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The Duc de Sairmeuse was one of those men who remain superior to all fortuitous circumstances, good or bad. He was a man of vast experience, and great natural shrewdness. His mind was quick to act, and fertile in resources. But when he found himself immured in the damp and loathsome station-house, after the terrible scenes at the Poivriere, he relinquished all hope.
Martial knew that Justice does not trust to appearances, and that when she finds herself confronted by a mystery, she does not rest until she has fathomed it.
Martial knew, only too well, that if his identity was established, the authorities would endeavor to discover the reason of his presence at the Poivriere. That this reason would soon be discovered, he could not doubt, and, in that case, the crime at the Borderie, and the guilt of the duchess, would undoubtedly be made public.
This meant the Court of Assizes, prison, a frightful scandal, dishonor, eternal disgrace!
And the power he had wielded in former days was a positive disadvantage to him now. His place was now filled by his political adversaries. Among them were two personal enemies upon whom he had inflicted those terrible wounds of vanity which are never healed. What an opportunity for revenge this would afford them!
At the thought of this ineffaceable stain upon the great name of Sairmeuse, which was his pride and his glory, reason almost forsook him.
"My God, inspire me," he murmured. "How shall I save the honor of the name?"
He saw but one chance of salvation--death. They now believed him one of the miserable wretches that haunt the suburbs of Paris; if he were dead they would not trouble themselves about his identity.
"It is the only way!" he thought.
He was endeavoring to find some means of accomplishing his plan of self-destruction, when he heard a bustle and confusion outside. In a few moments the door was opened and a man was thrust into the same cell--a man who staggered a few steps, fell heavily to the floor, and began to snore loudly. It was only a drunken man.
But a gleam of hope illumined Martial's heart, for in the drunken man he recognized Otto--disguised, almost unrecognizable.
It was a bold ruse and no time must be lost in profiting by it. Martial stretched himself upon a bench, as if to sleep, in such a way that his head was scarcely a yard from that of Otto.
"The duchess is out of danger," murmured the faithful servant.
"For to-day, perhaps. But to-morrow, through me, all will be known."
"Have you told them who you are?"
"No; all the policemen but one took me for a vagabond."
"You must continue to personate this character."
"What good will it do? Lacheneur will betray me."
But Martial, though he little knew it, had no need to fear Lacheneur for the present, at least. A few hours before, on his way from the Rainbow to the Poivriere, Jean had been precipitated to the bottom of a stone quarry, and had fractured his skull. The laborers, on returning to their work early in the morning, found him lying there senseless; and at that very moment they were carrying him to the hospital.
Although Otto was ignorant of this circumstance, he did not seem discouraged.
"There will be some way of getting rid of Lacheneur," said he, "if you will only sustain your present character. An escape is an easy matter when a man has millions at his command."
"They will ask me who I am, whence I came, how I have lived."
"You speak English and German; tell them that you have just returned from foreign lands; that you were a foundling and that you have always lived a roving life."
"How can I prove this?"
Otto drew a little nearer his master, and said, impressively:
"We must agree upon our plans, for our success depends upon a perfect understanding between us. I have a sweetheart in Paris--and no one knows our relations. She is as sharp as steel. Her name is Milner, and she keeps the Hotel de Mariembourg, on the Saint-Quentin. You can say that you arrived here from Leipsic on Sunday; that you went to this hotel; that you left your trunk there, and that this trunk is marked with the name of May, foreign artist."
"Capital!" said Martial, approvingly.
And then, with extraordinary quickness and precision, they agreed, point by point, upon their plan of defence.
When all had been arranged, Otto pretended to awake from the heavy sleep of intoxication; he clamored to be released, and the keeper finally opened the door and set him at liberty.
Before leaving the station-house, however, he succeeded in throwing a note to the Widow Chupin, who was imprisoned in the other compartment.
So, when Lecoq, after his skilful investigations at the Poivriere, rushed to the Place d'Italie, panting with hope and ambition, he found himself outwitted by these men, who were inferior to him in penetration, but whose finesse was superior to his own.
Martial's plans being fully formed, he intended to carry them out with absolute perfection of detail, and, after his removal to prison, the Duc de Sairmeuse was preparing himself for the visit of the judge of instruction, when Maurice d'Escorval entered.
They recognized each other. They were both terribly agitated, and the examination was an examination only in name. After the departure of Maurice, Martial attempted to destroy himself. He had no faith in the generosity of his former enemy.
But when he found M. Segmuller occupying Maurice's place the next morning, Martial believed that he was saved.
Then began that struggle between the judge and Lecoq on one side, and the accused on the other--a struggle from which neither party came out conqueror.
Martial knew that Lecoq was the only person he had to fear, still he bore him no ill-will. Faithful to his nature, which compelled him to be just even to his enemies, he could not help admiring the astonishing penetration and perseverance of this young policeman who, undismayed by the obstacles and discouragements that surrounded him, struggled on, unassisted, to reach the truth.
But Lecoq was always outwitted by Otto, the mysterious accomplice, who seemed to know his every movement in advance.
At the morgue, at the Hotel de Mariembourg, with Toinon, the wife of Polyte Chupin, as well as with Polyte Chupin himself, Lecoq was just a little too late.
Lecoq detected the secret correspondence between the prisoner and his accomplice. He was even ingenious enough to discover the key to it, but this served no purpose. A man, who had seen a rival, or rather, a future master, in Lecoq had betrayed him.
If his efforts to arrive at the truth through the jeweller and the Marquis d'Arlange had failed, it was only because Mme. Blanche had not purchased the diamond ear-rings she wore at the Poivriere at any shop, but from one of her friends, the Baroness de Watchau.
And lastly, if no one at Paris had missed the Duc de Sairmeuse, it was because--thanks to an understanding between the duchess, Otto, and Camille--no other inmate of the Hotel de Sairmeuse suspected his absence. All the servants supposed their master confined to his room by illness. They prepared all sorts of gruels and broths for him, and his breakfast and dinner were taken to his apartments every day.
So the weeks went by, and Martial was expecting to be summoned before the Court of Assizes and condemned under the name of May, when he was afforded an opportunity to escape.
Too shrewd not to discern the trap that had been set for him, he endured some moments of horrible hesitation in the prison-van.
He decided to accept the risk, however, commending himself to his lucky star.
And he decided wisely, for that same night he leaped his own garden- wall, leaving, as a hostage, in the hands of Lecoq, an escaped convict, Joseph Conturier by name, whom he had picked up in a low drinking-saloon.
Warned by Mme. Milner, thanks to a blunder on the part of Lecoq, Otto was awaiting his master.
In the twinkling of an eye Martial's beard fell under the razor; he plunged into the bath that was awaiting him, and his clothing was burned.
And it was he who, during the search a few minutes later, had the hardihood to call out:
"Otto, by all means allow these men to do their duty."
But he did not breathe freely until the agents of police had departed.
"At last," he exclaimed, "honor is saved! We have outwitted Lecoq!"
He had just left the bath, and enveloped himself in a robe de chambre, when Otto handed him a letter from the duchess.
He hastily broke the seal and read:
"You are safe. You know all. I am dying. Farewell. I loved you."
With two bounds he reached his wife's apartments. The door was locked; he burst it open. Too late!
Mme. Blanche was dead--poisoned, like Marie-Anne; but she had procured a drug whose effect was instantaneous; and extended upon her couch, clad in her wonted apparel, her hands folded upon her breast, she seemed only asleep.
A tear glittered in Martial's eye.
"Poor, unhappy woman!" he murmured; "may God forgive you as I forgive you--you whose crime has been so frightfully expiated here below!"
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