The Crystal Stopper
Chapter 4: The Chief of the Enemies

 

"Poor boy!" murmured Lupin, when his eyes fell on Gilbert's letter next morning. "How he must feel it!"

On the very first day when he saw him, he had taken a liking to that well-set-up youngster, so careless, gay and fond of life. Gilbert was devoted to him, would have accepted death at a sign from his master. And Lupin also loved his frankness, his good humour, his simplicity, his bright, open face.

"Gilbert," he often used to say, "you are an honest man. Do you know, if I were you, I should chuck the business and become an honest man for good."

"After you, governor," Gilbert would reply, with a laugh.

"Won't you, though?"

"No, governor. An honest man is a chap who works and grinds. It's a taste which I may have had as a nipper; but they've made me lose it since."

"Who's they?"

Gilbert was silent. He was always silent when questioned about his early life; and all that Lupin knew was that he had been an orphan since childhood and that he had lived all over the place, changing his name and taking up the queerest jobs. The whole thing was a mystery which no one had been able to fathom; and it did not look as though the police would make much of it either.

Nor, on the other hand, did it look as though the police would consider that mystery a reason for delaying proceedings. They would send Vaucheray's accomplice for trial--under his name of Gilbert or any other name--and visit him with the same inevitable punishment.

"Poor boy!" repeated Lupin. "They're persecuting him like this only because of me. They are afraid of his escaping and they are in a hurry to finish the business: the verdict first and then ... the execution.

"Oh, the butchers! ... A lad of twenty, who has committed no murder, who is not even an accomplice in the murder..."

Alas, Lupin well knew that this was a thing impossible to prove and that he must concentrate his efforts upon another point. But upon which? Was he to abandon the trail of the crystal stopper?

He could not make up his mind to that. His one and only diversion from the search was to go to Enghien, where the Growler and the Masher lived, and make sure that nothing had been seen of them since the murder at the Villa Marie-Therese. Apart from this, he applied himself to the question of Daubrecq and nothing else.

He refused even to trouble his head about the problems set before him: the treachery of the Growler and the Masher; their connection with the gray-haired lady; the spying of which he himself was the object.

"Steady, Lupin," he said. "One only argues falsely in a fever. So hold your tongue. No inferences, above all things! Nothing is more foolish than to infer one fact from another before finding a certain starting-point. That's where you get up a tree. Listen to your instinct. Act according to your instinct. And as you are persuaded, outside all argument, outside all logic, one might say, that this business turns upon that confounded stopper, go for it boldly. Have at Daubrecq and his bit of crystal!"

Lupin did not wait to arrive at these conclusions before settling his actions accordingly. At the moment when he was stating them in his mind, three days after the scene at the Vaudeville, he was sitting, dressed like a retired tradesman, in an old overcoat, with a muffler round his neck, on a bench in the Avenue Victor-Hugo, at some distance from the Square Lamartine. Victoire had his instructions to pass by that bench at the same hour every morning.

"Yes," he repeated to himself, "the crystal stopper: everything turns on that ... Once I get hold of it..."

Victoire arrived, with her shopping-basket on her arm. He at once noticed her extraordinary agitation and pallor:

"What's the matter?" asked Lupin, walking beside his old nurse.

She went into a big grocer's, which was crowded with people, and, turning to him:

"Here," she said, in a voice torn with excitement. "Here's what you've been hunting for."

And, taking something from her basket, she gave it to him.

Lupin stood astounded: in his hand lay the crystal stopper.

"Can it be true? Can it be true?" he muttered, as though the ease of the solution had thrown him off his balance.

But the fact remained, visible and palpable. He recognized by its shape, by its size, by the worn gilding of its facets, recognized beyond any possible doubt the crystal stopper which he had seen before. He even remarked a tiny, hardly noticeable little scratch on the stem which he remembered perfectly.

However, while the thing presented all the same characteristics, it possessed no other that seemed out of the way. It was a crystal stopper, that was all. There was no really special mark to distinguish it from other stoppers. There was no sign upon it, no stamp; and, being cut from a single piece, it contained no foreign object.

"What then?"

And Lupin received a quick insight into the depth of his mistake. What good could the possession of that crystal stopper do him so long as he was ignorant of its value? That bit of glass had no existence in itself; it counted only through the meaning that attached to it. Before taking it, the thing was to be certain. And how could he tell that, in taking it, in robbing Daubrecq of it, he was not committing an act of folly?

It was a question which was impossible of solution, but which forced itself upon him with singular directness.

"No blunders!" he said to himself, as he pocketed the stopper. "In this confounded business, blunders are fatal."

He had not taken his eyes off Victoire. Accompanied by a shopman, she went from counter to counter, among the throng of customers. She next stood for some little while at the pay-desk and passed in front of Lupin.

He whispered her instructions:

"Meet me behind the Lycee Janson."

She joined him in an unfrequented street:

"And suppose I'm followed?" she said.

"No," he declared. "I looked carefully. Listen to me. Where did you find the stopper?"

"In the drawer of the table by his bed."

"But we had felt there already."

"Yes; and I did so again this morning. I expect he put it there last night."

"And I expect he'll want to take it from there again," said Lupin.

"Very likely."

"And suppose he finds it gone?"

Victoire looked frightened.

"Answer me," said Lupin. "If he finds it gone, he'll accuse you of taking it, won't he?"

"Certainly."

"Then go and put it back, as fast as you can."

"Oh dear, oh dear!" she moaned. "I hope he won't have had time to find out. Give it to me, quick."

"Here you are," said Lupin.

He felt in the pocket of his overcoat.

"Well?" said Victoire, holding out her hand.

"Well," he said, after a moment, "it's gone."

"What!"

"Yes, upon my word, it's gone ... somebody's taken it from me."

He burst into a peal of laughter, a laughter which, this time, was free from all bitterness.

Victoire flew out at him:

"Laugh away! ... Putting me in such a predicament!..."

"How can I help laughing? You must confess that it's funny. It's no longer a tragedy that we're acting, but a fairy-tale, as much a fairy-tale as Puss in Boots or Jack and the Beanstalk. I must write it when I get a few weeks to myself: The Magic Stopper; or, The Mishaps of Poor Arsene."

"Well ... who has taken it from you?"

"What are you talking about? ... It has flown away ... vanished from my pocket: hey presto, begone!"

He gave the old servant a gentle push and, in a more serious tone:

"Go home, Victoire, and don't upset yourself. Of course, some one saw you give me the stopper and took advantage of the crowd in the shop to pick my pocket of it. That only shows that we are watched more closely than I thought and by adversaries of the first rank. But, once more, be easy. Honest men always come by their own ... Have you anything else to tell me?"

"Yes. Some one came yesterday evening, while M. Daubrecq was out. I saw lights reflected upon the trees in the garden."

"The portress' bedroom?"

"The portress was up."

"Then it was some of those detective-fellows; they are still hunting. I'll see you later, Victoire. You must let me in again."

"What! You want to..."

"What do I risk? Your room is on the third floor. Daubrecq suspects nothing."

"But the others!"

"The others? If it was to their interest to play me a trick, they'd have tried before now. I'm in their way, that's all. They're not afraid of me. So till later, Victoire, at five o'clock exactly."

One further surprise awaited Lupin. In the evening his old nurse told him that, having opened the drawer of the bedside table from curiosity, she had found the crystal stopper there again.

Lupin was no longer to be excited by these miraculous incidents. He simply said to himself:

"So it's been brought back. And the person who brought it back and who enters this house by some unexplained means considered, as I did, that the stopper ought not to disappear. And yet Daubrecq, who knows that he is being spied upon to his very bedroom, has once more left the stopper in a drawer, as though he attached no importance to it at all! Now what is one to make of that?"

Though Lupin did not make anything of it, nevertheless he could not escape certain arguments, certain associations of ideas that gave him the same vague foretaste of light which one receives on approaching the outlet of a tunnel.

"It is inevitable, as the case stands," he thought, "that there must soon be an encounter between myself and the others. From that moment I shall be master of the situation."

Five days passed, during which Lupin did not glean the slightest particular. On the sixth day Daubrecq received a visit, in the small hours, from a gentleman, Laybach the deputy, who, like his colleagues, dragged himself at his feet in despair and, when all was done, handed him twenty thousand francs.

Two more days; and then, one night, posted on the landing of the second floor, Lupin heard the creaking of a door, the front-door, as he perceived, which led from the hall into the garden. In the darkness he distinguished, or rather divined, the presence of two persons, who climbed the stairs and stopped on the first floor, outside Daubrecq's bedroom.

What were they doing there? It was not possible to enter the room, because Daubrecq bolted his door every night. Then what were they hoping?

Manifestly, a handiwork of some kind was being performed, as Lupin discovered from the dull sounds of rubbing against the door. Then words, uttered almost beneath a whisper, reached him:

"Is it all right?"

"Yes, quite, but, all the same, we'd better put it off till to-morrow, because..."

Lupin did not hear the end of the sentence. The men were already groping their way downstairs. The hall-door was closed, very gently, and then the gate.

"It's curious, say what one likes," thought Lupin. "Here is a house in which Daubrecq carefully conceals his rascalities and is on his guard, not without good reason, against spies; and everybody walks in and out as in a booth at a fair. Victoire lets me in, the portress admits the emissaries of the police: that's well and good; but who is playing false in these people's favour? Are we to suppose that they are acting alone? But what fearlessness! And how well they know their way about!"

In the afternoon, during Daubrecq's absence, he examined the door of the first-floor bedroom. And, at the first glance, he understood: one of the lower panels had been skilfully cut out and was only held in place by invisible tacks. The people, therefore, who had done this work were the same who had acted at his two places, in the Rue Matignon and the Rue Chateaubriand.

He also found that the work dated back to an earlier period and that, as in his case, the opening had been prepared beforehand, in anticipation of favourable circumstances or of some immediate need.

The day did not seem long to Lupin. Knowledge was at hand. Not only would he discover the manner in which his adversaries employed those little openings, which were apparently unemployable, since they did not allow a person to reach the upper bolts, but he would learn who the ingenious and energetic adversaries were with whom he repeatedly and inevitably found himself confronted.

One incident annoyed him. In the evening Daubrecq, who had complained of feeling tired at dinner, came home at ten o'clock and, contrary to his usual custom, pushed the bolts of the hall-door. In that case, how would the others be able to carry out their plan and go to Daubrecq's room? Lupin waited for an hour after Daubrecq put out his light. Then he went down to the deputy's study, opened one of the windows ajar and returned to the third floor and fixed his rope-ladder so that, in case of need, he could reach the study without passing though the house. Lastly, he resumed his post on the second-floor landing.

He did not have to wait long. An hour earlier than on the previous night some one tried to open the hall-door. When the attempt failed, a few minutes of absolute silence followed. And Lupin was beginning to think that the men had abandoned the idea, when he gave a sudden start. Some one had passed, without the least sound to interrupt the silence. He would not have known it, so utterly were the thing's steps deadened by the stair-carpet, if the baluster-rail, which he himself held in his hand, had not shaken slightly. Some one was coming upstairs.

And, as the ascent continued, Lupin became aware of the uncanny feeling that he heard nothing more than before. He knew, because of the rail, that a thing was coming and he could count the number of steps climbed by noting each vibration of the rail; but no other indication gave him that dim sensation of presence which we feel in distinguishing movements which we do not see, in perceiving sounds which we do not hear. And yet a blacker darkness ought to have taken shape within the darkness and something ought, at least, to modify the quality of the silence. No, he might well have believed that there was no one there.

And Lupin, in spite of himself and against the evidence of his reason, ended by believing it, for the rail no longer moved and he thought that he might have been the sport of an illusion.

And this lasted a long time. He hesitated, not knowing what to do, not knowing what to suppose. But an odd circumstance impressed him. A clock struck two. He recognized the chime of Daubrecq's clock. And the chime was that of a clock from which one is not separated by the obstacle of a door.

Lupin slipped down the stairs and went to the door. It was closed, but there was a space on the left, at the bottom, a space left by the removal of the little panel.

He listened. Daubrecq, at that moment, turned in his bed; and his breathing was resumed, evenly and a little stertorously. And Lupin plainly heard the sound of rumpling garments. Beyond a doubt, the thing was there, fumbling and feeling through the clothes which Daubrecq had laid beside his bed.

"Now," thought Lupin, "we shall learn something. But how the deuce did the beggar get in? Has he managed to draw the bolts and open the door? But, if so, why did he make the mistake of shutting it again?"

Not for a second--a curious anomaly in a man like Lupin, an anomaly to be explained only by the uncanny feeling which the whole adventure produced in him--not for a second did he suspect the very simple truth which was about to be revealed to him. Continuing his way down, he crouched on one of the bottom steps of the staircase, thus placing himself between the door of the bedroom and the hall-door, on the road which Daubrecq's enemy must inevitably take in order to join his accomplices.

He questioned the darkness with an unspeakable anguish. He was on the point of unmasking that enemy of Daubrecq's, who was also his own adversary. He would thwart his plans. And the booty captured from Daubrecq he would capture in his turn, while Daubrecq slept and while the accomplices lurking behind the hall-door or outside the garden-gate vainly awaited their leader's return.

And that return took place. Lupin knew it by the renewed vibration of the balusters. And, once more, with every sense strained and every nerve on edge, he strove to discern the mysterious thing that was coming toward him. He suddenly realized it when only a few yards away. He himself, hidden in a still darker recess, could not be seen. And what he saw--in the very vaguest manner--was approaching stair by stair, with infinite precautions, holding on to each separate baluster.

"Whom the devil have I to do with?" said Lupin to himself, while his heart thumped inside his chest.

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