The Hollow Needle/Chapter Seven
It is four o'clock in the morning. Isidore has not returned to the Lycee Janson. He has no intention of returning before the end of the war of extermination which he has declared against Lupin. This much he swore to himself under his breath, while his friends drove off with him, all faint and bruised, in a cab.
A mad oath! An absurd and illogical war! What can he do, a single, unarmed stripling, against that phenomenon of energy and strength? On which side is he to attack him? He is unassailable. Where to wound him? He is invulnerable. Where to get at him? He is inaccessible.
Four o'clock in the morning. Isidore has again accepted his schoolfellow's hospitality. Standing before the chimney in his bedroom, with his elbows flat on the mantel-shelf and his two fists under his chin, he stares at his image in the looking-glass. He is not crying now, he can shed no more tears, nor fling himself about on his bed, nor give way to despair, as he has been doing for the last two hours and more. He wants to think, to think and understand.
And he does not remove his eyes from those same eyes reflected in the glass, as though he hoped to double his powers of thought by contemplating his pensive image, as though he hoped to find at the back of that mirrored Beautrelet the unsolvable solution of what he does not find within himself.
He stands thus until six o'clock, and, little by little, the question presents itself to his mind with the strictness of an equation, bare and dry and cleared of all the details that complicate and obscure it.
Yes, he has made a mistake. Yes, his reading of the document is all wrong. The word aiguille does not point to the castle on the Creuse. Also, the word demoiselles cannot be applied to Raymonde de Saint- Veran and her cousin, because the text of the document dates back for centuries.
Therefore, all must be done over again, from the beginning.
One piece of evidence alone would be incontestible: the book published under Louis XIV. Now of those hundred copies printed by the person who was presumed to be the Man with the Iron Mask only two escaped the flames. One was purloined by the captain of the guards and lost. The other was kept by Louis XIV., handed down to Louis XV., and burnt by Louis XVI. But a copy of the essential page, the page containing the solution of the problem, or at least a cryptographic solution, was conveyed to Marie Antoinette, who slipped it into the binding of her book of hours. What has become of this paper? Is it the one which Beautrelet has held in his hands and which Lupin recovered from him through Bredoux, the magistrate's clerk? Or is it still in Marie Antoinette's book of hours? And the question resolves itself into this: what has become of the Queen's book of hours?
After taking a short rest, Beautrelet consulted his friend's father, an old and experienced collector, who was often called upon officially to give an expert opinion and who had quite lately been invited to advise the director of one of our museums on the drawing up of the catalogue.
"Marie Antoinette's book of hours?" he exclaimed. "Why, the Queen left it to her waiting-woman, with secret instructions to forward it to Count Fersen. After being piously preserved in the count's family, it has been, for the last five years, in a glass case—"
"A glass case?"
"In the Musee Carnavalet, quite simply."
"When will the museum be open?"
"At twenty minutes from now, as it is every morning."
Isidore and his friend jumped out of a cab at the moment when the doors of Madame de Sevigne's old mansion were opening.
"Hullo! M. Beautrelet!"
A dozen voices greeted his arrival. To his great surprise, he recognized the whole crowd of reporters who were following up "the mystery of the Hollow Needle." And one of them exclaimed:
"Funny, isn't it, that we should all have had the same idea? Take care, Arsene Lupin may be among us!"
They entered the museum together. The director was at once informed, placed himself entirely at their disposal, took them to the glass case and skewed them a poor little volume, devoid of all ornament, which certainly had nothing royal about it. Nevertheless, they were overcome by a certain emotion at the sight of this object which the Queen had touched in those tragic days, which her eyes, red with tears, had looked upon—And they dared not take it and hunt through it: it was as though they feared lest they should be guilty of a sacrilege—
"Come, M. Beautrelet, it's your business!"
He took the book with an anxious gesture. The description corresponded with that given by the author of the pamphlet. Outside was a parchment cover, dirty, stained and worn in places, and under it, the real binding, in stiff leather. With what a thrill Beautrelet felt for the hidden pocket! Was it a fairy tale? Or would he find the document written by Louis XVI. and bequeathed by the queen to her fervent admirer?
At the first page, on the upper side of the book, there was no receptacle.
"Nothing," he muttered.
"Nothing," they echoed, palpitating with excitement.
But, at the last page, forcing back the book a little, he at once saw that the parchment was not stuck to the binding. He slipped his fingers in between—there was something—yes, he felt something—a paper—
"Oh!" he gasped, in an accent almost of pain. "Here—is it possible?"
"Quick, quick!" they cried. "What are you waiting for?"
He drew out a sheet folded in two.
"Well, read it!—There are words in red ink—Look!—it might be blood—pale, faded blood—Read it!—"
To you, Fersen. For my son. 16 October, 1793.
And suddenly Beautrelet gave a cry of stupefaction. Under the queen's signature there were—there were two words, in black ink, underlined with a flourish—two words:
All, in turns, took the sheet of paper and the same cry escaped from the lips of all of them:
"Marie Antoinette!—Arsene Lupin!"
A great silence followed. That double signature: those two names coupled together, discovered hidden in the book of hours; that relic in which the poor queen's desperate appeal had slumbered for more than a century: that horrible date of the 16th of October, 1793, the day on which the Royal head fell: all of this was most dismally and disconcertingly tragic.
"Arsene Lupin!" stammered one of the voices, thus emphasizing the scare that underlay the sight of that demoniacal name at the foot of the hallowed page.
"Yes, Arsene Lupin," repeated Beautrelet. "The Queen's friend was unable to understand her desperate dying appeal. He lived with the keepsake in his possession which the woman whom he loved had sent him and he never guessed the reason of that keepsake. Lupin discovered everything, on the other hand—and took it."
"The document, of course! The document written by Louis XVI.; and it is that which I held in my hands. The same appearance, the same shape, the same red seals. I understand why Lupin would not leave me a document which I could turn to account by merely examining the paper, the seals and so on."
"Well, then, since the document is genuine, since I have, with my own eyes, seen the marks of the red seals, since Marie Antoinette herself assures me, by these few words in her hand, that the whole story of the pamphlet, as printed by M. Massiban, is correct, because a problem of the Hollow Needle really exists, I am now certain to succeed."
"But how? Whether genuine or not, the document is of no use to you if you do not manage to decipher it, because Louis XVI. destroyed the book that gave the explanation."
"Yes, but the other copy, which King Louis XVI.'s captain of the guards snatched from the flames, was not destroyed."
"How do you know?"
"Prove the contrary."
After uttering this defiance, Beautrelet was silent for a time and then, slowly, with his eyes closed, as though trying to fix and sum up his thoughts, he said:
"Possessing the secret, the captain of the guards begins by revealing it bit by bit in the journal found by his descendant. Then comes silence. The answer to the riddle is withheld. Why? Because the temptation to make use of the secret creeps over him little by little and he gives way to it. A proof? His murder. A further proof? The magnificent jewel found upon him, which he must undoubtedly have taken from some royal treasure the hiding-place of which, unknown to all, would just constitute the mystery of the Hollow Needle. Lupin conveyed as much to me; Lupin was not lying.
"Then what conclusion do you draw, Beautrelet?"
"I draw this conclusion, my friends, that it be a good thing to advertise this story as much as possible, so that people may know, through all the papers, that we are looking for a book entitled The Treatise of the Needle. It may be fished out from the back shelves of some provincial library."
The paragraph was drawn up forthwith; and Beautrelet set to work at once, without even waiting for it to produce a result. A first scent suggested itself: the murder was committed near Gaillon. He went there that same day. Certainly, he did not hope to reconstruct a crime perpetrated two hundred years ago. But, all the same, there are crimes that leave traces in the memories, in the traditions of a countryside. They are recorded in the local chronicles. One day, some provincial archaeologist, some lover of old legends, some student of the minor incidents of the life of the past makes them the subject of an article in a newspaper or of a communication to the academy of his departmental town.
Beautreiet saw three or four of these archaeologists. With one of them in particular, an old notary, he examined the prison records, the ledgers of the old bailiwicks and the parish registers. There was no entry referring to the murder of a captain of the guards in the seventeenth century.
He refused to be discouraged and continued his search in Paris, where the magistrate's examination might have taken place. His efforts came to nothing.
But the thought of another track sent him off in a fresh direction. Was there no chance of finding out the name of that captain whose descendant served in the armies of the Republic and was quartered in the Temple during the imprisonment of the Royal family? By dint of patient working, he ended by making out a list in which two names at least presented an almost complete resemblance: M. de Larbeyrie, under Louis XIV., and Citizen Larbrie, under the Terror.
This already was an important point. He stated it with precision in a note which he sent to the papers, asking for any information concerning this Larbeyrie or his descendants.
It was M. Massiban, the Massiban of the pamphlet, the member of the Institute, who replied to him:
Allow me to call your attention to the following passage of Voltaire, which I came upon in his manuscript of Le Siecle de Louis XIV. (Chapter XXV: Particularites et anecdotes du regne). The passage has been suppressed in all the printed editions:
"I have heard it said by the late M. de Caumartin, intendant of finance, who was a friend of Chamillard the minister, that the King one day left hurriedly in his carriage at the news that M. de Larbeyrie had been murdered and robbed of some magnificent jewels. He seemed greatly excited and repeated:
"'All is lost—all is lost—'
"In the following year, the son of this Larbeyrie and his daughter, who had married the Marquis de Velines, were banished to their estates in Provence and Brittany. We cannot doubt that there is something peculiar in this."
I, in my turn, will add that we can doubt it all the less inasmuch as M. de Chamillard, according to Voltaire, WAS THE LAST MINISTER WHO POSSESSED THE STRANGE SECRET OF THE IRON MASK.
You will see for yourself, Sir, the profit that can be derived from this passage and the evident link established between the two adventures. As for myself, I will not venture to imagine any very exact surmise as regards the conduct, the suspicions, and the apprehensions of Louis XIV. in these circumstances; but, on the other hand, seeing that M. de Larbeyrie left a son, who was probably the grandfather of Larbrie the citizen-officer, and also a daughter, is it not permissible to suppose that a part of the papers left by Larbeyrie came to the daughter and that among these papers was the famous copy which the captain of the guards saved from the flames?
I have consulted the Country-house Year-book. There is a Baron de Velines living not far from Rennes. Could he be a descendant of the marquis? At any rate, I wrote to him yesterday, on chance, to ask if he had not in his possession a little old book bearing on its title- page the word aiguille; and I am awaiting his reply.
It would give me the greatest pleasure to talk of all these matters with you. If you can spare the time, come and see me.
I am, Sir, etc., etc.
P.S.—Of course, I shall not communicate these little discoveries to the press. Now that you are near the goal, discretion is essential.
Beautrelet absolutely agreed. He even went further: to two journalists who were worrying him that morning he gave the most fanciful particulars as to his plans and his state of mind.
In the afternoon, he hurried round to see Massiban, who lived at 17, Quai Voltaire. To his great surprise, he was told that M. Massiban had gone out of town unexpectedly, leaving a note for him in case he should call. Isidore opened it and read:
I have received a telegram which gives me some hope. So I am leaving town and shall sleep at Rennes. You might take the evening train and, without stopping at Rennes, go on to the little station of Velines. We would meet at the castle, which is two miles and a half from the station.
The programme appealed to Beautrelet, and especially the idea that he would reach the castle at almost the same time as Massiban, for he feared some blunder on the part of that inexperienced man. He went back to his friend and spent the rest of the day with him. In the evening, he took the Brittany express and got out at Velines as six o'clock in the morning.
He did the two and a half miles, between bushy woods, on foot. He could see the castle, perched on a height, from a distance: it was a hybrid edifice, a mixture of the Renascence and Louis Philippe styles, but it bore a stately air, nevertheless, with its four turrets and its ivy-mantled draw-bridge.
Isidore felt his heart beat as he approached. Was he really nearing the end of his race? Did the castle contain the key to the mystery?
He was not without fear. It all seemed too good to be true; and he asked himself if he was not once more acting in obedience to some infernal plan contrived by Lupin, if Massiban was not for instance, a tool in the hands of his enemy. He burst out laughing:
"Tut, tut, I'm becoming absurd! One would really think that Lupin was an infallible person who foresees everything, a sort of divine omnipotence against whom nothing can prevail! Dash it all, Lupin makes his mistakes; Lupin, too, is at the mercy of circumstances; Lupin has an occasional slip! And it is just because of his slip in losing the document that I am beginning to have the advantage of him. Everything starts from that. And his efforts, when all is said, serve only to repair the first blunder."
And blithely, full of confidence, Beautrelet rang the bell.
"Yes, sir?" said the servant who opened the door.
"Can I see the Baron de Velines?"
And he gave the man his card.
"Monsieur le baron is not up yet, but, if monsieur will wait—"
"Has not some one else been asking for him, a gentleman with a white beard and a slight stoop?" asked Beautrelet, who knew Massiban's appearance from the photographs in the newspapers.
"Yes, the gentleman came about ten minutes ago; I showed him into the drawing room. If monsieur will come this way—"
The interview between Massiban and Beautrelet was of the most cordial character. Isidore thanked the old man for the first-rate information which he owed to him and Massiban expressed his admiration for Beautrelet in the warmest terms. Then they exchanged impressions on the document, on their prospects of discovering the book; and Massiban repeated what he had heard at Rennes regarding M. de Velines. The baron was a man of sixty, who had been left a widower many years ago and who led a very retired life with his daughter, Gabrielle de Villemon. This lady had just suffered a cruel blow through the loss of her husband and her eldest son, both of whom had died as the result of a motor-car accident.
"Monsieur le baron begs the gentlemen to be good enough to come upstairs."
The servant led the way to the first floor, to a large, bare-walled room, very simply furnished with desks, pigeon-holes and tables covered with papers and account-books.
The baron received them very affably and with the volubility often displayed by people who live too much alone. They had great difficulty in explaining the object of their visit.
"Oh, yes, I know, you wrote to me about it, M. Massiban. It has something to do with a book about a needle, hasn't it, a book which is supposed to have come down to me from my ancestors?"
"I may as well tell you that my ancestors and I have fallen out. They had funny ideas in those days. I belong to my own time. I have broken with the past."
"Yes," said Beautrelet, impatiently, "but have you no recollection of having seen the book?—"
"Certainly, I said so in my telegram," he exclaimed, addressing M. Massiban, who, in his annoyance, was walking up and down the room and looking out of the tall windows. "Certainly—or, at least, my daughter thought she had seen the title among the thousands of books that lumber up the library, upstairs—for I don't care about reading myself—I don't even read the papers. My daughter does, sometimes, but only when there is nothing the matter with Georges, her remaining son! As for me, as long as my tenants pay their rents and my leases are kept up—! You see my account-books: I live in them, gentlemen; and I confess that I know absolutely nothing whatever about that story of which you wrote to me in your letter, M. Massiban—"
Isidore Beautrelet, nerve-shattered at all this talk, interrupted him bluntly:
"I beg your pardon, monsieur, but the book—"
"My daughter has looked for it. She looked for it all day yesterday."
"Well, she found it; she found it a few hours ago. When you arrived—"
"And where is it?"
"Where is it? Why, she put it on that table—there it is—over there—"
Isidore gave a bound. At one end of the table, on a muddled heap of papers, lay a little book bound in red morocco. He banged his fist down upon it, as though he were forbidding anybody to touch it—and also a little as though he himself dared not take it up.
"Well!" cried Massiban, greatly excited.
"I have it—here it is—we're there at last!"
"But the title—are you sure?—"
"Why, of course: look!"
"Are you convinced? Have we mastered the secret at last?"
"The front page—what does the front page say?"
"Read: The Whole Truth now first exhibited. One hundred copies printed by myself for the instruction of the Court."
"That's it, that's it," muttered Massiban, in a hoarse voice. "It's the copy snatched from the flames! It's the very book which Louis XIV. condemned."
They turned over the pages. The first part set forth the explanations given by Captain de Larbeyrie in his journal.
"Get on, get on!" said Beautrelet, who was in a hurry to come to the solution.
"Get on? What do you mean? Not at all! We know that the Man with the Iron Mask was imprisoned because he knew and wished to divulge the secret of the Royal house of France. But how did he know it? And why did he wish to divulge it? Lastly, who was that strange personage? A half-brother of Louis XIV., as Voltaire maintained, or Mattioli, the Italian minister, as the modern critics declare? Hang it, those are questions of the very first interest!"
"Later, later," protested Beautrelet, feverishly turning the pages, as though he feared that the book would fly out of his hands before he had solved the riddle.
"But—" said Massiban, who doted on historical details.
"We have plenty of time—afterward—let's see the explanation first- -"
Suddenly Beautrelet stopped. The document! In the middle of a left- hand page, his eyes saw the five mysterious lines of dots and figures! He made sure, with a glance, that the text was identical with that which he had studied so long; the same arrangement of the signs, the same intervals that permitted of the isolation of the word demoiselles and the separation of the two words aiguille and creuse.
A short note preceded it:
All the necessary indications, it appears, were reduced by King Louis XIII. into a little table which I transcribe below.
Here followed the table of dots and figures.
Then came the explanation of the document itself. Beautrelet read, in a broken voice:
As will be seen, this table, even after we have changed the figures into vowels, affords no light. One might say that, in order to decipher the puzzle, we must first know it. It is, at most, a clue given to those who know the paths of the labyrinth.
Let us take this clue and proceed. I will guide you.
The fourth line first. The fourth line contains measurements and indications. By complying with the indications and noting the measurements set down, we inevitably attain our object, on condition, be it understood, that we know where we are and whither we are going, in a word, that we are enlightened as to the real meaning of the Hollow Needle. This is what we may learn from the first three lines. The first is so conceived to revenge myself on the King; I had warned him, for that matter—
Beautrelet stopped, nonplussed.
"What? What is it?" said Massiban.
"The words don't make sense."
"No more they do," replied Massiban. "'The first is so conceived to revenge myself on the King—' What can that mean?"
"Damn!" yelled Beautrelet.
"Torn! Two pages! The next two pages! Look at the marks!"
He trembled, shaking with rage and disappointment. Massiban bent forward.
"It is true—there are the ends of two pages left, like bookbinders' guards. The marks seem pretty fresh. They've not been cut, but torn out—torn out with violence. Look, all the pages at the end of the book have been rumpled."
"But who can have done it? Who?" moaned Isidore, wringing his hands. "A servant? An accomplice?"
"All the same, it may date back to a few months since," observed Massiban.
"Even so—even so—some one must have hunted out and taken the book- -Tell me, monsieur," cried Beautrelet, addressing the baron, "is there no one whom you suspect?"
"We might ask my daughter."
"Yes—yes—that's it—perhaps she will know."
M. de Velines rang for the footman. A few minutes later. Mme. de Villemon entered. She was a young woman, with a sad and resigned face. Beautrelet at once asked her:
"You found this volume upstairs, madame, in the library?"
"Yes, in a parcel of books that had not been uncorded."
"And you read it?"
"Yes, last night."
"When you read it, were those two pages missing? Try and remember: the two pages following this table of figures and dots?"
"No, certainly not," she said, greatly astonished. "There was no page missing at all."
"Still, somebody has torn—"
"But the book did not leave my room last night."
"And this morning?"
"This morning, I brought it down here myself, when M. Massiban's arrival was announced."
"Well, I don't understand—unless—but no."
"Georges—my son—this morning—Georges was playing with the book."
She ran out headlong, accompanied by Beautrelet, Massiban and the baron. The child was not in his room. They hunted in every direction. At last, they found him playing behind the castle. But those three people seemed so excited and called him so peremptorily to account that he began to yell aloud.
Everybody ran about to right and left. The servants were questioned. It was an indescribable tumult. And Beautrelet received the awful impression that the truth was ebbing away from him, like water trickling through his fingers.
He made an effort to recover himself, took Mme. de Villemon's arm, and, followed by the baron and Massiban, led her back to the drawing room and said:
"The book is incomplete. Very well. There are two pages torn out; but you read them, did you not, madame?"
"You know what they contained?"
"Could you repeat it to us?"
"Certainly. I read the book with a great deal of curiosity, but those two pages struck me in particular because the revelations were so very interesting."
"Well, then, speak madame, speak, I implore you! Those revelations are of exceptional importance. Speak, I beg of you: minutes lost are never recovered. The Hollow Needle—"
"Oh, it's quite simple. The Hollow Needle means—"
At that moment, a footman entered the room:
"A letter for madame."
"Oh, but the postman has passed!"
"A boy brought it."
Mme. de Villemon opened the letter, read it, and put her hand to her heart, turning suddenly livid and terrified, ready to faint.
The paper had slipped to the floor. Beautrelet picked it up and, without troubling to apologize, read:
Not a word! If you say a word, your son will never wake again.
"My son—my son!" she stammered, too weak even to go to the assistance of the threatened child.
Beautrelet reassured her:
"It is not serious—it's a joke. Come, who could be interested?"
"Unless," suggested Massiban, "it was Arsene Lupin."
Beautrelet made him a sign to hold his tongue. He knew quite well, of course, that the enemy was there, once more, watchful and determined; and that was just why he wanted to tear from Mme. de Villemon the decisive words, so long awaited, and to tear them from her on the spot, that very moment:
"I beseech you, madame, compose yourself. We are all here. There is not the least danger."
Would she speak? He thought so, he hoped so. She stammered out a few syllables. But the door opened again. This time, the nurse entered. She seemed distraught:
"M. Georges—madame—M. Georges—!"
Suddenly, the mother recovered all her strength. Quicker than any of them, and urged by an unfailing instinct, she rushed down the staircase, across the hall and on to the terrace. There lay little Georges, motionless, on a wicker chair.
"Well, what is it? He's asleep!—"
"He fell asleep suddenly, madame," said the nurse. "I tried to prevent him, to carry him to his room. But he was fast asleep and his hands—his hands were cold."
"Cold!" gasped the mother. "Yes—it's true. Oh dear, oh dear—IF HE ONLY WAKES UP!"
Beautrelet put his hand in his trousers pocket, seized the butt of his revolver, cocked it with his forefinger, then suddenly produced the weapon and fired at Massiban.
Massiban, as though he were watching the boy's movements, had avoided the shot, so to speak, in advance. But already Beautrelet had sprung upon him, shouting to the servants:
"Help! It's Lupin!"
Massiban, under the weight of the impact, fell back into one of the wicker chairs. In a few seconds, he rose, leaving Beautrelet stunned, choking; and, holding the young man's revolver in his hands:
"Good!—that's all right!—don't stir—you'll be like that for two or three minutes—no more. But, upon my word, you took your time to recognize me! Was my make-up as old Massiban so good as all that?"
He was now standing straight up on his legs, his body squared, in a formidable attitude, and he grinned as he looked at the three petrified footmen and the dumbfounded baron:
"Isidore, you've missed the chance of a lifetime. If you hadn't told them I was Lupin, they'd have jumped on me. And, with fellows like that, what would have become of me, by Jove, with four to one against me?"
He walked up to them:
"Come, my lads, don't be afraid—I shan't hurt you. Wouldn't you like a sugar-stick apiece to screw your courage up? Oh, you, by the way, hand me back my hundred-franc note, will you? Yes, yes, I know you! You're the one I bribed just now to give the letter to your mistress. Come hurry, you faithless servant."
He took the blue bank-note which the servant handed him and tore it into tiny shreds:
"The price of treachery! It burns my fingers."
He took off his hat and, bowing very low before Mme. de Villemon:
"Will you forgive me, madame? The accidents of life—of mine especially—often drive one to acts of cruelty for which I am the first to blush. But have no fear for your son: it's a mere prick, a little puncture in the arm which I gave him while we were questioning him. In an hour, at the most, you won't know that it happened. Once more, all my apologies. But I had to make sure of your silence." He bowed again, thanked M. de Velines for his kind hospitality, took his cane, lit a cigarette, offered one to the baron, gave a circular sweep with his hat and, in a patronizing tone, said to Beautrelet:
And he walked away quietly, puffing the smoke of his cigarette into the servants' faces.
Beautrelet waited for a few minutes. Mme. de Villemon, now calmer, was watching by her son. He went up to her, with the intention of making one last appeal to her. Their eyes met. He said nothing. He had understood that she would never speak now, whatever happened. There, once more, in that mother's brain, the secret of the Hollow Needle lay buried as deeply as in the night of the past.
Then he gave up and went away.
It was half-past ten. There was a train at eleven-fifty. He slowly followed the avenue in the park and turned into the road that led to the station.
"Well, what do you say to that?"
It was Massiban, or rather Lupin, who appeared out of the wood adjoining the road.
"Was it pretty well contrived, or was it not? Is your old friend great on the tight-rope, or is he not? I'm sure that you haven't got over it, eh, and that you're asking yourself whether the so-called Massiban, member of the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres, ever existed. But, of course, he exists. I'll even show him to you, if you're good. But, first, let me give you back your revolver. You're looking to see if it's loaded? Certainly, my lad. There are five charges left, one of which would be enough to send me ad patres.—Well, so you're putting it in your pocket? Quite right. I prefer that to what you did up there.—A nasty little impulse, that, of yours!—Still, you're young, you suddenly see—in a flash!—that you've once more been done by that confounded Lupin and that he is standing there in front of you, at three steps from you—and bang! You fire!—I'm not angry with you, bless your little heart! To prove it, I offer you a seat in my 100 h.p. car. Will that suit you?"
He put his fingers to his mouth and whistled.
The contrast was delicious between the venerable appearance of this elderly Massiban and the schoolboy ways and accent which Lupin was putting on. Beautrelet could not help laughing.
"He's laughed! He's laughed!" cried Lupin, jumping for joy. "You see, baby, what you fall short in is the power of smiling; you're a trifle serious for your age. You're a very likeable boy, you have a charming candor and simplicity—but you have no sense of humor." He placed himself in front of him. "Look here, bet you I make you cry! Do you know how I was able to follow up all your inquiry, how I knew of the letter Massiban wrote you and his appointment to meet you this morning at the Chateau de Velines? Through the prattle of your friend, the one you're staying with. You confide in that idiot and he loses no time, but goes and tells everything to his best girl. And his best girl has no secrets for Lupin.—What did I tell you? I've made you feel, anyhow; your eyes are quite wet!—Friendship betrayed: that upsets you, eh? Upon my word, you're wonderful! I could take you in my arms and hug you! You always wear that look of astonishment which goes straight to my heart.—I shall never forget the other evening at Gaillon, when you consulted me.—Yes, I was the old notary!—But why don't you laugh, youngster? As I said, you have no sense of a joke. Look here, what you want is—what shall I call it?—imagination, imaginative impulse. Now, I'm full of imaginative impulse."
A motor was heard panting not far off. Lupin seized Beautrelet roughly by the arm and in a cold voice, looking him straight in the eyes:
"You're going to keep quiet now, aren't you? You can see there's nothing to be done. Then what's the use of wasting your time and energy? There are plenty of highway robbers in the world. Run after them and let me be—if not!—It's settled, isn't it?"
He shook him as though to enforce his will upon him. Then he grinned:
"Fool that I am! You leave me alone? You're not one of those who let go! Oh, I don't know what restrains me! In half a dozen turns of the wrist, I could have you bound and gagged—and, in two hours, safe under lock and key, for some months to come. And then I could twist my thumbs in all security, withdraw to the peaceful retreat prepared for me by my ancestors, the Kings of France, and enjoy the treasures which they have been good enough to accumulate for me. But no, it is doomed that I must go on blundering to the end. I can't help it, we all have our weaknesses—and I have one for you. Besides, it's not done yet. From now until you put your finger into the hollow of the Needle, a good deal of water will flow under the bridges. Dash it all, it took me ten days! Me! Lupin! You will want ten years, at least! There's that much distance between us, after all!"
The motor arrived, an immense closed car. Lupin opened the door and Beautreiet gave a cry. There was a man inside and that man was Lupin, or rather Massiban. Suddenly understanding, he burst out laughing. Lupin said:
"Don't be afraid, he's sound asleep. I promised that you should see him. Do you grasp the situation now? At midnight, I knew of your appointment at the castle. At seven in the morning, I was there. When Massiban passed, I had only to collect him—give him a tiny prick with a needle—and the thing—was done. Sleep old chap, sleep away. We'll set you down on the slope. That's it—there—capital— right in the sun, then you won't catch cold—good! And our hat in our hand.—Spare a copper, kind gentleman!—Oh. my dear old Massiban, so you were after Arsene Lupin!"
It was really a huge joke to see the two Massibans face to face, one asleep with his head on his chest, the other seriously occupied in paying him every sort of attention and respect:
"Pity a poor blind man! There, Massiban, here's two sous and my visiting-card. And now, my lads, off we go at the fourth speed. Do you hear, driver? You've got to do seventy-five miles an hour. Jump in, Isidore. There's a full sitting of the Institute to-day, and Massiban is to read a little paper, on I don't know what, at half- past three. Well, he'll read them his little paper. I'll dish them up a complete Massiban, more real than the real one, with my own ideas, on the lacustrine inscriptions. I don't have an opportunity of lecturing at the Institute ever day!—Faster, chauffeur: we're only doing seventy-one and a half!—Are you afraid? Remember you're with Lupin!—Ah, Isidore, and then people say that life is monotonous! Why, life's an adorable thing, my boy; only one has to know—and I know—. Wasn't it enough to make a man jump out of his skin for joy, just now, at the castle, when you were chattering with old Velines and I, up against the window, was tearing out the pages of the historic book? And then, when you were questioning the Dame de Villemon about the Hollow Needle! Would she speak? Yes, she would—no, she wouldn't—yes—no. It gave me gooseflesh, I assure you.—If she spoke, I should have to build up my life anew, the whole scaffolding was destroyed.—Would the footman come in time? Yes—no—there he is.—But Beautrelet will unmask me! Never! He's too much of a flat! Yes, though—no—there, he's done it—no, he hasn't—yes—he's eyeing me—that's it—he's feeling for his revolver!—Oh, the delight of it!—Isidore, you're talking too much, you'll hurt yourself!—Let's have a snooze, shall we?—I'm dying of sleep.—Good night."
Beautrelet looked at him. He seemed almost asleep already. He slept.
The motor-car, darting through space, rushed toward a horizon that was constantly reached and as constantly retreated. There was no impression of towns, villages, fields or forests; simply space, space devoured, swallowed up.
Beautrelet looked at his traveling companion, for a long time, with eager curiosity and also with a keen wish to fathom his real character through the mask that covered it. And he thought of the circumstances that confined them, like that, together, in the close contact of that motor car. But, after the excitement and disappointment of the morning, tired in his turn, he too fell asleep.
When he woke, Lupin was reading. Beautrelet leant over to see the title of the book. It was the Epistolae ad Lucilium of Seneca the philosopher.