In Which Joseph Rouletabille Makes a Remark to Monsieur Robert Darzac Which Produces its Little Effect
ROULETABILLE and I had been walking for several minutes, by the side of a long wall bounding the vast property of Monsieur Stangerson and had already come within sight of the entrance gate, when our attention was drawn to an individual who, half bent to the ground, seemed to be so completely absorbed in what he was doing as not to have seen us coming towards him. At one time he stooped so low as almost to touch the ground; at another he drew himself up and attentively examined the wall; then he looked into the palm of one of his hands, and walked away with rapid strides. Finally he set off running, still looking into the palm of his hand. Rouletabille had brought me to a standstill by a gesture.
"Hush! Frédéric Larsan is at work! Don't let us disturb him!"
Rouletabille had a great admiration for the celebrated detective. I had never before seen him, but I knew him well by reputation At that time, before Rouletabille had given proof of his unique talent, Larsan was reputed as the most skilful unraveller of the most mysterious and complicated crimes. His reputation was world-wide, and the police of London, and even of America, often called him in to their aid when their own national inspectors and detectives found themselves at the end of their wits and resources.
No one was astonished, then, that the head of the Sûreté had, at the outset of the mystery of "The Yellow Room", telegraphed his precious subordinate to London, where he had been sent on a big case of stolen securities, to return with all haste. Frédéric who, at the Sûreté, was called the "great Frédéric," had made all speed, doubtless knowing by experience that, if he was interrupted in what he was doing, it was because his services were urgently needed in another direction; so, as Rouletabille said, he was that morning already "at work." We soon found out in what it consisted.
What he was continually looking at in the palm of his right hand was nothing but his watch, the minute hand of which he appeared to be noting intently. Then he turned back still running, stopping only when he reached the park gate, where he again consulted his watch and then put it away in his pocket, shrugging his shoulders with a gesture of discouragement. He pushed open the park gate, reclosed and locked it, raised his head and, through the bars, perceived us. Rouletabille rushed after him, and I followed. Frédéric Larsan waited for us.
"Monsieur Fred," said Rouletabille, raising his hat and showing the profound respect, based on admiration, which the young reporter felt for the celebrated detective, "can you tell me whether Monsieur Robert Darzac is at the château at this moment? Here is one of his friends, of the Paris Bar, who desires to speak with him."
"I really don't know, Monsieur Rouletabille," replied Fred, shaking hands with my friend, whom he had several times met in the course of his difficult investigations. "I have not seen him."
"The concierges will be able to inform us no doubt?" said Rouletabille, pointing to the lodge the door and windows of which were close shut.
"The concierges will not be able to give you any information, Monsieur Rouletabille."
"Because they were arrested half an hour ago."
"Arrested!" cried Rouletabille; "then they are the murderers!"
Frédéric Larsan shrugged his shoulders.
"When you can't arrest the real murderer," he said with an air of supreme irony, "you can always indulge in the luxury of discovering accomplices."
"Did you have them arrested, Monsieur Fred?"
"Not I! — I haven't had them arrested. In the first place, I am pretty sure that they have not had anything to do with the affair, and then because —"
"Because of what?" asked Rouletabille eagerly.
"Because of nothing," said Larsan, shaking his head.
"Because there were no accomplices!" said Rouletabille.
"Aha! — you have an idea, then, about this matter?" said Larsan, looking at Rouletabille intently, "yet you have seen nothing, young man — you have not yet gained admission here!"
"I shall get admission."
"I doubt it. The orders are strict."
"I shall gain admission, if you let me see Monsieur Robert Darzac. Do that for me. You know we are old friends. I beg of you, Monsieur Fred. Do you remember the article I wrote about you on the gold bar case?"
The face of Rouletabille at the moment was really funny to look at. It showed such an irresistible desire to cross the threshold beyond which some prodigious mystery had occurred; it appealed with so much eloquence, not only of the mouth and eyes, but with all its features, that I could not refrain from bursting into laughter. Frédéric Larsan, no more than myself, could retain his gravity. Meanwhile, standing on the other side of the gate, he calmly put the key in his pocket. I closely scrutinised him.
He might be about fifty years of age. He had a fine head, his hair turning grey; a colourless complexion, and a firm profile. His forehead was prominent, his chin and cheeks clean shaven. His upper lip, without moustache, was finely chiselled. His eyes were rather small and round, with a look in them that was at once searching and disquieting. He was of middle height and well built, with a general bearing elegant and gentlemanly. There was nothing about him of the vulgar policeman. In his way, he was an artist, and one felt that he had a high opinion of himself. The sceptical tone of his conversation was that of a man who had been taught by experience. His strange profession had brought him into contact with so many crimes and villanies that it would have been remarkable if his nature had not been a little hardened.
Larsan turned his head at the sound of a vehicle which had come from the câteau and reached the gate behind him. We recognised the cab which had conveyed the examining magistrate and his Registrar from the station at Epinay.
"Ah!" said Frédéric Larsan, "if you want to speak with Monsieur Robert Darzac, he is here."
The cab was already at the park gate and Robert Darzac was begging Frédéric Larsan to open it for him, explaining that he was pressed for time to catch the next train leaving Epinay for Paris. Then he recognised me. While Larsan was unlocking the gate, Monsieur Darzac inquired what had brought me to the Glandier at such a tragic moment. I noticed that he was frightfully pale, and that his face was lined as if from the effects of some terrible suffering.
"Is Mademoiselle getting better?" I immediately asked.
"Yes," he said. "She will be saved perhaps. She must be saved!"
He did not add "or it will be my death"; but I felt that the phrase trembled on his pale lips.
Rouletabille intervened: —
"You are in a hurry, Monsieur; but I must speak with you. I have something of the greatest importance to tell you."
Frédérick Larsan interrupted: —
"May I leave you?" he asked of Robert Darzac. "Have you a key, or do you wish me to give you this one."
"Thank you. I have a key and will lock the gate."
Larsan hurried off in the direction of the château, the imposing pile of which could be perceived a few hundred yards away.
Robert Darzac, with knit brow, was beginning to show impatience. I presented Rouletabille as a good friend of mine, but, as soon as he learnt that the young man was a journalist, he looked at me very reproachfully, excused himself, under the necessity of having to reach Epinay in twenty minutes, bowed, and whipped up his horse. But Rouletabille had seized the bridle and, to my utter astonishment, stopped the carriage with a vigorous hand. Then he gave utterance to a sentence which was utterly meaningless to me.
"The presbytery has lost nothing of its charm, nor the garden its brightness."
The words had no sooner left the lips of Rouletabille than I saw Robert Darzac quail. Pale as he was, he became paler. His eyes were fixed on the young man in terror, and he immediately descended from the vehicle in an inexpressible state of agitation.
"Come! — come in!" he stammered.
Then, suddenly, and with a sort of fury, he repeated: —
"Let us go, monsieur."
He turned up by the road he had come from the château, Rouletabille still retaining his hold on the horse's bridle. I addressed a few words to Monsieur Darzac, but he made no answer. My looks questioned Rouletabille, but his gaze was elsewhere.