The Teeth of the Tiger/Chapter 21
CHAPTER XXI. LUPIN'S LUPINSEdit
Next morning, a little before eight o'clock, Valenglay was talking in his own flat to the Prefect of Police, and asked:
"So you think as I do, my dear Prefect? He'll come?"
"I haven't the least doubt of it, Monsieur le Président. And he will come with the same punctuality that has been shown throughout this business. He will come, for pride's sake, at the last stroke of eight."
"You think so?"
"Monsieur le Président, I have been studying the man for months. As things now stand, with Florence Levasseur's life in the balance, if he has not smashed the villain whom he is hunting down, if he does not bring him back bound hand and foot, it will mean that Florence Levasseur is dead and that he, Arsène Lupin, is dead."
"Whereas Lupin is immortal," said Valenglay, laughing. "You're right. Besides, I agree with you entirely. No one would be more astonished than I if our good friend was not here to the minute. You say you were rung up from Angers yesterday?"
"Yes, Monsieur le Président. My men had just seen Don Luis Perenna. He had gone in front of them, in an aeroplane. After that, they telephoned to me again from Le Mans, where they had been searching a deserted coach-house.
"You may be sure that the search had already been made by Lupin, and that we shall know the results. Listen: eight o'clock!"
At the same moment they heard the throbbing of a motor car. It stopped outside the house; and the bell rang almost immediately after. Orders had been given beforehand. The door opened and Don Luis Perenna was shown in.
To Valenglay and the Prefect of Police his arrival was certainly not unexpected, for they had just been saying that they would have been surprised if he had not come. Nevertheless, their attitude showed that astonishment which we all experience in the face of events that seem to pass the bounds of human possibility.
"Well?" cried the Prime Minister eagerly.
"It's done, Monsieur le Président."
"Have you collared the scoundrel?"
"By Jove!" said Valenglay. "You're a fine fellow!" And he went on to ask, "An ogre, of course? An evil, undaunted brute?--"
"No, Monsieur le Président, a cripple, a degenerate, responsible for his actions, certainly, but a man in whom the doctors will find every form of wasting illness: disease of the spinal cord, tuberculosis, and all the rest of it."
"And is that the man whom Florence Levasseur loved?"
"Monsieur le Président!" Don Luis violently protested. "Florence never loved that wretch! She felt sorry for him, as any one would for a fellow-creature doomed to an early death; and it was out of pity that she allowed him to hope that she might marry him later, at some time in the vague future."
"Are you sure of that?"
"Yes, Monsieur le Président, of that and of a good deal more besides, for I have the proofs in my hands." Without further preamble, he continued: "Monsieur le Président, now that the man is caught, it will be easy for the police to find out every detail of his life. But meanwhile I can sum up that monstrous life for you, looking only at the criminal side of it, and passing briefly over three murders which have nothing to do with the story of the Mornington case.
"Jean Vernocq was born at Alençon and brought up at old M. Langernault's expense. He got to know the Dedessuslamare couple, robbed them of their money and, before they had time to lodge a complaint against the unknown thief, took them to a barn in the village of Damigni, where, in their despair, stupefied and besotted with drugs, they hanged themselves.
"This barn stood in a property called the Old Castle, belonging to M. Langernault, Jean Vernocq's protector, who was ill at the time. After his recovery, as he was cleaning his gun, he received a full charge of shot in the abdomen. The gun had been loaded without the old fellow's knowledge. By whom? By Jean Vernocq, who had also emptied his patron's cash box the night before ...
"In Paris, where he went to enjoy the little fortune which he had thus amassed, Jean Vernocq bought from some rogue of his acquaintance papers containing evidence of Florence Levasseur's birth and of her right to all the inheritance of the Roussel family and Victor Sauverand, papers which the friend in question had purloined from the old nurse who brought Florence over from America. By hunting around, Jean Vernocq ended by discovering first a photograph of Florence and then Florence herself.
"He made himself useful to her and pretended to be devoted to her, giving up his whole life to her service. At that time he did not yet know what profit he could derive from the papers stolen from the girl or from his relations with her.
"Suddenly everything became different. An indiscreet word let fall by a solicitor's clerk told him of a will in Maître Lepertuis's drawer which would be interesting to look at. He obtained a sight of it by bribing the clerk, who has since disappeared, with a thousand-franc note. The will, as it happened, was Cosmo Mornington's; and in it Cosmo Mornington bequeathed his immense wealth to the heirs of the Roussel sisters and of Victor Sauverand....
"Jean Vernocq saw his chance. A hundred million francs! To get hold of that sum, to obtain riches, luxury, power, and the means of buying health and strength from the world's great healers, all that he had to do was first to put away the different persons who stood between the inheritance and Florence, and then, when all the obstacles were overcome, to make Florence his wife.
"Jean Vernocq went to work. He had found among the papers of Hippolyte Fauville's old friend Langernault particulars relating to the Roussel family and to the discord that reigned in the Fauville household. Five persons, all told, were in his way: first, of course, Cosmo Mornington; next, in the order of their claims, Hippolyte Fauville, his son Edmond, his wife Marie, and his cousin Gaston Sauverand.
"With Cosmo Mornington, the thing was easy enough. Introducing himself to the American as a doctor, Jean Vernocq put poison into one of the phials which Mornington used for his hypodermic injections.
"But in the case of Hippolyte Fauville, whose good will he had secured through his acquaintance with old Langernault, and over whose mind he soon obtained an extraordinary influence, he had a greater difficulty to contend with. Knowing on the one hand that the engineer hated his wife and on the other that he was stricken with a fatal disease, he took occasion, after the consultation with the specialist in London, to suggest to Fauville's terrified brain the incredible plan of suicide of which you were subsequently able to trace the Machiavellian execution.
"In this way and with a single effort, anonymously, so to speak, and without appearing in the business, without Fauville's even suspecting the action brought to bear upon him, Jean Vernocq procured the deaths of Fauville and his son, and got rid of Marie and Sauverand by the devilish expedient of causing the charge of murder, of which no one could accuse him, to fall upon them. The plan succeeded.
"There was only one hitch at the present time: the intervention of Inspector Vérot. Inspector Vérot died. And there was only one danger in the future: the intervention of myself, Don Luis Perenna, whose conduct Vernocq was bound to foresee, as I was the residuary legatee by the terms of Cosmo Mornington's will. This danger Vernocq tried to avert first by giving me the house on the Place du Palais-Bourbon to live in and Florence Levasseur as a secretary, and next by making four attempts to have me assassinated by Gaston Sauverand.
"He therefore held all the threads of the tragedy in his hands. Able to come and go as he pleased in my house, enforcing himself upon Florence and later upon Gaston Sauverand by the strength of his will and the cunning of his character, he was within sight of the goal.
"When my efforts succeeded in proving the innocence of Marie Fauville and Gaston Sauverand, he did not hesitate: Marie Fauville died; Gaston Sauverand died.
"So everything was going well for him. The police pursued me. The police pursued Florence. No one suspected him. And the date fixed for the payment of the inheritance was at hand.
"This was two days ago. At that time, Jean Vernocq was in the midst of the fray. He was ill and had obtained admission to the nursing-home in the Avenue des Ternes. From there he conducted his operations, thanks to his influence over Florence Levasseur and to the letters addressed to the mother superior from Versailles. Acting under the superior's orders and ignorant of the meaning of the step which she was taking, Florence went to the meeting at the Prefect's office, and herself brought the documents relating to her.
"Meanwhile, Jean Vernocq left the private hospital and took refuge near the Ile Saint-Louis, where he awaited the result of an enterprise which, at the worst, might tell against Florence, but which did not seem able to compromise him in any case.
"You know the rest, Monsieur le Président," said Don Luis, concluding his statement. "Florence, staggered by the sudden revelation of the part which she had unconsciously taken in the matter, and especially by the terrible part played by Jean Vernocq, ran away from the nursing-home where the Prefect had brought her at my request. She had but one thought: to see Jean Vernocq, demand an explanation of him, and hear what he had to say in his defence. That same evening he carried her away by motor, on the pretence of giving her proofs of his innocence. That is all, Monsieur le Président."
Valenglay had listened with growing interest to this gruesome story of the most malevolent genius conceivable to the mind of man. And he heard it perhaps without too great disgust, because of the light which it threw by contrast upon the bright, easy, happy, and spontaneous genius of the man who had fought for the good cause.
"And you found them?" he asked.
"At three o'clock yesterday afternoon, Monsieur le Président. It was time. I might even say that it was too late, for Jean Vernocq began by sending me to the bottom of a well, and by crushing Florence under a block of stone."
"Oh, so you're dead, are you?"
"Yes, Monsieur le Président."
"But why did that villain want to do away with Florence Levasseur? Her death destroyed his indispensable scheme of matrimony."
"It takes two to get married, Monsieur le Président, and Florence refused."
"Some time ago Jean Vernocq wrote a letter leaving all that he possessed to Florence Levasseur. Florence, moved by pity for him, and not realizing the importance of what she was doing, wrote a similar letter leaving her property to him. This letter constitutes a genuine and indisputable will in favor of Jean Vernocq.
"As Florence was Cosmo Mornington's legal and settled heiress by the mere fact of her presence at yesterday's meeting with the documents proving her descent from the Roussel family, her death caused her rights to pass to her own legal and settled heir.
"Jean Vernocq would have come into the money without the possibility of any litigation. And, as you would have been obliged to discharge him after his arrest, for lack of evidence against him, he would have led a quiet life, with fourteen murders on his conscience--I have added them up--but with a hundred million francs in his pocket. To a monster of his stamp, the one made up for the other."
"But do you possess all the proofs?" asked Valenglay eagerly.
"Here they are," said Perenna, producing the pocket-book which he had taken out of the cripple's jacket. "Here are letters and documents which the villain preserved, owing to a mental aberration common to all great criminals. Here, by good luck, is his correspondence with Hippolyte Fauville. Here is the original of the prospectus from which I learned that the house on the Place du Palais-Bourbon was for sale. Here is a memorandum of Jean Vernocq's journeys to Alençon to intercept Fauville's letters to old Langernault.
"Here is another memorandum showing that Inspector Vérot overheard a conversation between Fauville and his accomplice, that he shadowed Vernocq and robbed him of Florence Levasseur's photograph, and that Vernocq sent Fauville in pursuit of him. Here is a third memorandum, which is just a copy of the two found in the eighth volume of Shakespeare and which proves that Jean Vernocq, to whom that set of Shakespeare belonged, knew all about Fauville's machination. Here are his correspondence with Caceres, the Peruvian attaché, and the letters denouncing myself and Sergeant Mazeroux, which he intended to send to the press. Here--
"But need I say more, Monsieur le Président? You have the complete evidence in your hands. The magistrates will find that all the accusations which I made yesterday, before the Prefect of Police, were strictly true."
"And he?" cried Valenglay. "The criminal? Where is he?"
"Outside, in a motor car, in his motor car, rather."
"Have you told my men?" asked M. Desmalions anxiously.
"Yes, Monsieur le Préfet. Besides, the fellow is carefully tied up. Don't be alarmed. He won't escape."
"Well, you've foreseen every contingency," said Valenglay, "and the business seems to me to be finished. But there's one problem that remains unexplained, the one perhaps that interested the public most. I mean the marks of the teeth in the apple, the teeth of the tiger, as they have been called, which were certainly Mme. Fauville's teeth, innocent though she was. Monsieur le Préfet declares that you have solved this problem."
"Yes, Monsieur le Président, and Jean Vernocq's papers prove that I was right. Besides, the problem is quite simple. The apple was marked with Mme. Fauville's teeth, but Mme. Fauville never bit the apple."
"Monsieur le Président, Hippolyte Fauville very nearly said as much when he mentioned this mystery in his posthumous confession."
"Hippolyte Fauville was a madman."
"Yes, but a lucid madman and capable of reasoning with the most appalling logic. Some years ago, at Palermo, Mme. Fauville had a very bad fall, hitting her mouth against the marble top of a table, with the result that a number of her teeth, in both the upper and the lower jaw, were loosened. To repair the damage and to make the gold plate intended to strengthen the teeth, a plate which Mme. Fauville wore for several months, the dentist, as usual, took an impression of her mouth.
"M. Fauville happened to have kept the mould; and he used it to print the marks of his wife's teeth in the cake of chocolate shortly before his death and in the apple on the night of his death. When this was done, he put the mould with the other things which the explosion was meant to, and did, destroy."
Don Luis's explanation was followed by a silence. The thing was so simple that the Prime Minister was quite astonished. The whole tragedy, the whole charge, everything that had caused Marie's despair and death and the death of Gaston Sauverand: all this rested on an infinitely small detail which had occurred to none of the millions and millions of people who had interested themselves so enthusiastically in the mystery of the teeth of the tiger.
The teeth of the tiger! Everybody had clung stubbornly to an apparently invincible argument. As the marks on the apple and the print of Mme. Fauville's teeth were identical, and as no two persons in the world were able, in theory or practice, to produce the same print with their teeth, Mme. Fauville must needs be guilty.
Nay, more, the argument seemed so absolute that, from the day on which Mme. Fauville's innocence became known, the problem had remained unsolved, while no one seemed capable of conceiving the one paltry idea: that it was possible to obtain the print of a tooth in another way than by a live bite of that same tooth!
"It's like the egg of Columbus," said Valenglay, laughing. "It had to be thought of."
"You are right, Monsieur le Président. People don't think of those things. Here is another instance: may I remind you that during the period when Arsène Lupin was known at the same time as M. Lenormand and as Prince Paul Sernine, no one noticed that the name Paul Sernine was merely an anagram of Arsène Lupin? Well, it's just the same to-day: Luis Perenna also is an anagram of Arsène Lupin. The two names are composed of the same eleven letters, neither more nor less. And yet, although it was the second time, nobody thought of making that little comparison. The egg of Columbus again! It had to be thought of!"
Valenglay was a little surprised at the revelation. It seemed as if that devil of a man had sworn to puzzle him up to the last moment and to bewilder him by the most unexpected sensational news. And how well this last detail depicted the fellow, a queer mixture of dignity and impudence, of mischief and simplicity, of smiling chaff and disconcerting charm, a sort of hero who, while conquering kingdoms by most incredible adventures, amused himself by mixing up the letters on his name so as to catch the public napping!
The interview was nearly at an end. Valenglay said to Perenna:
"Monsieur, you have done wonders in this business and ended by keeping your word and handing over the criminal. I also will keep my word. You are free."
"I thank you, Monsieur le Président. But what about Sergeant Mazeroux?"
"He will be released this morning. Monsieur le Préfet de Police has arranged matters so that the public do not know of the arrest of either of you. You are Don Luis Perenna. There is no reason why you should not remain Don Luis Perenna."
"And Florence Levasseur, Monsieur le Président?"
"Let her go before the examining magistrate of her own accord. He is bound to discharge her. Once free and acquitted of any charge or even suspicion, she will certainly be recognized as Cosmo Mornington's legal heiress and will receive the hundred millions."
"She will not keep it, Monsieur le Président."
"How do you mean?"
"Florence Levasseur doesn't want the money. It has been the cause of unspeakably awful crimes. She hates the very thought of it."
"Cosmo Mornington's hundred millions will be wholly devoted to making roads and building schools in the south of Morocco and the northern Congo."
"In the Mauretanian Empire which you are giving us?" said Valenglay, laughing. "By Jove, it's a fine work and I second it with all my heart. An empire and an imperial budget to keep it up with! Upon my word, Don Luis has behaved well to his country, and has handsomely paid the debts--of Arsène Lupin!"
* * * * *
A month later Don Luis Perenna and Mazeroux embarked in the yacht which had brought Don Luis to France. Florence was with them. Before sailing they heard of the death of Jean Vernocq, who had managed to poison himself in spite of all the precautions taken to prevent him.
On his arrival in Africa, Don Luis Perenna, Sultan of Mauretania, found his old associates and accredited Mazeroux to them and to his grand dignitaries. He organized the government to follow on his abdication and precede the annexation of the new empire by France, and he had several secret interviews on the Moorish border with General Léauty, commanding the French troops, interviews in the course of which they thought out all the measures to be executed in succession so as to lend to the conquest of Morocco an appearance of facility which would otherwise be difficult to explain.
The future was now assured. Soon the thin screen of rebellious tribes standing between the French and the pacified districts would fall to pieces, revealing an orderly empire, provided with a regular constitution, with good roads, schools, and courts of law, a flourishing empire in full working order.
Then, when his task was done, Don Luis abdicated.
* * * * *
He has now been back for over two years. Every one remembers the stir caused by his marriage with Florence Levasseur. The controversy was renewed; and many of the newspapers clamoured for Arsène Lupin's arrest. But what could the authorities do?
Although nobody doubted who he really was, although the name of Arsène Lupin and the name of Don Luis Perenna consisted of the same letters, and people ended by remarking the coincidence, legally speaking, Arsène Lupin was dead and Don Luis Perenna was alive; and there was no possibility of bringing Arsène Lupin back to life or of killing Don Luis Perenna.
He is to-day living in the village of Saint-Maclou, among those charming valleys which run down to the Oise. Who does not know his modest little pink-washed house, with its green shutters and its garden filled with bright flowers? People make up parties to go there from Paris on Sundays, in the hope of catching a sight, through the elder hedges, of the man who was Arsène Lupin, or of meeting him in the village square.
He is there, with his hair just touched with gray, his still youthful features, and a young man's bearing; and Florence is there, too, with her pretty figure and the halo of fair hair around her happy face, unclouded by even the shadow of an unpleasant recollection.
Very often visitors come and knock at the little wooden gate. They are unfortunate people imploring the master's aid, victims of oppression, weaklings who have gone under in the struggle, reckless persons who have been ruined by their passions.
For all these Don Luis is full of pity. He gives them his full attention, the help of his far-seeing advice, his experience, his strength, and even his time, disappearing for days and weeks to fight the good fight once more.
And sometimes also it is an emissary from the Prefect's office or some subordinate of the police who comes to submit a complex case to his judgment. Here again Don Luis applies the whole of his wonderful mind to the business.
In addition to this, in addition to his old books on ethics and philosophy, to which he has returned with such pleasure, he cultivates his garden. He dotes on his flowers. He is proud of them. He takes prizes at the shows; and the success is still remembered of the treble carnation, streaked red and yellow, which he exhibited as the "Arsène carnation."
But he works hardest at certain large flowers that blossom in summer. During July and the first half of August they fill two thirds of his lawn and all the borders of his kitchen-garden. Beautiful, decorative plants, standing erect like flag-staffs, they proudly raise their spiky heads of all colours: blue, violet, mauve, pink, white.
They are lupins and include every variety: Cruikshank's lupin, the two-coloured lupin, the scented lupin, and the last to appear, Lupin's lupin. They are all there, resplendent, in serried ranks like an army of soldiers, each striving to outstrip the others and to hold up the thickest and gaudiest spike to the sun. They are all there; and, at the entrance to the walk that leads to their motley beds, is a streamer with this device, taken from an exquisite sonnet of Jose Maria de Heredia:
"And in my kitchen-garden lupins grow."
You will say that this is a confession. But why not?
In the evening, when a few privileged neighbours meet at his house--the justice of the peace, the notary, Major Comte d'Astrignac, who has also gone to live at Saint-Maclou--Don Luis is not afraid to speak of Arsène Lupin.
"I used to see a great deal of him," he says. "He was not a bad man. I will not go so far as to compare him with the Seven Sages, or even to hold him up as an example to future generations, but still we must judge him with a certain indulgence.
"He did a vast amount of good and a moderate amount of harm. Those who suffered through him deserved what they got; and fate would have punished them sooner or later if he had not forestalled her. Between a Lupin who selected his victims among the ruck of wicked rich men and some big company promoter who deliberately ruins numbers of poor people, would you hesitate for a moment? Does not Lupin come out best?
"And, on the other hand, what a host of good actions! What countless proofs of disinterested generosity! A burglar? I admit it. A swindler? I don't deny it. He was all that. But he was something more than that. And, while he amused the gallery with his skill and ingenuity, he roused the general enthusiasm in other ways.
"People laughed at his practical jokes, but they loved his pluck, his courage, his adventurous spirit, his contempt for danger, his shrewd insight, his unfailing good humour, his reckless energy: all qualities that stood out at a period when the most active virtues of our race had reached their zenith, the period of the motor car and the aeroplane....
"One day," he said, as a joke, "I should like my epitaph to read, 'Here lies Arsène Lupin, adventurer.'" That was quite correct. He was a master of adventure.
"And, if the spirit of adventure led him too often to put his hand in other people's pockets, it also led him to battlefields where it gives those who are worthy opportunity to fight and win titles of distinction which are not within reach of all. It was there that he gained his. It is there that you should see him at work, spending his strength braving death, and defying destiny. And it is because of this that you must forgive him, even if he did sometimes get the better of a commissary of police or steal the watch of an examining magistrate. Let us show some indulgence to our professors of energy."
And, nodding his head, Don Luis concludes:
"Then, you see, he had another virtue which is not to be despised. It is a virtue for which we should be grateful to him in these gray days of ours: he knew how to smile!"