An Unsolved Mystery
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together and tutoying one another at a great rate, when the dignified footman summoned Alphonse. He laughed gaily. “Tarry a moment, cher Auguste,” said he, “and thou shalt know all the particulars of this wonderful fortune!” “Eh bien!” responded Auguste, “may the oracle’s mood be propitious!” A minute had scarcely elapsed when Alphonse returned to the salon. His face was white and bore an appearance of concentrated rage that was frightful to witness. He came straight to Auguste, his eyes flashing, and bending his face toward his friend, who changed colour and recoiled, he hissed out, “Monsieur Lefébure, vous êtes un lâche!” “Very well, Monsieur Meunier,” responded Auguste, in the same low tone, “to-morrow morning at six o’clock!” “It is settled, false friend, execrable traitor! À la mort!” rejoined Alphonse, walking off. “Cela va sans dire!” muttered Auguste, going towards the hat-room.
A diplomatist of distinction, representative at Paris of a neighboring state, an elderly gentleman of superb aplomb and most commanding appearance, was summoned to the oracle by the bowing footman. After being absent about five minutes he returned, and immediately made his way through the press to M. de Lassa, who was standing not far from the fireplace, with his hands in his pockets, and a look of utmost indifference upon his face. Delessert standing near, watched the interview with eager interest. “I am exceedingly sorry,” said General Von—,“to have to absent myself so soon from your interesting salon, M. de Lassa, but the result of my séance convinces me that my dispatches have been tampered with.” “I am sorry,” responded M. de Lassa, with an air of languid but courteous interest, “I hope you may be able to discover which of your servants has been unfaithful.” “I am going to do that now,” said the General, adding, in significant tones, “I shall see that both he and his accomplices do not escape severe punishment.” “That is the only course to pursue, Monsieur le Comte.” The ambassador stared, bowed, and took his leave with a bewilderment on his face that was beyond the power of his tact to control.
In the course of the evening M. de Lassa went carelessly to the piano, and, after some indifferent vague preluding, played a remarkably effective piece of music, in which the turbulent life and buoyancy of bacchanalian strains melted gently, almost imperceptibly away, into a sobbing wail of regret and languor, and weariness and despair. It was beautifully rendered, and made a great impression upon the guests, one of whom, a lady, cried, “How lovely, how sad! Did you compose that yourself, M. de Lassa?” He looked towards her absently for an instant, then replied: “I? Oh, no! That is merely a reminiscence, madame.” “Do you know who did compose it, M. de Lassa?” enquired a virtuoso present. “I believe it was originally written by Ptolemy Auletes, the father of Cleopatra,” said M. de Lassa, in his indifferent, musing way, “but not in its present form. It has been twice re-written to my knowledge; still, the air is substantially the same.” “From whom did you get it, M. de Lassa, if I may ask?” persisted the gentleman. “Certainly! certainly! The last time I heard it played was by Sebastian Bach; but that was Palestrina’s—the present—version. I think I prefer that of Guido of Arezzo—it is ruder, but has more force. I got the air from Guido himself.” “You—from—Guido!” cried the astonished gentleman, “Yes, monsieur,” answered de Lassa, rising from the piano with his usual indifferent air. “Mon Dieu!” cried the virtuoso, putting his hand to his head after the manner of Mr. Twemlow, “Mon Dieu! that was in Anno Domini 1022!” “A little later than that—July 1031, if I remember rightly,” courteously corrected M. de Lassa.
At this moment the tall footman bowed before M. Delessert, and presented the salver containing the card. Delessert took it and read: “On vous accorde trente-cinq secondes, M. Flabry, tout au plus!” Delessert followed the footman from the salon across the corridor. The footman opened the door of another room and bowed again, signifying that Delessert was to enter. “Ask no questions,” he said briefly; “Sidi is mute.” Delessert entered the room and the door closed behind him. It was a small room, with a strong smell of frankincense pervading it. The walls were covered completely with red hangings that concealed the windows, and the floor was felted with a thick carpet. Opposite the door, at the upper end of the room near the ceiling, was the face of a large clock; under it, each lighted by tall wax candles, were two small tables containing, the one an apparatus very like the common registering telegraph instrument, the other a crystal globe about twenty inches in diameter, set upon an exquisitely wrought tripod of gold and bronze intermingled. By the door stood Sidi, a man jet black in colour, wearing a white turban and burnous, and having a sort of wand of silver in one hand. With the other, he took Delessert by the right arm above the elbow, and led him quickly up the room. He pointed to the clock, and it struck an alarm; he pointed to the crystal. Delessert bent over, looked into it and saw—a facsimile of his own sleeping-room, everything photographed exactly. Sidi did not give him time to exclaim, but still holding him by the arm, took him to the other table. The telegraph-like instrument began to click-click. Sidi opened the drawer, drew out a slip of paper, crammed it into Delessert’s hand, and pointed to the clock, which struck again. The thirty-five seconds were expired. Sidi, still retaining hold of Delessert’s arm, pointed to the door and led him towards it. The door opened, Sidi pushed him out, the door closed, the tall footman stood there bowing, the interview with the oracle was over. Delessert glanced at the piece of paper in his hand. It was a printed scrap, capital letters, and read simply: “To M. Paul Delessert: The policeman is always welcome; the spy is always in danger!
Delessert was dumbfounded a moment to find his disguise detected; but the words of the tall footman, “This way, if you please, M. Flabry,” brought him to his senses. Setting his lips, he returned to the salon, and without delay sought M. de Lassa. “Do you know the contents of this?” asked he, showing the message. “I know everything, M. Delessert,” answered de Lassa, in his careless way. “Then perhaps you are aware that I mean to expose a charlatan, and unmask a hypocrite, or perish in the attempt?” said Delessert. “Cela m’est égal, monsieur,” replied de Lassa. “You accept my challenge, then?” “Oh! it is a defiance, then?” replied de Lassa, letting his eye rest a moment upon Delessert, “mais oui, je l’accepte!” And thereupon Delessert departed.
Delessert now set to work, aided by all the forces the Prefect of Police could bring to bear, to detect and expose this consummate sorcerer, whom the ruder processes of our ancestors would easily have disposed of—by combustion. Persistent enquiry satisfied Delessert that the man was neither a Hungarian nor named de Lassa; that no matter how far back his power of “reminiscence” might extend, in his present and immediate form he had been born in this unregenerate world in the toy-making city of Nuremberg; that he was noted in boyhood for his great turn for ingenious manufactures, but was very wild, and a mauvais sujet. In his sixteenth year he had escaped to Geneva and apprenticed himself to a maker of watches and instruments. Here he had been seen by the celebrated Robert Houdin, the prestidigitateur. Houdin, recognizing the lad’s talents, and being himself a maker of ingenious automata, had taken him off to Paris and employed him in his own workshops, as well as an assistant in the public performances of his amusing and curious diablerie. After staying with Houdin some years, Pflock Haslich (which was de Lassa’s right name) had gone East in the suite of a Turkish Pasha, and after many years’ roving, in lands where he could not be traced under a cloud of pseudonyms, had finally turned up in Venice, and come thence to Paris.
Delessert next turned his attention to Mme. de Lassa. It was more difficult to get a clue by means of which to know her past life; but it was necessary in order to understand enough about Haslich. At last, through an accident, it became probable that Mme. Aimée was identical with a certain Mme. Schlaff, who had been rather conspicuous among the demi-monde of Buda. Delessert posted off to that ancient city, and thence went into the wilds of Transylvania to Medgyes. On his return, as soon as he reached the telegraph and civilization, he telegraphed the Prefect from Karcag: “Don’t lose sight of my man, nor let him leave Paris. I will run him in for you two days after I get back.”
It happened that on the day of Delessert’s return to Paris the Prefect was absent, being with the Emperor at Cherbourg. He came back on the fourth day, just twenty-four hours after the announcement of Delessert’s death. That happened, as near as could be gathered, in this wise: the night after Delessert’s return he was present at de Lassa’s salon with a ticket of admittance to a séance. He was very completely disguised as a decrepit old man, and fancied that it was impossible for any one to detect him. Nevertheless, when he was taken into the room, and looked into the crystal, he was actually horror-stricken to see there a picture of himself, lying face down and senseless upon the side-walk of a street; and the message he received read thus: “What you have seen will be Delessert, in three days. Prepare!” The detective, unspeakably shocked, retired from the house at once, and sought his own lodgings.
In the morning he came to the office in a state of extreme dejection. He was completely unnerved. In relating to a brother inspector what had occurred, he said: “That man can do what he promises, I am doomed!”
He said that he thought he could make a complete case out against Haslich alias de Lassa, but could not do so w without seeing the Prefect, and getting instructions. He would tell nothing in regard to his discoveries in Buda and in Transylvania—said that he was not at liberty to do so—and repeatedly exclaimed: “Oh! if M. le Préfet were only here!”