Open main menu




THE cold light of the early September morning illumined but dimly the charming smoking-room of the Duke of Charmerace in his house at 34 B, University Street, though it stole in through two large windows. The smoking-room was on the first floor; and the Duke's bedroom opened into it. It was furnished in the most luxurious fashion, but with a taste which nowadays infrequently accompanies luxury. The chairs were of the most comfortable, but their lines were excellent; the couch against the wall, between the two windows, was the last word in the matter of comfort. The colour scheme, of a light greyish-blue, was almost too bright for a man's room; it would have better suited a boudoir. It suggested that the owner of the room enjoyed an uncommon lightness and cheerfulness of temperament. On the walls, with wide gaps between them so that they did not clash, hung three or four excellent pictures. Two ballet-girls by Degas, a group of shepherdesses and shepherds, in pink and blue and white beribboned silk, by Fragonard, a portrait of a woman by Bastien-Lepage, a charming Corot, and two Conder fans showed that the taste of their fortunate owner was at any rate eclectic. At the end of the room was, of all curious things, the opening into the well of a lift. The doors of it were open, though the lift itself was on some other floor. To the left of the opening stood a book-case, its shelves loaded with books of a kind rather suited to a cultivated, thoughtful man than to an idle dandy.

Beside the window, half-hidden, and peering through the side of the curtain into the street, stood M. Charolais. But it was hardly the M. Charolais who had paid M. Gournay-Martin that visit at the Château de Charmerace, and departed so firmly in the millionaire's favourite motor-car. This was a paler M. Charolais; he lacked altogether the rich, ruddy complexion of the millionaire's visitor. His nose, too, was thinner, and showed none of the ripe acquaintance with the vintages of the world which had been so plainly displayed on it during its owner's visit to the country. Again, hair and eyebrows were no longer black, but fair; and his hair was no longer curly and luxuriant, but thin and lank. His moustache had vanished, and along with it the dress of a well-to-do provincial man of business. He wore a livery of the Charmeraces, and at that early morning hour had not yet assumed the blue waistcoat which is an integral part of it. Indeed it would have required an acute and experienced observer to recognize in him the bogus purchaser of the Mercrac. Only his eyes, his close-set eyes, were unchanged.

Walking restlessly up and down the middle of the room, keeping out of sight of the windows, was Victoire. She wore a very anxious air, as did Charolais too. By the door stood Bernard Charolais; and his natural, boyish timidity, to judge from his frightened eyes, had assumed an acute phase.

"By the Lord, we're done!" cried Charolais, starting back from the window. "That was the front-door bell."

"No, it was only the hall clock," said Bernard.

"That's seven o'clock! Oh, where can he be?" said Victoire, wringing her hands. "The coup was fixed for midnight. . . . Where can he be?"

"They must be after him," said Charolais. "And he daren't come home." Gingerly he drew back the curtain and resumed his watch.

"I've sent down the lift to the bottom, in case he should come back by the secret entrance," said Victoire; and she went to the opening into the well of the lift and stood looking down it, listening with all her ears.

"Then why, in the devil's name, have you left the doors open?" cried Charolais irritably. "How do you expect the lift to come up if the doors are open?"

"I must be off my head!" cried Victoire.

She stepped to the side of the lift and pressed a button. The doors closed, and there was a grunting click of heavy machinery settling into a new position.

"Suppose we telephone to Justin at the Passy house?" said Victoire.

"What on earth's the good of that?" said Charolais impatiently. "Justin knows no more than we do. How can he know any more?"

"The best thing we can do is to get out," said Bernard, in a shaky voice.

"No, no; he will come. I haven't given up hope," Victoire protested. "He's sure to come; and he may need us."

"But, hang it all! Suppose the police come! Suppose they ransack his papers. . . . He hasn't told us what to do . . . we are not ready for them. . . . What are we to do?" cried Charolais, in a tone of despair.

"Well, I'm worse off than you are; and I'm not making a fuss. If the police come they'll arrest me," said Victoire.

"Perhaps they've arrested him," said Bernard, in his shaky voice.

"Don't talk like that," said Victoire fretfully. "Isn't it bad enough to wait and wait, without your croaking like a scared crow?"

She started again her pacing up and down the room, twisting her hands, and now and again moistening her dry lips with the tip of her tongue.

Presently she said: "Are those two plain-clothes men still there watching?" And in her anxiety she came a step nearer the window.

"Keep away from the window!" snapped Charolais. "Do you want to be recognized, you great idiot?" Then he added, more quietly, "They're still there all right, curse them, in front of the café. . . . Hullo!"

"What is it, now?" cried Victoire, starting.

"A copper and a detective running," said Charolais. "They are running for all they're worth."

"Are they coming this way?" said Victoire; and she ran to the door and caught hold of the handle.

"No," said Charolais.

"Thank goodness!" said Victoire.

"They're running to the two men watching the house . . . they're telling them something. Oh, hang it, they're all running down the street."

"This way? . . . Are they coming this way?" cried Victoire faintly; and she pressed her hand to her side.

"They are!" cried Charolais. "They are!" And he dropped the curtain with an oath.

"And he isn't here! Suppose they come. . . . Suppose he comes to the front door! They'll catch him!" cried Victoire.

There came a startling peal at the front-door bell. They stood frozen to stone, their eyes fixed on one another, staring.

The bell had hardly stopped ringing, when there was a slow, whirring noise. The doors of the lift flew open, and the Duke stepped out of it. But what a changed figure from the admirably dressed dandy who had walked through the startled detectives and out of the house of M. Gournay-Martin at midnight! He was pale, exhausted, almost fainting. His eyes were dim in a livid face; his lips were grey. He was panting heavily. He was splashed with mud from head to foot: one sleeve of his coat was torn along half its length. The sole of his left-hand pump was half off; and his cut foot showed white and red through the torn sock.

"The master! The master!" cried Charolais in a tone of extravagant relief; and he danced round the room snapping his fingers.

"You're wounded?" cried Victoire.

"No," said Arsene Lupin.

The front-door bell rang out again, startling, threatening, terrifying.

The note of danger seemed to brace Lupin, to spur him to a last effort.

He pulled himself together, and said in a hoarse but steady voice: "Your waistcoat, Charolais. . . . Go and open the door . . . not too quickly . . . fumble the bolts. . . . Bernard, shut the book-case. Victoire, get out of sight, do you want to ruin us all? Be smart now, all of you. Be smart!"

He staggered past them into his bedroom, and slammed the door. Victoire and Charolais hurried out of the room, through the anteroom, on to the landing. Victoire ran upstairs, Charolais went slowly down. Bernard pressed the button. The doors of the lift shut and there was a slow whirring as it went down. He pressed another button, and the book-case slid slowly across and hid the opening into the lift-well. Bernard ran out of the room and up the stairs.

Charolais went to the front door and fumbled with the bolts. He bawled through the door to the visitors not to be in such a hurry at that hour in the morning; and they bawled furiously at him to be quick, and knocked and rang again and again. He was fully three minutes fumbling with the bolts, which were already drawn. At last he opened the door an inch or two, and looked out.

On the instant the door was dashed open, flinging him back against the wall; and Bonavent and Dieusy rushed past him, up the stairs, as hard as they could pelt. A brown-faced, nervous, active policeman followed them in and stopped to guard the door.

On the landing the detectives paused, and looked at one another, hesitating.

"Which way did he go?" said Bonavent. "We were on his very heels."

"I don't know; but we've jolly well stopped his getting into his own house; and that's the main thing," said Dieusy triumphantly.

"But are you sure it was him?" said Bonavent, stepping into the anteroom.

"I can swear to it," said Dieusy confidently; and he followed him.

Charolais came rushing up the stairs and caught them up as they were entering the smoking-room:

"Here! What's all this?" he cried. "You mustn't come in here! His Grace isn't awake yet."

"Awake? Awake? Your precious Duke has been galloping all night," cried Dieusy. "And he runs devilish well, too."

The door of the bedroom opened; and Lupin stood on the threshold in slippers and pyjamas.

"What's all this?" he snapped, with the irritation of a man whose sleep has been disturbed; and his tousled hair and eyes dim with exhaustion gave him every appearance of being still heavy with sleep.

The eyes and mouths of Bonavent and Dieusy opened wide; and they stared at him blankly, in utter bewilderment and wonder.

"Is it you who are making all this noise?" said Lupin, frowning at them. "Why, I know you two; you're in the service of M. Guerchard."

"Yes, your Grace," stammered Bonavent.

"Well, what are you doing here? What is it you want?" said Lupin.

"Oh, nothing, your Grace . . . nothing . . . there's been a mistake," stammered Bonavent.

"A mistake?" said Lupin haughtily. "I should think there had been a mistake. But I take it that this is Guerchard's doing. I'd better deal with him directly. You two can go." He turned to Charolais and added curtly, "Show them out."

Charolais opened the door, and the two detectives went out of the room with the slinking air of whipped dogs. They went down the stairs in silence, slowly, reflectively; and Charolais let them out of the front door.

As they went down the steps Dieusy said: "What a howler! Guerchard risks getting the sack for this!"

"I told you so," said Bonavent. "A duke's a duke."

When the door closed behind the two detectives Lupin tottered across the room, dropped on to the couch with a groan of exhaustion, and closed his eyes. Presently the door opened, Victoire came in, saw his attitude of exhaustion, and with a startled cry ran to his side.

"Oh, dearie! dearie!" she cried. "Pull yourself together! Oh, do try to pull yourself together." She caught his cold hands and began to rub them, murmuring words of endearment like a mother over a young child. Lupin did not open his eyes; Charolais came in.

"Some breakfast!" she cried. "Bring his breakfast . . . he's faint . . . he's had nothing to eat this morning. Can you eat some breakfast, dearie?"

"Yes," said Lupin faintly.

"Hurry up with it," said Victoire in urgent, imperative tones; and Charolais left the room at a run.

"Oh, what a life you lead!" said Victoire, or, to be exact, she wailed it. "Are you never going to change? You're as white as a sheet. . . . Can't you speak, dearie?"

She stooped and lifted his legs on to the couch.

He stretched himself, and, without opening his eyes, said in a faint voice: "Oh, Victoire, what a fright I've had!"

"You? You've been frightened?" cried Victoire, amazed.

"Yes. You needn't tell the others, though. But I've had a night of it . . . I did play the fool so . . . I must have been absolutely mad. Once I had changed the coronet under that fat old fool Gournay-Martin's very eyes . . . once you and Sonia were out of their clutches, all I had to do was to slip away. Did I? Not a bit of it! I stayed there out of sheer bravado, just to score off Guerchard. . . . And then I . . . I, who pride myself on being as cool as a cucumber . . . I did the one thing I ought not to have done. . . . Instead of going quietly away as the Duke of Charmerace . . . what do you think I did? . . . I bolted . . . I started running . . . running like a thief. . . . In about two seconds I saw the slip I had made. It did not take me longer; but that was too long— Guerchard's men were on my track . . . I was done for."

"Then Guerchard understood—he recognized you?" said Victoire anxiously.

"As soon as the first paralysis had passed, Guerchard dared to see clearly . . . to see the truth," said Lupin. "And then it was a chase. There were ten—fifteen of them on my heels. Out of breath—grunting, furious—a mob—a regular mob. I had passed the night before in a motor-car. I was dead beat. In fact, I was done for before I started . . . and they were gaining ground all the time."

"Why didn't you hide?" said Victoire.

"For a long while they were too close. They must have been within five feet of me. I was done. Then I was crossing one of the bridges. . . . There was the Seine . . . handy . . . I made up my mind that, rather than be taken, I'd make an end of it . . . I'd throw myself over."

"Good Lord!—and then?" cried Victoire.

"Then I had a revulsion of feeling. At any rate, I'd stick it out to the end. I gave myself another minute. . . one more minute—the last, and I had my revolver on me. . . but during that minute I put forth every ounce of strength I had left . . . I began to gain ground . . . I had them pretty well strung out already . . . they were blown too. The knowledge gave me back my courage, and I plugged on . . . my feet did not feel so much as though they were made of lead. I began to run away from them . . . they were dropping behind . . . all of them but one . . . he stuck to me. We went at a jog-trot, a slow jog-trot, for I don't know how long. Then we dropped to a walk—we could run no more; and on we went. My strength and wind began to come back. I suppose my pursuer's did too; for exactly what I expected happened. He gave a yell and dashed for me. I was ready for him. I pretended to start running, and when he was within three yards of me I dropped on one knee, caught his ankles, and chucked him over my head. I don't know whether he broke his neck or not. I hope he did."

"Splendid!" said Victoire. "Splendid!"

"Well, there I was, outside Paris, and I'm hanged if I know where. I went on half a mile, and then I rested. Oh, how sleepy I was! I would have given a hundred thousand francs for an hour's sleep—cheerfully. But I dared not let myself sleep. I had to get back here unseen. There were you and Sonia."

"Sonia? Another woman?" cried Victoire. "Oh, it's then that I'm frightened . . . when you get a woman mixed up in your game. Always, when you come to grief . . . when you really get into danger, there's a woman in it."

"Oh, but she's charming!" protested Lupin.

"They always are," said Victoire drily. "But go on. Tell me how you got here."

"Well, I knew it was going to be a tough job, so I took a good rest—an hour, I should think. And then I started to walk back. I found that I had come a devil of a way—I must have gone at Marathon pace. I walked and walked, and at last I got into Paris, and found myself with still a couple of miles to go. It was all right now; I should soon find a cab. But the luck was dead against me. I heard a man come round the corner of a side-street into a long street I was walking down. He gave a yell, and came bucketing after me. It was that hound Dieusy. He had recognized my figure. Off I went; and the chase began again. I led him a dance, but I couldn't shake him off. All the while I was working my way towards home. Then, just at last, I spurted for all I was worth, got out of his sight, bolted round the corner of the street into the secret entrance, and here I am." He smiled weakly, and added, "Oh, my dear Victoire, what a profession it is!"