One of the Seven Branches

There are certain stories the hero of which passes through the most extravagant adventures and on the very edge of the dénouement awakes to find that it has all been the mirage of a dream.

When Ralph found his bicycle behind the bank where he had hidden it two nights before, he suddenly had the idea that he had been tossed about in a series of dreams, pleasant, picturesque, terrifying, and, above all, wholly deceptive. He did not cherish the hypothesis for any length of time. The photograph which he had in his possession, and even more perhaps the intoxicating kiss that he had snatched from the lips of Josephine Balsamo, set everything on the firm ground of reality. That at any rate was a certainty from which there was no getting away.

At this moment for the first time⁠—he admitted it with a touch of quickly passing remorse⁠—his thoughts returned to Clarice d’Etigues and to the delightful hours of the morning before.

But at Ralph’s age these ingratitudes and these sentimental contradictions are easily dealt with. It appears that one is divided into two beings, the one of whom will continue to love in a kind of unconsciousness, with a love that is to play its part in the future, while the other abandons himself with frenzy to all the transports of the new passion. The image of Clarice rose before him, troubled and grief-stricken, as if at the back of the little chapel, lighted by flickering candles beside which he would from time to time go and pray. But the Countess of Cagliostro had at once become the unique divinity of his adoration, a despotic and a jealous divinity, who would not suffer one to rob her of the least thought, or the least secret.

Ralph d’Andresy⁠—so we will continue to call the young man who, later, under the name of Arsène Lupin became so illustrious⁠—Ralph d’Andresy had never loved. As a matter of fact he had been prevented from doing so by lack of time rather than by lack of opportunity. Burning with ambition, but not knowing in what sphere and by what means his dreams of glory, of fortune, and of power would be realized, he spent his energy in every direction in order to be ready to answer on the instant the call of destiny. His intelligence, his ingenuity, his will, his agility, the strength of his muscles, his suppleness, and his endurance, he cultivated all his gifts to the extreme limit, always astonished to discover that this limit ever receded further before the violence of his efforts.

With all this, however it was necessary to live, for he had no resources. An orphan, alone in the world, without friends or relations, without a profession, somehow or other he managed to live. How? It was a matter about which he could only give somewhat hazy explanations which he himself did not examine too closely. One lives as best one can. One deals with one’s needs and one’s appetite as circumstances permit. And there again he was astonished to perceive the richness of his aptitudes and the favorable opportunities that Fortune always seemed to bring him.

“The luck is on my side,” he told himself. “Forward then. What will be will; and I have an idea that it will be magnificent.”

It was at this point that he crossed the path of Josephine Balsamo. He perceived at once that, to win her, he would freely spend all the energy he had accumulated. His ambitions? He knew their goal for the future⁠—Josephine Balsamo. Of a sudden he learned the reason of his existence and the significance of his preparations⁠—Josephine Balsamo.

And for him Josephine Balsamo had nothing in common with the “infernal creature” whom Beaumagnan had endeavored to raise before the troubled imagination of his friends. All that vision of bloodshed, those accoutrements of crime, those trappings of the sorceress, vanished like a nightmare in face of the charming photograph in which he contemplated the limpid eyes and pure lips of the young woman.

“I shall find you!” he swore, covering it with kisses. “And you shall love me as I love you. To me you shall be the most submissive and the most adored of mistresses. If you have loved, you shall forget those you have loved; you shall pursue them with your hate. I shall read your mysterious life as one reads an open book. Your power of divination, the miracles you work, your incredible youth, everything which troubles and frightens the rest of the world, shall be so many ingenious devices at which we shall laugh together. Josephine Balsamo, you shall be mine!”

It was an oath he was resolved to keep; but he fully realized its extravagance and the audacity at the moment. In the bottom of his heart, he was still frightened of Josephine Balsamo, and he was not so far from feeling a certain irritation against her, like a child who wishes to be the equal but finds himself the obedient inferior of someone stronger than himself.

For two days he confined himself to the little bedroom which he occupied on the ground-floor of the inn, the window of which looked out on a courtyard planted with apple trees. They were days of meditation and waiting. On the afternoon of the third he took a long ride through the plain of Normandy, that is to say to the places where it was possible that he would meet Josephine Balsamo. He thought it quite unlikely that the young woman, still badly shaken by her horrible experiences, would return to her abode in Paris. Alive, it was necessary that those who had murdered her should believe her dead. Moreover not only to avenge herself on them but also to reach before them the goal that they were seeking, it was necessary that she should not leave the field of battle. And that field of battle was the region which they call the Caux country; and in it all the ends of intrigue seemed to be united. In that case why should he not suddenly see her charming figure round the corner of this or that road, or on the outskirts of this or that wood?

When he came back that evening he found on his dressing-table a bunch of spring flowers, periwinkles, narcissi, primroses, and wild strawberry blossoms. He asked the landlord how they came there. No one had been seen in his room.

“It is she!” he thought, kissing the flowers that she had just gathered.

For four consecutive days he posted himself under cover at the back of the courtyard. When he heard the sound of a footstep nearby, his heart jumped. Always he was disappointed. It caused him keen suffering. But at five o’clock on the fourth day, among the trees and bushes which covered the slope down the courtyard, he heard the rustling of a gown. Among them he saw a gown. He was on the point of darting forward, when he stopped short, overwhelmed by a sudden access of rage. He saw that it was Clarice d’Etigues.

She had in her hand a bunch of flowers exactly like the other one. She crossed the courtyard lightly to the window of his bedroom and putting her hand through it set those flowers on his dressing-table.

When she retraced her steps, he had a clear view of her face and was struck by its paleness. Her cheeks had lost their fresh coloring and her sunken eyes were witness to the bitterness of her grief and her hours of sleeplessness.

“You will make me suffer bitterly,” she had said.

She had not foreseen however, that those sufferings would begin so soon and that the very day which had seen their love at its zenith, would be a day of fare well and of inexplicable desertion.

He remembered the prediction and raging at her for the injury he was doing her, furious at his disappointment, that it had been Clarice who had brought the flowers and not she for whom he was waiting, he suffered her to go away without a word.

However it was to Clarice⁠—to Clarice who thus herself destroyed her last chance of happiness⁠—that he owed the precious information which he needed to find his way in the darkness in which he was moving. An hour later he discovered that a letter was fastened to the bouquet. He tore it open and read:

“Is it already finished, dearest? No: it cannot be. There is no real reason for my tears surely?⁠ ⁠… It is impossible that you should have already had enough, of your Clarice?

“Darling tonight they are all going away by train; and they will not come back till very late tomorrow. You will come, won’t you? You will not leave me to weep again?”

Poor, mournful lines!⁠ ⁠… Ralph was not softened by them. He considered this journey of which she told him and remembered that accusation of Beaumagnan: “Learning from me that we were soon about to examine from cellar to roof a mansion near Dieppe, she betook herself there hastily⁠—”

Was not this the goal of the expedition? And would he not find there an opportunity of joining in the struggle and drawing from it all the advantage that circumstances might offer?

That very evening at seven o’clock, dressed like a fisherman from the coast in blue flannel trousers, a thick woolen sweater, and a woolen cap pulled down over his ears, unrecognizable under the layer of ochre which reddened his face, he got into the same train as the Baron d’Etigues and Oscar de Bennetot, like them changed twice, and got out at a little village where he spent the night.

Next morning d’Ormont, Rolleville, and Rufus d’Estiers came in a carriage to fetch their two friends. Ralph followed them.

At the end of ten kilometers the carriage stopped before a long, dilapidated mansion called the Château de Gueures. When he came to the open gates, Ralph discovered that a whole host of workmen were swarming in the gardens and park, digging up the paths and the lawns, or scraping the basin of a pool which was fed by a small stream of which they had closed the sluice-gates. It was ten o’clock. On the terrace the contractors welcomed the five associates.

Ralph entered without being noticed, mingled with the workmen, and questioned them. From them he learned that the château had just been bought by the Marquis de Rolleville and that the work of restoration had begun that morning.

“Yes, Monsieur. Instructions have been given that any man who in the course of his digging finds coins, metal objects, copper, iron, and so forth, is to hand them over and he will be rewarded.”

It was quite clear that all this turning things upside down had no other object than the discovery of something. Ralph asked himself what they were trying to find.

He strolled round the park, made a tour of the mansion, hunting through the cellars with especial care, without discovering anything of a nature to solve the problem, the data of which he did not know. It is all very well to seek but it is necessary to know what you are seeking.

At half-past eleven he had arrived at no result of any kind; and the necessity of doing something was impressing itself on his mind more and more strongly. Every delay gave the others greater and greater chances; and he risked finding himself confronted by the accomplished fact.

At that moment the five friends were standing on a long terrace behind the mansion, a terrace which looked down on the park and the lake. A small balustrade ran along the edge of it, broken at regular intervals by twelve brick pillars which served as pedestals for old stone vases, nearly every one of which was broken.

A gang of workmen armed with picks set about demolishing the wall. Ralph watched them do it thoughtfully, his hands in his pockets and a cigarette between his lips, without bothering himself about the fact that his presence on that spot might appear a trifle strange.

Godfrey d’Etigues rolled a cigarette; and then having no matches, he walked up to Ralph and asked him for a light.

Ralph held out his cigarette and while the Baron was lighting his, a complete plan formed itself in his mind, a spontaneous, very simple plan, of which the least details rose before him in their logical sequence.

He pulled off his cap and displayed his carefully brushed curls which were not at all those of an ordinary fisherman. The Baron d’Etigues gazed at him earnestly, and, suddenly enlightened, fell into a fury.

“You again! And disguised! What is this new intrigue and how dare you follow me here? I’ve already told you in the clearest possible terms that a marriage between my daughter and you is impossible.”

Ralph caught his arm and said imperiously:

“We don’t want a scandal! That would do neither of us any good. Bring your friends to me.”

Godfrey tried to shake him off.

“Bring your friends!” Ralph repeated in a yet more imperious voice. “I am going to render you a service. What are you looking for? Something antique, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said the Baron impressed against his will by Ralph’s earnestness. “We’re looking for a candlestick.”

“A candlestick with seven branches, of course that’s what it is! I know its hiding-place. Later I shall be able to give you other information which will be useful to you in the work you have taken in hand. Then we’ll talk about Mademoiselle d’Etigues. Today there is no question of her. Call your friends!”

Godfrey hesitated; but Ralph’s confident promises impressed him. He called to his friend and they came at once.

“I know this young man,” he said in a grudging voice. “And according to him we shall perhaps succeed in finding⁠—”

Ralph cut him short.

“There’s no perhaps about it, Monsieur,” he said impatiently. “I belong to this part of the country. And when I was a boy, I used to play in this château with the children of an old gardener who was the caretaker of it. One day he pointed out to us a ring affixed to the wall of one of the cellars and said: ‘That’s a hiding-place that is. I’ve often been told of how they put valuables into it⁠—gold candlesticks and clocks and jewelry.’ ”

These revelations made the Baron and his friends open their eyes. De Bennetot however raised an objection.

He said: “But we’ve already searched the cellars.”

“Not thoroughly,” Ralph declared. “I’m going to show you.”

They made for the cellars by the quickest way, a staircase at the end of the left wing which descended to the basement from the outside of the building. Two large doors opened on to three or four steps, after which came a series of vaulted chambers.

“The third on the left,” said Ralph, who, in the course of the tour he had made through them, had studied the ground. “Here⁠ ⁠… this one.”

He made them all precede him, through a door so low that they had to stoop to enter it, into a dark cellar.

“You can’t see an inch before your face,” grumbled Rufus d’Estiers.

“That’s true,” said Ralph. “But here are some matches and I saw a candle-end on one of those steps into the cellars. Half a minute⁠—I’ll run for it.”

He shut the door of the cellar, turned the key quietly, took it out of the door, and called out to his prisoners:

“Mind you light all the seven branches of the candlestick. You will find it under the last slab carefully wrapped up in spiders’ webs!”

Before he got outside the building he heard the five of them hammering furiously at the door. He was sure that, worm-eaten and shaky, it would hold out but a very few minutes. But that was all the time he wanted.

He rushed up on to the terrace. A workman was demolishing the fourth of the little brick pillars. Ralph took his pick from him, saying:

“Hand it over, mate. The proprietor has just told me what to do.”

“Shall I help you?” said the workman.

“There’s no need, thanks.”

Ralph hurried to the ninth pillar, and knocked the vase off it with a stroke of his pick. Then he attacked the top of the pillar, which was covered with cracked cement, which fell to pieces under his blows. Under the cement cap the pillar was hollow, and the hollow had been filled with earth and pebbles. Ralph started to clear them out quickly with the point of his pick. And about a foot down it turned up a piece of corroded metal. A glance showed him that it was veritably a branch of one of those great candlesticks one sees on the altars of many churches.

A group of workmen had gathered round him and at seeing this piece of metal which Ralph picked up and waved in the air, they cheered. It was the first discovery that had been made since they began work.

Doubtless Ralph would have kept his head and gone quietly off, pretending that he was going to find the five friends to give them this metal stem; but at that very moment there was a loud shouting at the corner of the building, and Rolleville, followed by the rest of the five, came bucketing round it, bellowing:

“Thief! Arrest him! Thief!”

Ralph dived through the group of workmen and took to his heels. It was absurd, like the rest of his conduct for the last few minutes, for if he had wished to win the confidence of the Baron and his friends he should not have shut them up in a cellar and robbed them of the object of their search. But since he was really fighting for Josephine Balsamo, he had no other idea in his head but that of offering her sooner or later the trophy he had just acquired.

Since the main road to the gates was blocked by workmen, he ran round the lake, knocked down two men who tried to bar his way and followed, at a distance of thirty yards, by a veritable horde of pursuers howling like mad men, ran into a small kitchen garden, surrounded on every side by a wall of a most discouraging height.

“Confound it!” he muttered. “I’m well shut in! I’m going to be the stag at bay, hang it!⁠ ⁠… What a mull I’ve made of it!”

Above the left wall of the kitchen garden rose the village church and the graveyard ran right into the interior of the garden in the shape of a small enclosed space, which formerly served as a burial ground of the lords of Gueures. Tall yew trees hung over its wall. As he ran round this enclosure a small door in the wall was half opened, an arm was stretched out to bar his way, a little hand seized him by the arm; and the astonished Ralph was drawn into a dark arch way by a woman who shut the door in the face of his pursuers, and turned the key in the lock.

He divined rather than saw Josephine Balsamo.

“Come on!” she said, plunging into the middle of the yews.

Another door was opened in the opposite wall of the little close; it let them into the village churchyard.

By the apse of the church stood an old-fashioned barouche of the kind one hardly ever sees nowadays anywhere except in the country. Harnessed to it were two thin, badly groomed horses. On the box sat a gray-bearded coachman whose bent back stuck out under his blue blouse.

Ralph and the Countess jumped into the carriage. No one had seen them. She said to the coachman:

“Take the road to Luneray and Doudeville. Be quick!”

The church was at the end of the village; and by taking the road to Luneray, they avoided passing any of the cottages. A long stretch of road rose in a steepish hill to the plateau. The two lean steeds developed the speed of first-class trotters and went up the hill at an astonishing pace.

The interior of this shabby-looking barouche was spacious, comfortable, and protected from the eyes of the indiscreet by shutters of wooden trellis-work. Indeed it conveyed such an impression of intimacy that Ralph fell on his knees and gave vent freely to his amorous exaltation.

He was choking with joy. Whether the Countess was offended or not, he decided that this second meeting, taking place in such extraordinary circumstances and after the night of the rescue, established relations between them which permitted him to omit several stages and begin the conversation with a formal declaration of love.

He did so at once and in an airy fashion which would have disarmed the most prudish of women.

“You? Is it indeed you? But how dramatic! At the very moment at which the hunt was going to tear me to pieces, Josephine Balsamo springs from the shadows and rescues me in my turn. Ah, how happy I am! How I love you! I have loved you for years⁠ ⁠… for a hundred years! Yes, I’ve a hundred years of love in me.⁠ ⁠… An old love as young as you. And as beautiful as you are lovely!⁠ ⁠… And you are so lovely!⁠ ⁠… One cannot look on you without being moved to the depths of one’s being.⁠ ⁠… It’s a joy; but at the same time it fills one with despair to think that, whatever happens, one will never be able to grasp your beauty in all its fullness. Your expression, your smile, their deepest meanings will forever elude us.”

He quivered and murmured: “Oh, your eyes rest on me! You do not turn them away! You’re not angry with me then? You allow me to tell you of my love?”

“Suppose I bid you get out?” she said, opening the door.

“I should refuse.”

“And if I were to call the coachman to my aid?”

“I should kill him.”

“And if I got out myself?”

“I should continue the declaration of my love along the road.”

She burst out laughing.

“You have an answer for everything,” she said. “Stay where you are; but no more nonsense! Tell me what happened to you and why those men were pursuing you.”

He had gained his end.

“Yes, I will tell you everything since you do not repulse me.⁠ ⁠… Since you accept my love.”

“But I accept nothing,” she said, still laughing. “You pile declaration on declaration and you do not even know me.”

“I don’t know you?”

“You hardly saw me that night⁠—just by the light of a lantern.”

“And didn’t I see you during the day before that night? Didn’t I have time to admire you during that abominable ordeal at La Haie d’Etigues?”

She turned suddenly serious and gazed at him earnestly.

“Oh, you were present, were you?” she said quickly.

“I was there, all right,” he said with triumphant cheerfulness. “I was there; and I know who you are. Daughter of Cagliostro, I know you! You can drop your mask. The first Napoleon played with you.⁠ ⁠… You betrayed Napoleon III, helped Bismarck, and drove the brave General Boulanger to suicide! You bathe in the fountain of youth. You are a hundred years old⁠—and I love you.”

Her brow was furrowed with a faint frown of troubled doubt.

“Ah, you were there.⁠ ⁠… I guessed as much.⁠ ⁠… The brutes! How they did make me suffer!⁠ ⁠… And you heard their hateful accusations?” she said slowly and thoughtfully.

“I heard a lot of stupid things,” he exclaimed. “And I saw a band of fanatics who hate you as they hate everything that is beautiful. But all that was imbecile and silly. Don’t let’s think any more about it. For my part, I only wish to remember the delightful miracles which spring up before your feet like flowers. I wish to believe in your everlasting youth. I wish to believe that you would not have died if I had not rescued you. I wish to believe that my love is supernatural and that it was by enchantment that you issued just now from the trunk of a yew.”

She shook her head gently, serene again.

“No: to visit the Château de Gueure I had already passed through that ancient door, the key of which was in the lock; and knowing that they were going to make a great search this morning I was on the watch,” she said. “I saw them hunting you from the gate of that garden. You were coming to it. I slipped back and waited.”

“A miracle, I tell you!” he declared. “And here is another. For weeks and months, perhaps for longer, they have searched in that park for a candlestick with seven branches. And to find it in a few minutes in the midst of all that crowd and under the very eyes of our opponents, it was only necessary for me to wish to please you.”

She started and stared at him with amazed eyes: “What? What are you talking about?⁠ ⁠… You’ve found it?” she cried.

“The candlestick itself: no⁠—only one of its seven branches. Here it is.”

She almost snatched the bronze metal branch from him and examined it almost feverishly. It was round, fairly strong, slightly bent, and the metal of it was hidden by a thick layer of verdigris. One of its ends, a little blackened, had let into one of its faces a large violet stone, rounded en cabochon.

“Yes,” she murmured, “yes: there is no possible doubt about it. The branch has been sawed off level with the main stem. You’ve no idea how grateful I am to you!”

In a few picturesque sentences he gave her an account of his exploit. She could not get over her astonishment.

“But what gave you the idea? Why that inspiration to demolish the ninth pillar rather than another? Was it mere chance?” she asked.

“Not at all,” he declared. “It was a certainty. Eleven out of the twelve pillars had been built before the end of the seventeenth century⁠—the ninth, later.”

“How did you know?” she asked quickly.

“Because the bricks of the eleven others are of a size that has not been in use for the last two hundred years, while the bricks of number nine are those which are in use today. Therefore number nine was demolished and then rebuilt. Why, if not to hide this branch of the candlestick?”

She was silent for a good minute. Then she said slowly:

“It’s extraordinary.⁠ ⁠… I should never have believed it possible to succeed.⁠ ⁠… And so quickly! There, where we had all failed.⁠ ⁠… Yes: it really was a miracle.”

“Love’s miracle,” said Ralph.

The carriage sped along with astonishing rapidity, keeping to cross-country lanes, it avoided the passage through villages. Up hill and down dale the ardor of those two little thin horses never flagged. On either side the country passed like images in a dream.

“Was Beaumagnan there?” asked the Countess.

“Luckily for him he was not,” said Ralph with a darkling air.

“Why luckily?”

“If he had been, I should have strangled him,” said Ralph between his teeth. “I hate the gloomy dog.”

“Not so much as I do,” she said bitterly.

“But you haven’t always hated him,” said he unable to hide his jealousy.

“Lies and calumnies,” said Josephine Balsamo coldly, without raising her voice. “Beaumagnan is an impostor, an unbalanced creature, full of morbid pride; and it is because I rejected his love that he desired my death. That I said the other day; and he did not contradict me.⁠ ⁠… He could not contradict me.”

“But what joyful words!” exclaimed Ralph. “Then you never loved him? What a weight off my spirits! But, after all, the thing was impossible! Josephine Balsamo to fall in love with a Beaumagnan!”

He laughed aloud in his joy.

“But listen, I do not wish to call you that any longer,” he went on. “Josephine is not a pretty name. Let me call you Josine. May I? That’s it, I will call you Josine, as Napoleon and your mother Josephine Beauharnais called you Josine. That’s settled, isn’t it? You are Josine⁠ ⁠… my Josine.”

“Respect first, please,” she said smiling at his childishness. “I am not your Josine.”

“Respect! But I’m overflowing with respect. What! We were shut up together.⁠ ⁠… You were entirely defenseless.⁠ ⁠… And I remained on my knees before you as before an idol. And I’m full of fear! I’m trembling! If you were to give me your hand to kiss I should not dare to do it!”