The Teeth of the Tiger/Chapter 18
CHAPTER XVIII. ARSÈNE I EMPEROR OF MAURETANIA
Don Luis ceased. A smile of amusement played round his lips. The recollection of those four minutes seemed to divert him immensely.
Valenglay and the Prefect of Police, who were neither of them men to be unduly surprised at courage and coolness, had listened to him, nevertheless, and were now looking at him in bewildered silence. Was it possible for a human being to carry heroism to such unlikely lengths?
Meanwhile, he went up to the other side of the chimney and pointed to a larger map, representing the French roads.
"You told me, Monsieur le Président, that the scoundrel's motor car had left Versailles and was going toward Nantes?"
"Yes; and all our arrangements are made to arrest him either on the way, or else at Nantes or at Saint-Nazaire, where he may intend to take ship."
Don Luis Perenna followed with his forefinger the road across France, stopping here and there, marking successive stages. And nothing could have been more impressive than this dumb show.
The man that he was, preserving his composure amid the overthrow of all that he had most at heart, seemed by his calmness to dominate time and circumstances. It was as though the murderer were running away at one end of an unbreakable thread of which Don Luis held the other, and as though Don Luis could stop his flight at any time by a mere movement of his finger and thumb.
As he studied the map, the master seemed to command not only a sheet of cardboard, but also the highroad on which a motor car was spinning along, subject to his despotic will.
He went back to the table and continued:
"The battle was over. And there was no question of its being resumed. My forty-two worthies found themselves face to face with a conqueror, against whom revenge is always possible, by fair means or foul, but with one who had subjugated them in a supernatural manner. There was no other explanation of the inexplicable facts which they had witnessed. I was a sorcerer, a kind of marabout, a direct emissary of the Prophet."
Valenglay laughed and said:
"Their interpretation was not so very unreasonable, for, after all, you must have performed a sleight-of-hand trick which strikes me also as being little less than miraculous."
"Monsieur le Président, do you know a curious short story of Balzac's called 'A Passion in the Desert?'"
"Well, the key to the riddle lies in that."
"Does it? I don't quite see. You were not under the claws of a tigress. There was no tigress to tame in this instance."
"No, but there were women."
"Eh? How do you mean?"
"Upon my word, Monsieur le Président," said Don Luis gayly, "I should not like to shock you. But I repeat that the troop which carried me off on that week's march included women; and women are a little like Balzac's tigress, creatures whom it is not impossible to tame, to charm, to break in, until you make friends of them."
"Yes, yes," muttered the Premier, madly puzzled, "but that needs time."
"I had a week."
"And complete liberty of action."
"No, no, Monsieur le Président. The eyes are enough to start with. The eyes give rise to sympathy, interest, affection, curiosity, a wish to know you better. After that, the merest opportunity--"
"And did an opportunity offer?"
"Yes, one night. I was fastened up, or at least they thought I was. I knew that the chief's favourite was alone in her tent close by. I went there. I left her an hour afterward."
"And the tigress was tamed?"
"Yes, as thoroughly as Balzac's: tamed and blindly submissive."
"But there were several of them?"
"I know, Monsieur le President, and that was the difficulty. I was afraid of rivalry. But all went well: the favourite was not jealous, far from it. And then, as I have told you, her submission was absolute. In short, I had five staunch, invisible friends, resolved to do anything I wanted and suspected by nobody.
"My plan was being carried out before we reached the last halting-place. My five secret agents collected all the arms during the night. They dashed the daggers to the ground and broke them. They removed the bullets from the pistols. They damped the powder. Everything was ready for ringing up the curtain."
"My compliments! You are a man of resource. And your scheme was not lacking in charm. For I take it that your five ladies were pretty?"
Don Luis put on a bantering expression. He closed his eyes, as if to recall his bliss, and let fall the one word:
The epithet gave rise to a burst of merriment. But Don Luis, as though in a hurry to finish his story, at once went on:
"In any case, they saved my life, the hussies, and their aid never failed me. My forty-two watch-dogs, deprived of their arms and shaking with fear in those solitudes where everything is a trap and where death lies in wait for you at any minute, gathered round me as their real protector. When we joined the great tribe to which they belonged I was their actual chief. And it took me less than three months of dangers faced in common, of ambushes defeated under my advice, of raids and pillages effected by my direction, to become the chief also of the whole tribe.
"I spoke their language, I practised their religion, I wore their dress, I conformed to their customs: alas! had I not five wives? Henceforward, my dream, which had gradually taken definite shape in my mind, became possible.
"I sent one of my most faithful adherents to France, with sixty letters to hand to sixty men whose names and addresses he learned by heart. Those sixty men were sixty associates whom Arsène Lupin had disbanded before he threw himself from the Capri cliffs. All had retired from business, with a hundred thousand francs apiece in ready money and a small trade or public post to keep them occupied. I had provided one with a tobacconist's shop, another with a job as a park-keeper, others with sinecures in the government offices. In short, they were respectable citizens.
"To all of them--whether public servants, farmers, municipal councillors, grocers, sacristans, or what not--I wrote the same letter, made the same offer, and gave the same instructions in case they should accept.... Monsieur le Président, I thought that, of the sixty, ten or fifteen at most would come and join me: sixty came, Monsieur le President, sixty, and not one less! Sixty men punctually arrived at the appointed place.
"On the day fixed, at the hour named, my old armed cruiser, the _Ascendam_, which they had brought back, anchored in the mouth of the Wady Draa, on the Atlantic coast, between Cape Nun and Cape Juby. Two longboats plied to and fro and landed my friends and the munitions of war which they had brought with them: camp furniture, quick-firing guns, ammunition, motor-boats, stores and provisions, trading wares, glass beads, and cases of gold as well, for my sixty good men and true had insisted on turning their share of the old profits into cash and on putting into the new venture the six million francs which they had received from their governor....
"Need I say more, Monsieur le Président? Must I tell you what a chief like Arsène Lupin was able to attempt seconded by sixty fine fellows of that stamp and backed by an army of ten thousand well-armed and well-trained Moorish fanatics? He attempted it; and his success was unparalleled.
"I do not think that there has ever been an idyl like that through which we lived during those fifteen months, first on the heights of the Atlas range and then in the infernal plains of the Sahara: an idyl of heroism, of privation, of superhuman torture and superhuman joy; an idyl of hunger and thirst, of total defeat and dazzling victory....
"My sixty trusty followers threw themselves into their work with might and main. Oh, what men! You know them, Monsieur le Président du Conseil! You've had them to deal with, Monsieur le Préfet de Police! The beggars! Tears come to my eyes when I think of some of them.
"There were Charolais and his son, who distinguished themselves in the case of the Princesse de Lamballe's tiara. There were Marco, who owed his fame to the Kesselbach case, and Auguste, who was your chief messenger, Monsieur le Président. There were the Growler and the Masher, who achieved such glory in the hunt for the crystal stopper. There were the brothers Beuzeville, whom I used to call the two Ajaxes. There were Philippe d'Antrac, who was better born than any Bourbon, and Pierre Le Grand and Tristan Le Roux and Joseph Le Jeune."
"And there was Arsène Lupin," said Valenglay, roused to enthusiasm by this list of Homeric heroes.
"And there was Arsène Lupin," repeated Don Luis.
He nodded his head, smiled, and continued, in a very quiet voice:
"I will not speak of him, Monsieur le Président. I will not speak of him, for the simple reason that you would not believe my story. What they tell about him when he was with the Foreign Legion is mere child's play beside what was to come later. Lupin was only a private soldier. In South Morocco he was a general. Not till then did Arsène Lupin really show what he could do. And, I say it without pride, not even I foresaw what that was. The Achilles of the legend performed no greater feats. Hannibal and Caesar achieved no more striking results.
"All I need tell you is that, in fifteen months, Arsène Lupin conquered a kingdom twice the size of France. From the Berbers of Morocco, from the indomitable Tuaregs, from the Arabs of the extreme south of Algeria, from the negroes who overrun Senegal, from the Moors along the Atlantic coast, under the blazing sun, in the flames of hell, he conquered half the Sahara and what we may call ancient Mauretania.
"A kingdom of deserts and swamps? Partly, but a kingdom all the same, with oases, wells, rivers, forests, and incalculable riches, a kingdom with ten million men and a hundred thousand warriors. This is the kingdom which I offer to France, Monsieur le Président du Conseil."
Valenglay did not conceal his amazement. Greatly excited and even perturbed by what he had learned, looking over his extraordinary visitor, with his hands clutching at the map of Africa, he whispered:
"Explain yourself; be more precise."
Don Luis answered:
"Monsieur le Président du Conseil, I will not remind you of the events of the last few years. France, resolving to pursue a splendid dream of dominion over North Africa, has had to part with a portion of the Congo. I propose to heal the painful wound by giving her thirty times as much as she has lost. And I turn the magnificent and distant dream into an immediate certainty by joining the small slice of Morocco which you have conquered to Senegal at one blow.
"To-day, Greater France in Africa exists. Thanks to me, it is a solid and compact expanse. Millions of square miles of territory and a coastline stretching for several thousand miles from Tunis to the Congo, save for a few insignificant interruptions."
"It's a Utopia," Valenglay protested.
"It's a reality."
"Nonsense! It will take us twenty years' fighting to achieve."
"It will take you exactly five minutes!" cried Don Luis, with irresistible enthusiasm. "What I offer you is not the conquest of an empire, but a conquered empire, duly pacified and administered, in full working order and full of life. My gift is a present, not a future gift.
"I, too, Monsieur le Président du Conseil, I, Arsène Lupin, had cherished a splendid dream. After toiling and moiling all my life, after knowing all the ups and downs of existence, richer than Croesus, because all the wealth of the world was mine, and poorer than Job, because I had distributed all my treasures, surfeited with everything, tired of unhappiness, and more tired still of happiness, sick of pleasure, of passion, of excitement, I wanted to do something that is incredible in the present day: to reign!
"And a still more incredible phenomenon: when this thing was accomplished, when the dead Arsène Lupin had come to life again as a sultan out of the Arabian Nights, as a reigning, governing, law-giving Arsène Lupin, head of the state and head of the church, I determined, in a few years, at one stroke, to tear down the screen of rebel tribes against which you were waging a desultory and tiresome war in the north of Morocco, while I was quietly and silently building up my kingdom at the back of it.
"Then, face to face with France and as powerful as herself, like a neighbour treating on equal terms, I would have cried to her, 'It's I, Arsène Lupin! Behold the former swindler and gentleman burglar! The Sultan of Adrar, the Sultan of Iguidi, the Sultan of El Djouf, the Sultan of the Tuaregs, the Sultan of Aubata, the Sultan of Brakna and Frerzon, all these am I, the Sultan of Sultans, grandson of Mahomet, son of Allah, I, I, I, Arsène Lupin!'
"And, before taking the little grain of poison that sets one free--for a man like Arsène Lupin has no right to grow old--I should have signed the treaty of peace, the deed of gift in which I bestowed a kingdom on France, signed it, below the flourishes of my grand dignitaries, kaids, pashas, and marabouts, with my lawful signature, the signature to which I am fully entitled, which I conquered at the point of my sword and by my all-powerful will: 'Arsène I, Emperor of Mauretania!'"
Don Luis uttered all these words in a strong voice, but without emphasis, with the very simple emotion and pride of a man who has done much and who knows the value of what he has done. There were but two ways of replying to him: by a shrug of the shoulders, as one replies to a madman, or by the silence that expresses reflection and approval.
The Prime Minister and the Prefect of Police said nothing, but their looks betrayed their secret thoughts. And deep down within themselves they felt that they were in the presence of an absolutely exceptional specimen of mankind, created to perform immoderate actions and fashioned by his own hand for a superhuman destiny.
Don Luis continued:
"It was a fine curtain, was it not, Monsieur le Président du Conseil? And the end was worthy of the work. I should have been happy to have had it so. Arsène Lupin dying on a throne, sceptre in hand, would have been a spectacle not devoid of glamour. Arsène Lupin dying with his title of Arsène I, Emperor of Mauretania and benefactor of France: what an apotheosis! The gods have willed it otherwise. Jealous, no doubt, they are lowering me to the level of my cousins of the old world and turning me into that absurd creature, a king in exile. Their will be done! Peace to the late Emperor of Mauretania. He has strutted and fretted his hour upon the stage.
"Arsène I is dead: long live France! Monsieur le Président du Conseil, I repeat my offer. Florence Levasseur is in danger. I alone can rescue her from the monster who is carrying her away. It will take me twenty-four hours. In return for twenty-four hours' liberty I will give you the Mauretanian Empire. Do you accept, Monsieur le Président du Conseil?"
"Well, certainly, I accept," said Valenglay, laughing. "What do you say, my dear Desmalions? The whole thing may not be very orthodox, but, hang it! Paris is worth a mass and the Kingdom of Mauretania is a tempting morsel. We'll risk the experiment."
Don Luis's face expressed so sincere a joy that one might have thought that he had just achieved the most brilliant victory instead of sacrificing a crown and flinging into the gutter the most fantastic dream that mortal man had ever conceived and realized.
"What guarantees do you require, Monsieur le Président?"
"I can show you treaties, documents to prove--"
"Don't trouble. We'll talk about all that to-morrow. Meanwhile, go ahead. You are free."
The essential word, the incredible word, was spoken.
Don Luis took a few steps toward the door.
"One word more, Monsieur le Président," he said, stopping. "Among my former companions is one for whom I procured a post suited to his inclinations and his deserts. This man I did not send for to come to Africa, thinking that some day or other he might be of use to me through the position which he occupied. I am speaking of Mazeroux, a sergeant in the detective service."
"Sergeant Mazeroux, whom Caceres denounced, with corroborating evidence, as an accomplice of Arsène Lupin, is in prison."
"Sergeant Mazeroux is a model of professional honour, Monsieur le Président. I owed his assistance only to the fact that I was helping the police. I was accepted as an auxiliary and more or less patronized by Monsieur le Préfet. Mazeroux thwarted me in anything I tried to do that was at all legal. And he would have been the first to take me by the collar if he had been so instructed. I ask for his release."
"Monsieur le Président, your consent will be an act of justice and I beg you to grant it. Sergeant Mazerou shall leave France. He can be charged by the government with a secret mission in the south of Morocco, with the rank of colonial inspector."
"Agreed," said Valenglay, laughing heartily. And he added, "My dear Préfect, once we depart from the strictly lawful path, there's no saying where we come to. But the end justifies the means; and the end which we have in view is to have done with this loathsome Mornington case."
"This evening everything will be settled," said Don Luis.
"I hope so. Our men are on the track."
"They are on the track, but they have to check that track at every town, at every village, by inquiries made of every peasant they meet; they have to find out if the motor has not branched off somewhere; and they are wasting time. I shall go straight for the scoundrel."
"By what miracle?"
"That must be my secret for the present, Monsieur le Président."
"Very well. Is there anything you want?"
"This map of France."
"And a couple of revolvers."
"Monsieur le Préfet will be good enough to ask his inspectors for two revolvers and to give them to you. Is that all? Any money?"
"No, thank you, Monsieur le Président. I always carry a useful fifty thousand francs in my pocket-book, in case of need."
"In that case," said the Prefect of Police, "I shall have to send some one with you to the lockup. I presume your pocket-book was among the things taken from you."
Don Luis smiled:
"Monsieur le Préfet, the things that people can take from me are never of the least importance. My pocket-book is at the lockup, as you say. But the money--"
He raised his left leg, took his boot in his hands and gave a slight twist to the heel. There was a little click, and a sort of double drawer shot out of the front of the sole. It contained two sheafs of bank notes and a number of diminutive articles, such as a gimlet, a watch spring, and some pills.
"The wherewithal to escape," he said, "to live and--to die. Good-bye, Monsieur le Président."
In the hall M. Desmalions told the inspectors to let their prisoner go free. Don Luis asked:
"Monsieur le Préfet, did Deputy Chief Weber give you any particulars about the brute's car?"
"Yes, he telephoned from Versailles. It's a deep-yellow car, belonging to the Compagnie des Comètes. The driver's seat is on the left. He's wearing a gray cloth cap with a black leather peak."
"Thank you, Monsieur le Préfet."
And he left the house.
* * * * *
An inconceivable thing had happened. Don Luis was free. Half an hour's conversation had given him the power of acting and of fighting the decisive battle.
He went off at a run. At the Trocadéro he jumped into a taxi.
"Go to Issy-les-Moulineaux!" he cried. "Full speed! Forty francs!"
The cab flew through Passy, crossed the Seine and reached the Issy-les-Moulineaux aviation ground in ten minutes.
None of the aeroplanes was out, for there was a stiff breeze blowing. Don Luis ran to the sheds. The owners' names were written over the doors.
"Davanne," he muttered. "That's the man I want."
The door of the shed was open. A short, stoutish man, with a long red face, was smoking a cigarette and watching some mechanics working at a monoplane. The little man was Davanne himself, the famous airman.
Don Luis took him aside and, knowing from the papers the sort of man that he was, opened the conversation so as to surprise him from the start:
"Monsieur," he said, unfolding his map of France, "I want to catch up some one who has carried off the woman I love and is making for Nantes by motor. The abduction took place at midnight. It is now about eight o'clock. Suppose that the motor, which is just a hired taxi with a driver who has no inducement to break his neck, does an average of twenty miles an hour, including stoppages--in twelve hours' time--that is to say, at twelve o'clock--our man will have covered two hundred and forty miles and reached a spot between Angers and Nantes, at this point on the map."
"Les Ponts-de-Drive," agreed Davanne, who was quietly listening.
"Very well. Suppose, on the other hand, that an aeroplane were to start from Issy-les-Moulineaux at eight o'clock in the morning and travel at the rate of sixty miles an hour, without stopping--in four hours' time--that is to say, at twelve o'clock--it would reach Les Ponts-de-Drive at the exact same moment as the motor. Am I right?"
"In that case, if we agree, all is well. Does your machine carry a passenger?"
"Sometimes she does."
"We'll start at once. What are your terms?"
"It depends. Who are you?"
"The devil you are!" exclaimed Davanne, a little taken aback.
"I am Arsène Lupin. You must know the best part of what has happened from reading about it in the papers. Well, Florence Levasseur was kidnapped last night. I want to save her. What's your price?"
"That's too much!"
"Perhaps, but the adventure amuses me. It will be an advertisement."
"Very well. But your silence is necessary until to-morrow. I'll buy it. Here's twenty thousand francs."
Ten minutes later Don Luis was dressed in an airman's suit, cap, and goggles; and an aeroplane rose to a height of two thousand five hundred feet to avoid the air currents, flew above the Seine, and darted due west across France.
Versailles, Maintenon, Chartres....
Don Luis had never been up in an aeroplane. France had achieved the conquest of the air while he was fighting with the Legion and in the plains of the Sahara. Nevertheless, sensitive though he was to new impressions--and what more exciting impression could he have than this?--he did not experience the heavenly delight of the man who for the first time soars above the earth. What monopolized his thoughts, strained his nerves, and excited his whole being to an exquisite degree was the as yet impossible but inevitable sight of the motor which they were pursuing.
Amid the tremendous swarm of things beneath them, amid the unexpected din of the wings and the engine, in the immensity of the sky, in the infinity of the horizon, his eyes sought nothing but that, and his ears admitted no other sound than the hum of the invisible car. His were the mighty and brutal sensations of the hunter chasing his game. He was the bird of prey whom the distraught quarry has no chance of escaping.
Nogent-le-Rotrou, La Ferté-Bernard, Le Mans....
The two companions did not exchange a single word. Before him Perenna saw Davanne's broad back and powerful neck and shoulders. But, by bending his head a little, he saw the boundless space beneath him; and nothing interested him but the white ribbon of road that ran from town to town and from village to village, at times quite straight, as though a hand had stretched it, and at others lazily winding, broken by a river or a church.
On this ribbon, at some place always closer and closer, were Florence and her abductor!
He never doubted it! The yellow taxi was continuing its patient and plucky little effort. Mile after mile, through plains and villages, fields and forests, it was making Angers, with Les Ponts-de-Drive after, and, right at the end of the ribbon, the unattainable goal: Nantes, Saint-Nazaire, the steamer ready to start, and victory for the scoundrel....
He laughed at the idea. As if there could be a question of any victory but his, the victory of the falcon over its prey, the victory of the flying bird over the game that runs afoot! Not for a second did he entertain the thought that the enemy might have slunk away by taking another road.
There are some certainties that are equivalent to facts. And this one was so great that it seemed to him that his adversaries were obliged to comply with it. The car was travelling along the road to Nantes. It would cover an average of twenty miles an hour. And as he himself was travelling at the rate of sixty miles, the encounter would take place at the spot named, Les Ponts-de-Drive, and at the hour named, twelve o'clock.
A cluster of houses, a huge castle, towers, steeples: Angers....
Don Luis asked Davanne the time. It was ten minutes to twelve.
Already Angers was a vanished vision. Once more the open country, broken up with many-coloured fields. Through it all, a road.
And, on that road, a yellow motor.
The yellow motor! The brute's motor! The motor with Florence Levasseur!
Don Luis's joy contained no surprise. He knew so well that this was bound to happen!
Davanne turned round and cried:
"That's the one, isn't it?"
"Yes, go straight for them."
The airship dipped through space and caught up the car almost at once. Then Davanne slowed his engine and kept at six hundred feet above the car and a little way behind.
From here they made out all the details. The driver was seated on the left. He wore a gray cap with a black peak. It was one of the deep-yellow taxis of the Compagnie des Comètes. It was the taxi which they were pursuing. And Florence was inside with her abductor.
"At last," thought Don Luis, "I have them!"
They flew for some time, keeping the same distance.
Davanne waited for a signal which Don Luis was in no hurry to give. He was revelling in the sensation of his power, with a force made up of mingled pride, hatred, and cruelty. He was indeed the eagle hovering overhead with its talons itching to rend live flesh. Escaped from the cage in which he had been imprisoned, released from the bonds that fastened him, he had come all the way at full flight and was ready to swoop upon the helpless prey.
He lifted himself in his seat and gave Davanne his instructions:
"Be careful," he said, "not to brush too close by them. They might put a bullet into us."
Another minute passed.
Suddenly they saw that, half a mile ahead, the road divided into three, thus forming a very wide open space which was still further extended by two triangular patches of grass where the three roads met.
"Now?" asked Davanne, turning to Don Luis.
The surrounding country was deserted.
"Off you go!" cried Don Luis.
The aeroplane seemed to shoot down suddenly, as though driven by an irresistible force, which sent it flying like an arrow toward the mark. It passed at three hundred feet above the car, and then, all at once, checking its career, choosing the spot at which it meant to hit the target, calmly, silently, like a night-bird, steering clear of the trees and sign-posts, it alighted softly on the grass of the crossroads.
Don Luis sprang out and ran toward the motor, which was coming along at a rapid pace. He stood in the middle of the road, levelled his two revolvers, and shouted:
"Stop, or I fire!"
The terrified driver put on both brakes. The car pulled up.
Don Luis rushed to one of the doors.
"Thunder!" he roared, discharging one of his revolvers for no reason and smashing a window-pane.
There was no one in the car.