"What did you say?"
"I said: Fantômas."
"And what does that mean?"
"Nothing… . Everything!"
"But what is it?"
"Nobody… . And yet, yes, it is somebody!"
"And what does the somebody do?"
Dinner was just over, and the company were moving into the drawing-room.
Hurrying to the fireplace, the Marquise de Langrune took a large log from a basket and flung it on to the glowing embers on the hearth; the log crackled and shed a brilliant light over the whole room; the guests of the Marquise instinctively drew near to the fire.
During the ten consecutive months she spent every year at her château of Beaulieu, on the outskirts of Correze, that picturesque district bounded by the Dordogne, it had been the immemorial custom of the Marquise de Langrune to entertain a few of her personal friends in the neighbourhood to dinner every Wednesday, thereby obtaining a little pleasant relief from her loneliness and keeping up some contact with the world.
On this particular winter evening the good lady's guests included several habitués: President Bonnet, a retired magistrate who had withdrawn to his small property at Saint-Jaury, in the suburbs of Brives, and the Abbé Sicot, who was the parish priest. A more occasional friend was also there, the Baronne de Vibray, a young and wealthy widow, a typical woman of the world who spent the greater part of her life either in motoring, or in the most exclusive drawing-rooms of Paris, or at the most fashionable watering-places. But when the Baronne de Vibray put herself out to grass, as she racily phrased it, and spent a few weeks at Querelles, her estate close to the château of Beaulieu, nothing pleased her better than to take her place again in the delightful company of the Marquise de Langrune and her friends.
Finally, youth was represented by Charles Rambert, who had arrived at the château a couple of days before, a charming lad of about eighteen who was treated with warm affection by the Marquise and by Thérese Auvernois, the granddaughter of the Marquise, with whom since her parents' death she had lived as a daughter.
The odd and even mysterious words spoken by President Bonnet as they were leaving the table, and the personality of this Fantômas about which he had said nothing definite in spite of all the questions put to him, had excited the curiosity of the company, and while Thérese Auvernois was gracefully dispensing the coffee to her grandmother's guests the questions were renewed with greater insistence. Crowding round the fire, for the evening was very cold, Mme. de Langrune's friends showered fresh questions upon the old magistrate, who secretly enjoyed the interest he had inspired. He cast a solemn eye upon the circle of his audience and prolonged his silence, the more to capture their attention. At length he began to speak.
"Statistics tell us, ladies, that of all the deaths that are registered every day quite a third are due to crime. You are no doubt aware that the police discover about half of the crimes that are committed, and that barely half meet with the penalty of justice. This explains how it is that so many mysteries are never cleared up, and why there are so many mistakes and inconsistencies in judicial investigations."
"What is the conclusion you wish to draw?" the Marquise de Langrune enquired with interest.
"This," the magistrate proceeded: "although many crimes pass unsuspected it is none the less obvious that they have been committed; now while some of them are due to ordinary criminals, others are the work of enigmatical beings who are difficult to trace and too clever or intelligent to let themselves be caught. History is full of stories of such mysterious characters, the Iron Mask, for instance, and Cagliostro. In every age there have been bands of dangerous creatures, led by such men as Cartouche and Vidocq and Rocambole. Now why should we suppose that in our time no one exists who emulates the deeds of those mighty criminals?"
The Abbé Sicot raised a gentle voice from the depths of a comfortable arm-chair wherein he was peacefully digesting his dinner.
"The police do their work better in our time than ever they did before."
"That is perfectly true," the president admitted, "but their work is also more difficult than ever it was before. Criminals who operate in the grand manner have all sorts of things at their disposal nowadays. Science has done much for modern progress, but unfortunately it can be of invaluable assistance to criminals at times; the hosts of evil have the telegraph and the motor-car at their disposal just as authority has, and some day they will make use of the aeroplane."
Young Charles Rambert had been listening to the president's dissertation with the utmost interest and now broke in, with a voice that quivered slightly.
"You were talking about Fantômas just now, sir——"
The president cast a cryptic look at the lad and did not reply directly to him.
"That is what I am coming to, for, of course, you have understood me, ladies. In these days we have been distressed by a steady access of criminality, and among the assets we shall henceforth have to count a mysterious and most dangerous creature, to whom the baffled authorities and public rumour generally have for some time now given the name of Fantômas. It is impossible to say exactly or to know precisely who Fantômas is. He often assumes the form and personality of some definite and even well-known individual; sometimes he assumes the forms of two human beings at one and the same time. Sometimes he works alone, sometimes with accomplices; sometimes he can be identified as such and such a person, but no one has ever yet arrived at knowing Fantômas himself. That he is a living person is certain and undeniable, yet he is impossible to catch or to identify. He is nowhere and everywhere at once, his shadow hovers above the strangest mysteries, and his traces are found near the most inexplicable crimes, and yet——"
"You are frightening us!" exclaimed the Baronne de Vibray with a little forced laugh that did not ring true, and the Marquise de Langrune, who for the past few minutes had been uneasy at the idea of the children listening to the conversation, cast about in her mind for an occupation more suited to their age. The interruption gave her an opportunity, and she turned to Charles Rambert and Thérese.
"You must find it very dull here with all of us grown-up people, dears, so run away now. Thérese," she added with a smile to her granddaughter who had risen obediently, "there is a splendid new puzzle in the library; you ought to try it with Charles."
The young fellow realised that he must comply with the desire of the Marquise, although the conversation interested him intensely; but he was too well bred to betray his thoughts, and the next moment he was in the adjoining room, sitting opposite the girl, and deep in the intricacies of the latest fashionable game.
The Baronne de Vibray brought the conversation back to the subject of Fantômas.
"What connection is there, President, between this uncanny creature and the disappearance of Lord Beltham, of which we were talking at dinner?"
"I should certainly have agreed with you and thought there was none," the old magistrate replied, "if Lord Beltham's disappearance had been unattended by any mysterious circumstance. But there is one point that deserves your attention: the newspaper from which I read an extract just now, La Capitale, draws attention to it and regards it as being important. It is said that when Lady Beltham began to be uneasy about her husband's absence, on the morning of the day following his disappearance, she remembered noticing just as he was going out that he was reading a particular letter, the peculiar, square shape of which surprised her. She had also noticed that the handwriting of the letter was very heavy and black. Now, she found the letter in question upon her husband's desk, but the whole of the writing had disappeared, and it was only the most minute examination that resulted in the discovery of a few almost imperceptible stains which proved that it really was the identical document that had been in her husband's hands. Lady Beltham would not have thought very much about it, if it had not occurred to the editor of La Capitale to interview detective Juve about it, the famous Inspector of the Criminal Investigation Department, you know, who has brought so many notorious criminals to justice. Now M. Juve manifested the greatest excitement over the discovery and the nature of this document; and he did not attempt to hide from his interviewer his belief that the strange nature of this unusual epistle was proof of the intervention of Fantômas. You very likely know that Juve has made it his special business to follow up Fantômas; he has sworn that he will take him, and he is after him body and soul. Let us hope he will succeed! But it is no good pretending that Juve's job is not as difficult a one as can be imagined.
"However, it is a fair inference that when Juve spoke as he did to the representative of La Capitale, he did not think he was going too far when he declared that a crime lay behind the disappearance of Lord Beltham, and that perhaps the crime must be laid at Fantômas' door; and we can only hope that at some not distant date, justice will not only throw full light upon this mysterious affair, but also rid us for ever of this terrifying criminal!"
President Bonnet had convinced his audience completely, and his closing words cast a chill upon them all.
The Marquise de Langrune deemed it time to create a diversion.
"Who are these people, Lord and Lady Beltham?" she enquired.
"Oh, my dear!" the Baronne de Vibray answered, "it is perfectly obvious that you lead the life of a hermit in this remote country home of yours, and that echoes from the world of Paris do not reach you often! Lord and Lady Beltham are among the best known and most popular people in society. He was formerly attached to the English Embassy, but left Paris to fight in the Transvaal, and his wife went with him and showed magnificent courage and compassion in charge of the ambulance and hospital work. They then went back to London, and a couple of years ago they settled once more in Paris. They lived, and still live, in the boulevard Inkermann at Neuilly-sur-Seine, in a delightful house where they entertain a great deal. I have often been one of Lady Beltham's guests; she is a most fascinating woman, distinguished, tall, fair, and endowed with the charm that is peculiar to the women of the North. I am very distressed at the trouble that is hanging over her."
"Well," said the Marquise de Langrune conclusively, "I mean to believe that the gloomy prognostications of our friend the president will not be justified by the event."
"Amen!" murmured the Abbé mechanically, roused from his gentle slumber by the closing words of the Marquise.
The clock chimed ten, and her duties as hostess did not make the Marquise forgetful of her duties as grandmother.
"Thérese," she called, "it is your bed-time. It is very late, darling."
The child obediently left her game, said good night to the Baronne de Vibray and President Bonnet, and last of all to the old priest, who gave her a paternal embrace.
"Shall I see you at the seven o'clock mass, Thérese?" he asked.
The child turned to the Marquise.
"Will you let me accompany Charles to the station to-morrow morning? I will go to the eight o'clock mass on my way back."
"Your father really is coming by the train that reaches Verrieres at 6.55?" and when he assented she hesitated a moment before replying to Thérese. "I think, dear, it would be better to let our young friend go alone to meet his father."
But Charles Rambert put in his plea.
"Oh, I am sure my father would be delighted to see Thérese with me when he gets out of the train."
"Very well, then," the kind old lady said; "arrange it as you please. But, Thérese, before you go upstairs, tell our good steward, Dollon, to give orders for the carriage to be ready by six o'clock. It is a long way to the station."
Thérese promised, and the two young people left the drawing-room.
"A pretty couple," remarked the Baronne de Vibray, adding with a characteristic touch of malice, "you mean to make a match between them some day, Marquise?"
The old lady threw up her hands protesting.
"What an idea! Why, Thérese is not fifteen yet."
"Who is this Charles Rambert?" the Abbé asked. "I just caught sight of him the day before yesterday with Dollon, and I puzzled my brains wondering who he could be."
"I am not surprised," the Marquise laughed, "not surprised that you did not succeed in finding out, for you do not know him. But you may perhaps have heard me mention a M. Etienne Rambert, an old friend of mine, with whom I had many a dance in the long ago. I had lost sight of him completely until about two years ago, when I met him at a charity function in Paris. The poor man has had a rather chequered life; twenty years ago he married a woman who was perfectly charming, but who is, I believe, very ill with a distressing malady: I am not even sure that she is not insane. Quite lately Etienne Rambert has been compelled to send her to an asylum."
"That does not tell us how his son comes to be your guest," President Bonnet urged.
"It is very simple: Etienne Rambert is an energetic man who is always moving about. Although he is quite sixty he still occupies himself with some rubber plantations he possesses in Colombia, and he often goes to America: he thinks no more of the voyage than we do of a trip to Paris. Well, just recently young Charles Rambert was leaving the pension in Hamburg where he had been living in order to perfect his German; I knew from his father's letters that Mme. Rambert was about to be put away, and that Etienne Rambert was obliged to be absent, so I offered to receive Charles here until his father should return to Paris. Charles came the day before yesterday, and that is the whole story."
"And M. Etienne Rambert joins him here to-morrow?" said the Abbé.
"That is so——"
The Marquise de Langrune would have given other information about her young friend had he not come into the room just then. He was an attractive lad with refined and distinguished features, clear, intelligent eyes, and graceful figure. The other guests were silent, and Charles Rambert approached them with the slight awkwardness of youth. He went up to President Bonnet and plucked up sudden courage.
"And what then, sir?" he asked in a low tone.
"I don't understand, my boy," said the magistrate.
"Oh!" said Charles Rambert, "have you finished talking about Fantômas? It was so amusing!"
"For my part," the president answered dryly, "I do not find these stories about criminals 'amusing.'"
But the lad did not detect the shade of reproach in the words.
"But still it is very odd, very extraordinary that such mysterious characters as Fantômas can exist nowadays. Is it really possible that a single man can commit such a number of crimes, and that any human being can escape discovery, as they say Fantômas can, and be able to foil the cleverest devices of the police? I think it is——"
The president's manner grew steadily more chilly as the boy's curiosity waxed more enthusiastic, and he interrupted curtly.
"I fail to understand your attitude, young man. You appear to be hypnotised, fascinated. You speak of Fantômas as if he weresomething interesting. It is out of place, to put it mildly," and he turned to the Abbé Sicot. "There, sir, that is the result of this modern education and the state of mind produced in the younger generation by the newspaper press and even by literature. Criminals are given haloes and proclaimed from the housetops. It is astounding!"
But Charles Rambert was not the least impressed.
"But it is life, sir; it is history, it is the real thing!" he insisted. "Why, you yourself, in just a few words, have thrown an atmosphere round this Fantômas which makes him absolutely fascinating! I would give anything to have known Vidocq and Cartouche and Rocambole, and to have seen them at close quarters. Those were men!"
President Bonnet contemplated the young man in astonishment; his eyes flashed lightning at him and he burst out:
"You are mad, boy, absolutely mad! Vidocq—Rocambole! You mix up legend and history, bracket murderers with detectives, and make no distinction between right and wrong! You would not hesitate to set the heroes of crime and the heroes of law and order on one and the same pedestal!"
"You have said the word, sir," Charles Rambert exclaimed: "they all are heroes. But, better still, Fantômas——"
The lad's outburst was so vehement and spontaneous and sincere, that it provoked unanimous indignation among his hearers. Even the indulgent Marquise de Langrune ceased to smile. Charles Rambert perceived that he had gone too far, and stopped abruptly.
"I beg your pardon, sir," he murmured. "I spoke without thinking; please forgive me."
He raised his eyes and looked at President Bonnet, blushing to the tips of his ears and looking so abashed that the magistrate, who was a kind-hearted man at bottom, tried to reassure him.
"Your imagination is much too lively, young man, much too lively. But you will grow out of that. Come, come: that's all right; lads of your age do talk without knowledge."
Charles Rambert accompanied the Marquise to the door of her own private rooms, and was about to bid her a respectful good night before going on to his bedroom, which adjoined hers, when she asked him to follow her.
"Come in and get the book I promised you, Charles. It should be on my writing-table." She glanced at that piece of furniture as she entered the room, and went on, "Or in it, perhaps; I may have locked it away."
"I don't want to give you any trouble," he protested, but the Marquise insisted.
"Put your light down on that table," she said. "Besides, I have got to open my desk, for I must look at the lottery tickets I gave to Thérese a few weeks ago." She pushed back the roll top of her Empire desk and looked up at the young fellow. "It would be a piece of good luck if my little Thérese won the first prize, eh, Charles? A million francs! That would be worth winning?"
"Rather!" said Charles Rambert with a smile.
The Marquise found the book she was searching for and gave it to the lad with one hand while with the other she smoothed out several variegated papers.
"These are my tickets," she said, and then broke off. "How stupid of me! I have not kept the number of the winning ticket that was advertised in La Capitale."
Charles Rambert immediately offered to go downstairs again to fetch the newspaper, but the Marquise would not let him.
"It is no good, my dear boy; it is not there now. You know—or rather you don't know—that the Abbé takes away all the week's newspapers every Wednesday night in order to read all the political articles." The old lady turned away from her writing-table, which she left wide open, conducted the young man to the door, and held out a friendly hand. "It is to-morrow morning already!" she said. "So now good night, dear Charles!"
In his own room, with the lights extinguished and the curtains closed, Charles Rambert lay wide awake, a prey to strange excitement. He turned and tossed in his bed nervously. In vain did he try to banish from his mind the words spoken during the evening by President Bonnet. In imagination Charles Rambert saw all manner of sinister and dramatic scenes, crimes and murders: hugely interested, intensely curious, craving for knowledge, he was ever trying to concoct plots and unravel mysteries. If for an instant he dozed off, the image of Fantômas took shape in his mind, but never twice the same: sometimes he saw a colossal figure with bestial face and muscular shoulders; sometimes a wan, thin creature, with strange and piercing eyes; sometimes a vague form, a phantom—Fantômas!
Charles Rambert slept, and woke, and dozed again. In the silence of the night he thought he heard creakings and heavy sounds. Then suddenly he felt a breath pass over his face—and again nothing! And suddenly again strange sounds were buzzing in his ears.
Bathed in cold sweat Charles Rambert started and sat upright in bed, every muscle tense, listening with all his ears. Was he dreaming, or had he really waked up? He did not know. And still, still he had a consciousness of Fantômas—of mystery—of Fantômas!
Charles Rambert heard the clock strike four.