The Teeth of the Tiger/Chapter 10
CHAPTER X. GASTON SAUVERAND EXPLAINSEdit
Instinctively, Don Luis took a step back, drew his revolver, and aimed it at the criminal:
"Hands up!" he commanded. "Hands up, or I fire!"
Sauverand did not appear to be put out. He nodded toward two revolvers which he had laid on a table beyond his reach and said:
"There are my arms. I have come here not to fight, but to talk."
"How did you get in?" roared Don Luis, exasperated by this display of calmness. "A false key, I suppose? But how did you get hold of the key? How did you manage it?"
The other did not reply. Don Luis stamped his foot:
"Speak, will you? Speak! If not--"
But Florence ran into the room. She passed him by without his trying to stop her, flung herself upon Gaston Sauverand, and, taking no heed of Perenna's presence, said:
"Why did you come? You promised me that you wouldn't. You swore it to me. Go!"
Sauverand released himself and forced her into a chair.
"Let me be, Florence. I promised only so as to reassure you. Let me be."
"No, I will not!" exclaimed the girl eagerly. "It's madness! I won't have you say a single word. Oh, please, please stop!"
He bent over her and smoothed her forehead, separating her mass of golden hair.
"Let me do things my own way, Florence," he said softly.
She was silent, as though disarmed by the gentleness of his voice; and he whispered more words which Don Luis could not hear and which seemed to convince her.
Perenna had not moved. He stood opposite them with his arm outstretched and his finger on the trigger, aiming at the enemy. When Sauverand addressed Florence by her Christian name, he started from head to foot and his finger trembled. What miracle kept him from shooting? By what supreme effort of will did he stifle the jealous hatred that burnt him like fire? And here was Sauverand daring to stroke Florence's hair!
He lowered his arm. He would kill them later, do with them what he pleased, since they were in his power, and since nothing henceforth could snatch them from his vengeance.
He took Sauverand's two revolvers and laid them in a drawer. Then he went back to the door, intending to lock it. But hearing a sound on the first-floor landing, he leant over the balusters. The butler was coming upstairs with a tray in his hand.
"What is it now?"
"An urgent letter, sir, for Sergeant Mazeroux."
"Sergeant Mazeroux is with me. Give me the letter and don't let me be disturbed again."
He tore open the envelope. The letter, hurriedly written in pencil and signed by one of the inspectors on duty outside the house, contained these words:
"Look out, Sergeant. Gaston Sauverand is in the house. Two people living opposite say that the girl who is known hereabouts as the lady housekeeper came in at half-past one, before we took up our posts. She was next seen at the window of her lodge.
"A few moments after, a small, low door, used for the cellars and situated under the lodge, was opened, evidently by her. Almost at the same time a man entered the square, came along the wall, and slipped in through the cellar door. According to the description it was Gaston Sauverand. So look out, Sergeant. At the least alarm, at the first signal from you, we shall come in."
Don Luis reflected. He now understood how the scoundrel had access to his house, and how, hidden in the safest of retreats, he was able to escape every attempt to find him. He was living under the roof of the very man who had declared himself his most formidable adversary.
"Come on," he said to himself. "The fellow's score is settled--and so is his young lady's. They can choose between the bullets in my revolver and the handcuffs of the police."
He had ceased to think of his motor standing ready below. He no longer dreamt of flight with Florence. If he did not kill the two of them, the law would lay its hand upon them, the hand that does not let go. And perhaps it was better so, that society itself should punish the two criminals whom he was about to hand over to it.
He shut the door, pushed the bolt, faced his two prisoners again and, taking a chair, said to Sauverand:
"Let us talk."
Owing to the narrow dimensions of the room they were all so close together that Don Luis felt as if he were almost touching the man whom he loathed from the very bottom of his heart. Their two chairs were hardly a yard asunder. A long table, covered with books, stood between them and the windows, which, hollowed out of the very thick wall, formed a recess, as is usual in old houses.
Florence had turned her chair away from the light, and Don Luis could not see her face clearly. But he looked straight into Gaston Sauverand's face and watched it with eager curiosity; and his anger was heightened by the sight of the still youthful features, the expressive mouth, and the intelligent eyes, which were fine in spite of their hardness.
"Well? Speak!" said Don Luis, in a commanding tone. "I have agreed to a truce, but a momentary truce, just long enough to say what is necessary. Are you afraid now that the time has arrived? Do you regret the step which you have taken?"
The man smiled calmly and said:
"I am afraid of nothing, and I do not regret coming, for I have a very strong intuition that we can, that we are bound to, come to an understanding."
"An understanding!" protested Don Luis with a start.
"A compact! An alliance between you and me!"
"Why not? It is a thought which I had already entertained more than once, which took a more precise shape in the magistrates' corridor, and which finally decided me when I read the announcement which you caused to be made in the special edition of this paper: 'Sensational declaration by Don Luis Perenna. Mme. Fauville is innocent!'"
Gaston Sauverand half rose from his chair and, carefully picking his words, emphasizing them with sharp gestures, he whispered:
"Everything lies, Monsieur, in those four words. Do those four words which you have written, which you have uttered publicly and solemnly--'Mme. Fauville is innocent'--do they express your real mind? Do you now absolutely believe in Marie Fauville's innocence?"
Don Luis shrugged his shoulders.
"Mme. Fauville's innocence has nothing to do with the case. It is a question not of her, but of you, of you two and myself. So come straight to the point and as quickly as you can. It is to your interest even more than to mine."
"To our interest?"
"You forget the third heading to the article," cried Don Luis. "I did more than proclaim Marie Fauville's innocence. I also announced--read for yourself--The 'imminent arrest of the criminals,'"
Sauverand and Florence rose together, with the same unguarded movement.
"And, in your view, the criminals are--?" asked Sauverand.
"Why, you know as well as I do: they are the man with the ebony walking-stick, who at any rate cannot deny having murdered Chief Inspector Ancenis, and the woman who is his accomplice in all his crimes. Both of them must remember their attempts to assassinate me: the revolver shot on the Boulevard Suchet; the motor smash causing the death of my chauffeur; and yesterday again, in the barn--you know where--the barn with the two skeletons hanging from the rafters: yesterday--you remember--the scythe, the relentless scythe, which nearly beheaded me."
"Well, then, the game is lost. You must pay up; and all the more so as you have foolishly put your heads into the lion's mouth."
"I don't understand. What does all this mean?"
"It simply means that they know Florence Levasseur, that they know you are both here, that the house is surrounded, and that Weber, the deputy chief detective, is on his way."
Sauverand appeared disconcerted by this unexpected threat. Florence, standing beside him, had turned livid. A mad anguish distorted her features. She stammered:
"Oh, it is awful! No, no, I can't endure it!"
And, rushing at Don Luis:
"Coward! Coward! It's you who are betraying us! Coward! Oh, I knew that you were capable of the meanest treachery! There you stand like an executioner! Oh, you villain, you coward!"
She fell into her chair, exhausted and sobbing, with her hand to her face.
Don Luis turned away. Strange to say, he experienced no sense of pity; and Florence's tears affected him no more than her insults had done, no more than if he had never loved the girl. He was glad of this release. The horror with which she filled him had killed his love.
But, when he once more stood in front of them after taking a few steps across the room, he saw that they were holding each other's hands, like two friends in distress, trying to give each other courage; and, again yielding to a sudden impulse of hatred, for a moment beside himself, he gripped the man's arm:
"I forbid you--By what right--? Is she your wife? Your mistress? Then--"
His voice became perplexed. He himself felt the strangeness of that fit of anger which suddenly revealed, in all its force and all its blindness, a passion which he thought dead. And he blushed, for Gaston Sauverand was looking at him in amazement; and he did not doubt that the enemy had penetrated his secret.
A long pause followed, during which he met Florence's eyes, hostile eyes, full of rebellion and disdain. Had she, too, guessed?
He dared not speak another word. He waited for Sauverand's explanation. And, while waiting, he gave not a thought to the coming revelations, nor to the tremendous problems of which he was at last about to know the solution, nor to the tragic events at hand.
He thought of one thing only, thought of it with the fevered throbbing of his whole being, thought of what he was on the point of learning about Florence, about the girl's affections, about her past, about her love for Sauverand. That alone interested him.
"Very well," said Sauverand. "I am caught in a trap. Fate must take its course. Nevertheless, can I speak to you? It is the only wish that remains to me."
"Speak," replied Don Luis. "The door is locked. I shall not open it until I think fit. Speak."
"I shall be brief," said Gaston Sauverand. "For one thing, what I can tell you is not much. I do not ask you to believe it, but to listen to it as if I were possibly telling the truth, the whole truth."
And he expressed himself in the following words:
"I never met Hippolyte and Marie Fauville, though I used to correspond with them--you will remember that we were all cousins--until five years ago, when chance brought us together at Palmero. They were passing the winter there while their new house on the Boulevard Suchet was being built.
"We spent five months at Palmero, seeing one another daily. Hippolyte and Marie were not on the best of terms. One evening after they had been quarrelling more violently than usual I found her crying. Her tears upset me and I could not longer conceal my secret. I had loved Marie from the first moment when we met. I was to love her always and to love her more and more."
"You lie!" cried Don Luis, losing his self-restraint. "I saw the two of you yesterday in the train that brought you back from Alençon--"
Gaston Sauverand looked at Florence. She sat silent, with her hands to her face and her elbows on her knees. Without replying to Don Luis's exclamation, he went on:
"Marie also loved me. She admitted it, but made me swear that I would never try to obtain from her more than the purest friendship would allow. I kept my oath. We enjoyed a few weeks of incomparable happiness. Hippolyte Fauville, who had become enamoured of a music-hall singer, was often away.
"I took a good deal of trouble with the physical training of the little boy Edmond, whose health was not what it should be. And we also had with us, between us, the best of friends, the most devoted and affectionate counsellor, who staunched our wounds, kept up our courage, restored our gayety, and bestowed some of her own strength and dignity upon our love. Florence was there."
Don Luis felt his heart beating faster. Not that he attached the least credit to Gaston Sauverand's words; but he had every hope of arriving, through those words, at the real truth. Perhaps, also, he was unconsciously undergoing the influence of Gaston Sauverand, whose apparent frankness and sincerity of tone caused him a certain surprise.
"Fifteen years before, my elder brother, Raoul Sauverand, had picked up at Buenos Aires, where he had gone to live, a little girl, the orphan daughter of some friends. At his death he entrusted the child, who was then fourteen, to an old nurse who had brought me up and who had accompanied my brother to South America. The old nurse brought the child to me and herself died of an accident a few days after her arrival in France.... I took the little girl to Italy to friends, where she worked and studied and became--what she is.
"Wishing to live by her own resources, she accepted a position as teacher in a family. Later I recommended her to my Fauville cousins with whom I found her at Palmero as governess to the boy Edmond and especially as the friend, the dear and devoted friend, of Marie Fauville.... She was mine, also, at that happy time, which was so sunny and all too short. Our happiness, in fact--the happiness of all three of us--was to be wrecked in the most sudden and tantalizing fashion.
"Every evening I used to write in a diary the daily life of my love, an uneventful life, without hope or future before it, but eager and radiant. Marie Fauville was extolled in it as a goddess. Kneeling down to write, I sang litanies of her beauty, and I also used to invent, as a poor compensation, wholly imaginary scenes, in which she said all the things which she might have said but did not, and promised me all the happiness which we had voluntarily renounced.
"Hippolyte Fauville found the diary.... His anger was something terrible. His first impulse was to get rid of Marie. But in the face of his wife's attitude, of the proofs of her innocence which she supplied, of her inflexible refusal to consent to a divorce, and of her promise never to see me again, he recovered his calmness.... I left, with death in my soul. Florence left, too, dismissed. And never, mark me, never, since that fatal hour, did I exchange a single word with Marie. But an indestructible love united us, a love which neither absence nor time was to weaken."
He stopped for a moment, as though to read in Don Luis's face the effect produced by his story. Don Luis did not conceal his anxious attention. What astonished him most was Gaston Sauverand's extraordinary calmness, the peaceful expression of his eyes, the quiet ease with which he set forth, without hurrying, almost slowly and so very simply, the story of that family tragedy.
"What an actor!" he thought.
And as he thought it, he remembered that Marie Fauville had given him the same impression. Was he then to hark back to his first conviction and believe Marie guilty, a dissembler like her accomplice, a dissembler like Florence? Or was he to attribute a certain honesty to that man?
"Afterward I travelled about. I resumed my life of work and pursued my studies wherever I went, in my bedroom at the hotels, and in the public laboratories of the big towns."
"And Mme. Fauville?"
"She lived in Paris in her new house. Neither she nor her husband ever referred to the past."
"How do you know? Did she write to you?"
"No. Marie is a woman who does not do her duty by halves; and her sense of duty is strict to excess. She never wrote to me. But Florence, who had accepted a place as secretary and reader to Count Malonyi, your predecessor in this house, used often to receive Marie's visits in her lodge downstairs.
"They did not speak of me once, did they, Florence? Marie would not have allowed it. But all her life and all her soul were nothing but love and passionate memories. Isn't that so, Florence?
"At last," he went on slowly, "weary of being so far away from her, I returned to Paris. That was our undoing.... It was about a year ago. I took a flat in the Avenue du Roule and went to it in the greatest secrecy, so that Hippolyte Fauville might not know of my return. I was afraid of disturbing Marie's peace of mind. Florence alone knew, and came to see me from time to time. I went out little, only after dark, and in the most secluded parts of the Bois. But it happened--for our most heroic resolutions sometimes fail us--one Wednesday night, at about eleven o'clock, my steps led me to the Boulevard Suchet, without my noticing it, and I went past Marie's house.
"It was a warm and fine night and, as luck would have it, Marie was at her window. She saw me, I was sure of it, and knew me; and my happiness was so great that my legs shook under me as I walked away.
"After that I passed in front of her house every Wednesday evening; and Marie was nearly always there, giving me this unhoped-for and ever-new delight, in spite of the fact that her social duties, her quite natural love of amusement, and her husband's position obliged her to go out a great deal."
"Quick! Why can't you hurry?" said Don Luis, urged by his longing to know more. "Look sharp and come to the facts. Speak!"
He had become suddenly afraid lest he should not hear the remainder of the explanation; and he suddenly perceived that Gaston Sauverand's words were making their way into his mind as words that were perhaps not untrue. Though he strove to fight against them, they were stronger than his prejudices and triumphed over his arguments.
The fact is, that deep down in his soul, tortured with love and jealousy, there was something that disposed him to believe this man in whom hitherto he had seen only a hated rival, and who was so loudly proclaiming, in Florence's very presence, his love for Marie.
"Hurry!" he repeated. "Every minute is precious!"
Sauverand shook his head.
"I shall not hurry. All my words were carefully thought out before I decided to speak. Every one of them is essential. Not one of them can be omitted, for you will find the solution of the problem not in facts presented anyhow, separated one from the other, but in the concatenation of the facts, and in a story told as faithfully as possible."
"Why? I don't understand."
"Because the truth lies hidden in that story."
"But that truth is your innocence, isn't it?"
"It is Marie's innocence."
"But I don't dispute it!"
"What is the use of that if you can't prove it?"
"Exactly! It's for you to give me proofs."
"I have none."
"I tell you, I have no proof of what I am asking you to believe."
"Then I shall not believe it!" cried Don Luis angrily. "No, and again no! Unless you supply me with the most convincing proofs, I shall refuse to believe a single word of what you are going to tell me."
"You have believed everything that I have told you so far," Sauverand retorted very simply.
Don Luis offered no denial. He turned his eyes to Florence Levasseur; and it seemed to him that she was looking at him with less aversion, and as though she were wishing with all her might that he would not resist the impressions that were forcing themselves upon him. He muttered:
"Go on with your story."
And there was something really strange about the attitude of those two men, one making his explanation in precise terms and in such a way as to give every word its full value, the other listening attentively and weighing every one of those words; both controlling their excitement; both as calm in appearance as though they were seeking the philosophical solution in a case of conscience. What was going on outside did not matter. What was to happen presently did not count.
Before all, whatever the consequences of their inactivity at this moment when the circle of the police was closing in around them, before all it was necessary that one should speak and the other listen.
"We are coming," said Sauverand, in his grave voice, "we are coming to the most important events, to those of which the interpretation, which is new to you, but strictly true, will make you believe in our good faith. Ill luck having brought me across Hippolyte Fauville's path in the course of one of my walks in the Bois, I took the precaution of changing my abode and went to live in the little house on the Boulevard Richard-Wallace, where Florence came to see me several times.
"I was even careful to keep her visits a secret and, moreover, to refrain from corresponding with her except through the _poste restante_. I was therefore quite easy in my mind.
"I worked in perfect solitude and in complete security. I expected nothing. No danger, no possibility of danger, threatened us. And, I may say, to use a commonplace but very accurate expression, that what happened came as an absolute bolt from the blue. I heard at the same time, when the Prefect of Police and his men broke into my house and proceeded to arrest me, I heard at the same time and for the first time of the murder of Hippolyte Fauville, the murder of Edmond, and the arrest of my adored Marie."
"Impossible!" cried Don Luis, in a renewed tone of aggressive wrath. "Impossible! Those facts were a fortnight old. I cannot allow that you had not heard of them."
"Through the papers," exclaimed Don Luis. "And, more certainly still, through Mlle. Levasseur."
"Through the papers?" said Sauverand. "I never used to read them. What! Is that incredible? Are we under an obligation, an inevitable necessity, to waste half an hour a day in skimming through the futilities of politics and the piffle of the news columns? Is your imagination incapable of conceiving a man who reads nothing but reviews and scientific publications?
"The fact is rare, I admit," he continued. "But the rarity of a fact is no proof against it. On the other hand, on the very morning of the crime I had written to Florence saying that I was going away for three weeks and bidding her good-bye. I changed my mind at the last moment; but this she did not know; and, thinking that I had gone, not knowing where I was, she was unable to inform me of the crime, of Marie's arrest, or, later, when an accusation was brought against the man with the ebony walking-stick, of the search that was being made for me."
"Exactly!" declared Don Luis. "You cannot pretend that the man with the ebony walking-stick, the man who followed Inspector Vérot to the Café du Pont-Neuf and purloined his letter--"
"I am not the man," Sauverand interrupted.
And, when Don Luis shrugged his shoulders, he insisted, in a more forcible tone of voice:
"I am not that man. There is some inexplicable mistake in all this, but I have never set foot in the Café du Pont-Neuf. I swear it. You must accept this statement as positively true. Besides, it agrees entirely with the retired life which I was leading from necessity and from choice. And, I repeat, I knew nothing.
"The thunderbolt was unexpected. And it was precisely for this reason, you must understand, that the shock produced in me an equally unexpected reaction, a state of mind diametrically opposed to my real nature, an outburst of my most savage and primitive instincts. Remember, Monsieur, that they had laid hands upon what to me was the most sacred thing on earth. Marie was in prison. Marie was accused of committing two murders!... I went mad.
"At first controlling myself, playing a part with the Prefect of Police, then overthrowing every obstacle, shooting Chief Inspector Ancenis, shaking off Sergeant Mazeroux, jumping from the window, I had only one thought in my head--that of escape. Once free, I should save Marie. Were there people in my way? So much the worse for them.
"By what right did those people dare to attack the most blameless of women? I killed only one man that day! I would have killed ten! I would have killed twenty! What was Chief Inspector Ancenis's life to me? What cared I for the lives of any of those wretches? They stood between Marie and myself; and Marie was in prison!"
Gaston Sauverand made an effort which contracted every muscle of his face to recover the coolness that was gradually leaving him. He succeeded in doing so, but his voice, nevertheless, remained tremulous, and the fever with which he was consumed shook his frame in a manner which he was unable to conceal.
"At the corner of the street down which I turned after outdistancing the Prefect's men on the Boulevard Richard-Wallace, Florence saved me just as I believed that all was lost. Florence had known everything for a fortnight past. She learnt the news of the double murder from the papers, those papers which she used to read out to you, and which you discussed with her. And it was by being with you, by listening to you, that she acquired the opinion which everything that happened tended to confirm: the opinion that Marie's enemy, her only enemy, was yourself."
"But why? Why?"
"Because she saw you at work," exclaimed Sauverand, "because it was more to your interest than to that of any one else that first Marie and then I should not come between you and the Mornington inheritance, and lastly--"
Gaston Sauverand hesitated and then said, plainly:
"Lastly, because she knew your real name beyond a doubt, and because she felt that Arsène Lupin was capable of anything."
They were both silent; and their silence, at such a moment, was impressive to a degree. Florence remained impassive under Don Luis Perenna's gaze; and he was unable to discern on her sealed face any of the feelings with which she must needs be stirred.
Gaston Sauverand continued:
"It was against Arsène Lupin, therefore, that Florence, Marie's terrified friend, engaged in the struggle. It was to unmask Lupin that she wrote or rather inspired the article of which you found the original in a ball of string. It was Lupin whom she spied upon, day by day, in this house. It was Lupin whom she heard one morning telephoning to Sergeant Mazeroux and rejoicing in my imminent arrest. It was to save me from Lupin that she let down the iron curtain in front of him, at the risk of an accident, and took a taxi to the corner of the Boulevard Richard-Wallace, where she arrived too late to warn me, as the detectives had already entered my house, but in time to screen me from their pursuit.
"Her mistrust and terror-stricken hatred of you were told to me in an instant," Sauverand declared. "During the twenty minutes which we employed in throwing our assailants off the scent, she hurriedly sketched the main lines of the business and described to me in a few words the leading part which you were playing in it; and we then and there prepared a counter-attack upon you, so that you might be suspected of complicity.
"While I was sending a message to the Prefect of Police, Florence went home and hid under the cushions of your sofa the end of the stick which I had kept in my hand without thinking. It was an ineffective parry and missed its aim. But the fight had begun; and I threw myself into it headlong.
"Monsieur, to understand my actions thoroughly, you must remember that I was a student, a man leading a solitary life, but also an ardent lover. I would have spent all my life in work, asking no more from fate than to see Marie at her window from time to time at night. But, once she was being persecuted, another man arose within me, a man of action, bungling, certainly, and inexperienced, but a man who was ready to stick at nothing, and who, not knowing how to save Marie Fauville, had no other object before him than to do away with that enemy of Marie's to whom he was entitled to ascribe all the misfortunes that had befallen the woman he loved.... This started the series of my attempts upon your life. Brought into your house, concealed in Florence's own rooms, I tried--unknown to her: that I swear--to poison you."
He paused for an instant to mark the effect of his words, then went on:
"Her reproaches, her abhorrence of such an act, would perhaps have moved me, but, I repeat, I was mad, quite mad; and your death seemed to me to imply Marie's safety. And, one morning, on the Boulevard Suchet, where I had followed you, I fired a revolver at you.
"The same evening your motor car, tampered with by myself--remember, Florence's rooms are close to the garage--carried you, I hoped, to your death, together with Sergeant Mazeroux, your confederate.... That time again you escaped my vengeance. But an innocent man, the chauffeur who drove you, paid for you with his life; and Florence's despair was such that I had to yield to her entreaties and lay down my arms.
"I myself, terrified by what I had done, shattered by the remembrance of my two victims, changed my plans and thought only of saving Marie by contriving her escape from prison....
"I am a rich man. I lavished money upon Marie's warders, without, however, revealing my intentions. I entered into relations with the prison tradesmen and the staff of the infirmary. And every day, having procured a card of admission as a law reporter, I went to the law courts, to the examining magistrates' corridor, where I hoped to meet Marie, to encourage her with a look, a gesture, perhaps to slip a few words of comfort into her hand...."
Sauverand moved closer to Don Luis.
"Her martyrdom continued. You struck her a most terrible blow with that mysterious business of Hippolyte Fauville's letters. What did those letters mean? Where did they come from? Were we not entitled to attribute the whole plot to you, to you who introduced them into the horrible struggle?
"Florence watched you, I may say, night and day. We sought for a clue, a glimmer of light in the darkness.... Well, yesterday morning, Florence saw Sergeant Mazeroux arrive. She could not overhear what he said to you, but she caught the name of a certain Langernault and the name of Damigni, the village where Langernault lived. She remembered that old friend of Hippolyte Fauville's. Were the letters not addressed to him and was it not in search of him that you were going off in the motor with Sergeant Mazeroux?...
"Half an hour later we were in the train for Alençon. A carriage took us from the station to just outside Damigni, where we made our inquiries with every possible precaution. On learning what you must also know, that Langernault was dead, we resolved to visit his place, and we had succeeded in effecting an entrance when Florence saw you in the grounds. Wishing at all costs to avoid a meeting between you and myself, she dragged me across the lawn and behind the bushes. You followed us, however, and when a barn appeared in sight she pushed one of the doors which half opened and let us through. We managed to slip quickly through the lumber in the dark and knocked up against a ladder. This we climbed and reached a loft in which we took shelter. You entered at that moment....
"You know the rest: how you discovered the two hanging skeletons; how your attention was drawn to us by an imprudent movement of Florence; your attack, to which I replied by brandishing the first weapon with which chance provided me; lastly, our flight through the window in the roof, under the fire of your revolver. We were free. But in the evening, in the train, Florence fainted. While bringing her to I perceived that one of your bullets had wounded her in the shoulder. The wound was slight and did not hurt her, but it was enough to increase the extreme tension of her nerves. When you saw us--at Le Mans station wasn't it?--she was asleep, with her head on my shoulder."
Don Luis had not once interrupted the latter part of this narrative, which was told in a more and more agitated voice and quickened by an accent of profound truth. Thanks to a superhuman effort of attention, he noted Sauverand's least words and actions in his mind. And as these words were uttered and these actions performed, he received the impression of another woman who rose up beside the real Florence, a woman unspotted and innocent of all the shame which he had attributed to her on the strength of events.
Nevertheless, he did not yet give in. How could Florence possibly be innocent? No, no, the evidence of his eyes, which had seen, and the evidence of his reason, which had judged, both rebelled against any such contention.
He would not admit that Florence could suddenly be different from what she really was to him: a crafty, cunning, cruel, blood-thirsty monster. No, no, the man was lying with infernal cleverness. He put things with a skill amounting to genius, until it was no longer possible to differentiate between the false and the true, or to distinguish the light from the darkness.
He was lying! He was lying! And yet how sweet were the lies he told! How beautiful was that imaginary Florence, the Florence compelled by destiny to commit acts which she loathed, but free of all crime, free of remorse, humane and pitiful, with her clear eyes and her snow-white hands! And how good it was to yield to this fantastic dream!
Gaston Sauverand was watching the face of his former enemy. Standing close to Don Luis, his features lit up with the expression of feelings and passions which he no longer strove to check, he asked, in a low voice:
"You believe me, don't you?"
"No, I don't," said Perenna, hardening himself to resist the man's influence.
"You must!" cried Sauverand, with a fierce outburst of violence. "You must believe in the strength of my love. It is the cause of everything. My hatred for you comes only from my love. Marie is my life. If she were dead, there would be nothing for me to do but die. Oh, this morning, when I read in the papers that the poor woman had opened her veins--and through your fault, after Hippolyte's letters accusing her--I did not want to kill you so much as to inflict upon you the most barbarous tortures! My poor Marie, what a martyrdom she must be enduring!...
"As you were not back, Florence and I wandered about all morning to have news of her: first around the prison, next to the police office and the law courts. And it was there, in the magistrates' corridor, that I saw you. At that moment you were mentioning Marie Fauville's name to a number of journalists; and you told them that Marie Fauville was innocent; and you informed them of the evidence which you possessed in Marie's favour!
"My hatred ceased then and there, Monsieur. In one second the enemy had become the ally, the master to whom one kneels. So you had had the wonderful courage to repudiate all your work and to devote yourself to Marie's rescue! I ran off, trembling with joy and hope, and, as I joined Florence, I shouted, 'Marie is saved! He proclaims her innocent! I must see him and speak to him!'...
"We came back here. Florence refused to lay down her arms and begged me not to carry out my plan before your new attitude in the case was confirmed by deeds. I promised everything that she asked. But my mind was made up. And my will was still further strengthened when I had read your declaration in the newspaper. I would place Marie's fate in your hands whatever happened and without an hour's delay, I waited for your return and came up here."
He was no longer the same man who had displayed such coolness at the commencement of the interview. Exhausted by his efforts and by a struggle that had lasted for weeks, costing him so much fruitless energy, he was now trembling; and clinging to Don Luis, with one of his knees on the chair beside which Don Luis was standing, he stammered:
"Save her, I implore you! You have it in your power. Yes, you can do anything. I learnt to know you in fighting you. There was more than your genius defending you against me; there is a luck that protects you. You are different from other men. Why, the mere fact of your not killing me at once, though I had pursued you so savagely, the fact of your listening to the inconceivable truth of the innocence of all three of us and accepting it as admissible, surely these constitute an unprecedented miracle.
"While I was waiting for you and preparing to speak to you, I received an intuition of it all!" he exclaimed. "I saw clearly that the man who was proclaiming Marie's innocence with nothing to guide him but his reason, I saw that this man alone could save her and that he would save her. Ah, I beseech you, save her--and save her at once. Otherwise it will be too late.
"In a few days Marie will have ended her life. She cannot go on living in prison. You see, she means to die. No obstacle can prevent her. Can any one be prevented from committing suicide? And how horrible if she were to die!... Oh, if the law requires a criminal I will confess anything that I am asked to. I will joyfully accept every charge and pay every penalty, provided that Marie is free! Save her!... I did not know, I do not yet know the best thing to be done! Save her from prison and death, save her, for God's sake, save her!"
Tears flowed down his anguish-stricken face. Florence also was crying, bowed down with sorrow. And Perenna suddenly felt the most terrible dread steal over him.
Although, ever since the beginning of the interview, a fresh conviction had gradually been mastering him, it was only as it were a glance that he became aware of it. Suddenly he perceived that his belief in Sauverand's words was unrestricted, and that Florence was perhaps not the loathsome creature that he had had the right to think, but a woman whose eyes did not lie and whose face and soul were alike beautiful.
Suddenly he learnt that the two people before him, as well as Marie Fauville, for love of whom they had fought so unskilful a fight, were imprisoned in an iron circle which their efforts would not succeed in breaking. And that circle traced by an unknown hand he, Perenna, had drawn tighter around them with the most ruthless determination.
"If only it is not too late!" he muttered.
He staggered under the shock of the sensations and ideas that crowded upon him. Everything clashed in his brain with tragic violence: certainty, joy, dismay, despair, fury. He was struggling in the clutches of the most hideous nightmare; and he already seemed to see a detective's heavy hand descending on Florence's shoulder.
"Come away! Come away!" he cried, starting up in alarm. "It is madness to remain!"
"But the house is surrounded," Sauverand objected.
"And then? Do you think that I will allow for a second--? No, no, come! We must fight side by side. I shall still entertain some doubts, that is certain. You must destroy them; and we will save Mme. Fauville."
"But the detectives round the house?"
"We'll manage them."
"Weber, the deputy chief?"
"He's not here. And as long as he's not here I'll take everything on myself. Come, follow me, but at some little distance. When I give the signal and not till then--"
He drew the bolt and turned the handle of the door. At that moment some one knocked. It was the butler.
"Well?" asked Don Luis. "Why am I disturbed?"
"The deputy chief detective, M. Weber, is here, sir."