The Teeth of the Tiger/Chapter 9
CHAPTER IX. LUPIN'S ANGEREdit
He remained for one moment motionless and speechless. Above was a perfect clatter of things being pushed about, as though the besieged were building themselves a barricade. But to the right of the electric rays, diffused daylight entered through an opening that was suddenly exposed; and he saw, in front of this opening, first one form and then another stooping in order to escape over the roofs.
He levelled his revolver and fired, but badly, for he was thinking of Florence and his hand trembled. Three more shots rang out. The bullets rattled against the old scrap-iron in the loft. The fifth shot was followed by a cry of pain. Don Luis once more rushed up the ladder.
Slowly making his way through the tangle of farm implements and over some cases of dried rape seed forming a regular rampart, he at last, after bruising and barking his shins, succeeded in reaching the opening, and was greatly surprised, on passing through it, to find himself on level ground. It was the top of the sloping bank against which the barn stood.
He descended the slope at haphazard, to the left of the barn, and passed in front of the building, but saw nobody. He then went up again on the right; and although the flat part was very narrow, he searched it carefully for, in the growing darkness of the twilight, he had every reason to fear renewed attacks from the enemy.
He now became aware of something which he had not perceived before. The bank ran along the top of the wall, which at this spot was quite sixteen fee thigh. Gaston Sauverand and Florence had, beyond a doubt, escaped this way.
Perenna followed the wall, which was fairly wide, till he came to a lower part, and here he jumped into a ploughed field skirting a little wood toward which the fugitives must have run He started exploring it, but, realizing its denseness, he at once saw that it was waste of time to linger in pursuit.
He therefore returned to the village, while thinking over this, his latest exploit. Once again Florence and her accomplice had tried to get rid of him. Once again Florence figured prominently in this network of criminal plots.
At the moment when chance informed Don Luis that old Langernault had probably died by foul play, at the moment when chance, by leading him to Hanged Man's Barn, as he christened it, brought him into the presence of two skeletons, Florence appeared as a murderous vision, as an evil genius who was seen wherever death had passed with its trail of blood and corpses.
"Oh, the loathsome creature!" he muttered, with a shudder. "How can she have so fair a face, and eyes of such haunting beauty, so grave, sincere, and almost guileless?"
In the church square, outside the inn, Mazeroux, who had returned, was filling the petrol tank of the motor and lighting the lamps. Don Luis saw the mayor of Damigni crossing the square. He took him aside.
"By the way, Monsieur le Maire, did you ever hear any talk in the district, perhaps two years ago, of the disappearance of a couple forty or fifty years of age? The husband's name was Alfred--"
"And the wife's Victorine, eh?" the mayor broke in. "I should think so! The affair created some stir. They lived at Alengon on a small, private income; they disappeared between one day and the next; and no one has since discovered what became of them, any more than a little hoard, some twenty thousand francs or so, which they had realized the day before by the sale of their house. I remember them well. Dedessuslamare their name was."
"Thank you, Monsieur le Maire," said Perenna, who had learned all that he wanted to know.
The car was ready. A minute after he was rushing toward Alençon with Mazeroux.
"Where are we going, Chief?" asked the sergeant.
"To the station. I have every reason to believe, first, that Sauverand was informed this morning--in what way remains to be seen--of the revelations made last night by Mme. Fauville relating to old Langernault; and, secondly, that he has been prowling around and inside old Langernault's property to-day for reasons that also remain to be seen. And I presume that he came by train and that he will go back by train."
Perenna's supposition was confirmed without delay. He was told at the railway station that a gentleman and a lady had arrived from Paris at two o'clock, that they had hired a trap at the hotel next door, and that, having finished their business, they had gone back a few minutes ago, by the 7:40 express. The description of the lady and gentleman corresponded exactly with that of Florence and Sauverand.
"Off we go!" said Perenna, after consulting the timetable. "We are an hour behind. We may catch up with the scoundrel at Le Mans."
"We'll do that, Chief, and we'll collar him, I swear: him and his lady, since there are two of them."
"There are two of them, as you say. Only--"
Don Luis waited to reply until they were seated and the engine started, when he said:
"Only, my boy, you will keep your hands off the lady."
"Why should I?"
"Do you know who she is? Have you a warrant against her?"
"Then shut up."
"One word more, Alexandre, and I'll set you down beside the road. Then you can make as many arrests as you please."
Mazeroux did not breathe another word. For that matter the speed at which they at once began to go hardly left him time to raise a protest. Not a little anxious, he thought only of watching the horizon and keeping a lookout for obstacles.
The trees vanished on either side almost unseen. Their foliage overhead made a rhythmical sound as of moaning waves. Night insects dashed themselves to death against the lamps.
"We shall get there right enough," Mazeroux ventured to observe. "There's no need to put on the pace."
The speed increased and he said no more.
Villages, plains, hills; and then, suddenly in the midst of the darkness, the lights of a large town, Le Mans.
"Do you know the way to the station, Alexandre?"
"Yes, Chief, to the right and then straight on."
Of course they ought to have gone to the left. They wasted seven or eight minutes in wandering through the streets and receiving contradictory instructions. When the motor pulled up at the station the train was whistling.
Don Luis jumped out, rushed through the waiting-room, found the doors shut, jostled the railway officials who tried to stop him, and reached the platform.
A train was about to start on the farther line. The last door was banged to. He ran along the carriages, holding on to the brass rails.
"Your ticket, sir! Where's your ticket?" shouted an angry collector.
Don Luis continued to fly along the footboards, giving a swift glance through the panes, thrusting aside the persons whose presence at the windows prevented him from seeing, prepared at any moment to burst into the compartment containing the two accomplices.
He did not see them in the end carriages. The train started. And suddenly he gave a shout: they were there, the two of them, by themselves! He had seen them! They were there: Florence, lying on the seat, with her head on Sauverand's shoulder, and he, leaning over her, with his arms around her!
Mad with rage he flung back the bottom latch and seized the handle of the carriage door. At the same moment he lost his balance and was pulled off by the furious ticket collector and by Mazeroux, who bellowed:
"Why, you're mad, Chief! you'll kill yourself!"
"Let go, you ass!" roared Don Luis. "It's they! Let me be, can't you!"
The carriages filed past. He tried to jump on to another footboard. But the two men were clinging to him, some railway porters came to their assistance, the station-master ran up. The train moved out of the station.
"Idiots!" he shouted. "Boobies! Pack of asses that you are, couldn't you leave me alone? Oh, I swear to Heaven--!"
With a blow of his left fist he knocked the ticket collector down; with a blow of his right he sent Mazeroux spinning; and shaking off the porters and the station-master, he rushed along the platform to the luggage-room, where he took flying leaps over several batches of trunks, packing-cases, and portmanteaux.
"Oh, the perfect fool!" he mumbled, on seeing that Mazeroux had let the power down in the car. "Trust him, if there's any blunder going!"
Don Luis had driven his car at a fine rate during the day; but that night the pace became vertiginous. A very meteor flashed through the suburbs of Le Mans and hurled itself along the highroad. Perenna had but one thought in his head: to reach the next station, which was Chartres, before the two accomplices, and to fly at Sauverand's throat. He saw nothing but that: the savage grip of his two hands that would set Florence Levasseur's lover gasping in his agony.
"Her lover! Her lover!" he muttered, gnashing his teeth. "Why, of course, that explains everything! They have combined against their accomplice, Marie Fauville; and it is she alone, poor devil, who will pay for the horrible series of crimes!"
"Is she their accomplice even?" he wondered. "Who knows? Who knows if that pair of demons are not capable, after killing Hippolyte and his son, of having plotted the ruin of Marie Fauville, the last obstacle that stood between them and the Mornington inheritance? Doesn't everything point to that conclusion? Didn't I find the list of dates in a book belonging to Florence? Don't the facts prove that the letters were communicated by Florence?...
"Those letters accuse Gaston Sauverand as well. But how does that affect things? He no longer loves Marie, but Florence. And Florence loves him. She is his accomplice, his counsellor, the woman who will live by his side and benefit by his fortune.... True, she sometimes pretends to be defending Marie Fauville. Play-acting! Or perhaps remorse, fright at the thought of all that she has done against her rival, and of the fate that awaits the unhappy woman!
"But she is in love with Sauverand. And she continues to carry on the struggle without pity and without respite. And that is why she wanted to kill me, the interloper whose insight she dreaded. And she hates me and loathes me--"
To the hum of the engine and the sighing of the trees, which bent down at the approach, he murmured incoherent words. The recollection of the two lovers clasped in each other's arms made him cry aloud with jealousy. He wanted to be revenged. For the first time in his life, the longing, the feverish craving to kill set his brain boiling.
"Hang it all!" he growled suddenly. "The engine's misfiring! Mazeroux! Mazeroux!"
"What, Chief! Did you know that I was here?" exclaimed Mazeroux, emerging from the shadow in which he sat hidden.
"You jackass! Do you think that the first idiot who comes along can hang on to the footboard of my car without my knowing it? You must be feeling comfortable down there!"
"I'm suffering agonies, and I'm shivering with cold."
"That's right, it'll teach you. Tell me, where did you buy your petrol?"
"At the grocer's."
"At a thief's, you mean. It's muck. The plugs are getting sooted up."
"Are you sure?"
"Can't you hear the misfiring, you fool?"
The motor, indeed, at moments seemed to hesitate. Then everything became normal again. Don Luis forced the pace. Going downhill they appeared to be hurling themselves into space. One of the lamps went out. The other was not as bright as usual. But nothing diminished Don Luis's ardour.
There was more misfiring, fresh hesitations, followed by efforts, as though the engine was pluckily striving to do its duty. And then suddenly came the final failure, a dead stop at the side of the road, a stupid breakdown.
"Confound it!" roared Don Luis. "We're stuck! Oh, this is the last straw!"
"Come, Chief, we'll put it right. And we'll pick up Sauverand at Paris instead of Chartres, that's all."
"You infernal ass! The repairs will take an hour! And then she'll break down again. It's not petrol, it's filth they've foisted on you."
The country stretched around them to endless distances, with no other lights than the stars that riddled the darkness of the sky.
Don Luis was stamping with fury. He would have liked to kick the motor to pieces. He would have liked--
It was Mazeroux who "caught it," in the hapless sergeant's own words. Don Luis took him by the shoulders, shook him, loaded him with insults and abuse and, finally, pushing him against the roadside bank and holding him there, said, in a broken voice of mingled hatred and sorrow.
"It's she, do you hear, Mazeroux? it's Sauverand's companion who has done everything. I'm telling you now, because I'm afraid of relenting. Yes, I am a weak coward. She has such a grave face, with the eyes of a child. But it's she, Mazeroux. She lives in my house. Remember her name: Florence Levasseur. You'll arrest her, won't you? I might not be able to. My courage fails me when I look at her. The fact is that I have never loved before.
"There have been other women--but no, those were fleeting fancies--not even that: I don't even remember the past! Whereas Florence--! You must arrest her, Mazeroux. You must deliver me from her eyes. They burn into me like poison. If you don't deliver me I shall kill her as I killed Dolores--or else they will kill me--or--Oh, I don't know all the ideas that are driving me wild--!
"You see, there's another man," he explained. "There's Sauverand, whom she loves. Oh, the infamous pair! They have killed Fauville and the boy and old Langernault and those two in the barn and others besides: Cosmo Mornington, Vérot, and more still. They are monsters, she most of all--And if you saw her eyes-"
He spoke so low that Mazeroux could hardly hear him. He had let go his hold of Mazeroux and seemed utterly cast down with despair, a surprising symptom in a man of his amazing vigour and authority.
"Come, Chief," said the sergeant, helping him up. "This is all stuff and nonsense. Trouble with women: I've had it like everybody else. Mme. Mazeroux--yes, I got married while you were away--Mme. Mazeroux turned out badly herself, gave me the devil of a time, Mme. Mazeroux did. I'll tell you all about it, Chief, how Mme. Mazeroux rewarded my kindness."
He led Don Luis gently to the car and settled him on the front seat.
"Take a rest, Chief. It's not very cold and there are plenty of furs. The first peasant that comes along at daybreak, I'll send him to the next town for what we want--and for food, too, for I'm starving. And everything will come right; it always does with women. All you have to do is to kick them out of your life--except when they anticipate you and kick themselves out.... I was going to tell you: Mme. Mazeroux--"
Don Luis was never to learn what had happened with Mme. Mazeroux. The most violent catastrophies had no effect upon the peacefulness of his slumbers. He was asleep almost at once.
It was late in the morning when he woke up. Mazeroux had had to wait till seven o'clock before he could hail a cyclist on his way to Chartres.
They made a start at nine o'clock. Don Luis had recovered all his coolness. He turned to his sergeant.
"I said a lot last night that I did not mean to say. However, I don't regret it. Yes, it is my duty to do everything to save Mme. Fauville and to catch the real culprit. Only the task falls upon myself; and I swear that I shan't fail in it. This evening Florence Levasseur shall sleep in the lockup!"
"I'll help you, Chief," replied Mazeroux, in a queer tone of voice.
"I need nobody's help. If you touch a single hair of her head, I'll do for you. Do you understand?"
"Then hold your tongue."
His anger was slowly returning and expressed itself in an increase of speed, which seemed to Mazeroux a revenge executed upon himself. They raced over the cobble-stones of Chartres. Rambouillet, Chevreuse, and Versailles received the terrifying vision of a thunderbolt tearing across them from end to end.
Saint-Cloud. The Bois de Boulogne ...
On the Place de la Concorde, as the motor was turning toward the Tuileries, Mazeroux objected:
"Aren't you going home, Chief?"
"No. There's something more urgent first: we must relieve Marie Fauville of her suicidal obsession by letting her know that we have discovered the criminals."
"Then I want to see the Prefect of Police."
"M. Desmalions is away and won't be back till this afternoon."
"In that case the examining magistrate."
"He doesn't get to the law courts till twelve; and it's only eleven now."
Mazeroux was right: there was no one at the law courts.
Don Luis lunched somewhere close by; and Mazeroux, after calling at the detective office, came to fetch him and took him to the magistrate's corridor. Don Luis's excitement, his extraordinary restlessness, did not fail to strike Mazeroux, who asked:
"Are you still of the same mind, Chief?"
"More than ever. I looked through the newspapers at lunch. Marie Fauville, who was sent to the infirmary after her second attempt, has again tried to kill herself by banging her head against the wall of the room. They have put a straitjacket on her. But she is refusing all food. It is my duty to save her."
"By handing over the real criminal. I shall inform the magistrate in charge of the case; and this evening I shall bring you Florence Levasseur dead or alive."
"Sauverand? That won't take long. Unless--"
"Unless I settle his business myself, the miscreant!"
"Oh, dry up!"
There were some reporters near them waiting for particulars. He recognized them and went up to them.
"You can say, gentlemen, that from to-day I am taking up the defence of Marie Fauville and devoting myself entirely to her cause."
They all protested: was it not he who had had Mme. Fauville arrested? Was it not he who had collected a heap of convicting proofs against her?
"I shall demolish those proofs one by one," he said. "Marie Fauville is the victim of wretches who have hatched the most diabolical plot against her, and whom I am about to deliver up to justice."
"But the teeth! The marks of the teeth!"
"A coincidence! An unparalleled coincidence, but one which now strikes me as a most powerful proof of innocence. I tell you that, if Marie Fauville had been clever enough to commit all those murders, she would also have been clever enough not to leave behind her a fruit bearing the marks of her two rows of teeth."
"She is innocent! And that is what I am going to tell the examining magistrate. She must be informed of the efforts that are being made in her favour. She must be given hope at once. If not, the poor thing will kill herself and her death will be on the conscience of all who accused an innocent woman. She must--"
At that moment he interrupted himself. His eyes were fixed on one of the journalists who was standing a little way off listening to him and taking notes.
He whispered to Mazeroux:
"Could you manage to find out that beggar's name? I can't remember where on earth I've seen him before."
But an usher now opened the door of the examining magistrate, who, on receiving Don Perenna's card, had asked to see him at once. He stepped forward and was about to enter the room with Mazeroux, when he suddenly turned to his companion with a cry of rage:
"It's he! It was Sauverand in disguise. Stop him! He's made off. Run, can't you?"
He himself darted away followed by Mazeroux and a number of warders and journalists, He soon outdistanced them, so that, three minutes later, he heard no one more behind him. He had rushed down the staircase of the "Mousetrap," and through the subway leading from one courtyard to the other. Here two people told him that they had met a man walking at a smart pace.
The track was a false one. He became aware of this, hunted about, lost a good deal of time, and managed to discover that Sauverand had left by the Boulevard du Palais and joined a very pretty, fair-haired woman--Florence Levasseur, obviously--on the Quai de l'Horloge. They had both got into the motor bus that runs from the Place Saint-Michel to the Gare Saint-Lazare.
Don Luis went back to a lonely little street where he had left his car in the charge of a boy. He set the engine going and drove at full speed to the Gare Saint-Lazare, From the omnibus shelter he went off on a fresh track which also proved to be wrong, lost quite another hour, returned to the terminus, and ended by learning for certain that Florence had stepped by herself into a motor bus which would take her toward the Place du Palais-Bourbon. Contrary to all his expectations, therefore, the girl must have gone home.
The thought of seeing her again roused his anger to its highest pitch. All the way down the Rue Royale and across the Place de la Concorde he kept blurting out words of revenge and threats which he was itching to carry out. He would abuse Florence. He would sting her with his insults. He felt a bitter and painful need to hurt the odious creature.
But on reaching the Place du Palais-Bourbon he pulled up short. His practised eye had counted at a glance, on the right and left, a half-dozen men whose professional look there was no mistaking. And Mazeroux, who had caught sight of him, had spun round on his heel and was hiding under a gateway.
He called him:
The sergeant appeared greatly surprised to hear his name and came up to the car.
"Hullo, the Chief!"
His face expressed such embarrassment that Don Luis felt his fears taking definite shape.
"Look here, is it for me that you and your men are hanging about outside my house?"
"There's a notion, Chief," replied Mazeroux, looking very uncomfortable. "You know that you're in favour all right!"
Don Luis gave a start. He understood. Mazeroux had betrayed his confidence. To obey his scruples of conscience as well as to rescue the chief from the dangers of a fatal passion, Mazeroux had denounced Florence Levasseur.
Perenna clenched his fists in an effort of his whole being to stifle his boiling rage. It was a terrible blow. He received a sudden intuition of all the blunders which his mad jealousy had made him commit since the day before, and a presentiment of the irreparable disasters that might result from them. The conduct of events was slipping from him.
"Have you the warrant?" he asked.
"It was quite by accident. I met the Prefect, who was back. We spoke of the young lady's business. And, as it happened, they had discovered that the photograph--you know, the photograph of Florence Levasseur which the Prefect lent you--well, they have discovered that you faked it. And then when I mentioned the name of Florence, the Prefect remembered that that was the name."
"Have you the warrant?" Don Luis repeated, in a harsher tone.
"Well, you see, I couldn't help it.... M. Desmalions, the magistrate--"
If the Place du Palais Bourbon had been deserted at that moment, Don Luis would certainly have relieved himself by a swinging blow administered to Mazeroux's chin according to the most scientific rules of the noble art. And Mazeroux foresaw this contingency, for he prudently kept as far away as possible and, to appease the chief's anger, intended a whole litany of excuses:
"It was for your good, Chief.... I had to do it ... Only think! You yourself told me: 'Rid me of the creature!' said you. I'm too weak. You'll arrest her, won't you? Her eyes burn into me--like poison! Well, Chief, could I help it? No, I couldn't, could I? Especially as the deputy chief--"
"Ah! So Weber knows?"
"Why, yes! The Prefect is a little suspicious of you since he understood about the faking of the portrait. So M. Weber is coming back in an hour, perhaps, with reinforcements. Well, I was saying, the deputy chief had learnt that the woman who used to go to Gaston Sauverand's at Neuilly--you know, the house on the Boulevard Richard-Wallace--was fair and very good looking, and that her name was Florence. She even used to stay the night sometimes."
"You lie! You lie!" hissed Perenna.
All his spite was reviving. He had been pursuing Florence with intentions which it would have been difficult for him to put into words. And now suddenly he again wanted to destroy her; and this time consciously. In reality he no longer knew what he was doing. He was acting at haphazard, tossed about in turns by the most diverse passions, a prey to that inordinate love which impels us as readily to kill the object of our affections as to die in an attempt to save her.
A newsboy passed with a special edition of the _Paris-Midi_, showing in great black letters:
"SENSATIONAL DECLARATION BY DON LUIS PERENNA
"MME. FAUVILLE IS INNOCENT.
"IMMINENT ARREST OF THE TWO CRIMINALS"
"Yes, yes," he said aloud. "The drama is drawing to an end. Florence is about to pay her debt to society. So much the worse for her."
He started his car again and drove through the gate. In the courtyard he said to his chauffeur, who came up:
"Turn her around and don't put her up. I may be starting again at any moment."
He sprang out and asked the butler:
"Is Mlle. Levasseur in?"
"Yes, sir, she's in her room."
"She was away yesterday, wasn't she?"
"Yes, sir, she received a telegram asking her to go to the country to see a relation who was ill. She came back last night."
"I want to speak to her. Send her to me. At once."
"In the study, sir?"
"No, upstairs, in the boudoir next to my bedroom."
This was a small room on the second floor which had once been a lady's boudoir, and he preferred it to his study since the attempt at murder of which he had been the object. He was quieter up there, farther away; and he kept his important papers there. He always carried the key with him: a special key with three grooves to it and an inner spring.
Mazeroux had followed him into the courtyard and was keeping close behind him, apparently unobserved by Perenna, who having so far appeared not to notice it. He now, however, took the sergeant by the arm and led him to the front steps.
"All is going well. I was afraid that Florence, suspecting something, might not have come back. But she probably doesn't know that I saw her yesterday. She can't escape us now."
They went across the hall and up the stairs to the first floor. Mazeroux rubbed his hands.
"So you've come to your senses, Chief?"
"At any rate I've made up my mind. I will not, do you hear, I will not have Mme. Fauville kill herself; and, as there is no other way of preventing that catastrophe, I shall sacrifice Florence."
"Then you forgive me?"
"I thank you."
And he struck him a clean, powerful blow under the chin. Mazeroux fell without a moan, in a dead faint on the steps of the second flight.
Halfway up the stairs was a dark recess that served as a lumber room where the servants kept their pails and brooms and the soiled household linen. Don Luis carried Mazeroux to it, and, seating him comfortably on the floor, with his back to a housemaid's box, he stuffed his handkerchief into his mouth, gagged him with a towel, and bound his wrists and ankles with two tablecloths. The other ends of these he fastened to a couple of strong nails. As Mazeroux was slowly coming to himself, Don Luis said:
"I think you have all you want. Tablecloths--napkins--something in your mouth in case you're hungry. Eat at your ease. And then take a little nap, and you'll wake up as fresh as paint."
He locked him in and glanced at his watch.
"I have an hour before me. Capital!"
At that moment his intention was to insult Florence, to throw up all her scandalous crimes in her face, and, in this way, to force a written and signed confession from her. Afterward, when Marie Fauville's safety was insured, he would see. Perhaps he would put Florence in his motor and carry her off to some refuge from which, with the girl for a hostage, he would be able to influence the police. Perhaps--But he did not seek to anticipate events. What he wanted was an immediate, violent explanation.
He ran up to his bedroom on the second floor and dipped his face into cold water. Never had he experienced such a stimulation of his whole being, such an unbridling of his blind instincts.
"It's she!" he spluttered. "I hear her! She is at the bottom of the stairs. At last! Oh, the joy of having her in front of me! Face to face! She and I alone!"
He returned to the landing outside the boudoir. He took the key from his pocket. The door opened.
He uttered a great shout: Gaston Sauverand was there! In that locked room Gaston Sauverand was waiting for him, standing with folded arms.