The Prisoner in the Opal


The Vicomte Paints His Gate

A.E.W. Mason

MR. RICARDO sat on the edge of his bed with his head in his hands, whilst his servant packed. His head was in a whirl. All that he had seen and heard that day was jumbled together in his mind—the footprints, the mask, the guttered candle, the tumbled bed, the picture of the Grand Canal which meant nothing at all, the Abbé and his casuistries—oh, and Joyce Whipple’s bracelet—yes, and Hanaud’s astonishing declaration that the murderers of Evelyn Devenish dare not repeat their crime—and what Hanaud had seen in Diana Tasborough’s bedroom and he hadn’t—and what Hanaud had deduced from the books at Robin Webster’s bedside, and he hadn’t—and Robin Webster’s stark, appalling fury on the terrace. His head ached as he enumerated his bewilderments and he felt very grateful to Hanaud for providing him with so convenient an exit from this tragic house. He would have time in Bordeaux to take out his tables and reduce if it was only his ignorance to some sort of order. He would also be relieved of the dislike for him which Diana so obviously felt. Accordingly he lit a cigarette and tried to banish the whole tangle from his thoughts.

But he couldn’t do it. For his memory began to stir. He sat up erect and gasped. Elias Thomson looked up from his portmanteaux and saw his employer staring into vacancy with an open mouth.

“Are you indisposed, sir?” he asked, but Mr. Ricardo heard him not. An idea had sprung alive in his brain, a full-size complete idea, an illuminating idea, an Aurora Borealis of an idea. Elias Thomson took deftly from his fingers the cigarette which was on the point of setting fire to the quilt. Mr. Ricardo did not notice the precaution. Elias Thomson returned to his packing.

“It’s this ’ere crime,” he said. “You always was a oner for crimes, wasn’t you, sir, ever since you made ’istory at Aix?”

Even those nattering words did not reach beyond the porches of Mr. Ricardo’s ears. A more insidious flattery was warming his heart. He, too, had noticed something which no one else had noticed. Even Hanaud had been deaf to it, and blind to it. Yet it was of an importance which nothing could transcend.

There came a knock upon the door. Jules Amadee had brought word that the motor-cars were at the door and that Hanaud was waiting in the hall. Mr. Ricardo sprang to his feet.

“You will put the luggage into Mr. Hanaud’s car and travel with it,” he cried to Elias Thomson. He gave a handsome largesse to Jules Amadee and hurried along the passage. At the hall table Hanaud was carelessly turning over a number of cards which had been left at the house that afternoon. Mr. Ricardo dashed up to him.

“I have something to tell you, my friend,” he exclaimed, excitedly, triumphantly.

“But you are wrong, Mr. Ricardo,” said Hanaud pleasantly, as Elias Thomson and Jules Amadee carried the luggage past them and out to the cars.

“But I haven’t told you what I was going to tell you,” Mr. Ricardo cried indignantly.

“That is so. But what you were going to tell me was going to be wrong,” Hanaud returned. “On the other hand, I have something to tell you which is really curious and interesting.”

Mr. Ricardo stepped back a pace and choked. There was a mild phrase about throwing cold water upon a man. Mr. Ricardo felt that Arctic seas could not have drenched him more. Was there ever, he asked himself, a vanity so colossal? Nothing was worth noticing unless Hanaud noticed it. Nothing worth telling unless Hanaud told it. Very well! Now Hanaud should be punished for it. It was high time that he learned a lesson in modesty. Mr. Ricardo would keep his discovery to himself. He would work out all its ramifications alone in Bordeaux. Hanaud might implore him to reveal it. He would only do so in his own good time. He smiled: “You shall tell me,” he said softly, “this thing so curious.”

Hanaud looked out through the open doorway. Thomson and Jules Amadee were busy piling the bags into the smaller car.

“I find it very interesting that from those who have called this afternoon to offer their condolences, there is one remarkable omission.”

“Indeed?” said Mr. Ricardo indifferently.

“Yes,” said Hanaud and stopped there. He undoubtedly was a very annoying man. For now Mr. Ricardo had to ask who it was that had failed to tender his sympathy.

“The Vicomte Cassandre de Mirandol,” Hanaud replied.

“Oh!” The announcement did give Mr. Ricardo a little shock. Good manners should be so vital an element in the equipment of a Vicomte Cassandre de Mirandol that he could not leave them at home like a pair of gloves, even if he wanted to. But Ricardo’s feelings towards Hanaud at this moment would not allow him to admit so much.

“Monsieur de Mirandol was up very late last night,” he said.

“So he was, but it’s now very late today,” rejoined Hanaud, looking at his watch.

“He may have caught a cold on his way home,” Mr. Ricardo tried again.

“That need not have prevented him from sending a card.”

“It is in any case a small matter,” Mr. Ricardo remarked loftily. He meant in comparison with the tremendous matter which he was now determined to keep to himself.

“Is it? He is the nearest neighbour of all, and he dined here last night. I find it remarkable.”

“Very well then. It is remarkable,” Mr. Ricardo agreed irritably, and the two men went out from the Château Suvlac. Moreau and Elias Thomson were already seated in Hanaud’s police car, and at a nod from Hanaud Moreau started.

“We shall follow them,” said Hanaud, and Mr. Ricardo, with a memory of that morning in his mind, cried out quickly to his chauffeur; “To Bordeaux.”

“I had already given that excellent driver his instructions,” Hanaud remarked imperturbably as the big car glided from the door; and Mr. Ricardo jumped up and down restively upon the springs of his seat. He was finding his companion’s obtuseness in the finer details of conduct very hard to bear.

“You are annoyed with me, my friend.” Hanaud fetched from his pocket his blue packet of Maryland cigarettes and lit the pungent stick of tobacco with a match which seemed to fizzle for an eternity.

“I like certain things,” Mr. Ricardo declared coldly, “and I dislike certain other things.”

“I, too, have that extraordinary disposition,” Hanaud replied gravely.

“For instance, I like to give my own orders to my own chauffeur.”

At once Hanaud was all contrition. “Hanaud was wrong! Hanaud was inexcusable. Hanaud will appoint to himself some penances like the Abbé Fauriel,” he cried remorsefully. “But I couldn’t resist it. To give an order to the chauffeur of a Rolls, as if I owned it! No, you cannot expect a poor policeman to resist that temptation.”

Mr. Ricardo was a trifle mollified by the explanation. It had a certain flattery in it. He might not be always so quick in the uptake as the great detective, but on the other hand he had a Rolls. It was therefore in a milder spirit that he expressed what he did not like.

“I do not like to be snubbed.”

“Ah, but that is different! A thousand regrets first! Yes, Hanaud—he, the great one, is on his knees,” and he turned and bowed with his hand upon his heart. “But consider! See in what a difficulty I am! You come running all hot with information into the hall, and Jules Amadee is on your heels with your luggage. If I let you speak, once we are gone, Jules Amadee—he runs too. But to his mistress! And that poor girl with enough distress already upon her young shoulders, believes without reason that we suspect her of complicity in this crime. Without reason—yes!” he asserted stoutly. “For she tells us frankly that she drove here and there amongst her neighbours. What more likely than that she should meet Monsieur Tidon, the examining magistrate, upon his inquiries? And if she meet him, what more likely than that he should say: ‘That Mr. Ricardo did not sleep well last night in the Château Suvlac!’ Ah, the snubbing—I had to do him.”

Mr. Ricardo stared at his companion in a stupefaction. “You knew then what I wanted to tell you!”

“But of course I knew. It is my business. You wanted to say to me at the top of your voice: ‘To only two people have I said that I slept ill last night—Hanaud and the magistrate. Yet Miss Diana—now she knows too!’ Wasn’t that it?”

“Yes,” said Mr. Ricardo, greatly humbled. His fine discovery amounted to just nothing at all. Hanaud had seized upon the point at the same time as himself and given to it its natural explanation. Whereas he had never followed out its implications at all.

“Yes,” he continued with a trifle of bitterness. “The snubbing! You had to do him!”

But even while he spoke, a picture rose before his eyes, the picture of Robin Webster on the terrace gazing at Diana with a murderous fury in his face.

“But a little moment!” he cried. “But if I thought that Diana Tasborough made a slip, so did Robin Webster! That simple, natural explanation—no, it won’t do. Yes, they met the examining magistrate! Yes, he told them—probably all that I told him in the Prefecture of Villeblanche. He is a fool, that magistrate. But it was agreed that she should know nothing of what I told him when we met afterwards—”

“Agreed between whom?” Hanaud asked sharply.

“Between Robin Webster and Diana Tasborough. And she forgot the agreement, and she made her slip, which we shall do well not to forget.”

Mr. Ricardo leaned back with a pleasant sensation that he had turned the tables upon his complacent friend. He rubbed his hands together with a what-do-you-say-to-that? air about him. Hanaud was impressed by all this reasoning. He pursed his lips and shook his head.

“I cannot agree that Monsieur Tidon is a fool,” he said thoughtfully. “I don’t say that because he is my official superior. No! I think him, on the contrary, astute. He may have been loquacious, but he will have had a good reason. Yes, I think he will get to Bordeaux, since he wishes to do so. Paris—that is another matter. But Bordeaux—yes,” and he smiled pleasantly, already congratulating the magistrate upon his translation. “As for Webster, that is another matter. Perhaps I give you him, eh? Perhaps he is”—and he dropped into English with his usual success—“warm material.”

“Hot stuff,” Mr. Ricardo promptly amended. He preferred that if vulgar idioms were going to be used, they should be used correctly. He had hardly made his amendment when the car came abruptly to a stop, and a sergeant of police flung open the door.

Hanaud jumped out, presented his certificates of identity and received some obsequious apologies. But he would not listen to them. “The strictest guard is necessary. I beg you to treat everyone just so.” The car had been stopped at a pair of handsome iron gates, beyond which a broad carriage drive curved out of sight. “To whose house does that lead?” Hanaud asked.

“Monsieur de Mirandol’s,” answered the sergeant.

Hanaud was puzzled. He looked backwards along the road. The Château Suvlac was a good half-mile from where he stood; whilst the slated turrets of the Vicomte’s house could be seen behind a clump of trees not a hundred and fifty yards from the iron gates.

“I understood,” he said, “that Monsieur de Mirandol’s house was a long, low white house on the top of a hill opposite to the Château Suvlac.”

“Certainly the magistrate told us so,” Mr. Ricardo agreed. He had descended from the car and stood at the edge of the road with Hanaud.

“That is the old summer-house of Mirandol,” the sergeant explained. It could be reached both from the château here or by a road through the open country in front of the house of Suvlac. The Vicomte used it for his dwelling. It was quiet and he had his great library of books housed in it. The big château was now a guest-house and offices.

“I suppose that the young chatelaine of Suvlac paid a visit here this afternoon, eh?” Hanaud asked.

“Yes, monsieur.”

Hanaud smiled at Mr. Ricardo. “So, at last, we have the real reason why Monsieur de Mirandol did not call with his condolences. He had tendered them already in his own house.” He looked at his watch. “We will imitate the young chatelaine of Suvlac. Come!”

The two men left the car under the sergeant’s charge, opened the gates, and passed up the drive to the house. The chais actually adjoined the main building, so that in the yard and in front of the porch there was a continual passing to and fro of people. Hanaud spoke to a man who was giving orders.

“Monsieur Le Vicomte?” The man pointed to a continuation of the carriage road and went on with his work. The road now ran slanting upwards through a thicket of small trees, narrowed, and came to an end in front of a small white gate. Beyond the gate a footpath wound through shrubberies, and suddenly Hanaud and Ricardo found themselves upon an open plot of pasture rather than kept grass, and the long, unbroken front of the two-storied house glistened in front of them. A single stone flag was laid before the door. All was as plain as could be in the architecture of the house, and completely satisfying to the mind and eye. Hanaud rang the bell, and the loud jangle gave the suggestion of an empty house. But in a little while the door was opened and a manservant stood upon the threshold. He was fat and rather bald and rather sly in appearance, and his years of service had clothed him with a superficial resemblance to his master. Mr. Ricardo wondered whether his hands were wet, and was thankful that he could go on wondering. “Monsieur Le Vicomte?” Hanaud asked. “He is along that path, painting the gate,” said the man.

“We will find him.” The path which the servant designated skirted the rough grass-plot and disappeared among bushes of rhododendrons on the side opposite to that by which they had come. It formed the second perpendicular of a triangle of which the base would be a line drawn between the two paths across the grass at the points where they emerged from the shrubs. Hanaud and Mr. Ricardo made their way along this second path, and after a turn or two came in sight of the Vicomte with his coat off, a paint-pot in one hand, a big brush in the other, stooping by a narrow wooden gate which led out on to a road. He saw his visitors as soon as they saw him and rose erect.

“Monsieur Ricardo,” he said with a smile. “Alas! I cannot shake you by the hand. I am one big smudge of paint.”

It was green paint. He had laid it thickly on his gate, fairly thickly on his clothes and hands, and not a little on his face. “Your companion, Monsieur Ricardo, I have not the honour to know. But my unhappy young friend of Suvlac brought me her bad news this afternoon and I can guess who he is. Monsieur Hanaud?”

Hanaud bowed. “At your service, Monsieur Le Vicomte.”

“An obscure and terrible affair, Monsieur Hanaud. It is very fortunate for this neighbourhood that you chanced to be in Bordeaux.”

“But I am at Bordeaux, Monsieur Le Vicomte, on another matter. I return to that city now. Here, I tell you frankly, I have not got very far.”

“But you will come back to Suvlac,” de Mirandol urged anxiously. “A crime so appalling cannot be left unsolved.”

“I shall come back, Monsieur Le Vicomte. But in time? That is another question. A day lost, even a few hours, and what scent there was is cold.”

“The honour of the district, and its safety, both are involved,” the Vicomte pleaded.

“I shall do my best,” Hanaud answered gloomily. There was no confidence in his voice. He seemed bogged to the neck in discouragement. “Where did she go to, Madame Devenish, when she slipped out of her window last night? Who shall tell us? All the country was asleep. There was no guard upon every road and path, as there is now. We lock the door, as Mr. Ricardo would say, after the horse has stolen the oats.”

Mr. Ricardo let the error pass, Hanaud was so disheartened. It would have been cruelty to correct him.

“You will pardon me if I continue my work,” said the Vicomte, and he stooped again to his painting. “I should like to finish the gate before nightfall, but I am not very adept, as you can see for yourselves.” He splashed away with his brush, talking while he worked. “All my men are today amongst the vines. I left this gate until the summer suns had lost their strength. Today I waked up with the thought, ‘Now or never.’”

“Monsieur Le Vicomte, you set a fine example,” Hanaud said politely.

The Vicomte was holding the gate open by the latch with his left hand encased in a thick gardener’s glove, whilst he painted with his right. Hanaud slipped past him on to the road outside. He was looking straight now across the hollow to the rose-pink Château of Suvlac. The road on which he stood slanted down the hill to his left and at the foot of it joined the broader road which passed the farm buildings and the garage of Suvlac, and rose to the great arch in front of the house. Hanaud stood surveying the scene, which was very peaceful and pretty in the sunset; and then was guilty of a piece of carelessness which Mr. Ricardo found it quite impossible to excuse.

“It is a convenient road,” Hanaud began, making polite conversation and stretching out his arm towards the Château Suvlac. He had released his hold upon the mask beneath his coat. It slipped. The handkerchief in which it was wrapped came into view, and although Mr. Ricardo coughed and hemm’d and shuffled his feet and clicked his fingers, before he could attract Hanaud’s attention, it fell to the ground. Worse still, the handkerchief opened. The mask with its red head, its livid countenance and purple lips, lay full in view for all the world to see.

For a moment Hanaud stood aghast. Then he swooped upon the secret thing, covered it up, placed it at his breast and buttoned his coat over it.

“What is the use of that now?” Mr. Ricardo asked himself, troubled and indeed indignant at such laxity. “Indeed, he is locking the stable after the horse has stolen the oats.”

As for the Vicomte Cassandre de Mirandol, he pretended to have noticed nothing. He continued to paint his gate, working lustily.

“I am proud of my work,” he said to Mr. Ricardo, who was standing behind and over him. “For an amateur whose life is in his study, it is not so bad. All this morning I burnt the old and blistered paint off the wood. All this afternoon I paint it fresh.” He laughed as a big blob of the thick oil paint splashed on to his bald head. Another drop or two flew wide on to Mr. Ricardo’s neat grey suit—and with a start Mr. Ricardo understood why. Inexpert no doubt the Vicomte was, but his hands were trembling. The latch rattled under his left hand, the paint-brush nickered in his right. He could talk steadily—yes, he could control his voice—and he did talk to hide from his visitors that he could not control his hands.

“It is a convenient road,” said Hanaud, recovering from his confusion. “It makes a visit to your friends or a visit from them the easiest affair, and I can see that both of you make use of it.” He pointed to the tracks on the road. More than one car had stopped beside that gate and turned.

He turned back into the garden and de Mirandol plunged his paint-brush into the pot, stood up and, with a grimace of pain, stretched his back.

“Oh! Oh! Oh!” he said, laughing at his discomfort. “This was, after all, work for younger men. I shall be in bed with the lumbago for a week.”

“A hot bath at once, Monsieur Le Vicomte, and you will write a learned paper full of new ideas before bed-time,” said Hanaud with a smile. “We shall not delay you.”

The Vicomte made his apologies. He would have liked to have tendered to the famous Hanaud some of the hospitality for which the district was renowned. But they saw his plight. He stripped off the thick leather glove from his left hand and extended it with a laugh.

“This is all of me which is not coated with paint. As for the other”—and he looked ruefully at his right hand, stained and besplattered to the wrist—“will all the essences of all the chemists in Bordeaux ever get it clean?”

They left him standing there, and returning by the way they had come got again into Ricardo’s car. Hanaud waved a hand to the sergeant of police.

“To Bordeaux,” Mr. Ricardo commanded, speaking down the tube; and the car slid smoothly away along the white and dusty road. It passed a château or two famous for its vineyards, swept through a village aligned upon each side, and then Hanaud spoke:

“A great student? Yes. Very learned? Yes. His papers upon philosophy send the young ladies of Bordeaux into ecstasies of admiration. Yes! But, my friend, he was not studying in his library at two o’clock of this morning. No! For his library is on the ground floor of that summer-house and to the left of the door. I looked in as we passed. Yes, Hanaud looked through the window and saw so many books mounting to the ceiling against the walls, that his heart was oppressed with the weight of all those treatises.” His voice lost its mocking tones and he leaned a little nearer to Ricardo. “But what Hanaud would really like to know—and see—is the long room upon the first floor in which all the lights blazed until the morning.”

He fell to silence again for a little while and then, with a grim chuckle: “The hands—what traitors they are! A voice, the expression of a face, one can control them. Yes, even an amateur who spends his life in his library. But the hands? Not even the most astute.”

“You noticed that his hands trembled?” cried Mr. Ricardo. “But you were out upon the road.”

Hanaud smiled with a modesty detestably false. “Yes, I noticed. It is my business, dear friend.”

“Perhaps it is also your business to drop remarkable masks about the highways of France,” Mr. Ricardo retorted with a good deal of spirit. But the shame upon Hanaud’s face disarmed him the moment he had spoken. If this was not the Hanaud of the old days, it was kinder to hide his decline from him as long as he could.

“The very best of us must blunder at times,” he said with magnanimity.

“Just like the criminals,” Hanaud agreed. “The Vicomte did a very subtle thing in the end. He showed us his hands,” Ricardo continued, and Hanaud looked at him swiftly with an odd, appraising glance. “Yes, he showed me both his hands,” he said.

“To prove to you that they did not shake. He was anxious that you should see how steady they were!” Mr. Ricardo exclaimed, and Hanaud took his eyes from his friend’s face and leaned back at his ease.

“Oh, it was for that reason, was it?” he said slowly. “But here we are!” and the car stopped with a jerk opposite a stately building in a tiny street.

“In Bordeaux! Impossible!” said Mr. Ricardo, grasping the speaking-tube in his hand.

“In Bordeaux, no!” Hanaud answered imperturbably. “But at the post office of Pauillac. Let us go in!”

They descended from the car and entered the great hall. Hanaud presented a card at a guichet and was ushered with his companion into a private room. A little consequential, bearded man came in and offered his services.

“I shall be obliged, postmaster, if you will tell me whether, early in this week, a Mademoiselle Joyce Whipple received a registered package from England.”

The postmaster fetched a long book and ran his finger down the entries on one of its yellow sheets.

“Yes. On Tuesday morning.”

“She fetched it?”

The postmaster went out, made an inquiry, and returned. “No, Monsieur Hanaud. The little parcel was delivered to her at the Château Suvlac.”

“She signed for it, of course?”

“Of course.”

“May I see the signature?” Hanaud asked; and when the receipt-book was laid before him, he laid it before Mr. Ricardo. “That is her signature?”


“You are quite sure!” Hanaud insisted. “It is very important.”

“She wrote to me once to remind me of the conversation we had in London. I have seen her signature, too, in a visitors’ book,” Mr. Ricardo replied with a little less of assurance.

“We can make certain,” said Hanaud. He felt in his breast-pocket and drew out the yellow paper cover of a French novel. Upon it, underneath the title, was written the name “Joyce Whipple.”

“The book was lying upon the table in her bedroom. It was published a few weeks ago. It is on all the bookstalls. It is allowed to assume that mademoiselle bought it at the Quai d’Orsay for her journey to Bordeaux.”

He laid the leaf against the signature in the receipt-book, and the names tallied exactly in the formation of their letters.

“They were both written by the same hand, then,” said Hanaud. “It is certain then that Miss Whipple received the registered packet in her own hands.” He looked up again at the postmaster. “Can you tell me its weight?”

The postmaster once more consulted his book.

“Two hectograms.”

“Seven of your ounces then,” Hanaud explained to Mr. Ricardo. He remained, his face clouding and clearing and clouding again, as he guessed the contents of the packet, and then rejected the guess. “But I waste time,” he said abruptly. “I will send a telegram.”

The postmaster put a form in front of him, and Hanaud took from his pocket the letter from Sir Henry Brewer of the laboratory at Leeds, and wrote the name and address in the body of a long telegram.

“I shall send it to your Scotland Yard,” he said. “They will get me what I want to know most quickly. The telegram will go at once? I thank you. And we shall go too.”

He shook hands with the postmaster. “This time it is really to Bordeaux,” he said, and he said no more until the car stopped at Mr. Ricardo’s fine hotel in the Cours de L’Intendance.

“Probably I shan’t see you tomorrow. But if anything of interest happens, I will let you know,” he remarked. “Meanwhile there is a question for both of us to consider. Why must the Vicomte Cassandre de Mirandol paint that particular little gate with his own hands? The other one by which we passed on our way to the house—that wanted its fresh coat of paint too! Why did that one opening on to the road above the Château Suvlac alone receive his attention? The blisters of the sun? Blague, my friend! Why wasn’t it painted before the vintage? Why couldn’t it wait to be painted until after the vintage?” And with a nod and a smile he walked away.

The Prisoner in the Opal - Contents    |     XVI - Blackett Adds to Diana’s Story

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