Arsène Lupin/Chapter V
A LETTER FROM LUPIN
THE Duke stood for a while staring thoughtfully at the door through which Sonia had passed, a faint smile playing round his lips. He crossed the hall to the Chippendale bureau, took a cigarette from a box which stood on the ledge of it, beside the morocco case which held the pendant, lighted it, and went slowly out on to the terrace. He crossed it slowly, paused for a moment on the edge of it, and looked across the stretch of country with musing eyes, which saw nothing of its beauty. Then he turned to the right, went down a flight of steps to the lower terrace, crossed the lawn, and took a narrow path which led into the heart of a shrubbery of tall deodoras. In the middle of it he came to one of those old stone benches, moss-covered and weather-stained, which adorn the gardens of so many French châteaux. It faced a marble basin from which rose the slender column of a pattering fountain. The figure of a Cupid danced joyously on a tall pedestal to the right of the basin. The Duke sat down on the bench, and was still, with that rare stillness which only comes of nerves in perfect harmony, his brow knitted in careful thought. Now and again the frown cleared from his face, and his intent features relaxed into a faint smile, a smile of pleasant memory. Once he rose, walked round the fountains frowning, came back to the bench, and sat down again. The early September dusk was upon him when at last he rose and with quick steps took his way through the shrubbery, with the air of a man whose mind, for good or ill, was at last made up.
When he came on to the upper terrace his eyes fell on a group which stood at the further corner, near the entrance of the château, and he sauntered slowly up to it.
In the middle of it stood M. Gournay-Martin, a big, round, flabby hulk of a man. He was nearly as red in the face as M. Charolais; and he looked a great deal redder owing to the extreme whiteness of the whiskers which stuck out on either side of his vast expanse of cheek. As he came up, it struck the Duke as rather odd that he should have the Charolais eyes, set close together; any one who did not know that they were strangers to one another might have thought it a family likeness.
The millionaire was waving his hands and roaring after the manner of a man who has cultivated the art of brow-beating those with whom he does business; and as the Duke neared the group, he caught the words:
"No; that's the lowest I'll take. Take it or leave it. You can say Yes, or you can say Good-bye; and I don't care a hang which."
"It's very dear," said M. Charolais, in a mournful tone.
"Dear!" roared M. Gournay-Martin. "I should like to see any one else sell a hundred horse-power car for eight hundred pounds. Why, my good sir, you're having me!"
"No, no," protested M. Charolais feebly.
"I tell you you're having me," roared M. Gournay-Martin. "I'm letting you have a magnificent car for which I paid thirteen hundred pounds for eight hundred! It's scandalous the way you've beaten me down!"
"No, no," protested M. Charolais.
He seemed frightened out of his life by the vehemence of the big man.
"You wait till you've seen how it goes," said M. Gournay-Martin.
"Eight hundred is very dear," said M. Charolais.
"Come, come! You're too sharp, that's what you are. But don't say any more till you've tried the car."
He turned to his chauffeur, who stood by watching the struggle with an appreciative grin on his brown face, and said: "Now, Jean, take these gentlemen to the garage, and run them down to the station. Show them what the car can do. Do whatever they ask you—everything."
He winked at Jean, turned again to M. Charolais, and said: "You know, M. Charolais, you're too good a man of business for me. You're hot stuff, that's what you are—hot stuff. You go along and try the car. Good-bye—good-bye."
The four Charolais murmured good-bye in deep depression, and went off with Jean, wearing something of the air of whipped dogs. When they had gone round the corner the millionaire turned to the Duke and said, with a chuckle: "He'll buy the car all right—had him fine!"
"No business success of yours could surprise me," said the Duke blandly, with a faint, ironical smile.
M. Gournay-Martin's little pig's eyes danced and sparkled; and the smiles flowed over the distended skin of his face like little ripples over a stagnant pool, reluctantly. It seemed to be too tightly stretched for smiles.
"The car's four years old," he said joyfully. "He'll give me eight hundred for it, and it's not worth a pipe of tobacco. And eight hundred pounds is just the price of a little Watteau I've had my eye on for some time—a first-class investment."
They strolled down the terrace, and through one of the windows into the hall. Firmin had lighted the lamps, two of them. They made but a small oasis of light in a desert of dim hall. The millionaire let himself down very gingerly into an Empire chair, as if he feared, with excellent reason, that it might collapse under his weight.
"Well, my dear Duke," he said, "you don't ask me the result of my official lunch or what the minister said."
"Is there any news?" said the Duke carelessly.
"Yes. The decree will be signed to-morrow. You can consider yourself decorated. I hope you feel a happy man," said the millionaire, rubbing his fat hands together with prodigious satisfaction.
"Oh, charmed—charmed," said the Duke, with entire indifference.
"As for me, I'm delighted—delighted," said the millionaire. "I was extremely keen on your being decorated. After that, and after a volume or two of travels, and after you've published your grandfather's letters with a good introduction, you can begin to think of the Academy."
"The Academy!" said the Duke, startled from his usual coolness. "But I've no title to become an Academician."
"How, no title?" said the millionaire solemnly; and his little eyes opened wide. "You're a duke."
"There's no doubt about that," said the Duke, watching him with admiring curiosity.
"I mean to marry my daughter to a worker—a worker, my dear Duke," said the millionaire, slapping his big left hand with his bigger right. "I've no prejudices—not I. I wish to have for son-in-law a duke who wears the Order of the Legion of Honour, and belongs to the Académie Française, because that is personal merit. I'm no snob."
A gentle, irrepressible laugh broke from the Duke.
"What are you laughing at?" said the millionaire, and a sudden lowering gloom overspread his beaming face.
"Nothing—nothing," said the Duke quietly. "Only you're so full of surprises."
"I've startled you, have I? I thought I should. It's true that I'm full of surprises. It's my knowledge. I understand so much. I understand business, and I love art, pictures, a good bargain, bric-à-brac, fine tapestry. They're first-class investments. Yes, certainly I do love the beautiful. And I don't want to boast, but I understand it. I have taste, and I've something better than taste; I have a flair, the dealer's flair."
"Yes, your collections, especially your collection in Paris, prove it," said the Duke, stifling a yawn.
"And yet you haven't seen the finest thing I have—the coronet of the Princesse de Lamballe. It's worth half a million francs."
"So I've heard," said the Duke, a little wearily. "I don't wonder that Arsène Lupin envied you it."
The Empire chair creaked as the millionaire jumped.
"Don't speak of the swine!" he roared. "Don't mention his name before me."
"Germaine showed me his letter," said the Duke. "It is amusing."
"His letter! The blackguard! I just missed a fit of apoplexy from it," roared the millionaire. "I was in this very hall where we are now, chatting quietly, when all at once in comes Firmin, and hands me a letter."
He was interrupted by the opening of the door. Firmin came clumping down the room, and said in his deep voice, "A letter for you, sir."
"Thank you," said the millionaire, taking the letter, and, as he fitted his eye-glass into his eye, he went on, "Yes, Firmin brought me a letter of which the handwriting,"—he raised the envelope he was holding to his eyes, and bellowed, "Good heavens!"
"What's the matter?" said the Duke, jumping in his chair at the sudden, startling burst of sound.
"The handwriting!—the handwriting!—it's the same handwriting!" gasped the millionaire. And he let himself fall heavily backwards against the back of his chair.
There was a crash. The Duke had a vision of huge arms and legs waving in the air as the chair-back gave. There was another crash. The chair collapsed. The huge bulk banged to the floor.
The laughter of the Duke rang out uncontrollably. He caught one of the waving arms, and jerked the flabby giant to his feet with an ease which seemed to show that his muscles were of steel.
"Come," he said, laughing still. "This is nonsense! What do you mean by the same handwriting? It can't be."
"It is the same handwriting. Am I likely to make a mistake about it?" spluttered the millionaire. And he tore open the envelope with an air of frenzy.
He ran his eyes over it, and they grew larger and larger—they grew almost of an average size.
"Listen," he said "listen:"
"My collection of pictures, which I had the pleasure of starting three years ago with some of your own, only contains, as far as Old Masters go, one Velasquez, one Rembrandt, and three paltry Rubens. You have a great many more. Since it is a shame such masterpieces should be in your hands, I propose to appropriate them; and I shall set about a respectful acquisition of them in your Paris house tomorrow morning.
"Yours very sincerely,
"He's humbugging," said the Duke.
"Wait! wait!" gasped the millionaire. "There's a postscript. Listen:"
"P.S.—You must understand that since you have been keeping the coronet of the Princesse de Lamballe during these three years, I shall avail myself of the same occasion to compel you to restore that piece of jewellery to me.—A. L."
"The thief! The scoundrel! I'm choking!" gasped the millionaire, clutching at his collar.
To judge from the blackness of his face, and the way he staggered and dropped on to a couch, which was fortunately stronger than the chair, he was speaking the truth.
"Firmin! Firmin!" shouted the Duke. "A glass of water! Quick! Your master's ill."
He rushed to the side of the millionaire, who gasped: "Telephone! Telephone to the Prefecture of Police! Be quick!"
The Duke loosened his collar with deft fingers; tore a Van Loo fan from its case hanging on the wall, and fanned him furiously. Firmin came clumping into the room with a glass of water in his hand.
The drawing-room door opened, and Germaine and Sonia, alarmed by the Duke's shout, hurried in.
"Quick! Your smelling-salts!" said the Duke.
Sonia ran across the hall, opened one of the drawers in the Oriental cabinet, and ran to the millionaire with a large bottle of smelling- salts in her hand. The Duke took it from her, and applied it to the millionaire's nose. The millionaire sneezed thrice with terrific violence. The Duke snatched the glass from Firmin and dashed the water into his host's purple face. The millionaire gasped and spluttered.
Germaine stood staring helplessly at her gasping sire.
"Whatever's the matter?" she said.
"It's this letter," said the Duke. "A letter from Lupin."
"I told you so—I said that Lupin was in the neighbourhood," cried Germaine triumphantly.
"Firmin—where's Firmin?" said the millionaire, dragging himself upright. He seemed to have recovered a great deal of his voice. "Oh, there you are!"
He jumped up, caught the gamekeeper by the shoulder, and shook him furiously.
"This letter. Where did it come from? Who brought it?" he roared.
"It was in the letter-box—the letter-box of the lodge at the bottom of the park. My wife found it there," said Firmin, and he twisted out of the millionaire's grasp.
"Just as it was three years ago," roared the millionaire, with an air of desperation. "It's exactly the same coup. Oh, what a catastrophe! What a catastrophe!"
He made as if to tear out his hair; then, remembering its scantiness, refrained.
"Now, come, it's no use losing your head," said the Duke, with quiet firmness. "If this letter isn't a hoax——"
"Hoax?" bellowed the millionaire. "Was it a hoax three years ago?"
"Very good," said the Duke. "But if this robbery with which you're threatened is genuine, it's just childish."
"How?" said the millionaire.
"Look at the date of the letter—Sunday, September the third. This letter was written to-day."
"Yes. Well, what of it?" said the millionaire.
"Look at the letter: 'I shall set about a respectful acquisition of them in your Paris house to-morrow morning '—to-morrow morning."
"Yes, yes; 'to-morrow morning'—what of it?" said the millionaire.
"One of two things," said the Duke. "Either it's a hoax, and we needn't bother about it; or the threat is genuine, and we have the time to stop the robbery."
"Of course we have. Whatever was I thinking of?" said the millionaire. And his anguish cleared from his face.
"For once in a way our dear Lupin's fondness for warning people will have given him a painful jar," said the Duke.
"Come on! let me get at the telephone," cried the millionaire.
"But the telephone's no good," said Sonia quickly.
"No good! Why?" roared the millionaire, dashing heavily across the room to it.
"Look at the time," said Sonia; "the telephone doesn't work as late as this. It's Sunday."
The millionaire stopped dead.
"It's true. It's appalling," he groaned.
"But that doesn't matter. You can always telegraph," said Germaine.
"But you can't. It's impossible," said Sonia. "You can't get a message through. It's Sunday; and the telegraph offices shut at twelve o'clock."
"Oh, what a Government!" groaned the millionaire. And he sank down gently on a chair beside the telephone, and mopped the beads of anguish from his brow. They looked at him, and they looked at one another, cudgelling their brains for yet another way of communicating with the Paris police.
"Hang it all!" said the Duke. "There must be some way out of the difficulty."
"What way?" said the millionaire.
The Duke did not answer. He put his hands in his pockets and walked impatiently up and down the hall. Germaine sat down on a chair. Sonia put her hands on the back of a couch, and leaned forward, watching him. Firmin stood by the door, whither he had retired to be out of the reach of his excited master, with a look of perplexity on his stolid face. They all watched the Duke with the air of people waiting for an oracle to deliver its message. The millionaire kept mopping the beads of anguish from his brow. The more he thought of his impending loss, the more freely he perspired. Germaine's maid, Irma, came to the door leading into the outer hall, which Firmin, according to his usual custom, had left open, and peered in wonder at the silent group.
"I have it!" cried the Duke at last. "There is a way out."
"What is it?" said the millionaire, rising and coming to the middle of the hall.
"What time is it?" said the Duke, pulling out his watch.
The millionaire pulled out his watch. Germaine pulled out hers. Firmin, after a struggle, produced from some pocket difficult of access an object not unlike a silver turnip. There was a brisk dispute between Germaine and the millionaire about which of their watches was right. Firmin, whose watch apparently did not agree with the watch of either of them, made his deep voice heard above theirs. The Duke came to the conclusion that it must be a few minutes past seven.
"It's seven or a few minutes past," he said sharply. "Well, I'm going to take a car and hurry off to Paris. I ought to get there, bar accidents, between two and three in the morning, just in time to inform the police and catch the burglars in the very midst of their burglary. I'll just get a few things together."
So saying, he rushed out of the hall.
"Excellent! excellent!" said the millionaire. "Your young man is a man of resource, Germaine. It seems almost a pity that he's a duke. He'd do wonders in the building trade. But I'm going to Paris too, and you're coming with me. I couldn't wait idly here, to save my life. And I can't leave you here, either. This scoundrel may be going to make a simultaneous attempt on the château—not that there's much here that I really value. There's that statuette that moved, and the pane cut out of the window. I can't leave you two girls with burglars in the house. After all, there's the sixty horse-power and the thirty horse-power car—there'll be lots of room for all of us."
"Oh, but it's nonsense, papa; we shall get there before the servants," said Germaine pettishly. "Think of arriving at an empty house in the dead of night."
"Nonsense!" said the millionaire. "Hurry off and get ready. Your bag ought to be packed. Where are my keys? Sonia, where are my keys—the keys of the Paris house?"
"They're in the bureau," said Sonia.
"Well, see that I don't go without them. Now hurry up. Firmin, go and tell Jean that we shall want both cars. I will drive one, the Duke the other. Jean must stay with you and help guard the château."
So saying he bustled out of the hall, driving the two girls before him.