The Prisoner in the Opal


Mustard Gas

A.E.W. Mason

THE EXAMINING MAGISTRATE was buttoning a glove upon his right hand. He nodded pleasantly to Hanaud and to Mr. Ricardo.

“Alas, my good Hanaud, you disappoint me,” he grumbled ruefully. “I am no nearer to Bordeaux than I was two days ago.”

“On the contrary, sir,” Hanaud retorted, smiling. “You are as good as there already.”

Tidon, the magistrate, was a little taken aback. “That is excellent,” he said. He seemed upon the point of asking for an explanation, but thought the better of it and contented himself with repeating in an even heartier tone: “Yes, that is excellent! Ah, the Paris police! Nothing is hidden from it for long.”

Hanaud shook his head. “Monsieur, the longer I practise my profession, the humbler I grow—” And of all the untruths, and the name of them was legion, which Mr. Ricardo had heard Hanaud utter, this most took his breath away and plunged him in a state of admiration. “For more and more clearly do I observe that the chief of our success we owe to chance and the mistakes of the other man.”

“You shall try to persuade me of that tomorrow morning,” said the Judge of Instruction very politely, and he rose from his chair and with his left hand he reached for his hat.

Hanaud did not respond to that invitation. He had come straight into the room and across it, and now stood with his back to the fireplace, and as far from the door as in that room any man could possibly be. Yet to everyone he seemed to hold the handle.

“You are going, Monsieur Le Juge?” he asked quietly, and Tidon stopped, and he had quite the air of a man begging permission to go, as he answered:

“My car has been waiting for me for some while—”

“For the best part of an hour,” Hanaud interrupted.

“You must have passed it in the courtyard of the old château.”

“We came by the gate which Monsieur de Mirandol was so careful to paint yesterday,” said Hanaud; and Mr. Ricardo, realizing somehow that the air was heavy with stupendous events, but quite at a loss to guess what events, said to himself: “All this is very singular. Here is the chief, the very powerful Judge of Instruction, asking permission of his subordinate to go away, and here is a roomful of people turned into pillars of salt by the mere mention by that subordinate that he came in by a newly painted gate.”

It certainly was extraordinary. There had been an extremely faint, an extremely subtle menace in Hanaud’s speech. He lingered ever so slightly on the words, but he did linger on them, and both the Vicomte and the Judge were disturbed. The Judge was the first to recover his serenity.

“Oh, you came by that longer way,” he said with a smile. “It took you past the Château Suvlac. Yes, I understand that you of all men would wish to see what was going on there.”

“There was not a light in any window,” said Hanaud.

Tidon the Judge leaped at that interruption. He had his cue, and like a good actor, he took it up at once.

“No. We provincials are early in our beds,” and he looked at his watch. “Oh, la, la, la! I ought to fine myself. What will the good people of Villeblanche say, when Monsieur Le Juge’s car rattles home at so voluptuous an hour?”

“You have certainly not far to go,” said Hanaud; and his words were the stroke of a hammer upon an anvil. The Judge swung round upon his heel, as though a masterful, invisible hand was on his elbow.

“Hardly a step, Monsieur Tidon,” Hanaud continued suavely. “Hardly a step.”

But there was no misreading the glances which those two men exchanged. One asked: “What do you know?” and the other answered: “I shan’t tell you.” And again one asked: “You dare to threaten me?” and the other replied: “I dare to do my duty.” Thus they stood staring at one another, and more than ever Mr. Ricardo was distressed to see how far the examining magistrate fell below his conceptions. Why, the whole hierarchy of the Law was coming down with a crash in a shower of dust like some old house which had stood a century too long. Oh, it wouldn’t do. It wouldn’t do at all!

“After all, there are some provincials who turn night into day,” Hanaud continued. “Monsieur Le Vicomte, for instance.”

The Vicomte was very unhappy at being dragged into the discussion. He smiled unsteadily. “Yes, yes. I work late at night.”

“And not in your fine library.” It was rather a question than a statement. “I am a little surprised at that.”

The Vicomte, however, was in no difficulty about the reply. He replied, indeed, a little too quickly and complacently, like a man who has foreseen an awkward inquiry and discovered the perfect explanation.

“In the winter I do my unimportant work here. I am shut off from the wind by the trees. It is quite still here when every window is rattling upstairs, and warm. But in the summer I use my big room on the floor above. It is really, of course, a room for our literary and philosophical conferences. Oh yes, we have quite a small society in the Medoc and many people do me the honour to come out from Bordeaux to attend them. Women, alas! for the most part. I know that to achieve permanence one must reach the men, but that we minor people cannot hope to do. The ladies, however, yes! It would surprise you to see how many blue-stockings we count in this little corner of France—”

Hanaud broke with a savage irony through the smooth, mincing phrases spoken by that too small mouth with the too red lips.

“And amongst those blue-stockings you reckon, no doubt, the widow Chicholle?”

Mr. Ricardo had a fancy that the very hearts of those two men were between the anvil and the hammer and received the blow. They stood so stupidly, like dolls or like living people mortally hurt. Then the Vicomte felt the palms of his hands and wiped the perspiration away.

“The widow Chicholle?” he repeated in a faint and curious tone, but his lips trembled and the name was pronounced all awry. Tidon glanced at his friend and his eyebrows went up into his forehead, as much as to say “the man’s mad,” but, nevertheless, his face was deadly white and his eyes burned in it like flames. “The widow Chicholle?” de Mirandol continued. “No, I have never heard of her. It might perhaps interest you, Monsieur Hanaud, to see the room in which I work whilst the weather is warm. You will appreciate, in an instant, my choice of it.”

Hanaud shrugged his shoulders. “Since you invite me, sir, there will be nothing to see,” he replied, but de Mirandol would neither accept nor understand the retort.

“But you are wrong, Monsieur Hanaud. For once only, to be sure. I beg you to come and bring your friend.”

He was all smiles again and civility. He threw open the door and recoiled sharply.

“I had forgotten that there were three of you.”

“Monsieur Nicolas Moreau, my assistant.” Hanaud stepped forward without the least eagerness. He was merely gratifying the wish of his host, had the air, indeed, of a man a trifle bored. Mr. Ricardo, on the other hand, was all agog. He felt that it was very likely that he would observe some detail of importance which the rest had overlooked. Give him a few minutes in that room to use his eyes and feel its atmosphere and he would pluck its secret out. He was in the very mood for subtle discoveries. The Vicomte led the way. The corridor turned to the left beyond the library and at the side of the house a staircase mounted to a small landing. A big door confronted them. De Mirandol opened it and switched on the lights. Hanaud and Mr. Ricardo entered a long room with a panelled wall upon their left hand and a row of windows upon their right.

Mr. Ricardo would not at first go far. He remained by the doorway. This long, low room had a message; from that row of windows upon his right the lights had blazed till two o’clock in the morning and then had gone out. What was the message? Mr. Ricardo emptied his mind of its preoccupations. He yielded himself to the room. Let the air pulse out its message, he would be the wax cylinder of a dictaphone to receive it. However, he received nothing.

So he looked about the room. There was a row of chairs ranged against the wall, chairs ready to be set in place for a conference or a lecture. There was a long table in the middle on which, at one end, were some books, a blotting-pad, ink, a great red quill pen, and a pile of sermon paper by the blotting-pad. At the far end opposite to the door was a dais such as you may see in any schoolroom raising the master’s desk and chair above the level of the floor. A table with a baize cloth stood upon the dais against the wall, and above the table were the doors of a big cupboard. There was nothing subtle, obscure, exotic, suggestive, bizarre or alarming about the room. It had no message. It was the very place for a philosophical conference at which the ladies predominated. Mr. Ricardo was at a loss. Here he stood in the centre of mysteries like a ship in the centre of a cyclone. On every side of him the hurricane raged, here in the centre was a treacherous calm. Never had he been so disappointed.

“You see the difference on a summer night between this room and the library,” said the Vicomte de Mirandol. “It is cool and airy. I sit at my place at this table here. If I raise my eyes, I look through the open windows across Suvlac and the Gironde. I see the lights of the ships upon the river. I lave myself in the peace and the open spaces of the night. Thoughts come, the mind receives.”

Oh, the Vicomte did not make the mistake of Diana Tasborough and admit a knowledge that Mr. Ricardo had seen the lights blazing at two o’clock in the morning. He was content to explain the blaze. He sat himself down in his chair at the long table, facing the window, and waved his hand to demonstrate the width and spaciousness of the dark open country of land and river and stars within his view.

“Wonderful!” he murmured. “Wonderful!”

“And from this table you deliver your lectures?” Hanaud asked from the dais.

“We pull the table forward from the wall and set a chair behind it,” said the Vicomte. A smile spread over his face. “I shall make a confession to you, Monsieur Hanaud. I begin to live when I take my place at that table and see all those poor people at my mercy for an hour.”

Hanaud shot the oddest quick glance at de Mirandol. “You begin to live, then? Yes, Monsieur Le Vicomte, you have said nothing truer, I think, in all your life. I understand you very well,” he said with a great solemnity, dropping the words one by one and very clearly. Mr. Ricardo was conscious of a thrill of excitement. A scene of a very different kind rose before his eyes. He was seated again on one of the benches of the City Lands in the principal court of the Old Bailey. Standing in front of him was a celebrated King’s Counsel, and addressing the jury over against him on the opposite side of the court he wound up the case for the prosecution in a murder trial with just that clear deliberation and just that deadly use of simple words.

Hanaud raised his hands to the cupboard doors, of which there were two, meeting in the middle and rounded at the tops. Before he could try them, de Mirandol said:

“There is a drawer in the table and in the drawer the key.” Hanaud lifted the edge of the baize which overhung the sides and disclosed the drawer. But he suddenly stood erect again, holding the baize in his hands and staring at it.

“The old cloth was so ink-stained and shabby that I was really ashamed of it,” the Vicomte explained before he was asked for any explanation.

“So we put a brand new one on the table—yesterday?” Hanaud remarked.

“Yesterday—or the day before—or a month ago. My servant will know,” de Mirandol replied, and ever so slightly his voice shook.

“Yesterday, I think,” Hanaud insisted quietly, and now the Vicomte did not contradict him.

He took the key out of the drawer and unlocked the cupboard doors and swung them back against the wall. He disclosed a shallow recess, quite empty, without a shelf, and glistening with white paint. Hanaud delicately pressed the tip of his finger against the paint and drew it back again whitened.

“Aha! It is not only our gate we paint, I see.”

“One idea leads to another,” said de Mirandol with a shrug of his shoulders.

“Yes, yes, white paint to green paint, and perhaps green paint to red paint, eh? I think red is the colour we give to our guillotines.”

The Vicomte smiled in a sickly fashion. He glanced at Mr. Ricardo, deigning some community with him of breeding and good manners. Jests of this raw kind were to be expected from the police, and wise men would ignore them.

“You have seen all that you want to see?” he asked of Hanaud.

“I have seen at all events more than I expected to see,” Hanaud replied, locking the cupboard door and putting the key in his pocket. “Besides, we are keeping the examining magistrate waiting, and that is not at all seemly.”

He opened the door of the room as if he were the host and invited his companions to pass out.

“Monsieur Tidon has without doubt already gone,” said de Mirandol.

“I think not,” Hanaud retorted, smiling politely, and locking the door of the conference chamber; and he was right. For after they had descended the stairs they saw upon the wall of the main corridor the distorted shadow of the judge flung through the open doorway by the library lights. Moreau was still on guard in the hall, and Hanaud spoke to him.

“Could you find the inspector for me? I will wait here. It is important.”

Moreau saluted and went out of the house. The shadow upon the wall moved abruptly and then was still again. It seemed that the judge had an impulse to interfere and thought the better of it, and decided to wait. Nobody, indeed, spoke at all whilst Moreau was away. He had left the door open, and the soughing of the boughs in a very light wind filled the corridor with the sound of the sea rippling over a beach of pebbles. It was drowned by a tramping of feet, and Moreau and the inspector appeared at the door.

“You wanted me, Monsieur Hanaud?”

“Yes. In the room upstairs there is a cupboard above a table on a dais. I shall be obliged if it is sealed. Then the room itself should be sealed. You will need Monsieur Le Commissaire’s consent, no doubt. I beg you therefore to obtain it as soon as possible, and meanwhile to set a guard upon the door. Here is the key.”

The inspector called in a man from the garden and placed him at the head of the stairs, and himself took charge of the key.

“I shall see to it,” he said, and Tidon’s voice was heard summoning Hanaud into the library. Mr. Ricardo followed him as far as the door, and there hesitated, decorum and curiosity once more battling within him. But the examining magistrate, who was sitting in an arm-chair, gloved, his hat upon his knee, his stick in his left hand, invited him in.

“Yes, I have nothing secret to say. De Mirandol, you too, my friend! Will you close the door? So!”

The magistrate was very civil, but his face was white, and at times twitched as with some spasm of bodily pain.

“Monsieur Hanaud,” he began in a quiet, formal voice, “whilst you were upstairs, I have been reflecting upon an idea which I have had in mind the whole day. I am anxious, of course, in an affair of this importance not to be premature, and not to be unjust. But the time has come, I am convinced, for me to exercise my authority. I relieve you from now on from all duties in connection with this case.”

Mr. Ricardo was dumbfounded! Hanaud relieved of his functions, disgraced, Stellenbosched, by a little magistrate of the provinces! Such an announcement bordered upon blasphemy, such an action upon sacrilege. It was an absurdity, too. Mr. Ricardo certainly had been forced once or twice to correct the famous detective and to put him on the better road. But the corrections had been made and Hanaud had triumphed. And here was a little Mr. Tidon taking it upon himself, in the plenitude of his ignorance, to snap at the great man’s tail, like a Pekingese with a Labrador. One little sentence—that was all that it was necessary to speak—and the Pekingese would be scurrying under the nearest sofa for shelter. Mr. Ricardo, too, was the man to speak it. He seethed with indignation and chivalry. He would have spoken it but for the extraordinary grin of appreciation which broadened over Hanaud’s face. Hanaud was delighted.

“I am not, of course, unaware of Monsieur Hanaud’s well-justified reputation,” continued the examining magistrate, who was himself a little taken aback by Hanaud’s reception of his dismissal; “nor must he regard my action as in any way a slur upon his abilities. Certainly not! I shall make that quite clear in my final report. But this particular crime is of an unusual complexity and removed from those more obvious affairs with which the Surete of Paris is as a rule called upon to deal. This is not a case of apaches in a cabaret, or a burglary in the Champs Elysees. The social position of all the parties concerned makes it a case where the utmost delicacy must be observed. It must be sifted here on the spot at Suvlac. It was”—and the magistrate shifted in his chair. His voice grew stronger and took on a stern note of disapproval. His own words were wine to him, and gave him confidence. “It was a grave disappointment to me when Monsieur Hanaud removed himself to Bordeaux. I know perfectly well that he has a troublesome investigation there which requires all his time and energies—” Hanaud nodded his head.

“The case of the widow Chicholle,” he interrupted.

To Mr. Ricardo it was quite extraordinary how that old harridan’s name created a perturbation whenever it was mentioned. The Vicomte de Mirandol had bent under it like a stalk in a wind. Now Monsieur Tidon was shaken out of his wits. He sat staring open-mouthed like a natural, all his eloquence frozen upon his lips, and his hands twitching on the arms of his chair. The widow Chicholle was the testing phrase, the litmus-paper of the experiment. But as Hanaud had recognized from the beginning, Arthur Tidon was a man of a great force.

“Whatever the case may be,” he resumed steadily, “it no doubt demands your concentration and your presence. That being so, I shall ask de Mirandol’s permission to use his telephone.”

“But certainly, my friend,” de Mirandol exclaimed, rubbing the palms of his hands together. “My house is yours.”

The examining magistrate hoisted himself with one hand out of his chair. His words were firm enough, but his legs were shaky. He stood balancing himself upon his feet, and took a step forward. But the telephone instrument was at the inner end of the room, and between it and the magistrate stood Hanaud; and Hanaud did not move.

“Monsieur Le Juge, with all respect,” he said, with a deference which quite surprised his friend, “I beg you to tell me now the message you propose to send. I am asking a favour.”

“I shall do you no harm,” Tidon replied with kindliness. “I am going to telephone to the Commissaire of Police that your invaluable services are required at Bordeaux, and that I therefore with the utmost regret dispense with your services at Suvlac”—and he paused—“from this instant.”

And still Hanaud did not move.

“That means—I ask the question without impertinence—that the orders which I have just given for the official seals to be placed on the conference room are not to be carried out?”

“It means that I shall decide that matter, with all others connected with the case, for myself, and by myself. I invite you to stand aside.”

Mr. Ricardo was looking now for something heroic and of ancient times—the examining magistrate defied, if necessary dashed with a single blow to the ground. But he was in a country where the grades of authority are sacred. Hanaud stood aside. “I regret, Monsieur Le Juge,” he said meekly. “I had a hope that you would return with me to Bordeaux tonight.”

Tidon stopped in his walk and looked sharply at Hanaud. “It is you who return,” he said with an unpleasant smile, “and I who will not go with you.”

It was a strange moment, no doubt, to insist upon accurate words. Mr. Ricardo was a little puzzled by the Judge’s pedantry. But he had the upper hand, and even in little things was disposed to keep it.

“It is a pity,” Hanaud replied, and he began to talk in riddles. “For your hand really needs the skilled attention that you can only get in a clinic. And even then it will be six weeks before the wound is healed.”

“My hand!” cried the Judge furiously.

“The right one,” Hanaud continued. “It was obvious, when Mr. Ricardo and I had the honour to discuss the Suvlac crime with Monsieur Le Juge yesterday morning, that monsieur was in considerable distress. And the pain will get worse, steadily worse, unless the proper treatment is applied.”

The Judge stood and sought to stare Hanaud down. But during the last few moments he had lost his predominance. His gaze was certainly imperious enough to quell an army of subordinates, but he had lost assurance none the less. He broke out roughly:

“And if I burn my hand, Monsieur Hanaud, what in the name of God has that got to do with you?”

“Nothing at all—if you burn your hand,” Hanaud retorted coolly. “But you didn’t burn your hand, Monsieur Le Juge. You laid it on a gate two nights ago—you and Robin Webster too.”

“A gate! A gate! The man’s mad!” cried Tidon.

“Monsieur Le Vicomte’s gate, which he was so careful to burn clean and repaint yesterday,” Hanaud continued imperturbably. “And indeed he was quite right. There was a sticky varnish upon that gate of which the chief ingredient was”—and he produced a blue telegram from his pocket and consulted it—“was dichlorethyl sulphide—”

“Poor fellow! Poor fellow! He’s quite mad,” the magistrate interrupted sympathetically, nodding his head at de Mirandol.

“Absolutely,” de Mirandol agreed, and Mr. Ricardo was leaning reluctantly to the same conclusion, until Hanaud produced the telegram from his pocket. Hanaud had sent a good many telegrams yesterday evening from Pauillac, amongst them one to Scotland Yard for the chief of a pharmacological laboratory in the north of England.

“More commonly known,” Hanaud resumed, “as mustard gas”—and now there were no interruptions to charge him with lunacy. “The varnish was invented in the year 1917, when the fortunes of the Allies were low. It became advisable to know who the actual people were who forgathered on certain nights in a certain cottage on the west coast of Ireland. This varnish was spread on the gate, and everybody who went in smeared his hand with it. For an hour nothing happened. But at the end of an hour a sore began to spread. Under the best conditions, it takes six weeks for that sore to heal; so that identification became more certain and more simple than even finger-prints could make it. The same ingenious device was used upon your gate, Monsieur de Mirandol, two nights ago. And three people were trapped by it.”

“Three?” exclaimed Mr. Ricardo, who had been listening open-mouthed and could hold himself in no longer.

Hanaud looked from de Mirandol, who was standing with his elbow on the mantelshelf, to Tidon, who had sunk down into a chair, and he laughed pleasantly. “You will notice, Mr. Ricardo, that you alone exclaim when I say three. The number is no surprise to these gentlemen.”

The Vicomte turned and spread out his hands. “It is extraordinary,” he said with a tremulous sarcasm, “that I have not a trace of this mysterious poison upon my hands.”

“But how could you have?” Hanaud returned easily. “You went home from the Château Suvlac early and by the ordinary road. Of course you did! Early because you had your little preparations to make, and by the ordinary road because you wished no break in your habits to be noticed. The mustard gas was spread only on the little sequestered private gate which was used by certain of your visitors after all the world was long in bed.”

“But three, you say?” Mr. Ricardo repeated. It might be very wrong of him to break into a discussion so official, but he had really got to understand this point, before other arguments swept it under. “Two—I agree—yes. Monsieur Tidon and Robin Webster—but the third? Who else wounded a hand upon that gate?”

“Evelyn Devenish,” said Hanaud.

The Prisoner in the Opal - Contents    |     XXII - The Judge Smokes a Cigarette

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