Chapter 1: D'Artagnan, Porthos ... and Monte Cristo
It was half-past four; M. Desmalions, the Prefect of Police, was not yet back at the office. His private secretary laid on the desk a bundle of letters and reports which he had annotated for his chief, rang the bell and said to the messenger who entered by the main door:
"Monsieur le Prefet has sent for a number of people to see him at five o'clock. Here are their names. Show them into separate waiting-rooms, so that they can't communicate with one another, and let me have their cards when they come."
The messenger went out. The secretary was turning toward the small door that led to his room, when the main door opened once more and admitted a man who stopped and leaned swaying over the back of a chair.
"Why, it's you, Vérot!" said the secretary. "But what's happened? What's the matter?"
Inspector Vérot was a very stout, powerfully built man, with a big neck and shoulders and a florid complexion. He had obviously been upset by some violent excitement, for his face, streaked with red veins and usually so apoplectic, seemed almost pale.
"Oh, nothing. Monsieur le Secretaire!" he said.
"Yes, yes; you're not looking your usual self. You're gray in the face ... And the way you're perspiring..."
Inspector Vérot wiped his forehead and, pulling himself together, said:
"It's just a little tiredness ... I've been overworking myself lately: I was very keen on clearing up a case which Monsieur Desmalions had put in my hands. All the same, I have a funny sort of feeling..."
"Will you have a pick-me-up?"
"No, no; I'm more thirsty."
"A glass of water?"
"No, thank you."
"I should like—I should like..."
His voice faltered. He wore a troubled look, as if he had suddenly lost his power of getting out another word. But he recovered himself with an effort and asked:
"Isn't Monsieur Desmalions here?"
"No; he won't be back till five, when he has an important meeting."
"Yes ... I know ... most important. That's what I'm here for. But I should have liked to see him first. I should so much have liked to see him!"
The secretary stared at Vérot and said:
"What a state you're in! Is your message so urgent as all that?"
"It's very urgent, indeed. It has to do with a crime that took place a month ago, to the day. And, above all, it's a matter of preventing two murders which are the outcome of that other crime and which are to be committed tonight. Yes, tonight, inevitably, unless we take the necessary steps."
"Sit down, Vérot, won't you?"
"You see, the whole thing has been planned in such an infernal manner! You would never have imagined..."
"Still, Vérot, as you know about it beforehand, and as Monsieur le Prefet is sure to give you full powers..."
"Yes, of course, of course. But, all the same, it's terrible to think that I might miss him. So I wrote him this letter, telling him all I know about the business. I thought it safer."
He handed the secretary a large yellow envelope and added:
"And here's a little box as well; I'll leave it on this table. It contains something that will serve to complete and explain the contents of the letter."
"But why don't you keep all that by you?"
"I'm afraid to. They're watching me. They're trying to get rid of me. I shan't be easy in my mind until some one besides myself knows the secret."
"Have no fear, Vérot. Monsieur le Prefet is bound to be back soon. Meanwhile, I advise you to go to the infirmary and ask for a pick-me-up."
The inspector seemed undecided what to do. Once more he wiped away the perspiration that was trickling down his forehead. Then, drawing himself up, he left the office. When he was gone the secretary slipped the letter into a big bundle of papers that lay on the Prefect's desk and went out by the door leading to his own room.
He had hardly closed it behind him when the other door opened once again and the inspector returned, spluttering:
"Monsieur le Secretaire ... it'd be better if I showed you..."
The unfortunate man was as white as a sheet. His teeth were chattering. When he saw that the secretary was gone, he tried to walk across to his private room. But he was seized with an attack of weakness and sank into a chair, where he remained for some minutes, moaning helplessly:
"What's the matter with me? ... Have I been poisoned, too? ... Oh, I don't like this; I don't like the look of this!"
The desk stood within reach of his hand. He took a pencil, drew a writing-pad toward him and began to scribble a few characters. But he next stammered:
"Why, no, it's not worth while. The Prefect will be reading my letter ... What on earth's the matter with me. I don't like this at all!"
Suddenly he rose to his feet and called out:
"Monsieur le Secretaire, we've got ... we've got to ... It's for tonight. Nothing can prevent..."
Stiffening himself with an effort of his whole will, he made for the door of the secretary's room with little short steps, like an automaton. But he reeled on the way—and had to sit down a second time.
A mad terror shook him from head to foot; and he uttered cries which were too faint, unfortunately, to be heard. He realized this and looked round for a bell, for a gong; but he was no longer able to distinguish anything. A veil of darkness seemed to weigh upon his eyes.
Then he dropped on his knees and crawled to the wall, beating the air with one hand, like a blind man, until he ended by touching some woodwork. It was the partition-wall.
He crept along this; but, as ill-luck would have it, his bewildered brain showed him a false picture of the room, so that, instead of turning to the left as he should have done, he followed the wall to the right, behind a screen which concealed a third door.
His fingers touched the handle of this door and he managed to open it. He gasped, "Help! Help!" and fell at his full length in a sort of cupboard or closet which the Prefect of Police used as a dressing-room.
"Tonight!" he moaned, believing that he was making himself heard and that he was in the secretary's room. "Tonight! The job is fixed for tonight! You'll see ... The mark of the teeth! ... It's awful! ... Oh, the pain I'm in! ... It's the poison! Save me! Help!"
The voice died away. He repeated several times, as though in a nightmare:
"The teeth! the teeth! They're closing!"
Then his voice grew fainter still; and inarticulate sounds issued from his pallid lips. His mouth munched the air like the mouth of one of those old men who seem to be interminably chewing the cud. His head sank lower and lower on his breast. He heaved two or three sighs; a great shiver passed through his body; and he moved no more.
And the death-rattle began in his throat, very softly and rhythmically, broken only by interruptions in which a last instinctive effort appeared to revive the flickering life of the intelligence, and to rouse fitful gleams of consciousness in the dimmed eyes.
The Prefect of Police entered his office at ten minutes to five. M. Desmalions, who had filled his post for the past three years with an authority that made him generally respected, was a heavily built man of fifty with a shrewd and intelligent face. His dress, consisting of a gray jacket-suit, white spats, and a loosely flowing tie, in no way suggested the public official. His manners were easy, simple, and full of good-natured frankness.
He touched a bell, and when his secretary entered, asked:
"Are the people whom I sent for here?"
"Yes, Monsieur le Prefet, and I gave orders that they were to wait in different rooms."
"Oh, it would not have mattered if they had met! However, perhaps it's better as it is. I hope that the American Ambassador did not trouble to come in person?"
"No, Monsieur le Prefet."
"Have you their cards?"
The Prefect of Police took the five visiting cards which his secretary handed him and read:
"Mr. Archibald Bright, First Secretary United States Embassy; Maitre Lepertuis, Solicitor; Juan Caceres, Attache to the Peruvian Legation; Major Comte d'Astrignac, retired."
The fifth card bore merely a name, without address or quality of any kind—
DON LUIS PERENNA
"That's the one I'm curious to see!" said M. Desmalions. "He interests me like the very devil! Did you read the report of the Foreign Legion?"
"Yes, Monsieur le Prefet, and I confess that this gentleman puzzles me, too."
"He does, eh? Did you ever hear of such pluck? A sort of heroic madman, something absolutely wonderful! And then there's that nickname of Arsène Lupin which he earned among his messmates for the way in which he used to boss them and astound them! ... How long is it since the death of Arsène Lupin?"
"It happened two years before your appointment, Monsieur le Prefet. His corpse and Mme. Kesselbach's were discovered under the ruins of a little chalet which was burnt down close to the Luxemburg frontier. It was found at the inquest that he had strangled that monster, Mrs. Kesselbach, whose crimes came to light afterward, and that he hanged himself after setting fire to the chalet."
"It was a fitting end for that—rascal," said M. Desmalions, "and I confess that I, for my part, much prefer not having him to fight against. Let's see, where were we? Are the papers of the Mornington inheritance ready for me?"
"On your desk, Monsieur le Prefet."
"Good. But I was forgetting: is Inspector Vérot here?"
"Yes, Monsieur le Prefet. I expect he's in the infirmary getting something to pull him together."
"Why, what's the matter with him?"
"He struck me as being in a queer state—rather ill."
"How do you mean?"
The secretary described his interview with Inspector Vérot.
"And you say he left a letter for me?" said M. Desmalions with a worried air. "Where is it?"
"Among the papers, Monsieur le Prefet."
"Very odd: it's all very odd. Vérot is a first-rate inspector, a very sober-minded fellow; and he doesn't get frightened easily. You might go and fetch him. Meanwhile, I'll look through my letters."
The secretary hurried away. When he returned, five minutes later, he stated, with an air of astonishment, that he had not seen Inspector Vérot.
"And what's more curious still," he added, "is that the messenger who saw him leave this room saw him come in again almost at once and did not see him go out a second time."
"Perhaps he only passed through here to go to you."
"To me, Monsieur le Prefet? I was in my room all the time."
"Then it's incomprehensible."
"Yes ... unless we conclude that the messenger's attention was distracted for a second, as Vérot is neither here nor next door."
"That must be it. I expect he's gone to get some air outside; and he'll be back at any moment. For that matter, I shan't want him to start with."
The Prefect looked at his watch.
"Ten past five. You might tell the messenger to show those gentlemen in ... Wait, though..."
M. Desmalions hesitated. In turning over the papers he had found Vérot's letter. It was a large, yellow, business envelope, with "Cafe du Pont-Neuf" printed at the top.
The secretary suggested:
"In view of Vérot's absence, Monsieur le Prefet, and of what he said, it might be as well for you to see what's in the letter first."
M. Desmalions paused to reflect.
"Perhaps you're right."
And, making up his mind, he inserted a paper-knife into the envelope and cut it open. A cry escaped him.
"Oh, I say, this is a little too much!"
"What is it, Monsieur le Prefet?"
"Why, look here, a blank ... sheet of paper! That's all the envelope contains!"
"See for yourself—a plain sheet folded in four, with not a word on it."
"But Vérot told me in so many words that he had said in that letter all that he knew about the case."
"He told you so, no doubt, but there you are! Upon my word, if I didn't know Inspector Vérot, I should think he was trying to play a game with me."
"It's a piece of carelessness, Monsieur le Prefet, at the worst."
"No doubt, a piece of carelessness, but I'm surprised at him. It doesn't do to be careless when the lives of two people are at stake. For he must have told you that there is a double murder planned for tonight?"
"Yes, Monsieur le Prefet, and under particularly alarming conditions; infernal was the word he used."
M. Desmalions was walking up and down the room, with his hands behind his back. He stopped at a small table.
"What's this little parcel addressed to me? 'Monsieur le Prefet de Police—to be opened in case of accident.'"
"Oh, yes," said the secretary, "I was forgetting! That's from Inspector Vérot, too; something of importance, he said, and serving to complete and explain the contents of the letter."
"Well," said M. Desmalions, who could not help laughing, "the letter certainly needs explaining; and, though there's no question of 'accident, ' I may as well open the parcel."
As he spoke, he cut the string and discovered, under the paper, a box, a little cardboard box, which might have come from a druggist, but which was soiled and spoiled by the use to which it had been put.
He raised the lid. Inside the box were a few layers of cotton wool, which were also rather dirty, and in between these layers was half a cake of chocolate.
"What the devil does this mean?" growled the Prefect in surprise.
He took the chocolate, looked at it, and at once perceived what was peculiar about this cake of chocolate, which was also undoubtedly the reason why Inspector Vérot had kept it. Above and below, it bore the prints of teeth, very plainly marked, very plainly separated one from the other, penetrating to a depth of a tenth of an inch or so into the chocolate. Each possessed its individual shape and width, and each was divided from its neighbours by a different interval. The jaws which had started eating the cake of chocolate had dug into it the mark of four upper and five lower teeth.
M. Desmalions remained wrapped in thought and, with his head sunk on his chest, for some minutes resumed his walk up and down the room, muttering:
"This is queer ... There's a riddle here to which I should like to know the answer. That sheet of paper, the marks of those teeth: what does it all mean?"
But he was not the man to waste much time over a mystery which was bound to be cleared up presently, as Inspector Vérot must be either at the police office or somewhere just outside; and he said to his secretary:
"I can't keep those five gentlemen waiting any longer. Please have them shown in now. If Inspector Vérot arrives while they are here, as he is sure to do, let me know at once. I want to see him as soon as he comes. Except for that, see that I'm not disturbed on any pretext, won't you?"
Two minutes later the messenger showed in Maitre Lepertuis, a stout, red-faced man, with whiskers and spectacles, followed by Archibald Bright, the Secretary of Embassy, and Caceres, the Peruvian attache. M. Desmalions, who knew all three of them, chatted to them until he stepped forward to receive Major Comte d'Astrignac, the hero of La Chouia, who had been forced into premature retirement by his glorious wounds. The Prefect was complimenting him warmly on his gallant conduct in Morocco when the door opened once more.
"Don Luis Perenna, I believe?" said the Prefect, offering his hand to a man of middle height and rather slender build, wearing the military medal and the red ribbon of the Legion of Honour.
The newcomer's face and expression, his way of holding himself, and his very youthful movements inclined one to look upon him as a man of forty, though there were wrinkles at the corners of the eyes and on the forehead, which perhaps pointed to a few years more. He bowed.
"Yes, Monsieur le Prefet."
"Is that you, Perenna?" cried Comte d'Astrignae. "So you are still among the living?"
"Yes, Major, and delighted to see you again."
"Perenna alive! Why, we had lost all sight of you when I left Morocco! We thought you dead."
"I was a prisoner, that's all."
"A prisoner of the tribesmen; the same thing!"
"Not quite, Major; one can escape from anywhere. The proof stands before you."
The Prefect of Police, yielding to an irresistible attraction to resist, spent some seconds in examining that powerful face, with the smiling glance, the frank and resolute eyes, and the bronzed complexion, which looked as if it had been baked and baked again by the sun.
Then, motioning to his visitors to take chairs around his desk, M. Desmalions himself sat down and made a preliminary statement in clear and deliberate tones:
"The summons, gentlemen, which I addressed to each of you, must have appeared to you rather peremptory and mysterious. And the manner in which I propose to open our conversation is not likely to diminish your surprise. But if you will attach a little credit to my method, you will soon realize that the whole thing is very simple and very natural. I will be as brief as I can."
He spread before him the bundle of documents prepared for him by his secretary and, consulting his notes as he spoke, continued:
"Over fifty years ago, in 1860, three sisters, three orphans, Ermeline, Elizabeth, and Armande Roussel, aged twenty-two, twenty, and eighteen respectively, were living at Saint-Etienne with a cousin named Victor, who was a few years younger. The eldest, Ermeline, was the first to leave Saint-Etienne. She went to London, where she married an Englishman of the name Mornington, by whom she had a son, who was christened Cosmo.
"The family was very poor and went through hard times. Ermeline repeatedly wrote to her sisters to ask for a little assistance. Receiving no reply, she broke off the correspondence altogether. In 1870 Mr. and Mrs. Mornington left England for America. Five years later they were rich. Mr. Mornington died in 1878; but his widow continued to administer the fortune bequeathed to her and, as she had a genius for business and speculation, she increased this fortune until it attained a colossal figure. At her decease, in 1900, she left her son the sum of four hundred million francs."
The amount seemed to make an impression on the Prefect's hearers. He saw the major and Don Luis Perenna exchange a glance and asked:
"You knew Cosmo Mornington, did you not?"
"Yes, Monsieur le Prefet," replied Comte d'Astrignac. "He was in Morocco when Perenna and I were fighting there."
"Just so," said M. Desmalions. "Cosmo Mornington had begun to travel about the world. He took up the practise of medicine, from what I hear, and, when occasion offered, treated the sick with great skill and, of course, without charge. He lived first in Egypt and then in Algiers and Morocco. Last year he settled down in Paris, where he died four weeks ago as the result of a most stupid accident."
"A carelessly administered hypodermic injection, was it not, Monsieur le Prefet?" asked the secretary of the American Embassy. "It was mentioned in the papers and reported to us at the embassy."
"Yes," said Desmalions. "To assist his recovery from a long attack of influenza which had kept him in bed all the winter, Mr. Mornington, by his doctor's orders, used to give himself injections of glycero-phosphate of soda. He must have omitted the necessary precautions on the last occasion when he did so, for the wound was poisoned, inflammation set in with lightning rapidity, and Mr. Mornington was dead in a few hours."
The Prefect of Police turned to the solicitor and asked:
"Have I summed up the facts correctly, Maitre Lepertuis?"
"Absolutely, Monsieur le Prefet."
M. Desmalions continued:
"The next morning, Maitre Lepertuis called here and, for reasons which you will understand when you have heard the document read, showed me Cosmo Mornington's will, which had been placed in his hands."
While the Prefect was looking through the papers, Maitre Lepertuis added:
"I may be allowed to say that I saw my client only once before I was summoned to his death-bed; and that was on the day when he sent for me to come to his room in the hotel to hand me the will which he had just made. This was at the beginning of his influenza. In the course of conversation he told me that he had been making some inquiries with a view to tracing his mother's family, and that he intended to pursue these inquiries seriously after his recovery. Circumstances, as it turned out, prevented his fulfilling his purpose."
Meanwhile, the Prefect of Police had taken from among the documents an open envelope containing two sheets of paper. He unfolded the larger of the two and said:
"This is the will. I will ask you to listen attentively while I read it and also the document attached to it."
The others settled themselves in their chairs; and the Prefect read out:
"The last will and testament of me, Cosmo Mornington, eldest son of Hubert Mornington and Ermeline Roussel, his wife, a naturalized citizen of the United States of America. I give and bequeath to my adopted country three fourths of my estate, to be employed on works of charity in accordance with the instructions, written in my hand, which Maitre Lepertuis will be good enough to forward to the Ambassador of the United States. The remainder of my property, to the value of about one hundred million francs, consisting of deposits in various Paris and London banks, a list of which is in the keeping of Maitre Lepertuis, I give and bequeath, in memory of my dear mother, to her favourite sister Elizabeth Roussel or her direct heirs; or, in default of Elizabeth and her heirs, to her second sister Armande Roussel or her direct heirs; or, in default of both sisters and their heirs, to their cousin Victor Roussel or his direct heirs.
"In the event of my dying without discovering the surviving members of the Roussel family, or of the cousin of the three sisters, I request my friend Don Luis Perenna to make all the necessary investigations. With this object, I hereby appoint him the executor of my will in so far as concerns the European portion of my estate, and I beg him to undertake the conduct of the events that may arise after my death or in consequence of my death to consider himself my representative and to act in all things for the benefit of my memory and the accomplishment of my wishes. In gratitude for this service and in memory of the two occasions on which he saved my life, I give and bequeath to the said Don Luis Perenna the sum of one million francs."
The Prefect stopped for a few seconds. Don Luis murmured:
"Poor Cosmo! ... I should not have needed that inducement to carry out his last wishes."
M. Desmalions continued his reading:
"Furthermore, if, within three months of my death, the investigations made by Don Luis Perenna and by Maitre Lepertuis have led to no result; if no heir and no survivor of the Roussel family have come forward to receive the bequest, then the whole hundred million francs shall definitely, all later claims notwithstanding, accrue to my friend Don Luis Perenna. I know him well enough to feel assured that he will employ this fortune in a manner which shall accord with the loftiness of his schemes and the greatness of the plans which he described to me so enthusiastically in our tent in Morocco."
M. Desmalions stopped once more and raised his eyes to Don Luis, who remained silent and impassive, though a tear glistened on his lashes. Comte d'Astrignac said:
"My congratulations, Perenna."
"Let me remind you, Major," he answered, "that this legacy is subject to a condition. And I swear that, if it depends on me, the survivors of the Roussel family shall be found."
"I'm sure of it," said the officer. "I know you."
"In any case," asked the Prefect of Police of Don Luis, "you do not refuse this conditional legacy?"
"Well, no," said Perenna, with a laugh. "There are things which one can't refuse."
"My question," said the Prefect, "was prompted by the last paragraph of the will: 'If, for any reason, my friend Perenna should refuse this legacy, or if he should have died before the date fixed for its payment, I request the Ambassador of the United States and the Prefect of Police for the time being to consult as to the means of building and maintaining in Paris a university confined to students and artists of American nationality and to devote the money to this purpose. And I hereby authorize the Prefect of Police in any case to receive a sum of three hundred thousand francs out of my estate for the benefit of the Paris Police Fund.'"
M. Desmalions folded the paper and took up another.
"There is a codicil to the will. It consists of a letter which Mr. Mornington wrote to Maitre Lepertuis some time after and which explains certain points with greater precision:
"I request Maitre Lepertuis to open my will on the day after my death, in the presence of the Prefect of Police, who will be good enough to keep the matter an entire secret for a month. One month later, to the day, he will have the kindness to summon to his office Maitre Lepertuis, Don Luis Perenna, and a prominent member of the United States Embassy. Subsequent to the reading of the will, a cheque for one million francs shall be handed to my friend and legatee Don Luis Perenna, after a simple examination of his papers and a simple verification of his identity. I should wish this verification to be made as regards the personality by Major Comte d'Astrignac, who was his commanding officer in Morocco, and who unfortunately had to retire prematurely from the army; and as regards birth by a member of the Peruvian Legation, as Don Luis Perenna, though retaining his Spanish nationality, was born in Peru.
"Furthermore, I desire that my will be not communicated to the Roussel heirs until two days later, at Maitre Lepertuis's office. Finally—and this is the last expression of my wishes as regards the disposal of my estate and the method of proceeding with that disposal—the Prefect of Police will be good enough to summon the persons aforesaid to his office, for a second time, at a date to be selected by himself, not less than sixty nor more than ninety days after the first meeting. Then and not till then will the definite legatee be named and proclaimed according to his rights, nor shall any be so named and proclaimed unless he be present at this meeting, at the conclusion of which Don Luis Perenna, who must also attend it, shall become the definite legatee if, as I have said, no survivor nor heir of the Roussel sisters or of their cousin Victor have come forward to claim the bequest."
Replacing both documents in the envelope the Prefect of Police concluded:
"You have now, gentlemen, heard the will of Mr. Cosmo Mornington, which explains your presence here. A sixth person will join us shortly: one of my detectives, whom I instructed to make the first inquiries about the Roussel family and who will give you the result of his investigations. But, for the moment, we must proceed in accordance with the testator's directions.
"Don Luis Perenna's papers, which he sent me, at my request, a fortnight ago, have been examined by myself and are perfectly in order. As regards his birth, I wrote and begged his Excellency the Peruvian minister to collect the most precise information."
"The minister entrusted this mission to me," said Senor Caceres, the Peruvian attache. "It offered no difficulties. Don Luis Perenna comes of an old Spanish family which emigrated thirty years ago, but which retained its estates and property in Europe. I knew Don Luis's father in America; and he used to speak of his only son with the greatest affection. It was our legation that informed the son, three years ago, of his father's death. I produce a copy of the letter sent to Morocco."
"And I have the original letter here, among the documents forwarded by Don Luis Perenna to the Prefect of Police. Do you, Major, recognize Private Perenna, who fought under your orders in the Foreign Legion?"
"I recognize him," said Comte d'Astrignac.
"Beyond the possibility of a mistake?"
"Beyond the possibility of a mistake and without the least feeling of hesitation."
The Prefect of Police, with a laugh, hinted:
"You recognize Private Perenna, whom the men, carried away by a sort of astounded admiration of his exploits, used to call Arsène Lupin?"
"Yes, Monsieur le Prefet," replied the major sharply, "the one whom the men called Arsène Lupin, but whom the officers called simply the Hero, the one who we used to say was as brave as d'Artagnan, as strong as Porthos..."
"And as mysterious as Monte Cristo," said the Prefect of Police, laughing. "I have all this in the report which I received from the Fourth Regiment of the Foreign Legion. It is not necessary to read the whole of it; but it contains the unprecedented fact that Private Perenna, in the space of two years' time, received the military medal, received the Legion of Honour for exceptional services, and was mentioned fourteen times in dispatches. I will pick out a detail here and there."
"Monsieur le Prefet, I beg of you," protested Don Luis. "These are trivial matters, of no interest to anybody; and I do not see the reason..."
"There is every reason, on the contrary," declared M. Desmalions. "You gentlemen are here not only to hear a will read, but also to authorize its execution as regards the only one of its clauses that is to be carried out at once, the payment of a legacy of a million francs. It is necessary, therefore, that all of you should know what there is to know of the personality of the legatee. Consequently, I propose to continue..."
"In that case, Monsieur le Prefet," said Perenna, rising and making for the door, "you will allow me..."
"Right about turn! Halt! ... Eyes front!" commanded Major d'Astrignac in a jesting tone.
He dragged Don Luis back to the middle of the room and forced him into a chair.
"Monsieur le Prefet," he said, "I plead for mercy for my old comrade-in-arms, whose modesty would really be put to too severe a test if the story of his prowess were read out in front of him. Besides, the report is here; and we can all of us consult it for ourselves. Without having seen it, I second every word of praise that it contains; and I declare that, in the course of my whole military career, I have never met a soldier who could compare with Private Perenna. And yet I saw plenty of fine fellows over there, the sort of demons whom you only find in the Legion and who will get themselves cut to bits for the sheer pleasure of the thing, for the lark of it, as they say, just to astonish one another.
"But not one of them came anywhere near Perenna. The chap whom we nicknamed d'Artagnan, Porthos, and de Bussy deserved to be classed with the most amazing heroes of legend and history. I have seen him perform feats which I should not care to relate, for fear of being treated as an impostor; feats so improbable that today, in my calmer moments, I wonder if I am quite sure that I did see them. One day, at Settat, as we were being pursued..."
"Another word, Major," cried Don Luis, gayly, "and this time I really will go out! I must say you have a nice way of sparing my modesty!"
"My dear Perenna," replied Comte d'Astrignac, "I always told you that you had every good quality and only one fault, which was that you were not a Frenchman."
"And I always answered, Major, that I was French on my mother's side and a Frenchman in heart and temperament. There are things which only a Frenchman can do."
The two men again gripped each other's hands affectionately.
"Come," said the Prefect, "we'll say no more of your feats of prowess, Monsieur, nor of this report. I will mention one thing, however, which is that, after two years, you fell into an ambush of forty Berbers, that you were captured, and that you did not rejoin the Legion until last month."
"Just so, Monsieur le Prefet, in time to receive my discharge, as my five years' service was up."
"But how did Mr. Cosmo Mornington come to mention you in his will, when, at the time when he was making it, you had disappeared from view for eighteen months?"
"Cosmo and I used to correspond."
"Yes; and I had informed him of my approaching escape and my return to Paris."
"But how did you manage it? Where were you? And how did you find the means?..."
Don Luis smiled without answering.
"Monte Cristo, this time," said M. Desmalions. "The mysterious Monte Cristo."
"Monte Cristo, if you like, Monsieur le Prefet. In point of fact, the mystery of my captivity and escape is a rather strange one. It may be interesting to throw some light upon it one of these days. Meanwhile, I must ask for a little credit."
A silence ensued. M. Desmalions once more inspected this curious individual; and he could not refrain from saying, as though in obedience to an association of ideas for which he himself was unable to account:
"One word more, and one only. What were your comrades' reasons for giving you that rather odd nickname of Arsène Lupin? Was it just an allusion to your pluck, to your physical strength?"
"There was something besides, Monsieur le Prefet: the discovery of a very curious theft, of which certain details, apparently incapable of explanation, had enabled me to name the perpetrator."
"So you have a gift for that sort of thing?"
"Yes, Monsieur le Prefet, a certain knack which I had the opportunity of employing in Africa on more than one occasion. Hence my nickname of Arsène Lupin. It was soon after the death of the man himself, you know, and he was much spoken of at the time."
"Was it a serious theft?"
"It was rather; and it happened to be committed upon Cosmo Mornington, who was then living in the Province of Oran. That was really what started our relations."
There was a fresh silence; and Don Luis added:
"Poor Cosmo! That incident gave him an unshakable confidence in my little detective talents. He was always saying, 'Perenna, if I die murdered'—he had a fixed notion in his head that he would meet with a violent death—'if I die murdered, swear that you will pursue the culprit, '"
"His presentiment was not justified," said the Prefect of Police. "Cosmo Mornington was not murdered."
"That's where you make a mistake, Monsieur le Prefet," said Don Luis.
M. Desmalions gave a start.
"What! What's that? Cosmo Mornington—?"
"I say that Cosmo Mornington did not die, as you think, of a carelessly administered injection, but that he died, as he feared he would, by foul play."
"But, Monsieur, your assertion is based on no evidence whatever!"
"It is based on fact, Monsieur le Prefet."
"Were you there? Do you know anything?"
"I was not there. A month ago I was still with the colours. I even admit that, when I arrived in Paris, not having seen the newspapers regularly, I did not know of Cosmo's death. In fact, I learned it from you just now, Monsieur le Prefet."
"In that case, Monsieur, you cannot know more about it than I do, and you must accept the verdict of the doctor."
"I am sorry, but his verdict fails to satisfy me."
"But look here, Monsieur, what prompts you to make the accusation? Have you any evidence?"
"Your own words, Monsieur le Prefet."
"My own words? What do you mean?"
"I will tell you, Monsieur le Prefet. You began by saying that Cosmo Mornington had taken up medicine and practised it with great skill; next, you said that he had given himself an injection which, carelessly administered, set up inflammation and caused his death within a few hours."
"Well, Monsieur le Prefet, I maintain that a man who practises medicine with great skill and who is accustomed to treating sick people, as Cosmo Mornington was, is incapable of giving himself a hypodermic injection without first taking every necessary antiseptic precaution. I have seen Cosmo at work, and I know how he set about things."
"Well, the doctor just wrote a certificate as any doctor will when there is no sort of clue to arouse his suspicions."
"So your opinion is..."
"Maitre Lepertuis," asked Perenna, turning to the solicitor, "did you notice nothing unusual when you were summoned to Mr. Mornington's death-bed?"
"No, nothing. Mr. Mornington was in a state of coma."
"It's a strange thing in itself," observed Don Luis, "that an injection, however badly administered, should produce such rapid results. Were there no signs of suffering?"
"No ... or rather, yes ... Yes, I remember the face showed brown patches which I did not see on the occasion of my first visit."
"Brown patches? That confirms my supposition Cosmo Mornington was poisoned."
"But how?" exclaimed the Prefect.
"By some substance introduced into one of the phials of glycero-phosphate, or into the syringe which the sick man employed."
"But the doctor?" M. Desmalions objected.
"Maitre Lepertuis," Perenna continued, "did you call the doctor's attention to those brown patches?"
"Yes, but he attached no importance to them."
"Was it his ordinary medical adviser?"
"No, his ordinary medical adviser, Doctor Pujol, who happens to be a friend of mine and who had recommended me to him as a solicitor, was ill. The doctor whom I saw at his death-bed must have been a local practitioner."
"I have his name and address here," said the Prefect of Police, who had turned up the certificate. "Doctor Bellavoine, 14 Rue d'Astorg."
"Have you a medical directory, Monsieur le Prefet?"
M. Desmalions opened a directory and turned over the pages. Presently he declared:
"There is no Doctor Bellavoine; and there is no doctor living at 14 Rue d'Astorg."