It was not till six o'clock that I left the chateau, taking with me the article hastily written by my friend in the little sitting-room which Monsieur Robert Darzac had placed at our disposal. The reporter was to sleep at the chateau, taking advantage of the to me inexplicable hospitality offered him by Monsieur Robert Darzac, to whom Monsieur Stangerson, in that sad time, left the care of all his domestic affairs. Nevertheless he insisted on accompanying me to the station at Epinay. In crossing the park, he said to me:
"Frederic is really very clever and has not belied his reputation. Do you know how he came to find Daddy Jacques's boots?--Near the spot where we noticed the traces of the neat boots and the disappearance of the rough ones, there was a square hole, freshly made in the moist ground, where a stone had evidently been removed. Larsan searched for that stone without finding it, and at once imagined that it had been used by the murderer with which to sink the boots in the lake. Fred's calculation was an excellent one, as the success of his search proves. That escaped me; but my mind was turned in another direction by the large number of false indications of his track which the murderer left, and by the measure of the black foot-marks corresponding with that of Daddy Jacques's boots, which I had established without his suspecting it, on the floor of The Yellow Room. All which was a proof, in my eyes, that the murderer had sought to turn suspicion on to the old servant. Up to that point, Larsan and I are in accord; but no further. It is going to be a terrible matter; for I tell you he is working on wrong lines, and I--I, must fight him with nothing!"
I was surprised at the profoundly grave accent with which my young friend pronounced the last words.
"Yes terrible!--terrible! For it is fighting with nothing, when you have only an idea to fight with."
At that moment we passed by the back of the chateau. Night had come. A window on the first floor was partly open. A feeble light came from it as well as some sounds which drew our attention. We approached until we had reached the side of a door that was situated just under the window. Rouletabille, in a low tone, made me understand, that this was the window of Mademoiselle Stangerson's chamber. The sounds which had attracted our attention ceased, then were renewed for a moment, and then we heard stifled sobs. We were only able to catch these words, which reached us distinctly: "My poor Robert!"--Rouletabille whispered in my ear:
"If we only knew what was being said in that chamber, my inquiry would soon be finished."
He looked about him. The darkness of the evening enveloped us; we could not see much beyond the narrow path bordered by trees, which ran behind the chateau. The sobs had ceased.
"If we can't hear we may at least try to see," said Rouletabille.
And, making a sign to me to deaden the sound of my steps, he led me across the path to the trunk of a tall beech tree, the white bole of which was visible in the darkness. This tree grew exactly in front of the window in which we were so much interested, its lower branches being on a level with the first floor of the chateau. From the height of those branches one might certainly see what was passing in Mademoiselle Stangerson's chamber. Evidently that was what Rouletabille thought, for, enjoining me to remain hidden, he clasped the trunk with his vigorous arms and climbed up. I soon lost sight of him amid the branches, and then followed a deep silence. In front of me, the open window remained lighted, and I saw no shadow move across it. I listened, and presently from above me these words reached my ears:
"After you, pray!"
Somebody was overhead, speaking,--exchanging courtesies. What was my astonishment to see on the slippery column of the tree two human forms appear and quietly slip down to the ground. Rouletabille had mounted alone, and had returned with another.
"Good evening, Monsieur Sainclair!"
It was Frederic Larsan. The detective had already occupied the post of observation when my young friend had thought to reach it alone. Neither noticed my astonishment. I explained that to myself by the fact that they must have been witnesses of some tender and despairing scene between Mademoiselle Stangerson, lying in her bed, and Monsieur Darzac on his knees by her pillow. I guessed that each had drawn different conclusions from what they had seen. It was easy to see that the scene had strongly impressed Rouletabille in favour of Monsieur Robert Darzac; while, to Larsan, it showed nothing but consummate hypocrisy, acted with finished art by Mademoiselle Stangerson's fiance.
As we reached the park gate, Larsan stopped us.
"My cane!" he cried. "I left it near the tree."
He left us, saying he would rejoin us presently.
"Have you noticed Frederic Larsan's cane?" asked the young reporter, as soon as we were alone. "It is quite a new one, which I have never seen him use before. He seems to take great care of it--it never leaves him. One would think he was afraid it might fall into the hands of strangers. I never saw it before to-day. Where did he find it? It isn't natural that a man who had never before used a walking-stick should, the day after the Glandier crime, never move a step without one. On the day of our arrival at the chateau, as soon as he saw us, he put his watch in his pocket and picked up his cane from the ground--a proceeding to which I was perhaps wrong not to attach some importance."
We were now out of the park. Rouletabille had dropped into silence. His thoughts were certainly still occupied with Frederic Larsan's new cane. I had proof of that when, as we came near to Epinay, he said:
"Frederic Larsan arrived at the Glandier before me; he began his inquiry before me; he has had time to find out things about which I know nothing. Where did he find that cane?" Then he added: "It is probable that his suspicion--more than that, his reasoning --has led him to lay his hand on something tangible. Has this cane anything to do with it? Where the deuce could he have found it?"
As I had to wait twenty minutes for the train at Epinay, we entered a wine shop. Almost immediately the door opened and Frederic Larsan made his appearance, brandishing his famous cane.
"I found it!" he said laughingly.
The three of us seated ourselves at a table. Rouletabille never took his eyes off the cane; he was so absorbed that he did not notice a sign Larsan made to a railway employe, a young man with a chin decorated by a tiny blond and ill-kept beard. On the sign he rose, paid for his drink, bowed, and went out. I should not myself have attached any importance to the circumstance, if it had not been recalled to my mind, some months later, by the reappearance of the man with the beard at one of the most tragic moments of this case. I then learned that the youth was one of Larsan's assistants and had been charged by him to watch the going and coming of travellers at the station of Epinay-sur-Orge. Larsan neglected nothing in any case on which he was engaged.
I turned my eyes again on Rouletabille.
"Ah,--Monsieur Fred!" he said, "when did you begin to use a walking-stick? I have always seen you walking with your hands in your pockets!"
"It is a present," replied the detective.
"Recent?" insisted Rouletabille.
"No, it was given to me in London."
"Ah, yes, I remember--you have just come from London. May I look at it?"
Fred passed the cane to Rouletabille. It was a large yellow bamboo with a crutch handle and ornamented with a gold ring. Rouletabille, after examining it minutely, returned it to Larsan, with a bantering expression on his face, saying:
"You were given a French cane in London!"
"Possibly," said Fred, imperturbably.
"Read the mark there, in tiny letters: Cassette, 6a, Opera."
"Cannot English people buy canes in Paris?"
When Rouletabille had seen me into the train, he said:
"You'll remember the address?"
"Yes,--Cassette, 6a, Opera. Rely on me; you shall have word tomorrow morning."
That evening, on reaching Paris, I saw Monsieur Cassette, dealer in walking-sticks and umbrellas, and wrote to my friend:
"A man unmistakably answering to the description of Monsieur Robert Darzac--same height, slightly stooping, putty-coloured overcoat, bowler hat--purchased a cane similar to the one in which we are interested, on the evening of the crime, about eight o'clock. Monsieur Cassette had not sold another such cane during the last two years. Fred's cane is new. It is quite clear that it's the same cane. Fred did not buy it, since he was in London. Like you, I think that he found it somewhere near Monsieur Robert Darzac. But if, as you suppose, the murderer was in The Yellow Room for five, or even six hours, and the crime was not committed until towards midnight, the purchase of this cane proves an incontestable alibi for Darzac."