Corbie picked up the slippers and hurried off upon his duty up the avenue. The rest of the search-party followed at a slower pace.
They had come to within twenty yards of the house when a smallish, round man in a cassock with a purple sash about his waist stepped out from the window of the drawing-room and looked carefully about him. There was something curiously secret in his manner. Hanaud, though he seemed sunk fathoms deep in his own thoughts, saw him on the instant. He stopped, and with a gesture stopped the others.
“Who is that?” he asked in a low voice.
“The Abbé Fauriel,” the Commissaire Herbesthal replied.
“Oh, yes!” said Hanaud.
But he did not resume his walk.
“Let no one move,” he whispered; and, screened by the trees, they watched the Abbé’s movements.
He walked on the tips of his toes to the edge of the terrace, and turning about scanned the upper windows of the two turrets. Assured that no one was watching him from those points of vantage, he moved along the stone flags in the direction of the avenue, but slowly, with his eyes bent on the ground like a man pondering an abstraction. When, however, his pacing had brought him opposite to the glass door of the dining-room, he became all at once alert again. He peered into the room, raising himself up on the balls of his feet so that he might see the better, and then, crossing the terrace with a little noiseless, tripping run, he pressed his face against the glass.
“This is all very peculiar,” Mr. Ricardo whispered with displeasure. Furtiveness in an Abbé was by no means an agreeable sight to him.
“Hush!” said Hanaud; and then to himself: “I wonder how long he has been waiting in the drawing-room to offer his condolences?”
The Commissaire answered him.
“Monsieur l’Abbé has not been waiting at all. No, indeed! He would have something to say, I think, if he was kept waiting. Oh! He is an authoritative one, the Abbé. He has already seen the ladies of Suvlac.”
“Oho!” said Hanaud, his voice lifting a little on a note of interest. “Has he now? Let me hear of this, Monsieur Le Commissaire.”
“He arrived before you and your friend returned from Villeblanche. He asked my permission very correctly to offer his ministrations to the ladies. It is true that the ladies are Protestants, but in such calamities, the creeds are one.”
“You gave him the permission?” Hanaud observed softly.
“Without hesitation,” replied Herbesthal very firmly.
Hanaud inclined his head. Even famous inspectors from the Surete Generate of Paris do not tread on the toes of commissaires of police if they want their affairs to run smoothly.
“So all this while Monsieur l’Abbé has had us under his observation,” he remarked, as though nothing could have been more fortunate.
“Far from it,” Herbesthal replied. “The Abbé saw Mademoiselle Tasborough first of all, and was not very long with her. He went immediately afterwards to the room of Madame Tasborough, which is in the wing behind and does not look out in this direction at all.”
There is a flaw here, Mr. Ricardo reflected. It was obviously important to know when the Abbé left the room in the wing and made his furtive way to the drawing-room. But he did not intervene. “It is clear,” he argued to himself, “that the Commissaire has a Fauriel complex.” He left the matter to Hanaud, but Hanaud was once more watching the terrace with eyes for nothing else.
The Abbé, satisfied that there was no one in the drawing-room to overlook him, turned towards Diana Tasborough’s room and resumed his meditative walk in that direction. Hanaud whistled under his breath.
“Did he see Diana Tasborough in her own room in the turret there?” he asked of the Commissaire, but without taking his eyes for one moment from the terrace.
“And now he returns to it when it is empty. Yes, as my friend Mr. Ricardo says, it is all very peculiar.”
Nearer and nearer the Abbé paced towards the turret, and suddenly he whipped through the doorway. It seemed that Hanaud had been expecting just that movement. He was away from his shelter in a flash. In spite of his bulk, he sprinted. He reached the terrace almost before his companions had started. He ran across it noiseless as a man in rubber shoes, keeping close to the windows of the house. In the angle made by the round projection of the turret, he stopped. He certainly had not been heard, and where he stood he could not be seen. On the other hand, he could not see anything that the Abbé was doing in Diana Tasborough’s room. This, however, he did not appear to mind. He waited very patiently in his angle. His friends, indeed, were already within earshot before the Abbé reappeared, still with the absent air of a philosopher so lost in meditation that he did not know whither his feet had been guiding him. But he was to be startled out of it. Hanaud slipped up behind him and bending said in his ear: “Monsieur l’Abbé!”
The Abbé swung round quite disconcerted. Hanaud, holding the mask hidden in the handkerchief in his left hand, removed his hat with his right, and bowed respectfully.
“You noticed, no doubt, that the little rearrangement had already been made?”
The sentence, Greek to Mr. Ricardo and the Commissaire, had the clearest meaning for the Abbé Fauriel. Consternation shone in his eyes, the blood withdrew from his cheeks, leaving them mottled, and his nose and the skin beneath his eyes like tallow. His face in a second seemed to have sunk and grown thin. He was an old and shrivelled man. But he had the spirit of a young one. He raised his head high, and now in place of the consternation there was the glint of battle in his eyes. He stood square; and then, turning slightly towards the Commissary Herbesthal, he said in a biting voice; “This, no doubt, is the illustrious Monsieur Hanaud, who very wisely speaks in riddles. For riddles are the short cut to prestige and reputation, and, besides, very intimidating to slow-witted provincials like ourselves.”
It was a declaration of war—no less than that. Mr. Ricardo, observing the little priest and the big detective, thought, in his obvious way, of David and Goliath. Hanaud had undoubtedly staged a little trap, but the Abbé was indisposed to tumble into it. Now that he had recovered himself, and stood quivering a little from head to foot, not with terror but with a concentration of his faculties, he looked a little man to be wary of. Mr. Ricardo wondered whether he concealed a sling about his person, fitted with a nice, big, fat stone.
“If I wrapped up my meaning, Monsieur l’Abbé, so that you only should understand it, as you evidently did,” said Hanaud, “you should be thankful for my consideration, rather than blame it. But since you won’t have my riddles, I ask you now in the plainest terms why you went into mademoiselle’s room just now with so many precautions against being seen?”
“I shall reply to you that I have my duties, as you have yours, Monsieur Hanaud. Mine, it is true, may be said to begin after yours have ended. But they are both sad and exacting and—secret. Should you, however, wish for a poor priest’s blessing upon yours, whatever they may be,” he added with a hint of humour, “I shall not be disposed to deny it you.” He moved away with a little bow, but Hanaud pivoted upon his heels like a soldier, and fell in at his side with the neatness of a cog fitting into the ratchet of a wheel.
“No doubt,” he said imperturbably. “I catch the criminal first, and you save his soul afterwards. It is a roughly correct division of our duties. But we each have the same third duty, Monsieur 1’Abbé.”
“Thousands of duties, Monsieur Hanaud. I have preached for thirty years, but I have not got to the end of them yet.”
“One, however, which is paramount.”
The little priest saw the stroke coming.
“I am aware of it, Monsieur Hanaud.”
“The duty of a good citizen.”
“You have said it.”
“And under the pressure of that third duty, one or two separate duties at times may overlap.”
The two men were pacing side by side away from the Commissaire and Mr. Ricardo. They were still, to Mr. Ricardo’s satisfaction, within earshot. But the Abbé, though he showed no sign of haste, was steadily edging in towards the door of the drawing-room.
“When and if that time comes, I trust that I shall not fail in mine,” the priest replied.
“That time has come, Monsieur l’Abbé.”
“I think not, Monsieur Hanaud, and I am the judge.”
“I shall invite your closer consideration upon that point, Monsieur l’Abbé.”
The dialogue was all very stiff and formal and polite, although now an angry quiver of the voice, now a bitter word caught quickly back, betrayed the fierce hostility between them. Now, however, disdain caused the Abbé Fauriel to trip.
“Any argument of yours, Monsieur Hanaud, must of course command every atom of consideration which I have to give,” he said with a curling lip; and Hanaud was under his guard in a flash.
“My argument is an instance, monsieur. For example, there is the little matter of your vestments which were stolen last night.”
The Abbé was shaken. He showed it only by stopping in his walk and by a second’s silence. Then he resumed in an accent of self-reproach:
“Monsieur Hanaud, I spoke too lightly in this house last night. I am ashamed, and I have appointed to myself certain penances in consequence. My vestments were hanging in my sacristy this morning and were worn by me as early as six o’clock, when to a deplorable congregation of two old women, I sought the blessing of St. Matthew upon our vineyards.”
Clearly Hanaud was astonished. “They were brought back by six o’clock this morning?” he cried.
The Abbé smiled.
“We who are not of your profession, Monsieur Hanaud, may be permitted to cultivate a spirit kind enough to believe that they had never been taken away.”
“That won’t do,” said Hanaud bluntly. The two men were standing face to face, the priest sheltering what knowledge he had behind a stolid face, Hanaud towering over him, like an inquisitor. The fine courtesies of “Monsieur l’Abbé” and “Monsieur Hanaud” were discarded like the last year’s frills on a lady’s gown. “You did not find all your vestments in your sacristy this morning. For one of them is in the mortuary at Villeblanche stained with the blood of a young woman who dined at the same table with you in this house last night, and was savagely murdered afterwards.”
Mr. Ricardo could hardly repress a cry, as he comprehended the careful scrutiny which Hanaud had made of the torn piece of fine linen in which the body of Evelyn Devenish had been wrapped. But the Abbé actually uttered one. His jaw dropped; he stood and stared at the detective, his face an effigy of horror.
“You are sure of that abomination?” he stammered, and he did not wait for an answer to his question. His defences were down. He had no big fat stone and no sling to launch it with. He tottered to the bench and, dropping down upon it heavily, fumbled for his handkerchief and mopped his forehead. But Hanaud would not leave him in peace. He stepped up in front of him. He suddenly uncovered the mask with its curious obscene beauty, and held it under the Abbé’s eyes.
“Can you imagine a use for it?” he asked.
“At a time of carnival,” said the Abbé with the wraith of a smile. He had not looked at the mask very closely. But Hanaud held it so that his eyes could not avoid it, and he looked at it and looked again, and shrank from it as from a touch that was contagious. He rose up on to his feet.
“There was a young woman alive in this house last night, who is now foully murdered,” said Hanaud, standing in front of him.
“I shall pray for her soul,” returned the Abbé.
“But there is also a young girl with all her life in front of her, a joy to herself and an inspiration to others, who has disappeared. What of her, Monsieur l’Abbé?”
“I shall pray that no harm may come to her.”
“But you will give me no other help!” Hanaud’s voice rang out over the terrace and the garden. His words were a reproach and more than a reproach—an accusation. But they fell upon ears which were quite deaf. The Abbé’s eyes were now set upon a very distant horizon. A life or two? Some few hours of suffering? The Abbé Fauriel was not looking at the garden, nor at the Gironde, nor at the rising shore beyond the Gironde. He watched a procession of the ages, in which a life or two, or a few hours of suffering, mattered not at all.
“Monsieur,” he said with a remarkable quiet dignity, “a terrible crime has been committed. Of that crime there may be some quite hideous explanation. You know more about it than I do. I beg you to excuse me.”
To Hanaud’s thinking he was a broken man. He had suffered a shock that afternoon from which he was not likely to recover. Even Hanaud stepped back as he moved away, and let him pass out of sight through the open window of the drawing-room without another effort to detain him. But as soon as the Abbé Fauriel had gone, Hanaud’s manner quite changed. He grimaced in the most childish fashion at the window.
“Ah, the old fox,” he cried in a low voice. “He knows a great deal more than he will tell. But he has told me, none the less, much more than he meant to tell me, by his reluctance to tell me anything at all.”
He turned upon Mr. Ricardo. “You dined here last night, and the Abbé Fauriel dined too?”
Hanaud took Ricardo by the arm and drew him down beside him on the bench. “You shall tell me at once anything which he said last night—anything which he did.”
Anything which he did! Yes, there was something which he had done. Mr. Ricardo recalled the scene. . . . There had been something said—yes—and the Abbé had ceased from talking—had made a little movement with his hand—yes!
“There was a moment when under the cover of the table-cloth he made the sign of the Cross,” said Mr. Ricardo.
“Oho! Tell me about that moment!” Hanaud urged, pressing his friend’s arm.
“Let me seel” said Mr. Ricardo. “It can hardly have been important or I should have remembered it. Oh, yes! I was puzzled at the time. I certainly was puzzled.”
“It is very interesting that you were puzzled,” Hanaud remarked patiently.
“Yes, that’s it. I was puzzled.” Mr. Ricardo was triumphant. His memory had not failed him. No; he remembered very accurately that he had been puzzled.
“Then, my friend, something puzzled you,” said Hanaud.
“That’s true,” Mr. Ricardo replied, with a little disappointment. “To be sure, I wasn’t likely to have been puzzled unless something had puzzled me. Now, what was it?”
“Yes! What was it? Make a scene of that dinner-table in your mind. Mrs. Tasborough here, the Abbé there—”
And suddenly Mr. Ricardo chirruped: “I’ve got it. One of them—sitting not so far from me—wait!—on the same side of the table—yes!” He held his hand in the air with a look of intense concentration upon his face. “Evelyn Devenish!” he cried. “She shivered suddenly and rather violently.”
“And someone—oh, of course, it was that which puzzled me,” and Mr. Ricardo leaned back against the rail of the bench and relapsed into contentment.
“But you haven’t told me what puzzled you,” said Hanaud in the gentlest voice.
None the less, Mr. Ricardo uttered a cry of pain. “You are hurting my arm.”
Hanaud’s fingers were gripped about it like a vice. He relaxed his hold immediately. “I am sorry, my friend.”
“You have reason to be,” said Mr. Ricardo rather indignantly, as he massaged the bruised limb. “I shall be terribly bruised tomorrow. The last time my arm hurt me as it does now was after an archery meeting in the country. I was not an adept with the bow—it was at a house in Berkshire—yes! Let me see! Whose—house was it?”
It was some while ago. Mr. Ricardo had already begun to run over the names of his acquaintances in Berkshire for the locality of that archery meeting, when Hanaud observed:
“And so Evelyn Devenish shivered unexpectedly and violently.”
Mr. Ricardo stared for a second or so at his companion and came away from Berkshire by express.
“I ought not to have turned aside from what I was telling you,” he said, looking at Hanaud with some severity. “Yes, Evelyn Devenish shivered, and Joyce Whipple exclaimed, she, too, rather violently: ‘It’s no use looking at me, Evelyn. It’s not I who dispense the cold.’ It seemed to me that there was an understream of hysteria in both Evelyn and Joyce Whipple. Undoubtedly both of them were nervous—Joyce particularly. Her voice, which was naturally low and sweet, had roughened and was harsh. I couldn’t detect the least smallest reason for the excitement which was vibrating in those two young women. But it was evident suddenly, and as suddenly it passed—a zigzag of lightning. But the Abbé understood. He crossed himself secretly, and during the rest of dinner he spoke no more. Not a word! He just sat and watched with bright eyes ranging about the table—like—like—a bird’s!”
Hanaud patted his friend upon the knee; and sat with a frown upon his face. “‘It is not I who dispense the cold,’ “ he repeated, and he looked up at Herbesthal. “Those are very strange words, Monsieur Le Commissaire. Yet the old fox understood them. Well, we must understand them too. For I think they are the key to the whole affair.”
He stood up, as though all his business with the terrace and the garden was at an end. But before he could move away, he heard a motor-car approach and stop on the other side of the house.
“The wanderers have returned,” he said. He took out his watch and looked at the dial.
Time had passed swiftly for that party upon the terrace. Mr. Ricardo found it difficult to believe that the better part of three hours had slipped away since Diana Tasborough and Robin Webster had started out to send a telegram from Pauillac.
“They were very wise to take the air,” said Hanaud. He fetched a packet of black cigarettes in a wrapper of bright blue paper out of a pocket. He offered one to the Commissary Herbesthal, who took it, and another to Mr. Ricardo, who did not. He struck a sulphur match, watched it fizzle into a flame, and with some ceremony lighted the commissary’s cigarette. Then he lit his own and, resuming his seat, began placidly to relate an ancient experience of the days when he was a novice in the police.