The Teeth of the Tiger/Chapter 15
CHAPTER XV. THE HEIR TO THE HUNDRED MILLIONSEdit
On the fourth evening after the tragic events related, an old cab-driver, almost entirely hidden in a huge great-coat, rang at Perenna's door and sent up a letter to Don Luis. He was at once shown into the study on the first floor. Hardly taking time to throw off his great-coat, he rushed at Don Luis:
"It's all up with you this time, Chief!" he exclaimed. "This is no moment for joking: pack up your trunks and be off as quick as you can!"
Don Luis, who sat quietly smoking in an easy chair, answered:
"Which will you have, Mazeroux? A cigar or a cigarette?"
Mazeroux at once grew indignant.
"But look here, Chief, don't you read the papers?"
"In that case, the situation must appear as clear to you as it does to me and everybody else. During the last three days, since the double suicide, or, rather, the double murder of Marie Fauville and her cousin Gaston Sauverand, there hasn't been a newspaper but has said this kind of thing: 'And, now that M. Fauville, his son, his wife, and his cousin Gaston Sauverand are dead, there's nothing standing between Don Luis Perenna and the Mornington inheritance!'
"Do you understand what that means? Of course, people speak of the explosion on the Boulevard Suchet and of Fauville's posthumous revelations; and they are disgusted with that dirty brute of a Fauville; and they don't know how to praise your cleverness enough. But there is one fact that forms the main subject of every conversation and every discussion.
"Now that the three branches of the Roussel family are extinct, who remains? Don Luis Perenna. In default of the natural heirs, who inherits the property? Don Luis Perenna."
"That's what people are saying, Chief. They say that this series of murders and atrocities cannot be the effort of chance coincidences, but, on the contrary, points to the existence of an all-powerful will which began with the murder of Cosmo Mornington and ended with the capture of the hundred millions. And to give a name to that will, they pitch on the nearest, that of the extraordinary, glorious, ill-famed, bewildering, mysterious, omnipotent, and ubiquitous person who was Cosmo Mornington's intimate friend and who, from the beginning, has controlled events and pieced them together, accusing and acquitting people, getting them arrested, and helping them to escape.
"They say," he went on hurriedly, "that he manages the whole business and that, if he works it in accordance with his interests, there are a hundred millions waiting for him at the finish. And this person is Don Luis Perenna, in other words, Arsène Lupin, the man with the unsavoury reputation whom it would be madness not to think of in connection with so colossal a job."
"That's what they say, Chief; I'm only telling you. As long as Mme. Fauville and Gaston Sauverand were alive, people did not give much thought to your claims as residuary legatee. But both of them died. Then, you see, people can't help remarking the really surprising persistence with which luck looks after Don Luis Perenna's interests. You know the legal maxim: _fecit cui prodest_. Who benefits by the disappearance of all the Roussel heirs? Don Luis Perenna."
"The scoundrel: that's the word which Weber goes roaring out all along the passages of the police office and the criminal investigation department. You are the scoundrel and Florence Levasseur is your accomplice. And hardly any one dares protest.
"The Prefect of Police? What is the use of his defending you, of his remembering that you have saved his life twice over and rendered invaluable services to the police which he is the first to appreciate? What is the use of his going to the Prime Minister, though we all know that Valenglay protects you?
"There are others besides the Prefect of Police! There are others besides the Prime Minister! There's the whole of the detective office, there's the public prosecutor's staff, there's the examining magistrate, the press and, above all, public opinion, which has to be satisfied and which calls for and expects a culprit. That culprit is yourself or Florence Levasseur. Or, rather, it's you and Florence Levasseur."
Don Luis did not move a muscle of his face. Mazeroux waited a moment longer. Then, receiving no reply, he made a gesture of despair.
"Chief, do you know what you are compelling me to do? To betray my duty. Well, let me tell you this: to-morrow morning you will receive a summons to appear before the examining magistrate. At the end of your examination, whatever questions may have been put to you and whatever you may have answered, you will be taken straight to the lockup. The warrant is signed. That is what your enemies have done."
"And that's not all. Weber, who is burning to take his revenge, has asked for permission to watch your house from this day onward, so that you may not slip away as Florence Levasseur did. He will be here with his men in an hour's time. What do you say to that, Chief?"
Without abandoning his careless attitude, Don Luis beckoned to Mazeroux.
"Sergeant, just look under that sofa between the windows."
Don Luis was serious. Mazeroux instinctively obeyed. Under the sofa was a portmanteau.
"Sergeant, in ten minutes, when I have told my servants to go to bed, carry the portmanteau to 143 _bis_ Rue de Rivoli, where I have taken a small flat under the name of M. Lecocq."
"What for, Chief? What does it mean?"
"It means that, having no trustworthy person to carry that portmanteau for me, I have been waiting for your visit for the last three days."
"Why, but--" stammered Mazeroux, in his confusion.
"Why but what?"
"Had you made up your mind to clear out?"
"Of course I had! But why hurry? The reason I placed you in the detective office was that I might know what was being plotted against me. Since you tell me that I'm in danger, I shall cut my stick."
And, as Mazeroux looked at him with increasing bewilderment, he tapped him on the shoulder and said severely:
"You see, Sergeant, that it was not worth while to disguise yourself as a cab-driver and betray your duty. You should never betray your duty, Sergeant. Ask your own conscience: I am sure that it will judge you according to your deserts."
Don Luis had spoken the truth. Recognizing how greatly the deaths of Marie Fauville and Sauverand had altered the situation, he considered it wise to move to a place of safety. His excuse for not doing so before was that he hoped to receive news of Florence Levasseur either by letter or by telephone. As the girl persisted in keeping silence, there was no reason why Don Luis should risk an arrest which the course of events made extremely probable.
And in fact his anticipations were correct. Next morning Mazeroux came to the little flat in the Rue de Rivoli looking very spry.
"You've had a narrow escape, Chief. Weber heard this morning that the bird had flown. He's simply furious! And you must confess that the tangle is getting worse and worse. They're utterly at a loss at headquarters. They don't even know how to set about prosecuting Florence Levasseur.
"You must have read about it in the papers. The examining magistrate maintains that, as Fauville committed suicide and killed his son Edmond, Florence Levasseur has nothing to do with the matter. In his opinion the case is closed on that side. Well, he's a good one, the examining magistrate! What about Gaston Sauverand's death? Isn't it as clear as daylight that Florence had a hand in it, as well as in all the rest?
"Wasn't it in her room, in a volume of Shakespeare, that documents were found relating to M. Fauville's arrangements about the letters and the explosion? And then--"
Mazeroux interrupted himself, frightened by the look in Don Luis's eyes and realizing that the chief was fonder of the girl then ever. Guilty or not, she inspired him with the same passion.
"All right," said Mazeroux, "we'll say no more about it. The future will bear me out, you'll see."
* * * * *
The days passed. Mazeroux called as often as possible, or else telephoned to Don Luis all the details of the two inquiries that were being pursued at Saint-Lazare and at the Santé Prison.
Vain inquiries, as we know. While Don Luis's statements relating to the electric chandelier and the automatic distribution of the mysterious letters were found to be correct, the investigation failed to reveal anything about the two suicides.
At most, it was ascertained that, before his arrest, Sauverand had tried to enter into correspondence with Marie through one of the tradesmen supplying the infirmary. Were they to suppose that the phial of poison and the hypodermic syringe had been introduced by the same means? It was impossible to prove; and, on the other hand, it was impossible to discover how the newspaper cuttings telling of Marie's suicide had found their way into Gaston Sauverand's cell.
And then the original mystery still remained, the unfathomable mystery of the marks of teeth in the apple. M. Fauville's posthumous confession acquitted Marie. And yet it was undoubtedly Marie's teeth that had marked the apple. The teeth that had been called the teeth of the tiger were certainly hers. Well, then!
In short, as Mazeroux said, everybody was groping in the dark, so much so that the Prefect, who was called upon by the will to assemble the Mornington heirs at a date not less than three nor more than four months after the testator's decease, suddenly decided that the meeting should take place in the course of the following week and fixed it for the ninth of June.
He hoped in this way to put an end to an exasperating case in which the police displayed nothing but uncertainty and confusion. They would decide about the inheritance according to circumstances and then close the proceedings. And gradually people would cease to talk about the wholesale slaughter of the Mornington heirs; and the mystery of the teeth of the tiger would be gradually forgotten.
It was strange, but these last days, which were restless and feverish like all the days that come before great battles--and every one felt that this last meeting meant a great battle--were spent by Don Luis in an armchair on his balcony in the Rue de Rivoli, where he sat quietly smoking cigarettes, or blowing soap-bubbles which the wind carried toward the garden of the Tuileries.
Mazeroux could not get over it.
"Chief, you astound me! How calm and careless you look!"
"I am calm and careless, Alexandre."
"But what do you mean? Doesn't the case interest you? Don't you intend to avenge Mme. Fauville and Sauverand? You are openly accused and you sit here blowing soap-bubbles!"
"There's no more delightful pastime, Alexandre."
"Shall I tell you what I think, Chief? You've discovered the solution of the mystery!"
"Perhaps I have, Alexandre, and perhaps I haven't."
Nothing seemed to excite Don Luis. Hours and hours passed; and he did not stir from his balcony. The sparrows now came and ate the crumbs which he threw to them. It really seemed as if the case was coming to an end for him and as if everything was turning out perfectly.
But, on the day of the meeting, Mazeroux entered with a letter in his hand and a scared look on his face.
"This is for you, Chief. It was addressed to me, but with an envelope inside it in your name. How do you explain that?"
"Quite easily, Alexandre. The enemy is aware of our cordial relations; and, as he does not know where I am staying--"
"I'll tell you to-morrow evening."
Don Luis opened the envelope and read the following words, written in red ink:
"There's still time, Lupin. Retire from the contest. If not, it means your death, too. When you think that your object is attained, when your hand is raised against me and you utter words of triumph, at that same moment the ground will open beneath your feet. The place of your death is chosen. The snare is laid. Beware, Lupin."
Don Luis smiled.
"Good," he said. "Things are taking shape,"
"Do you think so, Chief?"
"I do. And who gave you the letter?"
"Ah, we've been lucky for once, Chief! The policeman to whom it was handed happened to live at Les Ternes, next door to the bearer of the letter. He knows the fellow well. It was a stroke of luck, wasn't it?"
Don Luis sprang from his seat, radiant with delight.
"What do you mean? Out with it! You know who it is?"
"The chap's an indoor servant employed at a nursing-home in the Avenue des Ternes."
"Let's go there. We've no time to lose."
"Splendid, Chief! You're yourself again."
"Well, of course! As long as there was nothing to do I was waiting for this evening and resting, for I can see that the fight will be tremendous. But, as the enemy has blundered at last, as he's given me a trail to go upon, there's no need to wait, and I'll get ahead of him. Have at the tiger, Mazeroux!"
* * * * *
It was one o'clock in the afternoon when Don Luis and Mazeroux arrived at the nursing-home in the Avenue des Ternes. A manservant opened the door. Mazeroux nudged Don Luis. The man was doubtless the bearer of the letter. And, in reply to the sergeant's questions, he made no difficulty about saying that he had been to the police office that morning.
"By whose orders?" asked Mazeroux.
"The mother superior's."
"The mother superior?"
"Yes, the home includes a private hospital, which is managed by nuns."
"Could we speak to the superior?"
"Certainly, but not now: she has gone out."
"When will she be in?"
"Oh, she may be back at any time!"
The man showed them into the waiting-room, where they spent over an hour. They were greatly puzzled. What did the intervention of that nun mean? What part was she playing in the case?
People came in and were taken to the patients whom they had called to see. Others went out. There were also sisters moving silently to and fro and nurses dressed in their long white overalls belted at the waist.
"We're not doing any good here, Chief," whispered Mazeroux.
"What's your hurry? Is your sweetheart waiting for you?"
"We're wasting our time."
"I'm not wasting mine. The meeting at the Prefect's is not till five."
"What did you say? You're joking, Chief! You surely don't intend to go to it."
"Why not? Well, the warrant--"
"The warrant? A scrap of paper!"
"A scrap of paper which will become a serious matter if you force the police to act. Your presence will be looked upon as a provocation--"
"And my absence as a confession. A gentleman who comes into a hundred millions does not lie low on the day of the windfall. So I must attend that meeting, lest I should forfeit my claim. And attend it I will."
A stifled cry was heard in front of them; and a woman, a nurse, who was passing through the room, at once started running, lifted a curtain, and disappeared.
Don Luis rose, hesitating, not knowing what to do. Then, after four or five seconds of indecision, he suddenly rushed to the curtain and down a corridor, came up against a large, leather-padded door which had just closed, and wasted more time in stupidly fumbling at it with shaking hands.
When he had opened it, he found himself at the foot of a back staircase. Should he go up it? On the right, the same staircase ran down to the basement. He went down it, entered a kitchen and, seizing hold of the cook, said to her, in an angry voice:
"Has a nurse just gone out this way?"
"Do you mean Nurse Gertrude, the new one?"
"Yes, yes, quick! she's wanted upstairs."
"Who wants her?"
"Oh, hang it all, can't you tell me which way she went?"
"Through that door over there."
Don Luis darted away, crossed a little hall, and rushed out on to the Avenue des Ternes.
"Well, here's a pretty race!" cried Mazeroux, joining him.
Don Luis stood scanning the avenue. A motor bus was starting on the little square hard by, the Place Saint-Ferdinand.
"She's inside it," he declared. "This time, I shan't let her go."
He hailed a taxi.
"Follow that motor bus, driver, at fifty yards' distance."
"Is it Florence Levasseur?" asked Mazeroux.
"A nice thing!" growled the sergeant. And, yielding to a sudden outburst: "But, look here, Chief, don't you see? Surely you're not as blind as all that!"
Don Luis made no reply.
"But, Chief, Florence Levasseur's presence in the nursing-home proves as clearly as A B C that it was she who told the manservant to bring me that threatening letter for you! There's not a doubt about it: Florence Levasseur is managing the whole business.
"You know it as well as I do. Confess! It's possible that, during the last ten days, you've brought yourself, for love of that woman, to look upon her as innocent in spite of the overwhelming proofs against her. But to-day the truth hits you in the eye. I feel it, I'm sure of it. Isn't it so, Chief? I'm right, am I not? You see it for yourself?"
This time Don Luis did not protest. With a drawn face and set eyes he watched the motor bus, which at that moment was standing still at the corner of the Boulevard Haussmann.
"Stop!" he shouted to the driver.
The girl alighted. It was easy to recognize Florence Levasseur under her nurse's uniform. She cast round her eyes as if to make sure that she was not being followed, and then took a cab and drove down the boulevard and the Rue de la Pépinière, to the Gare Saint-Lazare.
Don Luis saw her from a distance climbing the steps that run up from the Cour de Rome; and, on following her, caught sight of her again at the ticket office at the end of the waiting hall.
"Quick, Mazeroux!" he said. "Get out your detective card and ask the clerk what ticket she's taken. Run, before another passenger comes."
Mazeroux hurried and questioned the ticket clerk and returned:
"Second class for Rouen."
"Take one for yourself."
Mazeroux did so. They found that there was an express due to start in a minute. When they reached the platform Florence was stepping into a compartment in the middle of the train.
The engine whistled.
"Get in," said Don Luis, hiding himself as best he could. "Telegraph to me from Rouen; and I'll join you this evening. Above all, keep your eyes on her. Don't let her slip between your fingers. She's very clever, you know."
"But why don't you come yourself, Chief? It would be much better--"
"Out of the question. The train doesn't stop before Rouen; and I couldn't be back till this evening. The meeting at the Prefect's is at five o'clock."
"And you insist on going?"
"More than ever. There, jump in!"
He pushed him into one of the end carriages. The train started and soon disappeared in the tunnel.
Then Don Luis flung himself on a bench in a waiting room and remained there for two hours, pretending to read the newspapers. But his eyes wandered and his mind was haunted by the agonizing question that once more forced itself upon him: was Florence guilty or not?
* * * * *
It was five o'clock exactly when Major Comte d'Astrignac, Maître Lepertuis, and the secretary of the American Embassy were shown into M. Desmalions's office. At the same moment some one entered the messengers' room and handed in his card.
The messenger on duty glanced at the pasteboard, turned his head quickly toward a group of men talking in a corner, and then asked the newcomer:
"Have you an appointment, sir?"
"It's not necessary. Just say that I'm here: Don Luis Perenna."
A kind of electric shock ran through the little group in the corner; and one of the persons forming it came forward. It was Weber, the deputy chief detective.
The two men looked each other straight in the eyes. Don Luis smiled amiably. Weber was livid; he shook in every limb and was plainly striving to contain himself.
Near him stood a couple of journalists and four detectives.
"By Jove! the beggars are there for me!" thought Don Luis. "But their confusion shows that they did not believe that I should have the cheek to come. Are they going to arrest me?"
Weber did not move, but in the end his face expressed a certain satisfaction as though he were saying:
"I've got you this time, my fine fellow, and you shan't escape me."
The office messenger returned and, without a word, led the way for Don Luis. Perenna passed in front of Weber with the politest of bows, bestowed a friendly little nod on the detectives, and entered.
The Comte d'Astrignac hurried up to him at once, with hands outstretched, thus showing that all the tittle-tattle in no way affected the esteem in which he continued to hold Private Perenna of the Foreign Legion. But the Prefect of Police maintained an attitude of reserve which was very significant. He went on turning over the papers which he was examining and conversed in a low voice with the solicitor and the American Secretary of Embassy.
Don Luis thought to himself:
"My dear Lupin, there's some one going to leave this room with the bracelets on his wrists. If it's not the real culprit, it'll be you, my poor old chap."
And he remembered the early part of the case, when he was in the workroom at Fauville's house, before the magistrates, and had either to deliver the criminal to justice or to incur the penalty of immediate arrest. In the same way, from the start to the finish of the struggle, he had been obliged, while fighting the invisible enemy, to expose himself to the attacks of the law with no means of defending himself except by indispensable victories.
Harassed by constant onslaughts, never out of danger, he had successively hurried to their deaths Marie Fauville and Gaston Sauverand, two innocent people sacrificed to the cruel laws of war. Was he at last about to fight the real enemy, or would he himself succumb at the decisive moment?
He rubbed his hands with such a cheerful gesture that M. Desmalions could not help looking at him. Don Luis wore the radiant air of a man who is experiencing a pure joy and who is preparing to taste others even greater.
The Prefect of Police remained silent for a moment, as though asking himself what that devil of a fellow could be so pleased with; then he fumbled through his papers once more and, in the end, said:
"We have met again, gentlemen, as we did two months ago, to come to a definite conclusion about the Mornington inheritance. Señor Caceres, the attaché of the Peruvian legation, will not be here. I have received a telegram from Italy to tell me that Señor Caceres is seriously ill. However, his presence was not indispensable. There is no one lacking, therefore--except those, alas, whose claims this meeting would gladly have sanctioned, that is to say, Cosmo Mornington's heirs."
"There is one other person absent, Monsieur le Préfet." M. Desmalions looked up. The speaker was Don Luis. The Prefect hesitated and then decided to ask him to explain.
"Whom do you mean? What person?"
"The murderer of the Mornington heirs."
This time again Don Luis compelled attention and, in spite of the resistance which he encountered, obliged the others to take notice of his presence and to yield to his ascendancy. Whatever happened, they had to listen to him. Whatever happened, they had to discuss with him things which seemed incredible, but which were possible because he put them into words.
"Monsieur le Préfet," he asked, "will you allow me to set forth the facts of the matter as it now stands? They will form a natural sequel and conclusion of the interview which we had after the explosion on the Boulevard Suchet."
M. Desmalions's silence gave Don Luis leave to speak. He at once continued:
"It will not take long, Monsieur le Préfet. It will not take long for two reasons: first, because M. Fauville's confessions remain at our disposal and we know definitely the monstrous part which he played; and, secondly, because, after all, the truth, however complicated it may seem, is really very simple.
"It all lies in the objection which you, Monsieur le Préfet, made to me on leaving the wrecked house on the Boulevard Suchet: 'How is it,' you asked, 'that the Mornington inheritance is not once mentioned in Hippolyte Fauville's confession?' It all lies in that, Monsieur le Préfet. Hippolyte Fauville did not say a word about the inheritance; and the reason evidently is that he did not know of it.
"And the reason why Gaston Sauverand was able to tell me his whole sensational story without making the least allusion to the inheritance was that the inheritance played no sort of part in Gaston Sauverand's story. He, too, knew nothing of it before those events, any more than Marie Fauville did, or Florence Levasseur. There is no denying the fact: Hippolyte Fauville was guided by revenge and by revenge alone. If not, why should he have acted as he did, seeing that Cosmo Mornington's millions reverted to him by the fullest of rights? Besides, if he had wished to enjoy those millions, he would not have begun by killing himself.
"One thing, therefore, is certain: the inheritance in no way affected Hippolyte Fauville's resolves or actions. And, nevertheless, one after the other, with inflexible regularity, as if they had been struck down in the very order called for by the terms of the Mornington inheritance, they all disappeared: Cosmo Mornington, then Hippolyte Fauville, then Edmond Fauville, then Marie Fauville, then Gaston Sauverand. First, the possessor of the fortune; next, all those whom he had appointed his legatees; and, I repeat, in the very order in which the will enabled them to lay claim to the fortune!"
"Is it not strange?" asked Perenna, "and are we not bound to suppose that there was a controlling mind at the back of it all? Are we not bound to admit that the formidable contest was influenced by that inheritance, and that, above the hatred and jealousy of the loathsome Fauville, there loomed a being endowed with even more tremendous energy, pursuing a tangible aim and driving to their deaths, one by one, like so many numbered victims, all the unconscious actors in the tragedy of which he tied and of which he is now untying the threads?"
Don Luis leaned forward and continued earnestly:
"Monsieur le Préfet, the public instinct so thoroughly agrees with me, a section of the police, with M. Weber, the deputy chief detective at its head, argues in a manner so exactly identical with my own, that the existence of that being is at once confirmed in every mind. There had to be some one to act as the controlling brain, to provide the will and the energy. That some one was myself. After all, why not? Did not I possess the condition which was indispensable to make any one interested in the murders? Was I not Cosmo Mornington's heir?
"I will not defend myself. It may be that outside interference, it may be that circumstances, will oblige you, Monsieur le Préfet, to take unjustifiable measures against me; but I will not insult you by believing for one second that you can imagine the man whose acts you have been able to judge for the last two months capable of such crimes. And yet the public instinct is right in accusing me.
"Apart from Hippolyte Fauville, there is necessarily a criminal; and that criminal is necessarily Cosmo Mornington's heir. As I am not the man, another heir of Cosmo Mornington exists. It is he whom I accuse, Monsieur le Préfet.
"There is something more than a dead man's will in the wicked business that is being enacted before us. We thought for a time that there was only that; but there is something more. I have not been fighting a dead man all the time; more than once I have felt the very breath of life strike against my face. More than once I have felt the teeth of the tiger seeking to tear me.
"The dead man did much, but he did not do everything. And, even then, was he alone in doing what he did? Was the being of whom I speak merely one who executed his orders? Or was he also the accomplice who helped him in his scheme? I do not know. But he certainly continued a work which he perhaps began by inspiring and which, in any case, he turned to his own profit, resolutely completed and carried out to the very end. And he did so because he knew of Cosmo Mornington's will. It is he whom I accuse, Monsieur le Préfet.
"I accuse him at the very least of that part of the crimes and felonies which cannot be attributed to Hippolyte Fauville. I accuse him of breaking open the drawer of the desk in which Maître Lepertuis, Cosmo Mornington's solicitor, had put his client's will. I accuse him of entering Cosmo Mornington's room and substituting a phial containing a toxic fluid for one of the phials of glycero-phosphate which Cosmo Mornington used for his hypodermic injections. I accuse him of playing the part of a doctor who came to certify Cosmo Mornington's death and of delivering a false certificate. I accuse him of supplying Hippolyte Fauville with the poison which killed successively Inspector Vérot, Edmond Fauville, and Hippolyte Fauville himself. I accuse him of arming and turning against me the hand of Gaston Sauverand, who, acting under his advice and his instructions, tried three times to take my life and ended by causing the death of my chauffeur. I accuse him of profiting by the relations which Gaston Sauverand had established with the infirmary in order to communicate with Marie Fauville, and of arranging for Marie Fauville to receive the hypodermic syringe and the phial of poison with which the poor woman was able to carry out her plans of suicide."
Perenna paused to note the effect of these charges. Then he went on:
"I accuse him of conveying to Gaston Sauverand, by some unknown means, the newspaper cuttings about Marie Fauville's death and, at the same time, foreseeing the inevitable results of his act. To sum up, therefore, without mentioning his share in the other crimes--the death of Inspector Vérot, the death of my chauffeur--I accuse him of killing Cosmo Mornington, Edmond Fauville, Hippolyte Fauville, Marie Fauville, and Gaston Sauverand; in plain words, of killing all those who stood between the millions and himself. These last words, Monsieur le Préfet, will tell you clearly what I have in my mind.
"When a man does away with five of his fellow creatures in order to secure a certain number of millions, it means that he is convinced that this proceeding will positively and mathematically insure his entering into possession of the millions. In short, when a man does away with a millionaire and his four successive heirs, it means that he himself is the millionaire's fifth heir. The man will be here in a moment."
It was a spontaneous exclamation on the part of the Prefect of Police, who was forgetting the whole of Don Luis Perenna's powerful and closely reasoned argument, and thinking only of the stupefying apparition which Don Luis announced. Don Luis replied:
"Monsieur le Préfet, his visit is the logical outcome of my accusations. Remember that Cosmo Mornington's will explicitly states that no heir's claim will be valid unless he is present at to-day's meeting."
"And suppose he does not come?" asked the Prefect, thus showing that Don Luis's conviction had gradually got the better of his doubts.
"He will come, Monsieur le Préfet. If not, there would have been no sense in all this business. Limited to the crimes and other actions of Hippolyte Fauville, it could be looked upon as the preposterous work of a madman. Continued to the deaths of Marie Fauville and Gaston Sauverand, it demands, as its inevitable outcome, the appearance of a person who, as the last descendant of the Roussels of Saint-Etienne and consequently as Cosmo Mornington's absolute heir, taking precedence of myself, will come to claim the hundred millions which he has won by means of his incredible audacity."
"And suppose he does not come?" M. Desmalions once more exclaimed, in a more vehement tone.
"Then, Monsieur le Préfet, you may take it that I am the culprit; and you have only to arrest me. This day, between five and six o'clock, you will see before you, in this room, the person who killed the Mornington heirs. It is, humanly speaking, impossible that this should not be so. Consequently, the law will be satisfied in any circumstances. He or I: the position is quite simple."
M. Desmalions was silent. He gnawed his moustache thoughtfully and walked round and round the table, within the narrow circle formed by the others. It was obvious that objections to the supposition were springing up in his mind. In the end, he muttered, as though speaking to himself:
"No, no. For, after all, how are we to explain that the man should have waited until now to claim his rights?"
"An accident, perhaps, Monsieur le Préfet, an obstacle of some kind. Or else--one can never tell--the perverse longing for a more striking sensation. And remember, Monsieur le Préfet, how minutely and subtly the whole business was worked. Each event took place at the very moment fixed by Hippolyte Fauville. Cannot we take it that his accomplice is pursuing this method to the end and that he will not reveal himself until the last minute?"
M. Desmalions exclaimed, with a sort of anger:
"No, no, and again no! It is not possible. If a creature monstrous enough to commit such a series of murders exists, he will not be such a fool as to deliver himself into our hands."
"Monsieur le Préfet, he does not know the danger that threatens him if he comes here, because no one has even contemplated the theory of his existence. Besides, what risk does he run?"
"What risk? Why, if he has really committed those murders--"
"He has committed them, Monsieur le Préfet. He has _caused_ them to be committed, which is a different thing. And you now see where the man's unsuspected strength lies! He does not act in person. From the day when the truth appeared to me, I have succeeded in gradually discovering his means of action, in laying bare the machinery which he controls, the tricks which he employs. He does not act in person. There you have his method. You will find that it is the same throughout the series of murders.
"In appearance, Cosmo Mornington died of the results of a carelessly administered injection. In reality, it was this man who caused the injection to prove fatal. In appearance, Inspector Vérot was killed by Hippolyte Fauville. In reality, it must have been this man who contrived the murder by pointing out the necessity to Fauville and, so to speak, guiding his hand. And, in the same way, in appearance, Fauville killed his son and committed suicide; Marie Fauville committed suicide; Gaston Sauverand committed suicide. In reality, it was this man who wanted them dead, who prompted them to commit suicide, and who supplied them with the means of death.
"There you have the method, and there, Monsieur le Préfet, you have the man." And, in a lower voice, that contained a sort of apprehension, he added, "I confess that never before, in the course of a life that has been full of strange meetings, have I encountered a more terrifying person, acting with more devilish ability or greater psychological insight."
His words created an ever-increasing sensation among his hearers. They really saw that invisible being. He took shape in their imaginations. They waited for him to arrive. Twice Don Luis had turned to the door and listened. And his action did more than anything else to conjure up the image of the man who was coming.
M. Desmalions said:
"Whether he acted in person or caused others to act, the law, once it has hold of him, will know how to--"
"The law will find it no easy matter, Monsieur le Préfet! A man of his powers and resource must have foreseen everything, even his arrest, even the accusation of which he would be the subject; and there is little to be brought against him but moral charges without proofs."
"Then you think--"
"I think, Monsieur le Préfet, that the thing will be to accept his explanations as quite natural and not to show any distrust. What you want is to know who he is. Later on, before long, you will be able to unmask him."
The Prefect of Police continued to walk round the table. Major d'Astrignac kept his eyes fixed on Perenna, whose coolness amazed him. The solicitor and the secretary of Embassy seemed greatly excited. In fact nothing could be more sensational than the thought that filled all their minds. Was the abominable murderer about to appear before them?
"Silence!" said the Prefect, stopping his walk.
Some one had crossed the anteroom.
There was a knock at the door.
The office messenger entered, carrying a card-tray. On the tray was a letter; and in addition there was one of those printed slips on which callers write their name and the object of their visit.
M. Desmalions hastened toward the messenger. He hesitated a moment before taking up the slip. He was very pale. Then he glanced at it quickly.
"Oh!" he said, with a start.
He looked toward Don Luis, reflected, and then, taking the letter, he said to the messenger:
"Is the bearer outside?"
"In the anteroom, Monsieur le Préfet."
"Show the person in when I ring."
The messenger left the room.
M. Desmalions stood in front of his desk, without moving. For the second time Don Luis met his eyes; and a feeling of perturbation came over him. What was happening?
With a sharp movement the Prefect of Police opened the envelope which he held in his hand, unfolded the letter and began to read it.
The others watched his every gesture, watched the least change of expression on his face. Were Perenna's predictions about to be fulfilled? Was a fifth heir putting in his claim?
The moment he had read the first lines, M. Desmalions looked up and, addressing Don Luis, murmured:
"You were right, Monsieur. This is a claim."
"On whose part, Monsieur le Préfet?" Don Luis could not help asking.
M. Desmalions did not reply. He finished reading the letter. Then he read it again, with the attention of a man weighing every word. Lastly, he read aloud:
"MONSIEUR LE PRÉFET:
"A chance correspondence has revealed to me the existence of an unknown heir of the Roussel family. It was only to-day that I was able to procure the documents necessary for identifying this heir; and, owing to unforeseen obstacles, it is only at the last moment that I am able to send them to you _by the person whom they concern_. Respecting a secret which is not mine and wishing, as a woman, to remain outside a business in which I have been only accidentally involved, I beg you, Monsieur le Préfet, to excuse me if I do not feel called upon to sign my name to this letter."
So Perenna had seen rightly and events were justifying his forecast. Some one was putting in an appearance within the period indicated. The claim was made in good time. And the very way in which things were happening at the exact moment was curiously suggestive of the mechanical exactness that had governed the whole business.
The last question still remained: who was this unknown person, the possible heir, and therefore the five or six fold murderer? He was waiting in the next room. There was nothing but a wall between him and the others. He was coming in. They would see him. They would know who he was.
The Prefect suddenly rang the bell.
A few tense seconds elapsed. Oddly enough, M. Desmalions did not remove his eyes from Perenna. Don Luis remained quite master of himself, but restless and uneasy at heart.
The door opened. The messenger showed some one in.
It was Florence Levasseur.