The Prisoner in the Opal


The Magistrate in Charge

A.E.W. Mason

DESTINY, careless as ever of the creature comforts, had written down that Mr. Ricardo, who was rather particular about them, should have no luncheon worth talking about at all on that unusual day. As Hanaud entered the vestibule of the Prefecture, he was passed by a man who suddenly stopped and turned about. “Is it Monsieur Hanaud?” he asked.

“Yes,” Hanaud replied, turning about too. “What a stroke of luck! I am Arthur Tidon, the examining magistrate, and I was off this moment to the Château Suvlac in search of you.”

For a few minutes the two men talked earnestly in the shadow of the archway, whilst Mr. Ricardo sat in the car and imagined that he was beginning to feel very faint for lack of food. Then they came out into the sunlight and approached him.

“My friend, Mr. Ricardo—Monsieur Tidon, the Judge of Instruction,” said Hanaud, and he stood aside.

Arthur Tidon was a tall, slim man of thirty-five years or thereabouts, with a thin, pointed, smiling face. He was clean-shaven except for a short strip of whisker upon each cheek, and his clothes were of an urban elegance.

“The name of Mr. Ricardo is of course known to me in connection with the famous Hanaud and an affair at Aix a few years ago,” Tidon began affably. “I count myself happy that Providence has brought you together again at a moment so impressive. I invite you to give me at once a little of your attention in my office.”

Mr. Ricardo was torn between his importance and the pangs of hunger. On the one hand he had an intriguing story to relate which justice, the enigma of Joyce Whipple, the distress of Diana Tasborough, all demanded should be related at once. On the other, would it not be more brilliantly told after a good luncheon, with a big, long, fat cigar to underline its drama—a minute’s silence now whilst the lips expelled a neat ring of smoke and the eyes thoughtfully watched it mount and dissipate, a vigorous quick puff afterwards to illustrate the pounding of his heart, an inch of white ash flicked off by his little finger to close a sentence? It was hard to abandon these accessions of good story-telling, harder than to forget his stomach’s emptiness, but the magistrate had opened the door of the limousine; and Mr. Ricardo had committed his foot to the step.

Tidon led the way into a large, oblong, comfortably furnished room at the side of the front door. Two tall windows looked on to the street; a knee-hole table stood between them; against the wall was a smaller table where the magistrate’s clerk sat writing.

“I shall ring for you, Saussac, when I have finished with these gentlemen,” said Tidon pleasantly, and the clerk rose at once with a little grimace of disappointment. He left the room with his eyes so intent upon Hanaud that he knocked his nose against the panels of the door.

“My poor Saussac,” cried Monsieur Tidon, laughing. “He is heart-broken. So little happens here—the theft of a cure’s vestments at the most. Then comes this startling case. Bouchette, from the window, sees the great Monsieur Hanaud and his famous friend Mr. Ricardo drive up to the door, and he is sent out of the room. Yes, poor fellow.”

He laid his hat and his malacca cane upon a side-table, and placed a chair in front of his table for Ricardo and another for Hanaud, and then stood behind it facing them.

“You see?” he rattled on, laughing once more, but this time with apology in his voice. “We have here all the discredited methods—the light behind me and shining upon your faces. Everyone who is examined recognizes the old trick at once and composes his expressions to defeat it. But I keep to the arrangement because it gives me the light over my left shoulder, and there is no shadow upon the paper when I write.”

Mr. Ricardo wondered whether the examining magistrate rattled on in this superfluous way to put them at their ease, or in sheer nervousness because he had to cope with a problem of such unwonted gravity. He sat down immediately afterwards in the arm-chair behind the table, looked from one to the other of his guests and then leaned briskly forward, his hands, in bright yellow gloves of chamois leather, clasped lightly in front of him.

“I disarm myself,” he said with a smile, “by a confession. I am of Paris, you understand, where I have important friends, and in time, no doubt, I shall be able to help those who now help me”—this with a frank glance towards Hanaud. “I want that time to come soon. In adopting the profession of a judge, I knew of course very well that I must pass my probation in the provinces. But this little dusty corner is not my world at all, and here is my chance to escape from it—with your help. This affair will ring through France—the fame of the Château Suvlac wine, the social position of the victim, the mysterious and sinister nature of the crime—all make that certain as daylight. Well then! I must have a criminal, and such evidence that conviction is certain.” He pressed his hands tightly together, and then with a quick, short gasp of breath hurried on: “Yes, a good conviction! Help me to that, and I pass on to Bordeaux, which is after all a city where one eats well. And from Bordeaux to Paris—a mere step! I see myself there already,” he added gaily, laughing himself at the intensity of his desire. “For Paris is”—and he turned searchingly for a phrase towards Mr. Ricardo—“you have an idiom in your language—”

“Certainly he has,” cried Hanaud, leaping into the conversation long before Mr. Ricardo was ready to supply the phrase. Idioms indeed! Who but Hanaud should supply them?

“Paris!” he exclaimed with a courteous wave of his hand. “It is your spirituous home.”

“Exactly,” replied the magistrate, and the two men bowed at one another with great satisfaction. “Assuredly the English have phrases,” said Monsieur Tidon, and he bowed again politely to Mr. Ricardo.

“So the ground is clear. We work, the three of us, for a good conviction at the Assizes. That is well! Now you, Mr. Ricardo, have seen the body of our young victim?”

“Yes, monsieur.”

“And you identify it?”

“Yes. It is that of a Mrs. Evelyn Devenish, a visitor at the Château Suvlac.”

“Good! That is something. Now, what do you know of her?”

“Nothing,” replied Mr. Ricardo. “I met her for the first time last night. I never heard her name before. I remarked, however, that though she was introduced to me as ‘Mrs.,’ she wore no wedding-ring.”

Tidon the magistrate looked at his witness cunningly. “Our first little trace of a clue. So—you assume that this Evelyn Devenish was a woman of an irregular life.”

Mr. Ricardo started back in horror. And then reflection came. After all, could he honestly say that he had not been assuming that? He was a little troubled when he realized what irresponsible conjectures he was being invited to attest. “I have not the slightest authority to assume anything of the kind,” he replied cautiously. “A woman may leave a ring upon a wash-stand.”

“A wedding-ring?”

“She may have discarded it long ago and divorced her husband.”

“And yet kept his name?”

“Devenish may be her maiden name. I don’t know. But no doubt Miss Tasborough does.”

Mr. Ricardo was growing restive under these questions, and the shortness of his speech showed it.

“I had a wish to spare that young lady as much annoyance as I could,” the magistrate observed, and Mr. Ricardo coloured at the rebuke. “You are a friend of hers, of course. You shall tell me everything.”

Mr. Ricardo walked warily in his answer to this demand. “Everything” meant a number of little details which were, to use his favourite word, odd. The anxieties, for instance, which Diana’s letters had awakened in Joyce Whipple. An unconscious telepathy there might no doubt have been between the mind of the writer and the reader, the words of the letters acting as a sort of telegraph line. But it would not be fair to presume on such elusive grounds that Diana when she wrote was disturbed by some pressing menace of which she was careful not to let one hint escape. No; he would omit the letters altogether from his reply. Next, Diana had certainly spent the summer at Biarritz instead of in London. Well, that was not worth mentioning. Thirdly, she had sent her lover to the rightabout. But any girl may do that. The hero of a week ago is the crashing bore of today. It can’t be helped. It may be gossip for a newspaper but no evidence of crime. Fourthly, Diana had a picture on the wall above her bed which Mr. Ricardo was most anxious to see. But he hadn’t seen it; and in any case it was Hanaud’s business, not his. Fifthly and above all, he, Mr. Ricardo, was Diana’s guest, and not ten thousand Arthur Tidons in a hurry to get to Paris should lure him to disparage her. He spoke accordingly in warm terms of her social position, of her many friends, of her love of sport.

“And last night you noticed no change in this young lady?” the magistrate asked quickly.

Mr. Ricardo was a trifle confused. “Last night?” he repeated slowly, and he shook his head and plunged into a description of her growing horror and amazement this morning as the disappearance of her friends was revealed. “It struck her down in the end. Monsieur Hanaud had to carry her to her room.”

“Yes, sir,” Hanaud said at once in corroboration. “No one could have been more shocked. I broke the bad news too abruptly. Mademoiselle Diana fainted.”

Monsieur Tidon had been making a note now and again whilst Mr. Ricardo was speaking. Now he tapped the butt of his pencil upon the table with a dissatisfied air. He was assuredly a long way off this good conviction which was to make his fortune.

“And this other young lady, Miss Whipple”—he pronounced it Vipple—“did you know her, too, before yesterday?”


Mr. Ricardo felt at a greater ease. There was after all nothing more important than that the mystery of her disappearance should be cleared up at once. Whatever account he could give of her was at the magistrate’s disposal. He gave her history so far as he knew it, and added: “But I did not expect to see her at the Château Suvlac. No! Two months ago in London she told me that it was unlikely she could come, that she must return to America, and she used a strange phrase. ‘Cinderellas must be off the premises before midnight.’ That is a curious remark for a young lady with a pipe-well in California. I didn’t understand it.”

“Nor do I,” said Tidon. “She has relations?”

“A sister who is married.”

“In America?”


“A fiance, too, perhaps?”

“I think not.”

The magistrate was growing more and more discouraged. “We shall make our inquiries of course in England,” he said gloomily, “but they pass through many channels. It will take time before we get our answers, and when we do”—he stood up, flinging out his gloved hands—“shall we be better off? Was there ever, Monsieur Hanaud, a case more difficult?”

Hanaud did not reassure him. Indeed, he added yet another to the complexities of the affair. “It is made more difficult still by the matter of the bracelet.”

“Bracelet?” cried the magistrate sharply. “What bracelet?”

“The bracelet of Joyce Whipple which I found in the basket, half an hour ago.” Hanaud related how he had discovered it, and how Mr. Ricardo had identified it, and ended with a couple of questions which no one in the room could answer.

“Did it slip from that severed wrist unnoticed? Was it put deliberately into the basket so that it might be found after a search, and suspicion directed upon Joyce Whipple? Who shall say?”

The magistrate shrugged his shoulders despondently. “Now—no one.” He looked towards Hanaud, however, and his face cleared and a hopeful smile made it pleasant. “But let us not forget that we have Monsieur Hanaud with us. In a few days he shall say.”

Once more the two men set to work bowing at each other with ceremonious affabilities, which at a moment when all was bewilderment and muddle, Mr. Ricardo thought supremely ridiculous. When the performance was at an end the magistrate began to move away round the end of the table.

“Since for the moment, then, this is all you have to tell me—” He started thus to dismiss his guests, when Mr. Ricardo caught him up.

“But, sir, this is not all,” he cried timidly, clinging to his chair although both Hanaud and Tidon were on their feet.

At once the magistrate stopped. “This is not all?”

“No. I have not told you that I woke up at two o’clock this morning.”

Immediately so sharp a change occurred in that room that its very atmosphere was different, its occupants men of another stamp. A second ago baffled and despondent, they were now watchful and alert. The air was electrical. They were held stone-quiet by suspense, Mr. Ricardo no less than his companions, for the magic of the storyteller was upon him and to these fine trained minds his narrative might be the wanted Open Sesame. He used none but simple words and spoke them in an even, sober voice; and inspired by the breathless attention of his audience, he enjoyed for one brief memorable space the artist’s sense of triumph. He told them of his sleeplessness, his glance at his watch, the raising of his blinds. They saw with him Robin Webster’s first-floor light flicker and go out, and the windows ablaze in the white house upon the hill. They went out with him on to the dark terrace and rapped upon the glass door of the turret-room. They saw the light behind the curtains there vanish in a trice; and, returning to his bedroom with him, watched one by one the windows on the hill recede into the night. Even after he had finished, Mr. Ricardo’s two auditors stood for a while, neither moving nor speaking, like men dumbfounded.

It was Hanaud who broke the silence. “And that turret-room you speak of—Oh, I understand very well your delicacy, but, alas! there is no room for delicacy or reticence—it is the room into which I carried Miss Diana Tasborough this morning.”

Mr. Ricardo could not but admit it. “Yes. It is her room,” he said, and the magistrate, as though exasperated by the difficulty of his problem, struck the palm of his right hand down upon the table and turned abruptly away to the window at his back. He stood there facing the street. He lifted up his hand to the bolt and played with it, swaying his body backwards and forwards, a man at the end of his wits.

“I can tell you one thing, Monsieur Hanaud, which may help you,” he said in a faint, low voice. “The house upon the hill is the house of Monsieur de Mirandol, whom you, Mr. Ricardo, met last night. He is a great student, a member of many learned societies, and it is no rare thing for his windows to burn until the dawn. Meanwhile,” and he swung round again to face the room, “our first duty is clear, isn’t it? It is to find this girl Joyce Whipple—if we can. I entrust that task to you, Monsieur Hanaud, with every confidence. Find her for me, whether she be alive or dead.”


The word broke from Hanaud in a bellow loud and violent, so that the room rang with it. He stood erect, his eyes blazing, his big body from head to foot one challenge, one denial. Even Mr. Ricardo, who had seen him in so many moods, was startled by his passion. His cry was a flame. He would not have it that Joyce Whipple was dead. He was ready, like Herakles in the play, to wrestle with Death for her himself. Even Tidon was moved by the aspect of him.

“Good,” he cried with a smile. “That is the spirit we want. Alive, then! I count on you. Yes, indeed, alive. For, after all, what do we know. Justice may have need of this young lady.” A note of steel had crept into Tidon’s voice.

He stood up as erect as Hanaud and quietly confronting him. Were the two men ranged in opposite camps, Ricardo wondered. Certainly there was a suggestion of menace in the magistrate’s attitude, a suggestion of championship in the detective. The magistrate wanted his “good conviction”—that was not to be forgotten. On the other hand, Hanaud’s outburst might have been no more than the expression of his passion for a complete trim rounded finish to a case, with every malefactor held to atonement. He bent his head now in an unquestioning deference.

“I shall do my best.”

Tidon rang the bell and a gendarme conducted his visitors to the door of the Prefecture. Hanaud glanced up to the windows of the magistrate’s office, which were just above his head.

“That is a very clever man,” he said, with a respect which quite surprised his friend. “Yes, mark me well! A very clever man! Remember that I have said it.”

Again, was it deference, or was it opposition which dictated those words? Mr. Ricardo could not decide, was not in truth given the time to decide. For Hanaud proceeded to commit one of those offences about which the particular finical gentleman was most touchy. He gave an order to Mr. Ricardo’s chauffeur, without the merest by-your-leave.

“To the Château Suvlac,” he cried as he stepped into the car.

“It is, after all, my Rolls-Royce,” Mr. Ricardo protested indignantly.

“It might be a Ford,” Hanaud answered graciously. “You should still carry me back to the Château Suvlac.”

Mr. Ricardo jumped upon his seat. “You don’t follow me, I am afraid,” he said coldly.

“Ah, but I do!” Hanaud chuckled. He pushed a big fat finger into Ricardo’s ribs. “Yes, yes, I follow you. It is that excellent judge who does not. Ah! Ah! Ah!” and he shook his finger now at Ricardo, as though he playfully rebuked a naughty child. “We keep our little secrets—yes, yes. We pick and choose what we tell—yes, yes. But I, Hanaud, I say, No, no! We were asked a question and at once we are the startled chamois on the hill.”

“Nonsense,” Mr. Ricardo interrupted rather guiltily. “I present no resemblance to a chamois. I never did.”

“The question was,” Hanaud continued, “‘Did you notice last night any change in the charming Miss Tasborough?’—and you would not answer it. Therefore you did notice a change, my friend—and you shall tell that inquisitive old elephant of a Hanaud what that change was.”

“I have no objection to telling you,” said Mr. Ricardo, “though the change I noticed has nothing whatever to do with the case.”

“Let me be the judge. One never knows.”

“Very well, then. In London, Diana Tasborough was the mistress always. Mrs. Tasborough the shadow, the chaperon without authority. At Suvlac the positions were reversed. Mrs. Tasborough was the chatelaine, more than a little petulant, more than a little exacting; Diana the submissive, docile ward. I was astonished.”


Hanaud sat up in the car.

“But that is a big change, my friend, a very big change. Let us understand it. Something has given the older woman the mastery over her niece. She had learnt something which gave her the control, eh? Some nice quiet piece of family blackmail, eh?”

“No,” Mr. Ricardo replied. He was quite sure that that explanation wouldn’t do. He took a moment or two to put into clear words the impression which he had. “I think that Diana was occupied by some overmastering idea. You, see, there never was any rivalry between Diana and Mrs. Tasborough—never any struggle for control. Diana exercised it without question, and without question, too, Mrs. Tasborough acquiesced. It seemed to me that Diana had dropped that control as not worth bothering about, as too troublesome, as somehow interfering with whatever preoccupation possesses her. And that Mrs. Tasborough picked that control up and is making the most of it. Diana was always a little aloof; and last night it didn’t seem to me that she even noticed that she was no longer the queen, but the lady-in-waiting.”


Hanaud’s exclamation was one of comprehension rather than of surprise. “To me that is very interesting,” he added softly, and leaning back again in the car he sat mum until they drew up at the pink archway of the Château Suvlac. Then he woke to life again. As he sprang out he said:

“I shall be grateful if you will go into the house before me and say that we have returned. It may be that Miss Tasborough will be the first person you will meet. Already I have caused that young lady great distress. It might be a shock to her if when she does not expect it I come face to face with her again.”

There were moments when Hanaud displayed a quite surprising delicacy. “After all, he has not known me for nothing all these years,” Mr. Ricardo said to himself with pride. He consented to Hanaud’s plan with alacrity, and went forward alone towards the door. But half-way up the drive, he turned about and noticed that Hanaud was engaged in an earnest conversation with his chauffeur. His thoughts took on a different and censorious complexion.

“My car and my chauffeur!” he reflected now. “He behaves as if he owned them! I trust that I am not feudal, but even the liberties of a city have their bounds.”

He was a little consoled by his quip, but at the front door he turned again. The conversation at the archway was still proceeding. It dawned upon Mr. Ricardo that he had been sent forward by Hanaud not from any delicacy of sentiment, but to make an opportunity for a quite private conversation with his chauffeur. He waited in the porch accordingly until Hanaud joined him, hauteur and indignation in every line of his face. But Hanaud waved his hand airily.

“I know, I know, my friend. It was a subterfuge. Yes, my manners are all that is deplorable. But you must take me as I am. As you say very well in your idioms, you cannot make a silk purse out of a Bath chap.”

The Prisoner in the Opal - Contents    |     IX - Tells of Evelyn Devenish

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