The Teeth of the Tiger/Chapter 20

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The Teeth of the Tiger by Maurice Leblanc
Chapter XX. Florence's Secret


It was time for the second act of the tragedy. Don Luis Perenna's death was to be followed by that of Florence. Like some monstrous butcher, the cripple passed from one to the other with no more compassion than if he were dealing with the oxen in a slaughter-house.

Still weak in his limbs, he dragged himself to where the girl lay, took a cigarette from a gun-metal case, and, with a final touch of cruelty, said:

"When this cigarette is quite burnt out, Florence, it will be your turn. Keep your eyes on it. It represents the last minutes of your life reduced to ashes. Keep your eyes on it, Florence, and think.

"I want you to understand this: all the owners of the estate, and old Langernault in particular, have always considered that the heap of rocks and stones overhanging your head was bound to fall to pieces sooner or later. And I myself, for years, with untiring patience, believing in a favourable opportunity, have amused myself by making it crumble away still more, by undermining it with the rain water, in short, by working at it in such a way that, upon my word, I can't make out how the thing keeps standing at all. Or, rather, I do understand.

"The few strokes with the pickaxe which I gave it just now were merely intended for a warning. But I have only to give one more stroke in the right place, and knock out a little brick wedged in between two lumps of stone, for the whole thing to tumble to the ground like a house of cards.

"A little brick, Florence," he chuckled, "a tiny little brick which chance placed there, between two blocks of stone, and has kept in position until now. Out comes the brick, down come the blocks, and there's your catastrophe!"

He took breath and continued:

"After that? After that, Florence, this: either the smash will take place in such a way that your body will not even be in sight, if any one should dream of coming here to look for you, or else it will be partly visible, in which case I shall at once cut and destroy the cords with which you are tied.

"What will the law think then? Simply that Florence Levasseur, a fugitive from justice, hid herself in a grotto which fell upon her and crushed her. That's all. A few prayers for the rash creature's soul, and not another word.

"As for me--as for me, when my work is done and my sweetheart dead--I shall pack my traps, carefully remove all the traces of my coming, smooth every inch of the trampled grass, jump into my motor car, sham death for a little while, and then put in a sensational claim for the hundred millions."

He gave a little chuckle, took two or three puffs at his cigarette, and added, calmly:

"I shall claim the hundred millions and I shall get them. That's the prettiest part of it. I shall claim them because I'm entitled to them; and I explained to you just now before Master Lupin came interfering, how, from the moment that you were dead, I had the most undeniable legal right to them. And I shall get them, because it is physically impossible to bring up the least sort of proof against me."

He moved closer.

"There's not a charge that can hurt me. Suspicions, yes, moral presumptions, clues, anything you like, but not a scrap of material evidence. Nobody knows me. One person has seen me as a tall man, another as a short man. My very name is unknown. All my murders have been committed anonymously. All my murders are more like suicides, or can be explained as suicides.

"I tell you the law is powerless. With Lupin dead, and Florence Levasseur dead, there's no one to bear witness against me. Even if they arrested me, they would have to discharge me in the end for lack of evidence. I shall be branded, execrated, hated, and cursed; my name will stink in people's nostrils, as if I were the greatest of malefactors. But I shall possess the hundred millions; and with that, pretty one, I shall possess the friendship of all decent men!

"I tell you again, with Lupin and you gone, it's all over. There's nothing left, nothing but some papers and a few little things which I have been weak enough to keep until now, in this pocket-book here, and which would be enough and more than enough to cost me my head, if I did not intend to burn them in a few minutes and send the ashes to the bottom of the well.

"So you see, Florence, all my measures are taken. You need not hope for compassion from me, nor for help from anywhere else, since no one knows where I have brought you, and Arsène Lupin is no longer alive. Under these conditions, Florence, make your choice. The ending is in your own hands: either you die, absolutely and irrevocably, or you accept my love."

There was a moment of silence, then:

"Answer me yes or no. A movement of your head will decide your fate. If it's no, you die. If it's yes, I shall release you. We will go from here and, later, when your innocence is proved--and I'll see to that--you shall become my wife. Is the answer yes, Florence?"

He put the question to her with real anxiety and with a restrained passion that set his voice trembling. His knees dragged over the flagstones. He begged and threatened, hungering to be entreated and, at the same time, almost eager for a refusal, so great was his natural murderous impulse.

"Is it yes, Florence? A nod, the least little nod, and I shall believe you implicitly, for you never lie and your promise is sacred. Is it yes, Florence? Oh, Florence, answer me! It is madness to hesitate. Your life depends on a fresh outburst of my anger. Answer me! Here, look, my cigarette is out. I'm throwing it away, Florence. A sign of your head: is the answer yes or no?"

He bent over her and shook her by the shoulders, as if to force her to make the sign which he asked for. But suddenly seized with a sort of frenzy, he rose to his feet and exclaimed:

"She's crying! She's crying! She dares to weep! But, wretched girl, do you think that I don't know what you're crying for? I know your secret, pretty one, and I know that your tears do not come from any fear of dying. You? Why, you fear nothing! No, it's something else! Shall I tell you your secret? Oh, I can't, I can't--though the words scorch my lips. Oh, cursed woman, you've brought it on yourself! You yourself want to die, Florence, as you're crying--you yourself want to die--"

While he was speaking he hastened to get to work and prepare the horrible tragedy. The leather pocket-book which he had mentioned as containing the papers was lying on the ground; he put it in his pocket. Then, still trembling, he pulled off his jacket and threw it on the nearest bush. Next, he took up the pickaxe and climbed the lower stones, stamping with rage and shouting:

"It's you who have asked to die, Florence! Nothing can prevent it now. I can't even see your head, if you make a sign. It's too late! You asked for it and you've got it! Ah, you're crying! You dare to cry! What madness!"

He was standing almost above the grotto, on the right. His anger made him draw himself to his full height. He looked horrible, hideous, atrocious. His eyes filled with blood as he inserted the bar of the pickaxe between the two blocks of granite, at the spot where the brick was wedged in. Then, standing on one side, in a place of safety, he struck the brick, struck it again. At the third stroke the brick flew out.

What happened was so sudden, the pyramid of stones and rubbish came crashing with such violence into the hollow of the grotto and in front of the grotto, that the cripple himself, in spite of his precautions, was dragged down by the avalanche and thrown upon the grass. It was not a serious fall, however, and he picked himself up at once, stammering:

"Florence! Florence!"

Though he had so carefully prepared the catastrophe, and brought it about with such determination, its results seemed suddenly to stagger him. He hunted for the girl with terrified eyes. He stooped down and crawled round the chaos shrouded in clouds of dust. He looked through the interstices. He saw nothing.

Florence was buried under the ruins, dead, invisible, as be had anticipated.

"Dead!" he said, with staring eyes and a look of stupor on his face. "Dead! Florence is dead!"

Once again he lapsed into a state of absolute prostration, which gradually slackened his legs, brought him to the ground and paralyzed him. His two efforts, following so close upon each other and ending in disasters of which he had been the immediate witness, seemed to have robbed him of all his remaining energy.

With no hatred in him, since Arsène Lupin no longer lived, with no love, since Florence was no more, he looked like a man who has lost his last motive for existence.

Twice his lips uttered the name of Florence. Was he regretting his friend? Having reached the last of that appalling series of crimes, was he imagining the several stages, each marked with a corpse? Was something like a conscience making itself felt deep down in that brute? Or was it not rather the sort of physical torpor that numbs the sated beast of prey, glutted with flesh, drunk with blood, a torpor that is almost voluptuousness?

Nevertheless, he once more repeated Florence's name, and tears rolled down his cheeks.

He lay long in this condition, gloomy and motionless; and when, after again taking a few sips of his medicine, he went back to his work, he did so mechanically, with none of that gayety which had made him hop on his legs and set about his murder as though he were going to a pleasure party.

He began by returning to the bush from which Lupin had seen him emerge. Behind this bush, between two trees, was a shelter containing tools and arms, spades, rakes, guns, and rolls of wire and rope.

Making several journeys, he carried them to the well, intending to throw them down it before he went away. He next examined every particle of the little mound up which he had climbed, in order to make sure that he was not leaving the least trace of his passage.

He made a similar examination of those parts of the lawn on which he had stepped, except the path leading to the well, the inspection of which he kept for the last. He brushed up the trodden grass and carefully smoothed the trampled earth.

He was obviously anxious and seemed to be thinking of other things, while at the same time mechanically doing those things which a murderer knows by force of habit that it is wise to do.

One little incident seemed to wake him up. A wounded swallow fell to the ground close by where he stood. He stooped, caught it, and crushed it in his hands, kneading it like a scrap of crumpled paper. And his eyes shone with a savage delight as he gazed at the blood that trickled from the poor bird and reddened his hands.

But, when he flung the shapeless little body into a furze bush, he saw on the spikes in the bush a hair, a long, fair hair; and all his depression returned at the memory of Florence.

He knelt in front of the ruined grotto. Then, breaking two sticks of wood, he placed the pieces in the form of a cross under one of the stones.

As he was bending over, a little looking-glass slipped from his waistcoat pocket and, striking a pebble, broke. This sign of ill luck made a great impression on him, He cast a suspicious look around him and, shivering with nervousness, as though he felt threatened by the invisible powers, he muttered:

"I'm afraid--I'm afraid. Let's go away--"

His watch now marked half-past four. He took his jacket from the shrub on which he had hung it, slipped his arms into the sleeves, and put his hand in the right-hand outside pocket, where he had placed the pocket-book containing his papers:

"Hullo!" he said, in great surprise. "I was sure I had--"

He felt in the left outside pocket, then in the handkerchief-pocket, then, with feverish excitement, in both the inside pockets. The pocket-book was not there. And, to his extreme amazement, all the other things which he was absolutely certain that he had left in the pockets of his jacket were gone: his cigarette-case, his box of matches, his notebook.

He was flabbergasted. His features became distorted. He spluttered incomprehensible words, while the most terrible thought took hold of his mind so forcibly as to become a reality: there was some one within the precincts of the Old Castle.

There was some one within the precincts of the Old Castle! And this some one was now hiding near the ruins, in the ruins perhaps! And this some one had seen him! And this some one had witnessed the death of Arsène Lupin and the death of Florence Levasseur! And this some one, taking advantage of his heedlessness and knowing from his words that the papers existed, had searched his jacket and rifled the pockets!

His eyes expressed the alarm of a man accustomed to work in the darkness unperceived, and who suddenly becomes aware that another's eyes have surprised him at his hateful task and that he is being watched in every movement for the first time in his life.

Whence did that look come that troubled him as the daylight troubles a bird of the night? Was it an intruder hiding there by accident, or an enemy bent upon his destruction? Was it an accomplice of Arsène Lupin, a friend of Florence, one of the police? And was this adversary satisfied with his stolen booty, or was he preparing to attack him?

The cripple dared not stir. He was there, exposed to assault, on open ground, with nothing to protect him against the blows that might come before he even knew where the adversary was.

At last, however, the imminence of the danger gave him back some of his strength. Still motionless, he inspected his surroundings with an attention so keen that it seemed as if no detail could escape him. He would have sighted the most indistinct shape among the stones of the ruined pile, or in the bushes, or behind the tall laurel screen.

Seeing nobody, he came along, supporting himself on his crutch. He walked without the least sound of his feet or of the crutch, which probably had a rubber shoe at the end of it. His raised right hand held a revolver. His finger was on the trigger. The least effort of his will, or even less than that, a spontaneous injunction of his instinct, was enough to put a bullet into the enemy.

He turned to the left. On this side, between the extreme end of the laurels and the first fallen rocks, there was a little brick path which was more likely the top of a buried wall. The cripple followed this path, by which the enemy might have reached the shrub on which the jacket hung without leaving any traces.

The last branches of the laurels were in his way, and he pushed them aside. There was a tangled mass of bushes. To avoid this, he skirted the foot of the mound, after which he took a few more steps, going round a huge rock. And then, suddenly, he started back and almost lost his balance, while his crutch fell to the ground and his revolver slipped from his hand.

What he had seen, what he saw, was certainly the most terrifying sight that he could possibly have beheld. Opposite him, at ten paces distance, with his hands in his pockets, his feet crossed, and one shoulder resting lightly against the rocky wall, stood not a man: it was not a man, and could not be a man, for this man, as the cripple knew, was dead, had died the death from which there is no recovery. It was therefore a ghost; and this apparition from the tomb raised the cripple's terror to its highest pitch.

He shivered, seized with a fresh attack of fever and weakness. His dilated pupils stared at the extraordinary phenomenon. His whole being, filled with demoniacal superstition and dread, crumpled up under the vision to which each second lent an added horror.

Incapable of flight, incapable of defence, he dropped upon his knees. And he could not take his eyes from that dead man, whom hardly an hour before he had buried in the depths of a well, under a shroud of iron and granite.

Arsène Lupin's ghost!

A man you take aim at, you fire at, you kill. But a ghost! A thing which no longer exists and which nevertheless disposes of all the supernatural powers! What was the use of struggling against the infernal machinations of that which is no more? What was the use of picking up the fallen revolver and levelling it at the intangible spirit of Arsène Lupin?

And he saw an incomprehensible thing occur: the ghost took its hands out of its pockets. One of them held a cigarette-case; and the cripple recognized the same gun-metal case for which he had hunted in vain. There was therefore not a doubt left that the creature who had ransacked the jacket was the very same who now opened the case, picked out a cigarette and struck a match taken from a box which also belonged to the cripple!

O miracle! A real flame came from the match! O incomparable marvel! Clouds of smoke rose from the cigarette, real smoke, of which the cripple at once knew the particular smell!

He hid his head in his hands. He refused to see more. Whether ghost or optical illusion, an emanation from another world, or an image born of his remorse and proceeding from himself, it should torture his eyes no longer.

But he heard the sound of a step approaching him, growing more and more distinct as it came closer! He felt a strange presence moving near him! An arm was stretched out! A hand fell on his shoulder! That hand clutched his flesh with an irresistible grip! And he heard words spoken by a voice which, beyond mistake, was the human and living voice of Arsène Lupin!

"Why, my dear sir, what a state we're getting ourselves into! Of course, I understand that my sudden return seems an unusual and even an inconvenient proceeding, but still it does not do to be so uncontrollably impressed. Men have seen much more extraordinary things than that, such as Joshua staying the sun, and more sensational disasters, such as the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

"The wise man reduces events to their proper proportions and judges them, not by their action upon his own destiny, but by the way in which they influence the fortunes of the world. Now confess that your little mishap is purely individual and does not affect the equilibrium of the solar system. You know what Marcus Aurelius says, on page 84, of Charpentier's edition--"

The cripple had plucked up courage to raise his head; and the real state of things now became so obviously apparent that he could no longer get away from the undeniable fact: Arsène Lupin was not dead! Arsène Lupin whom he had hurled into the bowels of the earth and crushed as surely as an insect is crushed with a hammer; Arsène Lupin was not dead!

How to explain so astounding a mystery the cripple did not even stop to wonder. One thing alone mattered: Arsène Lupin was not dead. Arsène Lupin looked and spoke as a living man does. Arsène Lupin was not dead. He breathed, he smiled, he talked, he lived!

And it was so certainly life that the scoundrel saw before him that, obeying a sudden impulse of his nature and of his hatred for life, he flattened himself to his full length, reached his revolver, seized it, and fired.

He fired; but it was too late. Don Luis had caused the weapon to swerve with a kick of his boot. Another kick sent it flying out of the cripple's hand.

The villain ground his teeth with fury and at once began hurriedly to fumble in his pockets.

"Is this what you're looking for, sir?" asked Don Luis, holding up a hypodermic syringe filled with a yellow fluid. "Excuse me, but I was afraid lest you should prick yourself by mistake. That would have been a fatal prick, would it not? And I should never have forgiven myself."

The cripple was disarmed. He hesitated for a moment, surprised that the enemy did not attack him more violently, and sought to profit by the delay. His small, blinking eyes wandered around him, looking for something to throw. But an idea seemed to strike him and to restore his confidence little by little; and, in a new and really unexpected fit of delight, he indulged in one of his loudest chuckles:

"And what about Florence?" he shouted. "Don't forget Florence! For I've got you there! I can miss you with my revolver and you can steal my poison; but I have another means of hitting you, right in the heart. You can't live without Florence, can you? Florence's death means your own sentence, doesn't it? If Florence is dead, you'll put the rope round your own neck, won't you, won't you, won't you?"

"Yes. If Florence were to die, I could not survive her!"

"She is dead!" cried the scoundrel, with a renewed burst of merriment, hopping about on his knees. "She's dead, quite, quite dead! What am I saying? She's more than dead! A dead person retains the appearance of a live one for a time; but this is much better: there's no corpse here, Lupin; just a mess of flesh and bone!

"The whole scaffolding of rocks has come down on top of her! You can picture it, eh? What a sight! Come, quick, it's your turn to kick the bucket. Would you like a length of rope? Ha, ha, ha! It's enough to make one die with laughing. Didn't I say that you'd meet at the gates of hell? Quick, your sweetheart's waiting for you. Do you hesitate? Where's your old French politeness? You can't keep a lady waiting, you know. Hurry up, Lupin! Florence is dead!"

He said this with real enjoyment, as though the mere word of death appeared to him delicious.

Don Luis had not moved a muscle. He simply nodded his head and said:

"What a pity!"

The cripple seemed petrified. All his joyous contortions, all his triumphal pantomime, stopped short. He blurted out:

"Eh? What did you say?"

"I say," declared Don Luis, preserving his calm and courteous demeanour and refraining from echoing the cripple's familiarity, "I say, my dear sir, that you have done very wrong. I never met a finer nature nor one more worthy of esteem than that of Mlle. Levasseur. The incomparable beauty of her face and figure, her youth, her charm, all these deserved a better treatment. It would indeed be a matter for regret if such a masterpiece of womankind had ceased to be."

The cripple remained astounded. Don Luis's serene manner dismayed him. He said, in a blank voice:

"I tell you, she has ceased to be. Haven't you seen the grotto? Florence no longer exists!"

"I refuse to believe it," said Don Luis quietly. "If that were so, everything would look different. The sky would be clouded; the birds would not be singing; and nature would wear her mourning garb. But the birds are singing, the sky is blue, everything is as it should be: the honest man is alive; and the rascal is crawling at his feet. How could Florence be dead?"

A long silence followed upon these words. The two enemies, at three paces distance, looked into each other's eyes: Don Luis still as cool as ever, the cripple a prey to the maddest anguish. The monster understood. Obscure as the truth was, it shone forth before him with all the light of a blinding certainty: Florence also was alive! Humanly and physically speaking, the thing was not possible; but the resurrection of Don Luis was likewise an impossibility; and yet Don Luis was alive, with not a scratch on his face, with not a speck of dust on his clothes.

The monster felt himself lost. The man who held him in the hollow of his implacable hand was one of those men whose power knows no bounds. He was one of those men who escape from the jaws of death and who triumphantly snatch from death those of whom they have taken charge.

The monster retreated, dragging himself slowly backward on his knees along the little brick path.

He retreated. He passed by the confused heap of stones that covered the place where the grotto had been, and did not turn his eyes in that direction, as if he were definitely convinced that Florence had come forth safe and sound from the appalling sepulchre.

He retreated. Don Luis, who no longer had his eyes fixed on him, was busy unwinding a coil of rope which he had picked up, and seemed to pay no further attention to him.

He retreated.

And suddenly, after a glance at his enemy, he spun round, drew himself up on his slack legs with an effort, and started running toward the well.

He was twenty paces from it. He covered one half, three quarters of the distance. Already the mouth opened before him. He put out his arms, with the movement of a man about to dive, and shot forward.

His rush was stopped. He rolled over on the ground, dragged back violently, with his arms fixed so firmly to his body that he was unable to stir.

It was Don Luis, who had never wholly lost sight of him, who had made a slip-knot to his rope and who had lassoed the cripple at the moment when he was going to fling himself down the abyss. The cripple struggled for a few moments. But the slip-knot bit into his flesh. He ceased moving. Everything was over.

Then Don Luis Perenna, holding the other end of the lasso, came up to him and bound him hand and foot with what remained of the rope. The operation was carefully performed. Don Luis repeated it time after time, using the coils of rope which the cripple had brought to the well and gagging him with a handkerchief. And, while applying himself to his work, he explained, with affected politeness:

"You see, sir, people always come to grief through excessive self-confidence. They never imagine that their adversaries can have resources which they themselves do not possess. For instance, when you got me to fall into your trap, how could you have supposed, my dear sir, that a man like myself, a man like Arsène Lupin, hanging on the brim of a well, with his arms resting on the brim and his feet against the inner wall, would allow himself to drop down it like the first silly fool that comes along?

"Look here: you were fifteen or twenty yards away; and do you think that I had not the strength to leap out nor the courage to face the bullets of your revolver, when it was a question of saving Florence Levasseur's life and my own? Why, my poor sir, the tiniest effort would have been enough, believe me!

"My reason for not making the effort was that I had something better to do, something infinitely better. I will tell you why, that is, if you care to know. Do you?

"Well, then, at the very first moment, my knees and feet, propped against the inner wall, had smashed in a thick layer of plaster which closed up an old excavation in the well; and this I at once perceived. It was a stroke of luck, wasn't it? And it changed the whole situation. My plan was settled at once. While I went on acting my little part of the gentleman about to tumble down an abyss, putting on the most scared face, the most staring eyes, the most hideous grin, I enlarged that excavation, taking care to throw the chunks of plaster in front of me in such a way that their fall made no noise. When the moment came, at the very second when my swooning features vanished before your eyes, I simply jumped into my retreat, thanks to a rather plucky little wriggle of the loins.

"I was saved, because the retreat was dug out on the side where you were moving and because, being dark itself, it east no light. All that I now had to do was to wait.

"I listened quietly to your threatening speeches. I let the things you flung down the well go past me. And, when I thought you had gone back to Florence, I was preparing to leave my refuge, to return to the light of day, and to fall upon you from behind, when--"

Don Luis turned the cripple over, as though he were a parcel which he was tying up with string, and continued:

"Have you ever been to Tancarville, the old feudal castle in Normandy, on the banks of the Seine? Haven't you? Well, you must know that, outside the ruins of the keep, there is an old well which, like many other wells of the period, possesses the peculiarity of having two openings, one at the top, facing the sky, and the other a little lower down, hollowed out sideways in the wall and leading to one of the rooms of the keep.

"At Tancarville this second opening is nowadays closed with a grating. Here it was walled up with a layer of small stones and plaster. And it was just the recollection of Tancarville that made me stay, all the more as there was no hurry, since you had had the kindness to inform me that Florence would not join me in the next world until four o'clock. I therefore inspected my refuge and soon realized that, as I had already felt by intuition, it was the foundation of a building which was now demolished and which had the garden laid out on its ruins.

"Well, I went on, groping my way and following the direction which, above ground, would have taken me to the grotto. My presentiments were not deceived. A gleam of daylight made its way at the top of a staircase of which I had struck the bottom step. I went up it and heard the sound of your voice."

Don Luis turned the cripple over and over and was pretty rough about it. Then he resumed:

"I wish to impress upon you, my dear sir, that the upshot would have been exactly similar if I had attacked you directly and from the start in the open air. But, having said this, I confess that chance favoured me to some purpose. It has often failed me, in the course of our struggle, but this time I had no cause to complain.

"I felt myself in such luck that I never doubted for a second that, having found the entrance to the subterranean passage, I should also find the way out. As a matter of fact, I had only to pull gently at the slight obstacle of a few stacked bricks which hid the opening in order to make my exit amid the remains of the castle keep.

"Guided by the sound of your voice, I slipped through the stones and thus reached the back of the grotto in which Florence lay. Amusing, wasn't it?

"You can imagine what fun it was to hear you make your little speeches: 'Answer me, yes or no, Florence. A movement of your head will decide your fate. If it's yes, I shall release you. If it's no, you die. Answer me, Florence! A sign of your head: is the answer yes or no?' And the end, above all, was delicious, when you scrambled to the top of the grotto and started roaring from up there: 'It's you who have asked to die, Florence. You asked for it and you've got it!'

"Just think what a joke it was: at that moment there was no one in the grotto! Not a soul! With one effort, I had drawn Florence toward me and put her under shelter. And all that you were able to crush with your avalanche of rocks was one or two spiders, perhaps, and a few flies dozing on the flagstones.

"The trick was done and the farce was nearly finished. Act first: Arsène Lupin saved. Act second: Florence Levasseur saved. Act third and last: the monster vanquished ... absolutely and with a vengeance!"

Don Luis stood up and contemplated his work with a satisfied eye.

"You look like a sausage, my son!" he cried, yielding at last to his sarcastic nature and his habit of treating his enemies familiarly. "A regular sausage! A bit on the thin side, perhaps: a saveloy for poor people! But there, you don't much care what you look like, I suppose? Besides, you're rather like that at all times; and, in any case, you're just the thing for the little display of indoor gymnastics which I have in mind for you. You'll see: it's an idea of my own, a really original idea. Don't be impatient: we shan't be long."

He took one of the guns which the cripple had brought to the well and tied to the middle of the gun the end of a twelve or fifteen yards' length of rope, fastening the other end to the cords with which the cripple was bound, just behind his back. He next took his captive round the body and held him over the well:

"Shut your eyes, if you feel at all giddy. And don't be frightened. I'll be very careful. Ready?"

He put the cripple down the yawning hole and next took hold of the rope which he had just fastened. Then, little by little, inch by inch, cautiously, so that it should not knock against the sides of the well, the bundle was let down at arm's length.

When it reached a depth of twelve yards or so, the gun stopped its further descent and there it remained, slung in the dark and in the exact centre of the narrow circumference.

Don Luis set light to a number of pieces of paper, which went whirling down, shedding their sinister gleams upon the walls. Then, unable to resist the craving for a last speech, he leaned over, as the scoundrel had done, and grinned:

"I selected the place with care, so that you shouldn't catch cold. I'm bound to look after you, you see. I promised Florence that I wouldn't kill you; and I promised the French Government to hand you over alive as soon as possible. Only, as I didn't know what to do with you until to-morrow morning, I've hung you up in the air.

"It's a pretty trick, isn't it? And you ought to appreciate it, for it's so like your own way of doing things. Just think: the gun is resting on its two ends, with hardly an inch to spare. So, if you start wriggling, or moving, or even breathing too hard, either the barrel or the butt end'll give way; and down you go! As for me, I've nothing to do with it!

"If you die, it'll be a pretty little case of suicide. All you've got to do, old chap, is to keep quiet. And the beauty of my little contrivance is that it will give you a foretaste of the few nights that will precede your last hour, when they cut off your head. From this moment forward you are alone with your conscience, face to face with what you perhaps call your soul, without anything to disturb your silent soliloquy. It's nice and thoughtful of me, isn't it? ...

"Well, I'll leave you. And remember: not a movement, not a sigh, not a wink, not a throb of the heart! And, above all, no larks! If you start larking, you're in the soup. Meditate: that's the best thing you can do. Meditate and wait. Good-bye, for the present!"

And Don Luis, satisfied with his homily, went off, muttering:

"That's all right. I won't go so far as Eugène Sue, who says that great criminals should have their eyes put out. But, all the same, a little corporal punishment, nicely seasoned with fear, is right and proper and good for the health and morals."

Don Luis walked away and, taking the brick path round the ruins, turned down a little road, which ran along the outer wall to a clump of fir trees, where he had brought Florence for shelter.

She was waiting for him, still aching from the horrible suffering which she had endured, but already in full possession of her pluck, mistress of herself, and apparently rid of all anxiety as to the issue of the fight between Don Luis and the cripple.

"It's finished," he said, simply. "To-morrow I will hand him over to the police."

She shuddered. But she did not speak; and he observed her in silence.

It was the first time that they were alone together since they had been separated by so many tragedies, and next hurled against each other like sworn enemies. Don Luis was so greatly excited that, in the end, he could utter only insignificant sentences, having no connection with the thoughts that came rushing through his mind.

"We shall find the motor car if we follow this wall and then strike off to the left.... Do you think you can manage to walk so far? ... When we're in the car, we'll go to Alençon. There's a quiet hotel close to the chief square. You can wait there until things take a more favourable turn for you--and that won't be long, as the criminal is caught."

"Let's go," she said.

He dared not offer to help her. For that matter, she stepped out firmly and her graceful body swung from her hips with the same even rhythm as usual. Don Luis once again felt all his old admiration and all his ardent love for her. And yet that had never seemed more remote than at this moment when he had saved her life by untold miracles of energy.

She had not vouchsafed him a word of thanks nor yet one of those milder glances which reward an effort made; and she remained the same as on the first day, the mysterious creature whose secret soul he had never understood, and upon whom not even the storm of terrible events had cast the faintest light.

What were her thoughts? What were her wishes? What aim was she pursuing? These were obscure problems which he could no longer hope to solve. Henceforth each of them must go his own way in life and each of them could only remember the other with feelings of anger and spite.

"No!" he said to himself, as she took her place in the limousine. "No! The separation shall not take place like that. The words that have to be spoken between us shall be spoken; and, whether she wishes or not, I will tear the veil that hides her."

      *       *       *       *       *

The journey did not take long. At Alençon Don Luis entered Florence in the visitors' book under the first name that occurred to him and left her to herself. An hour later he came and knocked at her door.

This time again he had not the courage at once to ask her the question which he had made up his mind to put to her. Besides, there were other points which he wished to clear up.

"Florence," he said, "before I hand over that man, I should like to know what he was to you."

"A friend, an unhappy friend, for whom I felt pity," she declared. "I find it difficult to-day to understand my compassion for such a monster. But, some years ago, when I first met him, I became attached to him because of his wretchedness, his physical weakness, and all the symptoms of death which he bore upon him even then. He had the opportunity of doing me a few services; and, though he led a hidden life, which worried me in certain respects, he gradually and without my knowing it acquired a considerable influence over me.

"I believed in his insight, in his will, in his absolute devotion; and, when the Mornington case started, it was he, as I now realize, who guided my actions and, later, those of Gaston Sauverand. It was he who compelled me to practise lying and deceit, persuading me that he was working for Marie Fauville's safety. It was he who inspired us with such suspicion of yourself and who taught us to be so silent, where he and his affairs were concerned, that Gaston Sauverand did not even dare mention him in his interview with you.

"I don't know how I can have been so blind. But it was so. Nothing opened my eyes. Nothing made me suspect for a moment that harmless, ailing creature, who spent half his life in hospitals or nursing-homes, who underwent every possible sort of operation, and who, if he did sometimes speak to me of his love, must have known that he could not hope to--"

Florence did not finish her sentence. Her eyes had encountered Don Luis's eyes; and she received a deep impression that he was not listening to what she said. He was looking at her; and that was all. The words she uttered passed unheard.

To Don Luis any explanation concerning the tragedy itself mattered nothing, so long as he was not enlightened on the one point that interested him, on Florence's private thoughts about himself, thoughts of aversion, of contempt. Outside that, anything that she could say was vain and tedious.

He went up to her and, in a low voice, said:

"Florence, you know what I feel for you, do you not?"

She blushed, taken aback, as though the question was the very last that she expected to hear. Nevertheless, she did not lower her eyes, and she answered frankly:

"Yes, I know."

"But, perhaps," he continued, more eagerly, "you do not know how deeply I feel it? Perhaps you do not know that my life has no other aim but you?"

"I know that also," she said.

"Then, if you know it," he said, "I must conclude that it was just that which caused your hostility to me. From the beginning I tried to be your friend and I tried only to defend you. And yet from the beginning I felt that for you I was the object of an aversion that was both instinctive and deliberate. Never did I see in your eyes anything but coldness, dislike, contempt, and even repulsion.

"At moments of danger, when your life or your liberty was at stake, you risked committing any imprudence rather than accept my assistance. I was the enemy, the man to be distrusted, the man capable of every infamy, the man to be avoided, and to be thought of only with a sort of dread. Isn't that hatred? Is there anything but hatred to explain such an attitude?"

Florence did not answer at once. She seemed to be putting off the moment at which to speak the words that rose to her lips. Her face, thin and drawn with weariness and pain, was gentler than usual.

"Yes," she said, "there are other things than hatred to explain that attitude."

Don Luis was dumfounded. He did not quite understand the meaning of the reply; but Florence's tone of voice disconcerted him beyond measure, and he also saw that Florence's eyes no longer wore their usual scornful expression and that they were filled with smiling charm. And it was the first time that Florence had smiled in his presence.

"Speak, speak, I entreat you!" he stammered.

"I mean to say that there is another feeling which explains coldness, mistrust, fear, and hostility. It is not always those whom we detest that we avoid with the greatest fear; and, if we avoid them, it is often because we are afraid of ourselves, because we are ashamed, because we rebel and want to resist and want to forget and cannot--"

She stopped; and, when he wildly stretched out his arms to her, as if beseeching her to say more and still more, she nodded her head, thus telling him that she need not go on speaking for him to read to the very bottom of her soul and discover the secret of love which she kept hidden there.

Don Luis staggered on his feet. He was intoxicated with happiness, almost suffered physical pain from that unexpected happiness. After the horrible minutes through which he had passed amid the impressive surroundings of the Old Castle, it appeared to him madness to admit that such extraordinary bliss could suddenly blossom forth in the commonplace setting of that room at a hotel.

He could have longed for space around him, forest, mountains, moonlight, a radiant sunset, all the beauty and all the poetry of the earth. With one rush, he had reached the very acme of happiness. Florence's very life came before him, from the instant of their meeting to the tragic moment when the cripple, bending over her and seeing her eyes filled with tears, had shouted:

"She's crying! She's crying! What madness! But I know your secret, Florence! And you're crying! Florence, Florence, you yourself want to die!"

It was a secret of love, a passionate impulse which, from the first day, had driven her all trembling toward Don Luis. Then it had bewildered her, filled her with fear, appeared to her as a betrayal of Marie and Sauverand and, by turns urging her toward and drawing her away from the man whom she loved and whom she admired for his heroism and loyalty, rending her with remorse and overwhelming her as though it were a crime, had ended by delivering her, feeble and disabled, to the diabolical influence of the villain who coveted her.

Don Luis did not know what to do, did not know in what words to express his rapture. His lips trembled. His eyes filled with tears. His nature prompted him to take her in his arms, to kiss her as a child kisses, full on the lips, with a full heart. But a feeling of intense respect paralyzed his yearning. And, overcome with emotion, he fell at Florence's feet, stammering words of love and adoration.