Paléologue sat beside his camp-fire and smoked while he awaited the police. His natives were gone. A hint that police were coming had sent them into the brush like startled birds.
"Decidedly I am unfortunate!" mused Paléologue. "Except for that little meeting with Marie Marquet at the gate of the Residency, everything would have gone off without a hitch. Who could have foreseen that? To stop her mouth, I had to carry her off. That difficulty was overcome. Kent was here, fooled, tricked, ready to go back to town. Then the silver necklace must drop from my pocket—the cursed girl again! She blocks me at every step. Not of her own volition, either; she's a weak, silly little baggage, but each time I accomplish the impossible I am blocked by her! Almost I am tempted to believe in some providence! Well, I still hold the winning cards. What devilish luck brought these Hanoi men to Hué in time to trail me? And why the devil did they trail me?"
He shrugged his shoulders and set to work filling his silver cigaret-case with a number of cigarets which lay in his lap. He injected each one critically in the firelight before tucking it into the case. He had donned his sun helmet, which quite concealed the red wale across his scalp, although the wearing of it must have caused him intense pain.
When the police came, following their native guide, Paléologue received them cordially.
They were office men, these four, unused to hill trails and jungle byways. Two of them were limping bravely, the third was shaking with ague. Bigarot alone was as usual—droop-shouldered, spectacled, silent, a little flame in his eyes. He pushed the guide aside and disdained the outstretched hand of Paléologue.
"You are M. Michael Paléologue?" he said in his dry voice.
"I am." Paléologue dropped his hand, assumed an air of hauteur. "And you, messieurs?"
"We are special agents of the police commissariat," said Bigarot. "We have come to request that you should return to Hué with us, to answer certain questions with regard to the robbery of the royal palace."
Paléologue drew himself up.
"What mean you?" he demanded. "Is it to say that I, the Prince of Achaia, am accused of any crime?"
"By no means," said Bigarot, although the flame deepened in his eyes. To this man the title of a prince was as the red cloak of the matador to the bull. "It is a matter of evidence which his excellency the resident thought you might be able to give. That is all."
Paléologue looked at the four, then shrugged and flung off his grand manner. With a whimsical grimace he waved his hand at the deserted camp.
"Good! I welcome you, and am glad to see you. What think you? These devils of natives deserted me—ran away! If I can help his excellency, I shall be very glad indeed. Sit down, messieurs; we cannot possibly start before morning, I suppose?"
Bigarot hesitated. A glance at his three men showed that they could go no farther without rest.
"Thank you, monsieur," he answered. "We accept your hospitality."
Paléologue was not deceived. He saw that behind the words of Bigarot was an implacable determination. For some reason this man suspected him. The other three were of no great moment, but they were sufficient to back up Bigarot with force.
Wine and food were on the folding table by the fire. Paléologue played the host admirably, seated himself, and began to chat about the robbery. He showed no reserve in speaking of it. Had he not been dining at the Residency at the very time of the crime?
One of the three men produced some vile cigarets. Paléologue protested quickly.
"Good tobacco, messieurs, is my fancy; poor stuff offends my nostrils," he said, laughing. He opened his cigaret-case and laid it on the table. "At your service, my friends!"
Each of the three men helped himself to a cigaret. Paléologue handed the case to Bigarot.
"I do not smoke," said the latter.
"So much the better for you!" said Paléologue coolly.
He himself took a cigaret, but he held it in his fingers unlighted.
Turning to the native guide, and handing him a piece of money, Paléologue asked him to go to the village and hire a few men to carry his effects back to the city. This request was reasonable, and Bigarot nodded. The native rose and disappeared. The five white men were alone.
Paléologue passed into a discussion of his unfortunate tiger-hunt, now doomed to failure. Presently he took from the tent a gun-case, and displayed a very handsome rifle. He sat with it across his knees, talking cheerfully the while.
Suddenly one of the three men rose unsteadily to his feet. It was the one with ague.
"I have something—something wrong in the head!" he said, staggering a little. "I am ill. M. Bigarot, I shall rest for a few moments, with your permission."
"Do so," said Bigarot, who meanwhile had spoken no word.
Paléologue calmly took a cartridge from the rifle, examined it, and replaced it in the breech. When he laid the gun across his knees once more, the muzzle pointed at Bigarot.
"Decidedly," said one of the other two men, "this is a strange cigaret, M. Paléologue! The taste of it is queer."
Paléologue cocked the rifle and leaned back, his finger on the trigger, his eyes on those of Bigarot. The detective stiffened with a horrified comprehension.
The man who had just spoken uttered a groan and rose; he staggered toward the nearest clump of trees. The third man, who had not spoken, had quietly relaxed in his chair and lay there, supine, his eyes closed.
"Your tobacco," said Bigarot, "is singular, monsieur."
"It is specially prepared." Paléologue smiled. "Would you prefer a cigaret, or shall my rifle explode accidentally?"
A mortal pallor overspread the countenance of Bigarot; yet his voice was firm.
"I have an aversion to cigarets," he returned. "It seems to me that I have heard of these particular ones, monsieur le prince. Were they not used last year in Java? I remember reports of the case."
Paléologue regarded the man attentively.
"Your nerve is admirable, my man," he said. "Perhaps you would like to meet M. Dubois, who invented those cigarets—or, rather, the impregnation? He is an excellent chemist, who has been unfortunately ruined by opium. Since we are alone, let us depart. Stand up!"
At these ominous words, "since we are alone," the unfortunate Bigarot threw a glance at his companions. He saw that where there had been five men, only two now remained alive. He staggered to his feet, and, at Paléologue's command, turned his back.
Paléologue put the muzzle of his rifle at Bigarot's back, and searched him. Handcuffs clicked on the detective's wrists. At the order of his captor, Bigarot stumbled forth into the trail.
The moon had now risen, cleaving the darkness with silver radiance. Paléologue had not anticipated rejoining his men so soon, but he desired to be gone from his camp before the native guide returned with men from the village. He had certain arrangements to make.
Upon reaching the ruined temple, he found his men sleeping, save Hawkins, who was on guard. They were up and rebuilding the fire instantly. As the flames flickered, they crowded about Paléologue and his prisoner.
"Ah!" exclaimed the burly Franchipot. "Congratulations, M. Paléologue! You know this rogue, this vagabond, this cochon sale?"
"How should I know him?" said Paléologue disdainfully. "Who is he, then?"
"The familiar spirit of M. Davignan."
"Ah!" The word broke from Dubois, who leaned forward and tweaked the nose of the unhappy captive. "Nom d'un clysopompe! It is Bigarot—Bigarot the terrible, Bigarot who hates all aristocrats, Bigarot the little dog of the fat man! Ho, Bigarot! I will teach you with what wood I warm myself, me!"
"Be quiet," commanded Paléologue, and addressed the captive. "What brought you from Hanoi?"
"M. Davignan believed that you were about to commit a crime," answered Bigarot helplessly. He looked very pitiful and weak, this little man with the drooping shoulders, with his spectacles awry on his nose. "When I reached Hué, the crime had been committed; therefore I followed you."
"Oh!" Paléologue twisted his mustache. "There was no evidence?"
Bigarot merely shook his head. The looks of hatred, the muttered oaths around him, seemed to crush him down. One would have expected him to break into a sniffle at any moment.
"Well, my friends, our task is ended; there is no more haste," said Paléologue, with a wave of his hand. "Tie this gentleman to a tree, and rejoin me."
Bigarot was dragged away, none too gently, and was bound fast to a near-by tree. The four then rejoined Paléologue at the fire. Hawkins began to groan for a surgeon to attend his broken nose.
"You shall have one to-morrow," said Paléologue. "Meanwhile, take some opium and sleep. We shall all of us sleep until daybreak. Then you, Dubois, shall take this Bigarot off into the jungle and put a bullet into him. Make your way back to the city and rejoin us there. You, Franchipot, will come with me; we take M. Kent back to answer for his crimes. You, Farvel, will return to the city with Hawkins, by yourselves."
"And the lady?" queried Franchipot, with a leer.
"Is my affair. What becomes of her will depend upon herself."
"The natives? The guide of this Bigarot?" spoke up Farvel.
Paléologue merely smiled and waved his hand.
Peace settled upon the ruins of the old temple. The men took turns standing watch. From his tree, Bigarot blinked like some owlish gargoyle. The others slept about the fire.
With the first streaks of flame in the eastern sky, Paléologue was up, rousing his men. Wood was gathered, the fire was built up, the last of their provisions were brought forth. Bearing bread and cheese and wine, Paléologue advanced to the temple doorway.
"You are awake, mademoiselle?" he said. "I bring breakfast. The end of your pilgrimage is now at hand, I trust. Ah, Kent! Bon jour!"
He entered. Kent, bound and stiff, looked at him without response. Marie Marquet came to her feet, traces of tears upon her cheeks. She was trembling with the morning cold. In the obscurity of the stone chamber she looked like some pallid ghost of aforetime.
Setting down his burdens, Paléologue opened a pocket knife and cut Kent's bonds.
"Now," he said quietly, "let us have a little talk, we three. I should have regretted it very much had you two children perished last night; but the extremity was desperate, M. Kent. At present, I am happy to say, all goes well. It is not necessary that I should kill you."
"Beast!" said the girl, her voice low.
"If you so decree," said Paléologue coldly. "In five minutes I shall return. I desire both of you to promise that you will say nothing, to anybody, on any pretext, of anything that has passed. If you refuse, I shall be compelled to kill you both. If you assent, you shall go back to Hué with me at once."
"How can we believe you?" said the girl.
"Because I ask your promise. Otherwise, would I bother?"
Paléologue bowed and left them.
Marie stooped above Kent, helping him chafe his numbed wrists into life. Her tears dropped on his cheek. Kent lifted one of her hands to his lips; the cold fingers clenched suddenly upon his.
"What can we do?" said the girl, her tone hopeless. "If I thought he would spare us—"
Kent knew nothing of the trap that had been laid for him in Hué. He believed that Paléologue would murder him; but he also believed that the man would not hurt Marie unless forced to it.
"Promise him," he answered. "It is our only hope."
Marie accepted the advice. Five minutes afterward, Paléologue had his promise. Dubois had already departed by a side trail that wound down the hillside, driving before him the manacled Bigarot.