The Prisoner in the Opal


The Man with the Beard

A.E.W. Mason

A MONTH later chance, or destiny, if so large a word can be used in connection with Mr. Ricardo, conspired with Joyce Whipple. Mr. Ricardo was drinking his morning coffee at the reasonable hour of ten in his fine sitting-room on the first floor of the Hotel Majestic, with his unopened letters in a neat pile at his elbow, when the writing upon the envelope of the top one caught and held his eye. It was known to him, but he did not recognize it. He was in a vacuous mood. The sun was pouring in through the open windows. It was more pleasant to sit and idly speculate who was his correspondent than to tear open the envelope and find out. But years ago he had received a lesson in this very room at Aix-les-Bains on the subject of unopened letters, and, remembering it, he opened the letter and turned at once to the signature. He was a little more than interested to read the name of Diana Tasborough. He read the whole letter eagerly now. The Vicomte Cassandre de Mirandol did not, after all, propose to bring his servants out of Bordeaux and open up his château for the vintage. He would be amongst his vineyards himself for ten days or so, with no more attendance than his valet and the housekeeper at the château. Under these circumstances it would be more comfortable for Mr. Ricardo if he put up at the Château Suvlac.

There will only be a small party, and you will complete it, Diana wrote very politely. You will meet Monsieur de Mirandol at dinner here, and I shall look forward to your arrival on the list of September.

Mr. Ricardo had perused every word of this letter before he realized that it had provoked in him no uncanny sensations whatever; and when he did realize that disconcerting fact, he was not a little mortified. But there it was. Not one dead drowned incomplete malignant face heaved on a tide between the ink and the paper. No, not one! It is true that the ink was purple instead of black; and for a moment or two Mr. Ricardo sought an unworthy consolation in that difference. But his natural honesty made him reject it. The colour of the ink could be only the most superficial circumstance.

“Not one dead drowned face, not a suggestion of evil, not a pang of alarm,” Mr. Ricardo announced to himself as he nicked the letter away with considerable indignation. “And yet I am no less sensitive than other people.”

It might be, of course, that if he suspended his mind more thoroughly he in his turn might receive the thrill of a message from the world beyond. It was certainly worth an experiment.

“My best plan,” he argued, “will be to shut my eyes tight and think of nothing whatever for five minutes. Then I will read the letter again.”

He shut his eyes accordingly with the greatest determination. He was modest. He did not ask for very much. If he saw something pink and round like a jelly-fish when he opened his eyes, he would be content and his pride quite restored. But he must give himself time. He allowed what he took to be a space of five minutes. Then he opened his eyes, pounced upon the letter—and received one of the most terrible shocks of his life. On the table, by the letter, rested a hand, and beyond the hand an arm. Mr. Ricardo with startled eyes followed the line of the arm upwards, and then uttering a sharp cry like the bark of a dog he slid his chair backwards. He blinked, as well he might do. For sitting over against him, on the other side of the table, sprung silently; heaven knew whence, sat a brigand—no less—a burly brigand of the most repulsive and menacing appearance. A black cloak was wrapped about his shoulders in the Spanish style, a big, unkempt, bristling beard grew like a thicket upon his face, and crushed upon his brows he wore a high-crowned, broad-brimmed soft felt hat. He sat amazingly still and gazed at Mr. Ricardo with lowering eyes as though he were watching some obnoxious black beetle.

Mr. Ricardo was frightened out of his wits. He sprang up with his heart racing in his breast. He found somewhere a shrill piercing voice with which to speak.

“How dare you? What are you doing in my room, sir? Go out before I have you flung into prison! Who are you?”

Upon that the brigand, with a movement swift as the shutter of a camera, lifted up his beard, which hung by two bent wires upon his ears, until it projected from his forehead, leaving the lower part of his face exposed.

“I am Hanaudski. The King of the Tchekas,” said the alarming person, and with another swift movement he nicked the beard back into its proper position.

Mr. Ricardo sank down into his chair, exhausted by this second shock which trod so quickly upon the heels of the first.

“Really!” was all that he had the breath or the wit to say. “Really!”

Thus did Monsieur Hanaud, the big inspector of the Surete Generale, with the blue chin of a comedian, renew after a year’s interval his incongruous friendship with Mr. Ricardo. It had begun a lustrum ago in Aix-les-Bains, and since Hanaud took his holidays at a modest hotel of this pleasant spa, each August reaffirmed it. Mr. Ricardo was always aware that he must pay for this friendship.—For now he was irritated to the limits of endurance by Hanaud’s reticence when anything serious was on foot; and now he was urged in all solemnity to expound his views, which were then rent to pieces, and ridiculed and jumped upon; and again he found himself as now the victim of a sort of schoolboy impishness which Hanaud seemed to mistake for humour, and was in any event totally out of place in a serious person. In return, Mr. Ricardo was allowed to know the inner terrible truth of a good many strange cases which remained uncomfortable mysteries to the general public. But there were limits to the price he was prepared to pay, and this morning Monsieur Hanaud had stepped beyond them.

“This is too much,” said Mr. Ricardo, as soon as he had recovered his speech. “You come into my room upon tiptoe and unannounced at a time when I am giving myself up to thought—concentration. You catch me—I admit it—in a ridiculous position, which is not half so ridiculous as your own. You are, after all, Monsieur Hanaud, a man of middle age—” And he broke off helplessly.

There was no use in making reproaches. Hanaud was not listening. He was utterly pleased with himself. He was absorbed in that pleasure. He kept lifting up his beard with that incredibly swift movement of his hand, saying to himself with startling violence, “Hanaudski, the Tcheka King,” and then nicking down the great valance of matted hair into its original position.

“Hanaudski, the King of the Tchekas! Hanaudski from Moscow! Hanaudski, the Terror of the Steppes!”

“And how long do you propose to go on with this grotesque behaviour?” Mr. Ricardo asked. “I should really be ashamed, even if I were able to excuse myself on the ground of Gallic levity.”

That phrase restored to Mr. Ricardo a good deal of his self-esteem. Even Hanaud recognized the shrewdness of the blow.

“Aha! You catch me one, my friend. A stinger. My Gallic levity. Yes, it is a phrase which punishes. But see my defence! How often have you said to me, and, oh, how much more often have you said to yourself: ‘That poor man Hanaud! He will never be a good detective, because he doesn’t wear false beards. He doesn’t know the rules and he won’t learn them.’ So all through the winter I grow sad. Then with the summer I shake myself together. I say: ‘I must have my dear friend proud of me. I will do something. I will show him the detective of his dreams.’”

“And instead, you showed me a cut-throat,” Mr. Ricardo replied coldly.

Hanaud disconsolately removed his trappings and folded them neatly in a pile. Then he cocked his head at his companion. “You are angry with me?”

Mr. Ricardo did not demean himself to reply to so needless a question. He returned to his letter; and for a little while the temperature of the room even on that morning of sunlight was low. Hanaud, however, was unabashed. He smoked black cigarette after black cigarette, taking them from a bright blue paper packet, with now and then a whimsical smile at his ruffled friend. And in the end Mr. Ricardo’s curiosity got the better of his indignation.

“Here is a letter,” he said, and he took it across the room to Hanaud. “You shall tell me if you find anything odd about it.”

Hanaud read the address of an hotel in Biarritz, the signature and the letter itself. He turned it over and looked up at Mr. Ricardo.

“You draw my leg, eh?” he said; and proud, as he always was, of his mastery of English idioms, he repeated the phrase. “Yes, you draw my leg.”

“I don’t draw your leg,” Mr. Ricardo answered with a touch of his recent testiness. “A most unusual expression.”

Hanaud took the sheet of paper to the window and held it up to the light. He felt it between his fingers, and he saw his companion’s eyes brighten eagerly. There could be no doubt that Mr. Ricardo was very much in earnest about this simple invitation.

“No,” he said at length. “I read nothing but that you are bidden to the Château Suvlac for the vintage by a lady. I congratulate you, for the Bordeaux of the Château Suvlac is amongst the most delicate of the second growths.”

“That, of course, I knew,” said Mr. Ricardo.

“To be sure,” Hanaud agreed hastily and with all possible deference. “But I find nothing odd in this letter.”

“You were feeling it delicately with the tips of your fingers, as though some curious sensation passed from it into you.”

Hanaud shook his head.

“A mere question in my mind whether there was anything strange in the texture of the paper. But no! It is what a thousand hotels supply to their clients. What troubles you, my friend?”

With even more hesitation than Joyce Whipple had used, Mr. Ricardo repeated the account which she had given to him of her disquieting reactions to letters written in that hand. Joyce had confessed that even to herself, when she came to translate them into spoken words, they shredded away into nothing at all. How much more elusive they must sound related now at second hand to this hard-hearted trader in realities? But Hanaud did not scoff. Indeed, a look of actual discomfort deepened the lines upon his face as the story proceeded, and when Mr. Ricardo had finished he sat for a little while silent and strangely disturbed. Finally he rose and placed himself in a chair at the table opposite to his friend.

“I tell you,” he said, his elbows on the cloth and his hands clasped together in front of him. “I hate such tales as these. I deal with very great matters, the liberties and lives of people who have just that one life in that one body. Therefore I must be very careful, lest wrong be done. If through fault of mine you do worse than lose five years out of your few, if you keep them, but keep them in hardship and penance, nothing can make my fault up to you. I must be always sure—yes, I must always know before I move. I must be able to say to myself, ‘This man or that woman has deliberately done this or that thing which the law forbids,’ before I lay the hand upon the shoulder. But a story like yours—and I ask myself, ‘What do I know? Can I ever be sure?’”

“Then you don’t laugh?” cried Mr. Ricardo, at once relieved and Impressed.

Hanaud threw wide his hands. “I laugh—yes—with my friends, at my friends, as I hope they laugh with me and at me. I am human—yes. But stories like this one of yours make me humble too. I don’t laugh at them. I know men and women who have but to look into a crystal and they see strange people moving in strange rooms, and all more vivid than scenes upon a stage. But I? I see nothing—never! Never! It is I who am blind? Or that other who is crazy? I don’t know. But sometimes I am troubled by these questions. They are not good for me. No! They make me uneasy about myself—yes, I doubt Hanaud! Conceive that, if it is possible!”

He unclasped his hands and flung out his arms with something burlesque and extravagant in the gesture. But Mr. Ricardo was not deceived. His friend had confessed the truth. There were moments when Hanaud doubted Hanaud—moments when he, like Mr. Ricardo, was aware of cracks in the opal crust.

Hanaud bent his eyes again upon that handwriting which had so alarming a message for just one person alone, and not an atom of significance for the rest.

“She has broken off her engagement—this young lady, Miss Tasborough,” he said, pronouncing the name as Tasbruff. “That is curious too.” He sat for a moment or two in an abstraction. “There are three explanations, my friend, of which we may take our choice. One. Your Miss Whipple is playing some trick on you, for some end we do not know of. To establish her credit—after some-thing has happened. To be able to say: ‘I foresaw—I tried to avert it. I warned Mr. Ricardo.’ Eh? Have you thought of that?”

He nodded his head slowly and emphatically at his friend, who certainly had not thought of anything of the kind. But the notion disturbed Mr. Ricardo a little now. He had after all been troubled on his way home after that conversation. Troubled by an excuse which Joyce Whipple had given for her own inability to interfere. “Cinderellas must be off the premises by midnight.” What sort of an excuse was that for a young lady with a pipe-well of oil in California? No, it certainly wouldn’t do!

But Hanaud, reading his thoughts, raised a warning hand. “Let us not run too fast. There are still two explanations. The second? Miss Whipple is an hysterical—she must make excitements. She is vain, as the hysterical invariably are.”

Here Mr. Ricardo shook his head; as emphatically as a moment ago Hanaud had nodded his. That spruce young lady with tidiness for her monomark dwelt thousands of leagues away from the country of hysteria. Mr. Ricardo preferred explanation number one. It was more likely and infinitely more thrilling. But he must not be in a hurry.

“And your third explanation?” he asked. Hanaud pushed the letter back to Ricardo and rose from his chair, slapping his hands against his hips.

“Why, simply that she was speaking the truth. That some warning came to her through that handwriting, even though the writer knew nothing of the warning she was sending.”

Hanaud turned away to the window and stood for a while looking out over the little pleasant spa, its establishment of baths down here by the park, its gay casino over there, and its villas and hotels shining amongst green streets. But he was deep in his own reflections. He might have been gazing at a wall for all that he saw. Mr. Ricardo had seen him in such a mood before, and he knew that this was a moment which it would be definitely inadvisable to interrupt. A sensation of awe stole over him. He felt the floor of the opal very brittle beneath his feet.

Hanaud turned his head towards his companion, without in any other way relaxing his attitude.

“The Château Suvlac is thirty kilometres from Bordeaux?” he asked.

“Thirty-eight and a half,” Mr. Ricardo replied helpfully. He was nothing if not accurate.

Hanaud turned once again to the window. But a minute afterwards, with a great heave of his shoulders, he shook his perplexities from him.

“I am on my holiday,” he cried. “Let me not spoil it! Come! Your servant, the invaluable Thomson, shall pack up my Hanaudski paraphernalia and send it back at your expense to the Odeon Theatre from which I borrowed it yesterday. You and I, we will motor in your fine car to the Lake Bourget, where we will take our luncheon, and then like good wholesome tourists we will make an excursion on the steamboat.”

He was all gaiety and good-humour. But he had broken in upon the sacred curriculum of his holiday; and all that day, as Mr. Ricardo was aware, some grave speculations were with an effort held at bay.

The Prisoner in the Opal - Contents    |     IV - Riddles for Mr. Ricardo

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