The Teeth of the Tiger/Chapter 19
CHAPTER XIX. "THE SNARE IS LAID. BEWARE, LUPIN!"Edit
The power that had impelled Don Luis to battle and victory was so intense that it suffered, so to speak, no cheek. Disappointment, rage, humiliation, torture, were all swallowed up in an immediate desire for action and information, together with a longing to continue the chase. The rest was but an incident of no importance, which would soon be very simply explained.
The petrified taxi-driver was gazing wildly at the peasants coming from the distant farms, attracted by the sound of the aeroplane. Don Luis took him by the throat and put the barrel of his revolver to the man's temple:
"Tell me what you know--or you're a dead man."
And when the unhappy wretch began to stammer out entreaties:
"It's no use moaning, no use hoping for assistance.... Those people won't get here in time. So there's only one way of saving yourself: speak! Last night a gentleman came to Versailles from Paris in a taxi, left it and took yours: is that it?"
"The gentleman had a lady with him?"
"And he engaged you to take him to Nantes?"
"But he changed his mind on the way and told you to put him down?"
"Before we got to Mans, in a little road on the right, with a sort of coach-house, looking like a shed, a hundred yards down it. They both got out there."
"And you went on?"
"He paid me to."
"Five hundred francs. And there was another fare waiting at Nantes that I was to pick up and bring back to Paris for a thousand francs more."
"Do you believe in that other fare?"
"No. I think he wanted to put people off the scent by sending them after me to Nantes while he branched off. Still, I had my money."
"And, when you left them, weren't you curious to see what happened?"
"Take care! A movement of my finger and I blow out your brains. Speak!"
"Well, yes, then. I went back on foot, behind a bank covered with trees. The man had opened the coach-house and was starting a small limousine car. The lady did not want to get in. They argued pretty fiercely. He threatened and begged by turns. But I could not hear what they said. She seemed very tired. He gave her a glass of water, which he drew from a tap in the wall. Then she consented. He closed the door on her and took his seat at the wheel."
"A glass of water!" cried Don Luis. "Are you sure he put nothing else into the glass?"
The driver seemed surprised at the question and then answered:
"Yes, I think he did. He took something from his pocket."
"Without the lady's knowledge?"
"Yes, she didn't see."
Don Luis mastered his horror. After all it was impossible that the villain had poisoned Florence in that way, at that place, without anything to warrant so great a hurry. No, it was more likely that he had employed a narcotic, a drug of some sort which would dull Florence's brain and make her incapable of noticing by what new roads and through what towns he was taking her.
"And then," he repeated, "she decided to step in?"
"Yes; and he shut the door and got into the driver's seat. I went away then."
"Before knowing which direction they took?"
"Did you suspect on the way that they thought that they were being followed?"
"Certainly. He did nothing but put his head out of the window."
"Did the lady cry out at all?"
"Would you know him again if you saw him?"
"No, I'm sure I shouldn't. At Versailles it was dark. And this morning I was too far away. Besides, it's curious, but the first time he struck me as very tall, and this morning, on the contrary, he looked quite a short man, as though bent in two. I can't understand it at all."
Don Luis reflected. It seemed to him that he had asked all the necessary questions. Moreover, a gig drawn by a quick-trotting horse was approaching the crossroads. There were two others behind it. And the groups of peasants were now quite near. He must finish the business.
He said to the chauffeur:
"I can see by your face that you intend to talk about me. Don't do that, my man: it would be foolish of you. Here's a thousand-franc note for you. Only, if you blab, I'll make you repent it. That's all I have to say to you."
He turned to Davanne, whose machine was beginning to block the traffic, and asked:
"Can we start?"
"Whenever you like. Where are we going?"
Paying no attention to the movements of the people coming from every side, Don Luis unfolded his map of France and spread it out before him. He experienced a few seconds of anxiety at seeing the complicated tangle of roads and picturing the infinite number of places to which the villain might carry Florence. But he pulled himself together. He did not allow himself to hesitate. He refused even to reflect.
He was determined to find out, and to find out everything, at once, without clues, without useless consideration, simply by the marvellous intuition which invariably guided him at any crisis in his life.
And his self-respect also required that he should give Davanne his answer without delay, and that the disappearance of those whom he was pursuing should not seem to embarrass him. With his eyes glued to the map, he placed one finger on Paris and another on Le Mans and, even before he had asked himself why the scoundrel had chosen that Paris-Le Mans-Angers route, he knew the answer to the question.
The name of a town had struck him and made the truth appear like a flash of lightning: Alençon! Then and there, by the light of his memory, he penetrated the mystery.
"Where are we going? Back again, bearing to the left."
"Any particular place?"
"All right," said Davanne. "Lend a hand, some of you. I can make an easy start from that field just there."
Don Luis and a few others helped him, and the preparations were soon made. Davanne tested his engine. Everything was in perfect order.
At that moment a powerful racing car, with a siren yelling like a vicious animal, came tearing along the Angers Road and promptly stopped. Three men got out and rushed up to the driver of the yellow taxicab. Don Luis recognized them. They were Weber, the deputy chief, and the men who had taken him to the lockup the night before, sent by the Prefect of Police to follow up the scoundrel's tracks.
They had a brief interchange of words with the cab-driver, which seemed to put them out; and they kept on gesticulating and plying him with fresh questions while looking at their watches and consulting their road maps.
Don Luis went up to them. He was unrecognizable, with his head wrapped in his aviation cap and his face concealed by his goggles. Changing his voice:
"The birds have flown, Mr. Deputy Chief," he said.
Weber looked at him in utter amazement,
Don Luis grinned.
"Yes, flown. Our friend from the Ile Saint Louis is an artful dodger, you know. My lord's in his third motor. After the yellow car of which you heard at Versailles last night, he took another at Le Mans--destination unknown."
The deputy chief opened his eyes in amazement. Who was this person who was mentioning facts that had been telephoned to police headquarters only at two o'clock that morning? He gasped:
"But who are you, Monsieur?"
"What? Don't you know me? What's the good of making appointments with people? You strain every nerve to be punctual, and then they ask you who you are! Come, Weber, confess that you're doing it to annoy me. Must you gaze on my features in broad daylight? Here goes!"
He raised his mask.
"Arsène Lupin!" spluttered the detective.
"At your service, young fellow: on foot, in the saddle, and in mid air. That's where I'm going now. Good-bye."
And so great was Weber's astonishment at seeing Arsène Lupin, whom he had taken to the lockup twelve hours before, standing in front of him, free, at two hundred and forty miles from Paris, that Don Luis, as he went back to Davanne, thought:
"What a crusher! I've knocked him out in one round. There's no hurry. The referee will count ten at least three times before Weber can say 'Mother!'"
* * * * *
Davanne was ready. Don Luis climbed into the monoplane. The peasants pushed at the wheels. The machine started.
"North-northeast," Don Luis ordered. "Ninety miles an hour. Ten thousand francs."
"We've the wind against us," said Davanne.
"Five thousand francs extra for the wind," shouted Don Luis.
He admitted no obstacle in his haste to reach Damigni. He now understood the whole thing and, harking back to the very beginning, he was surprised that his mind had never perceived the connection between the two skeletons hanging in the barn and the series of crimes resulting from the Mornington inheritance. Stranger still, how was it that the almost certain murder of Langernault, Hippolyte Fauville's old friend, had not afforded him all the clues which it contained? The crux of the sinister plot lay in that.
Who could have intercepted, on Fauville's behalf, the letters of accusation which Fauville was supposed to write to his old friend Langernault, except some one in the village or some one who had lived in the village?
And now everything was clear. It was the nameless scoundrel who had started his career of crime by killing old Langernault and then the Dedessuslamare couple. The method was the same as later on: it was not direct murder, but anonymous murder, murder by suggestion. Like Mornington the American, like Fauville the engineer, like Marie, like Gaston Sauverand, old Langernault had been craftily done away with and the Dedessuslamare couple driven to commit suicide in the barn.
It was from there that the tiger had come to Paris, where later he was to find Fauville and Cosmo Mornington and plot the tragic affair of the inheritance.
And it was there that he was now returning!
There was no doubt about that. To begin with, the fact that he had administered a narcotic to Florence constituted an indisputable proof. Was he not obliged to put Florence to sleep in order to prevent her from recognizing the landscape at Alençon and Damigni, or the Old Castle, which she had explored with Gaston Sauverand?
On the other hand, the Le Mans-Angers-Nantes route, which had been taken to put the police on a false track, meant only an extra hour or two, at most, for any one motoring to Alençon. Lastly, that coach-house near a big town, that limousine waiting, ready charged with petrol, showed that the villain, when he intended to visit his retreat, took the precaution of stopping at Le Mans, in order to go from there, in his limousine, to Langernault's deserted estate.
He would therefore reach his lair at ten o'clock that morning. And he would arrive there with Florence Levasseur dead asleep!
The question forced itself upon him, the terrible persistent question--what did he mean to do with Florence Levasseur?
"Faster! Faster!" cried Don Luis.
Now that he knew the scoundrel's haunt, the man's scheme became hideously evident to him. Feeling himself hunted down, lost, an object of hatred and terror to Florence, whose eyes were now opened to the true state of things, what plan could he have in mind except his invariable plan of murder?
"Faster!" cried Don Luis. "We're making no headway. Go faster, can't you?"
Florence murdered! Perhaps the crime was not yet accomplished. No, it could not be! Killing takes time. It is preceded by words, by the offer of a bargain, by threats, by entreaties, by a wholly unspeakable scene. But the thing was being prepared, Florence was going to die!
Florence was going to die by the hand of the brute who loved her. For he loved her: Don Luis had an intuition of that monstrous love; and he was bound to believe that such a love could only end in torture and bloodshed.
Sablé ... Sillé-le-Guillaume....
The earth sped beneath them. The trees and houses glided by like shadows.
And then Alençon.
It was hardly more than a quarter to two when they landed in a meadow between the town and Damigni. Don Luis made inquiries. A number of motor cars had passed along the road to Damigni, including a small limousine driven by a gentleman who had turned down a crossroad. And this crossroad led to the woods at the back of Langernault's estate, the Old Castle.
Don Luis's conviction was so firm that, after taking leave of Davanne, he helped him to start on his homeward flight. He had no further need of him. He needed nobody. The final duel was at hand.
He ran along, guided by the tracks of the tires in the dust, and followed the crossroad. To his great surprise this road went nowhere near the wall behind the barn from which he had jumped a few weeks before. After clearing the woods, Don Luis came out into a large untilled space where the road turned back toward the estate and ended at an old two-winged gate protected with iron sheets and bars.
The limousine had gone in that way.
"And I must get in this way, too," thought Don Luis. "I must get in at all costs and immediately, without wasting time in looking for an opening or a handy tree."
Now the wall was thirteen feet high at this spot. Don Luis got in. How he managed it, by what superhuman effort, he himself could not have said after he had done it.
Somehow or other, by hanging on to invisible projections, by digging a knife which he had borrowed from Davanne into the interstices between the stones, he managed it.
And when he was on the other side he discovered the tracks of the tires running to the left, toward a part of the grounds which he did not know, more undulating than the other and broken up with little hills and ruined buildings covered with thick curtains of ivy.
Deserted though the rest of the park was, this portion seemed much more uncivilized, in spite of the ragged remains of box and laurel hedges that stood here and there amidst the nettles and brambles, and the luxuriant swarm of tall wild-flowers, valerian, mullein, hemlock, foxglove, and angelica.
Suddenly, on turning the corner of an old hedge of clipped yews, Don Luis saw the limousine, which had been left, or, rather, hidden there in a hollow. The door was open. The disorder of the inside of the car, the rug hanging over the footboard, a broken window, a cushion on the floor, all bore witness to a struggle. The scoundrel had no doubt taken advantage of the fact that Florence was asleep to tie her up; and on arriving, when he tried to take her out of the car, Florence must have clutched at everything that offered.
Don Luis at once verified the correctness of his theory. As he went along the very narrow, grass-grown path that led up the slope, he saw that the grass was uniformly pressed down.
"Oh, the villain!" he thought. "The villain! He doesn't carry his victim, he drags her!"
If he had listened only to his instinct, he would have rushed to Florence's rescue. But his profound sense of what to do and what to avoid saved him from committing any such imprudence. At the first alarm, at the least sound, the tiger would have throttled his prey. To escape this hideous catastrophe, Don Luis must take him by surprise and then and there deprive him of his power of action. He controlled himself, therefore, and slowly and cautiously mounted the incline.
The path ran upward between heaps of stones and fallen buildings, and among clumps of shrubs overtopped by beeches and oaks. The place was evidently the site of the old feudal castle which had given the estate its name; and it was here, near the top, that the scoundrel had selected one of his retreats.
The trail continued over the trampled herbage. And Don Luis even caught sight of something shining on the ground, in a tuft of grass. It was a ring, a tiny and very simple ring, consisting of a gold circlet and two small pearls, which he had often noticed on Florence's finger. And the fact that caught his attention was that a blade of grass passed and repassed and passed a third time through the inside of the ring, like a ribbon that had been rolled round it deliberately.
"It's a clear signal," said Perenna to himself. "The villain probably stopped here to rest; and Florence, bound up; but with her fingers free, was able to leave this evidence of her passage."
So the girl still hoped. She expected assistance. And Don Luis reflected with emotion that it was perhaps to him that this last desperate appeal was addressed.
Fifty steps farther--and this detail pointed to the rather curious fatigue experienced by the scoundrel--there was a second halt and a second clue, a flower, a field-sage, which the poor little hand had picked and plucked of its petals. Next came the print of the five fingers dug into the ground, and next a cross drawn with a pebble. And in this way he was able to follow, minute by minute, all the successive stages of the horrible journey.
The last stopping-place was near. The climb became steeper and rougher. The fallen stones occasioned more frequent obstacles. On the right the Gothic arches, the remains of a chapel, stood out against the blue sky. On the left was a strip of wall with a mantelpiece still clinging to it.
Twenty steps farther Don Luis stopped. He seemed to hear something.
He listened. He was not mistaken. The sound was repeated, and it was the sound of laughter. But such an awful laugh! A strident laugh, evil as the laughter of a devil, and so shrill! It was more like the laugh of a woman, of a madwoman.
Again silence. Then another noise, the noise of an implement striking the ground, then silence again.
And this was happening at a distance which Don Luis estimated at a hundred yards.
The path ended in three steps cut in the earth. At the top was a fairly large plateau, also encumbered with rubbish and ruins. In the centre, opposite Don Luis, stood a screen of immense laurels planted in a semicircle. The marks of trodden grass led up to it.
Don Luis was a little surprised, for the screen presented an impenetrable outline. He walked on and found that there had once been a cutting, and that the branches had ended by meeting again. They were easy to push aside; and it was through here that the scoundrel must have passed. To all appearances he was there now, at the end of his journey, not far away, occupied in some sinister task.
Indeed the air was rent by a chuckle, so close by that Don Luis gave a start and felt as if the scoundrel were laughing beforehand at his intervention. He remembered the letter with the 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 the same moment the ground will open beneath your feet. The place of your death is chosen. The snare is laid. Beware, Lupin!
The whole letter passed through his brain, with its formidable threat. And he felt a shiver of fear. But no fear could stay the man that he was. He had already taken hold of the branches with his hands and was clearing a way for himself.
He stopped. A last bulwark of leaves hid him from sight. He pulled some of them aside at the level of his eyes.
And he saw ...
First of all, he saw Florence, alone at this moment, lying on the ground, bound, at thirty yards in front of him; and he at once perceived, to his intense delight, from certain movements of her head that she was still alive. He had come in time. Florence was not dead. She would not die. That was a certainty against which nothing could prevail. Florence would not die.
Then he examined the things around. To the right and left of where he stood the screen of laurels curved and embraced a sort of arena in which, among yews that had once been clipped into cones, lay capitals, columns, broken pieces of arches and vaults, obviously placed there to adorn the formal garden that had been laid out on the ruins of the ancient donjon-keep.
In the middle was a small circular space reached by two narrow paths, one of which presented the same traces of trodden grass and was a continuation of that by which Don Luis had come, while the other intersected the first at right angles and joined the two ends of the screen of shrubs.
Opposite was a confused heap of broken stones and natural rocks, cemented with clay, bound together by the roots of gnarled trees, the whole forming at the back of the picture a small, shallow grotto, full of crevices that admitted the light. The floor, which Don Luis could easily distinguish, consisted of three or four flagstones.
Florence Levasseur lay inside this grotto, bound hand and foot, looking like the victim of some mysterious sacrifice about to be performed on the altar of the grotto, in the amphitheatre of this old garden closed by the wall of tall laurels and overlooked by a pile of ancestral ruins.
In spite of the distance, Don Luis was able to make out every detail of her pale face. Though convulsed with anguish, it still retained a certain serenity, an expression of waiting and even of expectancy, as if Florence, believing, until the last moment, in the possibility of a miracle, had not yet relinquished all hope of life.
Nevertheless, though she was not gagged, she did not call for help. Perhaps she thought that it was useless, and that the road which she had strewn with the marks of her passing was more likely to bring assistance to her side than cries, which the villain would soon have stifled. Strange to say, it seemed to Don Luis as if the girl's eyes were obstinately fixed on the very spot where he was hiding. Possibly she suspected his presence. Possibly she foresaw his help.
Suddenly Don Luis clutched one of his revolvers and half raised his arm, ready to take aim. The sacrificer, the butcher, had just appeared, not far from the altar on which the victim lay.
He came from between two rocks, of which a bush marked the intervening space, which apparently afforded but a very low outlet, for he still walked as though bent double, with his head bowed and his long arms swinging so low as to touch the ground.
He went to the grotto and gave his horrible chuckle:
"You're still there, I see," he said. "No sign of the rescuer? Perseus is a little late, I fear. He'd better hurry!"
The tone of his voice was so shrill that Don Luis heard every word, and so odd, so unhuman, that it gave him a feeling of physical discomfort. He gripped his revolver tightly, prepared to shoot at the first suspicious movement.
"He'd better hurry!" repeated the scoundrel, with a laugh. "If not, all will be over in five minutes. You see that I'm a man of method, eh, Florence, my darling?"
He picked up something from the ground. It was a stick shaped like a crutch. He put it under his left arm and, still bent in two, began to walk like a man who has not the strength to stand erect. Then suddenly and with no apparent cause to explain his change of attitude, he drew himself up and used his crutch as he would a cane. He then walked round the outside of the grotto, making a careful inspection, the meaning of which escaped Don Luis for the time.
He was of a good height in this position; and Don Luis easily understood why the driver of the yellow taxi, who had seen him under two such different aspects, was unable to say whether he was very tall or very short.
But his legs, slack and unsteady, gave way beneath him, as if any prolonged exertion were beyond his power. He relapsed into his first attitude.
The man was a cripple, smitten with some disease that affected his powers of locomotion. He was excessively thin. Don Luis also saw his pallid face, his cavernous cheeks, his hollow temples, his skin the colour of parchment: the face of a sufferer from consumption, a bloodless face.
When he had finished his inspection, he came up to Florence and said:
"Though you've been very good, baby, and haven't screamed so far, we'd better take our precautions and remove any possibility of a surprise by giving you a nice little gag to wear, don't you think?"
He stooped over her and wound a large handkerchief round the lower part of her face. Then, bending still farther down, he began to speak to her in a very low voice, talking almost into her ear. But wild bursts of laughter, horrible to hear, interrupted this whispering.
Feeling the imminence of the danger, dreading some movement on the wretch's part, a sudden murderous attack, the prompt prick of a poisoned needle, Don Luis had levelled his revolver and, confident of his skill, waited events.
What was happening over there? What were the words spoken? What infamous bargain was the villain proposing to Florence? At what shameful price could she obtain her release?
The cripple stepped back angrily, shouting in furious accents:
"But don't you understand that you are done for? Now that I have nothing more to fear, now that you have been silly enough to come with me and place yourself in my power, what hope have you left? To move me, perhaps: is that it? Because I'm burning with passion, you imagine--? Oh, you never made a greater mistake, my pet! I don't care a fig if you do die. Once dead, you cease to count....
"What else? Perhaps you consider that, being crippled, I shall not have the strength to kill you? But there's no question of my killing you, Florence. Have you ever known me kill people? Never! I'm much too big a coward, I should be frightened, I should shake all over. No, no, Florence, I shan't touch you, and yet--
"Here, look what's going to happen, see for yourself. I tell you the thing's managed in my own style.... And, whatever you do, don't be afraid. It's only a preliminary warning."
He had moved away and, helping himself with his hands, holding on to the branches of a tree, he climbed up the first layers of rock that formed the grotto on the right. Here he knelt down. There was a small pickaxe lying beside him. He took it and gave three blows to the nearest heap of stones. They came tumbling down in front of the grotto.
Don Luis sprang from his hiding-place with a roar of terror. He had suddenly realized the position: The grotto, the accumulation of boulders, the piles of granite, everything was so placed that its equilibrium could be shattered at any moment, and that Florence ran the risk of being buried under the rubbish. It was not a question, therefore, of slaying the villain, but of saving Florence on the spot.
He was halfway across in two or three seconds. But here, in one of those mental flashes which are even quicker than the maddest rush, he became aware that the tracks of trampled grass did not cross the central circus and that the scoundrel had gone round it. Why? That was one of the questions which instinct, ever suspicious, puts, but which reason has not the time to answer. Don Luis went straight ahead. And he had no sooner set foot on the place than the catastrophe occurred.
It all happened with incredible suddenness, as though he had tried to walk on space and found himself hurled into it. The ground gave way beneath him. The clods of grass separated, and he fell.
He fell down a hole which was none other than the mouth of a well four feet wide at most, the curb of which had been cut down level with the ground. Only this was what took place: as he was running very fast, his impetus flung him against the opposite wall in such a way that his forearms lay on the outer ledge and his hands were able to clutch at the roots of plants.
So great was his strength that he might just have been able to drag himself up by his wrists. But responding to the attack, the scoundrel had at once hurried to meet his assailant and was now standing at ten paces from Don Luis, threatening him with his revolver:
"Don't move!" he cried, "or I'll smash you!"
Don Luis was thus reduced to helplessness, at the risk of receiving the enemy's fire.
Their eyes met for a few seconds. The cripple's were burning with fever, like the eyes of a sick man.
Crawling along, watching Don Luis's slightest movement, he came and squatted beside the well. The revolver was levelled in his outstretched hand. And his infernal chuckle rang out again:
"Lupin! Lupin! That's done it! Lupin's dive!... What a mug you must be! I warned you, you know, warned you in blood-red ink. Remember my words: 'The place of your death is chosen. The snare is laid. Beware, Lupin!' And here you are! So you're not in prison? You warded off that stroke, you rogue, you! Fortunately, I foresaw events and took my precautions. What do you say to it? What do you think of my little scheme? I said to myself, 'All the police will come rushing at my heels. But there's only one who's capable of catching me, and that's Lupin. So we'll show him the way, we'll lead him on the leash all along a little path scraped clean by the victim's body.'
"And then a few landmarks, scattered here and there. First, the fair damsel's ring, with a blade of grass twisted round it; farther on a flower without its petals; farther on the marks of five fingers in the ground; next, the sign of the cross.' No mistaking them, was there? Once you thought me fool enough to give Florence time to play Hop-o'-my-Thumb's game, it was bound to lead you straight to the mouth of the well, to the clods of turf which I dabbed across it, last month, in anticipation of this windfall.
"Remember: 'The snare is laid.' And a snare after my own style, Lupin; one of the best! Oh, I love getting rid of people with their kind assistance. We work together like friends and partners. You've caught the notion, haven't you?
"I don't do my own job. The others do it for me, hanging themselves or giving themselves careless injections--unless they prefer the mouth of a well, as you seem to do, Lupin. My poor old chap, what a sticky mess you're in! I never saw such a face, never, on my word! Florence, do look at the expression on your swain's mobile features!"
He broke off, seized with a fit of laughter that shook his outstretched arm, imparted the most savage look to his face, and set his legs jerking under his body like the legs of a dancing doll. His enemy was growing weaker before his eyes. Don Luis's fingers, which had first gripped the roots of the grass, were now vainly clutching the stones of the wall. And his shoulders were sinking lower and lower into the well.
"We've done it!" spluttered the villain, in the midst of his convulsions of merriment. "Lord, how good it is to laugh! Especially when one so seldom does. Yes, I'm a wet blanket, I am; a first-rate man at a funeral! You've never seen me laugh, Florence, have you? But this time it's really too amusing. Lupin in his hole and Florence in her grotto; one dancing a jig above the abyss and the other at her last gasp under her mountain. What a sight!
"Come, Lupin, don't tire yourself! What's the use of those grimaces? You're not afraid of eternity, are you? A good man like you, the Don Quixote of modern times! Come, let yourself go. There's not even any water in the well to splash about in. No, it's just a nice little slide into infinity. You can't so much as hear the sound of a pebble when you drop it in; and just now I threw a piece of lighted paper down and lost sight of it in the dark. Brrrr! It sent a cold shiver down my back!
"Come, be a man. It'll only take a moment; and you've been through worse than that! ... Good, you nearly did it then. You're making up your mind to it.... I say, Lupin! ... Lupin! ... Aren't you going to say good-bye? Not a smile, not a word of thanks? Au revoir, Lupin, an revoir--"
He ceased. He watched for the appalling end which he had so cleverly prepared and of which all the incidents were following close on one another in accordance with his inflexible will.
It did not take long. The shoulders had gone down; the chin; and then the mouth convulsed with the death-grin; and then the eyes, drunk with terror; and then the forehead and the hair: the whole head, in short, had disappeared.
The cripple sat gazing wildly, as though in ecstasy, motionless, with an expression of fierce delight, and without a word that could trouble the silence and interrupt his hatred.
At the edge of the abyss nothing remained but the hands, the obstinate, stubborn, desperate, heroic hands, the poor, helpless hands which alone still lived, and which, gradually, retreating toward death, yielded and fell back and let go.
The hands had slipped. For a moment the fingers held on like claws. So natural was the effort which they made that it looked as if they did not even yet despair, unaided, of resuscitating and bringing back to the light of day the corpse already entombed in the darkness. And then they in their turn gave way. And then--and then, suddenly, there was nothing more to be seen and nothing more to be heard.
The cripple started to his feet, as though released by a spring, and yelled with delight:
"Oof! That's done it! Lupin in the bottomless pit! One more adventure finished! Oof!"
Turning in Florence's direction, he once more danced his dance of death. He raised himself to his full height and then suddenly crouched down again, throwing about his legs like the grotesque, ragged limbs of a scarecrow. And he sang and whistled and belched forth insults and hideous blasphemies.
Then he came back to the yawning mouth of the well and, standing some way off, as if still afraid to come nearer, he spat into it three times.
Nor was this enough for his hatred. There were some broken pieces of statuary on the ground. He took a carved head, rolled it along the grass, and sent it crashing down the well. A little farther away was a stack of old, rusty cannon balls. These also he rolled to the edge and pushed in. Five, ten, fifteen cannon balls went scooting down, one after the other, banging against the walls with a loud and sinister noise which the echo swelled into the angry roar of distant thunder.
"There, take that, Lupin! I'm sick of you, you dirty cad! That's for the spokes you put in my wheel, over that damned inheritance! ... Here, take this, too!... And this!... And this!... Here's a chocolate for you in case you're hungry.... Do you want another? Here you are, old chap! catch!"
He staggered, seized with a sort of giddiness, and had to squat on his haunches. He was utterly spent. However, obeying a last convulsion, he still found the strength to kneel down by the well, and leaning over the darkness, he stammered, breathlessly:
"Hi! I say! Corpse! Don't go knocking at the gate of hell at once!... The little girl's joining you in twenty minutes.... Yes, that's it, at four o'clock.... You know I'm a punctual man and keep my appointments to the minute.... She'll be with you at four o'clock exactly.
"By the way, I was almost forgetting: the inheritance--you know, Mornington's hundred millions--well, that's mine. Why, of course! You can't doubt that I took all my precautions! Florence will explain everything presently.... It's very well thought out--you'll see--you'll see--"
He could not get out another word. The last syllables sounded more like hiccoughs. The sweat poured from his hair and his forehead, and he sank to the ground, moaning like a dying man tortured by the last throes of death.
He remained like that for some minutes, with his head in his hands, shivering all over his body. He appeared to be suffering everywhere, in each anguished muscle, in each sick nerve. Then, under the influence of a thought that seemed to make him act unconsciously, one of his hands crept spasmodically down his side, and, groping, uttering hoarse cries of pain, he managed to take from his pocket and put to his lips a phial out of which he greedily drank two or three mouthfuls.
He at once revived, as though he had swallowed warmth and strength. His eyes grew calmer, his mouth shaped itself into a horrible smile. He turned to Florence and said:
"Don't flatter yourself, pretty one; I'm not gone yet, and I've plenty of time to attend to you. And then, after that, there'll be no more worries, no more of that scheming and fighting that wears one out. A nice, quiet, uneventful life for me! ... With a hundred millions one can afford to take life easy, eh, little girl? ... Come on, I'm feeling much better!"