Perhaps public curiosity was never so much stirred as by the duel announced to take place between Shears and Lupin, an invisible duel in the circumstances, an anonymous duel, one might say, in which everything would happen in the dark, in which people would be able to judge only by the final results, and yet an impressive duel, because of all the scandal that circled around the adventure and because of the stakes in dispute between the two irreconcilable enemies, now once more opposed to each other.
And it was a question not of small private interests, of insignificant burglaries, of trumpery individual passions, but of a matter of really world-wide importance, involving the politics of the three great western nations and capable of disturbing the peace of the world.
People waited anxiously; and no one knew exactly what he was waiting for. For, after all, if the detective came out victorious in the duel, if he found the letters, who would ever know? What proof would any one have of his triumph?
In the main, all hopes were centred on Lupin, on his well-known habit of calling the public to witness his acts. What was he going to do? How could he avert the frightful danger that threatened him? Was he even aware of it?
Those were the questions which men asked themselves.
Between the four walls of his cell, prisoner 14 asked himself pretty nearly the same questions; and he for his part, was not stimulated by idle curiosity, but by real uneasiness, by constant anxiety. He felt himself irrevocably alone, with impotent hands, an impotent will, an impotent brain. It availed him nothing that he was able, ingenious, fearless, heroic. The struggle was being carried on without him. His part was now finished. He had joined all the pieces and set all the springs of the great machine that was to produce, that was, in a manner of speaking, automatically to manufacture his liberty; and it was impossible for him to make a single movement to improve and supervise his handiwork.
At the date fixed, the machine would start working. Between now and then, a thousand adverse incidents might spring up, a thousand obstacles arise, without his having the means to combat those incidents or remove those obstacles.
Lupin spent the unhappiest hours of his life at that time. He doubted himself. He wondered whether his existence would be buried for good in the horror of a jail. Had he not made a mistake in his calculations? Was is not childish to believe that the event that was to set him free would happen on the appointed date?
“Madness!” he cried. “My argument is false… How can I expect such a concurrence of circumstances?There will be some little fact that will destroy all… the inevitable grain of sand…”
Steinweg’s death and the disappearance of the documents which the old man was to make over to him did not trouble him greatly. The documents he could have done without in case of need; and, with the few words which Steinweg had told him, he was able, by dint of guess-work and his native genius, to reconstruct what the Emperor’s letters contained and to draw up the plan of battle that would lead to victory. But he thought of Holmlock Shears, who was over there now, in the very centre of the battlefield, and who was seeking and who would find the letters, thus demolishing the edifice so patiently built up.