The Crystal Stopper
Chapter 7: The Profile of Napoleon
Soon as the prefect of police, the chief of the criminal-investigation department and the examining-magistrates had left Daubrecq's house, after a preliminary and entirely fruitless inquiry, Prasville resumed his personal search.
He was examining the study and the traces of the struggle which had taken place there, when the portress brought him a visiting-card, with a few words in pencil scribbled upon it.
"Show the lady in," he said.
"The lady has some one with her," said the portress.
"Oh? Well, show the other person in as well."
Clarisse Mergy entered at once and introduced the gentleman with her, a gentleman in a black frock-coat, which was too tight for him and which looked as though it had not been brushed for ages. He was shy in his manner and seemed greatly embarrassed how to dispose of his old, rusty top-hat, his gingham umbrella, his one and only glove and his body generally.
"M. Nicole," said Clarisse, "a private teacher, who is acting as tutor to my little Jacques. M. Nicole has been of the greatest help to me with his advice during the past year. He worked out the whole story of the crystal stopper. I should like him, as well as myself--if you see no objection to telling me--to know the details of this kidnapping business, which alarms me and upsets my plans; yours too, I expect?"
Prasville had every confidence in Clarisse Mergy. He knew her relentless hatred of Daubrecq and appreciated the assistance which she had rendered in the case. He therefore made no difficulties about telling her what he knew, thanks to certain clues and especially to the evidence of the portress.
For that matter, the thing was exceedingly simple. Daubrecq, who had attended the trial of Gilbert and Vaucheray as a witness and who was seen in court during the speeches, returned home at six o'clock. The portress affirmed that he came in alone and that there was nobody in the house at the time. Nevertheless, a few minutes later, she heard shouts, followed by the sound of a struggle and two pistol-shots; and from her lodge she saw four masked men scuttle down the front steps, carrying Daubrecq the deputy, and hurry toward the gate. They opened the gate. At the same moment, a motor-car arrived outside the house. The four men bundled themselves into it; and the motor-car, which had hardly had time to stop, set off at full speed.
"Were there not always two policemen on duty?" asked Clarisse.
"They were there," said Prasville, "but at a hundred and fifty yards' distance; and Daubrecq was carried off so quickly that they were unable to interfere, although they hastened up as fast as they could."
"And did they discover nothing, find nothing?"
"Nothing, or hardly anything ... Merely this."
"What is that?"
"A little piece of ivory, which they picked up on the ground. There was a fifth party in the car; and the portress saw him get down while the others were hoisting Daubrecq in. As he was stepping back into the car, he dropped something and picked it up again at once. But the thing, whatever it was, must have been broken on the pavement; for this is the bit of ivory which my men found."
"But how did the four men manage to enter the house?" asked Clarisse.
"By means of false keys, evidently, while the portress was doing her shopping, in the course of the afternoon; and they had no difficulty in secreting themselves, as Daubrecq keeps no other servants. I have every reason to believe that they hid in the room next door, which is the dining-room, and afterward attacked Daubrecq here, in the study. The disturbance of the furniture and other articles proves how violent the struggle was. We found a large-bore revolver, belonging to Daubrecq, on the carpet. One of the bullets had smashed the glass over the mantel-piece, as you see."
Clarisse turned to her companion for him to express an opinion. But M. Nicole, with his eyes obstinately lowered, had not budged from his chair and sat fumbling at the rim of his hat, as though he had not yet found a proper place for it.
Prasville gave a smile. It was evident that he did not look upon Clarisse's adviser as a man of first-rate intelligence:
"The case is somewhat puzzling, monsieur," he said, "is it not?"
"Yes ... yes," M. Nicole confessed, "most puzzling."
"Then you have no little theory of your own upon the matter?"
"Well, monsieur le secretaire-general, I'm thinking that Daubrecq has many enemies."
"And that several of those enemies, who are interested in his disappearance, must have banded themselves against him."
"Capital, capital!" said Prasville, with satirical approval. "Capital! Everything is becoming clear as daylight. It only remains for you to furnish us with a little suggestion that will enable us to turn our search in the right direction."
"Don't you think, monsieur le secretaire-general, that this broken bit of ivory which was picked up on the ground..."
"No, M. Nicole, no. That bit of ivory belongs to something which we do not know and which its owner will at once make it his business to conceal. In order to trace the owner, we should at least be able to define the nature of the thing itself."
M. Nicole reflected and then began:
"Monsieur le secretaire-general, when Napoleon I fell from power..."
"Oh, M. Nicole, oh, a lesson in French history!"
"Only a sentence, monsieur le secretaire-general, just one sentence which I will ask your leave to complete. When Napoleon I fell from power, the Restoration placed a certain number of officers on half-pay. These officers were suspected by the authorities and kept under observation by the police. They remained faithful to the emperor's memory; and they contrived to reproduce the features of their idol on all sorts of objects of everyday use; snuff-boxes, rings, breast-pins, pen-knives and so on."
"Well, this bit comes from a walking-stick, or rather a sort of loaded cane, or life-preserver, the knob of which is formed of a piece of carved ivory. When you look at the knob in a certain way, you end by seeing that the outline represents the profile of the Little Corporal. What you have in your hand, monsieur le secretaire-general, is a bit of the ivory knob at the top of a half-pay officer's life-preserver."
"Yes," said Prasville, examining the exhibit, "yes, I can make out a profile ... but I don't see the inference..."
"The inference is very simple. Among Daubrecq's victims, among those whose names are inscribed on the famous list, is the descendant of a Corsican family in Napoleon's service, which derived its wealth and title from the emperor and was afterward ruined under the Restoration. It is ten to one that this descendant, who was the leader of the Bonapartist party a few years ago, was the fifth person hiding in the motor-car. Need I state his name?"
"The Marquis d'Albufex?" said Prasville.
"The Marquis d'Albufex," said M. Nicole.
M. Nicole, who no longer seemed in the least worried with his hat, his glove and his umbrella, rose and said to Prasville:
"Monsieur le secretaire-general, I might have kept my discovery to myself, and not told you of it until after the final victory, that is, after bringing you the list of the Twenty-seven. But matters are urgent. Daubrecq's disappearance, contrary to what his kidnappers expect, may hasten on the catastrophe which you wish to avert. We must therefore act with all speed. Monsieur le secretaire-general, I ask for your immediate and practical assistance."
"In what way can I help you?" asked Prasville, who was beginning to be impressed by his quaint visitor.
"By giving me, to-morrow, those particulars about the Marquis d'Albufex which it would take me personally several days to collect."
Prasville seemed to hesitate and turned his head toward Mme. Mergy. Clarisse said:
"I beg of you to accept M. Nicole's services. He is an invaluable and devoted ally. I will answer for him as I would for myself."
"What particulars do you require, monsieur?" asked Prasville.
"Everything that concerns the Marquis d'Albufex: the position of his family, the way in which he spends his time, his family connections, the properties which he owns in Paris and in the country."
"After all, whether it's the marquis or another, Daubrecq's kidnapper is working on our behalf, seeing that, by capturing the list, he disarms Daubrecq."
"And who says, monsieur le secretaire-general, that he is not working on his own behalf?"
"That is not possible, as his name is on the list."
"And suppose he erases it? Suppose you then find yourself dealing with a second blackmailer, even more grasping and more powerful than the first and one who, as a political adversary, is in a better position than Daubrecq to maintain the contest?"
The secretary-general was struck by the argument. After a moment's thought, he said:
"Come and see me in my office at four o'clock tomorrow. I will give you the particulars. What is your address, in case I should want you?"
"M. Nicole, 25, Place de Clichy. I am staying at a friend's flat, which he has lent me during his absence."
The interview was at an end. M. Nicole thanked the secretary-general, with a very low bow, and walked out, accompanied by Mme. Mergy:
"That's an excellent piece of work," he said, outside, rubbing his hands. "I can march into the police-office whenever I like, and set the whole lot to work."
Mme. Mergy, who was less hopefully inclined, said:
"Alas, will you be in time? What terrifies me is the thought that the list may be destroyed."
"Goodness gracious me, by whom? By Daubrecq?"
"No, but by the marquis, when he gets hold of it."
"He hasn't got it yet! Daubrecq will resist long enough, at any rate, for us to reach him. Just think! Prasville is at my orders!"
"Suppose he discovers who you are? The least inquiry will prove that there is no such person as M. Nicole."
"But it will not prove that M. Nicole is the same person as Arsene Lupin. Besides, make yourself easy. Prasville is not only beneath contempt as a detective: he has but one aim in life, which is to destroy his old enemy, Daubrecq. To achieve that aim, all means are equally good; and he will not waste time in verifying the identity of a M. Nicole who promises him Daubrecq. Not to mention that I was brought by you and that, when all is said, my little gifts did dazzle him to some extent. So let us go ahead boldly."
Clarisse always recovered confidence in Lupin's presence. The future seemed less appalling to her; and she admitted, she forced herself to admit, that the chances of saving Gilbert were not lessened by that hideous death-sentence. But he could not prevail upon her to return to Brittany. She wanted to fight by his side. She wanted to be there and share all his hopes and all his disappointments.
The next day the inquiries of the police confirmed what Prasville and Lupin already knew. The Marquis d'Albufex had been very deeply involved in the business of the canal, so deeply that Prince Napoleon was obliged to remove him from the management of his political campaign in France; and he kept up his very extravagant style of living only by dint of constant loans and makeshifts. On the other hand, in so far as concerned the kidnapping of Daubrecq, it was ascertained that, contrary to his usual custom, the marquis had not appeared in his club between six and seven that evening and had not dined at home. He did not come back until midnight; and then he came on foot.
M. Nicole's accusation, therefore, was receiving an early proof. Unfortunately--and Lupin was no more successful in his own attempts--it was impossible to obtain the least clue as to the motor-car, the chauffeur and the four people who had entered Daubrecq's house. Were they associates of the marquis, compromised in the canal affair like himself? Were they men in his pay? Nobody knew.
The whole search, consequently, had to be concentrated upon the marquis and the country-seats and houses which he might possess at a certain distance from Paris, a distance which, allowing for the average speed of a motor-car and the inevitable stoppages, could be put at sixty to ninety miles.
Now d'Albufex, having sold everything that he ever had, possessed neither country-houses nor landed estates.
They turned their attention to the marquis' relations and intimate friends. Was he able on this side to dispose of some safe retreat in which to imprison Daubrecq?
The result was equally fruitless.
And the days passed. And what days for Clarisse Mergy! Each of them brought Gilbert nearer to the terrible day of reckoning. Each of them meant twenty-four hours less from the date which Clarisse had instinctively fixed in her mind. And she said to Lupin, who was racked with the same anxiety:
"Fifty-five days more ... Fifty days more ... What can one do in so few days? ... Oh, I beg of you ... I beg of you..."
What could they do indeed? Lupin, who would not leave the task of watching the marquis to any one but himself, practically lived without sleeping. But the marquis had resumed his regular life; and, doubtless suspecting something, did not risk going away.
Once alone, he went down to the Duc de Montmaur's, in the daytime. The duke kept a pack of boar-hounds, with which he hunted the Forest of Durlaine. D'Albufex maintained no relations with him outside the hunt.
"It is hardly likely," said Prasville, "that the Duc de Montmaur, an exceedingly wealthy man, who is interested only in his estates and his hunting and takes no part in politics, should lend himself to the illegal detention of Daubrecq the deputy in his chateau."
Lupin agreed; but, as he did not wish to leave anything to chance, the next week, seeing d'Albufex go out one morning in riding-dress, he followed him to the Gare du Nord and took the same train.
He got out at Aumale, where d'Albufex found a carriage at the station which took him to the Chateau de Montmaur.
Lupin lunched quietly, hired a bicycle and came in view of the house at the moment when the guests were going into the park, in motor-cars or mounted. The Marquis d'Albufex was one of the horsemen.
Thrice, in the course of the day, Lupin saw him cantering along. And he found him, in the evening, at the station, where d'Albufex rode up, followed by a huntsman.
The proof, therefore, was conclusive; and there was nothing suspicious on that side. Why did Lupin, nevertheless, resolve not to be satisfied with appearances? And why, next day, did he send the Masher to find out things in the neighbourhood of Montmaur? It was an additional precaution, based upon no logical reason, but agreeing with his methodical and careful manner of acting.
Two days later he received from the Masher, among other information of less importance, a list of the house-party at Montmaur and of all the servants and keepers.
One name struck him, among those of the huntsmen. He at once wired:
"Inquire about huntsman Sebastiani."
The Masher's answer was received the next day:
"Sebastiani, a Corsican, was recommended to the Duc de Montmaur by the Marquis d'Albufex. He lives at two or three miles from the house, in a hunting-lodge built among the ruins of the feudal stronghold which was the cradle of the Montmaur family."
"That's it," said Lupin to Clarisse Mergy, showing her the Masher's letter. "That name, Sebastiani, at once reminded me that d'Albufex is of Corsican descent. There was a connection..."
"Then what do you intend to do?"
"If Daubrecq is imprisoned in those ruins, I intend to enter into communication with him."
"He will distrust you."
"No. Lately, acting on the information of the police, I ended by discovering the two old ladies who carried off your little Jacques at Saint-Germain and who brought him, the same evening, to Neuilly. They are two old maids, cousins of Daubrecq, who makes them a small monthly allowance. I have been to call on those Demoiselles Rousselot; remember the name and the address: 134 bis, Rue du Bac. I inspired them with confidence, promised them to find their cousin and benefactor; and the elder sister, Euphrasie Rousselot, gave me a letter in which she begs Daubrecq to trust M. Nicole entirely. So you see, I have taken every precaution. I shall leave to-night."
"We, you mean," said Clarisse.
"Can I go on living like this, in feverish inaction?" And she whispered, "I am no longer counting the days, the thirty-eight or forty days that remain to us: I am counting the hours."
Lupin felt that her resolution was too strong for him to try to combat it. They both started at five o'clock in the morning, by motor-car. The Growler went with them.
So as not to arouse suspicion, Lupin chose a large town as his headquarters. At Amiens, where he installed Clarisse, he was only eighteen miles from Montmaur.
At eight o'clock he met the Masher not far from the old fortress, which was known in the neighbourhood by the name of Mortepierre, and he examined the locality under his guidance.
On the confines of the forest, the little river Ligier, which has dug itself a deep valley at this spot, forms a loop which is overhung by the enormous cliff of Mortepierre.
"Nothing to be done on this side," said Lupin. "The cliff is steep, over two hundred feet high, and the river hugs it all round."
Not far away they found a bridge that led to the foot of a path which wound, through the oaks and pines, up to a little esplanade, where stood a massive, iron-bound gate, studded with nails and flanked on either side by a large tower.
"Is this where Sebastiani the huntsman lives?" asked Lupin.
"Yes," said the Masher, "with his wife, in a lodge standing in the midst of the ruins. I also learnt that he has three tall sons and that all the four were supposed to be away for a holiday on the day when Daubrecq was carried off."
"Oho!" said Lupin. "The coincidence is worth remembering. It seems likely enough that the business was done by those chaps and their father."
Toward the end of the afternoon Lupin availed himself of a breach to the right of the towers to scale the curtain. From there he was able to see the huntsman's lodge and the few remains of the old fortress: here, a bit of wall, suggesting the mantel of a chimney; further away, a water-tank; on this side, the arches of a chapel; on the other, a heap of fallen stones.
A patrol-path edged the cliff in front; and, at one of the ends of this patrol-path, there were the remains of a formidable donjon-keep razed almost level with the ground.
Lupin returned to Clarisse Mergy in the evening. And from that time he went backward and forward between Amiens and Mortepierre, leaving the Growler and the Masher permanently on the watch.