The Prisoner in the Opal


Tells of Evelyn Devenish

A.E.W. Mason

FOR half an hour Hanaud was busy with the Commissary Herbesthal and his own assistant Moreau, in a room which had been put aside for them. Mr. Ricardo, left to his own devices and being in a maze of doubts, speculations, prejudices and ignorance, snatched some luncheon and set himself down in the library in front of the window. Half-way between the terrace and the hedge at the bottom of the garden a gendarme stood sentinel at the edge of a round flower-bed. There were three little brown mounds on the surface of the bed, as though a mole had been at work; and the thought of that industrious animal became to Julius Ricardo a reproach and an inspiration. He took a sheet of paper from the stand to make a table for his own guidance. He drew a dividing line down the middle of the sheet, set the facts, so far as he knew them, upon the left-hand side, and his questions and suspicions upon the right. After half an hour of laborious breathing and deep cogitation, he had produced the following compendium; upon the top of which he wrote the rather pretentious legend: “The Affair at the Château Suvlac”—so:


(1) A crime has been committed. For young ladies do not stab themselves to the heart, cut off their hands, put themselves into baskets, and throw basket, themselves and all into a river unaided. This is true.
(2) The victim is a young woman, Evelyn Devenish, who is or has been married, but wears no wedding-ring. Important to discover at the earliest moment Evelyn D.’s antecedents.
(3) So far, no motive for the crime has been discovered or suggested.  
(4) So far, the severed hand has not been found. Question (i): Why was the hand severed after death? Or at all?
(5) Another guest at the. Château Suvlac disappeared upon the same night, an American girl, Joyce Whipple, and a gold bracelet which she was wearing was found in E.D.’s basket.
A very unusual occurrence.
Question (ii): Was J. W. present when E. D was basketed, and did the bracelet become unfastened and fall unnoticed in the horror of the moment?
(6) My observation assured me that E. D had a great ill-will towards J. W and would gladly have seen her dead. On the face of it, therefore, it would have been more probable that J. W should be murdered by E. D., than E. D by J. W.
(7) When E. D betrayed by a glance of hatred her feelings towards J. W., Robin Webster was seated close to J. W in a rather caressing attitude.  
(8) When the fact of J.W.’s disappearance became known, Robin Webster uttered a cry of grief and dismay. (7) and (8) might have provided a motive for the murder of J. W by E. D., if the two girls were rivals for the young man. But no motive for the murder of E. D by J. W., since J. W was the successful rival.
(9) Since E. D.’s bed was undisturbed and there was no noise in the house, it looks as if she had left the house and was murdered outside. But when? The lights which I saw in the white house on the hill at two o’clock in the morning have been explained by the Juge d’Instruction.
(10) It appears that Joyce Whipple did not sleep in her room either, and it becomes necessary to consider her position in this case.  
(11) Her first statement to me in London about the letters which she had received from Diana; which, according to Hanaud, may be explained either:
  1. She wished to prepare me for what was to happen at the Château Suvlac, for some purpose of her own;
  2. She was a hysterical person;
  3. She was just speaking the truth.
With regard to (a) Tidon, the Juge d’Instruction, would probably accept it. But he wants a good conviction.

With regard to (b) no; she was not hysterical.

With regard to (c) you cannot any longer scoff at telepathy. It is a fact.

(12) Joyce Whipple is generally held to be a rich American girl. Yet she spoke of herself as Cinderella.  
(13) She might have been kidnapped. Why?
(14) She might have run away. Why?
(15) There remains Diana Tasborough for consideration. She was both astounded and horrified at the murder of E. D and the disappearance of J. W. Women criminals are admirable actresses. All police authorities agree.
(16) Her docility to her aunt showed that she had some great obsession. Quite.
(17) She has a picture over her bed which gave Hanaud an idea. Mem. I must see that picture as soon as I can.
(18) A light was burning in her room at half-past two in the morning. When I knocked upon the glass door it went out extraordinarily quickly. Very suspicious.
(19) In view of the surprising difficulties of the case, judgment must be suspended, But some questions must be borne in mind. Yes, eg. (i) Why was Evelyn Devenish’s hand chopped off?

As Mr. Ricardo wrote those last ineffectual words Hanaud’s voice spoke above his shoulders.

“So there we are! We suspend the judgment! To be sure. What else can we do when we have no judgment even to suspend? And some questions must be borne in the mind. How very, very true that is.”

Mr. Ricardo flushed and looked up haughtily. “I made these notes solely for my own guidance.”

“They are there, just as valuable as if they had been made to guide me.”

“And, quite uninvited, you read them across my shoulder.”

“Not as well as I could wish,” Hanaud answered imperturbably, as he reached forward and gathered the sheets in his hand. “You permit? But, of course! What a question!”

Indeed it had been Mr. Ricardo’s intention to present this little summary of his inconclusions to Hanaud at some dramatic moment. For he realized that the inspector of the Surete would need all the help he could get from his friends before he cut to the core of his difficult problem. And he was pleased with his notes. The form of them with the dividing line had a literary flavour. There were some pages of Robinson Crusoe, casting up the “fors” and “againsts” in the same judicial spirit. Nevertheless he was a little nervous as he watched Hanaud reading them. He had been jeered at and trampled upon before very unceremoniously. He was delighted, therefore, to see that his friend read them slowly and with a serious face.

When he had done, Hanaud folded the sheets and handed them back with a little smile of appreciation.

“You shall put them in your pocket, and keep them safe, so that no one sees them but you and I. For I tell you, Mr. Ricardo, you almost write down there one most important question.”

Mr. Ricardo, on the other hand, was conscious that he had written down not one but many important questions, and there was no “almost,” either, about his way of putting them. They were direct, short and pithy—models of questions. But, of course, Hanaud would never admit any really high merit in another. That was very, very far from the habit of his mind. Ricardo was accustomed to make an allowance for this defect in his friend the inspector, and he smiled indulgently.

“You refer, of course, to the question why Evelyn Devenish’s hand was brutally hacked off after her death.”

To his surprise, Hanaud shook his head vigorously. “No. That is a question—yes, but it leaps to the eyes that is a question.”

Mr. Ricardo pulled his notes out of his pocket and studied them thoughtfully.

“It is, then, the question of Evelyn Devenish’s antecedents,” he remarked, and was wrong again.

“No. The question you approached was much more subtle than that. As for Madame Devenish’s antecedents—they come under the heading of routine. I think, indeed, we shall learn something definite about them at once—for Mademoiselle Tasborough has recovered from the shock of the bad news which I brought to her, and is good enough to receive us.”

He unlatched the door between the library and the drawing-room and passed in with Ricardo at his heels. The room, however, was empty, and Hanaud stopped abruptly. The long windows stood open upon the terrace, and Hanaud with his noiseless step approached them and peered cautiously out. He returned to Mr. Ricardo with an odd smile upon his lips.

“It was just as well that I did not read your notes out aloud, my friend,” he said in a low voice. “We spoke of what? The hand cut off—yes—and Evelyn Devenish’s antecedents—that was all.”

He was clearly relieved, and now raised his voice a trifle above his usual compass.

“We shall no doubt find that young lady upon the terrace,” and he stepped out at the window.

Mr. Ricardo understood Hanaud’s anxiety when he followed him. For Diana was sitting upon a garden seat close by the open window of the library, and not a word which they had spoken, but she must have overheard it. She raised her head, however, without the slightest embarrassment. Though her face was still pale, her manner was collected, and she could even summon up the ghost of a smile. Only her eyes had the unmistakable look which comes with grave illness or immeasurable trouble.

“I am sorry that I made such an idiot of myself this morning, Monsieur Hanaud,” she said,

“Oh, mademoiselle, the regrets must come from me. To discover with so harsh a precipitancy that of two great friends one is lying mutilated and dead in a common mortuary, and the other has vanished, would tax anyone of sensibility.”

Hanaud was speaking with the formality which became his position, but to Mr. Ricardo’s thinking he was repeating the fault for which he apologized. Diana replied with a slight hesitation: “You speak of two great friends, Monsieur Hanaud. But in an affair so serious it is best to be exact. I’ll admit to you that when your assistant told me that the girl who was dead was Evelyn Devenish, I did feel, heartless though it may sound, a considerable relief. For Joyce is one of my very dearest friends.”

“Who shall blame you, mademoiselle?” Hanaud answered gently. “Let us after all admit that we are human.”

“Your assistant, monsieur—”

“Moreau,” Hanaud interposed as she paused.

“Yes. Monsieur Moreau told me at the same time that you wanted to see me. Won’t you sit down? And you too, of course, Mr. Ricardo.” She turned to him for the first time during this interview, but though her lips counterfeited a faint smile, her eyes as they met his were hard as iron.

“If I am not in the way,” said Ricardo in some confusion. There was no doubting her hostility. She was putting him down as a busybody who was clinging to the skirts of his beloved detective and poking his nose into matters much too momentous for so inconsiderable a person.

“It is for Monsieur Hanaud to say who is in the way, and who not,” she answered coldly; and Hanaud came to the unfortunate man’s rescue.

“Mr. Ricardo has already been of service this morning, in more ways than one,” he said with a gentle remonstrance to which Diana Tasborough made no response whatever.

The two men drew up a couple of iron garden chairs to Diana’s bench and sat themselves down.

“Now, mademoiselle,” Hanaud began briskly. “This young Madame Devenish was not, I gather, a great friend of yours, but she was your guest here, and no doubt you will know something of her history.”

“Of course,” she returned. But she was silent for at least a minute, looking at Hanaud with speculation and at Mr. Ricardo as though he did not exist, and so back again to Hanaud.

“I want you to spare her memory as much as you can,” Diana resumed in a sudden outburst. “She had of late years a most unhappy life. That indeed is why I asked her to stay with me this year at Suvlac. She was the daughter of Dennis Blackett, a financier of extremely wide interests and enormous wealth, a very good friend, I believe, and like so many men who are very good friends, a remorseless enemy. I don’t think Evelyn had much chance from the beginning.”

“He hated her?” Hanaud asked.

“On the contrary, he doted on her. Her mother died when she was six or seven; she was an only child, and she grew up amongst governesses and servants who had to obey every whim of hers or lose their jobs. Dennis Blackett made an idol of her. He named his yacht after her, and his crack filly and his prize Jersey cow, and an orchid of his own creation, and whilst she was still a child, she presided at his table. He flattered her beauty to her face. Nothing that she did was anything but uncommon; nothing that she said was anything but witty. And that wasn’t the end of his adoration. There was something fantastic in it—oh, even that doesn’t express what I mean! There was something abnormal in it. Yes, Dennis Blackett, with his hard city head, was silly in contact with Evelyn. I’ll give you an instance. I saw it happen myself, for I once stayed in his house—” Diana broke off suddenly. “But you want, of course, to hear about the marriage, not about these trifles.”

“The marriage afterwards—yes,” Hanaud pleaded earnestly. “But these details first, if you please. You call them trifles, mademoiselle. I don’t. For just such trifles build character. And how shall we reach the truth in a case so obscure, unless we understand something of the people concerned in it, of the what-they-have-been which has made them what-they-are.”

Ricardo had seldom seen Hanaud so eager, so insinuatingly insistent as he was at this moment. He sat leaning with his elbows upon his knees, his strong face and alert posture both claiming Diana’s narrative. “The instance, if you please.” Diana nodded her consent and resumed. “Well, then, here it is. Dennis Blackett had a great house in Morven on the Sound of Mull. The house had a high staircase with broad shallow treads all in dark gleaming oak. It was a fancy of his—no, fancy’s altogether too light a word—it was a passion of his to see Evelyn, dressed in her prettiest clothes, step daintily down this staircase. He would stand at the bottom of the stairs in the hall, and correct her just like a dancing-master if she stepped awkwardly or made an uneasy gesture, and send her back to the landing to begin all over again. Of course she made a very pretty picture, slim and fresh and young, glistening in her lovely clothes against the dark background, but the whole scene made me—what shall I say?—uncomfortable. It struck me as all wrong. Do you understand me?”

“Yes,” Hanaud replied.

“And you understand too, then, that Evelyn must have been an angel with silver wings if she hadn’t grown up vain, utterly self-willed and ready to repay his folly in the way such follies are repaid. Evelyn’s twenty-first birthday fell in the month of August. Dennis Blackett brought a great party of his friends up to Morven to celebrate it. For a week before her birthday the house was packed. They shot grouse by day, danced at night and kept high festival. I was there, and I could hardly imagine a man so absurdly happy and so absurdly proud as Dennis Blackett. Until the morning of Evelyn’s birthday. A message was brought to each one of his guests at breakfast-time; no one saw him; and by the afternoon the house was empty but for him. Late on the night before Evelyn and Julian Devenish, a young man who owed everything to Blackett, had slipped down to the small harbour of the Sound, sailed across in a little sloop to Oban and taken the first train to London, where they were married.”

“And this Monsieur Blackett never forgave that treachery,” Hanaud interposed.

“Never. I told you he was a relentless enemy. He swept Evelyn out of his life altogether. He remained alone in his great house in Morven until the late autumn. Then he came down to London, and methodically set to work to ruin Devenish. Oh, it wasn’t much and it didn’t take long. If you dealt with Devenish, you see, you didn’t deal with Dennis Blackett. If you were interested in any of Devenish’s concerns, you were liable to find your shares knocked about from day to day until they went to nothing. The little swansdown pill-box of a house in Mayfair went piecemeal. One of a row of red cottages at Surbiton took its place. Then that went in its turn and three rooms at Sydenham had to make a home for the girl of the shimmering frocks and the oak staircase at Morven. There were quarrels without end, of course, each one blaming the other. Within a year Devenish was stripped bare and blew his brains out.”

“And even that wasn’t enough,” Hanaud added. There was a note of reluctant admiration in his voice. He lived in a contact so close with the shifty volatile mind of the criminal, that he could not but respect thoroughness, even if it were a thoroughness in cruelty.

“No, that wasn’t enough,” Diana agreed. “Evelyn wrote to her father. She was absolutely destitute. She was answered by a clerk and a typewritten letter. Every quarter, if she applied for it, she would receive one hundred and twenty-five pounds for the rest of her life. That was three years ago. Evelyn could live cheaper on the Continent than in England. She went abroad and I met her, for the first time since her birthday party in Scotland, this summer at Biarritz.”

“She was—you will forgive the question—alone?”

“Terribly alone.”

“And you came upon her in the Casino, I suppose?”

Diana seemed to be upon the point of saying “Yes”; but she reflected for a moment and then answered: “No. Let me seel It certainly wasn’t in the Casino. I think that it was upon the golf-links. She had some lodging in the cheaper part of the town, and I asked her to stay with me and then brought her on here.”

“Mademoiselle, that was generous,” Hanaud observed with a little bow. “Now you shall tell me about your real friend, the American, Joyce Whipple.”

Diana Tasborough threw up her hands in a gesture of despondency. “It is curious, Monsieur Hanaud, but I know much less about my real friend than I do about my acquaintance. That she and her sister are alone in the world, that they came over from America two years ago, that they have an oil-well on their land in California, that the sister married recently and returned to America—the whole world knows as much as I do. Joyce was always very reticent about herself—even to me. She was full of enthusiasm for the things she was doing and seeing over here, and the people whom she met. But about herself and her home, you couldn’t get her to talk of them.”

“Yes, that is curious,” Hanaud agreed, but he did not press Diana with any more questions. He rose from his chair and spoke gratefully. “I must thank you, mademoiselle. What you have told me will be of the greatest help. I make a little recommendation to you in return. Telegrams must be sent both to America and to this inexorable Monsieur Blackett—” He broke off from his recommendation to interject—“Do you know, I have a great sympathy with that stern man? All that devotion, foolish no doubt but frank, and for reward first the treachery, then this miserable end. It will be right that he should hear the bad news from you, before the newspapers tell it to him. It is the only bright spot, eh? that at Suvlac we are far from the newspapers. I recommend, therefore, that mademoiselle put herself into her car and drive to Pauillac or whatever telegraph office is nearest, and send off the messages herself. It will give mademoiselle something to do.”

Diana looked at him with unbelieving eyes. Then a light shone in her eyes and the blood rushed in a torrent into her face. “Ah, you are happy that I ask you to go upon this errand,” Hanaud observed with a smile.

“Happy—no. Glad—yes—immensely glad,” she answered in a sort of eager confusion. “To sit here useless on this terrace watching the Gironde, and that sentinel by the flower-bed, with one’s hands idle and one’s thoughts going round and round in a circle! Oh, terrible! Thank you! I’ll get my hat”; and she sprang up, restored to life and animation, and ran off through the open window into the drawing-room.

Mr. Ricardo had strolled away to the edge of the terrace occupied with a little struggle of his own. He was quite aware of Diana’s dislike for and disdain of him, and was inclined to think the worse of her in consequence. On the other hand he was a susceptible person and her immense relief at being given something to do moved him. He was thus in two minds whether to warn Hanaud with some such subtle question as, “Are you wise to let her go off without a gendarme in the car to take care of her?” or to congratulate him upon his delicate consideration. Mr. Ricardo’s higher nature, however, got the upper hand of him; and as Hanaud joined him, he said encouragingly: “That was very thoughtful of you, my friend.”

“Yes, yes,” Hanaud answered. “It was very thoughtful of me.”

“The drive in the fresh air will do her a world of good.”

“Yes, yes, and we shall have the house to ourselves, and that will do us a world of good too,” said Hanaud with a grin.

Mr. Ricardo turned round with a start. So that was the aim which had prompted all this show of delicate feeling! But he said nothing in criticism of this duplicity. He stood on the contrary with his mouth open. For he was looking now into the drawing-room and he saw a man there talking to Diana. The man stood with his back to the long window and well within the shadow of the room, so that it was easy to mistake him. Mr. Ricardo, however, had not a shred of doubt.

“So, after all, he is here,” he cried in a low voice.

“Who?” Hanaud asked, swinging round towards the window.

“Why, look! The examining judge, Monsieur Tidon.”

“Oh!” said Hanaud slowly in a dry voice. “So that is Monsieur Tidon, is it?” and at that moment the man turned round.

It was not the examining judge at all, but merely Mr. Robin Webster, the manager of the vineyard. He came to the window.

“Monsieur Hanaud, if you don’t want me I’ll drive with Miss Tasborough into Pauillac. The work at the vats can go on without me. There are overseers of experience. It is true that with my hand crippled like this,” and he glanced down at his arm supported in a sling, “I shall not be of much use for driving. But after the shock which Miss Tasborough had this morning, I’m not very easy about her driving herself alone. I want no more tragedies in the Château Suvlac.”

“I understand that very well, Monsieur Webster,” Hanaud replied. Nothing could have been more cordial and kindly than his manner. “By all means drive that young lady into Pauillac and help her with her telegrams. And for yourself. You will not think me guilty of an impertinence. No. But I heard your little cry of distress this morning. You shall not lose heart, hein? We shall try to find for you your little friend with the charming name,” and he clapped Robin Webster on the shoulder heartily.

“I shall not lose heart,” Webster asserted. But his face was convulsed with a spasm of pain and grief. “But, oh, be quick! Be quick!” he cried in a low voice. “We are all near to breaking-point in this house.” He recovered himself in a moment, and coloured as a man will when he is caught in a display of emotion.

“I am afraid, too, that your wounded hand is giving you a great deal of pain,” said Hanaud gravely.

“It throbs, of course, as such wounds will. But it is only for a day or two. If that were the sum of our troubles here, we should not think much of them,” Robin Webster replied with a shrug of the shoulders, and turned to another topic. “You will perhaps speak to Monsieur Le Commissaire Herbesthal, so that we may take out the car from the garage.”

Hanaud stepped back in astonishment. “But certainly I will, although there is no need. Monsieur Herbesthal will not interfere with you. You go of course where you will, and Mademoiselle Tasborough too.”

He hurried into the house and to the room in the wing where the Commissaire sat making his report. He was back again upon the terrace with an agility which quite belied his lamentations over his age, and found Mr. Ricardo deep in thought.

“I have been reflecting,” he said. “I am obviously unwelcome to Miss Tasborough. It is right that I have my bags packed and return to Bordeaux.”

But Hanaud would not hear a word of any such conduct. “Listen! This is not a moment for the dignities! No—I detain you, I, Hanaud. I will make myself clear upon that point to Mademoiselle Tasborough. Let the inestimable Thomson put one of your paper collars in your bag, and I arrest you very severely. You shall pack your sensibilities into the bag, but nothing more. That is understood. One paper collar—one arrest. For you are of use to me—do you appreciate that?” He used a tone of wonder which was quite natural and sincere. Yes, he was astonished that Mr. Ricardo could help him. But there it was. He looked his companion over and saw nothing which could explain the remarkable fact.

“Yes,” he repeated, “Hanaud is actually helped by this Mr. Ricardo.”

Mr. Ricardo smiled modestly. He was immensely relieved that he was not to be allowed to retire from this tragic embroglio where every hour brought its new thrill, its new mystification. “Once more,” he said to himself with a lifting heart, “I chase criminals to their doom. They are cubbing in the Midlands. Let them cub!”

“Help you is a big word,” he said with a totally false diffidence. “I have had the good fortune to reveal a few strange facts to you—”

“More than that,” said Hanaud, and he himself fell into a troubled muse.

Mr. Ricardo was buoyant.

“More than that?” he exclaimed. “For instance?”

“For instance—yes,” and Hanaud came out of his muse. He slipped his arm through Ricardo’s and bent his eyes closely upon him. “For instance, what made you mistake just now the unhappy Robin Webster for the Juge d’Instruction? They are both more or less of the same build to be sure. The hair of one is growing a little grey; the hair of the other is white, though, again, it would not look so very white in the shadow of the room. Yes, yes. But you sprang at your conjecture very confidently. You clung to it. You would have it so. There in that room was Monsieur Tidon. Now, why were you so sure? Can you tell me? Think well!” and he shook Ricardo’s arm that he might think the better.

Mr. Ricardo went over in his mind this and that detail. Yes, undoubtedly he had been very sure. Clothes? No. Monsieur Tidon had worn a black coat, and Robin Webster a—a—a—brown one. Certainly not a black one. Why then had he been so sure?

“No,” he said at last. “I cannot tell you why.”

“Yet nothing more illuminating to me has happened since this morning than that cry of yours,” Hanaud continued. “For without that cry I should not have seen—”


Hanaud wrinkled up his nose in a grimace. “What I did see. I tell you, my friend. In this case you are the germ-carrier. I get the disease and you give it to me without knowing what you are doing.”

Mr. Ricardo drew his arm sharply away. “That is a most unseemly metaphor,” he said, and stopped. For Hanaud was not listening to him. His hand was raised, his head inclined towards the house. The silence was broken by the throb and whine of a motor-car.

“They have gone,” cried Hanaud. “Let us be quick.”

The Prisoner in the Opal - Contents    |     X - Three Rooms

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