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Fantomas
by Pierre Souvestre
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The two passengers looked at one another in astonishment.

"What a dreadful thing!" one of them exclaimed. "Why, sir, to-night, while my friend here and I were asleep, one of our fellow-travellers did disappear. I made a remark about it, but this gentleman very reasonably pointed out that he must have got out at some station while we were asleep."

The official was keenly interested.

"What was this passenger like?"

"Quite easily recognised, sir; a man of about sixty, rather stout, and wearing whiskers."

"That tallies with the description. Might he have been a butler or a steward?"

"That is exactly what he looked like."

"Then that must be the man whose body has been found upon the line. But I do not know whether it is to be regarded as a case of suicide or of murder, for some hand baggage has been picked up as well: a suicide would not have thrown his luggage out, and a thief would not have wanted to get rid of it."

The passenger who had not yet spoken, broke in.

"You are wrong, sir; at any rate all his luggage was not thrown on to the line," and he pointed to the bundle left upon the seat. "I thought that belonged to the gentleman here, but he has just told me it isn't his."

The official rapidly unfastened the straps and started back.

"Hullo! A bottle of liquid carbonic acid! Now what does that mean?" He looked at it. "Did this bundle belong to the man who disappeared?"

The two passengers shook their heads.

"I don't think so," one of them said; "I should certainly have noticed that Scotch rug; but I did not see it."

"Then there was a fourth passenger in this compartment?" the official enquired.

"No, we travelled alone," said one of the men, but the other dissented.

"It is very odd, and I am not sure about it, but I really am wondering whether someone did not get into our compartment last night while we were asleep. I have a vague impression that someone did, but I can't be sure."

"Do try to remember, sir," the official urged him; "it is of the very highest importance."

But the passenger shook his shoulders doubtfully.

"No, I really can't say anything definite; and, besides, I have a shocking headache."

The official was silent for a minute or two.

"In my opinion, gentlemen, you have been uncommonly lucky to escape murder yourselves. I do not quite understand yet how the murder was done, but I incline to think it proves almost incredible daring. However——" He stopped and put his head out of the window. "You can send the train on now," he called to a porter, and resumed: "However, I must ask you to accompany me to the stationmaster's office and give me your names and addresses, and to help me afterwards in the conduct of the legal investigation."

The two travellers looked at one another in distressed surprise.

"It is really appalling," said one of them; "you're not safe anywhere nowadays."

"You really aren't," the other agreed. "Such a number of awful murders and crimes are being perpetrated every day that you would think not one, but a dozen Fantomas were at work!"



XXVII. THREE SURPRISING INCIDENTS

Nibet went off duty at five in the morning, and returned to his own home to go to bed. As a general rule he slept like a top, after a night on duty, but on this occasion he could not close an eye, being far too uneasy about the consequences of his co-operation in Gurn's escape.

A few minutes before six in the evening he had taken advantage of no warders being about to slip Gurn from cell number 127 into number 129, whence he could make his way to the roof. At six, when he actually came on duty, Nibet opened the peephole in the door of number 127, as he did in all the others, and saw that Gurn had made an admirable dummy figure in the bed: it was so good that it even deceived a head warder who made a single rapid inspection of all the cells when Nibet was on one of his several rounds during the night. Obviously Gurn must have got clear away from the prison, for if he had been caught it would certainly have become generally known.

These reflections somewhat comforted the restless man, but he knew that the most difficult part of his task was still before him: the difficulty of simulating astonishment and distress when he should get back to the prison presently and be told by his fellow-warders of the prisoner's escape, and the difficulty of answering in a natural manner to the close interrogation to which he would be subjected by the governor and the police, and possibly even M. Fuselier, who would be in a fine rage when he learned that his captive had escaped him. Nibet meant to pretend ignorance and even stupidity. He would far rather be called a fool, than found out to be a knave and an accomplice.

About half-past eleven Nibet got up; Gurn's escape must certainly be known at the prison by this time. The warder on duty would have gone to the cell about seven to wake the prisoner, and though nothing might have been detected then, the cell would infallibly have been found to be empty at eight o'clock, when the morning broth was taken round. And then——

As he walked from his home round to the prison, Nibet met the gang of masons coming out for dinner; he crossed the street towards them, hoping to hear some news, but they passed by him in silence, one or two of them giving a careless nod or word of greeting; at first Nibet took their silence for a bad sign, thinking they might have been warned to give him no alarm, but he reflected that if Gurn's escape were discovered, as it surely must be, the authorities would probably prefer not to let the matter become widely known.

As he reached the porter's lodge his heart beat violently. What would old Morin have to tell him? But old Morin was very busy trying to make his kitchen fire burn properly instead of sending all the smoke pouring out into the room; the old man's slovenly figure was just visible in a clearing in the smoke, and he returned Nibet's salutation with nothing more than a silent salute.

"That's funny!" thought Nibet, and he passed through the main courtyard towards the clerks' offices at the end. Through the windows he could see the staff, a few bending over their work, most of them reading newspapers, none of them obviously interested in anything special. Next he presented himself before the warders' turnkey, and again he was allowed to pass on without a word.

By this time Gurn's accomplice was in a state of such nervous tension that he could hardly restrain himself from catching hold of one or other of the warders whom he saw at their work, and asking them questions. How could the escape of so important a prisoner as the man who had murdered Lord Beltham create so little excitement as this? Nibet longed to rush up the flights of stairs to number 127 and interrogate the warder who had gone on duty after himself, and whom he was now about to relieve in turn. He must surely know all about it. But it would not do to create suspicion, and Nibet had sufficient self-control left to go upstairs at his usual leisurely pace. Outwardly calm and steady, he reached his post just as the clock was striking twelve; he was ever punctuality itself, and he was due on duty at noon.

"Well, Colas," he said to his colleague, "here I am; you can go now."

"Good!" said the warder. "I'll be off at once. I'm on again at six to-night," and he moved away.

"Everything all right?" Nibet enquired, in a tone he tried to make as casual as possible, but that trembled a little nevertheless.

"Quite," said Colas, perfectly naturally, and he went away.

* * * * *

Nibet could contain himself no longer, and the next second he threw caution to the winds: rushing to Gurn's cell he flung the door open.

Gurn was there, sitting on the foot of his bed with his legs crossed and a note-book on his knees, making notes with the quietest attention: he scarcely appeared to notice Nibet's violent invasion.

"Oh! So you are there?" stammered the astonished warder.

Gurn raised his head and looked at the warder with a cryptic gaze.

"Yes, I'm here."

All manner of notions crowded through Nibet's brain, but he could find words for none of them. Had the plot been discovered before Gurn had had time to get away, or had a trap been laid for himself through the medium of one of the prisoners to test his own incorruptibility? Nibet went white, and leaned against the wall for support. At last Gurn spoke again, reassuring him with a smile.

"Don't look so miserable," he said. "I am here. That is a matter of absolutely no importance. We will suppose that nothing passed between us yesterday, and—that's an end to it."

"So you haven't gone, you didn't go?" said Nibet again.

"No," Gurn replied; "since you are so interested, all I need say is that I was afraid to risk it at the last minute."

Nibet had cast a keen and experienced eye all over the cell; under the washstand he saw the little bundle of clothes which he had brought the prisoner the previous day. He rightly opined that the first thing to do was to remove these dangerous articles, whose presence in Gurn's cell would appear very suspicious if they happened to be discovered. He took the bundle and was hurriedly stowing it away under his own clothes, when he uttered an exclamation of surprise; the things were wet, and he knew from his own experience that the rain had never ceased throughout the whole of the night.

"Gurn," he said reproachfully, "you are up to some trick! These things are soaked. You must have gone out last night, or these things would not be like this."

Gurn smiled sympathetically at the warder.

"Not so bad!" he remarked; "that's pretty good reasoning for a mere gaoler." And as Nibet was about to press the matter, Gurn anticipated his questions, and made frank confession. "Well, yes, I did try to get out,—got as far as the clerk's office last evening, but at the last minute I funked it, and went back on to the roof. But when I got into number 129 again I found I could not get back into my own cell, for, as you know, 129 was locked outside; so to avoid detection I returned to the roof and spent the night there; at daybreak I took advantage of the little disturbance caused by the workmen coming in, and slipped down from the roof just as they were going up. As soon as I found myself on this floor I ran along this corridor and slipped into my cell. When your friend Colas brought me my broth he did not notice that my cell was unlocked,—and there you are!"

The explanation was not altogether convincing, but Nibet listened to it and pondered the situation. On the whole, it was much better that things should be as they were, but the warder was wondering how the great lady, who paid so mighty well, might take the matter. She most certainly had not promised so large a sum of money, nor paid the good round sum of ten thousand francs down in advance, merely in order that Gurn might have a little walk upon the tiles. What was to be done with regard to that personage? With much ingenuousness Nibet confided his anxiety to the prisoner, who laughed.

"It's not all over yet," he declared. "Indeed, it is only just beginning. What if we only wanted to test you, and prove your quality? Make your mind easy, Nibet. If Gurn is in prison at the present moment it is because he has his own reasons for being there. But who is able to predict the future?"

It was time for Gurn to go to the exercise yard, and Nibet, reassuming the uncompromising attitude that all warders ought to maintain when in custody of prisoners, led the murderer down to the courtyard.

* * * * *

In his office at the Law Courts, M. Fuselier was having a private interview with Juve, and listening with much interest to what the clever detective inspector was saying to him.

"I tell you again, sir, I attach great importance to the finding of this ordnance map in Gurn's rooms."

"Yes?" said M. Fuselier, with a touch of scepticism.

"And I will tell you why," Juve went on. "About a year ago, when I was engaged on the case of the murder of the Marquise de Langrune at her chateau of Beaulieu, down in Lot, I found a small piece of a map showing the district in which I was at the time. I took it to M. de Presles, the magistrate who was conducting the enquiry. He attached no importance to it, and I myself could not see at the time that it gave us any new evidence."

"Quite so," said M. Fuselier. "There is nothing particularly remarkable in finding a map, or a piece of a map, showing a district, in the district itself."

"Those are M. de Presles' very words to me," said Juve with a smile. "And I will give you the same answer I gave him, namely, that if some day we could find the other portion of the map which completed the first piece we found, and could identify the owner of the two portions, there would then be a formal basis on which to proceed to base an argument."

"Proceed to base it," M. Fuselier suggested.

"That's very easy," said Juve. "The fragment of map numbered 1, found at Beaulieu, belongs to X. I do not know who X is; but in Paris, in Gurn's rooms, I find the fragment of map numbered 2, which belongs to Gurn. If it turns out, as I expect, that the two fragments of map, when placed together, form a single and complete whole, I shall conclude logically that X, who was the owner of fragment number 1, is the same as the owner of fragment number 2, to wit, Gurn."

"How are you going to find out?" enquired M. Fuselier.

"It is in order to find it out that we have sent for Dollon," Juve replied. "He was steward to the late Marquise de Langrune, and has all the circumstantial evidence relating to that case. If he has still got the fragment of map, it will be simplicity itself to prove what I have suggested, and perhaps to make the identification I suggest."

"Yes," said M. Fuselier, "but if you do succeed, will it be of really great importance in your opinion? Will you be able to infer from that one fact that Gurn and the man who murdered the Marquise de Langrune are one and the same person? Is not that going rather far? Especially as, if I remember rightly, it was proved that the murderer in that case was the son of a M. Rambert, and this young Rambert committed suicide after the crime?"

Juve evaded the issue.

"Well, we shall see," was all he said.

* * * * *

The magistrate's clerk came into the room and unceremoniously interrupted the conversation.

"It has gone two, sir," he said. "There are some prisoners to examine, and a whole lot of witnesses," and he placed two bulky bundles of papers before the magistrate and waited for a sign to call the various persons, free or otherwise, whom the magistrate had to see.

The first bundle caught Juve's attention. It was endorsed "Royal Palace Hotel Case."

"Anything new about the robbery from Mme. Van den Rosen and Princess Sonia Danidoff?" he enquired, and as the magistrate shook his head, he added, "Are you going to examine Muller now?"

"Yes," said the magistrate; "at once."

"And after that you are to examine Gurn, aren't you, in connection with the Beltham case?"

"Quite so."

"I wish you would oblige me by confronting the two men here, in my presence."

M. Fuselier looked up in surprise: he could not see what connection there could be between the two utterly dissimilar cases. What object could Juve have in wanting the man who had murdered Lord Beltham to be confronted with the unimportant little hotel servant who had really been arrested rather as a concession to public opinion than because he was actually deemed capable of burglary or attempted burglary? Might not Juve, with his known mania for associating all crimes with each other, be going just a little too far in the present instance?

"You have got some idea in the back of your head?" said M. Fuselier.

"I've got a—a scar in the palm of my hand," Juve answered with a smile, and as the magistrate confessed that he failed to understand, Juve enlightened him. "We know that the man who did that robbery at the Royal Palace Hotel burned his hand badly when he was cutting the electric wires in the Princess's bathroom. Well, a few weeks ago, while I was on the look out for someone with a scar from such a wound, I was told of a man who was prowling about the slums. I had the fellow followed up, and the very night the hunt began I was going to arrest him, when, a good deal to my surprise, I discovered that he was no other than Gurn. He escaped me that time, but when he was caught later on I found that he has an unmistakable scar inside the palm of his right hand; it is fading now, for the burn was only superficial, but it is there. Now do you see my idea?"

"Yes, I do," the magistrate exclaimed, "and I am all the more glad to hear of it, since I am to have both the men here now. Shall I have Muller in first?"

Juve assented....

"So you still refuse to confess?" said the magistrate at last. "You still maintain that your—extraordinary—order to let the red-haired waiter out, was given in good faith?"

"Yes, yes, yes, sir," the night watchman answered. "That very evening a new servant had joined the staff. I had not even set eyes on him. When I saw this—stranger——, I took him to be the servant who had been engaged the day before, and I told them to open the door for him. That is the real truth."

"And that is all?"

"That is positively all."

"We are only charging you with complicity," the magistrate went on, "for the man who touched the electric wires burned his hand; that is a strong point in your favour. And you also say that if the thief were put before you, you could recognise him?"

"Yes," said the man confidently.

"Good!" said M. Fuselier, and he signed to his clerk to call in another personage.

The clerk understood, and Gurn was brought in between two municipal guards, and was followed by the young licentiate in law, Maitre Roger de Seras, who represented his leader at most of these preliminary examinations. As Gurn came in, with the light from the window falling full on his face, M. Fuselier gave a curt order.

"Muller, turn round and look at this man!"

Muller obeyed, and surveyed with some bewilderment, and without the least comprehension, the bold head and the well-built, muscular frame of Lord Beltham's murderer. Gurn did not flinch.

"Do you recognise that man?" the magistrate demanded.

Muller ransacked his brains and looked again at Gurn, then shook his head.

"No, sir."

"Gurn, open your right hand," the magistrate ordered. "Show it," and he turned again to Muller. "The man before you seems to have been burned in the palm of the hand, as that scar shows. Can you not remember having seen that man at the Royal Palace Hotel?"

Muller looked steadily at Gurn.

"On my honour, sir, although it would be to my interest to recognise him, I am bound to acknowledge that I really and truly don't."

M. Fuselier had a brief conversation aside with Juve, and then, the detective appearing to agree with him, turned once more to the night watchman.

"Muller," he said, "the court is pleased with your frankness. You will be set free provisionally, but you are to hold yourself at the disposal of the court of enquiry," and he signed to the municipal guards to lead the gratefully protesting man away.

Meanwhile Gurn's case appeared to him to be becoming much more serious, and much more interesting. He had the prisoner placed in front of him, while Juve, who had withdrawn into a dark corner of the room, never took his eyes off the murderer.

"Gurn," he began, "can you give me an account of your time during the second half of December of last year?"

Gurn was unprepared for the point-blank question, and made a gesture of doubt. M. Fuselier, probably anticipating a sensation, was just on the point of ordering Dollon to be called, when he was interrupted by a discreet tap on the door. His clerk went to answer it, and saw a gendarme standing at the door. At almost the first words he said, the clerk uttered an exclamation and wheeled round to the magistrate.

"Oh, M. Fuselier, listen! They have just told me——"

But the gendarme had come in. He saluted the magistrate and handed him a letter which M. Fuselier hastily tore open and read.

"To M. Germain Fuselier, Examining Magistrate, The Law Courts, Paris.

"The special commissioner at Bretigny station has the honour to report that this morning at 8 A.M. the police informed him of the discovery on the railway line, five kilometres from Bretigny on the Orleans side, of the dead body of a man who must either have fallen accidentally or been thrown intentionally from a train bound for Paris. The body had been mutilated by a train travelling in the other direction, but papers found on the person of the deceased, and in particular a summons found in his pocket, show that his name was Dollon, and that he was on his way to Paris to wait upon you.

"The special commissioner at Bretigny station has, quite late, been informed of the following facts: passengers who left the train on its arrival at the Austerlitz terminus at 5 A.M. were examined by the special commissioner at that station, and subsequently allowed to go. Possibly you have already been informed. We have, however, thought it our duty, after having searched the body, to report this identification to you, and have therefore requisitioned an officer of the police at Bretigny to convey to you the information contained in this communication."

* * * * *

M. Fuselier had turned pale as he read this letter. He handed it to Juve. With feverish haste the famous detective read it through and wheeled round to the gendarme.

"Tell me, do you know what has been done? Do you know if this man's papers, all his papers, were found and have been preserved?"

The man shook his head in ignorance. Juve clasped the magistrate's hand. "I'm off to Bretigny this instant," he said in a low tone.

Throughout this incident Maitre Roger de Seras had remained in a state of blank incomprehension.

Gurn's face was more expressionless and impenetrable than ever.



XXVIII. THE COURT OF ASSIZE

"Call Lady Beltham!"

It was a perfect May day, and everyone who could pretend, on any conceivable ground, to belong to "Paris" had schemed and intrigued to obtain admission to a trial over which public opinion had been excited for months: the trial of Gurn for the murder of Lord Beltham, ex-Ambassador and foremost man of fashion, whose murder, two years before, had caused a great sensation.

The preliminary formalities of the trial had furnished nothing to tickle the palates of the sensation-loving crowd. The indictment had been almost inaudible, and, besides, it contained nothing that had not already been made public by the Press. Nor had the examination of the prisoner been any more interesting; Gurn sat, strangely impassive, in the dock between two municipal guards, and hardly listened to his counsel, the eminent Maitre Barberoux, who was assisted by a galaxy of juniors, including young Roger de Seras. Moreover, Gurn had frankly confessed his guilt almost immediately after his arrest. There was not much for him to add to what he had said before, although the President of the Court pressed him as to some points which were still not satisfactorily clear with respect to his own identity, and the motives which had prompted him to commit his crime, and, subsequently, to pay that most risky visit to Lady Beltham, at the close of which Juve had effected his arrest.

But Lady Beltham's evidence promised to be much more interesting. Rumour had been busy for a long time with the great lady and her feelings, and odd stories were being whispered. She was said to be beautiful, wealthy and charitable; people said, under their breath, that she must know a good deal about the murder of her spouse, and when she made her appearance in the box a sudden hush fell upon the crowded court. She was, indeed, a most appealing figure, robed in long black weeds, young, graceful, and very pale, so sympathetic a figure that scandal was forgotten in the general tense desire to hear her answers to the President of the Court.

Following the usher to the witness-box, she took off her gloves as desired, and, in a voice that trembled slightly but was beautifully modulated, repeated the words of the oath, with her right hand raised the while. Noticing her agitation, the President mitigated somewhat the harshness of the tone in which he generally spoke to witnesses.

"Pray compose yourself, madame. I am sorry to be obliged to subject you to this examination, but the interests of Justice require it. Come now: you are Lady Beltham, widow of the late Lord Beltham, of English nationality, residing in Paris, at your own house in Neuilly?"

"Yes."

"Will you kindly turn round, madame, and tell me if you know the prisoner in the dock?"

Lady Beltham obeyed mechanically; she glanced at Gurn, who paled a little, and answered the President.

"Yes, I know the prisoner; his name is Gurn."

"Very good, madame. Can you tell me first of all how you came to be acquainted with him?"

"When my husband was in South Africa, at the time of the Boer War, Gurn was a sergeant in the regular army. It was then that I first met him."

"Did you know him well at that time?"

Lady Beltham seemed to be unable to prevent herself from casting long glances at the prisoner; she appeared to be almost hypnotised and frightened by his close proximity.

"I saw very little of Gurn in the Transvaal," she answered. "It was just by chance that I learned his name, but of course the difference between his own rank and my husband's position made the relations that I could have with a mere sergeant very limited indeed."

"Yes, Gurn was a sergeant," the President said. "And after the war, madame, did you see the prisoner again?"

"Yes, immediately after the war; my husband and I went to England by the same boat on which Gurn went home."

"Did you see much of him on board?"

"No; we were first-class passengers, and he, I believe, went second. It was just by accident that my husband caught sight of him soon after the boat sailed."

The President paused and made a note.

"Were those all the relations your husband had with the prisoner?"

"They are at any rate all the relations I had with him," Lady Beltham replied in tones of some distress; "but I know that my husband employed Gurn on several occasions, to help him in various affairs and matters of business."

"Thank you," said the President; "we will return to that point presently. Meanwhile there is one question I should like to ask you. If you had met the prisoner in the street a few months ago, should you have recognised him? Was his face still distinct in your memory, or had it become blurred and vague?"

Lady Beltham hesitated, then answered confidently.

"I am sure I should not have recognised him; and some proof of this is, that just before his arrest was effected I was conversing with the prisoner for several minutes, without having the faintest idea that the poor man with whom I imagined I had to do was no other than the man Gurn for whom the police were looking."

The President nodded, and Maitre Barberoux leaned forward and spoke eagerly to his client in the dock. But the President continued immediately.

"You must forgive me, madame, for putting a question that may seem rather brutal, and also for reminding you of your oath to tell us the entire truth. Did you love your husband?"

Lady Beltham quivered and was silent for a moment, as though endeavouring to frame a right answer.

"Lord Beltham was much older than myself——," she began, and then, perceiving the meaning implicit in her words, she added: "I had the very highest esteem for him, and a very real affection."

A cynical smile curled the lip of the President, and he glanced at the jury as though asking them to pay still closer attention.

"Do you know why I put that question to you?" he asked, and as Lady Beltham confessed her ignorance he went on: "It has been suggested, madame, by a rumour which is very generally current in the newspapers and among people generally, that the prisoner may possibly have been greatly enamoured of you: that perhaps—well, is there any truth in this?"

As he spoke the President bent forward, and his eyes seemed to pierce right through Lady Beltham.

"It is a wicked calumny," she protested, turning very pale.

Throughout the proceedings Gurn had been sitting in an attitude of absolute indifference, almost of scorn; but now he rose to his feet and uttered a defiant protest.

"Sir," he said to the President of the Court, "I desire to say publicly here that I have the most profound and unalterable respect for Lady Beltham. Anyone who has given currency to the malignant rumour you refer to, is a liar. I have confessed that I killed Lord Beltham, and I do not retract that confession, but I never made any attempt upon his honour, and no word, nor look, nor deed has ever passed between Lady Beltham and myself, that might not have passed before Lord Beltham's own eyes."

The President looked sharply at the prisoner.

"Then tell me what your motive was in murdering your victim."

"I have told you already! Lady Beltham is not to be implicated in my deed in any way! I had constant business dealings with Lord Beltham; I asked him, over the telephone, to come to my place one day. He came. We had an animated discussion; he got warm and I answered angrily; then I lost control of myself and in a moment of madness I killed him! I am profoundly sorry for my crime and stoop to crave pardon for it; but I cannot tolerate the suggestion that the murder I committed was in the remotest way due to sentimental relations with a lady who is, I repeat, entitled to the very highest respect from the whole world."

A murmur of sympathy ran through the court at this chivalrous declaration, by which the jury, who had not missed a word, seemed to be entirely convinced. But the President was trained to track truth in detail, and he turned again to Lady Beltham who still stood in the witness-box, very pale, and swaying with distress.

"You must forgive me if I attach no importance to a mere assertion, madame. The existence of some relations between yourself and the prisoner, which delicacy would prompt him to conceal, and honour would compel you to deny, would alter the whole aspect of this case." He turned to the usher. "Recall Mme. Doulenques, please."

Mme. Doulenques considered it a tremendous honour to be called as witness in a trial with which the press was ringing, and was particularly excited because she had just been requested to pose for her photograph by a representative of her own favourite paper. She followed the usher to where Lady Beltham stood.

"You told us just now, Mme. Doulenques," the President said suavely, "that your lodger, Gurn, often received visits from a lady friend. You also said that if this lady were placed before you, you would certainly recognise her. Now will you kindly look at the lady in the box: is this the same person?"

Mme. Doulenques, crimson with excitement, and nervously twisting in her hands a huge pair of white gloves which she had bought for this occasion, looked curiously at Lady Beltham.

"Upon my word I can't be sure that this is the lady," she said after quite a long pause.

"But you were so certain of your facts just now," the President smiled encouragingly.

"But I can't see the lady very well, with all those veils on," Mme. Doulenques protested.

Lady Beltham did not wait for the request which the President would inevitably have made, but haughtily put back her veil.

"Do you recognise me now?" she said coldly.

The scorn in her tone upset Mme. Doulenques. She looked again at Lady Beltham and turned instinctively as if to ask enlightenment from Gurn, whose face, however, was expressionless, and then replied:

"It's just what I told you before, your worship: I can't be sure; I couldn't swear to it."

"But you think she is?"

"You know, your worship," Mme. Doulenques protested, "I took an oath just now to tell the truth, and nothing but the truth; so I don't want to tell any stories; well, this lady might be the same lady, and again she mightn't be."

"In other words, you cannot give a definite answer."

"That's it," said the concierge. "I don't know; I can't swear. This lady is like the other lady—there's a sort of family likeness between them——, but at the moment I do not exactly recognise her; it's much too serious!"

Mme. Doulenques would willingly have continued to give evidence for ever and a day, but the President cut her short.

"Very well; thank you," he said, and dismissed her with the usher, turning again meanwhile to Lady Beltham.

"Will you kindly tell me now what your personal opinion is as to the relative culpability of the prisoner? Of course you understand that he has confessed to the crime, and your answer will bear chiefly on the motive that may have actuated him."

Lady Beltham appeared to have recovered some of her confidence.

"I cannot say anything definite, can only express a very vague feeling about the matter. I know my husband was quick-tempered, very quick-tempered, and even violent; and his peremptory temper predisposed him to positive convictions. He maintained what he considered his rights at all times and against all comers; if, as the prisoner says, there was a heated discussion, I should not be surprised if my husband did make use of arguments that might have provoked anger."

The President gently gave a clearer turn to the phrase she used.

"So, in your opinion, the prisoner's version of the story is quite permissible? You admit that Lord Beltham and his murderer may have had a heated discussion, as a consequence of which Gurn committed this crime? That is your honest belief?"

"Yes," Lady Beltham answered, trying to control her voice; "I believe that that may be what took place. And then, it is the only way in which I can find the least excuse for the crime this man Gurn committed."

The President picked up the word, in astonishment.

"Do you want to find excuses for him, madame?"

Lady Beltham stood erect, and looked at the President.

"It is written that to pardon is the first duty of good Christians. It is true that I have mourned my husband, but the punishment of his murderer will not dry my tears; I ought to forgive him, bow beneath the burden that is laid upon my soul: and I do forgive him!"

Ghastly pale, Gurn was staring at Lady Beltham from the dock; and this time his emotion was so visible that all the jury noticed it. The President held a brief colloquy with his colleagues, asked the prisoner's counsel whether he desired to put any questions to the witness, and, receiving a reply in the negative, dismissed Lady Beltham with a word of thanks, and announced that the Court would adjourn.

Immediately a hum of conversation broke out in the warm and sunny court; barristers in their robes moved from group to group, criticising, explaining, prophesying; and in their seats the world of beauty and fashion bowed and smiled and gossiped.

"She's uncommonly pretty, this Lady Beltham," one young lawyer said, "and she's got a way of answering questions without compromising herself, and yet without throwing blame on the prisoner, that is uncommonly clever."

"You are all alike, you men," said a pretty, perfectly dressed woman in mocking tones; "if a woman is young, and hasn't got a hump on her back, and has a charming voice, your sympathies are with her at once! Oh, yes, they are! Now shall I tell you what your Lady Beltham really is? Well, she is nothing more nor less than a barnstormer! She knew well enough how to get on the soft side of the judge, who was quite ridiculously amiable to her, and to capture the sympathy of the Court. I think it was outrageous to declare that she had married a man who was too old for her, and to say that she felt nothing but esteem for him!"

"There's an admission!" the young barrister laughed. "Vive l'amour, eh? And mariages de convenance are played out, eh?"

On another bench a little further away, a clean-shaven man with a highly intelligent face was talking animatedly.

"Bosh! Your Lady Beltham is anything you like: what do I care for Lady Beltham? I shall never play women's parts, shall I? She does not stand for anything. But Gurn, now! There's a type, if you like! What an interesting, characteristic face! He has the head of the assassin of genius, with perfect mastery of self, implacable, cruel, malignant, a Torquemada of a man!"

"Your enthusiasm is running away with you," someone laughed.

"I don't care! It is so seldom one comes across figures in a city that really are figures, entities. That man is not an assassin: he is The Assassin—the Type!"

Two ladies, sitting close to this enthusiast, had been listening keenly to this diatribe.

"Do you know who that is?" one whispered to the other. "That is Valgrand, the actor," and they turned their lorgnettes on the actor who was waxing more animated every moment.

A bell rang, and, heralded by the usher proclaiming silence, the judges returned to the bench and the jury to their box. The President cast an eagle eye over the court, compelling silence, and then resumed the proceedings.

"Next witness: call M. Juve!"



XXIX. VERDICT AND SENTENCE

Once more a wave of sensation ran through the court. There was not a single person present who had not heard of Juve and his wonderful exploits, or who did not regard him as a kind of hero. All leaned forward to watch him as he followed the usher to the witness-box, wholly unaffected in manner and not seeking to make any capital out of his popularity. Indeed, he seemed rather to be uneasy, almost nervous, as one of the oldest pressmen present remarked audibly.

He took the oath, and the President of the Court addressed him in friendly tones.

"You are quite familiar with procedure, M. Juve. Which would you prefer: that I should interrogate you, or that I should leave you to tell your story in your own way? You know how important it is; for it is you who are, so to speak, the originator of the trial to-day, inasmuch as it was your great detective skill that brought about the arrest of the criminal, after it had also discovered his crime."

"Since you are so kind, sir," Juve answered, "I will make my statement first, and then be ready to answer any questions that may be put to me by yourself, or by counsel for the defence."

Juve turned to the dock and fixed his piercing eyes on the impassive face of Gurn, who met it unflinchingly. Juve shrugged his shoulders slightly, and, turning half round to the jury, began his statement. He did not propose, he said, to recite the story of his enquiries, which had resulted in the arrest of Gurn, for this had been set forth fully in the indictment, and the jury had also seen his depositions at the original examination: he had nothing to add to, or to subtract from, his previous evidence. He merely asked for the jury's particular attention; for, although he was adducing nothing new in the case actually before them, he had some unexpected disclosures to make about the prisoner's personal culpability. The first point which he desired to emphasise was that human intelligence should hesitate before no improbability, however improbable, provided that some explanation was humanly conceivable, and no definite material object rendered the improbability an impossibility. His whole statement would be based on the principle that the probable is incontestable and true, until proof of the contrary has been established.

"Gentlemen," he went on, "hitherto the police have remained impotent, and justice has been disarmed, in presence of a number of serious cases of crime, committed recently and still unsolved. Let me recall these cases to your memory: they were the murder of the Marquise de Langrune at her chateau of Beaulieu; the robberies from Mme. Van den Rosen and the Princess Sonia Danidoff; the murder of Dollon, the former steward of the Marquise de Langrune, when on his way from the neighbourhood of Saint-Jaury to Paris in obedience to a summons sent him by M. Germain Fuselier; and, lastly, the murder of Lord Beltham, prior to the cases just enumerated, for which the prisoner in the dock is at this moment standing his trial. Gentlemen, I have to say that all these cases, the Beltham, Langrune and Dollon murders, and the Rosen-Danidoff burglaries, are absolutely and indisputably to be attributed to one and the same individual, to that man standing there—Gurn!"

Having made this extraordinary assertion, Juve again turned round towards the prisoner. That mysterious person appeared to be keenly interested in what the detective said, but it would have been difficult to say whether he was merely surprised, or not rather perturbed and excited as well. Juve hushed, with a wave of his hand, the murmur that ran round the court, and resumed his address.

"My assertion that Gurn is the sole person responsible for all these crimes has surprised you, gentlemen, but I have proofs which must, I think, convince you. I will not go into the details of each of those cases, for the newspapers have made you quite familiar with them, but I will be as brief and as lucid as I can.

"My first point, gentlemen, is this: the murderer of the Marquise de Langrune and the man who robbed Mme. Van den Rosen and Princess Sonia Danidoff are one and the same person.

"That is shown beyond dispute by tests made in the two cases with a Bertillon dynamometer, an instrument of the nicest exactitude, which proved that the same individual operated in both cases; that is one point made good. And next, the man who robbed Mme. Van den Rosen and Princess Sonia is Gurn. That is proved to equal demonstration by the fact that the burglar burned his hand while engaged upon his crime, and that Gurn has a scar on his hand which betrays him as the criminal; the scar is faint now perhaps, but I can testify that it was very obvious at the time of a disturbance which occurred at a low cafe named the Saint-Anthony's Pig, where, accompanied by detective Lemaroy, who is still in hospital for treatment for injuries received on that occasion, I attempted, and failed, to arrest this man Gurn.

"Thus, gentlemen, I prove that the Langrune and Danidoff cases are the work of but one man, and that man, Gurn.

"I come to another point. As you know, the murder of the Marquise de Langrune was attended by some strange circumstances. At the inquest it was proved that the murderer most probably got into the house from outside, opening the front door with a skeleton key, and that he obtained admission into the bedroom of the Marquise, not by burglarious means—I lay insistence upon that—but by the simple means of her having opened the door to him, which she did on the strength of his name, and, finally, that if robbery was the motive of the crime, the nature of the robbery remained a mystery.

"Now I have ascertained, gentlemen, and—if, as I shall ask you presently, you decide to have an adjournment and a supplementary investigation—I shall be able to prove two important facts. The first is that the Marquise had in her possession a lottery ticket which had just won a large first prize; this ticket had been sent to her by M. Etienne Rambert. This ticket was not found at the time, but it was subsequently traced to a person, who for the moment has utterly disappeared, who declared that it was given to him by M. Etienne Rambert. And it is further noteworthy that M. Etienne Rambert seemed to be in greater funds from that time. The second fact I have ascertained is that, although M. Etienne Rambert pretended to get into a first-class carriage of a slow train at the gare d'Orsay, he most certainly was not in that train between Vierzon and Limoges: I can, if you wish, call a witness who inspected all the compartments of that carriage, and can prove that he was not there.

"The probable, almost certain, inference is that M. Etienne Rambert got into that slow train at the gare d'Orsay for the definite purpose of establishing an alibi, and then got out of it on the other side, and entered an express that was going in the same direction, and in front of the slow train.

"You may remember that it was shown that all trains stopped at the mouth of the Verrieres tunnel, near Beaulieu, and that it was possible for a man to get out of the express, commit the crime and then return—I would remind you of the footprints found on the embankment—and get into the slow train which followed the express at an interval of three hours and a half, and get out of that train at Verrieres station. The passenger who did that, was the criminal, and it was M. Etienne Rambert.

"As I have already proved that it was Gurn who murdered the Marquise de Langrune, it seems to follow necessarily that M. Etienne Rambert must be Gurn!"

Juve paused to make sure that the jury had followed his deductions and taken all his points. He proceeded, in the most tense hush.

"We have just identified Gurn with Rambert and proved that Rambert-Gurn is guilty of the Beltham and Langrune murders, and the robbery from Mme. Van den Rosen and Princess Sonia Danidoff. There remains the murder of the steward, Dollon.

"Gentlemen, when Gurn was arrested on the single charge of the murder of Lord Beltham, you will readily believe that his one fear was that all these other crimes, for which I have just shown him to be responsible, might be brought up against him. I was just then on the very point of finding out the truth, but I had not yet done so. A single link was missing in the chain which would connect Gurn with Rambert, and identify the murderer of Lord Beltham as the author of the other crimes. That link was some common clue, or, better still, some object belonging to the murderer of Lord Beltham, which had been forgotten and left on the scene of the Langrune murder.

"That object I found. It was a fragment of a map, picked up in a field near the chateau of Beaulieu, in the path which Etienne Rambert must have followed from the railway line; it was a fragment cut out of a large ordnance map, and the rest of the map I found in Gurn's rooms, thereby identifying Gurn with Rambert.

"Gentlemen, the fragment of map which was picked up in the field was left in the custody of the steward Dollon. That unfortunate man was summoned to Paris by M. Germain Fuselier. There was only one person who had any interest in preventing Dollon from coming, and that person was Gurn, or it would be better to say Rambert-Gurn; and you know that Dollon was killed before he reached M. Germain Fuselier. Is it necessary to declare that it was Gurn, Rambert-Gurn, who killed him?"

Juve said the last words in tones of such earnest and solemn denunciation that the truth of them seemed beyond all doubt. And yet he read incredulous surprise in the attitude of the jury. From the body of the court, too, a murmur rose that was not sympathetic. Juve realised that the sheer audacity of his theory must come as a shock, and he knew how difficult it would be to convince anyone who had not followed every detail of the case as he himself had done.

"Gentlemen," he said, "I know that my assertions about the multiple crimes of this man Gurn must fill you with amazement. That does not dismay me. There is one other name which I must mention, perhaps to silence your objections, perhaps to show the vast importance I attach to the deductions which I have just been privileged to detail to you. This is the last thing I have to say:

"The man who has been capable of assuming in turn the guise of Gurn, and of Etienne Rambert, and of the man of fashion at the Royal Palace Hotel: who has had the genius to devise and to accomplish such terrible crimes in incredible circumstances, and to combine audacity with skill, and a conception of evil with a pretence of respectability; who has been able to play the Proteus eluding all the efforts of the police;—this man, I say, ought not to be called Gurn! He is, and can be, no other than Fantomas!"

The detective suddenly broke off from his long statement, and the syllables of the melodramatic name seemed to echo through the court, and, taken up by all those present, to swell again into a dread murmur.

"Fantomas! He is Fantomas!"

For a space of minutes judges and jury seemed to be absorbed in their own reflections; and then the President of the Court made an abrupt gesture of violent dissent.

"M. Juve, you have just enunciated such astounding facts, and elaborated such an appalling indictment against this man Gurn, that I have no doubt the Public Prosecutor will ask for a supplementary examination, which this Court will be happy to grant, if he considers your arguments worth consideration. But are they? I will submit three objections." Juve bowed coldly. "First of all, M. Juve, do you believe that a man could assume disguise with the cleverness that you have just represented? M. Etienne Rambert is a man of sixty; Gurn is thirty-five. M. Rambert is an elderly man, slow of movement, and the man who robbed Princess Sonia Danidoff was a nimble, very active man."

"I have anticipated that objection, sir," Juve said with a smile, "by saying that Gurn is Fantomas! Nothing is impossible for Fantomas!"

"Suppose that is true," said the President with a wave of his hand, "but what have you to say to this: you charge Etienne Rambert with the murder of Mme. de Langrune; but do you not know that Etienne Rambert's son, Charles Rambert, who, according to the generally received, and most plausible, opinion was the real murderer of the Marquise, committed suicide from remorse? If Etienne Rambert was the guilty party, Charles Rambert would not have taken his own life."

Juve's voice shook a little.

"You would be quite right, sir, if again it were not necessary to add that Etienne Rambert is Gurn—that is to say, Fantomas! Is it not a possible hypothesis that Fantomas might have affected the mind of that lad: have suggested to him that it was he who committed the crime in a period of somnambulism: and at last have urged him to suicide? Do you not know the power of suggestion?"

"Suppose that also is true," said the President with another vague wave of his hand. "I will only put two incontestable facts before you. You accuse Etienne Rambert of being Gurn, and Etienne Rambert was lost in the wreck of the Lancaster; you also accuse Gurn of having murdered Dollon, and at the time that murder was committed Gurn was in solitary confinement in the Sante prison."

This time the detective made a sign as if of defeat.

"If I have waited until to-day to make the statement you have just listened to, it was obviously because hitherto I have had no absolute proofs, but merely groups of certainties. I spoke to-day, because I could keep silent no longer; if I am still without some explanations in detail, I am sure I shall have them some day. Everything comes to light sooner or later. And as to the two facts you have just put before me, I would reply that there is no proof that M. Rambert was lost in the wreck of the Lancaster: it has not been legally established that he ever was on board that ship. Of course, I know his name was in the list of passengers, but a child could have contrived a device of that sort. Besides, all the circumstances attending that disaster are still an utter mystery. My belief is that a Fantomas would be perfectly capable of causing an explosion on a ship and blowing up a hundred and fifty people, if thereby he could dispose of one of his identities, especially such a terribly compromising identity as that of Etienne Rambert."

The President dismissed the theory with a word.

"Pure romance!" he said. "And what about the murder of Dollon? I should like, further, to remind you that the fragment of map which, according to you, was the real reason for this man's death, was found on his body, and does not correspond in the least with the hole cut in the map you found in Gurn's rooms."

"As for that," Juve said with a smile, "the explanation is obvious. If Gurn, whom I charge with the murder of Dollon, had been content merely to abstract the real fragment, he would so to speak have set his signature to the crime. But he was much too clever for that: he was subtle enough to abstract the compromising fragment and substitute another fragment for it—the one found on the body."

"Perhaps," said the President; "that is possible, but I repeat, Gurn was in prison at the time."

"True! True!" said Juve, throwing up his hands. "I am prepared to swear that it was Gurn who did the murder, but I cannot yet explain how he did it, since he was in solitary confinement in the Sante."

Silence fell upon the court; Juve refrained from saying anything more, but a sarcastic smile curled his lip.

"Have you anything else to say?" the President asked after a pause.

"Nothing: except that anything is possible to Fantomas."

The President turned to the prisoner.

"Gurn, have you anything to say, any confession to make? The jury will listen to you."

Gurn rose to his feet.

"I do not understand a word of what the detective has just been saying," he said.

The President looked at Juve again.

"You suggest that there shall be a supplementary investigation?"

"Yes."

"Mr. Solicitor-General, have you any application to make on that subject?" the President asked the Public Prosecutor.

"No," said the functionary. "The witness's allegations are altogether too vague."

"Very well. The Court will deliberate forthwith."

The judges gathered round the President of the Court, and held a short discussion. Then they returned to their places and the President announced their decision. It was that after consideration of the statement of the witness Juve, their opinion was that it rested merely upon hypotheses, and their decision was that there was no occasion for a supplementary enquiry.

And the President immediately called upon the Public Prosecutor to address the Court.

Neither in the lengthy address of that functionary, nor in the ensuing address of Maitre Barberoux on behalf of the defendant, was the slightest allusion made to the fresh facts adduced by the detective. The theories he put forward were so unexpected and so utterly astonishing that nobody paid the least attention to them! Then the sitting was suspended while the jury considered their verdict. The judges retired and guards removed the prisoner, and Juve, who had accepted the dismissal of his application for a further enquiry with perfect equanimity, went up to the press-box and spoke to a young journalist sitting there.

"Shall we go out for a quarter of an hour, Fandor?" and when they were presently in the corridor, he smote the young fellow in a friendly way on the shoulder and enquired: "Well, my boy, what do you say to all that?"

Jerome Fandor seemed to be overwhelmed.

"You accuse my father? You really accuse Etienne Rambert of being Gurn? Surely I am dreaming!"

"My dear young idiot," Juve growled, "do pray understand one thing: I am not accusing your father, your real father, but only the man who represented himself to be your father! Just think: if my contention is right—that the Etienne Rambert who killed the Marquise is Gurn—it is perfectly obvious that Gurn is not your father, for he is only thirty-five years of age! He has merely represented himself to be your father."

"Then who is my real father?"

"I don't know anything about that," said the detective. "That's a matter we will look into one of these fine days! You take it from me that we are only just at the beginning of all these things."

"But the Court has refused a supplementary enquiry."

"'Gad!" said Juve, "I quite expected it would! I have not got the proofs to satisfy the legal mind; and then, too, I had to hold my tongue about the most interesting fact that I knew."

"What was that?"

"Why, that you are not dead, Charles Rambert! I had to conceal that fact, my boy, for the melancholy reason that I am a poor man and depend on my job. If I had let out that I had known for a long time that Charles Rambert was alive when he was supposed to be dead, and that I had known him first as Jeanne and then as Paul, and yet had said nothing about it, I should have been dismissed from the service as sure as eggs are eggs—and it is equally certain that you would have been arrested; which is precisely what I do not wish to happen!"

* * * * *

In tense silence the foreman of the jury rose.

"In the presence of God and man, and upon my honour and my conscience, I declare that the answer of a majority of the jury is 'yes' to all the questions submitted to them."

Then he sat down: he had made no mention of extenuating circumstances.

The words of the fatal verdict fell like a knell in the silent Court of Assize, and many a face went white.

"Have you anything to say before sentence is passed?"

"Nothing," Gurn replied.

In rapid tones the President read the formal pronouncement of the Court. It seemed horribly long and unintelligible, but presently the President's voice became slower as it reached the fatal words: there was a second's pause, and then he reached the point:

"—the sentence on the prisoner Gurn is death."

And almost simultaneously he gave the order:

"Guards, take the condemned away!"

Juve, who had returned to court with Fandor, spoke to the young journalist.

"'Gad!" he exclaimed, "I know what pluck is. That man is a truly remarkable man: he never turned a hair!"



XXX. AN ASSIGNATION

The final curtain had fallen upon the first performance of the new drama at the Grand Treteau.

The night had been one long triumph for Valgrand, and although it was very late the Baronne de Vibray, who plumed herself on being the great tragedian's dearest friend, had made her way behind the scenes to lavish praise and congratulations on him, and have a little triumph of her own in presenting her friends to the hero of the hour. In vain had Charlot, the old dresser, tried to prevent her invasion of his master's dressing-room. He was not proof against her perseverance, and ere long she had swept into the room with the proud smile of a general entering a conquered town. The Comte de Baral, a tall young man with a single eyeglass, followed close in her wake.

"Will you please announce us," he said to the dresser.

Charlot hesitated a moment in surprise, then broke into voluble explanations.

"M. Valgrand is not here yet. What, didn't you know? Why, at the end of the performance the Minister of Public Instruction sent for him to congratulate him! That's a tremendous honour, and it's the second time it has been paid to M. Valgrand."

Meanwhile the other two ladies in the party were roaming about the dressing-room: Mme. Simone Holbord, wife of a colonel of the Marines who had just covered himself with distinction in the Congo, and the Comtesse Marcelline de Baral.

"How thrilling an actor's dressing-room is!" exclaimed Mme. Holbord, inspecting everything in the room through her glass. "Just look at these darling little brushes! I suppose he uses those in making up? And, oh, my dear! There are actually three kinds of rouge!"

The Comtesse de Baral was fascinated by the photographs adorning the walls.

"'To the admirable Valgrand from a comrade,'" she read in awe-struck tones. "Come and look, dear, it is signed by Sarah Bernhardt! And listen to this one: 'At Buenos Ayres, at Melbourne, and New York, wherever I am I hear the praises of my friend Valgrand!'"

"Something like a globe-trotter!" said Mme. Holbord. "I expect he belongs to the Comedie Francaise."

Colonel Holbord interrupted, calling to his wife.

"Simone, come and listen to what our friend de Baral is telling me: it is really very curious."

The young woman approached, and the Comte began again for her benefit.

"You have come back too recently from the Congo to be up to date with all our Paris happenings, and so you will not have noticed this little touch, but in the part that he created to-night Valgrand made himself up exactly like Gurn, the man who murdered Lord Beltham!"

"Gurn?" said Mme. Holbord, to whom the name did not convey much. "Oh, yes, I think I read about that: the murderer escaped, didn't he?"

"Well, they took a long time to find him," the Comte de Baral replied. "As usual, the police were giving up all hope of finding him, when one day, or rather one night, they did find him and arrested him; and where do you suppose that was? Why, with Lady Beltham! Yes, really: in her own house at Neuilly!"

"Impossible!" cried Simone Holbord. "Poor woman! What an awful shock for her!"

"Lady Beltham is a brave, dignified, and truly charitable woman," said the Comtesse de Baral. "She simply worshipped her husband. And yet, she pleaded warmly for mercy for the murderer—though she did not succeed in getting it."

"What a dreadful thing!" said Simone Holbord perfunctorily; her attention was wandering to all the other attractions in this attractive room. A pile of letters was lying on a writing-table, and the reckless young woman began to look at the envelopes. "Just look at this pile of letters!" she cried. "How funny! Every one of them in a woman's hand! I suppose Valgrand gets all sorts of offers?"

Colonel Holbord went on talking to the Comte de Baral in a corner of the room.

"I am enormously interested in what you tell me. What happened then?"

"Well, this wretch, Gurn, was recognised by the police as he was leaving Lady Beltham's, and was arrested and put in prison. The trial came on at the Court of Assize about six weeks ago. All Paris went to it, of course including myself! This man Gurn is a brute, but a strange brute, rather difficult to define; he swore that he had killed Lord Beltham after a quarrel, practically for the sake of robbing him, but I had a strong impression that he was lying."

"But why else should he have committed the murder?"

The Comte de Baral shrugged his shoulders.

"Nobody knows," he said: "politics, perhaps, nihilism, or perhaps again—love. There was one fact, or coincidence, worth noting: when Lady Beltham came home from the Transvaal after the war, during which, by the way, she did splendid work among the sick and wounded, she sailed by the same boat that was taking Gurn to England. Gurn also was a bit of a popular hero just then: he had volunteered at the beginning of the war, and came back with a sergeant's stripes and a medal for distinguished conduct. Can Gurn and Lady Beltham have met and got to know each other? It is certain that the lady's behaviour during the trial lent itself to comment, if not exactly to scandal. She had odd collapses in the presence of the murderer, collapses which were accounted for in very various ways. Some people said that she was half out of her mind with grief at the loss of her husband; others said that if she was mad, it was over someone, over this vulgar criminal—martyr or accomplice, perhaps. They even went so far as to allege that Lady Beltham had an intrigue with Gurn!"

"Come! come!" the Colonel protested: "a great lady like Lady Beltham, so religious and so austere? Absurd!"

"People say all sorts of things," said the Comte de Baral vaguely. He turned to another subject. "Anyhow, the case caused a tremendous sensation; Gurn's condemnation to death was very popular, and the case was so typically Parisian that our friend Valgrand, knowing that he was going to create the part of the murderer in this tragedy to-night, followed every phase of the Gurn trial closely, studied the man in detail, and literally identified himself with him in this character. It was a shrewd idea. You noticed the sensation when he came on the stage?"

"Yes, I did," said the Colonel; "I wondered what the exclamations from all over the house meant."

"Try to find a portrait of Gurn in some one of the illustrated papers," said the Comte, "and compare it with—— Ah, I think this is Valgrand coming!"

* * * * *

The Baronne de Vibray had tired of her conversation with the old dresser, Charlot, and had left him to take up her stand outside the dressing-room, where she greeted with nods and smiles the other actors and actresses as they hurried by on their way home, and listened to the sounds at the end of the passage. Presently a voice became distinguishable, the voice of Valgrand singing a refrain from a musical comedy. The Baronne de Vibray hurried to meet him, with both hands outstretched, and led him into his dressing-room.

"Let me present M. Valgrand!" she exclaimed, and then presented the two young women to the bowing actor: "Comtesse Marcelline de Baral, Mme. Holbord."

"Pardon me, ladies, for keeping you waiting," the actor said. "I was deep in conversation with the Minister. He was so charming, so kind!" He turned to the Baronne de Vibray. "He did me the honour to offer me a cigarette! A relic! Charlot! Charlot! You must put this cigarette in the little box where all my treasures are!"

"It is very full already, M. Valgrand," said Charlot deprecatingly.

"We must not keep you long," the Baronne de Vibray murmured. "You must be very tired."

Valgrand passed a weary hand across his brow.

"Positively exhausted!" Then he raised his head and looked at the company. "What did you think of me?"

A chorus of eulogy sprang from every lip.

"Splendid!" "Wonderful!" "The very perfection of art!"

"No, but really?" protested Valgrand, swelling with satisfied vanity. "Tell me candidly: was it really good?"

"You really were wonderful: could not have been better," the Baronne de Vibray exclaimed enthusiastically, and the crowd of worshippers endorsed every word, until the artist was convinced that their praise was quite sincere.

"How I have worked!" he exclaimed: "do you know, when rehearsals began—ask Charlot if this isn't true—the piece simply didn't exist!"

"Simply didn't exist!" Charlot corroborated him, like an echo.

"Didn't exist," Valgrand repeated: "not even my part. It was insignificant, flat! So I took the author aside and I said: 'Frantz, my boy, I'll tell you what you must do: you know the lawyer's speech? Absurd! What am I to do while he is delivering it? I'll make the speech for my own defence, and I'll get something out of it!' And the prison scene! Just fancy, he had shoved a parson into that! I said to Frantz: 'Cut the parson out, my boy: what the dickens am I to do while he is preaching? Simply nothing at all: it's absurd. Give his speech to me! I'll preach to myself!' And there you are: I don't want to boast, but really I did it all! And it was a success, eh?"

Again the chorus broke out, to be stopped by Valgrand, who was contemplating his reflection in a mirror.

"And my make-up, Colonel? Do you know the story of my make-up? I hear they were talking about it all over the house. Am I like Gurn? What do you think? You saw him quite close at the trial, Comte: what do you think?"

"The resemblance is perfectly amazing," said the Comte de Baral with perfect truth.

The actor stroked his face mechanically: a new idea struck him.

"My beard is a real one," he exclaimed. "I let it grow on purpose. I hardly had to make myself up at all; I am the same build, the same type, same profile; it was ridiculously easy!"

"Give me a lock of hair from your beard for a locket," said the Baronne de Vibray impudently.

Valgrand looked at her, and heaved a profound sigh.

"Not yet, not yet, dear lady: I am infinitely sorry, but not yet: a little later on, perhaps; wait for the hundredth performance."

"I must have one too," said Simone Holbord, and Valgrand with great dignity replied:

"I will put your name down for one, madame!"

* * * * *

But the Comte de Baral had looked furtively at his watch, and uttered an exclamation of surprise.

"My good people, it is most horribly late! And our great artiste must be overcome with sleep!"

Forthwith they all prepared to depart, in spite of the actor's courteous protests that he could not hear of letting them go so soon. They lingered at the door for a few minutes in eager, animated conversation, shaking hands and exchanging farewells and thanks and congratulations. Then the sound of their footsteps died away along the corridors, and the Baronne de Vibray and her friends left the theatre. Valgrand turned back into his dressing-room and locked the door, then dropped into the low and comfortable chair that was set before his dressing-table.

* * * * *

He remained there resting for a few minutes, and then sat up and threw a whimsical glance at his dresser who was putting out his ordinary clothes.

"Hang it all, Charlot! What's exhaustion? The mere sight of such jewels as those enchanting women would wake one from the dead!"

Charlot shrugged his shoulders.

"Will you never be serious, M. Valgrand?"

"Heavens, I hope not!" exclaimed the actor. "I hope not, for if there is one thing of which one never tires here below, it is Woman, the peerless rainbow that illuminates this vale of tears!"

"You are very poetical to-night," the dresser remarked.

"I am a lover—in love with love! Oh, Love, Love! And in my time, you know——" He made a sweeping, comprehensive gesture, and came back abruptly to mundane affairs. "Come, help me to dress."

Charlot offered him a bundle of letters, which Valgrand took with careless hand. He looked at the envelopes one after another, hugely amused.

"Violet ink, and monograms, and coronets, and—perfume. Say, Charlot, is this a proposal? What do you bet?"

"You never have anything else," the dresser grumbled "—except bills."

"Do you bet?"

"If you insist, I bet it is a bill; then you will win," said Charlot.

"Done!" cried Valgrand. "Listen," and he began to declaim the letter aloud: "'Oh, wondrous genius, a flower but now unclosing'—— Got it, Charlot? Another of them!" He tore open another envelope. "Ah-ha! Photograph enclosed, and will I send it back if the original is not to my fancy!" He flung himself back in his chair to laugh. "Where is my collar?" He picked up a third envelope. "What will you bet that this violet envelope does not contain another tribute to my fatal beauty?"

"I bet it is another bill," said the dresser; "but you are sure to win."

"I have," Valgrand replied, and again declaimed the written words: "'if you promise to be discreet, and true, you shall never regret it.' Does one ever regret it—even if one does not keep one's promises?"

"At lovers' perjuries——" Charlot quoted.

"Drunken promises!" Valgrand retorted. "By the way, I am dying for a drink. Give me a whisky and soda." He got up and moved to the table on which Charlot had set decanters and glasses, and was about to take the glass the dresser offered him when a tap on the door brought the conversation to a sudden stop. The actor frowned: he did not want to be bothered by more visitors. But curiosity got the better of his annoyance and he told Charlot to see who it was.

Charlot went to the door and peered through a narrow opening at the thoughtless intruder.

"Fancy making all this bother over a letter!" he growled. "Urgent? Of course: they always are urgent," and he shut the door on the messenger and gave the letter to Valgrand. "A woman brought it," he said.

Valgrand looked at it.

"H'm! Mourning! Will you bet, Charlot?"

"Deep mourning," said Charlot: "then I bet it is a declaration. I expect you will win again, for very likely it is a begging letter. Black edges stir compassion."

Valgrand was reading the letter, carelessly to begin with, then with deep attention. He reached the signature at the end, and then read it through again, aloud this time, punctuating his reading with flippant comments: "'In creating the part of the criminal in the tragedy to-night, you made yourself up into a most marvellous likeness of Gurn, the man who murdered Lord Beltham. Come to-night, at two o'clock, in your costume, to 22 rue Messier. Take care not to be seen, but come. Someone who loves you is waiting for you there.'"

"And it is signed——?" said the dresser.

"That, my boy, I'm not going to tell you," said Valgrand, and he put the letter carefully into his pocket-book. "Why, man, what are you up to?" he added, as the dresser came up to him to take his clothes.

"Up to?" the servant exclaimed: "I am only helping you to get your things off."

"Idiot!" laughed Valgrand. "Didn't you understand? Give me my black tie and villain's coat again."

"What on earth is the matter with you?" Charlot asked with some uneasiness. "Surely you are not thinking of going?"

"Not going? Why, in the whole of my career as amorist, I have never had such an opportunity before!"

"It may be a hoax."

"Take my word for it, I know better. Things like this aren't hoaxes. Besides, I know the—the lady. She has often been pointed out to me: and at the trial—— By Jove, Charlot, she is the most enchanting woman in the world: strangely lovely, infinitely distinguished, absolutely fascinating!"

"You are raving like a schoolboy."

"So much the better for me! Why, I was half dead with fatigue, and now I am myself again. Be quick, booby! My hat! Time is getting on. Where is it?"

"Where is what?" the bewildered Charlot asked.

"Why, this place," Valgrand answered irritably: "this rue Messier. Look it up in the directory."

Valgrand stamped impatiently up and down the room while Charlot hurriedly turned over the pages of the directory, muttering the syllables at the top of each as he ran through them in alphabetical order.

"J ... K ... L ... M ... Ma ... Me ...—Why, M. Valgrand——"

"What's the matter?"

"Why, it is the street where the prison is!"

"The Sante? Where Gurn is—in the condemned cell?" Valgrand cocked his hat rakishly on one side. "And I have an assignation at the prison?"

"Not exactly, but not far off: right opposite; yes, number 22 must be right opposite."

"Right opposite the prison!" Valgrand exclaimed gaily. "The choice of the spot, and the desire to see me in my costume as Gurn, are evidence of a positive refinement in sensation! See? The lady, and I—the counterpart of Gurn—and, right opposite, the real Gurn in his cell! Quick, man: my cloak! My cane!"

"Do think, sir," Charlot protested: "it is absolutely absurd! A man like you——"

"A man like me," Valgrand roared, "would keep an appointment like this if he had to walk on his head to get there! Good-night!" and carolling gaily, Valgrand strode down the corridor.

* * * * *

Charlot was accustomed to these wild vagaries on his master's part, for Valgrand was the most daring and inveterate rake it is possible to imagine. But while he was tidying up the litter in the room, after Valgrand had left him, the dresser shook his head.

"What a pity it is! And he such a great artiste! These women will make an absolute fool of him! Why, he hasn't even taken his gloves or his scarf!" There was a tap at the door, and the door-keeper looked in.

"Can I turn out the lights?" he enquired. "Has M. Valgrand gone?"

"Yes," said the dresser absently, "he has gone."

"A great night," said the door-keeper. "Have you seen the last edition of the Capitale, the eleven o'clock edition? There's a notice of us already. The papers don't lose any time nowadays. They say it is a great success."

"Let's look at it," said the dresser, and, glancing through the notice, added, "yes, that's quite true: 'M. Valgrand has achieved his finest triumph in his last creation.'" He looked casually through the newspaper, and suddenly broke into a sharp exclamation. "Good heavens, it can't be possible!"

"What's the matter?" the door-keeper enquired.

Charlot pointed a shaking finger to another column.

"Read that, Jean, read that! Surely I am mistaken."

The door-keeper peered over Charlot's shoulder at the indicated passage.

"I don't see anything in that; it's that Gurn affair again. Yes, he is to be executed at daybreak on the eighteenth."

"But that is this morning—presently," Charlot exclaimed.

"May be," said the door-keeper indifferently; "yes, last night was the seventeenth, so it is the eighteenth now! Are you ill, Charlot?"

Charlot pulled himself together.

"No, it's nothing; I'm only tired. You can put out the lights. I shall be out of the theatre in five minutes; I only want to do one or two little things here."

"All right," said Jean, turning away. "Shut the door behind you when you leave, if I have gone to bed."

Charlot sat on the arm of a chair and wiped his brow.

"I don't like this business," he muttered. "Why the deuce did he want to go? What does this woman want with him? I may be only an old fool, but I know what I know, and there have been no end of queer stories about this job already." He sat there meditating, till an idea took shape in his mind. "Can I dare to go round there and just prowl about? Of course he will be furious, but suppose that letter was a decoy and he is walking into a trap? One never can tell. An assignation in that particular street, with that prison opposite, and Gurn to be guillotined within the next hour or so?" The man made up his mind, hurriedly put on his coat and hat, and switched off the electric lights in the exquisitely appointed dressing-room. "I'll go!" he said aloud. "If I see anything suspicious, or if at the end of half an hour I don't see M. Valgrand leaving the house—well!" Charlot turned the key in the lock. "Yes, I will go. I shall be much easier in my mind!"



XXXI. FELL TREACHERY

Number 22 rue Messier was a wretched one-storeyed house that belonged to a country vine-dresser who seldom came to Paris. It was damp, dirty, and dilapidated, and would have had to be rebuilt from top to bottom if it were to be rendered habitable. There had been a long succession of so-called tenants of this hovel, shady, disreputable people who, for the most part, left without paying any rent, the landlord being only too glad if occasionally they left behind them a little miserable furniture or worn out kitchen utensils. He was finding it ever more difficult to let the wretched house, and for weeks together it had remained unoccupied. But one day, about a month ago, he had been astonished by receiving an application for the tenancy from someone who vaguely signed himself Durand; and still further astonished by finding in the envelope bank-notes representing a year's rent in advance. Delighted with this windfall, and congratulating himself on not having gone to the expense of putting the hovel into something like repair—unnecessary now, since he had secured a tenant, and a good one, for at least twelve months—the landlord promptly sent a receipt to this Durand, with the keys, and thought no more about the matter.

In the principal room, on the first floor of this hovel, a little poor furniture had been put; a shabby sofa, an equally shabby arm-chair, a few cane-bottomed chairs, and a deal table. On the table was a tea-pot, a small kettle over a spirit-stove, and a few cups and small cakes. A smoky lamp shed a dim light over this depressing interior, and a handful of coal was smouldering in the cracked grate.

And here, in these miserable surroundings, Lady Beltham was installed on this eighteenth of December.

The great lady was even paler than usual, and her eyes shone with a curious brilliance. That she was suffering from the most acute and feverish nervous excitement was patent from the way in which she kept putting her hands to her heart as though the violence of its throbbing were unendurable, and from the restless way in which she paced the room, stopping at every other step to listen for some sound to reach her through the silence of the night. Once she stepped quickly from the middle of the room to the wall opposite the door that opened on to the staircase; she pushed ajar the door of a small cupboard and murmured "hush," making a warning movement with her hands, as if addressing someone concealed there; then she moved forward again and, sinking on to the sofa, pressed her hands against her throbbing temples.

"No one yet!" she murmured presently. "Oh, I would give ten years of my life to——! Is all really lost?" Her eyes wandered round the room. "What a forbidding, squalid place!" and again she sprang to her feet and paced the room. Through the grimy panes of the window she could just see a long row of roofs and chimneys outlined against the sky. "Oh, those black roofs, those horrible black roofs!" she muttered. The already wretched light in the wretched room was burning dimmer, and Lady Beltham turned up the wick of the lamp. As she did so she caught a sound and stopped. "Can that be he?" she exclaimed, and hurried to the door. "Footsteps—and a man's footsteps!"

The next moment she was sure. Someone stumbled in the passage below, came slowly up the stairs, was on the landing.

Lady Beltham recoiled to the sofa and sank down on it, turning her back to the door, and hiding her face in her hands.

"Valgrand!"

* * * * *

Valgrand was a man with a passion for adventure. But invariable success in his flirtations had made him blase, and now it was only the absolutely novel that could appeal to him. And there could certainly be no question about the woman who had sent him the present invitation being anything but a commonplace one! Moreover, it was not just any woman who had asked him to keep this assignation in the outward guise of Gurn, but the one woman in whose heart the murderer ought to inspire the greatest abhorrence, the widow of the man whom Gurn had murdered. What should his deportment be when he came face to face with her? That was what preoccupied the actor as he left the theatre, and made him dismiss the taxi in which he had started, before he reached his destination.

Valgrand came into the room slowly, and with a trained eye for effect. He flung his cloak and hat theatrically on the arm-chair, and moved towards Lady Beltham, who still sat motionless with her face hidden in her hands.

"I have come!" he said in deep tones.

Lady Beltham uttered a little exclamation as if of surprise, and seemed even more anxious to hide from him.

"Odd!" thought Valgrand. "She seems to be really upset; what can I say to her, I wonder?"

But Lady Beltham made a great effort and sat up, looking at the actor with strained eyes, yet striving to force a smile.

"Thank you for coming, sir," she murmured.

"It is not from you, madame, that the thanks should come," Valgrand answered magnificently; "quite the reverse; I am infinitely grateful to you for having summoned me. Pray believe that I would have been here even sooner but for the delay inevitable on a first performance. But you are cold," he broke off, for Lady Beltham was shivering.

"Yes, I am," she said almost inaudibly, mechanically pulling a scarf over her shoulders. Valgrand was standing, taking in every detail of the squalid room in which he found himself with this woman whose wealth, and taste, and sumptuous home at Neuilly were notorious.

"I must clear up this mystery," he thought, while he moved to the window to see that it was shut, and searched about, in vain, for a little coal to put upon the fire. While he was thus occupied Lady Beltham also rose, and going to the table poured out two cups of tea.

"Perhaps this will warm us, in the absence of anything better," she said, making an effort to seem more amiable. "I am afraid it is rather strong, M. Valgrand; I hope you do not mind?" and, with a hand that trembled as if it held a heavy weight, she brought one of the cups to her guest.

"Tea never upsets me, madame," Valgrand replied as he took the cup. "Indeed, I like it." He came to the table and picked up the basin filled with castor sugar, making first as if to put some in her cup.

"Thanks, I never take sugar in tea," she said.

Valgrand made a little grimace. "I admire you, but I will not imitate you," he said, and unceremoniously tipped a generous helping of the sugar into his own cup.

Lady Beltham watched him with haggard eyes.

While they were sipping their tea, there was silence between them. Lady Beltham went back to the sofa, and Valgrand took a chair quite close to her. The conversation was certainly lacking in animation, he reflected whimsically; would the lady succeed in reducing him to the level of intelligence of a callow schoolboy? And she most certainly did seem to be horribly upset. He raised his eyes to her and found that she was gazing into infinity.

"One has got to draw upon psychology here," Valgrand mused. "It is not me, myself, in whom this lovely creature takes any interest, or she would not have desired me to come in these trappings that make me look like Gurn; it's his skin that I must stop in! But what is the proper attitude to adopt? The sentimental? Or the brutal? Or shall I appeal to her proselytising mania, and do the repentant sinner act? I'll chance it; here goes!" and he rose to his feet.

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