Two lodges, belonging to the same old-time period as the house itself, stood at the extreme right and left of the low wall that separated the front courtyard from the Place du Palais-Bourbon. These lodges were joined to the main building, situated at the back of the courtyard, by a series of outhouses. On one side were the coach-houses, stables, harness-rooms, and garage, with the porter's lodge at the end; on the other side, the wash-houses, kitchens, and offices, ending in the lodge occupied by Mlle. Levasseur.
This lodge had only a ground floor, consisting of a dark entrance hall and one large room, most of which served as a sitting-room, while the rest, arranged as a bedroom, was really only a sort of alcove. A curtain hid the bed and wash-hand-stand. There were two windows looking out on the Place du Palais-Bourbon.
It was the first time that Don Luis had set foot in Mlle. Levasseur's room. Engrossed though he was with other matters, he felt its charm. It was very simply furnished: some old mahogany chairs and armchairs, a plain, Empire writing-table, a round table with one heavy, massive leg, and some book-shelves. But the bright colour of the linen curtains enlivened the room. On the walls hung reproductions of famous pictures, drawings of sunny buildings and landscapes, Italian villas, Sicilian temples… .
The girl remained standing. She had resumed her composure, and her face had taken on the enigmatical expression so difficult to fathom, especially as she had assumed a deliberate air of dejection, which Perenna guessed was intended to hide her excitement and alertness, together with the tumultuous feelings which even she had great difficulty in controlling.
Her eyes looked neither timorous nor defiant. It really seemed as though she had nothing to fear from the explanation.
Don Luis kept silent for some little time. It was strange and it annoyed him to feel it, but he experienced a certain embarrassment in the presence of this woman, against whom he was inwardly bringing the most serious charges. And, not daring to put them into words, not daring to say plainly what he thought, he began:
"You know what happened in this house this morning?"
"Yes, when I had finished speaking on the telephone."
"I know now. I heard it from the servants, from the butler."
"How could I have known earlier?"
She was lying. It was impossible that she should be speaking the truth. And yet in what a calm voice she had replied!
He went on:
"I will tell you, in a few words, what happened. I was leaving the telephone box, when the iron curtain, concealed in the upper part of the wall, fell in front of me. After making sure that there was nothing to be done, I simply resolved, as I had the telephone by me, to call in the assistance of one of my friends. I rang up Major d'Astrignac. He came at once and, with the help of the butler, let me out. Is that what you heard?"
"Yes, Monsieur. I had gone to my room, which explains why I knew nothing of the incident or of Major d'Astrignac's visit."
"Very well. It appears, however, from what I learned when I was released, that the butler and, for that matter, everybody in the house, including yourself, knew of the existence of that iron curtain."
"And how did you know it?"
"Through Baron Malonyi. He told me that, during the Revolution, his great-grandmother, on the mother's side, who then occupied this house and whose husband was guillotined, remained hidden in that recess for thirteen months. At that time the curtain was covered with woodwork similar to that of the room."
"It's a pity that I wasn't informed of it, for, after all, I was very nearly crushed to death."
This possibility did not seem to move the girl. She said:
"It would be a good thing to look at the mechanism and see why it became unfastened. It's all very old and works badly."
"The mechanism works perfectly. I tested it. An accident is not enough to account for it."
"Who could have done it, if it was not an accident?"
"Some enemy whom I am unable to name."
"He would have been seen."
"There was only one person who could have seen him—yourself. You happened to pass through my study as I was telephoning and I heard your exclamation of fright at the news about Mme. Fauville."
"Yes, it gave me a shock. I pity the woman so very much, whether she is guilty or not."
"And, as you were close to the arch, with your hand within reach of the spring, the presence of an evildoer would not have escaped your notice."
She did not lower her eyes. A slight flush overspread her face, and she said:
"Yes, I should at least have met him, for, from what I gather, I went out a few seconds before the accident."
"Quite so," he said. "But what is so curious and unlikely is that you did not hear the loud noise of the curtain falling, nor my shouts and all the uproar I created."
"I must have closed the door of the study by that time. I heard nothing."
"Then I am bound to presume that there was some one hidden in my study at that moment, and that this person is a confederate of the ruffians who committed the two murders on the Boulevard Suchet; for the Prefect of Police has just discovered under the cushions of my sofa the half of a walking-stick belonging to one of those ruffians."
She wore an air of great surprise. This new incident seemed really to be quite unknown to her. He came nearer and, looking her straight in the eyes, said:
"You must at least admit that it's strange."
"This series of events, all directed against me. Yesterday, that draft of a letter which I found in the courtyard—the draft of the article published in the Echo de France. This morning, first the crash of the iron curtain just as I was passing under it, next, the discovery of that walking-stick, and then, a moment ago, the poisoned water bottle—"
She nodded her head and murmured:
"Yes, yes—there is an array of facts—"
"An array of facts so significant," he said, completing her sentence meaningly, "as to remove the least shadow of doubt. I can feel absolutely certain of the immediate intervention of my most ruthless and daring enemy. His presence here is proved. He is ready to act at any moment. His object is plain," explained Don Luis. "By means of the anonymous article, by means of that half of the walking-stick, he meant to compromise me and have me arrested. By the fall of the curtain he meant to kill me or at least to keep me imprisoned for some hours. And now it's poison, the cowardly poison which kills by stealth, which they put in my water to-day and which they will put in my food to-morrow. And next it will be the dagger and then the revolver and then the rope, no matter which, so long as I disappear; for that is what they want: to get rid of me.
"I am the adversary, I am the man they're afraid of, the man who will discover the secret one day and pocket the millions which they're after. I am the interloper. I stand mounting guard over the Mornington inheritance. It's my turn to suffer. Four victims are dead already. I shall be the fifth. So Gaston Sauverand has decided: Gaston Sauverand or some one else who's managing the business."
Perenna's eyes narrowed.
"The accomplice is here, in this house, in the midst of everything, by my side. He is lying in wait for me. He is following every step I take. He is living in my shadow. He is waiting for the time and place to strike me. Well, I have had enough of it. I want to know, I will know, and I shall know. Who is he?"
The girl had moved back a little way and was leaning against the round table. He took another step forward and, with his eyes still fixed on hers, looking in that immobile face for a quivering sign of fear or anxiety, he repeated, with greater violence:
"Who is the accomplice? Who in the house has sworn to take my life?"
"I don't know," she said, "I don't know. Perhaps there is no plot, as you think, but just a series of chance coincidences—"
He felt inclined to say to her, with his habit of adopting a familiar tone toward those whom he regarded as his adversaries:
"You're lying, dearie, you're lying. The accomplice is yourself, my beauty. You alone overheard my conversation on the telephone with Mazeroux, you alone can have gone to Gaston Sauverand's assistance, waited for him in a motor at the corner of the boulevard, and arranged with him to bring the top half of the walking-stick here. You're the beauty that wants to kill me, for some reason which I do not know. The hand that strikes me in the dark is yours, sweetheart."
But it was impossible for him to treat her in this fashion; and he was so much exasperated at not being able to proclaim his certainty in words of anger and indignation that he took her fingers and twisted them violently, while his look and his whole attitude accused the girl even more forcibly than the bitterest words.
He mastered himself and released his grip. The girl freed herself with a quick movement, indicating repulsion and hatred. Don Luis said:
"Very well. I will question the servants. If necessary I shall dismiss any whom I suspect."
"No, don't do that," she said eagerly. "You mustn't. I know them all."
Was she going to defend them? Was she yielding to a scruple of conscience at the moment when her obstinacy and duplicity were on the point of causing her to sacrifice a set of servants whose conduct she knew to be beyond reproach? Don Luis received the impression that the glance which she threw at him contained an appeal for pity. But pity for whom? For the others? Or for herself?
They were silent for a long time. Don Luis, standing a few steps away from her, thought of the photograph, and was surprised to find in the real woman all the beauty of the portrait, all that beauty which he had not observed hitherto, but which now struck him as a revelation. The golden hair shone with a brilliancy unknown to him. The mouth wore a less happy expression, perhaps, a rather bitter expression, but one which nevertheless retained the shape of the smile. The curve of the chin, the grace of the neck revealed above the dip of the linen collar, the line of the shoulders, the position of the arms, and of the hands resting on her knees: all this was charming and very gentle and, in a manner, very seemly and reassuring. Was it possible that this woman should be a murderess, a poisoner?
"I forget what you told me that your Christian name was. But the name you gave me was not the right one."
"Yes, it was," she said.
"Your name is Florence: Florence Levasseur."
"What! Who told you? Florence? How do you know?"
"Here is your photograph, with your name on it almost illegible."
"Oh!" she said, amazed at seeing the picture. "I can't believe it! Where does it come from? Where did you get it from?" And, suddenly, "It was the Prefect of Police who gave it to you, was it not? Yes, it was he, I'm sure of it. I am sure that this photograph is to identify me and that they are looking for me, for me, too. And it's you again, it's you again—"
"Have no fear," he said. "The print only wants a few touches to alter the face beyond recognition. I will make them. Have no fear."
She was no longer listening to him. She gazed at the photograph with all her concentrated attention and murmured:
"I was twenty years old… . I was living in Italy. Dear me, how happy I was on the day when it was taken! And how happy I was when I saw my portrait!… I used to think myself pretty in those days… . And then it disappeared… . It was stolen from me like other things that had already been stolen from me, at that time—"
And, sinking her voice still lower, speaking her name as if she were addressing some other woman, some unhappy friend, she repeated:
"Florence… . Florence—"
Tears streamed down her cheeks.
"She is not one of those who kill," thought Don Luis. "I can't believe that she is an accomplice. And yet—and yet—"
He moved away from her and walked across the room from the window to the door. The drawings of Italian landscapes on the wall attracted his attention. Next, he read the titles of the books on the shelves. They represented French and foreign works, novels, plays, essays, volumes of poetry, pointing to a really cultivated and varied taste.
He saw Racine next to Dante, Stendhal near Edgar Allan Poe, Montaigne between Goethe and Virgil. And suddenly, with that extraordinary faculty which enabled him, in any collection of objects, to perceive details which he did not at once take in, he noticed that one of the volumes of an English edition of Shakespeare's works did not look exactly like the others. There was something peculiar about the red morocco back, something stiff, without the cracks and creases which show that a book has been used.
It was the eighth volume. He took it out, taking care not to be heard.
He was not mistaken. The volume was a sham, a mere set of boards surrounding a hollow space that formed a box and thus provided a regular hiding-place; and, inside this book, he caught sight of plain note-paper, envelopes of different kinds, and some sheets of ordinary ruled paper, all of the same size and looking as if they had been taken from a writing-pad.
And the appearance of these ruled sheets struck him at once. He remembered the look of the paper on which the article for the Echo de France had been drafted. The ruling was identical, and the shape and size appeared to be the same.
On lifting the sheets one after the other, he saw, on the last but one, a series of lines consisting of words and figures in pencil, like notes hurriedly jotted down.
"House on the Boulevard Suchet. "First letter. Night of 15 April. "Second. Night of 25th. "Third and fourth. Nights of 5 and 15 May. "Fifth and explosion. Night of 25 May."
And, while noting first that the date of the first night was that of the actual day, and next that all these dates followed one another at intervals of ten days, he remarked the resemblance between the writing and the writing of the rough draft.
The draft was in a notebook in his pocket. He was therefore in a position to verify the similarity of the two handwritings and of the two ruled sheets of paper. He took his notebook and opened it. The draft was not there.
"Gad," he snarled, "but this is a bit too thick!"
And, at the same time, he remembered clearly that, when he was telephoning to Mazeroux in the morning, the notebook was in the pocket of his overcoat and that he had left his overcoat on a chair near the telephone box. Now, at that moment, Mlle. Levasseur, for no reason, was roaming about the study. What was she doing there?
"Oh, the play-actress!" thought Perenna, raging within himself. "She was humbugging me. Her tears, her air of frankness, her tender memories: all bunkum! She belongs to the same stock and the same gang as Marie Fauville and Gaston Sauverand. Like them, she is an accomplished liar and actress from her slightest gesture down to the least inflection of her innocent voice."
He was on the point of having it all out with her and confounding her. This time, the proof was undeniable. Dreading an inquiry which might have brought the facts home to her, she had been unwilling to leave the draft of the article in the adversary's hands.
How could he doubt, from this moment, that she was the accomplice employed by the people who were working the Mornington affair and trying to get rid of him? Had he not every right to suppose that she was directing the sinister gang, and that, commanding the others with her audacity and her intelligence, she was leading them toward the obscure goal at which they were aiming?
For, after all, she was free, entirely free in her actions and movements. The windows opening on the Place du Palais-Bourbon gave her every facility for leaving the house under cover of the darkness and coming in again unknown to anybody.
It was therefore quite possible that, on the night of the double crime, she was among the murderers of Hippolyte Fauville and his son. It was quite possible that she had taken part in the murders, and even that the poison had been injected into the victims by her hand, by that little, white, slender hand which he saw resting against the golden hair.
A shudder passed through him. He had softly put back the paper in the book, restored the book in its place, and moved nearer to the girl.
All of a sudden, he caught himself studying the lower part of her face, the shape of her jaw! Yes, that was what he was making every effort to guess, under the curve of the cheeks and behind the veil of the lips. Almost against his will, with personal anguish mingled with torturing curiosity, he stared and stared, ready to force open those closed lips and to seek the reply to the terrifying problem that suggested itself to him.
Those teeth, those teeth which he did not see, were not they the teeth that had left the incriminating marks in the fruit? Which were the teeth of the tiger, the teeth of the wild beast: these, or the other woman's?
It was an absurd supposition, because the marks had been recognized as made by Marie Fauville. But was the absurdity of a supposition a sufficient reason for discarding it?
Himself astonished at the feelings that agitated him, fearing lest he should betray himself, he preferred to cut short the interview and, going up to the girl, he said to her, in an imperious and aggressive tone:
"I wish all the servants in the house to be discharged. You will give them their wages, pay them such compensation as they ask for, and see that they leave to-day, definitely. Another staff of servants will arrive this evening. You will be here to receive them."
She made no reply. He went away, taking with him the uncomfortable impression that had lately marked his relations with Florence. The atmosphere between them always remained heavy and oppressive. Their words never seemed to express the private thoughts of either of them; and their actions did not correspond with the words spoken. Did not the circumstances logically demand the immediate dismissal of Florence Levasseur as well? Yet Don Luis did not so much as think of it.
Returning to his study, he at once rang up Mazeroux and, lowering his voice so as not to let it reach the next room, he said:
"Is that you, Mazeroux?"
"Has the Prefect placed you at my disposal?"
"Well, tell him that I have sacked all my servants and that I have given you their names and instructed you to have an active watch kept on them. We must look among them for Sauverand's accomplice. Another thing: ask the Prefect to give you and me permission to spend the night at Hippolyte Fauville's house."
"Nonsense! At the house on the Boulevard Suchet?"
"Yes, I have every reason to believe that something's going to happen there."
"What sort of thing?"
"I don't know. But something is bound to take place. And I insist on being at it. Is it arranged?"
"Right, Chief. Unless you hear to the contrary, I'll meet you at nine o'clock this evening on the Boulevard Suchet."
Perenna did not see Mlle. Levasseur again that day. He went out in the course of the afternoon, and called at the registry office, where he chose some servants: a chauffeur, a coachman, a footman, a cook, and so on. Then he went to a photographer, who made a new copy of Mlle. Levasseur's photograph. Don Luis had this touched up and faked it himself, so that the Prefect of Police should not perceive the substitution of one set of features for another.
He dined at a restaurant and, at nine o'clock, joined Mazeroux on the Boulevard Suchet.
Since the Fauville murders the house had been left in the charge of the porter. All the rooms and all the locks had been sealed up, except the inner door of the workroom, of which the police kept the keys for the purposes of the inquiry.
The big study looked as it did before, though the papers had been removed and put away and there were no books and pamphlets left on the writing-table. A layer of dust, clearly visible by the electric light, covered its black leather and the surrounding mahogany.
"Well, Alexandre, old man," cried Don Luis, when they had made themselves comfortable, "what do you say to this? It's rather impressive, being here again, what? But, this time, no barricading of doors, no bolts, eh? If anything's going to happen, on this night of the fifteenth of April, we'll put nothing in our friends' way. They shall have full and entire liberty. It's up to them, this time."
Though joking, Don Luis was nevertheless singularly impressed, as he himself said, by the terrible recollection of the two crimes which he had been unable to prevent and by the haunting vision of the two dead bodies. And he also remembered with real emotion the implacable duel which he had fought with Mme. Fauville, the woman's despair and her arrest.
"Tell me about her," he said to Mazeroux. "So she tried to kill herself?"
"Yes," said Mazeroux, "a thoroughgoing attempt, though she had to make it in a manner which she must have hated. She hanged herself in strips of linen torn from her sheets and underclothing and twisted together. She had to be restored by artificial respiration. She is out of danger now, I believe, but she is never left alone, for she swore she would do it again."
"She has made no confession?"
"No. She persists in proclaiming her innocence."
"And what do they think at the public prosecutor's? At the Prefect's?"
"Why should they change their opinion, Chief? The inquiries confirm every one of the charges brought against her; and, in particular, it has been proved beyond the possibility of dispute that she alone can have touched the apple and that she can have touched it only between eleven o'clock at night and seven o'clock in the morning. Now the apple bears the undeniable marks of her teeth. Would you admit that there are two sets of jaws in the world that leave the same identical imprint?"
"No, no," said Don Luis, who was thinking of Florence Levasseur. "No, the argument allows of no discussion. We have here a fact that is clear as daylight; and the imprint is almost tantamount to a discovery in the act. But then how, in the midst of all this, are we to explain the presence of ——-"
"Nobody. I had an idea worrying me. Besides, you see, in all this there are so many unnatural things, such queer coincidences and inconsistencies, that I dare not count on a certainty which the reality of to-morrow may destroy."
They went on talking for some time, in a low voice, studying the question in all its bearings.
At midnight they switched off the electric light in the chandelier and arranged that each should go to sleep in turn.
And the hours went by as they had done when the two sat up before, with the same sounds of belated carriages and motor cars; the same railway whistles; the same silence.
The night passed without alarm or incident of any kind. At daybreak the life out of doors was resumed; and Don Luis, during his waking hours, had not heard a sound in the room except the monotonous snoring of his companion.
"Can I have been mistaken?" he wondered. "Did the clue in that volume of Shakespeare mean something else? Or did it refer to events of last year, events that took place on the dates set down?"
In spite of everything, he felt overcome by a strange uneasiness as the dawn began to glimmer through the half-closed shutters. A fortnight before, nothing had happened either to warn him; and yet there were two victims lying near him when he woke.
At seven o'clock he called out:
"Eh? What is it, Chief?"
"You're not dead?"
"What's that? Dead? No, Chief; why should I be?"
"Well, that's a good 'un! Why not you?"
"Oh, it'll be my turn soon! Considering the intelligence of those scoundrels, there's no reason why they should go on missing me."
They waited an hour longer. Then Perenna opened a window and threw back the shutter.
"I say, Alexandre, perhaps you're not dead, but you're certainly very green."
Mazeroux gave a wry laugh:
"Upon my word, Chief, I confess that I had a bad time of it when I was keeping watch while you were asleep."
"Were you afraid?"
"To the roots of my hair. I kept on thinking that something was going to happen. But you, too, Chief, don't look as if you had been enjoying yourself. Were you also—"
He interrupted himself, on seeing an expression of unbounded astonishment on Don Luis's face.
"What's the matter, Chief?"
"Look! … on the table … that letter—"
He looked. There was a letter on the writing-table, or, rather, a letter-card, the edges of which had been torn along the perforation marks; and they saw the outside of it, with the address, the stamp, and the postmarks.
"Did you put that there, Alexandre?"
"You're joking, Chief. You know it can only have been you."
"It can only have been I … and yet it was not I."
Don Luis took the letter-card and, on examining it, found that the address and the postmarks had been scratched out so as to make it impossible to read the name of the addressee or where he lived, but that the place of posting was quite clear, as was the date: Paris, 4 January, 19—.
"So the letter is three and a half months old," said Don Luis.
He turned to the inside of the letter. It contained a dozen lines and he at once exclaimed:
"Hippolyte Fauville's signature!"
"And his handwriting," observed Mazeroux. "I can tell it at a glance. There's no mistake about that. What does it all mean? A letter written by Hippolyte Fauville three months before his death?"
Perenna read aloud:
"MY DEAR OLD FRIEND:
"I can only, alas, confirm what I wrote to you the other day: the plot is thickening around me! I do not yet know what their plan is and still less how they mean to put it into execution; but everything warns me that the end is at hand. I can see it in her eyes. How strangely she looks at me sometimes!
"Oh, the shame of it! Who would ever have thought her capable of it?
"I am a very unhappy man, my dear friend."
"And it's signed Hippolyte Fauville," Mazeroux continued, "and I declare to you that it's actually in his hand … written on the fourth of January of this year to a friend whose name we don't know, though we shall dig him out somehow, that I'll swear. And this friend will certainly give us the proofs we want."
Mazeroux was becoming excited.
"Proofs? Why, we don't need them! They're here. M. Fauville himself supplies them: 'The end is at hand. I can see it in her eyes.' 'Her' refers to his wife, to Marie Fauville, and the husband's evidence confirms all that we knew against her. What do you say, Chief?"
"You're right," replied Perenna, absent-mindedly, "you're right; the letter is final. Only—"
"Who the devil can have brought it? Somebody must have entered the room last night while we were here. Is it possible? For, after all, we should have heard. That's what astounds me."
"It certainly looks like it."
"Just so. It was a queer enough job a fortnight ago. But, still, we were in the passage outside, while they were at work in here, whereas, this time, we were here, both of us, close to this very table. And, on this table, which had not the least scrap of paper on it last night, we find this letter in the morning."
A careful inspection of the place gave them no clue to put them on the track. They went through the house from top to bottom and ascertained for certain that there was no one there in hiding. Besides, supposing that any one was hiding there, how could he have made his way into the room without attracting their attention? There was no solving the problem.
"We won't look any more," said Perenna, "it's no use. In matters of this sort, some day or other the light enters by an unseen cranny and everything gradually becomes clear. Take the letter to the Prefect of Police, tell him how we spent the night, and ask his permission for both of us to come back on the night of the twenty-fifth of April. There's to be another surprise that night; and I'm dying to know if we shall receive a second letter through the agency of some Mahatma."
They closed the doors and left the house.
While they were walking to the right, toward La Muette, in order to take a taxi, Don Luis chanced to turn his head to the road as they reached the end of the Boulevard Suchet. A man rode past them on a bicycle. Don Luis just had time to see his clean-shaven face and his glittering eyes fixed upon himself.
"Look out!" he shouted, pushing Mazeroux so suddenly that the sergeant lost his balance.
The man had stretched out his hand, armed with a revolver. A shot rang out. The bullet whistled past the ears of Don Luis, who had bobbed his head.
"After him!" he roared. "You're not hurt, Mazeroux?"
They both rushed in pursuit, shouting for assistance. But, at that early hour, there are never many people in the wide avenues of this part of the town. The man, who was making off swiftly, increased his distance, turned down the Rue Octave-Feuillet, and disappeared.
"All right, you scoundrel, I'll catch you yet!" snarled Don Luis, abandoning a vain pursuit.
"But you don't even know who he is, Chief."
"Yes, I do: it's he."
"The man with the ebony stick. He's cut off his beard and shaved his face, but I knew him for all that. It was the man who was taking pot-shots at us yesterday morning, from the top of his stairs on the Boulevard Richard-Wallace, the one who killed Inspector Ancenis. The blackguard! How did he know that I had spent the night at Fauville's? Have I been followed then and spied on? But by whom? And why? And how?"
Mazeroux reflected and said:
"Remember, Chief, you telephoned to me in the afternoon to give me an appointment. For all you know, in spite of lowering your voice, you may have been heard by somebody at your place."
Don Luis did not answer. He thought of Florence.
That morning Don Luis's letters were not brought to him by Mlle. Levasseur, nor did he send for her. He caught sight of her several times giving orders to the new servants. She must afterward have gone back to her room, for he did not see her again.
In the afternoon he rang for his car and drove to the house on the Boulevard Suchet, to pursue with Mazeroux, by the Prefect's instructions, a search that led to no result whatever.
It was ten o'clock when he came in. The detective sergeant and he had some dinner together. Afterward, wishing also to examine the home of the man with the ebony stick, he got into his car again, still accompanied by Mazeroux, and told the man to drive to the Boulevard Richard-Wallace.
The car crossed the Seine and followed the right bank.
"Faster," he said to his new chauffeur, through the speaking-tube. "I'm accustomed to go at a good pace."
"You'll have an upset one fine day, Chief," said Mazeroux.
"No fear," replied Don Luis. "Motor accidents are reserved for fools."
They reached the Place de l'Alma. The car turned to the left.
"Straight ahead!" cried Don Luis. "Go up by the Trocadéro."
The car veered back again. But suddenly it gave three or four lurches in the road, took the pavement, ran into a tree and fell over on its side.
In a few seconds a dozen people were standing round. They broke one of the windows and opened the door. Don Luis was the first.
"It's nothing," he said. "I'm all right. And you, Alexandre?"
They helped the sergeant out. He had a few bruises and a little pain, but no serious injury.
Only the chauffeur had been thrown from his seat and lay motionless on the pavement, bleeding from the head. He was carried into a chemist's shop and died in ten minutes.
Mazeroux had gone in with the poor victim and, feeling pretty well stunned, had himself been given a pick-me-up. When he went back to the motor car he found two policemen entering particulars of the accident in their notebooks and taking evidence from the bystanders; but the chief was not there.
Perenna in fact had jumped into a taxicab and driven home as fast as he could. He got out in the square, ran through the gateway, crossed the courtyard, and went down the passage that led to Mlle. Levasseur's quarters. He leaped up the steps, knocked, and entered without waiting for an answer.
The door of the room that served as a sitting-room was opened and Florence appeared. He pushed her back into the room, and said, in a tone furious with indignation:
"It's done. The accident has occurred. And yet none of the old servants can have prepared it, because they were not there and because I was out with the car this afternoon. Therefore, it must have been late in the day between six and nine o'clock, that somebody went to the garage and filed the steering-rod three quarters through."
"I don't understand. I don't understand," she said, with a scared look.
"You understand perfectly well that the accomplice of the ruffians cannot be one of the new servants, and you understand perfectly well that the job was bound to succeed and that it did succeed, beyond their hopes. There is a victim, who suffers instead of myself."
"But tell me what has happened, Monsieur! You frighten me! What accident? What was it?"
"The motor car was overturned. The chauffeur is dead."
"Oh," she said, "how horrible! And you think that I can have—Oh, dead, how horrible! Poor man!"
Her voice grew fainter. She was standing opposite to Perenna, close up against him. Pale and swooning, she closed her eyes, staggered.
He caught her in his arms as she fell. She tried to release herself, but had not the strength; and he laid her in a chair, while she moaned, repeatedly:
"Poor man! Poor man!"
Keeping one of his arms under the girl's head, he took a handkerchief in the other hand and wiped her forehead, which was wet with perspiration, and her pallid cheeks, down which the tears streamed.
She must have lost consciousness entirely, for she surrendered herself to Perenna's cares without the least resistance. And he, making no further movement, began anxiously to examine the mouth before his eyes, the mouth with the lips usually so red, now bloodless and discoloured.
Gently passing one of his fingers over each of them, with a continuous pressure, he separated them, as one separates the petals of a flower; and the two rows of teeth appeared.
They were charming, beautifully shaped, and beautifully white; a little smaller perhaps than Mme. Fauville's, perhaps also arranged in a wider curve. But what did he know? Who could say that their bite would not leave the same imprint? It was an improbable supposition, an impossible miracle, he knew. And yet the circumstances were all against the girl and pointed to her as the most daring, cruel, implacable, and terrible of criminals.
Her breathing became regular. He perceived the cool fragrance of her mouth, intoxicating as the scent of a rose. In spite of himself, he bent down, came so close, so close that he was seized with giddiness and had to make a great effort to lay the girl's head on the back of the chair and to take his eyes from the fair face with the half-parted lips.
He rose to his feet and went.