The Crystal Stopper
Chapter 5: The Twenty-Seven
The child was sleeping peacefully on the bed. The mother did not move from the sofa on which Lupin had laid her; but her easier breathing and the blood which was now returning to her face announced her impending recovery from her swoon.
He observed that she wore a wedding-ring. Seeing a locket hanging from her bodice, he stooped and, turning it, found a miniature photograph representing a man of about forty and a lad--a stripling rather--in a schoolboy's uniform. He studied the fresh, young face set in curly hair:
"It's as I thought," he said. "Ah, poor woman!"
The hand which he took between his grew warmer by degrees. The eyes opened, then closed again. She murmured:
"Do not distress yourself ... it's all right he's asleep."
She recovered consciousness entirely. But, as she did not speak, Lupin put questions to her, to make her feel a gradual need of unbosoming herself. And he said, pointing to the locket:
"The schoolboy is Gilbert, isn't he?"
"Yes," she said.
"And Gilbert is your son?"
She gave a shiver and whispered:
"Yes, Gilbert is my son, my eldest son."
So she was the mother of Gilbert, of Gilbert the prisoner at the Sante, relentlessly pursued by the authorities and now awaiting his trial for murder!
"And the other portrait?"
"Yes, he died three years ago."
She was now sitting up. Life quivered in her veins once more, together with the horror of living and the horror of all the ghastly things that threatened her. Lupin went on to ask:
"What was your husband's name?"
She hesitated a moment and answered:
"Victorien Mergy the deputy?"
There was a long pause. Lupin remembered the incident and the stir which it had caused. Three years ago, Mergy the deputy had blown out his brains in the lobby of the Chamber, without leaving a word of explanation behind him; and no one had ever discovered the slightest reason for that suicide.
"Do you know the reason?" asked Lupin, completing his thought aloud.
"Yes, I know it."
"No, Gilbert had disappeared for some years, turned out of doors and cursed by my husband. It was a very great sorrow, but there was another motive."
"What was that?" asked Lupin.
But it was not necessary for Lupin to put further questions. Madame Mergy could keep silent no longer and, slowly at first, with all the anguish of that past which had to be called up, she told her story:
"Twenty-five years ago, when my name was Clarisse Darcel and my parents living, I knew three young men at Nice. Their names will at once give you an insight into the present tragedy: they were Alexis Daubrecq, Victorien Mergy and Louis Prasville. The three were old acquaintances, had gone to college in the same year and served in the same regiment. Prasville, at that time, was in love with a singer at the opera-house at Nice. The two others, Mergy and Daubrecq, were in love with me. I shall be brief as regards all this and, for the rest, as regards the whole story, for the facts tell their own tale. I fell in love with Victorien Mergy from the first. Perhaps I was wrong not to declare myself at once. But true love is always timid, hesitating and shy; and I did not announce my choice until I felt quite certain and quite free. Unfortunately, that period of waiting, so delightful for those who cherish a secret passion, had permitted Daubrecq to hope. His anger was something horrible."
Clarisse Mergy stopped for a few seconds and resumed, in a stifled voice:
"I shall never forget it ... The three of us were in the drawing-room. Oh, I can hear even now the terrible words of threat and hatred which he uttered! Victorien was absolutely astounded. He had never seen his friend like this, with that repugnant face, that bestial expression: yes, the expression of a wild beast ... Daubrecq ground his teeth. He stamped his feet. His bloodshot eyes--he did not wear spectacles in those days--rolled in their sockets; and he kept on saying, 'I shall be revenged ... I shall be revenged ... Oh, you don't know what I am capable of! ... I shall wait ten years, twenty years, if necessary ... But it will come like a thunderbolt ... Ah, you don't know! ... To be revenged ... To do harm ... for harm's sake ... what joy! I was born to do harm ... And you will both beseech my mercy on your knees, on your knees, yes, on your knees... ' At that moment, my father entered the room; and, with his assistance and the footman's, Victorien Mergy flung the loathsome creature out of doors. Six weeks later, I married Victorien."
"And Daubrecq?" asked Lupin, interrupting her. "Did he not try..."
"No, but on our wedding-day, Louis Prasville, who acted as my husband's best man in defiance of Danbrecq's opposition, went home to find the girl he loved, the opera-singer, dead, strangled..."
"What!" said Lupin, with a start. "Had Daubrecq..."
"It was known that Daubrecq had been persecuting her with his attentions for some days; but nothing more was known. It was impossible to discover who had gone in or out during Prasville's absence. There was not a trace found of any kind: nothing, absolutely nothing."
"There was no doubt of the truth in Prasville's mind or ours. Daubrecq had tried to run away with the girl, perhaps tried to force her, to hustle her and, in the course of the struggle, maddened, losing his head, caught her by the throat and killed her, perhaps without knowing what he was doing. But there was no evidence of all this; and Daubrecq was not even molested."
"And what became of him next?"
"For some years we heard nothing of him. We knew only that he had lost all his money gambling and that he was travelling in America. And, in spite of myself, I forgot his anger and his threats and was only too ready to believe that he had ceased to love me and no longer harboured his schemes of revenge. Besides, I was so happy that I did not care to think of anything but my happiness, my love, my husband's political career, the health of my son Antoine."
"Yes, Antoine is Gilbert's real name. The unhappy boy has at least succeeded in concealing his identity."
Lupin asked, with some hesitation:
"At what period did ... Gilbert ... begin?"
"I cannot tell you exactly. Gilbert--I prefer to call him that and not to pronounce his real name--Gilbert, as a child, was what he is to-day: lovable, liked by everybody, charming, but lazy and unruly. When he was fifteen, we put him to a boarding-school in one of the suburbs, with the deliberate object of not having him too much at home. After two years' time he was expelled from school and sent back to us."
"Because of his conduct. The masters had discovered that he used to slip out at night and also that he would disappear for weeks at a time, while pretending to be at home with us."
"What used he to do?"
"Amuse himself backing horses, spending his time in cafes and public dancing-rooms."
"Then he had money?"
"Who gave it him?"
"His evil genius, the man who, secretly, unknown to his parents, enticed him away from school, the man who led him astray, who corrupted him, who took him from us, who taught him to lie, to waste his substance and to steal."
Clarisse Mergy put her hands together to hide the blushes on her forehead. She continued, in her tired voice:
"Daubrecq had taken his revenge. On the day after my husband turned our unhappy child out of the house, Daubrecq sent us a most cynical letter in which he revealed the odious part which he had played and the machinations by which he had succeeded in depraving our son. And he went on to say, 'The reformatory, one of these days ... Later on, the assize-court ... And then, let us hope and trust, the scaffold!'"
"What! Did Daubrecq plot the present business?"
"No, no, that is only an accident. The hateful prophecy was just a wish which he expressed. But oh, how it terrified me! I was ailing at the time; my other son, my little Jacques, had just been born. And every day we heard of some fresh misdeed of Gilbert's--forgeries, swindles--so much so that we spread the news, in our immediate surroundings, of his departure for abroad, followed by his death. Life was a misery; and it became still more so when the political storm burst in which my husband was to meet his death."
"What do you mean?"
"A word will be enough: my husband's name was on the list of the Twenty-seven."
The veil was suddenly lifted from Lupin's eyes and he saw, as in a flash of lightning, a whole legion of things which, until then, had been hidden in the darkness.
Clarisse Mergy continued, in a firmer voice:
"Yes, his name was on it, but by mistake, by a piece of incredible ill-luck of which he was the victim. It is true that Victorien Mergy was a member of the committee appointed to consider the question of the Two-Seas Canal. It is true that he voted with the members who were in favour of the company's scheme. He was even paid--yes, I tell you so plainly and I will mention the sum--he was paid fifteen thousand francs. But he was paid on behalf of another, of one of his political friends, a man in whom he had absolute confidence and of whom he was the blind, unconscious tool. He thought he was showing his friend a kindness; and it proved his own undoing. It was not until the day after the suicide of the chairman of the company and the disappearance of the secretary, the day on which the affair of the canal was published in the papers, with its whole series of swindles and abominations, that my husband knew that a number of his fellow-members had been bribed and learnt that the mysterious list, of which people suddenly began to speak, mentioned his name with theirs and with the names of other deputies, leaders of parties and influential politicians. Oh, what awful days those were! Would the list be published? Would his name come out? The torture of it! You remember the mad excitement in the Chamber, the atmosphere of terror and denunciation that prevailed. Who owned the list? Nobody could say. It was known to be in existence and that was all. Two names were sacrificed to public odium. Two men were swept away by the storm. And it remained unknown where the denunciation came from and in whose hands the incriminating documents were."
"Daubrecq," suggested Lupin.
"No, no!" cried Madame Mergy. "Daubrecq was nothing at that time: he had not yet appeared upon the scene. No, don't you remember, the truth came out suddenly through the very man who was keeping it back: Germineaux, the ex-minister of justice, a cousin of the chairman of the Canal Company. As he lay dying of consumption, he wrote from his sick-bed to the prefect of police, bequeathing him that list of names, which, he said, would be found, after his death, in an iron chest in the corner of his room. The house was surrounded by police and the prefect took up his quarters by the sick man's bedside. Germineaux died. The chest was opened and found to be empty."
"Daubrecq, this time," Lupin declared.
"Yes, Daubrecq," said Madame Mergy, whose excitement was momentarily increasing. "Alexis Daubrecq, who, for six months, disguised beyond recognition, had acted as Germineaux's secretary. It does not matter how he discovered that Germineaux was the possessor of the paper in question. The fact remains that he broke open the chest on the night before the death. So much was proved at the inquiry; and Daubrecq's identity was established."
"But he was not arrested?"
"What would have been the use? They knew well enough that he must have deposited the list in a place of safety. His arrest would have involved a scandal, the reopening of the whole case..."
"So they made terms."
"That's funny, making terms with Daubrecq!"
"Yes, very funny," said Madame Mergy, bitterly. "During this time he acted and without delay, shamelessly, making straight for the goal. A week after the theft, he went to the Chamber of Deputies, asked for my husband and bluntly demanded thirty thousand francs of him, to be paid within twenty-four hours. If not, he threatened him with exposure and disgrace. My husband knew the man he was dealing with, knew him to be implacable and filled with relentless hatred. He lost his head and shot himself."
"How absurd!" Lupin could not help saying. "How absurd! Daubrecq possesses a list of twenty-seven names. To give up any one of those names he is obliged, if he would have his accusation believed, to publish the list itself--that is to say, to part with the document, or at least a photograph of it. Well, in so doing, he creates a scandal, it is true, but he deprives himself, at the same time, of all further means of levying blackmail."
"Yes and no," she said.
"How do you know?"
"Through Daubrecq himself. The villain came to see me and cynically told me of his interview with my husband and the words that had passed between them. Well, there is more than that list, more than that famous bit of paper on which the secretary put down the names and the amounts paid and to which, you will remember, the chairman of the company, before dying, affixed his signature in letters of blood. There is more than that. There are certain less positive proofs, which the people interested do not know of: the correspondence between the chairman and the secretary, between the chairman and his counsel, and so on. Of course, the list scribbled on the bit of paper is the only evidence that counts; it is the one incontestable proof which it would be no good copying or even photographing, for its genuineness can be tested most absolutely. But, all the same, the other proofs are dangerous. They have already been enough to do away with two deputies. And Daubrecq is marvelously clever at turning this fact to account. He selects his victim, frightens him out of his senses, points out to him the inevitable scandal; and the victim pays the required sum. Or else he kills himself, as my husband did. Do you understand now?"
"Yes," said Lupin.
And, in the silence that followed, he drew a mental picture of Daubrecq's life. He saw him the owner of that list, using his power, gradually emerging from the shadow, lavishly squandering the money which he extorted from his victims, securing his election as a district-councillor and deputy, holding sway by dint of threats and terror, unpunished, invulnerable, unattackable, feared by the government, which would rather submit to his orders than declare war upon him, respected by the judicial authorities: so powerful, in a word, that Prasville had been appointed secretary-general of police, over the heads of all who had prior claims, for the sole reason that he hated Daubrecq with a personal hatred.
"And you saw him again?" he asked.
"I saw him again. I had to. My husband was dead, but his honour remained untouched. Nobody suspected the truth. In order at least to defend the name which he left me, I accepted my first interview with Daubrecq."
"Your first, yes, for there have been others."
"Many others," she said, in a strained voice, "yes, many others ... at the theatre ... or in the evening, at Enghien ... or else in Paris, at night ... for I was ashamed to meet that man and I did not want people to know it ... But it was necessary ... A duty more imperative than any other commanded it: the duty of avenging my husband..."
She bent over Lupin and, eagerly:
"Yes, revenge has been the motive of my conduct and the sole preoccupation of my life. To avenge my husband, to avenge my ruined son, to avenge myself for all the harm that he has done me: I had no other dream, no other object in life. That is what I wanted: to see that man crushed, reduced to poverty, to tears--as though he still knew how to cry!--sobbing in the throes of despair..."
"You wanted his death," said Lupin, remembering the scene between them in Daubrecq's study.
"No, not his death. I have often thought of it, I have even raised my arm to strike him, but what would have been the good? He must have taken his precautions. The paper would remain. And then there is no revenge in killing a man ... My hatred went further than that ... It demanded his ruin, his downfall; and, to achieve that, there was but one way: to cut his claws. Daubrecq, deprived of the document that gives him his immense power, ceases to exist. It means immediate bankruptcy and disaster ... under the most wretched conditions. That is what I have sought."
"But Daubrecq must have been aware of your intentions?"
"Certainly. And, I assure you, those were strange meetings of ours: I watching him closely, trying to guess his secret behind his actions and his words, and he ... he..."
"And he," said Lupin, finishing Clarisse's thought, "lying in wait for the prey which he desires ... for the woman whom he has never ceased to love ... whom he loves ... and whom he covets with all his might and with all his furious passion..."
She lowered her head and said, simply:
A strange duel indeed was that which brought face to face those two beings separated by so many implacable things! How unbridled must Daubrecq's passion be for him to risk that perpetual threat of death and to introduce to the privacy of his house this woman whose life he had shattered! But also how absolutely safe he must feel himself!
"And your search ended ... how?" asked Lupin.
"My search," she replied, "long remained without fruit. You know the methods of investigation which you have followed and which the police have followed on their side. Well, I myself employed them, years before either of you did, and in vain. I was beginning to despair. Then, one day, when I had gone to see Daubrecq in his villa at Enghien, I picked up under his writing-table a letter which he had begun to write, crumpled up and thrown into the waste-paper-basket. It consisted of a few lines in bad English; and I was able to read this: 'Empty the crystal within, so as to leave a void which it is impossible to suspect.' Perhaps I should not have attached to this sentence all the importance which it deserved, if Daubrecq, who was out in the garden, had not come running in and begun to turn out the waste-paper-basket, with an eagerness which was very significant. He gave me a suspicious look: 'There was a letter there, ' he said. I pretended not to understand. He did not insist, but his agitation did not escape me; and I continued my quest in this direction. A month later, I discovered, among the ashes in the drawing-room fireplace, the torn half of an English invoice. I gathered that a Stourbridge glass-blower, of the name of John Howard, had supplied Daubrecq with a crystal bottle made after a model. The word 'crystal' struck me at once. I went to Stourbridge, got round the foreman of the glass-works and learnt that the stopper of this bottle had been hollowed out inside, in accordance with the instruction in the order, so as to leave a cavity, the existence of which would escape observation."
Lupin nodded his head:
"The thing tallies beyond a doubt. Nevertheless, it did not seem to me, that, even under the gilt layer ... And then the hiding-place would be very tiny!"
"Tiny, but large enough," she said. "On my return from England, I went to the police-office to see Prasville, whose friendship for me had remained unchanged. I did not hesitate to tell him, first, the reasons which had driven my husband to suicide and, secondly, the object of revenge which I was pursuing. When I informed him of my discoveries, he jumped for joy; and I felt that his hatred for Daubrecq was as strong as ever. I learnt from him that the list was written on a slip of exceedingly thin foreign-post-paper, which, when rolled up into a sort of pellet, would easily fit into an exceedingly limited space. Neither he nor I had the least hesitation. We knew the hiding-place. We agreed to act independently of each other, while continuing to correspond in secret. I put him in touch with Clemence, the portress in the Square Lamartine, who was entirely devoted to me..."
"But less so to Prasville," said Lupin, "for I can prove that she betrays him."
"Now perhaps, but not at the start; and the police searches were numerous. It was at that time, ten months ago, that Gilbert came into my life again. A mother never loses her love for her son, whatever he may do, whatever he may have done. And then Gilbert has such a way with him ... well, you know him. He cried, kissed my little Jacques, his brother and I forgave him."
She stopped and, weary-voiced, with her eyes fixed on the floor, continued:
"Would to Heaven that I had not forgiven him! Ah, if that hour could but return, how readily I should find the horrible courage to turn him away! My poor child ... it was I who ruined him!..." And, pensively, "I should have had that or any sort of courage, if he had been as I pictured him to myself and as he himself told me that he had long been: bearing the marks of vice and dissipation, coarse, deteriorated.
"But, though he was utterly changed in appearance, so much so that I could hardly recognize him, there was, from the point of view of--how shall I put it?--from the moral point of view, an undoubted improvement. You had helped him, lifted him; and, though his mode of life was hateful to me, nevertheless he retained a certain self-respect ... a sort of underlying decency that showed itself on the surface once more ... He was gay, careless, happy ... And he used to talk of you with such affection!"
She picked her words, betraying her embarrassment, not daring, in Lupin's presence, to condemn the line of life which Gilbert had selected and yet unable to speak in favour of it.
"What happened next?" asked Lupin.
"I saw him very often. He would come to me by stealth, or else I went to him and we would go for walks in the country. In this way, I was gradually induced to tell him our story, of his father's suicide and the object which I was pursuing. He at once took fire. He too wanted to avenge his father and, by stealing the crystal stopper, to avenge himself on Daubrecq for the harm which he had done him. His first idea--from which, I am bound to tell you, he never swerved--was to arrange with you."
"Well, then," cried Lupin, "he ought to have... !"
"Yes, I know ... and I was of the same opinion. Unfortunately, my poor Gilbert--you know how weak he is!--was under the influence of one of his comrades."