Yet she had not allowed herself to be crushed by sorrow; after the tragedy which left her a widow, she had assumed the effective control of her husband's property, and, helped by faithful friends, had carried on his interests and administered his estates, spreading a halo of kindness all around her.
To help her in the heavy correspondence entailed by all these affairs, she found three secretaries none too many. On M. Etienne Rambert's recommendation, Therese Auvernois was now one of these, and the young girl was perfectly happy in her new surroundings; time was helping her to forget the tragedy which had taken her grandmother from her at Beaulieu, and she enjoyed the company of the well-born, well-bred English gentlewomen.
Lady Beltham was reclining on a sofa in the great hall of her house at Neuilly. It was a spacious room, furnished half as a lounge and half as an office, and Lady Beltham liked to receive people there. A large glass-enclosed balcony commanded a view over the garden and the boulevard Richard Wallace beyond, with the Bois de Boulogne beyond that again. A few minutes before, a footman had brought in a table and set out tea-things, and Lady Beltham was reading while Therese and the two young English girls were chattering among themselves.
The telephone bell rang and Therese answered it.
"Hullo? Yes ... yes: you want to know if you may call this evening? The Reverend—oh, yes: you have just come from Scotland? Hold on a minute." She turned to Lady Beltham. "It is Mr. William Hope, and he wants to know if you will see him to-night. He has just come from your place in Scotland."
"The dear man!" exclaimed Lady Beltham; "of course he may come," and as Therese turned lightly to convey her permission to the clergyman waiting at the other end of the line, she caught a smile on the face of one of the other girls. "What is the joke, Lisbeth?" she enquired.
The girl laughed brightly.
"I think the worthy parson must have smelt the tea and toast, and wants to make up for the wretched dinner he got in the train."
"You are incorrigible," Lady Beltham replied. "Mr. Hope is above such material matters."
"Indeed he isn't, Lady Beltham," the girl persisted. "Why, only the other day he told Therese that all food deserved respect and esteem directly a blessing had been asked upon it, and that a badly cooked steak was a kind of sacrilege."
"A badly cooked pheasant," Therese corrected her.
"You are both wicked little slanderers," Lady Beltham protested gently, "and don't know the blessing a good appetite is. You do, Susannah, don't you?"
Susannah, a pretty Irish girl, looked up from a letter she was reading, and blushed.
"Oh, Lady Beltham, I've been ever so much less hungry since Harry's ship sailed."
"I don't quite see the connection," Lady Beltham answered. "Love is good nourishment for the soul, but not for the body. However, a good appetite is nothing to be ashamed of, and you ought to keep your roses for your future husband, and qualify in every way to be an excellent mother of a family."
"With lots and lots of children," Lisbeth went on wickedly: "seven or eight daughters at the very least, all of whom will marry nice young clergymen when their time comes and——"
She stopped speaking and the light chatter died away as a footman entered and announced the Reverend William Hope, who followed him immediately into the room, an elderly man with a full, clean-shaven face and a comfortable portliness of figure.
Lady Beltham offered him a cordial hand.
"I am delighted you are back," she said. "Will you have a cup of tea with us?"
The parson made a general bow to the girls gathered about the table.
"I got a wretched dinner in the train," he began, but Lisbeth interrupted him.
"Don't you think this tea smells delicious?" she asked.
The parson put out his hand to take the cup she offered to him, and bowed and smiled.
"Precisely what I was going to observe, Miss Lisbeth."
Therese and Susannah turned away to hide their amusement, and Lady Beltham adroitly changed the subject. She moved towards her writing-table.
"Mr. Hope must have much to tell me, girls, and it is getting late. I must get to business. Did you have a good journey?"
"Quite as good as usual, Lady Beltham. The people at Scotwell Hill are very plucky and good, but it will be a hard winter; there is snow on the hills already."
"Have the women and children had all their woollen things?"
"Oh, yes: twelve hundred garments have been distributed according to a list drawn up by the under-steward; here it is," and he handed a paper to Lady Beltham, who passed it on to Susannah.
"I will ask you to check the list," she said to the girl, and turned again to the clergyman. "The under-steward is a good fellow, but he is a rabid politician; he may have omitted some families that are openly radical; but I think charity should be given equally to all, for poverty makes no political distinctions."
"That is the right Christian view," the clergyman said approvingly.
"And what about the sanatorium at Glasgow?" Lady Beltham went on.
"It is very nearly finished," the good man answered. "I have got your lawyers to cut down the contractor's accounts by something like fifteen per cent, which means a saving of nearly three hundred pounds."
"Excellent," said Lady Beltham, and she turned to Therese. "You must add that three hundred pounds to the funds of the Scotwell Hill coal charity," she said. "They will want all of it if the winter is going to be a hard one," and Therese made a note of the instruction, full of admiration for Lady Beltham's simple generosity.
But Mr. Hope was fidgeting on his chair. He seized an opportunity when Lady Beltham, busy making notes, had turned her deep and steady eyes away from him, to say in a low tone:
"Have I your permission just to mention—poor Lord Beltham?"
Lady Beltham started, and her face betrayed an emotion which she bravely controlled. Hearing the name pronounced, the three girls withdrew to the far end of the room, where they began to talk among themselves. Lady Beltham signified her assent, and Mr. Hope began.
"You know, dear friend, this has been my first visit to Scotland since Lord Beltham's death. I found your tenants still grievously upset by the tragedy that occurred nearly a year ago. They have got by heart all the newspaper accounts of the mysterious circumstances attending Lord Beltham's death, but those are not enough to satisfy the sympathetic curiosity of these excellent people, and I was obliged to tell them over and over again in full detail—all we knew."
"I hope no scandal has gathered round his name," said Lady Beltham quickly.
"You need have no fear of that," the clergyman replied in the same low tone. "The rumour that got about when the crime was first discovered, that Lord Beltham had been surprised in an intrigue and killed in revenge, has not won acceptance. Local opinion agrees that he was decoyed into a trap and killed by the man Gurn, who meant to rob him, but who was either surprised or thought he was going to be, and fled before he had time to take the money or the jewels from the body of his victim. They know that the murderer has never been caught, but they also know that there is a price on his head, and they all hope the police—— Oh, forgive me for recalling all these painful memories!"
While he had been speaking, Lady Beltham's face had expressed almost every shade of emotion and distress; it seemed to be drawn with pain at his concluding words. But she made an effort to control herself, and spoke resignedly.
"It cannot be helped, dear Mr. Hope. Go on."
But the clergyman changed the topic.
"Oh, I was quite forgetting," he said more brightly. "The under-steward has turned out the two Tillys, quite on his own authority: you must remember them, two brothers, blacksmiths, who drank a great deal and paid very little, and created so much scandal in the place."
"I object to the under-steward doing any such thing without referring to me first," Lady Beltham exclaimed warmly. "Man's duty is to persuade and forgive, not to judge and punish. Kindness breeds kindness, and it is pity that wins amendment. Why should a subordinate, my under-steward, presume to do what I would not permit myself to do?"
She had sprung to her feet and was pacing excitedly about the room; she had wholly dropped the impassive mask she habitually wore, concealing her real personality.
The three girls watched her in silence.
The door opened anew, and Silbertown came in, the major-domo of Lady Beltham's establishment at Neuilly. He brought the evening letters, and the girls speedily took all the envelopes and newspapers from the tray and began to sort and open them, while the major-domo entered into conversation with his mistress, and the Rev. William Hope seized the opportunity to say good night, and take his leave.
Many of the letters were merely appeals to help in money or in kind, but one long letter Lisbeth handed to Lady Beltham. She glanced at the signature.
"Ah, here is news of M. Etienne Rambert," she exclaimed, and as Therese instinctively drew near, knowing that she, too, might hear something of what her old friend had written, Lady Beltham put the letter into her hand. "You read it, my dear, and then you can tell me presently what he has to say."
Therese read the letter eagerly. M. Etienne Rambert had left Paris a week before, upon a long and important journey. The energetic old fellow was to make a trip in Germany first, and then go from Hamburg to England, where he had some business to attend to on behalf of Lady Beltham, with whom he was on more confidential terms than ever. Then he meant to sail from Southampton and spend the winter in Colombia, where he had important interests of his own to look after.
While Therese was reading, Lady Beltham continued her conversation with her major-domo.
"I am glad you had the park gate seen to this afternoon," she said. "You know how nervous I am. My childhood in Scotland was very lonely, and ever since then I have had a vague terror of solitude and darkness."
The major-domo reassured her: he had no lack of self-confidence.
"There is nothing for your ladyship to be afraid of; the house is perfectly safe, and carefully guarded. Walter, the porter, is a first-rate watch-dog and always sleeps with one eye open. And I, too——"
"Yes, I know, Silbertown," the young widow replied; "and when I give myself time to think I am not nervous. Thank you; you can leave me now."
She turned to the three girls.
"I am tired, dears; we won't stay up any later."
Lisbeth and Susannah kissed her affectionately and went away. Therese lingered a moment, to bring a book, a Bible, and place it on a table close to Lady Beltham's chair. Lady Beltham laid a hand upon her head as if in blessing, and said gently:
"Good night; God bless you, dear child!"
XXI. LORD BELTHAM'S MURDERER
It was on the point of midnight, and absolute stillness reigned throughout the house.
But Lady Beltham had not gone to bed. Although she had remained in the great hall where she did her work, she had been unable to settle down to any occupation. She had read a little, and begun a letter, got up and sat down; and finally, beginning to feel chilly, she had drawn an easy chair up to the hearth, where a log was just burning out, and stretching out her slippers to the warmth had fallen into a waking dream.
A sound caught her ear and she sat upright. At first she thought it was some trick of the imagination, but in another minute the noise grew louder; there was the hurrying of feet and voices, muffled at first but rapidly becoming louder, and at last a regular uproar, doors banging, glass breaking, and shouts from all parts of the house. Lady Beltham jumped up, nervous and trembling; she was just going to the window when she heard a shot and stopped dead where she stood. Then she rushed out into the vestibule.
"Help!" she screamed. "What on earth is the matter?" and remembering the girls for whom she had assumed responsibility, she called out anxiously for them. "Lisbeth! Therese! Susannah! Come to me!"
Doors upstairs were flung open, and with their hair streaming over their night-dresses Therese and Susannah rushed downstairs and crouched down by her side, stifling moans of terror.
"Lisbeth? Where is Lisbeth?" Lady Beltham asked sharply.
At the same moment she appeared, her face distorted with fright.
"Oh, Lady Beltham, it's dreadful! There's a man, a burglar in the garden! And Walter is throttling him! They are fighting dreadfully! They'll kill one another!"
Silbertown, the major-domo, came rushing in just then. Seeing the three girls in their night-dresses he made as if to draw back, but Lady Beltham called him in and demanded explanations.
"We had just finished our rounds," he answered breathlessly, "when we caught sight of a man hiding in the shadows, a thief probably. When we shouted to him he ran away, but we ran after him and seized him; he resisted and there was a fight. But we have got him and the police will take him away in a few minutes."
Lady Beltham listened, with jaw set and hands clenched.
"A thief?" she said, controlling her emotion. "How do you know he is a thief?"
"Well," stammered the major-domo, "he is very poorly dressed, and besides, what was he doing in the garden?"
Lady Beltham was recovering her calm.
"What excuse did he give for being there?" she asked coldly.
"We didn't give him time to invent one," said the major-domo. "We collared him almost as soon as we saw him. And you know, madame, how tremendously powerful Walter is: Walter gave him all he deserved!" and the major-domo clenched his fists and made an expressive exhibition of the porter's reception of the stranger.
Lisbeth was still overcome by what she had seen.
"Oh, the blood!" she muttered hysterically; "it was streaming!"
Lady Beltham spoke angrily to the major-domo.
"I hate brutality: is the man seriously hurt? I hope not. You ought to have questioned him before assaulting him. No one in my house has a right to use violence. 'Whoso smites with the sword shall perish by the sword'!"
The major-domo heard her in silent astonishment: it was not at all what he expected to be told, in view of all the circumstances.
Lady Beltham went on more gently:
"I suppose I shall have to apologise to this man for your wrong and thoughtless behaviour."
"Apologise?" exclaimed Silbertown in amazement. "Surely your ladyship will not do that?"
"One must not shrink from humiliation when one has been in the wrong," said Lady Beltham, in the pulpit manner she affected. "Tell Walter to come to me."
A few minutes later the porter, a muscular giant of a man, came into the room and made a clumsy bow.
"How was it possible for anyone to get into the house at this time of night?" his mistress enquired coldly.
Walter dropped his eyes and twisted his cap nervously.
"I hope your ladyship will forgive me. I caught the fellow, and as he was struggling I hit him. Then two of the footmen came, and they are looking after him in the kitchen."
"Has he given any explanation of his presence here since you assaulted him—at which I am very angry?" said Lady Beltham.
"He hasn't said anything; at least——"
"I don't like to tell you."
"Please do like!" said Lady Beltham irritably.
"Well," Walter replied, overcoming his nervousness with an effort, "he says your ladyship is well known for your charity to everybody, and—he wants to see you."
There was a moment's pause.
"I will see him," said Lady Beltham at last, in a half-stifled voice.
"Will your ladyship allow me to point out the danger of doing any such thing?" Silbertown exclaimed. "Very likely the man is a lunatic! Or it may be a trick: Lord Beltham was murdered, and perhaps——"
Lady Beltham looked intently at the major-domo, seemingly trying to read his thoughts. Then she answered slowly:
"I will see him. I will be more pitiful than you," and as the major-domo and the porter made a gesture of futile protest, she added peremptorily: "I have given my orders: kindly obey."
When the two men had reluctantly left the room, Lady Beltham turned to the three girls.
"You had better leave me, darlings," she said, kindly but firmly. "Run away: excitement is bad for you. Go back to bed. No, I assure you I shall be in no danger whatever," and for a few minutes she was left alone.
* * * * *
"Speak," said Lady Beltham in a toneless voice.
The major-domo and the porter had led in, and placed before her, a man with unkempt hair and ragged beard; he was dressed entirely in black, and his face was tired and haggard. Lady Beltham, ghastly pale, was leaning for support against the back of an arm-chair. The man did not raise his eyes to her.
"I will not speak unless we are alone," he answered dully.
"Alone?" said Lady Beltham, fighting down her emotion. "Then it is something serious you have to tell me?"
"If you know anything of people in misfortune, Madame," the man answered gently, "you know that they do not like to humiliate themselves before—before those who cannot understand," and he nodded towards the major-domo and the porter.
"I do know something of misfortune," Lady Beltham replied, in firmer tones; "and I will hear you alone." She looked at her two servants. "Leave us, please."
The major-domo started.
"Leave you alone with him? It's madness!" and as Lady Beltham merely looked at him in haughty surprise, he began to withdraw in confusion, but still protesting. "It's—it's—— Your ladyship has no idea what this fellow wants: do please——"
But Lady Beltham curtly cut him short.
"That is enough!"
A heavy velvet curtain fell over the closing door, and in the room, that was dimly lighted by a small electric lamp, Lady Beltham was alone with the strange individual to whom she had so readily, so oddly, consented to accord a private interview. She followed her servants to the door and locked it after them. Then with a sudden movement she sprang towards the man, who was standing motionless in the middle of the room following her with his eyes, and flung herself into his arms.
"Oh, Gurn, my darling, my darling!" she cried. "I love you! I love you, darling!" She looked up at him and saw blood upon his forehead. "Good God! The brutes have hurt you! What pain you must be in! Give me your eyes, your lips!" With kisses from her own lips she stanched the blood that was trickling down his cheeks, and with her fingers she smoothed his hair. "I am so happy!" she murmured, and broke off again. "But you are mad! Why, why come here like this, and let yourself be caught and tortured so?"
Moodily Gurn answered, returning kiss for kiss.
"Time has been so long without you! And this evening I was prowling round and saw a light. I thought that every one would be asleep—except you, of course. And so I came straight to you, over walls, and gates—drawn to you like a moth to a candle: and that is all!"
With shining eyes and heaving breast Lady Beltham clung to her lover.
"I love you so! How brave you are! Yes, I am wholly, only yours. But this is madness! You might be arrested and given up to no one knows what horror, without my knowing!"
Gurn seemed to be hypnotised by the fierce and passionate love of this great lady.
"I never gave that a thought," he murmured. "I only thought of you!"
Silence fell upon these tragic lovers as they stood reading love in one another's eyes, and recalling memories common to both, utterly unlike as they were to outward seeming, yet linked by the strongest bond of all, the bond of love.
"What happy hours we lived together out there!" Lady Beltham whispered. Her thoughts had wandered to the far Transvaal and the battle-field where first she had set eyes on Gurn, the sergeant of artillery with powder-blackened face; and then to the homeward voyage on the mighty steamer that bore them across the blue sea, towards the dull white cliffs of England.
Gurn's thoughts followed hers.
"Out there! Yes; and then on the vast ocean, on the ship homeward bound! The quiet and peace of it all! And our meetings every day: our long, long talks, and longer silences—in the clear starlight of those tropical skies! We were learning to know each other——"
"We were learning to love each other," she said. "And then—London, and Paris, and all the fever of life threatening our love. But that is the strongest thing in the world: and—do you remember? Oh, the ecstasy of it all! But, do you remember too what you did for me—through me—thirteen months ago?"
She had risen, and with white lips and haggard eyes held Gurn's hands within her own in an even tighter grip. Emotion choked her further utterance.
"Yes, I remember," Gurn went on slowly: "it was in our little room in the rue Levert, and I was on my knees beside you when the door opened quietly, and there stood Lord Beltham, mad with rage and jealousy!"
"I don't know what happened then," Lady Beltham whispered in a hopeless undertone, drooping her head again.
"I do," muttered Gurn. "His eyes sought you, and a pistol was pointed at your heart! He would have fired, but I sprang and struck him down! And then I strangled him!"
Lady Beltham's eyes were fixed on the man's hands, that she still held between her own.
"And I saw the muscles in these hands swell up beneath the skin as they tightened on his throat!"
"I killed him!" groaned the man.
But Lady Beltham, swept by a surge of passion, sprang up and sought his lips.
"Oh, Gurn!" she sobbed—"my darling!"
* * * * *
"Listen," said Gurn harshly, after a pause of anxious silence. "I had to see you to-night, for who knows if to-morrow——" Lady Beltham shrank at the words, but Gurn went on unheeding. "The police are after me. Of course I have made myself almost unrecognisable, but twice just lately I have been very nearly caught."
"Do you think the police have any accurate idea of what happened?" Lady Beltham asked abruptly.
"No," said Gurn after a moment's hesitation. "They think I killed him with the mallet. They have not found out that I had to strangle him. As far as I know, they found no marks of my hands on his throat. At all events, they could not have been clear, for his collar—you understand." The man spoke of his crime without the least sign of remorse or repugnance now; his only dread was lest he should be caught. "But, none the less, they have identified me. That detective Juve is very clever."
"We did not have enough presence of mind," Lady Beltham said despairingly. "We ought to have led them to suspect someone else: have made them think that it was, say, Fantomas."
"Not that!" said Gurn nervously; "don't talk about Fantomas! We did all we could. But the main thing now is that I should escape them. I had better get away,—across the Channel,—across the Atlantic,—anywhere. But—would you come too?"
Lady Beltham did not hesitate. She flung her arms around the neck of the man who had murdered her own husband, and yielded to a paroxysm of wild passion.
"You know that I am yours, wherever you may go. Shall it be to-morrow? We can meet—you know where—and arrange everything for your flight."
"My flight?" said Gurn, with reproachful emphasis on the pronoun.
"For our flight," she replied, and Gurn smiled again.
"Then that is settled," he said. "I have seen you, and I am happy! Good-bye."
He made a step towards the door, but Lady Beltham stayed him gently.
"Wait," she said. "Walter shall let you out of the house. Do not say anything: I will explain; I will invent some story to satisfy the servants as to your coming here, and also to justify your being allowed to go."
They clung to one another in a parting caress. Lady Beltham tore herself away.
"Till to-morrow!" she whispered.
She stole to the door and unlocked it noiselessly, then crossed the room and rang the bell placed near the fireplace. Resuming her impassive mask, and the haughty air and attitude of cold indifference that were in such utter contrast to her real character, she waited, while Gurn stood upright and still in the middle of the room.
Walter, the porter, came in.
"Take that man to the door, and let no harm be done to him," said Lady Beltham proudly and authoritatively. "He is free."
Without a word, or sign, or glance, Gurn went out of the room, and Walter followed behind him to obey his mistress's command.
* * * * *
Once more alone in the great hall, Lady Beltham waited nervously to hear the sound of the park gate closing behind Gurn. She did not dare go on to the balcony to follow her departing lover with her eyes. So, shaken by her recent emotions, she stood waiting and listening, in an agony to know that he was safe. Then, of a sudden, the noise that she had heard an hour before broke on her ears again: the noise of hurrying feet and broken shouts, and words, vague at first but rapidly growing clearer. She crouched forward listening, filled with a horrible fear, her hand laid upon her scarcely beating heart.
"There he is: hold him!" some one shouted. "That's him all right! Look out, constable!"
"This way, Inspector! Yes, it's him, it's Gurn! Ah, would you!"
Paler than death, Lady Beltham cowered down upon a sofa.
"Good God! Good God!" she moaned. "What are they doing to him!"
The uproar in the garden decreased, then voices sounded in the corridor, Silbertown's exclamations rising above the frightened cries of the three young girls.
"Gurn! Arrested! The man who murdered Lord Beltham!" Lisbeth called out in anxious terror.
"But Lady Beltham? Dear God, perhaps he has murdered her too!"
The door was flung open and the girls rushed in. Lady Beltham by a tremendous effort of will had risen to her feet, and was standing by the end of the sofa.
"Lady Beltham! Alive! Yes, yes!" and Therese and Lisbeth and Susannah rushed sobbing to her, and smothered her with caresses.
But the agonised woman motioned them away. With hard eyes and set mouth she moved towards the window, straining her ears to listen. From the park outside Gurn's voice rang distinctly; the lover wished to let his mistress know what had happened, and to take a last farewell.
"I am caught, I am caught! Yes, I am Gurn, and I am caught!"
The fatal words were still ringing in Lady Beltham's ears when the major-domo, Silbertown, came bursting into the room, with radiant face and shining eyes and smiling lips, and hurried to his mistress.
"I thought as much!" he exclaimed excitedly. "It was the villain all right. I recognised him from the description, in spite of his beard. I informed the police! As a matter of fact they have been watching for the last two days. Just fancy, your ladyship, a detective was shadowing Gurn—and when he was going out of the house I gave him the signal!"
Lady Beltham stared at the major-domo in mute horror.
"Yes?" she muttered, on the point of swooning.
"I pointed him out to the police, and it's thanks to me, your ladyship, that Gurn, the murderer, has been arrested at last!"
For just another moment Lady Beltham stared at the man who gave her these appalling tidings, seemed to strive to utter something, then fell prone to the floor, unconscious.
The major-domo and the girls sprang to her side to lavish attentions upon her.
At that moment the door was pushed a little way open, and the figure of Juve appeared.
"May I come in?" said he.
XXII. THE SCRAP OF PAPER
It was three o'clock when Juve arrived at the rue Levert, and he found the concierge of number 147 just finishing her coffee.
Amazed at the results achieved by the detective, the details of which she had learned from the sensational articles in the daily paper she most affected, Mme. Doulenques had conceived a most respectful admiration for the Inspector of the Criminal Investigation Department.
"That man," she constantly declared to Madame Aurore, "it isn't eyes he has in his head, it's telescopes, magnifying glasses! He sees everything in a minute—even when it isn't there!"
She gave him an admiring "good afternoon, Inspector," as he came into her lodge, and going to a board on which numbers of keys were hanging, took one down and handed it to him.
"So there's something fresh to-day?" she said. "I've just seen in the paper that M. Gurn has been arrested. So it was my lodger who did it? What a dreadful man! Whoever would have thought it? It turns my blood cold to think of him!"
Juve was never a man for general conversation, and he was still less interested in the garrulity of this loquacious creature. He took the key and cut short her remarks by walking to the door.
"Yes, Gurn has been arrested," he said shortly; "but he has made no confession, so nothing is known for certain yet. Please go on with your work exactly as though I were not in the house, Mme. Doulenques."
It was his usual phrase, and a constant disappointment to the concierge, who would have asked nothing better than to go upstairs with the detective and watch him at his wonderful work.
Juve went up the five floors to the flat formerly occupied by Gurn, reflecting somewhat moodily. Of course Gurn's arrest was a success, and it was satisfactory to have the scoundrel under lock and key, but in point of fact Juve had learned nothing new in consequence of the arrest, and he was obsessed with the idea that this murder of Lord Beltham was an altogether exceptional crime. He did not yet know why Gurn had killed Lord Beltham, and he did not even know exactly who Gurn himself was; all he could declare was that the murder had been planned and carried out with marvellous audacity and skill, and that was not enough.
Juve let himself into the flat and closed the door carefully behind him. The rooms were in disorder, the result of the searches effected by the police. The rent had not been paid for some time, and as no friend or relation had come forward to assume control of Gurn's interests, the furniture and ornaments of the little flat were to be sold by auction.
The detective walked through the rooms, then flung himself into an arm-chair. He did not know precisely why he had come. He had searched the place a dozen times already since his discovery of the corpse within the trunk, and had found nothing more, no tell-tale marks or fresh detail, to assist in the elucidation of the mystery. He would have given very much to be able to identify Gurn with some other of the many criminals who had passed through his hands, and still more to be able to identify him with that one most mysterious criminal whose fearful deeds had shocked the world so greatly. Somehow the particular way in which this murder was committed, the very audacity of it, led him to think, to "sense," almost to swear that——
Juve got up. It was little in accord with his active temperament to sit still. Once more he went all round the flat.
"The kitchen? Let me see: I have been through everything? The stove? The cupboards? The saucepans? Why, I went so far as to make sure that there was no poison in them, though it seemed a wild idea. The anteroom? Nothing there: the umbrella stand was empty, and the one interesting thing I did see, the torn curtain, has been described and photographed officially." He went back into the dining-room. "I've searched all the furniture: and I went through all the parcels Gurn had done up before he left, and would, no doubt, have come back for at his leisure, had it not been for my discovery of the body, and the unfortunate publicity the newspapers gave to that fact." In one corner of the room was a heap of old newspapers, crumpled and torn, and thrown down in disorder. Juve kicked them aside. "I've looked through all that, even read the agony columns, but there was nothing there." He went into the bedroom and contemplated the bed, that the concierge had stripped, the chairs set one on top of another in a corner, and the wardrobe that stood empty, its former contents scattered on the floor by the police during their search. There, too, nothing was to be found.
Against the wall, near the fireplace, was a little escritoire with a cupboard above it, containing a few battered books.
"My men have been all through that," Juve muttered; "it's most unlikely that they missed anything, but perhaps I had better see."
He sat down before it and began methodically to sort the scattered papers; with quick, trained glance he scanned each document, putting one after another aside with a grimace expressive of disappointment. Almost the last document he picked up was a long sheet of parchment, and as he unfolded it an exclamation escaped his lips. It was an official notice of Gurn's promotion to the rank of sergeant when fighting under Lord Beltham in the South African War. Juve read it through—he knew English well—and laid it down with a gesture of discouragement.
"It is extraordinary," he muttered. "That seems to be perfectly authentic; it is authentic, and it proves that this fellow was a decent fellow and a brave soldier once; that is a fine record of service." He drummed his fingers on the desk and spoke aloud. "Is Gurn really Gurn, then, and have I been mistaken from start to finish in the little romance I have been weaving round him? How am I to find the key to the mystery? How am I to prove the truth of what I feel to be so very close to me, but which eludes me every time, just as I seem to be about to grasp it?"
He went on with his search, and then, looking at the bookcase, took the volumes out and, holding each by its two covers, shook it to make sure that no papers were hidden among the leaves. But all in vain. He did the same with a large railway time-table and several shipping calendars.
"The odd thing is," he thought, "that all these time-tables go to prove that Gurn really was the commercial traveller he professed to be. It's exactly things such as these one would expect to find in the possession of a man who travelled much, and always had to be referring to the dates of sailing to distant parts of the world."
In the bookcase was a box, made to represent a bound book, and containing a collection of ordnance maps. Juve took them out to make sure that no loose papers were included among them, and one by one unfolded every map.
Then a sharp exclamation burst from his lips.
"Good Lord! Now there——"
In his surprise he sprang up so abruptly that he pushed back his chair, and overturned it. His excitement was so great that his hands were shaking as he carefully spread out upon the desk one of the ordnance maps he had taken from the case.
"It's the map of the centre district all right: the map which shows Cahors, and Brives, and Saint-Jaury and—Beaulieu! And the missing piece—it is the missing piece that would give that precise district!"
Juve stared at the map with hypnotised gaze; for a piece had been cut out of it, cut out with a penknife neatly and carefully, and that piece must have shown the exact district where the chateau stood which had been occupied by the Marquise de Langrune.
"Oh, if I could only prove it: prove that the piece missing from this map, this map belonging to Gurn, is really and truly the piece I found near Verrieres Station just after the murder of the Marquise de Langrune—what a triumph that would be! What a damning proof! What astounding consequences this discovery of mine might have!"
Juve made a careful note of the number of the map, quickly and nervously, folded it up again, and prepared to leave the flat.
He had made but a step or two towards the door when a sharp ring at the bell made him jump.
"The deuce!" he exclaimed softly; "who can be coming to ring Gurn up when everybody in Paris knows he has been arrested?" and he felt mechanically in his pocket to make sure that his revolver was there. Then he smiled. "What a fool I am! Of course it is only Mme. Doulenques, wondering why I am staying here so long."
He strode to the door, flung it wide open, and then recoiled in astonishment.
"You?" he exclaimed, surveying the caller from top to toe. "You? Charles Rambert! Or, I should say, Jerome Fandor! Now what the deuce does this mean?"
XXIII. THE WRECK OF THE "LANCASTER"
Jerome Fandor entered the room without a word. Juve closed the door behind him. The boy was very pale and manifestly much upset.
"What is the matter?" said Juve.
"Something terrible has happened," the boy answered. "I have just heard awful news: my poor father is dead!"
"What?" Juve exclaimed sharply. "M. Etienne Rambert dead?"
Jerome Fandor put a newspaper into the detective's hand. "Read that," he said, and pointed to an article on the front page with a huge head-line: "Wreck of the 'Lancaster': 150 Lives Lost." There were tears in his eyes, and he had such obvious difficulty in restraining his grief, that Juve saw that to read the article would be the speediest way to find out what had occurred.
The Red Star liner Lancaster, plying between Caracas and Southampton, had gone down with all hands the night before, just off the Isle of Wight, and at the moment of going to press only one person was known to have been saved. There was a good sea running, but it was by no means rough, and the vessel was still within sight of the lighthouse and making for the open sea at full speed, when the lighthousemen suddenly saw her literally blown into the air and then disappear beneath the waves. The alarm was given immediately and boats of all kinds put off to the scene of the disaster, but though a great deal of wreckage was still floating about, only one man of the crew was seen, clinging to a spar; he was picked up by the Campbell and taken to hospital, where he was interviewed by The Times, without, however, being able to throw any light upon what was an almost unprecedented catastrophe in the history of the sea. All he could say was that the liner had just got up full speed and was making a perfectly normal beginning of her trip, when suddenly a tremendous explosion occurred. He himself was engaged at the moment fastening the tarpaulins over the baggage hold, and he was confident that the explosion occurred among the cargo. But he could give absolutely no more information: the entire ship seemed to be riven asunder, and he was thrown into the sea, stunned, and knew no more until he recovered consciousness and found himself aboard the Campbell.
"It's quite incomprehensible," Juve muttered; "surely there can't have been any powder aboard? No explosives are carried on these great liners; they only take passengers and the mails." He scanned the list of passengers. "Etienne Rambert's name is given among the first-class passengers, right enough," he said. "Well, it's odd!"
Jerome Fandor heaved a profound sigh.
"It is a fatality which I shall never get over," he said. "When you told me the other day that you knew I was innocent, I ought to have gone to see my father, in spite of what you said. I am sure he would have believed me and come to see you; then you could have convinced him, and I should not have this horrible grief of remembering that he had died without learning that his son was not a bad man, but was quite deserving of his affection."
Jerome Fandor was making a brave struggle to maintain his self-control, and Juve looked at him without concealing the real sympathy he felt for him in his grief. He put his hand kindly on his shoulder.
"Listen, my dear boy; odd as you may think it, you can take my word for it that there is no need for you to despair; there is nothing to prove that your father is dead; he may not have been on board."
The boy looked up in surprise.
"What do you mean, Juve?"
"I don't want to say anything, my boy, except that you would be very wrong to give way to distress at present. If you have any confidence in me, you may believe me when I say that. There is nothing yet to prove that you have had this loss: and, besides, you still have your mother, who is perfectly sure to get quite well: do you understand?—perfectly sure!" He changed the subject abruptly. "There is one thing I should like to know: what the dickens brought you here?"
"You were the first person I thought of in my trouble," Fandor replied. "Directly I read about the disaster in that paper I came to tell you at once."
"Yes, I quite understand that," Juve answered. "What I do not understand is how you guessed that you would find me here, in Gurn's flat."
The question seemed to perturb the boy.
"It—it was quite by chance," he stammered.
"That is the kind of explanation one offers to fools," Juve retorted. "By what chance did you see me come into this house? What the deuce were you doing in the rue Levert?" The lad showed some inclination to make for the door, but Juve stayed him peremptorily. "Answer my question, please: how did you know I was here?"
Driven into a corner, the boy blurted out the truth:
"I had followed you."
"Followed me?" Juve exclaimed. "Where from?"
"From your rooms."
"You mean, and you may as well own up to it at once, that you were shadowing me."
"Well, yes, M. Juve, it is true," Fandor confessed, all in one breath. "I was shadowing you: I do every day!"
Juve was dumbfounded.
"Every day? And I never saw you! Gad, you are jolly clever! And may I enquire why you have been exercising this supervision over me?"
Jerome Fandor hung his head.
"Forgive me," he faltered; "I have been very stupid. I thought you—I thought you were—Fantomas!"
The idea tickled the detective so much that he dropped back into a chair to laugh at his ease.
"'Pon my word," he said, "you have an imagination! And what made you suppose that I was Fantomas?"
"M. Juve," Fandor said earnestly, "I made a vow that I would find out the truth, and discover the scoundrel who has made such awful havoc of my life. But I did not know where to begin. From all you have said I realised that Fantomas was a most extraordinarily clever man; I did not know anyone who could be cleverer than you; and so I watched you! It was merely logical!"
Far from being angry, Juve was rather flattered.
"I am amazed by what you have just told me, my boy," he said with a smile. "In the first place your reasoning is not at all bad. Of course it is obvious that I cannot suspect myself of being Fantomas, but I quite admit that if I were in your place I might make the supposition, wild as it may seem. And, in the next place, you have shadowed me without my becoming aware of the fact, and that is very good indeed: a proof that you are uncommonly smart." He looked at the lad attentively for a few moments, and then went on more gravely: "Are you satisfied now that your hypothesis was wrong? Or do you still suspect me?"
"No, I don't suspect you now," Fandor declared; "not since I saw you come into this house; Fantomas certainly would not have come to search Gurn's rooms because——"
He stopped, and Juve, who was looking at him keenly, did not make him finish what he was saying.
"Shall I tell you something?" he said at last. "If you continue to display as much thought and initiative in the career you have chosen as you have just displayed, you will very soon be the first newspaper detective of the day!" He jumped up and led the boy off. "Come along: I've got to go to the Law Courts at once."
"You've found out something fresh?"
"I'm going to ask them to call an interesting witness in the Gurn affair."
* * * * *
Rain had been falling heavily all the morning and afternoon, but within the last few minutes it had almost stopped. Dollon, the steward, put his hand out of the window and found that only a few drops were falling now from the heavy grey sky.
He was an invaluable servant, and a few months after the death of the Marquise de Langrune, the Baronne de Vibray had gladly offered him a situation, and a cottage on her estate at Querelles.
He walked across the room, and called his son.
"Jacques, would you like to come with me? I am going down to the river to see that the sluices have been opened properly. The banks are anything but sound, and these rains will flood us out one of these days."
The steward and his son went down the garden towards the stream which formed one boundary of Mme. de Vibray's park.
"Look, father," Jacques exclaimed, "the postman is calling us."
The postman, a crusty but good-hearted fellow, came hurrying up to the steward.
"You do make me run, M. Dollon," he complained. "I went to your house this morning to take you a letter, but you weren't there."
"You might have left it with anybody."
"Excuse me!" the man retorted; "it's against the regulations: I've got an official letter for you, and I can only give it to you yourself," and he held out an envelope which Dollon tore open.
"Magistrates' office?" he said enquiringly, as he glanced at the heading of the notepaper. "Who can be writing to me from the Law Courts?" He read the letter aloud:
"Sir: As time does not permit of a regular summons being sent to you by an usher of the court, I beg you to be so good as to come to Paris immediately, the day after to-morrow if possible, and attend at my office, where your depositions are absolutely required to conclude a case in which you are interested. Please bring, without exception, all the papers and documents entrusted to you by the Clerk of Assizes at Cahors, at the conclusion of the Langrune enquiry."
"It is signed Germain Fuselier," Dollon remarked. "I've often seen his name in the papers. He is a very well-known magistrate, and is employed in many criminal cases." He read the letter through once more, and turned to the postman. "Will you take a glass of wine, Muller?"
"That's a thing I never say 'no' to."
"Well, go into the house with Jacques, and while he is attending to you I will write a reply telegram which you can take to the office for me."
While the man was quenching his thirst Dollon wrote his reply:
"Will leave Verrieres to-morrow evening by 7.20 train, arriving Paris 5 A.M. Wire appointment at your office to me at Hotel Francs-Bourgeois, 152 rue du Bac."
He read the message over, signed it "Dollon" and considered.
"I wonder what they can want me for? Oh, if only they have found out something about the Langrune affair, how glad I shall be!"
XXIV. UNDER LOCK AND KEY
After the preliminary examination as to his identity and so on, Gurn had been transferred to the Sante prison. At first the prisoner seemed to have terrible difficulty in accustoming himself to the rigours of confinement; he suffered from alternate paroxysms of rage and despair, but by sheer strength of character he fought these down. As a prisoner on remand he was entitled to the privilege of a separate cell, also during the first forty-eight hours he had been able to have his meals sent in from outside. Since then, however, his money had given out, and he was obliged to content himself with the ordinary prison dietary. But Gurn was not fastidious; this man whom Lady Beltham had singled out, or accepted, as her lover had often given proofs of an education and an intelligence above the average, yet now he appeared quite at ease in the atmosphere of a prison.
* * * * *
Gurn was walking quickly and alone round the exercise yard, when a breathless voice sounded in his ear.
"'Gad, Gurn, you know how to march! I was going to join you for a bit, but I could not keep up with you."
Gurn turned and saw old Siegenthal, the warder in charge of his division, in whose custody he was particularly placed.
"My word!" the old fellow panted, "anybody could tell you had been in the infantry. Well, so have I; though that wasn't yesterday, nor yet the day before; but we never marched as fast as you do. We made a fine march once though—at Saint-Privat."
Out of pity for the decent old fellow Gurn slackened his pace. He had heard the story of the battle of Saint-Privat a dozen times already, but he was quite willing to let Siegenthal tell it again. The warder, however, wandered to another point.
"By the way, I heard you were promoted sergeant out in the Transvaal: is that so?" and as Gurn nodded assent, he went on: "I never rose above the rank of corporal, but at any rate I have always led an honest life." A sudden compassion for his prisoner seized the old man, and he laid a kindly hand on Gurn's shoulder. "Is it really possible that an old soldier like you, who seem to be such a steady, serious, kind of man, can have committed such a crime?"
Gurn dropped his eyes and did not reply.
"I suppose there was a woman at the bottom of it?" Siegenthal said tentatively. "You acted on impulse, in a fit of jealousy, eh?"
"No," Gurn answered with sudden bluntness, "I may as well own up that I did it in anger, because I wanted money—for the sake of robbery."
"I'm sorry," said the old warder simply. "You must have been desperately hard up."
"No I wasn't."
Siegenthal stared at his prisoner. The man must be utterly callous to talk like that, he thought. Then a clock struck and the warder gave a curt order.
"Time, Gurn! We must go back," and he conducted the unresisting prisoner up the three flights of stairs that led to the division in which his cell was. "By the way," he remarked as they went, "I forgot to tell you that you and I have got to part."
"Oh?" said Gurn. "Am I to be transferred to another prison?"
"No, it's I who am going. Just fancy, I have been appointed head warder at Poissy; I go on leave to-night, and take up my new post in a week." Both halted before the door of cell number 127. "In with you," said Siegenthal, and when Gurn had obeyed he turned to go. Then he wheeled round again quickly, and put out his hand hurriedly, as if half afraid of being seen. "Put it there, Gurn," he said; "no doubt you are a murderer and, as you have confessed yourself, a thief; but I can't forget that if you had kept straight, you were the sergeant and I should have had to obey you. I'm sorry for you!" Gurn was touched and murmured a word of thanks. "That's all right, that's all right," Siegenthal muttered, not attempting to hide his emotion; "let us hope that everything will turn out well," and he left Gurn alone in the cell to his meditations.
Twice, Gurn reflected, relying on the sympathy which he knew he had evoked in the old warder's heart despite the number of criminals who had passed through his hands, he had been on the point of broaching a serious and delicate matter to him; but he had not actually spoken, being deterred by some undefinable scruple, as well as half suspecting that his application would be made in vain. And now he was glad he had been so cautious, for even if the warder had been amenable, his approaching removal to another prison would have prevented the idea from coming to fruition.
* * * * *
A sing-song voice echoed in the corridor.
"Number 127, you are wanted in the barristers' room. Get ready," and the next minute the door of the cell was thrown open, and a cheery-looking warder, with a strong Gascon accent, appeared. Gurn had noticed him before: he was the second warder in this division, a man named Nibet, and no doubt he would be promoted to Siegenthal's place when the chief warder left. Nibet looked curiously at Gurn, a certain sympathy in his quick brown eyes. "Ready, Gurn?"
Gurn growled an answer and pulled on his coat again. His counsel was Maitre Barberoux, one of the foremost criminal barristers of the day; Gurn had thought it prudent to retain him for his defence, more especially as it would cost him nothing personally. But he had no particular desire to talk to him now; he had already told him everything he intended to tell him, and he had no intention of allowing the case to be boomed as a sensation; quite the reverse indeed: in his opinion, the flatter the case fell, the better it would be for his interests, though no doubt Maitre Barberoux would not be of the same way of thinking.
But he said nothing, and merely walked in front of Nibet along the corridor towards the barristers' room, the way to which he was already familiar with. On the way they passed some masons who were at work in the prison, and these men stopped to watch him pass, but contrary to Gurn's apprehensions they did not seem to recognise him. He hoped it meant that the murder was already ceasing to be a nine days' wonder for the public at large.
Nibet pushed Gurn into the barristers' room, saying respectfully to the person in it already, "You only have to ring, sir, when you have finished," and then withdrew, leaving Gurn in presence, not of his counsel as he had expected, but of that personage's assistant, a young licentiate in law named Roger de Seras, who was also a most incredible dandy.
Roger de Seras greeted Gurn with an engaging smile and advanced as if to shake hands with him, but suddenly wondering whether that action might not suggest undue familiarity, he raised his hand to his own head instead and scratched it; the young fellow was still younger in his business, and did not rightly know whether it was etiquette for a barrister, or even a barrister's junior, to shake hands with a prisoner who was implicated in a notorious murder.
Gurn felt inclined to laugh, and on the whole was glad that it was the junior whom he had to see; the futile verbosity of this very young licentiate might possibly be amusing.
Maitre Roger de Seras began with civil apologies.
"You will excuse me if I only stay for a few minutes, but I am most frightfully busy; besides, two ladies are waiting for me outside in my carriage: I may say confidentially that they are actresses, old friends of mine, and, just fancy, they are most frightfully anxious to see you! That's what it means to be famous, M. Gurn; eh, what?" Gurn nodded, not feeling unduly flattered. Roger de Seras continued. "Just to please them I have made any number of applications to the governor of the prison, but there was nothing doing, my dear chap; that beast of a magistrate, Fuselier, insists on your being kept in absolute seclusion. But none the less, I've got some news for you. I know heaps: why, my friends at the Law Courts call me 'the peripatetic paragraph!' Not bad, eh, what?" Gurn smiled and Roger de Seras was encouraged. "It's given me no end of a boom, my leader acting for you, and my being able to come and see you whenever I like! Everybody asks me how you are, and what you are like, and what you say, and what you think. You can congratulate yourself on having caused a sensation in Paris."
Gurn began to be irritated by all this chatter.
"I must confess I'm not the least interested in what people are saying about me. Is there anything new in my case?"
"Absolutely nothing that I am aware of," Roger de Seras replied serenely, without stopping to think whether there was or not. "I say—Lady Beltham——"
"Yes?" said Gurn.
"Well, I know her very well, you know: I go out a frightful lot and I have often met her: a charming woman, Lady Beltham!"
Gurn really did not know how to treat the idiot. Never one to suffer fools gladly, he grew irritable and would almost certainly have said something that would have put the garrulous young bungler in his place, had not the latter suddenly remembered something, just as he was on the point of getting up to go.
"Oh, by the way," he said with a laugh, "I was nearly forgetting the most important thing of all. Just fancy, that beast Juve, the marvellous detective whom the newspapers rave about, went to your place yesterday afternoon to make another official search!"
"Alone?" enquired Gurn, much interested.
"Quite alone. Now what do you suppose he found; the place has been ransacked dozens of times, you know; of course I mean something sensational in the way of a find. I bet you a thousand——"
"I never bet," Gurn snapped. "Tell me at once what it was."
The young fellow was proud of having caught the attention of his leader's notorious client, if only for a moment; he paused and wagged his head, weighing each word to give them greater emphasis.
"He found an ordnance map in your bookcase, my dear chap—an ordnance map with a bit torn out of it."
"Oh! And what then?" said Gurn, a frown upon his face.
The young barrister did not notice the expression on the murderer's countenance.
"Well, then it appears that Juve thought it was very important. Between you and me, my opinion is that Juve tries to be frightfully clever and succeeds in looking a fool. How, I ask you, can the discovery of that map affect your case or influence the decision of the jury? By the way, there is no need for you to worry about the result; I have had a frightful lot of experience in criminal cases, and so be assured you are all right: extenuating circumstances, you know. But—oh, yes, there is one thing more I wanted to tell you. A fresh witness is going to be called at the examination; let me see, what's his name? Dollon: that's it: the steward, Dollon."
"I don't understand," said Gurn; his head was bent and his eyes cast down.
A glimmer of light dawned in the young licentiate's brain.
"Wait, there is some connection," he said. "The steward, Dollon, is in the employment of a lady who calls herself the Baronne de Vibray. And the Baronne de Vibray is guardian to the young lady who was staying with Lady Beltham the day, or rather the night, when you—you—well, you know. And that young lady, Mlle. Therese Auvernois, was placed with Lady Beltham by M. Etienne Rambert. And M. Etienne Rambert is the father of the young man who murdered the Marquise de Langrune last year. I tell you all these things without attempting to draw any deductions from them, for, for my own part, I haven't the least idea why the steward, Dollon, has been summoned in our case at all."
"Nor have I," said Gurn, and the frown on his brow was deeper.
Roger de Seras hunted all round the little room for his gloves and found them in his pocket.
"Well, my dear chap, I must leave you. We have been chatting for a whole half-hour, and those ladies are still waiting for me. What on earth will they say to me?"
He was about to ring for the warder when Gurn abruptly stayed him.
"Tell me," he said with a sudden air of interest, "when is that man coming—what's his name? Dollon?"
The young barrister was on the point of saying he did not know, when a brilliant recollection came into his mind.
"'Gad, how frightfully stupid I am! Why, I have a copy of the telegram he sent the magistrate in my portfolio here now." He opened the portfolio and picked out a sheet of blue paper. "Here it is."
Gurn took it from him and read:
"Will leave Verrieres to-morrow evening by 7.20 train, arriving Paris 5 A.M...."
Gurn appeared to be sufficiently edified: at all events he paid no attention to the rest of the message. Lord Beltham's murderer handed the document back to the barrister without a word.
A few minutes later Maitre Roger de Seras had rejoined his lady friends, and the prisoner was once more in his cell.
XXV. AN UNEXPECTED ACCOMPLICE
Gurn was walking nervously up and down in his cell after this interview, when the door was pushed open and the cheery face of the warder Nibet looked in.
"Evening, Gurn," he said; "it's six o'clock, and the restaurant-keeper opposite wants to know if he is to send your dinner in to you."
"No," Gurn growled. "I'll have the prison ordinary."
"Oh—ho!" said the warder; "funds low, eh? Of course, it's not for you to despise our dietary, but still, Government beans——" He came further into the cell, ignoring Gurn's impatient preference for his room to his company, and said in a low tone: "There, take that," and thrust a bank-note into the hand of the dumbfounded prisoner. "And if you want any more, they will be forthcoming," he added. He made a sign to Gurn to say nothing, and went to the door. "I'll be back in a few minutes: I'll just go and order a decent dinner for you."
Gurn felt as if a tremendous weight had been lifted from him; the cell seemed larger, the prison walls less high; he had an intuition that Lady Beltham was not deserting him. He had never doubted the sincerity of her feelings for him, but he quite realised how a woman in her delicate position might feel embarrassed in trying to intervene in favour of any prisoner, and much more so in the case of the one whom the entire world believed to be the single-handed murderer of her husband. But now Lady Beltham had intervened. She had succeeded in communicating with him through the medium of this warder. And almost certainly she would do much more yet.
* * * * *
The door opened again, and the warder entered, carrying a long rush basket containing several dishes and a bottle of wine.
"Well, Gurn, that's a more agreeable sort of dinner, eh?"
"Gad, I wanted it after all," said the murderer with a smile. "It was a good idea of yours, M. Nibet, to insist on my getting my dinner sent in from outside."
Nibet winked; he appreciated his prisoner's tact; obviously he was not one to make untimely allusions to the warder's breach of discipline in conveying money to him so simply, but so very irregularly.
As he ate Gurn chatted with Nibet.
"I suppose it is you who will get Siegenthal's place?"
"Yes," said Nibet, sipping the wine Gurn had offered him. "I have asked for the berth no end of times, but it never came; I was always told to wait because the place was not free, and another berth must be found first for Siegenthal, who was my senior. But the old beast would never make any application. However, three days ago, I was sent for to the Ministry, and one of the staff told me that some one in the Embassy, or the Government, or somewhere, was taking an interest in me, and they asked me a lot of questions and I told them all about it. And then, all of a sudden, Siegenthal was promoted to Poissy and I was given his billet here."
Gurn nodded: he saw light.
"And what about the money?"
"That's stranger still, but I understood all the same. A lady met me in the street the other night and spoke to me by name. We had a chat there on the pavement, for the street was empty, and she shoved some bank-notes in my hand—not just one or two, but a great bunch——, and she told me that she was interested in me—in you——, and that if things turned out as she wished there were plenty more bank-notes where those came from."
While the warder was talking Gurn watched him carefully. The murderer was an experienced reader of character in faces, and he speedily realised that his lady's choice had fallen on an excellent object. Thick lips, a narrow forehead, and prominent cheek-bones suggested a material nature that would hesitate at nothing which would satisfy his carnal appetites, so Gurn decided that further circumlocution was so much waste of time, and that he might safely come to the point. He laid his hand familiarly on the warder's shoulder.
"I'm getting sick of being here," he remarked.
"I dare say," the warder answered uneasily; "but you must be guided by reason; time is going on, and things arrange themselves."
"They do when you help them," Gurn said peremptorily; "and you and I are going to help them."
"That remains to be seen," said the warder.
"Of course, everything has got to be paid for," Gurn went on. "One can't expect a warder to risk his situation merely to help a prisoner to escape." He smiled as the warder made an exclamation of nervous warning. "Don't be frightened, Nibet. We're not going to play any fool games, but let us talk seriously. Of course you have another appointment with the worthy lady who gave you that money?"
"I am to meet her to-night at eleven, in the boulevard Arago," Nibet said, after a moment's hesitation.
"Good," said Gurn. "Well, you are to tell her that I must have ten thousand francs."
"What?" exclaimed the man, in utter astonishment, but his eyes shone with greed.
"Ten thousand francs," Gurn repeated calmly, "and by to-morrow morning. Fifteen hundred of those are for you; I will go away to-morrow evening."
There was a tense silence; the warder seemed doubtful, and Gurn turned the whole of his will power upon him to persuade him.
"Suppose they suspect me?" said Nibet.
"Idiot!" Gurn retorted; "all you will do will be to make a slip in your duty: I don't want you to be an accomplice. Listen: there will be another five thousand francs for you, and if things turn out awkwardly for you, all you will have to do will be to go across to England, and live there comfortably for the rest of your days."
The warder was obviously almost ready to comply.
"Who will guarantee me?" he asked.
"The lady, I tell you—the lady of the boulevard Arago. Here, give her this," and he tore a leaf out of his pocket-book and, scribbling a few words on it, handed it to Nibet.
"Well," said the warder hesitatingly: "I don't say 'no.'"
"You've got to say 'yes,'" Gurn retorted.
The two looked steadily in each other's eyes; then the warder blenched.
"Yes," he said.
Nibet was going away, and was already almost in the corridor when Gurn calmly called him back.
"You will evolve a plan, and I will start to-morrow. Don't forget to bring me a time-table; the Orleans Company time-table will do."
* * * * *
The murderer was not disappointed in his expectations. The next morning Nibet appeared with a mysterious face and eager eyes. He took a small bundle from underneath his jersey and gave it to Gurn.
"Hide that in your bed," he said, and Gurn obeyed.
The morning passed without further developments; numerous warders came and went in the corridor, attending to the prisoners, and Gurn could get no private talk with Nibet, who contrived, however, to come into his cell several times on various pretexts and assure him with a nod or a word that all was going well. But presently, when walking in the exercise yard, the two men were able to have a conversation.
Nibet manifested an intelligence of which his outer appearance gave no indication; but it seems to be an established fact that the inventive faculties, even of men of inferior mental quality, are sharpened when they are engaged in mischief.
"For the last three weeks," he said, "about a score of masons have been working in the prison, repairing the roof and doing up some of the cells. Cell number 129, the one next yours, is empty, and there are no bars on the window; the masons go through that cell and that window to get on to the roof. They knock off work soon after six o'clock. The gate-keeper knows them all, but he does not always look closely at their faces when they go by, and you might perhaps be able to go out with them.
"In the bundle that I gave you there is a pair of workman's trousers, and a waistcoat and a felt hat; put those on. At about a quarter to six, the men who went up on to the roof through the cell, come down by way of the skylights to the staircase that leads to the clerk's office, pass the office, where they are asked no questions, cross the two yards and go out by the main gate. I will open the door of your cell a few minutes before six, and you must go into the empty cell next yours, slip up on to the roof and take care to hide behind the chimney stacks until the men have done work. Let them go down in front of you, and follow behind with a pick or a shovel on your shoulder, and when you are passing the clerk, or anywhere where you might be observed, mind you let the men go a yard or two in front of you. When the gate is just being shut after the last workman, call out quietly, but as naturally as you can, 'Hold on, M. Morin; mind you don't lock me in; I'm not one of your lodgers; let me out after my mates.' Make some joke of that sort, and when you are once outside the gate, by George, my boy, you'll have to vamoose!"
Gurn listened attentively to the warder's instructions. Lady Beltham must, indeed, have been generous and have made the man perfectly easy on the score of his own future.
"In one of the pockets of the clothes," Nibet went on, "I have put ten hundred-franc notes; you asked for more, but I could not raise it: we can settle that some other time."
Gurn made no comment.
"When will my escape be discovered?" he asked.
"I am on night duty," the warder answered. "Arrange your clothes on your bed to make it look as if you were in bed, and then they will think I might have been deceived. I go off duty at five; the next round is at eight. My mate will open the door of the cage, and by that time you will be miles away."
Gurn nodded comprehension. Time did not permit of longer conversation. The bell had rung some minutes ago, proclaiming that the exercise time was over. The two men hurried upstairs to cell number 127 on the third floor, and the prisoner was locked in alone, while Nibet went about his duty as usual.
XXVI. A MYSTERIOUS CRIME
Arriving in good time at the little station at Verrieres, where he was about to take a train to Paris to keep his appointment at the Law Courts, the old steward Dollon gave his parting instructions to his two children, who had come to see him off.
"I must, of course, call upon Mme. de Vibray," he said, "and I don't yet know what time M. Fuselier wants to see me at his office. Anyhow, if I don't come back to-morrow, I will the next day, without fail. Well, little ones, I'm just off now, so say good-bye and get home as fast as you can. It looks to me as if there was going to be a storm, and I should like to know that you were safe at home."
With heavy creaking of iron wheels, and hoarse blowing off of steam from the engine, the Paris train drew into the station. The steward gave a final kiss to his little son and daughter and got into a second-class carriage.
* * * * *
In a neighbouring village a clock had just struck three.
The storm had been raging since early in the evening, but now it seemed informed with a fresh fury: the rain was lashing down more fiercely, and the wind was blowing harder still, making the slender poplars along the railway line bow and bend before the squalls and assume the most fantastic shapes, but vaguely shown against the night. The night was inky black. The keenest eye could make out nothing at all distinctly, even at the distance of a few yards: the darkness was so dense as to seem absolutely solid.
Nevertheless, along the railway embankment, a man was making his way with steady step, seeming not a whit disturbed by the tragic horror of the storm.
He was a man of about thirty, rather well dressed in a large waterproof coat, the collar of which, turned up to his ears, hid the lower part of his face, and a big felt hat with brim turned down protecting him fairly well from the worst of the weather. The man fought his way against the wind, which drove into his overcoat with such force that sometimes it almost stopped his progress, and he trod the stony track without paying heed to the sorry plight into which it would most surely put the thin boots he was wearing.
"Awful weather!" he growled: "I don't remember such a shocking night for years: wind, rain, every conceivable thing! But I mustn't grumble, for the total absence of moon will be uncommonly useful for my purpose." A flash of lightning streaked the horizon, and the man stopped and looked quickly about him. "I can't be far from the place," he thought, and again went on his way. Presently he heaved a sigh of relief. "Here I am at last."
At this spot the line was completely enclosed between two high slopes, or ran at the bottom of a deep cutting.
"It's better here," the man said to himself; "the wind passes well above my head, and the cutting gives good shelter." He stopped and carefully deposited on the ground a rather bulky bundle he had been carrying under his arm; then he began to pace up and down, stamping his feet in an effort to keep warm. "It has just struck three," he muttered. "From the time-table I can't expect anything for another ten minutes. Well, better too soon than too late!" He contemplated the bundle which he had laid down a few minutes before. "It's heavier than I thought, and deucedly in the way. But it was absolutely necessary to bring it. And down here in this cutting, there is nothing for me to be anxious about: the grass is thick, so I can run, and the line is so straight that I shall see the lights of the train a long way off." A thin smile curled his lips. "Who would have thought, when I was in America, that I should ever find it so useful to have learnt how to jump a train?"
A dull sound in the distance caught his ear. In a second he had sprung to his bundle, picked it up, and, choosing a spot on the ballast, crouched down listening. At the place where he stood the line ran up a steep acclivity. It was from the lower end of this that the noise he had heard proceeded, and now was growing louder, almost deafening. It was the heavy, regular puffing of a powerful engine coming up a steep gradient, under full steam.
"No mistake: my star is with me!" the man muttered, and as the train approached he stretched his muscles and, taking a firmer grip of his bundle, he bent forward in the stooping attitude that runners take when about to start off in a race.
With a heavy roar, and enveloped in clouds of steam, the train came up to where he was, travelling slowly because of the steep gradient, certainly less than twenty miles an hour. The moment the engine had passed him, the man started off, lithe as a cat, and ran at the top of his speed. The train, of course, gained upon him; the tender, luggage vans, and third-class carriages passed him, and a second-class carriage was just coming up with him. The pace alone would have deprived almost anyone else of power of thought, but this man was evidently a first-rate athlete, for the moment he caught sight of the second-class carriage he took his decision. With a tremendous effort he caught hold of the hand-rail and sprang upon the footboard, where, with extraordinary skill, he contrived to remain.
Reaching the summit of the slope, the train gathered speed, and with an even louder roar began its headlong journey through the darkness and the storm, which seemed to increase in intensity with every passing minute.
For a few seconds the man hung on where he was. Then, when he had regained his breath, he got on to the upper step and listened at the door of the corridor at which he found himself. "No one there," he muttered. "Besides, everyone will be asleep," and, chancing everything, he rose up, opened the door, and stepped into the second-class carriage with a grunt of relief.
Making no attempt to conceal himself, he walked boldly into the lavatory and washed his face that was blackened with the smoke from outside, and then, in the most leisurely, natural way possible, he came out of the lavatory and walked along the corridor, soliloquising aloud, manifestly not minding whether he were overheard.
"It's positively maddening! No one can sleep, with travelling companions like that!"
As he spoke he went along the corridor, rapidly glancing into every compartment. In one, three men were asleep, obviously unaware that anyone was surveying them from outside. The door of the compartment was ajar, and the stranger noiselessly stepped within. The fourth corner was unoccupied, and here the man took his seat, laying his bundle down beside him, and feigning sleep. He waited, motionless, for a good quarter of an hour, until he was quite satisfied that his companions were really sleeping soundly, then he slid his hand into the bundle by his side, seemed to be doing something inside it, then withdrew his hand noiselessly, stepped out of the compartment, and carefully closed the door.
In the corridor he drew a sigh of relieved satisfaction, and took a cigar from his pocket.
"Everything is going splendidly," he said to himself. "I was cursing this awful storm just now, but it is wonderfully useful to me. On such a night as this no one would dream of opening the windows." He strolled up and down, holding on to the hand-rail with one hand to maintain himself against the rocking of the train, and every now and then taking out his watch with the other to see the time. "I haven't any too much time," he muttered. "I shall have to be quick, or my friend will miss his train!" He smiled, as if amused at the idea, and then, holding his cigar away from him so as not to inhale the smoke, he drew several deep breaths. "There is a faint smell," he said, "but you would have to be told of it to detect it. The devil of it is that it so often causes nightmare; that would be awful!" He suspended his patrol and listened again. There was no sound to be heard from within the compartments except the snoring of a few travellers and the monotonous, rhythmical noise of the wheels passing over the joints of the rails. "Come: I've waited twenty minutes; it would be risky to wait longer; let's get to work!"
He stepped briskly back into the compartment, and furtively glancing into the corridor to make sure that no one was there, he went across to the opposite window and opened it wide. He put his head out into the air for a minute or two, and then turned to examine his travelling companions. All three were still sound asleep.
The man gave vent to a dry chuckle. He drew his bundle towards him, felt until he found something within it, and flung it back on to the seat. Then he walked up to the man opposite him, slipped his hand inside his coat and abstracted a pocket-book and began to examine the papers it contained. "Ah!" he exclaimed suddenly; "that was what I was afraid of!" and taking one of the papers he put it inside his own pocket-book, chose one from his own and put it into the other man's pocket-book, and then, having effected this exchange, replaced the man's property and chuckled again. "You do sleep!"
And indeed, although the pick-pocket took no particular precaution, the man continued to sleep soundly, as did the other two men in the compartment.
The thief looked once more at his watch.
He leaned out of the open window and slipped back the safety catch. Then he opened the door quite wide, took the sleeping traveller by the shoulders and picked him up from the seat, and with all his strength sent him rolling out on to the line!
The next moment he seized from the rack the light articles that evidently belonged to his victim, and threw them out after him.
When he had finished his ghastly work he rubbed his hands in satisfaction. "Good!" he said, and closing the door again, but leaving the window down, he left the compartment, not troubling to pick up his belongings, and walked along the corridors to another second-class compartment, towards the front of the train, in which he calmly installed himself.
"Luck has been with me," he muttered as he stretched himself out on the seat. "Everything has gone off well; no one has seen me, and those two fools who might have upset my plans will wake up quite naturally when they begin to feel the cold; and they will attribute the headache they will probably feel to their tiring journey."
A train, travelling in the opposite direction, suddenly roared past the window and made him jump. He started up, and smiled.
"'Gad! I said my friend would miss his train, but he'll catch it in another five minutes! In another five minutes, luggage and body and the entire caboodle will be mincemeat!" and as if completely reassured by the idea he chuckled again. "Nothing could have gone better: I can have a rest, and in an hour's time I shall be at Juvisy, where, thanks to my forethought, I shall be able to whitewash myself—literally." One thing, however, still seemed to worry him: he did not know exactly where on the line he had thrown his unhappy victim, but he had an idea that the train had run through a small station shortly afterwards; if that was so, the body might be found sooner than he would have liked. He tried to dismiss the notion from his mind, but he caught sight of the telegraph posts speeding past the windows, and he shook his fist at them malignantly. "That is the only thing that can harm me now," he muttered.
* * * * *
"Juvisy! Juvisy! Wait here two minutes!"
It was barely half-past six, and the porters hurried along the train, calling out the name of the station, and rousing sleepy travellers from their dreams. A man jumped nimbly out of a second-class carriage and walked towards the exit from the station, holding out his ticket. "Season," he said, and passed out rapidly.
"Good idea, that season ticket," he said to himself; "much less dangerous than an ordinary ticket which the police could have traced."
He walked briskly towards the subway, crossed the main road, and took a side turning that led down towards the Seine. Taking no notice of the mud, the man went into a field and hid himself in a little thicket on the river bank. He looked carefully all around him to make sure that he was unobserved, then took off his overcoat, jacket and trousers, and drawing a bundle from one of the pockets of his large waterproof, proceeded to dress himself anew. As soon as he was dressed, he spread the waterproof out on the ground, folded up in it the clothes and hat he had previously been wearing, added a number of heavy stones, and tied the whole bundle up with a piece of string. He swung it once or twice at the full length of his arm, and sent it hurtling right into the middle of the river, where it sank at once.
A few minutes later a bricklayer in his working clothes presented himself at the Juvisy booking office.
"A workman's ticket to Paris, please, missus," he said, and having got it, the man went on to the departure platform. "It would have been risky to use my own ticket," he muttered. "This return ticket will put them off the scent," and with a smile he waited for the train that would take him to Paris.
* * * * *
The slow train from Luchon was drawing near its Paris terminus and the travellers were all making hasty toilettes and tidying themselves up after their long night journey. Just, however, as it was approaching the goods station it slowed down and stopped. The passengers, surprised, put their heads out of the windows, to ascertain the reason for the unexpected delay, hazarding various conjectures but unanimous in their vituperation of the company.
Three men were walking slowly along the line, looking carefully at every door. Two were porters, and they were manifesting the most respectful attention to everything the third man said: he was a grave individual, very correctly attired.
"Look there, sir," one of the porters exclaimed; "there is a door where the safety catch has either been undone or not fastened; that is the only one on the train."
"That is so," said the gentleman, and grasping the handle he opened the door of the compartment and got in. Two travellers were busy strapping up their bags, and they turned round in simultaneous surprise.
"You will pardon me, gentlemen, when you know who I am," said the intruder, and throwing open his coat he showed his tricolour scarf. "I have to make enquiry relative to a dead body that has been found on the line near Bretigny; it probably fell from this train, and perhaps from this compartment, for I have just observed that the safety catch is not fastened. Where did you get into the train?"