After the capture of the Spaniard
at Chéron's farm on that dark night, M. Lefèvre
realised that when M. le Duc d'Otrante sent down that insignificant-
Henceforward M. Lefèvre became the faithful panegyrist and henchman of the Minister's anonymous agent. He haunted the latter's apartments in the Rue de France, he was significantly silent when the Man in Grey was sneered and jeered at in the higher official circles, and, what is more, when M. Leblanc, sous-préfet of Bourg-le-Roi, had such grave misgivings about his children's governess, it was the commissary who advised him to go for counsel and assistance to the mysterious personage who enjoyed the special confidence and favour of M. le Due d'Otrante himself.
M. Leblanc, who had an inordinate belief in his own perspicacity, fought for some time against the suggestion; but, after a while, the mystery which surrounded Mademoiselle Vaillant reached such a bewildering stage, whilst remaining outside the scope of police interference, that he finally decided to take his friend's advice, and, one morning, about the end of November, he presented himself at the lodgings in Alençon occupied by the accredited agent of His Majesty's Minister of Police.
Of a truth M. Leblanc was singularly agitated. His usually correct, official attitude had given place to a kind of febrile excitement which he was at great pains to conceal. He had just left Madame Leblanc in a state of grave anxiety, and he himself, though he would not have owned to it for the world, did not know what to make of the whole affair. But he did not intend that his own agitation should betray him into a loss of dignity in the presence of the little upstart from Paris; so, after the formal greetings, he sat down and plunged into a maze of conversational subjects -- books, the theatres, the war, the victories of the Emperor and the rumoured alliance with the Austrian Archduchess -- until the Man in Grey's quiet monotone broke in on the flow of his eloquence with a perfectly polite query:
"Has Monsieur le Sous-Préfet, then, honoured me with a visit at this early hour for the purpose of discussing the politics of the day?"
"Partly, my good Monsieur Fernand, partly," replied the sous-préfet airily. "I desired that we should become more closely acquainted -- and," he added, as if with an after-thought, "I desired to put before you a small domestic matter which has greatly perturbed Madame Leblanc, and which, I confess, does appear even to me as something of a mystery."
"I am entirely at Monsieur le Sous-Préfet's service," rejoined the Man in Grey without the ghost of a smile.
"Oh! I dare say," continued M. Leblanc in that offhand manner which had become the rule among the officials of the district when dealing with the secret agent, "I dare say that when I think the matter over, I shall be quite able to deal with it myself. At the same time, the facts are certainly mysterious, and I doubt not but that they will interest you, even if they do not come absolutely within the sphere of your province."
This time the Man in Grey offered no remark. He waited for M. le Sous-Préfet to proceed.
"As no doubt you know, Monsieur Fernand," resumed M. Leblanc after a slight pause, "I own a small house and property near Bourg-le-Roi, some eight kilomètres from this city, where my wife and children live all the year round and where I spend as much of my leisure as I can spare from my onerous duties here. The house is called Les Colombiers. It is an old Manor, which belonged to the Comtes de Mamers, a Royalist family who emigrated at the outset of the Revolution and whose properties were sold for the benefit of the State. The Mamers have remained -- as perhaps you know -- among the irreconcilables. His Majesty the Emperor's clemency did not succeed in luring them away from England, where they have settled; and I, on the other hand, have continued in undisputed possession of a charming domain. The old moated house is of great archæological and historical interest. It stands in the midst of a well-timbered park, is well secluded from the road by several acres of dense coppice, and it is said that, during the religious persecutions instituted by Charles IX at the instigation of his abominable mother, Les Colombiers was often the refuge of Huguenots, and the rallying-point for the followers of the proscribed faith. As I myself," continued M. Leblanc with conscious pride, "belong to an old Huguenot family, you will readily understand, my good Monsieur Fernand, that I feel an additional interest in Les Colombiers."
Pausing for a moment, the, sous-préfet readjusted the set of his neckcloth, crossed one shapely leg over the other and added with an affable air of condescension:
"I trust that I am not trespassing upon your valuable time, my dear friend, by recounting these seemingly irrelevant, but quite necessary details."
"On the contrary, Monsieur le Sous-Préfet," rejoined the Man in Grey quietly, "I am vastly and, I may say, respectfully interested."
Thus encouraged, M. Leblanc boldly continued his narrative.
"My household," he said, "consists, I must tell you, of my wife and myself and my two children -- a boy and a girl -- Adèle, aged fourteen, and Ernest, just over twelve. I keep a couple of men and two maids indoors, and three or four men in the garden. Finally, there is my children's governess, Marie Vaillant. She came to us last summer warmly recommended by Monseigneur the Constitutional Bishop of Alençon, and it is her conduct which of late has so gravely disquieted Madame Leblanc and myself.
"But you shall judge.
"At first my wife and I had every reason to congratulate ourselves on having secured such a competent, refined and charming woman to preside over the education of our children. Marie Vaillant was gay, pretty and full of spirits. The children loved her, especially Ernest, who set his entire childish affections upon his young and attractive governess. During the summer lessons were done out of doors, and long expeditions were undertaken in the woods, whence Ernest and Adèle would return, hot, tired and happy. They had played at being explorers in virgin forests, so they told their mother.
"It was only when the evenings waxed longer," continued the sous-préfet, in a tone of growing embarrassment, now that he was nearing the climax of his story, "that Mademoiselle Vaillant suddenly changed. She developed a curious proclivity for promiscuous coquetry."
"Coquetry?" broke in the secret agent with a smile.
"Yes! Marie began to flirt -- shamelessly, openly, with every man she came across, visitors, shop-keepers, friends and gardeners. She exercised an almost weird fascination over them; one and all would anticipate her slightest wish; in fact, the men about the house and grounds of Les Colombiers appeared to be more her servants than ours. Moreover, she made an absolute fool of our butler, Lavernay -- a middle-aged man who ought to have known better. He has not only pursued Mademoiselle Vaillant with his attentions but also with his jealousy, until Madame Leblanc felt that her whole household was becoming the laughing-stock of the neighbourhood."
"And have you or Madame Leblanc done anything in the matter?" asked the Man in Grey, while M. le Sous-Préfet paused to draw breath.
"Oh,yes! Madame spoke to the girl and I trounced Lavernay. Marie was humble and apologetic and Lavernay very contrite. Both promised to be discreet and sensible in future. At the same time I confess that I was not at all reassured. Within a fortnight we heard through the gossip of a busybody that Marie Vaillant was in the habit of stealing out of the house in the evenings, at an hour when respectable people should be in bed, and after five minutes' start she was usually followed on these peregrinations by the butler. There was no doubt about the whole thing: even our sergeant of police had witnessed these clandestine meetings and bad reported the matter to the local commissary.
"There was nothing for it now but to dismiss the flirtatious governess as quickly as possible. I may say that Madame Leblanc, who had been genuinely fond of the girl, acquitted herself of the task with remarkable tact and gentleness. Marie Vaillant, indeed, belied her name when she received the news of her dismissal. She begged and implored my wife's forgiveness, swore by all she could think of that she had only erred from ignorance; she had no thought of doing wrong; she was innocent of anything but the merest flirtation. Fond of breathing the midnight air which was so balmy and sweet in the woods, she had lately got into the habit of strolling out when she could not sleep and sitting for an hour or so dreaming among the trees. She admitted that once or twice she had been followed by Lavernay, had been very angry with him, and bad seriously rebuked him; but it should never, never happen again -- she vowed and swore it should not -- if only Madame would forgive her and not send her away from Les Colombiers which was like a home to her, and from Ernest and Adèle whom she loved as if they were her brother and sister.
"But Madame Leblanc was inexorable. Perhaps she felt that quite so much ignorance of the ways of the world and the decorum prescribed to every well educated woman was not altogether credible; perhaps she thought that the lady did protest too much. Certain it is that though she went back on her original pronouncement that the girl must leave the house within twenty-four hours, she refused to consider the question of allowing her to remain permanently.
"It was finally agreed that Marie Vaillant should leave Les Colombiers at the end of the month; but that at the slightest transgression or repetition of the old offence she would be dismissed with contumely and turned out of the house at an hour's notice.
"This happened exactly a fortnight ago," went on M. Leblanc, who was at last drawing to the end of what had proved a lengthy soliloquy; "and I may tell you that since then Mademoiselle Vaillant has grown the model of all the proprieties. Sober, demure, well-conducted, she has fulfilled her duties with a conscientiousness which is beyond praise. When those heavy rains set in a week ago, outdoor life at once became impossible. Adèle and Ernest took seriously to their books and Mademoiselle devoted herself to them in a manner which has been absolutely exemplary. She has literally given up her whole time to their welfare, not only -- so Madame Leblanc tells me -- by helping with their clothes, but she has even taken certain menial tasks upon herself which are altogether outside her province as a governess. She has relieved the servants by attending to the children's bedroom; she had been making their beds and even washing their stockings and pocket handkerchiefs. She asked to be allowed to do these things in order to distract her mind from the sorrow caused by Madame's displeasure.
"Of course, I gave Lavernay a stern scolding; but he swore to me that though he had followed Mademoiselle during her evening walks, he had done it mostly without her knowledge and always without her consent; a fit of his former jealousy had seized him, but she had reprimanded him very severely and forbidden him ever to dog her footsteps again. After that he, too, appeared to turn over a new leaf. It seemed as if his passion for Marie was beginning to burn itself out, and that we could look forward once again to the happy and peaceful days of the summer."
M. le Sous-Préfet had talked uninterruptedly for a quarter of an hour; his pompous, somewhat laboured diction and his loud voice had put a severe strain upon him. The Man in Grey had been an ideal listener. With his eyes fixed on M. Leblanc, he had sat almost motionless, not losing a single word of the prolix recital, and even now when the sous-préfet paused -- obviously somewhat exhausted -- he did not show the slightest sign of flagging interest.
"Now, my good Monsieur Fernand," resumed M. Leblanc, with something of his habitual, condescending manner, "will you tell me if there is anything in what I have just told you -- I fear me at great length -- that is not perfectly simple and even stereotyped? A young and pretty girl coming into a somewhat old-fashioned and dull household and finding a not altogether commendable pleasure in turning the heads of every susceptible man she meets! Indiscretions follow and the gossips of the neighbourhood are set talking. Admonished by her mistress, the girl is almost broken-hearted; she begs for forgiveness and at once sets to work to re-establish herself in the good graces of her employers. I dare say you are surprised that I should have been at such pains to recount to you a series of commonplace occurrences. But what to an ordinary person would appear in the natural order of things, strikes me as not altogether normal. I mistrust the girl. I do not believe in her contrition, still less in her reformation. Moreover, what worries me, and worries Madame Leblanc still more, is the amazing ascendency which Marie Vaillant exercises over our boy Ernest. She seems to be putting forth her fullest powers of fascination -- I own that they are great -- to cementing the child's affection for her. For the last few weeks the boy has become strangely nervy, irritable and jealous. He follows Marie wherever she goes, and hangs upon her lips when she speaks. So much so that my wife and I look forward now with dread to the day of parting. When Marie goes I do verily believe that Ernest, who is a very highly-strung child, will fall seriously ill with grief."
Again M. Leblanc paused. A look of genuine alarm had overspread his otherwise vapid face. Clearly he was a man deeply attached to his children and, despite his fatuous officiousness, was not prepared to take any risks where their welfare was concerned. He mopped his face with his handkerchief, and for the first time since the beginning of the interview he threw a look of almost pathetic appeal on the agent of the Minister of Police.
"Otherwise, Monsieur le Sous-Préfet," said the latter, meeting that look of appeal with a quiet smile, "has nothing occurred to justify your mistrust of Mademoiselle Vaillant's good intentions?"
"Nothing at all," replied M. Leblanc with a nervous hesitation which belied his emphatic words, "except a vague sense of uneasiness -- the unnatural quiet which came so quickly in the wake of the storm of a fortnight ago; and, as I say, the extraordinary pains which the girl has taken to captivate the boy: so much so in fact that, thinking perhaps Marie still entertained hopes of our complete forgiveness and thought of using the child as an intermediary with us to allow her to remain, Madame Leblanc at my suggestion spoke yesterday very firmly to the girl, and told her that whatever happened our determination was irrevocable. We felt that we could trust her no longer and go she must."
"And how did Mademoiselle Vaillant take this final decision?" asked the police agent.
"With extraordinary self-possession. Beyond a humble 'Very well, Madame,' she never spoke a word during the brief interview. But in the evening, long after the children should have been in bed, Anne -- my wife's confidential maid -- happened to be in the passage outside Mademoiselle's room, the door of which was ajar. She distinctly heard Marie's voice raised in almost passionate supplication: 'Ernest, my darling little Ernest!' she was saying, 'will you always love me as you do now?' And the child answered fervently: 'I will always love you, my darling Marie. I would do anything for you -- I would gladly die for you ----' and so on -- just the sort of exalté nonsense which a highly-strung, irresponsible child would talk. Anne did not hear any more then, but remained on the watch in a dark corner of the passage. Quite half an hour later, if not more, she saw Ernest slipping out of the governess's room clad only in his little nightgown and slippers and going back to his own room. This incident, which Anne reported faithfully to her mistress and to me, has caused my wife such anxiety that I determined to consult someone whom I could trust, and see whether the whole affair struck an impartial mind with the same ominous significance which it bears for me. My choice fell upon you, my dear Monsieur Fernand," concluded the sous-préfet with a return to his former lofty condescension. "I don't like to introduce gossiping neighbours into my private affairs and I know enough about you to be convinced of your absolute discretion, as well as of your undoubted merits."
The Man in Grey accepted M. Leblanc's careless affability with the same unconcern that he had displayed under the latter's somewhat contemptuous patronage. He said nothing for a moment or two, remaining apparently absorbed in his own thoughts. Then he turned to his visitor and in a quiet, professional manner, which nevertheless carried with it an unmistakable air of authority, intimated to him, by rising from his chair, that the interview was now at an end.
"I thank you, Monsieur le Sous-Préfet," he said, "both for the confidence which you have reposed in me, and for your clear exposé of the present situation in your household. For the moment I should advise you to leave all your work in the city, which is not of national importance, and go straight back to Les Colombiers. Madame Leblanc should not be left to face alone any difficulties which may arise. At the same time, should any fresh development occur, I beg that you will either send for me or come to me at once. I place myself entirely at your disposal."
He did not hold out his hand, only stood quietly beside his desk; but there was no mistaking the attitude, or the almost imperceptible inclination of the head. M. Leblanc was dismissed, and he was not accustomed to seeing himself and his affairs set aside so summarily. A sharp retort almost escaped him; but a glance from those enigmatic eyes checked the haughty words upon his lips. He became suddenly and unaccountably embarrassed, seeking for a phrase which would disguise the confusion he felt.
"My good Monsieur Fernand ----" he began haltingly.
"My time is valuable, Monsieur le Sous-Préfet," interposed the Man in Grey; "and at Les Colombiers your son's welfare is perhaps even now at stake."
M. Leblanc -- awed and subdued despite himself -- had no choice but to make as dignified an exit as was possible in the circumstances.
It was barely eight o'clock the next morning when M. Leblanc made an excited and noisy irruption into the apartments of the secret agent of the Minister of Police. The Man in Grey had risen betimes; had brewed himself a cup of coffee and partaken of breakfast. The tray stood on a table beside him, and he was at the moment engaged in the perusal of the newest copy of the Moniteur.
At sight of his visitor he quietly folded and put down his paper. M. Leblanc had literally staggered into the room. He wore riding breeches and boots and his clothes were covered with mud; he had ridden hard and fast, and though his face was deathly pale it was covered with perspiration. His lips were quivering and his eyes had a look of horror and fear which almost resembled madness.
The Man in Grey led him, firmly and gently, to a seat. Without a word he went to a cupboard, took out a flask and a mug and forced a few drops of brandy down the sous-préfet's throat. The latter's teeth were chattering and, through his trembling lips, there came a few hoarsely whispered words:
"My son -- my child -- he has gone -- Oh, my God!"
After he had drunk the brandy, he became a little more composed. He lay back in his chair, with eyes closed, and for a moment it seemed as if he had lost consciousness, for his lips were bloodless and his face was the colour of dead ashes. Presently he opened his eyes and rested them on the small grey figure which stood, quietly expectant, before him.
"My son," he murmured more distinctly. "Ernest -- he has gone!"
"Try to tell me coherently what has happened," said the Man in Grey in a quiet tone, which had the effect of further soothing M. Leblanc's overstrung nerves.
After a great effort of will the unfortunate man was able to pull himself together. He was half demented with grief, and it was blind, unreasoning instinct that had led him to seek out the one man who might help him in his trouble. With exemplary patience, the police agent dragged from the unfortunate man, bit by bit, a more or less intelligible account of the extraordinary sequence of events which had culminated a few hours ago in such a mysterious and appalling tragedy.
Matters, it seemed, had been brought to a climax through the agency of feminine gossip, and it was Ma'ame Margot, the wife of one of the labourers, who did the washing for the household at Les Colombiers, who precipitated the catastrophe.
Ma'ame Margot had brought the washing home on the previous afternoon and stopped to have a cup of coffee and a chat in the kitchen of the house. In the course of conversation she drew the attention of Anne, Madame Leblanc's maid, to the condition of Monsieur Ernest's underclothes.
"I have done my best with it," she said, "but I told Mademoiselle Vaillant that I was afraid the stains would never come out. She had tried to wash the things herself before she thought of sending them to me. Whoever heard," added the worthy soul indignantly, "of letting a child of Monsieur Ernest's age go running about like that in the wet and the mud? Why, he must have been soaked through to his waist to get his things in that state."
Later Anne spoke to Mme. Leblanc of what the laundrywoman had said. Madame frowned, greatly puzzled. She had positively forbidden the children to go out while the heavy rains lasted. She sent for Ma'ame Margot, who was bold enough to laugh outright when Madame told her that she did not understand about Monsieur Ernest's things being so stained with wet and mud, as the children had not been out since the heavy rains had started.
"Not been out?" ejaculated Ma'ame Margot, quite as puzzled as her lady. "Why! my man, when he was looking after the sick cow the other night, saw Monsieur Ernest out with the governess. It was past midnight then and the rain coming down in torrents, and my man, he says to me ----"
"Thank you, Ma'ame Margot," broke in Madame Leblanc, "that will do."
She waited quietly until the laundrywoman was out of the house, then she sent for Mademoiselle Vaillant. This time no prayers, no protestations would avail. The girl must leave the house not later than the following morning. What her object could have been in dragging her young pupil with her on her nocturnal expeditions Madame Leblanc could not of course conjecture; did she take the child with her as a chaperon on her meetings with Lavernay, or what? Well, whatever her motive, the girl was not a fit person to be in charge of young children and go she must, decided Madame definitely.
This occurred late yesterday afternoon. Strangely enough, Marie Vaillant took her dismissal perfectly calmly. She offered neither explanation nor protest. Beyond a humble "Very well, Madame!" she never said a word during this final interview with her employer, who, outraged and offended at the girl's obstinacy and ingratitude, ordered her to pack up her things and leave the house early next morning, when a carriage would be ready to take her and her effects to Alençon.
Early this morning, not two hours ago in fact, Anne had come running into Madame Leblanc's room with a scared white face, saying that Monsieur Ernest was not in his room and was nowhere to be found. He appeared to have slipped on the clothes which he had worn the previous night, as these were missing from their usual place.
Terribly alarmed, M. Leblanc had sent Anne to bring Mademoiselle Vaillant to him immediately; but Anne returned within a couple of minutes with the news that Mademoiselle had also disappeared. The house was scoured from attic to cellar, the gardens were searched, and the outdoor labourers started to drag the moat. Madame Leblanc, beside herself with dread, had collapsed, half fainting, in the hall, where Anne was administering restoratives to her. Monsieur Leblanc had ordered his horse, determined at once to inform the police. He was standing at his dressing-room window, putting on his riding clothes when he saw Marie Vaillant running as fast as ever she could across the garden towards the house. Her dress clung wet and muddy round her legs, her hair was streaming down her back, and she held out her arms in front of her as she ran. Indeed, she looked more mad than sane, and there was such a look of fear and horror in her face and about her whole appearance, that the servants -- stupid and scared -- stood by gaping like gabies, not attempting to run after her. In a moment M. Leblanc -- his mind full of horrible foreboding -- had flung out of his dressing-room, determined to intercept the woman and to wring from her an admission of what she had done with the boy.
He ran down the main staircase, as he had seen Marie make straight for the chief entrance hall, but, presumably checked in her wild career, the girl had suddenly turned off after she had crossed the bridge over the moat, and must have dashed into the house by one of the side doors, for at the moment that M. Leblanc reached the hall he could hear her tearing helter-skelter up the uncarpeted service stairs. No one so far had attempted to stop her. M. Leblanc now called loudly to the servants to arrest this mad woman in her flight; there was a general scrimmage, but before anyone could reach the top landing, Marie had darted straight into her employers' bedroom and had locked and bolted the heavy door.
"You may imagine," concluded the unfortunate sous-préfet, who had been at great pains to give his narrative some semblance of coherence, "that I was the first to bang against the bedroom door and to demand admittance of the wretched creature. At first there was no reply, but through the solid panelling we could hear a distinct and steady hammering which seemed to come from the farther end of the room. All the doors in the old house are extraordinarily heavy, but the one that gives on my wife's and my bedroom is of unusually massive oak with enormous locks and bars of iron and huge iron hinges. I felt that it would be futile to try to break it open, and, frankly, I was not a little doubtful as to what the wretched woman might do if brought to bay. The windows of the bedroom as well as those of the dressing-room adjoining give directly on the moat, which at this point is over three métres deep. Placing two of the men-servants on guard outside the door, with strict orders not to allow the woman to escape, I made my way into the garden and took my stand opposite the bedroom windows. I had the width of the moat between me and the house. The waters lapped the solid grey walls and for the first time since I have lived at Les Colombiers, the thought of the old Manor, with its lurking holes for unfortunate Huguenots, struck my heart with a sense of coldness and gloom. Up above Marie Vaillant had already taken the precaution of fastening the shutters; it was impossible to imagine what she could be doing, locked up in that room, or why she should refuse to come out, unless ----"
The stricken father closed his eyes as he hinted at this awful possibility; a shiver went through him.
"A ladder ----" suggested the Man in Grey.
"Impossible!" replied M. Leblanc. "The moat on that side is over eight mètres wide. I had thought of that. I thought of everything; I racked my brains. Think of it, sir! My boy Ernest gone, and his whereabouts probably only known to that mad woman up there!"
"Your butler Lavernay?" queried the Man in Grey.
"It was when I realised my helplessness that I suddenly thought of him," replied the sous-préfet; "but no one had seen him. He too had disappeared."
Then suddenly the full force of his misery rushed upon him. He jumped to his feet and seized the police agent by the coat sleeve.
"I entreat you, Monsieur Fernand," he exclaimed in tones of pitiable entreaty, "do not let us waste any more time. We'll call at the commissariat of police first and get Lefèvre to follow hard on our heels with a posse of police. I beg of you to come at once!"
Gently the Man in Grey disengaged his arm from the convulsive grasp of the other. "By your leave," he said, "we will not call in a posse of police just yet. Remember your own fears! Brought to bay, Marie Vaillant, if indeed she has some desperate deed to conceal, might jump into the moat and take the secret of your boy's whereabouts with her to her grave."
"My God, you are right!" moaned the unfortunate man. "What can I do? In Heaven's name tell me what to do."
"For the moment we'll just go quietly to Les Colombiers together. I always keep a horse ready saddled for emergencies at the 'Trois Rois' inn close by. Do you get to horse and accompany me thither."
"I pray you, sir, do not argue," broke in the police agent curtly. "Every minute has become precious."
And silently M. Leblanc obeyed. He had a at once grown as tractable as a child. The dominating personality of that little Man in Grey had entire possession of him now, of his will and understanding.
The first part of the cross-country ride was accomplished in silence. M. Leblanc was in a desperate hurry to get on; he pushed his horse along with the eagerness of intense anxiety. For awhile the police agent kept up with him in silence, then suddenly he called a peremptory "Halt!"
"Your horse will give out, Monsieur le Sous-Préfet," he said. "Allow him to walk for awhile. There are two or three questions I must put to you before we arrive at Les Colombiers."
M. Leblanc obeyed and set his horse to a walk. Of a truth he was more worn-out that his steed.
"Firstly, tell me what kind of fireplace you have in your bedroom," said the other abruptly, and with such strange irrelevance that the sous-préfet stared at him.
"Why," he replied submissively, "there is a fine old chimney, as there is in every room in the house."
"You have had a fire in it lately?"
"Oh, every day. The weather has been very cold."
"And what sort of bed do you sleep in?"
"An old-fashioned fourpost bedstead," replied M. Leblanc, more and more puzzled at these extraordinary questions, "which I believe has been in the house for two or three hundred years. It is the only piece of the original furniture left; everything else was sold by Monsieur de Mamers' agent before the State confiscated the house. I don't know why the bedstead was allowed to remain; probably because it is so uncommonly heavy and is also screwed to the floor."
"Thank you. That is interesting," rejoined the police agent drily. "And now, tell me, what is the nearest house to yours that is of similar historical interest?"
"An old sixteenth-century house, you mean?"
"There is none at Bourg-le-Roi. If you remember, the town itself is comparatively modern, and every traveller will tell you that Les Colombiers is the only interesting piece of mediæval architecture in the neighbourhood. Of course, there are the ruins at Saut-de-Biche."
"The ruins at Saut-de-Biche?"
"Yes. In the woods, about half a kilomètre from Les Colombiers. They are supposed to be the remains of the old farmhouse belonging to the Manor; but only two or three walls are left standing. A devastating fire razed the place to the ground some ten years ago; since then the roof has fallen in, and the town council of Bourg-le-Roi has been using some of the stone for building the new town hall. The whole thing is just a mass of débris and charred wood."
While the two men were talking the time had gone by swiftly enough. Alençon was soon left far behind; ahead, close by, lay the coppice which sheltered Les Colombiers. Some twenty minutes later the two men drew rein in the fine old courtyard of the ancient Manor. At a call from M. Leblanc one of his men rushed out of the house to hold the horses and to aid his master to dismount. The Man in Grey was already on his feet
"What news?" he asked of the man.
The latter shrugged his shoulders. There was no change at Les Colombiers. The two labourers were still on sentry guard outside the bedroom door, whilst the indoor servant, with the head gardener, had remained down below by the side of the moat, staring up at the shuttered windows, and revelling in all the horrors which the aspect of the dark waters and of the windows above, behind which no doubt the mad woman was crouching, helped to conjure up before their sluggish minds.
Madame Leblanc was still lying on a couch in the hall, prostrate with grief. No one had caught sight of Marie Vaillant within her stronghold, and there was no sign either of M. Ernest or of the butler Lavernay.
Without protest or opposition on the part of the master of the house, the Man in Grey had taken command of the small army of scared domestics.
"Monsieur le Sous-Préfet," he said, "before I can help you in this matter, I must make a hurried inspection of your domain, I shall require three of your men to come with me. They must come armed with a stout joist, with pickaxes and a few heavy tools. You yourself and your women servants must remain on guard outside the bedroom door. Should Marie Vaillant attempt a sortie, seize her and, above all, see she does not do herself an injury. Your head gardener and indoor man must remain by the moat. I presume they can swim."
"Swim?" queried M. Leblanc vaguely.
"Why, yes! There is still the possibility of the girl trying to drown herself and her secret in the moat." M. Leblanc promised most earnestly that he would obey the police agent's commands to the letter, and the Man in Grey, followed by the three labourers who carried their picks, a bag of tools and a stout joist, started on his way. Swiftly crossing the bridge over, the moat, he strode rapidly across the park and plunged into the coppice. Then only did he ask the men to precede him.
"Take me straight to the ruins at Saut-de-Biche," he said.
The men obeyed, not pausing to reflect what could be the object of this little man in the grey coat in going to look at a pile of broken stone walls, while M. le Sous-Préfet was half demented with anxiety and a mad woman might either set fire to the whole house or do herself some terrible injury. They walked on in silence closely followed by the accredited representative of His Imperial Majesty's Minister of Police.
Within ten minutes the ruined farmhouse came in sight. It stood in the midst of a wide clearing; the woods which stretched all round it were so dense that even in mid-winter they screened it from the road. There was but little of the original structure left; a piece of wall like a tall arm stretching upwards to the skies, another forming an angle, some loose pieces of stone lying about in the midst of a medley of broken and charred wood, cracked tiles and twisted pieces of metal. The whole place had an aspect of unspeakable desolation. All round the ruined walls a forest of brambles, dead gorse and broom had sprung up, rendering access to the house very difficult. For a moment or two the Man in Grey paused, surveying the surroundings with a keen, experienced eye. At a slight distance from him on the right, the gorse and bramble had apparently been hacked away in order to make a passage practicable to human feet. Without hesitation Fernand, ordering the three men to follow him, struck into this narrow track which, as he surmised, led straight to the ruins. He skirted the upstanding wall, until an opening in the midst of the big masses of stone enabled him to reach what was once the interior of the house. Here progress became very difficult; the débris from the fallen roof littered the ground and there was grave danger of a hidden chasm below, where the cellars may have been.
The Man in Grey peered round him anxiously. Presently an exclamation of satisfaction rose to his lips. He called to the men. A few feet away from where he was standing the whole débris seemed to have been lately considerably augmented. Right in the midst of a pile of burned wood, tiles and metal, a large stone was embedded. It had evidently been very recently detached from the high upstanding wall, and had fallen down amidst a shower of the decayed mortar, wet earth, and torn lichen and moss, which littered the place.
In obedience to the commands of the Man in Grey, the labourers took up their picks, and set to work to clear the débris around the fallen stone, the police agent standing dose by, watching them. They had not done more than bury their tools once in the litter of earth and mortar, when their picks encountered something soft.
"Drop your tools," commanded the Man in Grey.
"Your hands will suffice to unearth what lies below." It was the body of a man crushed almost past recognition by the weight of the fallen masonry. The labourers extricated it from the fragments of wood and metal and dragged it into the open.
"By his clothes," said one of the men, in answer to a peremptory query from the Man in Grey, "I guess he must be the butler, François Lavernay."
The secret agent made no comment. Not a line of his pale, colourless face betrayed the emotion he felt -- the emotion of the sleuth-hound which knows that it is on the track of its quarry. He ordered the body to be decorously put on one side and took off his own loose mantle to throw over it. Then he bade the men resume their work. They picked up their tools again and tried to clear the rubbish all round the fallen stone.
"We must move that stone from its place," the man in the grey coat had said, and the labourers, impelled by that air of assurance and authority which emanated from the insignificant little figure, set to with a will. Having cleared the débris , they put their shoulders to the stone, helped by the secret agent whose strength appeared out of all proportion to his slender frame. By and by the stone became dislodged and, with another effort, rolled over an its flat side. After that it was easy to move it some three or four feet farther on.
"That will do!" commanded the Man in Grey.
Underneath the stone there now appeared a square flat slab of granite embedded into the soil with cement and concrete. One piece of this slab had seemingly been cut or chiselled away and then removed, displaying a cavity about a foot and a half square. In the centre of the slab was an iron ring to which a rope was attached, the other end being lost within the cavity.
The labourers were staring at their find open-mouthed; but the secret agent was already busy hauling up the rope. The end of it was formed into a loop not large enough to pass over a man's shoulders. "Just as I thought," he muttered between his teeth.
Then he lay down on his stomach and with his head just over the small cavity he shouted a loud "Hallo!" From down below there came no answer save a dull, resounding echo. Again and again the Man in Grey shouted his loud "Hallo!" into the depths, but, eliciting no reply, at last he struggled to his feet.
"Now then, my men," he said, "I am going to leave you here to work away at this slab. It has got to be removed within an hour."
The men examined the cement which held the heavy stone in its place.
"It will take time," one of them said. "This cement is terribly hard; we shall have to chip every bit of it away."
"You must do your best," said the Man in Grey earnestly. "A human life may depend on your toil. You will have no cause to grumble at the reward when your work is done. For reasons which I cannot explain, I may not bring any strangers to help you. So work away as hard as you can. I will return in about an hour with Monsieur le Sous-Préfet." He waited to see the men swing their picks, then turned on his heel and started to walk back the way he came.
It was nearly two hours before the slab of granite was finally removed from its place. M. le Sous-Préfet was standing by with the Man in Grey when the stone was hoisted up and turned over. It disclosed a large cavity with, at one end of it, a flight of stone steps leading downwards.
"Now then, Monsieur le Sous-Préfet," said the police agent quietly, "will you follow me?" M. Leblanc's face was ghastly in its pallor. The sudden hope held out to him by the Man in Grey had completely unnerved him. "Are you sure ----" he murmured.
"That we shall find Monsieur Ernest down there?" broke in the other, as he pointed to the hollow. "Well, Monsieur le Sous-Préfet, I wish I were equally sure of a fortune!"
He had a lighted lantern in his hand and began to descend the stone stairs, closely followed by the sous-préfet. The labourers above were resting after their heavy toil. They could not understand all they had seen, and their slow wits would probably never grasp the full significance of their strange adventure. While in the depths below the Man in Grey, holding M. le Sous-Préfet by the arm and swinging the lantern in front, was exploring the mediæval lurking-holes of the Huguenots, the three labourers were calmly munching their bread and cheese.
The searchers found the boy lying unconscious not very far from the stairs. A dark lantern had fallen from his hand and been extinguished. A large heavy box with metal handles stood close behind him; a long trail behind the box showed that the plucky child had dragged it along by its handle for a considerable distance. How he had managed to do so remained a marvel. Love and enthusiasm had lent the puny youngster remarkable strength. The broken-hearted father lifted his unconscious child in his arms. Obviously he had only fainted -- probably from fright -- and together the little procession now worked its way back into the open.
"Can you carry your boy home, Monsieur le Sous-Préfet," asked the Man in Grey, "while we attend to your unfortunate butler?"
But he had no need to ask. Already M. Leblanc, closely hugging his precious burden, was striding bravely and manfully through the coppice beyond.
The Man in Grey arrived at Les Colombiers a quarter of an hour after the sous-préfet had seen his boy snugly laid in his mother's arms. The child was far too weak and too highly strung to give a clear account of the events which had landed him alone and unconscious inside the disused hiding-place, with his only means of exit cut off. But the first words be spoke after he had returned to consciousness were: "Tell my darling Marie that I did my best."
Afterwards the Man in Grey graphically recounted to the sous-préfet how he came to seek for Ernest beneath the ruins of Saut-de-Biche.
"I followed Marie Vaillant's machinations in my mind," he said, "from the moment that she entered your service. Not a word of your narrative escaped me, remember! Recommended by the Bishop of Alençon, I guessed her to be a Royalist who had been placed in your house for some purpose connected with the Cause. What that purpose was it became my business to learn. It was a case of putting the proverbial two and two together. There was, on the one hand, an old moated Manor, once the refuge of persecuted Huguenots and therefore full of secret comers and hiding-places, and, on the other, an émigré Royalist family who had fled the country, no doubt leaving hidden treasures which they could not take away in their flight. Add to these facts a young girl recommended by the Bishop of Alençon, one of the most inveterate Royalist intriguers in the land, and you have as fine a solution of all that has puzzled you, Monsieur, as you could wish. Marie Vaillant had been sent to your house by the Royalist faction to secure the treasure hidden by the Comte de Mamers in one of the lurking-holes of Les Colombiers.
"With this certainty firmly fixed in my mind, I was soon able to explain her every action. The open-air life in the summer meant that she could not gain access to the hiding-place inside the house and she must seek an entrance outside. This manuvre suggested to me that the secret place was perhaps a subterranean passage which led from some distant portion of the domain to the house itself. There are a number of such passages in France, of mediæval structure. Often they run under a moat.
"Then came the second phase: Marie Vaillant's coquetry. She either could not find or could not open the hiding-place; she needed a man's help. Lavernay, your butler, appeared susceptible -- her choice fell on him. Night after night they stole out together in order to work away at the obstacle which blocked the entrance to the secret passage. Then they were discovered. Marie was threatened with dismissal, even before she had found the hidden treasure. She changed her tactics and inveigled your boy into her service. Why? Because she and Lavernay were too weak and clumsy. They had only succeeded in disclosing one small portion of the entrance to the secret lair; a portion not large enough to allow of the passage of an adult. So your boy was cajoled, endeared, fascinated. Highly strung and nervous, he was ready to dare all for the sake of the girl whom he loved with the ardour of unawakened manhood. He is dragged through the woods and shown the place; he is gradually familiarised with the task which lies before him. Then once more discovery falls on Marie Vaillant like a thunderbolt.
"There is only one more night wherein she can effect her purpose. Can you see them she and Lavernay and your boy -- stealing out at dead of night to the ruins; the boy primed in what he has to do, lowered by a cord into the secret passage, dark lantern in hand? Truly the heroism of so young a child passes belief! Lavernay and Marie Vaillant wait above, straining their ears to hear what is going on below. The underground passage, remember, is over half a kilomètre in length. I explored it as far as I could. It goes under the moat and I imagine has its other entrance in your bedroom at Les Colombiers. Ernest had to go some way along it ere he discovered the box which contained the treasure. With truly superhuman strength he seizes the metal handle an drags his burden wearily along. At last he has reached the spot where the cord still dangles from above. He gives the preconcerted signal but receives no reply. Distracted and terror-stricken, he calls again and again until the horror of his position causes him to lose consciousness.
"Above the tragedy is being consummated. Loosened by recent heavy rains, a large piece of masonry comes crashing down, burying in its fall the unfortunate Lavernay and hopelessly blocking the entrance to the secret passage. Picture to yourself Marie Vaillant pitting her feeble strength against the relentless stone, half-crazed with the thought of the child buried alive beneath her feet. An oath to her party binds her to secrecy! She dares not call for help. Almost demented, blind instinct drives her to the one spot whence she might yet be able to render assistance to the child -- your bedroom, where I'll wager that either inside the chimney or behind the head of the old-fashioned bedstead you will find the panel which masks the other entrance to the secret passage."
The Man in Grey suspended his story and, guided by his host, triade his way upstairs to the landing outside the bedroom door.
"Call to the poor woman, Monsieur le Sous-Préfet," he commanded. "Tell her that the child is safe and well. Perhaps she will come out of her own accord. It were a pity to break this magnificent door."
Presently Marie Vaillant, summoned by her employer, who assured her repeatedly that Ernest was safe and well, was heard to unlock the door and to draw the bolts. Next moment she stood under the heavy oak lintel, her face as white as a shroud, her eyes staring wildly before her, her gown stained, her hands bleeding. She had bruised herself sorely in a vain endeavour to move the massive bedstead which concealed the secret entrance to the underground passage.
One glance at M. Leblanc's face assured her that all was well with her valiant little helpmeet and that the two men before her were moved more by pity than by Wrath. She broke down completely, but the violent fit of weeping eased her overburdened heart. Soon she became comforted with the kindly assurance that she would be allowed to depart in peace. Even the sous-préfet felt that the wretched girl had suffered enough through the tortuous intrigues of her fanatic loyalty to the cause of her party, whilst the Man in Grey saw to it that in the matter of the death of Lavernay His Majesty's Police were fully satisfied.