They were still contemplating this extraordinary spectacle when some breath of wind blew aside the spray which hid the eyes; and it was at once visible that though there were long black eyelashes, as silken as the lashes of a lovely girl, there were no eyes. The face was a mask, but of an artistry which was exquisite and astounding.
“We must have that down,” said Hanaud.
It was not so high above their heads but that his crook-handled stick could fetch it down. It fell on to the grass and he picked it up. It was just a papier-mache mask—nothing more. But he handed it to Victor Corbie and said: “Put it on!”
Victor Corbie dropped his kepi on the ground, and with a grin of delight overspreading his bucolic face, slipped the mask over his face and head; and at once from a good-humoured, grinning yokel, he became a thing of horror, a thing to fly from in a panic. Mr. Ricardo could not believe that so complete a transformation was possible. The mask, fixed though the features were, lived—yes, lived. The bright red hair gave to it a final touch of uncanny force. Whichever way Corbie turned, the mask never leered. On the contrary, it was beautiful and very sad—the long black fine lashes gave to even Corbie’s staring eyes the sadness of all the ages. It would have been a fit mask for the Wandering Jew, but for one attribute it had. It was wicked—beautiful and sad and abominably wicked—a mask, in a word, for Satan. Such was its effect that, even when Corbie had removed it from his head, one at all events of the men watching him wondered for a time whether he was not some demon masquerading as a peasant who had vouchsafed him a glimpse of his real aspect.
“We shall take great care of this mask, Monsieur Le Commissaire,” Hanaud said, wrapping it up in a great coloured handkerchief which he pulled from his pocket. “There are only two men in the world, I think, who can make such masks as this. One of them is in America. The other is to be found in a studio in the back of the Haymarket in London. We shall soon know which of them made this, and for whom. Meanwhile, I beg that no one will speak of it.” He looked from face to face to impress his command upon them all, and continued with a quiet solemnity which Mr. Ricardo had only once or twice heard him use before: “For this crime of the Château Suvlac has, I think, a good deal in common with this mask. I mean, that when all at last is discovered, we shall find it to have been an inhuman and malignant business. It was pitiless, I believe. So we, in our turn, shall be pitiless too.” Mr. Ricardo shivered.