The Prisoner in the Opal



A.E.W. Mason

HANAUD was quite genuinely relieved to find himself once more upon the open terrace of the Château Suvlac. He laughed in a low, quiet rumble of a voice which to Mr. Ricardo sounded peculiarly alarming. He nodded at Ricardo with a gleaming eye.

“You have a poem. I know him. He is a very fine poem. Life is real, life is earnest, and the grave is certainly somebody’s goal. Yes, I am of a pleasant humour. For we are nearer to the truth. Now we will see what it is that our excellent gendarme there is guarding for our inspection.”

He descended the steps and crossed the lawn to the circular flower-bed. Mr. Ricardo could now see that the objects which had puzzled him were three dishes of brown earthenware, capsized one upon the grass rim of the circle and the other two upon the mould of the bed itself. The gendarme standing near to the dishes saluted.

“It was you who discovered these marks?” Hanaud asked genially.

“Yes, monsieur. Monsieur Le Commissaire ordered me to look round the garden. When I discovered the marks I ran at once to the kitchen for the dishes to cover them.”

“Yes, that was a good idea,” said Hanaud with a smile of approval.

“But I had some difficulty in collecting them, monsieur.”

Hanaud nodded sympathetically. “Marianne,” he said, and warmed by his approval the gendarme lost something of his rigidity. He puffed out his cheeks.

“She is a prodigious woman, monsieur, if she is a woman at all. She boxed my ears, monsieur. I had the dishes in my hands. She dared me to drop them, and boxed my ears again. You understand, monsieur, that I was helpless. She said—but, pardon me, it would be an impertinence to repeat what she said.”

“You shall certainly repeat what she said,” Hanaud insisted. “There are no ladies present.” The gendarme blushed under his kepi.

“Oh, it wasn’t an impertinence of that kind. No, it was worse.”

“Nevertheless, repeat it.”

“She said: ‘And if you don’t like my boxes on the ear, you rascal, you can pass them on to your precious Monsieur Hanaud, of whom I think nothing at all.’”

The Commissaire Herbesthal was shocked, but Hanaud’s face expanded in a grin.

“I have an inclination towards Marianne,” said he. “Well, you got the dish-covers and set them here. Yes?”

“Then I found Monsieur Le Commissaire and he ordered me to keep watch so that nothing should be disturbed.”

“Good! Has anyone come about this flowerbed as if he wanted to disturb it?”

“No, monsieur.”

“That’s not so good,” said Hanaud. “Now you shall tell me your name, so that I may have it to bear in mind. Then you shall uncover one by one those marks on the ground.”

For a second time the gendarme coloured with pleasure.

“For my name, monsieur, it is Corbie—Victor Corbie, at monsieur’s service. For the marks, look!”

He knelt down and removed the dish from the rim of the grass about the flower-bed. Where it had lain the turf was broken, and just by the side of it in the mould but at the very edge was the imprint of a small foot, wearing a pointed shoe with a high heel.

“Yes,” said Mr. Ricardo, agreeing with himself. “At that point a woman’s foot has slipped.”

Victor Corbie, kneeling upon the ground, was able to reach to the second dish on the slope of the flower-bed. He lifted it and disclosed yet another footprint. Mr. Ricardo examined it from the place where he stood.

“That imprint was made by the same woman,” he declared.

“You will notice, however, that it was made by the left foot, whereas this one on the edge of the bed was made by the right foot,” said Hanaud.

“I quite agree, my dear Hanaud,” said Mr. Ricardo. “Yes, I agree.”

The Commissaire Herbesthal, who from time to time during the last hour had been staring at Mr. Ricardo, and from Mr. Ricardo to Hanaud in a maze of wonder, was now completely at a loss as to which category or department of men he belonged to. Hanaud, on the other hand, was a picture of delight.

“I am so glad that you agree,” he said.

He nodded to Victor Corbie, who hurried round the circle of the flower-bed and removed the third dish. This was nearer to the house, and, since the imprints pointed towards the river and away from the house, it was behind the other two. The mark which it disclosed was the imprint of a foot, too but of a man’s foot shod in a big nailed boot. Yet the imprint was shallower. Mr. Ricardo, however, was not deterred by observations of any subtlety. He declared boldly:

“It is obvious that a woman fled and that a man pursued her.”

Hanaud, however, was not at that moment paying the homage to Mr. Ricardo’s statements which he so often paid. He did not, indeed, seem to hear this one at all. He said:

“I think the first thing to do is to discover which one of the young ladies at the Château Suvlac ran across the flower-bed last night, if it was last night and not the night before that she ran across the flower-bed. Victor Corbie, you shall help me.”

He hurried back to the house, disappeared into the turret bedroom of Diana Tasborough, and less than a couple of minutes afterwards reappeared at the window of the drawing-room. Victor Corbie followed him. He ran back to the flower-bed, and Corbie dropped on the grass beside him three pairs of the gay kind of evening slippers which ladies use. There was a pair of brocaded satin shoes belonging to Evelyn Devenish which were a shade too large, another pair belonging to Diana Tasborough which were a shade too broad and short, and a pair of silver ones belonging to Joyce Whipple which fitted exactly.

“It is clear then,” said Hanaud, rising from his knees. “Someone wearing the slippers of Joyce Whipple ran across this lawn, slipped in the dark on the edge of the flower-bed, planted her left foot full in the mould and sprang across to the grass upon the other side. Yes—but”—and he turned the shoes over in his hand—“it was not in these delicate trifles that she ran. They have walked upon carpets, perhaps upon the terrace, but they did not plunge across the flower-bed last night.”

There was not, as they could all see, a trace of discoloration upon the fine kid or the heels. Not a shred of the mould clung to them. The arches of the insteps were as they came new from the shoemaker, the flat of the soles hardly tinged.

“These are the shoes which were left kicked here and there by Joyce Whipple in her haste last night, when she flung them off and changed her clothes.”

Hanaud turned to Corbie as he spoke and handed him back the three pairs of shoes.

“Run, my friend, and replace these quickly in the cupboard of Mademoiselle Diana from which we took them. Then do the same with the shoes of that unhappy Madame Devenish. Those of Joyce Whipple we will take along with us.”

Hanaud watched Corbie run off upon his errand with more anxiety than his consideration for the feelings of the young chatelaine of Suvlac would seem to justify. Mr. Ricardo began to tremble for her, for he had seen Hanaud at work before, and remembered that he was never so delicate and kind as just before he pounced. Corbie, indeed, had not traversed more than half of the space between the flower-bed and the house, when at last the whirr of a motor-car grew loud and stopped. Hanaud grumbled out an oath under his breath.

“I didn’t want that,” he muttered, and then, raising his voice: “Run, Corbie, run!”

He waited thus in suspense until Corbie vanished into the turret-room. Nor did he take his eyes from the terrace until he saw the gendarme again running towards them from the direction of the avenue.

“Well?” he asked quickly as Corbie reached his side. “Those two have returned, then?”

“No,” Corbie returned “It is that the news of this disaster has spread. It was the car of some neighbours who have come to leave their cards and condolences.”

Hanaud’s attitude relaxed. A great relief lightened his face.

“Good! Moreau, my friend, you shall get your plaster and make some casts of these pretty little footsteps at once. As for that big fellow, we shall see! Corbie, will you continue to run, but this time to the chais and find for me the gardener. If he is not there he will be working amongst the vines.”

Actually, the gardener, a hulking, big, clumsy fellow with a good-humoured face as red as a ripe apple, was superintending the removal of the grapes from the little carts on to the tray of the press. He came back with Corbie, and Hanaud, who was again upon his knees at the border of the flower-bed, without looking up at the gardener said the most unexpected thing.

“So after all it did rain.”

“Yes, monsieur,” the man answered. “Just what we wanted, a soft gentle fall which lasted steadily for two hours. The year will after all be a good year.”

“That’s admirable,” Hanaud commented in an absent voice. “And at what hour did the rain begin?”

“At midnight, monsieur, or a few minutes afterwards.”

Hanaud looked up alertly. “You are quite sure? It’s of an importance.”

The gardener laughed. “Oh, monsieur. I should not be likely to make a mistake. Consider! We each of us have our little patch of vines. Two hours of rain last night would make all the difference in our grapes. Instead of being shrivelled, they would be full. There was not a labourer in this district who slept well last night, I’ll warrant. From midnight until two in the morning. Yes, monsieur, a fine small-rain—God’s holy water for the vines.”

The fervent gratitude of the man and the common sense of his argument were convincing. “Very well, then! It rained from twelve to two. That is clear,” said Hanaud.

“Clear as the night was afterwards, monsieur, clear and dark,” the gardener went on, all in one voice. “And as for the mark of my great boot on the flower-bed which monsieur examines with so much care, it does not bring me within the penal code.”

Hanaud made a grimace at Mr. Ricardo of a very undignified kind. “So it is your footstep?”

“Yes, monsieur, very sure.”

“Show me!” The gardener planted his foot in the shallow imprint. It fitted exactly.

“You made it—when?” Hanaud asked.

“Yesterday, monsieur. I should have scraped it over this morning, but for these two or three days the garden must look after itself.”

“Thank you! That’s all.”

“I may go back to the chais, monsieur?”

“I even invite you to,” said Hanaud, and the gardener went with a clumsy sort of amble. Meanwhile Hanaud grinned maliciously at his friend Ricardo. “Ahahahaha! What of this fine story of a flight and a pursuit?”

Mr. Ricardo blushed. He was aware that the Commissaire was watching him with an embarrassing inquisitiveness. He lost his head altogether and launched a devastating accusation.

“It was the gardener, then, who pursued Joyce Whipple,” he declared.

“Ah!” cried Hanaud with an exuberant delight as he rose from his knees. “Now we have it then. We gum ourselves to our cannons. Our mysteries are solved. Homage to Mr. Ricardo, the mastermind!” He swept off his broad-brimmed soft felt hat and bowed to the ground. “Yes, it was the gardener. Miss Whipple—she runs away after the rain has fallen—for see the deep marks which she makes with her little shoes!—the gardener—he starts after her the day before she runs away—for see the shallower marks his heavy iron-nailed boots make in the dry soil. You see? He must catch her up. He does not run so fast as she—the clumsy fellow, but if he starts to pursue her a day before she flies—even he in the end must come up with her. Quick! The thumb-screws for the gardener, and in a moment we know all.”

Nothing could be in more deplorable taste than this exhibition of ribaldry. It was Hanaud at his worst. It was Hanaud pouncing upon the body of his friend, like a gleeful buffalo. It left Mr. Ricardo tongue-tied and spluttering. “I shall make no rejoinder,” he gasped at length.

“It is better so,” the Commissaire Herbesthal agreed.

Happily Hanaud’s mood changed very quickly. He came round to the side of the bed where the other four men were standing. He looked at the little footsteps and from the footsteps back to the glass door of the turret-room.

“Consider how I am puzzled,” he said. “At some time after two o’clock in the morning, Joyce Whipple runs in great haste across the lawn, blunders into the flower-bed and goes on. I fix the time, because the footprints are so exact and clear. It was certainly after the rain had been falling for some time and had made the mould soft and—is there a word?—cohesive. It was almost certainly after the rain had ceased, otherwise those clear imprints would be spotted and blurred. Well, then! At half-past two someone flicks past the library window, vanishes into Mademoiselle Tasborough’s room, locks the door, and waits in a panic with fingers ready upon the electric-light switch. I ask myself, was Joyce Whipple indeed pursued—and caught by someone”—and he dropped the next words slowly one by one—“who had the right of entry into Miss Tasborough’s room?”

There could be no doubt as to whom Hanaud was suggesting. But Mr. Ricardo could not reconcile the suggestion with the little clamour of grief which broke from Robin Webster when Joyce Whipple’s disappearance was discovered. But for the moment he had had enough of advancing theories and making explanations. Moreover, he saw Hanaud looking at him with a very troubled air.

“After all, were you right, my friend? Did something terrible happen in this garden just before you stole to the library for a book?”

“No cry was heard,” said the Commissaire.

“That is true,” Hanaud agreed, “and on a still night a cry would have been heard a long way off. Yes!” He stood with a look of discomfort upon his face for a few moments and then shrugged his big shoulders. “Let us follow the line of these footsteps. They cannot lead us into a worse tangle than we’re in already.”

He left Moreau to pour a liquid plaster into the imprints, and, with Corbie carrying Joyce Whipple’s shoes, went on. Mr. Ricardo noticed that the line he took began at the turret door and led diagonally across the garden to the flower-bed. Beyond the flower-bed it ran towards the river, passing just under the branches of the last trees of the avenue. Hanaud walked along slowly with his eyes upon the ground and his tongue grumbling.

“Women used to be helpful when I was a young man. They wore pins—pins in their hair and pins in their clothes—and they dropped them everywhere the moment they began to run about. Ah!” and he stopped to point to the little hole made by a high heel, and went on again: “They wore skirts too, which caught in things and left a bit behind. Now they’ve got their clothes made like gloves and—oh!”—he had discovered another stab in the grass from a narrow heel. “We’re on the right line, anyway”; and under the boughs of the trees at the end of the avenue he came to a definite halt.

His companions stopped beside him, and without a word he pointed to the ground. Underneath the boughs, the turf was softer than in the open. The sun could not bake it, and the trees dripped upon it long after the rain had ceased. And in this stretch of damp and yielding grass the two small footprints were completely visible again, but side by side and close together, as if something just at this point had brought the fugitive to a stop and held her there stunned.

“Yes, she was startled here and stopped dead, suddenly,” said Hanaud. “Corbie, young man, make it sure for us.”

Corbie knelt down and stood up the glittering slippers in the tracks, and again they fitted exactly; and not one of those who watched but had a clear swift vision which appalled them. The vision of a girl fleeing in terror and arrested in full flight and standing in the dark under the boughs, her feet pressed together, her body tense with fear, her heart fluttering and fainting in her breast and a cry just checked upon her lips.

Hanaud took his stand just behind the footprints and looked forward. He was looking straight towards the little dock which had been constructed at the river-side. Mr. Ricardo uttered a cry. “Of course! Of course! The gabare!”

Hanaud turned upon him in a flash.

“The gabare which serves the château from Bordeaux, La Belle Simone. It was here in its harbour yesterday with stores. It was to start on its return voyage with the change of the tide in the early morning at six. Yes, I talked with the captain yesterday afternoon—at six. Joyce Whipple was running for sanctuary to the gabare.”

“Then why did she stop here beneath the trees, at half-past two?” Hanaud asked of him, but now eagerly, without a trace of irony or ridicule in his voice.

Mr. Ricardo was not at a loss for an explanation. “She saw the pole of the mast against the sky, perhaps a lantern too, swinging in the rigging. From here to the harbour a few strides. She knew that she was safe.”

Mr. Ricardo’s voice revealed the immensity of his relief. He had a very strong wish that no harm should come to the warm-hearted and extremely decorative young lady who had poured out to him her apprehensions for her friend on a summer night in London. She was safe—that was the conviction which cheered him—safe on the gabare, and by this time very near to its mooring against the quay at Bordeaux. But Hanaud did not share his convictions. He stood in a moody silence with his lips pursed and his forehead all wrinkled in a frown.

“That man won’t believe anything unless he has discovered it himself,” Mr. Ricardo reflected, irritated, and at the same time disappointed. For if Hanaud disbelieved, he might have a reason for disbelief.

“Let us see!” said Hanaud. “I invite you all to stand exactly where you are.”

He went on alone, more slowly than ever and searching the ground with even a greater deliberation. At every step he took Ricardo expected an invitation to go forward. None came. Hanaud continued his examination to the dockside, and there he stayed a long time, running backwards and forwards. Then throwing up his hands in a gesture of discouragement, he hurried back.

“She stopped here!” he said, pointing to the shoes, planted side by side. “Beyond not a mark. By the side of the harbour there is muddy gravel where at high tide the water has splashed over. There if anywhere there would be footprints to match those. But there’s not a trace of them. Heavy shoes bound with iron—yes, but those slips of things—no! Mademoiselle Joyce Whipple went no nearer to the dock than this spot on which we stand. Wait.”

He cast about first towards the marshy ground and the river, and then under the trees. A broad gravel path ran down the middle of the avenue and, narrowing to less than half its width at the end, curved off to the right towards the dock. Just where the turf met the gravel path he came across the footprints again. He summoned his companions to him with a gesture. The right foot was pointing towards the path and was on the edge of the turf. The left foot was drawn back behind it and pointed towards the tiny harbour, the two imprints making an obtuse angle.

“We can read the story a little more clearly now,” he said. “That young girl—she runs from the house in a panic across the lawn. Her frightened eyes are glancing back continually over her shoulder, and she blunders into the flower-bed, she crosses it, she continues to run until something startles her, paralyses her. She recovers and turns aside to the cover of the trees, running now, oh, so lightly—on the tips of her toes, her feet skimming the grass. Once under the shelter of the branches, she halts, for the moment secure, and stands firm, but looking back—yes—looking towards the dock.” He put his hypothesis to the best proof he could think of. Taking care not to disturb the marks upon the grass, he acted the movements which he had been describing. And when he halted, his feet fell naturally into precisely the same angle as that made by the footprints of Joyce Whipple.

“Yes,” he repeated with a greater assurance, “she looked again and for some time in the direction of the harbour—to make sure of—what?”

All sorts of grim pictures rose before Mr. Ricardo’s eyes. Perhaps she had seen dimly the basket put aboard the gabare, and had somehow guessed the horror which it hid. Perhaps she had seen Evelyn Devenish murdered and her hand chopped off brutally with an axe. He had a vision of the patron and his two sons obeying the relentless commands of—But before Ricardo could fix upon the identity of the commander, a little cry of triumph broke from Hanaud’s lips. He stood gazing out over the river, he, too, stunned, but by an inspiration not a panic.

“Very sure!” he exclaimed, his voice gusty with excitement, “very sure!” He ran back to the spot where the shoes gleamed side by side upon the grass, and stood behind them. “You shall tell me I grow old,” he shouted to Ricardo. “Yes, yes! That poor Hanaud! His brains are all wool and cherry-jam! It must be so! Ohoho!”

It was almost as much to stop the indecency of Hanaud’s ostentation as to gratify his curiosity that Mr. Ricardo felt it necessary to interrupt.

“Shall we take it for granted that all the bouquets are now thrown and get on with our business?” he suggested a trifle acidly, and Hanaud bowed to the ground.

“We shall do just what milor’ wishes. We shall hope to satisfy milor’. We are milor’s servants. Milor’, the carriage waits,” and he scraped and grimaced like a boy in the gutter. Certainly, Mr. Ricardo reflected, Hanaud was insufferable in his moments of elation. Happily they did not on this occasion last long. He slipped out of his motley.

“It was not what Joyce Whipple saw that held her here and set the chains about her feet. No, my friend. It was what she didn’t see. She runs straight as a stretched cord from the house to the gabare. Her chance of sanctuary—yes, no doubt. And suddenly here, at the end of the avenue, the dock’s in view. There is no gabare. It has put out.”

“Before its time?”


“And against the tide?”



“Can’t we all make a guess?” Hanaud answered gravely, and had no need to be more explicit. The two boys playing by the river in the early morning, the basket with its tragic load gently rocking upon the ripples of the water and slowly washing nearer and nearer to the bank nine miles nearer to the sea—those particulars returned to the memory of Hanaud’s audience and offered a reason for the precipitate departure of the gabare to which no one could be blind.

“Mr. Ricardo,” Hanaud continued gravely, “it is said in all your treatises and books that there is one great difference between the police of England and the police of France. Where you cautiously proceed from fact to fact, we overleap the facts and trust to intuitions. Well, certainly I trust one now. Here she stood, that young lady, whilst her heart fluttered down in despair. Then she turns. She must seek some other refuge. She runs for the avenue where the trees will hide her; and as she reaches it, she stops and casts one look back towards the port. Perhaps, after all, her eyes misled her. Perhaps, after all, the pole of the mast is outlined against the sky. But, no! And she is off!”

He made a sweep with his arm towards the gravel path. Mr. Ricardo himself was carried away by the conviction and the fire of his friend. He did not doubt that his was the real true explanation. Joyce Whipple had flown in terror up that avenue. He began to piece together the facts which he knew with this conjecture of which he was confident; and suddenly such a load of remorse bowed him down that all his companions were concerned for him. He turned pale, he stood trembling, a man aghast.

“What is it?” asked Hanaud, running to his side and supporting him by the arm. “You are ill? No, no!”

“No, I am not ill. I am ashamed,” Mr. Ricardo stammered. “You see, it might have been Joyce Whipple who whipped past me on the terrace—after she had fled from here up the avenue. Suppose that it was! Suppose that it was she who slipped into the turret-room! Suppose that for some reason we don’t know the room was empty when she did! Suppose that it was Joyce who locked the door and waited in terror with her fingers on the switch! Suppose that after she had turned the light out, she crept upstairs to her room! You remember the tumbled bed and the question you asked: ‘Was she taken away from that room against her will?’ Well, then—I could have saved her. Yes, I could. I had but to come straight out of the library on to the terrace when she flashed past, and show her who I was.”

“She would not have waited to see,” argued Hanaud.

“I might have spoken through the glass door after the light went out. But I didn’t! I let her think that I was one of the hunters . . . I was nervous and—” He broke off suddenly and stood erect. “Nervous! No! I was afraid. I could have saved Joyce last night, but I was afraid.”

Mr. Ricardo’s outburst made everyone uncomfortable. Hanaud patted him gently on the shoulder.

“But Joyce—she is not lost yet,” he said.

Mr. Ricardo would not be consoled. In a minute or two he would have made a luxury out of his cowardice, but happily Corbie, the gendarme, at this moment discovered yet another perplexity to add to this tangled affair.

“Monsieur Hanaud,” he cried, his eyes starting out of his head and his voice one hoarse note of excitement. “Look! Look!”

He was standing in the open space at the end of the avenue, a few yards from the others of that party, and with an outstretched shaking arm, he pointed to the lower branches of a tree.

The Prisoner in the Opal - Contents    |     XII - The Mask

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