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CHAPTER XVII


SONIA'S ESCAPE


"ONE of M. Formery's innocents," said Guerchard, turning to the Duke.

"The chalk?" said the Duke. "Is it the same chalk?"

"It's blue," said Guerchard, holding it out. "The same as that of the signatures on the walls. Add that fact to the woman's sudden realization of what she was doing, and you'll see that they were written with it."

"It is rather a surprise," said the Duke. "To look at her you would think that she was the most honest woman in the world."

"Ah, you don't know Lupin, your Grace," said Guerchard. "He can do anything with women; and they'll do anything for him. And, what's more, as far as I can see, it doesn't make a scrap of difference whether they're honest or not. The fair-haired lady I was telling you about was probably an honest woman; Ganimard is sure of it. We should have found out long ago who she was if she had been a wrong un. And Ganimard also swears that when he arrested Lupin on board the Provence some woman, some ordinary, honest woman among the passengers, carried away Lady Garland's jewels, which he had stolen and was bringing to America, and along with them a matter of eight hundred pounds which he had stolen from a fellow-passenger on the voyage."

"That power of fascination which some men exercise on women is one of those mysteries which science should investigate before it does anything else," said the Duke, in a reflective tone. "Now I come to think of it, I had much better have spent my time on that investigation than on that tedious journey to the South Pole. All the same, I'm deucedly sorry for that woman, Victoire. She looks such a good soul."

Guerchard shrugged his shoulders: "The prisons are full of good souls," he said, with cynical wisdom born of experience. "They get caught so much more often than the bad."

"It seems rather mean of Lupin to make use of women like this, and get them into trouble," said the Duke.

"But he doesn't," said Guerchard quickly. "At least he hasn't up to now. This Victoire is the first we've caught. I look on it as a good omen."

He walked across the room, picked up his cloak, and took a card-case from the inner pocket of it. "If you don't mind, your Grace, I want you to show this permit to my men who are keeping the door, whenever you go out of the house. It's just a formality; but I attach considerable importance to it, for I really ought not to make exceptions in favour of any one. I have two men at the door, and they have orders to let nobody out without my written permission. Of course M. Gournay-Martin's guests are different. Bonavent has orders to pass them out. And, if your Grace doesn't mind, it will help me. If you carry a permit, no one else will dream of complaining of having to do so."

"Oh, I don't mind, if it's of any help to you," said the Duke cheerfully.

"Thank you," said Guerchard. And he wrote on his card and handed it to the Duke.

The Duke took it and looked at it. On it was written:


"Pass the Duke of Charmerace."

"J. Guerchard."


"It's quite military," said the Duke, putting the card into his waistcoat pocket.

There came a knock at the door, and a tall, thin, bearded man came into the room.

"Ah, Dieusy! At last! What news?" cried Guerchard.

Dieusy saluted: "I've learnt that a motor-van was waiting outside the next house—in the side street," he said.

"At what time?" said Guerchard.

"Between four and five in the morning," said Dieusy.

"Who saw it?" said Guerchard.

"A scavenger. He thinks that it was nearly five o'clock when the van drove off."

"Between four and five—nearly five. Then they filled up the opening before they loaded the van. I thought they would," said Guerchard, thoughtfully. "Anything else?"

"A few minutes after the van had gone a man in motoring dress came out of the house," said Dieusy.

"In motoring dress?" said Guerchard quickly.

"Yes. And a little way from the house he threw away his cigarette. The scavenger thought the whole business a little queer, and he picked up the cigarette and kept it. Here it is."

He handed it to Guerchard, whose eyes scanned it carelessly and then glued themselves to it.

"A gold-tipped cigarette . . . marked Mercedés . . . Why, your Grace, this is one of your cigarettes!"

"But this is incredible!" cried the Duke.

"Not at all," said Guerchard. "It's merely another link in the chain. I've no doubt you have some of these cigarettes at Charmerace."

"Oh, yes, I've had a box on most of the tables," said the Duke.

"Well, there you are," said Guerchard.

"Oh, I see what you're driving at," said the Duke. "You mean that one of the Charolais must have taken a box."

"Well, we know that they'd hardly stick at a box of cigarettes," said Guerchard.

"Yes . . . but I thought . . ." said the Duke; and he paused.

"You thought what?" said Guerchard.

"Then Lupin . . . since it was Lupin who managed the business last night—since you found those salvias in the house next door . . . then Lupin came from Charmerace."

"Evidently," said Guerchard.

"And Lupin is one of the Charolais."

"Oh, that's another matter," said Guerchard.

"But it's certain, absolutely certain," said the Duke. "We have the connecting links . . . the salvias . . . this cigarette."

"It looks very like it. You're pretty quick on a scent, I must say," said Guerchard. "What a detective you would have made! Only . . . nothing is certain."

"But it is. Whatever more do you want? Was he at Charmerace yesterday, or was he not? Did he, or did he not, arrange the theft of the motor-cars?"

"Certainly he did. But he himself might have remained in the background all the while," said Guerchard.

"In what shape? . . . Under what mask? . . . By Jove, I should like to see this fellow!" said the Duke.

"We shall see him to-night," said Guerchard.

"To-night?" said the Duke.

"Of course we shall; for he will come to steal the coronet between a quarter to twelve and midnight," said Guerchard.

"Never!" said the Duke. "You don't really believe that he'll have the cheek to attempt such a mad act?"

"Ah, you don't know this man, your Grace . . . his extraordinary mixture of coolness and audacity. It's the danger that attracts him. He throws himself into the fire, and he doesn't get burnt. For the last ten years I've been saying to myself, 'Here we are: this time I've got him! . . . At last I'm going to nab him.' But I've said that day after day," said Guerchard; and he paused.

"Well?" said the Duke.

"Well, the days pass; and I never nab him. Oh, he is thick, I tell you. . . . He's a joker, he is . . . a regular artist"—he ground his teeth—"The damned thief!"

The Duke looked at him, and said slowly, "Then you think that to-night Lupin——"

"You've followed the scent with me, your Grace," Guerchard interrupted quickly and vehemently. "We've picked up each clue together. You've almost seen this man at work. . . . You've understood him. Isn't a man like this, I ask you, capable of anything?"

"He is," said the Duke, with conviction.

"Well, then," said Guerchard.

"Perhaps you're right," said the Duke.

Guerchard turned to Dieusy and said, in a quieter voice, "And when the scavenger had picked up the cigarette, did he follow the motorist?"

"Yes, he followed him for about a hundred yards. He went down into Sureau Street, and turned westwards. Then a motor-car came along; he got into it, and went off."

"What kind of a motor-car?" said Guerchard.

"A big car, and dark red in colour," said Dieusy.

"The Limousine!" cried the Duke.

"That's all I've got so far, sir," said Dieusy.

"Well, off you go," said Guerchard. "Now that you've got started, you'll probably get something else before very long."

Dieusy saluted and went.

"Things are beginning to move," said Guerchard cheerfully. "First Victoire, and now this motor-van."

"They are indeed," said the Duke.

"After all, it ought not to be very difficult to trace that motor- van," said Guerchard, in a musing tone. "At any rate, its movements ought to be easy enough to follow up till about six. Then, of course, there would be a good many others about, delivering goods."

"You seem to have all the possible information you can want at your finger-ends," said the Duke, in an admiring tone.

"I suppose I know the life of Paris as well as anybody," said Guerchard.

They were silent for a while. Then Germaine's maid, Irma, came into the room and said:

"If you please, your Grace, Mademoiselle Kritchnoff would like to speak to you for a moment."

"Oh? Where is she?" said the Duke.

"She's in her room, your Grace."

"Oh, very well, I'll go up to her," said the Duke. "I can speak to her in the library."

He rose and was going towards the door when Guerchard stepped forward, barring his way, and said, "No, your Grace."

"No? Why?" said the Duke haughtily.

"I beg you will wait a minute or two till I've had a word with you," said Guerchard; and he drew a folded sheet of paper from his pocket and held it up.

The Duke looked at Guerchard's face, and he looked at the paper in his hand; then he said: "Oh, very well." And, turning to Irma, he added quietly, "Tell Mademoiselle Kritchnoff that I'm in the drawing-room."

"Yes, your Grace, in the drawing-room," said Irma; and she turned to go.

"Yes; and say that I shall be engaged for the next five minutes—the next five minutes, do you understand?" said the Duke.

"Yes, your Grace," said Irma; and she went out of the door.

"Ask Mademoiselle Kritchnoff to put on her hat and cloak," said Guerchard.

"Yes, sir," said Irma; and she went.

The Duke turned sharply on Guerchard, and said: "Now, why on earth? . . . I don't understand."

"I got this from M. Formery," said Guerchard, holding up the paper.

"Well," said the Duke. "What is it?"

"It's a warrant, your Grace," said Guerchard.

"What! . . . A warrant! . . . Not for the arrest of Mademoiselle Kritchnoff?"

"Yes," said Guerchard.

"Oh, come, it's impossible," said the Duke. "You're never going to arrest that child?"

"I am, indeed," said Guerchard. "Her examination this afternoon was in the highest degree unsatisfactory. Her answers were embarrassed, contradictory, and in every way suspicious."

"And you've made up your mind to arrest her?" said the Duke slowly, knitting his brow in anxious thought.

"I have, indeed," said Guerchard. "And I'm going to do it now. The prison van ought to be waiting at the door." He looked at his watch. "She and Victoire can go together."

"So . . . you're going to arrest her . . . you're going to arrest her?" said the Duke thoughtfully: and he took a step or two up and down the room, still thinking hard.

"Well, you understand the position, don't you, your Grace?" said Guerchard, in a tone of apology. "Believe me that, personally, I've no animosity against Mademoiselle Kritchnoff. In fact, the child attracts me."

"Yes," said the Duke softly, in a musing tone. "She has the air of a child who has lost its way . . . lost its way in life. . . . And that poor little hiding-place she found . . . that rolled-up handkerchief . . . thrown down in the corner of the little room in the house next door . . . it was absolutely absurd."

"What! A handkerchief!" cried Guerchard, with an air of sudden, utter surprise.

"The child's clumsiness is positively pitiful," said the Duke.

"What was in the handkerchief? . . . The pearls of the pendant?" cried Guerchard.

"Yes: I supposed you knew all about it. Of course M. Formery left word for you," said the Duke, with an air of surprise at the ignorance of the detective.

"No: I've heard nothing about it," cried Guerchard.

"He didn't leave word for you?" said the Duke, in a tone of greater surprise. "Oh, well, I dare say that he thought to-morrow would do. Of course you were out of the house when he found it. She must have slipped out of her room soon after you went."

"He found a handkerchief belonging to Mademoiselle Kritchnoff. Where is it?" cried Guerchard.

"M. Formery took the pearls, but he left the handkerchief. I suppose it's in the corner where he found it," said the Duke.

"He left the handkerchief?" cried Guerchard. "If that isn't just like the fool! He ought to keep hens; it's all he's fit for!"

He ran to the fireplace, seized the lantern, and began lighting it: "Where is the handkerchief?" he cried.

"In the left-hand corner of the little room on the right on the second floor. But if you're going to arrest Mademoiselle Kritchnoff, why are you bothering about the handkerchief? It can't be of any importance," said the Duke.

"I beg your pardon," said Guerchard. "But it is."

"But why?" said the Duke.

"I was arresting Mademoiselle Kritchnoff all right because I had a very strong presumption of her guilt. But I hadn't the slightest proof of it," said Guerchard.

"What?" cried the Duke, in a horrified tone.

"No, you've just given me the proof; and since she was able to hide the pearls in the house next door, she knew the road which led to it. Therefore she's an accomplice," said Guerchard, in a triumphant tone.

"What? Do you think that, too?" cried the Duke. "Good Heavens! And it's me! . . . It's my senselessness! . . . It's my fault that you've got your proof!" He spoke in a tone of acute distress.

"It was your duty to give it me," said Guerchard sternly; and he began to mount the steps.

"Shall I come with you? I know where the handkerchief is," said the Duke quickly.

"No, thank you, your Grace," said Guerchard. "I prefer to go alone."

"You'd better let me help you," said the Duke.

"No, your Grace," said Guerchard firmly.

"I must really insist," said the Duke.

"No—no—no," said Guerchard vehemently, with stern decision. "It's no use your insisting, your Grace; I prefer to go alone. I shall only be gone a minute or two."

"Just as you like," said the Duke stiffly.

The legs of Guerchard disappeared up the steps. The Duke stood listening with all his ears. Directly he heard the sound of Guerchard's heels on the floor, when he dropped from the chimney-piece of the next room, he went swiftly to the door, opened it, and went out. Bonavent was sitting on the chair on which the young policeman had sat during the afternoon. Sonia, in her hat and cloak, was half-way down the stairs.

The Duke put his head inside the drawing-room door, and said to the empty room: "Here is Mademoiselle Kritchnoff, M. Guerchard." He held open the door, Sonia came down the stairs, and went through it. The Duke followed her into the drawing-room, and shut the door.

"There's not a moment to lose," he said in a low voice.

"Oh, what is it, your Grace?" said Sonia anxiously.

"Guerchard has a warrant for your arrest."

"Then I'm lost!" cried Sonia, in a panic-stricken voice.

"No, you're not. You must go—at once," said the Duke.

"But how can I go? No one can get out of the house. M. Guerchard won't let them," cried Sonia, panic-stricken.

"We can get over that," said the Duke.

He ran to Guerchard's cloak, took the card-case from the inner pocket, went to the writing-table, and sat down. He took from his waist-coat pocket the permit which Guerchard had given him, and a pencil. Then he took a card from the card-case, set the permit on the table before him, and began to imitate Guerchard's handwriting with an amazing exactness. He wrote on the card:


"Pass Mademoiselle Kritchnoff.

"J. Guerchard."


Sonia stood by his side, panting quickly with fear, and watched him do it. He had scarcely finished the last stroke, when they heard a noise on the other side of the opening into the empty house. The Duke looked at the fireplace, and his teeth bared in an expression of cold ferocity. He rose with clenched fists, and took a step towards the fireplace.

"Your Grace? Your Grace?" called the voice of Guerchard.

"What is it?" answered the Duke quietly.

"I can't see any handkerchief," said Guerchard. "Didn't you say it was in the left-hand corner of the little room on the right?"

"I told you you'd better let me come with you, and find it," said the Duke, in a tone of triumph. "It's in the right-hand corner of the little room on the left."

"I could have sworn you said the little room on the right," said Guerchard.

They heard his footfalls die away.

"Now, you must get out of the house quickly." said the Duke. "Show this card to the detectives at the door, and they'll pass you without a word."

He pressed the card into her hand.

"But—but—this card?" stammered Sonia.

"There's no time to lose," said the Duke.

"But this is madness," said Sonia. "When Guerchard finds out about this card—that you—you——"

"There's no need to bother about that," interrupted the Duke quickly. "Where are you going to?"

"A little hotel near the Star. I've forgotten the name of it," said Sonia. "But this card——"

"Has it a telephone?" said the Duke.

"Yes—No. 555, Central," said Sonia.

"If I haven't telephoned to you before half-past eight to-morrow morning, come straight to my house," said the Duke, scribbling the telephone number on his shirt-cuff.

"Yes, yes," said Sonia. "But this card. . . . When Guerchard knows . . . when he discovers. . . . Oh, I can't let you get into trouble for me."

"I shan't. But go—go," said the Duke, and he slipped his right arm round her and drew her to the door.

"Oh, how good you are to me," said Sonia softly.

The Duke's other arm went round her; he drew her to him, and their lips met.

He loosed her, and opened the door, saying loudly: "You're sure you won't have a cab, Mademoiselle Kritchnoff?"

"No; no, thank you, your Grace. Goodnight," said Sonia. And she went through the door with a transfigured face.