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CHAPTER XXII


THE BARGAIN


CHAROLAIS conducted the detective down the stairs and let him out of the front door, cursing and threatening vengeance as he went. Charolais took no notice of his words—he was the well-trained servant. He came back upstairs, and on the landing called to Victoire and Bernard. They came hurrying down; and the three of them went into the smoking-room.

"Now we know where we are," said Lupin, with cheerful briskness. "Guerchard will be here in ten minutes with a warrant for my arrest. All of you clear out."

"It won't be so precious easy. The house is watched," said Charolais. "And I'll bet it's watched back and front."

"Well, slip out by the secret entrance. They haven't found that yet," said Lupin. "And meet me at the house at Passy."

Charolais and Bernard wanted no more telling; they ran to the book- case and pressed the buttons; the book-case slid aside; the doors opened and disclosed the lift. They stepped into it. Victoire had followed them. She paused and said: "And you? Are you coming?"

"In an instant I shall slip out the same way," he said.

"I'll wait for him. You go on," said Victoire; and the lift went down.

Lupin went to the telephone, rang the bell, and put the receiver to his ear.

"You've no time to waste telephoning. They may be here at any moment!" cried Victoire anxiously.

"I must. If I don't telephone Sonia will come here. She will run right into Guerchard's arms. Why the devil don't they answer? They must be deaf!" And he rang the bell again.

"Let's go to her! Let's get out of here!" cried Victoire, more anxiously. "There really isn't any time to waste."

"Go to her? But I don't know where she is. I lost my head last night," cried Lupin, suddenly anxious himself. "Are you there?" he shouted into the telephone. "She's at a little hotel near the Star. . . . Are you there? . . . But there are twenty hotels near the Star. . . . Are you there? . . . Oh, I did lose my head last night. . . . Are you there? Oh, hang this telephone! Here I'm fighting with a piece of furniture. And every second is important!"

He picked up the machine, shook it, saw that the wires were cut, and cried furiously: "Ha! They've played the telephone trick on me! That's Guerchard. . . . The swine!"

"And now you can come along!" cried Victoire.

"But that's just what I can't do!" he cried.

"But there's nothing more for you to do here, since you can no longer telephone," said Victoire, bewildered.

Lupin caught her arm and shook her, staring into her face with panic-stricken eyes. "But don't you understand that, since I haven't telephoned, she'll come here?" he cried hoarsely. "Five-and-twenty minutes past eight! At half-past eight she will start—start to come here."

His face had suddenly grown haggard; this new fear had brought back all the exhaustion of the night; his eyes were panic-stricken.

"But what about you?" said Victoire, wringing her hands.

"What about her?" said Lupin; and his voice thrilled with anguished dread.

"But you'll gain nothing by destroying both of you—nothing at all."

"I prefer it," said Lupin slowly, with a suddenly stubborn air.

"But they're coming to take you," cried Victoire, gripping his arm.

"Take me?" cried Lupin, freeing himself quietly from her grip. And he stood frowning, plunged in deep thought, weighing the chances, the risks, seeking a plan, saving devices.

He crossed the room to the writing-table, opened a drawer, and took out a cardboard box about eight inches square and set it on the table.

"They shall never take me alive," he said gloomily.

"Oh, hush, hush!" said Victoire. "I know very well that you're capable of anything . . . and they too—they'll destroy you. No, look you, you must go. They won't do anything to her—a child like that—so frail. She'll get off quite easily. You're coming, aren't you?"

"No, I'm not," said Lupin stubbornly.

"Oh, well, if you won't," said Victoire; and with an air of resolution she went to the side of the lift-well, and pressed the buttons. The doors closed; the book-case slid across. She sat down and folded her arms.

"What, you're not going to stop here?" cried Lupin.

"Make me stir if you can. I'm as fond of you as she is—you know I am," said Victoire, and her face set stonily obstinate.

Lupin begged her to go; ordered her to go; he seized her by the shoulder, shook her, and abused her like a pickpocket. She would not stir. He abandoned the effort, sat down, and knitted his brow again in profound and painful thought, working out his plan. Now and again his eyes flashed, once or twice they twinkled. Victoire watched his face with just the faintest hope on her own.

It was past five-and-twenty minutes to nine when the front-door bell rang. They gazed at one another with an unspoken question on their lips. The eyes of Victoire were scared, but in the eyes of Lupin the light of battle was gathering.

"It's her," said Victoire under her breath.

"No," said Lupin. "It's Guerchard."

He sprang to his feet with shining eyes. His lips were curved in a fighting smile. "The game isn't lost yet," he said in a tense, quiet voice. "I'm going to play it to the end. I've a card or two left still—good cards. I'm still the Duke of Charmerace." He turned to her.

"Now listen to me," he said. "Go down and open the door for him."

"What, you want me to?" said Victoire, in a shaky voice.

"Yes, I do. Listen to me carefully. When you have opened the door, slip out of it and watch the house. Don't go too far from it. Look out for Sonia. You'll see her coming. Stop her from entering, Victoire—stop her from entering." He spoke coolly, but his voice shook on the last words.

"But if Guerchard arrests me?" said Victoire.

"He won't. When he comes in, stand behind the door. He will be too eager to get to me to stop for you. Besides, for him you don't count in the game. Once you're out of the house, I'll hold him here for— for half an hour. That will leave a margin. Sonia will hurry here. She should be here in twelve minutes. Get her away to the house at Passy. If I don't come keep her there; she's to live with you. But I shall come."

As he spoke he was pushing her towards the door.

The bell rang again. They were at the top of the stairs.

"And suppose he does arrest me?" said Victoire breathlessly.

"Never mind, you must go all the same," said Lupin. "Don't give up hope—trust to me. Go—go—for my sake."

"I'm going, dearie," said Victoire; and she went down the stairs steadily, with a brave air.

He watched her half-way down the flight; then he muttered:

"If only she gets to Sonia in time."

He turned, went into the smoking-room, and shut the door. He sat quietly down in an easy chair, lighted a cigarette, and took up a paper. He heard the noise of the traffic in the street grow louder as the front door was opened. There was a pause; then he heard the door bang. There was the sound of a hasty footstep on the stairs; the door flew open, and Guerchard bounced into the room.

He stopped short in front of the door at the sight of Lupin, quietly reading, smoking at his ease. He had expected to find the bird flown. He stood still, hesitating, shuffling his feet—all his doubts had returned; and Lupin smiled at him over the lowered paper.

Guerchard pulled himself together by a violent effort, and said jerkily, "Good-morning, Lupin."

"Good-morning, M. Guerchard," said Lupin, with an ambiguous smile and all the air of the Duke of Charmerace.

"You were expecting me? . . . I hope I haven't kept you waiting," said Guerchard, with an air of bravado.

"No, thank you: the time has passed quite quickly. I have so much to do in the morning always," said Lupin. "I hope you had a good night after that unfortunate business of the coronet. That was a disaster; and so unexpected too."

Guerchard came a few steps into the room, still hesitating:

"You've a very charming house here," he said, with a sneer.

"It's central," said Lupin carelessly. "You must please excuse me, if I cannot receive you as I should like; but all my servants have bolted. Those confounded detectives of yours have frightened them away."

"You needn't bother about that. I shall catch them," said Guerchard.

"If you do, I'm sure I wish you joy of them. Do, please, keep your hat on," said Lupin with ironic politeness.

Guerchard came slowly to the middle of the room, raising his hand to his hat, letting it fall again without taking it off. He sat down slowly facing him, and they gazed at one another with the wary eyes of duellists crossing swords at the beginning of a duel.

"Did you get M. Formery to sign a little warrant?" said Lupin, in a caressing tone full of quiet mockery.

"I did," said Guerchard through his teeth.

"And have you got it on you?" said Lupin.

"I have," said Guerchard.

"Against Lupin, or against the Duke of Charmerace?" said Lupin.

"Against Lupin, called Charmerace," said Guerchard.

"Well, that ought to cover me pretty well. Why don't you arrest me? What are you waiting for?" said Lupin. His face was entirely serene, his eyes were careless, his tone indifferent.

"I'm not waiting for anything," said Guerchard thickly; "but it gives me such pleasure that I wish to enjoy this minute to the utmost, Lupin," said Guerchard; and his eyes gloated on him.

"Lupin, himself," said Lupin, smiling.

"I hardly dare believe it," said Guerchard.

"You're quite right not to," said Lupin.

"Yes, I hardly dare believe it. You alive, here at my mercy?"

"Oh, dear no, not yet," said Lupin.

"Yes," said Guerchard, in a decisive tone. "And ever so much more than you think."

He bent forwards towards him, with his hands on his knees, and said, "Do you know where Sonia Kritchnoff is at this moment?"

"What?" said Lupin sharply.

"I ask if you know where Sonia Kritchnoff is?" said Guerchard slowly, lingering over the words.

"Do you?" said Lupin.

"I do," said Guerchard triumphantly.

"Where is she?" said Lupin, in a tone of utter incredulity.

"In a small hotel near the Star. The hotel has a telephone; and you can make sure," said Guerchard.

"Indeed? That's very interesting. What's the number of it?" said Lupin, in a mocking tone.

"555 Central: would you like to telephone to her?" said Guerchard; and he smiled triumphantly at the disabled instrument.

Lupin shock his head with a careless smile, and said, "Why should I telephone to her? What are you driving at?"

"Nothing . . . that's all," said Guerchard. And he leant back in his chair with an ugly smile on his face.

"Evidently nothing. For, after all, what has that child got to do with you? You're not interested in her, plainly. She's not big enough game for you. It's me you are hunting . . . it's me you hate . . . it's me you want. I've played you tricks enough for that, you old scoundrel. So you're going to leave that child in peace? . . . You're not going to revenge yourself on her? . . . It's all very well for you to be a policeman; it's all very well for you to hate me; but there are things one does not do." There was a ring of menace and appeal in the deep, ringing tones of his voice. "You're not going to do that, Guerchard. . . . You will not do it. . . . Me—yes—anything you like. But her—her you must not touch." He gazed at the detective with fierce, appealing eyes.

"That depends on you," said Guerchard curtly.

"On me?" cried Lupin, in genuine surprise.

"Yes, I've a little bargain to propose to you," said Guerchard.

"Have you?" said Lupin; and his watchful face was serene again, his smile almost pleasant.

"Yes," said Guerchard. And he paused, hesitating.

"Well, what is it you want?" said Lupin. "Out with it! Don't be shy about it."

"I offer you——"

"You offer me?" cried Lupin. "Then it isn't true. You're fooling me."

"Reassure yourself," said Guerchard coldly. "To you personally I offer nothing."

"Then you are sincere," said Lupin. "And putting me out of the question?"

"I offer you liberty."

"Who for? For my concierge?" said Lupin.

"Don't play the fool. You care only for a single person in the world. I hold you through her: Sonia Kritchnoff."

Lupin burst into a ringing, irrepressible laugh:

"Why, you're trying to blackmail me, you old sweep!" he cried.

"If you like to call it so," said Guerchard coldly.

Lupin rose and walked backwards and forwards across the room, frowning, calculating, glancing keenly at Guerchard, weighing him. Twice he looked at the clock.

He stopped and said coldly: "So be it. For the moment you're the stronger. . . . That won't last. . . . But you offer me this child's liberty."

"That's my offer," said Guerchard; and his eyes brightened at the prospect of success.

"Her complete liberty? . . . on your word of honour?" said Lupin; and he had something of the air of a cat playing with a mouse.

"On my word of honour," said Guerchard.

"Can you do it?" said Lupin, with a sudden air of doubt; and he looked sharply from Guerchard to the clock.

"I undertake to do it," said Guerchard confidently.

"But how?" said Lupin, looking at him with an expression of the gravest doubt.

"Oh, I'll put the thefts on your shoulders. That will let her out all right," said Guerchard,

"I've certainly good broad shoulders," said Lupin, with a bitter smile. He walked slowly up and down with an air that grew more and more depressed: it was almost the air of a beaten man. Then he stopped and faced Guerchard, and said: "And what is it you want in exchange?"

"Everything," said Guerchard, with the air of a man who is winning. "You must give me back the pictures, tapestry, Renaissance cabinets, the coronet, and all the information about the death of the Duke of Charmerace. Did you kill him?"

"If ever I commit suicide, you'll know all about it, my good Guerchard. You'll be there. You may even join me," said Lupin grimly; he resumed his pacing up and down the room.

"Done for, yes; I shall be done for," he said presently. "The fact is, you want my skin."

"Yes, I want your skin," said Guerchard, in a low, savage, vindictive tone.

"My skin," said Lupin thoughtfully.

"Are you going to do it? Think of that girl," said Guerchard, in a fresh access of uneasy anxiety.

Lupin laughed: "I can give you a glass of port," he said, "but I'm afraid that's all I can do for you."

"I'll throw Victoire in," said Guerchard.

"What?" cried Lupin. "You've arrested Victoire?" There was a ring of utter dismay, almost despair, in his tone.

"Yes; and I'll throw her in. She shall go scot-free. I won't bother with her," said Guerchard eagerly.

The front-door bell rang.

"Wait, wait. Let me think," said Lupin hoarsely; and he strove to adjust his jostling ideas, to meet with a fresh plan this fresh disaster.

He stood listening with all his ears. There were footsteps on the stairs, and the door opened. Dieusy stood on the threshold.

"Who is it?" said Guerchard.

"I accept—I accept everything," cried Lupin in a frantic tone.

"It's a tradesman; am I to detain him?" said Dieusy. "You told me to let you know who came and take instructions."

"A tradesman? Then I refuse!" cried Lupin, in an ecstasy of relief.

"No, you needn't keep him," said Guerchard, to Dieusy.

Dieusy went out and shut the door.

"You refuse?" said Guerchard.

"I refuse," said Lupin.

"I'm going to gaol that girl," said Guerchard savagely; and he took a step towards the door.

"Not for long," said Lupin quietly. "You have no proof."

"She'll furnish the proof all right herself—plenty of proofs," said Guerchard brutally. "What chance has a silly child like that got. when we really start questioning her? A delicate creature like that will crumple up before the end of the third day's cross-examination."

"You swine!" said Lupin.

"You know well enough that I can do it—on my head—with a feeble child like that; and you know your Code; five years is the minimum," said Guerchard, in a tone of relentless brutality, watching him carefully, sticking to his hope.

"By Jove, I could wring your neck!" said Lupin, trembling with fury. By a violent effort he controlled himself, and said thoughtfully, "After all, if I give up everything to you, I shall be free to take it back one of these days."

"Oh, no doubt, when you come out of prison," said Guerchard ironically; and he laughed a grim, jeering laugh.

"I've got to go to prison first," said Lupin quietly.

"Pardon me—if you accept, I mean to arrest you," said Guerchard.

"Manifestly you'll arrest me if you can," said Lupin.

"Do you accept?" said Guerchard. And again his voice quivered with anxiety.

"Well," said Lupin. And he paused as if finally weighing the matter.

"Well?" said Guerchard, and his voice shook.

"Well—no!" said Lupin; and he laughed a mocking laugh.

"You won't?" said Guerchard between his teeth.

"No; you wish to catch me. This is just a ruse," said Lupin, in quiet, measured tones. "At bottom you don't care a hang about Sonia, Mademoiselle Kritchnoff. You will not arrest her. And then, if you did you have no proofs. There are no proofs. As for the pendant, you'd have to prove it. You can't prove it. You can't prove that it was in her possession one moment. Where is the pendant?" He paused, and then went on in the same quiet tone: "No, Guerchard; after having kept out of your clutches for the last ten years, I'm not going to be caught to save this child, who is not even in danger. She has a very useful friend in the Duke of Charmerace. I refuse."

Guerchard stared at him, scowling, biting his lips, seeking a fresh point of attack. For the moment he knew himself baffled, but he still clung tenaciously to the struggle in which victory would be so precious.

The front-door bell rang again.

"There's a lot of ringing at your bell this morning," said Guerchard, under his breath; and hope sprang afresh in him.

Again they stood silent, waiting.

Dieusy opened the door, put in his head, and said, "It's Mademoiselle Kritchnoff."

"Collar her! . . . Here's the warrant! . . . collar her!" shouted Guerchard, with savage, triumphant joy.

"Never! You shan't touch her! By Heaven, you shan't touch her!" cried Lupin frantically; and he sprang like a tiger at Guerchard.

Guerchard jumped to the other side of the table. "Will you accept, then?" he cried.

Lupin gripped the edge of the table with both hands, and stood panting, grinding his teeth, pale with fury. He stood silent and motionless for perhaps half a minute, gazing at Guerchard with burning, murderous eyes. Then he nodded his head.

"Let Mademoiselle Kritchnoff wait," said Guerchard, with a sigh of deep relief. Dieusy went out of the room.

"Now let us settle exactly how we stand," said Lupin, in a clear, incisive voice. "The bargain is this: If I give you the pictures, the tapestry, the cabinets, the coronet, and the death-certificate of the Duke of Charmerace, you give me your word of honour that Mademoiselle Kritchnoff shall not be touched."

"That's it!" said Guerchard eagerly.

"Once I deliver these things to you, Mademoiselle Kritchnoff passes out of the game."

"Yes," said Guerchard.

"Whatever happens afterwards. If I get back anything—if I escape— she goes scot-free," said Lupin.

"Yes," said Guerchard; and his eyes were shining.

"On your word of honour?" said Lupin.

"On my word of honour," said Guerchard.

"Very well," said Lupin, in a quiet, businesslike voice. "To begin with, here in this pocket-book you'll find all the documents relating to the death of the Duke of Charmerace. In it you will also find the receipt of the Plantin furniture repository at Batignolles for the objects of art which I collected at Gournay-Martin's. I sent them to Batignolles because, in my letters asking the owners of valuables to forward them to me, I always make Batignolles the place to which they are to be sent; therefore I knew that you would never look there. They are all in cases; for, while you were making those valuable inquiries yesterday, my men were putting them into cases. You'll not find the receipt in the name of either the Duke of Charmerace or my own. It is in the name of a respected proprietor of Batignolles, a M. Pierre Servien. But he has lately left that charming suburb, and I do not think he will return to it."

Guerchard almost snatched the pocket-book out of his hand. He verified the documents in it with greedy eyes; and then he put them back in it, and stuffed it into the breast-pocket of his coat.

"And where's the coronet?" he said, in an excited voice.

"You're nearly standing on it," said Lupin. "It's in that kit-bag at your feet, on the top of the change of clothes in it."

Guerchard snatched up the kit-bag, opened it, and took out the coronet.

"I'm afraid I haven't the case," said Lupin, in a tone of regret. "If you remember, I left it at Gournay-Martin's—in your charge."

Guerchard examined the coronet carefully. He looked at the stones in it; he weighed it in his right hand, and he weighed it in his left.

"Are you sure it's the real one?" said Lupin, in a tone of acute but affected anxiety. "Do not—oh, do not let us have any more of these painful mistakes about it. They are so wearing."

"Yes—yes—this is the real one," said Guerchard, with another deep sigh of relief.

"Well, have you done bleeding me?" said Lupin contemptuously.

"Your arms," said Guerchard quickly.

"They weren't in the bond," said Lupin. "But here you are." And he threw his revolver on the table.

Guerchard picked it up and put it into his pocket. He looked at Lupin as if he could not believe his eyes, gloating over him. Then he said in a deep, triumphant tone:

"And now for the handcuffs!"