The Prisoner in the Opal


The Face at the Window

A.E.W. Mason

AT THE DOOR of the hotel in the Cours de L’Intendance, Hanaud jumped out.

“Wait!” he said to Joyce Whipple. “I borrow a cloak”; and in a minute he was back again. Joyce wrapped it about her and was led up to Ricardo’s sitting-room. Hanaud had entered the hotel with her and Ricardo had ascended the stairs with them, and yet he had conjured into his hands by some magic, on the way, a plate of biscuits.

“Now, mademoiselle, you will sit here,” he ordered, arranging a chair for her at the table, and setting down the biscuits in front of her, “and you will eat perhaps a couple of biscuits, whilst I make the arrangements.”

He whisked out of the room, and was back again as swiftly as if his energy had annihilated time. Joyce Whipple was still at her second biscuit, and Hanaud calmly lifted the plate from before her.

“That will do,” he said.

“No!” cried Joyce, and she clung with both hands to the plate. “I am hungry.”

“It certainly is not much of a dinner,” Mr. Ricardo observed reproachfully.

“It is not a dinner at all,” said Hanaud. “But it will spoil a dinner. Will you let the plate go, if you please, mademoiselle?”

But Joyce Whipple shook her head with determination and clung still more to her plate. She looked so like a mutinous little boy that Hanaud began to laugh; but still with one great hand he drew the plate of biscuits away, and still with both her small ones she clutched it back again.

“I am starving,” she said with a whimper in her voice, and the tears in her eyes.

“I know, my little friend,” he replied gently. “I know that very well,” and his free arm went round her shoulders. “Now you shall listen to me and say how wise I am. Look! I engage a room for you—so, No.18—here is the ticket—a room with a bath—ah, ha, you do not know, you are the chimney-sweep’s boy. Also I order a dinner for you with a little bottle of champagne, for all of which Mr. Ricardo shall pay. And I borrow a nightdress from the manageress. The pyjamas of burnt orange—no! She lost them on the Lido. So you meet your friend for a minute—here. Then you get all white again in your bath. Then you lose yourself in the manageress’s nightgown and get into bed. Then your dinner is brought to you, and perhaps whilst you eat it you talk to your friend. Then you go to sleep—oh, quite free from any fear, because I put a gendarme at your door. There is no need, you understand, for any gendarme. I only post him there because I am very kind and very efficient. If you wake up in the night and suddenly imagine you are in a less pleasant place, you have only to cry out, ‘Are you there, Alphonse?’ and he will answer, ‘Yes, mademoiselle, armed to the teeth,’ and if you say instead, ‘Are you there, Hyacinthe?’ he will answer just the same.”

So Hanaud rattled on, striving to bring back some laughter to that wan face; and suddenly she did laugh and laid a small hand upon his big paw.

“Very well,” she said, and she got up unsteadily on to her feet. “But you talk of a friend and again of a friend. Except you two I have no friends in Bordeaux.”

“We shall see.”

Hanaud went to the door and opened it and beckoned, and Bryce Carter entered the room. At the sight of him Joyce uttered a cry of astonishment.

“You?” She plumped down in her chair again and stared at him. “But when did you come?”

“This evening,” said Bryce Carter. “There was a word about you last night in a London paper.”

“And you left at once?”

“Of course. I came at once.”

“Oh!” Joyce ran a grimy finger backwards and forwards along the tablecloth and her lips twitched and melted into a slow smile.

“That was terribly nice of you,” she said. Hanaud glanced at Mr. Ricardo and threw up his hands in despair. There was no need for him to blow upon his fingers now. He of the burning letters—there he stood as unmoved as a pillar in a desert, with his “Of course,” and his “I came at once,” like a doctor. And there she sat looking at her little dirty finger and saying politely, “How terribly nice of you!” What a people—Goddam!

“Well, we go, Mr. Ricardo and I,” he said, making his announcement as dramatic as possible. But it fell just as flat as his introduction of Bryce Carter. Neither of the young people asked whither he and Ricardo were going, or took the most fleeting interest in their movements. Bryce Carter stared at Joyce; Joyce stared at the tablecloth. Hanaud tried again. He smiled confidently at Ricardo as one who knew an infallible magic to attract a girl’s attention.

“We go to bring back your clothes to you, mademoiselle,” he said.

Certainly the remark had an effect, but not the effect which he expected. He awaited enthusiasm, and a show of gratitude. All that happened was that Joyce raised her eyes shyly to Bryce Carter’s face and said with a little bubble of laughter: “He says that I look like a chimney-sweep’s boy.”

Bryce Carter looked at as much as he could see of her very seriously. Then he replied:

“I have never seen a chimney-sweep’s boy, but I should think that he’s right.”

Hanaud was defeated. He rushed from the room, and Mr. Ricardo found him leaning against the wall of the passage, incredulity upon his face, his arms helplessly gesticulating.

“What a people!” he exclaimed.

Mr. Ricardo on the other hand had a different view. Discretion and self-control never failed to touch a responsive chord in his heart.

“It is not our habit to make a public exhibition of our emotions even under the most seductive circumstances,” he said primly.

“I was wrong about that young man,” Hanaud declared gloomily. “He has not the temperament. He will not make money in the City.”

But a little cry rang out behind the closed door. Bryce Carter’s voice, passionate and low, followed swift upon it. “Joyce! Joyce!”

Hanaud turned in a flash and opened the door. For the fraction of a second he stood, he in his turn like a pillar of stone. He saw Bryce Carter standing by the table and in his clasp the chimneysweep’s boy, her arms tightly locked about his neck, her face buried in his coat. Hanaud softly closed the door.

“He has. He will,” he said, sublimely admitting an error of judgment. “Let us go!”

This time the car slipped along the Rue Fondaudege and out by the route du Medoc. The clocks of the town were striking ten whilst it still ran between the houses. Immediately afterwards the interminable street fell away behind with an abruptness which was startling, and the car shot into the darkness of the open country. But in front of the strong headlights the road lay brilliant as a riband of snow, and the trees which bordered it continually met to make an impenetrable forest and continually opened to let the travellers through. Every now and then they jolted over cobbles between ghostly white houses, and left another village behind them; every now and then, too, the lighted windows of a bar fought with their lights for the illumination of the road, and vanished behind them. Hanaud sat very silent in the darkness of the limousine, and Mr. Ricardo was at pains not to interrupt his reflections. No doubt the great man was planning and planning and planning. Already a rare light or two showed that they were approaching Pauillac. The adventures of the night were nearing their climax. Suddenly Hanaud spoke. “I have been thinking, my friend.”

“I was careful not to break in upon your thoughts.”

“I have been looking back upon all that was said and done this evening.”

“It is very natural that you should.”

“And one thing puzzles me.”

“Only one thing?” Mr. Ricardo asked enviously.

“Only one thing, my friend,” Hanaud returned. “But it is one which you shall explain to me.”

A series of little movements in the other corner of the carriage suggested that Mr. Ricardo was settling his collar, squaring his shoulders, pulling down his cuffs and generally trimming himself up to fit the occasion.

“I shall do my best. Speak, Hanaud!”

Hanaud accordingly delivered himself of his perplexity.

“To sit on the floor and tell sad stories of dead kings—that is an English custom, eh?”

“No, my friend, but it is an English quotation, when it is right.”

Hanaud turned in the darkness eagerly. “Aha! The charming Miss Whipple—she makes a phrase in the cellar, eh? She use an idiom?”

“You may call it so.”

“Good,” said Hanaud with contentment. “I too use him.”

Mr. Ricardo was never able quite to comprehend the professional mind which having made its careful plan and set it irrevocably in motion can turn to trifles whilst awaiting the result.

“Do you mean to say,” he cried, “that all this while in the corner of my car you have been considering the preposterous question whether or no you will sometime be able to drag into your conversation an unusual phrase which you have just heard for the first time? You are approaching Mirandol. Dreadful duties lie before you—and you are trifling with an idiom. I don’t wish to be censorious, but levity is levity.”

Hanaud was altogether unmoved by this rebuke.

“A field-marshal, my friend,” he replied, “once he has prepared his battle, and given the order to begin, may go and fish with his little rod for a trout. He can do no more. He cannot alter his strategy that day. So with Hanaud. His scheme is complete. His subordinates are carrying it out. Himself he learns an idiom.”

He had hardly delivered himself of this immodest comparison when a lantern swung to and fro ahead of them, and with all its brakes clamped fast the car came to a stop. The headlights showed a stout wire rope fixed across the road at the level of the bonnet, and three gendarmes in uniform with a local inspector of police dressed in plain clothes. The inspector opened the door of the car and, seeing now who was within it, saluted.

“The Château Mirandol is surrounded. You will only have to blow your whistle and there will be assistance at once,” he said.

“The Vicomte is alone?” asked Hanaud.

“No, the Juge d’Instruction has returned to him. Oh—Monsieur Tidon—he is ambitious. It is known that he aspires to Paris and here is the case to lift him up the ladder. He has not let the Vicomte de Mirandol for long out of his sight today, I can tell you,” the inspector observed with a quiet laugh.

“And what of Suvlac?”

“No one has moved beyond the grounds all day.”

“Good!” Hanaud leaned out of the window and spoke in a whisper. Ricardo heard the inspector answer “Yes,” and again “Yes,” and then Hanaud turned his head towards Moreau on the seat beside the driver. “We will go in by the gate that was painted”; and as the gendarmes removed the barrier from across the road, he turned again to the inspector.

“There is no need for that wire rope any longer. Anyone from the Château Suvlac or Mirandol—yes, you shall stop him. But the travellers—now they can pass without inconvenience.”

The car, purring like a great cat, slid along past the high iron gates of Mirandol on the left hand, and the plantations of Suvlac upon the right. It reached the arch and the house of Suvlac, the pink walls glimmering under the stars and not a light in any window. It turned down the slope by the farm buildings and the garage, crossed the pasture-land and ascended the hill. Fifty yards from the gate, Hanaud tapped upon the front glass and the car stopped. From that point the three men proceeded quietly on foot. The hill-side fell away upon their right, the hedge of the Mirandol property rose high upon their left, and they walked by the faint gleam of the white road. At a corner they came to a gap in the hedge. Mr. Ricardo stepped forward busily and reached out a hand to the gate. But Hanaud snatched him back violently.

“Don’t touch it!” he whispered.

“A little wet paint—what does that matter?” Mr. Ricardo returned in the same tone.

“There may be more than a little wet paint. Let us take care!”

He drew a glove over his right hand. But noiselessly though the party had moved, he had not touched the latch before a thread of light shot out, nickered over their faces and was gone. A man moved forward from the shrubs within the garden and opened the gate for them.

“That is very good watching,” Hanaud murmured. “I thank you.”

They slid between the high bushes to the lawn in front of the low house. At the edges of the thick dark curtains which were drawn across the library window there was a trickle of light. But nowhere else. In that room there, thought Ricardo, sat the ambitious Juge d’Instruction keeping watch over the rogue whose conviction was to waft him away to Paris. He crept forward across the drive in the hope that at one of those edges where the light shone he might catch a glimpse of the interior of the room. What were those two doing? Chatting over a bottle of wine like two good friends? Not a sign that on one side of the hearth sat a criminal and on the other a judge with a knowledge of the crime? Or did they sit in a dreadful silence, one with eyes shifting from chair to table, from book to ornament, from picture to bright fire-iron—anywhere, so that they did not meet another pair of eyes; the other watching steadily, unblinkingly out of a face of steel. Mr. Ricardo had got to know. He crept close to the window and peered in; and then with a low cry rattling in his throat he leaped suddenly back. Hanaud caught him by the elbow.

“Hush!” he whispered. “What do you see?” But Ricardo had suffered from an unexpected shock, so strange a thrust of terror that he could not answer. His blood seemed to him to stand still and his belly to turn over.

“Look! Look!” he gasped at length, and pointed to the window. Hanaud, in his turn, approached and saw. And he too was startled. Standing between the curtain and the window, with his face pressed against the glass, and his hands curved about his eyes to shut out any glimmer from the room, the Vicomte de Mirandol stared out into the darkness, motionless like some old Indian idol. He was watching them as some late student, disturbed by the cracking of a twig in a lonely garden, might watch from his curtained study and, discerning robbers, stand rooted to the spot. There had been only the thickness of the pane between Mr. Ricardo and that big white face with the full, mincing lips and the bald forehead; and it had not moved. Ricardo had never seen anything more disturbing, more ghostly. He came to Hanaud’s side reluctantly, uneasily. A foot away from the window the two men stood and stared. Did the Vicomte imagine that he had not been seen? That they were staring at him and overlooking him? No! For he did move, and the movement was even more grotesque and somehow more alarming than his immobility. For his face expanded in a grin which showed both the rows of his teeth and, lifting a fat finger, he beckoned. For a moment the heavy curtain swung aside, and both the men in the garden saw the examining magistrate leaning forward from a chair in the lighted room with the most baffling look of suspense upon his face. The curtain swept down again and hid the room. But the one brief glimpse had given to Ricardo a new and vague idea of Arthur Tidon, the examining magistrate. The astute judge, sitting over against his victim, playing with him, playing David to his Jonathan until the police arrived? No! There would have been exultation in his aspect if that had been the case. As it was, there was suspense. And fear? he asked himself. No. Calculation, perhaps, but above all suspense with its parted lips and wide, staring, expectant eyes.

Mr. Ricardo’s conjectures were cut short by the opening of the door and the great panel of light which stretched of a sudden across the white pebbles of the drive.

“It is Monsieur Hanaud?” The mincing treble voice floated out softly to the watchers.

“It is.”

“Will you come in? Monsieur Tidon is with me. I was a little alarmed to see so many unexpected visitors in my garden at so late an hour. But you shall tell us all that you have done in Bordeaux.”

“All? I have been very busy, Monsieur Le Vicomte,” said Hanaud, in a dry, uncompromising voice. “Moreau!”

Moreau stepped out of the darkness, and the three visitors followed the Vicomte de Mirandol into the vestibule. But only two of them crossed the threshold of the library. Moreau remained outside the door.

The Prisoner in the Opal - Contents    |     XXI - Mustard Gas

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