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CHAPTER X


GUERCHARD ASSISTS


LEAVING a policeman on guard at the door of the drawing-room M. Formery, the Duke, and the inspector set out on their tour of inspection. It was a long business, for M. Formery examined every room with the most scrupulous care—with more care, indeed, than he had displayed in his examination of the drawing-rooms. In particular he lingered long in the bedroom of Victoire, discussing the possibilities of her having been murdered and carried away by the burglars along with their booty. He seemed, if anything, disappointed at finding no blood-stains, but to find real consolation in the thought that she might have been strangled. He found the inspector in entire agreement with every theory he enunciated, and he grew more and more disposed to regard him as a zealous and trustworthy officer. Also he was not at all displeased at enjoying this opportunity of impressing the Duke with his powers of analysis and synthesis. He was unaware that, as a rule, the Duke's eyes did not usually twinkle as they twinkled during this solemn and deliberate progress through the house of M. Gournay-Martin. M. Formery had so exactly the air of a sleuth-hound; and he was even noisier.

Having made this thorough examination of the house, M. Formery went out into the garden and set about examining that. There were footprints on the turf about the foot of the ladder, for the grass was close-clipped, and the rain had penetrated and softened the soil; but there were hardly as many footprints as might have been expected, seeing that the burglars must have made many journeys in the course of robbing the drawing-rooms of so many objects of art, some of them of considerable weight. The footprints led to a path of hard gravel; and M. Formery led the way down it, out of the door in the wall at the bottom of the garden, and into the space round the house which was being built.

As M. Formery had divined, there was a heap, or, to be exact, there were several heaps of plaster about the bottom of the scaffolding. Unfortunately, there were also hundreds of footprints. M. Formery looked at them with longing eyes; but he did not suggest that the inspector should hunt about for a set of footprints of the size of the one he had so carefully measured on the drawing-room carpet.

While they were examining the ground round the half-built house a man came briskly down the stairs from the second floor of the house of M. Gournay-Martin. He was an ordinary-looking man, almost insignificant, of between forty and fifty, and of rather more than middle height. He had an ordinary, rather shapeless mouth, an ordinary nose, an ordinary chin, an ordinary forehead, rather low, and ordinary ears. He was wearing an ordinary top-hat, by no means new. His clothes were the ordinary clothes of a fairly well-to-do citizen; and his boots had been chosen less to set off any slenderness his feet might possess than for their comfortable roominess. Only his eyes relieved his face from insignificance. They were extraordinarily alert eyes, producing in those on whom they rested the somewhat uncomfortable impression that the depths of their souls were being penetrated. He was the famous Chief-Inspector Guerchard, head of the Detective Department of the Prefecture of Police, and sworn foe of Arsène Lupin.

The policeman at the door of the drawing-room saluted him briskly. He was a fine, upstanding, red-faced young fellow, adorned by a rich black moustache of extraordinary fierceness.

"Shall I go and inform M. Formery that you have come, M. Guerchard?" he said.

"No, no; there's no need to take the trouble," said Guerchard in a gentle, rather husky voice. "Don't bother any one about me—I'm of no importance."

"Oh, come, M. Guerchard," protested the policeman.

"Of no importance," said M. Guerchard decisively. "For the present, M. Formery is everything. I'm only an assistant."

He stepped into the drawing-room and stood looking about it, curiously still. It was almost as if the whole of his being was concentrated in the act of seeing—as if all the other functions of his mind and body were in suspension.

"M. Formery and the inspector have just been up to examine the housekeeper's room. It's right at the top of the house—on the second floor. You take the servants' staircase. Then it's right at the end of the passage on the left. Would you like me to take you up to it, sir?" said the policeman eagerly. His heart was in his work.

"Thank you, I know where it is—I've just come from it," said Guerchard gently.

A grin of admiration widened the already wide mouth of the policeman, and showed a row of very white, able-looking teeth.

"Ah, M. Guerchard!" he said, "you're cleverer than all the examining magistrates in Paris put together!"

"You ought not to say that, my good fellow. I can't prevent you thinking it, of course; but you ought not to say it," said Guerchard with husky gentleness; and the faintest smile played round the corners of his mouth.

He walked slowly to the window, and the policeman walked with him.

"Have you noticed this, sir?" said the policeman, taking hold of the top of the ladder with a powerful hand. "It's probable that the burglars came in and went away by this ladder."

"Thank you," said Guerchard.

"They have even left this card-table on the window-sill," said the policeman; and he patted the card-table with his other powerful hand.

"Thank you, thank you," said Guerchard.

"They don't think it's Lupin's work at all," said the policeman. "They think that Lupin's letter announcing the burglary and these signatures on the walls are only a ruse."

"Is that so?" said Guerchard.

"Is there any way I can help you, sir?" said policeman.

"Yes," said Guerchard. "Take up your post outside that door and admit no one but M. Formery, the inspector, Bonavent, or Dieusy, without consulting me." And he pointed to the drawing-room door.

"Shan't I admit the Duke of Charmerace? He's taking a great interest in this affair," said the policeman.

"The Duke of Charmerace? Oh, yes—admit the Duke of Charmerace," said Guerchard.

The policeman went to his post of responsibility, a proud man.

Hardly had the door closed behind him when Guerchard was all activity—activity and eyes. He examined the ladder, the gaps on the wall from which the pictures had been taken, the signatures of Arsène Lupin. The very next thing he did was to pick up the book which the Duke had set on the top of the footprint again, to preserve it; and he measured, pacing it, the distance between the footprint and the window.

The result of this measuring did not appear to cause him any satisfaction, for he frowned, measured the distance again, and then stared out of the window with a perplexed air, thinking hard. It was curious that, when he concentrated himself on a process of reasoning, his eyes seemed to lose something of their sharp brightness and grew a little dim.

At last he seemed to come to some conclusion. He turned away from the window, drew a small magnifying-glass from his pocket, dropped on his hands and knees, and began to examine the surface of the carpet with the most minute care.

He examined a space of it nearly six feet square, stopped, and gazed round the room. His eyes rested on the fireplace, which he could see under the bottom of the big tapestried fire-screen which was raised on legs about a foot high, fitted with big casters. His eyes filled with interest; without rising, he crawled quickly across the room, peeped round the edge of the screen and rose, smiling.

He went on to the further drawing-room and made the same careful examination of it, again examining a part of the surface of the carpet with his magnifying-glass. He came back to the window to which the ladder had been raised and examined very carefully the broken shutter. He whistled softly to himself, lighted a cigarette, and leant against the side of the window. He looked out of it, with dull eyes which saw nothing, the while his mind worked upon the facts he had discovered.

He had stood there plunged in reflection for perhaps ten minutes, when there came a sound of voices and footsteps on the stairs. He awoke from his absorption, seemed to prick his ears, then slipped a leg over the window-ledge, and disappeared from sight down the ladder.

The door opened, and in came M. Formery, the Duke, and the inspector. M. Formery looked round the room with eyes which seemed to expect to meet a familiar sight, then walked to the other drawing-room and looked round that. He turned to the policeman, who had stepped inside the drawing-room, and said sharply, "M. Guerchard is not here."

"I left him here," said the policeman. "He must have disappeared. He's a wonder."

"Of course," said M. Formery. "He has gone down the ladder to examine that house they're building. He's just following in our tracks and doing all over again the work we've already done. He might have saved himself the trouble. We could have told him all he wants to know. But there! He very likely would not be satisfied till he had seen everything for himself."

"He may see something which we have missed," said the Duke.

M. Formery frowned, and said sharply "That's hardly likely. I don't think that your Grace realizes to what a perfection constant practice brings one's power of observation. The inspector and I will cheerfully eat anything we've missed—won't we, inspector?" And he laughed heartily at his joke.

"It might always prove a large mouthful," said the Duke with an ironical smile.

M. Formery assumed his air of profound reflection, and walked a few steps up and down the room, frowning:

"The more I think about it," he said, "the clearer it grows that we have disposed of the Lupin theory. This is the work of far less expert rogues than Lupin. What do you think, inspector?"

"Yes; I think you have disposed of that theory, sir," said the inspector with ready acquiescence.

"All the same, I'd wager anything that we haven't disposed of it to the satisfaction of Guerchard," said M. Formery.

"Then he must be very hard to satisfy," said the Duke.

"Oh, in any other matter he's open to reason," said M. Formery; "but Lupin is his fixed idea; it's an obsession—almost a mania."

"But yet he never catches him," said the Duke.

"No; and he never will. His very obsession by Lupin hampers him. It cramps his mind and hinders its working," said M. Formery.

He resumed his meditative pacing, stopped again, and said:

"But considering everything, especially the absence of any traces of violence, combined with her entire disappearance, I have come to another conclusion. Victoire is the key to the mystery. She is the accomplice. She never slept in her bed. She unmade it to put us off the scent. That, at any rate, is something gained, to have found the accomplice. We shall have this good news, at least, to tell M, Gournay-Martin on his arrival."

"Do you really think that she's the accomplice?" said the Duke.

"I'm dead sure of it," said M. Formery. "We will go up to her room and make another thorough examination of it."

Guerchard's head popped up above the window-sill:

"My dear M. Formery," he said, "I beg that you will not take the trouble."

M. Formery's mouth opened: "What! You, Guerchard?" he stammered.

"Myself," said Guerchard; and he came to the top of the ladder and slipped lightly over the window-sill into the room.

He shook hands with M. Formery and nodded to the inspector. Then he looked at the Duke with an air of inquiry.

"Let me introduce you," said M. Formery. "Chief-Inspector Guerchard, head of the Detective Department—the Duke of Charmerace."

The Duke shook hands with Guerchard, saying, "I'm delighted to make your acquaintance, M. Guerchard. I've been expecting your coming with the greatest interest. Indeed it was I who begged the officials at the Prefecture of Police to put this case in your hands. I insisted on it."

"What were you doing on that ladder?" said M. Formery, giving Guerchard no time to reply to the Duke.

"I was listening," said Guerchard simply—"listening. I like to hear people talk when I'm engaged on a case. It's a distraction—and it helps. I really must congratulate you, my dear M. Formery, on the admirable manner in which you have conducted this inquiry."

M. Formery bowed, and regarded him with a touch of suspicion.

"There are one or two minor points on which we do not agree, but on the whole your method has been admirable," said Guerchard.

"Well, about Victoire," said M. Formery. "You're quite sure that an examination, a more thorough examination, of her room, is unnecessary?"

"Yes, I think so," said Guerchard. "I have just looked at it myself."

The door opened, and in came Bonavent, one of the detectives who had come earlier from the Prefecture. In his hand he carried a scrap of cloth.

He saluted Guerchard, and said to M. Formery, "I have just found this scrap of cloth on the edge of the well at the bottom of the garden. The concierge's wife tells me that it has been torn from Victoire's dress."

"I feared it," said M. Formery, taking the scrap of cloth from Mm. "I feared foul play. We must go to the well at once, send some one down it, or have it dragged."

He was moving hastily to the door, when Guerchard said, in his husky, gentle voice, "I don't think there is any need to look for Victoire in the well."

"But this scrap of cloth," said M. Formery, holding it out to him.

"Yes, yes, that scrap of cloth," said Guerchard. And, turning to the Duke, he added, "Do you know if there's a dog or cat in the house, your Grace? I suppose that, as the fiancé of Mademoiselle Gournay-Martin, you are familiar with the house?"

"What on earth——" said M. Formery.

"Excuse me," interrupted Guerchard. "But this is important—very important."

"Yes, there is a cat," said the Duke. "I've seen a cat at the door of the concierge's rooms."

"It must have been that cat which took this scrap of cloth to the edge of the well," said Guerchard gravely.

"This is ridiculous—preposterous!" cried M. Formery, beginning to flush. "Here we're dealing with a most serious crime—a murder—the murder of Victoire—and you talk about cats!"

"Victoire has not been murdered," said Guerchard; and his husky voice was gentler than ever, only just audible.

"But we don't know that—we know nothing of the kind," said M. Formery.

"I do," said Guerchard.

"You?" said M. Formery.

"Yes," said Guerchard.

"Then how do you explain her disappearance?"

"If she had disappeared I shouldn't explain it," said Guerchard.

"But since she has disappeared?" cried M. Formery, in a tone of exasperation.

"She hasn't," said Guerchard.

"You know nothing about it!" cried M. Formery, losing his temper.

"Yes, I do," said Guerchard, with the same gentleness.

"Come, do you mean to say that you know where she is?" cried M. Formery.

"Certainly," said Guerchard.

"Do you mean to tell us straight out that you've seen her?" cried M. Formery.

"Oh, yes; I've seen her," said Guerchard.

"You've seen her—when?" cried M. Formery.

Guerchard paused to consider. Then he said gently:

"It must have been between four and five minutes ago."

"But hang it all, you haven't been out of this room!" cried M. Formery.

"No, I haven't," said Guerchard.

"And you've seen her?" cried M. Formery.

"Yes," said Guerchard, raising his voice a little.

"Well, why the devil don't you tell us where she is? Tell us!" cried M. Formery, purple with exasperation.

"But you won't let me get a word out of my mouth," protested Guerchard with aggravating gentleness.

"Well, speak!" cried M. Formery; and he sank gasping on to a chair.

"Ah, well, she's here," said Guerchard.

"Here! How did she get here?" said M. Formery.

"On a mattress," said Guerchard.

M. Formery sat upright, almost beside himself, glaring furiously at Guerchard:

"What do you stand there pulling all our legs for?" he almost howled.

"Look here," said Guerchard.

He walked across the room to the fireplace, pushed the chairs which stood bound together on the hearth-rug to one side of the fireplace, and ran the heavy fire-screen on its casters to the other side of it, revealing to their gaze the wide, old-fashioned fireplace itself. The iron brazier which held the coals had been moved into the corner, and a mattress lay on the floor of the fireplace. On the mattress lay the figure of a big, middle-aged woman, half-dressed. There was a yellow gag in her mouth; and her hands and feet were bound together with blue cords.

"She is sleeping soundly," said Guerchard. He stooped and picked up a handkerchief, and smelt it. "There's the handkerchief they chloroformed her with. It still smells of chloroform."

They stared at him and the sleeping woman.

"Lend a hand, inspector," he said. "And you too, Bonavent. She looks a good weight."

The three of them raised the mattress, and carried it and the sleeping woman to a broad couch, and laid them on it. They staggered under their burden, for truly Victoire was a good weight.

M. Formery rose, with recovered breath, but with his face an even richer purple. His eyes were rolling in his head, as if they were not under proper control.

He turned on the inspector and cried savagely, "You never examined the fireplace, inspector!"

"No, sir," said the downcast inspector.

"It was unpardonable—absolutely unpardonable!" cried M. Formery. "How is one to work with subordinates like this?"

"It was an oversight," said Guerchard.

M. Formery turned to him and said, "You must admit that it was materially impossible for me to see her."

"It was possible if you went down on all fours," said Guerchard.

"On all fours?" said M. Formery.

"Yes; on all fours you could see her heels sticking out beyond the mattress," said Guerchard simply.

M. Formery shrugged his shoulders: "That screen looked as if it had stood there since the beginning of the summer," he said.

"The first thing, when you're dealing with Lupin, is to distrust appearances," said Guerchard.

"Lupin!" cried M. Formery hotly. Then he bit his lip and was silent.

He walked to the side of the couch and looked down on the sleeping Victoire, frowning: "This upsets everything," he said. "With these new conditions, I've got to begin all over again, to find a new explanation of the affair. For the moment—for the moment, I'm thrown completely off the track. And you, Guerchard?"

"Oh, well," said Guerchard, "I have an idea or two about the matter still."

"Do you really mean to say that it hasn't thrown you off the track too?" said M. Formery, with a touch of incredulity in his tone.

"Well, no—not exactly," said Guerchard. "I wasn't on that track, you see."

"No, of course not—of course not. You were on the track of Lupin," said M. Formery; and his contemptuous smile was tinged with malice.

The Duke looked from one to the other of them with curious, searching eyes: "I find all this so interesting," he said.

"We do not take much notice of these checks; they do not depress us for a moment," said M. Formery, with some return of his old grandiloquence. "We pause hardly for an instant; then we begin to reconstruct—to reconstruct."

"It's perfectly splendid of you," said the Duke, and his limpid eyes rested on M. Formery's self-satisfied face in a really affectionate gaze; they might almost be said to caress it.

Guerchard looked out of the window at a man who was carrying a hod-full of bricks up one of the ladders set against the scaffolding of the building house. Something in this honest workman's simple task seemed to amuse him, for he smiled.

Only the inspector, thinking of the unexamined fireplace, looked really depressed.

"We shan't get anything out of this woman till she wakes," said M. Formery, "When she does, I shall question her closely and fully. In the meantime, she may as well be carried up to her bedroom to sleep off the effects of the chloroform."

Guerchard turned quickly: "Not her own bedroom, I think," he said gently.

"Certainly not—of course, not her own bedroom," said M. Formery quickly.

"And I think an officer at the door of whatever bedroom she does sleep in," said Guerchard.

"Undoubtedly—most necessary," said M. Formery gravely. "See to it, inspector. You can take her away."

The inspector called in a couple of policemen, and with their aid he and Bonavent raised the sleeping woman, a man at each corner of the mattress, and bore her from the room.

"And now to reconstruct," said M. Formery; and he folded his arms and plunged into profound reflection.

The Duke and Guerchard watched him in silence.