The Crystal Stopper/Chapter IV

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The Crystal Stopper by Maurice Leblanc
Chapter IV: The chief of the enemies


THE CHIEF OF THE ENEMIES

"Poor boy!" murmured Lupin, when his eyes fell on Gilbert's letter next morning. "How he must feel it!"

On the very first day when he saw him, he had taken a liking to that well-set-up youngster, so careless, gay and fond of life. Gilbert was devoted to him, would have accepted death at a sign from his master. And Lupin also loved his frankness, his good humour, his simplicity, his bright, open face.

"Gilbert," he often used to say, "you are an honest man. Do you know, if I were you, I should chuck the business and become an honest man for good."

"After you, governor," Gilbert would reply, with a laugh.

"Won't you, though?"

"No, governor. An honest man is a chap who works and grinds. It's a taste which I may have had as a nipper; but they've made me lose it since."

"Who's they?"

Gilbert was silent. He was always silent when questioned about his early life; and all that Lupin knew was that he had been an orphan since childhood and that he had lived all over the place, changing his name and taking up the queerest jobs. The whole thing was a mystery which no one had been able to fathom; and it did not look as though the police would make much of it either.

Nor, on the other hand, did it look as though the police would consider that mystery a reason for delaying proceedings. They would send Vaucheray's accomplice for trial--under his name of Gilbert or any other name--and visit him with the same inevitable punishment.

"Poor boy!" repeated Lupin. "They're persecuting him like this only because of me. They are afraid of his escaping and they are in a hurry to finish the business: the verdict first and then... the execution.

"Oh, the butchers!... A lad of twenty, who has committed no murder, who is not even an accomplice in the murder..."

Alas, Lupin well knew that this was a thing impossible to prove and that he must concentrate his efforts upon another point. But upon which? Was he to abandon the trail of the crystal stopper?

He could not make up his mind to that. His one and only diversion from the search was to go to Enghien, where the Growler and the Masher lived, and make sure that nothing had been seen of them since the murder at the Villa Marie-Therese. Apart from this, he applied himself to the question of Daubrecq and nothing else.

He refused even to trouble his head about the problems set before him: the treachery of the Growler and the Masher; their connection with the gray-haired lady; the spying of which he himself was the object.

"Steady, Lupin," he said. "One only argues falsely in a fever. So hold your tongue. No inferences, above all things! Nothing is more foolish than to infer one fact from another before finding a certain starting-point. That's where you get up a tree. Listen to your instinct. Act according to your instinct. And as you are persuaded, outside all argument, outside all logic, one might say, that this business turns upon that confounded stopper, go for it boldly. Have at Daubrecq and his bit of crystal!"

Lupin did not wait to arrive at these conclusions before settling his actions accordingly. At the moment when he was stating them in his mind, three days after the scene at the Vaudeville, he was sitting, dressed like a retired tradesman, in an old overcoat, with a muffler round his neck, on a bench in the Avenue Victor-Hugo, at some distance from the Square Lamartine. Victoire had his instructions to pass by that bench at the same hour every morning.

"Yes," he repeated to himself, "the crystal stopper: everything turns on that... Once I get hold of it..."

Victoire arrived, with her shopping-basket on her arm. He at once noticed her extraordinary agitation and pallor:

"What's the matter?" asked Lupin, walking beside his old nurse.

She went into a big grocer's, which was crowded with people, and, turning to him:

"Here," she said, in a voice torn with excitement. "Here's what you've been hunting for."

And, taking something from her basket, she gave it to him.

Lupin stood astounded: in his hand lay the crystal stopper.

"Can it be true? Can it be true?" he muttered, as though the ease of the solution had thrown him off his balance.

But the fact remained, visible and palpable. He recognized by its shape, by its size, by the worn gilding of its facets, recognized beyond any possible doubt the crystal stopper which he had seen before. He even remarked a tiny, hardly noticeable little scratch on the stem which he remembered perfectly.

However, while the thing presented all the same characteristics, it possessed no other that seemed out of the way. It was a crystal stopper, that was all. There was no really special mark to distinguish it from other stoppers. There was no sign upon it, no stamp; and, being cut from a single piece, it contained no foreign object.

"What then?"

And Lupin received a quick insight into the depth of his mistake. What good could the possession of that crystal stopper do him so long as he was ignorant of its value? That bit of glass had no existence in itself; it counted only through the meaning that attached to it. Before taking it, the thing was to be certain. And how could he tell that, in taking it, in robbing Daubrecq of it, he was not committing an act of folly?

It was a question which was impossible of solution, but which forced itself upon him with singular directness.

"No blunders!" he said to himself, as he pocketed the stopper. "In this confounded business, blunders are fatal."

He had not taken his eyes off Victoire. Accompanied by a shopman, she went from counter to counter, among the throng of customers. She next stood for some little while at the pay-desk and passed in front of Lupin.

He whispered her instructions:

"Meet me behind the Lycee Janson."

She joined him in an unfrequented street:

"And suppose I'm followed?" she said.

"No," he declared. "I looked carefully. Listen to me. Where did you find the stopper?"

"In the drawer of the table by his bed."

"But we had felt there already."

"Yes; and I did so again this morning. I expect he put it there last night."

"And I expect he'll want to take it from there again," said Lupin.

"Very likely."

"And suppose he finds it gone?"

Victoire looked frightened.

"Answer me," said Lupin. "If he finds it gone, he'll accuse you of taking it, won't he?"

"Certainly."

"Then go and put it back, as fast as you can."

"Oh dear, oh dear!" she moaned. "I hope he won't have had time to find out. Give it to me, quick."

"Here you are," said Lupin.

He felt in the pocket of his overcoat.

"Well?" said Victoire, holding out her hand.

"Well," he said, after a moment, "it's gone."

"What!"

"Yes, upon my word, it's gone... somebody's taken it from me."

He burst into a peal of laughter, a laughter which, this time, was free from all bitterness.

Victoire flew out at him:

"Laugh away! ... Putting me in such a predicament!..."

"How can I help laughing? You must confess that it's funny. It's no longer a tragedy that we're acting, but a fairy-tale, as much a fairy-tale as Puss in Boots or Jack and the Beanstalk. I must write it when I get a few weeks to myself: The Magic Stopper; or, The Mishaps of Poor Arsene."

"Well... who has taken it from you?"

"What are you talking about?... It has flown away... vanished from my pocket: hey presto, begone!"

He gave the old servant a gentle push and, in a more serious tone:

"Go home, Victoire, and don't upset yourself. Of course, some one saw you give me the stopper and took advantage of the crowd in the shop to pick my pocket of it. That only shows that we are watched more closely than I thought and by adversaries of the first rank. But, once more, be easy. Honest men always come by their own... Have you anything else to tell me?"

"Yes. Some one came yesterday evening, while M. Daubrecq was out. I saw lights reflected upon the trees in the garden."

"The portress' bedroom?"

"The portress was up."

"Then it was some of those detective-fellows; they are still hunting. I'll see you later, Victoire. You must let me in again."

"What! You want to..."

"What do I risk? Your room is on the third floor. Daubrecq suspects nothing."

"But the others!"

"The others? If it was to their interest to play me a trick, they'd have tried before now. I'm in their way, that's all. They're not afraid of me. So till later, Victoire, at five o'clock exactly."

One further surprise awaited Lupin. In the evening his old nurse told him that, having opened the drawer of the bedside table from curiosity, she had found the crystal stopper there again.

Lupin was no longer to be excited by these miraculous incidents. He simply said to himself:

"So it's been brought back. And the person who brought it back and who enters this house by some unexplained means considered, as I did, that the stopper ought not to disappear. And yet Daubrecq, who knows that he is being spied upon to his very bedroom, has once more left the stopper in a drawer, as though he attached no importance to it at all! Now what is one to make of that?"

Though Lupin did not make anything of it, nevertheless he could not escape certain arguments, certain associations of ideas that gave him the same vague foretaste of light which one receives on approaching the outlet of a tunnel.

"It is inevitable, as the case stands," he thought, "that there must soon be an encounter between myself and the others. From that moment I shall be master of the situation."

Five days passed, during which Lupin did not glean the slightest particular. On the sixth day Daubrecq received a visit, in the small hours, from a gentleman, Laybach the deputy, who, like his colleagues, dragged himself at his feet in despair and, when all was done, handed him twenty thousand francs.

Two more days; and then, one night, posted on the landing of the second floor, Lupin heard the creaking of a door, the front-door, as he perceived, which led from the hall into the garden. In the darkness he distinguished, or rather divined, the presence of two persons, who climbed the stairs and stopped on the first floor, outside Daubrecq's bedroom.

What were they doing there? It was not possible to enter the room, because Daubrecq bolted his door every night. Then what were they hoping?

Manifestly, a handiwork of some kind was being performed, as Lupin discovered from the dull sounds of rubbing against the door. Then words, uttered almost beneath a whisper, reached him:

"Is it all right?"

"Yes, quite, but, all the same, we'd better put it off till to-morrow, because..."

Lupin did not hear the end of the sentence. The men were already groping their way downstairs. The hall-door was closed, very gently, and then the gate.

"It's curious, say what one likes," thought Lupin. "Here is a house in which Daubrecq carefully conceals his rascalities and is on his guard, not without good reason, against spies; and everybody walks in and out as in a booth at a fair. Victoire lets me in, the portress admits the emissaries of the police: that's well and good; but who is playing false in these people's favour? Are we to suppose that they are acting alone? But what fearlessness! And how well they know their way about!"

In the afternoon, during Daubrecq's absence, he examined the door of the first-floor bedroom. And, at the first glance, he understood: one of the lower panels had been skilfully cut out and was only held in place by invisible tacks. The people, therefore, who had done this work were the same who had acted at his two places, in the Rue Matignon and the Rue Chateaubriand.

He also found that the work dated back to an earlier period and that, as in his case, the opening had been prepared beforehand, in anticipation of favourable circumstances or of some immediate need.

The day did not seem long to Lupin. Knowledge was at hand. Not only would he discover the manner in which his adversaries employed those little openings, which were apparently unemployable, since they did not allow a person to reach the upper bolts, but he would learn who the ingenious and energetic adversaries were with whom he repeatedly and inevitably found himself confronted.

One incident annoyed him. In the evening Daubrecq, who had complained of feeling tired at dinner, came home at ten o'clock and, contrary to his usual custom, pushed the bolts of the hall-door. In that case, how would the others be able to carry out their plan and go to Daubrecq's room? Lupin waited for an hour after Daubrecq put out his light. Then he went down to the deputy's study, opened one of the windows ajar and returned to the third floor and fixed his rope-ladder so that, in case of need, he could reach the study without passing though the house. Lastly, he resumed his post on the second-floor landing.

He did not have to wait long. An hour earlier than on the previous night some one tried to open the hall-door. When the attempt failed, a few minutes of absolute silence followed. And Lupin was beginning to think that the men had abandoned the idea, when he gave a sudden start. Some one had passed, without the least sound to interrupt the silence. He would not have known it, so utterly were the thing's steps deadened by the stair-carpet, if the baluster-rail, which he himself held in his hand, had not shaken slightly. Some one was coming upstairs.

And, as the ascent continued, Lupin became aware of the uncanny feeling that he heard nothing more than before. He knew, because of the rail, that a thing was coming and he could count the number of steps climbed by noting each vibration of the rail; but no other indication gave him that dim sensation of presence which we feel in distinguishing movements which we do not see, in perceiving sounds which we do not hear. And yet a blacker darkness ought to have taken shape within the darkness and something ought, at least, to modify the quality of the silence. No, he might well have believed that there was no one there.

And Lupin, in spite of himself and against the evidence of his reason, ended by believing it, for the rail no longer moved and he thought that he might have been the sport of an illusion.

And this lasted a long time. He hesitated, not knowing what to do, not knowing what to suppose. But an odd circumstance impressed him. A clock struck two. He recognized the chime of Daubrecq's clock. And the chime was that of a clock from which one is not separated by the obstacle of a door.

Lupin slipped down the stairs and went to the door. It was closed, but there was a space on the left, at the bottom, a space left by the removal of the little panel.

He listened. Daubrecq, at that moment, turned in his bed; and his breathing was resumed, evenly and a little stertorously. And Lupin plainly heard the sound of rumpling garments. Beyond a doubt, the thing was there, fumbling and feeling through the clothes which Daubrecq had laid beside his bed.

"Now," thought Lupin, "we shall learn something. But how the deuce did the beggar get in? Has he managed to draw the bolts and open the door? But, if so, why did he make the mistake of shutting it again?"

Not for a second--a curious anomaly in a man like Lupin, an anomaly to be explained only by the uncanny feeling which the whole adventure produced in him--not for a second did he suspect the very simple truth which was about to be revealed to him. Continuing his way down, he crouched on one of the bottom steps of the staircase, thus placing himself between the door of the bedroom and the hall-door, on the road which Daubrecq's enemy must inevitably take in order to join his accomplices.

He questioned the darkness with an unspeakable anguish. He was on the point of unmasking that enemy of Daubrecq's, who was also his own adversary. He would thwart his plans. And the booty captured from Daubrecq he would capture in his turn, while Daubrecq slept and while the accomplices lurking behind the hall-door or outside the garden-gate vainly awaited their leader's return.

And that return took place. Lupin knew it by the renewed vibration of the balusters. And, once more, with every sense strained and every nerve on edge, he strove to discern the mysterious thing that was coming toward him. He suddenly realized it when only a few yards away. He himself, hidden in a still darker recess, could not be seen. And what he saw--in the very vaguest manner--was approaching stair by stair, with infinite precautions, holding on to each separate baluster.

"Whom the devil have I to do with?" said Lupin to himself, while his heart thumped inside his chest.

The catastrophe was hastened. A careless movement on Lupin's part was observed by the stranger, who stopped short. Lupin was afraid lest the other should turn back and take to flight. He sprang at the adversary and was stupefied at encountering nothing but space and knocking against the stair-rail without seizing the form which he saw. But he at once rushed forward, crossed the best part of the hall and caught up his antagonist just as he was reaching the door opening on the garden.

There was a cry of fright, answered by other cries on the further side of the door.

"Oh, hang it, what's this?" muttered Lupin, whose arms had closed, in the dark, round a little, tiny, trembling, whimpering thing.

Suddenly understanding, he stood for a moment motionless and dismayed, at a loss what to do with his conquered prey. But the others were shouting and stamping outside the door. Thereupon, dreading lest Daubrecq should wake up, he slipped the little thing under his jacket, against his chest, stopped the crying with his handkerchief rolled into a ball and hurried up the three flights of stairs.

"Here," he said to Victoire, who woke with a start. "I've brought you the indomitable chief of our enemies, the Hercules of the gang. Have you a feeding-bottle about you?"

He put down in the easy-chair a child of six or seven years of age, the tiniest little fellow in a gray jersey and a knitted woollen cap, whose pale and exquisitely pretty features were streaked with the tears that streamed from the terrified eyes.

"Where did you pick that up?" asked Victoire, aghast.

"At the foot of the stairs, as it was coming out of Daubrecq's bedroom," replied Lupin, feeling the jersey in the hope that the child had brought a booty of some kind from that room.

Victoire was stirred to pity:

"Poor little dear! Look, he's trying not to cry!... Oh, saints above, his hands are like ice! Don't be afraid, sonnie, we sha'n't hurt you: the gentleman's all right."

"Yes," said Lupin, "the gentleman's quite all right, but there's another very wicked gentleman who'll wake up if they go on making such a rumpus outside the hall-door. Do you hear them, Victoire?"

"Who is it?"

"The satellites of our young Hercules, the indomitable leader's gang."

"Well...?" stammered Victoire, utterly unnerved.

"Well, as I don't want to be caught in the trap, I shall start by clearing out. Are you coming, Hercules?"

He rolled the child in a blanket, so that only its head remained outside, gagged its mouth as gently as possible and made Victoire fasten it to his shoulders:

"See, Hercules? We're having a game. You never thought you'd find gentlemen to play pick-a-back with you at three o'clock in the morning! Come, whoosh, let's fly away! You don't get giddy, I hope?"

He stepped across the window-ledge and set foot on one of the rungs of the ladder. He was in the garden in a minute.

He had never ceased hearing and now heard more plainly still the blows that were being struck upon the front-door. He was astounded that Daubrecq was not awakened by so violent a din:

"If I don't put a stop to this, they'll spoil everything," he said to himself.

He stood in an angle of the house, invisible in the darkness, and measured the distance between himself and the gate. The gate was open. To his right, he saw the steps, on the top of which the people were flinging themselves about; to his left, the building occupied by the portress.

The woman had come out of her lodge and was standing near the people, entreating them:

"Oh, do be quiet, do be quiet! He'll come!"

"Capital!" said Lupin. "The good woman is an accomplice of these as well. By Jingo, what a pluralist!"

He rushed across to her and, taking her by the scruff of the neck, hissed:

"Go and tell them I've got the child... They can come and fetch it at my place, Rue Chateaubriand."

A little way off, in the avenue, stood a taxi which Lupin presumed to be engaged by the gang. Speaking authoritatively, as though he were one of the accomplices, he stepped into the cab and told the man to drive him home.

"Well," he said to the child, "that wasn't much of a shake-up, was it?... What do you say to going to bye-bye on the gentleman's bed?"

As his servant, Achille, was asleep, Lupin made the little chap comfortable and stroked his hair for him. The child seemed numbed. His poor face was as though petrified into a stiff expression made up, at one and the same time, of fear and the wish not to show fear, of the longing to scream and a pitiful effort not to scream.

"Cry, my pet, cry," said Lupin. "It'll do you good to cry."

The child did not cry, but the voice was so gentle and so kind that he relaxed his tense muscles; and, now that his eyes were calmer and his mouth less contorted, Lupin, who was examining him closely, found something that he recognized, an undoubted resemblance.

This again confirmed certain facts which he suspected and which he had for some time been linking in his mind. Indeed, unless he was mistaken, the position was becoming very different and he would soon assume the direction of events. After that...

A ring at the bell followed, at once, by two others, sharp ones.

"Hullo!" said Lupin to the child. "Here's mummy come to fetch you. Don't move."

He ran and opened the door.

A woman entered, wildly:

"My son!" she screamed. "My son! Where is he?"

"In my room," said Lupin.

Without asking more, thus proving that she knew the way, she rushed to the bedroom.

"As I thought," muttered Lupin. "The youngish woman with the gray hair: Daubrecq's friend and enemy."

He walked to the window and looked through the curtains. Two men were striding up and down the opposite pavement: the Growler and the Masher.

"And they're not even hiding themselves," he said to himself. "That's a good sign. They consider that they can't do without me any longer and that they've got to obey the governor. There remains the pretty lady with the gray hair. That will be more difficult. It's you and I now, mummy."

He found the mother and the boy clasped in each other's arms; and the mother, in a great state of alarm, her eyes moist with tears, was saying:

"You're not hurt? You're sure? Oh, how frightened you must have been, my poor little Jacques!"

"A fine little fellow," said Lupin.

She did not reply. She was feeling the child's jersey, as Lupin had done, no doubt to see if he had succeeded in his nocturnal mission; and she questioned him in a whisper.

"No, mummy," said the child. "No, really."

She kissed him fondly and petted him, until, in a little while, the child, worn out with fatigue and excitement, fell asleep. She remained leaning over him for a long time. She herself seemed very much worn out and in need of rest.

Lupin did not disturb her contemplation. He looked at her anxiously, with an attention which she did not perceive, and he noticed the wider rings round her eyes and the deeper marks of wrinkles. Yet he considered her handsomer than he had thought, with that touching beauty which habitual suffering gives to certain faces that are more human, more sensitive than others.

She wore so sad an expression that, in a burst of instinctive sympathy, he went up to her and said: "I do not know what your plans are, but, whatever they may be, you stand in need of help. You cannot succeed alone."

"I am not alone."

"The two men outside? I know them. They're no good. I beseech you, make use of me. You remember the other evening, at the theatre, in the private box? You were on the point of speaking. Do not hesitate to-day."

She turned her eyes on him, looked at him long and fixedly and, as though unable to escape that opposing will, she said:

"What do you know exactly? What do you know about me?"

"There are many things that I do not know. I do not know your name. But I know..."

She interrupted him with a gesture; and, resolutely, in her turn, dominating the man who was compelling her to speak:

"It doesn't matter," she exclaimed. "What you know, after all, is not much and is of no importance. But what are your plans? You offer me your help: with what view? For what work? You have flung yourself headlong into this business; I have been unable to undertake anything without meeting you on my path: you must be contemplating some aim... What aim?"

"What aim? Upon my word, it seems to me that my conduct..."

"No, no," she said, emphatically, "no phrases! What you and I want is certainties; and, to achieve them, absolute frankness. I will set you the example. M. Daubrecq possesses a thing of unparalleled value, not in itself, but for what it represents. That thing you know. You have twice held it in your hands. I have twice taken it from you. Well, I am entitled to believe that, when you tried to obtain possession of it, you meant to use the power which you attribute to it and to use it to your own advantage..."

"What makes you say that?"

"Yes, you meant to use it to forward your schemes, in the interest of your own affairs, in accordance with your habits as a..."

"As a burglar and a swindler," said Lupin, completing the sentence for her.

She did not protest. He tried to read her secret thoughts in the depths of her eyes. What did she want with him? What was she afraid of? If she mistrusted him, had he not also reasons to mistrust that woman who had twice taken the crystal stopper from him to restore it to Daubrecq? Mortal enemy of Daubrecq's though she were, up to what point did she remain subject to that man's will? By surrendering himself to her, did he not risk surrendering himself to Daubrecq? And yet he had never looked upon graver eyes nor a more honest face.

Without further hesitation, he stated:

"My object is simple enough. It is the release of my friends Gilbert and Vaucheray."

"Is that true? Is that true?" she exclaimed, quivering all over and questioning him with an anxious glance.

"If you knew me..."

"I do know you... I know who you are. For months, I have taken part in your life, without your suspecting it... and yet, for certain reasons, I still doubt..."

He said, in a more decisive tone:

"You do not know me. If you knew me, you would know that there can be no peace for me before my two companions have escaped the awful fate that awaits them."

She rushed at him, took him by the shoulders and positively distraught, said:

"What? What did you say? The awful fate?... Then you believe... you believe..."

"I really believe," said Lupin, who felt how greatly this threat upset her, "I really believe that, if I am not in time, Gilbert and Vaucheray are done for."

"Be quiet!... Be quiet!" she cried, clutching him fiercely. "Be quiet!... You mustn't say that... There is no reason... It's just you who suppose..."

"It's not only I, it's Gilbert as well..."

"What? Gilbert? How do you know?"

"From himself?"

"From him?"

"Yes, from Gilbert, who has no hope left but in me; from Gilbert, who knows that only one man in the world can save him and who, a few days ago, sent me a despairing appeal from prison. Here is his letter."

She snatched the paper greedily and read in stammering accents:

"Help, governor!... I am frightened!... I am frightened!..."

She dropped the letter. Her hands fluttered in space. It was as though her staring eyes beheld the sinister vision which had already so often terrified Lupin. She gave a scream of horror, tried to rise and fainted.