“And what building is that, if you please?” he asked of a passer-by.
“That is the Archbishop’s Palace,” the man returned. “It is of the sixteenth century, and has some fine pictures and carving which strangers are welcome to visit.”
This was the very place for Ricardo this morning. He would enter by that great door in the long wall. He would recreate the ancient splendours of the Archbishops of Bordeaux, and contrast them with the twilight of today. He would people the corridors with courtiers in doublets and great ruffs. He would re-enact historic scenes if he could think of any—he would solace his soul with—in a word, he would shake off the obsession of the Suvlac mystery.
He was approaching the great door when to his amazement Hanaud came out from the courtyard. Once more Mr. Ricardo was brought to a stop. What in the world was Hanaud doing in the Archiepiscopal Palace? Asking for a special benediction upon his work? Common sense and propriety alike rejected this explanation. An idea of a more pedestrian nature commended itself to Ricardo. Hanaud had had a word or two to say about the Abbé Fauriel. He was seeing to it that that close-lipped man should have his ears properly pulled by the Archbishop for his contumacy. And quite right too, Mr. Ricardo reflected. Anyway, it was obvious that he was not to rid himself of the crime at the Château Suvlac. So he turned upon his heel and marched back to his hotel. There he added question to question upon his tables, and conjecture to conjecture, whilst Elias Thomson crept about the room soft-footed, ministering in admiration to the needs of his master who was such a “oner for crimes.”
By five o’clock in the afternoon, after reading all that the newspapers, through the mouths of their special criminologists, had to say, and exhausting the faculties of his mind in deductions, a priori reasonings, comparisons and flights of fancy, he came to a conclusion. In all other affairs of the kind that he had ever heard of, there were innocent people. There were indeed more innocent people than criminals, and up to the last moment before the police pounced, the chief instigator had often an outward appearance of propriety and lawful behaviour as complete as a churchwarden’s. Mr. Charles Peace was the historic example. But the affair of Suvlac was unique in that there didn’t seem to be one innocent person about the place. The nearer you approached anyone, the more obvious it became that the one you approached was deeply involved. Diana’s room held a secret, although it was not hidden in the copy of a Tintoretto. The Abbé Fauriel’s conduct was of a most suspicious kind. Robin Webster was clearly the warmest material ever known. Evelyn Devenish had certainly not a nice nature; whilst Joyce, of the tumbled bed, trim and charming as she was, had a great deal to explain before faith in her could be said to be firmly established. Mr. Ricardo had clung to the belief that the scion of the Crusades would be found true to the traditions of his nobility. But even that prop had been knocked away. The Vicomte Cassandre de Mirandol of the trembling hands was no better than the rest of them. Mr. Ricardo had now very little doubt that five minutes of intimate conversation with old Mrs. Tasborough would even prove her to be sunk in a profligacy as profound.
“Everyone at the Château Suvlac is tainted,” he cried aloud with a despairing sweep of his arm; and at that moment Hanaud opened the door and walked into the room with that default in ceremony which Mr. Ricardo so gravely deplored.
“One knocks upon a door,” he said, the tips of his fingers playing with a match-box. “One asks permission to enter—”
“And one presents a gentleman of the highest importance,” Hanaud said serenely.
A smallish, wiry man in the fifties, with a clean shaven, rather narrow face, and a pair of eyes of an extraordinarily piercing blue, entered the room. He was dressed in a dark suit of tweed with a double-breasted jacket, and from the dust and disorder of his dress and a grimy look he had, it was clear that he had only this minute come to the end of a long journey. He came in reluctantly and regarded Mr. Ricardo with no particular favour. Hanaud closed the door and Ricardo invited his unknown guest to an arm-chair. But the man shook his head.
“I’ll sit there,” he said in a hard, grating voice, and pointed to a chair at the table. He laid down his hat.
“This is Monsieur Dennis Blackett,” said Hanaud. “Some mention of the tragic death of Madame Devenish appeared yesterday in a late edition of one of the evening papers in London. Monsieur Blackett started by aeroplane last night.”
“I went at once to the Prefecture from the aerodrome,” Dennis Blackett continued, “and found this gentleman there who is in charge of the case. I speak very little French, and I understand from Mr. Hanaud that though his knowledge of English is much wider than his countrymen usually possess, there might be an idiom or two used with which he was not familiar—” Dennis Blackett stopped and looked about the room to discover the reason for the stupefaction which overspread Ricardo’s face.
Mr. Ricardo, indeed, nearly fell off his chair; so overwhelmed was he by such an amazing confession on the part of his friend. “Your idioms! I know him!” How often had he suffered under that phrase, and still more under the dreadful distortion of the English language which invariably followed! Yet here was Hanaud admitting his inadequacy! It seemed incredible. It was incredible, and abruptly Ricardo realized why the admission had been made. It was an act of friendship. It was the only possible excuse which Hanaud could offer for Ricardo’s presence at this interview. He was keeping his dear Mr. Ricardo along with himself in the very thick of the mystery. Ricardo directed towards the detective a look of recognition and gratitude; and Dennis Blackett resumed:
“He mentioned that you were his friend, and since I don’t wish what I have to say to go further than is necessary, I was grateful to accept his suggestion that you should act as interpreter.”
He took the chair at the table to which he had pointed. Mr. Ricardo’s stupefaction at Hanaud’s amazing exhibition of modesty was transferred to Dennis Blackett. There was not a trace of any feeling either in his voice or in his face. He might have been speaking of some not very important deal in shares instead of about the brutal murder of his daughter. Ricardo had to force himself to realize that this man had started off at no more than the notice of an hour or so upon his long aeroplane journey to Bordeaux.
Hanaud drew up a third chair to the table. “I have not one expectation of what Mr. Blackett is to tell us. But I promise him now that, apart from us three and Monsieur Tidon, the examining magistrate, no one shall know anything except what in the interests of Justice must be known. So!” And he turned to Dennis Blackett, who resumed at once:
“You have heard, I understand, what Miss Tasborough knew of the estrangement between my daughter and myself. But neither she nor anybody else in the world, except my daughter and myself, knew the whole truth. I was never and am not now concerned to defend myself against any charge of harshness, and she for her own sake would be certain to keep her mouth shut. I am breaking this long silence because I want her murderer brought to justice and execution”—though there was no break in the flow of his grating voice, a faint tinge of colour crept into his white face, and his lips tightened—“and what I have to tell you, for all I know, may help.”
He paused for a few moments to arrange the order of his sentences. Mr. Ricardo hitched his chair closer to the table, the epicurean of sensations in him savouring the moment and rejoicing in its retardation. Hanaud sat like stone, his eyes upon Dennis Blackett’s face.
“From the day of my daughter’s birth”—and it was noticeable that never once would he pronounce her name—“I began to collect pearls, so that she might have a string of them worth having upon her twenty-first birthday. I took a great deal of trouble in their selection. I bought four or five a year, and when that birthday party assembled in Morven, on the Sound of Mull, I had in the house a very valuable string for her, consisting of a hundred and twenty large pearls, carefully graduated in size and of a purity and a lustre which could hardly be equalled even amongst the treasures of the great reigning Houses. I had made no secret of my intention so far as my daughter was concerned. She knew of it. She knew that I meant to give it to her on the morning of her birthday. But the night before”—he moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue—“she stole it. When she and her lover sailed down the Sound and across Loch Linnhe to Oban, she took that necklace with her.”
Dennis Blackett looked down at his hands which rested on the table in front of him, loosely clasped together; and Mr. Ricardo, following the direction of his eyes, had for the second time the opportunity of observing what traitors the hands can be. Not an inflection of Blackett’s voice, not an expression upon his face, conveyed anything more than that he was putting a fairly interesting proposition before a couple of business associates. But his hands betrayed him. They were ever so slightly trembling.
“I said nothing aloud,” he resumed. “But I whispered in private to the dealers in Hatton Garden and the jewellers. Pearls of value are known. A good pearl can no more get away from its history and colour and weight than one of Monsieur Hanaud’s clients can get away from his fingerprints and his previous convictions. I was pretty sure that this string would, sooner or later, and sooner rather than later, come into the market; and I didn’t want anyone-else—ever to wear it. It was twenty-one years of my life. But don’t misunderstand me, please!” and he lifted his eyes from his hands to the faces of the two men who were listening.
Both of them were sitting, careful not by a gesture or a change of attitude to interrupt the curious story. They were spellbound by this calm, smooth revelation of himself by a man who surely had never stripped himself so bare before. Nor did they answer him now.
“No. I was not moved by any sentiment,” Dennis Blackett explained. “To me, the necklace was the proof of a gigantic folly. And it existed—out there in the world. I was uncomfortable. I wanted it back. I wanted it sunk at the bottom of the Sound of Mull. It was like a compromising letter which a man has once written and knows to be in existence, and will pay to get back. The message I sent far and wide through the dealers was that I would pay for that necklace if it was brought to me complete—the hundred and twenty pearls and not one missing. One missing meant a sentence of my compromising letter torn off and kept. Well, a fortnight ago the necklace was offered to an important jeweller in this town. It was offered at a price far below its value. For some reason, perhaps because it was offered at so low a price, the jeweller hesitated. But eleven days ago it was offered to him again. He knew exactly what it was. He knew that he could make his profit on it. And this time he bought it. Two days later I learnt that it was in his possession. I telegraphed to him to keep it until the end of the month, when I should be free to come out in person, assure myself that it was in very truth my compromising letter, and take it back with me. But this”—and for the fraction of a second the man of iron did flinch—“this brutal murder suggests to me that perhaps before the sale there was a theft. If so the jeweller might help you.”
“The name of that jeweller, monsieur?” Hanaud asked.
“Domenique Pouchette, Alees de Tourny.”
“I shall send for him and for the necklace at once,” said Hanaud.
Dennis Blackett got up from his chair. “I have been travelling without intermission for nearly twenty-four hours,” he said. “I should like a bath and a meal and a change of clothes. It is now six o’clock. If the jeweller can come at seven, I shall be better prepared to meet him.”
Hanaud was clearly in a fret, and Dennis Blackett pressed his point with a smile. “I am really at the end of my resources, Mr. Hanaud. The entr’acte of an hour is very necessary.”
Indeed, now that his story had been spoken, exhaustion had got the upper hand with him. He moved with a faltering step to the door. Hanaud sprang forward and rang the bell.
“Monsieur’s suit-case has been taken to his room?” he asked of the waiter. “Yes?” and he turned to Dennis Blackett. “In an hour’s time, then, and meanwhile I beg you to assure yourself of my gratitude and respect.”
“That’s all right,” said Blackett, and he reeled rather than walked out of the room.