The Hollow Needle
Chapter 1: The Shot
Raymonde listened. The noise was repeated twice over, clearly enough to be distinguished from the medley of vague sounds that formed the great silence of the night and yet too faintly to enable her to tell whether it was near or far, within the walls of the big country-house, or outside, among the murky recesses of the park.
She rose softly. Her window was half open: she flung it back wide. The moonlight lay over a peaceful landscape of lawns and thickets, against which the straggling ruins of the old abbey stood out in tragic outlines, truncated columns, mutilated arches, fragments of porches and shreds of flying buttresses. A light breeze hovered over the face of things, gliding noiselessly through the bare motionless branches of the trees, but shaking the tiny budding leaves of the shrubs.
And, suddenly, she heard the same sound again. It was on the left and on the floor below her, in the living rooms, therefore, that occupied the left wing of the house. Brave and plucky though she was, the girl felt afraid. She slipped on her dressing gown and took the matches.
A voice as low as a breath was calling to her from the next room, the door of which had not been closed. She was feeling her way there, when Suzanne, her cousin, came out of the room and fell into her arms:
"Raymonde—is that you? Did you hear... ?"
"Yes. So you're not asleep?"
"I suppose the dog woke me—some time ago. But he's not barking now. What time is it?"
"Listen! Surely, some one's walking in the drawing room!"
"There's no danger, your father is down there, Suzanne."
"But there is danger for him. His room is next to the boudoir."
"M. Daval is there too..."
"At the other end of the house. He could never hear."
They hesitated, not knowing what course to decide upon. Should they call out? Cry for help? They dared not; they were frightened of the sound of their own voices. But Suzanne, who had gone to the window, suppressed a scream:
"Look!—A man!—Near the fountain!"
A man was walking away at a rapid pace. He carried under his arm a fairly large load, the nature of which they were unable to distinguish: it knocked against his leg and impeded his progress. They saw him pass near the old chapel and turn toward a little door in the wall. The door must have been open, for the man disappeared suddenly from view and they failed to hear the usual grating of the hinges.
"He came from the drawing room," whispered Suzanne.
"No, the stairs and the hall would have brought him out more to the left—Unless..."
The same idea struck them both. They leant out. Below them, a ladder stood against the front of the house, resting on the first floor. A glimmer lit up the stone balcony. And another man, who was also carrying something, bestrode the baluster, slid down the ladder and ran away by the same road as the first.
Suzanne, scared to the verge of swooning, fell on her knees, stammering:
"Let us call out—let us call for help..."
"Who would come? Your father—and if there are more of them left—and they throw themselves upon him... ?"
"Then—then—we might call the servants—Your bell rings on their floor."
"Yes—yes—perhaps, that's better. If only they come in time!"
Raymonde felt for the electric push near her bed and pressed it with her finger. They heard the bell ring upstairs and had an impression that its shrill sound must also reach any one below.
They waited. The silence became terrifying and the very breeze no longer shook the leaves of the shrubs.
"I'm frightened—frightened," said Suzanne.
And, suddenly, from the profound darkness below them, came the sound of a struggle, a crash of furniture overturned, words, exclamations and then, horrible and ominous, a hoarse groan, the gurgle of a man who is being murdered...
Raymonde leapt toward the door. Suzanne clung desperately to her arm:
"No—no—don't leave me—I'm frightened..."
Raymonde pushed her aside and darted down the corridor, followed by Suzanne, who staggered from wall to wall, screaming as she went. Raymonde reached the staircase, flew down the stairs, flung herself upon the door of the big drawing room and stopped short, rooted to the threshold, while Suzanne sank in a heap by her side. Facing them, at three steps' distance, stood a man, with a lantern in his hand. He turned it upon the two girls, blinding them with the light, stared long at their pale faces, and then, without hurrying, with the calmest movements in the world, took his cap, picked up a scrap of paper and two bits of straw, removed some footmarks from the carpet, went to the balcony, turned to the girls, made them a deep bow and disappeared.
Suzanne was the first to run to the little boudoir which separated the big drawing-room from her father's bedroom. But, at the entrance, a hideous sight appalled her. By the slanting rays of the moon, she saw two apparently lifeless bodies lying close to each other on the floor. She leaned over one of them:
"Father!—Father!—Is it you? What has happened to you?" she cried, distractedly.
After a moment, the Comte de Gesvres moved. In a broken voice, he said:
"Don't be afraid—I am not wounded—Daval?—Is he alive?—The knife?—The knife?..."
Two men-servants now arrived with candles. Raymonde flung herself down before the other body and recognized Jean Daval, the count's private secretary. A little stream of blood trickled from his neck. His face already wore the pallor of death.
Then she rose, returned to the drawing room, took a gun that hung in a trophy of arms on the wall and went out on the balcony. Not more than fifty or sixty seconds had elapsed since the man had set his foot on the top rung of the ladder. He could not, therefore, be very far away, the more so as he had taken the precaution to remove the ladder, in order to prevent the inmates of the house from using it. And soon she saw him skirting the remains of the old cloister. She put the gun to her shoulder, calmly took aim and fired. The man fell.
"That's done it! That's done it!" said one of the servants. "We've got this one. I'll run down."
"No, Victor, he's getting up ... You had better go down by the staircase and make straight for the little door in the wall. That's the only way he can escape."
Victor hurried off, but, before he reached the park, the man fell down again. Raymonde called the other servant:
"Albert, do you see him down there? Near the main cloister?..."
"Yes, he's crawling in the grass. He's done for..."
"Watch him from here."
"There's no way of escape for him. On the right of the ruins is the open lawn..."
"And, Victor, do you guard the door, on the left," she said, taking up her gun.
"But, surely, you are not going down, miss?"
"Yes, yes," she said, with a resolute accent and abrupt movements; "let me be—I have a cartridge left—If he stirs..."
She went out. A moment later, Albert saw her going toward the ruins. He called to her from the window:
"He's dragged himself behind the cloister. I can't see him. Be careful, miss..."
Raymonde went round the old cloisters, to cut off the man's retreat, and Albert soon lost sight of her. After a few minutes, as he did not see her return, he became uneasy and, keeping his eye on the ruins, instead of going down by the stairs he made an effort to reach the ladder. When he had succeeded, he scrambled down and ran straight to the cloisters near which he had seen the man last. Thirty paces farther, he found Raymonde, who was searching with Victor.
"Well?" he asked.
"There's no laying one's hands on him," replied Victor.
"The little door?"
"I've been there; here's the key."
"Oh, we've got him safe enough, the scoundrel—He'll be ours in ten minutes."
The farmer and his son, awakened by the shot, now came from the farm buildings, which were at some distance on the right, but within the circuit of the walls. They had met no one.
"Of course not," said Albert. "The ruffian can't have left the ruins—We'll dig him out of some hole or other."
They organized a methodical search, beating every bush, pulling aside the heavy masses of ivy rolled round the shafts of the columns. They made sure that the chapel was properly locked and that none of the panes were broken. They went round the cloisters and examined every nook and corner. The search was fruitless.
There was but one discovery: at the place where the man had fallen under Raymonde's gun, they picked up a chauffeur's cap, in very soft buff leather; besides that, nothing.
The gendarmerie of Ouville-la-Riviere were informed at six o'clock in the morning and at once proceeded to the spot, after sending an express to the authorities at Dieppe with a note describing the circumstances of the crime, the imminent capture of the chief criminal and "the discovery of his headgear and of the dagger with which the crime had been committed."
At ten o'clock, two hired conveyances came down the gentle slope that led to the house. One of them, an old-fashioned calash, contained the deputy public prosecutor and the examining magistrate, accompanied by his clerk. In the other, a humble fly, were seated two reporters, representing the Journal de Rouen and a great Paris paper.
The old chateau came into view—once the abbey residence of the priors of Ambrumesy, mutilated under the Revolution, both restored by the Comte de Gesvres, who had now owned it for some twenty years. It consists of a main building, surmounted by a pinnacled clock-tower, and two wings, each of which is surrounded by a flight of steps with a stone balustrade. Looking across the walls of the park and beyond the upland supported by the high Norman cliffs, you catch a glimpse of the blue line of the Channel between the villages of Sainte-Marguerite and Varengeville.
Here the Comte de Gesvres lived with his daughter Suzanne, a delicate, fair-haired, pretty creature, and his niece Raymonde de Saint-Veran, whom he had taken to live with him two years before, when the simultaneous death of her father and mother left Raymonde an orphan. Life at the chateau was peaceful and regular. A few neighbors paid an occasional visit. In the summer, the count took the two girls almost every day to Dieppe. He was a tall man, with a handsome, serious face and hair that was turning gray. He was very rich, managed his fortune himself and looked after his extensive estates with the assistance of his secretary, Jean Daval.
Immediately upon his arrival, the examining magistrate took down the first observations of Sergeant Quevillon of the gendarmes. The capture of the criminal, imminent though it might be, had not yet been effected, but every outlet of the park was held. Escape was impossible.
The little company next crossed the chapter-hall and the refectory, both of which are on the ground floor, and went up to the first story. They at once remarked the perfect order that prevailed in the drawing room. Not a piece of furniture, not an ornament but appeared to occupy its usual place; nor was there any gap among the ornaments or furniture. On the right and left walls hung magnificent Flemish tapestries with figures. On the panels of the wall facing the windows were four fine canvases, in contemporary frames, representing mythological scenes. These were the famous pictures by Rubens which had been left to the Comte de Gesvres, together with the Flemish tapestries, by his maternal uncle, the Marques de Bobadilla, a Spanish grandee.
M. Filleul remarked:
"If the motive of the crime was theft, this drawing room, at any rate, was not the object of it."
"You can't tell!" said the deputy, who spoke little, but who, when he did, invariably opposed the magistrate's views.
"Why, my dear sir, the first thought of a burglar would be to carry off those pictures and tapestries, which are universally renowned."
"Perhaps there was no time."
"We shall see."
At that moment, the Comte de Gesvres entered, accompanied by the doctor. The count, who did not seem to feel the effects of the attack to which he had been subjected, welcomed the two officials. Then he opened the door of the boudoir.
This room, which no one had been allowed to enter since the discovery of the crime, differed from the drawing room inasmuch as it presented a scene of the greatest disorder. Two chairs were overturned, one of the tables smashed to pieces and several objects—a traveling-clock, a portfolio, a box of stationery—lay on the floor. And there was blood on some of the scattered pieces of note-paper.
The doctor turned back the sheet that covered the corpse. Jean Daval, dressed in his usual velvet suit, with a pair of nailed boots on his feet, lay stretched on his back, with one arm folded beneath him. His collar and tie had been removed and his shirt opened, revealing a large wound in the chest.
"Death must have been instantaneous," declared the doctor. "One blow of the knife was enough."
"It was, no doubt, the knife which I saw on the drawing-room mantelpiece, next to a leather cap?" said the examining magistrate.
"Yes," said the Comte de Gesvres, "the knife was picked up here. It comes from the same trophy in the drawing room from which my niece, Mlle. de Saint-Veran, snatched the gun. As for the chauffeur's cap, that evidently belongs to the murderer."
M. Filleul examined certain further details in the room, put a few questions to the doctor and then asked M. de Gesvres to tell him what he had seen and heard. The count worded his story as follows:
"Jean Daval woke me up. I had been sleeping badly, for that matter, with gleams of consciousness in which I seemed to hear noises, when, suddenly opening my eyes, I saw Daval standing at the foot of my bed, with his candle in his hand and fully dressed—as he is now, for he often worked late into the night. He seemed greatly excited and said, in a low voice: 'There's some one in the drawing room.' I heard a noise myself. I got up and softly pushed the door leading to this boudoir. At the same moment, the door over there, which opens into the big drawing room, was thrown back and a man appeared who leaped at me and stunned me with a blow on the temple. I am telling you this without any details, Monsieur le Juge d'Instruction, for the simple reason that I remember only the principal facts, and that these facts followed upon one another with extraordinary swiftness."
"And after that?..."
"After that, I don't know—I fainted. When I came to, Daval lay stretched by my side, mortally wounded."
"At first sight, do you suspect no one?"
"You have no enemy?"
"I know of none."
"Nor M. Daval either?"
"Daval! An enemy? He was the best creature that ever lived. M. Daval was my secretary for twenty years and, I may say, my confidant; and I have never seen him surrounded with anything but love and friendship."
"Still, there has been a burglary and there has been a murder: there must be a motive for all that."
"The motive? Why, it was robbery pure and simple."
"Robbery? Have you been robbed of something, then?"
"In that case... ?"
"In that case, if they have stolen nothing and if nothing is missing, they at least took something away."
"I don't know. But my daughter and my niece will tell you, with absolute certainty, that they saw two men in succession cross the park and that those two men were carrying fairly heavy loads."
"The young ladies..."
"The young ladies may have been dreaming, you think? I should be tempted to believe it, for I have been exhausting myself in inquiries and suppositions ever since this morning. However, it is easy enough to question them."
The two cousins were sent for to the big drawing room. Suzanne, still quite pale and trembling, could hardly speak. Raymonde, who was more energetic, more of a man, better looking, too, with the golden glint in her brown eyes, described the events of the night and the part which she had played in them.
"So I may take it, mademoiselle, that your evidence is positive?"
"Absolutely. The men who went across the park were carrying things away with them."
"And the third man?"
"He went from here empty-handed."
"Could you describe him to us?"
"He kept on dazzling us with the light of his lantern. All that I could say is that he is tall and heavily built."
"Is that how he appeared to you, mademoiselle?" asked the magistrate, turning to Suzanne de Gesvres.
"Yes—or, rather, no," said Suzanne, reflecting. "I thought he was about the middle height and slender."
M. Filleul smiled; he was accustomed to differences of opinion and sight in witnesses to one and the same fact:
"So we have to do, on the one hand, with a man, the one in the drawing room, who is, at the same time, tall and short, stout and thin, and, on the other, with two men, those in the park, who are accused of removing from that drawing room objects—which are still here!"
M. Filleul was a magistrate of the ironic school, as he himself would say. He was also a very ambitious magistrate and one who did not object to an audience nor to an occasion to display his tactful resource in public, as was shown by the increasing number of persons who now crowded into the room. The journalists had been joined by the farmer and his son, the gardener and his wife, the indoor servants of the chateau and the two cabmen who had driven the flies from Dieppe.
M. Filleul continued:
"There is also the question of agreeing upon the way in which the third person disappeared. Was this the gun you fired, mademoiselle, and from this window?"
"Yes. The man reached the tombstone which is almost buried under the brambles, to the left of the cloisters."
"But he got up again?"
"Only half. Victor ran down at once to guard the little door and I followed him, leaving the second footman, Albert, to keep watch here."
Albert now gave his evidence and the magistrate concluded:
"So, according to you, the wounded man was not able to escape on the left, because your fellow-servant was watching the door, nor on the right, because you would have seen him cross the lawn. Logically, therefore, he is, at the present moment, in the comparatively restricted space that lies before our eyes."
"I am sure of it."
"And you, mademoiselle?"
"And I, too," said Victor.
The deputy prosecutor exclaimed, with a leer:
"The field of inquiry is quite narrow. We have only to continue the search commenced four hours ago."
"We may be more fortunate."
M. Filleul took the leather cap from the mantel, examined it and, beckoning to the sergeant of gendarmes, whispered:
"Sergeant, send one of your men to Dieppe at once. Tell him to go to Maigret, the hatter, in the Rue de la Barre, and ask M. Maigret to tell him, if possible, to whom this cap was sold."
The "field of inquiry," in the deputy's phrase, was limited to the space contained between the house, the lawn on the right and the angle formed by the left wall and the wall opposite the house, that is to say, a quadrilateral of about a hundred yards each way, in which the ruins of Ambrumesy, the famous mediaeval monastery, stood out at intervals.
They at once noticed the traces left by the fugitive in the trampled grass. In two places, marks of blackened blood, now almost dried up, were observed. After the turn at the end of the cloisters, there was nothing more to be seen, as the nature of the ground, here covered with pine-needles, did not lend itself to the imprint of a body. But, in that case, how had the wounded man succeeded in escaping the eyes of Raymonde, Victor and Albert? There was nothing but a few brakes, which the servants and the gendarmes had beaten over and over again, and a number of tombstones, under which they had explored. The examining magistrate made the gardener, who had the key, open the chapel, a real gem of carving, a shrine in stone which had been respected by time and the revolutionaries, and which, with the delicate sculpture work of its porch and its miniature population of statuettes, was always looked upon as a marvelous specimen of the Norman-Gothic style. The chapel, which was very simple in the interior, with no other ornament than its marble altar, offered no hiding-place. Besides, the fugitive would have had to obtain admission. And by what means?
The inspection brought them to the little door in the wall that served as an entrance for the visitors to the ruins. It opened on a sunk road running between the park wall and a copsewood containing some abandoned quarries. M. Filleul stooped forward: the dust of the road bore marks of anti-skid pneumatic tires. Raymonde and Victor remembered that, after the shot, they had seemed to hear the throb of a motor-car.
The magistrate suggested:
"The man must have joined his confederates."
"Impossible!" cried Victor. "I was here while mademoiselle and Albert still had him in view."
"Nonsense, he must be somewhere! Outside or inside: we have no choice!"
"He is here," the servants insisted, obstinately.
The magistrate shrugged his shoulders and went back to the house in a more or less sullen mood. There was no doubt that it was an unpromising case. A theft in which nothing had been stolen; an invisible prisoner: what could be less satisfactory?
It was late. M. de Gesvres asked the officials and the two journalists to stay to lunch. They ate in silence and then M. Filleul returned to the drawing room, where he questioned the servants. But the sound of a horse's hoofs came from the courtyard and, a moment after, the gendarme who had been sent to Dieppe entered.
"Well, did you see the hatter?" exclaimed the magistrate, eager at last to obtain some positive information.
"I saw M. Maigret. The cap was sold to a cab-driver."
"Yes, a driver who stopped his fly before the shop and asked to be supplied with a yellow-leather chauffeur's cap for one of his customers. This was the only one left. He paid for it, without troubling about the size, and drove off. He was in a great hurry."
"What sort of fly was it?"
"And on what day did this happen?"
"On what day? Why, to-day, at eight o'clock this morning."
"This morning? What are you talking about?"
"The cap was bought this morning."
"But that's impossible, because it was found last night in the park. If it was found there, it must have been there; and, consequently, it must have been bought before."
"The hatter told me it was bought this morning."
There was a moment of general bewilderment. The nonplussed magistrate strove to understand. Suddenly, he started, as though struck with a gleam of light:
"Fetch the cabman who brought us here this morning! The man who drove the calash! Fetch him at once!"
The sergeant of gendarmes and his subordinate ran off to the stables. In a few minutes, the sergeant returned alone.
"Where's the cabman?"
"He asked for food in the kitchen, ate his lunch and then..."
"And then... ?"
"He went off."
"With his fly?"
"No. Pretending that he wanted to go and see a relation at Ouville, he borrowed the groom's bicycle. Here are his hat and greatcoat."
"But did he leave bare-headed?"
"No, he took a cap from his pocket and put it on."
"Yes, a yellow leather cap, it seems."
"A yellow leather cap? Why, no, we've got it here!"
"That's true, Monsieur le Juge d'Instruction, but his is just like it."
The deputy sniggered:
"Very funny! Most amusing! There are two caps—One, the real one, which constituted our only piece of evidence, has gone off on the head of the sham flyman! The other, the false one, is in your hands. Oh, the fellow has had us nicely!"
"Catch him! Fetch him back!" cried M. Filleul. "Two of your men on horseback, Sergeant Quevillon, and at full speed!"
"He is far away by this time," said the deputy.
"He can be as far as he pleases, but still we must lay hold of him."
"I hope so; but I think, Monsieur le Juge d'Instruction, that your efforts should be concentrated here above all. Would you mind reading this scrap of paper, which I have just found in the pocket of the coat?"
And the deputy prosecutor handed M. Filleul a piece of paper, folded in four, containing these few words written in pencil, in a more or less common hand:
"Woe betide the young lady, if she has killed the governor!"
The incident caused a certain stir.
"A word to the wise!" muttered the deputy. "We are now forewarned."
"Monsieur le Comte," said the examining magistrate, "I beg you not to be alarmed. Nor you either, mademoiselle. This threat is of no importance, as the police are on the spot. We shall take every precaution and I will answer for your safety. As for you, gentlemen. I rely on your discretion. You have been present at this inquiry, thanks to my excessive kindness toward the Press, and it would be making me an ill return..."
He interrupted himself, as though an idea had struck him, looked at the two young men, one after the other, and, going up to the first, asked:
"What paper do you represent, sir?"
"The Journal de Rouen."
"Have you your credentials?"
The card was in order. There was no more to be said. M. Filleul turned to the other reporter:
"And you, sir?"
"Yes, you: what paper do you belong to?"
"Why, Monsieur le Juge d'Instruction, I write for a number of papers—all over the place..."
"I haven't any."
"Oh! How is that?"
"For a newspaper to give you a card, you have to be on its regular staff."
"Well, I am only an occasional contributor, a free-lance. I send articles to this newspaper and that. They are published or declined according to circumstances."
"In that case, what is your name? Where are your papers?"
"My name would tell you nothing. As for papers, I have none."
"You have no paper of any kind to prove your profession!"
"I have no profession."
"But look here, sir," cried the magistrate, with a certain asperity, "you can't expect to preserve your incognito after introducing yourself here by a trick and surprising the secrets of the police!"
"I beg to remark, Monsieur le Juge d'Instruction, that you asked me nothing when I came in, and that therefore I had nothing to say. Besides, it never struck me that your inquiry was secret, when everybody was admitted—including even one of the criminals!"
He spoke softly, in a tone of infinite politeness. He was quite a young man, very tall, very slender and dressed without the least attempt at fashion, in a jacket and trousers both too small for him. He had a pink face like a girl's, a broad forehead topped with close-cropped hair, and a scrubby and ill-trimmed fair beard. His bright eyes gleamed with intelligence. He seemed not in the least embarrassed and wore a pleasant smile, free from any shade of banter.
M. Filleul looked at him with an aggressive air of distrust. The two gendarmes came forward. The young man exclaimed, gaily:
"Monsieur le Juge d'Instruction, you clearly suspect me of being an accomplice. But, if that were so, would I not have slipped away at the right moment, following the example of my fellow-criminal?"
"You might have hoped..."
"Any hope would have been absurd. A moment's reflection, Monsieur le Juge d'Instruction, will make you agree with me that, logically speaking..."
M. Filleul looked him straight in the eyes and said, sharply:
"No more jokes! Your name?"
"Sixth-form pupil at the Lycee Janson-de-Sailly."
M. Filleul opened a pair of startled eyes.
"What are you talking about? Sixth-form pupil..."
"At the Lycee Janson, Rue de la Pompe, number..."
"Oh, look here," exclaimed M. Filleul, "you're trying to take me in! This won't do, you know; a joke can go too far!"
"I must say, Monsieur le Juge d'Instruction, that your astonishment surprises me. What is there to prevent my being a sixth-form pupil at the Lycee Janson? My beard, perhaps? Set your mind at ease: my beard is false!"
Isidore Beautrelet pulled off the few curls that adorned his chin, and his beardless face appeared still younger and pinker, a genuine schoolboy's face. And, with a laugh like a child's, revealing his white teeth:
"Are you convinced now?" he asked. "Do you want more proofs? Here, you can read the address on these letters from my father: 'To Monsieur Isidore Beautrelet, Indoor Pupil, Lycee Janson-de-Sailly.'"
Convinced or not, M. Filleul did not look as if he liked the story. He asked, gruffly:
"What are you doing here?"
"Why—I'm—I'm improving my mind."
"There are schools for that: yours, for instance."
"You forget, Monsieur le Juge d'Instruction, that this is the twenty-third of April and that we are in the middle of the Easter holidays."
"Well, I have every right to spend my holidays as I please."
"My father lives at the other end of the country, in Savoy, and he himself advised me to take a little trip on the North Coast."
"With a false beard?"
"Oh, no! That's my own idea. At school, we talk a great deal about mysterious adventures; we read detective stories, in which people disguise themselves; we imagine any amount of terrible and intricate cases. So I thought I would amuse myself; and I put on this false beard. Besides, I enjoyed the advantage of being taken seriously and I pretended to be a Paris reporter. That is how, last night, after an uneventful period of more than a week, I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of my Rouen colleague; and, this morning, when he heard of the Ambrumesy murder, he very kindly suggested that I should come with him and that we should share the cost of a fly."
Isidore Beautrelet said all this with a frank and artless simplicity of which it was impossible not to feel the charm. M. Filleul himself, though maintaining a distrustful reserve, took a certain pleasure in listening to him. He asked him, in a less peevish tone:
"And are you satisfied with your expedition?"
"Delighted! All the more as I had never been present at a case of the sort and I find that this one is not lacking in interest."
"Nor in that mysterious intricacy which you prize so highly..."
"And which is so stimulating, Monsieur le Juge d'Instruction! I know nothing more exciting than to see all the facts coming up out of the shadow, clustering together, so to speak, and gradually forming the probable truth."
"The probable truth! You go pretty fast, young man! Do you suggest that you have your little solution of the riddle ready?"
"Oh, no!" replied Beautrelet, with a laugh.
"Only—it seems to me that there are certain points on which it is not impossible to form an opinion; and others, even, are so precise as to warrant—a conclusion."
"Oh, but this is becoming very curious and I shall get to know something at last! For I confess, to my great confusion, that I know nothing."
"That is because you have not had time to reflect, Monsieur le Juge d'Instruction. The great thing is to reflect. Facts very seldom fail to carry their own explanation!"
"And, according to you, the facts which we have just ascertained carry their own explanation?"
"Don't you think so yourself? In any case, I have ascertained none besides those which are set down in the official report."
"Good! So that, if I were to ask you which were the objects stolen from this room..."
"I should answer that I know."
"Bravo! My gentleman knows more about it than the owner himself. M. de Gesvres has everything accounted for: M. Isidore Beautrelet has not. He misses a bookcase in three sections and a life-size statue which nobody ever noticed. And, if I asked you the name of the murderer?"
"I should again answer that I know it."
All present gave a start. The deputy and the journalist drew nearer. M. de Gesvres and the two girls, impressed by Beautrelet's tranquil assurance, listened attentively.
"You know the murderer's name?"
"And the place where he is concealed, perhaps?"
M. Filleul rubbed his hands.
"What a piece of luck! This capture will do honor to my career. And can you make me these startling revelations now?"
"Yes, now—or rather, if you do not mind, in an hour or two, when I shall have assisted at your inquiry to the end."
"No, no, young man, here and now, please." At that moment Raymonde de Saint-Veran, who had not taken her eyes from Isidore Beautrelet since the beginning of this scene, came up to M. Filleul:
"Monsieur le Juge d'Instruction..."
She hesitated for two or three seconds, with her eyes fixed on Beautrelet, and then, addressing M. Filleul:
"I should like you to ask monsieur the reason why he was walking yesterday in the sunk road which leads up to the little door."
It was an unexpected and dramatic stroke. Isidore Beautrelet appeared nonplussed:
"I, mademoiselle? I? You saw me yesterday?"
Raymonde remained thoughtful, with her eyes upon Beautrelet, as though she were trying to settle her own conviction, and then said, in a steady voice:
"At four o'clock in the afternoon, as I was crossing the wood, I met in the sunk road a young man of monsieur's height, dressed like him and wearing a beard cut in the same way—and I received a very clear impression that he was trying to hide."
"And it was I?"
"I could not say that as an absolute certainty, for my recollection is a little vague. Still—still, I think so—if not, it would be an unusual resemblance..."
M. Filleul was perplexed. Already taken in by one of the confederates, was he now going to let himself be tricked by this self-styled schoolboy? Certainly, the young man's manner spoke in his favor; but one can never tell!
"What have you to say, sir?"
"That mademoiselle is mistaken, as I can easily show you with one word. Yesterday, at the time stated, I was at Veules."
"You will have to prove it, you will have to. In any case, the position is not what it was. Sergeant, one of your men will keep monsieur company."
Isidore Beautrelet's face denoted a keen vexation.
"Will it be for long?"
"Long enough to collect the necessary information."
"Monsieur le Juge d'Instruction, I beseech you to collect it with all possible speed and discretion."
"My father is an old man. We are very much attached to each other—and I would not have him suffer on my account."
The more or less pathetic note in his voice made a bad impression on M. Filleul. It suggested a scene in a melodrama. Nevertheless, he promised:
"This evening—or to-morrow at latest, I shall know what to think."
The afternoon was wearing on. The examining magistrate returned to the ruins of the cloisters, after giving orders that no unauthorized persons were to be admitted, and patiently, methodically, dividing the ground into lots which were successively explored, himself directed the search. But at the end of the day he was no farther than at the start; and he declared, before an army of reporters who, during that time, had invaded the chateau:
"Gentlemen, everything leads us to suppose that the wounded man is here, within our reach; everything, that is, except the reality, the fact. Therefore, in our humble opinion, he must have escaped and we shall find him outside."
By way of precaution, however, he arranged, with the sergeant of gendarmes, for a complete watch to be kept over the park and, after making a fresh examination of the two drawing rooms, visiting the whole of the chateau and surrounding himself with all the necessary information, he took the road back to Dieppe, accompanied by the deputy prosecutor.
Night fell. As the boudoir was to remain locked, Jean Daval's body had been moved to another room. Two women from the neighborhood sat up with it, assisted by Suzanne and Raymonde. Downstairs, young Isidore Beautrelet slept on the bench in the old oratory, under the watchful eye of the village policeman, who had been attached to his person. Outside, the gendarmes, the farmer and a dozen peasants had taken up their position among the ruins and along the walls.
All was still until eleven o'clock; but, at ten minutes past eleven, a shot echoed from the other side of the house.
"Attention!" roared the sergeant. "Two men remain here: you, Fossier—and you, Lecanu—The others at the double!"
They all rushed forward and ran round the house on the left. A figure was seen to make away in the dark. Then, suddenly, a second shot drew them farther on, almost to the borders of the farm. And, all at once, as they arrived, in a band, at the hedge which lines the orchard, a flame burst out, to the right of the farmhouse, and other names also rose in a thick column. It was a barn burning, stuffed to the ridge with straw.
"The scoundrels!" shouted the sergeant. "They've set fire to it. Have at them, lads! They can't be far away!"
But the wind was turning the flames toward the main building; and it became necessary, before all things, to ward off the danger. They all exerted themselves with the greater ardor inasmuch as M. de Gesvres, hurrying to the scene of the disaster, encouraged them with the promise of a reward. By the time that they had mastered the flames, it was two o'clock in the morning. All pursuit would have been vain.
"We'll look into it by daylight," said the sergeant. "They are sure to have left traces: we shall find them."
"And I shall not be sorry," added M. de Gesvres, "to learn the reason of this attack. To set fire to trusses of straw strikes me as a very useless proceeding."
"Come with me, Monsieur le Comte: I may be able to tell you the reason."
Together they reached the ruins of the cloisters. The sergeant called out:
The other gendarmes were already hunting for their comrades whom they had left standing sentry. They ended by finding them at a few paces from the little door. The two men were lying full length on the ground, bound and gagged, with bandages over their eyes.
"Monsieur le Comte," muttered the sergeant, while his men were being released; "Monsieur le Comte, we have been tricked like children."
"The shots—the attack on the barn—the fire—all so much humbug to get us down there—a diversion. During that time they were tying up our two men and the business was done."
"Carrying off the wounded man, of course!"
"You don't mean to say you think... ?"
"Think? Why, it's as plain as a pikestaff! The idea came to me ten minutes ago—but I'm a fool not to have thought of it earlier. We should have nabbed them all." Quevillon stamped his foot on the ground, with a sudden attack of rage. "But where, confound it, where did they go through? Which way did they carry him off? For, dash it all, we beat the ground all day; and a man can't hide in a tuft of grass, especially when he's wounded! It's witchcraft, that's what it is!..."
Nor was this the last surprise awaiting Sergeant Quevillon. At dawn, when they entered the oratory which had been used as a cell for young Isidore Beautrelet, they realized that young Isidore Beautrelet had vanished.
On a chair slept the village policeman, bent in two. By his side stood a water-bottle and two tumblers. At the bottom of one of those tumblers a few grains of white powder.
On examination, it was proved, first, that young Isidore Beautrelet had administered a sleeping draught to the village policeman; secondly, that he could only have escaped by a window situated at a height of seven or eight feet in the wall; and lastly—a charming detail, this—that he could only have reached this window by using the back of his warder as a footstool.