Arsène Lupin/Chapter XIII
THE Duke stared at the pendant, his eyes full of wonder and pity.
"Poor little girl!" he said softly under his breath.
He put the pendant carefully away in his waistcoat-pocket and stood staring thoughtfully out of the window.
The door opened softly, and Sonia came quickly into the room, closed the door, and leaned back against it. Her face was a dead white; her skin had lost its lustre of fine porcelain, and she stared at him with eyes dim with anguish.
In a hoarse, broken voice, she muttered: "Forgive me! Oh, forgive me!"
"A thief—you?" said the Duke, in a tone of pitying wonder.
"You mustn't stop here," said the Duke in an uneasy tone, and he looked uneasily at the door.
"Ah, you don't want to speak to me any more," said Sonia, in a heartrending tone, wringing her hands.
"Guerchard is suspicious of everything. It is dangerous for us to be talking here. I assure you that it's dangerous," said the Duke.
"What an opinion must you have of me! It's dreadful—cruel!" wailed Sonia.
"For goodness' sake don't speak so loud," said the Duke, with even greater uneasiness. "You must think of Guerchard."
"What do I care?" cried Sonia. "I've lost the liking of the only creature whose liking I wanted. What does anything else matter? What does it matter?"
"We'll talk somewhere else presently. That'll be far safer," said the Duke.
"No, no, we must talk now!" cried Sonia. "You must know. . . . I must tell . . . Oh, dear! . . . Oh, dear! . . . I don't know how to tell you. . . . And then it is so unfair. . . . she . . . Germaine . . . she has everything," she panted. "Yesterday, before me, you gave her that pendant, . . . she smiled . . . she was proud of it. . . . I saw her pleasure. . . . Then I took it—I took it—I took it! And if I could, I'd take her fortune, too. . . . I hate her! Oh, how I hate her!"
"What!" said the Duke.
"Yes, I do . . . I hate her!" said Sonia; and her eyes, no longer gentle, glowed with the sombre resentment, the dull rage of the weak who turn on Fortune. Her gentle voice was harsh with rebellious wrath.
"You hate her?" said the Duke quickly.
"I should never have told you that. . . . But now I dare. . . . I dare speak out. . . . It's you! . . . It's you——" The avowal died on her lips. A burning flush crimsoned her cheeks and faded as quickly as it came: "I hate her!" she muttered.
"Sonia——" said the Duke gently.
"Oh! I know that it's no excuse. . . . I know that you're thinking 'This is a very pretty story, but it's not her first theft'; . . . and it's true—it's the tenth, . . . perhaps it's the twentieth. . . . It's true—I am a thief." She paused, and the glow deepened in her eyes. "But there's one thing you must believe—you shall believe; since you came, since I've known you, since the first day you set eyes on me, I have stolen no more . . . till yesterday when you gave her the pendant before me. I could not bear it . . . I could not." She paused and looked at him with eyes that demanded an assent.
"I believe you," said the Duke gravely.
She heaved a deep sigh of relief, and went on more quietly—some of its golden tone had returned to her voice: "And then, if you knew how it began . . . the horror of it," she said.
"Poor child!" said the Duke softly.
"Yes, you pity me, but you despise me—you despise me beyond words. You shall not! I will not have it!" she cried fiercely.
"Believe me, no," said the Duke, in a soothing tone.
"Listen," said Sonia. "Have you ever been alone—alone in the world? . . . Have you ever been hungry? Think of it . . . in this big city where I was starving in sight of bread . . . bread in the shops . . . . One only had to stretch out one's hand to touch it . . . a penny loaf. Oh, it's commonplace!" she broke off: "quite commonplace!"
"Go on: tell me," said the Duke curtly.
"There was one way I could make money and I would not do it: no, I would not," she went on. "But that day I was dying . . . understand, I was dying . . . .I went to the rooms of a man I knew a little. It was my last resource. At first I was glad . . . he gave me food and wine . . . and then, he talked to me . . . he offered me money."
"What!" cried the Duke; and a sudden flame of anger flared up in his eyes.
"No; I could not . . . and then I robbed him. . . . I preferred to . . . it was more decent. Ah, I had excuses then. I began to steal to remain an honest woman . . . and I've gone on stealing to keep up appearances. You see . . . I joke about it." And she laughed, the faint, dreadful, mocking laugh of a damned soul. "Oh, dear! Oh, dear!" she cried; and, burying her face in her hands, she burst into a storm of weeping.
"Poor child," said the Duke softly. And he stared gloomily on the ground, overcome by this revelation of the tortures of the feeble in the underworld beneath the Paris he knew.
"Oh, you do pity me . . . you do understand . . . and feel," said Sonia, between her sobs.
The Duke raised his head and gazed at her with eyes full of an infinite sympathy and compassion.
"Poor little Sonia," he said gently. "I understand."
She gazed at him with incredulous eyes, in which joy and despair mingled, struggling.
He came slowly towards her, and stopped short. His quick ear had caught the sound of a footstep outside the door.
"Quick! Dry your eyes! You must look composed. The other room!" he cried, in an imperative tone.
He caught her hand and drew her swiftly into the further drawing-room.
With the quickness which came of long practice in hiding her feelings Sonia composed her face to something of its usual gentle calm. There was even a faint tinge of colour in her cheeks; they had lost their dead whiteness. A faint light shone in her eyes; the anguish had cleared from them. They rested on the Duke with a look of ineffable gratitude. She sat down on a couch. The Duke went to the window and lighted a cigarette. They heard the door of the outer drawing-room open, and there was a pause. Quick footsteps crossed the room, and Guerchard stood in the doorway. He looked from one to the other with keen and eager eyes. Sonia sat staring rather listlessly at the carpet. The Duke turned, and smiled at him.
"Well, M. Guerchard," he said. "I hope the burglars have not stolen the coronet."
"The coronet is safe, your Grace," said Guerchard.
"And the paper-knives?" said the Duke.
"The paper-knives?" said Guerchard with an inquiring air.
"The wedding presents," said the Duke.
"Yes, your Grace, the wedding presents are safe," said Guerchard.
"I breathe again," said the Duke languidly.
Guerchard turned to Sonia and said, "I was looking for you, Mademoiselle, to tell you that M. Formery has changed his mind. It is impossible for you to go out. No one will be allowed to go out."
"Yes?" said Sonia, in an indifferent tone.
"We should be very much obliged if you would go to your room," said Guerchard. "Your meals will be sent up to you."
"What?" said Sonia, rising quickly; and she looked from Guerchard to the Duke. The Duke gave her the faintest nod.
"Very well, I will go to my room," she said coldly.
They accompanied her to the door of the outer drawing-room. Guerchard opened it for her and closed it after her.
"Really, M. Guerchard," said the Duke, shrugging his shoulders. "This last measure—a child like that!"
"Really, I'm very sorry, your Grace; but it's my trade, or, if you prefer it, my duty. As long as things are taking place here which I am still the only one to perceive, and which are not yet clear to me, I must neglect no precaution."
"Of course, you know best," said the Duke. "But still, a child like that—you're frightening her out of her life."
Guerchard shrugged his shoulders, and went quietly out of the room.
The Duke sat down in an easy chair, frowning and thoughtful. Suddenly there struck on his ears the sound of a loud roaring and heavy bumping on the stairs, the door flew open, and M. Gournay-Martin stood on the threshold waving a telegram in his hand.
M. Formery and the inspector came hurrying down the stairs behind him, and watched his emotion with astonished and wondering eyes.
"Here!" bellowed the millionaire. "A telegram! A telegram from the scoundrel himself! Listen! Just listen:"
"A thousand apologies for not having been able to keep my promise about the coronet. Had an appointment at the Acacias. Please have coronet ready in your room to-night. Will come without fail to fetch it, between a quarter to twelve and twelve o'clock."
"There! What do you think of that?"
"If you ask me, I think he's humbug," said the Duke with conviction.
"Humbug! You always think it's humbug! You thought the letter was humbug; and look what has happened!" cried the millionaire.
"Give me the telegram, please," said M. Formery quickly.
The millionaire gave it to him; and he read it through.
"Find out who brought it, inspector," he said.
The inspector hurried to the top of the staircase and called to the policeman in charge of the front door. He came back to the drawing-room and said: "It was brought by an ordinary post-office messenger, sir."
"Where is he?" said M. Formery. "Why did you let him go?"
"Shall I send for him, sir?" said the inspector.
"No, no, it doesn't matter," said M. Formery; and, turning to M. Gournay-Martin and the Duke, he said, "Now we're really going to have trouble with Guerchard. He is going to muddle up everything. This telegram will be the last straw. Nothing will persuade him now that this is not Lupin's work. And just consider, gentlemen: if Lupin had come last night, and if he had really set his heart on the coronet, he would have stolen it then, or at any rate he would have tried to open the safe in M. Gournay-Martin's bedroom, in which the coronet actually is, or this safe here"—he went to the safe and rapped on the door of it—"in which is the second key."
"That's quite clear," said the inspector.
"If, then, he did not make the attempt last night, when he had a clear field—when the house was empty—he certainly will not make the attempt now when we are warned, when the police are on the spot, and the house is surrounded. The idea is childish, gentlemen"—he leaned against the door of the safe—"absolutely childish, but Guerchard is mad on this point; and I foresee that his madness is going to hamper us in the most idiotic way."
He suddenly pitched forward into the middle of the room, as the door of the safe opened with a jerk, and Guerchard shot out of it.
"What the devil!" cried M. Formery, gaping at him.
"You'd be surprised how clearly you hear everything in these safes—you'd think they were too thick," said Guerchard, in his gentle, husky voice.
"How on earth did you get into it?" cried M. Formery.
"Getting in was easy enough. It's the getting out that was awkward. These jokers had fixed up some kind of a spring so that I nearly shot out with the door," said Guerchard, rubbing his elbow.
"But how did you get into it? How the deuce did you get into it?" cried M. Formery.
"Through the little cabinet into which that door behind the safe opens. There's no longer any back to the safe; they've cut it clean out of it—a very neat piece of work. Safes like this should always be fixed against a wall, not stuck in front of a door. The backs of them are always the weak point."
"And the key? The key of the safe upstairs, in my bedroom, where the coronet is—is the key there?" cried M. Gournay-Martin.
Guerchard went back into the empty safe, and groped about in it. He came out smiling.
"Well, have you found the key?" cried the millionaire.
"No. I haven't; but I've found something better," said Guerchard.
"What is it?" said M. Formery sharply.
"I'll give you a hundred guesses," said Guerchard with a tantalizing smile.
"What is it?" said M. Formery.
"A little present for you," said Guerchard.
"What do you mean?" cried M. Formery angrily.
Guerchard held up a card between his thumb and forefinger and said quietly:
"The card of Arsène Lupin."