The Teeth of the Tiger/Chapter 6
CHAPTER VI. THE MAN WITH THE EBONY WALKING-STICKEdit
A group consisting of Deputy Chief Detective Weber, Chief Inspector Ancenis, Sergeant Mazeroux, three inspectors, and the Neuilly commissary of police stood outside the gate of No. 8 Boulevard Richard-Wallace.
Mazeroux was watching the Avenue de Madrid, by which Don Luis would have to come, and began to wonder what had happened; for half an hour had passed since they telephoned to each other, and Mazeroux could find no further pretext for delaying the work.
"It's time to make a move," said Weber. "The housekeeper is making signals to us from the window: the joker's dressing."
"Why not nab him when he comes out?" objected Mazeroux. "We shall capture him in a moment."
"And if he cuts off by another outlet which we don't know of?" said the deputy chief. "You have to be careful with these beggars. No, let's beard him in his den. It's more certain."
"What's the matter with you, Mazeroux?" asked the deputy chief, taking him on one side. "Don't you see that our men are getting restive? They're afraid of this sportsman. There's only one way, which is to set them on him as if he were a wild beast. Besides, the business must be finished by the time the Prefect comes,"
"Is he coming?"
"Yes. He wants to see things for himself. The whole affair interests him enormously. So, forward! Are you ready, men? I'm going to ring."
The bell sounded; and the housekeeper at once came and half opened the gate.
Although the orders were to observe great quiet, so as not to alarm the enemy too soon, the fear which he inspired was so intense that there was a general rush; and all the detectives crowded into the courtyard, ready for the fight. But a window opened and some one cried from the second floor:
The deputy chief did not reply. Two detectives, the chief inspector, the commissary, and himself entered the house, while the others remained in the courtyard and made any attempt at flight impossible.
The meeting took place on the first floor. The man had come down, fully dressed, with his hat on his head; and the deputy chief roared:
"Stop! Hands up! Are you Hubert Lautier?"
The man seemed disconcerted. Five revolvers were levelled at him. And yet no sign of fear showed in his face; and he simply said:
"What do you want, Monsieur? What are you here for?"
"We are here in the name of the law, with a warrant for your arrest."
"A warrant for my arrest?"
"A warrant for the arrest of Hubert Lautier, residing at 8 Boulevard Richard-Wallace."
"But it's absurd!" said the man. "It's incredible! What does it mean? What for?"
They took him by both arms, without his offering the least resistance, pushed him into a fairly large room containing no furniture but three rush-bottomed chairs, an armchair, and a table covered with big books.
"There," said the deputy chief. "Don't stir. If you attempt to move, so much the worse for you."
The man made no protest. While the two detectives held him by the collar, he seemed to be reflecting, as though he were trying to understand the secret causes of an arrest for which he was totally unprepared. He had an intelligent face, a reddish-brown beard, and a pair of blue-gray eyes which now and again showed a certain hardness of expression behind his glasses. His broad shoulders and powerful neck pointed to physical strength.
"Shall we tie his wrists?" Mazeroux asked the deputy chief.
"One second. The Prefect's coming; I can hear him. Have you searched the man's pockets? Any weapons?"
"No flask, no phial? Nothing suspicious?"
M. Desmalions arrived and, while watching the prisoner's face, talked in a low voice with the deputy chief and received the particulars of the arrest.
"This is good business," he said. "We wanted this. Now that both accomplices are in custody, they will have to speak; and everything will be cleared up. So there was no resistance?"
"None at all, Monsieur le Préfet."
"No matter, we will remain on our guard."
The prisoner had not uttered a word, but still wore a thoughtful look, as though trying to understand the inexplicable events of the last few minutes. Nevertheless, when he realized that the newcomer was none other than the Prefect of Police, he raised his head and looked at M. Desmalions, who asked him:
"It is unnecessary to tell you the cause of your arrest, I presume?"
He replied, in a deferential tone:
"Excuse me, Monsieur le Préfet, but I must ask you, on the contrary, to inform me. I have not the least idea of the reason. Your detectives have made a grave mistake which a word, no doubt, will be enough to set right. That word I wish for, I insist upon--"
The Prefect shrugged his shoulders and said:
"You are suspected of taking part in the murder of Fauville, the civil engineer, and his son Edmond."
"Is Hippolyte dead?"
The cry was spontaneous, almost unconscious; a bewildered cry of dismay from a man moved to the depths of his being. And his dismay was supremely strange, his question, trying to make them believe in his ignorance, supremely unexpected.
"Is Hippolyte dead?"
He repeated the question in a hoarse voice, trembling all over as he spoke.
"Is Hippolyte dead? What are you saying? Is it possible that he can be dead? And how? Murdered? Edmond, too?"
The Prefect once more shrugged his shoulders.
"The mere fact of your calling M. Fauville by his Christian name shows that you knew him intimately. And, even if you were not concerned in his murder, it has been mentioned often enough in the newspapers during the last fortnight for you to know of it."
"I never read a newspaper, Monsieur le Préfet."
"What! You mean to tell me--?"
"It may sound improbable, but it is quite true. I lead an industrious life, occupying myself solely with scientific research, in view of a popular work which I am preparing, and I do not take the least part or the least interest in outside things. I defy any one to prove that I have read a newspaper for months and months past. And that is why I am entitled to say that I did not know of Hippolyte Fauville's murder."
"Still, you knew M. Fauville."
"I used to know him, but we quarrelled."
"For what reason?"
"Family affairs! Were you related, then?"
"Yes. Hippolyte was my cousin."
"Your cousin! M. Fauville was your cousin! But ... but then ... Come, let us have the rights of the matter. M. Fauville and his wife were the children of two sisters, Elizabeth and Armande Roussel. Those two sisters had been brought up with a first cousin called Victor."
"Yes, Victor Sauverand, whose grandfather was a Roussel. Victor Sauverand married abroad and had two sons. One of them died fifteen years ago; the other is myself."
M. Desmalions gave a start. His excitement was manifest. If that man was telling the truth, if he was really the son of that Victor whose record the police had not yet been able to trace, then, owing to this very fact, since M. Fauville and his son were dead and Mme. Fauville, so to speak, convicted of murder and forfeiting her rights, they had arrested the final heir to Cosmo Mornington. But why, in a moment of madness, had he voluntarily brought this crushing indictment against himself?
"My statements seem to surprise you, Monsieur le Préfet. Perhaps they throw a light on the mistake of which I am a victim?"
He expressed himself calmly, with great politeness and in a remarkably well-bred voice; and he did not for a moment seem to suspect that his revelations, on the contrary, were justifying the measures taken against him.
Without replying to the question, the Prefect of Police asked him:
"So your real name is--"
"Why do you call yourself Hubert Lautier?"
The man had a second of indecision which did not escape so clear-sighted an observer as M. Desmalions. He swayed from side to side, his eyes flickered and he said:
"That does not concern the police; it concerns no one but myself."
M. Desmalions smiled:
"That is a poor argument. Will you use the same when I ask you why you live in hiding, why you left the Avenue du Roule, where you used to live, without leaving an address behind you, and why you receive your letters at the post-office under initials?"
"Yes, Monsieur le Préfet, those are matters of a private character, which affect only my conscience. You have no right to question me about them."
"That is the exact reply which we are constantly receiving at every moment from your accomplice."
"Yes, Mme. Fauville."
Gaston Sauverand had uttered the same cry as when he heard of the death of the engineer; and his stupefaction seemed even greater, combined as it was with an anguish that distorted his features beyond recognition.
"What?... What?... What do you say? Marie!... No, you don't mean it! It's not true!"
M. Desmalions considered it useless to reply, so absurd and childish was this affectation of knowing nothing about the tragedy on the Boulevard Suchet.
Gaston Sauverand, beside himself, with his eyes starting from his head, muttered:
"Is it true? Is Marie the victim of the same mistake as myself? Perhaps they have arrested her? She, she in prison!"
He raised his clenched fists in a threatening manner against all the unknown enemies by whom he was surrounded, against those who were persecuting him, those who had murdered Hippolyte Fauville and delivered Marie Fauville to the police.
Mazeroux and Chief Inspector Ancenis took hold of him roughly. He made a movement of resistance, as though he intended to thrust back his aggressors. But it was only momentary; and he sank into a chair and covered his face with his hands:
"What a mystery!" he stammered. "I don't understand! I don't understand--"
Weber, who had gone out a few minutes before, returned. M. Desmalions asked:
"Is everything ready?"
"Yes, Monsieur le Préfet, I have had the taxi brought up to the gate beside your car."
"How many of you are there?"
"Eight. Two detectives have just arrived from the commissary's."
"Have you searched the house?"
"Yes. It's almost empty, however. There's nothing but the indispensable articles of furniture and some bundles of papers in the bedroom."
"Very well. Take him away and keep a sharp lookout."
Gaston Sauverand walked off quietly between the deputy chief and Mazeroux. He turned round in the doorway.
"Monsieur le Préfet, as you are making a search, I entreat you to take care of the papers on the table in my bedroom. They are notes that have cost me a great deal of labour in the small hours of the night. Also--"
He hesitated, obviously embarrassed.
"Well, Monsieur le Préfet, I must tell you--something--"
He was looking for his words and seemed to fear the consequences of them at the same time that he uttered them. But he suddenly made up his mind.
"Monsieur le Préfet, there is in this house--somewhere--a packet of letters which I value more than my life. It is possible that those letters, if misinterpreted, will furnish a weapon against me; but no matter. The great thing is that they should be safe. You will see. They include documents of extreme importance. I entrust them to your keeping--to yours alone, Monsieur le Préfet."
"Where are they?"
"The hiding-place is easily found. All you have to do is to go to the garret above my bedroom and press on a nail to the right of the window. It is an apparently useless nail, but it controls a hiding-place outside, under the slates of the roof, along the gutter."
He moved away between the two men. The Prefect called them back.
"One second. Mazeroux, go up to the garret and bring me the letters."
Mazeroux went out and returned in a few minutes. He had been unable to work the spring.
The Prefect ordered Chief Inspector Ancenis to go up with Mazeroux and to take the prisoner, who would show them how to open the hiding-place. He himself remained in the room with Weber, awaiting the result of the search, and began to read the titles of the volumes piled upon the table.
They were scientific books, among which he noticed works on chemistry: "Organic Chemistry" and "Chemistry Considered in Its Relations with Electricity." They were all covered with notes in the margins. He was turning over the pages of one of them, when he seemed to hear shouts.
The Prefect rushed to the door, but had not crossed the threshold when a pistol shot echoed down the staircase and there was a yell of pain.
Immediately after came two more shots, accompanied by cries, the sound of a struggle, and yet another shot.
Tearing upstairs, four steps at a time, with an agility not to be expected from a man of his build, the Prefect of Police, followed by the deputy chief, covered the second flight and came to a third, which was narrower and steeper. When he reached the bend, a man's body, staggering above him, fell into his arms: it was Mazeroux, wounded.
On the stairs lay another body, lifeless, that of Chief Inspector Ancenis.
Above them, in the frame of a small doorway, stood Gaston Sauverand, with a savage look on his face and his arm outstretched. He fired a fifth shot at random. Then, seeing the Prefect of Police, he took deliberate aim.
The Prefect stared at that terrifying barrel levelled at his face and gave himself up for lost. But, at that exact second, a shot was discharged from behind him, Sauverand's weapon fell from his hand before he was able to fire, and the Prefect saw, as in a dream, a man, the man who had saved his life, striding across the chief inspector's body, propping Mazeroux against the wall, and darting ahead, followed by the detectives. He recognized the man: it was Don Luis Perenna.
Don Luis stepped briskly into the garret where Sauverand had retreated, but had time only to catch sight of him standing on the window ledge and leaping into space from the third floor.
"Has he jumped from there?" cried the Prefect, hastening up. "We shall never capture him alive!"
"Neither alive nor dead, Monsieur le Préfet. See, he's picking himself up. There's a providence which looks after that sort. He's making for the gate. He's hardly limping."
"But where are my men?"
"Why, they're all on the staircase, in the house, brought here by the shots, seeing to the wounded--"
"Oh, the demon!" muttered the Prefect. "He's played a masterly game!"
Gaston Sauverand, in fact, was escaping unmolested.
"Stop him! Stop him!" roared M. Desmalions.
There were two motors standing beside the pavement, which is very wide at this spot: the Prefect's own car, and the cab which the deputy chief had provided for the prisoner. The two chauffeurs, sitting on their seats, had noticed nothing of the fight. But they saw Gaston Sauverand's leap into space; and the Prefect's chauffeur, on whose seat a certain number of incriminating articles had been placed, taking out of the heap the first weapon that offered, the ebony walking-stick, bravely rushed at the fugitive.
"Stop him! Stop him!" shouted M. Desmalions.
The encounter took place at the exit from the courtyard. It did not last long. Sauverand flung himself upon his assailant, snatched the stick from him, and broke it across his face. Then, without dropping the handle, he ran away, pursued by the other chauffeur and by three detectives who at last appeared from the house. He had thirty yards' start of the detectives, one of whom fired several shots at him without effect.
When M. Desmalions and Weber went downstairs again, they found the chief inspector lying on the bed in Gaston Sauverand's room on the second floor, gray in the face. He had been hit on the head and was dying. A few minutes later he was dead.
Sergeant Mazeroux, whose wound was only slight, said, while it was being dressed, that Sauverand had taken the chief inspector and himself up to the garret, and that, outside the door, he had dipped his hand quickly into an old satchel hanging on the wall among some servants' wornout aprons and jackets. He drew out a revolver and fired point-blank at the chief inspector, who dropped like a log. When seized by Mazeroux, the murderer released himself and fired three bullets, the third of which hit the sergeant in the shoulder.
And so, in a fight in which the police had a band of experienced detectives at their disposal, while the enemy, a prisoner, seemed to possess not the remotest chance of safety, this enemy, by a strategem of unprecedented daring, had led two of his adversaries aside, disabled both of them, drawn the others into the house and, finding the coast clear, escaped.
M. Desmalions was white with anger and despair. He exclaimed:
"He's tricked us! His letters, his hiding-place, the movable nail, were all shams. Oh, the scoundrel!"
He went down to the ground floor and into the courtyard. On the boulevard he met one of the detectives who had given chase to the murderer and who was returning quite out of breath.
"Well?" he asked anxiously,
"Monsieur le Préfet, he turned down the first street, where there was a motor waiting for him. The engine must have been working, for our man outdistanced us at once."
"But what about my car?"
"You see, Monsieur le Préfet, by the time it was started--"
"Was the motor that picked him up a hired one?"
"Yes, a taxi."
"Then we shall find it. The driver will come of his own accord when he has seen the newspapers."
Weber shook his head.
"Unless the driver is himself a confederate, Monsieur le Préfet. Besides, even if we find the cab, aren't we bound to suppose that Gaston Sauverand will know how to front the scent? We shall have trouble, Monsieur le Préfet."
"Yes," whispered Don Luis, who had been present at the first investigation and who was left alone for a moment with Mazeroux. "Yes, you will have trouble, especially if you let the people you capture take to their heels. Eh, Mazeroux, what did I tell you last night? But, still, what a scoundrel! And he's not alone, Alexandre. I'll answer for it that he has accomplices--and not a hundred yards from my house--do you understand? From my house."
After questioning Mazeroux upon Sauverand's attitude and the other incidents of the arrest, Don Luis went back to the Place du Palais-Bourbon.
* * * * *
The inquiry which he had to make related to events that were certainly quite as strange as those which he had just witnessed; and while the part played by Gaston Sauverand in the pursuit of the Mornington inheritance deserved all his attention, the behaviour of Mile. Levasseur puzzled him no less.
He could not forget the cry of terror that escaped the girl while he was telephoning to Mazeroux, nor the scared expression of her face. Now it was impossible to attribute that cry and that expression to anything other than the words which he had uttered in reply to Mazeroux:
"What! Mme. Fauville tried to commit suicide!"
The fact was certain; and the connection between the announcement of the attempt and Mlle. Levasseur's extreme emotion was too obvious for Perenna not to try to draw conclusions.
He went straight to his study and at once examined the arch leading to the telephone box. This arch, which was about six feet wide and very low, had no door, but merely a velvet hanging, which was nearly always drawn up, leaving the arch uncovered. Under the hanging, among the moldings of the cornice, was a button that had only to be pressed to bring down the iron curtain against which he had thrown himself two hours before.
He worked the catch two or three times over, and his experiments proved to him in the most explicit fashion that the mechanism was in perfect order and unable to act without outside intervention. Was he then to conclude that the girl had wanted to kill him? But what could be her motive?
He was on the point of ringing and sending for her, so as to receive the explanation which he was resolved to demand from her. However, the minutes passed and he did not ring. He saw her through the window as she walked slowly across the yard, her body swinging gracefully from her hips. A ray of sunshine lit up the gold of her hair.
All the rest of the morning he lay on a sofa, smoking cigars. He was ill at ease, dissatisfied with himself and with the course of events, not one of which brought him the least glimmer of truth; in fact, all of them seemed to deepen the darkness in which he was battling. Eager to act, the moment he did so he encountered fresh obstacles that paralyzed his powers of action and left him in utter ignorance of the nature of his adversaries.
But, at twelve o'clock, just as he had rung for lunch, his butler entered the study with a tray in his hand, and exclaimed, with an agitation which showed that the household was aware of Don Luis's ambiguous position:
"Sir, it's the Prefect of Police!"
"Eh?" said Perenna. "Where is he?"
"Downstairs, sir. I did not know what to do, at first ... and I thought of telling Mlle. Levasseur. But--"
"Are you sure?"
"Here is his card, sir."
Perenna took the card from the tray and read M. Desmalions's name. He went to the window, opened it and, with the aid of the overhead mirror, looked into the Place du Palais-Bourbon. Half a dozen men were walking about. He recognized them. They were his usual watchers, those whom he had got rid of on the evening before and who had come to resume their observation.
"No others?" he said to himself. "Come, we have nothing to fear, and the Prefect of Police has none but the best intentions toward me. It was what I expected; and I think that I was well advised to save his life."
M. Desmalions entered without a word. All that he did was to bend his head slightly, with a movement that might be taken for a bow. As for Weber, who was with him, he did not even give himself the trouble to disguise his feelings toward such a man as Perenna.
Don Luis took no direct notice of this attitude, but, in revenge, ostentatiously omitted to push forward more than one chair. M. Desmalions, however, preferred to walk about the room, with his hands behind his back, as if to continue his reflections before speaking.
The silence was prolonged. Don Luis waited patiently. Then, suddenly, the Prefect stopped and said:
"When you left the Boulevard Richard-Wallace, Monsieur, did you go straight home?"
Don Luis did not demur to this cross-examining manner and answered:
"Yes, Monsieur le Préfet."
"Here, to your study?"
"Here, to my study."
M. Desmalions paused and then went on:
"I left thirty or forty minutes after you and drove to the police office in my car. There I received this express letter. Read it. You will see that it was handed in at the Bourse at half-past nine."
Don Luis took the letter and read the following words, written in capital letters:
This is to inform you that Gaston Sauverand, after making his escape, rejoined his accomplice Perenna, who, as you know, is none other than Arsène Lupin. Arsène Lupin gave you Sauverand's address in order to get rid of him and to receive the Mornington inheritance. They were reconciled this morning, and Arsène Lupin suggested a safe hiding-place to Sauverand. It is easy to prove their meeting and their complicity. Sauverand handed Lupin the half of the walking-stick which he had carried away unawares. You will find it under the cushions of a sofa standing between the two windows of Perenna's study.
Don Luis shrugged his shoulders. The letter was absurd; for he had not once left his study. He folded it up quietly and handed it to the Prefect of Police without comment. He was resolved to let M. Desmalions take the initiative in the conversation.
The Prefect asked:
"What is your reply to the accusation?"
"None, Monsieur le Préfet."
"Still, it is quite plain and easy to prove or disprove."
"Very easy, indeed, Monsieur le Préfet; the sofa is there, between the windows."
M. Desmalions waited two or three seconds and then walked to the sofa and moved the cushions. Under one of them lay the handle end of the walking-stick.
Don Luis could not repress a gesture of amazement and anger. He had not for a second contemplated the possibility of such a miracle; and it took him unawares. However, he mastered himself. After all, there was nothing to prove that this half of a walking-stick was really that which had been seen in Gaston Sauverand's hands and which Sauverand had carried away by mistake.
"I have the other half on me," said the Prefect of Police, replying to the unspoken objection. "Deputy Chief Weber himself picked it up on the Boulevard Richard-Wallace. Here it is."
He produced it from the inside pocket of his overcoat and tried it. The ends of the two pieces fitted exactly.
There was a fresh pause. Perenna was confused, as were those, invariably, upon whom he himself used to inflict this kind of defeat and humiliation. He could not get over it. By what prodigy had Gaston Sauverand managed, in that short space of twenty minutes, to enter the house and make his way into this room? Even the theory of an accomplice living in the house did not do much to make the phenomenon easier to understand.
"It upsets all my calculations," he thought, "and I shall have to go through the mill this time. I was able to baffle Mme. Fauville's accusation and to foil the trick of the turquoise. But M. Desmalions will never admit that this is a similar attempt and that Gaston Sauverand has tried, as Marie Fauville did, to get me out of the way by compromising me and procuring my arrest."
"Well," exclaimed M. Desmalions impatiently, "answer! Defend yourself!"
"No, Monsieur le Préfet, it is not for me to defend myself,"
M. Desmalions stamped his foot and growled:
"In that case ... in that case ... since you confess ... since--"
He put his hand on the latch of the window, ready to open it. A whistle, and the detectives would burst in and all would be over.
"Shall I have your inspectors called, Monsieur le Préfet?" asked Don Luis.
M. Desmalions did not reply. He let go the window latch and started walking about the room again. And, suddenly, while Perenna was wondering why he still hesitated, for the second time the Prefect planted himself in front of him, and said:
"And suppose I looked upon the incident of the walking-stick as not having occurred, or, rather, as an incident which, while doubtless proving the treachery of your servants, is not able to compromise yourself? Suppose I took only the services which you have already rendered us into consideration? In a word, suppose I left you free?"
Perenna could not help smiling. Notwithstanding the affair of the walking-stick and though appearances were all against him, at the moment when everything seemed to be going wrong, things were taking the course which he had prophesied from the start, and which he had mentioned to Mazeroux during the inquiry on the Boulevard Suchet. They wanted him.
"Free?" he asked. "No more supervision? Nobody shadowing my movements?"
"And what if the press campaign around my name continues, if the papers succeed, by means of certain pieces of tittle-tattle, of certain coincidences, in creating a public outcry, if they call for measures against me?"
"Those measures shall not be taken."
"Then I have nothing to fear?"
"Will M. Weber abandon his prejudices against me?"
"At any rate, he will act as though he did, won't you, Weber?"
The deputy chief uttered a few grunts which might be taken as an expression of assent; and Don Luis at once exclaimed:
"In that case, Monsieur le Préfet, I am sure of gaining the victory and of gaining it in accordance with the wishes and requirements of the authorities."
And so, by a sudden change in the situation, after a series of exceptional circumstances, the police themselves, bowing before Don Luis Perenna's superior qualities of mind, acknowledging all that he had already done and foreseeing all that he would be able to do, decided to back him up, begging for his assistance, and offering him, so to speak, the command of affairs.
It was a flattering compliment. Was it addressed only to Don Luis Perenna? And had Lupin, the terrible, undaunted Lupin, no right to claim his share? Was it possible to believe that M. Desmalions, in his heart of hearts, did not admit the identity of the two persons?
Nothing in the Prefect's attitude gave any clue to his secret thoughts. He was suggesting to Don Luis Perenna one of those compacts which the police are often obliged to conclude in order to gain their ends. The compact was concluded, and no more was said upon the subject.
"Do you want any particulars of me?" asked the Prefect of Police.
"Yes, Monsieur le Préfet. The papers spoke of a notebook found in poor Inspector Vérot's pocket. Did the notebook contain a clue of any kind?"
"No. Personal notes, lists of disbursements, that's all. Wait, I was forgetting, there was a photograph of a woman, about which I have not yet been able to obtain the least information. Besides, I don't suppose that it bears upon the case and I have not sent it to the newspapers. Look, here it is."
Perenna took the photograph which the Prefect handed him and gave a start that did not escape M. Desmalions's eye.
"Do you know the lady?"
"No. No, Monsieur le Préfet. I thought I did; but no, there's merely a resemblance--a family likeness, which I will verify if you can leave the photograph with me till this evening."
"Till this evening, yes. When you have done with it, give it back to Sergeant Mazeroux, whom I will order to work in concert with you in everything that relates to the Mornington case."
The interview was now over. The Prefect went away. Don Luis saw him to the door. As M. Desmalions was about to go down the steps, he turned and said simply:
"You saved my life this morning. But for you, that scoundrel Sauverand--"
"Oh, Monsieur le Préfet!" said Don Luis, modestly protesting.
"Yes, I know, you are in the habit of doing that sort of thing. All the same, you must accept my thanks."
And the Prefect of Police made a bow such as he would really have made to Don Luis Perenna, the Spanish noble, the hero of the Foreign Legion. As for Weber, he put his two hands in his pockets, walked past with the look of a muzzled mastiff, and gave his enemy a glance of fierce hatred.
"By Jupiter!" thought Don Luis. "There's a fellow who won't miss me when he gets the chance to shoot!"
Looking through a window, he saw M. Desmalions's motor car drive off. The detectives fell in behind the deputy chief and left the Place du Palais-Bourbon. The siege was raised.
"And now to work!" said Don Luis. "My hands are free, and we shall make things hum."
He called the butler.
"Serve lunch; and ask Mlle. Levasseur to come and speak to me immediately after."
He went to the dining-room and sat down, placing on the table the photograph which M. Desmalions had left behind; and, bending over it, he examined it attentively. It was a little faded, a little worn, as photographs have a tendency to become when they lie about in pocket-books or among papers; but the picture was quite clear. It was the radiant picture of a young woman in evening dress, with bare arms and shoulders, with flowers and leaves in her hair and a smile upon her face.
"Mlle. Levasseur, Mlle. Levasseur," he said. "Is it possible!"
In a corner was a half-obliterated and hardly visible signature. He made out, "Florence," the girl's name, no doubt. And he repeated:
"Mlle. Levasseur, Florence Levasseur. How did her photograph come to be in Inspector Vérot's pocket-book? And what is the connection between this adventure and the reader of the Hungarian count from whom I took over the house?"
He remembered the incident of the iron curtain. He remembered the article in the _Echo de France_, an article aimed against him, of which he had found the rough draft in his own courtyard. And, above all, he thought of the problem of that broken walking-stick conveyed into his study.
And, while his mind was striving to read these events clearly, while he tried to settle the part played by Mlle. Levasseur, his eyes remained fixed upon the photograph and he gazed absent-mindedly at the pretty lines of the mouth, the charming smile, the graceful curve of the neck, the admirable sweep of the shoulders.
The door opened suddenly and Mlle. Levasseur burst into the room. Perenna, who had dismissed the butler, was raising to his lips a glass of water which he had just filled for himself. She sprang forward, seized his arm, snatched the glass from him and flung it on the carpet, where it smashed to pieces.
"Have you drunk any of it? Have you drunk any of it?" she gasped, in a choking voice.
"No, not yet. Why?"
"The water in that bottle ... the water in that bottle--"
He leapt from his chair and, in his turn, gripped her arm fiercely:
"What's that? Poisoned! Are you certain? Speak!"
In spite of his usual self-control, he was this time thoroughly alarmed. Knowing the terrible effects of the poison employed by the miscreants whom he was attacking, recalling the corpse of Inspector Vérot, the corpses of Hippolyte Fauville and his son, he knew that, trained though he was to resist comparatively large doses of poison, he could not have escaped the deadly action of this. It was a poison that did not forgive, that killed, surely and fatally.
The girl was silent. He raised his voice in command:
"Answer me! Are you certain?"
"No ... it was an idea that entered my head--a presentiment ... certain coincidences--"
It was as though she regretted her words and now tried to withdraw them.
"Come, come," he cried, "I want to know the truth: You're not certain that the water in this bottle is poisoned?"
"No ... it's possible--"
"Still, just now--"
"I thought so. But no ... no!"
"It's easy to make sure," said Perenna, putting out his hand for the water bottle.
She was quicker than he, seized it and, with one blow, broke it against the table.
"What are you doing?" he said angrily.
"I made a mistake. And so there is no need to attach any importance--"
Don Luis hurriedly left the dining-room. By his orders, the water which he drank was drawn from a filter that stood in a pantry at the end of the passage leading from the dining-room to the kitchens and beyond. He ran to it and took from a shelf a bowl which he filled with water from the filter. Then, continuing to follow the passage, which at this spot branched off toward the yard, he called Mirza, the puppy, who was playing by the stables.
"Here," he said, putting the bowl in front of her.
The puppy began to drink. But she stopped almost at once and stood motionless, with her paws tense and stiff. A shiver passed through the little body. The dog gave a hoarse groan, spun round two or three times, and fell.
"She's dead," he said, after touching the animal.
Mile. Levasseur had joined him. He turned to her and rapped out:
"You were right about the poison--and you knew it. How did you know it?"
All out of breath, she checked the beating of her heart and answered:
"I saw the other puppy drinking in the pantry. She's dead. I told the coachman and the chauffeur. They're over there, in the stable. And I ran to warn you."
"In that case, there was no doubt about it. Why did you say that you were not certain that the water was poisoned, when--"
The chauffeur and the coachman were coming out of the stables. Leading the girl away, Perenna said:
"We must talk about this. We'll go to your rooms."
They went back to the bend in the passage. Near the pantry where the filter was, another passage ran, ending in a flight of three steps, with a door at the top of the steps. Perenna opened this door. It was the entrance to the rooms occupied by Mlle. Levasseur. They went into a sitting-room.
Don Luis closed the entrance door and the door of the sitting-room.
"And now," he said, in a resolute tone, "you and I will have an explanation."