The Crystal Stopper
Chapter 13: The Last Battle

 

When Prasville returned to his office he saw M. Nicole sitting on a bench in the waiting-room, with his bent back, his ailing air, his gingham umbrella, his rusty hat and his single glove:

"It's he all right," said Prasville, who had feared for a moment that Lupin might have sent another M. Nicole to see him. "And the fact that he has come in person proves that he does not suspect that I have seen through him." And, for the third time, he said, "All the same, what a nerve!"

He shut the door of his office and called his secretary:

"M. Lartigue, I am having a rather dangerous person shown in here. The chances are that he will have to leave my office with the bracelets on. As soon as he is in my room, make all the necessary arrangements: send for a dozen inspectors and have them posted in the waiting-room and in your office. And take this as a definite instruction: the moment I ring, you are all to come in, revolvers in hand, and surround the fellow. Do you quite understand?"

"Yes, monsieur le secretaire-general."

"Above all, no hesitation. A sudden entrance, in a body, revolvers in hand. Send M. Nicole in, please."

As soon as he was alone, Prasville covered the push of an electric bell on his desk with some papers and placed two revolvers of respectable dimensions behind a rampart of books.

"And now," he said to himself, "to sit tight. If he has the list, let's collar it. If he hasn't, let's collar him. And, if possible, let's collar both. Lupin and the list of the Twenty-seven, on the same day, especially after the scandal of this morning, would be a scoop in a thousand."

There was a knock at the door.

"Come in!" said Prasville.

And, rising from his seat:

"Come in, M. Nicole, come in."

M. Nicole crept timidly into the room, sat down on the extreme edge of the chair to which Prasville pointed and said:

"I have come ... to resume ... our conversation of yesterday ... Please excuse the delay, monsieur."

"One second," said Prasville. "Will you allow me?"

He stepped briskly to the outer room and, seeing his secretary:

"I was forgetting, M. Lartigue. Have the staircases and passages searched ... in case of accomplices."

He returned, settled himself comfortably, as though for a long and interesting conversation, and began:

"You were saying, M. Nicole?"

"I was saying, monsieur le secretaire-general, that I must apologize for keeping you waiting yesterday evening. I was detained by different matters. First of all, Mme. Mergy..."

"Yes, you had to see Mme. Mergy home."

"Just so, and to look after her. You can understand the poor thing's despair ... Her son Gilbert so near death ... And such a death! ... At that time we could only hope for a miracle ... an impossible miracle. I myself was resigned to the inevitable ... You know as well as I do, when fate shows itself implacable, one ends by despairing."

"But I thought," observed Prasville, "that your intention, on leaving me, was to drag Daubrecq's secret from him at all costs."

"Certainly. But Daubrecq was not in Paris."

"Oh?"

"No. He was on his way to Paris in a motor-car."

"Have you a motor-car, M. Nicole?"

"Yes, when I need it: an out-of-date concern, an old tin kettle of sorts. Well, he was on his way to Paris in a motor-car, or rather on the roof of a motor-car, inside a trunk in which I packed him. But, unfortunately, the motor was unable to reach Paris until after the execution. Thereupon..."

Prasville stared at M. Nicole with an air of stupefaction. If he had retained the least doubt of the individual's real identity, this manner of dealing with Daubrecq would have removed it. By Jingo! To pack a man in a trunk and pitch him on the top of a motorcar! ... No one but Lupin would indulge in such a freak, no one but Lupin would confess it with that ingenuous coolness!

"Thereupon," echoed Prasville, "you decided what?"

"I cast about for another method."

"What method?"

"Why, surely, monsieur le secretaire-general, you know as well as I do!"

"How do you mean?"

"Why, weren't you at the execution?"

"I was."

"In that case, you saw both Vaucheray and the executioner hit, one mortally, the other with a slight wound. And you can't fail to see..."

"Oh," exclaimed Prasville, dumbfounded, "you confess it? It was you who fired the shots, this morning?"

"Come, monsieur le secretaire-general, think! What choice had I? The list of the Twenty-seven which you examined was a forgery. Daubrecq, who possessed the genuine one, would not arrive until a few hours after the execution. There was therefore but one way for me to save Gilbert and obtain his pardon; and that was to delay the execution by a few hours."

"Obviously."

"Well, of course. By killing that infamous brute, that hardened criminal, Vaucheray, and wounding the executioner, I spread disorder and panic; I made Gilbert's execution physically and morally impossible; and I thus gained the few hours which were indispensable for my purpose."

"Obviously," repeated Prasville.

"Well, of course," repeated Lupin, "it gives us all--the government, the president and myself--time to reflect and to see the question in a clearer light. What do you think of it, monsieur le secretaire-general?"

Prasville thought a number of things, especially that this Nicole was giving proof, to use a vulgar phrase, of the most infernal cheek, of a cheek so great that Prasville felt inclined to ask himself if he was really right in identifying Nicole with Lupin and Lupin with Nicole.

"I think, M. Nicole, that a man has to be a jolly good shot to kill a person whom he wants to kill, at a distance of a hundred yards, and to wound another person whom he only wants to wound."

"I have had some little practice," said M. Nicole, with modest air.

"And I also think that your plan can only be the fruit of a long preparation."

"Not at all! That's where you're wrong! It was absolutely spontaneous! If my servant, or rather the servant of the friend who lent me his flat in the Place de Clichy, had not shaken me out of my sleep, to tell me that he had once served as a shopman in that little house on the Boulevard Arago, that it did not hold many tenants and that there might be something to be done there, our poor Gilbert would have had his head cut off by now ... and Mme. Mergy would most likely be dead."

"Oh, you think so?"

"I am sure of it. And that was why I jumped at that faithful retainer's suggestion. Only, you interfered with my plans, monsieur le secretaire-general."

"I did?"

"Yes. You must needs go and take the three-cornered precaution of posting twelve men at the door of my house. I had to climb five flights of back stairs and go out through the servants' corridor and the next house. Such useless fatigue!"

"I am very sorry, M. Nicole. Another time..."

"It was the same thing at eight o'clock this morning, when I was waiting for the motor which was bringing Daubrecq to me in his trunk: I had to march up and down the Place de Clichy, so as to prevent the car from stopping outside the door of my place and your men from interfering in my private affairs. Otherwise, once again, Gilbert and Clarisse Mergy would have been lost."

"But," said Prasville, "those painful events, it seems to me, are only delayed for a day, two days, three days at most. To avert them for good and all we should want..."

"The real list, I suppose?"

"Exactly. And I daresay you haven't got it."

"Yes, I have."

"The genuine list?"

"The genuine, the undoubtedly genuine list."

"With the cross of Lorraine?"

"With the cross of Lorraine."

Prasville was silent. He was labouring under violent emotion, now that the duel was commencing with that adversary of whose terrifying superiority he was well aware; and he shuddered at the idea that Arsene Lupin, the formidable Arsene Lupin, was there, in front of him, calm and placid, pursuing his aims with as much coolness as though he had all the weapons in his hands and were face to face with a disarmed enemy.

Not yet daring to deliver a frontal attack, feeling almost intimidated, Prasville said:

"So Daubrecq gave it up to you?"

"Daubrecq gives nothing up. I took it."

"By main force, therefore?"

"Oh, dear, no!" said M. Nicole, laughing. "Of course, I was ready to go to all lengths; and, when that worthy Daubrecq was dug out of the basket in which he had been travelling express, with an occasional dose of chloroform to keep his strength up, I had prepared things so that the fun might begin at once. Oh, no useless tortures ... no vain sufferings! No ... Death, simply ... You press the point of a long needle on the chest, where the heart is, and insert it gradually, softly and gently. That's all but the point would have been driven by Mme. Mergy. You understand: a mother is pitiless, a mother whose son is about to die!... 'Speak, Daubrecq, or I'll go deeper ... You won't speak? ... Then I'll push another quarter of an inch ... and another still.' And the patient's heart stops beating, the heart that feels the needle coming ... And another quarter of an inch ... and one more ... I swear before Heaven that the villain would have spoken! ... We leant over him and waited for him to wake, trembling with impatience, so urgent was our hurry ... Can't you picture the scene, monsieur le secretaire-general? The scoundrel lying on a sofa, well bound, bare-chested, making efforts to throw off the fumes of chloroform that dazed him. He breathes quicker ... He gasps ... He recovers consciousness ... his lips move ... Already, Clarisse Mergy whispers, 'It's I ... it's I, Clarisse ... Will you answer, you wretch?' She has put her finger on Daubrecq's chest, at the spot where the heart stirs like a little animal hidden under the skin. But she says to me, 'His eyes ... his eyes ... I can't see them under the spectacles ... I want to see them... 'And I also want to see those eyes which I do not know, I want to see their anguish and I want to read in them, before I hear a word, the secret which is about to burst from the inmost recesses of the terrified body. I want to see. I long to see. The action which I am about to accomplish excites me beyond measure. It seems to me that, when I have seen the eyes, the veil will be rent asunder. I shall know things. It is a presentiment. It is the profound intuition of the truth that keeps me on tenterhooks. The eye-glasses are gone. But the thick opaque spectacles are there still. And I snatch them off, suddenly. And, suddenly, startled by a disconcerting vision, dazzled by the quick light that breaks in upon me and laughing, oh, but laughing fit to break my jaws, with my thumb--do you understand? with my thumb--hop, I force out the left eye!"

M. Nicole was really laughing, as he said, fit to break his jaws. And he was no longer the timid little unctuous and obsequious provincial usher, but a well-set-up fellow, who, after reciting and mimicking the whole scene with impressive ardour, was now laughing with a shrill laughter the sound of which made Prasville's flesh creep:

"Hop! Jump, Marquis! Out of your kennel, Towzer! What's the use of two eyes? It's one more than you want. Hop! I say, Clarisse, look at it rolling over the carpet! Mind Daubrecq's eye! Be careful with the grate!"

M. Nicole, who had risen and pretended to be hunting after something across the room, now sat down again, took from his pocket a thing shaped like a marble, rolled it in the hollow of his hand, chucked it in the air, like a ball, put it back in his fob and said, coolly:

"Daubrecq's left eye."

Prasville was utterly bewildered. What was his strange visitor driving at? What did all this story mean? Pale with excitement, he said:

"Explain yourself."

"But it's all explained, it seems to me. And it fits in so well with things as they were, fits in with all the conjectures which I had been making in spite of myself and which would inevitably have led to my solving the mystery, if that damned Daubrecq had not so cleverly sent me astray! Yes, think, follow the trend of my suppositions: 'As the list is not to be discovered away from Daubrecq, ' I said to myself, 'it cannot exist away from Daubrecq. And, as it is not to be discovered in the clothes he wears, it must be hidden deeper still, in himself, to speak plainly, in his flesh, under his skin..."

"In his eye, perhaps?" suggested Prasville, by way of a joke...

"In his eye? Monsieur le secretaire-general, you have said the word."

"What?"

"I repeat, in his eye. And it is a truth that ought to have occurred to my mind logically, instead of being revealed to me by accident. And I will tell you why. Daubrecq knew that Clarisse had seen a letter from him instructing an English manufacturer to 'empty the crystal within, so as to leave a void which it was unpossible to suspect.' Daubrecq was bound, in prudence, to divert any attempt at search. And it was for this reason that he had a crystal stopper made, 'emptied within, ' after a model supplied by himself. And it is this crystal stopper which you and I have been after for months; and it is this crystal stopper which I dug out of a packet of tobacco. Whereas all I had to do..."

"Was what?" asked Prasville, greatly puzzled.

M. Nicole burst into a fresh fit of laughter:

"Was simply to go for Daubrecq's eye, that eye 'emptied within so as to leave a void which it is impossible to suspect, ' the eye which you see before you."

And M. Nicole once more took the thing from his pocket and rapped the table with it, producing the sound of a hard body with each rap.

Prasville whispered, in astonishment:

"A glass eye!"

"Why, of course!" cried M. Nicole, laughing gaily. "A glass eye! A common or garden decanter-stopper, which the rascal stuck into his eyesocket in the place of an eye which he had lost--a decanter-stopper, or, if you prefer, a crystal stopper, but the real one, this time, which he faked, which he hid behind the double bulwark of his spectacles and eye-glasses, which contained and still contains the talisman that enabled Daubrecq to work as he pleased in safety."

Prasville lowered his head and put his hand to his forehead to hide his flushed face: he was almost possessing the list of the Twenty-seven. It lay before him, on the table.

Mastering his emotion, he said, in a casual tone:

"So it is there still?"

"At least, I suppose so," declared M. Nicole.

"What! You suppose so?"

"I have not opened the hiding-place. I thought, monsieur le secretaire-general, I would reserve that honour for you."

Prasville put out his hand, took the thing up and inspected it. It was a block of crystal, imitating nature to perfection, with all the details of the eyeball, the iris, the pupil, the cornea.

He at once saw a movable part at the back, which slid in a groove. He pushed it. The eye was hollow.

There was a tiny ball of paper inside. He unfolded it, smoothed it out and, quickly, without delaying to make a preliminary examination of the names, the hand-writing or the signatures, he raised his arms and turned the paper to the light from the windows.

"Is the cross of Lorraine there?" asked M. Nicole.

"Yes, it is there," replied Prasville. "This is the genuine list."

He hesitated a few seconds and remained with his arms raised, while reflecting what he would do. Then he folded up the paper again, replaced it in its little crystal sheath and put the whole thing in his pocket. M. Nicole, who was looking at him, asked:

"Are you convinced?"

"Absolutely."

"Then we are agreed?"

"We are agreed."

There was a pause, during which the two men watched each other without appearing to. M. Nicole seemed to be waiting for the conversation to be resumed. Prasville, sheltered behind the piles of books on the table, sat with one hand grasping his revolver and the other touching the push of the electric bell. He felt the whole strength of his position with a keen zest. He held the list. He held Lupin:

"If he moves," he thought, "I cover him with my revolver and I ring. If he attacks me, I shoot."

And the situation appeared to him so pleasant that he prolonged it, with the exquisite relish of an epicure.

In the end, M. Nicole took up the threads:

"As we are agreed, monsieur le secretaire-general, I think there is nothing left for you to do but to hurry. Is the execution to take place to-morrow?"

"Yes, to-morrow."

"In that case, I shall wait here."

"Wait for what?"

"The answer from the Elysee."

"Oh, is some one to bring you an answer?"

"Yes."

"You, monsieur le secretaire-general."

Prasville shook his head:

"You must not count on me, M. Nicole."

"Really?" said M. Nicole, with an air of surprise. "May I ask the reason?"

"I have changed my mind."

"Is that all?"

"That's all. I have come to the conclusion that, as things stand, after this last scandal, it is impossible to try to do anything in Gilbert's favour. Besides, an attempt in this direction at the Elysee, under present conditions, would constitute a regular case of blackmail, to which I absolutely decline to lend myself."

"You are free to do as you please, monsieur. Your scruples do you honour, though they come rather late, for they did not trouble you yesterday. But, in that case, monsieur le secretaire-general, as the compact between us is destroyed, give me back the list of the Twenty-seven."

"What for?"

"So that I may apply to another spokesman."

"What's the good? Gilbert is lost."

"Not at all, not at all. On the contrary, I consider that, now that his accomplice is dead, it will be much easier to grant him a pardon which everybody will look upon as fair and humane. Give me back the list."

"Upon my word, monsieur, you have a short memory and none too nice a conscience. Have you forgotten your promise of yesterday?"

"Yesterday, I made a promise to a M. Nicole."

"Well?"

"You are not M. Nicole."

"Indeed! Then, pray, who am I?"

"Need I tell you?"

M. Nicole made no reply, but began to laugh softly, as though pleased at the curious turn which the conversation was taking; and Prasville felt a vague misgiving at observing that fit of merriment. He grasped the butt-end of his revolver and wondered whether he ought not to ring for help.

M. Nicole drew his chair close to the desk, put his two elbows on the table, looked Prasville straight in the face and jeered:

"So, M. Prasville, you know who I am and you have the assurance to play this game with me?"

"I have that assurance," said Prasville, accepting the sneer without flinching.

"Which proves that you consider me, Arsene Lupin--we may as well use the name: yes, Arsene Lupin--which proves that you consider me fool enough, dolt enough to deliver myself like this, bound hand and foot into your hands."

"Upon my word," said Prasville, airily, patting the waistcoat-pocket in which he had secreted the crystal ball, "I don't quite see what you can do, M. Nicole, now that Daubrecq's eye is here, with the list of the Twenty-seven inside it."

"What I can do?" echoed M. Nicole, ironically.

"Yes! The talisman no longer protects you; and you are now no better off than any other man who might venture into the very heart of the police-office, among some dozens of stalwart fellows posted behind each of those doors and some hundreds of others who will hasten up at the first signal."

M. Nicole shrugged his shoulders and gave Prasville a look of great commiseration:

"Shall I tell you what is happening, monsieur le secretaire-general? Well, you too are having your head turned by all this business. Now that you possess the list, your state of mind has suddenly sunk to that of a Daubrecq or a d'Albufex. There is no longer even a question, in your thoughts, of taking it to your superiors, so that this ferment of disgrace and discord may be ended. No, no; a sodden temptation has seized upon you and intoxicated you; and, losing your head, you say to yourself, 'It is here, in my pocket. With its aid, I am omnipotent. It means wealth, absolute, unbounded power. Why not benefit by it? Why not let Gilbert and Clarisse Mergy die? Why not lock up that idiot of a Lupin? Why not seize this unparalleled piece of fortune by the forelock?'"

He bent toward Prasville and, very softly, in a friendly and confidential tone, said:

"Don't do that, my dear sir, don't do it."

"And why not?"

"It is not to your interest, believe me."

"Really!"

"No. Or, if you absolutely insist on doing it, have the kindness first to consult the twenty-seven names on the list of which you have just robbed me and reflect, for a moment, on the name of the third person on it."

"Oh? And what is the name of that third person?"

"It is the name of a friend of yours."

"What friend?"

"Stanislas Vorenglade, the ex-deputy."

"And then?" said Prasville, who seemed to be losing some of his self-confidence.

"Then? Ask yourself if an inquiry, however summary, would not end by discovering, behind that Stanislas Vorenglade, the name of one who shared certain little profits with him."

"And whose name is?"

"Louis Prasville."

M. Nicole banged the table with his fist.

"Enough of this humbug, monsieur! For twenty minutes, you and I have been beating about the bush. That will do. Let us understand each other. And, to begin with, drop your pistols. You can't imagine that I am frightened of those playthings! Stand up, sir, stand up, as I am doing, and finish the business: I am in a hurry."

He put his hand on Prasville's shoulder and, speaking with great deliberation, said:

"If, within an hour from now, you are not back from the Elysee, bringing with you a line to say that the decree of pardon has been signed; if, within one hour and ten minutes, I, Arsene Lupin, do not walk out of this building safe and sound and absolutely free, this evening four Paris newspapers will receive four letters selected from the correspondence exchanged between Stanislas Vorenglade and yourself, the correspondence which Stanislas Vorenglade sold me this morning. Here's your hat, here's your overcoat, here's your stick. Be off. I will wait for you."

Then happened this extraordinary and yet easily understood thing, that Prasville did not raise the slightest protest nor make the least show of fight. He received the sudden, far-reaching, utter conviction of what the personality known as Arsene Lupin meant, in all its breadth and fulness. He did not so much as think of carping, of pretending--as he had until then believed--that the letters had been destroyed by Vorenglade the deputy or, at any rate, that Vorenglade would not dare to hand them over, because, in so doing, Vorenglade was also working his own destruction. No, Prasville did not speak a word. He felt himself caught in a vise of which no human strength could force the jaws asunder. There was nothing to do but yield. He yielded.

"Here, in an hour," repeated M. Nicole.

"In an hour," said Prasville, tamely. Nevertheless, in order to know exactly where he stood, he added, "The letters, of course, will be restored to me against Gilbert's pardon?"

"No."

"How do you mean, no? In that case, there is no object in..."

"They will be restored to you, intact, two months after the day when my friends and I have brought about Gilbert's escape ... thanks to the very slack watch which will be kept upon him, in accordance with your orders."

"Is that all?"

"No, there are two further conditions: first, the immediate payment of a cheque for forty thousand francs."

"Forty thousand francs?"

"The sum for which Stanislas Vorenglade sold me the letters. It is only fair..."

"And next?"

"Secondly, your resignation, within six months, of your present position."

"My resignation? But why?"

M. Nicole made a very dignified gesture:

"Because it is against public morals that one of the highest positions in the police-service should be occupied by a man whose hands are not absolutely clean. Make them send you to parliament or appoint you a minister, a councillor of State, an ambassador, in short, any post which your success in the Daubrecq case entitles you to demand. But not secretary-general of police; anything but that! The very thought of it disgusts me."

Prasville reflected for a moment. He would have rejoiced in the sudden destruction of his adversary and he racked his brain for the means to effect it. But he was helpless.

He went to the door and called:

"M. Lartigue." And, sinking his voice, but not very low, for he wished M. Nicole to hear, "M. Lartigue, dismiss your men. It's a mistake. And let no one come into my office while I am gone. This gentleman will wait for me here."

He came back, took the hat, stick and overcoat which M. Nicole handed him and went out.

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