CHAPTER VIII. THE OLIVE-GREEN FROCK-COAT
A QUARTER past twelve, in a restaurant near the Madeleine. The prince is at lunch. Two young men sit down at the next table. He bows to them and begins to speak to them, as to friends whom he has met by chance.
"Are you going on the expedition, eh?"
"How many men altogether?"
"Six, I think. Each goes down by himself. We're to meet M. Weber at a quarter to two, near the House of Retreat."
"Very well, I shall be there."
"Am I not leading the expedition? And isn't it my business to find M. Lenormand, seeing that I've announced it publicly?"
"Then you believe that M. Lenormand is not dead, governor?"
"I'm sure of it."
"Do you know anything?"
"Yes, since yesterday I know for certain that Altenheim and his gang took M. Lenormand and Gourel to the bridge at Bougival and heaved them overboard. Gourel sank, but M. Lenormand managed to save himself. I shall furnish all the necessary proofs when the time comes."
"But, then, if he's alive, why doesn't he show himself?"
"Because he's not free."
"Is what you said true, then? Is he in the cellars of the Villa des Glycines?"
"I have every reason to think so."
"But how do you know?... What clue?..."
"That's my secret. I can tell you one thing: the revelation will be — what shall I say — sensational, Have you finished?"
"My car is behind the Madeleine. Join me there."
At Garches, Sernine sent the motor away, and they walked to the path that led to Genevieve's school. There he stopped:
"Listen to me, lads. This is of the highest importance. You will ring at the House of Retreat. As inspectors, you have your right of entry, have you not? You will then go to the Pavilion Hortense, the empty one. There you will run down to the basement and you will find an old shutter, which you have only to lift to see the opening of a tunnel which I discovered lately and which forms a direct communication with the Villa des Glycines. It was by means of this that Gertrude and Baron Altenheim used to meet. And it was this way that M. Lenormand passed, only to end be falling into the hands of his enemies."
"You think so, governor?"
"Yes, I think so. And now the point is this: you must go and make sure that the tunnel is exactly in the condition in which I left it last night; that the two doors which bar it are open; and that there is still, in a hole near the second door, a parcel wrapped in a piece of black cloth which I put there myself."
"Are we to undo the parcel?"
"No, that's not necessary. It's a change of clothes. Go; and don't let yourselves be seen more than you can help. I will wait for you."
Ten minutes later, they were back:
"The two doors are open," said one of the Doudevilles.
"And the black cloth parcel?"
"In its place near the second door."
"Capital! It is twenty-five past one. Weber will be arriving with his champions. They are to watch the villa. They will surround it as soon as Altenheim is inside. I have arranged with Weber that I shall ring the bell; the door will be opened; and I shall have my foot inside the citadel. Once there, I have my plan. Come, I've an idea that we shall see some fun."
And Sernine, after dismissing them, walked down the path to the school, soliloquizing as he went:
"All bodes well. The battle will be fought on the ground chosen by myself. I am bound to win. I shall get rid of my two adversaries and I shall find myself alone engaged in the Kesselbach case... alone, with two whacking trump-cards: Pierre Leduc and Steinweg.... Besides the king... that is to say, Bibi. Only, there's one thing: what is Altenheim up to? Obviously, he has a plan of attack of his own. On which side does he mean to attack me? And how does it come that he has not attacked me yet? It's rather startling. Can he have denounced me to the police?"
He went along the little playground of the school The pupils were at their lessons. He knocked at the door.
"Ah, is that you?" said Mme. Ernemont, opening the door. "So you have left Genevieve in Paris?"
"For me to do that, Genevieve would have to be in Paris," he replied.
"So she has been, seeing that you sent for her."
"What's that?" he exclaimed, catching hold of her arm.
"Why, you know better than I!"
"I know nothing.... I know nothing.... Speak!..."
"Didn't you write to Genevieve to meet you at the Gare Saint-Lazare?"
"And did she go?"
"Why, of course.... You were to lunch together at the Hotel Ritz?"
"The letter.... Show me the letter."
She went to fetch it and gave it to him.
"But, wretched woman, couldn't you see that it was a forgery? The handwriting is a good imitation... but it's a forgery.... Any one can see that." He pressed his clenched hands to his temples with rage. "That's the move I was wondering about. Oh, the dirty scoundrel! He's attacking me through her... But how does he know? No, he does not know.... He's tried it on twice now... and it's because of Genevieve, because he's taken a fancy to her.... Oh, not that! Never! Listen, Victoire, are you sure that she doesn't love him?... Oh, I'm losing my head!... Wait... wait!... I must think... this isn't the moment...."
He looked at his watch:
"Twenty-five minutes to two.... I have time..... Idiot that I am! Time to do what? How do I know where she is?"
He walked up and down like a madman; and his old nurse seemed astounded at seeing him so excited, with so little control of himself:
"After all," she said, "there is nothing to prove that she did not suspect the trap at the last moment...."
"Where could she be?"
"I don't know... perhaps at Mrs. Kesselbach's."
"That's true... that's true.... You're right," he cried, filled with sudden hope..
And he set out at a run for the House of Retreat.
On the way, near the gate, he met the brothers Doudeville, who were entering the porter's lodge. The lodge looked out on the road; and this enabled them to watch the approaches to the Villa des Glycines. Without stopping, he went straight to the Pavilion de l'Imperatrice, called Suzanne and told her to take him to Mrs. Kesselbach.
"Genevieve?" he asked.
"Yes; hasn't she been here?"
"No, not for several days...."
"But she is to come, is she not?"
"Do you think so?"
"Why, I'm certain of it. Where do you think she is? Can you remember?..."
"It's no use my trying. I assure you that Genevieve and I had made no arrangement to see each other." And, suddenly alarmed: "But you're not anxious, are you? Has anything happened to Genevieve?"
He had already left the room. An idea had occurred to him. Suppose Altenheim were not at the Villa des Glycines? Suppose the hour of the meeting had been changed!
"I must see him," he said to himself. "I must, at all costs."
And he ran along with a disordered air, indifferent to everything. But, in front of the lodge, he at once recovered his composure: he had caught sight of the deputy-chief of the detective-service talking to the brothers Doudeville in the garden.
Had he commanded his usual acute discernment, he would have perceived the little start which M. Weber gave as he approached; but he saw nothing:
"M. Weber, I believe?" he asked.
"Yes.... To whom have I the honor...?"
"Ah, very good! Monsieur le Prefet de Police has told me of the great service which you are doing us, monsieur."
"That service will not be complete until I have handed the ruffians over to you."
"That won't take long. I believe that one of those ruffians has just gone in; a powerful-looking man, with a swarthy complexion...."
"Yes, that's Baron Altenheim. Are your men here, M. Weber?"
"Yes, concealed along the road, at two hundred yards from this."
"Well, M. Weber, it seems to me that you might collect them and bring them to this lodge. From here we will go to the villa. As Baron Altenheim knows me, I presume they will open the door to me and I will go in... with you."
"It is an excellent plan," said M. Weber. "I shall come back at once."
He left the garden and walked down the road, in the opposite direction to the Villa des Glycines.
Sernine quickly took one of the brothers Doudeville by the arm:
"Run after him, Jacques... keep him engaged... long enough for me to get inside the Glycines.... And then delay the attack as long as you can.... Invent pretexts.... I shall want ten minutes.... Let the villa be surrounded... but not entered. And you, Jean, go and post yourself in the Pavilion Hortense, at the entrance to the underground passage. If the baron tries to go out that way, break his head."
The Doudevilles moved away, as ordered. The prince slipped out and ran to a tall gate, barred with iron, which was the entrance to the Glycines.
Should he ring?...
There was no one in sight. With one bound, he leapt upon the gate, placing his foot on the lock; and, hanging on to the bars, getting a purchase with his knees and hoisting himself up with his wrists, he managed, at the risk of falling on the sharp points of the bars, to climb over the gate and jump down.
He found a paved courtyard, which he crossed briskly, and mounted the steps of a pillared peristyle, on which the windows looked out. These were all closed to the very top, with full shutters. As he stood thinking how he should make his way into the house, the door was half opened, with a noise of iron that reminded him of the door in the Villa Dupont, and Altenheim appeared:
"I say, prince, is that the way you trespass on private property? I shall be forced to call in the gendarmes, my dear fellow!"
Sernine caught him by the throat and, throwing him down on a bench:
"Genevieve?... Where is Genevieve? If you don't tell me what you've done with her, you villain...."
"Please observe," stammered the baron, "that you are making it impossible for me to speak."
Sernine released his hold of him:
"To the point!... And look sharp!... Answer.... Genevieve?"
"There is one thing," replied the baron, "which is much more urgent, especially where fellows like you and me are concerned, and that is to feel one's self at home..."
And he carefully closed the front door, which he barricaded with bolts. Then, leading Sernine to the adjoining drawing-room, a room without furniture or curtains, he said:
"Now I'm your man. What can I do for you, prince?"
"She is in perfect health."
"Ah, so you confess... ?"
"Of course! I may even tell you that your imprudence in this respect surprised me. Why didn't you take a few precautions? It was inevitable...."
"Enough! Where is she?"
"You are not very polite."
"Where is she?"
"Between four walls, free...."
"Yes, free to go from one wall to another."
"Come, prince, do you think I should be fool enough to tell you the secret by which I hold you? You love the little girl..."
"Hold your tongue!" shouted Sernine, beside himself. "I forbid you...."
"What next? Is there anything to be ashamed of? I love her myself and I have risked..."
He did not complete his sentence, frightened by the terrific anger of Sernine, a restrained, dumb anger that distorted the prince's features.
They looked at each other for a long time, each of them seeking for the adversary's weak point. At last, Sernine stepped forward and, speaking very distinctly, like a man who is threatening rather than proposing a compact:
"Listen to me," he said. "You remember the offer of partnership which you made me? The Kesselbach business for the two of us... we were to act together... we were to share the profits.... I refused.... Today, I accept...."
"Wait! I accept more than that: I give the whole business up.... I shall take no further part in it.... You shall have it all.... If necessary, I'll help you."
"What is the condition?"
"Tell me where Genevieve is."
The baron shrugged his shoulders:
"You're driveling, Lupin. I'm sorry for you... at your age...."
There was a fresh silence between the two enemies, a terrible silence. Then the baron sneered:
"All the same, it's a holy joy to see you like that, sniveling and begging. I say, it seems to me that the private soldier is giving his general a sound beating!"
"You ass!" muttered Sernine.
"Prince, I shall send you my seconds this evening... if you are still in this world."
"You ass!" repeated Sernine, with infinite contempt.
"You would rather settle the matter here and now? As you please, prince: your last hour has struck. You can commend your soul to God. You smile! That's a mistake. I have one immense advantage over you! I kill... when it's necessary...."
"You ass!" said Sernine once more. He took out his watch. "It is two o'clock, baron. You have only a few minutes left. At five past two, ten past at the very latest, M. Weber and half-a-dozen sturdy men, without a scruple amongst them, will lay hands on you.... Don't you smile, either. The outlet on which you're reckoning is discovered; I know it: it is guarded. So you are thoroughly caught. It means the scaffold, old chap."
Altenheim turned livid. He stammered:
"You did this?... You have had the infamy—"
"The house is surrounded. The assault is at hand. Speak... and I will save you."
"The men watching the outlet in the Pavilion Hortense belong to me. I have only to give you a word for them and you are saved. Speak!"
Altenheim reflected for a few seconds and seemed to hesitate; but, suddenly, resolutely, declared:
"This is all bluff. You would never have been simple enough to rush into the lion's mouth."
"You're forgetting Genevieve. But for her, do you think I should be here? Speak!"
"Very well. Let us wait," said Sernine. "A cigarette?"
A few seconds passed.
"Do you hear?" asked Sernine.
"Yes... yes..." said Altenheim, rising.
Blows rang against the gate. Sernine observed:
"Not even the usual summons... no preliminaries.... Your mind is still made up?"
"More so than ever."
"You know that, with the tools they carry, they won't take long?"
"If they were inside this room I should still refuse."
The gate yielded. They heard it creak on its hinges.
"To allow one's self to get nabbed," said Sernine, "is admissible. But to hold out one's own hands to the handcuffs is too silly. Come, don't be obstinate. Speak... and bolt!"
"I shall remain. What have. I to be afraid of?"
The baron pointed to a chink between the shutters. Sernine put his eye to it and jumped back with a start:
"Oh, you scoundrel, so you have denounced me, too! It's not ten men that Weber's bringing, but fifty men, a hundred, two hundred...."
The baron laughed open-heartedly:
"And, if there are so many of them, it's because they're after Lupin; that's obvious! Half-a-dozen would have been enough for me."
"You informed the police?"
"What proof did you give?"
"Your name: Paul Sernine, that is to say, Arsine Lupin!"
"And you found that out all by yourself, did you?... A thing which nobody else thought of?... Nonsense! It was the other one. Admit it!"
He looked out through the chink. Swarms of policemen were spreading round the villa; and the blows were now sounding on the door. He must, however, think of one of two things: either his escape, or else the execution of the plan which he had contrived. But to go away, even for a moment, meant leaving Altenheim; and who could guarantee that the baron had not another outler at his disposal to escape by? This thought paralyzed Sernine. The baron free! The baron at liberty to go back to Genevieve and torture her and make her subservient to his odious love!
Thwarted in his designs, obliged to improvise a new plan on the very second, while subordinating everything to the danger which Genevieve was running, Sernine passed through a moment of cruel indecision. With his eyes fixed on the baron's eyes, he would have liked to tear his secret from him and to go away; and he no longer even tried to convince him, so useless did all words seem to him. And, while pursuing his own thoughts, he asked himself what the baron's thoughts could be, what his weapons, what his hope of safety?
The hall-door, though strongly bolted, though sheeted with iron, was beginning to give way.
The two men stood behind that door, motionless. The sound of voices, the sense of words reached them.
"You seem very sure of yourself," said Sernine.
"I should think so!" cried the other, suddenly tripping him to the floor and running away.
Sernine sprang up at once, dived through a little door under the staircase, though which Altenheim had disappeared, and ran down the stone steps to the basement.
A passage led to a large, low, almost pitch-dark room, where he found the baron on his knees, lifting the flap of a trap-door.
"Idiot!" shouted Sernine, flinging himself upon him. "You know that you will find my men at the end of this tunnel and that they have orders to kill you like a dog.... Unless... unless you have an outlet that joins on to this.... Ah, there, of course, I've guessed it!... And you imagine..."
The fight was a desperate one. Altenheim, a real colossus, endowed with exceptional muscular force, had caught his adversary round the arms and body and was pressing him against his own chest, numbing his arms and trying to smother him.
"Of course... of course," Sernine panted, with difficulty, "of course... that's well thought out.... As long as I can't use my arms to break some part of you, you will have the advantage... Only... can you...?"
He gave a shudder. The trap-door, which had closed again and on the flap of which they were bearing down with all their weight, the trap-door seemed to move beneath them. He felt the efforts that were being made to raise it; and the baron must have felt them too, for he desperately tried to shift the ground of the contest so that the trap-door might open.
"It's 'the other one'!" thought Sernine, with the sort of unreasoning terror which that mysterious being caused him. "It's the other one.... If he gets through, I'm done for."
By dint of imperceptible movements, Altenheim had succeeded in shifting his own position; and he tried to drag his adversary after him. But Sernine clung with his legs to the baron's legs and, at the same time, very gradually, tried to release one of his hands.
Above their heads great blows resounded, like the blows of a battering-ram....
"I have five minutes," thought Sernine. "In one minute this fellow will have to..." Then, speaking aloud, "Look out, old chap. Stand tight!"
He brought his two knees together with incredible force. The baron yelled, with a twisted thigh. Then Sernine, taking advantage of his adversary's pain, made an effort, freed his right arm and seized him by the throat:
"That's capital!... We shall be more comfortable like this.... No, it's not worth while getting out your knife.... If you do, I'll wring your neck like a chicken's. You see, I'm polite and considerate.... I'm not pressing too hard... just enough to keep you from even wanting to kick about."
While speaking he took from his pocket a very thin cord and, with one hand, with extreme skill, fastened his wrists. For that matter, the baron, now at his last gasp, offered not the least resistance. With a few accurate movements, Sernine tied him up firmly:
"How well you're behaving! What a good thing! I should hardly know you. Here, in case you were thinking of escaping, I have a roll of wire that will finish off my little work.... The wrists first.... Now the ankles.... That's it!... By Jove, how nice you look!"
The baron had gradually come to himself again. He spluttered:
"If you give me up, Genevieve will die."
"Really?... And how?... Explain yourself."
"She is locked up. No one knows where she is. If I'm put away, she will die of starvation."
Sernine shuddered. He retorted:! "Yes, but you will speak."
"Yes, you will speak. Not now; it's too late. But tonight." He bent down over him and, whispering in his ear, said, "Listen, Altenheim, and understand what I say. You'll be caught presently. To-night, you'll sleep at the Depot. That is fatal, irrevocable. I myself can do nothing to prevent it now. And, tomorrow, they will take you to the Sante; and later, you know where.... Well, I'm giving you one more chance of safety. To-night, you understand, I shall come to your cell, at the Depot, and you shall tell me where Genevieve is. Two hours later, if you have told the truth, you shall be free. If not... it means that you don't attach much value to your head."
The other made no reply. Sernine stood up and listened. There was a great crash overhead. The entrance-door yielded. Footsteps beat the flags of the hall and the floor of the drawing room. M. Weber and his men were searching.
"Good-bye, baron. Think it over until this evening. The prison-cell is a good counsellor."
He pushed his prisoner aside, so as to uncover the trap-door, and lifted it. As he expected, there was no longer any one below on the steps of the staircase.
He went down, taking care to leave the trap-door open behind him, as though he meant to come back.
There were twenty steps, at the bottom of which began the passage through which M. Lenormand and Gourel had come in the opposite direction. He entered it and gave an exclamation. He thought he felt somebody's presence there.
He lit his pocket-lantern. The passage was empty.
Then he cocked his revolver and said aloud: "All right,... I'm going to fire."
No reply. Not a sound.
"It's an illusion, no doubt," he thought. "That creature is becoming an obsession.... Come, if I want to pull off my stroke and win the game, I must hurry.... The hole in which I hid the parcel of clothes is not far off. I shall take the parcel... and the trick is done.... And what a trick I One of Lupin's best!..."
He came to a door that stood open and at once stopped. To the right was an excavation, the one which M. Lenormand had made to escape from the rising water. He stooped and threw his light into the opening:
"Oh!" he said, with a start. "No, it's not possible... Doudeville must have pushed, the parcel farther along."
But, search and pry into the darkness as he might, the parcel was gone; and he had no doubt but that it was once more the mysterious being who had taken it.
"What a pity! The thing was so neatly arranged! The adventure would have resumed its natural course, and I should have achieved my aim with greater certainty.... As it is, I must push along as fast as I can.... Doudeville is at the Pavilion Hortense.... My retreat is insured.... No more nonsense.... I must hurry and set things straight again, if I can.... And we'll attend to 'him' afterward.... Oh, he'd better keep clear of my claws, that one!"
But an exclamation of stupor escaped his lips; he had come to the other door; and this door, the last before the garden-house, was shut. He flung himself upon it What was the good? What could he do?
"This time," he muttered, "I'm badly done!"
And, seized with a sort of lassitude, he sat down. He had a sense of his weakness in the face of the mysterious being. Altenheim hardly counted. But the other, that person of darkness and silence, the other loomed up before him, upset all his plans and exhausted him with his cunning and infernal attacks.
He was beaten.
Weber would find him there, like an animal run to earth, at the bottom of his cave.
"Ah, no!" he cried, springing up with a bound. "No! If there were only myself, well and good!... But there is Genevieve, Genevieve, who must be saved tonight.... After all, the game is not yet lost.... If the other one vanished just now, it proves that there is a second outlet somewhere near.... Come, come, Weber and his merry men haven't got me yet...."
He had already begun to explore the tunnel and, lantern in hand, was examining the bricks of which the horrible walls were formed, when a yell reached his ears, a dreadful yell that made his flesh creep with anguish.
It came from the direction of the trap-door. And he suddenly remembered that he had left the trap-door open, at the time when he intended to return to the Villa des Glycines.
He hurried back and passed through the first door. His lantern went out on the road; and he felt something, or rather somebody, brush past his knees, somebody crawl along the wall. And, at that same moment, he had a feeling that this being was disappearing, vanishing, he knew not which way.
Just then his foot knocked against a step.
"This is the outlet," he thought, "the second outlet through which 'he' passes."
Overhead, the cry sounded again, less loud, followed by moans, by a hoarse gurgling....
He ran up the stairs, came out in the basement room, and rushed to the baron.
Altenheim lay dying, with the blood streaming from his throat! His bonds were cut, but the wire that fastened his wrists and ankles was intact. His accomplice, being unable to release him, had cut his throat.
Sernine gazed upon the sight with horror. An icy perspiration covered his whole body. He thought of Genevieve, imprisoned, helpless, abandoned to the most awful of deaths, because the baron alone knew where she was hidden.
He distinctly heard the policemen open the little back door in the hall. He distinctly heard them come down the kitchen stairs.
There was nothing between him and them save one door, that of the basement room in which he was. He bolted the door at the very moment when the aggressors were laying hold of the handle.
The trap-door was open beside him; it meant possible safety, because there remained the second outlet.
"No," he said to himself, "Genevieve first. Afterward, if I have time, I will think of myself."
He knelt down and put his hand on the baron's breast. The heart was still beating.
He stooped lower still:
"You can hear me, can't you?"
The eyelids flickered feebly.
The dying man was just breathing. Was there anything to be obtained from this faint semblance of life?
The policemen were attacking the door, the last rampart.
"I will save you.... I have infallible remedies.... One word only... Genevieve?..."
It was as though this word of hope revived the man's strength. Altenheim tried to utter articulate sounds.
"Answer," said Sernine, persisting. "Answer, and I will save you.... Answer... It means your life today... your liberty tomorrow.... Answer!..."
The door shook under the blows that rained upon it.
The baron gasped out unintelligible syllables. Leaning over him, affrighted, straining all his energy, all his will to the utmost, Sernine panted with anguish. He no longer gave a thought to the policemen, his inevitable capture, prison.... But Genevieve.... Genevieve dying of hunger, whom one word from that villain could set free!
"Answer!... You must!..."
He ordered and entreated by turns. Altenheim stammered, as though hypnotized and defeated by that indomitable imperiousness:
"Rue de Rivoli, is that it? You have locked her up in a house in that street... eh? Which number?"
A loud din... followed by shouts of triumph... The door was down.
"Jump on him, lads!" cried M. Weber. "Seize him... seize both of them!"
And Sernine, on his knees:
"The number... answer.... If you love her, answer.... Why keep silence now?"
"Twenty... twenty-seven," whispered the baron.
Hands were laid on Sernine. Ten revolvers were pointed at him.
He rose and faced the policemen, who fell back with instinctive dread.
"If you stir, Lupin," cried M. Weber, with his revolver leveled at him, "I'll blow out your brains."
"Don't shoot," said Sernine, solemnly. "It's not necessary. I surrender."
"Humbug! This is another of your tricks!"
"No," replied Sernine, "the battle is lost. You have no right to shoot. I am not defending myself."
He took out two revolvers and threw them on the floor.
"Humbug!" M. Weber repeated, implacably. "Aim straight at his heart, lads! At the least movement, fire! At the least word, fire!"
There were ten men there. He placed five more in position. He pointed their fifteen right arms at the mark. And, raging, shaking with joy and fear, he snarled:
"At his heart! At his head! And no pity! If he stirs, if he speaks... shoot him where he stands!"
Sernine smiled, impassively, with his hands in his pockets. Death was there, waiting for him, at two inches from his chest, at two inches from his temples. Fifteen fingers were curled round the triggers.
"Ah," chuckled M. Weber, "this is nice, this is very nice!... And I think that this time we've scored... and it's a nasty look-out for you, Master Lupin!..."
He made one of his men draw back the shutters of a large air-hole, which admitted a sudden burst of daylight, and he turned toward Altenheim. But, to his great amazement, the baron, whom he thought dead, opened his eyes, glazed, awful eyes, already filled with all the signs of the coming dissolution. He stared at M. Weber. Then he seemed to look for somebody and, catching sight of Sernine, had a convulsion of anger. He seemed to be waking from his torpor; and his suddenly reviving hatred restored a part of his strength.
He raised himself on his two wrists and tried to speak.
"You know him, eh?" asked M. Weber.
"It's Lupin, isn't it?"
Sernine, still smiling, listened:
"Heavens, how I'm amusing myself!" he declared.
"Have you anything more to say?" asked M. Weber, who saw the baron's lips making desperate attempts to move.
"About M. Lenormand, perhaps?"
"Have you shut him up? Where? Answer!..."
With all his heaving body, with all his tense glance, Altenheim pointed to a cupboard in the corner of the room.
"There... there..." he said.
"Ah, we're burning!" chuckled Lupin.
M. Weber opened the cupboard. On one of the shelves was a parcel wrapped in black cloth. He open it and found a hat, a little box, some clothes.... He gave a start. He had recognized M. Lenormand's olive-green frock-coat.
"Oh, the villains!" he cried. "They have murdered him!"
"No," said Altenheim, shaking his head.
"It's he... he...."
"What do you mean by 'he'?... Did Lupin kill the chief?"
Altenheim was clinging to existence with fierce obstinacy, eager to speak and to accuse.... The secret which he wished to reveal was at the tip of his tongue and he was not able, did not know how to translate it into words.
"Come," the deputy-chief insisted, "M. Lenormand is dead, surely?"
"I don't understand.... Look here, these clothes? This frock-coat?..."
Altenheim turned his eyes toward Sernine. An idea struck M. Weber:
"Ah, I see! Lupin stole M. Lenormand's clothes and reckoned upon using them to escape with...."
"Not bad," cried the deputy-chief. "It's quite a trick in his style. In this room, we should have found Lupin disguised as M. Lenormand, chained up, no doubt. It would have meant his safety; only he hadn't time. That's it, isn't it?"
But, by the appearance of the dying man's eyes, M. Weber felt that there was more, and that the secret was not exactly that. What was it, then? What was the strange and unintelligible puzzle which Altenheim wanted to explain before dying?
He questioned him again:
"And where is M. Lenormand himself?"
"What do you mean? Here?"
"But there are only ourselves here!"
"There's... Ser... Sernine."
"Sernine!... Eh, what?"
M. Weber gave a jump. A sudden light flashed across him.
"No, no, it's not possible," he muttered. "This is madness."
He gave a side-glance at his prisoner. Sernine seemed to be greatly diverted and to be watching the scene with the air of a playgoer who is thoroughly amused and very anxious to know how the piece is going to end.
Altenheim, exhausted by his efforts, had fallen back at full length. Would he die before revealing the solution of the riddle which his strange words had propounded? M. Weber, shaken by an absurd, incredible surmise, which he did not wish to entertain and which persisted in his mind in spite of him, made a fresh, determined attempt:
"Explain the thing to us.... What's at the bottom of it? What mystery?"
The other seemed not to hear and lay lifeless, with staring eyes.
M. Weber lay down beside him, with his body touching him, and, putting great stress upon his words, so that each syllable should sink down to the very depths of that brain already merged in darkness, said:
"Listen.... I have understood you correctly, have I not? Lupin and M. Lenormand...."
He needed an effort to continue, so monstrous did the words appear to him. Nevertheless, the baron's dimmed eyes seemed to contemplate him with anguish. He finished the sentence, shaking with excitement, as though he were speaking blasphemy:
"That's it, isn't it? You're sure? The two are one and the same?..."
The eyes did not move. A little blood trickled from one corner of the man's mouth.... He gave two or three sobs.... A last spasm; and all was over.
* * * * *
A long silence reigned in that basement room filled with people.
Almost all the policemen guarding Sernine had turned round and, stupefied, not understanding or not willing to understand, they still listened to the incredible accusation which the dying scoundrel had been unable to put into words.
M. Weber took the little box which was in the parcel and opened it. It contained a gray wig, a pair of spectacles, a maroon-colored neckerchief and, in a false bottom, a pot or two of make-up and a case containing some tiny tufts of gray hair: in short, all that was needed to complete a perfect disguise in the character of M. Lenormand.
He went up to Sernine and, looking at him for a few seconds without speaking, thoughtfully reconstructing all the phases of the adventure, he muttered:
"So it's true?"
Sernine, who had retained his smiling calmness, replied:
"The suggestion is a pretty one and a bold one. But, before I answer, tell your men to stop worrying me with those toys of theirs."
"Very well," said M. Weber, making a sign to his men. "And now answer."
"Are you M. Lenormand?"
Exclamations arose. Jean Doudeville, who was there, while his brother was watching the secret outlet, Jean Doudeville, Sernine's own accomplice, looked at him in dismay. M. Weber stood undecided.
"That takes your breath away, eh?" said Sernine. "I admit that it's rather droll.... Lord, how you used to make me laugh sometimes, when we were working together, you and I, the chief and the deputy-chief!... And the funniest thing is that you thought our worthy M. Lenormand dead... as well as poor Gourel. But no, no, old chap: there's life in the old dog yet!" He pointed to Altenheim's corpse. "There, it was that scoundrel who pitched me into the water, in a sack, with a paving-stone round my waist Only, he forgot to take away my knife. And with a knife one rips open sacks and cuts ropes. So you see, you unfortunate Altenheim: if you had thought of that, you wouldn't be where you are!... But enough said.... Peace to your ashes!"
M. Weber listened, not knowing what to think. At last, he made a gesture of despair, as though he gave up the idea of forming a reasonable opinion.
"The handcuffs," he said, suddenly alarmed.
"If it amuses you," said Sernine.
And, picking out Doudeville in the front row of his assailants, he put out his wrists:
"There, my friend, you shall have the honour... and don't trouble to exert yourself.... I'm playing square.... as it's no use doing anything else...
He said this in a tone that gave Doudeville to understand that the struggle was finished for the moment and that there was nothing to do but submit.
Doudeville fastened the handcuffs.
Without moving his lips or contracting a muscle of his face, Sernine whispered:
"27, Rue de Rivoli... Genevieve...."
M. Weber could not suppress a movement of satisfaction at the sight:
"Come along!" he said. "To the detective-office!"
"That's it, to the detective-office!" cried Sernine. "M. Lenormand will enter Arsene Lupin in the jail-book; and Arsene Lupin will enter Prince Sernine."
"You're too clever, Lupin."
"That's true, Weber; we shall never get on, you and I."
During the drive in the motor-car, escorted by three other cars filled with policemen, he did not utter a word.
They did not stay long at the detective office. M. Weber, remembering the escapes effected by Lupin, sent him up at once to the finger-print department and then took him to the Depot, whence he was sent on to the Sante Prison.
The governor had been warned by telephone and was waiting for him. The formalities of the entry of commitment and of the searching were soon got over; and, at seven o'clock in the evening, Prince Paul Sernine crossed the threshold of cell 14 in the second division:
"Not half bad, your rooms," he declared, "not bad at all I... Electric light, central heating, every requisite... capital! Mr. Governor, I'll take this room."
He flung himself on the bed:
"Oh, Mr. Governor, I have one little favor to ask of you!"
"What is that?"
"Tell them not to bring me my chocolate before ten o'clock in the morning.... I'm awfully sleepy."
He turned his face to the wall. Five minutes later he was sound asleep.