The Prisoner in the Opal


Hanaud is Startled

A.E.W. Mason

HE BROKE OFF as “the wanderers” came out upon the terrace, and had a smile of congratulation for Diana Tasborough, to whose face some tinge of her fresh colour had returned.

“That is better, mademoiselle,” he said. “You sent off your telegrams?”

“Yes,” and she added: “Mr. Webster persuaded me to prolong the drive.”

Robin Webster proceeded to justify his advice with that prim and exact articulation which never failed to strike Mr. Ricardo as a little incongruous in a young man of so much elegance.

“I argued that it would be of benefit to Miss Tasborough, that we should only hamper your investigations here by an immediate return, and that we might perhaps be a little useful to you ourselves if we made some inquiries of our neighbours.”

Hanaud, who had been listening attentively, cried out with an explosive emphasis which the occasion did not seem to warrant:

“I am sure of it!” and noticing some surprise upon Robin Webster’s face, modified his tone. “You could have done nothing wiser. Did you get any satisfaction from your inquiries?”

Robin Webster shook his head. “No one had seen Joyce Whipple.”

The mere pronunciation of her name made his voice shake and his cheek turn pale, and distress so clouded his eyes that Mr. Ricardo wished for words wherewith to comfort him. He was in love, this young man, and for young men in love Mr. Ricardo had always a tender corner of his heart. No doubt the candle burning late in his empty room had a suspicious look. That was not to be forgotten. But it might after all have been no more than a ruse to conceal a tryst with Joyce Whipple which she had not kept. Robin Webster might even have been searching for her desperately whilst the candle was burning down to its last fragment of wick. No doubt, too, Hanaud imagined that he had made yet another remarkable discovery in the chalet. Mr. Ricardo was not quite certain but that his sharp involuntary “I am sure” of a minute ago was a confirmation of that discovery. But Hanaud could blunder like everyone else. He could shout “Swan” when he saw a goose, as loudly as the rest of the world, and for tuppence Mr. Ricardo would tell him so. It seemed, however, that Hanaud had been impressed, too, by the sincerity of the young man’s emotion. For his voice when he spoke was pitiful.

“You must not lose heart. Monsieur Herbesthal’s men are searching the neighbourhood thoroughly, on the chance that this poor girl may, as it so often happens, have lost her memory. If on the other hand there has been foul play, I can tell you that not a motor-car, not a carriage, not even a cart will escape from the ring which has been drawn about this environment without such a search as will leave nothing undisclosed. Every road, every cart-track, every path is watched.” Monsieur Herbesthal nodded his head. “Ever since this morning that has been so.”

“Yes,” Diana agreed hopefully. “We ourselves were stopped all through this afternoon.”

Her hope was not shared by Robin Webster. “That is all very well,” he said, staring miserably at Hanaud. “But what I am afraid of is that now not the whole French army encamped upon the roads could ever restore her to us. I fear—” but he choked upon the word and could not utter it.

“You fear murder,” said Hanaud.

A spasm of pain convulsed Robin Webster’s face. “Yes,” he answered in a whisper.

Suddenly Hanaud rose up from the bench and astonished all who were about him on that terrace. Such a change came over him as quite transfigured his appearance. He towered erect and tremendous, and he spoke with the authority of a prophet ringing in his voice.

“I am sure of this. If Joyce Whipple is alive now, she will not die by violence.”

Robin Webster drew in a breath as though he drank courage from the words. “You believe that,” he cried. “You—oh, you have found her!” He seized upon that notion, was convinced by it and stared at Hanaud with parted lips and shining eyes.

“No! I have found some footsteps—nothing more. She ran across the lawn last night. Of where she is, monsieur, I know no more than you.”

“Yet you declare that she is safe.”

“Safe? No. I do declare that now murder dare not be done, if murder was ever planned. Once more, oh, for the hundred thousandth time in the long history of violence, it has been proved that the dead victim can hardly be destroyed. There is a fate in it. There is justice in it. Those who killed Evelyn Devenish dare not kill again.”

“You are clear then that the murder of Evelyn Devenish and the disappearance of Joyce Whipple are part of the same crime?”

“Look about you,” Hanaud returned. “This scattered neighbourhood. The few inhabitants. Is it possible that on the same night, in the same house, these two abominations were committed independently? No. Let us be reasonable. The only alternative is that Joyce Whipple was an accomplice”; and on the bench beside him Diana Tasborough started.

Hanaud swung round towards her on the instant. She was sitting with the strangest look of fear upon her face. “You believe that possible, mademoiselle?” Hanaud asked.

Diana shook her head violently. “Of course not. Joyce is my friend. I had never thought of it. Only your words reminded me that there seemed always to be—” Diana was at a loss how to put what she meant to say into words which would do no hurt.

“Yes?” Hanaud insisted gently, bending down to the girl.

“Well, there seemed always to be some curious ill-will between Joyce and Evelyn,” she said reluctantly.

Hanaud drew himself up in surprise. “Is that so?” he said slowly and in a musing voice. But Diana hurriedly interposed. She would not have him dwell upon that revelation or give any weight to it in his thoughts.

“It wasn’t of any importance,” she urged eagerly. “They didn’t hit it off quite. That’s all there was to it—I am sure. They were just naturally a little hostile to one another. Oh, I was a fool to mention it to you at all. I shouldn’t have, unless you had suggested it.”

Hanaud was at once anxious to lift from her any sense of self-reproach.

“Mademoiselle, it is much better, believe me, that you should have told me this frankly and simply as you have done, than that I should have discovered it later on for myself. It is a little detail to which I might have given greater weight, if I had thought that you had concealed it from me.”

Mr. Ricardo was mystified. Hanaud’s reasoning was no doubt very sound; but there was no need for it. Diana Tasborough had revealed nothing when she admitted the hostility between Evelyn Devenish and Joyce Whipple. He himself only this morning had told the story of the Cave of the Mummies, and had added to it this afternoon his account of Joyce’s odd little outburst at the dinner-table. Hanaud already knew all that it was necessary to know upon that point. He was wantonly wasting valuable time in eliciting it a second time from Diana.

“He is losing himself in the by-ways of this case,” Mr. Ricardo reasoned. “I must bring him back to the main road.”

He had begun to make a little twittering noise as a preface to his expostulation when an unkindly cold glare in Hanaud’s eyes changed his mind for him.

“Mr. Ricardo, I think, is about to observe very justly that we are making too much of a very small detail.”

All eyes at once were turned upon Ricardo, who suddenly felt nervous and hopped from one foot on to the other. “That is so,” he said. “I was on the point of making that observation.”

All eyes, to his relief, were once more turned away from him, but he had even in his relief a biting thought that he was being neglected as a futility. Robin Webster brought the discussion back to the graver problem with which it had begun.

“You are very confident, Monsieur Hanaud, that if no second murder has been committed, it will not be. For my part, I wish that I could believe that. But those who killed Evelyn Devenish will be desperate people. They must go on. They are committed—whatever the risk they must go on, as I see their position. They will take their precautions.”

“Did they take no precautions with Evelyn Devenish?” Hanaud interrupted. “They know that precautions fail.”

Even so, Robin Webster was not satisfied. He stood with a white face twitching and eyes that sought and fled from the detective’s. He had some fear in his mind which he could hardly bring himself to utter. In the end he launched a dreadful word in a low and toneless voice. “Burial,” he said.

It was a question. Wasn’t that the precaution which this time would not fail? And Mr. Ricardo in a flight of imagination kindled by that word of terror, ranged over the vineyards and the forests and found the mound of a small new grave hidden under leaves, and slowly sinking to the level of the ground about it with the passage of the seasons. Hanaud’s answer to the question rolled out like thunder.

“It has been tried in England and it has failed. It has been tried in France and it has failed. Monsieur, if like”—he hesitated and corrected himself—“like someone whom I know, I wished for a good conviction at the Assizes rather than the saving of a life, I should say, ‘A burial! Nothing could be better!’”

With that grim and rather shocking conclusion he turned again to Diana Tasborough.

“Mademoiselle, we shall spare you to the limit of our powers. The rooms of those two ladies must of course be sealed. There will be an agent of the police in the house, and others in the grounds. I trust indeed that they will be even welcome to yourself and your good aunt. For myself, I must return now to Bordeaux and it will, I think, since hospitality is at such a time an embarrassment, be more convenient if Monsieur Ricardo returns with me.”

“You are very kind,” Diana replied gratefully, but her voice hardened perceptibly as she added, “and certainly Mr. Ricardo will sleep better at Bordeaux than he managed to sleep at the Château Suvlac.”

“Then I commend you to the care of Monsieur Le Commissaire,” Hanaud continued briskly, “and for you, Monsieur Webster, may the success of your vintage be of good augury.”

He bowed elaborately. To Ricardo he said, “You will have time to pack, whilst Monsieur Le Commissaire and I make our little arrangements,” and he passed into the drawing-room. Ricardo bowed in his turn and followed at his heels. Hanaud crossed the room to the door opening into the hall—the door in the back wall—and as he took the handle in his hand, he half turned about. He was looking back on to the terrace, and even he was startled.

“In the name of God!” he whispered. “Take one look, my friend—no more. You have seen nothing like that in your life!”

He himself slipped through the doorway into the hall. Mr. Ricardo imitated Hanaud’s movements and glanced back at the appropriate moment through the glass window to the terrace with every assumption of indifference. But the arts of the actor were not at that moment needed. He looked straight at Robin Webster, who was standing lost to all the world, and motionless as a piece of stone, on the spot where they had left him. But his face was a white flame of wild fury. He was staring at Diana Tasborough with wide unwinking eyes. Hanaud was right. Mr. Ricardo had never seen anything so terrifying in his life. Even the mask could not compare with it.

The Prisoner in the Opal - Contents    |     XV - The Vicomte Paints His Gate

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