The Crystal Stopper/Chapter X

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The Crystal Stopper by Maurice Leblanc
Chapter X: Extra dry?


EXTRA-DRY?

On one of the hills that girdle Nice with the finest scenery in the world, between the Vallon de Saint-Silvestre and the Vallon de La Mantega, stands a huge hotel which overlooks the town and the wonderful Baie des Anges. A crowd flocks to it from all parts, forming a medley of every class and nation.

On the evening of the same Saturday when Lupin, the Growler and the Masher were plunging into Italy, Clarisse Mergy entered this hotel, asked for a bedroom facing south and selected No. 130, on the second floor, a room which had been vacant since that morning.

The room was separated from No. 129 by two partition-doors. As soon as she was alone, Clarisse pulled back the curtain that concealed the first door, noiselessly drew the bolt and put her ear to the second door:

"He is here," she thought. "He is dressing to go to the club... as he dld yesterday."

When her neighbour had gone, she went into the passage and, availing herself of a moment when there was no one in sight, walked up to the door of No. 129. The door was locked.

She waited all the evening for her neighbour's return and did not go to bed until two o'clock. On Sunday morning, she resumed her watch.

The neighbour went out at eleven. This time he left the key in the door.

Hurriedly turning the key, Clarisse entered boldly, went to the partition-door, raised the curtain, drew the bolt and found herself in her own room.

In a few minutes, she heard two chambermaids doing the room in No. 129.

She waited until they were gone. Then, feeling sure that she would not be disturbed, she once more slipped into the other room.

Her excitement made her lean against a chair. After days and nights of stubborn pursuit, after alternate hopes and disappointments, she had at last succeeded in entering a room occupied by Daubrecq. She could look about at her ease; and, if she did not discover the crystal stopper, she could at least hide in the space between the partition-doors, behind the hanging, see Daubrecq, spy upon his movements and surprise his secret.

She looked around her. A travelling-bag at once caught her attention. She managed to open it; but her search was useless.

She ransacked the trays of a trunk and the compartments of a portmanteau. She searched the wardrobe, the writing-table, the chest of drawers, the bathroom, all the tables, all the furniture. She found nothing.

She gave a start when she saw a scrap of paper on the balcony, lying as though flung there by accident:

"Can it be a trick of Daubrecq's?" she thought, out loud. "Can that scrap of paper contain..."

"No," said a voice behind her, as she put her hand on the latch.

She turned and saw Daubrecq.

She felt neither astonishment nor alarm, nor even any embarrassment at finding herself face to face with him. She had suffered too deeply for months to trouble about what Daubrecq could think of her or say, at catching her in the act of spying.

She sat down wearily.

He grinned:

"No, you're out of it, dear friend. As the children say, you're not 'burning' at all. Oh, not a bit of it! And it's so easy! Shall I help you? It's next to you, dear friend, on that little table... And yet, by Jove, there's not much on that little table! Something to read, something to write with, something to smoke, something to eat... and that's all... Will you have one of these candied fruits?... Or perhaps you would rather wait for the more substantial meal which I have ordered?"

Clarisse made no reply. She did not even seem to listen to what he was saying, as though she expected other words, more serious words, which he could not fail to utter.

He cleared the table of all the things that lay upon it and put them on the mantel-piece. Then he rang the bell.

A head-waiter appeared. Daubrecq asked:

"Is the lunch which I ordered ready?"

"Yes, sir."

"It's for two, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir."

"And the champagne?"

"Yes, sir."

"Extra-dry?"

"Yes, sir."

Another waiter brought a tray and laid two covers on the table: a cold lunch, some fruit and a bottle of champagne in an ice-pail.

Then the two waiters withdrew.

"Sit down, dear lady. As you see, I was thinking of you and your cover is laid."

And, without seeming to observe that Clarisse was not at all prepared to do honour to his invitation, he sat down, began to eat and continued:

"Yes, upon my word, I hoped that you would end by consenting to this little private meeting. During the past week, while you were keeping so assiduous a watch upon me, I did nothing but say to myself, 'I wonder which she prefers: sweet champagne, dry champagne, or extra-dry?' I was really puzzled. Especially after our departure from Paris. I had lost your tracks, that is to say, I feared that you had lost mine and abandoned the pursuit which was so gratifying to me. When I went for a walk, I missed your beautiful dark eyes, gleaming with hatred under your hair just touched with gray. But, this morning, I understood: the room next to mine was empty at last; and my friend Clarisse was able to take up her quarters, so to speak, by my bedside. From that moment I was reassured. I felt certain that, on coming back--instead of lunching in the restaurant as usual--I should find you arranging my things to your convenience and suiting your own taste. That was why I ordered two covers: one for your humble servant, the other for his fair friend."

She was listening to him now and in the greatest terror. So Daubrecq knew that he was spied upon! For a whole week he had seen through her and all her schemes!

In a low voice, anxious-eyed, she asked:

"You did it on purpose, did you not? You only went away to drag me with you?"

"Yes," he said.

"But why? Why?"

"Do you mean to say that you don't know?" retorted Daubrecq, laughing with a little cluck of delight.

She half-rose from her chair and, bending toward him, thought, as she thought each time, of the murder which she could commit, of the murder which she would commit. One revolver-shot and the odious brute was done for.

Slowly her hand glided to the weapon conoealed in her bodice.

Daubrecq said:

"One second, dear friend... You can shoot presently; but I beg you first to read this wire which I have just received."

She hesitated, not knowing what trap he was laying for her; but he went on, as he produced a telegram:

"It's about your son."

"Gilbert?" she asked, greatly concerned.

"Yes, Gilbert... Here, read it."

She gave a yell of dismay. She had read:

"Execution on Tuesday morning."

And she at once flung herself on Daubrecq, crying:

"It's not true!... It's a lie... to madden me... Oh, I know you: you are capable of anything! Confess! It won't be on Tuesday, will it? In two days! No, no... I tell you, we have four days yet, five days, in which to save him... Confess it, confess it!"

She had no strength left, exhausted by this fit of rebellion; and her voice uttered none but inarticulate sounds.

He looked at her for a moment, then poured himself out a glass of champagne and drank it down at a gulp. He took a few steps up and down the room, came back to her and said:

"Listen to me, darling..."

The insult made her quiver with an unexpected energy. She drew herself up and, panting with indignation, said:

"I forbid you... I forbid you to speak to me like that. I will not accept such an outrage. You wretch!..."

He shrugged his shoulders and resumed:

"Pah, I see you're not quite alive to the position. That comes, of course, because you still hope for assistance in some quarter. Prasville, perhaps? The excellent Prasville, whose right hand you are... My dear friend, a forlorn hope... You must know that Prasville is mixed up in the Canal affair! Not directly: that is to say, his name is not on the list of the Twenty-seven; but it is there under the name of one of his friends, an ex-deputy called Vorenglade, Stanislas Vorenglade, his man of straw, apparently: a penniless individual whom I left alone and rightly. I knew nothing of all that until this morning, when, lo and behold, I received a letter informing me of the existence of a bundle of documents which prove the complicity of our one and only Prasville! And who is my informant? Vorenglade himself! Vorenglade, who, tired of living in poverty, wants to extort money from Prasville, at the risk of being arrested, and who will be delighted to come to terms with me. And Prasville will get the sack. Oh, what a lark! I swear to you that he will get the sack, the villain! By Jove, but he's annoyed me long enough! Prasville, old boy, you've deserved it..."

He rubbed his hands together, revelling in his coming revenge. And he continued:

"You see, my dear Clarisse... there's nothing to be done in that direction. What then? What straw will you cling to? Why, I was forgetting: M. Arsene Lupin! Mr. Growler! Mr. Masher!... Pah, you'll admit that those gentlemen have not shone and that all their feats of prowess have not prevented me from going my own little way. It was bound to be. Those fellows imagine that there's no one to equal them. When they meet an adversary like myself, one who is not to be bounced, it upsets them and they make blunder after blunder, while still believing that they are hoodwinking him like mad. Schoolboys, that's what they are! However, as you seem to have some illusions left about the aforesaid Lupin, as you are counting on that poor devil to crush me and to work a miracle in favour of your innocent Gilbert, come, let's dispel that illusion. Oh! Lupin! Lord above, she believes in Lupin! She places her last hopes in Lupin! Lupin! Just wait till I prick you, my illustrious windbag!"

He took up the receiver of the telephone which communicated with the hall of the hotel and said:

"I'm No. 129, mademoiselle. Would you kindly ask the person sitting opposite your office to come up to me?... Huh!... Yes, mademoiselle, the gentleman in a gray felt hat. He knows. Thank you, mademoiselle."

Hanging up the receiver, he turned to Clarisse:

"Don't be afraid. The man is discretion itself. Besides, it's the motto of his trade: 'Discretion and dispatch.' As a retired detective, he has done me a number of services, including that of following you while you were following me. Since our arrival in the south, he has been less busy with you; but that was because he was more busy elsewhere. Come in, Jacob."

He himself opened the door, and a short, thin man, with a red moustache, entered the room.

"Please tell this lady, Jacob, in a few brief words, what you have done since Wednesday evening, when, after letting her get into the train-de-luxe which was taking me from the Gare de Lyon to the south, you yourself remained on the platform at the station. Of course, I am not asking how you spent your time, except in so far as concerns the lady and the business with which I entrusted you."

Jacob dived into the inside-pocket of his jacket and produced a little note-book of which he turned over the pages and read them aloud in the voice of a man reading a report:

"Wednesday evening, 8.15. Gare de Lyon. Wait for two gents, Growler and Masher. They come with another whom I don't know yet, but who can only be M. Nicole. Give a porter ten francs for the loan of his cap and blouse. Accost the gents and tell them, from a lady, 'that they were gone to Monte Carlo.' Next, telephone to the porter at the Hotel Franklin. All telegrams sent to his boss and dispatched by said boss will be read by said hotel-porter and, if necessary, intercepted.

"Thursday. Monte Carlo. The three gents search the hotels.

"Friday. Flying visits to La Turbie, the Cap d'Ail, Cap Martin. M. Daubrecq rings me up. Thinks it wiser to send the gents to Italy. Make the porter of the Hotel Franklin send them a telegram appointing a meeting at San Remo.

"Saturday. San Remo. Station platform. Give the porter of the Ambassadeurs-Palace ten francs for the loan of his cap. The three gents arrive. They speak to me. Explain to them that a lady traveller, Mme. Mergy, is going on to Genoa, to the Hotel Continental. The gents hesitate. M. Nicole wants to get out. The others hold him back. The train starts. Good luck, gents! An hour later, I take the train for France and get out at Nice, to await fresh orders."

Jacob closed his note-book and concluded:

"That's all. To-day's doings will be entered this evening."

"You can enter them now, M. Jacob. '12 noon. M. Daubrecq sends me to the Wagon-Lits Co. I book two berths in the Paris sleeping-car, by the 2.48 train, and send them to M. Daubrecq by express messenger. Then I take the 12.58 train for Vintimille, the frontier-station, where I spend the day on the platform watching all the travellers who come to France. Should Messrs. Nicole, Growler and Masher take it into their heads to leave Italy and return to Paris by way of Nice, my instructions are to telegraph to the headquarters of police that Master Arsene Lupin and two of his accomplices are in train number so-and-so."

While speaking, Daubrecq led Jacob to the door. He closed it after him, turned the key, pushed the bolt and, going up to Clarisse, said:

"And now, darling, listen to me."

This time, she uttered no protest. What could she do against such an enemy, so powerful, so resourceful, who provided for everything, down to the minutest details, and who toyed with his adversaries in such an airy fashion? Even if she had hoped till then for Lupin's interference, how could she do so now, when he was wandering through Italy in pursuit of a shadow?

She understood at last why three telegrams which she had sent to the Hotel Franklin had remained unanswered. Daubrecq was there, lurking in the dark, watching, establishing a void around her, separating her from her comrades in the fight, bringing her gradually, a beaten prisoner, within the four walls of that room.

She felt her weakness. She was at the monster's mercy. She must be silent and resigned.

He repeated, with an evil delight:

"Listen to me, darling. Listen to the irrevocable words which I am about to speak. Listen to them well. It is now 12 o'clock. The last train starts at 2.48: you understand, the last train that can bring me to Paris to-morrow, Monday, in time to save your son. The evening-trains would arrive too late. The trains-de-luxe are full up. Therefore I shall have to start at 2.48. Am I to start?"

"Yes."

"Our berths are booked. Will you come with me?"

"Yes."

"You know my conditions for interfering?"

"Yes."

"Do you accept them?"

"Yes."

"You will marry me?"

"Yes."

Oh, those horrible answers! The unhappy woman gave them in a sort of awful torpor, refusing even to understand what she was promising. Let him start first, let him snatch Gilbert from the engine of death whose vision haunted her day and night... And then... and then... let what must come come...

He burst out laughing:

"Oh, you rogue, it's easily said!... You're ready to pledge yourself to anything, eh? The great thing is to save Gilbert, isn't it? Afterward, when that noodle of a Daubrecq comes with his engagement-ring, not a bit of it! Nothing doing! We'll laugh in his face!... No, no, enough of empty words. I don't want promises that won't be kept: I want facts, immediate facts."

He came and sat close beside her and stated, plainly:

"This is what I propose... what must be... what shall be... I will ask, or rather I will demand, not Gilbert's pardon, to begin with, but a reprieve, a postponement of the execution, a postponement of three or four weeks. They will invent a pretext of some sort: that's not my affair. And, when Mme. Mergy has become Mme. Daubrecq, then and not till then will I ask for his pardon, that is to say, the commutation of his sentence. And make yourself quite easy: they'll grant it."

"I accept... I accept," she stammered.

He laughed once more:

"Yes, you accept, because that will happen in a month's time... and meanwhile you reckon on finding some trick, an assistance of some kind or another... M. Arsene Lupin..."

"I swear it on the head of my son."

"The head of your son!... Why, my poor pet, you would sell yourself to the devil to save it from falling!..."

"Oh, yes," she whispered, shuddering. "I would gladly sell my soul!"

He sidled up against her and, in a low voice:

"Clarisse, it's not your soul I ask for... It's something else... For more than twenty years my life has spun around that longing. You are the only woman I have ever loved... Loathe me, hate me--I don't care--but do not spurn me... Am I to wait? To wait another month?... No, Clarisse, I have waited too many years already..."

He ventured to touch her hand. Clarisse shrank back with such disgust that he was seized with fury and cried:

"Oh, I swear to heaven, my beauty, the executioner won't stand on such ceremony when he catches hold of your son!... And you give yourself airs! Why, think, it'll happen in forty hours! Forty hours, no more, and you hesitate... and you have scruples, when your son's life is at stake! Come, come, no whimpering, no silly sentimentality... Look things in the face. By your own oath, you are my wife, you are my bride from this moment... Clarisse, Clarisse, give me your lips..."

Half-fainting, she had hardly the strength to put out her arm and push him away; and, with a cynicism in which all his abominable nature stood revealed, Daubrecq, mingling words of cruelty and words of passion, continued:

"Save your son!... Think of the last morning: the preparations for the scaffold, when they snip away his shirt and cut his hair... Clarisse, Clarisse, I will save him... Be sure of it... All my life shall be yours ... Clarisse ..."

She no longer resisted. It was over. The loathsome brute's lips were about to touch hers; and it had to be, and nothing could prevent it. It was her duty to obey the decree of fate. She had long known it. She understood it; and, closing her eyes, so as not to see the foul face that was slowly raised to hers, she repeated to herself:

"My son... my poor son."

A few seconds passed: ten, twenty perhaps. Daubrecq did not move. Daubrecq did not speak. And she was astounded at that great silence and that sudden quiet. Did the monster, at the last moment, feel a scruple of remorse?

She raised her eyelids.

The sight which she beheld struck her with stupefaction. Instead of the grinning features which she expected to see, she saw a motionless, unrecognizable face, contorted by an expression of unspeakable terror: and the eyes, invisible under the double impediment of the spectacles, seemed to be staring above her head, above the chair in which she lay prostrate.

Clarisse turned her face. Two revolver-barrels, pointed at Daubrecq, showed on the right, a little above the chair. She saw only that: those two huge, formidable revolvers, gripped in two clenched hands. She saw only that and also Daubrecq's face, which fear was discolouring little by little, until it turned livid. And, almost at the same time, some one slipped behind Daubrecq, sprang up fiercely, flung one of his arms round Daubrecq's neck, threw him to the ground with incredible violence and applied a pad of cotton-wool to his face. A sudden smell of chloroform filled the room.

Clarisse had recognized M. Nicole.

"Come along, Growler!" he cried. "Come along, Masher! Drop your shooters: I've got him! He's a limp rag... Tie him up."

Daubrecq, in fact, was bending in two and falling on his knees like a disjointed doll. Under the action of the chloroform, the fearsome brute sank into impotence, became harmless and grotesque.

The Growler and the Masher rolled him in one of the blankets of the bed and tied him up securely.

"That's it! That's it!" shouted Lupin, leaping to his feet.

And, in a sudden reaction of mad delight, he began to dance a wild jig in the middle of the room, a jig mingled with bits of can-can and the contortions of the cakewalk and the whirls of a dancing dervish and the acrobatic movements of a clown and the lurching steps of a drunken man. And he announced, as though they were the numbers in a music-hall performance:

"The prisoner's dance!... The captive's hornpipe!... A fantasia on the corpse of a representative of the people!... The chloroform polka!... The two-step of the conquered goggles! Olle! Olle! The blackmailer's fandango! Hoot! Hoot! The McDaubrecq's fling!... The turkey trot!... And the bunny hug!... And the grizzly bear!... The Tyrolean dance: tra-la-liety!... Allons, enfants de la partie!... Zing, boum, boum! Zing, boum, boum!..."

All his street-arab nature, all his instincts of gaiety, so long suppressed by his constant anxiety and disappointment, came out and betrayed themselves in roars of laughter, bursts of animal spirits and a picturesque need of childlike exuberance and riot.

He gave a last high kick, turned a series of cartwheels round the room and ended by standing with his hands on his hips and one foot on Daubrecq's lifeless body.

"An allegorical tableau!" he announced. "The angel of virtue destroying the hydra of vice!"

And the humour of the scene was twice as great because Lupin was appearing under the aspect of M. Nicole, in the clothes and figure of that wizened, awkward, nervous private tutor.

A sad smile flickered across Mme. Mergy's face, her first smile for many a long month. But, at once returning to the reality of things, she besought him:

"Please, please... think of Gilbert!"

He ran up to her, caught her in his arms and, obeying a spontaneous impulse, so frank that she could but laugh at it, gave her a resounding kiss on either cheek:

"There, lady, that's the kiss of a decent man! Instead of Daubrecq, it's I kissing you... Another word and I'll do it again... and I'll call you darling next... Be angry with me, if you dare. Oh, how happy I am!"

He knelt before her on one knee. And, respectfully:

"I beg your pardon, madame. The fit is over."

And, getting up again, resuming his whimsical manner, he continued, while Clarisse wondered what he was driving at:

"What's the next article, madame? Your son's pardon, perhaps? Certainly! Madame, I have the honour to grant you the pardon of your son, the commutation of his sentence to penal servitude for life and, to wind up with, his early escape. It's settled, eh, Growler? Settled, Masher, what? You'll both go with the boy to New Caledonia and arrange for everything. Oh, my dear Daubrecq, we owe you a great debt! But I'm not forgetting you, believe me! What would you like? A last pipe? Coming, coming!"

He took one of the pipes from the mantel-piece, stooped over the prisoner, shifted his pad and thrust the amber mouth-piece between his teeth:

"Draw, old chap, draw. Lord, how funny you look, with your plug over your nose and your cutty in your mouth. Come, puff away. By Jove, I forgot to fill your pipe! Where's your tobacco, your favourite Maryland? ... Oh, here we are!..."

He took from the chimney an unopened yellow packet and tore off the government band:

"His lordship's tobacco! Ladies and gentlemen, keep your eyes on me! This is a great moment. I am about to fill his lordship's pipe: by Jupiter, what an honour! Observe my movements! You see, I have nothing in my hands, nothing up my sleeves!..."

He turned back his cuffs and stuck out his elbows. Then he opened the packet and inserted his thumb and fore-finger, slowly, gingerly, like a conjurer performing a sleight-of-hand trick before a puzzled audience, and, beaming all over his face, extracted from the tobacco a glittering object which he held out before the spectators.

Clarisse uttered a cry.

It was the crystal stopper.

She rushed at Lupin and snatched it from him:

"That's it; that's the one!" she exclaimed, feverishly. "There's no scratch on the stem! And look at this line running down the middle, where the gilt finishes... That's it; it unscrews!... Oh, dear, my strength's going!..." She trembled so violently that Lupin took back the stopper and unscrewed it himself.

The inside of the knob was hollow; and in the hollow space was a piece of paper rolled into a tiny pellet.

"The foreign-post-paper," he whispered, himself greatly excited, with quivering hands.

There was a long silence. All four felt as if their hearts were ready to burst from their bodies; and they were afraid of what was coming.

"Please, please..." stammered Clarisse.

Lupin unfolded the paper.

There was a set of names written one below the other, twenty-seven of them, the twenty-seven names of the famous list: Langeroux, Dechaumont, Vorenglade, d'Albufex, Victorien Mergy and the rest.

And, at the foot, the signature of the chairman of the Two-Seas Canal Company, the signature written in letters of blood.

Lupin looked at his watch:

"A quarter to one," he said. "We have twenty minutes to spare. Let's have some lunch."

"But," said Clarisse, who was already beginning to lose her head, "don't forget..."

He simply said:

"All I know is that I'm dying of hunger."

He sat down at the table, cut himself a large slice of cold pie and said to his accomplices:

"Growler? A bite? You, Masher?"

"I could do with a mouthful, governor."

"Then hurry up, lads. And a glass of champage to wash it down with: it's the chloroform-patient's treat. Your health, Daubrecq! Sweet champagne? Dry champagne? Extra-dry?"