The Teeth of the Tiger/Chapter 8
CHAPTER VIII. THE DEVIL'S POST-OFFICEEdit
Of all these events the public knew only of the attempted suicide of Mme. Fauville, the capture and escape of Gaston Sauverand, the murder of Chief Inspector Ancenis, and the discovery of a letter written by Hippolyte Fauville. This was enough, however, to reawaken their curiosity, as they were already singularly puzzled by the Mornington case and took the greatest interest in all the movements, however slight, of the mysterious Don Luis Perenna, whom they insisted on confusing with Arsène Lupin.
He was, of course, credited with the brief capture of the man with the ebony walking-stick. It was also known that he had saved the life of the Prefect of Police, and that, finally, having at his own request spent the night in the house on the Boulevard Suchet, he had become the recipient of Hippolyte Fauville's famous letter. And all this added immensely to the excitement of the aforesaid public.
But how much more complicated and disconcerting were the problems set to Don Luis Perenna himself! Not to mention the denunciation in the anonymous article, there had been, in the short space of forty-eight hours, no fewer than four separate attempts to kill him: by the iron curtain, by poison, by the shooting on the Boulevard Suchet, and by the deliberately prepared motor accident.
Florence's share in this series of attempts was not to be denied. And, now, behold her relations with the Fauvilles' murderers duly established by the little note found in the eighth volume of Shakespeare's plays, while two more deaths were added to the melancholy list: the deaths of Chief Inspector Ancenis and of the chauffeur. How to describe and how to explain the part played, in the midst of all these catastrophes, by that enigmatical girl?
Strangely enough, life went on as usual at the house in the Place du Palais-Bourbon, as though nothing out of the way had happened there. Every morning Florence Levasseur sorted Don Luis's post in his presence and read out the newspaper articles referring to himself or bearing upon the Mornington case.
Not a single allusion was made to the fierce fight that had been waged against him for two days. It was as though a truce had been proclaimed between them; and the enemy appeared to have ceased his attacks for the moment. Don Luis felt easy, out of the reach of danger; and he talked to the girl with an indifferent air, as he might have talked to anybody.
But with what a feverish interest he studied her unobserved! He watched the expression of her face, at once calm and eager, and a painful sensitiveness which showed under the placid mask and which, difficult to control, revealed itself in the frequent quivering of the lips and nostrils.
"Who are you? Who are you?" he felt inclined to exclaim. "Will nothing content you, you she-devil, but to deal out murder all round? And do you want my death also, in order to attain your object? Where do you come from and where are you making for?"
On reflection, he was convinced of a certainty that solved a problem which had preoccupied him for a long time--namely, the mysterious connection between his own presence in the mansion in the Place du Palais-Bourbon and the presence of a woman who was manifestly wreaking her hatred on him.
He now understood that he had not bought the house by accident. In making the purchase he had been persuaded by an anonymous offer that reached him in the form of a typewritten prospectus. Whence did this offer come, if not from Florence, who wished to have him near her in order to spy upon him and wage war upon him?
"Yes," he thought, "that is where the truth lies. As the possible heir of Cosmo Mornington and a prominent figure in the case, I am the enemy, and they are trying to do away with me as they did with the others. And it is Florence who is acting against me. And it is she who has committed murder.
"Everything tells against her; nothing speaks in her defence. Her innocent eyes? The accent of sincerity in her voice? Her serene dignity? And then? Yes, what then? Have I never seen women with that frank look who have committed murder for no reason, almost for pleasure's sake?"
He started with terror at the memory of Dolores Kesselbach. What was it that made him connect these two women at every moment in his mind? He had loved one of them, that monster Dolores, and had strangled her with his own hands. Was fate now leading him toward a like love and a similar murder?
When Florence left him he would experience a sense of satisfaction and breathe more easily, as though released from an oppressive weight, but he would run to the window and see her crossing the courtyard and be still waiting when the girl whose scented breath he had felt upon his face passed to and fro.
One morning she said to him:
"The papers say that it will be to-night."
"Yes," she said, showing him an article in one of the newspapers. "This is the twenty-fifth; and, according to the information of the police, supplied, they say, by you, there should be a letter delivered in the house on the Boulevard Suchet every tenth day, and the house is to be destroyed by an explosion on the day when the fifth and last letter appears."
Was she defying him? Did she wish to make him understand that, whatever happened, whatever the obstacles, the letters would appear, those mysterious letters prophesied on the list which he had found in the eighth volume of Shakespeare's plays?
He looked at her steadily. She did not flinch. He answered:
"Yes, this is the night. I shall be there. Nothing in the world will prevent me."
She was on the point of replying, but once more controlled her feelings.
That day Don Luis was on his guard. He lunched and dined out and arranged with Mazeroux to have the Place du Palais-Bourbon watched.
Mlle. Levasseur did not leave the house during the afternoon. In the evening Don Luis ordered Mazeroux's men to follow any one who might go out at that time.
At ten o'clock the sergeant joined Don Luis in Hippolyte Fauville's workroom. Deputy Chief Detective Weber and two plain-clothesmen were with him.
Don Luis took Mazeroux aside:
"They distrust me. Own up to it."
"No. As long as M. Desmalions is there, they can do nothing against you. Only, M. Weber maintains--and he is not the only one--that you fake up all these occurrences yourself."
"With what object?"
"With the object of furnishing proof against Marie Fauville and getting her condemned. So I asked for the attendance of the deputy chief and two men. There will be four of us to bear witness to your honesty."
They all took up their posts. Two detectives were to sit up in turns.
This time, after making a minute search of the little room in which Fauville's son used to sleep, they locked and bolted the doors and shutters. At eleven o'clock they switched off the electric chandelier.
Don Luis and Weber hardly slept at all.
The night passed without incident of any kind.
But, at seven o'clock, when the shutters were opened, they saw that there was a letter on the table. Just as on the last occasion, there was a letter on the table!
When the first moment of stupefaction was over, the deputy chief took the letter. His orders were not to read it and not to let any one else read it.
Here is the letter, published by the newspapers, which also published the declarations of the experts certifying that the handwriting was Hippolyte Fauville's:
"I have seen him! You understand, don't you, my dear friend? I have seen him! He was walking along a path in the Bois, with his coat collar turned up and his hat pulled over his ears. I don't think that he saw me. It was almost dark. But I knew him at once. I knew the silver handle of his ebony stick. It was he beyond a doubt, the scoundrel!
"So he is in Paris, in spite of his promise. Gaston Sauverand is in Paris! Do you understand the terrible significance of that fact? If he is in Paris, it means that he intends to act. If he is in Paris, it means certain death to me. Oh, the harm which I shall have suffered at that man's hands! He has already robbed me of my happiness; and now he wants my life. I am terrified."
So Fauville knew that the man with the ebony walking-stick, that Gaston Sauverand, was designing to kill him. Fauville declared it most positively, by evidence written in his own hand; and the letter, moreover, corroborating the words that had escaped Gaston Sauverand at his arrest, showed that the two men had at one time had relations with each other, that they were no longer friends, and that Gaston Sauverand had promised never to come to Paris.
A little light was therefore being shed on the darkness of the Mornington case. But, on the other hand, how inconceivable was the mystery of that letter found on the table in the workroom!
Five men had kept watch, five of the smartest men obtainable; and yet, on that night, as on the night of the fifteenth of April, an unknown hand had delivered the letter in a room with barricaded doors and windows, without their hearing a sound or discovering any signs that the fastenings of the doors or windows had been tampered with.
The theory of a secret outlet was at once raised, but had to be abandoned after a careful examination of the walls and after an interview with the contractor who had built the house, from Fauville's own plans, some years ago.
It is unnecessary once more to recall what I may describe as the flurry of the public. The deed, in the circumstances, assumed the appearance of a sleight-of-hand trick. People felt tempted to look upon it as the recreation of some wonderfully skilful conjurer rather than as the act of a person employing unknown methods.
Nevertheless, Don Luis Perenna's intelligence was justified at all points, for the expected incident had taken place on the twenty-fifth of April, as on the fifteenth. Would the series be continued on the fifth of May? No one doubted it, because Don Luis had said so and because everybody felt that Don Luis could not be mistaken. All through the night of the fifth of May there was a crowd on the Boulevard Suchet; and quidnuncs and night birds of every kind came trooping up to hear the latest news.
The Prefect of Police, greatly impressed by the first two miracles, had determined to see the next one for himself, and was present in person on the third night.
He came accompanied by several inspectors, whom he left in the garden, in the passage, and in the attic on the upper story. He himself took up his post on the ground floor with Weber, Mazeroux, and Don Luis Perenna.
Their expectations were disappointed; and this was M. Desmalions's fault. In spite of the express opinion of Don Luis, who deprecated the experiment as useless, the Prefect had decided not to turn off the electric light, so that he might see if the light would prevent the miracle. Under these conditions no letter could appear, and no letter did appear. The miracle, whether a conjuring trick or a criminal's device, needed the kindly aid of the darkness.
There were therefore ten days lost, always presuming that the diabolical postman would dare to repeat his attempt and produce the third mysterious letter.
* * * * *
On the fifteenth of May the wait was renewed, while the same crowd gathered outside, an anxious, breathless crowd, stirred by the least sound and keeping an impressive silence, with eyes gazing upon the Fauvilles' house.
This time the light was put out, but the Prefect of Police kept his hand on the electric switch. Ten times, twenty times, he unexpectedly turned on the light. There was nothing on the table. What had aroused his attention was the creaking of a piece of furniture or a movement made by one of the men with him.
Suddenly they all uttered an exclamation. Something unusual, a rustling noise, had interrupted the silence.
M. Desmalions at once switched on the light. He gave a cry. A letter lay not on the table, but beside it, on the floor, on the carpet.
Mazeroux made the sign of the cross. The inspectors were as pale as death.
M. Desmalions looked at Don Luis, who nodded his head without a word.
They inspected the condition of the locks and bolts. Nothing had moved.
That day again, the contents of the letter made some amends for the really extraordinary manner of its delivery. It completely dispelled all the doubts that still enshrouded the double murder on the Boulevard Suchet.
Again signed by the engineer, written throughout by himself, on the eighth of February, with no visible address, it said:
"No, my dear friend, I will not allow myself to be killed like a sheep led to the slaughter. I shall defend myself, I shall fight to the last moment. Things have changed lately. I have proofs now, undeniable proofs. I possess letters that have passed between them. And I know that they still love each other as they did at the start, that they want to marry, and that they will let nothing stand in their way. It is written, understand what I say, it is written in Marie's own hand; 'Have patience, my own Gaston. My courage increases day by day. So much the worse for him who stands between us. He shall disappear.'
"My dear friend, if I succumb in the struggle you will find those letters (and all the evidence which I have collected against the wretched creature) in the safe hidden behind the small glass case: Then revenge me. Au revoir. Perhaps good-bye."
Thus ran the third missive. Hippolyte Fauville from his grave named and accused his guilty wife. From his grave he supplied the solution to the riddle and explained the reason why the crimes had been committed: Marie Fauville and Gaston Sauverand were lovers.
Certainly they knew of the existence of Cosmo Mornington's will, for they had begun by doing away with Cosmo Mornington; and their eagerness to come into the enormous fortune had hastened the catastrophe. But the first idea of the murder rose from an older and deep-rooted passion: Marie Fauville and Gaston Sauverand were lovers.
One problem remained to be solved: who was the unknown correspondent to whom Hippolyte Fauville had bequeathed the task of avenging his murder, and who, instead of simply handing over the letters to the police, was exercising his ingenuity to deliver them by means of the most Machiavellian contrivances? Was it to his interest also to remain in the background?
To all these questions Marie Fauville replied in the most unexpected manner, though it was one that fully accorded with her threats. A week later, after a long cross-examination at which she was pressed for the name of her husband's old friend and at which she maintained the most stubborn silence, together with a sort of stupid inertia, she returned to her cell in the evening and opened the veins of her wrist with a piece of glass which she had managed to hide.
Don Luis heard the news from Mazeroux, who came to tell him of it before eight o'clock the next morning, just as he was getting out of bed. The sergeant had a travelling bag in his hand and was on his way to catch a train.
Don Luis was greatly upset.
"Is she dead?" he exclaimed.
"No. It seems that she has had one more let-off. But what's the good?"
"How do you mean, what's the good?"
"She'll do it again, of course. She's set her mind upon it. And, one day or another--"
"Did she volunteer no confession, this time either, before making the attempt on her life?"
"No. She wrote a few words on a scrap of paper, saying that, on thinking it over, she advised us to ask a certain M. Langernault about the mysterious letters. He was the only friend that she had known her husband to possess, or at any rate the only one whom he would have called, 'My dear fellow,' or, 'My dear friend,' This M. Langernault could do no more than prove her innocence and explain the terrible misunderstanding of which she was the victim."
"But," said Don Luis, "if there is any one to prove her innocence, why does she begin by opening her veins?"
"She doesn't care, she says. Her life is done for; and what she wants is rest and death."
"Rest? Rest? There are other ways in which she can find it besides in death. If the discovery of the truth is to spell her safety, perhaps the truth is not impossible to discover."
"What are you saying, Chief? Have you guessed anything? Are you beginning to understand?"
"Yes, very vaguely, but, all the same, the really unnatural accuracy of those letters just seems to me a sign--"
He reflected for a moment and continued:
"Have they reexamined the erased addresses of the three letters?"
"Yes; and they managed to make out the name of Langernault."
"Where does this Langernault live?"
"According to Mme. Fauville, at the village of Damigni, in the Orme."
"Have they deciphered the word Damigni on one of the letters?"
"No, but they have the name of the nearest town."
"What town is that?"
"And is that where you're going?"
"Yes, the Prefect of Police told me to go straightaway. I shall take the train at the Invalides."
"You mean you will come with me in my motor."
"We will both of us go, my lad. I want to be doing something; the atmosphere of this house is deadly for me."
"What are you talking about, Chief?"
"Nothing. I know."
Half an hour later they were flying along the Versailles Road. Perenna himself was driving his open car and driving it in such a way that Mazeroux, almost stifling, kept blurting out, at intervals:
"Lord, what a pace! Dash it all, how you're letting her go, Chief! Aren't you afraid of a smash? Remember the other day--"
They reached Alençon in time for lunch. When they had done, they went to the chief post-office. Nobody knew the name of Langernault there. Besides, Damigni had its own post-office, though the presumption was that M. Langernault had his letters addressed _poste restante_ at Alençon.
Don Luis and Mazeroux went on to the village of Damigni. Here again the postmaster knew no one of the name of Langernault; and this in spite of the fact that Damigni contained only about a thousand inhabitants.
"Let's go and call on the mayor," said Perenna.
At the mayor's Mazeroux stated who he was and mentioned the object of his visit. The mayor nodded his head.
"Old Langernault? I should think so. A decent fellow: used to run a business in the town."
"And accustomed, I suppose, to fetch his letters at Alençon post-office?"
"That's it, every day, for the sake of the walk."
"And his house?"
"Is at the end of the village. You passed it as you came along."
"Can we see it?"
"Well, of course ... only--"
"Perhaps he's not at home?"
"Certainly not! The poor, dear man hasn't even set foot in the house since he left it the last time, four years ago!"
"How is that?"
"Why, he's been dead these four years!"
Don Luis and Mazeroux exchanged a glance of amazement.
"So he's dead?" said Don Luis.
"Yes, a gunshot."
"What's that!" cried Perenna. "Was he murdered?"
"No, no. They thought so at first, when they picked him up on the floor of his room; but the inquest proved that it was an accident. He was cleaning his gun, and it went off and sent a load of shot into his stomach. All the same, we thought it very queer in the village. Daddy Langernault, an old hunter before the Lord, was not the man to commit an act of carelessness."
"Had he money?"
"Yes; and that's just what clinched the matter: they couldn't find a penny of it!"
Don Luis remained thinking for some time and then asked:
"Did he leave any children, any relations of the same name?"
"Nobody, not even a cousin. The proof is that his property--it's called the Old Castle, because of the ruins on it--has reverted to the State. The authorities have had the doors of the house sealed up, and locked the gate of the park. They are waiting for the legal period to expire in order to take possession."
"And don't sightseers go walking in the park, in spite of the walls?"
"Not they. In the first place, the walls are very high. And then--and then the Old Castle has had a bad reputation in the neighbourhood ever since I can remember. There has always been a talk of ghosts: a pack of silly tales. But still--"
Perenna and his companion could not get over their surprise.
"This is a funny affair," exclaimed Don Luis, when they had left the mayor's. "Here we have Fauville writing his letters to a dead man--and to a dead man, by the way, who looks to me very much as if he had been murdered."
"Some one must have intercepted the letters."
"Obviously. But that does not do away with the fact that he wrote them to a dead man and made his confidences to a dead man and told him of his wife's criminal intentions."
Mazeroux was silent. He, too, seemed greatly perplexed.
They spent part of the afternoon in asking about old Langernault's habits, hoping to receive some useful clue from the people who had known him. But their efforts led to nothing.
At six o'clock, as they were about to start, Don Luis found that the car had run out of petrol and sent Mazeroux in a trap to the outskirts of Alençon to fetch some. He employed the delay in going to look at the Old Castle outside the village.
He had to follow a hedged road leading to an open space, planted with lime trees, where a massive wooden gate stood in the middle of a wall. The gate was locked. Don Luis walked along the wall, which was, in fact, very high and presented no opening. Nevertheless, he managed to climb over by means of the branches of a tree.
The park consisted of unkept lawns, overgrown with large wild flowers, and grass-covered avenues leading on the right to a distant mound, thickly dotted with ruins, and, on the left, to a small, tumbledown house with ill-fitting shutters.
He was turning in this direction, when he was much surprised to perceive fresh footprints on a border which had been soaked with the recent rain. And he could see that these footprints had been made by a woman's boots, a pair of elegant and dainty boots.
"Who the devil comes walking here?" he thought.
He found more footprints a little farther, on another border which the owner of the boots had crossed, and they led him away from the house, toward a series of clumps of trees where he saw them twice more. Then he lost sight of them for good.
He was standing near a large, half-ruined barn, built against a very tall bank. Its worm-eaten doors seemed merely balanced on their hinges. He went up and looked through a crack in the wood. Inside the windowless barn was in semi-darkness, for but little light came through the openings stopped up with straw, especially as the day was beginning to wane. He was able to distinguish a heap of barrels, broken wine-presses, old ploughs, and scrap-iron of all kinds.
"This is certainly not where my fair stroller turned her steps," thought Don Luis. "Let's look somewhere else."
Nevertheless, he did not move. He had noticed a noise in the barn.
He listened and heard nothing. But as he wanted to get to the bottom of things he forced out a couple of planks with his shoulder and stepped in.
The breach which he had thus contrived admitted a little light. He could see enough to make his way between two casks, over some broken window frames, to an empty space on the far side.
His eyes grew accustomed to the darkness as he went on. For all that, he knocked his head against something which he had not perceived, something hanging up above, something rather hard which, when set in motion, swung to and fro with a curious grating sound.
It was too dark to see. Don Luis took an electric lantern from his pocket and pressed the spring.
"Damn it all!" he swore, falling back aghast.
Above him hung a skeleton!
And the next moment he uttered another oath. A second skeleton hung beside the first!
They were both fastened by stout ropes to rings fixed in the rafters of the barn. Their heads dangled from the slip-knots. The one against which Perenna had struck was still moving slightly and the bones clicked together with a gruesome sound.
He dragged forward a rickety table, propped it up as best he could, and climbed onto it to examine the two skeletons more closely. They were turned toward each other, face to face. The first was considerably bigger than the second. They were obviously the skeletons of a man and a woman. Even when they were not moved by a jolt of any kind, the wind blowing through the crevices in the barn set them lightly swinging to and fro, in a sort of very slow, rhythmical dance.
But what perhaps was most impressive in this ghastly spectacle was the fact that each of the skeletons, though deprived of every rag of clothing, still wore a gold ring, too wide now that the flesh had disappeared, but held, as in hooks, by the bent joints of the fingers.
He slipped off the rings with a shiver of disgust, and found that they were wedding rings. Each bore a date inside, the same date, 12 August, 1887, and two names: "Alfred--Victorine."
"Husband and wife," he murmured. "Is it a double suicide? Or a murder? But how is it possible that the two skeletons have not yet been discovered? Can one conceive that they have been here since the death of old Langernault, since the government has taken possession of the estate and made it impossible for anybody to walk in?"
He paused to reflect.
"Anybody? I don't know about that, considering that I saw footprints in the garden, and that a woman has been there this very day!"
The thought of the unknown visitor engrossed him once more, and he got down from the table. In spite of the noise which he had heard, it was hardly to be supposed that she had entered the barn. And, after a few minutes' search, he was about to go out, when there came, from the left, a clash of things falling about and some hoops dropped to the ground not far from where he stood.
They came from above, from a loft likewise crammed with various objects and implements and reached by a ladder. Was he to believe that the visitor, surprised by his arrival, had taken refuge in that hiding-place and made a movement that caused the fall of the hoops?
Don Luis placed his electric lantern on a cask in such a way as to send the light right up to the loft. Seeing nothing suspicious, nothing but an arsenal of old pickaxes, rakes, and disused scythes, he attributed what had happened so some animal, to some stray cat; and, to make sure, he walked quickly to the ladder and went up.
Suddenly, at the very moment when he reached the level of the floor, there was a fresh noise, a fresh clatter of things falling: and a form rose from the heap of rubbish with a terrible gesture.
It was swift as lightning. Don Luis saw the great blade of a scythe cleaving the air at the height of his head. Had he hesitated for a second, for the tenth of a second, the awful weapon would have beheaded him. As it was, he just had time to flatten himself against the ladder. The scythe whistled past him, grazing his jacket. He slid down to the floor below.
But he had seen.
He had seen the dreadful face of Gaston Sauverand, and, behind the man of the ebony walking-stick, wan and livid in the rays of the electric light, the distorted features of Florence Levasseur!