CHAPTER XII. THE EMPEROR'S LETTERS
THE ruins of Veldenz are well known to all who visit the banks of the Rhine and the Moselle. They comprise the remains of the old feudal castle, built in 1377 by the Archbishop of Fistingen, an enormous dungeon-keep, gutted by Turenne's troops, and the walls, left standing in their entirety, of a large Renascence palace, in which the grand-dukes of Zweibrucken lived for three centuries.
It was this palace that was sacked by Hermann II.'s rebellious subjects. The empty windows display two hundred yawning cavities on the four frontages. All the wainscoting, the hangings and most of the furniture were burnt. You walk on the scorched girders of the floors; and the sky can be seen at intervals through the ruined ceilings.
Lupin, accompanied by his escort, went over the whole building in two hours' time:
"I am very pleased with you, my dear count. I don't think I ever came across a guide so well posted in his subject, nor — which is rare — so silent. And now, if you don't mind, we will go to lunch."
As a matter of fact, Lupin knew no more than at the first moment and his perplexity did nothing but increase. To obtain his release from prison and to strike the imagination of his visitor, he had bluffed, pretending to know everything; and he was still seeking for the best place at which to begin to seek.
"Things look bad," he said to himself, from time to time. "Things are looking about as bad as they can look."
His brain, moreover, was not as clear as usual. He was obsessed by an idea, the idea of "the other one," the murderer, the assassin, whom he knew to be still clinging to his footsteps.
How did that mysterious personality come to be on his tracks? How had he heard of Lupin's leaving prison and of his rush to Luxemburg and Germany? Was it a miraculous intuition? Or was it the outcome of definite information? But, if so, at what price, by means of what promises or threats was he able to obtain it?
All these questions haunted Lupin's mind.
At about four o'clock, however, after a fresh walk through the ruins, in the course of which he had examined the stones, measured the thickness of the walls, investigated the shape and appearance of things, all to no purpose, he asked the count:
"Is there no one left who was in the service of the last grand-duke who lived in the castle?"
"All the servants of that time went different ways. Only one of them continued to live in the district."
"He died two years ago."
"He had a son, who married and who was dismissed, with his wife, for disgraceful conduct. They left their youngest child behind, a little girl, Isilda."
"Where does she live?"
"She lives here, at the end of these buildings. The old grandfather used to act as a guide to visitors, in the days when the castle was still open to the public. Little Isilda has lived in the ruins ever since. She was allowed to remain out of pity. She is a poor innocent, who is hardly able to talk and does not know what she says."
"Was she always like that?"
"It seems not. Her reason went gradually, when she was about ten years old."
"In consequence of a sorrow, of a fright?"
"No, for no direct cause, I am told. The father was a drunkard and the mother committed suicide in a fit of madness."
Lupin reflected and said:
"I should like to see her."
The count gave a rather curious smile: "You can see her, by all means."
She happened to be in one of the rooms which had been set apart for her. Lupin was surprised to find an attractive little creature, too thin, too pale, but almost pretty, with her fair hair and her delicate face. Her sea-green eyes had the vague, dreamy look of the eyes of blind people.
He put a few questions to which Isilda gave no answer and others to which she replied with incoherent sentences, as though she understood neither the meaning of the words addressed to her nor those which she herself uttered.
He persisted, taking her very gently by the hand and asking her in an affectionate tone about the time when she still had her reason, about her grandfather, about the memories which might be called up by her life as a child playing freely among the majestic ruins of the castle.
She stood silent, with staring eyes; impassive, any emotion which she might have felt was not enough to rouse her slumbering intelligence.
Lupin asked for a pencil and paper and wrote down the number 813.
The count smiled again.
"Look here, what are you laughing at?" cried Lupin, irritably.
"Nothing... nothing.... I'm very much interested, that's all...."
Isilda looked at the sheet of paper, when he showed it to her, and turned away her head, with a vacant air.
"No bite!" said the count, satirically.
Lupin wrote the letters "APOON."
Isilda paid no more attention than before.
He did not give up the experiment, but kept on writing the same letters, each time watching the girl's face.
She did not stir, but kept her eyes fixed on the paper with an indifference which nothing seemed to disturb. Then, all at once, she seized the pencil, snatched the last sheet out of Lupin's hands and, as though acting under a sudden inspiration, wrote two "L's" in the middle of a space left open by Lupin.
He felt a thrill.
A word had been formed: "APOLLON."
Meanwhile, Isilda clung to both pencil and paper and, with clutching fingers and a strained face, was struggling to make her hand submit to the hesitating orders of her poor little brain.
Lupin waited, feverishly.
She rapidly wrote another word, the word "DIANE."
"Another word!... Another word!" shouted Lupin.
She twisted her fingers round the pencil, broke the lead, made a big "J" with the stump and, now utterly exhausted, dropped the pencil.
"Another word! I must have another word!" said Lupin, in a tone of command, catching her by the arm.
But he saw by her eyes, which had once more become indifferent, that that fleeting gleam of intelligence could not shine out again.
"Let us go," he said.
He was walking away, when she ran after him and stood in his path. He stopped:
"What it is?"
She held out the palm of her hand.
"What? Money?.... Is she in the habit of begging?" he asked the count.
"No," said Waldemar, "and I can't understand." Isilda took two gold coins from her pocket and chinked them together, gleefully.
Lupin looked at them. They were French coins, quite new, bearing the date of that year.
"Where did you get these?" asked Lupin, excitedly. "French money!... Who gave it you?... And when?... Was it today? Speak!... Answer!..." He shrugged his shoulders. "Fool that I am! As though she could answer!... My dear count, would you mind lending me forty marks?... Thanks... Here, Isilda, that's for you."
She took the two coins, jingled them with the others in the palm of her hand and then, putting out her arm, pointed to the ruins of the Renascence palace, with a gesture that seemed to call attention more particularly to the left wing and to the top of that wing.
Was it a mechanical movement? Or must it be looked upon as a grateful acknowledgment for the two gold coins?
He glanced at the count. Waldemar was smiling again.
"What makes the brute keep on grinning like that?" said Lupin to himself. "Any one would think that he was having a game with me."
He went to the palace on the off-chance, attended by his escort.
The ground-floor consisted of a number of large reception-rooms, running one into the other and containing the few pieces of furniture that had escaped the fire.
On the first floor, on the north side, was a long gallery, out of which twelve handsome rooms opened all exactly alike.
There was a similar gallery on the second floor, but with twenty-four smaller rooms, also resembling one another. All these apartments were empty, dilapidated, wretched to look at.
Above, there was nothing. The attics had been burnt down.
For an hour, Lupin walked, ran, rushed about indefatigably, with his eyes on the look-out.
When it began to grow dusk, he hurried to one of his twelve rooms on the first floor, as if he were selecting it for special reasons known to himself alone. He was rather surprised to find the Emperor there, smoking and seated in an arm-chair which he had sent for.
Taking no notice of his presence, Lupin began an inspection of the room, according to the methods which he was accustomed to employ in such cases, dividing the room into sections, each of which he examined in turn.
After twenty minutes of this work, he said:
"I must beg you, Sire, to be good enough to move.
There is a fireplace here...." The Emperor tossed his head: "Is it really necessary for me to move?"
"Yes, Sire, this fireplace..."
"The fireplace is just the same as the others and the room is no different from its fellows." Lupin looked at the Emperor without understanding.
The Emperor rose and said, with a laugh:
"I think, M. Lupin, that you have been making just a little fun of me."
"How do you mean, Sire?"
"Oh, it's hardly worth mentioning! You obtained your release on the condition of handing me certain papers in which I am interested and you have not the smallest notion as to where they are. I have been thoroughly — what do you call it, in French? — roule — 'done'!"
"Do you think so, Sire?"
"Why, what a man knows he doesn't have to hunt for! And you have been hunting for ten good hours! Doesn't it strike you as a case for an immediate return to prison?"
Lupin seemed thunderstruck: "Did not Your Imperial Majesty fix twelve o'clock tomorrow as the last limit?"
"Why? Well, to allow me to complete my work!"
"Your work? But it's not even begun, M. Lupin."
"There Your Imperial Majesty is mistaken."
"Prove it... and I will wait until tomorrow."
Lupin reflected and, speaking in a serious tone: "Since Your Imperial Majesty requires proofs in order to have confidence in me, I will furnish them. The twelve rooms leading out of this gallery each bear a different name, which is inscribed in French — obviously by a French decorative artist — over the various doors. One of the inscriptions, less damaged by the fire than the others, caught my eye as I was passing along the gallery. I examined the other doors: all of them bore hardly legible traces of names carved over the pediments. Thus I found a 'D' and an 'E' the first and last letters of 'Diane.' I found an 'A' and 'LON' which pointed to 'Apollon.' These are the French equivalents of Diana and Apollo, both of them mythological deities. The other inscriptions presented similar characteristics. I discovered traces of such names as Jupiter, Venus, Mercury, Saturn and so on. This part of the problem was solved: each of the twelve rooms bears the name of an Olympian god or goddess; and the letters APOON, completed by Isilda, point to the Apollo Room or Salle d'Apollon. So it is here, in the room in which we now are, that the letters are hidden. A few minutes, perhaps, will suffice in which to discover them."
"A few minutes or a few years... or even longer!" said the Emperor, laughing.
He seemed greatly amused; and the count also displayed a coarse merriment.
"Would Your Imperial Majesty be good enough to explain?"
"M. Lupin, the exciting investigation which you have conducted today and of which you are telling us the brilliant results has already been made by me... yes, a fortnight ago, in the company of your friend Holmlock Shears. Together we questioned little Isilda; together, we employed the same method in dealing with her that you did; and together we observed the names in the gallery and got as far as this room, the Apollo Room."
Lupin turned livid. He spluttered:
"Oh, did Shears get... as far as... this?"
"Yes, after four days' searching. True, it did not help us, for we found nothing. All the same, I know that the letters are not here."
Trembling with rage, wounded in his innermost pride, Lupin fired up under the gibe, as though he had been lashed with a whip. He had never felt humiliated to such a degree as this. In this fury, he could have strangled the fat Waldemar, whose laughter incensed him. Containing himself with an effort, he said:
"It took Shears four days, Sire, and me only four hours. And I should have required even less, if I had not been thwarted in my search."
"And by whom, bless my soul? By my faithful count? I hope he did not dare...!"
"No, Sire, but by the most terrible and powerful of my enemies, by that infernal being who killed his own accomplice Altenheim."
"Is he here? Do you think so?" exclaimed the Emperor, with an agitation which showed that he was familiar with every detail of the dramatic story.
"He is wherever I am. He threatens me with his constant hatred. It was he who guessed that I was M. Lenormand, the chief of the detective-service; it was he who had me put in prison; it was he, again, who pursued me, on the day when I came out. Yesterday, aiming at me in the motor, he wounded Count von Waldemar."
"But how do you know, how can you be sure that he is at Veldenz?"
"Isilda has received two gold coins, two French coins!"
"And what is he here for? With what object?"
"I don't know, Sire, but he is the very spirit of evil. Your Imperial Majesty must be on your guard: he is capable of anything and everything."
"It is impossible! I have two hundred men in the ruins. He cannot have entered. He would have been seen."
"Some one has seen him, beyond a doubt."
"Let her be questioned! Waldemar, take your prisoner to where the girl is."
Lupin showed his bound hands:
"It will be a tough battle. Can I fight like this?"
The Emperor said to the count:
"Unfasten him.... And keep me informed."
In this way, by a sudden effort, bringing the hateful vision of the murder into the discussion, boldly, without evidence, Arsene Lupin gained time and resumed the direction of the search:
"Sixteen hours still," he said to himself, "it's more than I want."
He reached the premises occupied by Isilda, at the end of the old out-buildings. These buildings served as barracks for the two hundred soldiers guarding the ruins; and the whole of this, the left wing, was reserved for the officers.
Isilda was not there. The count sent two of his men to look for her. They came back. No one had seen the girl.
Nevertheless, she could not have left the precincts of the ruins. As for the Renascence palace, it was, so to speak, invested by one-half of the troops; and no one was able to obtain admittance.
At last, the wife of a subaltern who lived in the next house declared that she had been sitting at her window all day and that the girl had not been out.
"If she hadn't gone out," said Waldemar, "she would be here now: and she is not here."
"Is there a floor above?"
"Yes, but from this room to the upper floor there is no staircase."
"Yes, there is."
He pointed to a little door opening on a dark recess. In the shadow, he saw the first treads of a staircase as steep as a ladder.
"Please, my dear count," he said to Waldemar, who wanted to go up, "let me have the honor."
He ran up and at once sprang into a low and narrow loft. A cry escaped him:
"What is it?" asked the count, emerging in his turn.
"Here... on the floor.... Isilda...."
He knelt down beside the girl, but, at the first glance, saw that she was simply stunned and that she bore no trace of a wound, except a few scratches on the wrists and hands. A handkerchief was stuffed into her mouth by way of a gag.
"That's it," he said. "The murderer was here with her. When we came, he struck her a blow with his fist and gagged her so that we should not hear her moans."
"But how did he get away?"
"Through here... look... there is a passage connecting all the attics on the first floor."
"And from there?"
"From there, he went down the stairs of one of the other dwellings."
"But he would have been seen!"
"Pooh, who knows? The creature's invisible. Never mind! Send your men to look. Tell them to search all the attics and all the ground-floor lodgings."
He hesitated. Should he also go in pursuit of the murderer?
But a sound brought him back to the girl's side. She had got up from the floor and a dozen pieces of gold money had dropped from her hands. He examined them. They were all French."
"Ah," he said, "I was right! Only, why so much gold? In reward for what?"
Suddenly, he caught sight of a book on the floor and stooped to pick it up. But the girl darted forward with a quicker movement, seized the book and pressed it to her bosom with a fierce energy, as though prepared to defend it against any attempt to take hold of it.
"That's it," he said. "The money was offered her for the book, but she refused to part with it. Hence the scratches on the hands. The interesting thing would be to know why the murderer wished to possess the body. Was he able to look through it first?"
He said to Waldemar:
"My dear count, please give the order."
Waldemar made a sign to his men. Three of them threw themselves on the girl and, after a hard tussle, in which the poor thing stamped, writhed and screamed with rage, they took the volume from her.
"Gently, child," said Lupin, "be calm.... It's all in a good cause.... Keep an eye on her, will you? Meanwhile, I will have a look at the object in dispute."
It was an odd volume of Montesquieu's Voyage au temple de Guide, in a binding at least a century old. But Lupin had hardly opened it before he exclaimed:
"I say, I say, this is queer! There is a sheet of parchment stuck on each right hand page; and those sheets are covered with a very close, small handwriting."
He read, at the beginning:
"Diary of the Chevalier GILLES DE MALRECHE, French servant to His Royal Highness the Prince of ZWEIBRUCKENVELDENZ, begun in the Year of Our Lord 1794."
"What! Does it say that?" asked the count.
"What surprises you?"
"Isilda's grandfather, the old man who died two years ago, was called Malreich, which is the German form of the same name."
"Capital! Isilda's grandfather must have been the son or the grandson of the French servant who wrote his dairy in an odd volume of Montesquieu's works. And that is how the diary came into Isilda's hands."
He turned the pages at random:
"15 September, 1796. His Royal Highness went hunting.
"20 September, 1796. His Royal Highness went out riding. He was mounted on Cupidon."
"By Jove!" muttered Lupin. "So far, it's not very exciting."
He turned over a number of pages and read:
"12 March, 1803. I have remitted ten crowns to Hermann. He is giving music-lessons in London."
Lupin gave a laugh:
"Oho! Hermann is dethroned and our respect comes down with a rush!"
"Yes," observed Waldemar, "the reigning grand-duke was driven from his dominions by the French troops."
"1809. Tuesday. Napoleon slept at Veldenz last night. I made His Majesty's bed and this morning I emptied his slops."
"Oh, did Napoleon stop at Veldenz?"
"Yes, yes, on his way back to the army, at the time of the Austrian campaign, which ended with the battle of Wagram. It was an honor of which the grand-duchal family were very proud afterwards."
Lupin went on reading:
"28 October, 1814. His Royal Highness returned to his dominions.
"29 October, 1814. I accompanied His Royal Highness to the hiding-place last night and was happy to be able to show him that no one had guessed its existence. For that matter, who would have suspected that a hiding-place could be contrived in..."
Lupin stopped, with a shout. Isilda had suddenly escaped from the men guarding her, made a grab at him and taken to flight, carrying the book with her.
"Oh, the little mischief! Quick, you!... Go round by the stairs below. I'll run after her by the passage."
But she had slammed the door behind her and bolted it. He had to go down and run along the buildings with the others, looking for a staircase which would take them to the first floor.
The fourth house was the only one open. He went upstairs. But the passage was empty and he had to knock at doors, force locks and make his way into unoccupied rooms, while Waldemar, showing as much ardor in the pursuit as himself, pricked the curtains and hangings with the point of his sword.
A voice called out from the ground-floor, towards the right wing. They rushed in that direction. It was one of the officers' wives, who beckoned to them at the end of a passage and told them that the girl must be in her lodging.
"How do you know?" asked Lupin.
"I wanted to go to my room. The door was shut and I could not get in."
Lupin tried and found the door locked:
"The window!" he cried. "There must be a window!"
He went outside, took the count's sword and smashed the panes. Then, helped up by two men, he hung on to the wall, passed his arm through the broken glass, turned the latch and stumbled into the room.
He saw Isilda huddled before the fireplace, almost in the midst of the flames:
"The little beast!" he said. "She has thrown it into the fire!"
He pushed her back savagely, tried to take the book and burnt his hands in the attempt. Then, with the tongs, he pulled it out of the grate and threw the table cloth over it to stifle the blaze.
But it was too late. The pages of the old manuscript, all burnt up, were falling into ashes.
Lupin gazed at her in silence. The count said:
"One would think that she knew what she was doing."
"No, she does not know. Only, her grandfather must have entrusted her with that book as a sort of treasure, a treasure which no one was ever to set eyes on, and, with her stupid instinct, she preferred to throw it into the fire rather than part with it."
"Well then what?"
"You won't find the hiding-place."
"Aha, my dear count, so you did, for, a moment, look upon my success as possible? And Lupin does not strike you as quite a charlatan? Make your mind easy, Waldemar: Lupin has more than one string to his bow. I shall succeed."
"Before twelve o'clock tomorrow?"
"Before twelve o'clock tonight. But, for the moment, I am starving with hunger. And, if your kindness would go so far...."
He was taken to the sergeants' mess and a substantial meal prepared for him, while the count went to make his report to the Emperor.
* * * * *
Twenty minutes later, Waldemar returned and they sat down and dined together, opposite each other, silent and pensive.
"Waldemar, a good cigar would be a treat.... I thank you.... Ah, this one crackles as a self-respecting Havana should!"
He lit his cigar and, after a minute or two:
"You can smoke, count; I don't mind in the least; in fact, I rather like it."
An hour passed. Waldemar dozed and, from time to time, swallowed a glass of brandy to wake himself up.
Soldiers passed in and out, waiting on them.
"Coffee," asked Lupin.
They brought him some coffee.
"What bad stuff!" he grumbled. "If that's what Caesar drinks!... Give me another cup all the same, Waldemar. We may have a long night before us. Oh, what vile coffee!"
He lit a second cigar and did not say another word. Ten minutes passed. He continued not to move or speak.
Suddenly, Waldemar sprang to his feet and said to Lupin, angrily:
"Hi! Stand up, there!"
Lupin was whistling a tune at the moment. He kept on whistling, peacefully.
"Stand up, I say!"
Lupin turned round. His Imperial Majesty had just entered. Lupin rose from his chair.
"How far are we?" asked the Emperor.
"I think, Sire, that I shall be able to satisfy Your Imperial Majesty soon."
"What? Do you know..."
"The hiding-place? Very nearly, Sire.... A few details still escape me... but everything will be cleared up, once we are on the spot: I have no doubt of it."
"Are we to stay here?"
"No, Sire, I will beg you to go with me to the Renascence palace. But we have plenty of time; and, if Your Imperial Majesty will permit me, I should like first to think over two or three points."
Without waiting for the reply, he sat down, to Waldemar's great indignation.
In a few minutes, the Emperor, who had walked away and was talking to the count, came up to him:
"Are you ready now, M. Lupin?"
Lupin kept silence. A fresh question. His head fell on his chest.
"But he's asleep; I really believe that he's asleep!"
Waldemar, beside himself with rage, shook him violently by the shoulder. Lupin fell from his chair, sank to the floor, gave two or three convulsive movements and then lay quite still.
"What's the matter with him?" exclaimed the Emperor. "He's not dead, I hope!"
He took a lamp and bent over him:
"How pale he is! A face like wax!... Look, Waldemar.... Feel his heart.... He's alive, is he not?"
"Yes, Sire," said the count, after a moment, "the heart is beating quite regularly."
"Then what is it? I don't understand.... What happened?"
"Shall I go and fetch the doctor?"
The doctor found Lupin in the same state, lying inert and quiet. He had him put on a bed, subjected him to a long examination and asked what he had had to eat.
"Do you suspect a case of poisoning, doctor?"
"No, Sire, there are no traces of poisoning. But I am thinking... what's on that tray and in that cup?"
"Coffee," said the count.
"No, for him. I did not have any."
The doctor poured out some coffee, tasted it and said:
"I was right. He has been put to sleep with a narcotic."
"But by whom?" cried the Emperor, angrily. "Look here, Waldemar; it's exasperating, the way things happen in this place!"
"Well, yes, I've had enough of it!... I am really beginning to believe that the man's right and that there is some one in the castle.... That French money, that narcotic...."
"If any one had got into this enclosure, Sire, it would be known by this time.... We've been hunting in every direction for three hours."
"Still, I didn't make the coffee, I assure you.... And, unless you did...."
"Well, then, hunt about... search.... You have two hundred men at your disposal; and the out-houses are not so large as all that! For, after all, the ruffian is prowling round here, round these buildings... near the kitchen... somewhere or other! Go and bustle about!"
The fat Waldemar bustled about all night, conscientiously, because it was the master's order, but without conviction, because it was impossible for a stranger to hide among ruins which were so well-watched. And, as a matter of fact, the event proved that he was right: the investigations were fruitless; and no one was able to discover the mysterious hand that had prepared the narcotic drink.
Lupin spent the night lifeless on his bed. In the morning, the doctor, who had not left his side, told a messenger of the Emperor's that he was still asleep.
At nine o'clock, however, he made his first movement, a sort of effort to wake up.
Later on, he stammered:
"What time is it?"
"Twenty-five to ten."
He made a fresh effort; and it was evident that, in the midst of his torpor, his whole being was intent upon returning to life.
A clock struck ten.
He started and said:
"Let them carry me; let them carry me to the palace."
With the doctor's approval, Waldemar called his men and sent word to the Emperor. They laid Lupin on a stretcher and set out for the palace.
"The first floor," he muttered.
They carried him up.
"At the end of the corridor," he said. "The last room on the left."
They carried him to the last room, which was the twelfth, and gave him a chair, on which he sat down, exhausted.
The Emperor arrived: Lupin did not stir, sat looking, unconscious, with no expression in his eyes.
Then, in a few minutes, he seemed to wake, looked round him, at the walls, the ceilings, the people, and said:
"A narcotic, I suppose?"
"Yes," said the doctor.
"Have they found... the man?"
He seemed to be meditating and several times jerked his head with a thoughtful air: but they soon saw that he was asleep.
The Emperor went up to Waldemar:
"Order your car round."
"Oh?... But then, She... ?"
"Well, what? I am beginning to think that he is taking us in and that all this is merely play-acting, to gain time."
"Possibly... yes..." said Waldemar, agreeing.
"It's quite obvious! He is making the most of certain curious coincidences, but he knows nothing; and his story about gold coins and his narcotic are so many inventions! If we lend ourselves to his little game any longer, he'll slip out of your fingers. Your car, Waldemar."
The count gave his orders and returned. Lupin had not woke up. The Emperor, who was looking round the room, said to Waldemar:
"This is the Minerva room, is it not?"
"But then why is there an 'N' in two places?"
There were, in fact, two "N's," one over the chimney-piece, the other over an old dilapidated clock fitted into the wall and displaying a complicated set of works, with weights hanging lifeless at the end of their cords.
"The two 'N's'..." said Waldemar.
The Emperor did not listen to the answer. Lupin had moved again, opening his eyes and uttering indistinct syllables. He stood up, walked across the room and fell down from sheer weakness.
Then came the struggle, the desperate struggle of his brain, his nerves, his will against that hideous, paralyzing torpor, the struggle of a dying man against death, the struggle of life against extinction. And the sight was one of infinite sadness.
"He is suffering," muttered Waldemar.
"Or at least, he is pretending to suffer," declared the Emperor, "and pretending very cleverly at that. What an actor!"
"An injection, doctor, an injection of caffeine... at once...."
"May I, Sire?" asked the doctor.
"Certainly.... Until twelve o'clock, do all that he asks. He has my promise."
"How many minutes... before twelve o'clock?" asked Lupin.
"Forty," said somebody.
"Forty?... I shall do it.... I am sure to do it.... I've got to do it...." He took his head in his two hands. "Oh, if I had my brain, the real brain, the brain that thinks! It would be a matter of a second! There is only one dark spot left... but I cannot... my thoughts escape me.... I can't grasp it... it's awful."
His shoulders shook. Was he crying?
They heard him repeating:
"813... 813...." And, in a lower voice, "813... an '8'... a '1'... a '3'... yes, of course.... But why?... That's not enough...."
The Emperor muttered:
"He impresses me. I find it difficult to believe that a man can play a part like that...."
Half-past eleven struck... a quarter to twelve....
Lupin remained motionless, with his fists glued to his temples.
The Emperor waited, with his eyes fixed on a chronometer which Waldemar held in his hand.
Ten minutes more... five minutes more...
"Is the car there, Waldemar?... Are your men ready?"
"Is that watch of yours a repeater, Waldemar?"
"At the last stroke of twelve, then...."
"At the last stroke of twelve, Waldemar."
There was really something tragic about the scene, that sort of grandeur and solemnity which the hours assume at the approach of a possible miracle, when it seems as though the voice of fate itself were about to find utterance.
The Emperor did not conceal his anguish. This fantastic adventurer who was called Arsene Lupin and whose amazing life he knew, this man troubled him... and, although he was resolved to make an end of all this dubious story, he could not help waiting... and hoping.
Two minutes more... one minute more...
Then they counted by seconds.
Lupin seemed asleep.
"Come, get ready," said the Emperor to the count.
The count went up to Lupin and placed his hand on his shoulder.
The silvery chime of the repeater quivered and struck... one, two, three, four, five...
"Waldemar, old chap, pull the weights of the old clock."
A moment of stupefaction. It was Lupin's voice, speaking very calmly.
Waldemar, annoyed at the familiarity of the address, shrugged his shoulders.
"Do as he says, Waldemar," said the Emperor. "Yes, do as I say, my dear count," echoed Lupin, recovering his powers of chaff. "You know the ropes so well... all you have to do is to pull those of the dock... in turns... one, two... capital!... That's how they used to wind it up in the old days."
The pendulum, in fact, was started; and they heard its regular ticking.
"Now the hands," said Lupin. "Set them at a little before twelve... Don't move... Let me..."
He rose and walked to the face of the clock, standing two feet away, at most, with his eyes fixed, with every nerve attentive.
The twelve strokes sounded, twelve heavy, deep strokes.
A long silence. Nothing happened. Nevertheless, the Emperor waited, as though he were sure that something was going to happen. And Waldemar did not move, stood with wide-open eyes.
Lupin, who had stooped over the clock-face, now drew himself up, muttering:
"That's it... I have it...."
He went back to his chair and commanded:
"Waldemar, set the hands at two minutes to twelve again. Oh, no, old chap, not backwards! The way the hands go!... Yes, I know, it will take rather long... but it can't be helped."
All the hours struck and the half hours, up to half-past eleven.
"Listen, Waldemar," said Lupin.
And he spoke seriously, without jesting, as though himself excited and anxious:
"Listen, Waldemar. Do you see on the face of the clock a little round dot marking the first hour? That dot is loose, isn't it? Put the fore-finger of your left hand on it and press. Good. Do the same with your thumb on the dot marking the third hour. Good. With your right hand, push in the dot at the eighth hour. Good. Thank you. Go and sit down, my dear fellow."
The minute-hand shifted, moved to the twelfth dot and the clock struck again.
Lupin was silent and very white. The twelve strokes rang out in the silence.
At the twelfth stroke, there was a sound as of a spring being set free. The clock stopped dead. The pendulum ceased swinging.
And suddenly, the bronze ornament representing a ram's head, which crowned the dial, fell forwards, uncovering a sort of little recess cut out of the stone wall.
In this recess was a chased silver casket.
Lupin took it and carried it to the Emperor:
"Would Your Imperial Majesty be so good as to open it yourself? The letters which you instructed me to look for are inside."
The Emperor raised the lid and seemed greatly astonished.
The casket was empty.
The casket was empty.
It was an enormous, unforeseen sensation. After the success of the calculation made by Lupin, after the ingenious discovery of the secret of the clock, the Emperor, who had no doubt left as to the ultimate success, appeared utterly confounded.
Opposite him was Lupin, pallid and wan, with drawn jaws and bloodshot eyes, gnashing his teeth with rage and impotent hate.
He wiped the perspiration from his forehead, then snatched up the casket, turned it over, examined it, as though he hoped to find a false bottom. At last, for greater certainty, in a fit of fury, he crushed it, with an irresistible grip.
That relieved him. He breathed more easily.
The Emperor said:
"Who has done this?"
"Still the same man, Sire, the one who is following the same road as I and pursuing the same aim: Mr. Kesselbach's murderer."
"Last night. Ah, Sire, why did you not leave me free when I came out of prison! Had I been free, I should have come here without losing an hour. I should have arrived before him! I should have given Isilda money before he did! I should have read Malreich, the old French servant's diary, before he did!"
"So you think that it was through the revelations in the diary... ?"
"Why, yes, Sire! He had time to read them. And, lurking I don't know where, kept informed of all our movements by I don't know whom, he put me to sleep last night, in order to get rid of me."
"But the palace was guarded."
"Guarded by your soldiers, Sire. Does that count with a man like him? Besides, I have no doubt that Waldemar concentrated his search upon the outbuildings, thus thinning the posts in the palace."
"But the sound of the clock! Those twelve strokes in the night!"
"It was mere child's play, Sire, mere child's play, to him, to prevent the clock from striking!"
"All this seems very impossible to my mind."
"It all seems monstrous clear to mine, Sire! If it were possible to feel in every one of your soldiers' pockets here and now, or to know how much money they will each of them spend during the next twelve months, we should be sure to find two or three who are, at this moment, in possession of a few bank-notes: French bank-notes, of course."
"Oh!" protested Waldemar.
"But yes, my dear count, it is a question of price; and that makes no difference to 'him.' If 'he' wished, I am sure that you yourself..."
The Emperor, wrapped up in his own thoughts, was not listening. He walked across the room from left to right and right to left, then beckoned to one of the officers standing in the gallery:
"My car.... And tell them to get ready.... We're starting."
He stopped, watched Lupin for a moment and, going up to the count:
"You too, Waldemar, be off... Straight to Paris, without a break..."
Lupin pricked up his ears. He heard Waldemar reply:
"I should like to have a dozen additional guards.... With that devil of a man...."
"Take them. And look sharp. You must get there tonight."
Lupin stamped his foot violently on the floor:
"Well, no, Sire! No, no, no! It shan't be, I swear it shan't! No, no never!"
"What do you mean?"
"And the letters, Sire? The stolen letters?"
"Upon my word!..."
"So!" cried Lupin, indignantly folding his arms. "So your Imperial Majesty gives up the struggle? You look upon the defeat as irretrievable? You declare yourself beaten? Well, I do not, Sire. I have begun and I mean to finish."
The Emperor smiled at this display of mettle:
"I do not give up, but my police will set to work."
Lupin burst out laughing:
"Excuse me, Sire! It is so funny! Your police! Your Imperial Majesty's police! Why, they're worth just about as much as any other police, that is to say, nothing, nothing at all! No, Sire, I will not return to the Sante! Prison I can afford to laugh at. But time enough has been wasted as it is. I need my freedom against that man and I mean to keep it."
The Emperor shrugged his shoulders:
"You don't even know who the man is."
"I shall know, Sire. And I alone can know. And he knows that I am the only one who can know. I am his only enemy. I am the only one whom he attacks. It was I whom he meant to hit, the other day, when he fired his revolver. He considered it enough to put me and me only to sleep, last night, to be free to do as he pleased. The fight lies between him and me. The outside world has nothing to say to it. No one can help me and no one can help him.
There are two of us; and that is all. So far, chance has favored him. But, in the long run, it is inevitable, it is doomed that I should gain the day."
"Because I am the better man."
"Suppose he kills you?"
"He will not kill me. I shall draw his daws, I shall make him perfectly harmless. And you shall have the letters, Sire. They are yours. There is no power on earth than can prevent me from restoring them to you."
He spoke with a violent conviction and a tone of certainty that gave to the things which he foretold the real appearance of things already accomplished.
The Emperor could not help undergoing a vague, inexplicable feeling in which there was a sort of admiration combined with a good deal of that confidence which Lupin was demanding in so masterful a manner. In reality, he was hesitating only because of his scruples against employing this man and making him, so to speak, his ally. And, anxiously, not knowing what decision to take, he walked from the gallery to the windows without saying a word.
At last, he asked:
"And who says that the letters were stolen last night?"
"The theft is dated, Sire."
"What do you say?"
"Look at the inner side of the pediment which concealed the hiding-place. The date is written in white chalk: 'Midnight, 24 August,'..."
"So it is," muttered the Emperor, nonplussed. "'How was it that I did not see?" And he added, betraying his curiosity, "Just as with those two 'N's painted on the wall.... I can't understand. This is the Minerva Room."
"This is the room in which Napoleon, the Emperor of the French slept," said Lupin.
"How do you know?"
"Ask Waldemar, Sire. As for myself, when I was turning over the old servants' diary, it came upon me as a flash of light. I understood that Shears and I had been on the wrong scent. APOON, the imperfect word written by the Grand-duke Hermann on his death-bed, is a contraction not of Apollon, but of Napoleon."
"That's true... you are right," said the Emperor. "The same letters occur in both words and in the same order. The grand-duke evidently meant to write 'Napoleon.' But that figure 813?..."
"Ah, that was the point that gave me most trouble. I always had an idea that we must add up the three figures 8, 1 and 3; and the number 12, thus obtained, seemed to me at once to apply to this room, which is the twelfth leading out of the gallery. But that was not enough for me. There must be something else, something which my enfeebled brain could not succeed in translating into words. The sight of that clock, situated precisely in the Napoleon Room, was a revelation to me. The number 12 evidently meant twelve o'clock. The hour of noon! The hour of midnight! Is this not the solemn moment which a man most readily selects? But why those three figures 8, 1 and 3, rather than any others which would have given the same total?... It was then that I thought of making the clock strike for the first time, by way of experiment. And it was while making it strike that I saw the dots of the first, third and eighth hour were movable and that they alone were movable. I therefore obtained three figures, 1, 3 and 8, which, placed in a more prophetic order, gave the number 813. Waldemar pushed the three dots, the spring was released and Your Imperial Majesty knows the result.... This, Sire, is the explanation of that mysterious word and of those three figures 8, 1, 3 which the grand-duke wrote with his dying hand and by the aid of which he hoped that his son would one day recover the secret of Veldenz and become the possessor of the famous letters which he had hidden there."
The Emperor listened with eager attention, more and more surprised at the ingenuity, perspicacity, shrewdness and intelligent will which he observed in the man.
"Waldemar," he said, when Lupin had finished.
But, just as he was about to speak, shouts were heard in the gallery outside.
Waldemar left the room and returned:
"It's the mad girl, Sire. They won't let her pass."
"Let her come in." cried Lupin, eagerly. "She must come in, Sire."
At a sign from the Emperor, Waldemar went out to fetch Isilda.
Her entrance caused a general stupefaction. Her pale face was covered with dark blotches. Her distorted features bore signs of the keenest suffering. She panted for breath, with her two hands clutched against her breast.
"Oh!" cried Lupin, struck with horror.
"What is it?" asked the Emperor.
"Your doctor, Sire. There is not a moment to lose."
He went up to her:
"Speak, Isilda.... Have you seen anything? Have you anything to say?"
The girl had stopped; her eyes were less vacant, as though lighted up by the pain. She uttered sounds.... but not a word.
"Listen," said Lupin. "Answer yes or no... make a movement of the head... Have you seen him? Do you know where he is?... You know who he is.... Listen! if you don't answer...."
He suppressed a gesture of anger. But, suddenly, remembering the experiment of the day before and that she seemed rather to have retained a certain optical memory of the time when she enjoyed her full reason, he wrote on the white wall a capital "L" and "M."
She stretched out her arm toward the letters and nodded her head as though in assent.
"And then?" said Lupin. "What then?... Write something yourself."
But she gave a fearful scream and flung herself to the ground, yelling.
Then, suddenly, came silence, immobility. One last convulsive spasm. And she moved no more.
"Dead?" asked the Emperor.
"Oh, the poor thing!... And by whom?"
"By 'him,' Sire. She knew him, no doubt. He must have been afraid of what she might tell."
The doctor arrived. The Emperor pointed to the girl. Then, addressing Waldemar:
"All your men to turn out... Make them go through the houses... telegraph to the stations on the frontier...."
He went up to Lupin:
"How long do you want to recover the letters?"
"A month, Sire... two months at most."
"Very well. Waldemar will wait for you here. He shall have my orders and full powers to grant you anything you wish."
"What I should like, Sire, is my freedom."
"You are free."
Lupin watched him walk away and said, between his teeth:
"My freedom first.... And afterward, when I have given you back the letters, O Majesty, one little shake of the hand! Then we shall be quits!..."