The Prisoner in the Opal


Home Truth for Widow Chicholle

A.E.W. Mason

FOR a few moments they stood in silence, their ears alert, holding their breath. But no voice was lifted anywhere, no foot knocked upon a floor. Not even a board creaked or a door rattled in that old house. They might have been standing together in a catacomb a hundred feet beneath the earth. Then the pencil of golden light clove the darkness again, flickered over mildewed wall and discoloured ceiling, and shone steadily upon a distant door. Hanaud moved forward into the light and noiselessly opened that door inch by inch. He let it swing wider and went in. The others followed—Mr. Ricardo with a delicious thrill of fear running up and down his spine. At that moment he would not have exchanged his position for any other in the world. For he was dramatizing himself with a concentration so intense that but for some apprehension of Hanaud, he would have claimed the lead and issued orders aloud. He was his own spectator too. He sat in the stalls and whole-heartedly admired his performance. “The great ones of the earth!” he reflected. “Pooh to them all!” He had seen them or met them—more often seen them than met them, to be sure—and thought nothing of them at all. Which of them had crept at night with plain-clothes men into a house of infamy, searching for a—well, what? He stood stock-still and asked himself that question. The widow Chicholle? Yes, no doubt, since there was so close a cordon round Suvlac that no one could get through. But after all—the widow Chicholle? Were all these precautions necessary?

Hanaud had taken the electric torch into his own hand, and was exploring with its beam this inner hall. But it was rather a corridor than a hall, with a window at the end, a couple of doors upon the left, a broad staircase on the right, and close to the foot of the staircase another door of tattered green baize. But no sound penetrated from behind any of the three doors, nor did any light gleam beneath them. Hanaud opened the two doors upon the left to make sure. The rooms faced the Rue Gregoire, but they were both shuttered and empty. One of them was furnished cheaply as a sitting-room; the other was merely a place of cupboards and bare boards. Thereafter he stood for a while looking up the staircase and listening, it seemed, with every nerve of his body. But the upper storeys were as silent as this hall in which they stood. The stillness of death lay brooding throughout the house.

The door of green baize led to the offices and the kitchen, and here at all events they came upon signs of life, for a clock ticked upon the wall and the grate showed the dull red of an expiring fire.

“There will be good cellars to this old house,” said Hanaud, and though he spoke in a low and quiet voice, to Ricardo’s strained fancies it seemed loud enough to wake the town.

He came at the end of a passage to a narrow flight of stone steps which wound downwards into darkness. He bent his head, then turned it and shook it at his companions. By the light of the torch he carried his face showed white and desperately afraid; and the fear leaped from his face to the faces of all about him. For a moment they were numbed by the chill of an immense failure.

“But it must be!” Hanaud whispered. “It must be!”

No one contradicted him, but no one agreed. They even closed together a little as men will in the presence of some dreadful catastrophe. That tiny movement drove the dismay from Hanaud’s face. He threw back his head with defiance.

“My God, but it has got to be!” he said stubbornly.

With three swift flashes of his hand he bade two of his men and Ricardo to stay where they were and the rest to follow him. Himself he moved downwards, but he was still within their view when from beneath their very feet, so close at hand it seemed, a piercing scream shattered the silence.

Mr. Ricardo was startled out of his wits. Panic seized him by the heart. He reeled back against the wall, gasping for breath. But he was astounded as much as startled. For his eyes were upon Hanaud’s face, and he saw relief and triumph transfigure it. It took Mr. Ricardo a few seconds to reconcile that look with a scream of such terror as he had never thought human being could utter and go on living. Then he understood. Hanaud was in time; Hanaud was right.

He heard a heavy door slam and felt it shake the house. He saw Hanaud leap. Behind Hanaud the whole party clattered and trembled, Ricardo and the two men bidden to wait, with the rest of them.

“This is the moment to disobey orders,” cried Mr. Ricardo, with a vague recollection of other national heroes; and, “Attention!” cried Hanaud in a ringing voice.

The warning reached him just in time. For he tottered on the edge of a gaping hole in the floor of the cellar, and with a gasp recovered his balance. He recovered it to see a line of light beneath a door across the cellar suddenly vanish and to hear a heavy lantern crash upon a floor. Before the sound ceased to echo Hanaud was at the door. It was of thick, solid wood. Hanaud shook it; it was bolted. But there was a Judas at the level of the eyes to ventilate the cellar within. Hanaud tore it open. For a second his torch, held in his left hand, played upon wall and ceiling and floor. Then his right hand flashed to his pocket, something gleamed in it—a pistol barrel—and that hand too slipped within the Judas.

“Up with the hands—all three of you,” he cried. “So!” Then he spoke to the men behind him. “A lantern! Quick!” A match was struck, a lantern lit. “Now you, the widow Chicholle, open this door!”

There was a pause and then the shuffling of feet dragging in carpet slippers across the flags. “The paws up, mother, till you reach the door!” he commanded. “That’s better!”

He withdrew the pistol as the woman approached, so that it could not be snatched from his hand; and then the bolt grated rustily out of its socket and the door swung open. Hanaud passed through the doorway and hung the lantern upon a nail. He stood in a small square cellar lined with plaster which was flaking off from the brick walls, and no air entered it but through the Judas and beneath the door. It was at once stiflingly close, clammily damp. Shut that heavy door and close the Judas fast, and it was a dungeon as black as night itself. The woman who had unbarred the door had retreated to the corner at the right of the door, and crouched huddled with her companions. There were three of them, all women—a young girl with a sullen face and jet-black hair who crouched on the ground, a woman of middle age, broad and big and strong as a man, with hands covered with clay, and the widow Chicholle herself, a ghoul of a woman with eyes sunk deep in a face which was splashed with black as though even before her death her body had begun to corrupt. Though she shuffled in carpet slippers, she wore an old dress of black silk, as the “patronne” of such a house should, and in spite of its shabbiness, with its trimmings and bugles of a past day, it added a nightmare touch of incongruity to the scene.

“I have done her no harm, m’sieu,” she whined, and, “You can see.”

“No, indeed! You have given her a fine boudoir to rest in whilst her bedroom was being prepared next door, eh, widow?” Hanaud cried with a savage irony, and the old woman shrank from him whimpering excuses and promises.

“Ah, there are others high up in the world more to blame than me! Come now! I am a poor woman, and ignorant too. . . . What should I do when those great ones order me . . . terrify me . . . ? Oh, I shall tell you about them—very sure, I shall tell you. . . . They are wicked ones, trust me—” And with a snarl Hanaud cut her short.

“And that?” he cried, thrusting out his arm. Over his shoulder Mr. Ricardo saw a noose and a foot or so of rope dangling from a hook driven into the low ceiling to hold a lamp. “That pretty necklace goes very well with the boudoir! A present for a good girl, eh, widow? Monsieur!” and he turned to a man in the doorway who waited with an air of authority. “Those animals are for you.”

As this man and two of his assistants filed into the cellar and surrounded the three women, the corner opposite to the door became visible to Mr. Ricardo; and in that corner, as far as possible from the widow Chicholle and her confederates, huddled against the wall, stood Joyce Whipple.

And in such strange guise that Mr. Ricardo was toppled from amazement to amazement. Was he standing on his head or on his heels? Verily, the whole world was upside down. The odd fact, to be sure, that Joyce Whipple had left her glittering frock behind on the night when she had disappeared was now accounted for. But it was only accounted for by a circumstance still more unaccountable. Joyce was dressed now in what seemed to Mr. Ricardo a boy’s Sunday suit of black velvet, knee breeches, black silk stockings and all. Certainly the black satin shoes she was wearing were her own—the imprints in the garden of Suvlac had demonstrated that. But the meaning of her masquerade was quite unintelligible to Mr. Ricardo. To make her attire still more remarkable she wore over the velvet suit a sort of short surcoat of a scarlet hue. It had no sleeves and was cut low at the shoulders, to slip over the head like a jumper, and it reached just to her hips. A surcoat, such as pages wore in mediaeval days—yes, that was it—or a short cassock in scarlet.

“It is all very peculiar,” Mr. Ricardo began to say to himself, but he looked at Joyce Whipple’s face, and a wave of pity and horror swept over him which made him forget everything but the extremity of her distress. Her eyes, wild with terror, blazed out of a white and twitching face. She trembled so that it was a miracle that she could stand, and with her hair and her dress dishevelled and soiled with plaster and dust she gazed from face to face quite distraught. But her eyes lighted upon Ricardo. He was the only one in all that company whom she had ever seen before; and her eyes stayed upon him and recognition struggled with doubt and gradually mastered it.

“It is you! You!” she said from a throat dry and hoarse with thirst, so that though she cried aloud a murmur would have drowned her cry. Suddenly she stretched out her hands to him, and he saw that they were handcuffed together at the wrists.

“Take them off my hands,” she implored, and she shook her arms so that the links of the chain rattled. “Oh, please! Quick! Oh, I shall die of fear.”

But Hanaud was already at her side. “Courage, mademoiselle! See, it is done! You are free!”

“Yes,” she whispered, separating her arms and joining them and separating them again, incredulous of her release. “Yes, I am free.”

Hanaud removed his eyes from her to the handcuffs in his hands. He turned them over and bent his head down to them and nodded to himself.

“Moreau! Look here! And here!” He pointed to some marks upon the steel, and an exclamation broke from Moreau.

“They are the property of the State,” he cried. “Ah! Ah! They are of an insolence, those fine fellows!”

“But it was to be expected, Moreau,” said Hanaud very softly. “Let us not lose our heads! Handcuffs, after all, don’t grow upon the bushes. No, when we want them to keep inquisitive young ladies in order, we must get them the best way we can. It was certainly to be expected, Moreau,” and as he handed them over to his assistant, Joyce Whipple with a sigh slid down in a heap at his side. He stooped over her. “Courage, mademoiselle!” he said chidingly; and Joyce Whipple from the floor laughed weakly and said:

“It is all very well to say ‘Courage, mademoiselle.’ But what is mademoiselle to do, monsieur, my friend, if mademoiselle’s legs give way under her? She can only sit on the floor, poor girl, and tell sad stories of the death of kings,” and her voice trailed away into silence and her shoulders bowed as she crouched upon the floor. She covered her face suddenly with her hands, and in a moment she was shaking from head to foot with great sobs like a child, and the tears were running out between her fingers.

Hanaud had been left completely at a loss by Joyce Whipple’s words, but her distress he did understand. He called for water in a peremptory voice, and when the glass was brought he knelt down by her side and put his great arm about her shoulders, raised her head and held the glass to her lips.

“Oh!” she sighed as she drank, and fearing that he was for handing back the glass before she had finished, she caught his wrist and held it fast with both her hands.

“More?” he asked when she had finished. “Oh, ever so much more,” she cried in a stronger voice, and now she laughed without hysteria and Hanaud laughed in sympathy. Moreau was holding a jug of water in his hands, and he filled the glass again. Hanaud stood up in front of her as she drank it, and with a movement of his hand commanded the removal of the prisoners. They were hustled out whilst she was drinking, but not so quickly but that she uttered a cry and, rising up on her knees, pressed herself against the wall.

“You are safe, mademoiselle,” said Hanaud, but she didn’t hear. Her eyes were fixed on the door through which the women had been taken and the dark cellar beyond. She knelt straight up, bruising her shoulder against the wall by the violence of her pressure. She shivered. She was once more upon the edge of panic.

“No, no, mademoiselle,” said Hanaud. It was an order that he gave her. “There is nothing to fear. It must not be!” And to Moreau he added: “See that they lock those women up in one of the rooms until we go, and send someone into the square to fetch Mr. Ricardo’s car.” He turned again to Joyce Whipple. “I tell you what we shall do. We shall take you in Mr. Ricardo’s fine car to Mr. Ricardo’s fine hotel, where a friend is waiting for you—”

“A friend?” Joyce asked with a frown of perplexity; then with a cry of alarm: “Not from—”

“No, no, no, not from the Château Suvlac at all. Will you please to listen to me?” Hanaud interrupted with an accent of the utmost testiness. “I dispose of you tonight. I am your goat.”

“Your nanny, he means, Joyce,” Mr. Ricardo explained, and they all fell to laughing foolishly and yet wisely. Joyce Whipple from an instinct that she must grapple herself fast to the light and trifling things if she were ever to repair the hurt and horror of this day; Hanaud because laughter would be the saving of her if it was kept on this side of hysteria. He was not very sure indeed of the occasion for laughter. Nothing that he had said could have provoked it. At an appropriate moment he had used an admirable idiom—that was all. But he was very content to laugh, with an ear alert to catch the first waverings of hysteria; and he kept the broad bulwark of his shoulders solidly between the girl upon the floor in the tattered masquerade and the horrid apparatus of her death. The noose with its short foot of rope promising slow torture and dreadful disfigurement dangled from the hook. But they laughed beneath it so that the walls of that deep-sunk, sinister chamber rang with a joyous sound which they could hardly have heard before. To Mr. Ricardo it seemed that their laughter was laying the ghosts of many crimes and exorcizing the cellar of its horrors.

“Come,” said Hanaud to the girl. “I carry you since the legs won’t walk.”

He lifted her up on her feet and thence into his arms with no more effort than if she had been in very truth a baby. There were only the three of them now in the cellar. “You will take the lantern, yes?—and you will leave this cellar just as it is for Monsieur Le Commissaire, and you will light me very carefully so that I do not bump this young lady’s head too often against the wall.”

Mr. Ricardo went forward with the lamp into the outer cellar. He saw clearly now the hole on the edge of which he had tottered. Some boards had been removed, a shallow trench had been dug in the clay—a grave. And the thought that if Hanaud had yielded to his appeals in the restaurant of the “Golden Pheasant”; or if he had yielded to his own doubts; or if Moreau had been late in coming to summon them; or if that shrill cry of death by terror had not risen up from beneath their feet, the grave would already hold its occupant, set his heart sinking in his breast and filled him with an unforgettable dismay. He would himself have had his share in that crime. Remorse would have stalked him for the rest of his days, and his soul went out in gratitude towards his friend. Even now, he noticed with a smile, Hanaud so held Joyce Whipple in his arms that her back was towards that open trench. She never saw it as she passed. The big porte-cochere was now wide open; there were gendarmes in uniform now at the door and in the street; the car, with its lights burning, stood beneath the archway. Hanaud carried Joyce Whipple out to it and set her feet upon the footboard and helped her in. He beckoned to one of the men in the vestibule to mount beside the chauffeur.

“So!” he said as he closed the door. “We keep you one moment. You are no longer afraid?”

“No,” she answered, smiling at him from the window and drawing in a long breath. “But—”

“Yes? Do not hesitate, mademoiselle. Our little world is yours to command tonight.”

“Very well, then! I ask something. I would like to breathe the fresh air, to feel it on my face, my neck. In a word, will you please have the car opened?”

Slowly there dawned upon Hanaud’s face a look of real delight. “Mademoiselle, the car does not open. It is my friend Ricardo’s car, and it does not open. No. I tell you. Only the better class of cars are made to open. Tomorrow I take you in my Ford and it will all be different,”

He turned back towards the vestibule with an impish grin at Mr. Ricardo. But he atoned for the grin the next moment.

“I have a little remark to make to the widow Chicholle. You shall hear. It will be interesting to see how she takes it.”

Hanaud was spacing out his words, savouring them with a grim smile which only once or twice Mr. Ricardo had seen upon his face. In a fanciful flight, he had called it the coup de grace. He hurried back on Hanaud’s heels. Hanaud would want him at his side if only to show him how wonderfully well he shot. Already orders were being given, and a key grated in a lock. A gendarme threw open the door of the sitting-room.

“Here, you! The widow Chicholle. Out with you here!” and the old woman with her white hair and the black hollows in her face came out into the light and blinked.

“You wanted me, monsieur? Yes? I am at your service. You will remember that no harm was done. A little fear—yes! That was all that we intended. Yes! No doubt it was not right and we must suffer a little—yes.”

“I invite you to be silent,” Hanaud cut in—oh, very softly. “Your excuses—you shall make them to the President of Assize—and no doubt he will listen. For me, I have a little warning to give you—just for what it is worth. You have visited no doubt upon some Sunday or other that very beautiful ornament of this town—the Cave of the Mummies.”

“Yes, m’sieu. I have been there,” said the widow Chicholle, with her eyes fixed in a desperate anxiety upon Hanaud’s face.

“Good! I have in the course of my researches in Bordeaux today come upon a startling fact which cannot but interest you. This house is, Chicholle”—and his voice rang out a trifle louder, a trifle less soft—“this house is built upon that ancient cemetery from which the mummies were removed.”

The widow Chicholle blinked at him, seeking for the meaning of his words. He did not keep her in suspense.

“Is she there?” he cried aloud, pointing downwards to the floor. “Is she there—Jeanne Corisot? And the others who have vanished from the earth? Tomorrow we shall see.” And as he turned and strode towards the door the widow Chicholle screeched and dropped like a stone.

The Prisoner in the Opal - Contents    |     XX - The Face at the Window

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