The Teeth of the Tiger/Chapter 12
CHAPTER XII. "HELP!"Edit
When Lupin afterward told me this episode of the tragic story, he said, not without a certain self-complacency:
"What astonished me then, and what astonishes me still, as one of the most amazing victories on which I am entitled to pride myself, is that I was able to admit Sauverand and Marie Fauville's innocence on the spot, as a problem solved once and for all. It was a first-class performance, I swear, and surpassed the most famous deductions of the most famous investigators both in psychological value and in detective merit.
"After all, taking everything into account, there was not the shadow of a fresh fact to enable me to alter the verdict. The charges accumulated against the two prisoners were the same, and were so grave that no examining magistrate would have hesitated for a second to commit them for trial, nor any jury to bring them in guilty. I will not speak of Marie Fauville: you had only to think of the marks of her teeth to be absolutely certain. But Gaston Sauverand, the son of Victor Sauverand and consequently the heir of Cosmo Mornington--Gaston Sauverand, the man with the ebony walking-stick and the murderer of Chief Inspector Ancenis--was he not just as guilty as Marie Fauville, incriminated with her by the mysterious letters, incriminated by the very revelation of the husband whom they had killed?
"And yet why did that sudden change take place in me?" he asked. "Why did I go against the evidence? Why did I credit an incredible fact? Why did I admit the inadmissible? Why? Well, no doubt, because truth has an accent that rings in the ears in a manner all its own. On the one side, every proof, every fact, every reality, every certainty; on the other, a story, a story told by one of the three criminals, and therefore, presumptively, absurd and untrue from start to finish. But a story told in a frank voice, a clear, dispassionate, closely woven story, free from complications or improbabilities, a story which supplied no positive solution, but which, by its very honesty, obliged any impartial mind to reconsider the solution arrived at. I believed the story."
The explanation which Lupin gave me was not complete. I asked:
"And Florence Levasseur?"
"Yes, you don't tell me what you thought. What was your opinion about her? Everything tended to incriminate her not only in your eyes, because, logically speaking, she had taken part in all the attempts to murder you, but also in the eyes of the police. They knew that she used to pay Sauverand clandestine visits at his house on the Boulevard Richard-Wallace. They had found her photograph in Inspector Vérot's memorandum-book, and then--and then all the rest: your accusations, your certainties. Was all that modified by Sauverand's story? To your mind, was Florence innocent or guilty?"
He hesitated, seemed on the point of replying directly and frankly to my question, but could not bring himself to do so, and said:
"I wished to have confidence. In order to act, I must have full and entire confidence, whatever doubts might still assail me, whatever darkness might still enshroud this or that part of the adventure. I therefore believed. And, believing, I acted according to my belief."
Acting, to Don Luis Perenna, during those hours of forced inactivity, consisted solely in perpetually repeating to himself Gaston Sauverand's account of the events. He tried to reconstitute it in all its details, to remember the very least sentences, the apparently most insignificant phrases. And he examined those sentences, scrutinized those phrases one by one, in order to extract such particle of the truth as they contained.
For the truth was there. Sauverand had said so and Perenna did not doubt it. The whole sinister affair, all that constituted the case of the Mornington inheritance and the tragedy of the Boulevard Suchet, all that could throw light upon the plot hatched against Marie Fauville, all that could explain the undoing of Sauverand and Florence--all this lay in Sauverand's story. Don Luis had only to understand, and the truth would appear like the moral which we draw from some obscure fable.
Don Luis did not once deviate from his method. If any objection suggested itself to his mind, he at once replied:
"Very well. It may be that I am wrong and that Sauverand's story will not enlighten me on any point capable of guiding me. It may be that the truth lies outside it. But am I in a position to get at the truth in any other way? All that I possess as an instrument of research, without attaching undue importance to certain gleams of light which the regular appearance of the mysterious letters has shed upon the case, all that I possess is Gaston Sauverand's story. Must I not make use of it?"
And, once again, as when one follows a path by another person's tracks, be began to live through the adventure which Sauverand had been through. He compared it with the picture of it which he had imagined until then. The two were in opposition; but could not the very clash of their opposition be made to produce a spark of light?
"Here is what he said," he thought, "and there is what I believed. What does the difference mean? Here is the thing that was, and there is the thing that appeared to be. Why did the criminal wish the thing that was to appear under that particular aspect? To remove all suspicion from him? But, in that case, was it necessary that suspicion should fall precisely on those on whom it did?"
The questions came crowding one upon the other. He sometimes answered them at random, mentioning names and uttering words in succession, as though the name mentioned might be just that of the criminal, and the words uttered those which contained the unseen reality.
Then at once he would take up the story again, as schoolboys do when parsing and analyzing a passage, in which each expression is carefully sifted, each period discussed, each sentence reduced to its essential value.
* * * * *
Hours and hours passed. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, he gave a start. He took out his watch. By the light of his electric lamp he saw that it was seventeen minutes to twelve.
"So at seventeen minutes to twelve at night," he said, "I fathomed the mystery."
He tried to control his emotion, but it was too great; and his nerves were so immensely staggered by the trial that he began to shed tears. He had caught sight of the appalling truth, all of a sudden, as when at night one half sees a landscape under a lightning-flash.
There is nothing more unnerving than this sudden illumination when we have been groping and struggling in the dark. Already exhausted by his physical efforts and by the want of food, from which he was beginning to suffer, he felt the shock so intensely that, without caring to think a moment longer, he managed to go to sleep, or, rather, to sink into sleep, as one sinks into the healing waters of a bath.
When he woke, in the small hours, alert and well despite the discomfort of his couch, he shuddered on thinking of the theory which he had accepted; and his first instinct was to doubt it. He had, so to speak, no time.
All the proofs came rushing to his mind of their own accord and at once transformed the theory into one of those certainties which it would be madness to deny. It was that and nothing else. As he had foreseen, the truth lay recorded in Sauverand's story. And he had not been mistaken, either, in saying to Mazeroux that the manner in which the mysterious letters appeared had put him on the track of the truth.
And the truth was terrible. He felt, at the thought of it, the same fears that had maddened Inspector Vérot when, already tortured by the poison, he stammered:
"Oh, I don't like this, I don't like the look of this!... The whole thing has been planned in such an infernal manner!"
Infernal was the word! And Don Luis remained stupefied at the revelation of a crime which looked as if no human brain could have conceived it.
For two hours more he devoted all his mental powers to examining the situation from every point of view. He was not much disturbed about the result, because, being now in possession of the terrible secret, he had nothing more to do but make his escape and go that evening to the meeting on the Boulevard Suchet, where he would show them all how the murder was committed.
But when, wishing to try his chance of escaping, he went up through the underground passage and climbed to the top of the upper ladder--that is to say, to the level of the boudoir--he heard through the trapdoor the voices of men in the room.
"By Jove!" he said to himself, "the thing is not so simple as I thought! In order to escape the minions of the law I must first leave my prison; and here is at least one of the exits blocked. Let's look at the other."
He went down to Florence's apartments and worked the mechanism, which consisted of a counterweight. The panel of the cupboard moved in the groove.
Driven by horror and hoping to find some provisions which enable him to withstand a siege without being reduced to famine, he was about to pass through the alcove, behind the curtains, when he was stopped short by a sound of footsteps. Some one had entered the room.
"Well, Mazeroux, have you spent the night here? Nothing new!"
Don Luis recognized the Prefect of Police by his voice; and the question put by the Prefect told him, first, that Mazeroux had been released from the dark closet where he had bound him up, and, secondly, that the sergeant was in the next room. Fortunately, the sliding panel had worked without the least sound; and Don Luis was able to overhear the conversation between the two men.
"No, nothing new, Monsieur le Préfet," replied Mazeroux.
"That's funny. The confounded fellow must be somewhere. Or can he have got away over the roof?"
"Impossible, Monsieur le Préfet," said a third voice, which Don Luis recognized as that of Weber, the deputy chief detective. "Impossible. We made certain yesterday, that unless he has wings--"
"Then what do you think, Weber?"
"I think, Monsieur le Préfet, that he is concealed in the house. This is an old house and probably contains some safe hiding-place--"
"Of course, of course," said M. Desmalions, whom Don Luis, peeping through the curtains, saw walking to and fro in front of the alcove. "You're right; and we shall catch him in his burrow. Only, is it really necessary?"
"Monsieur le Préfet!"
"Well, you know my opinion on the subject, which is also the Prime Minister's opinion. Unearthing Lupin would be a blunder which we should end by regretting. After all, he's become an honest man, you know; he's useful to us and he does no harm--"
"No harm, Monsieur le Préfet? Do you think so?" said Weber stiffly.
M. Desmalions burst out laughing.
"Oh, of course, yesterday's trick, the telephone trick! You must admit it was funny. The Premier had to hold his sides when I told him of it."
"Upon my word, I see nothing to laugh at!"
"No, but, all the same, the rascal is never at a loss. Funny or not, the trick was extraordinarily daring. To cut the telephone wire before your eyes and then blockade you behind that iron curtain! By the way, Mazeroux, you must get the telephone repaired this morning, so as to keep in touch with the office. Have you begun your search in these two rooms?"
"As you ordered, Monsieur le Préfet. The deputy chief and I have been hunting round for the last hour."
"Yes," said M. Desmalions, "that Florence Levasseur strikes me as a troublesome creature. She is certainly an accomplice. But what were her relations with Sauverand and what was her connection with Don Luis Perenna? That's what I should like to know. Have you discovered nothing in her papers?"
"No, Monsieur le Préfet," said Mazeroux. "Nothing but bills and tradesmen's letters."
"And you, Weber?"
"I've found something very interesting, Monsieur le Préfet."
Weber spoke in a triumphant tone, and, in answer to M. Desmalions's question, went on:
"This is a volume of Shakespeare, Monsieur le Préfet, Volume VIII. You will see that, contrary to the other volumes, the inside is empty and the binding forms a secret receptacle for hiding documents."
"Yes. What sort of documents?"
"Here they are: sheets of paper, blank sheets, all but three. One of them gives a list of the dates on which the mysterious letters were to appear."
"Oho!" said M. Desmalions. "That's a crushing piece of evidence against Florence Levasseur. And also it tells us where Don Luis got his list from."
Perenna listened with surprise: he had utterly forgotten this particular; and Gaston Sauverand had made no reference to it in his narrative. And yet it was a strange and serious detail. From whom had Florence received that list of dates?
"And what's on the other two sheets?" asked M. Desmalions.
Don Luis pricked up his ears. Those two other sheets had escaped his attention on the day of his interview with Florence in this room.
"Here is one of them," said Weber.
M. Desmalions took the paper and read:
"Bear in mind that the explosion is independent of the letters, and that it will take place at three o'clock in the morning."
"Yes," he said, "the famous explosion which Don Luis foretold and which is to accompany the fifth letter, as announced on the list of dates. Tush! We have plenty of time, as there have been only three letters and the fourth is due to-night. Besides, blowing up that house on the Boulevard Suchet would be no easy job, by Jove! Is that all?"
"Monsieur le Préfet," said Weber, producing the third sheet, "would you mind looking at these lines drawn in pencil and enclosed in a large square containing some other smaller squares and rectangles of all sizes? Wouldn't you say that it was the plan of a house?"
"Yes, I should."
"It is the plan of the house in which we are," declared Weber solemnly. "Here you see the front courtyard, the main building, the porter's lodge, and, over there, Mlle. Levasseur's lodge. From this lodge, a dotted line, in red pencil, starts zigzagging toward the main building. The commencement of this line is marked by a little red cross which stands for the room in which we are, or, to be more correct, the alcove. You will see here something like the design of a chimney, or, rather, a cupboard--a cupboard recessed behind the bed and probably hidden by the curtains."
"But, in that case, Weber," said M. Desmalions, "this dotted line must represent a passage leading from this lodge to the main building. Look, there is also a little red cross at the other end of the line."
"Yes, Monsieur le Préfet, there is another cross. We shall discover later for certain what position it marks. But, meanwhile, and acting on a mere guess, I have posted some men in a small room on the second floor where the last secret meeting between Don Luis, Florence Levasseur, and Gaston Sauverand was held yesterday. And, meanwhile, at any rate, we hold one end of the line and, through that very fact, we know Don Luis Perenna's retreat."
There was a pause, after which the deputy chief resumed in a more and more solemn voice:
"Monsieur le Préfet, yesterday I suffered a cruel outrage at the hands of that man. It was witnessed by our subordinates. The servants must be aware of it. The public will know of it before long. This man has brought about the escape of Florence Levasseur. He tried to bring about the escape of Gaston Sauverand. He is a ruffian of the most dangerous type. Monsieur le Préfet, I am sure that you will not refuse me leave to dig him out of his hole. Otherwise--otherwise, Monsieur le Préfet, I shall feel obliged to hand in my resignation."
"With good reasons to back it up!" said the Prefect, laughing. "There's no doubt about it; you can't stomach the trick of the iron curtain. Well, go ahead! It's Don Luis's own lookout; he's brought it on himself. Mazeroux, ring me up at the office as soon as the telephone is put right. And both of you meet me at the Fauvilles' house this evening. Don't forget it's the night for the fourth letter."
"There won't be any fourth letter, Monsieur le Préfet," said Weber.
"Because between this and then Don Luis will be under lock and key."
"Oh, so you accuse Don Luis also of--"
Don Luis did not wait to hear more. He softly retreated to the cupboard, took hold of the panel and pushed it back without a sound.
So his hiding-place was known!
"By Jingo," he growled, "this is a bit awkward! I'm in a nice plight!"
He had run halfway along the underground passage, with the intention of reaching the other exit. But he stopped.
"It's not worth while, as the exit's watched. Well, let's see; am I to let myself be collared? Wait a bit, let's see--"
Already there came from the alcove below a noise of blows striking on the panel, the hollow sound of which had probably attracted the deputy chief's attention. And, as Weber was not compelled to take the same precautions as Don Luis, and seemed to be breaking down the panel without delaying to look for the mechanism, the danger was close at hand.
"Oh, hang it all!" muttered Don Luis. "This is too silly. What shall I do? Have a dash at them? Ah, if I had all my strength!"
But he was exhausted by want of food. His legs shook beneath him and his brain seemed to lack its usual clearness.
The increasing violence of the blows in the alcove drove him, in spite of all, toward the upper exit; and, as he climbed the ladder, he moved his electric lantern over the stones of the wall and the wood of the trapdoor. He even tried to lift the door with his shoulder. But he again heard a sound of footsteps above his head. The men were still there.
Then, consumed with fury and helpless, he awaited the deputy's coming.
A crash came from below; its echo spread through the tunnel, followed by a tumult of voices.
"That's it," he said to himself. "The handcuffs, the lockup, the cell! Good Lord, what luck--and what nonsense! And Marie Fauville, who's sure to do away with herself. And Florence--Florence--"
Before extinguishing his lantern, he cast its light around him for the last time.
At a couple of yards' distance from the ladder, about three quarters of the way up and set a little way back, there was a big stone missing from the inner wall, leaving a space just large enough to crouch in.
Although the recess did not form much of a hiding-place, it was just possible that they might omit to inspect it. Besides, Don Luis had no choice. At all events, after putting out the light, he leaned toward the edge of the hole, reached it, and managed to scramble in by bending himself in two.
Weber, Mazeroux, and their men were coming along. Don Luis propped himself against the back of his hiding-hole to avoid as far as possible the glare of the lanterns, of which he was beginning to see the gleams. And an amazing thing happened: the stone against which he was pushing toppled over slowly, as though moving on a pivot, and he fell backward into a second cavity situated behind it.
He quickly drew his legs after him and the stone swung back as slowly as before, not, however, without sending down a quantity of small stones, crumbling from the wall and half covering his legs.
"Well, well!" he chuckled. "Can Providence be siding with virtue and righteousness?"
He heard Mazeroux's voice saying:
"Nobody! And here's the end of the passage. Unless he ran away as we came--look, through the trapdoor at the top of this ladder."
"Considering the slope by which we've come, it's certain that the trapdoor is on a level with the second floor. Well, the other little cross ought to mark the boudoir on the second floor, next to Don Luis's bedroom. That's what I supposed, and why I posted three of our men there. If he's tried to get out on that side, he's caught."
"We've only got to knock," said Mazeroux. "Our men will find the trapdoor and let us out. If not, we will break it down."
More blows echoed down the passage. Fifteen or twenty minutes after, the trapdoor gave way, and other voices now mingled with Weber's and Mazeroux's.
During this time, Don Luis examined his domain and perceived how extremely small it was. The most that he could do was to sit in it. It was a gallery, or, rather, a sort of gut, a yard and a half long and ending in an orifice, narrower still, heaped up with bricks. The walls, besides, were formed of bricks, some of which were lacking; and the building-stones which these should have kept in place crumbled at the least touch. The ground was strewn with them.
"By Jove!" thought Lupin, "I must not wriggle about too much, or I shall risk being buried alive! A pleasant prospect!"
Not only this, but the fear of making a noise kept him motionless. As a matter of fact, he was close to two rooms occupied by the detectives, first the boudoir and then the study, for the boudoir, as he knew, was over that part of his study which included the telephone box.
The thought of this suggested another. On reflection, remembering that he used sometimes to wonder how Count Malonyi's ancestress had managed to keep alive behind the curtain on the days when she had to hide there, he realized that there must have been a communication between the secret passage and what was now the telephone box, a communication too narrow to admit a person's body, but serving as a ventilating shaft.
As a precaution, in case the secret passage was discovered, a stone concealed the upper aperture of this shaft. Count Malonyi must have closed up the lower end when he restored the wainscoting of the study.
So there he was, imprisoned in the thickness of the walls, with no very definite intention beyond that of escaping from the clutches of the police. More hours passed.
Gradually, tortured with hunger and thirst, he fell into a heavy sleep, disturbed by painful nightmares which he would have given much to be able to throw off. But he slept too deeply to recover consciousness until eight o'clock in the evening.
When he woke up, feeling very tired, he saw his position in an unexpectedly hideous light and, at the same time, so accurately that, yielding to a sudden change of opinion marked by no little fear, he resolved to leave his hiding-place and give himself up. Anything was better than the torture which he was enduring and the dangers to which longer waiting exposed him.
But, on turning round to reach the entrance to his hole, he perceived first that the stone did not swing over when merely pushed, and, next, after several attempts, that he could not manage to find the mechanism which no doubt worked the stone. He persisted. His exertions were all in vain. The stone did not budge. Only, at each exertion, a few bits of stone came crumbling from the upper part of the wall and still further narrowed the space in which he was able to move.
It cost him a considerable effort to master his excitement and to say, jokingly:
"That's capital! I shall be reduced now to calling for help. I, Arsène Lupin! Yes, to call in the help of those gentlemen of the police. Otherwise, the odds on my being buried alive will increase every minute. They're ten to one as it is!"
He clenched his fists.
"Hang it! I'll get out of this scrape by myself! Call for help? Not if I know it!"
He summoned up all his energies to think, but his jaded brain gave him none but confused and disconnected ideas. He was haunted by Florence's image and by Marie Fauville's as well.
"It's to-night that I'm to save them," he said to himself. "And I certainly will save them, as they are not guilty and as I know the real criminal. But how shall I set about it to succeed?"
He thought of the Prefect of Police, of the meeting that was to take place at Fauville's house on the Boulevard Suchet. The meeting had begun. The police were watching the house. And this reminded him of the sheet of paper found by Weber in the eighth volume of Shakespeare's plays, and of the sentence written on it, which the Prefect had read out:
"Bear in mind that the explosion is independent of the letters, and that it will take place at three o'clock in the morning."
"Yes," thought Don Luis, accepting M. Desmalions's reasoning, "yes, in ten days' time. As there have been only three letters, the fourth will appear to-night; and the explosion will not take place until the fifth letter appears--that is in ten days from now."
"In ten days--with the fifth letter--in ten days--"
And suddenly he gave a start of fright. A horrible vision had flashed across his mind, a vision only too real. The explosion was to occur that very night! And all at once, knowing that he knew the truth, all at once, in a revival of his usual clear-sightedness, he accepted the theory as certain.
No doubt only three letters had appeared out of the mysterious darkness, but four letters ought to have appeared, because one of them had appeared not on the date fixed, but ten days later; and this for a reason which Don Luis knew. Besides, it was not a question of all this. It was not a question of seeking the truth amid this confusion of dates and letters, amid this intricate tangle in which no one could lay claim to any certainty,
No; one thing alone stood out above the situation: the sentence, "Bear in mind that the explosion is independent of the letters." And, as the explosion was put down for the night of the twenty-fifth of May, it would occur that very night, at three o'clock in the morning!
"Help! Help!" he cried.
This time he did not hesitate. So far, he had had the courage to remain huddled in his prison and to wait for the miracle that might come to his assistance; but he preferred to face every danger and undergo every penalty rather than abandon the Prefect of Police, Weber, Mazeroux, and their companions to the death that threatened them.
Fauville's house would be blown up in three or four hours. That he knew with the greatest certainty. Just as punctually as the mysterious letters had reached their destination in spite of all the obstacles in the way, so the explosion would occur at the hour named. The infernal artificer of the accursed work had wished it so. At three o'clock in the morning there would be nothing left of the Fauvilles' house.
He recovered enough strength to raise desperate shouts and to make his voice carry beyond the stones and beyond the wainscoting.
Then, when there seemed to be no answer to his call, he stopped and listened for a long time. There was not a sound. The silence was absolute.
Thereupon a terrible anguish covered him with a cold sweat. Supposing the detectives had ceased to watch the upper floors and confined themselves to spending the night in the rooms on the ground floor?
He madly took a brick and struck it repeatedly against the stone that closed the entrance, hoping that the noise would spread through the house. But an avalanche of small stones, loosened by the blows, at once fell upon him, knocking him down again and fixing him where he lay.
More silence--a great, ruthless silence.
He felt that his shouts did not penetrate the walls that stifled him. Besides, his voice was growing fainter and fainter, producing a hoarse groan that died away in his strained throat.
He ceased his cries and again listened, with all his anxious attention, to the great silence that surrounded as with layers of lead the stone coffin in which he lay imprisoned. Still nothing, not a sound. No one would come, no one could come to his assistance.
He continued to be haunted by Florence's name and image. And he thought also of Marie Fauville, whom he had promised to save. But Marie would die of starvation. And, like her, like Gaston Sauverand and so many others, he in his turn was the victim of this monstrous horror.
An incident occurred to increase his dismay. All of a sudden his electric lantern, which he had left alight to dispel the terrors of the darkness, went out. It was eleven o'clock at night.
He was overcome with a fit of giddiness. He could hardly breathe in the close and vitiated air. His brain suffered, as it were, a physical and exceedingly painful ailment, from the repetition of images that seemed to encrust themselves there; and it was always Florence's beautiful features or Marie's livid face. And, in his distraught brain, while Marie lay dying, he heard the explosion at the Fauvilles' house and saw the Prefect of Police and Mazeroux lying hideously mutilated, dead.
A numbness crept over him. He fell into a sort of swoon, in which he continued to stammer confused syllables: