The Prisoner in the Opal


The Cave of the Mummies

A.E.W. Mason

THE TWO MEN walked from that house of calamity down the hill to the farm buildings and the garage; Hanaud lost in his own thoughts and Mr. Ricardo a little surprised to see the peasants going about their daily labour, and the world astir. “It seems somehow against nature,” he said, and Hanaud woke from his reflections to reply: “After all, we may both of us be wrong. There are many houses along the Gironde.” But it was clear that he put no atom of faith into his words, and as soon as the great car was running smoothly on the white road between the vineyards, he turned briskly to his companion.

Mr. Ricardo began with some excuses. For he had at the back of his mind a suspicion that his taste for what was odd and bizarre was not altogether seemly in a man of his ripe years and honourable condition. But he had to come to the Cave of the Mummies in the end.

“I had always meant to see it,” he cried in an honest burst, “and ten days ago I did.”

He described how he walked to the high tower of St. Michel opposite to the doors of the church in a great square. At the foot of the tower he found a pay-box, which was closed, and by the side of it a winding staircase descending into darkness. He peered down the staircase and from the darkness, but surprisingly near to him, a woman’s high voice cried out: “Descend then, monsieur! You shall pay me afterwards. I am about to begin.”

He obeyed, feeling for the steps with his feet and for the side walls with his hand. There were only a few treads to that old brick stairway, but it twisted, and with his back to the daylight he could see nothing at all.

“One more step, monsieur. So!”

He was taken by the elbow and guided for a few steps to his left. The woman, with the thrift of her kind, did not light her tallow dip to illumine her gruesome exhibition until she had gathered her little flock of sightseers at the point of departure. Mr. Ricardo was vaguely aware that he stood on the edge of a group. He had a sensation, too, of immense space. But when the match was struck, and the red, smoky flame of the cheap candle held aloft, he saw that the cabin was a tiny rough excavation. It was too dark still for him to distinguish anything of the rest of the party, except that they were of both the sexes. But the light shone upon the face of the guide, and he was as disappointed by her appearance as he had been by the cavern’s tininess. He had expected an old, witch-like crone. He beheld a practical, apple-faced, middle-aged woman of the most respectable mien with a black shawl about her shoulders.

She passed within an iron rail which guarded the line of her grim exhibits, and delivered her preliminary lecture. There were mummies, of course, in Egypt, but none of them, from Tutankhamen downwards, were a patch upon hers. Egypt’s mummies were the work of men, stuffed and cured like animals for the table. Hers were the only real natural mummies in the world, and a glory to the great city of Bordeaux.

“Gentlemen, ladies, they were found, just as you will see them, in an ancient graveyard of the city close to this spot. A chemical ingredient of the soil, which is nowhere else known to exist, has preserved them. Attention, gentlemen! Ladies!”

Mr. Ricardo’s eyes were popping out of his head in his effort to see over the shoulders of the happy people who had got the front places. The curator of this queer museum passed slowly along the line of the dead people propped up on an eternal parade. They stood with loincloths about their waists, their skin greenish in colour and of the texture of parchment. The blackened tatters of their grave-clothes still hung to them; wisps of matted hair dangled from their skulls, and here and there a huge glaucous eye still stared at them from its socket. The guide raised and lowered her candle, pointing out this or that noticeable detail; and the red light, wavering unsteadily over the dead figures, gave to them an eerie semblance of life and movement.

“Here is a woman with a child at her shoulder,” said the guide in her shrill, matter-of-fact voice. “They were buried together at the time of epidemic! Here is a man who was killed by a sword-thrust”—the candlelight disclosed a great gaping wound in his chest. “The lungs are still there,” she continued. “Listen!”

She thrust her hand through the wound and, under the tapping of her fingers, the lungs rattled and rustled like dead leaves. Mr. Ricardo shivered deliciously, he felt tremors up and down his spine and in the soles of his feet.

“What now?” he asked himself, wondering whether he could really endure more, when the guide stopped impressively beside the last figure in the row. She had, good showman that she was, kept her extra special supermummy for the last of the spectacle. And even before she had uttered one word of explanation a curious uneasiness and discomfort stirred amongst that little company; so vivid across all those centuries of interment remained this dreadful epitome of pain.

Mr. Ricardo saw the figure of a youth. His mouth was wide open as though he gasped for breath; his head was bent forward as though he sought by a thrust of his shoulders to rise; and one knee was drawn tensely up towards the chest as though it drove against a coffin-lid.

“The doctors are agreed,” said the woman with a sort of pride. “It is supposed that the boy was a cataleptic or the victim of a ferocious cruelty. God be praised, we live in gentler days! He was buried alive, and waked. He screamed, you see, and gasped for air. The leg drawn up to lift all those feet of earth was so strained in agony that it could never be straightened again. It is fixed so. The poor one!”

She moralized for a moment or two upon the advantage of living in the gentler age of today, whilst up and down the red light of her candle flickered over that tormented figure; until a man’s rough voice cried out sharply: “Enough, mother! That’s enough!”

It was for some such tribute to the success of her show, it appeared, that the woman waited. She snuffed out the candle between her forefinger and her thumb, without a word, and for a little while, so still was everyone and so silent in the pitch black cavern, that a new visitor coming down those winding steps must have believed it empty. Then the silence was broken, very faintly, at Mr. Ricardo’s elbow, by a sigh; and his blood turned cold as he heard it. There was neither pity in it, nor horror, but a passionate longing that such a penalty could still be exacted.

“Oh! Oh!”

It was a low cry of desire, savage and primitive, the desire to hurt as no one had yet been hurt, to punish as no one had yet been punished, a whisper of regret that no such punishment was possible.

Mr. Ricardo tried to figure out in his mind who it was that stood beside him. He had an impression that it was a woman, but he could not be sure; and whilst he still speculated the guide’s voice was raised again.

“Gentlemen, ladies, that is all. If you turn you will see a gleam of light from the steps. You, sir, who came last, the charge is fifty centimes. I will give you a ticket at the pay-box.”

The group of people stumbled with relief up the steps. Mr. Ricardo was detained at the top of them whilst he paid his half-franc and received his ticket. But his eyes were on the little group of people as they dispersed, and amongst them he saw a girl separate herself from the others and walk away alone. She was dressed with a quiet distinction which surprised him in a visitor to this macabre exhibition. There was something incongruous—he wondered whether it could be she who had sighed. He would have very much liked to have cross-questioned her upon the subject. He was none the less, however, a trifle disconcerted when nine days later he was introduced to her in the drawing-room of the Château Suvlac.

Evelyn Devenish? The contrast between that murky cavern with its grim associations and this bright room overlooking the Gironde no doubt affected Mr. Ricardo’s judgment. That the woman who sighed in the cavern could be this smartly-robed girl who made so pretty a picture in the drawing-room was out of the question. He dismissed his suspicion from his mind until a particular moment came immediately after dinner, when she challenged him to deny that they had stood in the same group, in the Cave of the Mummies. Her eyes had been withdrawn from him at once. Their glance had wandered to where Joyce Whipple lay back in her low chair. They had flashed with an implacable fury then, and they had moved up from the slim foot in its slipper of silver brocade to the knee, with a veritable hunger of hate. Oh, without a doubt Evelyn Devenish had been thinking at that moment of the distorted figure of that youth in the Cave of the Mummies! She had been putting Joyce Whipple in his place, had been watching her knee pressed in a despairing agony against the coffin-lid. Yes, it was Evelyn Devenish who had sighed. Therefore, since both the girls had disappeared from the Château Suvlac, and one had been murdered that one assuredly was Joyce Whipple.

This was the story which Mr. Ricardo told as he drove through the sunlit country to Villeblanche. Hanaud gave to it all his attention, but at the end he shook his head.

“No woman, my friend, hacked off that right hand, though all the hatred in the world consumed her.”

“But no doubt she had accomplices to help her,” Mr. Ricardo answered with a patient and condescending kindness. “You had not thought of that!”

Hanaud smote his forehead with a slight exaggeration of despair.

“It is terribly true!” he cried. “Hanaud is growing old. How ever should I solve this mystery alone! Fortunately you are here, the Chief of the Staff who tells the General what to do; the power behind the sofa. I lean on you. So tell me this. You have just the time!”

The car was approaching the long street of Villeblanche, bordered by small white and dusty houses.

“When Madame Devenish turned this ugly look upon the delicate Joyce Whipple, who was beside Joyce Whipple? To whom was she talking?”

Mr. Ricardo rebuilt in his mind the drawing-room, its furniture and its occupants. He set them all in their places, and exclaimed: “I know. He was at the side of Joyce Whipple, a little behind her perhaps. Yes, certainly a little behind her. For he was leaning forward over the back of her chair—Robin Webster.”

“Aha!” said Hanaud. “The good-looking young man with the white hair and the little shade of pedantry in his speech. The Apollo and the school-marm all in one, eh? So it was he. The same man who cried out suddenly ‘Joyce! Joyce!’ when it was discovered that she had disappeared. That is curious—yes! Well, we shall know in a minute whether you are right.”

For the car had stopped at the mortuary. And in a minute Mr. Ricardo knew that he was entirely wrong. For stretched out upon the mortuary slab, wrapped decently about in a clean linen sheet, her eyes closed, a look of peace upon her face, lay Evelyn Devenish.

Mr. Ricardo’s surprise was intense, but his relief even greater. Joyce Whipple had wound herself about his heart a little more closely than he had known. He put aside from him, for the moment at all events, all that was enigmatic about her, and the possibility suggested by Hanaud at Aix that she might have invented her queer story about Diana Tasborough’s letters for some unknown purpose of her own. He was content that she was not lying there on the stone slab.

“It is Madame Devenish, then?” said Hanaud, reading his friend’s face.

“Yes.” Hanaud turned to the Commissaire Herbesthal, who had joined them, “It is as you thought. Let us see what we have to see. For we keep Mr. Ricardo from his luncheon.”

Led by the attendant of the mortuary, they passed by a bare, whitewashed passage to a room at the back. The room was filled with cupboards, and the basket, still wet from the river, stood upon the floor.

“I want to see the piece of linen in which this poor woman was wrapped,” said Hanaud.

The attendant unlocked one of his cupboards, and took it out and handed it to Hanaud. Mr. Ricardo could see that one of its edges was torn from top to bottom, and that it was stained with blood. Hanaud carried it towards the window and turned it over and shook it out and gathered it together again in a bundle. When he turned back to the room again his face was quite changed. It was grave and discontented. Clearly he had no liking for the task to which he was now committed.

“This, I think, will prove to be very important,” he said, as he laid it carefully down upon a chair.

He went over to the basket and opened it. Mr. Ricardo, from the place where he stood, could not see the inside of it. He stole over on the tips of his toes to Hanaud’s side. It was lined with some sort of strong white canvas, which was here and there smeared with blood. Hanaud bent down into it swiftly, feeling the soaked lining at the corners.

“It has been torn here,” he said, thrusting his fingers into the rent, and then his face sharpened. He stood up, and turning the basket upon its side bent over the wicker-work at one corner and close to the bottom.

“See!” he said to Herbesthal. He pointed to a tiny wedge of yellow metal which projected between the withies of the wicker. He set the basket once more upon its bottom, and plunging in his hands worked for a moment or two with considerable exertion. When he stood up again he held in his hand a narrow gold bracelet. It was open. A tiny wedge was made to slide into a hollow, where a spring caught and fastened it, and at the catch there was a large fire opal. Mr. Ricardo gasped incredulously as he looked at it.

“May I see it?” he asked, and Hanaud, holding the two ends very gingerly in the tips of his fingers, stretched it out to him.

“You know it?” he asked.

“I have seen it before,” Mr. Ricardo replied, his face puckered in bewilderment.


“In London.”

Some part of Mr. Ricardo’s perplexity now showed in Hanaud’s face.

“But I understood you had never seen Evelyn Devenish before yesterday.”

“Nor had I,” said Mr. Ricardo. “When I saw that bracelet, it was upon Joyce Whipple’s wrist. It is hers.”


Hanaud stared at Ricardo and from Ricardo to the bracelet.

“That is extraordinary,” he said slowly. He turned the golden circlet over and looked at the inside of it. But there was no inscription there at all. Then he asked for a sheet of paper, and wrapped the bracelet in it carefully and laid it on the folded linen.

“There may be some finger-marks upon it which may help us,” he said, and he stood back and stared at it again, as though, even hidden in its paper wrapper, it could be forced to explain its presence in the basket. He flung himself again upon the basket, dived into it, and searched its every crevice. But it held no other secrets. Hanaud stood erect again.

“You, Monsieur Le Commissaire, will be good enough to take charge of the linen and the bracelet and have them properly examined. Meanwhile you and I”—he turned towards Ricardo—“will return to the Château Suvlac. I shall ask you to stop at the office of Monsieur Tidon, the examining magistrate, but it will be only for a few minutes. For I have nothing to say to him except that we are at the beginning of a very dark and terrible affair.”

He walked out of the mortuary with a slow step from which all the lightness had gone. For the third time Mr. Ricardo was aware of a shrinking, a reluctance in his companion.

“It is true,” said Hanaud as they climbed into the car. He was answering Mr. Ricardo’s unuttered question. “I have a glimpse of things I do not like to see. And I shall have to look them full in the face before I reach the end. I should say to Monsieur Tidon if I could: ‘Sir, this is not my affair.’ But it is my affair. I came to Bordeaux about some disappearances—on the face of it, a sordid, vulgar, uninteresting business, which a little attention would solve. But your Miss Whipple disappears too. Does that disappearance stand by itself? Or does it lift the others to the level of a great and infamous conspiracy? I don’t know!” He brought his clenched fist down upon the cushions at his side.

“But I must know. It is my business,” he cried vigorously; and from that moment to the end of the long and difficult inquiry, Mr. Ricardo saw no more of any hesitation upon Hanaud’s part.

“There is one question I would like to ask,” he said timidly.

“Ask it, my friend, for I have many to ask you,” Hanaud replied.

“Was the severed hand discovered in the basket?”

Hanaud shook his head. “No! It is a pity. Yes—a great pity. For in that case we might have discovered why it was cut off, and I think that of all the questions we have to answer, there is not one which is more important than that.”

The car stopped at the Prefecture.

The Prisoner in the Opal - Contents    |     VIII - The Magistrate in Charge

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