Do you think I have anything to say to this business?"
"Look here, Chief—"
"Why, I'm out of it altogether, my lad! Two hours ago I knew no more about it than you do. It's Providence that chucked this legacy at me, without so much as shouting, 'Heads!' And it's in obedience to the decrees of—"
"It's my mission in life to avenge Cosmo Mornington, to find his natural heirs, to protect them and to divide among them the hundred millions that belong to them. That's all. Don't you call that the mission of an honest man?"
"Yes, but, if I don't fulfil it as an honest man: is that what you mean?"
"Well, my lad, if you notice the least thing in my conduct that dissatisfies you, if you discover a speck of black on Don Luis Perenna's conscience, examined under the magnifying glass, don't hesitate: collar me with both hands. I authorize you to do it. I order you to do it. Is that enough for you?"
"It's not enough for it to be enough for me, Chief."
"What are you talking about?"
"There are the others."
"Suppose you're nabbed?"
"You can be betrayed."
"Your old mates."
"Gone away. I've sent them out of France."
"That's my secret. I left you at the police office, in case I should require your services; and you see that I was right."
"But suppose the police discover your real identity?"
"They'll arrest you."
"They can't arrest me."
"For what reason?"
"You've said it yourself, fat-head: a first-class, tremendous, indisputable reason."
"What do you mean?"
Mazeroux seemed staggered. The argument struck him fully. He at once perceived it, with all its common sense and all its absurdity. And suddenly he burst into a roar of laughter which bent him in two and convulsed his doleful features in the oddest fashion:
"Oh, Chief, just the same as always!... Lord, how funny!... Will I come along? I should think I would! As often as you like! You're dead and buried and put out of sight!... Oh, what a joke, what a joke!"
* * * * *
Hippolyte Fauville, civil engineer, lived on the Boulevard Suchet, near the fortifications, in a fair-sized private house having on its left a small garden in which he had built a large room that served as his study. The garden was thus reduced to a few trees and to a strip of grass along the railings, which were covered with ivy and contained a gate that opened on the Boulevard Suchet.
Don Luis Perenna went with Mazeroux to the commissary's office at Passy, where Mazeroux, on Perenna's instructions, gave his name and asked to have M. Fauville's house watched during the night by two policemen who were to arrest any suspicious person trying to obtain admission. The commissary agreed to the request.
Don Luis and Mazeroux next dined in the neighbourhood. At nine o'clock they reached the front door of the house.
"Alexandre," said Perenna.
"You're not afraid?"
"No, Chief. Why should I be?"
"Why? Because, in defending M. Fauville and his son, we are attacking people who have a great interest in doing away with them and because those people seem pretty wide-awake. Your life, my life: a breath, a trifle. You're not afraid?"
"Chief," replied Mazeroux, "I can't say if I shall ever know what it means to be afraid. But there's one case in which I certainly shall never know."
"What case is that, old chap?"
"As long as I'm by your side, Chief."
And firmly he rang the bell.
A MAN DOOMED
The door was opened by a manservant. Mazeroux sent in his card.
Hippolyte received the two visitors in his study. The table, on which stood a movable telephone, was littered with books, pamphlets, and papers. There were two tall desks, with diagrams and drawings, and some glass cases containing reduced models, in ivory and steel, of apparatus constructed or invented by the engineer.
A large sofa stood against the wall. In one corner was a winding staircase that led to a circular gallery. An electric chandelier hung from the ceiling.
Mazeroux, after stating his quality and introducing his friend Perenna as also sent by the Prefect of Police, at once expounded the object of their visit.
M. Desmalions, he said, was feeling anxious on the score of very serious indications which he had just received and, without waiting for the next day's interview, begged M. Fauville to take all the precautions which his detectives might advise.
Fauville at first displayed a certain ill humour.
"My precautions are taken, gentlemen, and well taken. And, on the other hand, I am afraid that your interference may do harm."
"In what way?"
"By arousing the attention of my enemies and preventing me, for that reason, from collecting proofs which I need in order to confound them."
"Can you explain—?"
"No, I cannot ... To-morrow, to-morrow morning—not before."
"And if it's too late?" Don Luis interjected.
"Too late? To-morrow?"
"Inspector Verot told M. Desmalions's secretary that the two murders would take place to-night. He said it was fatal and irrevocable."
"To-night?" cried Fauville angrily. "I tell you no! Not to-night. I'm sure of that. There are things which I know, aren't there, which you do not?"
"Yes," retorted Don Luis, "but there may also be things which Inspector Verot knew and which you don't know. He had perhaps learned more of your enemies' secrets than you did. The proof is that he was suspected, that a man carrying an ebony walking-stick was seen watching his movements, that, lastly, he was killed."
Hippolyte Fauville's self-assurance decreased. Perenna took advantage of this to insist; and he insisted to such good purpose that Fauville, though without withdrawing from his reserve, ended by yielding before a will that was stronger than his own.
"Well, but you surely don't intend to spend the night in here?"
"We do indeed."
"Why, it's ridiculous! It's sheer waste of time! After all, looking at things from the worst—And what do you want besides?"
"Who lives in the house?"
"Who? My wife, to begin with. She has the first floor."
"Mme. Fauville is not threatened?"
"No, not at all. It's I who am threatened with death; I and my son Edmond. That is why, for the past week, instead of sleeping in my regular bedroom, I have locked myself up in this room. I have given my work as a pretext; a quantity of writing which keeps me up very late and for which I need my son's assistance."
"Does he sleep here, then?"
"He sleeps above us, in a little room which I have had arranged for him. The only access to it is by this inner staircase."
"Is he there now?"
"Yes, he's asleep."
"How old is he?"
"But the fact that you have changed your room shows that you feared some one would attack you. Whom had you in mind? An enemy living in the house? One of your servants? Or people from the outside? In that case, how could they get in? The whole question lies in that."
"To-morrow, to-morrow," replied Fauville, obstinately. "I will explain everything to-morrow—"
"Why not to-night?" Perenna persisted.
"Because I want proofs, I tell you; because the mere fact of my talking may have terrible consequences—and I am frightened; yes, I'm frightened—"
He was trembling, in fact, and looked so wretched and terrified that Don Luis insisted no longer.
"Very well," he said, "I will only ask your permission, for my comrade and myself, to spend the night where we can hear you if you call."
"As you please, Monsieur. Perhaps, after all, that will be best."
At that moment one of the servants knocked and came in to say that his mistress wished to see the master before she went out. Madame Fauville entered almost immediately. She bowed pleasantly as Perenna and Mazeroux rose from their chairs.
She was a woman between thirty and thirty-five, a woman of a bright and smiling beauty, which she owed to her blue eyes, to her wavy hair, to all the charm of her rather vapid but amiable and very pretty face. She wore a long, figured-silk cloak over an evening dress that showed her fine shoulders.
Her husband said, in surprise
"Are you going out to-night?"
"You forget," she said. "The Auverards offered me a seat in their box at the opera; and you yourself asked me to look in at Mme. d'Ersingen's party afterward—"
"So I did, so I did," he said. "It escaped my memory; I am working so hard."
She finished buttoning her gloves and asked:
"Won't you come and fetch me at Mme. d'Ersingen's?"
"They would like it."
"But I shouldn't. Besides, I don't feel well enough."
"Then I'll make your apologies for you."
She drew her cloak around her with a graceful gesture, and stood for a few moments, without moving, as though seeking a word of farewell. Then she said:
"Edmond's not here! I thought he was working with you?"
"He was feeling tired."
"Is he asleep?"
"I wanted to kiss him good-night."
"No, you would only wake him. And here's your car; so go, dear. Amuse yourself."
"Oh, amuse myself!" she said. "There's not much amusement about the opera and an evening party."
"Still, it's better than keeping one's room."
There was some little constraint. It was obviously one of those ill-assorted households in which the husband, suffering in health and not caring for the pleasures of society, stays at home, while the wife seeks the enjoyments to which her age and habits entitle her.
As he said nothing more, she bent over and kissed him on the forehead. Then, once more bowing to the two visitors, she went out. A moment later they heard the sound of the motor driving away.
Hippolyte Fauville at once rose and rang the bell. Then he said:
"No one here has any idea of the danger hanging over me. I have confided in nobody, not even in Silvestre, my own man, though he has been in my service for years and is honesty itself."
The manservant entered.
"I am going to bed, Silvestre," said M. Fauville. "Get everything ready."
Silvestre opened the upper part of the great sofa, which made a comfortable bed, and laid the sheets and blankets. Next, at his master's orders, he brought a jug of water, a glass, a plate of biscuits, and a dish of fruit.
M. Fauville ate a couple of biscuits and then cut a dessert-apple. It was not ripe. He took two others, felt them, and, not thinking them good, put them back as well. Then he peeled a pear and ate it.
"You can leave the fruit dish," he said to his man. "I shall be glad of it, if I am hungry during the night.... Oh, I was forgetting! These two gentlemen are staying. Don't mention it to anybody. And, in the morning, don't come until I ring."
The man placed the fruit dish on the table before retiring. Perenna, who was noticing everything, and who was afterward to remember every smallest detail of that evening, which his memory recorded with a sort of mechanical faithfulness, counted three pears and four apples in the dish.
Meanwhile, Fauville went up the winding staircase, and, going along the gallery, reached the room where his son lay in bed.
"He's fast asleep," he said to Perenna, who had joined him.
The bedroom was a small one. The air was admitted by a special system of ventilation, for the dormer window was hermetically closed by a wooden shutter tightly nailed down.
"I took the precaution last year," Hippolyte Fauville explained. "I used to make my electrical experiments in this room and was afraid of being spied upon, so I closed the aperture opening on the roof."
And he added in a low voice:
"They have been prowling around me for a long time."
The two men went downstairs again.
Fauville looked at his watch.
"A quarter past ten: bedtime, I am exceedingly tired, and you will excuse me—"
It was arranged that Perenna and Mazeroux should make themselves comfortable in a couple of easy chairs which they carried into the passage between the study and the entrance hall. But, before bidding them good-night, Hippolyte Fauville, who, although greatly excited, had appeared until then to retain his self-control, was seized with a sudden attack of weakness. He uttered a faint cry. Don Luis turned round and saw the sweat pouring like gleaming water down his face and neck, while he shook with fever and anguish.
"What's the matter?" asked Perenna.
"I'm frightened! I'm frightened!" he said.
"This is madness!" cried Don Luis. "Aren't we here, the two of us? We can easily spend the night with you, if you prefer, by your bedside."
Fauville replied by shaking Perenna violently by the shoulder, and, with distorted features, stammering:
"If there were ten of you—if there were twenty of you with me, you need not think that it would spoil their schemes! They can do anything they please, do you hear, anything! They have already killed Inspector Verot—they will kill me—and they will kill my son. Oh, the blackguards! My God, take pity on me! The awful terror of it! The pain I suffer!"
He had fallen on his knees and was striking his breast and repeating:
"O God, have pity on me! I can't die! I can't let my son die! Have pity on me, I beseech Thee!"
He sprang to his feet and led Perenna to a glass-fronted case, which he rolled back on its brass castors, revealing a small safe built into the wall.
"You will find my whole story here, written up day by day for the past three years. If anything should happen to me, revenge will be easy."
He hurriedly turned the letters of the padlock and, with a key which he took from his pocket, opened the safe.
It was three fourths empty; but on one of the shelves, between some piles of papers, was a diary bound in drab cloth, with a rubber band round it. He took the diary, and, emphasizing his words, said:
"There, look, it's all in here. With this, the hideous business can be reconstructed.... There are my suspicions first and then my certainties.... Everything, everything ... how to trap them and how to do for them.... You'll remember, won't you? A diary bound in drab cloth.... I'm putting it back in the safe."
Gradually his calmness returned. He pushed back the glass case, tidied a few papers, switched on the electric lamp above his bed, put out the lights in the middle of the ceiling, and asked Don Luis and Mazeroux to leave him.
Don Luis, who was walking round the room and examining the iron shutters of the two windows, noticed a door opposite the entrance door and asked the engineer about it.
"I use it for my regular clients," said Fauville, "and sometimes I go out that way."
"Does it open on the garden?"
"Is it properly closed?"
"You can see for yourself; it's locked and bolted with a safety bolt. Both keys are on my bunch; so is the key of the garden gate."
He placed the bunch of keys on the table with his pocket-book and, after first winding it, his watch.
Don Luis, without troubling to ask permission, took the keys and unfastened the lock and the bolt. A flight of three steps brought him to the garden. He followed the length of the narrow border. Through the ivy he saw and heard the two policemen pacing up and down the boulevard. He tried the lock of the gate. It was fastened.
"Everything's all right," he said when he returned, "and you can be easy. Good-night."
"Good-night," said the engineer, seeing Perenna and Mazeroux out.
Between his study and the passage were two doors, one of which was padded and covered with oilcloth. On the other side, the passage was separated from the hall by a heavy curtain.
"You can go to sleep," said Perenna to his companion. "I'll sit up."
"But surely, Chief, you don't think that anything's going to happen!"
"I don't think so, seeing the precautions which we've taken. But, knowing Inspector Verot as you did, do you think he was the man to imagine things?"
"Well, you know what he prophesied. That means that he had his reasons for doing so. And therefore I shall keep my eyes open."
"We'll take it in turns, Chief; wake me when it's my time to watch."
Seated motionlessly, side by side, they exchanged an occasional remark. Soon after, Mazeroux fell asleep. Don Luis remained in his chair without moving, his ears pricked up. Everything was quiet in the house. Outside, from time to time, the sound of a motor car or of a cab rolled by. He could also hear the late trains on the Auteuil line.
He rose several times and went up to the door. Not a sound. Hippolyte Fauville was evidently asleep.
"Capital!" said Perenna to himself. "The boulevard is watched. No one can enter the room except by this way. So there is nothing to fear."
At two o'clock in the morning a car stopped outside the house, and one of the manservants, who must have been waiting in the kitchen, hastened to the front door. Perenna switched off the light in the passage, and, drawing the curtain slightly aside, saw Mme. Fauville enter, followed by Silvestre.
She went up. The lights on the staircase were put out. For half an hour or so there was a sound overhead of voices and of chairs moving. Then all was silence.
And, amid this silence, Perenna felt an unspeakable anguish arise within him, he could not tell why. But it was so violent, the impression became so acute, that he muttered:
"I shall go and see if he's asleep. I don't expect that he has bolted the doors."
He had only to push both doors to open them; and, with his electric lantern in his hand, he went up to the bed. Hippolyte Fauville was sleeping with his face turned to the wall.
Perenna gave a smile of relief. He returned to the passage and, shaking Mazeroux:
"Your turn, Alexandre."
"No news, Chief?"
"No, none; he's asleep."
"How do you know?"
"I've had a look at him."
"That's funny; I never heard you. It's true, though, I've slept like a pig."
He followed Perenna into the study, and Perenna said:
"Sit down and don't wake him. I shall take forty winks."
He had one more turn at sentry duty. But, even while dozing, he remained conscious of all that happened around him. A clock struck the hours with a low chime; and each time Perenna counted the strokes. Then came the life outside awakening, the rattle of the milk-carts, the whistle of the early suburban trains.
People began to stir inside the house. The daylight trickled in through the crannies of the shutters, and the room gradually became filled with light.
"Let's go away," said Sergeant Mazeroux. "It would be better for him not to find us here."
"Hold your tongue!" said Don Luis, with an imperious gesture.
"You'll wake him up."
"But you can see I'm not waking him," said Mazeroux, without lowering his tone.
"That's true, that's true," whispered Don Luis, astonished that the sound of that voice had not disturbed the sleeper.
And he felt himself overcome with the same anguish that had seized upon him in the middle of the night, a more clearly defined anguish, although he would not, although he dared not, try to realize the reason of it.
"What's the matter with you, Chief? You're looking like nothing on earth. What is it?"
"Nothing—nothing. I'm frightened—"
"Frightened of what? You say that just as he did last night."
"Yes ... yes ... and for the same reason."
"Don't you understand? Don't you understand that I'm wondering—?"
"If he's not dead!"
"But you're mad, Chief!"
"No.... I don't know.... Only, only ... I have an impression of death—"
Lantern in hand, he stood as one paralyzed, opposite the bed; and he who was afraid of nothing in the world had not the courage to throw the light on Hippolyte Fauville's face. A terrifying silence rose and filled the room.