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!”
THE FIRST SUCCESS
Safe, in his own princely mansion, and surrounded by an army of retainers, the Duc de Sairmeuse triumphantly exclaimed:
“We have outwitted Lecoq.”
In this he was right.
But he thought himself forever beyond the reach of the wily, keen-witted detective; and in this he was wrong.
Lecoq was not the man to sit down with folded hands and brood over the humiliation of his defeat.
Before he went to Father Tabaret, he was beginning to recover from his stupor and despondency; and when he left that experienced detective’s presence, he had regained his courage, his command over his faculties, and sufficient energy to move the world, if necessary.
“Well, my good man,” he remarked to Father Absinthe, who was trotting along by his side, “you have heard what the great Monsieur Tabaret said, did you not? So you see I was right.”