The Prisoner in the Opal


Riddles for Mr. Ricardo

A.E.W. Mason

MR. RICARDO progressed in a leisurely fashion from Bordeaux, staying a day here and a night there, and arrived at the Château Suvlac at six o’clock on the evening of the twenty-first of September, a Wednesday. The day of the week is important. For the last mile he had driven along a private road which sloped gently upwards. On the top of this rise stood the house, a deep quadrangle of rose-pink stone with its two squat round turrets breaking the line of the main building at each end, and the two long wings stretching out to the road. The front of the quadrangle was open, and in the middle of this space rose a high arch completely by itself, like some old triumphal arch of Rome. This side of the house looked to the south-west, and the ground fell away from it in a slope of vineyard to a long and wide level of pasture. At the end of this plain of grass there rose a definite hill upon which, through a screen of trees, a small white house could just be seen. As Mr. Ricardo stood with his back to the Château Suvlac, stretching his legs after his long drive, he saw that a secondary road struck off at the end of the sloping vineyard, descended the incline, passed a group of farm buildings and a garage just where the vineyard joined the pasture-land, but on the opposite side of the road, and climbed again towards the small white house.

No one of the house-party was at home except the aunt and chaperon, Mrs. Tasborough, who was lying down. Mr. Ricardo was served with a cup of tea by Jules Amadee, the young manservant, in the big drawing-room, which opened on to the stone terrace and looked out over the wide Gironde to the misty northern shore. Having drunk his tea he sauntered out on to the terrace. Four shallow steps led down into a garden of lawns and flowers, and on his right hand a closely planted avenue of trees sloped almost to the hedge at the bottom of the garden, sheltering the house and shutting out from its view the massive range of chais where the wine was stored and the big vats were housed.

Mr, Ricardo walked down across the lawn to the hedge and, passing through a gate on to a water meadow, saw a little to his right a tiny harbour with a landing-stage to which a gabare, one of those sloop-rigged heavy sailing boats which carry the river trade, was moored. A captain and two hands were engaged in unloading stores for the house. Mr. Ricardo, curious as ever, made his inquiries. The captain, a big black-bearded man, was very willing to accept a cigarette and break off his work.

“Yes, monsieur, these are my two sons. We keep the work in the family. No, the gabare is not mine yet. Monsieur Webster, the agent of mademoiselle, bought her and put me in charge, and when I pay off the cost she will be mine. Soon?” The captain flung out his arms in a gesture of despair. “It is difficult to grow rich on the Gironde. For half of our lives we are waiting for the tide. See, monsieur! But for those cursed tides, I could finish my work here, and start back for Bordeaux later in the night. But no! I must wait for the flow and I shall not put out until six o’clock in the morning. Ah, it is difficult for the poor to live, monsieur.” He had his full share of the French peasant’s compassion for himself, but he was sitting on the stout bulwark of the boat and he began to stroke and caress the wood as though there were nothing nearer to his heart. “The gabare is a good gabare,” he continued. “She will last for many years, and perhaps I shall own her sooner than a lot of people think.”

His little eyes, set too close together under heavy black eyebrows, gleamed unpleasantly. He had not only the self-pity of his kind but its avarice too. He was not, however, very clever, Mr. Ricardo inferred. No man could be clever who paraded such an air of cunning before a stranger. The captain, however, waked to the knowledge that his two sons had stopped working too. He thumped upon the bulwark.

“Rascals and good-for-nothings, it is not to you that the gentleman talks! To work!” he cried in a rage. “Bah! You are only fit to turn the paddles of Le Petit Mousse in the public gardens.”

Mr. Ricardo smiled. He had sauntered through the public gardens at Bordeaux only yesterday. He had seen Le Petit Mousse, a little pleasure boat shaped like a swan, floating on an ornamental water. It had two little paddle wheels which were turned by two little boys, and on Sundays and fête days it set out upon adventurous little voyages under the palms and chestnuts.

The youths resumed their work, and Mr. Ricardo turned away from the little dock. He noticed, without paying any particular attention to the circumstance, the name upon her bows—La Belle Simone. He would probably never have noticed it at all, but the first two words of it were weathered and the third stood out glaringly in fresh white paint. Inquisitiveness made him ask: “You have changed her name?”

“Yes. I named her La Belle Diane. A little compliment, you understand. But Monsieur Webster said no, I must change it. For mademoiselle would think she looked the fool if ever she perceived it. Not that mademoiselle perceives very much these days,” and his little black eyes glittered between half-closed lids. “However, I changed it.”

Mr. Ricardo turned away. He walked back along the broad avenue and saw beyond the border of trees, on the far side from the house, a little chalet of two storeys, which stood by itself in an open space, and was approached by a small white gate and a garden bright with flowers. It was now, however, seven o’clock, and without exploring it Mr. Ricardo returned to the drawing-room. There was still no sign of the house-party. He rang for Jules Amadee, and was conducted by him to his bedroom at the very end of the eastern wing. It was a fine big room with two windows, one in the front which commanded the sloping vineyard, the pasture land and the wooded hill opposite, the other at the side, looking upon the avenue and affording a glimpse of the little chalet beyond. Mr. Ricardo dressed with the scrupulous attention to his toilet which not for the kingdom of Tartary would he have modified; and he was still giving the final caress to the butterfly bow of his cravat when, over the top of the looking-glass, he saw a youngish man in a dinner-jacket cross the avenue towards the château. The reason for the chalet was now clear to Mr. Ricardo.

“A guest-house for the younger bachelors,” said he. “Thomson, my pumps and the shoehorn, if you please.”

He walked down the long corridor—he was astonished to notice what a large tract of ground the house covered, and how many empty rooms stood with their doors open—turned to the left at the end of it, and came to the drawing-room, which was in the very centre of the main building. As he stood at the door, the hall and the front door was just behind him. He stood there for a few moments, listening to a chatter of voices and invaded by an odd excitement. Was he to solve by one flash of insight the mystery of Joyce Whipple’s letters? Was he to look round the room and identify by an inspiration the sinister figure of the person who had detained Diana Tasborough in the seclusion of Biarritz throughout the summer?

“Now,” he said to himself firmly. “Now,” and with a gesture of melodrama he flung open the door and stepped swiftly within. He was a little disappointed. Certainly there was a moment of silence, but the abruptness of his entrance accounted for that. No one flinched, and the interrupted conversations broke out again.

Diana Tasborough, looking as pretty as ever in a pale green frock, hurried to him.

“I am so glad that you could come, Mr. Ricardo,” she said pleasantly. “You know my aunt, don’t you, very well?”

Mr. Ricardo shook hands with Mrs. Tasborough.

“But—I am not sure—I think Mrs. Devenish is a stranger to you.”

Mrs. Devenish was a young woman of about twenty-five years, tall, dark of hair, with a bright complexion, and black liquid eyes. She was brilliant rather than beautiful, big, and she suggested to Mr. Ricardo storms and wild passions. It passed through his mind that if he ever had to take a meal with her alone, it should be tea and not supper. She gave him her right hand negligently, and by chance Mr. Ricardo’s gaze fell upon the other. Mrs. Devenish wore no wedding-ring, no jewels indeed of any description.

“No, I don’t think we have ever met,” she said with a smile, and suddenly—it was certainly not due to her voice, for he had never heard her utter a word before, it may have been due to some gesture of her hand, or to some movement of her body as she turned to resume her conversation, it was probably due to the slowness of Mr. Ricardo’s perceptions—anyway, suddenly he was conscious of a thrill of triumph. So quickly had he solved Joyce Whipple’s problem. Mrs. Devenish was the dominating force which menaced Diana Tasborough. She was the malignant one. It was true that he had not met her before, but he had seen her, and in just those morbid circumstances which settled the question finally.

“Yet, I saw you, I think, exactly nine days ago in Bordeaux,” he said, and he could have sworn that terror, sheer, stark naked terror, stared at him out of the depths of her eyes. But it was there only for a moment. She looked Mr. Ricardo over from his pumps to his neat grey hair and laughed.

“Where?” she asked; and Mr. Ricardo was silent. It was an awkward, bold question. He was more than a little shy of answering it. For he would be accusing himself of a taste for morbidities if he did. He might look a little puerile, too.

“Perhaps I was wrong,” he said, and Mrs. Devenish laughed again and not too pleasantly.

Mr. Ricardo was rescued from his uncomfortable position by his young hostess, who laid her hand upon his arm.

“You must now make the acquaintance of your host that was to have been,” she said. “Monsieur Le Vicomte Cassandre de Mirandol.”

Mr. Ricardo had been startled by the previous introduction. He was shocked by this one. No doubt, he reflected, there were all sorts of crusaders, but he could not imagine this one storming the walls of Acre. He was a tall, heavy, gross man with a rubicund childish face, round and dimpled; he had a mouth much too small for him and fat red lips, and he was quite bald.

“I shall look upon your visit to me as merely postponed, Mr. Ricardo,” he said in a thin, piping voice, and he gave Mr. Ricardo a hand which was boneless and wet. Mr. Ricardo made up his mind upon the instant that he would rather abandon altogether his annual pilgrimage than be the guest of this link with the Crusaders. He had never in his life come across so displeasing a personage. He should have been ridiculous, but he was not. He made Mr. Ricardo uncomfortable, and the feel of his wet boneless hand lingered with the visitor as something disgusting. He could hardly conceal his relief when Diana Tasborough turned him towards the man whom he had seen crossing from the chalet.

“This is Mr. Robin Webster, my manager, and my creditor,” said Diana with a charming smile. “For I owe to him the prosperity of the vineyard.”

Mr. Webster disclaimed the praise of his mistress very pleasantly. “I neither made the soil nor planted the vines, nor work any miracles at all, Mr. Ricardo. Mine is a simple humble office which Miss Tasborough’s kindness makes a pleasure rather than a toil.”

The disclaimer might have sounded just a trifle too humble but for the attractive frankness of his manner. He was of the average height with quite white hair, and a pair of bright blue eyes. But the white hair was in him no sign of age. Mr. Ricardo put him down at somewhere between thirty-five and forty years of age, and could not remember to have seen a man of a more handsome appearance. He was clean-shaven, fastidious in his dress, with some touch of the exquisite. He spoke with a certain precision in his articulation which for some unaccountable reason was familiar to Mr. Ricardo; and altogether Mr. Ricardo was charmed to find anyone so companionable and friendly.

“I shall look forward to seeing something of the vintage under your guidance tomorrow, Mr. Webster,” he said; and a voice hailed him from the long window which stood open to the terrace.

“And not one word of greeting for me, Mr. Ricardo?”

Joyce Whipple was standing in the window relieved against the evening light. Of the anxiety which had clouded her face the last time he had seen her, there was not a trace. She was dressed in a shimmering frock of silver lace, there was a tinge of colour in her face, and she smiled at him joyously.

“So, after all, you put off your return to America,” he said, advancing eagerly towards her.

“For a month, which is almost ended,” she replied. “I am leaving here tomorrow for Cherbourg.”

“If we let you go,” said de Mirandol gallantly; a phrase which Mr. Ricardo was to remember.

Mr. Ricardo was introduced to two young ladies from the neighbourhood and two young men from Bordeaux, none of whose names were sufficiently pronounced for him to distinguish them. But they were merely guests of the evening, and Mr. Ricardo was not concerned with them.

“For whom do we wait now, Diana?” Mrs. Tasborough’s voice broke in rather pettishly.

“Monsieur l’Abbé, aunt,” Diana answered.

“You should persuade your friends to be punctual,” said the aunt, and there was no gentleness in that rebuke. Mr. Ricardo had been startled and shocked. Here was a third riddle to surprise him. He remembered Mrs. Tasborough as the most submissive of pensioned relations, a chaperon who knew that her duties did not include interference, a silent symbol of respectability. Yet here she was interfering and talking with all the authority in the world. No less surprising was Diana’s meekness in reply.

“I am very sorry, aunt. The Abbé is so seldom late for his dinner that I am afraid that he has met with an accident. I certainly sent the car for him in good time.”

Mrs. Tasborough shrugged her shoulders, and was not appeased. Mr. Ricardo looked from one to the other. The old lady in her dowdy, old-fashioned dress, sitting throned in a great chair, the pretty niece in her modern fineries humble as a village maid. There was a reversal of positions here which thoroughly intrigued Mr. Ricardo. He glanced towards Joyce Whipple, but the door was opening, and Jules Amadee announced:

“Monsieur l’Abbé Fauriel.”

A little round man in a cassock, with a ruddy face, thick features and a small pair of shrewd twinkling grey eyes, bustled into the room in a condition of heat and perturbation. “I am late, madame. I express my apologies upon my knees,” he protested, raising Mrs. Tasborough’s hand to his lips. It was noticeable perhaps that he looked to her as his hostess. “But when you hear of my calamity you will forgive me. My church has been robbed.”

“Robbed!” Joyce Whipple cried in a most curious voice. There was dismay in it, but not surprise. The robbery was unexpected, and yet, now that it had happened, not unlikely.

“Yes, mademoiselle. A sacrilege!” and the little man threw up his hands.

“You shall tell us about it at the dinner-table,” said Mrs. Tasborough, cutting him short. Mrs. Tasborough was a Protestant. At home she sat under a man who preached in a Geneva gown. The robbery of a Roman Catholic church was to her a very minor offence, and dinner should not be delayed by it.

“It is true, madame; I forget my manners,” said the Abbé Fauriel, and, indeed, he had barely time to greet the rest of the party before dinner was announced.

The rest of that evening passed apparently as uneventfully as most evenings pass in country houses. But Mr. Ricardo, whose faculty of observation was keyed up to a sharper pitch than usual, did notice during the course of it some things which were odd. The Abbé Fauriel’s complaint, for instance. No money had been stolen, nor any sacred vessel from his church, but a vestment of fine linen, the alb, which he wore when he celebrated Mass, and a little scarlet cassock and white surplice used by the young acolyte who swung the censer.

“It is unbelievable!” the old man cried. “They were of value, to be sure. My dear Madame de Fontanges, now dead, presented them to the church. But they must be cut up at once and then their value is gone. Who would commit a sacrilege for so small a gain?”

“You have, of course, informed the police,” said the Vicomte de Mirandol.

“But understand, Monsieur Le Vicomte, that it is only within the hour that I discovered my loss. You would all realize”—and a twinkle of humour lit up his face—“if you were not all heathens, as you are, that tomorrow is the feast of Saint Matthew, a most sacred day in the Calendar of the Church. I went to the sacristy to assure myself that those garments of high respect were in order, and they are gone. However, Madame Tasborough, I must not spoil your evening with too much of my misfortune,” and he swerved off into an amusing dissection of the foibles of his parishioners.

A small interruption brought him in a moment or two to so abrupt a stop that all eyes were turned on the interrupters. Mrs. Devenish was the cause of the interruption. She had been taking no part in any of the conversation, beyond answering at random when she was addressed, and sat occupied by some secret thought of her own. But once she shivered, and so violently that the little bubbling cry which people will utter involuntarily when they are freezing, broke from her lips. The sound recalled her to her environment, and she glanced guiltily across the table. Her eyes encountered Joyce Whipple’s, and Joyce suddenly exclaimed in a queer, sharp, high-pitched voice:

“It’s no use blaming me, Evelyn. It’s not I who dispense the cold,” and then she caught herself up too late, her face flushed scarlet, and in her turn she looked quickly from neighbour to neighbour. This was the first sign which Mr. Ricardo got, that under the smooth flow of talk nerves were strained to the loss of self-control by secret preoccupations. The Abbé Fauriel was even quicker than Mr. Ricardo to notice it. His eyes darted swiftly to Evelyn Devenish, and from her to Joyce Whipple. His face, in spite of the long, drooping nose and the thick jaw, became alert and birdlike.

“So, mademoiselle,” he said slowly to Joyce, “it is not you who dispense the cold. Who, then?”

He did not insist upon an answer, but a moment or two later, when, as if to cover Joyce Whipple’s confusion, the chatter in her neighbourhood broke out afresh, Mr. Ricardo noticed that almost imperceptibly he made the sign of the Cross upon his breast.

So far Mr. Ricardo was little more than curious and excited. But a quarter of an hour afterwards he caught a momentary glimpse of passion which shook him from its sheer ferocity. The men had retired from the dinner-table with the ladies, in the French fashion, and had split up into little groups. Joyce Whipple was sitting in a low chair at the side of the hearth, her knees crossed and one slender foot in its silver slipper swinging restlessly, whilst on a couch at her elbow Robin Webster was talking to her in a low voice and with an attention so complete as to make it clear that there was no one else in the room for him at that moment. The Vicomte de Mirandol was chatting with Mrs. Tasborough and the Abbé. Evelyn Devenish stood near the window in a group with Diana and the two young Frenchmen. Suddenly from that group sprang a phrase which was heard all over the room.

“The Cave of the Mummies.”

It was one of the Frenchmen who uttered it, but Evelyn Devenish took it up. The Cave of the Mummies is a famous show-place of Bordeaux. Under the soaring tower of St. Michel in the open square in front of the church there is an underground cavern where bodies, mummified by some rare quality of the earth in which they were originally buried, stand mounted in a row upon iron rests for all the world to see at a price of a few pence.

“It is a scandal,” cried the Abbé. “Those poor people should be put decently away. It is a nightmare, that cavern, with that old woman showing off the points of her exhibits by the light of a candle!” He shrugged his shoulders with disgust and looked at Joyce Whipple. “Now I, too, mademoiselle—yes, now I, too, feel the cold.”

Evelyn Devenish laughed. “Yet we all go to that spectacle, Monsieur l’Abbé. I plead guilty. I was there eight or nine days ago. It was there, too, I think, that Mr. Ricardo saw me.”

She challenged that unhappy gentleman, with a smile of amusement, to deny the charge. But, alas, he could not. A taste for the bizarre was always at odds with his respectability.

“It is true,” he said lamely, shifting his weight from one foot on to the other. “I had heard so much of it—I had so often passed through Bordeaux without seeing it. But now that I have seen it, I take my stand with Monsieur l’Abbé.” He recovered his assurance and felt as virtuous as he now looked. “Yes, a dreadful exhibition; it should be closed.”

Evelyn Devenish laughed again, quizzing him. “A most unpleasant young woman,” said Mr. Ricardo to himself, “bold and without respect.” He was relieved when she averted her eyes from him. But he observed that they travelled slowly round until they reached Joyce Whipple, and there for a moment they stayed, half hidden by the eyelids; but not hidden enough to conceal the hatred which grew slowly from a spark in the depths to a blaze of devouring fire. Mr. Ricardo had never seen in his life the evidence of a passion so raw. It was covetous to punish and hurt. The dark eyes could not leave, it seemed, the girl radiant in her silvery frock. They rested with a dreadful smile upon the foot swinging in its gleaming slipper and ran up the slim leg in its silken sheath to the bent knee. Mr. Ricardo understood by a flash of insight the cruel thought behind the eyes and the smile. “Oh, certainly, it would have to be to tea and not to supper,” he said to himself, almost in an agony as he thought of that imaginary meal alone with Evelyn Devenish which his fears had conjured up.

Diana Tasborough crossed the room to him. “You will play whist, with my aunt and the Abbé and de Mirandol, won’t you?” she pleaded. “It must be whist, for the Abbé has never played bridge”; and plaguing his brains to recollect how the game of whist was played, he was led to the card-table.

So far, then, Mr. Ricardo had undoubtedly earned some good marks, not so much for putting two and two together as for discerning that there might be two and two which would possibly want putting together afterwards. But at this hour, half-past nine by the clock, he ceased to be meritorious, and the most important circumstance of the whole evening completely escaped his observation. He was really too much occupied in the effort to revive his recollections of whist; which was made even more difficult by the action of the younger members of the party.

The dining-room, drawing-room and library of the Château Suvlac were arranged in a suite, the drawing-room being in the middle; and all of these rooms had windows to the ground opening upon the broad terrace. Diana, as soon as the elders were seated at the card-table, went into the library and set a gramophone playing. Within the minute all the young people were dancing upon the terrace. The connecting door between the salon and the library was shut, it is true, but the night was warm and all the windows stood open. So the music with its pleasant lilt floated in to the card players, and joined with the rhythmical scuffle of the dancing shoes upon the flags to distract Mr. Ricardo from his game. It was the time of moonlight, but the moon was obscured by a thin fleece of white clouds so that a pale silvery and rather unearthly light made the garden and the wide river beyond a fairyland of magic. On the far shore a light twinkled here and there through a mist, and close at hand, the long avenue of trees, now black as yews and motionless as metal, protected the terrace as though it was some secret and ancient place of sacrifice. But instead of sacrifices, Mr. Ricardo saw the flash of white shoulders, the sparkling embroideries upon the light frocks of the girls, the dancers appearing, disappearing, gliding, revolving, and altogether he made so many mistakes that his fellow players were delighted when the rubber came to an end. Robin Webster came in from the terrace. “You will excuse me, Mrs. Tasborough. The morning begins for me at daybreak, and I have still a few preparations to make before I can go to bed.”

“I too,” said the Vicomte de Mirandol, rising from his chair, a trifle abruptly perhaps. “The Mirandol wine will not compare with the Château Suvlac, alas! Yet I must take just as much care of it.” He looked out of the window rather anxiously. “A good shower or two, not too violent, just for a couple of hours during the night—that would help us, Monsieur Webster. Yes, two hours of gentle rain—I beg you to pray for them, Monsieur l’Abbé.”

Mr. Robin Webster shook hands with Mr. Ricardo. “You said that you would like to come round with me tomorrow,” he said. “I live in the chalet beyond the avenue. It is my office too. You will find me there or about the chais.”

He went out through the window, Monsieur de Mirandol through the door to the front of the house, where his car waited for him. Jules Amadee brought in a tray of refreshments, and Mrs. Tasborough lifted her voice petulantly.

“Diana! Diana!” she cried. “Will you please come in at once and prepare his nightcap for Monsieur l’Abbé!”

The Abbé, however, would by no means break in upon the girl’s enjoyments. “I can mix my grog very well for myself, madame. Let mademoiselle dance, and so I can put a little more of your excellent whisky into my glass than it would be seemly for me to allow mademoiselle to do.”

As he moved towards the table Joyce Whipple stood in his way. “And I,” she said, laughing, “since I know nothing of the proper proportions, will in my ignorance put more whisky into your glass than you would.”

Joyce Whipple, in a word, took possession of the buffet. It was in a corner of the room and she stood with her back to the company. A lemonade for Mrs. Tasborough, a whisky and soda for Mr. Ricardo, a hot grog for Monsieur l’Abbé. The young people drifted back into the room. Joyce Whipple served them all in their turn with beer and sirops and spirits, laughing gaily all the while, and proclaiming that she had a future as a barmaid. Diana came from the library and was the last to join the group.

“I shall have a brandy and soda with a lot of ice,” she said, and again Mr. Ricardo was conscious of an unsteady note in her voice, and a laugh which threatened to rise out of gaiety into hysteria.

Joyce threw a quick glance backwards over her shoulder.

“So, after all, I do dispense the cold,” she cried, and in her case, too, the words and the laughter on which they were launched were edged with excitement, and undoubtedly the glass which she held clattered against the siphon when she filled it, as though her hands trembled.

The party, however, was already breaking up and within a very few minutes the Château Suvlac was silent and Mr. Ricardo back in his own room. He opened both of the windows. When engaged upon the side-window, he saw that a light was still burning in a room upon the ground floor of the chalet. Mr. Robin Webster was still then at work in his office. Looking out from the front window his gaze wandered over the peaceful stretch of empty country. The white house upon the hill might have been black for all that he could make of it. Not a window glimmered anywhere. Mr. Ricardo wound up his watch and went to bed. It was then ten minutes to eleven.

The Prisoner in the Opal - Contents    |     V - Hanaud Reappears

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