The Hollow Needle/Chapter Five
Young Beautrelet was stunned by the violence of the blow. As a matter of fact, although, in publishing his article, he had obeyed one of those irresistible impulses which make a man despise every consideration of prudence, he had never really believed in the possibility of an abduction. His precautions had been too thorough. The friends at Cherbourg not only had instructions to guard and protect Beautrelet the elder: they were also to watch his comings and goings, never to let him walk out alone and not even to hand him a single letter without first opening it. No, there was no danger. Lupin, wishing to gain time, was trying to intimidate his adversary.
The blow, therefore, was almost unexpected; and Isidore, because he was powerless to act, felt the pain of the shock during the whole of the remainder of the day. One idea alone supported him: that of leaving Paris, going down there, seeing for himself what had happened and resuming the offensive.
He telegraphed to Cherbourg. He was at Saint-Lazare a little before nine. A few minutes after, he was steaming out of the station in the Normandy express.
It was not until an hour later, when he mechanically unfolded a newspaper which he had bought on the platform, that he became aware of the letter by which Lupin indirectly replied to his article of that morning:
To the Editor of the Grand Journal.
SIR: I cannot pretend but that my modest personality, which would certainly have passed unnoticed in more heroic times, has acquired a certain prominence in the dull and feeble period in which we live. But there is a limit beyond which the morbid curiosity of the crowd cannot go without becoming indecently indiscreet. If the walls that surround our private lives be not respected, what is to safeguard the rights of the citizen?
Will those who differ plead the higher interest of truth? An empty pretext in so far as I am concerned, because the truth is known and I raise no difficulty about making an official confession of the truth in writing. Yes, Mlle. de Saint-Veran is alive. Yes, I love her. Yes, I have the mortification not to be loved by her. Yes, the results of the boy Beautrelet's inquiry are wonderful in their precision and accuracy. Yes, we agree on every point. There is no riddle left. There is no mystery. Well, then, what?
Injured to the very depths of my soul, bleeding still from cruel wounds, I ask that my more intimate feelings and secret hopes may no longer be delivered to the malevolence of the public. I ask for peace, the peace which I need to conquer the affection of Mlle. de Saint-Veran and to wipe out from her memory the thousand little injuries which she has had to suffer at the hands of her uncle and cousin—this has not been told—because of her position as a poor relation. Mlle. de Saint-Veran will forget this hateful past. All that she can desire, were it the fairest jewel in the world, were it the most unattainable treasure, I shall lay at her feet. She will be happy. She will love me.
But, if I am to succeed, once more, I require peace. That is why I lay down my arms and hold out the olive-branch to my enemies—while warning them, with every magnanimity on my part, that a refusal on theirs might bring down upon them the gravest consequences.
One word more on the subject of Mr. Harlington. This name conceals the identity of an excellent fellow, who is secretary to Cooley, the American millionaire, and instructed by him to lay hands upon every object of ancient art in Europe which it is possible to discover. His evil star brought him into touch with my friend Etienne de Vaudreix, ALIAS Arsene Lupin, ALIAS myself. He learnt, in this way, that a certain M. de Gesvres was willing to part with four pictures by Rubens, ostensibly on the condition that they were replaced by copies and that the bargain to which he was consenting remained unknown. My friend Vaudreix also undertook to persuade M. de Gesvres to sell his chapel. The negotiations were conducted with entire good faith on the side of my friend Vaudreix and with charming ingenuousness on the side of Mr. Harlington, until the day when the Rubenses and the carvings from the chapel were in a safe place and Mr. Harlington in prison. There remains nothing, therefore, to be done but to release the unfortunate American, because he was content to play the modest part of a dupe; to brand the millionaire Cooley, because, for fear of possible unpleasantness, he did not protest against his secretary's arrest; and to congratulate my friend Etienne de Vaudreix, because he is revenging the outraged morality of the public by keeping the hundred thousand francs which he was paid on account by that singularly unattractive person, Cooley.
Pray, pardon the length of this letter and permit me to be, Sir,
Your obedient servant,
Isidore weighed the words of this communication as minutely, perhaps, as he had studied the document concerning the Hollow Needle. He went on the principle, the correctness of which was easily proved, that Lupin had never taken the trouble to send one of his amusing letters to the press without absolute necessity, without some motive which events were sure, sooner or later, to bring to light.
What was the motive for this particular letter? For what hidden reason was Lupin confessing his love and the failure of that love? Was it there that Beautrelet had to seek, or in the explanations regarding Mr. Harlington, or further still, between the lines, behind all those words whose apparent meaning had perhaps no other object than to suggest some wicked, perfidious, misleading little idea?
For hours, the young man, confined to his compartment, remained pensive and anxious. The letter filled him with mistrust, as though it had been written for his benefit and were destined to lead him, personally, into error. For the first time and because he found himself confronted not with a direct attack, but with an ambiguous, indefinable method of fighting, he underwent a distinct sensation of fear. And, when he thought of his good old, easy-going father, kidnapped through his fault, he asked himself, with a pang, whether he was not mad to continue so unequal a contest. Was the result not certain? Had Lupin not won the game in advance?
It was but a short moment of weakness. When he alighted from his compartment, at six o'clock in the morning, refreshed by a few hours' sleep, he had recovered all his confidence.
On the platform, Froberval, the dockyard clerk who had given hospitality to M. Beautrelet, senior, was waiting for him, accompanied by his daughter Charlotte, an imp of twelve or thirteen.
"Well?" cried Isidore.
The worthy man beginning to moan and groan, he interrupted him, dragged him to a neighboring tavern, ordered coffee and began to put plain questions, without permitting the other the slightest digression:
"My father has not been carried off, has he? It was impossible."
"Impossible. Still, he has disappeared."
"We don't know."
"No. Yesterday morning, at six o'clock, as I had not seen him come down as usual, I opened his door. He was gone."
"But was he there on the day before, two days ago?"
"Yes. On the day before yesterday, he did not leave his room. He was a little tired; and Charlotte took his lunch up to him at twelve and his dinner at seven in the evening."
"So it was between seven o'clock in the evening, on the day before yesterday, and six o'clock on yesterday morning that he disappeared?"
"Yes, during the night before last. Only—"
"Well, it's like this: you can't leave the arsenal at night."
"Do you mean that he has not left it?"
"That's impossible! My friends and I have searched the whole naval harbor."
"Then he has left it!"
"Impossible, every outlet is guarded!"
Beautrelet reflected and then said:
"Next, I hurried to the commandant's and informed the officer in charge."
"Did he come to your house?"
"Yes; and a gentleman from the public prosecutor's also. They searched all through the morning; and, when I saw that they were making no progress and that there was no hope left, I telegraphed to you."
"Was the bed disarranged in his room?"
"Nor the room disturbed in any way?"
"No. I found his pipe in its usual place, with his tobacco and the book which he was reading. There was even this little photograph of yourself in the middle of the book, marking the page."
"Let me see it."
Froberval passed him the photograph. Beautrelet gave a start of surprise. He had recognized himself in the snapshot, standing, with his two hands in his pockets, on a lawn from which rose trees and ruins.
"It must be the last portrait of yourself which you sent him. Look, on the back, you will see the date, 3 April, the name of the photographer, R. de Val, and the name of the town, Lion—Lion-sur- Mer, perhaps."
Isidore turned the photograph over and read this little note, in his own handwriting:
"R. de Val.—3.4—Lion."
He was silent for a few minutes and resumed:
"My father hadn't shown you that snapshot yet?"
"No—and that's just what astonished me when I saw it yesterday—for your father used so often to talk to us about you."
There was a fresh pause, greatly prolonged. Froberval muttered:
"I have business at the workshop. We might as well go in—"
He was silent. Isidore had not taken his eyes from the photograph, was examining it from every point of view. At last, the boy asked:
"Is there such a thing as an inn called the Lion d'Or at a short league outside the town?"
"Yes, about a league from here."
"On the Route de Valognes, is it?"
"Yes, on the Route de Valognes."
"Well, I have every reason to believe that this inn was the head- quarters of Lupin's friends. It was from there that they entered into communication with my father."
"What an idea! Your father spoke to nobody. He saw nobody."
"He saw nobody, but they made use of an intermediary."
"What proof have you?"
"But it's your photograph!"
"It's my photograph, but it was not sent by me. I was not even aware of its existence. It was taken, without my knowledge, in the ruins of Ambrumesy, doubtless by the examining-magistrate's clerk, who, as you know, was an accomplice of Arsene Lupin's."
"Then this photograph became the passport, the talisman, by means of which they obtained my father's confidence."
"But who? Who was able to get into my house?"
"I don't know, but my father fell into the trap. They told him and he believed that I was in the neighborhood, that I was asking to see him and that I was giving him an appointment at the Golden Lion."
"But all this is nonsense! How can you assert—?"
"Very simply. They imitated my writing on the back of the photograph and specified the meeting-place: Valognes Road, 3 kilometres 400, Lion Inn. My father came and they seized him, that's all."
"Very well," muttered Froberval, dumbfounded, "very well. I admit it—things happened as you say—but that does not explain how he was able to leave during the night."
"He left in broad daylight, though he waited until dark to go to the meeting-place."
"But, confound it, he didn't leave his room the whole of the day before yesterday!"
"There is one way of making sure: run down to the dockyard, Froberval, and look for one of the men who were on guard in the afternoon, two days ago.—Only, be quick, if you wish to find me here."
"Are you going?"
"Yes, I shall take the next train back."
"What!—Why, you don't know—your inquiry—"
"My inquiry is finished. I know pretty well all that I wanted to know. I shall have left Cherbourg in an hour."
Froberval rose to go. He looked at Beautrelet with an air of absolute bewilderment, hesitated a moment and then took his cap:
"Are you coming, Charlotte?"
"No," said Beautrelet, "I shall want a few more particulars. Leave her with me. Besides, I want to talk to her. I knew her when she was quite small."
Froberval went away. Beautrelet and the little girl remained alone in the tavern smoking room. A few minutes passed, a waiter entered, cleared away some cups and left the room again. The eyes of the young man and the child met; and Beautrelet placed his hand very gently on the little girl's hand. She looked at him for two or three seconds, distractedly, as though about to choke. Then, suddenly hiding her head between her folded arms, she burst into sobs.
He let her cry and, after a while, said:
"It was you, wasn't it, who did all the mischief, who acted as go- between? It was you who took him the photograph? You admit it, don't you? And, when you said that my father was in his room, two days ago, you knew that it was not true, did you not, because you yourself had helped him to leave it—?"
She made no reply. He asked:
"Why did you do it? They offered you money, I suppose—to buy ribbons with a frock—?"
He uncrossed Charlotte's arms and lifted up her head. He saw a poor little face all streaked with tears, the attractive, disquieting, mobile face of one of those little girls who seem marked out for temptation and weakness.
"Come," said Beautrelet, "it's over, we'll say no more about it. I will not even ask you how it happened. Only you must tell me everything that can be of use to me.—Did you catch anything—any remark made by those men? How did they carry him off?"
She replied at once:
"By motor car. I heard them talking about it—"
"And what road did they take?"
"Ah, I don't know that!"
"Didn't they say anything before you—something that might help us?"
"No—wait, though: there was one who said, 'We shall have no time to lose—the governor is to telephone to us at eight o'clock in the morning—'"
"I can't say.—I've forgotten—"
"Try—try and remember. It was the name of a town, wasn't it?"
"Yes—a name—like Chateau—"
"Yes, that was it—Chateauroux—"
Beautrelet did not wait for her to complete her sentence. Already he was on his feet and, without giving a thought to Froberval, without even troubling about the child, who stood gazing at him in stupefaction, he opened the door and ran to the station:
"Chateauroux, madame—a ticket for Chateauroux—"
"Over Mans and Tours?" asked the booking-clerk.
"Of course—the shortest way. Shall I be there for lunch?"
"For dinner? Bedtime—?"
"Oh, no! For that, you would have to go over Paris. The Paris express leaves at nine o'clock. You're too late—"
It was not too late. Beautrelet was just able to catch the train.
"Well," said Beautrelet, rubbing his hands, "I have spent only two hours or so at Cherbourg, but they were well employed."
He did not for a moment think of accusing Charlotte of lying. Weak, unstable, capable of the worst treacheries, those petty natures also obey impulses of sincerity; and Beautrelet had read in her affrighted eyes her shame for the harm which she had done and her delight at repairing it in part. He had no doubt, therefore, that Chateauroux was the other town to which Lupin had referred and where his confederates were to telephone to him.
On his arrival in Paris, Beautrelet took every necessary precaution to avoid being followed. He felt that it was a serious moment. He was on the right road that was leading him to his father: one act of imprudence might ruin all.
He went to the flat of one of his schoolfellows and came out, an hour later, irrecognizable, rigged out as an Englishman of thirty, in a brown check suit, with knickerbockers, woolen stockings and a cap, a high-colored complexion and a red wig. He jumped on a bicycle laden with a complete painter's outfit and rode off to the Gare d'Austerlitz.
He slept that night at Issoudun. The next morning, he mounted his machine at break of day. At seven o'clock, he walked into the Chateauroux post-office and asked to be put on to Paris. As he had to wait, he entered into conversation with the clerk and learnt that, two days before, at the same hour, a man dressed for motoring had also asked for Paris.
The proof was established. He waited no longer.
By the afternoon, he had ascertained, from undeniable evidence, that a limousine car, following the Tours road, had passed through the village of Buzancais and the town of Chateauroux and had stopped beyond the town, on the verge of the forest. At ten o'clock, a hired gig, driven by a man unknown, had stopped beside the car and then gone off south, through the valley of the Bouzanne. There was then another person seated beside the driver. As for the car, it had turned in the opposite direction and gone north, toward Issoudun.
Beautrelet easily discovered the owner of the gig, who, however, had no information to supply. He had hired out his horse and trap to a man who brought them back himself next day.
Lastly, that same evening, Isidore found out that the motor car had only passed through Issoudun, continuing its road toward Orleans, that is to say, toward Paris.
From all this, it resulted, in the most absolute fashion, that M. Beautrelet was somewhere in the neighborhood. If not, how was it conceivable that people should travel nearly three hundred miles across France in order to telephone from Chateauroux and next to return, at an acute angle, by the Paris road?
This immense circuit had a more definite object: to move M. Beautrelet to the place assigned to him.
"And this place is within reach of my hand," said Isidore to himself, quivering with hope and expectation. "My father is waiting for me to rescue him at ten or fifteen leagues from here. He is close by. He is breathing the same air as I."
He set to work at once. Taking a war-office map, he divided it into small squares, which he visited one after the other, entering the farmhouses making the peasants talk, calling on the schoolmasters, the mayors, the parish priests, chatting to the women. It seemed to him that he must attain his end without delay and his dreams grew until it was no longer his father alone whom he hoped to deliver, but all those whom Lupin was holding captive: Raymonde de Saint- Veran, Ganimard, Holmlock Shears, perhaps, and others, many others; and, in reaching them, he would, at the same time, reach Lupin's stronghold, his lair, the impenetrable retreat where he was piling up the treasures of which he had robbed the wide world.
But, after a fortnight's useless searching, his enthusiasm ended by slackening and he very soon lost confidence. Because success was slow in appearing, from one day to the next, almost, he ceased to believe in it; and, though he continued to pursue his plan of investigations, he would have felt a real surprise if his efforts had led to the smallest discovery.
More days still passed by, monotonous days of discouragement. He read in the newspapers that the Comte de Gesvres and his daughter had left Ambrumesy and gone to stay near Nice. He also learnt that Harlington had been released, that gentleman's innocence having become self-obvious, in accordance with the indications supplied by Arsene Lupin.
Isidore changed his head-quarters, established himself for two days at the Chatre, for two days at Argenton. The result was the same.
Just then, he was nearly throwing up the game. Evidently, the gig in which his father had been carried off could only have furnished a stage, which had been followed by another stage, furnished by some other conveyance. And his father was far away.
He was thinking of leaving, when, one Monday morning, he saw, on the envelope of an unstamped letter, sent on to him from Paris, a handwriting that set him trembling with emotion. So great was his excitement that, for some minutes, he dared not open the letter, for fear of a disappointment. His hand shook. Was it possible? Was this not a trap laid for him by his infernal enemy?
He tore open the envelope. It was indeed a letter from his father, written by his father himself. The handwriting presented all the peculiarities, all the oddities of the hand which he knew so well.
Will these lines ever reach you, my dear son? I dare not believe it.
During the whole night of my abduction, we traveled by motor car; then, in the morning, by carriage. I could see nothing. My eyes were bandaged. The castle in which I am confined should be somewhere in the midlands, to judge by its construction and the vegetation in the park. The room which I occupy is on the second floor: it is a room with two windows, one of which is almost blocked by a screen of climbing glycines. In the afternoon, I am allowed to walk about the park, at certain hours, but I am kept under unrelaxing observation.
I am writing this letter, on the mere chance of its reaching you, and fastening it to a stone. Perhaps, one day, I shall be able to throw it over the wall and some peasant will pick it up.
But do not be distressed about me. I am treated with every consideration.
Your old father, who is very fond of you and very sad to think of the trouble he is giving you,
Isidore at once looked at the postmarks. They read, "Cuzion, Indre."
The Indre! The department which he had been stubbornly searching for weeks!
He consulted a little pocket-guide which he always carried. Cuzion, in the canton of Eguzon—he had been there too.
For prudence's sake, he discarded his personality as an Englishman, which was becoming too well known in the district, disguised himself as a workman and made for Cuzion. It was an unimportant village. He would easily discover the sender of the letter.
For that matter, chance served him without delay:
"A letter posted on Wednesday last?" exclaimed the mayor, a respectable tradesman in whom he confided and who placed himself at his disposal. "Listen, I think I can give you a valuable clue: on Saturday morning, Gaffer Charel, an old knife-grinder who visits all the fairs in the department, met me at the end of the village and asked, 'Monsieur le maire, does a letter without a stamp on it go all the same?' 'Of course,' said I. 'And does it get there?' 'Certainly. Only there's double postage to pay on it, that's all the difference.'
"And where does he live?"
"He lives over there, all alone—on the slope—the hovel that comes next after the churchyard.—Shall I go with you?"
It was a hovel standing by itself, in the middle of an orchard surrounded by tall trees. As they entered the orchard, three magpies flew away with a great splutter and they saw that the birds were flying out of the very hole in which the watch-dog was fastened. And the dog neither barked nor stirred as they approached.
Beautrelet went up in great surprise. The brute was lying on its side, with stiff paws, dead.
They ran quickly to the cottage. The door stood open. They entered. At the back of a low, damp room, on a wretched straw mattress, flung on the floor itself, lay a man fully dressed.
"Gaffer Charel!" cried the mayor. "Is he dead, too?"
The old man's hands were cold, his face terribly pale, but his heart was still beating, with a faint, slow throb, and he seemed not to be wounded in any way.
They tried to resuscitate him and, as they failed in their efforts, Beautrelet went to fetch a doctor. The doctor succeeded no better than they had done. The old man did not seem to be suffering. He looked as if he were just asleep, but with an artificial slumber, as though he had been put to sleep by hypnotism or with the aid of a narcotic.
In the middle of the night that followed, however, Isidore, who was watching by his side, observed that the breathing became stronger and that his whole being appeared to be throwing off the invisible bonds that paralyzed it.
At daybreak, he woke up and resumed his normal functions: ate, drank and moved about. But, the whole day long, he was unable to reply to the young man's questions and his brain seemed as though still numbed by an inexplicable torpor.
The next day, he asked Beautrelet:
"What are you doing here, eh?"
It was the first time that he had shown surprise at the presence of a stranger beside him.
Gradually, in this way, he recovered all his faculties. He talked. He made plans. But, when Beautrelet asked him about the events immediately preceding his sleep, he seemed not to understand.
And Beautrelet felt that he really did not understand. He had lost the recollection of all that had happened since the Friday before. It was like a sudden gap in the ordinary flow of his life. He described his morning and afternoon on the Friday, the purchases he had made at the fair, the meals he had taken at the inn. Then— nothing—nothing more. He believed himself to be waking on the morrow of that day.
It was horrible for Beautrelet. The truth lay there, in those eyes which had seen the walls of the park behind which his father was waiting for him, in those hands which had picked up the letter, in that muddled brain which had recorded the whereabouts of that scene, the setting, the little corner of the world in which the play had been enacted. And from those hands, from that brain he was unable to extract the faintest echo of the truth so near at hand!
Oh, that impalpable and formidable obstacle, against which all his efforts hurled themselves in vain, that obstacle built up of silence and oblivion! How clearly it bore the mark of Arsene Lupin! He alone, informed, no doubt, that M. Beautrelet had attempted to give a signal, he alone could have struck with partial death the one man whose evidence could injure him. It was not that Beautrelet felt himself to be discovered or thought that Lupin, hearing of his stealthy attack and knowing that a letter had reached him, was defending himself against him personally. But what an amount of foresight and real intelligence it displayed to suppress any possible accusation on the part of that chance wayfarer! Nobody now knew that within the walls of a park there lay a prisoner asking for help.
Nobody? Yes, Beautrelet. Gaffer Charel was unable to speak. Very well. But, at least, one could find out which fair the old man had visited and which was the logical road that he had taken to return by. And, along this road, perhaps it would at last be possible to find—
Isidore, as it was, had been careful not to visit Gaffer Charel's hovel except with the greatest precautions and in such a way as not to give an alarm. He now decided not to go back to it. He made inquiries and learnt that Friday was market-day at Fresselines, a fair-sized town situated a few leagues off, which could be reached either by the rather winding highroad or by a series of short cuts.
On the Friday, he chose the road and saw nothing that attracted his attention, no high walled enclosure, no semblance of an old castle.
He lunched at an inn at Fresselines and was on the point of leaving when he saw Gaffer Charel arrive and cross the square, wheeling his little knife-grinding barrow before him. He at once followed him at a good distance.
The old man made two interminable waits, during which he ground dozens of knives. Then, at last, he went away by a quite different road, which ran in the direction of Crozant and the market-town of Eguzon.
Beautrelet followed him along this road. But he had not walked five minutes before he received the impression that he was not alone in shadowing the old fellow. A man was walking along between them, stopping at the same time as Charel and starting off again when he did, without, for that matter, taking any great precautions against being seen.
"He is being watched," thought Beautrelet. "Perhaps they want to know if he stops in front of the walls—"
His heart beat violently. The event was at hand.
The three of them, one behind the other, climbed up and down the steep slopes of the country and arrived at Crozant, famed for the colossal ruins of its castle. There Charel made a halt of an hour's duration. Next he went down to the riverside and crossed the bridge.
But then a thing happened that took Beautrelet by surprise. The other man did not cross the river. He watched the old fellow move away and, when he had lost sight of him, turned down a path that took him right across the fields.
Beautrelet hesitated for a few seconds as to what course to take, and then quietly decided. He set off in pursuit of the man.
"He has made sure," he thought, "that Gaffer Charel has gone straight ahead. That is all he wanted to know and so he is going— where? To the castle?"
He was within touch of the goal. He felt it by a sort of agonizing gladness that uplifted his whole being.
The man plunged into a dark wood overhanging the river and then appeared once more in the full light, where the path met the horizon.
When Beautrelet, in his turn, emerged from the wood, he was greatly surprised no longer to see the man. He was seeking him with his eyes when, suddenly, he gave a stifled cry and, with a backward spring, made for the line of trees which he had just left. On his right, he had seen a rampart of high walls, flanked, at regular distances, by massive buttresses.
It was there! It was there! Those walls held his father captive! He had found the secret place where Lupin confined his victim.
He dared not quit the shelter which the thick foliage of the wood afforded him. Slowly, almost on all fours, he bore to the right and in this way reached the top of a hillock that rose to the level of the neighboring trees. The walls were taller still. Nevertheless, he perceived the roof of the castle which they surrounded, an old Louis XIII. roof, surmounted by very slender bell-turrets arranged corbel- wise around a higher steeple which ran to a point.
Beautrelet did no more that day. He felt the need to reflect and to prepare his plan of attack without leaving anything to chance. He held Lupin safe; and it was for Beautrelet now to select the hour and the manner of the combat.
He walked away.
Near the bridge, he met two country-girls carrying pails of milk. He asked:
"What is the name of the castle over there, behind the trees?"
"That's the Chateau de l'Aiguille, sir."
He had put his question without attaching any importance to it. The answer took away his breath:
"The Chateau de l'Aiguille?—Oh!—But in what department are we? The Indre?"
"Certainly not. The Indre is on the other side of the river. This side, it's the Creuse."
Isidore saw it all in a flash. The Chateau de l'Aiguille! The department of the Creuse! L'AIGUILLE CREUSE! The Hollow Needle! The very key to the document! Certain, decisive, absolute victory!
Without another word, he turned his back on the two girls and went his way, tottering like a drunken man.