The Prisoner in the Opal


How a Jeweller Pays His Taxes

A.E.W. Mason

DOMENIQUE POUCHETTE, a big, formal man with a square brown beard, dressed in an old-fashioned frock-coat of broadcloth, bowed from the doorway, relieved Moreau of a small black brief bag and placed it upon the table. Moreau, then, at a nod from Hanaud, went out of the room and closed the door. Domenique Pouchette took a small key from his waistcoat pocket, unlocked the bag and lifted out of it a jewel-case. He looked in turn at Hanaud, at Ricardo, at Dennis Blackett, and then without any hesitation offered the case to the last of the three. The case was worn, the leather here and there broken, and for a moment or two Blackett turned it over in his hands, shrinking from opening it. He unfastened the catch with an abrupt and violent movement, and taking out the necklace let the smooth, softly gleaming beads slip between his fingers. He was smiling now rather bitterly. They were the twenty-one years of his life. Each bead celebrated some shrewd stroke of business, brought to its culmination after much labour, and all for the sake of the idolized daughter.

“Yes, this is the string. Here is the diamond clasp with her initial ‘E’”; and he dropped it on the table and looked at it as though it were an iridescent adder with a forked tongue ready to strike.

“So!” said Hanaud. “We are sure of this first condition. The necklace belonged to Madame Devenish. Now for you, Monsieur Pouchette. You hesitated to buy it even at a price far below its value. Why?”

“It was offered to me,” the dealer returned carefully, “by someone about whom I was not quite satisfied.”

“A man or a woman?”

“A woman.”

“A young woman?”


The answer, reluctantly given, was a surprise to all sitting around that table, but especially to Mr. Ricardo. He had been working out in his mind the dates which Blackett had given. The day on which he had seen Evelyn Devenish in the Cave of the Mummies fitted in with them very well. He had had no doubt up to this moment that it was Evelyn Devenish herself who had sold the string of pearls to Pouchette, and that she had travelled to Bordeaux upon that day precisely to sell them.

“An old woman then,” cried Hanaud with a touch of exasperation in his voice. “Let me hear about her, if you please. Who she is and why you distrusted her.”

“A little moment,” the jeweller objected, pressing neatly the finger-tips of one hand against the fingertips of the other. “My business involves many confidential communications and could hardly prosper if secrecy were not observed. I am in a difficulty. Between myself and my customer there must be the same kind of relationship as between doctor and patient.”

“I am afraid that the law cannot recognize that relationship,” said Hanaud, whose patience was wearing thin. “You will be good enough to tell me all that you know about this woman.”

“Know?” Pouchette seemed to be picking up the word delicately. “I really know nothing.”

“All that you suspect then.”

Domenique Pouchette looked this way and that way. He caressed his beard with soft strokes of his hand.

“Suspicions may land a man in the most unpleasant position. I invite you to excuse me.”

“And I invite you not to waste my time,” Hanaud suddenly bellowed across the table. “What? Here is a crime committed and we are to be held up by the scruples of a jeweller!”

“A crime?” Pouchette exclaimed, quite taken aback.

“Well? You have read of it in your morning’s paper. You heard me speak the name of the owner of this necklace a minute ago—Madame Devenish.”

“Monsieur must pardon me—I did not connect the name with the crime of Suvlac,” stammered Pouchette the jeweller.

“Ah! Ah! Ah! Will you too try to play the fox with me? Let us have no more scrupulosities, my friend. Come, who was this woman?”

No doubt Pouchette might have declined to answer to anyone but a judge; and Hanaud’s blusterings suggested certainly to one listener in that room that he was aware of the doubtful ground on which he stood. But Domenique Pouchette, since now he must be brought into the affair, was shrewd enough to realize that his inconvenience would be the less, the more whole-heartedly he was on the side of the police.

“It was the widow Chicholle who brought the necklace to me.”

“The widow Chicholle,” Hanaud repeated slowly, like a man searching amongst his memories. He shook his head. “She is unknown to me.”

“It is true that she has never, so far as I know, taken her seat on the bench of the accused,” Pouchette continued. “But it does not follow that she has therefore a good name. And I tell you frankly, Monsieur Hanaud, that the name of the widow Chicholle is scabrous. She is of the bad quarters of this town. You will hear of her only very deep down in the underworld.”

“Yet you know of her, Monsieur Pouchette.”

“I shall explain that to you,” Pouchette returned, eagerly stretching out his arms towards Hanaud, so that the sleeves of his coat shrank back, and the cuffs of his shirt shot out. “There is no difficulty. A little moment! Once or twice she has come to me and always very privately and always with something of value to sell. I knew nothing about her. I said after examining her wares: ‘I do not know whether I can dispose of this. Take it away and come back to me in three days’ time.’ From time to time, as no one knows better than you, Monsieur Hanaud, we receive our little lists from the police of jewellery which has been stolen or lost. Always I looked through my list very carefully. Never did I find any description corresponding to the pieces offered to me by the widow Chicholle. Even then I had my scruples. I made it my business to find out who was this widow Chicholle. Yes—I admit it to you—her name stank like an onion. Her house had a dark and evil name. No, she was not reputable. So when after three days she came again I asked her sternly how she had come into possession of these valuable things. She had her explanation. Certain ladies wished from time to time to dispose of part of their jewellery without publicity. She received a little commission on the sale for meeting their wishes. There it was—an explanation feasible-enough. These fine ladies have their little affairs. I for my part had my business.”

Monsieur Domenique Pouchette smiled. Nothing could have been more frank and loyal than his demeanour. He was the honest business man keeping within the law, and bearing his share of the enormous burden of the national taxation by assiduously pushing along with his business.

“So I put my delicate shades of feeling into my pocket and these fine little pieces of jewellery too. But there came an occasion. Perhaps I took the instructions of the police too much at the foot of the letter. I don’t know. Perhaps I should have given to them a wider connotation. You shall tell me,” and he directed a dazzling smile at Hanaud’s immobile face. He was a conscientious tradesman anxious to be corrected if he had construed in too literal a spirit the recommendations of the authorities.

“I will tell you,” said Hanaud stonily.

“That will be kind,” the grateful Pouchette remarked. “Well, the widow Chicholle brought to me a ring in which was set, amongst some brilliants of no particular value, a very beautiful big emerald. It was, so far as I could see, quite flawless, and you gentlemen will know how very difficult it is to find an emerald without a flaw. It was of the deepest, purest green, and a flame burnt within it. It was a stone for a rajah. It was, I think, a present from a rajah.”

And suddenly Hanaud, who had been sitting still as a mummy, with his hands upon the arms of his chair, heaved himself out of his seat and stood erect, staring at the jeweller.

“To Jeanne Corisot?” he said in a strangled voice.

“I imagined so. That little lady was, I believe, in Bordeaux during the early summer.”

Jeanne Corisot was one of those golden&-haired comets which flame very prettily for a season in midnight skies. At Bordeaux you may perhaps catch a glimpse of them if you are fortunate, but the line of totality where you can see them at their brightest runs from Deauville across Paris to Monte Carlo. Stationed at one of those famous viewpoints you will see them, annexing fresh satellites as they curve and blaze and riot and cause a good deal of disturbance amongst the sedater comets. In the end they crash into the moon they have always been asking for, or the earth or Mars, and go whirling away into darkness, dropping into this or that pawnbroker’s shop their bits of fire as they go. Jeanne Corisot had ceased to reign over her Eastern prince some six months back. She had dropped out of the firmament—to what dark spot no one knew and no one cared. For other lustrous stars, bright from youth’s mint, were trying their curves and gyrations within the range of vision. Jeanne Corisot was “one of those ladies,” as politeness puts it quite sufficiently, and her day was just over.

So much Mr. Ricardo, the man of the world, knew. He knew that it was in the nature of things that she should begin to sell here and there stray pieces of her jewellery. What he did not understand was why Hanaud should make such a pother of an everyday affair. There he was, startled by a surprising revelation, looking rather terrible, yes, and rather frightened too. Hanaud lowered himself slowly into his chair.

“Well?” he said.

“Well,” Pouchette resumed. “I did not take that emerald. I did not offer a price for it. No. I said to the widow Chicholle: ‘Bring it to me in three days’ time.’ I had an idea that that ring was on my list of jewels which were missing. And it was. Yes, Monsieur Hanaud, I took the list from my safe the moment the widow Chicholle had gone; and there it was.”

“And you didn’t inform the police,” said Hanaud.


Domenique Pouchette brought his chair a little nearer to Hanaud’s. He turned towards him confidently and innocently smiling.

“It is there that I should welcome your advice. I read the police notices with the greatest care. They were very clear. I was to inform the Prefect of Police the moment that any of these pieces of jewellery came into my possession. Those were the words. But this ring had not come into my possession. Nor did it ever. For of course I refused it three days later. It may be that I should have set a more liberal meaning upon that phrase. I don’t know. I argued to myself: ‘The police know what they want. Who am I that I should know better than they?’ Now you shall tell me whether I was right or wrong,” and Pouchette leaned back, still quite innocent and smiling.

Hanaud, however, brushed the question aside. He asked another instead. “When exactly did this woman Chicholle offer you this ring?”

“A little moment!”

Pouchette drew from his waistcoat pocket a tiny diary and consulted it. “It was on the second day of June. I can fix the date. For I had been that morning to an important luncheon of my business associates at the ‘Chapon Fin.’ The widow Chicholle came that night at ten o’clock.”

Hanaud raised his eyebrows. “A late hour, Monsieur Pouchette, for you to remain at your office.”

Just for a moment Domenique Pouchette showed signs of discomfort. “She came to my apartment, not my office.”

The admission was quite enough for Hanaud. He accepted it. It threw perhaps a rather sinister hue upon the relationship between the widow Chicholle and Domenique Pouchette the jeweller. The widow Chicholle brought her wares in the darkness—yes! And Domenique practised a discreet silence when wares were offered to him which it would be imprudent to buy—yes! These little matters might be considered later on. Meanwhile there was the pressing need of Joyce Whipple, who must be found somewhere hidden under all this litter of crime and dishonesty.

“And so you refused the emerald of Jeanne Corisot, Monsieur Pouchette. Yes, I understand that. And you were very careful, henceforth, how you dealt with the widow Chicholle. But you took the necklace of Evelyn Devenish.”

“Yes!” Monsieur Pouchette rose from his disculpations with a gasp of relief like a swimmer from a dive in deep waters. “The police were unconcerned about that necklace. I made sure. It figured in no list. But I knew that a Mr. Dennis Blackett would give a price for it. So I bought it,” he rose from his chair, “and perhaps Mr. Dennis Blackett will do me the honour tomorrow to consider with me the price which should be paid.”

He took up the necklace from the table in front of Dennis Blackett, let it ripple and gleam and vanish into its case, just as a viper will slip into a bush, and was about to restore the case to the bag when Hanaud reached out a hand.

“I will take it into my charge. I shall give you a receipt for it. There are witnesses here who will bear you out that I have taken it.”

He wrote swiftly on a paper at a writing-table, subscribed his name and brought the paper back to Pouchette.

“Now I shall ask you for the address of the widow Chicholle.”

Monsieur Pouchette considered. No one of those present doubted what he was considering. Would it be prudent to deny all knowledge of that old woman’s address? Could he say “I was careful as a business man to display very little interest in her position and surroundings” and get away with such a defence? On the whole—no, definitely no!

“It is not in one of our best streets that this woman resides,” he replied with a shrug of the shoulders.

“I am sure of that,” said Hanaud.

“She lives in the street Gregoire.”

“And the street Gregoire?” Hanaud asked, writing the name down.

“Lies over there,” said Domenique Pouchette, pointing to the window opening on the Cours de L’Intendance. “To the east of us. It is in the parish of St. Michel. It runs from a little square in that parish, tall and narrow and dark, to the quays.”

And Mr. Ricardo could suppress himself no longer. The parish of St. Michel? Very well, then! The street Gregoire was close to the Cave of the Mummies.

“You bought the necklace on the Monday of last week, then?” he cried to Pouchette. “Today is Friday. Eleven days ago you bought that necklace?” he cried excitedly.

Domenique Pouchette replied:

“A little moment!” and he consulted his diary once more. To Mr. Ricardo in his excitement the sight of the tiny book manipulated by the jeweller’s big splay finders was incongruous, absurd.

“I made a note—yes. It was brought to me first on a Friday. I bought it on the Monday . . . just eleven days ago,” answered Domenique, watching this new participant in the discussion warily, and speculating why the date should so excite him. But Mr. Ricardo had eyes only for Hanaud. Another link in the chain was being hauled up within his vision.

“You remember?” he cried. “It was at the Tower of St. Michel that I saw Evelyn Devenish that afternoon. She had handed over her necklace to the widow Chicholle in the street Gregoire. She was on her way back—”

And Hanaud interrupted him with a nod of the head. “She was on her way back,” he repeated, “the price paid, eh? She visits the Cave of the Mummies. She sighs that long-drawn sigh of longing that the days of such cruel punishments might come again—eh? Is that the truth at the end of it all?”—and he looked across the table, his eyes burning in his massive head, his face white with horror. “Was the price paid just that those days might return? . . . But then . . . Yes, but then . . . !”

Mr. Ricardo could fill up these broken sentences. But then . . . it was Evelyn Devenish who was destroyed. Did she plan and pay for the punishment of Joyce Whipple? Did that murderous glance in the drawing-room at Suvlac mean that fulfilment was nearly . . . But then—it was Evelyn Devenish of the severed hand who was the victim—of a sadic vengeance.

All this while Domenique Pouchette was stroking his brown beard nervously and glancing from one to another of his companions at the table. There were questions being asked here with which he wished from the bottom of his heart to have nothing to do. He rose from his chair.

“If I may go now? There are some small matters of business waiting for me. And I have my office to close.”

Hanaud looked at him with more good-nature than Ricardo had expected. There was even a trace of a smile upon his lips.

“Yes. After all, you have made no difficulties for me. You might have protested that you would say nothing except before the Juge d’Instruction and in the presence of your legal adviser. I shall remember that in your favour. You should, of course, have notified the police the moment that fine emerald was offered to you. But yes, life is difficult and taxes are high. Run along with you!”

No schoolboy at the hour of release could have disappeared from his class-room with the celerity now displayed by Domenique Pouchette.

“That poor devil! We give him the shock! He will go by the foot of the letter,” Hanaud said with a grin. “Now we turn to our small matters of business,” and he raised his voice. “Moreau!”

Moreau, who had been standing sentry outside the door, was on the inside of it like a genius in an Arabian tale.

“The widow Chicholle in the Rue Gregoire,” Hanaud recited as he wrote hurriedly. “You have a gendarme with you? Yes. You will send him at the gymnastic step to Monsieur Le Prefet with this letter. Very quietly and carefully the house of the widow Chicholle must be watched from now on—a man at the end of the street on the quay, another in the little square at the head of the street, and the house itself. A good man in control. No action to be taken—except under necessity. But word to come to me of any visitors.”

He sealed up his note and handed it to Moreau. Then he turned to Dennis Blackett.

“To you, monsieur, all my thanks. We shall do what we can. Meanwhile you will stay in Bordeaux?”

“Yes, here,” said Dennis Blackett.

“Good! For you, Mr. Ricardo, I shall ask you to dine with me and now. At my little hotel. It is not so magnificent as this, but one eats well, and when there is much work to be done it is wise to eat well before we begin it.”

There was a note of excitement in his voice, his eyes had the curiously bright and rather cruel look of a retriever’s when a gun is brought into its view. He was as Ricardo had seen him twenty times when the bits of the puzzle were falling into their places and the whole picture was there for a shrewd eye to anticipate. Hanaud, in a word, was in a mood which imposed upon any true friend of his the duty of steadying him, and Mr. Ricardo was not the man to flinch from the task.

“There is something to be done, my good friend, before we dine,” he said. “I do not charge you with carelessness. No, you have so much to think of. It is inevitable that from time to time some important precaution should be neglected.”

A subtle change came over Hanaud. His confidence vanished. His voice proceeded to shake with anxiety. “A precaution which I omit?” he cried despairingly. It seemed that he would tear his hair out by the roots. “Tell me I am in the dust at your feet!”

Mr. Ricardo smiled graciously.

“There is no need for any heroics. The omission can tonight no doubt be repaired. The moment of forgetfulness might have happened to anyone. I am, of course, speaking of the patron and the crew of the gabare which left the tiny dock at Suvlac against the tide hours before the appropriate time of casting off.”

The liveliest disappointment chased from Hanaud’s face the eager desire to repair a fault. He shook his head reproachfully. He spoke dejectedly. “My dear friend—the gabare—and is that all? But, of course—of course—the patron and his two sons have been locked up in separate cells ever since their arrival in Bordeaux yesterday evening. They will not even be able to drive Le Petit Mousse in the Municipal Gardens on Sunday afternoon. You will come with me?”

Mr. Ricardo, considerably abashed, answered with humility.

“Yes. A little moment”—he was rather taken with Domenique Pouchette’s favourite phrase—“a little moment to wash the hands.”

“Two little moments,” replied Hanaud, “and you will order perhaps your car. I am a snob. Yes. I prefer to ride in a Rolls-Royce. Besides, it goes very fast, without seeming to go fast at all—and—and—we shall have need to go fast and far tonight!”

There was a thrill in Hanaud’s voice, a gleam in his eyes which dispersed in an instant Mr. Ricardo’s ill-humour. He had been inclined to be touchy over this matter of the gabare. He took it rather as an offence that Hanaud had remembered to lay his hands upon it and its crew. The gabare was his contribution to the elucidation of the case, and he resented the fact that the contribution had already been made by someone else. But Hanaud was obviously up on the tips of his toes. He was going to bowl the wickets down. He had the measure of his enemies. He was to be swift and terrible.

“Yes,” cried Ricardo in an enthusiasm, running to the door and ordering his car and running back again. “The Rolls-Royce is yours. You shall give the orders to my chauffeur. You shall own it. We go fast and far tonight!”

“But not at once, my friend. In an hour and a half at the ‘Golden Pheasant.’ Even then he will wait,” Hanaud replied. “For in this we shall be different from Domenique Pouchette. We shall not close our offices tonight.”

The Prisoner in the Opal - Contents    |     XVIII - Hanaud Dines

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