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Chapter 17 OPEN SESAME!

In spite of his usual facility for sleep, Don Luis slept for three hours at most. He was racked with too much anxiety; and, though his plan of conduct was worked out mathematically, he could not help foreseeing all the obstacles which were likely to frustrate that plan. Of course, Weber would speak to M. Desmalions. But would M. Desmalions telephone to Valenglay?

"He is sure to telephone," Don Luis declared, stamping his foot. "It doesn't let him in for anything. And at the same time, he would be running a big risk if he refused, especially as Valenglay must have been consulted about my arrest and is obviously kept informed of all that happens."

He next asked himself what exactly Valenglay could do, once he was told. For, after all, was it not too much to expect that the head of the government, that the Prime Minister, should put himself out to obey the injunctions and assist the schemes of M. Arsène Lupin?

"He will come!" he cried, with the same persistent confidence. "Valenglay doesn't care a hang for form and ceremony and all that nonsense. He will come, even if it is only out of curiosity, to learn what the Kaiser's friend can have to say to him. Besides, he knows me! I am not one of those beggars who inconvenience people for nothing. There's always something to be gained by meeting me. He'll come!"

But another question at once presented itself to his mind. Valenglay's coming in no way implied his consent to the bargain which Perenna meant to propose to him. And even if Don Luis succeeded in convincing him, what risks remained! How many doubtful points to overcome! And then the possibilities of failure!

Would Weber pursue the fugitive's motor car with the necessary decision and boldness? Would he get on the track again? And, having got on the track, would he be certain not to lose it?

And then—and then, even supposing that all the chances were favourable, was it not too late? Taking for granted that they hunted down the wild beast, that they drove him to bay, would he not meanwhile have killed his prey? Knowing himself beaten, would a monster of that kind hesitate to add one more murder to the long list of his crimes?

And this, to Don Luis, was the crowning terror. After all the difficulties which, in his stubbornly confident imagination, he had managed to surmount, he was brought face to face with the horrible vision of Florence being sacrificed, of Florence dead!

"Oh, the torture of it!" he stammered. "I alone could have succeeded; and they shut me up!"

He hardly put himself out to inquire into the reasons for which M. Desmalions, suddenly changing his mind, had consented to his arrest, thus bringing back to life that troublesome Arsène Lupin with whom the police had not hitherto cared to hamper themselves. No, that did not interest him. Florence alone mattered. And the minutes passed; and each minute wasted brought Florence nearer to her doom.

He remembered a similar occasion when, some years before, he waited in the same way for the door of his cell to open and the German Emperor to appear. But how much greater was the solemnity of the present moment! Before, it was at the very most his liberty that was at stake. This time it was Florence's life which fate was about to offer or refuse him.

"Florence! Florence!" he kept repeating, in his despair.

He no longer had a doubt of her innocence. Nor did he doubt that the other loved her and had carried her off not so much for the hostage of a coveted fortune as for a love spoil, which a man destroys if he cannot keep it.

"Florence! Florence!"

He was suffering from an extraordinary fit of depression. His defeat seemed irretrievable. There was no question of hastening after Florence, of catching the murderer. Don Luis was in prison under his own name of Arsène Lupin; and the whole problem lay in knowing how long he would remain there, for months or for years!

It was then that he fully realized what his love for Florence meant. He perceived that it took the place in his life of his former passions, his craving for luxury, his desire for mastery, his pleasure in fighting, his ambition, his revenge. For two months he had been struggling to win her and for nothing else. The search after the truth and the punishment of the criminal were to him no more than means of saving Florence from the dangers that threatened her.

If Florence had to die, if it was too late to snatch her from the enemy, in that case he might as well remain in prison. Arsène Lupin spending the rest of his days in a convict settlement was a fitting end to the spoilt life of a man who had not even been able to win the love of the only woman he had really loved.

It was a passing mood and, being totally opposed to Don Luis's nature, finished abruptly in a state of utter confidence which no longer admitted the least particle of anxiety or doubt. The sun had risen. The cell gradually became filled with daylight. And Don Luis remembered that Valenglay reached his office on the Place Beauveau at seven o'clock in the morning.

From this moment he felt absolutely calm. Coming events presented an entirely different aspect to him, as though they had, so to speak, turned right round. The contest seemed to him easy, the facts free from complications. He understood as clearly as if the actions had been performed that his will could not but be obeyed. The deputy chief must inevitably have made a faithful report to the Prefect of Police. The Prefect of Police must inevitably that morning have transmitted Arsène Lupin's request to Valenglay.

Valenglay would inevitably give himself the pleasure of an interview with Arsène Lupin. Arsène Lupin would inevitably, in the course of that interview, obtain Valenglay's consent. These were not suppositions, but certainties; not problems awaiting solution, but problems already solved. Starting from A and continuing along B and C, you arrive, whether you wish it or not, at D.

Don Luis began to laugh:

"Come, come, Arsène, old chap, remember that you brought Mr. Hohenzollern all the way from his Brandenburg Marches. Valenglay does not live as far as that, by Jove! And, if necessary, you can put yourself out a little… . That's it: I'll consent to take the first step. I will go and call on M. de Beauveau. M. Valenglay, it is a pleasure to see you."

He went gayly to the door, pretending that it was open and that he had only to walk through to be received when his turn came.

He repeated this child's play three times, bowing low and long, as though holding a plumed hat in his hand, and murmuring:

"Open sesame!"

At the fourth time, the door opened, and a warder appeared.

Don Luis said, in a ceremonious tone:

"I hope I have not kept the Prime Minister waiting?"

There were four inspectors in the corridor.

"Are these gentlemen my escort?" he asked. "That's right. Announce Arsène Lupin, grandee of Spain, his most Catholic Majesty's cousin. My lords, I follow you. Turnkey, here are twenty crowns for your pains, my friend."

He stopped in the corridor.

"By Jupiter, no gloves; and I haven't shaved since yesterday!"

The inspectors had surrounded him and were pushing him a little roughly. He seized two of them by the arm. They groaned.

"That'll teach you," he said. "You've no orders to thrash me, have you? Nor even to handcuff me? That being so, young fellows, behave!"

The prison governor was standing in the hall.

"I've had a capital night, my dear governor," said Don "Your C.T.C. rooms are the very acme of comfort. I'll see that the Lockup Arms receives a star in the 'Baedeker.' Would you like me to write you a testimonial in your jail book? You wouldn't? Perhaps you hope to see me again? Sorry, my dear governor, but it's impossible. I have other things to do."

A motor car was waiting in the yard. Don Luis stepped in with the four detectives:

"Place Beauveau," he said to the driver.

"No, Rue Vineuse," said one of the detectives, correcting him.

"Oho!" said Don Luis. "His Excellency's private residence! His Excellency prefers that my visit should be kept secret. That's a good sign. By the way, dear friends, what's the time?"

His question remained unanswered. And as the detectives had drawn the blinds, he was unable to consult the clocks in the street.

* * * * *

It was not until he was at Valenglay's, in the Prime Minister's little ground-floor flat near the Trocadero, that he saw a clock on the mantelpiece:

"A quarter to seven!" he exclaimed. "Good! There's not been much time lost."

Valenglay's study opened on a flight of steps that ran down to a garden filled with aviaries. The room itself was crammed with books and pictures.

A bell rang, and the detectives went out, following the old maidservant who had shown them in. Don Luis was left alone.

He was still calm, but nevertheless felt a certain uneasiness, a longing to be up and doing, to throw himself into the fray; and his eyes kept on involuntarily returning to the face of the clock. The minute hand seemed endowed with extraordinary speed.

At last some one entered, ushering in a second person. Don Luis recognized Valenglay and the Prefect of Police.

"That's it," he thought. "I've got him."

He saw this by the sort of vague sympathy perceptible on the old Premier's lean and bony face. There was not a sign of arrogance, nothing to raise a barrier between the Minister and the suspicious individual whom he was receiving: just a manifest, playful curiosity and sympathy, It was a sympathy which Valenglay had never concealed, and of which he even boasted when, after Arsène Lupin's sham death, he spoke of the adventurer and the strange relations between them.

"You have not changed," he said, after looking at him for some time. "Complexion a little darker, a trifle grayer over the temples, that's all."

And putting on a blunt tone, he asked:

"And what is it you want?"

"An answer first of all, Monsieur le Président du Conseil. Has Deputy Chief Weber, who took me to the lockup last night, traced the motor cab in which Florence Levasseur was carried off?"

"Yes, the motor stopped at Versailles. The persons inside it hired another cab which is to take them to Nantes. What else do you ask for, besides that answer?"

"My liberty, Monsieur le Président."

"At once, of course?" said Valenglay, beginning to laugh.

"In thirty or thirty-five minutes at most."

"At half-past seven, eh?"

"Half-past seven at latest, Monsieur le Président."

"And why your liberty?"

"To catch the murderer of Cosmo Mornington, of Inspector Vérot, and of the Roussel family."

"Are you the only one that can catch him?"

"Yes."

"Still, the police are moving. The wires are at work. The murderer will not leave France. He shan't escape us."

"You can't find him."

"Yes, we can."

"In that case he will kill Florence Levasseur. She will be the scoundrel's seventh victim. And it will be your doing."

Valenglay paused for a moment and then resumed:

"According to you, contrary to all appearances, and contrary to the well-grounded suspicions of Monsieur le Préfet de Police, Florence Levasseur is innocent?"

"Oh, absolutely, Monsieur le Président!"

"And you believe her to be in danger of death?"

"She is in danger of death."

"Are you in love with her?"

"I am."

Valenglay experienced a little thrill of enjoyment. Lupin in love! Lupin acting through love and confessing his love! But how exciting!

He said:

"I have followed the Mornington case from day to day and I know every detail of it. You have done wonders, Monsieur. It is evident that, but for you, the case would never have emerged from the mystery that surrounded it at the start. But I cannot help noticing that there are certain flaws in it.

"These flaws, which astonished me on your part, are more easy to understand when we know that love was the primary motive and the object of your actions. On the other hand, and in spite of what you say, Florence Levasseur's conduct, her claims as the heiress, her unexpected escape from the hospital, leave little doubt in our minds as to the part which she is playing."

Don Luis pointed to the clock:

"Monsieur le Ministre, it is getting late."

Valenglay burst out laughing.

"I never met any one like you! Don Luis Perenna, I am sorry that I am not some absolute monarch. I should make you the head of my secret police."

"A post which the German Emperor has already offered me."

"Oh, nonsense!"

"And I refused it."

Valenglay laughed heartily; but the clock struck seven. Don Luis began to grow anxious. Valenglay sat down and, coming straight to the point, said, in a serious voice:

"Don Luis Perenna, on the first day of your reappearance—that is to say, at the very moment of the murders on the Boulevard Suchet—Monsieur le Préfet de Police and I made up our minds as to your identity. Perenna was Lupin.

"I have no doubt that you understood the reason why we did not wish to bring back to life the dead man that you were, and why we granted you a sort of protection. Monsieur le Préfet de Police was entirely of my opinion. The work which you were pursuing was a salutary work of justice; and your assistance was so valuable to us that we strove to spare you any sort of annoyance. As Don Luis Perenna was fighting the good fight, we left Arsène Lupin in the background. Unfortunately—"

Valenglay paused again and declared:

"Unfortunately, Monsieur le Préfet de Police last night received a denunciation, supported by detailed proofs, accusing you of being Arsène Lupin."

"Impossible!" cried Don Luis. "That is a statement which no one is able to prove by material evidence. Arsène Lupin is dead."

"If you like," Valenglay agreed. "But that does not show that Don Luis Perenna is alive."

"Don Luis Perenna has a duly legalized existence, Monsieur le President."

"Perhaps. But it is disputed."

"By whom? There is only one man who would have the right; and to accuse me would be his own undoing. I cannot believe him to be stupid enough—"

"Stupid enough, no; but crafty enough, yes."

"You mean Caceres, the Peruvian attaché?"

"Yes."

"But he is abroad!"

"More than that: he is a fugitive from justice, after embezzling the funds of his legation. But before leaving the country he signed a statement that reached us yesterday evening, declaring that he faked up a complete record for you under the name of Don Luis Perenna. Here is your correspondence with him and here are all the papers establishing the truth of his allegations. Any one will be convinced, on examining them, first, that you are not Don Luis Perenna, and, secondly, that you are Arsène Lupin."

Don Luis made an angry gesture.

"That blackguard of a Caceres is a mere tool," he snarled. "The other man's behind him, has paid him, and is controlling his actions. It's the scoundrel himself; I recognize his touch. He has once more tried to get rid of me at the decisive moment."

"I am quite willing to believe it," said the Prime Minister. "But as all these documents, according to the letter that came with them, are only photographs, and as, if you are not arrested this morning, the originals are to be handed to a leading Paris newspaper to-night, we are obliged to take note of the accusation."

"But, Monsieur le Président," exclaimed Don Luis, "as Caceres is abroad and as the scoundrel who bought the papers of him was also obliged to take to flight before he was able to execute his threats, there is no fear now that the documents will be handed to the press."

"How do we know? The enemy must have taken his precautions. He may have accomplices."

"He has none."

"How do we know?"

Don Luis looked at Valenglay and said:

"What is it that you really wish to say, Monsieur le Président?"

"I will tell you. Although pressure was brought to bear upon us by Caceres's threats, Monsieur le Préfet de Police, anxious to see all possible light shed on the plot played by Florence Levasseur, did not interfere with your last night's expedition. As that expedition led to nothing, he determined, at any rate, to profit by the fact that Don Luis had placed himself at our disposal and to arrest Arsène Lupin.

"If we now let him go the documents will certainly be published; and you can see the absurd and ridiculous position in which that will place us in the eyes of the public. Well, at this very moment, you ask for the release of Arsène Lupin, a release which would be illegal, uncalled for, and inexcusable. I am obliged, therefore, to refuse it, and I do refuse it."

He ceased; and then, after a few seconds, he added:

"Unless—"

"Unless?" asked Don Luis.

"Unless—and this is what I wanted to say—unless you offer me in exchange something so extraordinary and so tremendous that I could consent to risk the annoyance which the absurd release of Arsène Lupin would bring down upon my head."

"But, Monsieur le President, surely, if I bring you the real criminal, the murderer of—"

"I don't need your assistance for that."

"And if I give you my word of honour, Monsieur le Président, to return the moment my task is done and give myself up?"

Valenglay struck the table with his fist and, raising his voice, addressed Don Luis with a certain genial familiarity:

"Come, Arsène Lupin," he said, "play the game! If you really want to have your way, pay for it! Hang it all, remember that after all this business, and especially after the incidents of last night, you and Florence Levasseur will be to the public what you already are: the responsible actors in the tragedy; nay, more, the real and only criminals. And it is now, when Florence Levasseur has taken to her heels, that you come and ask me for your liberty! Very well, but damn it, set a price to it and don't haggle with me!"

"I am not haggling, Monsieur le Président," declared Don Luis, in a very straightforward manner and tone. "What I have to offer you is certainly much more extraordinary and tremendous than you imagine. But if it were twice as extraordinary and twice as tremendous, it would not count once Florence Levasseur's life is in danger. Nevertheless, I was entitled to try for a less expensive transaction. Of this your words remove all hope. I will therefore lay my cards upon the table, as you demand, and as I had made up my mind to do."

He sat down opposite Valenglay, in the attitude of a man treating with another on equal terms.

"I shall not be long. A single sentence, Monsieur le President, will express the bargain which I am proposing to the Prime Minister of my country."

And, looking Valenglay straight in the eyes, he said slowly, syllable by syllable:

"In exchange for twenty-four hours' liberty and no more, undertaking on my honour to return here to-morrow morning and to return here either with Florence, to give you every proof of her innocence, or without her, to constitute myself a prisoner, I offer you—"

He took his time and, in a serious voice, concluded:

"I offer you a kingdom, Monsieur le Président du Conseil."

The sentence sounded bombastic and ludicrous, sounded silly enough to provoke a shrug of the shoulders, sounded like one of those sentences which only an imbecile or a lunatic could utter. And yet Valenglay remained impassive. He knew that, in such circumstances as the present, the man before him was not the man to indulge in jesting.

And he knew it so fully that, instinctively, accustomed as he was to momentous political questions in which secrecy is of the utmost importance, he cast a glance toward the Prefect of Police, as though M. Desmalions's presence in the room hindered him.

"I positively insist," said Don Luis, "that Monsieur le Préfet de Police shall stay and hear what I have to say. He is better able than any one else to appreciate the value of it; and he will bear witness to its correctness in certain particulars."

"Speak!" said Valenglay.

His curiosity knew no bounds. He did not much care whether Don Luis's proposal could have any practical results. In his heart he did not believe in it. But what he wanted to know was the lengths to which that demon of audacity was prepared to go, and on what new prodigious adventure he based the pretensions which he was putting forward so calmly and frankly.

Don Luis smiled:

"Will you allow me?" he asked.

Rising and going to the mantelpiece, he took down from the wall a small map representing Northwest Africa. He spread it on the table, placed different objects on the four corners to hold it in position, and resumed:

"There is one matter, Monsieur le Président, which puzzled Monsieur le Préfet de Police and about which I know that he caused inquiries to be made; and that matter is how I employed my time, or, rather, how Arsène Lupin employed his time during the last three years of his service with the Foreign Legion."

"Those inquiries were made by my orders," said Valenglay.

"And they led—?"

"To nothing."

"So that you do not know what I did during my captivity?"

"Just so."

"I will tell you, Monsieur le Président. It will not take me long."

Don Luis pointed with a pencil to a spot in Morocco marked on the map.

"It was here that I was taken prisoner on the twenty-fourth of July. My capture seemed queer to Monsieur le Préfet de Police and to all who subsequently heard the details of the incident. They were astonished that I should have been foolish enough to get caught in ambush and to allow myself to be trapped by a troop of forty Berber horse. Their surprise is justified. My capture was a deliberate move on my part.

"You will perhaps remember, Monsieur le Président, that I enlisted in the Foreign Legion after making a fruitless attempt to kill myself in consequence of some really terrible private disasters. I wanted to die, and I thought that a Moorish bullet would give me the final rest for which I longed.

"Fortune did not permit it. My destiny, it seemed, was not yet fulfilled. Then what had to be was. Little by little, unknown to myself, the thought of death vanished and I recovered my love of life. A few rather striking feats of arms had given me back all my self-confidence and all my desire for action.

"New dreams seized hold of me. I fell a victim to a new ideal. From day to day I needed more space, greater independence, wider horizons, more unforeseen and personal sensations. The Legion, great as my affection was for the plucky fellows who had welcomed me so cordially, was no longer enough to satisfy my craving for activity.

"One day, without thinking much about it, in a blind prompting of my whole being toward a great adventure which I did not clearly see, but which attracted me in a mysterious fashion, one day, finding myself surrounded by a band of the enemy, though still in a position to fight, I allowed myself to be captured.

"That is the whole story, Monsieur le Président. As a prisoner, I was free. A new life opened before me. However, the incident nearly turned out badly. My three dozen Berbers, a troop detached from an important nomad tribe that used to pillage and put to ransom the districts lying on the middle chains of the Atlas Range, first galloped back to the little cluster of tents where the wives of their chiefs were encamped under the guard of some ten men. They packed off at once; and, after a week's march which I found pretty arduous, for I was on foot, with my hands tied behind my back, following a mounted party, they stopped on a narrow upland commanded by rocky slopes and covered with skeletons mouldering among the stones and with remains of French swords and other weapons.

"Here they planted a stake in the ground and fastened me to it. I gathered from the behaviour of my captors and from a few words which I overheard that my death was decided on. They meant to cut off my ears, nose, and tongue, and then my head.

"However, they began by preparing their repast. They went to a well close by, ate and drank and took no further notice of me except to laugh at me and describe the various treats they held in store for me… . Another night passed. The torture was postponed until the morning, a time that suited them better. At break of day they crowded round me, uttering yells and shouts with which were mingled the shrill cries of the women.

"When my shadow covered a line which they had marked on the sand the night before, they ceased their din, and one of them, who was to perform the surgical operations prescribed for me, stepped forward and ordered me to put out my tongue. I did so. He took hold of it with a corner of his burnous and, with his other hand, drew his dagger from its sheath.

"I shall never forget the ferocity, coupled with ingenuous delight, of his expression, which was like that of a mischievous boy amusing himself by breaking a bird's wings and legs. Nor shall I ever forget the man's stupefaction when he saw that his dagger no longer consisted of anything but the pommel and a harmless and ridiculously small stump of the blade, just long enough to keep it in its sheath. His fury was revealed by a splutter of curses and he at once rushed at one of his friends and snatched his dagger from him.

"The same stupefaction followed: this dagger was also broken off at the hilt. The next thing was a general tumult, in which one and all brandished their knives. But all of them uttered howls of rage.

"There were forty-five men there; and their forty-five knives were smashed… . The chief flew at me as if holding me responsible for this incomprehensible phenomenon. He was a tall, lean old man, slightly hunchbacked, blind of one eye, hideous to look upon. He aimed a huge pistol point blank at my head and he struck me as so ugly that I burst out laughing in his face. He pulled the trigger. The pistol missed fire. He pulled it again. The pistol again missed fire… .

"All of them at once began to dance around the stake to which I was fastened. Gesticulating wildly, hustling one another and roaring like thunder, they levelled their various firearms at me: muskets, pistols, carbines, old Spanish blunderbusses. The hammers clicked. But the muskets, pistols, carbines, and blunderbusses did not go off!

"It was a regular miracle. You should have seen their faces. I never laughed so much in my life; and this completed their bewilderment.

"Some ran to the tents for more powder. Others hurriedly reloaded their arms, only to meet with fresh failure, while I did nothing but laugh and laugh! The thing could not go on indefinitely. There were plenty of other means of doing away with me. They had their hands to strangle me with, the butt ends of their muskets to smash my head with, pebbles to stone me with. And there were over forty of them!

"The old chief picked up a bulky stone and stepped toward me, his features distorted with hatred. He raised himself to his full height, lifted the huge block, with the assistance of two of his men, above my head and dropped it—in front of me, on the stake! It was a staggering sight for the poor old man. I had, in one second, unfastened my bonds and sprung backward; and I was standing at three paces from him, with my hands outstretched before me, and holding in those outstretched hands the two revolvers which had been taken from me on the day of my capture!

"What followed was the business of a few seconds. The chief now began to laugh as I had laughed, sarcastically. To his mind, in the disorder of his brain, those two revolvers with which I threatened him could have no more effect than the useless weapons which had spared my life. He took up a large pebble and raised his hand to hurl it at my face. His two assistants did the same. And all the others were prepared to follow his example.

"'Hands down!' I cried, 'or I fire!' The chief let fly his stone. At the same moment three shots rang out. The chief and his two men fell dead to the ground. 'Who's next?' I asked, looking round the band.

"Forty-two Moors remained. I had eleven bullets left. As none of the men budged, I slipped one of my revolvers under my arm and took from my pocket two small boxes of cartridges containing fifty more bullets. And from my belt I drew three great knives, all of them nicely tapering and pointed. Half of the troop made signs of submission and drew up in line behind me. The other half capitulated a moment after. The battle was over. It had not lasted four minutes."