The Crystal Stopper
Chapter 6: The Death-Sentence
Lupin's motor-car was not only an office, a writing-room furnished with books, stationery, pens and ink, but also a regular actor's dressing-room, containing a complete make-up box, a trunk filled with every variety of wearing-apparel, another crammed with "properties"--umbrellas, walking-sticks, scarves, eye-glasses and so on--in short, a complete set of paraphernalia which enabled him to alter his appearance from top to toe in the course of a drive.
The man who rang at Daubrecq the deputy's gate, at six o-clock that evening, was a stout, elderly gentleman, in a black frock-coat, a bowler hat, spectacles and whiskers.
The portress took him to the front-door of the house and rang the bell. Victoire appeared.
"Can M. Daubrecq see Dr. Vernes?"
"M. Daubrecq is in his bedroom; and it is rather late..."
"Give him my card, please."
He wrote the words, "From Mme. Mergy," in the margin and added:
"There, he is sure to see me."
"But..." Victoire began.
"Oh, drop your buts, old dear, do as I say, and don't make such a fuss about it!"
She was utterly taken aback and stammered:
"You! ... is it you?"
"No, it's Louis XIV!" And, pushing her into a corner of the hall, "Listen ... The moment I'm done with him, go up to your room, put your things together anyhow and clear out."
"Do as I tell you. You'll find my car waiting down the avenue. Come, stir your stumps! Announce me. I'll wait in the study."
"But it's dark in there."
"Turn on the light."
She switched on the electric light and left Lupin alone.
"It's here," he reflected, as he took a seat, "it's here that the crystal stopper?byes? ... Unless Daubrecq always keeps it by him ... But no, when people have a good hiding-place, they make use of it. And this is a capital one; for none of us ... so far..."
Concentrating all his attention, he examined the objects in the room; and he remembered the note which Daubrecq wrote to Prasville:
"Within reach of your hand, my dear Prasville! ... You touched it! A little more and the trick was done..."
Nothing seemed to have moved since that day. The same things were lying about on the desk: books, account-books, a bottle of ink, a stamp-box, pipes, tobacco, things that had been searched and probed over and over again.
"The bounder!" thought Lupin. "He's organized his business jolly cleverly. It's all dove-tailed like a well-made play."
In his heart of hearts, though he knew exactly what he had come to do and how he meant to act, Lupin was thoroughly aware of the danger and uncertainty attending his visit to so powerful an adversary. It was quite within the bounds of possibility that Daubrecq, armed as he was, would remain master of the field and that the conversation would take an absolutely different turn from that which Lupin anticipated.
And this prospect angered him somewhat.
He drew himself up, as he heard a sound of footsteps approaching.
He entered without a word, made a sign to Lupin, who had risen from his chair, to resume his seat and himself sat down at the writing-desk. Glancing at the card which he held in his hand:
"Yes, monsieur le depute, Dr. Vernes, of Saint-Germain."
"And I see that you come from Mme. Mergy. A patient of yours?"
"A recent patient. I did not know her until I was called in to see her, the other day, in particularly tragic circumstances."
"Is she ill?"
"Mme. Mergy has taken poison."
Daubrecq gave a start and he continued, without concealing his distress:
"What's that you say? Poison! Is she dead?"
"No, the dose was not large enough. If no complications ensue, I consider that Mme. Mergy's life is saved."
Daubrecq said nothing and sat silent, with his head turned to Lupin.
"Is he looking at me? Are his eyes open or shut?" Lupin asked himself.
It worried Lupin terribly not to see his adversary's eyes, those eyes hidden by the double obstacle of spectacles and black glasses: weak, bloodshot eyes, Mme. Mergy had told him. How could he follow the secret train of the man's thought without seeing the expression of his face? It was almost like fighting an enemy who wielded an invisible sword.
Presently, Daubrecq spoke:
"So Mme. Mergy's life is saved ... And she has sent you to me ... I don't quite understand ... I hardly know the lady."
"Now for the ticklish moment," thought Lupin. "Have at him!"
And, in a genial, good-natured and rather shy tone, he said:
"No, monsieur le depute, there are cases in which a doctor's duty becomes very complex ... very puzzling ... And you may think that, in taking this step ... However, to cut a long story short, while I was attending Mme. Mergy, she made a second attempt to poison herself ... Yes; the bottle, unfortunately, had been left within her reach. I snatched it from her. We had a struggle. And, railing in her fever, she said to me, in broken words, 'He's the man ... He's the man ... Daubrecq the deputy ... Make him give me back my son. Tell him to ... or else I would rather die ... Yes, now, to-night ... I would rather die.' That's what she said, monsieur le depute ... So I thought that I ought to let you know. It is quite certain that, in the lady's highly nervous state of mind ... Of course, I don't know the exact meaning of her words ... I asked no questions of anybody ... obeyed a spontaneous impulse and came straight to you."
Daubrecq reflected for a little while and said:
"It amounts to this, doctor, that you have come to ask me if I know the whereabouts of this child whom I presume to have disappeared. Is that it?"
"And, if I did happen to know, you would take him back to his mother?"
There was a longer pause. Lupin asked himself:
"Can he by chance have swallowed the story? Is the threat of that death enough? Oh, nonsense it's out of the question! ... And yet ... and yet ... he seems to be hesitating."
"Will you excuse me?" asked Daubrecq, drawing the telephone, on his writing-desk, toward him. "I have an urgent message."
"Certainly, monsieur le depute."
Daubrecq called out:
"Hullo!... 822.19, please, 822.19."
Having repeated the number, he sat without moving.
"The headquarters of police, isn't it? The secretary-general's office..."
"Yes, doctor ... How do you know?"
"Oh, as a divisional surgeon, I sometimes have to ring them up."
And, within himself, Lupin asked:
"What the devil does all this mean? The secretary-general is Prasville ... Then, what?..."
Daubrecq put both receivers to his ears and said:
"Are you 822.19? I want to speak to M. Prasville, the secretary-general ... Do you say he's not there? ... Yes, yes, he is: he's always in his office at this time ... Tell him it's M. Daubrecq ... M. Daubrecq the deputy ... a most important communication."
"Perhaps I'm in the way?" Lupin suggested.
"Not at all, doctor, not at all," said Daubrecq. "Besides, what I have to say has a certain bearing on your errand." And, into the telephone, "Hullo! M. Prasville? ... Ah, it's you, Prasville, old cock! ... Why, you seem quite staggered! Yes, you're right, it's an age since you and I met. But, after all, we've never been far away in thought ... And I've had plenty of visits from you and your henchmen ... In my absence, it's true. Hullo! ... What? ... Oh, you're in a hurry? I beg your pardon! ... So am I, for that matter ... Well, to come to the point, there's a little service I want to do you ... Wait, can't you, you brute? ... You won't regret it ... It concerns your renown ... Hullo! ... Are you listening? ... Well, take half-a-dozen men with you ... plain-clothes detectives, by preference: you'll find them at the night-office ... Jump into a taxi, two taxis, and come along here as fast as you can ... I've got a rare quarry for you, old chap. One of the upper ten ... a lord, a marquis Napoleon himself ... in a word, Arsene Lupin!"
Lupin sprang to his feet. He was prepared for everything but this. Yet something within him stronger than astonishment, an impulse of his whole nature, made him say, with a laugh:
"Oh, well done, well done!"
Daubrecq bowed his head, by way of thanks, and muttered:
"I haven't quite finished ... A little patience, if you don't mind." And he continued, "Hullo! Prasville! ... No, no, old chap, I'm not humbugging ... You'll find Lupin here, with me, in my study ... Lupin, who's worrying me like the rest of you ... Oh, one more or less makes no difference to me! But, all the same, this one's a bit too pushing. And I am appealing to your sense of kindness. Rid me of the fellow, do ... Half-a-dozen of your satellites and the two who are pacing up and down outside my house will be enough ... Oh, while you're about it, go up to the third floor and rope in my cook as well ... She's the famous Victoire: you know, Master Lupin's old nurse ... And, look here, one more tip, to show you how I love you: send a squad of men to the Rue Chateaubriand, at the corner of the Rue Balzac ... That's where our national hero lives, under the name of Michel Beaumont ... Do you twig, old cockalorum? And now to business. Hustle!"
When Daubrecq turned his head, Lupin was standing up, with clenched fists. His burst of admiration had not survived the rest of the speech and the revelations which Daubrecq had made about Victoire and the flat in the Rue Chateaubriand. The humiliation was too great; and Lupin no longer bothered to play the part of the small general practitioner. He had but one idea in his head: not to give way to the tremendous fit of rage that was urging him to rush at Daubrecq like a bull.
Daubrecq gave the sort of little cluck which, with him, did duty for a laugh. He came waddling up, with his hands in his trouser-pockets, and said, incisively:
"Don't you think that this is all for the best? I've cleared the ground, relieved the situation ... At least, we now know where we stand. Lupin versus Daubrecq; and that's all about it. Besides, think of the time saved! Dr. Vernes, the divisional surgeon, would have taken two hours to spin his yarn! Whereas, like this, Master Lupin will be compelled to get his little story told in thirty minutes ... unless he wants to get himself collared and his accomplices nabbed. What a shock! What a bolt from the blue! Thirty minutes and not a minute more. In thirty minutes from now, you'll have to clear out, scud away like a hare and beat a disordered retreat. Ha, ha, ha, what fun! I say, Polonius, you really are unlucky, each time you come up against Bibi Daubrecq! For it was you who were hiding behind that curtain, wasn't it, my ill-starred Polonius?"
Lupin did not stir a muscle. The one and only solution that would have calmed his feelings, that is to say, for him to throttle his adversary then and there, was so absurd that he preferred to accept Daubrecq's gibes without attempting to retort, though each of them cut him like the lash of a whip. It was the second time, in the same room and in similar circumstances, that he had to bow before that Daubrecq of misfortune and maintain the most ridiculous attitude in silence. And he felt convinced in his innermost being that, if he opened his mouth, it would be to spit words of anger and insult in his victor's face. What was the good? Was it not essential that he should keep cool and do the things which the new situation called for?
"Well, M. Lupin, well?" resumed the deputy. "You look as if your nose were out of joint. Come, console yourself and admit that one sometimes comes across a joker who's not quite such a mug as his fellows. So you thought that, because I wear spectacles and eye-glasses, I was blind? Bless my soul, I don't say that I at once suspected Lupin behind Polonius and Polonius behind the gentleman who came and bored me in the box at the Vaudeville. No, no! But, all the same, it worried me. I could see that, between the police and Mme. Mergy, there was a third bounder trying to get a finger in the pie. And, gradually, what with the words let fall by the portress, what with watching the movements of my cook and making inquiries about her in the proper quarter, I began to understand. Then, the other night, came the lightning-flash. I heard the row in the house, in spite of my being asleep. I managed to reconstruct the incident, to follow up Mme. Mergy's traces, first, to the Rue Chateaubriand and, afterward, to Saint-Germain ... And then ... what then? I put different facts together: the Enghien burglary ... Gilbert's arrest ... the inevitable treaty of alliance between the weeping mother and the leader of the gang ... the old nurse installed as cook ... all these people entering my house through the doors or through the windows ... And I knew what I had to do. Master Lupin was sniffing at the secret. The scent of the Twenty-seven attracted him. I had only to wait for his visit. The hour has arrived. Good-evening, Master Lupin."
Daubrecq paused. He had delivered his speech with the evident satisfaction of a man entitled to claim the appreciation of the most captious critics.
As Lupin did not speak, he took out his watch: "I say! Only twenty-three minutes! How time flies! At this rate, we sha'n't have time to come to an explanation." And, stepping still closer to Lupin, "I'm bound to say, I'm disappointed. I thought that Lupin was a different sort of gentleman. So, the moment he meets a more or less serious adversary, the colossus falls to pieces? Poor young man! Have a glass of water, to bring you round!" Lupin did not utter a word, did not betray a gesture of irritation. With absolute composure, with a precision of movement that showed his perfect self-control and the clear plan of conduct which he had adopted, he gently pushed Daubrecq aside, went to the table and, in his turn, took down the receiver of the telephone:
"I want 565.34, please," he said.
He waited until he was through; and then, speaking in a slow voice and picking out every syllable, he said:
"Hullo! ... Rue Chateaubriand? ... Is that you, Achille? ... Yes, it's the governor. Listen to me carefully, Achille ... You must leave the flat! Hullo! ... Yes, at once. The police are coming in a few minutes. No, no, don't lose your head ... You've got time. Only, do what I tell you. Is your bag still packed? ... Good. And is one of the sides empty, as I told you? ... Good. Well, go to my bedroom and stand with your face to the chimney-piece. Press with your left hand on the little carved rosette in front of the marble slab, in the middle, and with your right hand on the top of the mantel-shelf. You'll see a sort of drawer, with two little boxes in it. Be careful. One of them contains all our papers; the other, bank-notes and jewellery. Put them both in the empty compartment of the bag. Take the bag in your hand and go as fast as you can, on foot, to the corner of the Avenue Victor-Hugo and the Avenue de Montespan. You'll find the car waiting, with Victoire. I'll join you there ... What? ... My clothes? My knickknacks? ... Never mind about all that ... You be off. See you presently."
Lupin quietly pushed away the telephone. Then, taking Daubrecq by the arm, he made him sit in a chair by his side and said:
"And now listen to me, Daubrecq."
"Oho!" grinned the deputy. "Calling each other by our surnames, are we?"
"Yes," said Lupin, "I allowed you to." And, when Daubrecq released his arm with a certain misgiving, he said, "No, don't be afraid. We sha'n't come to blows. Neither of us has anything to gain by doing away with the other. A stab with a knife? What's the good? No, sir! Words, nothing but words. Words that strike home, though. Here are mine: they are plain and to the point. Answer me in the same way, without reflecting: that's far better. The boy?"
"I have him."
"Give him back."
"Mme. Mergy will kill herself."
"No, she won't."
"I tell you she will."
"And I tell you she will not."
"But she's tried to, once."
"That's just the reason why she won't try again."
Lupin, after a moment, went on:
"I expected that. Also, I thought, on my way here, that you would hardly tumble to the story of Dr. Vernes and that I should have to use other methods."
"As you say. I had made up my mind to throw off the mask. You pulled it off for me. Well done you! But that doesn't change my plans."
Lupin took from a pocketbook a double sheet of foolscap paper, unfolded it and handed it to Daubrecq, saying:
"Here is an exact, detailed inventory, with consecutive numbers, of the things removed by my friends and myself from your Villa Marie-Therese on the Lac d'Enghien. As you see, there are one hundred and thirteen items. Of those one hundred and thirteen items, sixty-eight, which have a red cross against them, have been sold and sent to America. The remainder, numbering forty-five, are in my possession ... until further orders. They happen to be the pick of the bunch. I offer you them in return for the immediate surrender of the child."
Daubrecq could not suppress a movement of surprise:
"Oho!" he said. "You seem very much bent upon it."
"Infinitely," said Lupin, "for I am persuaded that a longer separation from her son will mean death to Mme. Mergy."
"And that upsets you, does it ... Lothario?"
Lupin planted himself in front of the other and repeated:
"What! What do you mean?"
"Nothing ... Nothing ... Something that crossed my mind ... Clarisse Mergy is a young woman still and a pretty woman at that."
Lupin shrugged his shoulders:
"You brute!" he mumbled. "You imagine that everybody is like yourself, heartless and pitiless. It takes your breath away, what, to think that a shark like me can waste his time playing the Don Quixote? And you wonder what dirty motive I can have? Don't try to find out: it's beyond your powers of perception. Answer me, instead: do you accept?"
"So you're serious?" asked Daubrecq, who seemed but little disturbed by Lupin's contemptuous tone.
"Absolutely. The forty-five pieces are in a shed, of which I will give you the address, and they will be handed over to you, if you call there, at nine o'clock this evening, with the child."
There was no doubt about Daubrecq's reply. To him, the kidnapping of little Jacques had represented only a means of working upon Clarisse Mergy's feelings and perhaps also a warning for her to cease the contest upon which she had engaged. But the threat of a suicide must needs show Daubrecq that he was on the wrong track. That being so, why refuse the favourable bargain which Arsene Lupin was now offering him?
"I accept," he said.
"Here's the address of my shed: 99, Rue Charles-Lafitte, Neuilly. You have only to ring the bell."
"And suppose I send Prasville, the secretary-general, instead?"
"If you send Prasville," Lupin declared, "the place is so arranged that I shall see him coming and that I shall have time to escape, after setting fire to the trusses of hay and straw which surround and conceal your credence-tables, clocks and Gothic virgins."
"But your shed will be burnt down..."
"I don't mind that: the police have their eye on it already. I am leaving it in any case."
"And how am I to know that this is not a trap?"
"Begin by receiving the goods and don't give up the child till afterward. I trust you, you see."
"Good," said Daubrecq; "you've foreseen everything. Very well, you shall have the nipper; the fair Clarisse shall live; and we will all be happy. And now, if I may give you a word of advice, it is to pack off as fast as you can."
"I said, not yet."
"But you're mad! Prasville's on his way!"
"He can wait. I've not done."
"Why, what more do you want? Clarisse shall have her brat. Isn't that enough for you?"
"There is another son."
"I want you to save Gilbert."
"What are you saying? I save Gilbert!"
"You can, if you like; it only means taking a little trouble." Until that moment Daubrecq had remained quite calm. He now suddenly blazed out and, striking the table with his fist:
"No," he cried, "not that! Never! Don't reckon on me! ... No, that would be too idiotic!"
He walked up and down, in a state of intense excitement, with that queer step of his, which swayed him from right to left on each of his legs, like a wild beast, a heavy, clumsy bear. And, with a hoarse voice and distorted features, he shouted:
"Let her come here! Let her come and beg for her son's pardon! But let her come unarmed, not with criminal intentions, like last time! Let her come as a supplicant, as a tamed woman, as a submissive woman, who understands and accepts the situation ... Gilbert? Gilbert's sentence? The scaffold? Why, that is where my strength lies! What! For more than twenty years have I awaited my hour; and, when that hour strikes, when fortune brings me this unhoped-for chance, when I am at last about to know the joy of a full revenge--and such a revenge!--you think that I will give it up, give up the thing which I have been pursuing for twenty years? I save Gilbert? I? For nothing? For love? I, Daubrecq? ... No, no, you can't have studied my features!"
He laughed, with a fierce and hateful laugh. Visibly, he saw before him, within reach of his hand, the prey which he had been hunting down so long. And Lupin also summoned up the vision of Clarisse, as he had seen her several days before, fainting, already beaten, fatally conquered, because all the hostile powers were in league against her.
He contained himself and said:
"Listen to me."
And, when Daubrecq moved away impatiently, he took him by the two shoulders, with that superhuman strength which Daubrecq knew, from having felt it in the box at the Vaudeville, and, holding him motionless in his grip, he said:
"One last word."
"You're wasting your breath," growled the deputy.
"One last word. Listen, Daubrecq: forget Mme. Mergy, give up all the nonsensical and imprudent acts which your pride and your passions are making you commit; put all that on one side and think only of your interest..."
"My interest," said Daubrecq, jestingly, "always coincides with my pride and with what you call my passions."
"Up to the present, perhaps. But not now, not now that I have taken a hand in the business. That constitutes a new factor, which you choose to ignore. You are wrong. Gilbert is my pal. Gilbert is my chum. Gilbert has to be saved from the scaffold. Use your influence to that end, and I swear to you, do you hear, I swear that we will leave you in peace. Gilbert's safety, that's all I ask. You will have no more battles to wage with Mme. Mergy, with me; there will be no more traps laid for you. You will be the master, free to act as you please. Gilbert's safety, Daubrecq! If you refuse..."
"If you refuse, it will be war, relentless war; in other words, a certain defeat for you."
"Meaning thereby that I shall take the list of the Twenty-seven from you."
"Rot! You think so, do you?"
"I swear it."
"What Prasville and all his men, what Clarisse Mergy, what nobody has been able to do, you think that you will do!"
"And why? By favour of what saint will you succeed where everybody else has failed? There must be a reason?"
"What is it?"
"My name is Arsene Lupin."
He had let go of Daubrecq, but held him for a time under the dominion of his authoritative glance and will. At last, Daubrecq drew himself up, gave him a couple of sharp taps on the shoulder and, with the same calm, the same intense obstinacy, said:
"And my name's Daubrecq. My whole life has been one desperate battle, one long series of catastrophes and routs in which I spent all my energies until victory came: complete, decisive, crushing, irrevocable victory. I have against me the police, the government, France, the world. What difference do you expect it to make to me if I have M. Arsene Lupin against me into the bargain? I will go further: the more numerous and skilful my enemies, the more cautiously I am obliged to play. And that is why, my dear sir, instead of having you arrested, as I might have done--yes, as I might have done and very easily--I let you remain at large and beg charitably to remind you that you must quit in less than three minutes."
"Then the answer is no?"
"The answer is no."
"You won't do anything for Gilbert?"