“Let us follow their example,” said Hanaud, after he had ordered dinner. “Some vermouth, I think. Yes, I promise you we shall eat well here.”
He tore open a new bright blue packet of Maryland cigarettes and smoked one of the black tubes of tobacco contentedly. Hanaud was not perhaps as marvellous as he invariably, his assistant Moreau generally, and Mr. Ricardo sometimes thought him to be. But he had one quality without which greatness is seldom found. He could disburden himself of all his anxieties the moment there came an interval in his labours. As the clock struck he closed his book and was in the playing-fields. He leaned back in his chair, smoothing out his mind and laving it in the peace of that vast quincunx of trees and of the river running red towards the sunset. Mr. Ricardo, however, had not the professional mind. He must always be busy, and the river with its load of great ships only recalled to him the pastoral reaches beyond the city and set before his eyes a big wicker basket gently rocking nearer and nearer to a bank of grass.
“You must tell me where we go to-night after we have dined,” he cried. “Not to know is more than I can bear.”
Hanaud came out of an abstraction very slowly. “Where do we go?” he repeated, with an air of profound astonishment. He looked anxiously at Ricardo, reached out a hand and felt his pulse. “You ask me that now that all this cloud of mystery is clearing away? There can be but the one place.”
“You can keep it to yourself if you want to, just as I like to keep my pulse to myself,” Mr. Ricardo rejoined sulkily, as he wrenched his hand away.
“Hanaud was wrong,” the detective exclaimed with his detestable habit of speaking of himself in the third person. “Hanaud should have recollected that he was in the proud position of being Mr. Ricardo’s host. Instead he must be the cat with the mouse—not nice—no!” He saw indignation gathering on Mr. Ricardo’s brow at the use of so objectionable a simile, and hastened on: “I tell you where we go. We go to the Château Mirandol and we interrupt the Vicomte in the act of writing a most interesting paper on the esoteric rites of the Rosicrucians, to be read to the young ladies of Bordeaux. And then we ask him very politely to show us that upper room where, two nights ago, the lights blazed to so late an hour.”
The tone of Hanaud’s voice more even than his words opened a tiny window in his companion’s mind. He saw again the long row of lights blazing across the sleeping country. What was going on in that big room? What strange ceremony was being conducted? For him too little pieces of the puzzle began to fall into their places—the theft and the return of the priest’s vestments, the priest’s obstinate strange silence, Hanaud’s visit this morning to the Archiepiscopal Palace.
“Then you think—?” he exclaimed, and sat staring at his friend, on the brink, as he felt, of some dreadful revelation.
Hanaud nodded his head. “What took place two nights ago took place in that long upper room.”
“The murder of Evelyn Devenish?”
“And of—no, I won’t believe that!”
Hanaud’s face grew dark and savage. He raised his hand and let it fall again. “About that I can tell you no more than you can tell yourself. For I don’t know! I don’t understand!” he cried in a sudden exasperation; and he sat with gloomy eyes fixed upon the table-cloth and his big face working. After a moment or two he leaned forward and whispered: “We two shall make a little prayer each in his own heart, that the brave Joyce Whipple shall tell us all we want to know with her own lips before the morning comes.”
He drew quickly back as the proprietor approached the table with his little dishes of radishes and black olives. “Come! Let us eat! We shall be fit for nothing unless we do.”
Hanaud had prophesied truly. One ate well at the little restaurant of the “Golden Pheasant,” though the only waiter was the proprietor in a tweed suit, and each step that he took sounded upon bare boards. Mr. Ricardo realized that he had eaten nothing that day except a very small luncheon at the “Chapon Fin”; whilst Hanaud had all the appearance of having eaten nothing for a year.
“This lobster Cardinal is delicious,” Mr. Ricardo observed, and very regrettably with his mouth full. He was already taking a rosier anticipation of the night’s adventure.
“It is not so bad,” Hanaud agreed. “There is a caneton d la-presse to follow with a salad.”
“Admirable,” said Ricardo.
The proprietor brought tenderly to the table a black bottle in a wicker cradle, and laid it down as though it were a baby and he its loving nurse. “I thought that it would be appropriate on this night of all nights,” said Hanaud, “if we drank a bottle of old Mirandol. It is a second growth, to be sure, but according to many judges should be classed with the first. You shall tell me!”
Yes, it was Mr. Ricardo’s turn to tell. He was on his own ground. The red wines of the Medoc! Not for nothing had he travelled once a year from Bordeaux to Arcachon! Hanaud tipped a tablespoonful first into his own glass and then filled Mr. Ricardo’s. Mr. Ricardo beamed. Good manners and good wine—could there be a more desirable conjunction? He held the glass up to the light. The wine was ruby-red, ruby-clear. He lowered it to his nostrils and savoured its aroma. “Exquisite,” he said. Then religiously he drank of it. “Adorable!” he cried; and drank again. He swam upwards into rosy clouds. That little affair at Suvlac would be settled in no time. “A wine for two friends to drink in a rapturous silence by the side of an historic square in la belle France.”
It was a pity that he must end his flight of poesy with so dreadful a banality as “la belle France.” But that was his way, and Hanaud took the compliment to himself as though he was la belle France all in one. And that was Hanaud’s way too. “The cellar here is not so bad,” he remarked. Ricardo drank again, and after much rolling of the wine upon his tongue, put down the glass with a vigour which threatened to break the stem.
“It is ’93,” he declared; and Hanaud bowed in admiration of the subtle palate of his friend. Oh, certainly, Ricardo reflected, stretching out his legs beneath, the table, with the great detective of France to begin with, and a friend who could announce right off the year of a ’93 claret to help him, the mystery of Suvlac was as good as solved, the criminals practically in the dock.
“To the widow Chicholle,” he said, leaning forward cunningly and holding up his replenished glass.
“But certainly,” Hanaud returned. “To the widow Chicholle!”
The word, however, brought to him no gaiety. It brought him a black mood. He declined into a vein of self-disparagement very unusual with him. “I think myself a very fine fellow, of course,” he said, “and so do you.”
“I don’t quite agree that I think myself a very fine fellow,” Mr. Ricardo objected.
“I expressed myself ill,” said Hanaud. “I meant that you think me a very fine fellow.”
“I am not always quite sure about that,” Mr. Ricardo answered upon reflection.
“No? There are times when we all fall below our true selves. But you recover, my friend, very, very quickly. For a minute there may be a doubt and then I do a little thing and at once you say—oh, with such a relief!—‘That Hanaud! What a prodigy!’ But, even so”—and he shrugged his shoulders—“how often when I am in a tangle a little accident sets me on the road. The little accidents—yes—they happen. To know them when you see them, to catch them, to use them—that is half my business. But, of course, you must be always alert for them.”
It was Hanaud’s old doctrine many a time pronounced. Chance was the most willing of goddesses, but the most jealous. She demanded a swift mind and a deadly hand. She showed her face for the fraction of a second, just the time to breathe her message, and the clouds closed again. It was your fault if your ears were not quick to catch the words.
“Here’s Jeanne Corisot, for instance. You know something about these women, of course, a man of the world like you. A few of them marry, a good many of them put their money away in a safe place, but the rest when their youth is over”—and he made a gesture as though he were dropping a stone into a pool. “They have no friends to inquire for them. Some other woman looking round a cabaret at two o’clock in the morning may say carelessly: ‘The little Fifi! I have not seen her for a month. It is curious.’ But that will be all. The little Fifi has gone into outer darkness. She is nobody’s business. She will die in the gutter, possibly is dead already. Granted?”
“Yes,” the man of the world agreed.
“Very well,” Hanaud continued. “Jeanne Corisot was saved from a similar oblivion by just one circumstance. Her parents, a couple of old peasants owning a little farm near Fontainebleau, had been living for years upon Jeanne’s presents. Each season, you see, there arrived a little more money to buy a little more land and to stock it afterwards, and every year there was a ceremonial visit of Jeanne and her lover. They came down in their car, took their luncheon in the parlour with the antimacassars, and after the luncheon sat outside in the porch while one by one the family passed them in a procession, each one, you understand, receiving a few kind words and more than a few kind bank-notes. Ah, you must not look shocked, my friend! The family Corisot is not the only one. Take it from me!”
Then a year passed without presents. There was no day of ceremonial visit. Consternation reigned in the family Corisot. Was Jeanne turning her back upon her poor relations? No, Jeanne was a good girl. A letter with much heavy breathing and much labour of gnarled fingers was written to her. It returned in due course through the Dead Letter office. Her princeling had sailed back to the East. Jeanne Corisot had disappeared—and with her her money and her jewels.
“Now I come to the one circumstance,” Hanaud continued. “Jeanne Corisot had made a will sharing out her possessions amongst her family, and that will was safe in the walnut bureau in the room of the antimacassars. All that treasure mustn’t be lost, you see. No! Steps must be taken. So a deputation from the family Corisot, consisting of the old man and one son, knocked at the door of the Surete Generale. The case came to me, and I thought it would be easy. Jeanne, you see, was a careful wench, and to prevent mistakes and trouble, what particular pieces of her jewellery were to go to each member of the family was set out in that will very clearly. Domenique Pouchette gave you an idea of the sort of steps we take, but we never heard a word. If any rogue had got hold of those jewels, he was lying very quietly on the top of them. But after a time we got a line upon Jeanne herself. She had come to Bordeaux in the winter. So far we traced her, and then she disappeared again. I told you yesterday that I was at Bordeaux on quite other business than the Château Suvlac affair. Jeanne Corisot was my business, and the first news I have had of her was given to me tonight by Domenique Pouchette. But I have learnt other things. For instance, three women of the town, as the phrase has it, besides Jeanne Corisot, have disappeared in Bordeaux during the last year.”
He lowered his voice as he spoke and leaned forward out of the window to make sure that no one could overhear him.
“Three?” Mr. Ricardo exclaimed.
“Yes,” Hanaud answered with a nod. “Three of the kind I have described. Women no one would give a thought to, if they did disappear. And I am wondering whether the widow Chicholle has come at night to the apartment of Monsieur Pouchette to sell him cheap any of their little trinkets.”
Mr. Ricardo leaned back in his chair, all the exhilaration of his dinner quite sobered out of him. The disappearance of the three women—the furtive visits paid after dark to a dealer in precious stones by a woman with an evil name—the certainty that one, at all events, of Jeanne Corisot’s jewels was offered by her for sale—these facts gave a very sinister significance to her possession of Evelyn Devenish’s necklace.
“That necklace was not stolen,” said Mr. Ricardo. “For it was bought by Pouchette nine days before Evelyn Devenish’s death. She must have missed it, had it been stolen. She parted with it of her own accord, that afternoon when we met in the Cave of the Mummies. For a price, then—yes, for a price”; and again he saw the drawing-room of Suvlac and the flare of hatred in Evelyn Devenish’s eyes as Robin Webster leaned over Joyce Whipple’s chair. But then—and he was swept back into the old circle. It was Evelyn Devenish who had paid the price!
Mr. Ricardo looked across the table towards Hanaud, who was smoking a cigar as black as one of his cigarettes.
“You think Joyce Whipple is in the Château Mirandol.”
Hanaud would not answer.
“You suspected it yesterday when you were so careful to tell everyone that the neighbourhood was surrounded by police.”
Hanaud would not admit as much. “I was taking my precautions. I had no right then to do more. You will remember that I uttered another warning.”
“Against a second murder—yes. But desperate people don’t heed warnings.”
Hanaud replied with a deliberation which suggested that he was seeking rather to convince himself than his companion. “Mirandol knows that I suspect his house. I visited him to show him that I did. I spoke of the wheel marks in the road to show him that I did. I dropped the mask in the road to show him that I did. And his trembling hands acknowledged that he knew it. They dare not commit another crime in that house now. If that young lady is there, they will try to get her away. They will try tonight.”
“They will take her to the river,” cried Ricardo, and Hanaud shot the queerest glance at him, and shivered.
The movement of fear, so intense, so utterly strange in just that one man, threw Ricardo into a panic. “We ought to go at once,” he exclaimed, starting up. “We waste invaluable minutes over the delicacies of the table,” and in disgust he pushed away his empty glass of fine champagne.
“You are wrong, my friend,” said Hanaud gravely. He seemed to cast about for excuses. “It is barely eight o’clock. If we start in your car now, we shall reach the Château Mirandol before half-past nine. Too early! The neighbourhood will be awake. We should simply give them warning that we are at their heels.”
They spoke of “they” and “them,” Ricardo not daring to assign names, Hanaud, with all the spirit of his profession in his blood, maligning no one of whose guilt he was not sure. Ricardo recognized that the true reason for their delay had not been given to him, and lit another cigarette. But the dusk was changing swiftly into darkness. Beneath the great lime trees across the road the chauffeur switched on the lights of the car; and marvelling at his companion’s patience, Mr. Ricardo twitched in every limb.
Then an obstacle occurred to him which would surely spoil all their plans. Yesterday Hanaud had made clear to the Vicomte de Mirandol that he suspected that long white house of his. But he had no right to do more. He had confessed it.
“You had no authority to enter the house yesterday?” he asked.
“None,” replied Hanaud.
“Do you think that de Mirandol, who did not invite you into it yesterday, will be more likely to do so tonight?”
“Less likely,” Hanaud returned.
“Then you have authority now?”
“Yes. Even if I had not, I should assume that I had.”
“Isn’t that a risk for you?”
“But it is one that I have made up my mind to take.”
“Since I have learnt why the Vicomte Cassandre de Mirandol was painting his gate with his own hands.”
Mr. Ricardo had to be content with an explanation which to him at all events was no explanation at all. Hanaud shut tight like an oyster. Not an answer to any conjecture, not a comment upon any theory. He just sat and smoked and smoked, lighting a fresh cigar from the stump of the old one, placid, unperturbed, a man enjoying the quiet digestion of an excellent dinner. To all appearances? No, to almost all. Mr. Ricardo would have been so tortured by exasperation that he must have flung reproaches, prayers, objurgations and threats in one incoherent spate across the table but for a lesson which he had learned on the day before. For though Hanaud smoked and smoked, and the disc of red waxed and waned at the end of his cigar with the regularity of a machine, his hands trembled from time to time even as de Mirandol’s had trembled when he was stooping at his gate.
Suddenly he sprang to his feet, and all his agitation was revealed in that spasmodic movement.
“Here is, I think, someone for me.”
A sergent-de-ville was walking at a stiff pace from the direction of the Cours 30th of July. Hanaud leaned out of the window and the sergeant came straight to him.
“Yes. Give it to me.”
The sergeant handed in the note through the window. Hanaud tore open the envelope and read, whilst Mr. Ricardo studied the changing expressions of his face. The note was fairly long though hurriedly written, and the expressions, beginning with disappointment, melted into boredom, graduated into perplexity and ended in laughter. Mr. Ricardo was never more startled. Hanaud was laughing aloud—he who ten minutes ago had shuddered. He was laughing pleasantly and happily. He was amused and he was glad. The full-throated roll of the laughter struck upon Mr. Ricardo’s ears as something quite unfamiliar and odd. And he realized with a shock that for two whole days he had heard no one laugh until this moment.
“You have good news at last,” he cried.
Hanaud shrugged his shoulders. “It is not the sort of news you would write to the house.”
“What house?” asked Ricardo in perplexity.
“But your house, of course, my friend,” Hanaud returned.
Julius Ricardo reflected and saw light. “I’ve got it,” he announced resignedly. “It’s not news to write home about, you mean.”
“Mean?” Hanaud inquired indignantly. “It was what I said.”
“Oh, very well! You said it! Now may I hear it?”
“Certainly! There has arrived yet another visitor from London. He, too, read the evening paper. He crossed by the night boat and caught the Sud Express from Paris. The Sud Express is late. Very well, he will write to The Times about it. He drives from the station to the Prefecture. Where is the Prefect? The newspaper says that Hanaud is on the case. Very well, then! Where is Hanaud? Goddam, where is everybody? Oh, I tell you again, he will make money in the City—that young man.”
“Bryce Carter,” Julius Ricardo exclaimed. “He is here?”
“Yes; the Knight of the Burning Letters. Oho! I have still to blow on my fingers when I think of them—so! He takes charge of the Prefecture of Bordeaux. They dare not tell him that Hanaud is eating his dinner. No, for he break up everything if they do. No! But, Goddam, Moreau is a clever fellow. He tells him Hanaud is disguised. Hush! That helps a bit. Hanaud is wearing a beard! What a blessing! Hanaud is once more the Cheka King! So Moreau sends him to your fine hotel on the Cours de L!’Intendance and promises him a note from me if only he will not break up the town. Aha, we must write him a little note. Georges,” he called to the proprietor, “some ink! What shall I write, my friend? A little dose of morphia, eh?” and with that his hilarity ceased and he sat gloomily nodding at his companion.
“Not so easy to concoct—that little dose of morphia. . . . ”
He wrote and tore up the sheet on which he had written. “That promises too much.” He wrote a second time and tore that sheet up too. “That does not even hint a promise of anything at all, and he has come so far.” He smiled ruefully and scratched his head, and set to work again. “So! And I underline those words. So! See—I write this:
|Some time before morning I come to you. Meanwhile it is wise to put on the clean collar and shave.—HANAUD.|
And I underline the clean collar and the shave. What do you think?” and he leaned back asking for admiration with every crease of his waistcoat.
“It is not so bad,” Ricardo approved indulgently.
“It is very good,” said Hanaud with simplicity. He put the letter in the envelope, and fastening it down, addressed it and handed it to the sergent-de-ville. “It is a pleasant touch. That young man rushing across England and France to bully the Prefecture of Bordeaux. Where is that lazy-bones Hanaud? Why isn’t he waiting for me on the steps? Goddam! Yes, it is a pleasant touch, and I tell you”—he lit again the cigar which whilst concocting his little dose of morphia he had allowed to go out—“I tell you, we shall need all the pleasant little touches we can find when this dark and ugly story comes to be told from its beginning to its end.”
He relapsed once more into silence. The river was running grey now. The dusk deepened into night. The red and green lights on the great pillars of the Place des Quinconces by the quay glowed into significance. Under the limes the lamps of Ricardo’s motor-car shone bright. Once or twice Hanaud looked towards them. Almost he had made up his mind to wait no longer. But each time he caught himself back. “I must be right,” he said in a low voice; and now not only his hands, but his voice shook to keep them company. Ricardo had never seen him torn by so much doubt or plunged in a distress so deep. A dreadful responsibility weighed upon him and set him now to shuffling his feet upon the floor, now to beating upon the table with his fist. “I said at the beginning that I shrank from this affair,” he muttered, and then with an exclamation of relief he pushed back his chair and ran out on to the pavement. A man was running towards him, a short, stocky, broad man, Moreau.
“At last!” said Mr. Ricardo. He waved his hand to his chauffeur, who climbed down from his seat and opened the door of the limousine. He took down his hat. “Now we shall go,” he said, and he hurried to the car. But he looked back, and to his amazement the two men, the chief and his assistant, with their heads close together, were slowly pacing the dark avenue. The door of the car was open, the engine running, night had come, the Château Mirandol was fifty kilometres away—and there they were palavering. Ricardo could have screamed with indignation.
“Wonderful!” he cried, bitterly appealing to the world with outspread arms. “Miraculous! Do they think that I have no nerves—?”
His invocation was cut short. Hanaud turned and ran towards him, with Moreau at his heels.
“Quick!” he said in a whisper, and there was a thrill of excitement in his voice.
He bundled Ricardo unceremoniously into the car, and jumped in after him. Moreau took the seat beside the chauffeur and the car glided out from beneath the trees. At the top of the square it turned to the left. At once Mr. Ricardo was in a state of extreme agitation.
“He is wrong. He should turn to the right for the Rue de Medoc,” and he leaned across Hanaud to seize the speaking-tube. But Hanaud already held it.
“He is right. He should turn to the left for the Rue Gregoire,” said Hanaud.
The car glided without noise or effort down the long, straight street, left the great clustered lights behind it, and came into a cool gloom of narrower ways and shuttered houses. It turned to the right and again to the left. A wide space opened out. On one side of it the mass of a great church loomed immense and black. In the middle a great tower shot upwards like a giant’s spear, and the top of it was lost in darkness. By the side of that tower the car stopped.
“The tower of St. Michel,” Mr. Ricardo whispered.
“Quick!” said Hanaud. “We have not a moment to lose.”
At the very spot where Ricardo had stood when he had hesitated at the entrance to the Cave of the Mummies, ages and ages ago, it seemed, this party of pursuit descended.
“Keep close to me,” Hanaud breathed, “and not a word.”
He crossed the square to the mouth of a little street. A gendarme stood near a lamp, the light shining upon his accoutrements. He did not shift from his position. Hanaud and his company were engulfed in the street. It was short and straight. At the far end the lights of the quay were visible. But here the houses, squalid and forbidding and black, rose to so high a level that they seemed to be walking in a cavern. Suddenly two men seemed to spring from the stones of a wall and closed in behind them.
“Not a sound,” whispered Hanaud.
Half-way down the street two other men emerged from the archway of a great porte cochere. “It is here,” said one of them.
“The door,” whispered Hanaud. For the great double doors were closed.
“We opened it when we saw the lights of your car,” said the man, and at his touch the door swung open. One by one they slipped in, and behind them the door was gently closed again and gently locked. They stood in a vault of darkness. Once in the days of the greatness of Bordeaux, when a king held his Court there and Monsieur de Tourny was summoning the great artists of Europe to rebuild it in beauty, this house in the Rue Gregoire sheltered some wealthy merchant. Now fallen upon an evil day, the far end of its archway built up with bricks, in a street grown infamous, it stood noisome and decrepit, its grimy walls running with moisture.
Mr. Ricardo stood in the blackness of the pit, his heart hammering within his breast. He had clamoured for thrills and excitements; he was shaking with them like a leaf. He heard the tiniest clink as though one key touched another, and a whispered “Hush!” from Hanaud. For the fraction of a second, the pencil-light of an electric torch showed him the keyhole of a house door and one of the men bending down in front of it, and then the door opening.
“There is one step,” said Hanaud, but in a breath so low that Ricardo’s neighbour could not have heard it. Ricardo felt his arm grasped firmly and lifted when he reached the step. The air, hot and close and stifling, warned him he was within the vestibule. Once more Hanaud’s voice breathed in his ear; “The house of the widow Chicholle!”