CHAPTER IV. PRINCE SERNINE AT WORK
A GROUND-FLOOR flat, at the corner of the Boulevard Haussmann and the Rue de Courcelles. Here lived Prince Sernine: Prince Sernine, one of the most brilliant members of the Russian colony in Paris, whose name was constantly recurring in the "Arrivals and Departures" column in the newspapers.
Eleven o'clock in the morning. The prince entered his study. He was a man of thirty-eight or forty years of age, whose chestnut hair was mingled with a few silver threads on the temples. He had a fresh, healthy complexion and wore a large mustache and a pair of whiskers cut extremely short, so as to be hardly noticeable against the fresh skin of his cheeks.
He was smartly dressed in a tight-fitting frock-coat and a white drill waistcoat, which showed above the opening.
"Come on!" he said, in an undertone. "I have a hard day's work before me, I expect."
He opened a door leading into a large room where a few people sat waiting, and said:
"Is Varnier there? Come in, Varnier."
A man looking like a small tradesman, squat, solidly built, firmly set upon his legs, entered at the summons. The prince closed the door behind him:
"Well, Varnier, how far are you?"
"Everything's ready for this evening, governor."
"Good. Tell me in a few words."
"It's like this. After her husband's murder, Mrs. Kesselbach, on the strength of the prospectuses which you ordered to be sent to her, selected as her residence the establishment known as the Retreat for Gentlewomen, at Garches. She occupies the last of the four small houses, at the bottom of the garden, which the management lets to ladies who prefer to live quite apart from the other boarders, the house known as the Pavilion de l'Imperatrice."
"What servants has she?"
"Her companion, Gertrude, with whom she arrived a few hours after the crime, and Gertrude's sister Suzanne, whom she sent for to Monte Carlo and who acts as her maid. The two sisters are devoted to her."
"What about Edwards, the valet?"
"She did not keep him. He has gone back to his own country."
"Does she see people?"
"No. She spends her time lying on a sofa. She seems very weak and ill. She cries a great deal. Yesterday the examining-magistrate was with her for two hours."
"Very good. And now about the young girl."
"Mlle. Genevieve Ernemont lives across the way... in a lane running toward the open country, the third house on the right in the lane. She keeps a free school for backward children. Her grandmother, Mme. Ernemont, lives with her."
"And, according to what you wrote to me, Genevieve Ernemont and Mrs. Kesselbach have become acquainted?"
"Yes. The girl went to ask Mrs. Kesselbach for a subscription for her school. They must have taken a liking to each other, for, during the past four days, they have been walking together in the Pare de Villeneuve, of which the garden of the Retreat is only a dependency."
"At what time do they go out?"
"From five to six. At six o'clock exactly the young lady goes back to her school."
"So you have arranged the thing?"
"For six o'clock today. Everything is ready."
"Will there be no one there?"
"There is never any one in the park at that hour."
"Very well. I shall be there. You can go."
He sent him out through the door leading to the hall, and, returning to the waiting-room, called:
"The brothers Doudeville."
Two young men entered, a little overdressed, keen-eyed and pleasant-looking.
"Good morning, Jean. Good morning, Jacques. Any news at the Prefecture?"
"Nothing much, governor."
"Does M. Lenormand continue to have confidence in you?"
"Yes. Next to Gourel, we are his favorite inspectors. A proof is that he has posted us in the Palace Hotel to watch the people who were living on the first-floor passage at the time of Chapman's murder. Gourel comes every morning, and we make the same report to him that we do to you."
"Capital. It is essential that I should be informed of all that happens and all that is said at the Prefecture of Police. As long as Lenormand looks upon you as his men, I am master of the situation. And have you discovered a trail of any kind in the hotel?"
Jean Doudeville, the elder of the two, replied:
"The Englishwoman who occupied one of the bedrooms has gone."
"That doesn't interest me. I know all about her. But her neighbor, Major Parbury?"
They seemed embarrassed. At last, one of them replied:
"Major Parbury, this morning, ordered his luggage to be taken to the Gare du Nord, for the twelve-fifty train, and himself drove away in a motor. We were there when the train left. The major did not come."
"And the luggage?"
"He had it fetched at the station."
"By a commissionaire," so we were told.
"Then his tracks are lost?"
"At last!" cried the prince, joyfully.
The others looked at him in surprise.
"Why, of course," he said, "that's a clue!"
"Do you think so?"
"Evidently. The murder of Chapman can only have been committed in one of the rooms on that passage. Mr. Kesselbach's murderer took the secretary there, to an accomplice, killed him there, changed his clothes there; and, once the murderer had got away, the accomplice placed the corpse in the passage. But which accomplice? The manner of Major Parbury's disappearance goes to show that he knows something of the business. Quick, telephone the good news to M. Lenormand or Gourel. The Prefecture must be informed as soon as possible. The people there and I are marching hand in hand."
He gave them a few more injunctions, concerning their double role as police-inspectors in the service of Prince Sernine, and dismissed them.
Two visitors remained in the waiting-room. He called one of them in:
"A thousand pardons, Doctor," he said. "I am quite at your orders now. How is Pierre Leduc?"
"Aha!" said Sernine. "I expected it, after your note of this morning. But, all the same, the poor beggar has not been long...."
"He was wasted to a shadow. A fainting-fit; and it was all over."
"Did he not speak?"
"Are you sure that, from the day when the two of us picked him up under the table in that low haunt at Belleville, are you sure that nobody in your nursing-home suspected that he was the Pierre Leduc whom the police were looking for, the mysterious Pierre Leduc whom Mr. Kesselbach was trying to find at all costs?"
"Nobody. He had a room to himself. Moreover, I bandaged up his left hand so that the injury to the little finger could not be seen. As for the scar on the cheek, it is hidden by the beard."
"And you looked after him yourself?"
"Myself. And, according to your instructions, I took the opportunity of questioning him whenever he seemed at all clear in his head. But I could never get more than an inarticulate stammering out of him."
The prince muttered thoughtfully:
"Dead!... So Pierre Leduc is dead?... The whole Kesselbach case obviously turned on him, and now he disappears... without a revelation, without a word about himself, about his past.... Ought I to embark on this adventure, in which I am still entirely in the dark? It's dangerous.... I may come to grief...."
He reflected for a moment and exclaimed:
"Oh, who cares? I shall go on for all that. It's no reason, because Pierre Leduc is dead, that I should throw up the game. On the contrary! And the opportunity is too tempting! Pierre Leduc is dead! Long live Pierre Leduc!... Go, Doctor, go home. I shall ring you up before dinner."
The doctor went out.
"Now, then, Philippe," said Sernine to his last remaining visitor, a little gray-haired man, dressed like a waiter at a hotel, a very tenth-rate hotel, however.
"You will remember, governor," Philippe began, "that last week, you made me go as boots to the Hotel des Deux-Empereurs at Versailles, to keep my eye on a young man."
"Yes, I know.... Gerard Baupre. How do things stand with him?"
"He's at the end of his resources."
"Still full of gloomy ideas?"
"Yes. He wants to kill himself."
"Is he serious?"
"Quite. I found this little note in pencil among his papers."
"Ah!" said Sernine, reading the note. "He announces his suicide... and for this evening too!"
"Yes, governor, he has bought the rope and screwed the hook to the ceiling. Thereupon, acting on your instructions, I talked to him. He told me of his distress, and I advised him to apply to you: 'Prince Sernine is rich,' I said; 'he is generous; perhaps he will help you.'"
"All this is first-rate. So he is coming?"
"He is here."
"How do you know?"
"I followed him. He took the train to Paris, and he is walking up and down the boulevard at this minute. He will make up his mind from one moment to the other."
Just then the servant brought in a card. The prince glanced at it and said to the man:
"Show M. Gerard Baupre in."
Then, turning to Philippe:
"You go into the dressing-room, here; listen and don't stir."
Left alone, the prince muttered:
"Why should I hesitate? It's fate that sends him my way...."
A few minutes later a tall young man entered. He was fair and slender, with an emaciated face and feverish eyes, and he stood on the threshold embarrassed, hesitating, in the attitude of a beggar who would like to put out his hand for alms and dares not.
The conversation was brief:
"Are you M. Gerard Baupre?"
"Yes... yes... that is my name."
"I have not the honor..."
"It's like this, sir.... Some one told me..."
"A hotel servant... who said he had been in your service...."
"Please come to the point...."
The young man stopped, taken aback and frightened by the haughty attitude adopted by the prince, who exclaimed:
"But, sir, there must be some..."
"Well, sir, the man told me that you were very rich... and very generous.... And I thought that you might possibly..."
He broke off short, incapable of uttering the word of prayer and humiliation.
Sernine went up to him.
"M. Gerard Baupre, did you not publish a volume of poetry called The Smile of Spring?"
"Yes, yes," cried the young man, his face lighting up. "Have you read it?"
"Yes.... Very pretty, your poems, very pretty.... Only, do you reckon upon being able to live on what they will bring you?"
"Certainly... sooner or later...."
"Sooner or later? Later rather than sooner, I expect! And, meantime, you have come to ask me for the wherewithal to live?"
"For the wherewithal to buy food, sir."
Sernine put his hand on the young man's shoulder and, coldly:
"Poets do not need food, monsieur. They live on rhymes and dreams. Do as they do. That is better than begging for bread."
The young man quivered under the insult. He turned to the door without a word.
Sernine stopped him:
"One thing more, monsieur. Have you no resources of any kind?"
"None at all."
"And you are not reckoning on anything?"
"I have one hope left: I have written to one of my relations, imploring him to send me something. I shall have his answer today. It is my last chance."
"And, if you have no answer, you have doubtless made up your mind, this very evening, to..."
This was said quite plainly and simply.
Sernine burst out laughing:
"Bless my soul, what a queer young man you are! And full of artless conviction, too! Come and see me again next year, will you? We will talk about all this... it's so curious, so interesting... and, above all, so funny!... Ha, ha, ha, ha!"
And, shaking with laughter, with affected bows and gestures, he showed him the door.
"Philippe," he said, admitting the hotel-servant, "did you hear?"
"Gerard Baupre is expecting a telegram this afternoon, a promise of assistance...."
"Yes, it's his last hope."
"He must not receive that telegram. If it comes, intercept it and tear it up."
"Very well, governor."
"Are you alone at your hotel?"
"Yes, with the cook, who does not sleep in. The boss is away."
"Good. So we are the masters. Till this evening, at eleven. Be off."
Prince Sernine went to his room and rang for his servant:
"My hat, gloves, and stick. Is the car there?"
He dressed, went out, and sank into a large, comfortable limousine, which took him to the Bois de Boulogne, to the Marquis and Marquise de Gastyne's, where he was engaged for lunch.
At half-past two he took leave of his hosts, stopped in the Avenue Kleber, picked up two of his friends and a doctor, and at five minutes to three arrived at the Pare des Princes.
At three o'clock he fought a sword duel with the Italian Major Spinelli, cut his adversary's ear in the first bout, and, at a quarter to four, took a bank at the Rue Cambon Club, from which he retired, at twenty minutes past five, after winning forty-seven thousand francs.
And all this without hurrying, with a sort of haughty indifference, as though the feverish activity that sent his life whizzing through a whirl of tempestuous deeds and events were the ordinary rule of his most peaceful days.
"Octave," he said to his chauffeur, "go to Garches."
And at ten minutes to six he alighted outside the old walls of the Pare de Villeneuve.
* * * * *
Although broken up nowadays and spoilt, the Villeneuve estate still retains something of the splendor which it knew at the time when the Empress Eugenie used to stay there. With its old trees, its lake and the leafy horizon of the woods of Saint-Cloud, the landscape has a certain melancholy grace.
An important part of the estate was made over to the Pasteur Institute. A smaller portion, separated from the other by the whole extent of the space reserved for the public, forms a property contained within the walls which is still fairly large, and which comprises the House of Retreat, with four isolated garden-houses standing around it.
"That is where Mrs. Kesselbach lives," said the prince to himself, catching sight of the roofs of the house and the four garden-houses in the distance.
He crossed the park and walked toward the lake.
Suddenly he stopped behind a clump of trees. He had seen two ladies against the parapet of the bridge that crossed the lake:
"Varnier and his men must be somewhere near. But, by Jove, they are keeping jolly well hidden! I can't see them anywhere...."
The two ladies were now strolling across the lawns, under the tall, venerable trees. The blue of the sky appeared between the branches, which swayed in the peaceful breeze, and the scent of spring and of young vegetation was wafted through the air.
On the grassy slopes that ran down to the motionless water, daisies, violets, daffodils, lilies of the valley, all the little flowers of April and May stood grouped, and, here and there, formed constellations of every color. The sun was sinking on the horizon.
And, all at once, three men started from a thicket of bushes and made for the two ladies.
They accosted them. A few words were exchanged. The ladies gave visible signs of dread. One of the men went up to the shorter of the two and tried to snatch the gold purse which she was carrying in her hand. They cried out; and the three men flung themselves upon them.
"Now or never!" said the prince.
And he rushed forward. In ten seconds he had almost reached the brink of the water. At his approach, the three men fled.
"Run away, you vagabonds," he chuckled; "run for all you are worth! Here's the rescuer coming!"
And he set out in pursuit of them. But one of the ladies entreated him:
"Oh, sir, I beg of you... my friend is ill."
The shorter lady had fallen on the grass in a dead faint.
He retraced his steps and, anxiously:
"She is not wounded?" he asked. "Did those scoundrels..."
"No... no... it's only the fright... the excitement.... Besides you will understand... the lady is Mrs. Kesselbach...."
"Oh!" he said.
He produced a bottle of smelling-salts, which the younger woman at once applied to her friend's nostrils. And he added:
"Lift the amethyst that serves as a stopper.... You will see a little box containing some tabloids. Give madame one of them... one, no more... they are very strong...."
He watched the young woman helping her friend. She was fair-haired, very simply dressed; and her face was gentle and grave, with a smile that lit up her features even when she was not smiling.
"That is Genevieve," he thought. And he repeated with emotion, "Genevieve.... Genevieve..."
Meanwhile, Mrs. Kesselbach gradually recovered consciousness. She was astonished at first, seemed not to understand. Then, her memory returning, she thanked her deliverer with a movement of the head.
He made a deep bow and said:
"Allow me to introduce myself.... I am Prince Sernine...."
She said, in a faint voice:
"I do not know how to express my gratitude."
"By not expressing it at all, madame. You must thank chance, the chance that turned my steps in this direction. May I offer you my arm?"
A few minutes later, Mrs. Kesselbach rang at the door of the House of Retreat and said to the prince:
"I will ask one more service of you, monsieur. Do not speak of this assault."
"And yet, madame, it would be the only way of finding out..."
"Any attempt to find out would mean an inquiry; and that would involve more noise and fuss about me, examinations, fatigue; and I am worn out as it is.
The prince did not insist. Bowing to her, he asked:
"Will you allow me to call and ask how you are?"
She kissed Genevieve and went indoors.
Meantime, night was beginning to fall. Sernine would not let Genevieve return alone. But they had hardly entered the path, when a figure, standing out against the shadow, hastened toward them.
"Grandmother!" cried Genevieve.
She threw herself into the arms of an old woman, who covered her with kisses:
"Oh, my darling, my darling, what has happened? How late you are!... And you are always so punctual!"
Genevieve introduced the prince:
"Prince Sernine... Mme. Ernemont, my grandmother...."
Then she related the incident, and Mme. Ernemont repeated:
"Oh, my darling, how frightened you must have been!... I shall never forget your kindness, monsieur, I assure you.... But how frightened you must have been, my poor darling!"
"Come, granny, calm yourself, as I am here...."
"Yes, but the fright may have done you harm.... One never knows the consequences.... Oh, it's horrible!..."
They went along a hedge, through which a yard planted with trees, a few shrubs, a playground and a white house were just visible. Behind the house, sheltered by a clump of elder-trees arranged to form a covered walk, was a little gate.
The old lady asked Prince Sernine to come in and led the way to a little drawing-room or parlor. Genevieve asked leave to withdraw for a moment, to go and see her pupils, whose supper-time it was. The prince and Mme. Ernemont remained alone.
The old lady had a sad and a pale face, under her white hair, which ended in two long, loose curls. She was too stout, her walk was heavy and, notwithstanding her appearance and her dress, which was that of a lady, she had something a little vulgar about her; but her eyes were immensely kind.
Prince Sernine went up to her, took her head in his two hands and kissed her on both cheeks:
"Well, old one, and how are you?"
She stood dumfounded, wild-eyed, open-mouthed. The prince kissed her again, laughing.
"You! It's you! O mother of God!... O mother of God!... Is it possible!... O mother of God!..."
"My dear old Victoire!"
"Don't call me that," she cried, shuddering. "Victoire is dead... your old servant no longer exists. I belong entirely to Genevieve." And, lowering her voice, "O mother of God!... I saw your name in the papers: then it's true that you have taken to your wicked life again?"
"As you see."
"And yet you swore to me that it was finished, that you were going away for good, that you wanted to become an honest man."
"I tried. I have been trying for four years.... You can't say that I have got myself talked about during those four years!"
"Well, it bores me."
She gave a sigh and asked:
"Always the same.... You haven't changed.... Oh, it's settled, you never will change.... So you are in the Kesselbach case?"
"Why, of course! But for that, would I have taken the trouble to arrange for an attack on Mrs. Kesselbach at six o'clock, so that I might have the opportunity of delivering her from the clutches of my own men at five minutes past? Looking upon me as her rescuer, she is obliged to receive me. I am now in the heart of the citadel and, while protecting the widow, can keep a lookout all round. Ah, you see, the sort of life which I lead does not permit me to lounge about and waste my time on little questions of politeness and such outside matters. I have to go straight to the point, violently, brutally, dramatically...."
She looked at him in dismay and gasped:
"I see... I see... it's all lies about the attack.... But then... Genevieve..."
"Why, I'm killing two birds with one stone! It was as easy to rescue two as one. Think of the time it would have taken, the efforts — useless efforts, perhaps— to worm myself into that child's friendship! What was I to her? What should I be now? An unknown person... a stranger. Whereas now I am the rescuer. In an hour I shall be... the friend."
She began to tremble:
"So... so you did not rescue Genevieve.... So you are going to mix us up in your affairs...." And, suddenly, in a fit of rebellion, seizing him by the shoulders, "No, I won't have it, do you understand? You brought the child to me one day, saying, 'Here, I entrust her to you... her father and mother are dead... take her under your protection.' Well, she's under my protection now and I shall know how to defend her against you and all your manoeuvers!"
Standing straight upright, in a very determined attitude, Mme. Ernemont seemed ready for all emergencies.
Slowly and deliberately Sernine loosened the two hands, one after the other, that held him, and in his turn, took the old lady by the shoulders, forced her into an arm-chair, stooped over and, in a very calm voice, said:
She began to cry and, clasping her hands together, implored him:
"I beseech you, leave us in peace. We were so happy! I thought that you had forgotten us and I blessed Heaven every time a day had passed. Why, yes... I love you just the same. But, Genevieve... you see, there's nothing that I wouldn't do for that child. She has taken your place in my heart."
"So I perceive," said he, laughing. "You would send me to the devil with pleasure. Come, enough of this nonsense! I have no time to waste. I must talk to Genevieve."
"You're going to talk to her?"
"Well, is that a crime?"
"And what have you to tell her?"
"A secret... a very grave secret... and a very touching one...."
The old lady took fright:
"And one that will cause her sorrow, perhaps? Oh, I fear everything, I fear everything, where she's concerned!..."
"She is coming," he said.
"No, not yet."
"Yes, yes, I hear her.... Wipe your eyes and be sensible."
"Listen," said she, eagerly, "listen. I don't know what you are going to say, what secret you mean to reveal to this child whom you don't know. But I, who do know her, tell you this: Genevieve has a very plucky, very spirited, but very sensitive nature. Be careful how you choose your words.... You might wound feelings... the existence of which you cannot even suspect...."
"Lord bless me! And why not?"
"Because she belongs to another race than you, to a different world.... I mean, a different moral world.... There are things which you are forbidden to understand nowadays. Between you and her, the obstacle is insurmountable.... Genevieve has the most unblemished and upright conscience... and you..."
"And you are not an honest man!"
Genevieve entered, bright and charming:
"All my babies have gone to bed; I have ten minutes to spare.... Why, grandmother, what's the matter? You look quite upset.... Is it still that business with the..."
"No, mademoiselle," said Sernine, "I believe I have had the good fortune to reassure your grandmother. Only, we were talking of you, of your childhood; and that is a subject, it seems, which your grandmother cannot touch upon without emotion."
"Of my childhood?" said Genevieve, reddening. "Oh, grandmother!"
"Don't scold her, mademoiselle. The conversation turned in that direction by accident. It so happens that I have often passed through the little village where you were brought up."
"Yes, Aspremont, near Nice. You used to live in a new house, white all over...."
"Yes," she said, "white all over, with a touch of blue paint round the windows.... I was only seven years old when I left Aspremont; but I remember the least things of that period. And I have not forgotten the glare of the sun on the white front of the house, nor the shade of the eucalyptus-tree at the bottom of the garden."
"At the bottom of the garden, mademoiselle, was a field of olive-trees; and under one of those olive-trees stood a table at which your mother used to work on hot days...."
"That's true, that's true," she said, quite excitedly. "I used to play by her side...."
"And it was there," said he, "that I saw your mother several times.... I recognized her image the moment I set eyes on you... but it was a brighter, happier image."
"Yes, my poor mother was not happy. My father died on the very day of my birth, and nothing was ever able to console her. She used to cry a great deal. I still possess a little handkerchief with which I used to dry her tears at that time."
"A little handkerchief with a pink pattern."
"What!" she exclaimed, seized with surprise. "You know..."
"I was there one day when you were comforting her.... And you comforted her so prettily that the scene remained impressed on my memory."
She gave him a penetrating glance and murmured, almost to herself:
"Yes, yes.... I seem to... The expression of your eyes... and then the sound of your voice...."
She lowered her eyelids for a moment and reflected as if she were vainly trying to bring back a recollection that escaped her. And she continued:
"Then you knew her?"
"I had some friends living near Aspremont and used to meet her at their house. The last time I saw her, she seemed to me sadder still... paler... and, when I came back again..."
"It was all over, was it not?" said Genevieve. "Yes, she went very quickly... in a few weeks... and I was left alone with neighbors who sat up with her... and one morning they took her away.... And, on the evening of that day, some one came, while I was asleep, and lifted me up and wrapped me in blankets...."
"A man?" asked the prince.
"Yes, a man. He talked to me, quite low, very gently... his voice did me good... and, as he carried me down the road and also in the carriage, during the night, he rocked me in his arms and told me stories... in the same voice... in the same voice..."
She broke off gradually and looked at him again, more sharply than before and with a more obvious effort to seize the fleeting impression that passed over her at moments. He asked:
"And then? Where did he take you?"
"I can't recollect clearly... it is just as though I had slept for several days.... I can remember nothing before the little town of Montegut, in the Vendee, where I spent the second half of my childhood, with Father and Mother Izereau, a worthy couple who reared me and brought me up and whose love and devotion I shall never forget."
"And did they die, too?"
"Yes," she said, "of an epidemic of typhoid fever in the district... but I did not know that until later.... As soon as they fell ill, I was carried off as on the first occasion and under the same conditions, at night, by some one who also wrapped me up in blankets.... Only, I was bigger, I struggled, I tried to call out... and he had to close my mouth with a silk handkerchief."
"How old were you then?"
"Fourteen... it was four years ago."
"Then you were able to see what the man was like?"
"No, he hid his face better and he did not speak a single word to me.... Nevertheless, I have always believed him to be the same one... for I remember the same solicitude, the same attentive, careful movements...."
"And after that?"
"After that, came oblivion, sleep, as before.... This time, I was ill, it appears; I was feverish.... And I woke in a bright, cheerful room. A white-haired lady was bending over me and smiling. It was grandmother... and the room was the one in which I now sleep upstairs."
She had resumed her happy face, her sweet, radiant expression; and she ended, with a smile:
"That was how she became my grandmother and how, after a few trials, the little Aspremont girl now knows the delights of a peaceful life and teaches grammar and arithmetic to little girls who are either naughty or lazy... but who are all fond of her."
She spoke cheerfully, in a tone at once thoughtful and gay, and it was obvious that she possessed a reasonable, well-balanced mind. Sernine listened to her with growing surprise and without trying to conceal his agitation:
"Have you never heard speak of that man since?" he asked.
"And would you be glad to see him again?"
"Oh, very glad."
"Well, then, mademoiselle..."
Genevieve gave a start:
"You know something... the truth perhaps...."
"No... no... only..."
He rose and walked up and down the room. From time to time, his eyes fell upon Genevieve; and it looked as though he were on the point of giving a more precise answer to the question which she had put to him. Would he speak?"
Mme. Ernemont awaited with anguish the revelation of the secret upon which the girl's future peace might depend.
He sat down beside Genevieve, appeared to hesitate, and said at last:
"No... no... just now... an idea occurred to me... a recollection..."
"A recollection?... And..."
"I was mistaken. Your story contained certain details that misled me."
"Are you sure?"
He hesitated and then declared:
"Oh," said she, greatly disappointed. "I had half guessed... that that man whom I saw twice... that you knew him... that..."
She did not finish her sentence, but waited for an answer to the question which she had put to him without daring to state it completely.
He was silent. Then, insisting no further, she bent over Mme. Ernemont:
"Good night, grandmother. My children must be in bed by this time, but they could none of them go to sleep before I had kissed them."
She held out her hand to the prince:
"Thank you once more...."
"Are you going?" he asked quickly.
"Yes, if you will excuse me; grandmother will see you out."
He bowed low and kissed her hand. As she opened the door, she turned round and smiled. Then she disappeared. The prince listened to the sound of her footsteps diminishing in the distance and stood stock-still, his face white with emotion.
"Well," said the old lady, "so you did not speak?"
"Later.... Today... oddly enough... I was not able to."
"Was it so difficult? Did not she herself feel that you were the stranger who took her away twice.... A word would have been enough...."
"Later, later," he repeated, recovering all his assurance. "You can understand... the child hardly knows me.... I must first gain the right to her affection, to her love.... When I have given her the life which she deserves, a wonderful life, such as one reads of in fairy-tales, then I will speak."
The old lady tossed her head:
"I fear that you are making a great mistake. Genevieve does not want a wonderful life. She has simple tastes."
"She has the tastes of all women; and wealth, luxury and power give joys which not one of them despises."
"Yes, Genevieve does. And you would do much better...."
"We shall see. For the moment, let me go my own way. And be quite easy. I have not the least intention, as you say, of mixing her up in any of my manoeuvers. She will hardly ever see me.... Only, we had to come into contact, you know.... That's done.... Good-bye."
He left the school and walked to where his motor-car was waiting for him. He was perfectly happy:
"She is charming... and so gentle, so grave! Her mother's eyes, eyes that soften you... Heavens, how long ago that all is! And what a delightful recollection! A little sad, but so delightful!" And he said, aloud, "Certainly I shall look after her happiness! And that at once! This very evening! That's it, this very evening she shall have a sweetheart! Is not love the essential condition of any young girl's happiness?"
He found his car on the high-road:
"Home," he said to Octave.
* * * * *
When Sernine reached home, he rang up Neuilly and telephoned his instructions to the friend whom he called the doctor. Then he dressed, dined at the Rue Cambon Club, spent an hour at the opera and got into his car again:
"Go to Neuilly, Octave. We are going to fetch the doctor. What's the time?"
"Dash it! Look sharp!"
Ten minutes later, the car stopped at the end of the Boulevard Inkerman, outside a villa standing in its own grounds. The doctor came down at the sound of the hooter. The prince asked:
"Is the fellow ready?"
"Packed up, strung up, sealed up."
"In good condition?"
"Excellent. If everything goes as you telephoned, the police will be utterly at sea."
"That's what they're there for. Let's get him on board."
They carried into the motor a sort of long sack shaped like a human being and apparently rather heavy. And the prince said:
"Go to Versailles, Octave, Rue de la Vilaine. Stop outside the Hotel des Deux-Empereurs."
"Why, it's a filthy hotel," observed the doctor. "I know it well; a regular hovel."
"You needn't tell me! And it will be a hard piece of work, for me, at least.... But, by Jove! I wouldn't sell this moment for a fortune! Who dares pretend that life is monotonous?"
They reached the Hotel des Deux-Empereurs. A muddy alley; two steps down; and they entered a passage lit by a flickering lamp.
Sernine knocked with his fist against a little door.
A waiter appeared, Philippe, the man to whom Sernine had given orders, that morning, concerning Gerard Baupre.
"Is he here still?" asked the prince.
"The knot is made."
"He has not received the telegram he was hoping for?"
"I intercepted it: here it is."
Sernine took the blue paper and read it:
"Gad!" he said. "It was high time. This is to promise him a thousand francs for tomorrow. Come, fortune is on my side. A quarter to twelve.... In a quarter of an hour, the poor devil will take a leap into eternity. Show me the way, Philippe. You stay here, Doctor."
The waiter took the candle. They climbed to the third floor, and, walking on tip-toe, went along a low and evil-smelling corridor, lined with garrets and ending in a wooden staircase covered with the musty remnants of a carpet.
"Can no one hear me?" asked Sernine.
"No. The two rooms are quite detached. But you must be careful not to make a mistake: he is in the room on the left."
"Very good. Now go downstairs. At twelve o'clock, the doctor, Octave and you are to carry the fellow up here, to where we now stand, and wait till I call you."
The wooden staircase had ten treads, which the prince climbed with definite caution. At the top was a landing with two doors. It took Sernine quite five minutes to open the one of the right without breaking the silence with the least sound of a creaking hinge.
A light gleamed through the darkness of the room. Feeling his way, so as not to knock against one of the chairs, he made for that light. It came from the next room and filtered through a glazed door covered with a tattered hanging.
The prince pulled the threadbare stuff aside. The panes were of ground glass, but scratched in parts, so that, by applying one eye, it was easy to see all that happened in the other room.
Sernine saw a man seated at a table facing him. It was the poet, Gerard Baupre. He was writing by the light of a candle.
Above his head hung a rope, which was fastened to a hook fixed in the ceiling. At the end of the rope was a slip-knot.
A faint stroke sounded from a clock in the street.
"Five minutes to twelve," thought Sernine. "Five minutes more."
The young man was still writing. After a moment, he put down his pen, collected the ten or twelve sheets of paper which he had covered and began to read them over.
What he read did not seem to please him, for an expression of discontent passed across his face. He tore up his manuscript and burnt the pieces in the flame of the candle.
Then, with a fevered hand, he wrote a few words on a clean sheet, signed it savagely and rose from his chair.
But, seeing the rope at ten inches above his head, he sat down again suddenly with a great shudder of alarm. Sernine distinctly saw his pale features, his lean cheeks, against which he pressed his clenched fists. A tear trickled slowly down his face, a single, disconsolate tear. His eyes gazed into space, eyes terrifying in their unutterable sadness, eyes that already seemed to behold the dread unknown.
And it was so young a face! Cheeks still so smooth, with not a blemish, not a wrinkle! And blue eyes, blue like an eastern sky!...
Midnight... the twelve tragic strokes of midnight, to which so many a despairing man has hitched the last second of his existence!
At the twelfth stroke, he stood up again and, bravely this time, without trembling, looked at the sinister rope. He even tried to give a smile, a poor smile, the pitiful grimace of the doomed man whom death has already seized for its own.
Swiftly he climbed the chair and took the rope in one hand.
For a moment, he stood there, motionless: not that he was hesitating or lacking in courage. But this was the supreme moment, the one minute of grace which a man allows himself before the fatal deed.
He gazed at the squalid room to which his evil destiny had brought him, the hideous paper on the walls, the wretched bed.
On the table, not a book: all were sold. Not a photograph, not a letter: he had no father, no mother, no relations. What was there to make him cling to life?
With a sudden movement he put his head into the slip-knot and pulled at the rope until the noose gripped his neck.
And, kicking the chair from him with both feet, he leapt into space.
* * * * *
Ten seconds, fifteen seconds passed, twenty formidable, eternal seconds....
The body gave two or three jerks. The feet had instinctively felt for a resting-place. Then nothing moved....
A few seconds more.... The little glazed door opened.
Without the least haste he took the sheet of paper to which the young man had set his signature, and read:
"Tired of living, ill, penniless, hopeless, I am taking my own life. Let no one be accused of my death.
* * * * *
He put back the paper on the table where it could be seen, picked up the chair and placed it under the young man's feet. He himself climbed up on the table and, holding the body close to him, lifted it up, loosened the slip-knot and passed the head through it.
The body sank into his arms. He let it slide along the table and, jumping to the floor, laid it on the bed.
Then, with the same coolness, he opened the door on the passage:
"Are you there, all the three of you?" he whispered.
Some one answered from the foot of the wooden staircase near him:
"We are here. Are we to hoist up our bundle?"
"Yes, come along!"
He took the candle and showed them a light.
The three men trudged up the stairs, carrying the sack in which the "fellow" was tied up.
"Put him here," he said, pointing to the table.
With a pocket-knife, he cut the cords round the sack. A white sheet appeared, which he flung back. In the sheet was a corpse, the corpse of Pierre Leduc.
"Poor Pierre Leduc!" said Sernine. "You will never know what you lost by dying so young! I should have helped you to go far, old chap. However, we must do without your services.... Now then, Philippe, get up on the table; and you, Octave, on the chair. Lift up his head and fasten the slipknot."
Two minutes later, Pierre Leduc's body was swinging at the end of the rope.
"Capital, that was quite simple! Now you can all of you go. You, Doctor, will call back here tomorrow morning; you will hear of the suicide of a certain Gerard Baupre: you understand, Gerard Baupre. Here is his farewell letter. You will send for the divisional surgeon and the commissary; you will arrange that neither of them notices that the deceased has a cut finger or a scar on one cheek...."
"And you will manage so as to have the report written—then and there, to your dictation."
"Lastly, avoid having the body sent to the Morgue and make them give permission for an immediate burial."
"That's not so easy."
"Try. Have you examined the other one?"
He pointed to the young man lying lifeless on the bed.
"Yes," said the doctor. "The breathing is becoming normal. But it was a big risk to run... the carotid artery might have..."
"Nothing venture, nothing have.... How soon will he recover consciousness?"
"In a few minutes."
"Very well. Oh, by the way, don't go yet, Doctor. Wait for me downstairs. There is more for you to do."
The prince, when he found himself alone, lit a cigarette and puffed at it quietly, sending little blue rings of smoke floating up to the ceiling.
A sigh roused him from his thoughts. He went to the bed. The young man was beginning to move; and his chest rose and fell violently, like that of a sleeper under the influence of a nightmare. He put his hands to his throat, as though he felt a pain there; and this action suddenly made him sit up, terrified, panting....
Then he saw Sernine in front of him:
"You?" he whispered, without understanding. "You?..."
He gazed at him stupidly, as though he had seen a ghost.
He again touched his throat, felt round his neck.... And suddenly he gave a hoarse cry; a mad terror dilated his eyes, made his hair stand on end, shook him from head to foot like an aspen-leaf! The prince had moved aside; and he saw the man's corpse hanging from the rope.
He flung himself back against the wall. That man, that hanged man, was himself! He was dead and he was looking at his own dead body! Was this a hideous dream that follows upon death? A hallucination that comes to those who are no more and whose distracted brain still quivers with a last flickering gleam of life?...
His arms struck at the air. For a moment, he seemed to be defending himself against the squalid vision. Then, exhausted, he fainted away for the second time.
"First-rate," said the prince, with a grin. "A sensitive, impressionable nature.... At present, the brain is out of gear.... Come, this is a propitious moment.... But, if I don't get the business done in twenty minutes... he'll escape me.
He pushed open the door between the two garrets, came back to the bed, lifted the young man and carried him to the bed in the other room. Then he bathed his temples with cold water and made him sniff at some salts.
This time, the swoon did not last long.
Gerard timidly opened his eyes and raised them to the ceiling. The vision was gone. But the arrangement of the furniture, the position of the table and the fireplace, and certain other details all surprised him... And then came the remembrance of his act, the pain which he felt at his throat....
He said to the prince:
"I have had a dream, have I not?"
"How do you mean, no?" And, suddenly recollecting, "Oh, that's true, I remember,... I meant to kill myself... and I even..." Bending forward anxiously, "But the rest, the vision—"
"The man... the rope... was that a dream?..."
"No," said Sernine. "That also was real."
"What are you saying? What are you saying?... Oh, no, no!... I entreat you!... Wake me, if I am asleep... or else let me die!... But I am dead, am I not? And this is the nightmare of a corpse!... Oh, I feel my brain going!... I entreat you...."
Sernine placed his hand gently on the young man's head and, bending over him:
"Listen to me... listen to me carefully and understand what I say. You are alive. Your matter and your mind are as they were and live. But Gerard Baupre is dead. You understand me, do you not? That member of society who was known as Gerard Baupre has ceased to exist. You have done away with that one. Tomorrow, the registrar will write in his books, opposite the name you bore, the word 'Dead,' with the date of your decease."
"It's a lie!" stammered the terrified lad. "It's a lie! Considering that I, Gerard Baupre, am here!"
"You are not Gerard Baupre," declared Sernine. And, pointing to the open door, "Gerard Baupre is there, in the next room. Do you wish to see him?
He is hanging from the nail to which you hooked him. On the table is a letter in which you certify his death with your signature. It is all quite regular, it is all final. There is no getting away from the irrevocable, brutal fact: Gerard Baupre has ceased to exist!"
The young man listened in despair. Growing calmer, now that facts were assuming a less tragic significance, he began to understand:
"And then..." he muttered.
"And then... let us talk."
"Yes, yes... let us talk...."
"A cigarette?" asked the prince. "Will you have one? Ah, I see that you are becoming reconciled to life! So much the better: we shall understand each other; and that quickly."
He lit the young man's cigarette and his own and, at once, in a few words uttered in a hard voice, explained himself:
"You, the late Gerard Baupre, were weary of life, ill, penniless, hopeless.... Would you lie to be well, rich, and powerful?"
"I don't follow you."
"It is quite simple. Accident has placed you on my path. You are young, good-looking, a poet; you are intelligent and — your act of despair shows it — you have a fine sense of conduct. These are qualities which are rarely found united in one person. I value them... and I take them for my account."
"They are not for sale."
"Idiot! Who talks of buying or selling? Keep your conscience. It is too precious a jewel for me to relieve you of it."
"Then what do you ask of me?"
"Your life!" And, pointing to the bruises on the young man's throat, "Your life, which you have not known how to employ! Your life, which you have bungled, wasted, destroyed and which, I propose to build up again, in accordance with an ideal of beauty, greatness and dignity that would make you giddy, my lad, if you saw the abyss into which my secret thought plunges...." He had taken Gerard's head between his hands and he continued, eagerly: "You are free! No shackles! You have no longer the weight of your name to bear! You have got rid of that number with which society had stamped you as though branding you on the shoulder. You are free! In this world of slaves where each man bears his label you can either come and go unknown, invisible, as if you owned Gyges' ring... or else you can choose your own label, the one you like best! Do you understand the magnificent treasure which you represent to an artist... to yourself, if you like? A virgin life, a brand-new life! Your life is the wax which you have the right to fashion as you please, according to the whims of your imagination and the counsels of your reason."
The young man made a gesture expressive of weariness:
"Ah, what would you have me do with that treasure? What have I done with it so far? Nothing!"
"Give it to me."
"What can you do with it?"
"Everything. If you are not an artist, I am; and an enthusiastic artist, inexhaustible, indomitable, exuberant. If you have not the Promethean fire, I have! Where you failed, I shall succeed. Give me your life."
"Words, promises!" cried the young man, whose features began to glow with animation. "Empty dreams! I know my own worthlessness! I know my cowardice, my despondency, my efforts that come to nothing, all my wretchedness. To begin life anew, I should need a will which I do not possess...."
"I possess mine."
"You shall have them."
"I am providing you with means... and such means! You will only have to dip, as one would dip into a magic coffer."
"But who are you?" cried the young man, wildly.
"To others, Prince Sernine.... To you... what does it matter? I am more than a prince, more than a king, more than an emperor...."
"Who are you?... Who are you?" stammered Baupre.
"The Master... he who will and who can... he who acts.... There are no bounds to my will, there is none to my power. I am richer than the richest man alive, for his fortune is mine.... I am more powerful than the mightiest, for their might is at my service!"
He took the other's head in his hands again and, looking deep into his eyes:
"Be rich, too... be mighty.... I offer you happiness... and the joy of living... and peace for your poet's brain... and fame and glory also.... Do you accept?"
"Yes... yes..." whispered Gerard, dazzled and overmastered. "What am I to do?"
"Nothing, I say. The whole scaffolding of my plans rests on you, but you do not count. You have no active part to play. You are, for the moment, but a silent actor, or not even that, but just a pawn which I move along the board."
"What shall I do?"
"Nothing. Write poetry. You shall live as you please. You shall have money. You shall enjoy life. I will not even bother my head about you. I repeat, you play no part in my venture."
"And who shall I be?"
Sernine stretched out his arm and pointed to the next room:
"You shall take that man's place. You are that man!" Gerard shuddered with revolt and disgust:
"Oh, no, he is dead!... And then... it is a crime!... No, I want a new life, made for me, thought out for me... an unknown name...."
"That man, I tell you!" cried Sernine, irresistible in his energy and authority. "You shall be that man and none other! That man, because his destiny is magnificent, because his name is illustrious, and because he hands down to you a thrice-venerable heritage of ancestral dignity and pride."
"It is a crime!" moaned Baupre, faltering.
"You shall be that man!" spoke Sernine, with unparalleled vehemence. "You shall be that man! If not, you become Baupre again; and over Baupre I own rights of life and death. Choose."
He drew his revolver, cocked it and took aim at the young man:
"Choose," he repeated.
The expression of his face was implacable. Gerard was frightened and sank down on his bed sobbing:
"I wish to live!"
"You wish it firmly, irrevocably?"
"Yes, a thousand times yes! After the terrible thing which I attempted, death appalls me.... Anything... anything rather than death!... Anything!... Pain... hunger... illness... every torture, every shame... crime itself, if need be... but not death!"
He shivered with fever and agony, as though the great enemy were still prowling round him and as though he felt himself powerless to escape from its clutches. The prince redoubled his efforts and, in a fervent voice, holding him under him like a prey:
"I will ask nothing impossible of you, nothing wrong.... If there is anything, I am responsible.... No, no crime... a little pain at most.... A little of your blood must flow. But what is that, compared with the dread of dying?"
"Pain is indifferent to me."
"Then here and now!" shouted Sernine. "Here and now! Ten seconds of pain and that is all.... Ten seconds and the other's life is yours...."
He had seized him round the body and forced him down on a chair; and he now held the young man's left hand flat on the table, with his five fingers spread out. He swiftly took a knife from his pocket, pressed the blade against the little finger, between the first and second joints, and commanded:
"Strike! Strike your own blow. One blow of the fist and that is all!"
He had taken Gerard's right hand and was trying to bring it down upon the other like a hammer.
Gerard writhed and twisted, convulsed with horror. He understood:
"Never!" he stuttered. "Never!"
"Strike! One blow and it's done! One blow and you will be like that man: no one will recognize you."
"Tell me his name...."
"Never! Oh, what torture!... I beseech you... presently...."
"Now.... I insist... you must..."
"No... no... I can't do it...."
"Strike, you fool! It means fortune, fame, love...."
Gerard raised his fist with a sudden movement. "Love," he said, "yes... for that, yes...."
"You will love and be loved," said Sernine. "Your betrothed awaits you. I have chosen her myself. She is the purest of the pure, the fairest of the fair. But you must win her. Strike!"
The lad's arm stiffened for the fatal blow; but the instinct of self-preservation was too strong for him. His body was wrung with a superhuman effort. He suddenly released himself from Sernine's hold and fled.
He rushed like a madman to the other room. A yell of terror escaped him, at the sight of the abominable vision, and he came back and fell on his knees before Sernine, beside the table.
"Strike!" said the prince, again spreading out the lad's fingers and fixing the blade of the knife.
What followed was done mechanically. With an automatic movement, with haggard eyes and a livid face, the young man raised his fist and struck:
"Ah!" he cried, with a moan of pain.
A small piece of flesh was separated from the little finger. Blood flowed. For the third time, Gerard fainted.
Sernine looked at him for a second or two and said, gently:
"Poor little chap!... There, I'll reward you for what you've done; and a hundred times over. I always pay generously."
He went downstairs and found the doctor waiting below:
"It's done. Go upstairs, you, and make a little cut in his right cheek, similar to Pierre Leduc's. The two scars must be exactly alike. I shall come back for you in an hour."
"Where are you going?"
"To take the air. My heart feels anyhow."
Outside he drew a long breath and lit another cigarette:
"A good day's work," he muttered. "A little overcrowded, a little tiring, but fruitful, really fruitful. I am Dolores Kesselbach's friend. I am Genevieve's friend. I have manufactured a new Pierre Leduc, a very presentable one and entirely at my disposal. Lastly, I have found Genevieve a husband of the sort that you don't find by the dozen. Now my task is done. I have only to gather the fruit of my efforts. It's your turn to work, M. Lenormand. I, for my part, am ready." And he added, thinking of the poor mutilated lad whom he had dazzled with his promises, "Only — for there is an 'only' — I have not the slightest notion who this Pierre Leduc was, whose place I have magnanimously awarded to that good young man. And that's very annoying.... For when all is said, there's nothing to prove to me that Pierre Leduc was not the son of a pork-butcher!..."