The Teeth of the Tiger/Chapter 5

The Teeth of the Tiger by Maurice Leblanc
Chapter V. The Iron Curtain

CHAPTER V. THE IRON CURTAINEdit

It is sometimes an ungrateful task to tell the story of Arsène Lupin's life, for the reason that each of his adventures is partly known to the public, having at the time formed the subject of much eager comment, whereas his biographer is obliged, if he would throw light upon what is not known, to begin at the beginning and to relate in full detail all that which is already public property.

It is because of this necessity that I am compelled to speak once more of the extreme excitement which the news of that shocking series of crimes created in France, in Europe and throughout the civilized world. The public heard of four murders practically all at once, for the particulars of Cosmo Mornington's will were published two days later.

There was no doubt that the same person had killed Cosmo Mornington, Inspector Vérot, Fauville the engineer, and his son Edmond. The same person had made the identical sinister bite, leaving against himself or herself, with a heedlessness that seemed to show the avenging hand of fate, a most impressive and incriminating proof, a proof which made people shudder as they would have shuddered at the awful reality: the marks of his or her teeth, the teeth of the tiger!

And, in the midst of all this bloodshed, at the most tragic moment of the dismal tragedy, behold the strangest of figures emerging from the darkness!

An heroic adventurer, endowed with astounding intelligence and insight, had in a few hours partly unravelled the tangled skeins of the plot, divined the murder of Cosmo Mornington, proclaimed the murder of Inspector Vérot, taken the conduct of the investigation into his own hands, delivered to justice the inhuman creature whose beautiful white teeth fitted the marks as precious stones fit their settings, received a cheque for a million francs on the day after these exploits and, finally, found himself the probable heir to an immense fortune.

And here was Arsène Lupin coming to life again!

For the public made no mistake about that, and, with wonderful intuition, proclaimed aloud that Don Luis Perenna was Arsène Lupin, before a close examination of the facts had more or less confirmed the supposition.

"But he's dead!" objected the doubters.

To which the others replied:

"Yes, Dolores Kesselbach's corpse was recovered under the still smoking ruins of a little chalet near the Luxemburg frontier and, with it, the corpse of a man whom the police identified as Arsène Lupin. But everything goes to show that the whole scene was contrived by Lupin, who, for reasons of his own, wanted to be thought dead. And everything shows that the police accepted and legalized the theory of his death only because they wished to be rid of their everlasting adversary.

"As a proof, we have the confidences made by Valenglay, who was Prime Minister at the time and whom the chances of politics have just replaced at the head of the government. And there is the mysterious incident on the island of Capri when the German Emperor, just as he was about to be buried under a landslip, was saved by a hermit who, according to the German version, was none other than Arsène Lupin."

To this came a fresh objection:

"Very well; but read the newspapers of the time: ten minutes afterward, the hermit flung himself into the sea from Tiberius' Leap." And the answer:

"Yes, but the body was never found. And, as it happens, we know that a steamer picked up a man who was making signals to her and that this steamer was on her way to Algiers. Well, a few days later, Don Luis Perenna enlisted in the Foreign Legion at Sidi-bel-Abbes."

Of course, the controversy upon which the newspapers embarked on this subject was carried on discreetly. Everybody was afraid of Lupin; and the journalists maintained a certain reserve in their articles, confined themselves to comparing dates and pointing out coincidences, and refrained from speaking too positively of any Lupin that might lie hidden under the mask of Perenna.

But, as regards the private in the Foreign Legion and his stay in Morocco, they took their revenge and let themselves go freely.

Major d'Astrignac had spoken. Other officers, other comrades of Perenna's, related what they had seen. The reports and daily orders concerning him were published. And what became known as "The Hero's Idyll" began to take the form of a sort of record each page of which described the maddest and unlikeliest of facts.

At Médiouna, on the twenty-fourth of March, the adjutant, Captain Pollex, awarded Private Perenna four days' cells on a charge of having broken out of camp past two sentries after evening roll call, contrary to orders, and being absent without leave until noon on the following day. Perenna, the report went on to say, brought back the body of his sergeant, killed in ambush. And in the margin was this note, in the colonel's hand:

"The colonel commanding doubles Private Perenna's award, but mentions his name in orders and congratulates and thanks him."

After the fight of Ber-Réchid, Lieutenant Fardet's detachment being obliged to retreat before a band of four hundred Moors, Private Perenna asked leave to cover the retreat by installing himself in a _kasbah_.

"How many men do you want, Perenna?"

"None, sir."

"What! Surely you don't propose to cover a retreat all by yourself?"

"What pleasure would there be in dying, sir, if others were to die as well as I?"

At his request, they left him a dozen rifles, and divided with him the cartridges that remained. His share came to seventy-five.

The detachment got away without being further molested. Next day, when they were able to return with reinforcements, they surprised the Moors lying in wait around the _kasbah_, but afraid to approach. The ground was covered with seventy-five of their killed.

Our men drove them off. They found Private Perenna stretched on the floor of the _kasbah_. They thought him dead. He was asleep!

He had not a single cartridge left. But each of his seventy-five bullets had gone home.

What struck the imagination of the public most, however, was Major Comte d'Astrignac's story of the battle of Dar-Dbibarh. The major confessed that this battle, which relieved Fez at the moment when we thought that all was lost and which created such a sensation in France, was won before it was fought and that it was won by Perenna, alone!

At daybreak, when the Moorish tribes were preparing for the attack, Private Perenna lassoed an Arab horse that was galloping across the plain, sprang on the animal, which had no saddle, bridle, nor any sort of harness, and without jacket, cap, or arms, with his white shirt bulging out and a cigarette between his teeth, charged, with his hands in his trousers-pockets!

He charged straight toward the enemy, galloped through their camp, riding in and out among the tents, and then left it by the same place by which he had gone in.

This quite inconceivable death ride spread such consternation among the Moors that their attack was half-hearted and the battle was won without resistance.

This, together with numberless other feats of bravado, went to make up the heroic legend of Perenna. It threw into relief the superhuman energy, the marvellous recklessness, the bewildering fancy, the spirit of adventure, the physical dexterity, and the coolness of a singularly mysterious individual whom it was impossible not to take for Arsène Lupin, but a new and greater Arsène Lupin, dignified, idealized, and ennobled by his exploits.

One morning, a fortnight after the double murder in the Boulevard Suchet, this extraordinary man, who aroused such eager interest and who was spoken of on every side as a fabulous and more or less impossible being: one morning, Don Luis Perenna dressed himself and went the rounds of his house.

It was a comfortable and roomy eighteenth-century mansion, situated at the entrance to the Faubourg Saint-Germain, on the little Place du Palais-Bourbon. He had bought it, furnished, from a rich Hungarian, Count Malonyi, keeping for his own use the horses, carriages, motor cars, and taking over the eight servants and even the count's secretary, Mlle. Levasseur, who undertook to manage the household and to receive and get rid of the visitors--journalists, bores and curiosity-dealers--attracted by the luxury of the house and the reputation of its new owner.

After finishing his inspection of the stables and garage, he walked across the courtyard and went up to his study, pushed open one of the windows and raised his head. Above him was a slanting mirror; and this mirror reflected, beyond the courtyard and its surrounding wall, one whole side of the Place du Palais-Bourbon.

"Bother!" he said. "Those confounded detectives are still there. And this has been going on for a fortnight. I'm getting tired of this spying."

He sat down, in a bad temper, to look through his letters, tearing up, after he had read them, those which concerned him personally and making notes on the others, such as applications for assistance and requests for interviews. When he had finished, he rang the bell.

"Ask Mlle. Levasseur to bring me the newspapers."

She had been the Hungarian count's reader as well as his secretary; and Perenna had trained her to pick out in the newspapers anything that referred to him, and to give him each morning an exact account of the proceedings that were being taken against Mme. Fauville.

Always dressed in black, with a very elegant and graceful figure, she had attracted him from the first. She had an air of great dignity and a grave and thoughtful face which made it impossible to penetrate the secret of her soul, and which would have seemed austere had it not been framed in a cloud of fair curls, resisting all attempts at discipline and setting a halo of light and gayety around her.

Her voice had a soft and musical tone which Perenna loved to hear; and, himself a little perplexed by Mlle. Levasseur's attitude of reserve, he wondered what she could think of him, of his mode of life, and of all that the newspapers had to tell of his mysterious past.

"Nothing new?" he asked, as he glanced at the headings of the articles.

She read the reports relating to Mme. Fauville; and Don Luis could see that the police investigations were making no headway. Marie Fauville still kept to her first method, that of weeping, making a show of indignation, and assuming entire ignorance of the facts upon which she was being examined.

"It's ridiculous," he said, aloud. "I have never seen any one defend herself so clumsily."

"Still, if she's innocent?"

It was the first time that Mlle. Levasseur had uttered an opinion or rather a remark upon the case. Don Luis looked at her in great surprise.

"So you think her innocent, Mademoiselle?"

She seemed ready to reply and to explain the meaning of her interruption. It was as though she were removing her impassive mask and about to allow her face to adopt a more animated expression under the impulse of her inner feelings. But she restrained herself with a visible effort, and murmured:

"I don't know. I have no views."

"Possibly," he said, watching her with curiosity, "but you have a doubt: a doubt which would be permissible if it were not for the marks left by Mme. Fauville's own teeth. Those marks, you see, are something more than a signature, more than a confession of guilt. And, as long as she is unable to give a satisfactory explanation of this point--"

But Marie Fauville vouchsafed not the slightest explanation of this or of anything else. She remained impenetrable. On the other hand, the police failed to discover her accomplice or accomplices, or the man with the ebony walking-stick and the tortoise-shell glasses whom the waiter at the Café du Pont-Neuf had described to Mazeroux and who seemed to have played a singularly suspicious part. In short, there was not a ray of light thrown upon the subject.

Equally vain was all search for the traces of Victor, the Roussel sister's first cousin, who would have inherited the Mornington bequest in the absence of any direct heirs.

"Is that all?" asked Perenna.

"No," said Mlle. Levasseur, "there is an article in the _Echo de France_--"

"Relating to me?"

"I presume so, Monsieur. It is called, 'Why Don't They Arrest Him?'"

"That concerns me," he said, with a laugh.

He took the newspaper and read:

"Why do they not arrest him? Why go against logic and prolong an unnatural situation which no decent man can understand? This is the question which everybody is asking and to which our investigations enable us to furnish a precise reply.

"Two years ago, in other words, three years after the pretended death of Arsène Lupin, the police, having discovered or believing they had discovered that Arsène Lupin was really none other than one Floriani, born at Blois and since lost to sight, caused the register to be inscribed, on the page relating to this Floriani, with the word 'Deceased,' followed by the words 'Under the alias of Arsène Lupin.'

"Consequently, to bring Arsène Lupin back to life, there would be wanted something more than the undeniable proof of his existence, which would not be impossible. The most complicated wheels in the administrative machine would have to be set in motion, and a decree obtained from the Council of State.

"Now it would seem that M. Valenglay, the Prime Minister, together with the Prefect of Police, is opposed to making any too minute inquiries capable of opening up a scandal which the authorities are anxious to avoid. Bring Arsène Lupin back to life? Recommence the struggle with that accursed scoundrel? Risk a fresh defeat and fresh ridicule? No, no, and again no!

"And thus is brought about this unprecedented, inadmissible, inconceivable, disgraceful situation, that Arsène Lupin, the hardened thief, the impenitent criminal, the robber-king, the emperor of burglars and swindlers, is able to-day, not clandestinely, but in the sight and hearing of the whole world, to pursue the most formidable task that he has yet undertaken, to live publicly under a name which is not his own, but which he has incontestably made his own, to destroy with impunity four persons who stood in his way, to cause the imprisonment of an innocent woman against whom he himself has accumulated false evidence, and at the end of all, despite the protests of common sense and thanks to an unavowed complicity, to receive the hundred millions of the Mornington legacy.

"There is the ignominious truth in a nutshell. It is well that it should be stated. Let us hope, now that it stands revealed, that it will influence the future conduct of events."

"At any rate, it will influence the conduct of the idiot who wrote that article," said Lupin, with a grin.

He dismissed Mlle. Levasseur and rang up Major d'Astrignac on the telephone.

"Is that you, Major? Perenna speaking."

"Yes, what is it?"

"Have you read the article in the _Echo de France_?"

"Yes."

"Would it bore you very much to call on that gentleman and ask for satisfaction in my name?"

"Oh! A duel!"

"It's got to be, Major. All these sportsmen are wearying me with their lucubrations. They must be gagged. This fellow will pay for the rest."

"Well, of course, if you're bent on it--"

"I am, very much."

      *       *       *       *        *

The preliminaries were entered upon without delay. The editor of the _Echo de France_ declared that the article had been sent in without a signature, typewritten, and that it had been published without his knowledge; but he accepted the entire responsibility.

That same day, at three o'clock, Don Luis Perenna, accompanied by Major d'Astrignac, another officer, and a doctor, left the house in the Place du Palais-Bourbon in his car, and, followed by a taxi crammed with the detectives engaged in watching him, drove to the Parc des Princes.

While waiting for the arrival of the adversary, the Comte d'Astrignac took Don Luis aside.

"My dear Perenna, I ask you no questions. I don't want to know how much truth there is in all that is being written about you, or what your real name is. To me, you are Perenna of the Legion, and that is all I care about. Your past began in Morocco. As for the future, I know that, whatever happens and however great the temptation, your only aim will be to revenge Cosmo Mornington and protect his heirs. But there's one thing that worries me."

"Speak out, Major."

"Give me your word that you won't kill this man."

"Two months in bed, Major; will that suit you?"

"Too long. A fortnight."

"Done."

The two adversaries took up their positions. At the second encounter, the editor of the _Echo de France_ fell, wounded in the chest.

"Oh, that's too bad of you, Perenna!" growled the Comte d'Astrignac. "You promised me--"

"And I've kept my promise, Major."

The doctors were examining the injured man. Presently one of them rose and said:

"It's nothing. Three weeks' rest, at most. Only a third of an inch more, and he would have been done for."

"Yes, but that third of an inch isn't there," murmured Perenna.

Still followed by the detectives' motor cab, Don Luis returned to the Faubourg Saint-Germain; and it was then that an incident occurred which was to puzzle him greatly and throw a most extraordinary light on the article in the _Echo de France_.

In the courtyard of his house he saw two little puppies which belonged to the coachman and which were generally confined to the stables. They were playing with a twist of red string which kept catching on to things, to the railings of the steps, to the flower vases. In the end, the paper round which the string was wound, appeared. Don Luis happened to pass at that moment. His eyes noticed marks of writing on the paper, and he mechanically picked it up and unfolded it.

He gave a start. He had at once recognized the opening lines of the article printed in the _Echo de France_. And the whole article was there, written in ink, on ruled paper, with erasures, and with sentences added, struck out, and begun anew.

He called the coachman and asked him:

"Where does this ball of string come from?"

"The string, sir? Why, from the harness-room, I think. It must have been that little she-devil of a Mirza who--"

"And when did you wind the string round the paper?"

"Yesterday evening, Monsieur."

"Yesterday evening. I see. And where is the paper from?"

"Upon my word, Monsieur, I can't say. I wanted something to wind my string on. I picked this bit up behind the coach-house where they fling all the rubbish of the house to be taken into the street at night."

Don Luis pursued his investigations. He questioned or asked Mlle. Levasseur to question the other servants. He discovered nothing; but one fact remained: the article in the _Echo de France_ had been written, as the rough draft which he had picked up proved, by somebody who lived in the house or who was in touch with one of the people in the house.

The enemy was inside the fortress.

But what enemy? And what did he want? Merely Perenna's arrest?

All the remainder of the afternoon Don Luis continued anxious, annoyed by the mystery that surrounded him, incensed at his own inaction, and especially at that threatened arrest, which certainly caused him no uneasiness, but which hampered his movements.

Accordingly, when he was told at about ten o'clock that a man who gave the name of Alexandre insisted on seeing him, he had the man shown in; and when he found himself face to face with Mazeroux, but Mazeroux disguised beyond recognition and huddled in an old cloak, he flung himself on him as on a prey, hustling and shaking him.

"So it's you, at last?" he cried. "Well, what did I tell you? You can't make head or tail of things at the police office and you've come for me! Confess it, you numskull! You've come to fetch me! Oh, how funny it all is! Gad, I knew that you would never have the cheek to arrest me, and that the Prefect of Police would manage to calm the untimely ardour of that confounded Weber! To begin with, one doesn't arrest a man whom one has need of. Come, out with it! Lord, how stupid you look! Why don't you answer? How far have you got at the office? Quick, speak! I'll settle the thing in five seconds. Just tell me about your inquiry in two words, and I'll finish it for you in the twinkling of a bed-post, in two minutes by my watch. Well, you were saying--"

"But, Chief," spluttered Mazeroux, utterly nonplussed.

"What! Must I drag the words out of you? Come on! I'll make a start. It has to do with the man with the ebony walking-stick, hasn't it? The one we saw at the Café du Pont-Neuf on the day when Inspector Vérot was murdered?"

"Yes, it has."

"Have you found his traces?"

"Yes."

"Well, come along, find your tongue!"

"It's like this, Chief. Some one else noticed him besides the waiter. There was another customer in the cafe; and this other customer, whom I ended by discovering, went out at the same time as our man and heard him ask somebody in the street which was the nearest underground station for Neuilly."

"Capital, that. And, in Neuilly, by asking questions on every side, you ferreted him out?"

"And even learnt his name, Chief: Hubert Lautier, of the Avenue du Roule. Only he decamped from there six months ago, leaving his furniture behind him and taking nothing but two trunks."

"What about the post-office?"

"We have been to the post-office. One of the clerks recognized the description which we supplied. Our man calls once every eight or ten days to fetch his mail, which never amounts to much: just one or two letters. He has not been there for some time."

"Is the correspondence in his name?"

"No, initials."

"Were they able to remember them?"

"Yes: B.R.W.8."

"Is that all?"

"That is absolutely all that I have discovered. But one of my fellow officers succeeded in proving, from the evidence of two detectives, that a man carrying a silver-handled ebony walking-stick and a pair of tortoise-shell glasses walked out of the Gare d'Auteuil on the evening of the double murder and went toward Renelagh. Remember the presence of Mme. Fauville in that neighbourhood at the same hour. And remember that the crime was committed round about midnight. I conclude from this--"

"That will do; be off!"

"But--"

"Get!"

"Then I don't see you again?"

"Meet me in half an hour outside our man's place."

"What man?"

"Marie Fauville's accomplice."

"But you don't know--"

"The address? Why, you gave it to me yourself: Boulevard Richard-Wallace, No. 8. Go! And don't look such a fool."

He made him spin round on his heels, took him by the shoulders, pushed him to the door, and handed him over, quite flabbergasted, to a footman.

He himself went out a few minutes later, dragging in his wake the detectives attached to his person, left them posted on sentry duty outside a block of flats with a double entrance, and took a motor cab to Neuilly.

He went along the Avenue de Madrid on foot and turned down the Boulevard Richard-Wallace, opposite the Bois de Boulogne. Mazeroux was waiting for him in front of a small three-storied house standing at the back of a courtyard contained within the very high walls of the adjoining property.

"Is this number eight?"

"Yes, Chief, but tell me how--"

"One moment, old chap; give me time to recover my breath."

He gave two or three great gasps.

"Lord, how good it is to be up and doing!" he said. "Upon my word, I was getting rusty. And what a pleasure to pursue those scoundrels! So you want me to tell you?"

He passed his arm through the sergeant's.

"Listen, Alexandre, and profit by my words. Remember this: when a person is choosing initials for his address at a _poste restante_ he doesn't pick them at random, but always in such a way that the letters convey a meaning to the person corresponding with him, a meaning which will enable that other person easily to remember the address."

"And in this case?"

"In this case, Mazeroux, a man like myself, who knows Neuilly and the neighbourhood of the Bois, is at once struck by those three letters, 'B.R.W,' and especially by the 'W.', a foreign letter, an English letter. So that in my mind's eye, instantly, as in a flash, I saw the three letters in their logical place as initials at the head of the words for which they stand. I saw the 'B' of 'boulevard,' and the 'R' and the English 'W' of Richard-Wallace. And so I came to the Boulevard Richard-Wallace, And that, my dear sir, explains the milk in the cocoanut."

Mazeroux seemed a little doubtful.

"And what do you think, Chief?"

"I think nothing. I am looking about. I am building up a theory on the first basis that offers a probable theory. And I say to myself ... I say to myself ... I say to myself, Mazeroux, that this is a devilish mysterious little hole and that this house--Hush! Listen--"

He pushed Mazeroux into a dark corner. They had heard a noise, the slamming of a door.

Footsteps crossed the courtyard in front of the house. The lock of the outer gate grated. Some one appeared, and the light of a street lamp fell full on his face.

"Dash it all," muttered Mazeroux, "it's he!"

"I believe you're right."

"It's he. Chief. Look at the black stick and the bright handle. And did you see the eyeglasses--and the beard? What a oner you are, Chief!"

"Calm yourself and let's go after him."

The man had crossed the Boulevard Richard-Wallace and was turning into the Boulevard Maillot. He was walking pretty fast, with his head up, gayly twirling his stick. He lit a cigarette.

At the end of the Boulevard Maillot, the man passed the octroi and entered Paris. The railway station of the outer circle was close by. He went to it and, still followed by the others, stepped into a train that took them to Auteuil.

"That's funny," said Mazeroux. "He's doing exactly what he did a fortnight ago. This is where he was seen."

The man now went along the fortifications. In a quarter of an hour he reached the Boulevard Suchet and almost immediately afterward the house in which M. Fauville and his son had been murdered.

He climbed the fortifications opposite the house and stayed there for some minutes, motionless, with his face to the front of the house. Then continuing his road he went to La Muette and plunged into the dusk of the Bois de Boulogne.

"To work and boldly!" said Don Luis, quickening his pace.

Mazeroux stopped him.

"What do you mean, Chief?"

"Well, catch him by the throat! There are two of us; we couldn't hope for a better moment."

"What! Why, it's impossible!"

"Impossible? Are you afraid? Very well, I'll do it by myself."

"Look here, Chief, you're not serious!"

"Why shouldn't I be serious?"

"Because one can't arrest a man without a reason."

"Without a reason? A scoundrel like this? A murderer? What more do you want?"

"In the absence of compulsion, of catching him in the act, I want something that I haven't got."

"What's that?"

"A warrant. I haven't a warrant."

Mazeroux's accent was so full of conviction, and the answer struck Don Luis Perenna as so comical, that he burst out laughing.

"You have no warrant? Poor little chap! Well, I'll soon show you if I need a warrant!"

"You'll show me nothing," cried Mazeroux, hanging on to his companion's arm. "You shan't touch the man."

"One would think he was your mother!"

"Come, Chief."

"But, you stick-in-the-mud of an honest man," shouted Don Luis, angrily, "if we let this opportunity slip shall we ever find another?"

"Easily. He's going home. I'll inform the commissary of police. He will telephone to headquarters; and to-morrow morning--"

"And suppose the bird has flown?"

"I have no warrant."

"Do you want me to sign you one, idiot?"

But Don Luis mastered his rage. He felt that all his arguments would be shattered to pieces against the sergeant's obstinacy, and that, if necessary, Mazeroux would go to the length of defending the enemy against him. He simply said in a sententious tone:

"One ass and you make a pair of asses; and there are as many asses as there are people who try to do police work with bits of paper, signatures, warrants, and other gammon. Police work, my lad, is done with one's fists. When you come upon the enemy, hit him. Otherwise, you stand a chance of hitting the air. With that, good-night. I'm going to bed. Telephone to me when the job is done."

He went home, furious, sick of an adventure in which he had not had elbow room, and in which he had had to submit to the will, or, rather, to the weakness of others.

But next morning when he woke up his longing to see the police lay hold of the man with the ebony stick, and especially the feeling that his assistance would be of use, impelled him to dress as quickly as he could.

"If I don't come to the rescue," he thought, "they'll let themselves be done in the eye. They're not equal to a contest of this kind."

Just then Mazeroux rang up and asked to speak to him. He rushed to a little telephone box which his predecessor had fitted up on the first floor, in a dark recess that communicated only with his study, and switched on the electric light.

"Is that you, Alexandre?"

"Yes, Chief. I'm speaking from a wine shop near the house on the Boulevard Richard-Wallace."

"What about our man?"

"The bird's still in the nest. But we're only just in time."

"Really?"

"Yes, he's packed his trunk. He's going away this morning."

"How do they know?"

"Through the woman who manages for him. She's just come to the house and will let us in."

"Does he live alone?"

"Yes, the woman cooks his meals and goes away in the evening. No one ever calls except a veiled lady who has paid him three visits since he's been here. The housekeeper was not able to see what she was like. As for him, she says he's a scholar, who spends his time reading and working."

"And have you a warrant?"

"Yes, we're going to use it."

"I'll come at once."

"You can't! We've got Weber at our head. Oh, by the way, have you heard the news about Mme. Fauville?"

"About Mme. Fauville?"

"Yes, she tried to commit suicide last night."

"What! Tried to commit suicide!"

Perenna had uttered an exclamation of astonishment and was very much surprised to hear, almost at the same time, another cry, like an echo, at his elbow. Without letting go the receiver, he turned round and saw that Mlle. Levasseur was in the study a few yards away from him, standing with a distorted and livid face. Their eyes met. He was on the point of speaking to her, but she moved away, without leaving the room, however.

"What the devil was she listening for?" Don Luis wondered. "And why that look of dismay?"

Meanwhile, Mazeroux continued:

"She said, you know, that she would try to kill herself. But it must have taken a goodish amount of pluck."

"But how did she do it?" Perenna asked.

"I'll tell you another time. They're calling me. Whatever you do, Chief, don't come."

"Yes," he replied, firmly, "I'm coming. After all, the least I can do is to be in at the death, seeing that it was I who found the scent. But don't be afraid. I shall keep in the background."

"Then hurry, Chief. We're delivering the attack in ten minutes."

"I'll be with you before that."

He quickly hung up the receiver and turned on his heel to leave the telephone box. The next moment he had flung himself against the farther wall. Just as he was about to pass out he had heard something click above his head and he but barely had the time to leap back and escape being struck by an iron curtain which fell in front of him with a terrible thud.

Another second and the huge mass would have crushed him. He could feel it whizzing by his head. And he had never before experienced the anguish of danger so intensely.

After a moment of genuine fright, in which he stood as though petrified, with his brain in a whirl, he recovered his coolness and threw himself upon the obstacle. But it at once appeared to him that the obstacle was unsurmountable.

It was a heavy metal panel, not made of plates or lathes fastened one to the other, but formed of a solid slab, massive, firm, and strong, and covered with the sheen of time darkened here and there with patches of rust. On either side and at the top and bottom the edges of the panel fitted in a narrow groove which covered them hermetically.

He was a prisoner. In a sudden fit of rage he banged at the metal with his fists. He remembered that Mlle. Levasseur was in the study. If she had not yet left the room--and surely she could not have left it when the thing happened--she would hear the noise. She was bound to hear it. She would be sure to come back, give the alarm, and rescue him.

He listened. He shouted. No reply. His voice died away against the walls and ceiling of the box in which he was shut up, and he felt that the whole house--drawing-rooms, staircases, and passages--remained deaf to his appeal.

And yet ... and yet ... Mlle. Levasseur--

"What does it mean?" he muttered. "What can it all mean?"

And motionless now and silent, he thought once more of the girl's strange attitude, of her distraught face, of her haggard eyes. And he also began to wonder what accident had released the mechanism which had hurled the formidable iron curtain upon him, craftily and ruthlessly.