“As to Madame Devenish,” said Tidon, who was the first to recover his self-control, “I of course know nothing. I do not deny, however, that I used that gate two nights ago. Why indeed should I? De Mirandol is my friend. You spoke of traps, Monsieur Hanaud. Yes, but you set a trap for a stoat and a young pheasant loses its leg. Traps catch the innocent . . . ”
What a change in a man! thought Mr. Ricardo. Five minutes ago it was, “Out with you! You are dismissed!” Now it was, “There are explanations. Just listen to me, and hear with what a tongue of sugar I can speak!”
But Hanaud was prepared. “Monsieur Le Juge, I beg of you,” he protested. “I am, as you have pointed out to me, the subordinate. It is not fitting that I should listen to—shall I say exculpations?—from my superiors. But, on the other hand, the Prefect of Bordeaux has charged me with a letter to you. He, too, is anxious about this case. It seems to reach out tentacles. It is a very octopus of a case, and he is eager to hear all that you have to tell him.”
“The Prefect of Bordeaux,” the magistrate repeated. He stretched out a hand as Hanaud produced a letter from his pocket. He read the letter through once and a second time. “You should have told me at once that you had such a letter,” he said sternly. “But it seems to me that you have dared to play with me, Monsieur Hanaud. I have yet to learn that a clinic and the Prefecture are synonymous terms. I shall certainly feel it my duty to represent your conduct in the proper quarter—just as I feel it my duty to respond to the wishes of the Prefect, and accompany you, even at this hour, to Bordeaux.”
He carried off his defeat with an admirable assurance. Mr. Ricardo did him that justice. But it was a defeat. There was no longer any question of ringing up the Commissaire at Villeblanche upon the telephone and countermanding Hanaud’s directions. He rose from his chair.
“You have this gentleman’s car at your disposal, I understand?”
Hanaud bowed. “Mr. Ricardo is very kind to me,” he said politely, and opened the door of the room. Moreau in the passage stood to attention. “Moreau, Monsieur Le Juge wishes to return with us. Will you direct him to the car? I follow.”
For the fraction of a second Tidon hesitated on the threshold of the room. Did he realize that though the formal words were not spoken, he, the ambitious magistrate of the district, was really under arrest? Or was he already deep in some subtle argument which would clear him from all participation in the crime? Mr. Ricardo could not tell. He set his hat upon his head with his left hand, adjusted it even with jauntiness, and went out of the room. A moment afterwards Ricardo heard his footsteps and those of Moreau upon the pebbles of the drive. Inside the room Hanaud had turned to the Vicomte de Mirandol.
“Sir,” he said, “whether the law can touch you or not I don’t yet know. Or whether it must leave public opinion to scourge you to the bone, as without doubt it will do. For the moment you are at provisional liberty.”
Hanaud turned on his heel and went out of the house. He took Mr. Ricardo by the arm and led him towards the gate.
“I have one more anxious moment,” he said. “We shall see.”
The examining magistrate was already seated in the car when Hanaud and his friend passed through the gate. They mounted in their turn, Ricardo seating himself by the side of Tidon and Hanaud facing him upon the opposite seat.
“Switch on the headlights, Moreau, and look out,” he said, and he himself, turning in his seat, watched the road between the shoulders of Moreau and the chauffeur. The car slid down the hill, crossed the pasture-land and passed the garage before the thing for which Hanaud waited occurred. A man stepped forward from the side of the road carrying a suit-case. The car stopped, the suitcase was handed up to Moreau, and Hanaud leaned out of the window.
“Did no one hear you?” he asked anxiously.
“No one. The ladies were still in the drawing-room when I went upstairs. I am sure.”
The car went on again, swept round by the rose-pink arch of the Château Suvlac, and almost like some living person, conscious of a prolonged and strenuous task, settled to a swift, steady and regular progress along the road to Bordeaux.
The examining magistrate spoke with a mild interest in his voice. “That was a suit-case, I think, which was handed into the car?”
“Yes,” Hanaud answered.
“From the Château Suvlac, then?”
“Yes,” said Hanaud. “I asked the inspector upon the road to secure it for me as quietly as he could.”
Then followed a few moments of silence, and then the magistrate remarked: “That is curious. It contains, no doubt, some pieces of important evidence.”
“No,” said Hanaud. “I shall tell you, Monsieur Le Juge, about that suit-case. It was very important that I should get it without the household of Suvlac knowing anything whatever about it. I cannot myself move until tomorrow. For I shall not know until tomorrow the whole truth of this affair. I may have my suspicions, but they are not enough. Now if it were known in the château that that suit-case has been packed and taken secretly away—it is very possible that the Law’s work might be taken out of the Law’s hands.”
The magistrate was silent for a little while, and as still as he was silent. It was not indeed until the car had flashed through Pauillac that he spoke again.
“I should be obliged, Monsieur Hanaud, if you could find it possible to be more explicit about that suit-case.”
“But certainly,” he replied cordially. “Amongst us three there is no need for concealments. The suit-case contains some clothes for Mademoiselle Joyce Whipple.”
From the darkness of the car Tidon asked quietly: “That young lady has been found, then?”
“Happily, yes,” Hanaud returned. “One of those strokes of chance, by which it is my business to profit, led me to the house of the widow Chicholle in the Rue Gregoire. I was just in time.”
“She is alive, then?”
“Yes. She has been roughly treated. But she is young. She has found, I think, tonight some compensations, so that tomorrow we shall know all that happened two nights ago at the Château Mirandol.”
“That is the best of news,” said the magistrate. “I had hardly dared to hope for it.”
“You can understand, therefore, my relief,” Hanaud continued, dwelling upon this matter of the suit-case with what seemed to Mr. Ricardo a needless particularity, “that it was secured without the knowledge of the household. Were it known there that Joyce Whipple was safe and that the whole truth must be known no later than tomorrow—why, as I say, the Law’s work of punishment might be taken out of the Law’s hands—”
In other words, there would be a suicide—perhaps two—perhaps even three, reflected Mr. Ricardo. For who knew how many of the household of Suvlac were implicated in the mystery?
“I understand you very well,” said the magistrate, and again he relapsed into silence.
But as the loom of light began to show in the sky above Bordeaux, he said: “I shall smoke,” and he felt in his pocket for his cigarette case.
Hanaud laughed with a very evident note of relief. “I have been longing to hear you say that,” and a rustle of paper informed Mr. Ricardo that the bright blue packet of Maryland cigarettes was in Hanaud’s fingers.
“I have a match here. You will allow me,” he said. A scratching, a spurt of fire, for a few seconds a tiny creeping blue light and then the yellow flame; and the dark interior of the limousine became a place of wavering shadows with two faces brightly lit. Hanaud held the light to Tidon’s cigarette, then he lighted his own; and for a few momenta the two men looked at each other with a steady gaze.
“I thank you,” said the magistrate quietly.
The match burnt out and once more darkness fell. The two men smoked in silence, the glow of their cigarettes waxing and waning; and then Tidon’s cigarette fell to the floor, and as Hanaud stamped upon it a smell as of bitter almonds filled the car. Hanaud let down the windows.
“Your mouth to the air, my friend,” he cried, and Ricardo obeyed, squeezing himself away from the thing which now, shaking and swaying with every jolt of the car, lay behind him in the corner of the carriage. Already, however, they were traversing the city. A few minutes and the car stopped at the hotel in the Cours de L’Intendance. It was half-past two in the morning, and not a light was in any window, not a wayfarer in the street.
“Moreau shall ring for the night porter,”—said Hanaud; “You will say nothing of this. I am a servant of the law. I will not have it shamed more than need be.”
“You executed him,” said Mr. Ricardo with a shiver of horror.
“Better I than the man with the guillotine,” Hanaud answered sombrely. He helped Mr. Ricardo out of the car and steadied him across the pavement. He placed him in a chair in the hall and bade the porter fetch a tumbler full of brandy, and stood by whilst Ricardo drank it.
“Shall I help you to your room?” he asked solicitously, but Mr. Ricardo shook his head. Holding by the balustrade he walked, his legs trembling beneath him, up the stairs. Hanaud returned to the car, and a minute later the street was empty again.