The Crystal Stopper
Chapter 12: The Scaffold
"I will save him, I will save him," Lupin repeated, without ceasing, in the taxicab in which he and Clarisse drove away. "I swear that I will save him."
Clarisse did not listen, sat as though numbed, as though possessed by some great nightmare of death, which left her ignorant of all that was happening outside her. And Lupin set forth his plans, perhaps more to reassure himself than to convince Clarisse. "No, no, the game is not lost yet. There is one trump left, a huge trump, in the shape of the letters and documents which Vorenglade, the ex-deputy, is offering to sell to Daubrecq and of which Daubrecq spoke to you yesterday at Nice. I shall buy those letters and documents of Stanislas Vorenglade at whatever price he chooses to name. Then we shall go back to the police-office and I shall say to Prasville, 'Go to the Elysee at once ... Use the list as though it were genuine, save Gilbert from death and be content to acknowledge to-morrow, when Gilbert is saved, that the list is forged.
"'Be off, quickly! ... If you refuse, well, if you refuse, the Vorenglade letters and documents shall be reproduced to-morrow, Tuesday, morning in one of the leading newspapers.' Vorenglade will be arrested. And M. Prasville will find himself in prison before night."
Lupin rubbed his hands:
"He'll do as he's told! ... He'll do as he's told! ... I felt that at once, when I was with him. The thing appeared to me as a dead certainty. And I found Vorenglade's address in Daubrecq's pocket-books, so ... driver, Boulevard Raspail!"
They went to the address given. Lupin sprang from the cab, ran up three flights of stairs.
The servant said that M. Vorenglade was away and would not be back until dinner-time next evening.
"And don't you know where he is?"
"M. Vorenglade is in London, sir."
Lupin did not utter a word on returning to the cab. Clarisse, on her side, did not even ask him any questions, so indifferent had she become to everything, so absolutely did she look upon her son's death as an accomplished fact.
They drove to the Place de Cichy. As Lupin entered the house he passed two men who were just leaving the porter's box. He was too much engrossed to notice them. They were Prasville's inspectors.
"No telegram?" he asked his servant.
"No, governor," replied Achille.
"No news of the Masher and the Growler?"
"No, governor, none."
"That's all right," he said to Clarisse, in a casual tone. "It's only seven o'clock and we mustn't reckon on seeing them before eight or nine. Prasville will have to wait, that's all. I will telephone to him to wait."
He did so and was hanging up the receiver, when he heard a moan behind him. Clarisse was standing by the table, reading an evening-paper. She put her hand to her heart, staggered and fell.
"Achille, Achille!" cried Lupin, calling his man. "Help me put her on my bed ... And then go to the cupboard and get me the medicine-bottle marked number four, the bottle with the sleeping-draught."
He forced open her teeth with the point of a knife and compelled her to swallow half the bottle:
"Good," he said. "Now the poor thing won't wake till to-morrow ... after."
He glanced through the paper, which was still clutched in Clarisse' hand, and read the following lines:
"The strictest measures have been taken to keep order at the execution of Gilbert and Vaucheray, lest Arsene Lupin should make an attempt to rescue his accomplices from the last penalty. At twelve o'clock to-night a cordon of troops will be drawn across all the approaches to the Sante Prison. As already stated, the execution will take place outside the prison-walls, in the square formed by the Boulevard Arago and the Rue de la Sante.
"We have succeeded in obtaining some details of the attitude of the two condemned men. Vaucheray observes a stolid sullenness and is awaiting the fatal event with no little courage:
"'Crikey, ' he says, 'I can't say I'm delighted; but I've got to go through it and I shall keep my end up.' And he adds, 'Death I don't care a hang about! What worries me is the thought that they're going to cut my head off. Ah, if the governor could only hit on some trick to send me straight off to the next world before I had time to say knife! A drop of Prussic acid, governor, if you please!'
"Gilbert's calmness is even more impressive, especially when we remember how he broke down at the trial. He retains an unshaken confidence in the omnipotence of Arsene Lupin:
"'The governor shouted to me before everybody not to be afraid, that he was there, that he answered for everything. Well, I'm not afraid. I shall rely on him until the last day, until the last minute, at the very foot of the scaffold. I know the governor! There's no danger with him. He has promised and he will keep his word. If my head were off, he'd come and clap it on my shoulders and firmly! Arsene Lupin allow his chum Gilbert to die? Not he! Excuse my humour!'
"There is a certain touching frankness in all this enthusiasm which is not without a dignity of its own. We shall see if Arsene Lupin deserves the confidence so blindly placed in him."
Lupin was hardly able to finish reading the article for the tears that dimmed his eyes: tears of affection, tears of pity, tears of distress.
No, he did not deserve the confidence of his chum Gilbert. Certainly, he had performed impossibilities; but there are circumstances in which we must perform more than impossibilities, in which we must show ourselves stronger than fate; and, this time, fate had been stronger than he. Ever since the first day and throughout this lamentable adventure, events had gone contrary to his anticipations, contrary to logic itself. Clarisse and he, though pursuing an identical aim, had wasted weeks in fighting each other. Then, at the moment when they were uniting their efforts, a series of ghastly disasters had come one after the other: the kidnapping of little Jacques, Daubrecq's disappearance, his imprisonment in the Lovers' Tower, Lupin's wound, his enforced inactivity, followed by the cunning manoeuvres that dragged Clarisse--and Lupin after her--to the south, to Italy. And then, as a crowning catastrophe, when, after prodigies of will-power, after miracles of perseverance, they were entitled to think that the Golden Fleece was won, it all came to nothing. The list of the Twenty-seven had no more value than the most insignificant scrap of paper.
"The game's up!" said Lupin. "It's an absolute defeat. What if I do revenge myself on Daubrecq, ruin him and destroy him? He is the real victor, once Gilbert is going to die."
He wept anew, not with spite or rage, but with despair. Gilbert was going to die! The lad whom he called his chum, the best of his pals would be gone for ever, in a few hours. He could not save him. He was at the end of his tether. He did not even look round for a last expedient. What was the use?
And his persuasion of his own helplessness was so deep, so definite that he felt no shock of any kind on receiving a telegram from the Masher that said:
"Motor accident. Essential part broken. Long repair. Arrive to-morrow morning."
It was a last proof to show that fate had uttered its decree. He no longer thought of rebelling against the decision.
He looked at Clarisse. She was peacefully sleeping; and this total oblivion, this absence of all consciousness, seemed to him so enviable that, suddenly yielding to a fit of cowardice, he seized the bottle, still half-filled with the sleeping-draught, and drank it down.
Then he stretched himself on a couch and rang for his man:
"Go to bed, Achille, and don't wake me on any pretence whatever."
"Then there's nothing to be done for Gilbert and Vaucheray, governor?" said Achille.
"Are they going through it?"
"They are going through it."
Twenty minutes later Lupin fell into a heavy sleep. It was ten o'clock in the evening.
The night was full of incident and noise around the prison. At one o'clock in the morning the Rue de la Sante, the Boulevard Arago and all the streets abutting on the gaol were guarded by police, who allowed no one to pass without a regular cross-examination.
For that matter, it was raining in torrents; and it seemed as though the lovers of this sort of show would not be very numerous. The public-houses were all closed by special order. At four o'clock three companies of infantry came and took up their positions along the pavements, while a battalion occupied the Boulevard Arago in case of a surprise. Municipal guards cantered up and down between the lines; a whole staff of police-magistrates, officers and functionaries, brought together for the occasion, moved about among the troops.
The guillotine was set up in silence, in the middle of the square formed by the boulevard and the street; and the sinister sound of hammering was heard.
But, at five o'clock, the crowd gathered, notwithstanding the rain, and people began to sing. They shouted for the footlights, called for the curtain to rise, were exasperated to see that, at the distance at which the barriers had been fixed, they could hardly distinguish the uprights of the guillotine.
Several carriages drove up, bringing official persons dressed in black. There were cheers and hoots, whereupon a troop of mounted municipal guards scattered the groups and cleared the space to a distance of three hundred yards from the square. Two fresh companies of soldiers lined up.
And suddenly there was a great silence. A vague white light fell from the dark sky. The rain ceased abruptly.
Inside the prison, at the end of the passage containing the condemned cells, the men in black were conversing in low voices. Prasville was talking to the public prosecutor, who expressed his fears:
"No, no," declared Prasville, "I assure you, it will pass without an incident of any kind."
"Do your reports mention nothing at all suspicious, monsieur le secretaire-general?"
"Nothing. And they can't mention anything, for the simple reason that we have Lupin."
"Do you mean that?"
"Yes, we know his hiding-place. The house where he lives, on the Place de Clichy, and where he went at seven o'clock last night, is surrounded. Moreover, I know the scheme which he had contrived to save his two accomplices. The scheme miscarried at the last moment. We have nothing to fear, therefore. The law will take its course."
Meanwhile, the hour had struck.
They took Vaucheray first; and the governor of the prison ordered the door of his cell to be opened. Vaucheray leapt out of bed and cast eyes dilated with terror upon the men who entered.
"Vaucheray, we have come to tell you..."
"Stow that, stow that," he muttered. "No words. I know all about it. Get on with the business."
One would have thought that he was in a hurry for it to be over as fast as possible, so readily did he submit to the usual preparations. But he would not allow any of them to speak to him:
"No words," he repeated. "What? Confess to the priest? Not worth while. I have shed blood. The law sheds my blood. It's the good old rule. We're quits."
Nevertheless, he stopped short for a moment:
"I say, is my mate going through it too?"
And, when he heard that Gilbert would go to the scaffold at the same time as himself, he had two or three seconds of hesitation, glanced at the bystanders, seemed about to speak, was silent and, at last, muttered:
"It's better so ... They'll pull us through together ... we'll clink glasses together."
Gilbert was not asleep either, when the men entered his cell.
Sitting on his bed, he listened to the terrible words, tried to stand up, began to tremble frightfully, from head to foot, like a skeleton when shaken, and then fell back, sobbing:
"Oh, my poor mummy, poor mummy!" he stammered.
They tried to question him about that mother, of whom he had never spoken; but his tears were interrupted by a sudden fit of rebellion and he cried:
"I have done no murder ... I won't die. I have done no murder..."
"Gilbert," they said, "show yourself a man."
"Yes, yes ... but I have done no murder ... Why should I die?"
His teeth chattered so loudly that words which he uttered became unintelligible. He let the men do their work, made his confession, heard mass and then, growing calmer and almost docile, with the voice of a little child resigning itself, murmured:
"Tell my mother that I beg her forgiveness."
"Yes ... Put what I say in the papers ... She will understand ... And then..."
"Well, I want the governor to know that I have not lost confidence."
He gazed at the bystanders, one after the other, as though he entertained the mad hope that "the governor" was one of them, disguised beyond recognition and ready to carry him off in his arms:
"Yes," he said, gently and with a sort of religious piety, "yes, I still have confidence, even at this moment ... Be sure and let him know, won't you? ... I am positive that he will not let me die. I am certain of it..."
They guessed, from the fixed look in his eyes, that he saw Lupin, that he felt Lupin's shadow prowling around and seeking an inlet through which to get to him. And never was anything more touching than the sight of that stripling--clad in the strait-jacket, with his arms and legs bound, guarded by thousands of men--whom the executioner already held in his inexorable hand and who, nevertheless, hoped on.
Anguish wrung the hearts of all the beholders. Their eyes were dimmed with tears:
"Poor little chap!" stammered some one.
Prasville, touched like the rest and thinking of Clarisse, repeated, in a whisper:
"Poor little chap!"
But the hour struck, the preparations were finished. They set out.
The two processions met in the passage. Vaurheray, on seeing Gilbert, snapped out:
"I say, kiddie, the governor's chucked us!"
And he added a sentence which nobody, save Prasville, was able to understand:
"Expect he prefers to pocket the proceeds of the crystal stopper."
They went down the staircases. They crossed the prison-yards. An endless, horrible distance.