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CHAPTER VII


THE THEFT OF THE MOTOR-CARS


THE night was very black; the rain pattered in their faces.

Again the millionaire bellowed: "Jean! Firmin! Firmin! Jean!"

No answer came out of the darkness, though his bellow echoed and re-echoed among the out-buildings and stables away on the left.

He turned and looked at the Duke and said uneasily, "What on earth can they be doing?"

"I can't conceive," said the Duke. "I suppose we must go and hunt them out."

"What! in this darkness, with these burglars about?" said the millionaire, starting back.

"If we don't, nobody else will," said the Duke. "And all the time that rascal Lupin is stealing nearer and nearer your pictures. So buck up, and come along!"

He seized the reluctant millionaire by the arm and drew him down the steps. They took their way to the stables. A dim light shone from the open door of the motor-house. The Duke went into it first, and stopped short.

"Well, I'll be hanged!" he cried,

Instead of three cars the motor-house held but one—the hundred horse-power Mercrac. It was a racing car, with only two seats. On them sat two figures, Jean and Firmin.

"What are you sitting there for? You idle dogs!" bellowed the millionaire.

Neither of the men answered, nor did they stir. The light from the lamp gleamed on their fixed eyes, which stared at their infuriated master.

"What on earth is this?" said the Duke; and seizing the lamp which stood beside the car, he raised it so that its light fell on the two figures. Then it was clear what had happened: they were trussed like two fowls, and gagged.

The Duke pulled a penknife from his pocket, opened the blade, stepped into the car and set Firmin free. Firmin coughed and spat and swore. The Duke cut the bonds of Jean.

"Well," said the Duke, in a tone of cutting irony, "what new game is this? What have you been playing at?"

"It was those Charolais—those cursed Charolais!" growled Firmin.

"They came on us unawares from behind," said Jean.

"They tied us up, and gagged us—the swine!" said Firmin.

"And then—they went off in the two cars," said Jean.

"Went off in the two cars?" cried the millionaire, in blank stupefaction.

The Duke burst into a shout of laughter.

"Well, your dear friend Lupin doesn't do things by halves," he cried. "This is the funniest thing I ever heard of."

"Funny!" howled the millionaire. "Funny! Where does the fun come in? What about my pictures and the coronet?"

The Duke laughed his laugh out; then changed on the instant to a man of action.

"Well, this means a change in our plans," he said. "I must get to Paris in this car here."

"It's such a rotten old thing," said the millionaire. "You'll never do it."

"Never mind," said the Duke. "I've got to do it somehow. I daresay it's better than you think. And after all, it's only a matter of two hundred miles." He paused, and then said in an anxious tone: "All the same I don't like leaving you and Germaine in the château. These rogues have probably only taken the cars out of reach just to prevent your getting to Paris. They'll leave them in some field and come back."

"You're not going to leave us behind. I wouldn't spend the night in the chateau for a million francs. There's always the train," said the millionaire.

"The train! Twelve hours in the train—with all those changes! You don't mean that you will actually go to Paris by train?" said the Duke.

"I do," said the millionaire. "Come along—I must go and tell Germaine; there's no time to waste," and he hurried off to the château.

"Get the lamps lighted, Jean, and make sure that the tank's full. As for the engine, I must humour it and trust to luck. I'll get her to Paris somehow," said the Duke.

He went back to the château, and Firmin followed him.

When the Duke came into the great hall he found Germaine and her father indulging in recriminations. She was declaring that nothing would induce her to make the journey by train; her father was declaring that she should. He bore down her opposition by the mere force of his magnificent voice.

When at last there came a silence, Sonia said quietly: "But is there a train? I know there's a train at midnight; but is there one before?"

"A time-table—where's a time-table?" said the millionaire.

"Now, where did I see a time-table?" said the Duke. "Oh, I know; there's one in the drawer of that Oriental cabinet." Crossing to the cabinet, he opened the drawer, took out the time-table, and handed it to M. Gournay-Martin.

The millionaire took it and turned over the leaves quickly, ran his eye down a page, and said, "Yes, thank goodness, there is a train. There's one at a quarter to nine."

"And what good is it to us? How are we to get to the station?" said Germaine.

They looked at one another blankly. Firmin, who had followed the Duke into the hall, came to the rescue.

"There's the luggage-cart," he said.

"The luggage-cart!" cried Germaine contemptuously.

"The very thing!" said the millionaire. "I'll drive it myself. Off you go, Firmin; harness a horse to it."

Firmin went clumping out of the hall.

It was perhaps as well that he went, for the Duke asked what time it was; and since the watches of Germaine and her father differed still, there ensued an altercation in which, had Firmin been there, he would doubtless have taken part.

The Duke cut it short by saying: "Well, I don't think I'll wait to see you start for the station. It won't take you more than half an hour. The cart is light. You needn't start yet. I'd better get off as soon as the car is ready. It isn't as though I could trust it."

"One moment," said Germaine. "Is there a dining-car on the train? I'm not going to be starved as well as have my night's rest cut to pieces."

"Of course there isn't a dining-car," snapped her father. "We must eat something now, and take something with us."

"Sonia, Irma, quick! Be off to the larder and see what you can find. Tell Mother Firmin to make an omelette. Be quick!"

Sonia went towards the door of the hall, followed by Irma.

"Good-night, and bon voyage, Mademoiselle Sonia," said the Duke.

"Good-night, and bon voyage, your Grace," said Sonia.

The Duke opened the door of the hall for her; and as she went out, she said anxiously, in a low voice: "Oh, do—do be careful. I hate to think of your hurrying to Paris on a night like this. Please be careful."

"I will be careful," said the Duke.

The honk of the motor-horn told him that Jean had brought the car to the door of the château. He came down the room, kissed Germaine's hands, shook hands with the millionaire, and bade them good-night. Then he went out to the car. They heard it start; the rattle of it grew fainter and fainter down the long avenue and died away.

M. Gournay-Martin arose, and began putting out lamps. As he did so, he kept casting fearful glances at the window, as if he feared lest, now that the Duke had gone, the burglars should dash in upon him.

There came a knock at the door, and Jean appeared on the threshold.

"His Grace told me that I was to come into the house, and help Firmin look after it," he said.

The millionaire gave him instructions about the guarding of the house. Firmin, since he was an old soldier, was to occupy the post of honour, and guard the hall, armed with his gun. Jean was to guard the two drawing-rooms, as being less likely points of attack. He also was to have a gun; and the millionaire went with him to the gun-room and gave him one and a dozen cartridges. When they came back to the hall, Sonia called them into the dining-room; and there, to the accompaniment of an unsubdued grumbling from Germaine at having to eat cold food at eight at night, they made a hasty but excellent meal, since the chef had left an elaborate cold supper ready to be served.

They had nearly finished it when Jean came in, his gun on his arm, to say that Firmin had harnessed the horse to the luggage-cart, and it was awaiting them at the door of the chateau.

"Send him in to me, and stand by the horse till we come out," said the millionaire.

Firmin came clumping in.

The millionaire gazed at him solemnly, and said: "Firmin, I am relying on you. I am leaving you in a position of honour and danger—a position which an old soldier of France loves."

Firmin did his best to look like an old soldier of France. He pulled himself up out of the slouch which long years of loafing through woods with a gun on his arm had given him. He lacked also the old soldier of France's fiery gaze. His eyes were lack-lustre.

"I look for anything, Firmin—burglary, violence, an armed assault," said the millionaire.

"Don't be afraid, sir. I saw the war of '70," said Firmin boldly, rising to the occasion.

"Good!" said the millionaire. "I confide the château to you. I trust you with my treasures."

He rose, and saying "Come along, we must be getting to the station," he led the way to the door of the château.

The luggage-cart stood rather high, and they had to bring a chair out of the hall to enable the girls to climb into it. Germaine did not forget to give her real opinion of the advantages of a seat formed by a plank resting on the sides of the cart. The millionaire climbed heavily up in front, and took the reins.

"Never again will I trust only to motor-cars. The first thing I'll do after I've made sure that my collections are safe will be to buy carriages—something roomy," he said gloomily, as he realized the discomfort of his seat.

He turned to Jean and Firmin, who stood on the steps of the chateau watching the departure of their master, and said: "Sons of France, be brave—be brave!"

The cart bumped off into the damp, dark night.

Jean and Firmin watched it disappear into the darkness. Then they came into the château and shut the door.

Firmin looked at Jean, and said gloomily: "I don't like this. These burglars stick at nothing. They'd as soon cut your throat as look at you."

"It can't be helped," said Jean. "Besides, you've got the post of honour. You guard the hall. I'm to look after the drawing-rooms. They're not likely to break in through the drawing-rooms. And I shall lock the door between them and the hall."

"No, no; you won't lock that door!" cried Firmin.

"But I certainly will," said Jean. "You'd better come and get a gun."

They went to the gun-room, Firmin still protesting against the locking of the door between the drawing-rooms and the hall. He chose his gun; and they went into the kitchen. Jean took two bottles of wine, a rich-looking pie, a sweet, and carried them to the drawing-room. He came back into the hall, gathered together an armful of papers and magazines, and went back to the drawing-room. Firmin kept trotting after him, like a little dog with a somewhat heavy footfall.

On the threshold of the drawing-room Jean paused and said: "The important thing with burglars is to fire first, old cock. Good-night. Pleasant dreams."

He shut the door and turned the key. Firmin stared at the decorated panels blankly. The beauty of the scheme of decoration did not, at the moment, move him to admiration.

He looked fearfully round the empty hall and at the windows, black against the night. Under the patter of the rain he heard footsteps—distinctly. He went hastily clumping down the hall, and along the passage to the kitchen.

His wife was setting his supper on the table.

"My God!" he said. "I haven't been so frightened since '70." And he mopped his glistening forehead with a dish-cloth. It was not a clean dish-cloth; but he did not care.

"Frightened? What of?" said his wife.

"Burglars! Cut-throats!" said Firmin.

He told her of the fears of M. Gournay-Martin, and of his own appointment to the honourable and dangerous post of guard of the château.

"God save us!" said his wife. "You lock the door of that beastly hall, and come into the kitchen. Burglars won't bother about the kitchen."

"But the master's treasures!" protested Firmin. "He confided them to me. He said so distinctly."

"Let the master look after his treasures himself," said Madame Firmin, with decision. "You've only one throat; and I'm not going to have it cut. You sit down and eat your supper. Go and lock that door first, though."

Firmin locked the door of the hall; then he locked the door of the kitchen; then he sat down, and began to eat his supper. His appetite was hearty, but none the less he derived little pleasure from the meal. He kept stopping with the food poised on his fork, midway between the plate and his mouth, for several seconds at a time, while he listened with straining ears for the sound of burglars breaking in the windows of the hall. He was much too far from those windows to hear anything that happened to them, but that did not prevent him from straining his ears. Madame Firmin ate her supper with an air of perfect ease. She felt sure that burglars would not bother with the kitchen.

Firmin's anxiety made him terribly thirsty. Tumbler after tumbler of wine flowed down the throat for which he feared. When he had finished his supper he went on satisfying his thirst. Madame Firmin lighted his pipe for him, and went and washed up the supper-dishes in the scullery. Then she came back, and sat down on the other side of the hearth, facing him. About the middle of his third bottle of wine, Firmin's cold, relentless courage was suddenly restored to him. He began to talk firmly about his duty to his master, his resolve to die, if need were, in defence of his interests, of his utter contempt for burglars—probably Parisians. But he did not go into the hall. Doubtless the pleasant warmth of the kitchen fire held him in his chair.

He had described to his wife, with some ferocity, the cruel manner in which he would annihilate the first three burglars who entered the hall, and was proceeding to describe his method of dealing with the fourth, when there came a loud knocking on the front door of the château.

Stricken silent, turned to stone, Firmin sat with his mouth open, in the midst of an unfinished word. Madame Firmin scuttled to the kitchen door she had left unlocked on her return from the scullery, and locked it. She turned, and they stared at one another.

The heavy knocker fell again and again and again. Between the knocking there was a sound like the roaring of lions. Husband and wife stared at one another with white faces. Firmin picked up his gun with trembling hands, and the movement seemed to set his teeth chattering. They chattered like castanets.

The knocking still went on, and so did the roaring.

It had gone on at least for five minutes, when a slow gleam of comprehension lightened Madame Firmin's face.

"I believe it's the master's voice," she said.

"The master's voice!" said Firmin, in a hoarse, terrified whisper.

"Yes," said Madame Firmin. And she unlocked the thick door and opened it a few inches.

The barrier removed, the well-known bellow of the millionaire came distinctly to their ears. Firmin's courage rushed upon him in full flood. He clumped across the room, brushed his wife aside, and trotted to the door of the château. He unlocked it, drew the bolts, and threw it open. On the steps stood the millionaire, Germaine, and Sonia. Irma stood at the horse's head.

"What the devil have you been doing?" bellowed the millionaire. "What do you keep me standing in the rain for? Why didn't you let me in?"

"B-b-b-burglars—I thought you were b-b-b-burglars," stammered Firmin.

"Burglars!" howled the millionaire. "Do I sound like a burglar?"

At the moment he did not; he sounded more like a bull of Bashan. He bustled past Firmin to the door of the hall,

"Here! What's this locked for?" he bellowed.

"I—I—locked it in case burglars should get in while I was opening the front door," stammered Firmin.

The millionaire turned the key, opened the door, and went into the hall. Germaine followed him. She threw off her dripping coat, and said with some heat: "I can't conceive why you didn't make sure that there was a train at a quarter to nine. I will not go to Paris to- night. Nothing shall induce me to take that midnight train!"

"Nonsense!" said the millionaire. "Nonsense—you'll have to go! Where's that infernal time-table?" He rushed to the table on to which he had thrown the time-table after looking up the train, snatched it up. and looked at the cover. "Why, hang it!" he cried. "It's for June—June, 1903!"

"Oh!" cried Germaine, almost in a scream. "It's incredible! It's one of Jacques' jokes!"