Arsène Lupin/Chapter XVI

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CHAPTER XVI


VICTOIRE'S SLIP


THEY were silent. The Duke walked to the fireplace, stepped into it, and studied the opening. He came out again and said: "Oh, by the way, M. Formery, the policeman at the front door wanted to stop me going out of the house when I went home to change. I take it that M. Guerchard's prohibition does not apply to me?"

"Of course not—of course not, your Grace," said M. Formery quickly.

"I saw that you had changed your clothes, your Grace," said Guerchard. "I thought that you had done it here."

"No," said the Duke, "I went home. The policeman protested; but he went no further, so I did not throw him into the middle of the street."

"Whatever our station, we should respect the law," said M. Formery solemnly.

"The Republican Law, M. Formery? I am a Royalist," said the Duke, smiling at him.

M. Formery shook his head sadly.

"I was wondering," said the Duke, "about M. Guerchard's theory that the burglars were let in the front door of this house by an accomplice. Why, when they had this beautiful large opening, did they want a front door, too?"

"I did not know that that was Guerchard's theory?" said M. Formery, a trifle contemptuously. "Of course they had no need to use the front door."

"Perhaps they had no need to use the front door," said Guerchard; "but, after all, the front door was unbolted, and they did not draw the bolts to put us off the scent. Their false scent was already prepared"—he waved his hand towards the window—"moreover, you must bear in mind that that opening might not have been made when they entered the house. Suppose that, while they were on the other side of the wall, a brick had fallen on to the hearth, and alarmed the concierge. We don't know how skilful they are; they might not have cared to risk it. I'm inclined to think, on the whole, that they did come in through the front door."

M. Formery sniffed contemptuously.

"Perhaps you're right," said the Duke. "But the accomplice?"

"I think we shall know more about the accomplice when Victoire awakes," said Guerchard.

"The family have such confidence in Victoire," said the Duke.

"Perhaps Lupin has, too," said Guerchard grimly.

"Always Lupin!" said M. Formery contemptuously.

There came a knock at the door, and a footman appeared on the threshold. He informed the Duke that Germaine had returned from her shopping expedition, and was awaiting him in her boudoir. He went to her, and tried to persuade her to put in a word for Sonia, and endeavour to soften Guerchard's rigour.

She refused to do anything of the kind, declaring that, in view of the value of the stolen property, no stone must be left unturned to recover it. The police knew what they were doing; they must have a free hand. The Duke did not press her with any great vigour; he realized the futility of an appeal to a nature so shallow, so self-centred, and so lacking in sympathy. He took his revenge by teasing her about the wedding presents which were still flowing in. Her father's business friends were still striving to outdo one another in the costliness of the jewelry they were giving her. The great houses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain were still refraining firmly from anything that savoured of extravagance or ostentation. While he was with her the eleventh paper-knife came—from his mother's friend, the Duchess of Veauléglise. The Duke was overwhelmed with joy at the sight of it, and his delighted comments drove Germaine to the last extremity of exasperation. The result was that she begged him, with petulant asperity, to get out of her sight.

He complied with her request, almost with alacrity, and returned to M. Formery and Guerchard. He found them at a standstill, waiting for reports from the detectives who were hunting outside the house for information about the movements of the burglars with the stolen booty, and apparently finding none. The police were also hunting for the stolen motor-cars, not only in Paris and its environs, but also all along the road between Paris and Charmerace.

At about five o'clock Guerchard grew tired of the inaction, and went out himself to assist his subordinates, leaving M. Formery in charge of the house itself. He promised to be back by half-past seven, to let the examining magistrate, who had an engagement for the evening, get away. The Duke spent his time between the drawing-room, where M. Formery entertained him with anecdotes of his professional skill, and the boudoir, where Germaine was entertaining envious young friends who came to see her wedding presents. The friends of Germaine were always a little ill at ease in the society of the Duke, belonging as they did to that wealthy middle class which has made France what she is. His indifference to the doings of the old friends of his family saddened them; and they were unable to understand his airy and persistent trifling. It seemed to them a discord in the cosmic tune.

The afternoon wore away, and at half-past seven Guerchard had not returned. M. Formery waited for him, fuming, for ten minutes, then left the house in charge of the inspector, and went off to his engagement. M. Gournay-Martin was entertaining two financiers and their wives, two of their daughters, and two friends of the Duke, the Baron de Vernan and the Comte de Vauvineuse, at dinner that night. Thanks to the Duke, the party was of a liveliness to which the gorgeous dining-room had been very little used since it had been so fortunate as to become the property of M. Gournay-Martin.

The millionaire had been looking forward to an evening of luxurious woe, deploring the loss of his treasures—giving their prices—to his sympathetic friends. The Duke had other views; and they prevailed. After dinner the guests went to the smoking-room, since the drawing-rooms were in possession of Guerchard. Soon after ten the Duke slipped away from them, and went to the detective. Guerchard's was not a face at any time full of expression, and all that the Duke saw on it was a subdued dulness.

"Well, M. Guerchard," he said cheerfully, "what luck? Have any of your men come across any traces of the passage of the burglars with their booty?"

"No, your Grace; so far, all the luck has been with the burglars. For all that any one seems to have seen them, they might have vanished into the bowels of the earth through the floor of the cellars in the empty house next door. That means that they were very quick loading whatever vehicle they used with their plunder. I should think, myself, that they first carried everything from this house down into the hall of the house next door; and then, of course, they could be very quick getting them from hall to their van, or whatever it was. But still, some one saw that van—saw it drive up to the house, or waiting at the house, or driving away from it."

"Is M. Formery coming back?" said the Duke.

"Not to-night," said Guerchard. "The affair is in my hands now; and I have my own men on it—men of some intelligence, or, at any rate, men who know my ways, and how I want things done."

"It must be a relief," said the Duke.

"Oh, no, I'm used to M. Formery—to all the examining magistrates in Paris, and in most of the big provincial towns. They do not really hamper me; and often I get an idea from them; for some of them are men of real intelligence."

"And others are not: I understand," said the Duke.

The door opened and Bonavent, the detective, came in.

"The housekeeper's awake, M. Guerchard," he said.

"Good, bring her down here," said Guerchard.

"Perhaps you'd like me to go," said the Duke.

"Oh, no," said Guerchard. "If it would interest you to hear me question her, please stay."

Bonavent left the room. The Duke sat down in an easy chair, and Guerchard stood before the fireplace.

"M. Formery told me, when you were out this afternoon, that he believed this housekeeper to be quite innocent," said the Duke idly.

"There is certainly one innocent in this affair," said Guerchard, grinning.

"Who is that?" said the Duke.

"The examining magistrate," said Guerchard.

The door opened, and Bonavent brought Victoire in. She was a big, middle-aged woman, with a pleasant, cheerful, ruddy face, black- haired, with sparkling brown eyes, which did not seem to have been at all dimmed by her long, drugged sleep. She looked like a well-to- do farmer's wife, a buxom, good-natured, managing woman.

As soon as she came into the room, she said quickly:

"I wish, Mr. Inspector, your man would have given me time to put on a decent dress. I must have been sleeping in this one ever since those rascals tied me up and put that smelly handkerchief over my face. I never saw such a nasty-looking crew as they were in my life."

"How many were there, Madame Victoire?" said Guerchard.

"Dozens! The house was just swarming with them. I heard the noise; I came downstairs; and on the landing outside the door here, one of them jumped on me from behind and nearly choked me—to prevent me from screaming, I suppose."

"And they were a nasty-looking crew, were they?" said Guerchard. "Did you see their faces?"

"No, I wish I had! I should know them again if I had; but they were all masked," said Victoire.

"Sit down, Madame Victoire. There's no need to tire you," said Guerchard. And she sat down on a chair facing him.

"Let's see, you sleep in one of the top rooms, Madame Victoire. It has a dormer window, set in the roof, hasn't it?" said Guerchard, in the same polite, pleasant voice.

"Yes; yes. But what has that got to do with it?" said Victoire.

"Please answer my questions," said Guerchard sharply. "You went to sleep in your room. Did you hear any noise on the roof?"

"On the roof? How should I hear it on the roof? There wouldn't be any noise on the roof," said Victoire.

"You heard nothing on the roof?" said Guerchard.

"No; the noise I heard was down here," said Victoire.

"Yes, and you came down to see what was making it. And you were seized from behind on the landing, and brought in here," said Guerchard.

"Yes, that's right," said Madame Victoire.

"And were you tied up and gagged on the landing, or in here?" said Guerchard.

"Oh, I was caught on the landing, and pushed in here, and then tied up," said Victoire.

"I'm sure that wasn't one man's job," said Guerchard, looking at her vigorous figure with admiring eyes.

"You may be sure of that," said Victoire. "It took four of them; and at least two of them have some nice bruises on their shins to show for it."

"I'm sure they have. And it serves them jolly well right," said Guerchard, in a tone of warm approval. "And, I suppose, while those four were tying you up the others stood round and looked on."

"Oh, no, they were far too busy for that," said Victoire.

"What were they doing?" said Guerchard.

"They were taking the pictures off the walls and carrying them out of the window down the ladder," said Victoire.

Guerchard's eyes flickered towards the Duke, but the expression of earnest inquiry on his face never changed.

"Now, tell me, did the man who took a picture from the walls carry it down the ladder himself, or did he hand it through the window to a man who was standing on the top of a ladder ready to receive it?" he said.

Victoire paused as if to recall their action; then she said, "Oh, he got through the window, and carried it down the ladder himself."

"You're sure of that?" said Guerchard.

"Oh, yes, I am quite sure of it—why should I deceive you, Mr. Inspector?" said Victoire quickly; and the Duke saw the first shadow of uneasiness on her face.

"Of course not," said Guerchard. "And where were you?"

"Oh, they put me behind the screen."

"No, no, where were you when you came into the room?"

"I was against the door," said Victoire.

"And where was the screen?" said Guerchard. "Was it before the fireplace?"

"No; it was on one side—the left-hand side," said Victoire.

"Oh, will you show me exactly where it stood?" said Guerchard.

Victoire rose, and, Guerchard aiding her, set the screen on the left-hand side of the fireplace.

Guerchard stepped back and looked at it.

"Now, this is very important," he said. "I must have the exact position of the four feet of that screen. Let's see . . . some chalk . . . of course. . . . You do some dressmaking, don't you, Madame Victoire?"

"Oh, yes, I sometimes make a dress for one of the maids in my spare time," said Victoire.

"Then you've got a piece of chalk on you," said Guerchard.

"Oh, yes," said Victoire, putting her hand to the pocket of her dress.

She paused, took a step backwards, and looked wildly round the room, while the colour slowly faded in her ruddy cheeks.

"What am I talking about?" she said in an uncertain, shaky voice. "I haven't any chalk—I—ran out of chalk the day before yesterday."

"I think you have, Madame Victoire. Feel in your pocket and see," said Guerchard sternly. His voice had lost its suavity; his face its smile: his eyes had grown dangerous.

"No, no; I have no chalk," cried Victoire.

With a sudden leap Guerchard sprang upon her, caught her in a firm grip with his right arm, and his left hand plunged into her pocket.

"Let me go! Let me go! You're hurting," she cried.

Guerchard loosed her and stepped back.

"What's this?" he said; and he held up between his thumb and forefinger a piece of blue chalk.

Victoire drew herself up and faced him gallantly: "Well, what of it?—it is chalk. Mayn't an honest woman carry chalk in her pockets without being insulted and pulled about by every policeman she comes across?" she cried.

"That will be for the examining magistrate to decide," said Guerchard; and he went to the door and called Bonavent. Bonavent came in, and Guerchard said: "When the prison van comes, put this woman in it; and send her down to the station."

"But what have I done?" cried Victoire. "I'm innocent! I declare I'm innocent. I've done nothing at all. It's not a crime to carry a piece of chalk in one's pocket."

"Now, that's a matter for the examining magistrate. You can explain it to him," said Guerchard. "I've got nothing to do with it: so it's no good making a fuss now. Do go quietly, there's a good woman."

He spoke in a quiet, business-like tone. Victoire looked him in the eyes, then drew herself up, and went quietly out of the room.