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Title: The Death of the President
Author: Fred M White
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Language: English
Date first posted: January 2012
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THE MASTER CRIMINAL

VII. - THE DEATH OF THE PRESIDENT

by

Fred M White

ILLUSTRATED BY PAUL HARDY

First published in The Ludgate, London, Dec 1897


Felix Gryde - Master Criminal


CHAPTER I

"MONSIEUR, the proofs, the proofs are before you to witness if I lie. Ah, would that I could make use of them myself!"

"Which means that you dare not do so?" Felix Gryde asked.

The volatile little Frenchman opposite grinned uneasily. Jules Falbe was by no means a bad-looking man; he had a good address, a cultivated accent, and there, to a trained eye like Gryde's, the suggestion of forçat* was unmistakable.

[ *forçat - French, convict. ]

For the present Gryde occupied a handsome set of chambers in one of the most fashionable quarters of Lutetia, which, as everybody knows, is the capital of the Gallic Federated States Republic. Business of a delicate nature had brought him there; something new and audacious was to be carried out, and Gryde was now engaged in placing the keystone on the tip of the edifice. A chance word, an obscure newspaper paragraph, had given him the germ of an idea for a magnificent fraud.

With his own marvellous intellect, his superhuman skill and patience, he had unravelled the threads. Months of time and thousands in money had been expended. Every card was in Gryde's hands at length.

In the Bois beneath the stream of gaiety and fashion flowed on. Not for a quarter of a century had Lutetia presented so brilliant a spectacle. For it was the year of the colossal Exhibition, the finest the world had ever seen, which was to be opened in a week or two by the President of the Republic. At a moderate estimate, over a million wealthy strangers were in Lutetia.

Gryde crossed from the window with a smile. From head to foot he was attired in faultless black; a riband of some order was in his button-hole. His sallow face and thick, dark moustache were in keeping with the rest. He might have been a soldier of fortune or of finance, a military attaché—anything of that kind. A good many people wondered who the Chevalier Lorraine was, and what he was doing here in Lutetia.

"Why don't you try President Granville yourself?" he asked.

"Because I dare not," Falbe snarled; "I have a past, Chevalier, which is not—"

"Not altogether unconnected with Toulon.* Go on."

[* i.e. Bagne de Toulon - A notorious prison in Toulon, France. ]

"And who has told the Chevalier that?"

"Never mind, you are a returned convict. It is many years ago, and since then you have never been in trouble. Who is any the wiser?"

Falbe dashed his fist passionately on the table.

"The police are," he hissed. "You forget the dossier. Ah! that accursed system; with its photographs and its measurements,and its infernal biography, there is no escape. And Granville is no better than myself."

"Most of us are guilty of indiscretions at some time or another," Gryde said soothingly. "The President, it seems from your proofs, is a kind of Gallic Prince Hal up-to-date. You say he ought to have suffered with you!"

"Ma foi, yes. That is five-and-twenty years ago. I was the catspaw and he escaped. Then he got himself conveniently drowned under his proper name, and reappeared three years later under a new description. When I came to Lutetia a year ago and saw him, I was astounded. I recognised him at once. Then I contrived to let him know that I was aware, and he was not fearful. He could crush me. Guess why?"

"Because you did not serve out your sentence at Toulon, but escaped."

"You have guessed it. You are a marvellous man. I am liable, therefore, to serve the rest of my sentence if I am discovered. And I had not then the proofs which I have placed in your hands. And why you come to me and proclaim the fact that you have probed my history, I know not."

Gryde's face expressed the most engaging frankness.

"I will tell you," he said. "Accident gave me the clue. The rest is merely a game of financial chess. You have the board and the position, but you do not possess the requisite strength to play a cunning game—I do. You are a poor man in needy circumstances, you have an idea which might be put to practical results in America if you only had the money. Therefore I am going to give you fifty thousand francs for your papers, and you leave for America without delay."

Falbe shrugged his shoulders.

"I am entirely in your hands," he said.

"Of course you are," Gryde replied coolly. "I have taken uncommonly good care of that. And I offer you your own price. Here is your passage money, and you are to depart at once. You will cross over to England and proceed to Liverpool, taking passage from there by the Lucania to New York next Thursday. Before sailing you will send me a telegram. Once arrived in New York, you can go to the National Bank and present this letter of credit, and procure cash in exchange."

Jules Falbe departed, well satisfied with his transaction. For the next day or two Gryde had nothing to do but to sit down and await developments. Faithfully as promised, Falbe sent the telegram. With a sigh of satisfaction, Gryde put on his hat and went out.

Gay and bustling with excitement as Lutetia was, evidently there was something more than usual in the air. During the last day or two the city had stirred to a new sensation. Something fresh and startling was coming; they knew not what.

A few hours before, and there had been no sign of this mysterious advent. Now every blank wall and hoarding teemed with the first breath of the mystery. Thousands of huge posters stared Lutetia in the face; posters so huge and so daringly original that they were the passing sensation of the hour. These mammoth bills were circular in shape, a dead black on a white border. In the centre of the murky desert was a white, shapely hand pointing to the single word Eros. There was absolutely nothing more.

Try as they could, curious Lutetians could learn nothing further. Was it a new pill, a patent soap, something fresh in the way of a sauce? Not a soul had seen the bills posted, none knew from whence they had come.


POSTER AFTER POSTER, EACH SURROUNDED BY A CROWD

Gryde smiled to himself as he passed poster after poster, each surrounded by a gaping crowd. He was on his way to the Place de l'Europe, which, as most people are aware, is close to the Bourse, and a quarter where the brokers and underwriters most do congregate. Here Gryde presently entered an office, and was shown in to the head of the firm.

"I am Chevalier Lorraine," Gryde said, simply.

Monsieur Morence greeted his visitor cordially.

"O yes," he said, "I got your letter. As an underwriter, I am prepared to take up anything. You wish to insure something, I understand."

"I do," Gryde responded. "I am desirous of insuring the life of President Granville."

"Surely a most singular request."

"Not at all, M'sieur Morence. The head of the State has been frequently insured in England. Take the Diamond Jubilee, for instance. I have a great scheme on at present, what, if anything happened to the President, could ruin me. If you do not care to undertake the business, I can get it done in England."

"O, I will undertake it, of course. After all, it is legitimate trade. The premium in such cases is six per cent. In what amount would you—"

"Three million francs."

"The Chevalier must assuredly be joking!"

"The Chevalier is doing nothing of the kind," Gryde responded drily. "I understand in big risks like this you gentlemen insure one another."

"You are going to run an exhibition of your own," Morence suggested, smilingly.

"You have guessed it exactly," said Gryde. "Like most people, you have seen and shared in the excitement created by those Eros posters. Let me tell you that I am responsible for them, and that Eros will be the most extraordinary and unique entertainment ever seen. I should not wonder if it dwarfed the Exhibition entirely. Millions of people will witness that amazing spectacle. To prepare it has cost me a fortune. To-day I have taken the Imperial Theatre for three months. A fortune is in my grasp, but if anything happens to the President I am a ruined man. Lutetia would be a city of mourning for months, you understand."

Morence nodded thoughtfully. Gryde's position was perfectly logical.

"I will undertake the business," he said, "and if you will call later in the day the contract will be ready. It is, of course, a cash transaction."

"Naturally," Gryde said curtly, "and if misfortune comes my money must be paid on the nail. By the time I have given you a cheque for the premium I shall have barely enough to last till Eros bursts upon a startled world."

The man of money hastened to reassure Gryde on this point. Later in the day the big cheque was paid over and the policy taken up.


* * * * *

It was nearly midnight; the President had had a long trying day but he had not yet retired, he being the only person up in the house. A cigarette half-smoked had burnt out between his fingers; he pulled the long grey moustache as he restlessly paced the room. The usually placid features were given over to anxiety and care.

"Why doesn't the fellow come?" he muttered.

A few minutes later and an electric bell thrilled softly. Granville crossed the wide marble hall and flung open the door. The light streamed upon the scathe features and black muzzle of Chevalier Lorraine.

"I am late, your Excellency," said the latter.

"Devilish late," muttered the President. "Come in! come in!"

Gryde followed his distinguished host into the magnificent dining-room, taking care to close the door behind him. Without waiting for an invitation he flung himself down in a chair and faced the anxious statesman.

"You know why I am here?" he asked.

"It would be absurd to deny it," Granville said, huskily. "Reading between the lines of your letter it is easy to see that you are possessed of the one shameful secret of my life. With such proofs as you possess, a single card, and my social and political career is ended. There is one other man, but—pshaw!— he dare not speak. Your proofs, sir."

Gryde laid a packet of papers on the table.

"These are copies," he said. "For obvious reasons I have left the originals in a place of safety. Will you see that they are all as represented?"

For half an hour the President read on in silence. His lips quivered, a greyness like the hue of death lay upon his features.

"I yield," he said; "you have me in the hollow of your hand. Your price?"

"You quite mistake me," Gryde said, gravely. "I don't want any money at all. Does your Excellency mind my speaking plainly?"

"Not at all. You may be as explicit as you please."

"Thank you. In the first place I know a great deal more about you than you imagine. Beyond the secret of those papers I have proved others. Beyond your official salary your means are limited; and yet, never since the Empire, has the presidential state been kept up with such regal magnificence. Trembling from day to day upon the verge of ruin, you have had resource to speculation. In your position, with the exclusive information at your command, you could hardly lose. You are on a great venture now, which, when it is ripe a few weeks hence, will mean millions of money to you. Do not protest, because my proofs are absolute and conclusive."

"You are the devil," the President the groaned.

"A poor devil," Gryde said, with sardonic pleasantry. "But let me hasten to assure you that I shall do you no harm whatever. My silence will have to be purchased, but not with money. I have great issues at stake,and it is for you to say whether or not they shall be carried out successfully. You can help me."

"At the loss of all I hold dear, I suppose?"

"At the loss of nothing whatever. There is absolutely no risk of any description. Into the bargain you will get eight days' holiday. That you are a man of wonderful courage and resolution the past has proved. Are you agreed?"

"Yes, yes. Only tell me all and end this awful suspense."

Gryde crossed over, and for ten minutes whispered rapidly in the President's ear. Amazement and incredulity struggled for mastery on the latter's face, and yet at the same time he seemed to be more than half convinced.

"Did anyone ever hear of anything so mad-brained outside the realm of farce," he cried, "and yet it seems to me that safety lies that way."

"The thing is absolutely safe," said Gryde. "You will guess that I shall profit by the comedy; indeed, I have worked it all out to a nicety. Afterwards I pledge my word to trouble you no more. As to the drug, I had the same direct from one of those wonderful old Indian fakirs. I did not take his word for it, but tried it on myself with perfect results."

"And for eight days—"

"The stuff did all that was claimed for it. Within four-and-twenty hours you will have ample time to carry out the line of action I have foreshadowed, you can leave behind you all the directions you desire, and when the psychological moment arrives, somebody will be there to give the alarm and call for assistance."

"Somebody you can rely upon, I sincerely trust?"

"Assuredly," Gryde responded drily, "seeing that I can trust myself."

The President rose to his feet. The old light of the battle sparkled in his eyes. He reached out for Gryde's hand and grasped it warmly.

"It shall be done," he said, "and the sooner the better. I will see that those papers are drawn up to-morrow, and at the same hour you shall come here with the—"

Gryde nodded. He perfectly understood. Then he rose to go. As he passed along the now deserted moonlit streets in the direction of his chambers he passed several of the now famous Eros posters. There was a peculiar smile on his face.

"Artistic," he muttered, "and represent a hundred thousand per cent each. No picture-dealer ever made such a profit before."

Late the next night, when the door had once more closed upon Felix Gryde, the President of the Gallic Federated States retired slowly to his room. Once undressed, he took from a pocket a tiny phial, the cork of which he drew. Then he proceeded to make a hollow in the huge fire glowing in the grate. His knees knocked together, but his face was stern and resolute. Throwing back his head he poured the contents of the phial into his mouth, dropped the bottle into the heart of the ruddy core and beat the coals down. With a spring he leapt into bed, at the same time swallowing down the tasteless fluid. Immediately a cold shiver ran through every limb.

"Great God!" Granville cried, "I'm—I'm dying. That rascal has—"

His teeth snapped together like a pistol shot. A flash of lightning seemed to strike him between the eyes, and the rest was silence.

CHAPTER II

LUTETIA woke the next morning to the glad consciousness of a perfect day. A great review was to be held in one of the parks; the President would be present, and Lutetia had made up her mind to make the day one of pleasure. By eleven o'clock the cafés and restaurants along the principal boulevards were crowded. Care and trouble had been beaten off for the present; gaiety sparkled from thousands of bright eyes. Then, apparently as if by magic, everything changed.

An uneasy rumour ran through the crowd. Something fateful had happened. In some vague way the name of the President had found vent from trembling lips. An army of newsboys came charging along, rending the air with raucous cries.

"Death of the President! Sudden death of the President! Full details."


'SUDDEN DEATH OF THE PRESIDENT!'

A charge was made for the papers. In the struggle in front of the Café Globe Gryde got one. With less curiosity than the rest he perused it.


SUDDEN DEMISE OF PRESIDENT GRANVILLE
THE PRESIDENT IS FOUND DEAD IN HIS BED THIS MORNING
HEART DISEASE THE CAUSE

It is with feelings of the deepest regret and the most profound sorrow that we have to announce the appallingly sudden death of his Excellency the President. All we can glean up to the present is that when Maurice, his Excellency's valet, went to call his illustrious master this morning at seven, he was overwhelmed to find that the head of the Republic had passed away peacefully in his sleep.

Later details to hand point to the fact that signs of the end were not wanting. We hear that his Excellency has had one or two alarming fainting fits lately, followed by a coma very like death itself. Further particulars will be given in the next edition.

In the twinkling of an eye Lutetia had been plunged into mourning. By nightfall the better informed papers had obtained all information. They even made known extracts from the late ruler's will which had been found, signed only the previous day, in his bed-chamber.

The President, it appeared, had a morbid horror of being buried alive. His instructions gave orders for a pierced coffin closed but not screwed down, and also that he should be buried in the vault purchased by him some time before. It was a little singular, said the papers, that death should so speedily have followed upon the penning of the gruesome orders.

Gryde followed every line of these details carefully. On every side signs of grief and woe were to be seen. As a spectacle the funeral of President Granville was likely to become a record amongst pageants of the kind.

As might naturally have been expected, the tragic event practically ended, for the time being at least, the Exhibition festivities. From a commercial point of view it meant ruin to many of the leading shopkeepers. Many establishments closed altogether, the theatres were deserted, and the Exhibition grounds presented the most dreary spectacle. As for the Eros excitement, it seemed to have passed from the public mind like a dream.

And yet Gryde did not appear to be in the least cast down. It suited him exactly that the thing should be forgotten. As a spectator he attended the funeral of the late President—perhaps the only one in the vast crowd who viewed the pomp and ceremony with feelings of equanimity.

On the morrow shops were opened again, and business of a kind resumed. But there were plenty of signs to denote the fact that the great Exhibition year was doomed to be a ghastly failure. Gryde lost no time in waiting upon Morence. He found the latter gloomily drawing skeletons on his blotting-pad. Nothing was doing; the exchanges were deserted. The disaster amounted to a financial Sedan.

"I have been expecting you," Morence said, with a sigh.

"Naturally," Gryde responded drily. "I presume that on Saturday morning my little matter will be settled."

"O, yes; the terms of the policy will be faithfully carried out. I shall have to see one or two of my partners. As you are aware, nobody would take such a risk alone. You have hit a dozen or so of us heavily."

"The fortune of war,"Gryde responded.

"O, I am not complaining. I suppose Lutetia is not likely to see anything of your wonderful show when you have this money."

Gryde puffed at his cigarette thoughtfully.

"Well, I am not so sure of that," he responded. "You people are exceedingly volatile, and you may shake this off in a few days. Anyway, I can afford to wait here a few weeks and see now. My entertainment is not going to be produced anywhere in anything but a gala season."

"I suppose you won't mind giving self and partners an order?"

Gryde duly responded to the sardonic humour, and departed. Punctual to the moment, he turned up on the Saturday and took his heavy cheque with the air of a man who habitually handles millions.

No sooner was the same received than it was paid into an account opened elsewhere in the name of Chevalier Lorraine, and thence depleted by cheques payable in various capitals of Europe. By the time the cheques were all manipulated, it would have been impossible to trace a tithe of the money. This being so, it might be assumed that Gryde had finished, and that this apparent stroke of luck would have sufficed for the present adventure.

But there were several things to be accomplished yet. Sunday dawned bright and fine, with some little sign of life in Lutetia and a semblance of subdued gaiety on the boulevards. Gryde saw nothing of this, for during the whole of the afternoon and far into the evening he was busy writing.

By this time night had fallen. The house was strangely quiet, as indeed it might have been, since Gryde had got rid of all the servants under one pretext or another. He threw his pen away with a feeling of satisfaction.

"And now," he said gaily, "now to put money into the purse of the world of journalism. Upon my word, the gentlemen of the press ought to be profoundly grateful to me. But out of all the sensations I have given them, I doubt if any one of them can come near to the drama about to be performed to-night."

Gryde proceeded to lock the door. Then he took from a safe the materials for a picturesque, if somewhat forbidding disguise. A little later there slipped out into the street a typical Lutetian ragpicker.


A TYPICAL LUTETIAN RAG-PICKER

Thus attired, Gryde took his way rapidly in the direction of the Maratan cemetery. Once there, he proceeded to make his stand by the vault covering the remains of President Granville. The grass was trampled down around, a pile of fading flowers graced the granite. The iron grating had not yet been bricked up.

Nobody was in sight. Gryde bent down and listened intently. Then the rigid anxiety of his lips changed. A moment later and there rang out across the marbled silence a scream of horror and agony.

Footsteps came towards Gryde; out of the gloom loomed a keeper or two, and the stiff rigidity of a couple of gens d'arme. They gripped the mendicant rudely.

"Are you mad, fellow?" one of them demanded.

"No, no!" said Gryde, hoarsely, "there is someone in the vault. I came here to drop a flower, and I heard knocking. Listen!"

One braver than the rest was first to recover himself. Crowbars and picks were procured, and the vault forced open. After a little natural hesitation the lid of the coffin also was forced from its fastenings. As it fell away there was a whirl of something white and diaphanous, a sinewy, nervous hand tore bandages away like paper, and then, with a yell of horror, a ghostly figure darted up the steps.


A SINEWY HAND TORE BANDAGES AWAY LIKE PAPER

"Frightened to death," Gryde muttered, "fearful lest I should forget him. And a few hours of that would try even me. But he'll be all right presently."

Alone Gryde left the corner of the dead. To discard his disguise that fitted him like a skin over the rest of his garments was easy. From a distant street came a roar and a yell that baffled description. In the midst of a dense throng, a figure in uniform, a General of Division and member of the Cabinet, had grappled with a lunatic who seemed to have escaped from the tomb. The meeting was purely a chance one. Then, as they panted for breath, their eyes met.

General Perry gave a scream: agony, fear, rung in the notes.

"Great heavens!" he cried, "am I mad, or dreaming? It is the President."

The words were taken up on every side. Granville fell into the arms of his colleague.

"Get me away from here and into the light," he said; "let me have light for the love of God, and save my reason. I have been buried alive. I would not go through the last few hours for Paradise itself."


* * * * *

Whatever was the meaning of the mystery, President Granville told nobody. Of that strange sleeping potion producing the coma of death he said nothing. For a whole week the drama rang from one side of the sphere to the other. And yet, strange to say, the deus ex machina, the ragpicker, was not to be found. Neither was Chevalier Lorraine, and to this day Lutetia knows not Eros.

Morence alone was puzzled. That astute financier had never been so bewildered in his life. It was Lorraine's bounden duty to refund that money, and no legal steps were spared to bring him to justice. But the police have not found him yet, nor are they likely to do so. That he had been made the victim of some marvellous swindle Morence felt certain. And yet to explain it...

"Three million francs," he moaned when the truth dawned upon him. "That rascal must have known something. And yet, to carry it out so successfully the President would have had to have been party to the conspiracy — which, when one comes to think of it, is ridiculous."

And, meanwhile, Felix Gryde was still in Lutetia, and on two occasions heard the puzzled financier relate his grievous transaction across the walnuts and the wine.


Felix Gryde - Master Criminal


THE END

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