The Hollow Needle/Chapter Ten
A curtain was drawn back.
"Good morning, my dear Beautrelet, you're a little late. Lunch was fixed for twelve. However, it's only a few minutes—but what's the matter? Don't you know me? Have I changed so much?"
In the course of his fight with Lupin, Beautrelet had met with many surprises and he was still prepared, at the moment of the final catastrophe, to experience any number of further emotions; but the shock which he received this time was utterly unexpected. It was not astonishment, but stupefaction, terror. The man who stood before him, the man whom the brutal force of events compelled him to look upon as Arsene Lupin, was—Valmeras! Valmeras, the owner of the Chateau de l'Aiguille! Valmeras, the very man to whom he had applied for assistance against Arsene Lupin! Valmeras, his companion on the expedition to Crozant! Valmeras, the plucky friend who had made Raymonde's escape possible by felling one of Lupin's accomplices, or pretending to fell him, in the dusk of the great hall! And Valmeras was Lupin!
"You—you—So it's you!" he stammered.
"Why not?" exclaimed Lupin. "Did you think that you knew me for good and all because you had seen me in the guise of a clergyman or under the features of M. Massiban? Alas, when a man selects the position in society which I occupy, he must needs make use of his little social gifts! If Lupin were not able to change himself, at will, into a minister of the Church of England or a member of the Academy of Inscriptions and Belles-Lettres, it would be a bad lookout for Lupin! Now Lupin, the real Lupin, is here before you, Beautrelet! Take a good look at him."
"But then—if it's you—then—Mademoiselle—"
"Yes, Beautrelet, as you say—"
He again drew back the hanging, beckoned and announced:
"Mme. Arsene Lupin."
"Ah," murmured the lad, confounded in spite of everything, "Mlle. de Saint-Veran!"
"No, no," protested Lupin. "Mme. Arsene Lupin, or rather, if you prefer, Mme. Louis Valmeras, my wedded wife, married to me in accordance with the strictest forms of law; and all thanks to you, my dear Beautrelet."
He held out his hand to him.
"All my acknowledgements—and no ill will on your side, I trust?"
Strange to say, Beautrelet felt no ill will at all, no sense of humiliation, no bitterness. He realized so strongly the immense superiority of his adversary that he did not blush at being beaten by him. He pressed the offered hand.
"Luncheon is served, ma'am."
A butler had placed a tray of dishes on the table.
"You must excuse us, Beautrelet: my chef is away and we can only give you a cold lunch."
Beautrelet felt very little inclined to eat. He sat down, however, and was enormously interested in Lupin's attitude. How much exactly did he know? Was he aware of the danger he was running? Was he ignorant of the presence of Ganimard and his men?
And Lupin continued:
"Yes, thanks to you, my dear friend. Certainly, Raymonde and I loved each other from the first. Just so, my boy—Raymonde's abduction, her imprisonment, were mere humbug: we loved each other. But neither she nor I, when we were free to love, would allow a casual bond at the mercy of chance, to be formed between us. The position, therefore, was hopeless for Lupin. Fortunately, it ceased to be so if I resumed my identity as the Louis Valmeras that I had been from a child. It was then that I conceived the idea, as you refused to relinquish your quest and had found the Chateau de l'Aiguille, of profiting by your obstinacy."
"And my silliness."
"Pooh! Any one would have been caught as you were!"
"So you were really able to succeed because I screened you and assisted you?"
"Of course! How could any one suspect Valmeras of being Lupin, when Valmeras was Beautrelet's friend and after Valmeras had snatched from Lupin's clutches the girl whom Lupin loved? And how charming it was! Such delightful memories! The expedition to Crozant! The bouquets we found! My pretended love letter to Raymonde! And, later, the precautions which I, Valmeras, had to take against myself, Lupin, before my marriage! And the night of your great banquet, Beautrelet, when you fainted in my arms! Oh, what memories!"
There was a pause. Beautrelet watched Raymonde. She had listened to Lupin without saying a word and looked at him with eyes in which he read love, passion and something else besides, something which the lad could not define, a sort of anxious embarrassment and a vague sadness. But Lupin turned his eyes upon her and she gave him an affectionate smile. Their hands met over the table.
"What do you say to the way I have arranged my little home, Beautrelet?" cried Lupin. "There's a style about it, isn't there? I don't pretend that it's as comfortable as it might be. And yet, some have been quite satisfied with it; and not the least of mankind, either!—Look at the list of distinguished people who have owned the Needle in their time and who thought it an honor to leave a mark of their sojourn."
On the walls, one below the other, were carved the following names:
JULIUS CAESAR CHARLEMAGNE ROLLO WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR RICHARD COEUR-DE-LEON LOUIS XI. FRANCIS I. HENRY IV. LOUIS XIV. ARSENE LUPIN
"Whose name will figure after ours?" he continued. "Alas, the list is closed! From Caesar to Lupin—and there it ends. Soon the nameless mob will come to visit the strange citadel. And to think that, but for Lupin, all this would have remained for ever unknown to men! Ah Beautrelet, what a feeling of pride was mine on the day when I first set foot on this abandoned soil. To have found the lost secret and become its master, its sole master! To inherit such an inheritance! To live in the Needle, after all those kings!—"
He was interrupted by a gesture of his wife's. She seemed greatly agitated.
"There is a noise," she said. "Underneath us.—You can hear it."
"It's the lapping of the water," said Lupin.
"No, indeed it's not. I know the sound of the waves. This is something different."
"What would you have it be, darling?" said Lupin, smiling. "I invited no one to lunch except Beautrelet." And, addressing the servant, "Charolais, did you lock the staircase doors behind the gentleman?"
"Yes, sir, and fastened the bolts."
"Come, Raymonde, don't shake like that. Why, you're quite pale!"
He spoke a few words to her in an undertone, as also to the servant, drew back the curtain and sent them both out of the room.
The noise below grew more distinct. It was a series of dull blows, repeated at intervals. Beautrelet thought:
"Ganimard has lost patience and is breaking down the doors."
Lupin resumed the thread of his conversation, speaking very calmly and as though he had really not heard:
"By Jove, the Needle was badly damaged when I succeeded in discovering it! One could see that no one had possessed the secret for more than a century, since Louis XVI. and the Revolution. The tunnel was threatening to fall in. The stairs were in a shocking state. The water was trickling in from the sea. I had to prop up and strengthen and rebuild the whole thing."
Beautrelet could not help asking:
"When you arrived, was it empty?"
"Very nearly. The kings did not use the Needle, as I have done, as a warehouse."
"As a place of refuge, then?"
"Yes, no doubt, in times of invasion and during the civil wars. But its real destination was to be—how shall I put it?—the strong-room or the bank of the kings of France."
The sound of blows increased, more distinctly now. Ganimard must have broken down the first door and was attacking the second. There was a short silence and then more blows, nearer still. It was the third door. Two remained.
Through one of the windows, Beautrelet saw a number of fishing- smacks sailing round the Needle and, not far away, floating on the waters like a great black fish, the torpedo-boat.
"What a row!" exclaimed Lupin. "One can't hear one's self speak! Let's go upstairs, shall we? It may interest you to look over the Needle."
They climbed to the floor above, which was protected, like the others, by a door which Lupin locked behind him.
"My picture gallery," he said.
The walls were covered with canvases on which Beautrelet recognized the most famous signatures. There were Raphael's Madonna of the Agnus Dei, Andrea del Sarto's Portrait of Lucrezia Fede, Titian's Salome, Botticelli's Madonna and Angels and numbers of Tintorettos, Carpaccios, Rembrandts, Velasquez.
"What fine copies!" said Beautrelet, approvingly.
Lupin looked at him with an air of stupefaction:
"What! Copies! You must be mad! The copies are in Madrid, my dear fellow, in Florence, Venice, Munich, Amsterdam."
"Are the original pictures, my lad, patiently collected in all the museums of Europe, where I have replaced them, like an honest man, with first-rate copies."
"But some day or other—"
"Some day or other, the fraud will be discovered? Well, they will find my signature on each canvas—at the back—and they will know that it was I who have endowed my country with the original masterpieces. After all, I have only done what Napoleon did in Italy.—Oh, look, Beautrelet: here are M. de Gesvres's four Rubenses!—"
The knocking continued within the hollow of the Needle without ceasing.
"I can't stand this!" said Lupin. "Let's go higher."
A fresh staircase. A fresh door.
"The tapestry-room," Lupin announced.
The tapestries were not hung on the walls, but rolled, tied up with cord, ticketed; and, in addition, there were parcels of old fabrics which Lupin unfolded: wonderful brocades, admirable velvets, soft, faded silks, church vestments woven with silver and gold—
They went higher still and Beautrelet saw the room containing the clocks and other time-pieces, the book-room—oh, the splendid bindings, the precious, undiscoverable volumes, the unique copies stolen from the great public libraries—the lace-room, the knicknack-room.
And each time the circumference of the room grew smaller.
And each time, now, the sound of knocking was more distant. Ganimard was losing ground.
"This is the last room," said Lupin. "The treasury."
This one was quite different. It was round also, but very high and conical in shape. It occupied the top of the edifice and its floor must have been fifteen or twenty yards below the extreme point of the Needle.
On the cliff side there was no window. But on the side of the sea, whence there were no indiscreet eyes to fear, two glazed openings admitted plenty of light.
The ground was covered with a parqueted flooring of rare wood, forming concentric patterns. Against the walls stood glass cases and a few pictures.
"The pearls of my collection," said Lupin. "All that you have seen so far is for sale. Things come and things go. That's business. But here, in this sanctuary, everything is sacred. There is nothing here but choice, essential pieces, the best of the best, priceless things. Look at these jewels, Beautrelet: Chaldean amulets, Egyptian necklaces, Celtic bracelets, Arab chains. Look at these statuettes, Beautrelet, at this Greek Venus, this Corinthian Apollo. Look at these Tanagras, Beautrelet: all the real Tanagras are here. Outside this glass case, there is not a single genuine Tanagra statuette in the whole wide world. What a delicious thing to be able to say!— Beautrelet, do you remember Thomas and his gang of church-pillagers in the South—agents of mine, by the way? Well, here is the Ambazac reliquary, the real one, Beautrelet! Do you remember the Louvre scandal, the tiara which was admitted to be false, invented and manufactured by a modern artist? Here is the tiara of Saitapharnes, the real one, Beautrelet! Look, Beautrelet, look with all your eyes: here is the marvel of marvels, the supreme masterpiece, the work of no mortal brain; here is Leonardo's Gioconda, the real one! Kneel, Beautrelet, kneel; all womankind stands before you in this picture."
There was a long silence between them. Below, the sound of blows drew nearer. Two or three doors, no more, separated them from Ganimard. In the offing, they saw the black back of the torpedo-boat and the fishing-smacks cruising to and fro.
The boy asked:
"And the treasure?"
"Ah, my little man, that's what interests you most! None of those masterpieces of human art can compete with the contemplation of the treasure as a matter of curiosity, eh?—And the whole crowd will be like you!—Come, you shall be satisfied."
He stamped his foot, and, in so doing, made one of the discs composing the floor-pattern turn right over. Then, lifting it as though it were the lid of a box, he uncovered a sort of large round bowl, dug in the thickness of the rock. It was empty.
A little farther, he went through the same performance. Another large bowl appeared. It was also empty.
He did this three times over again. The three other bowls were empty.
"Eh," grinned Lupin. "What a disappointment! Under Louis XL, under Henry IV., under Richelieu, the five bowls were full. But think of Louis XIV., the folly of Versailles, the wars, the great disasters of the reign! And think of Louis XV., the spendthrift king, with his Pompadour and his Du Barry! How they must have drawn on the treasure in those days! With what thieving claws they must have scratched at the stone. You see, there's nothing left."
"Yes, Beautrelet, there is something—the sixth hiding-place! This one was intangible. Not one of them dared touch it. It was the very last resource, the nest-egg, the something put by for a rainy day. Look, Beautrelet!"
He stooped and lifted up the lid. An iron box filled the bowl. Lupin took from his pocket a key with a complicated bit and wards and opened the box.
A dazzling sight presented itself. Every sort of precious stone sparkled there, every color gleamed, the blue of the sapphires, the red of the rubies, the green of the emeralds, the yellow of the topazes.
"Look, look, little Beautrelet! They have squandered all the cash, all the gold, all the silver, all the crown pieces and all the ducats and all the doubloons; but the chest with the jewels has remained intact. Look at the settings. They belong to every period, to every century, to every country. The dowries of the queens are here. Each brought her share: Margaret of Scotland and Charlotte of Savoy; duchesses of Austria: Eleonore, Elisabeth, Marie-Therese, Mary of England and Catherine de Medicis; and all the arch—Marie Antoinette. Look at those pearls, Beautrelet! And those diamonds: look at the size of the diamonds! Not one of them but is worthy of an empress! The Pitt Diamond is no finer!"
He rose to his feet and held up his hand as one taking an oath:
"Beautrelet, you shall tell the world that Lupin has not taken a single one of the stones that were in the royal chest, not a single one, I swear it on my honor! I had no right to. They are the fortune of France."
Below them, Ganimard was making all speed. It was easy to judge by the reverberation of the blows that his men were attacking the last door but one, the door that gave access to the knicknack-room.
"Let us leave the chest open," said Lupin, "and all the cavities, too, all those little empty graves."
He went round the room, examined some of the glass cases, gazed at some of the pictures and, as he walked, said, pensively:
"How sad it is to leave all this! What a wrench! The happiest hours of my life have been spent here, alone, in the presence of these objects which I loved. And my eyes will never behold them again and my hands will never touch them again—"
His drawn face bore such an expression of lassitude upon it that Beautrelet felt a vague sort of pity for him. Sorrow in that man must assume larger proportions than in another, even as joy did, or pride, or humiliation. He was now standing by the window, and, with his finger pointing to the horizon, said:
"What is sadder still is that I must abandon that, all that! How beautiful it is! The boundless sea—the sky.—On either side, the cliffs of Etretat with their three natural archways: the Porte d'Armont, the Porte d'Aval, the Manneporte—so many triumphal arches for the master. And the master was I! I was the king of the story, the king of fairyland, the king of the Hollow Needle! A strange and supernatural kingdom! From Caesar to Lupin: what a destiny!" He burst out laughing. "King of fairyland! Why not say King of Yvetot at once? What nonsense! King of the world, yes, that's more like it! From this topmost point of the Needle, I ruled the globe! I held it in my claws like a prey! Lift the tiara of Saitapharnes, Beautrelet.—You see those two telephones? The one on the right communicates with Paris: a private line; the one on the left with London: a private line. Through London, I am in touch with America, Asia, Australia, South Africa. In all those continents, I have my offices, my agents, my jackals, my scouts! I drive an international trade. I hold the great market in art and antiquities, the world's fair! Ah, Beautrelet, there are moments when my power turns my head! I feel intoxicated with strength and authority."
The door gave way below. They heard Ganimard and his men running about and searching.
After a moment, Lupin continued, in a low voice:
"And now it's over. A little girl crossed my path, a girl with soft hair and wistful eyes and an honest, yes, an honest soul—and it's over. I myself am demolishing the mighty edifice.—All the rest seems absurd and childish to me—nothing counts but her hair—and her wistful eyes—and her honest little soul—"
The men came up the staircase. A blow shook the door, the last door- -
Lupin seized the boy sharply by the arm:
"Do you understand, Beautrelet, why I let you have things your own way when I could have crushed you, time after time, weeks ago? Do you understand how you succeeded in getting as far as this? Do you understand that I had given each of my men his share of the plunder when you met them the other night on the cliff? You do understand, don't you? The Hollow Needle is the great adventure. As long as it belongs to me, I remain the great adventurer. Once the Needle is recaptured, it means that the past and I are parted and that the future begins, a future of peace and happiness, in which I shall have no occasion to blush when Raymonde's eyes are turned upon me, a future—"
He turned furiously toward the door:
"Stop that noise, Ganimard, will you? I haven't finished my speech!"
The blows came faster. It was like the sound of a beam that was being hurled against the door. Beautrelet, mad with curiosity, stood in front of Lupin and awaited events, without understanding what Lupin was doing or contemplating. To give up the Needle was all very well; but why was he giving up himself? What was his plan? Did he hope to escape from Ganimard? And, on the other hand, where was Raymonde?
Lupin, meantime, was murmuring, dreamily:
"An honest man.—Arsene Lupin an honest man—no more robbery— leading the life of everybody else.—And why not? There is no reason why I should not meet with the same success.—But do stop that now, Ganimard! Don't you know, you ass, that I'm uttering historic words and that Beautrelet is taking them in for the benefit of posterity?" He laughed. "I am wasting my time. Ganimard will never grasp the use of my historic words."
He took a piece of red chalk, put a pair of steps to the wall and wrote, in large letters:
Arsene Lupin gives and bequeaths to France all the treasures contained in the Hollow Needle, on the sole condition that these treasures be housed at the Musee du Louvre in rooms which shall be known as the Arsene Lupin Rooms.
"Now," he said, "my conscience is at ease. France and I are quits."
The attackers were striking with all their might. One of the panels burst in two. A hand was put through and fumbled for the lock.
"Thunder!" said Lupin. "That idiot of a Ganimard is capable of effecting his purpose for once in his life."
He rushed to the lock and removed the key.
"Sold, old chap!—The door's tough.—I have plenty of time— Beautrelet, I must say good-bye. And thank you!—For really you could have complicated the attack—but you're so tactful!"
While speaking, he moved toward a large triptych by Van der Weyden, representing the Wise Men of the East. He shut the right-hand panel and, in so doing, exposed a little door concealed behind it and seized the handle.
"Good luck to your hunting, Ganimard! And kind regards at home!"
A pistol-shot resounded. Lupin jumped back: "Ah, you rascal, full in the heart! Have you been taking lessons? You've done for the Wise Man! Full in the heart! Smashed to smithereens, like a pipe at the fair!—"
"Lupin, surrender!" roared Ganimard, with his eyes glittering and his revolver showing through the broken panel of the door. "Surrender, I say!"
"Did the old guard surrender?"
"If you stir a limb, I'll blow your brains out!"
"Nonsense! You can't get me here!"
As a matter of fact, Lupin had moved away; and, though Ganimard was able to fire straight in front of him through the breach in the door, he could not fire, still less take aim, on the side where Lupin stood. Lupin's position was a terrible one for all that, because the outlet on which he was relying, the little door behind the triptych, opened right in front of Ganimard. To try to escape meant to expose himself to the detective's fire; and there were five bullets left in the revolver.
"By Jove," he said, laughing, "there's a slump in my shares this afternoon! You've done a nice thing. Lupin, old fellow: you wanted a last sensation and you've gone a bit too far. You shouldn't have talked so much."
He flattened himself against the wall. A further portion of the panel had given way under the men's pressure and Ganimard was less hampered in his movements. Three yards, no more, separated the two antagonists. But Lupin was protected by a glass case with a gilt- wood framework
"Why don't you help, Beautrelet?" cried the old detective, gnashing his teeth with rage. "Why don't you shoot him, instead of staring at him like that?"
Isidore, in fact, had not budged, had remained, till that moment, an eager, but passive spectator. He would have liked to fling himself into the contest with all his strength and to bring down the prey which he held at his mercy. He was prevented by some inexplicable sentiment.
But Ganimard's appeal for assistance shook him. His hand closed on the butt of his revolver:
"If I take part in it," he thought, "Lupin is lost. And I have the right—it's my duty."
Their eyes met. Lupin's were calm, watchful, almost inquisitive, as though, in the awful danger that threatened him, he were interested only in the moral problem that held the young man in its clutches. Would Isidore decide to give the finishing stroke to the defeated enemy?
The door cracked from top to bottom.
"Help, Beautrelet, we've got him!" Ganimard bellowed.
Isidore raised his revolver.
What happened was so quick that he knew of it, so to speak, only by the result. He saw Lupin bob down and run along the wall, skimming the door right under the weapon which Ganimard was vainly brandishing; and he felt himself suddenly flung to the ground, picked up the next moment and lifted by an invincible force.
Lupin held him in the air, like a living shield, behind which he hid himself.
"Ten to one that I escape, Ganimard! Lupin, you see, has never quite exhausted his resources—"
He had taken a couple of brisk steps backward to the triptych. Holding Beautrelet with one hand flat against his chest, with the other he cleared the passage and closed the little door behind them.
A steep staircase appeared before their eyes.
"Come along," said Lupin, pushing Beautrelet before him. "The land forces are beaten—let us turn our attention to the French fleet.— After Waterloo, Trafalgar.—You're having some fun for your money, eh, my lad?—Oh, how good: listen to them knocking at the triptych now!—It's too late, my children.—But hurry along, Beautrelet!"
The staircase, dug out in the wall of the Needle, dug in its very crust, turned round and round the pyramid, encircling it like the spiral of a tobogganslide. Each hurrying the other, they clattered down the treads, taking two or three at a bound. Here and there, a ray of light trickled through a fissure; and Beautrelet carried away the vision of the fishing-smacks hovering a few dozen fathoms off, and of the black torpedo-boat.
They went down and down, Isidore in silence, Lupin still bubbling over with merriment:
"I should like to know what Ganimard is doing? Is he tumbling down the other staircases to bar the entrance to the tunnel against me? No, he's not such a fool as that. He must have left four men there— and four men are sufficient—" He stopped. "Listen—they're shouting up above. That's it, they've opened the window and are calling to their fleet.—Why, look, the men are busy on board the smacks— they're exchanging signals.—The torpedo-boat is moving.—Dear old torpedo-boat! I know you, you're from the Havre.—Guns' crews to the guns!—Hullo, there's the commander!—How are you, Duguay-Trouin?"
He put his arm through a cleft and waved his handkerchief. Then he continued his way downstairs:
"The enemy's fleet have set all sail," he said. "We shall be boarded before we know where we are. Heavens, what fun!"
They heard the sound of voices below them. They were just then approaching the level of the sea and they emerged, almost at once, into a large cave into which two lanterns were moving about in the dark.
A woman's figure appeared and threw itself on Lupin's neck:
"Quick, quick, I was so nervous about you. What have you been doing?—But you're not alone!—"
Lupin reassured her:
"It's our friend Beautrelet.—Just think, Beautrelet had the tact— but I'll talk about that later—there's no time now.—Charolais are you there? That's right!—And the boat?"
"The boat's ready, sir," Charolais replied,
"Fire away," said Lupin.
In a moment, the noise of a motor crackled and Beautrelet, whose eyes were gradually becoming used to the gloom, ended by perceiving that they were on a sort of quay, at the edge of the water, and that a boat was floating before them.
"A motor boat," said Lupin, completing Beautrelet's observations. "This knocks you all of a heap, eh, Isidore, old chap?—You don't understand.—Still, you have only to think.—As the water before your eyes is no other than the water of the sea, which filters into this excavation each high tide, the result is that I have a safe little private roadstead all to myself."
"But it's closed," Beautrelet protested. "No one can get in or out."
"Yes, I can," said Lupin; "and I'm going to prove it to you."
He began by handing Raymonde in. Then he came back to fetch Beautrelet. The lad hesitated.
"Are you afraid?" asked Lupin.
"Of being sunk by the torpedo-boat."
"Then you're considering whether it's not your duty to stay with Ganimard, law and order, society and morality, instead of going off with Lupin, shame, infamy and disgrace."
"Unfortunately, my boy, you have no choice. For the moment, they must believe the two of us dead—and leave me the peace to which a prospective honest man is entitled. Later on, when I have given you your liberty, you can talk as much as you please—I shall have nothing more to fear."
By the way in which Lupin clutched his arm, Beautrelet felt that all resistance was useless. Besides, why resist? Had he not discovered and handed over the Hollow Needle? What did he care about the rest? Had he not the right to humor the irresistible sympathy with which, in spite of everything, this man inspired him?
The feeling was so clear in him that he was half inclined to say to Lupin:
"Look here, you're running another, a more serious danger; Holmlock Shears is on your track."
"Come along!" said Lupin, before Isidore had made up his mind to speak.
He obeyed and let Lupin lead him to the boat, the shape of which struck him as peculiar and its appearance quite unexpected.
Once on deck, they went down a little steep staircase, or rather a ladder hooked on to a trap door, which closed above their heads. At the foot of the ladder, brightly lit by a lamp, was a very small saloon, where Raymonde was waiting for them and where the three had just room to sit down.
Lupin took the mouthpiece of a speaking tube from a hook and gave the order:
"Let her go, Charolais!"
Isidore had the unpleasant sensation which one feels when going down in a lift: the sensation of the ground vanishing beneath you, the impression of emptiness, space. This time, it was the water retreating; and space opened out, slowly.
"We're sinking, eh?" grinned Lupin. "Don't be afraid—we've only to pass from the upper cave where we were to another little cave, situated right at the bottom and half open to the sea, which can be entered at low tide. All the shellfish-catchers know it. Ah, ten seconds' wait! We're going through the passage and it's very narrow, just the size of the submarine."
"But," asked Beautrelet, "how is it that the fishermen who enter the lower cave don't know that it's open at the top and that it communicates with another from which a staircase starts and runs through the Needle? The facts are at the disposal of the first- comer."
"Wrong, Beautrelet! The top of the little public cave is closed, at low tide, by a movable platform, painted the color of the rock, which the sea, when it rises, shifts and carries up with it and, when it goes down, fastens firmly over the little cave. That is why I am able to pass at high tide. A clever notion, what? It's an idea of my own. True, neither Caesar nor Louis XIV., nor, in short, any of my distinguished predecessors could have had it, because they did not possess submarines. They were satisfied with the staircase, which then ran all the way down to the little bottom cave. I did away with the last treads of the staircase and invented the trick of the movable ceiling: it's a present I'm making to France—Raymonde, my love, put out the lamp beside you—we shan't want it now—on the contrary—"
A pale light, which seemed to be of the same color as the water, met them as they left the cave and made its way into the cabin through the two portholes and through a thick glass skylight that projected above the planking of the deck and allowed the passengers to inspect the upper layers of the sea. And, suddenly, a shadow glided over their heads.
"The attack is about to take place. The fleet is investing the Needle. But, hollow as the Needle is, I don't see how they propose to enter it."
He took up the speaking tube:
"Don't leave the bottom, Charolais. Where are we going? Why, I told you: to Port-Lupin. And at full speed, do you hear? We want water to land by—there's a lady with us."
They skimmed over the rocky bed. The seaweed stood up on end like a heavy, dark vegetation and the deep currents made it wave gracefully, stretching and billowing like floating hair.
Another shadow, a longer one.
"That's the torpedo-boat," said Lupin. "We shall hear the roar of the guns presently. What will Duguay-Trouin do? Bombard the Needle? Think of what we're missing, Beautrelet, by not being present at the meeting of Duguay-Trouin and Ganimard! The juncture of the land and naval forces! Hi, Charolais, don't go to sleep, my man!"
They were moving very fast, for all that. The rocks had been succeeded by sand-fields and then, almost at once, they saw more rocks, which marked the eastern extremity of Etretat, the Porte d'Amont. Fish fled at their approach. One of them, bolder than the rest, fastened on to a porthole and looked at the occupants of the saloon with its great, fixed, staring eyes.
"That's better," cried Lupin. "We're going now. What do you think of my cockle-shell, Beautrelet? Not so bad, is she? Do you remember the story of the Seven of Hearts, [Footnote: The Exploits of Arsene Lupin. By Maurice Leblanc. VI: The Seven of Hearts.] the wretched end of Lacombe, the engineer, and how, after punishing his murderers, I presented the State with his papers and his plans for the construction of a new submarine: one more gift to France? Well, among the plans, I kept those of a submersible motor boat and that is how you come to have the honor of sailing in my company."
He called to Charolais:
"Take us up, Charolais—there's no danger now—"
They shot up to the surface and the glass skylight emerged above the water.
They were a mile from the coast, out of sight, therefore, and Beautrelet was now able to realize more fully at what a headlong pace they were traveling. First Fecamp passed before them, then all the Norman seaside places: Saint-Pierre, the Petits—Dalles, Veulettes, Saint-Yalery, Veules, Quiberville. Lupin kept on jesting and Isidore never wearied of watching and listening to him, amazed as he was at the man's spirits, at his gaiety, his mischievous ways, his careless chaff, his delight in life.
He also noticed Raymonde. The young woman sat silent, nestling up against the man she loved. She had taken his hands between her own and kept on raising her eyes to him; and Beautrelet constantly observed that her hands were twitching and that the wistful sadness of her eyes increased. And, each time, it was like a dumb and sorrowful reply to Lupin's sallies. One would have thought that his frivolous words, his sarcastic outlook on life, caused her physical pain.
"Hush!" she whispered. "It's defying destiny to laugh—so many misfortunes can reach us still!"
Opposite Dieppe, they had to dive lest they should be seen by the fishing-craft. And twenty minutes later, they shot at an angle toward the coast and the boat entered a little submarine harbor formed by a regular gap between the rocks, drew up beside a jetty and rose gently to the surface.
The spot, situated at sixteen miles from Dieppe and twelve from the Treport and protected, moreover, by the two landslips of cliff, was absolutely deserted. A fine sand carpeted the rounded slope of the tiny beach.
"Jump on shore, Beautrelet—Raymonde, give me your hand. You, Charolais, go back to the Needle, see what happens between Ganimard and Duguay-Trouin and come back and tell me at the end of the day. The thing interests me tremendously."
Beautrelet asked himself with a certain curiosity how they were going to get out of this hemmed-in creek which was called Port- Lupin, when, at the foot of the cliff, he saw the uprights of an iron ladder.
"Isidore," said Lupin, "if you knew your geography and your history, you would know that we are at the bottom of the gorge of Parfonval, in the parish of Biville. More than a century ago, on the night of the twenty-third of August, 1803, Georges Cadoudal and six accomplices, who had landed in France with the intention of kidnapping the first consul, Bonaparte, scrambled up to the top by the road which I will show you. Since then, this road has been demolished by landslips. But Louis Valmeras, better known by the name of Arsene Lupin, had it restored at his own expense and bought the farm of the Neuvillette, where the conspirators spent the first night and where, retired from business and withdrawing from the affairs of this world, he means to lead the life of a respectable country squire with his wife and his mother by his side. The gentleman-burglar is dead! Long live the gentleman-farmer!"
After the ladder came a sort of gully, an abrupt ravine hollowed out, apparently, by the rains, at the end of which they laid hold of a makeshift staircase furnished with a hand-rail. As Lupin explained, this hand-rail had been placed where it was in the stead of the estamperche, a long rope fastened to stakes, by which the people of the country, in the old days, used to help themselves down when going to the beach.
After a painful climb of half an hour, they emerged on the tableland, not far from one of those little cabins, dug out of the soil itself, which serve as shelters for the excisemen. And, as it happened, two minutes later, at a turn in the path, one of these custom-house officials appeared.
He drew himself up and saluted.
"Any news, Gomel?"
"You've met no one at all suspicious-looking?"
"My wife—who does dressmaking at the Neuvillette—"
"Yes, I know—Cesarine—my mother spoke of her. Well?"
"It seems a sailor was prowling about the village this morning."
"What sort of face had he?"
"Not a natural face—a sort of Englishman's face."
"Ah!" said Lupin, in a tone preoccupied. "And you have given Cesarine orders—"
"To keep her eyes open. Yes, governor."
"Very well. Keep a lookout for Charolais's return in two or three hours from now. If there's anything, I shall be at the farm."
He walked on and said to Beautrelet:
"This makes me uneasy—is it Shears? Ah, if it's he, in his present state of exasperation, I have everything to fear!"
He hesitated a moment: "I wonder if we hadn't better turn back. Yes, I have a nasty presentiment of evil."
Gently undulating plains stretched before them as far as the eye could see. A little to the left, a series of handsome avenues of trees led to the farm of the Neuvillette, the buildings of which were now in view. It was the retreat which he had prepared, the haven of rest which he had promised Raymonde. Was he, for the sake of an absurd idea, to renounce happiness at the very moment when it seemed within his reach?
He took Isidore by the arm and, calling his attention to Raymonde, who was walking in front of them:
"Look at her. When she walks, her figure has a little swing at the waist which I cannot see without quivering. But everything in her gives me that thrill of emotion and love: her movements and her repose, her silence and the sound of her voice. I tell you, the mere fact that I am walking in the track of her footsteps makes me feel in the seventh heaven. Ah, Beautrelet, will she ever forget that I was once Lupin? Shall I ever be able to wipe out from her memory the past which she loathes and detests?" He mastered himself and, with obstinate assurance. "She will forget!" he declared. "She will forget, because I have made every sacrifice for her sake. I have sacrificed the inviolable sanctuary of the Hollow Needle, I have sacrificed my treasures, my power, my pride—I will sacrifice everything—I don't want to be anything more—but just a man in love—and an honest man, because she can only love an honest man. After all, why should I not be honest? It is no more degrading than anything else!"
The quip escaped him, so to speak, unawares. His voice remained serious and free of all chaff. And he muttered, with restrained violence:
"Ah, Beautrelet, you see, of all the unbridled joys which I have tasted in my adventurous life, there is not one that equals the joy with which her look fills me when she is pleased with me. I feel quite weak then, and I should like to cry—" Was he crying? Beautrelet had an intuition that his eyes were wet with tears. Tears in Lupin's eyes!—Tears of love!
They were nearing an old gate that served as an entrance to the farm. Lupin stopped for a moment and stammered:
"Why am I afraid?—I feel a sort of weight on my chest. Is the adventure of the Hollow Needle not over? Has destiny not accepted the issue which I selected?"
Raymonde turned round, looking very anxious.
"Here comes Cesarine. She's running."
The exciseman's wife was hurrying from the farm as fast as she could. Lupin rushed up to her:
"What is it? What has happened? Speak!"
Choking, quite out of breath, Cesarine stuttered:
"A man—I saw a man this morning!
"A man—I saw a man in the sitting-room."
"The Englishman of this morning?"
"Yes—but in a different disguise."
"Did he see you?"
"No. He saw your mother. Mme. Valmeras caught him as he was just going away."
"He told her that he was looking for Louis Valmeras, that he was a friend of yours."
"The madame said that her son had gone abroad—for years."
"And he went away?"
"No, he made signs through the window that overlooks the plain—as if he were calling to some one."
Lupin seemed to hesitate. A loud cry tore the air. Raymonde moaned:
"It's your mother—I recognize—"
He flung himself upon her and, dragging her away, in a burst of fierce passion:
"Come—let us fly—you first."
But, suddenly, he stopped, distraught, overcome:
"No, I can't do it—it's too awful. Forgive me—Raymonde—that poor woman down there—Stay here. Beautrelet, don't leave her."
He darted along the slope that surrounds the farm, turned and followed it, at a run, till he came to the gate that opens on the plain.
Raymonde, whom Beautrelet had been unable to hold back, arrived almost as soon as he did; and Beautrelet, hiding behind the trees, saw, in the lonely walk that led from the farm to the gate, three men, of whom one, the tallest, went ahead, while the two others were holding by the arms a woman who tried to resist and who uttered moans of pain.
The daylight was beginning to fade. Nevertheless, Beautrelet recognized Holmlock Shears. The woman seemed of a certain age. Her livid features were set in a frame of white hair.
They all four came up.
They reached the gate. Shears opened one of the folding leaves.
Then Lupin strode forward and stood in front of him.
The encounter appeared all the more terrible inasmuch as it was silent, almost solemn.
For long moments, the two enemies took each other's measure with their eyes. An equal hatred distorted the features of both of them. Neither moved.
Then Lupin spoke, in a voice of terrifying calmness:
"Tell your men to leave that woman alone."
It was as though both of them feared to engage in the supreme struggle, as though both were collecting all their strength. And there were no words wasted this time, no insults, no bantering challenges. Silence, a deathlike silence.
Mad with anguish, Raymonde awaited the issue of the duel. Beautrelet had caught her arms and was holding her motionless.
After a second, Lupin repeated:
"Order your men to leave that woman alone."
But he interrupted himself, realizing the silliness of the words. In the face of that colossus of pride and will-power which called itself Holmlock Shears, of what use were threats?
Resolved upon the worst, suddenly he put his hand to his jacket pocket. The Englishman anticipated his movement and, leaping upon his prisoner, thrust the barrel of his revolver within two inches of her temple:
"If you stir a limb, I fire!"
At the same time his two satellites drew their weapons and aimed them at Lupin.
Lupin drew himself up, stifled the rage within him and, coolly, with his hands in his pockets and his breast exposed to the enemy, began once more:
"Shears, for the third time, let that woman be—"
The Englishman sneered:
"I have no right to touch her, I suppose? Come, come, enough of this humbug! Your name isn't Valmeras any more than it's Lupin: you stole the name just as you stole the name of Charmerace. And the woman whom you pass off as your mother is Victoire, your old accomplice, the one who brought you up—" [FOOTNOTE: Arsene Lupin, play in four acts, by Maurice Leblanc and Francis de Croisset.]
Shears made a mistake. Carried away by his longing for revenge, he glanced across at Raymonde, whom these revelations filled with horror. Lupin took advantage of his imprudence. With a sudden movement, he fired.
"Damnation!" bellowed Shears, whose arm, pierced by a bullet, fell to his side. And, addressing his men, "Shoot, you two! Shoot him down!"
But already Lupin was upon them: and not two seconds had elapsed before the one on the right was sprawling on the ground, with his chest smashed, while the other, with his jaw broken, fell back against the gate.
"Hurry up, Victoire. Tie them down. And now, Mr. Englishman, it's you and I."
He ducked with an oath:
"Ah, you scoundrel!"
Shears had picked up his revolver with his left hand and was taking aim at him.
A shot—a cry of distress—Raymonde had flung herself between the two men, facing the Englishman. She staggered back, brought her hand to her neck, drew herself up, spun round on her heels and fell at Lupin's feet.
He threw himself upon her, took her in his arms and pressed her to him.
"Dead—" he said.
There was a moment of stupefaction. Shears seemed confounded by his own act. Victoire stammered:
"My poor boy—my poor boy—"
Beautrelet went up to the young woman and stooped to examine her. Lupin repeated:
He said it in a reflective tone, as though he did not yet understand. But his face became hollow, suddenly transformed, ravaged by grief. And then he was seized with a sort of madness, made senseless gestures, wrung his hands, stamped his feet, like a child that suffers more than it is able to bear.
"You villain!" he cried, suddenly, in an access of hatred.
And, flinging Shears back with a formidable blow, he took him by the throat and dug his twitching fingers into his flesh.
The Englishman gasped, without even struggling.
"My boy-my boy—"said Victoire, in a voice of entreaty.
Beautrelet ran up. But Lupin had already let go and stood sobbing beside his enemy stretched upon the ground.
O pitiful sight! Beautrelet never forgot its tragic horror, he who knew all Lupin's love for Raymonde and all that the great adventurer had sacrificed of his own being to bring a smile to the face of his well-beloved.
Night began to cover the field of battle with a shroud of darkness. The three Englishmen lay bound and gagged in the tall grass. Distant songs broke the vast silence of the plain. It was the farm-hands returning from their work.
Lupin drew himself up. He listened to the monotonous voices. Then he glanced at the happy homestead of the Neuvillette, where he had hoped to live peacefully with Raymonde. Then he looked at her, the poor, loving victim, whom love had killed and who, all white, was sleeping her last, eternal sleep.
The men were coming nearer, however.
Then Lupin bent down, took the dead woman in his powerful arms, lifted the corpse with a single effort and, bent in two, stretched it across his back:
"Let us go, Victoire."
"Let us go, dear."
"Good-bye, Beautrelet," he said.
And, bearing his precious and awful burden followed by his old servant, silent and fierce he turned toward the sea and plunged into the darkness of the night.