"Lupin," I said, "tell me something about yourself."
"Why, what would you have me tell you? Everybody knows my life!" replied Lupin, who lay drowsing on the sofa in my study.
"Nobody knows it!" I protested. "People know from your letters in the newspapers that you were mixed up in this case, that you started that case. But the part which you played in it all, the plain facts of the story, the upshot of the mystery: these are things of which they know nothing."
"Pooh! A heap of uninteresting twaddle!"
"What! Your present of fifty thousand francs to Nicolas Dugrival's wife! Do you call that uninteresting? And what about the way in which you solved the puzzle of the three pictures?"
"Yes, that was a queer puzzle, certainly. I can suggest a title for you if you like: what do you say to The Sign of the Shadow?"
"And your successes in society and with the fair sex?" I continued. "The dashing Arsène's love-affairs!... And the clue to your good actions? Those chapters in your life to which you have so often alluded under the names of The Wedding-ring, Shadowed by Death, and so on!... Why delay these confidences and confessions, my dear Lupin?... Come, do what I ask you!..."
It was at the time when Lupin, though already famous, had not yet fought his biggest battles; the time that preceded the great adventures of The Hollow Needle and 813. He had not yet dreamt of annexing the accumulated treasures of the French Royal House[A] nor of changing the map of Europe under the Kaiser's nose[B]: he contented himself with milder surprises and humbler profits, making his daily effort, doing evil from day to day and doing a little good as well, naturally and for the love of the thing, like a whimsical and compassionate Don Quixote.
He was silent; and I insisted:
"Lupin, I wish you would!"
To my astonishment, he replied:
"Take a sheet of paper, old fellow, and a pencil."
I obeyed with alacrity, delighted at the thought that he at last meant to dictate to me some of those pages which he knows how to clothe with such vigour and fancy, pages which I, unfortunately, am obliged to spoil with tedious explanations and boring developments.
"Are you ready?" he asked.
"Write down, 20, 1, 11, 5, 14, 15."
"Write it down, I tell you."
He was now sitting up, with his eyes turned to the open window and his fingers rolling a Turkish cigarette. He continued:
"Write down, 21, 14, 14, 5...."
He stopped. Then he went on:
"3, 5, 19, 19 ..."
And, after a pause:
"5, 18, 25 ..."
Was he mad? I looked at him hard and, presently, I saw that his eyes were no longer listless, as they had been a little before, but keen and attentive and that they seemed to be watching, somewhere, in space, a sight that apparently captivated them.
Meanwhile, he dictated, with intervals between each number:
"18, 9, 19, 11, 19 ..."
There was hardly anything to be seen through the window but a patch of blue sky on the right and the front of the building opposite, an old private house, whose shutters were closed as usual. There was nothing particular about all this, no detail that struck me as new among those which I had had before my eyes for years....
And suddenly I understood ... or rather I thought I understood, for how could I admit that Lupin, a man so essentially level-headed under his mask of frivolity, could waste his time upon such childish nonsense? What he was counting was the intermittent flashes of a ray of sunlight playing on the dingy front of the opposite house, at the height of the second floor!
"15, 22 ..." said Lupin.
The flash disappeared for a few seconds and then struck the house again, successively, at regular intervals, and disappeared once more.
I had instinctively counted the flashes and I said, aloud:
"Caught the idea? I congratulate you!" he replied, sarcastically.
He went to the window and leant out, as though to discover the exact direction followed by the ray of light. Then he came and lay on the sofa again, saying:
"It's your turn now. Count away!"
The fellow seemed so positive that I did as he told me. Besides, I could not help confessing that there was something rather curious about the ordered frequency of those gleams on the front of the house opposite, those appearances and disappearances, turn and turn about, like so many flash signals.
They obviously came from a house on our side of the street, for the sun was entering my windows slantwise. It was as though some one were alternately opening and shutting a casement, or, more likely, amusing himself by making sunlight flashes with a pocket-mirror.
"It's a child having a game!" I cried, after a moment or two, feeling a little irritated by the trivial occupation that had been thrust upon me.
"Never mind, go on!"
And I counted away.... And I put down rows of figures.... And the sun continued to play in front of me, with mathematical precision.
"Well?" said Lupin, after a longer pause than usual.
"Why, it seems finished.... There has been nothing for some minutes...."
We waited and, as no more light flashed through space, I said, jestingly:
"My idea is that we have been wasting our time. A few figures on paper: a poor result!"
Lupin, without stirring from his sofa, rejoined:
"Oblige me, old chap, by putting in the place of each of those numbers the corresponding letter of the alphabet. Count A as 1, B as 2 and so on. Do you follow me?"
"But it's idiotic!"
"Absolutely idiotic, but we do such a lot of idiotic things in this life.... One more or less, you know!..."
I sat down to this silly work and wrote out the first letters:
I broke off in surprise:
"Words!" I exclaimed. "Two English words meaning...."
"Go on, old chap."
And I went on and the next letters formed two more words, which I separated as they appeared. And, to my great amazement, a complete English sentence lay before my eyes.
"Done?" asked Lupin, after a time.
"Done!... By the way, there are mistakes in the spelling...."
"Never mind those and read it out, please.... Read slowly."
Thereupon I read out the following unfinished communication, which I will set down as it appeared on the paper in front of me:
"Take no unnecessery risks. Above all, avoid atacks, approach ennemy with great prudance and...."
I began to laugh:
"And there you are! Fiat lux! We're simply dazed with light! But, after all, Lupin, confess that this advice, dribbled out by a kitchen-maid, doesn't help you much!"
Lupin rose, without breaking his contemptuous silence, and took the sheet of paper.
I remembered soon after that, at this moment, I happened to look at the clock. It was eighteen minutes past five.
Lupin was standing with the paper in his hand; and I was able at my ease to watch, on his youthful features, that extraordinary mobility of expression which baffles all observers and constitutes his great strength and his chief safeguard. By what signs can one hope to identify a face which changes at pleasure, even without the help of make-up, and whose every transient expression seems to be the final, definite expression?... By what signs? There was one which I knew well, an invariable sign: Two little crossed wrinkles that marked his forehead whenever he made a powerful effort of concentration. And I saw it at that moment, saw the tiny tell-tale cross, plainly and deeply scored.
He put down the sheet of paper and muttered:
The clock struck half-past five.
"What!" I cried. "Have you succeeded?... In twelve minutes?..."
He took a few steps up and down the room, lit a cigarette and said:
"You might ring up Baron Repstein, if you don't mind, and tell him I shall be with him at ten o'clock this evening."
"Baron Repstein?" I asked. "The husband of the famous baroness?"
"Are you serious?"
Feeling absolutely at a loss, but incapable of resisting him, I opened the telephone-directory and unhooked the receiver. But, at that moment, Lupin stopped me with a peremptory gesture and said, with his eyes on the paper, which he had taken up again:
"No, don't say anything.... It's no use letting him know.... There's something more urgent ... a queer thing that puzzles me.... Why on earth wasn't the last sentence finished? Why is the sentence...."
He snatched up his hat and stick:
"Let's be off. If I'm not mistaken, this is a business that requires immediate solution; and I don't believe I am mistaken."
He put his arm through mine, as we went down the stairs, and said:
"I know what everybody knows. Baron Repstein, the company-promoter and racing-man, whose colt Etna won the Derby and the Grand Prix this year, has been victimized by his wife. The wife, who was well known for her fair hair, her dress and her extravagance, ran away a fortnight ago, taking with her a sum of three million francs, stolen from her husband, and quite a collection of diamonds, pearls and jewellery which the Princesse de Berny had placed in her hands and which she was supposed to buy. For two weeks the police have been pursuing the baroness across France and the continent: an easy job, as she scatters gold and jewels wherever she goes. They think they have her every moment. Two days ago, our champion detective, the egregious Ganimard, arrested a visitor at a big hotel in Belgium, a woman against whom the most positive evidence seemed to be heaped up. On enquiry, the lady turned out to be a notorious chorus-girl called Nelly Darbal. As for the baroness, she has vanished. The baron, on his side, has offered a reward of two hundred thousand francs to whosoever finds his wife. The money is in the hands of a solicitor. Moreover, he has sold his racing-stud, his house on the Boulevard Haussmann and his country-seat of Roquencourt in one lump, so that he may indemnify the Princesse de Berny for her loss."
"And the proceeds of the sale," I added, "are to be paid over at once. The papers say that the princess will have her money to-morrow. Only, frankly, I fail to see the connection between this story, which you have told very well, and the puzzling sentence...."
Lupin did not condescend to reply.
We had been walking down the street in which I live and had passed some four or five houses, when he stepped off the pavement and began to examine a block of flats, not of the latest construction, which looked as if it contained a large number of tenants:
"According to my calculations," he said, "this is where the signals came from, probably from that open window."
"On the third floor?"
He went to the portress and asked her:
"Does one of your tenants happen to be acquainted with Baron Repstein?"
"Why, of course!" replied the woman. "We have M. Lavernoux here, such a nice gentleman; he is the baron's secretary and agent. I look after his flat."
"And can we see him?"
"See him?... The poor gentleman is very ill."
"He's been ill a fortnight ... ever since the trouble with the baroness.... He came home the next day with a temperature and took to his bed."
"But he gets up, surely?"
"Ah, that I can't say!"
"How do you mean, you can't say?"
"No, his doctor won't let any one into his room. He took my key from me."
"The doctor. He comes and sees to his wants, two or three times a day. He left the house only twenty minutes ago ... an old gentleman with a grey beard and spectacles.... Walks quite bent.... But where are you going sir?"
"I'm going up, show me the way," said Lupin, with his foot on the stairs. "It's the third floor, isn't it, on the left?"
"But I mustn't!" moaned the portress, running after him. "Besides, I haven't the key ... the doctor...."
They climbed the three flights, one behind the other. On the landing, Lupin took a tool from his pocket and, disregarding the woman's protests, inserted it in the lock. The door yielded almost immediately. We went in.
At the back of a small dark room we saw a streak of light filtering through a door that had been left ajar. Lupin ran across the room and, on reaching the threshold, gave a cry:
"Too late! Oh, hang it all!"
The portress fell on her knees, as though fainting.
I entered the bedroom, in my turn, and saw a man lying half-dressed on the carpet, with his legs drawn up under him, his arms contorted and his face quite white, an emaciated, fleshless face, with the eyes still staring in terror and the mouth twisted into a hideous grin.
"He's dead," said Lupin, after a rapid examination.
"But why?" I exclaimed. "There's not a trace of blood!"
"Yes, yes, there is," replied Lupin, pointing to two or three drops that showed on the chest, through the open shirt. "Look, they must have taken him by the throat with one hand and pricked him to the heart with the other. I say, 'pricked,' because really the wound can't be seen. It suggests a hole made by a very long needle."
He looked on the floor, all round the corpse. There was nothing to attract his attention, except a little pocket-mirror, the little mirror with which M. Lavernoux had amused himself by making the sunbeams dance through space.
But, suddenly, as the portress was breaking into lamentations and calling for help, Lupin flung himself on her and shook her:
"Stop that!... Listen to me ... you can call out later.... Listen to me and answer me. It is most important. M. Lavernoux had a friend living in this street, had he not? On the same side, to the right? An intimate friend?"
"A friend whom he used to meet at the café in the evening and with whom he exchanged the illustrated papers?"
"Was the friend an Englishman?"
"What's his name?"
"Where does he live?"
"At No. 92 in this street."
"One word more: had that old doctor been attending him long?"
"No. I did not know him. He came on the evening when M. Lavernoux was taken ill."
Without another word, Lupin dragged me away once more, ran down the stairs and, once in the street, turned to the right, which took us past my flat again. Four doors further, he stopped at No. 92, a small, low-storied house, of which the ground-floor was occupied by the proprietor of a dram-shop, who stood smoking in his doorway, next to the entrance-passage. Lupin asked if Mr. Hargrove was at home.
"Mr. Hargrove went out about half-an-hour ago," said the publican. "He seemed very much excited and took a taxi-cab, a thing he doesn't often do."
"And you don't know...."
"Where he was going? Well, there's no secret about it He shouted it loud enough! 'Prefecture of Police' is what he said to the driver...."
Lupin was himself just hailing a taxi, when he changed his mind; and I heard him mutter:
"What's the good? He's got too much start of us...."
He asked if any one called after Mr. Hargrove had gone.
"Yes, an old gentleman with a grey beard and spectacles. He went up to Mr. Hargrove's, rang the bell, and went away again."
"I am much obliged," said Lupin, touching his hat.
He walked away slowly without speaking to me, wearing a thoughtful air. There was no doubt that the problem struck him as very difficult, and that he saw none too clearly in the darkness through which he seemed to be moving with such certainty.
He himself, for that matter, confessed to me:
"These are cases that require much more intuition than reflection. But this one, I may tell you, is well worth taking pains about."
We had now reached the boulevards. Lupin entered a public reading-room and spent a long time consulting the last fortnight's newspapers. Now and again, he mumbled:
"Yes ... yes ... of course ... it's only a guess, but it explains everything.... Well, a guess that answers every question is not far from being the truth...."
It was now dark. We dined at a little restaurant and I noticed that Lupin's face became gradually more animated. His gestures were more decided. He recovered his spirits, his liveliness. When we left, during the walk which he made me take along the Boulevard Haussmann, towards Baron Repstein's house, he was the real Lupin of the great occasions, the Lupin who had made up his mind to go in and win.
We slackened our pace just short of the Rue de Courcelles. Baron Repstein lived on the left-hand side, between this street and the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, in a three-storied private house of which we could see the front, decorated with columns and caryatides.
"Stop!" said Lupin, suddenly.
"What is it?"
"Another proof to confirm my supposition...."
"What proof? I see nothing."
"I do.... That's enough...."
He turned up the collar of his coat, lowered the brim of his soft hat and said:
"By Jove, it'll be a stiff fight! Go to bed, my friend. I'll tell you about my expedition to-morrow ... if it doesn't cost me my life."
"What are you talking about?"
"Oh, I know what I'm saying! I'm risking a lot. First of all, getting arrested, which isn't much. Next, getting killed, which is worse. But...." He gripped my shoulder. "But there's a third thing I'm risking, which is getting hold of two millions.... And, once I possess a capital of two millions, I'll show people what I can do! Good-night, old chap, and, if you never see me again...." He spouted Musset's lines:
"Plant a willow by my grave,
The weeping willow that I love...."
I walked away. Three minutes later—I am continuing the narrative as he told it to me next day—three minutes later, Lupin rang at the door of the Hôtel Repstein.
"Is monsieur le baron at home?"
"Yes," replied the butler, examining the intruder with an air of surprise, "but monsieur le baron does not see people as late as this."
"Does monsieur le baron know of the murder of M. Lavernoux, his land-agent?"
"Well, please tell monsieur le baron that I have come about the murder and that there is not a moment to lose."
A voice called from above:
"Show the gentleman up, Antoine."
In obedience to this peremptory order, the butler led the way to the first floor. In an open doorway stood a gentleman whom Lupin recognized from his photograph in the papers as Baron Repstein, husband of the famous baroness and owner of Etna, the horse of the year.
He was an exceedingly tall, square-shouldered man. His clean-shaven face wore a pleasant, almost smiling expression, which was not affected by the sadness of his eyes. He was dressed in a well-cut morning-coat, with a tan waistcoat and a dark tie fastened with a pearl pin, the value of which struck Lupin as considerable.
He took Lupin into his study, a large, three-windowed room, lined with book-cases, sets of pigeonholes, an American desk and a safe. And he at once asked, with ill-concealed eagerness:
"Do you know anything?"
"Yes, monsieur le baron."
"About the murder of that poor Lavernoux?"
"Yes, monsieur le baron, and about madame le baronne also."
"Do you really mean it? Quick, I entreat you...."
He pushed forward a chair. Lupin sat down and began:
"Monsieur le baron, the circumstances are very serious. I will be brief."
"Yes, do, please."
"Well, monsieur le baron, in a few words, it amounts to this: five or six hours ago, Lavernoux, who, for the last fortnight, had been kept in a sort of enforced confinement by his doctor, Lavernoux—how shall I put it?—telegraphed certain revelations by means of signals which were partly taken down by me and which put me on the track of this case. He himself was surprised in the act of making this communication and was murdered."
"But by whom? By whom?"
"By his doctor."
"Who is this doctor?"
"I don't know. But one of M. Lavernoux's friends, an Englishman called Hargrove, the friend, in fact, with whom he was communicating, is bound to know and is also bound to know the exact and complete meaning of the communication, because, without waiting for the end, he jumped into a motor-cab and drove to the Prefecture of Police."
"Why? Why?... And what is the result of that step?"
"The result, monsieur le baron, is that your house is surrounded. There are twelve detectives under your windows. The moment the sun rises, they will enter in the name of the law and arrest the criminal."
"Then is Lavernoux's murderer concealed in my house? Who is he? One of the servants? But no, for you were speaking of a doctor!..."
"I would remark, monsieur le baron, that when this Mr. Hargrove went to the police to tell them of the revelations made by his friend Lavernoux, he was not aware that his friend Lavernoux was going to be murdered. The step taken by Mr Hargrove had to do with something else...."
"With the disappearance of madame la baronne, of which he knew the secret, thanks to the communication made by Lavernoux."
"What! They know at last! They have found the baroness! Where is she? And the jewels? And the money she robbed me of?"
Baron Repstein was talking in a great state of excitement. He rose and, almost shouting at Lupin, cried:
"Finish your story, sir! I can't endure this suspense!"
Lupin continued, in a slow and hesitating voice:
"The fact is ... you see ... it is rather difficult to explain ... for you and I are looking at the thing from a totally different point of view."
"I don't understand."
"And yet you ought to understand, monsieur le baron.... We begin by saying—I am quoting the newspapers—by saying, do we not, that Baroness Repstein knew all the secrets of your business and that she was able to open not only that safe over there, but also the one at the Crédit Lyonnais in which you kept your securities locked up?"
"Well, one evening, a fortnight ago, while you were at your club, Baroness Repstein, who, unknown to yourself, had converted all those securities into cash, left this house with a travelling-bag, containing your money and all the Princesse de Berny's jewels?"
"And, since then, she has not been seen?"
"Well, there is an excellent reason why she has not been seen."
"This, that Baroness Repstein has been murdered...."
"Murdered!... The baroness!... But you're mad!"
"Murdered ... and probably that same evening."
"I tell you again, you are mad! How can the baroness have been murdered, when the police are following her tracks, so to speak, step by step?"
"They are following the tracks of another woman."
"The murderer's accomplice."
"And who is the murderer?"
"The same man who, for the last fortnight, knowing that Lavernoux, through the situation which he occupied in this house, had discovered the truth, kept him imprisoned, forced him to silence, threatened him, terrorized him; the same man who, finding Lavernoux in the act of communicating with a friend, made away with him in cold blood by stabbing him to the heart."
"The doctor, therefore?"
"But who is this doctor? Who is this malevolent genius, this infernal being who appears and disappears, who slays in the dark and whom nobody suspects?"
"Can't you guess?"
"And do you want to know?"
"Do I want to know?... Why, speak, man, speak!... You know where he is hiding?"
"In this house?"
"And it is he whom the police are after?"
"And I know him?"
"Who is it?"
Lupin had not been more than ten minutes with the baron; and the duel was commencing. The accusation was hurled, definitely, violently, implacably.
"You yourself, got up in a false beard and a pair of spectacles, bent in two, like an old man. In short, you, Baron Repstein; and it is you for a very good reason, of which nobody has thought, which is that, if it was not you who contrived the whole plot, the case becomes inexplicable. Whereas, taking you as the criminal, you as murdering the baroness in order to get rid of her and run through those millions with another woman, you as murdering Lavernoux, your agent, in order to suppress an unimpeachable witness, oh, then the whole case is explained! Well, is it pretty clear? And are not you yourself convinced?"
The baron, who, throughout this conversation, had stood bending over his visitor, waiting for each of his words with feverish avidity, now drew himself up and looked at Lupin as though he undoubtedly had to do with a madman. When Lupin had finished speaking, the baron stepped back two or three paces, seemed on the point of uttering words which he ended by not saying, and then, without taking his eyes from his strange visitor, went to the fireplace and rang the bell.
Lupin did not make a movement. He waited smiling.
The butler entered. His master said:
"You can go to bed, Antoine. I will let this gentleman out."
"Shall I put out the lights, sir?"
"Leave a light in the hall."
Antoine left the room and the baron, after taking a revolver from his desk, at once came back to Lupin, put the weapon in his pocket and said, very calmly:
"You must excuse this little precaution, sir. I am obliged to take it in case you should be mad, though that does not seem likely. No, you are not mad. But you have come here with an object which I fail to grasp; and you have sprung upon me an accusation of so astounding a character that I am curious to know the reason. I have experienced so much disappointment and undergone so much suffering that an outrage of this kind leaves me indifferent. Continue, please."
His voice shook with emotion and his sad eyes seemed moist with tears.
Lupin shuddered. Had he made a mistake? Was the surmise which his intuition had suggested to him and which was based upon a frail groundwork of slight facts, was this surmise wrong?
His attention was caught by a detail: through the opening in the baron's waistcoat he saw the point of the pin fixed in the tie and was thus able to realize the unusual length of the pin. Moreover, the gold stem was triangular and formed a sort of miniature dagger, very thin and very delicate, yet formidable in an expert hand.
And Lupin had no doubt but that the pin attached to that magnificent pearl was the weapon which had pierced the heart of the unfortunate M. Lavernoux.
"You're jolly clever, monsieur le baron!"
The other, maintaining a rather scornful gravity, kept silence, as though he did not understand and as though waiting for the explanation to which he felt himself entitled. And, in spite of everything, this impassive attitude worried Arsène Lupin. Nevertheless, his conviction was so profound and, besides, he had staked so much on the adventure that he repeated:
"Yes, jolly clever, for it is evident that the baroness only obeyed your orders in realizing your securities and also in borrowing the princess's jewels on the pretence of buying them. And it is evident that the person who walked out of your house with a bag was not your wife, but an accomplice, that chorus-girl probably, and that it is your chorus-girl who is deliberately allowing herself to be chased across the continent by our worthy Ganimard. And I look upon the trick as marvellous. What does the woman risk, seeing that it is the baroness who is being looked for? And how could they look for any other woman than the baroness, seeing that you have promised a reward of two hundred thousand francs to the person who finds the baroness?... Oh, that two hundred thousand francs lodged with a solicitor: what a stroke of genius! It has dazzled the police! It has thrown dust in the eyes of the most clear-sighted! A gentleman who lodges two hundred thousand francs with a solicitor is a gentleman who speaks the truth.... So they go on hunting the baroness! And they leave you quietly to settle your affairs, to sell your stud and your two houses to the highest bidder and to prepare your flight! Heavens, what a joke!"
The baron did not wince. He walked up to Lupin and asked, without abandoning his imperturbable coolness:
"Who are you?"
Lupin burst out laughing.
"What can it matter who I am? Take it that I am an emissary of fate, looming out of the darkness for your destruction!"
He sprang from his chair, seized the baron by the shoulder and jerked out:
"Yes, for your destruction, my bold baron! Listen to me! Your wife's three millions, almost all the princess's jewels, the money you received to-day from the sale of your stud and your real estate: it's all there, in your pocket, or in that safe. Your flight is prepared. Look, I can see the leather of your portmanteau behind that hanging. The papers on your desk are in order. This very night, you would have done a guy. This very night, disguised beyond recognition, after taking all your precautions, you would have joined your chorus-girl, the creature for whose sake you have committed murder, that same Nelly Darbal, no doubt, whom Ganimard arrested in Belgium. But for one sudden, unforeseen obstacle: the police, the twelve detectives who, thanks to Lavernoux's revelations, have been posted under your windows. They've cooked your goose, old chap!... Well, I'll save you. A word through the telephone; and, by three or four o'clock in the morning, twenty of my friends will have removed the obstacle, polished off the twelve detectives, and you and I will slip away quietly. My conditions? Almost nothing; a trifle to you: we share the millions and the jewels. Is it a bargain?"
He was leaning over the baron, thundering at him with irresistible energy. The baron whispered:
"I'm beginning to understand. It's blackmail...."
"Blackmail or not, call it what you please, my boy, but you've got to go through with it and do as I say. And don't imagine that I shall give way at the last moment. Don't say to yourself, 'Here's a gentleman whom the fear of the police will cause to think twice. If I run a big risk in refusing, he also will be risking the handcuffs, the cells and the rest of it, seeing that we are both being hunted down like wild beasts.' That would be a mistake, monsieur le baron. I can always get out of it. It's a question of yourself, of yourself alone.... Your money or your life, my lord! Share and share alike ... if not, the scaffold! Is it a bargain?"
A quick movement. The baron released himself, grasped his revolver and fired.
But Lupin was prepared for the attack, the more so as the baron's face had lost its assurance and gradually, under the slow impulse of rage and fear, acquired an expression of almost bestial ferocity that heralded the rebellion so long kept under control.
He fired twice. Lupin first flung himself to one side and then dived at the baron's knees, seized him by both legs and brought him to the ground. The baron freed himself with an effort. The two enemies rolled over in each other's grip; and a stubborn, crafty, brutal, savage struggle followed.
Suddenly, Lupin felt a pain at his chest:
"You villain!" he yelled. "That's your Lavernoux trick; the tie-pin!"
Stiffening his muscles with a desperate effort, he overpowered the baron and clutched him by the throat victorious at last and omnipotent.
"You ass!" he cried. "If you hadn't shown your cards, I might have thrown up the game! You have such a look of the honest man about you! But what a biceps, my lord!... I thought for a moment.... But it's all over, now!... Come, my friend, hand us the pin and look cheerful.... No, that's what I call pulling a face.... I'm holding you too tight, perhaps? My lord's at his last gasp?... Come, be good!... That's it, just a wee bit of string round the wrists; do you allow me?... Why, you and I are agreeing like two brothers! It's touching!... At heart, you know, I'm rather fond of you.... And now, my bonnie lad, mind yourself! And a thousand apologies!..."
Half raising himself, with all his strength he caught the other a terrible blow in the pit of the stomach. The baron gave a gurgle and lay stunned and unconscious.
"That comes of having a deficient sense of logic, my friend," said Lupin. "I offered you half your money. Now I'll give you none at all ... provided I know where to find any of it. For that's the main thing. Where has the beggar hidden his dust? In the safe? By George, it'll be a tough job! Luckily, I have all the night before me...."
He began to feel in the baron's pockets, came upon a bunch of keys, first made sure that the portmanteau behind the curtain held no papers or jewels, and then went to the safe.
But, at that moment, he stopped short: he heard a noise somewhere. The servants? Impossible. Their attics were on the top floor. He listened. The noise came from below. And, suddenly, he understood: the detectives, who had heard the two shots, were banging at the front door, as was their duty, without waiting for daybreak. Then an electric bell rang, which Lupin recognized as that in the hall:
"By Jupiter!" he said. "Pretty work! Here are these jokers coming ... and just as we were about to gather the fruits of our laborious efforts! Tut, tut, Lupin, keep cool! What's expected of you? To open a safe, of which you don't know the secret, in thirty seconds. That's a mere trifle to lose your head about! Come, all you have to do is to discover the secret! How many letters are there in the word? Four?"
He went on thinking, while talking and listening to the noise outside. He double-locked the door of the outer room and then came back to the safe:
"Four ciphers.... Four letters ... four letters.... Who can lend me a hand?... Who can give me just a tiny hint?... Who? Why, Lavernoux, of course! That good Lavernoux, seeing that he took the trouble to indulge in optical telegraphy at the risk of his life.... Lord, what a fool I am!... Why, of course, why, of course, that's it!... By Jove, this is too exciting!... Lupin, you must count ten and suppress that distracted beating of your heart. If not, it means bad work."
He counted ten and, now quite calm, knelt in front of the safe. He turned the four knobs with careful attention. Next, he examined the bunch of keys, selected one of them, then another, and attempted, in vain, to insert them in the lock:
"There's luck in odd numbers," he muttered, trying a third key. "Victory! This is the right one! Open Sesame, good old Sesame, open!"
The lock turned. The door moved on its hinges. Lupin pulled it to him, after taking out the bunch of keys:
"The millions are ours," he said. "Baron, I forgive you!"
And then he gave a single bound backward, hiccoughing with fright. His legs staggered beneath him. The keys jingled together in his fevered hand with a sinister sound. And, for twenty, for thirty seconds, despite the din that was being raised and the electric bells that kept ringing through the house, he stood there, wild-eyed, gazing at the most horrible, the most abominable sight: a woman's body, half-dressed, bent in two in the safe, crammed in, like an over-large parcel ... and fair hair hanging down ... and blood ... clots of blood ... and livid flesh, blue in places, decomposing, flaccid.
"The baroness!" he gasped. "The baroness!... Oh, the monster!..."
He roused himself from his torpor, suddenly, to spit in the murderer's face and pound him with his heels:
"Take that, you wretch!... Take that, you villain!... And, with it, the scaffold, the bran-basket!..."
Meanwhile, shouts came from the upper floors in reply to the detectives' ringing. Lupin heard footsteps scurrying down the stairs. It was time to think of beating a retreat.
In reality, this did not trouble him greatly. During his conversation with the baron, the enemy's extraordinary coolness had given him the feeling that there must be a private outlet. Besides, how could the baron have begun the fight, if he were not sure of escaping the police?
Lupin went into the next room. It looked out on the garden. At the moment when the detectives were entering the house, he flung his legs over the balcony and let himself down by a rain-pipe. He walked round the building. On the opposite side was a wall lined with shrubs. He slipped in between the shrubs and the wall and at once found a little door which he easily opened with one of the keys on the bunch. All that remained for him to do was to walk across a yard and pass through the empty rooms of a lodge; and in a few moments he found himself in the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Of course—and this he had reckoned on—the police had not provided for this secret outlet.
"Well, what do you think of Baron Repstein?" cried Lupin, after giving me all the details of that tragic night. "What a dirty scoundrel! And how it teaches one to distrust appearances! I swear to you, the fellow looked a thoroughly honest man!"
"But what about the millions?" I asked. "The princess's jewels?"
"They were in the safe. I remember seeing the parcel."
"They are there still."
"They are, upon my word! I might tell you that I was afraid of the detectives, or else plead a sudden attack of delicacy. But the truth is simpler ... and more prosaic: the smell was too awful!..."
"Yes, my dear fellow, the smell that came from that safe ... from that coffin.... No, I couldn't do it ... my head swam.... Another second and I should have been ill.... Isn't it silly?... Look, this is all I got from my expedition: the tie-pin.... The bed-rock value of the pearl is thirty thousand francs.... But all the same, I feel jolly well annoyed. What a sell!"
"One more question," I said. "The word that opened the safe!"
"How did you guess it?"
"Oh, quite easily! In fact, I am surprised that I didn't think of it sooner."
"Well, tell me."
"It was contained in the revelations telegraphed by that poor Lavernoux."
"Just think, my dear chap, the mistakes in spelling...."
"The mistakes in spelling?"
"Why, of course! They were deliberate. Surely, you don't imagine that the agent, the private secretary of the baron—who was a company-promoter, mind you, and a racing-man—did not know English better than to spell 'necessery' with an 'e,' 'atack' with one 't,' 'enemy' with two 'n's' and 'prudance' with an 'a'! The thing struck me at once. I put the four letters together and got 'Etna,' the name of the famous horse."
"And was that one word enough?"
"Of course! It was enough to start with, to put me on the scent of the Repstein case, of which all the papers were full, and, next, to make me guess that it was the key-word of the safe, because, on the one hand, Lavernoux knew the gruesome contents of the safe and, on the other, he was denouncing the baron. And it was in the same way that I was led to suppose that Lavernoux had a friend in the street, that they both frequented the same café, that they amused themselves by working out the problems and cryptograms in the illustrated papers and that they had contrived a way of exchanging telegrams from window to window."
"That makes it all quite simple!" I exclaimed.
"Very simple. And the incident once more shows that, in the discovery of crimes, there is something much more valuable than the examination of facts, than observations, deductions, inferences and all that stuff and nonsense. What I mean is, as I said before, intuition ... intuition and intelligence.... And Arsène Lupin, without boasting, is deficient in neither one nor the other!..."July 20, 2016, 5:37 p.m. 0 Report Embed 0
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