The child was sleeping peacefully on the bed. The mother did not move from the sofa on which Lupin had laid her; but her easier breathing and the blood which was now returning to her face announced her impending recovery from her swoon.
He observed that she wore a wedding-ring. Seeing a locket hanging from her bodice, he stooped and, turning it, found a miniature photograph representing a man of about forty and a lad—a stripling rather—in a schoolboy's uniform. He studied the fresh, young face set in curly hair:
"It's as I thought," he said. "Ah, poor woman!"
The hand which he took between his grew warmer by degrees. The eyes opened, then closed again. She murmured:
"Do not distress yourself… it's all right he's asleep."
She recovered consciousness entirely. But, as she did not speak, Lupin put questions to her, to make her feel a gradual need of unbosoming herself. And he said, pointing to the locket:
"The schoolboy is Gilbert, isn't he?"
"Yes," she said.
"And Gilbert is your son?"
She gave a shiver and whispered:
"Yes, Gilbert is my son, my eldest son."
So she was the mother of Gilbert, of Gilbert the prisoner at the Sante, relentlessly pursued by the authorities and now awaiting his trial for murder!
"And the other portrait?"
"Yes, he died three years ago."
She was now sitting up. Life quivered in her veins once more, together with the horror of living and the horror of all the ghastly things that threatened her. Lupin went on to ask:
"What was your husband's name?"
She hesitated a moment and answered:
"Victorien Mergy the deputy?"
There was a long pause. Lupin remembered the incident and the stir which it had caused. Three years ago, Mergy the deputy had blown out his brains in the lobby of the Chamber, without leaving a word of explanation behind him; and no one had ever discovered the slightest reason for that suicide.
"Do you know the reason?" asked Lupin, completing his thought aloud.
"Yes, I know it."
"No, Gilbert had disappeared for some years, turned out of doors and cursed by my husband. It was a very great sorrow, but there was another motive."
"What was that?" asked Lupin.
But it was not necessary for Lupin to put further questions. Madame Mergy could keep silent no longer and, slowly at first, with all the anguish of that past which had to be called up, she told her story:
"Twenty-five years ago, when my name was Clarisse Darcel and my parents living, I knew three young men at Nice. Their names will at once give you an insight into the present tragedy: they were Alexis Daubrecq, Victorien Mergy and Louis Prasville. The three were old acquaintances, had gone to college in the same year and served in the same regiment. Prasville, at that time, was in love with a singer at the opera-house at Nice. The two others, Mergy and Daubrecq, were in love with me. I shall be brief as regards all this and, for the rest, as regards the whole story, for the facts tell their own tale. I fell in love with Victorien Mergy from the first. Perhaps I was wrong not to declare myself at once. But true love is always timid, hesitating and shy; and I did not announce my choice until I felt quite certain and quite free. Unfortunately, that period of waiting, so delightful for those who cherish a secret passion, had permitted Daubrecq to hope. His anger was something horrible."
Clarisse Mergy stopped for a few seconds and resumed, in a stifled voice:
"I shall never forget it… The three of us were in the drawing-room. Oh, I can hear even now the terrible words of threat and hatred which he uttered! Victorien was absolutely astounded. He had never seen his friend like this, with that repugnant face, that bestial expression: yes, the expression of a wild beast… Daubrecq ground his teeth. He stamped his feet. His bloodshot eyes—he did not wear spectacles in those days —rolled in their sockets; and he kept on saying, 'I shall be revenged … I shall be revenged… Oh, you don't know what I am capable of!… I shall wait ten years, twenty years, if necessary… But it will come like a thunderbolt… Ah, you don't know!… To be revenged… To do harm … for harm's sake… what joy! I was born to do harm… And you will both beseech my mercy on your knees, on your knees, yes, on your knees… ' At that moment, my father entered the room; and, with his assistance and the footman's, Victorien Mergy flung the loathsome creature out of doors. Six weeks later, I married Victorien."
"And Daubrecq?" asked Lupin, interrupting her. "Did he not try… "
"No, but on our wedding-day, Louis Prasville, who acted as my husband's best man in defiance of Danbrecq's opposition, went home to find the girl he loved, the opera-singer, dead, strangled… "
"What!" said Lupin, with a start. "Had Daubrecq… "
"It was known that Daubrecq had been persecuting her with his attentions for some days; but nothing more was known. It was impossible to discover who had gone in or out during Prasville's absence. There was not a trace found of any kind: nothing, absolutely nothing."
"But Prasville… "
"There was no doubt of the truth in Prasville's mind or ours. Daubrecq had tried to run away with the girl, perhaps tried to force her, to hustle her and, in the course of the struggle, maddened, losing his head, caught her by the throat and killed her, perhaps without knowing what he was doing. But there was no evidence of all this; and Daubrecq was not even molested."
"And what became of him next?"
"For some years we heard nothing of him. We knew only that he had lost all his money gambling and that he was travelling in America. And, in spite of myself, I forgot his anger and his threats and was only too ready to believe that he had ceased to love me and no longer harboured his schemes of revenge. Besides, I was so happy that I did not care to think of anything but my happiness, my love, my husband's political career, the health of my son Antoine."
"Yes, Antoine is Gilbert's real name. The unhappy boy has at least succeeded in concealing his identity."
Lupin asked, with some hesitation:
"At what period did… Gilbert… begin?"
"I cannot tell you exactly. Gilbert—I prefer to call him that and not to pronounce his real name—Gilbert, as a child, was what he is to-day: lovable, liked by everybody, charming, but lazy and unruly. When he was fifteen, we put him to a boarding-school in one of the suburbs, with the deliberate object of not having him too much at home. After two years' time he was expelled from school and sent back to us."
"Because of his conduct. The masters had discovered that he used to slip out at night and also that he would disappear for weeks at a time, while pretending to be at home with us."
"What used he to do?"
"Amuse himself backing horses, spending his time in cafes and public dancing-rooms."
"Then he had money?"
"Who gave it him?"
"His evil genius, the man who, secretly, unknown to his parents, enticed him away from school, the man who led him astray, who corrupted him, who took him from us, who taught him to lie, to waste his substance and to steal."
Clarisse Mergy put her hands together to hide the blushes on her forehead. She continued, in her tired voice:
"Daubrecq had taken his revenge. On the day after my husband turned our unhappy child out of the house, Daubrecq sent us a most cynical letter in which he revealed the odious part which he had played and the machinations by which he had succeeded in depraving our son. And he went on to say, 'The reformatory, one of these days… Later on, the assize-court … And then, let us hope and trust, the scaffold!'"
"What! Did Daubrecq plot the present business?"
"No, no, that is only an accident. The hateful prophecy was just a wish which he expressed. But oh, how it terrified me! I was ailing at the time; my other son, my little Jacques, had just been born. And every day we heard of some fresh misdeed of Gilbert's—forgeries, swindles —so much so that we spread the news, in our immediate surroundings, of his departure for abroad, followed by his death. Life was a misery; and it became still more so when the political storm burst in which my husband was to meet his death."
"What do you mean?"
"A word will be enough: my husband's name was on the list of the Twenty-seven."
The veil was suddenly lifted from Lupin's eyes and he saw, as in a flash of lightning, a whole legion of things which, until then, had been hidden in the darkness.
Clarisse Mergy continued, in a firmer voice:
"Yes, his name was on it, but by mistake, by a piece of incredible ill-luck of which he was the victim. It is true that Victorien Mergy was a member of the committee appointed to consider the question of the Two-Seas Canal. It is true that he voted with the members who were in favour of the company's scheme. He was even paid—yes, I tell you so plainly and I will mention the sum—he was paid fifteen thousand francs. But he was paid on behalf of another, of one of his political friends, a man in whom he had absolute confidence and of whom he was the blind, unconscious tool. He thought he was showing his friend a kindness; and it proved his own undoing. It was not until the day after the suicide of the chairman of the company and the disappearance of the secretary, the day on which the affair of the canal was published in the papers, with its whole series of swindles and abominations, that my husband knew that a number of his fellow-members had been bribed and learnt that the mysterious list, of which people suddenly began to speak, mentioned his name with theirs and with the names of other deputies, leaders of parties and influential politicians. Oh, what awful days those were! Would the list be published? Would his name come out? The torture of it! You remember the mad excitement in the Chamber, the atmosphere of terror and denunciation that prevailed. Who owned the list? Nobody could say. It was known to be in existence and that was all. Two names were sacrificed to public odium. Two men were swept away by the storm. And it remained unknown where the denunciation came from and in whose hands the incriminating documents were."
"Daubrecq," suggested Lupin.
"No, no!" cried Madame Mergy. "Daubrecq was nothing at that time: he had not yet appeared upon the scene. No, don't you remember, the truth came out suddenly through the very man who was keeping it back: Germineaux, the ex-minister of justice, a cousin of the chairman of the Canal Company. As he lay dying of consumption, he wrote from his sick-bed to the prefect of police, bequeathing him that list of names, which, he said, would be found, after his death, in an iron chest in the corner of his room. The house was surrounded by police and the prefect took up his quarters by the sick man's bedside. Germineaux died. The chest was opened and found to be empty."
"Daubrecq, this time," Lupin declared.
"Yes, Daubrecq," said Madame Mergy, whose excitement was momentarily increasing. "Alexis Daubrecq, who, for six months, disguised beyond recognition, had acted as Germineaux's secretary. It does not matter how he discovered that Germineaux was the possessor of the paper in question. The fact remains that he broke open the chest on the night before the death. So much was proved at the inquiry; and Daubrecq's identity was established."
"But he was not arrested?"
"What would have been the use? They knew well enough that he must have deposited the list in a place of safety. His arrest would have involved a scandal, the reopening of the whole case… "
"So they made terms."
"That's funny, making terms with Daubrecq!"
"Yes, very funny," said Madame Mergy, bitterly. "During this time he acted and without delay, shamelessly, making straight for the goal. A week after the theft, he went to the Chamber of Deputies, asked for my husband and bluntly demanded thirty thousand francs of him, to be paid within twenty-four hours. If not, he threatened him with exposure and disgrace. My husband knew the man he was dealing with, knew him to be implacable and filled with relentless hatred. He lost his head and shot himself."
"How absurd!" Lupin could not help saying. "How absurd! Daubrecq possesses a list of twenty-seven names. To give up any one of those names he is obliged, if he would have his accusation believed, to publish the list itself—that is to say, to part with the document, or at least a photograph of it. Well, in so doing, he creates a scandal, it is true, but he deprives himself, at the same time, of all further means of levying blackmail."
"Yes and no," she said.
"How do you know?"
"Through Daubrecq himself. The villain came to see me and cynically told me of his interview with my husband and the words that had passed between them. Well, there is more than that list, more than that famous bit of paper on which the secretary put down the names and the amounts paid and to which, you will remember, the chairman of the company, before dying, affixed his signature in letters of blood. There is more than that. There are certain less positive proofs, which the people interested do not know of: the correspondence between the chairman and the secretary, between the chairman and his counsel, and so on. Of course, the list scribbled on the bit of paper is the only evidence that counts; it is the one incontestable proof which it would be no good copying or even photographing, for its genuineness can be tested most absolutely. But, all the same, the other proofs are dangerous. They have already been enough to do away with two deputies. And Daubrecq is marvelously clever at turning this fact to account. He selects his victim, frightens him out of his senses, points out to him the inevitable scandal; and the victim pays the required sum. Or else he kills himself, as my husband did. Do you understand now?"
"Yes," said Lupin.
And, in the silence that followed, he drew a mental picture of Daubrecq's life. He saw him the owner of that list, using his power, gradually emerging from the shadow, lavishly squandering the money which he extorted from his victims, securing his election as a district-councillor and deputy, holding sway by dint of threats and terror, unpunished, invulnerable, unattackable, feared by the government, which would rather submit to his orders than declare war upon him, respected by the judicial authorities: so powerful, in a word, that Prasville had been appointed secretary-general of police, over the heads of all who had prior claims, for the sole reason that he hated Daubrecq with a personal hatred.
"And you saw him again?" he asked.
"I saw him again. I had to. My husband was dead, but his honour remained untouched. Nobody suspected the truth. In order at least to defend the name which he left me, I accepted my first interview with Daubrecq."
"Your first, yes, for there have been others."
"Many others," she said, in a strained voice, "yes, many others… at the theatre… or in the evening, at Enghien … or else in Paris, at night … for I was ashamed to meet that man and I did not want people to know it… But it was necessary… A duty more imperative than any other commanded it: the duty of avenging my husband… "
She bent over Lupin and, eagerly:
"Yes, revenge has been the motive of my conduct and the sole preoccupation of my life. To avenge my husband, to avenge my ruined son, to avenge myself for all the harm that he has done me: I had no other dream, no other object in life. That is what I wanted: to see that man crushed, reduced to poverty, to tears—as though he still knew how to cry!—sobbing in the throes of despair… "
"You wanted his death," said Lupin, remembering the scene between them in Daubrecq's study.
"No, not his death. I have often thought of it, I have even raised my arm to strike him, but what would have been the good? He must have taken his precautions. The paper would remain. And then there is no revenge in killing a man… My hatred went further than that… It demanded his ruin, his downfall; and, to achieve that, there was but one way: to cut his claws. Daubrecq, deprived of the document that gives him his immense power, ceases to exist. It means immediate bankruptcy and disaster… under the most wretched conditions. That is what I have sought."
"But Daubrecq must have been aware of your intentions?"
"Certainly. And, I assure you, those were strange meetings of ours: I watching him closely, trying to guess his secret behind his actions and his words, and he… he… "
"And he," said Lupin, finishing Clarisse's thought, "lying in wait for the prey which he desires… for the woman whom he has never ceased to love… whom he loves … and whom he covets with all his might and with all his furious passion… "
She lowered her head and said, simply:
A strange duel indeed was that which brought face to face those two beings separated by so many implacable things! How unbridled must Daubrecq's passion be for him to risk that perpetual threat of death and to introduce to the privacy of his house this woman whose life he had shattered! But also how absolutely safe he must feel himself!
"And your search ended… how?" asked Lupin.
"My search," she replied, "long remained without fruit. You know the methods of investigation which you have followed and which the police have followed on their side. Well, I myself employed them, years before either of you did, and in vain. I was beginning to despair. Then, one day, when I had gone to see Daubrecq in his villa at Enghien, I picked up under his writing-table a letter which he had begun to write, crumpled up and thrown into the waste-paper-basket. It consisted of a few lines in bad English; and I was able to read this: 'Empty the crystal within, so as to leave a void which it is impossible to suspect.' Perhaps I should not have attached to this sentence all the importance which it deserved, if Daubrecq, who was out in the garden, had not come running in and begun to turn out the waste-paper-basket, with an eagerness which was very significant. He gave me a suspicious look: 'There was a letter there,' he said. I pretended not to understand. He did not insist, but his agitation did not escape me; and I continued my quest in this direction. A month later, I discovered, among the ashes in the drawing-room fireplace, the torn half of an English invoice. I gathered that a Stourbridge glass-blower, of the name of John Howard, had supplied Daubrecq with a crystal bottle made after a model. The word 'crystal' struck me at once. I went to Stourbridge, got round the foreman of the glass-works and learnt that the stopper of this bottle had been hollowed out inside, in accordance with the instruction in the order, so as to leave a cavity, the existence of which would escape observation."
Lupin nodded his head:
"The thing tallies beyond a doubt. Nevertheless, it did not seem to me, that, even under the gilt layer… And then the hiding-place would be very tiny!"
"Tiny, but large enough," she said. "On my return from England, I went to the police-office to see Prasville, whose friendship for me had remained unchanged. I did not hesitate to tell him, first, the reasons which had driven my husband to suicide and, secondly, the object of revenge which I was pursuing. When I informed him of my discoveries, he jumped for joy; and I felt that his hatred for Daubrecq was as strong as ever. I learnt from him that the list was written on a slip of exceedingly thin foreign-post-paper, which, when rolled up into a sort of pellet, would easily fit into an exceedingly limited space. Neither he nor I had the least hesitation. We knew the hiding-place. We agreed to act independently of each other, while continuing to correspond in secret. I put him in touch with Clemence, the portress in the Square Lamartine, who was entirely devoted to me… "
"But less so to Prasville," said Lupin, "for I can prove that she betrays him."
"Now perhaps, but not at the start; and the police searches were numerous. It was at that time, ten months ago, that Gilbert came into my life again. A mother never loses her love for her son, whatever he may do, whatever he may have done. And then Gilbert has such a way with him… well, you know him. He cried, kissed my little Jacques, his brother and I forgave him."
She stopped and, weary-voiced, with her eyes fixed on the floor, continued:
"Would to Heaven that I had not forgiven him! Ah, if that hour could but return, how readily I should find the horrible courage to turn him away! My poor child… it was I who ruined him!… " And, pensively, "I should have had that or any sort of courage, if he had been as I pictured him to myself and as he himself told me that he had long been: bearing the marks of vice and dissipation, coarse, deteriorated.
"But, though he was utterly changed in appearance, so much so that I could hardly recognize him, there was, from the point of view of—how shall I put it?—from the moral point of view, an undoubted improvement. You had helped him, lifted him; and, though his mode of life was hateful to me, nevertheless he retained a certain self-respect… a sort of underlying decency that showed itself on the surface once more… He was gay, careless, happy… And he used to talk of you with such affection!"
She picked her words, betraying her embarrassment, not daring, in Lupin's presence, to condemn the line of life which Gilbert had selected and yet unable to speak in favour of it.
"What happened next?" asked Lupin.
"I saw him very often. He would come to me by stealth, or else I went to him and we would go for walks in the country. In this way, I was gradually induced to tell him our story, of his father's suicide and the object which I was pursuing. He at once took fire. He too wanted to avenge his father and, by stealing the crystal stopper, to avenge himself on Daubrecq for the harm which he had done him. His first idea—from which, I am bound to tell you, he never swerved—was to arrange with you."
"Well, then," cried Lupin, "he ought to have… !"
"Yes, I know… and I was of the same opinion. Unfortunately, my poor Gilbert—you know how weak he is!—was under the influence of one of his comrades."
"Yes, Vaucheray, a saturnine spirit, full of bitterness and envy, an ambitious, unscrupulous, gloomy, crafty man, who had acquired a great empire over my son. Gilbert made the mistake of confiding in him and asking his advice. That was the origin of all the mischief. Vaucheray convinced him and convinced me as well that it would be better if we acted by ourselves. He studied the business, took the lead and finally organized the Enghien expedition and, under your direction, the burglary at the Villa Marie-Therese, which Prasville and his detectives had been unable to search thoroughly, because of the active watch maintained by Leonard the valet. It was a mad scheme. We ought either to have trusted in your experience entirely, or else to have left you out altogether, taking the risk of fatal mistakes and dangerous hesitations. But we could not help ourselves. Vaucheray ruled us. I agreed to meet Daubrecq at the theatre. During this time the thing took place. When I came home, at twelve o'clock at night, I heard the terrible result: Leonard murdered, my son arrested. I at once received an intuition of the future. Daubrecq's appalling prophecy was being realized: it meant trial and sentence. And this through my fault, through the fault of me, the mother, who had driven my son toward the abyss from which nothing could extricate him now."
Clarisse wrung her hands and shivered from head to foot. What suffering can compare with that of a mother trembling for the head of her son? Stirred with pity, Lupin said:
"We shall save him. Of that there is not the shadow of a doubt. But, it is necessary that I should know all the details. Finish your story, please. How did you know, on the same night, what had happened at Enghien?"
She mastered herself and, with a face wrung with fevered anguish, replied:
"Through two of your accomplices, or rather two accomplices of Vaucheray, to whom they were wholly devoted and who had chosen them to row the boats."
"The two men outside: the Growler and the Masher?"
"Yes. On your return from the villa, when you landed after being pursued on the lake by the commissary of police, you said a few words to them, by way of explanation, as you went to your car. Mad with fright, they rushed to my place, where they had been before, and told me the hideous news. Gilbert was in prison! Oh, what an awful night! What was I to do? Look for you? Certainly; and implore your assistance. But where was I to find you?… It was then that the two whom you call the Growler and the Masher, driven into a corner by circumstances, decided to tell me of the part played by Vaucheray, his ambitions, his plan, which had long been ripening… "
"To get rid of me, I suppose?" said Lupin, with a grin.
"Yes. As Gilbert possessed your complete confidence, Vaucheray watched him and, in this way, got to know all the places which you live at. A few days more and, owning the crystal stopper, holding the list of the Twenty-seven, inheriting all Daubrecq's power, he would have delivered you to the police, without compromising a single member of your gang, which he looked upon as thenceforth his."
"The ass!" muttered Lupin. "A muddler like that!" And he added, "So the panels of the doors… "
"Were cut out by his instructions, in anticipation of the contest on which he was embarking against you and against Daubrecq, at whose house he did the same thing. He had under his orders a sort of acrobat, an extraordinarily thin dwarf, who was able to wriggle through those apertures and who thus detected all your correspondence and all your secrets. That is what his two friends revealed to me. I at once conceived the idea of saving my elder son by making use of his brother, my little Jacques, who is himself so slight and so intelligent, so plucky, as you have seen. We set out that night. Acting on the information of my companions, I went to Gilbert's rooms and found the keys of your flat in the Rue Matignon, where it appeared that you were to sleep. Unfortunately, I changed my mind on the way and thought much less of asking for your help than of recovering the crystal stopper, which, if it had been discovered at Enghien, must obviously be at your flat. I was right in my calculations. In a few minutes, my little Jacques, who had slipped into your bedroom, brought it to me. I went away quivering with hope. Mistress in my turn of the talisman, keeping it to myself, without telling Prasville, I had absolute power over Daubrecq. I could make him do all that I wanted; he would become the slave of my will and, instructed by me, would take every step in Gilbert's favour and obtain that he should be given the means of escape or else that he should not be sentenced. It meant my boy's safety."
Clarisse rose from her seat, with a passionate movement of her whole being, leant over Lupin and said, in a hollow voice:
"There was nothing in that piece of crystal, nothing, do you understand? No paper, no hiding-place! The whole expedition to Enghien was futile! The murder of Leonard was useless! The arrest of my son was useless! All my efforts were useless!"
"But why? Why?"
"Why? Because what you stole from Daubrecq was not the stopper made by his instructions, but the stopper which was sent to John Howard, the Stourbridge glassworker, to serve as a model."
If Lupin had not been in the presence of so deep a grief, he could not have refrained from one of those satirical outbursts with which the mischievous tricks of fate are wont to inspire him. As it was, he muttered between his teeth:
"How stupid! And still more stupid as Daubrecq had been given the warning."
"No," she said. "I went to Enghien on the same day. In all that business Daubrecq saw and sees nothing but an ordinary burglary, an annexation of his treasures. The fact that you took part in it put him off the scent."
"Still, the disappearance of the stopper… "
"To begin with, the thing can have had but a secondary importance for him, as it is only the model."
"How do you know?"
"There is a scratch at the bottom of the stem; and I have made inquiries in England since."
"Very well; but why did the key of the cupboard from which it was stolen never leave the man-servant's possession? And why, in the second place, was it found afterward in the drawer of a table in Daubrecq's house in Paris?"
"Of course, Daubrecq takes care of it and clings to it in the way in which one clings to the model of any valuable thing. And that is why I replaced the stopper in the cupboard before its absence was noticed. And that also is why, on the second occasion, I made my little Jacques take the stopper from your overcoat-pocket and told the portress to put it back in the drawer."
"Then he suspects nothing?"
"Nothing. He knows that the list is being looked for, but he does not know that Prasville and I are aware of the thing in which he hides it."
Lupin had risen from his seat and was walking up and down the room, thinking. Then he stood still beside Clarisse and asked:
"When all is said, since the Enghien incident, you have not advanced a single step?"
"Not one. I have acted from day to day, led by those two men or leading them, without any definite plan."
"Or, at least," he said, "without any other plan than that of getting the list of the Twenty-seven from Daubrecq."
"Yes, but how? Besides, your tactics made things more difficult for me. It did not take us long to recognize your old servant Victoire in Daubrecq's new cook and to discover, from what the portress told us, that Victoire was putting you up in her room; and I was afraid of your schemes."
"It was you, was it not, who wrote to me to retire from the contest?"
"You also asked me not to go to the theatre on the Vaudeville night?"
"Yes, the portress caught Victoire listening to Daubrecq's conversation with me on the telephone; and the Masher, who was watching the house, saw you go out. I suspected, therefore, that you would follow Daubrecq that evening."
"And the woman who came here, late one afternoon… "
"Was myself. I felt disheartened and wanted to see you."
"And you intercepted Gilbert's letter?"
"Yes, I recognized his writing on the envelope."
"But your little Jacques was not with you?"
"No, he was outside, in a motor-car, with the Masher, who lifted him up to me through the drawing-room window; and he slipped into your bedroom through the opening in the panel."
"What was in the letter?"
"As ill-luck would have it, reproaches. Gilbert accused you of forsaking him, of taking over the business on your own account. In short, it confirmed me in my distrust; and I ran away."
Lupin shrugged his shoulders with irritation:
"What a shocking waste of time! And what a fatality that we were not able to come to an understanding earlier! You and I have been playing at hide-and-seek, laying absurd traps for each other, while the days were passing, precious days beyond repair."
"You see, you see," she said, shivering, "you too are afraid of the future!"
"No, I am not afraid," cried Lupin. "But I am thinking of all the useful work that we could have done by this time, if we had united our efforts. I am thinking of all the mistakes and all the acts of imprudence which we should have been saved, if we had been working together. I am thinking that your attempt to-night to search the clothes which Daubrecq was wearing was as vain as the others and that, at this moment, thanks to our foolish duel, thanks to the din which we raised in his house, Daubrecq is warned and will be more on his guard than ever."
Clarisse Mergy shook her head:
"No, no, I don't think that; the noise will not have roused him, for we postponed the attempt for twenty-four hours so that the portress might put a narcotic in his wine." And she added, slowly, "And then, you see, nothing can make Daubrecq be more on his guard than he is already. His life is nothing but one mass of precautions against danger. He leaves nothing to chance… Besides, has he not all the trumps in his hand?"
Lupin went up to her and asked:
"What do you mean to convey? According to you, is there nothing to hope for on that side? Is there not a single means of attaining our end?"
"Yes," she murmured, "there is one, one only… "
He noticed her pallor before she had time to hide her face between her hands again. And again a feverish shiver shook her frame.
He seemed to understand the reason of her dismay; and, bending toward her, touched by her grief:
"Please," he said, "please answer me openly and frankly. It's for Gilbert's sake, is it not? Though the police, fortunately, have not been able to solve the riddle of his past, though the real name of Vaucheray's accomplice has not leaked out, there is one man, at least, who knows it: isn't that so? Daubrecq has recognized your son Antoine, through the alias of Gilbert, has he not?"
"Yes, yes… "
"And he promises to save him, doesn't he? He offers you his freedom, his release, his escape, his life: that was what he offered you, was it not, on the night in his study, when you tried to stab him?"
"Yes … yes… that was it… "
"And he makes one condition, does he not? An abominable condition, such as would suggest itself to a wretch like that? I am right, am I not?"
Clarisse did not reply. She seemed exhausted by her protracted struggle with a man who was gaining ground daily and against whom it was impossible for her to fight. Lupin saw in her the prey conquered in advance, delivered to the victor's whim. Clarisse Mergy, the loving wife of that Mergy whom Daubrecq had really murdered, the terrified mother of that Gilbert whom Daubrecq had led astray, Clarisse Mergy, to save her son from the scaffold, must, come what may and however ignominious the position, yield to Daubrecq's wishes. She would be the mistress, the wife, the obedient slave of Daubrecq, of that monster with the appearance and the ways of a wild beast, that unspeakable person of whom Lupin could not think without revulsion and disgust.
Sitting down beside her, gently, with gestures of pity, he made her lift her head and, with his eyes on hers, said:
"Listen to me. I swear that I will save your son: I swear it… Your son shall not die, do you understand?… There is not a power on earth that can allow your son's head to be touched as long as I am alive."
"I believe you… I trust your word."
"Do. It is the word of a man who does not know defeat. I shall succeed. Only, I entreat you to make me an irrevocable promise."
"What is that?"
"You must not see Daubrecq again."
"I swear it."
"You must put from your mind any idea, any fear, however obscure, of an understanding between yourself and him… of any sort of bargain… "
"I swear it."
She looked at him with an expression of absolute security and reliance; and he, under her gaze, felt the joy of devotion and an ardent longing to restore that woman's happiness, or, at least, to give her the peace and oblivion that heal the worst wounds:
"Come," he said, in a cheerful tone, rising from his chair, "all will yet be well. We have two months, three months before us. It is more than I need… on condition, of course, that I am unhampered in my movements. And, for that, you will have to withdraw from the contest, you know."
"How do you mean?"
"Yes, you must disappear for a time; go and live in the country. Have you no pity for your little Jacques? This sort of thing would end by shattering the poor little man's nerves… And he has certainly earned his rest, haven't you, Hercules?"
The next day Clarisse Mergy, who was nearly breaking down under the strain of events and who herself needed repose, lest she should fall seriously ill, went, with her son, to board with a friend who had a house on the skirt of the Forest of Saint-Germain. She felt very weak, her brain was haunted by visions and her nerves were upset by troubles which the least excitement aggravated. She lived there for some days in a state of physical and mental inertia, thinking of nothing and forbidden to see the papers.
One afternoon, while Lupin, changing his tactics, was working out a scheme for kidnapping and confining Daubrecq; while the Growler and the Masher, whom he had promised to forgive if he succeeded, were watching the enemy's movements; while the newspapers were announcing the forthcoming trial for murder of Arsene Lupin's two accomplices, one afternoon, at four o'clock, the telephone-bell rang suddenly in the flat in the Rue Chateaubriand.
Lupin took down the receiver:
A woman's voice, a breathless voice, said:
"M. Michel Beaumont?"
"You are speaking to him, madame. To whom have I the honour… "
"Quick, monsieur, come at once; Madame Mergy has taken poison."
Lupin did not wait to hear details. He rushed out, sprang into his motor-car and drove to Saint-Germain.
Clarisse's friend was waiting for him at the door of the bedroom.
"Dead?" he asked.
"No," she replied, "she did not take sufficient. The doctor has just gone. He says she will get over it."
"And why did she make the attempt?"
"Her son Jacques has disappeared."
"Yes, he was playing just inside the forest. A motor-car was seen pulling up. Then there were screams. Clarisse tried to run, but her strength failed and she fell to the ground, moaning, 'It's he… it's that man… all is lost!' She looked like a madwoman."
"Suddenly, she put a little bottle to her lips and swallowed the contents."
"What happened next?"
"My husband and I carried her to her room. She was in great pain."
"How did you know my address, my name?"
"From herself, while the doctor was attending to her. Then I telephoned to you."
"Has any one else been told?"
"No, nobody. I know that Clarisse has had terrible things to bear… and that she prefers not to be talked about."
"Can I see her?"
"She is asleep just now. And the doctor has forbidden all excitement."
"Is the doctor anxious about her?"
"He is afraid of a fit of fever, any nervous strain, an attack of some kind which might cause her to make a fresh attempt on her life. And that would be… "
"What is needed to avoid it?"
"A week or a fortnight of absolute quiet, which is impossible as long as her little Jacques… "
Lupin interrupted her:
"You think that, if she got her son back… "
"Oh, certainly, there would be nothing more to fear!"
"You're sure? You're sure?… Yes, of course you are!… Well, when Madame Mergy wakes, tell her from me that I will bring her back her son this evening, before midnight. This evening, before midnight: it's a solemn promise."
With these words, Lupin hurried out of the house and, stepping into his car, shouted to the driver:
"Go to Paris, Square Lamartine, Daubrecq the deputy's!"