The mocking laughter of Leroux came back to me in faint and far-away reply.
I saw the explanation of the man’s presence now. He must have met Duchaine that morning as the old man was flying or wandering aimlessly along the tunnel. They had reached le Vieil Ange together, and Leroux had probably had little difficulty in inducing the witless old man to take him back into the secret hiding-place.
It was lucky that we had not been there when Leroux discovered it. We must have crossed the ledge only a moment or two before them.
I hastened back to Jacqueline, and encountered her in the passage just where the light and darkness blended, standing with arms stretched out against the wall to steady herself; and in her eyes was that look which tells a man more surely than anything, I think, can, that a woman loves him.
“Oh, I thought you were dead!” she sobbed and fell into my arms.
I held her tightly to support her, and I led her back to the gold cave. In a few words I explained what had occurred.
“Now, Jacqueline, you must let me guide you,” I said. “Don’t you see that there is no chance for us unless we leave your father for the present where he is and make our own escape? We can reach Pere Antoine’s cabin soon after midday, and we can tell him your father is a prisoner here. He would not come with us, Jacqueline, even if he were here.
“And if he did, he might escape us on the way and wander back into the tunnels again. Leroux has no cause to harm him. Surely you see that, dear? He needs him—he needs his signature to the deed which is to give him your father’s share of the seigniory. Just as he wants you, Jacqueline. And he shall never have you, dear. So I shall not let you go back, or he would get you in the end. Unless——”
I stopped. But she knew what I had thought.
“Unless I kill myself,” she answered wildly. “That is the best way out, Paul! I am fated to bring nothing but evil upon every one with whom I come in contact. Ah, leave me, Paul, and let me meet my fate, and save yourself!”
Again I pleaded, and she did not respond. It was the safety of us two, and her father’s life assured, against a miserable fate for her, and I knew not what for me, though I thought Leroux would give me little shrift once I was in his power again.
She was so silent that I thought I had convinced her. I urged her to her feet. But suddenly I heard a stealthy footfall close at hand, between the cave and the cataract.
I thought it was Charles Duchaine. I hoped it was Leroux. I placed my finger on Jacqueline’s lips and crept stealthily to the passage, revolver in hand.
Then, in the gloom, I saw the villainous face of Jean Petitjean looking into mine, twelve paces away, and in his hand was a revolver, too.
We fired together. But the surprize spoiled his aim, for his bullet whistled past me. I think my shot struck him somewhere, for he uttered a yell and began running back along the tunnel as hard as he could.