CHAPTER VI. LENORMAND SUCCUMBS
M. LENORMAND was back in his room at the Prefecture of Police at six o'clock in the evening. He at once sent for Dieuzy:
"Is your man here?"
"How far have you got with him?"
"Not very. He won't speak a word. I told him that, by a new regulation, foreigners were obliged to make a declaration at the Prefecture as to the object and the probable length of their stay in Paris; and I brought him here, to your secretary's office."
"I will question him."
But, at that moment, an office-messenger appeared:
"There's a lady asking to see you at once, chief."
"Have you her card?"
"Mrs. Kesselbach! Show her in."
He walked across the room to receive the young widow at the door and begged her to take a seat. She still wore the same disconsolate look, the same appearance of illness and that air of extreme lassitude which revealed the distress of her life.
She held out a copy of the Journal and pointed to the line in the agony-column which mentioned Steinweg:
"Old Steinweg was a friend of my husband's," she said, "and I have no doubt that he knows a good many things."
"Dieuzy," said M. Lenormand, "bring the person who is waiting.... Your visit, madame, will not have been useless. I will only ask you, when this person enters, not to say a word."
The door opened. A man appeared, an old man with white whiskers meeting under his chin and a face furrowed with deep wrinkles, poorly clad and wearing the hunted look of those wretches who roam about the world in search of their daily pittance.
He stood on the threshold, blinking his eyelids, stared at M. Lenormand, seemed confused by the silence that greeted him on his entrance and turned his hat in his hands with embarrassment.
But, suddenly, he appeared stupefied, his eyes opened wide and he stammered:
"Mrs.... Mrs. Kesselbach!"
He had seen the young widow. And, recovering his serenity, smiling, losing his shyness, he went up to her and in a strong German accent:
"Oh, I am glad!... At last!... I thought I should never... I was so surprised to receive no news down there... no telegrams.... And how is our dear Rudolf Kesselbach?"
The lady staggered back, as though she had been struck in the face, and at once fell into a chair and began to sob.
"What's the matter?... Why, what's the matter?" asked Steinweg.
M. Lenormand interposed:
"I see, sir, that you know nothing about certain events that have taken place recently. Have yon been long travelling?"
"Yes, three months.... I had been up to the Rand. Then I went back to Capetown and wrote to Rudolf from there. But, on my way home by the East Coast route, I accepted some work at Port Said. Rudolf has had my letter, I suppose?"
"He is away. I will explain the reason of his absence. But, first, there is a point on which we should be glad of some information. It has to do with a person whom you knew and to whom you used to refer, in your intercourse with Mr. Kesselbach, by the name of Pierre Leduc."
"Pierre Leduc! What! Who told you?"
The old man was utterly taken aback.
He spluttered out again:
"Who told you? Who disclosed to you...?"
"Never! It was a secret which I confided to him and Rudolf keeps his secrets... especially this one..."
"Nevertheless, it is absolutely necessary that you should reply to our questions. We are at this moment engaged on an inquiry about Pierre Leduc which must come to a head without delay; and you alone can enlighten us, as Mr. Kesselbach is no longer here."
"Well, then," cried Steinweg, apparently making up his mind, "what do you want?"
"Do you know Pierre Leduc?"
"I have never seen him, but I have long been the possessor of a secret which concerns him. Through a number of incidents which I need not relate and thanks to a series of chances, I ended by acquiring the certainty that the man in whose discovery I was interested was leading a dissolute life in Paris and that he was calling himself Pierre Leduc, which is not his real name."
"But does he know his real name himself?"
"I presume so."
"Yes, I know it."
"Well, tell it to us."
He hesitated; then, vehemently:
"I can't," he said. "No, I can't."
"But why not?"
"I have no right to. The whole secret lies there. When I revealed the secret to Rudolf, he attached so much importance to it that he gave me a large sum of money to purchase my silence and he promised me a fortune, a real fortune, on the day when he should succeed, first, in finding Pierre Leduc and, next, in turning the secret to account." He smiled bitterly. "The large sum of money is already lost. I came to see how my fortune was getting on."
"Mr. Kesselbach is dead," said the chief detective.
Steinweg gave a bound:
"Dead! Is it possible? No, it's a trap. Mrs. Kesselbach, is it true?"
She bowed her head.
He seemed crushed by this unexpected revelation; and, at the same time, it must have been infinitely painful to him, for he began to cry:
"My poor Rudolf, I knew him when he was a little boy.... He used to come and play at my house at Augsburg.... I was very fond of him." And, calling Mrs. Kesselbach to witness, "And he of me, was he not, Mrs. Kesselbach? He must have told you.... His old Daddy Steinweg, he used to call me."
M. Lenormand went up to him and, in his clearest voice:
"Listen to me," he said. "Mr. Kesselbach died murdered.... Come, be calm... exclamations are of no use.... He died murdered, I say, and all the circumstances of the crime prove that the culprit knew about the scheme in question. Was there anything in the nature of that scheme that would enable you to guess...?"
Steinweg stood dumfounded. He stammered:
"It was my fault.... If I had not suggested the thing to him..."
Mrs. Kesselbach went up to him, entreating him:
"Do you think... have you any idea?... Oh, Steinweg, I implore you!..."
"I have no idea.... I have not reflected," he muttered. "I must have time to reflect...."
"Cast about in Mr. Kesselbach's surroundings," said M. Lenormand. "Did nobody take part in your interviews at that time? Was there nobody in whom he himself could have confided?"
Both the others, Dolores and M. Lenormand, leant toward him, anxiously awaiting his answer.
"No," he said, "I don't see...."
"Think well," repeated the chief detective. "The murderer's Christian name and surname begin with an L. and an M."
"An L," he echoed. "I don't see... an L... an M...."
"Yes, the initials are in gold on the corner of a cigarette-case belonging to the murderer."
"A cigarette-case?" asked Steinweg, making an effort of memory.
"A gun-metal case... and one of the compartments is divided into two spaces, the smaller for cigarette-papers, the other for tobacco..."
"Two spaces, two spaces," repeated Steinweg, whose thoughts seemed stimulated by that detail. "Couldn't you show it to me?"
"Here it is, or rather this is an exact reproduction," said M. Lenormand, giving him a cigarette-case.
"Eh! What!" said Steinweg, taking the case in his hands.
He looked at it with stupid eyes, examined it, turned it over in every direction and, suddenly, gave a cry, the cry of a man struck with a horrible idea. And he stood like, that, livid, with trembling hands and wild, staring eyes.
"Speak, come, speak!" said M. Lenormand.
"Oh," he said, as though blinded with light, "now all is explained!..."
He walked across to the windows with a tottering step, then returned and, rushing up to the chief detective:
"Sir, sir... Rudolf's murderer... I'll tell you.... Well..."
He stopped short.
There was a moment's pause.... Was the name of the odious criminal about to echo through the great silence of the office, between those walls which had heard so many accusations, so many confessions? M. Lenormand felt as if he were on the brink of the unfathomable abyss and as if a voice were mounting, mounting up to him.... A few seconds more and he would know....
"No," muttered Steinweg, "no, I can't...."
"What's that you say?" cried the chief detective, furiously.
"I say that I can't."
"But you have no right to be silent. The law requires you to speak."
"Tomorrow.... I will speak tomorrow... I must have time to reflect.... Tomorrow, I will tell you all that I know about Pierre Leduc... all that I suppose about that cigarette-case.... Tomorrow, I promise you...."
It was obvious that he possessed that sort of obstinacy against which the most energetic efforts are of no avail. M. Lenormand yielded:
"Very well. I give you until tomorrow, but I warn you that, if you do not speak tomorrow, I shall be obliged to go to the examining-magistrate."
He rang and, taking Inspector Dieuzy aside, said:
"Go with him to his hotel... and stay there.... I'll send you two men.... And mind you keep your eyes about you. Somebody may try to get hold of him."
The inspector went off with Steinweg; and M. Lenormand, returning to Mrs. Kesselbach, who had been violently affected by this scene, made his excuses.
"Pray accept all my regrets, madame.... I can understand how upset you must feel...."
He questioned her as to the period at which Mr. Kesselbach renewed his relations with old Steinweg and as to the length of time for which those relations lasted. But she was so much worn-out that he did not insist.
"Am I to come back tomorrow?" she asked.
"No, it's not necessary. I will let you know all that Steinweg says. May I see you down, to your carriage? These three flights are rather steep...."
He opened the door and stood back to let her pass. At that moment shouts were heard in the passage and people came running up, inspectors on duty, office-messengers, clerks:
"What's the matter?"
"But he's just left here...."
"He's been found on the staircase...."
"No, stunned, fainting...."
"But the man... the man who was with him... old Steinweg?"
He rushed along the passage and down the stairs, where he found Dieuzy lying on the first-floor landing, surrounded by people who were attending to him.
He saw Gourel coming up again:
"Oh, Gourel, have you been downstairs? Did you come across anybody?"
But Dieuzy was recovering consciousness and, almost before he had opened his eyes, mumbled:
"Here, on the landing, the little door...."
"Oh, hang it, the door of Court 7!" shouted the chief detective. "Didn't I say that it was to be kept locked?... It was certain that, sooner or later..." He seized the door-handle. "Oh, of course! The door is bolted on the other side now!"
The door was partly glazed. He smashed a pane with the butt-end of his revolver, drew the bolt and said to Gourel:
"Run through this way to the exit on the Place Dauphine...."
He went back to Dieuzy:
"Come, Dieuzy, tell me about it. How did you come to let yourself be put into this state?"
"A blow in the pit of the stomach, chief...."
"A blow? From that old chap?... Why, he can hardly stand on his legs!..."
"Not the old man, chief, but another, who was walking up and down the passage while Steinweg was with you and who followed us as though he were going out, too.... When we got as far as this, he asked me for a light.... I looked for my matches... Then he caught me a punch in the stomach.... I fell down, and, as I fell, I thought I saw him open that door and drag the old man with him...."
"Would you know him again?"
"Oh yes, chief... a powerful fellow, very dark-skinned... a southerner of sorts, that's certain...."
"Ribeira," snarled M. Lenormand. "Always Ribeira!... Ribeira, alias Parbury.... Oh, the impudence of the scoundrel! He was afraid of what old Steinweg might say... and came to fetch him away under my very nose!" And, stamping his foot with anger, "But, dash it, how did he know that Steinweg was here, the blackguard! It's only four hours since I was chasing him in the Saint-Cucufa woods... and now he's here!... How did he know?... One would think he lived inside my skin!..."
He was seized with one of those fits of dreaming in which he seemed to hear nothing and see nothing. Mrs. Kesselbach, who passed at that moment, bowed without his replying.
But a sound of footsteps in the corridor roused him from his lethargy.
"At last, is that you, Gourel?"
"I've found out how it was, chief," said Gourel, panting for breath. "There were two of them. They went this way and out of the Place Dauphine. There was a motor-car waiting for them. There were two people inside: one was a man dressed in black, with a soft hat pulled over his eyes..."
"That's he," muttered M. Lenormand, "that's the murderer, the accomplice of Ribeira, — Parbury. And who was the other?"
"A woman, a woman without a hat, a servant-girl, it might be.... And good-looking, I'm told, with red hair."
"Eh, what! You say she had red hair?"
M. Lenormand turned round with a bound, ran down the stairs four steps at a time, hurried across the courtyard and came out on the Quai des Orfevres:
"Stop!" he shouted.
A victoria and pair was driving off. It was Mrs. Kesselbach's carriage. The coachman heard and pulled up his horses. M. Lenormand sprang on the step:
"I beg a thousand pardons, madame, but I cannot do without your assistance. I will ask you to let me go with you.... But we must act swiftly.... Gourel, where's my taxi?"
"I've sent it away, chief."
"Well then, get another, quick!"...
The men all ran in different directions. But ten minutes elapsed before one of them returned with a motor-cab. M. Lenormand was boiling with impatience. Mrs. Kesselbach, standing on the pavement, swayed from side to side, with her smelling-salts in her hand.
At last they were seated.
"Gourel, get up beside the driver and go straight to Garches."
"To my house?" asked Dolores, astounded.
He did not reply. He leant out of the window, waved his pass, explained who he was to the policeman regulating the traffic in the streets. At last, when they reached the Cours-la-Rone, he sat down again and said:
"I beseech you, madame, to give me plain answers to my questions. Did you see Mlle. Genevieve Ernemont just now, at about four o'clock?"
"Genevieve?... Yes.... I was dressing to go out."
"Did she tell you of the advertisement about Steinweg in the Journal?"
"And it was that which made you come to see me?"
"Were you alone during Mlle. Ernemont's visit?"
"Upon my word, I can't say.... Why?"
"Recollect. Was one of your servants present?"
"Probably... as I was dressing...."
"What are their names?"
"Suzanne and Gertrude."
"One of them has red hair, has she not?"
"Have you known her long?"
"Her sister has always been with me... and so has Gertrude, for years.... She is devotion and honesty personified...."
"In short, you will answer for her?"
"Very well... very well."
It was half-past seven and the daylight was beginning to wane when the taxi-cab reached the House of Retreat. Without troubling about his companion, the chief detective rushed into the porter's lodge:
"Mrs. Kesselbach's maid has just come in, has she not?"
"Whom do you mean, the maid?"
"Why, Gertrude, one of the two sisters."
"But Gertrude can't have been out, sir. We haven't seen her go out."
"Still some one has just come in."
"No, sir, we haven't opened the door to anybody since — let me see — six o'clock this evening."
"Is there no other way out than this gate?"
"No. The walls surround the estate on every side and they are very high...."
"Mrs. Kesselbach, we will go to your house, please."
They all three went. Mrs. Kesselbach, who had no key, rang. The door was answered by Suzanne, the other sister.
"Is Gertrude in?" asked Mrs. Kesselbach.
"Yes, ma'am, in her room."
"Send her down, please," said the chief detective.
After a moment, Gertrude came downstairs, looking very attractive and engaging in her white embroidered apron.
She had, in point of fact, a rather pretty face, crowned with red hair.
M. Lenormand looked at her for a long time without speaking, as though he were trying to read what lay behind those innocent eyes.
He asked her no questions. After a minute, he simply said:
"That will do, thank you. Come, Gourel." He went out with the sergeant and, at once, as they followed the darkling paths of the garden, said: "That's the one!"
"Do you think so, chief? She looked so placid!"
"Much too placid. Another would have been astonished, would have wanted to know why I sent for her. Not this one! Nothing but the concentrated effort of a face that is determined to smile at all costs. Only, I saw a drop of perspiration trickle from her temple along her ear."
"So that everything becomes plain. Gertrude is in league with the two ruffians who are conspiring round the Kesselbach case, in order either to discover and carry out the famous scheme, or to capture the widow's millions. No doubt, the other sister is in the plot as well. At four o'clock, Gertrude, learning that I know of the advertisement in the Journal, takes advantage of her mistress's absence, hastens to Paris, finds Ribeira and the man in the soft hat and drags them off to the Palais, where Ribeira annexes Master Steinweg for his own purposes." He reflected and concluded:
"All this proves, first, the importance which they attach to Steinweg and their fear of what he may reveal; secondly, that a regular plot is being hatched around Mrs. Kesselbach; thirdly, that I have no time to lose, for the plot is ripe."
"Very well," said Gourel, "but one thing remains unexplained. How was Gertrude able to leave the garden in which we now are and to enter it again, unknown to the porter and his wife?"
"Through a secret passage which the rogues must have contrived to make quite recently."
"And which would end, no doubt," said Gourel, "in Mrs. Kesselbach's house."
"Yes, perhaps," said M. Lenormand, "perhaps... But I have another idea."
They followed the circuit of the wall. It was a bright night; and, though their two forms were hardly distinguishable, they themselves could see enough to examine the stones of the walls and to convince themselves that no breach, however skilful, had been effected.
"A ladder, very likely?" suggested Gourel.
"No, because Gertrude is able to get out in broad daylight. A communication of the kind I mean can evidently not end out of doors. The entrance must be concealed by some building already in existence."
"There are only the four garden-houses," objected Gourel, "and they are all inhabited."
"I beg your pardon: the third, the Pavilion Hortense, is not inhabited."
"Who told you so?"
"The porter. Mrs. Kesselbach hired this house, which is near her own, for fear of the noise. Who knows but that, in so doing, she acted under Gertrude's influence?"
He walked round the house in question. The shutters were closed. He lifted the latch of the door, on the off-chance; the door opened.
"Ah, Gourel, I think we've struck it! Let's go in. Light your lantern.... Oh, the hall.... the drawing-room... the dining-room... that's no use. There must be a basement, as the kitchen is not on this floor."
"This way, chief... the kitchen-stairs are here."
They went down into a rather large kitchen, crammed full of wicker-work garden-chairs and flower-stands. Beside it was a wash-house, which also served as a cellar, and which presented the same untidy sight of objects piled one on the top of the other.
"What is that shiny thing down there, chief?"
Gourel stooped and picked up a brass pin with a head made of an imitation pearl.
"The pearl is quite bright still," said M. Lenormand, "which it would not be if it had been lying in this cellar long. Gertrude passed this way, Gourel."
Gourel began to demolish a great stack of empty wine-casks, writing desks and old rickety tables.
"You are wasting your time," said M. Lenormand. "If that is the way out, how would she have time first to move all those things and then to replace them behind her? Look, here is a shutter out of use, which has no valid reason for being fastened to the wall by that nail. Draw it back."
Gourel did so. Behind the shutter, the wall was hollowed out. By the light of the lantern they saw an underground passage running downwards.
"I was right," said M. Lenormand. "The communication is of recent date. You see, it's a piece of work hurriedly done, and not intended to last for any length of time.... No masonry.... Two planks placed cross-wise at intervals, with a joist to serve as a roof; and that is all. It will hold up as best it may: well enough, in any case, for the object in view, that is to say..."
"That is to say what, chief?"
"Well, first to allow of the going backwards and forwards between Gertrude and her accomplices... and then, one day, one day soon, of the kidnapping, or rather the total, miraculous, incomprehensible disappearance of Mrs. Kesselbach."
They proceeded cautiously, so as not to knock against certain beams which did not look over-safe. It at once became evident that the tunnel was much longer than the fifty yards at most that separated the house from the boundary of the garden. It must, therefore, end at a fair distance from the walls and beyond the road that skirted the property.
"We are not going in the direction of Villeneuve and the lake are we?" asked Gourel.
"Not at all, the other way about," declared M. Lenormand.
The tunnel descended with a gentle slope. There was a step, then another; and they veered toward the right. They at once knocked up against a door which was fitted into a rubble frame, carefully cemented. M. Lenormand pushed it and it opened.
"One second, Gourel," he said, stopping. "Let us think.... It might perhaps be wiser to turn back."
"We must reflect that Ribeira will have foreseen the danger and presume that he has taken his precautions, in case the underground passage should be discovered. Now he knows that we are on his track. He knows that we are searching the garden. He no doubt saw us enter the house. How do I know that he is not at this moment laying a trap for us?"
"There are two of us, chief...."
"And suppose there were twenty of them?"
He looked in front of him. The tunnel sloped upward again, closed by another door, which was at five or six yards' distance.
"Let us go so far," he said. "Then we shall see."
He passed through, followed by Gourel, whom he told to leave the first door open, and walked to the other door, resolving within himself to go no farther. But this second door was shut; and though the lock seemed to work, he could not succeed in opening it.
"The door is bolted," he said. "Let us make no noise and go back. The more so as, outside, by remembering the position of the tunnel, we can fix the line along which to look for the other outlet."
They therefore retraced their steps to the first door, when Gourel, who was walking ahead, gave an exclamation of surprise:
"Why, it's closed!..."
"How is that? When I told you to leave it open!"
"I did leave it open, chief, but the door must have fallen back of its own weight."
"Impossible! We should have heard the sound."
"Then... then... I don't know..." He went up to the door. "Let's see... there's a key... does it turn?... Yes, it turns. But there seems to be a bolt on the other side."
"Who can have fastened it?"
"They, of course! Behind our backs!... Perhaps they have another tunnel that runs above this one, alongside of it... or else they were waiting in that empty house.... In any case, we're caught in a trap...."
He grew angry with the lock, thrust his knife into the chink of the door, tried every means and then, in a moment of weariness, said:
"There's nothing to be done!"
"What, chief, nothing to be done? In that case, we're diddled!"
"I dare say!" said M. Lenormand....
They returned to the other door and came back again to the first. Both were solid, made of hard wood, strengthened with cross-beams... in short, indestructible.
"We should want a hatchet," said the chief of the detective-service, "or at the very least, a serious implement... a knife even, with which we might try to cut away the place where the bolt is most likely to be... and we have nothing...."
He was seized with a sudden fit of rage and flung himself upon the obstacle, as though he hoped to do away with it. Then, powerless, beaten, he said to Gourel:
"Listen, we'll look into this in an hour or two.... I am tired out.... I am going to sleep.... Keep watch so long... and if they come and attack us..."
"Ah, if they come, we shall be saved, chief!" cried Gourel, who would have been relieved by a fight, however great the odds.
M. Lenormand lay down on the ground. In a minute, he was asleep.
When he woke up, he remained for some seconds undecided, not understanding; and he also asked himself what sort of pain it was that was tormenting him:
"Gourel!" he called. "Come! Gourel!"
Obtaining no reply, he pressed the spring of his lantern and saw Gourel lying beside him, sound asleep.
"What on earth can this pain be?" he thought. "Regular twitchings.... Oh, why, of course, I am hungry, that's all.... I'm starving! What can the time be?"
His watch marked twenty minutes past seven, but he remembered that he had not wound it up. Gourel's watch was not going either.
Gourel had awoke under the action of the same inward pangs, which made them think that the breakfast-hour must be long past and that they had already slept for a part of the day.
"My legs are quite numbed," said Gourel, "and my feet feel as if they were on ice. What a funny sensation!" He bent down to rub them and went on: ." Why, it's not on ice that my feet were, but in water.... Look, chief... there's a regular pool near the first door...."
"Soaked through," M. Lenormand replied. "We'll go back to the second door; you can dry yourself..."
"But what are you doing, chief?"
"Do you think I am going to allow myself to be buried alive in this vault?... Not if I know it; I haven't reached the age!... As the two doors are closed, let us try to pass through the walls."
One by one he loosened the stones that stood out at the height of his hand, in the hope of contriving another gallery that would slope upwards to the level of the soil. But the work was long and painful, for in this part of the tunnel, as he perceived the stones were cemented.
"Chief... chief," stammered Gourel, in a stifled voice...."
"You are standing with your feet in the water."
"Nonsense!... Why, so I am!... Well, it can't be helped.... I'll dry them, in the sim...."
"But don't you see?"
"Why, it's rising, chief, it's rising!..."
M. Lenormand felt a shudder pass over his skin. He suddenly understood. It was not a casual trickling through, as he had thought, but a carefully-prepared flood, mechanically, irresistibly produced by some infernal system.
"Oh, the scoundrel!" he snarled. "If ever I lay hands on him...!"
"Yes, yes, chief, but we must first get out of this.... And, as far as I can see..."
Gourel seemed completely prostrated, incapable of having an idea, of proposing a plan.
M. Lenormand knelt down on the ground and measured the rate at which the water was rising. A quarter, or thereabouts, of the first door was covered; and the water was half-way toward the second door.
"The progress is slow, but uninterrupted," he said, "In a few hours it will be over our heads."
"But this is terrible, chief, it's horrible!" moaned Gourel.
"Oh, look here, don't come boring me with your lamentations, do you understand? Cry, if it amuses you, but don't let me hear you!"
"It's the hunger that weakens me, chief; my brain's going round."
"Bite your fist!"
As Gourel said, the position was terrible; and, if M. Lenormand had had less energy, he would have abandoned the vain struggle. What was to be done? It was no use hoping that Ribeira would have the charity to let them out. It was no use either hoping that the brothers Doudeville would rescue them, for the inspectors did not know of the existence of the tunnel. So no hope remained... no hope but that of an impossible miracle....
"Come, come," said M. Lenormand, "this is too silly. We're not going to kick the bucket here! Hang it all, there must be something!... Show me a light, Gourel."
Flattening himself against the second door, he examined it from top to bottom, in every corner. There was an enormous bolt on that side, just as there probably was on the other. He unfastened the screws with the blade of his knife; and the bolt came off in his hand.
"And what next?" asked Gourel.
"What next?" he echoed. "Well, this bolt is made of iron, pretty long and very nearly pointed. Certainly, it's not as good as a pick-axe, but it's better than nothing and...."
Without finishing his sentence, he drove the implement into the side-wall of the tunnel, a little in front of the pillar of masonry that supported the hinges of the door. As he expected, once he had passed the first layer of cement and stones, he found soft earth:
"To work!" he cried.
"Certainly, chief, but would you explain...?"
"It's quite simple. I want to dig round this pillar a passage, three or four yards long, which will join the tunnel on the other side of the door and allow us to escape."
"But it will take us hours; and meanwhile, the water is rising."
"Show me a light, Gourel."
"In twenty minutes, or half an hour at most, it will have reached our feet."
"Show me a light, Gourel."
M. Lenormand's idea was correct and, with some little exertion, by pulling the earth, which he first loosened with his implement, towards him and making it fall into the tunnel, he was not long in digging a hole large enough to slip into.
"It's my turn, chief!" said Gourel.
"Aha, you're returning to life, I see! Well, fire away!... You have only to follow the shape of the pillar."
At that moment, the water was up to their ankles. Would they have time to complete the work begun?
It became more difficult as they went on, for the earth which they disturbed was in their way; and, lying flat on their stomachs in the passage, they were obliged at every instant to remove the rubbish that obstructed them.
After two hours, the work was perhaps three-quarters through, but the water now covered their legs. Another hour and it would reach the opening of the hole which they were digging. And that would mean the end!
Gourel, who was exhausted by the want of food and who was too stout to move with any freedom in that ever-narrower passage, had had to give up. He no longer stirred, trembling with anguish at feeling that icy water which was gradually swallowing him up.
As for M. Lenormand, he worked on with indefatigable ardor. It was a terrible job, this ants' work performed in the stifling darkness. His hands were bleeding. He was fainting with hunger. The insufficiency of the air hampered his breathing; and, from time to time, Gourel's sighs reminded him of the awful danger that threatened him at the bottom of his hole.
But nothing could discourage him, for now he again found opposite him those cemented stones which formed the side-wall of the gallery. It was the most difficult part, but the end was at hand.
"It's rising," cried Gourel, in a choking voice, "it's rising!
M. Lenormand redoubled his efforts. Suddenly the stem of the bolt which he was using leapt out into space. The passage was dug. He had now only to widen it, which became much easier once he was able to shoot the materials in front of him.
Gourel, mad with terror, was howling like a dying beast. M. Lenormand paid no attention to him. Safety was at hand.
Nevertheless, he had a few seconds of anxiety when he perceived, by the sound of the materials falling, that this part of the tunnel was also under water, which was natural, as the door did not form a sufficiently tight-fitting barrier. But what did it matter! The outlet was free. One last effort... he passed through.
"Come, Gourel," he cried, returning to fetch his companion.
He dragged him, half dead, by the wrists:
"Come along, booby, pull yourself together! We are saved."
"Do you really think so, chief?... The water's up to our chests...."
"Never mind, as long as it's not over our mouths.... Where's your lantern?"
"It's not working."
"No matter." He gave an exclamation of delight. "One step... two steps!... A staircase.... At last!"
They emerged from the water, that accursed water which had almost swallowed them up; and it was a delicious sensation, a release that sent up their spirits.
"Stop!" said M. Lenormand.
His head had knocked against something. With arms outstretched, he pushed against the obstacle, which yielded at once. It was the flap of a trap-door; and, when this trap-door was opened, he found himself in a cellar into which the light of a fine night filtered through an air-hole.
He threw back the flap and climbed the last treads.
Then a veil fell over his eyes. Arms seized upon him. He felt himself as it were wrapped in a sheet, in a sort of sack, and then fastened with cords.
"Now for the other one!" said a voice.
The same operation must have been performed on Gourel; and the same voice said:
"If they call out, kill them at once. Have you your dagger?"
"Come along. You two, take this one... you two, that one.... No light... and no noise either.... It would be a serious matter. They've been searching the garden next door since this morning... there are ten or fifteen of them knocking about.... Go back to the house, Gertrude, and, if the least thing happens, telephone to me in Paris."
M. Lenormand felt that he was being lifted up and carried and, a moment after, that he was in the open air.
"Bring the cart nearer," said a voice.
M. Lenormand heard the sound of a horse and cart.
He was laid out on some boards. Gourel was hoisted up beside him. The horse started at a trot.
The drive lasted about half an hour.
"Halt!" commanded the voice. "Lift them out. Here, driver, turn the cart so that the tail touches the parapet of the bridge.... Good.... No boats on the river? Sure? Then let's waste no time.... Oh, have you fastened some stones to them?"
"Right away, then! Commend your soul to God, M. Lenormand, and pray for me, Parbury-Ribeira, better known by the name of Baron Altenheim. Are you ready? All right? Well, here's wishing you a pleasant journey, M. Lenormand!"
M. Lenormand was placed on the parapet. Someone gave him a push. He felt himself falling into space and he still heard the voice chuckling:
"A pleasant journey!"
Ten seconds later it was Sergeant Gourel's turn.