Arsene Lupin vs Herlock Sholmes
CHAPTER I : NUMBER 514, SERIES 23 --- 1/10
On the 8th of December last, M. Gerbois, professor of mathematics at Versailles College, rummaging among the stores at a second-hand dealer's, discovered a small mahogany writing-desk, which took his fancy because of its many drawers.
"That's just what I want for Suzanne's birthday," he thought.
M. Gerbois' means were limited and, anxious as he was to please his daughter, he felt it his duty to beat the dealer down. He ended by paying sixty-five francs. As he was writing down his address, a well-groomed and well-dressed young man, who had been hunting through the shop in every direction, caught sight of the writing-desk and asked:
"How much for this?"
"It's sold," replied the dealer.
"Oh ... to this gentleman?"
M. Gerbois bowed and, feeling all the happier that one of his fellow-men envied him his purchase, left the shop. But he had not taken ten steps in the street before the young man caught him up and, raising his hat, said, very politely:
"I beg a thousand pardons, sir ... I am going to ask you an indiscreet question.... Were you looking for this desk rather than anything else?"
"No. I went to the shop to see if I could find a cheap set of scales for my experiments."
"Therefore, you do not want it very particularly?"
"I want it, that's all."
"Because it's old I suppose?"
"Because it's useful."
"In that case, would you mind exchanging it for another desk, quite as useful, but in better condition?"
"This one is in good condition and I see no point in exchanging it."
"Still ..."
M. Gerbois was a man easily irritated and quick to take offense. He replied curtly:
"I must ask you to drop the subject, sir."
The young man placed himself in front of him.
"I don't know how much you paid, sir ... but I offer you double the price."
"No, thank you."
"Three times the price."
"Oh, that will do," exclaimed the professor, impatiently. "The desk belongs to me and is not for sale."
The young man stared at him with a look that remained imprinted on M. Gerbois' memory, then turned on his heel, without a word, and walked away.
An hour later, the desk was brought to the little house on the Viroflay Road where the professor lived. He called his daughter:
"This is for you, Suzanne; that is, if you like it."
Suzanne was a pretty creature, of a demonstrative temperament and easily pleased. She threw her arms round her father's neck and kissed him as rapturously as though he had made her a present fit for a queen.
That evening, assisted by Hortense the maid, she carried up the desk to her room, cleaned out the drawers and neatly put away her papers, her stationery, her correspondence, her picture postcards and a few secret souvenirs of her cousin Philippe.
M. Gerbois went to the college at half-past seven the next morning. At ten o'clock Suzanne, according to her daily custom, went to meet him at the exit; and it was a great pleasure to him to see her graceful, smiling figure waiting on the pavement opposite the gate.
They walked home together.
"And how do you like the desk?"
"Oh, it's lovely! Hortense and I have polished up the brass handles till they shine like gold."
"So you're pleased with it?"
"I should think so! I don't know how I did without it all this time."
They walked up the front garden. The professor said:
"Let's go and look at it before lunch."
"Yes, that's a good idea."
She went up the stairs first, but, on reaching the door of her room, she gave a cry of dismay.
"What's the matter?" exclaimed M. Gerbois.
He followed her into the room. The writing-desk was gone.
What astonished the police was the wonderful simplicity of the means employed. While Suzanne was out and the maid making her purchases for the day, a ticket-porter, wearing his badge, had stopped his cart before the garden, in sight of the neighbours, and rung the bell twice. The neighbours, not knowing that the servant had left the house, suspected nothing, so that the man was able to effect his object absolutely undisturbed.
This fact must be noted: not a cupboard had been broken open, not so much as a clock displaced. Even Suzanne's purse, which she had left on the marble slab of the desk, was found on the adjacent table, with the gold which it contained. The object of the theft was clearly determined, therefore, and this made it the more difficult to understand; for, after all, why should a man run so great a risk to secure so trivial a spoil?
The only clue which the professor could supply was the incident of the day before:
"From the first, that young man displayed a keen annoyance at my refusal; and I have a positive impression that he left me under a threat."
It was all very vague. The dealer was questioned. He knew neither of the two gentlemen. As for the desk, he had bought it for forty francs at Chevreuse, at the sale of a person deceased, and he considered that he had re-sold it at a fair price. A persistent inquiry revealed nothing further.
But M. Gerbois remained convinced that he had suffered an enormous loss. A fortune must have been concealed in some secret drawer and that was why the young man, knowing of the hiding-place, had acted with such decision.
"Poor father! What should we have done with the fortune?" Suzanne kept saying.
"What! Why, with that for your dowry, you could have made the finest match going!"
Suzanne aimed at no one higher than her cousin Philippe, who had not a penny to bless himself with, and she gave a bitter sigh. And life in the little house at Versailles went on gaily, less carelessly than before, shadowed over as it now was with regret and disappointment.