The Prisoner in the Opal


Mr. Ricardo Lunches

A.E.W. Mason

JULIUS RICARDO had spent a wearing day which would have taxed even a younger and more adventurous person; and such a shock had befallen him at the end that his sensibilities were quite stunned. It was not to be wondered at, then, that he slept like a log. Tidon the magistrate, the Vicomte de Mirandol, Evelyn Devenish, Robin Webster, Hanaud, the old, throned captious lady of Suvlac, the Abbé with the furtive walk, Diana Tasborough, even Joyce Whipple, who occupied the tenderest corner of his heart, thinned to the texture of gossamer. Away they went, carrying their questions and perplexities with them. Not one ghost haunted his pillow, not a question plagued him with dreams. He slept as boys sleep after a football match. Neither the brightness of the morning nor all the clocks of Bordeaux could awaken him. The hour of noon had struck before he passed in a fraction of a second through one of those excruciating nightmares which at times precede the actual awakening. Excruciating, because he could neither cry out nor move, but must lie like another Merlin under a perpetual spell. He dreamed that he lay in an inferno of acrid smoke, and that while Tidon, the magistrate, held his hand and pointed and said, “There! That is the place,” old Mrs. Tasborough, delicately and without effort, severed his arm at the wrist with a fruit-knife. He sat up with a cry upon his lips and his heart racing. Hanaud was sitting by his bedside, with a black cigarette between his teeth and his fingers on Mr. Ricardo’s pulse.

Mr. Ricardo, aware as he swam upwards into consciousness that he had cried out in alarm, eyed his visitor with disfavour.

“I may be old-fashioned,” he said, flapping a hand up and down in the air like the fin of a fish, “but I cannot endure any but the mildest of Turkish tobacco in my bedroom.”

“Good!” Hanaud answered cordially, without, however, letting him off one single puff. “Then the more I blow the Maryland, the sooner you will rise from your bed.”

The events of yesterday crowded back into Ricardo’s mind. “You will want me,” he cried. “I must give my evidence. A judge died by his own hand in my Rolls-Royce car. It is all most important. I beg you to retire.”

Already Mr. Ricardo had flung back the bedclothes and rung the bell for Elias Thomson. He was on his way to the Prefecture within the hour, where, indeed, he had little on that day to do but corroborate Hanaud’s narrative. He learnt, however, the actual mode of Tidon’s death. He had carried a cigarette in his case of an especial thickness. At each end there was a tiny wad of tobacco, but the case was really filled by a glass tube containing a ninety-per-cent dose of prussic acid.

“I told you that he was a very clever man,” said Hanaud as he sat down afterwards to luncheon with his friend in the restaurant of the Chapon Fin. “He was ready, you see.”

“And you knew that he was ready,” said Mr. Ricardo.

Hanaud shrugged his shoulders. “I suspected it, and—I shall be frank with you—I was glad when he took the way out that he did. He was of the magistracy. The scandal will be enormous as it is when all the truth is known, as it must be at the next assizes. It would have been dangerous, had Monsieur Tidon lived to have received the sentence of the court.”

“He would have been sentenced for the murder of Evelyn Devenish?” Mr. Ricardo exclaimed in bewilderment, and Hanaud hastened to interrupt him.

“Oh, no, no, my friend!”

Mr. Ricardo threw up his hands. “I am adrift in a mist,” he cried. “I hear sirens and fog-horns on this side and that telling me my position, but the more I hear the more the mist thickens, and less and less am I sure of my position.”

“Try this smoked salmon,” said Hanaud, and looking round the great room. “On the rare occasions when a wealthy friend has taken me to lunch with him at the Chapon Fin I am never quite sure whether I am lunching in a rock-garden or at the bottom of an aquarium.”

Mr. Ricardo was familiar with these disconcerting moods of this officer of the Surete, when, knowing everything, he would play the man of mystery. In a sort of desperation he cried out: “You shall tell me one thing. You shall tell me how you came to know that Tidon had damaged his hand.”

“Yes, that will interest you,” Hanaud answered with a laugh. He filled his companion’s glass and his own with a Lafite of 1899. “First I had a little idea. Then your chauffeur strengthened it. Then you very wonderfully confirmed it.”

Mr. Ricardo drew himself up. He spoke with a good deal of dignity.

“A certain amount of raillery, I expect from you. More! When you are hot upon the trail and I interrupt you, I know that I shall be leapt upon and gibbeted. I may not like it, but I don’t resent it. I know that I am merely an elderly gentleman of no consequence, who has had the good fortune to become the friend of a very interesting personage. But when the whole affair is, as you tell me, over, and you are at your ease whilst I am dancing upon hot plates, I should prefer, I admit it, to obtain some relief from my perplexities.”

At once Hanaud’s big face clouded with remorse. “But, my dear sir,” he cried, “no one could value a friendship more than I value this one I have the honour to share with you—I do not play with you. No! I tell you the truth!” He was pleading earnestly, a man very much moved. “Listen! We—you and I—we go to the Prefecture at Villeblanche. Good! We meet Monsieur Tidon and he takes us into his room.”

“Yes,” Ricardo agreed.

“He lays down his hat and his cane on a side-table. Good! But he keeps on his gloves. All through that interview he keeps on his gloves. Now I tell you. On the stage—yes, they keep on their gloves. Why, I don’t know. And Monsieur Clemenceau—yes, he too. But apart from the actors and Monsieur Clemenceau, people in a room take off their gloves. So I wonder. Then a moment came whilst you were telling your story, a very curious moment. You speak of that room at the door of which you knocked in the dead of night. You say, ‘It is Diana Tasborough’s room,’ and in an exasperation at the difficulty of the problem, he strikes his right hand flat upon his table. Do you remember?”


“At once he turns his back upon us and his face to the window.”


“He lifts his left arm and plays with the bolt.”

That scene in the magistrate’s room was growing clearer and clearer to Ricardo’s recollections under the stimulus of Hanaud’s narrative.

“Yes,” he agreed.

“But to me, it seemed that he was holding himself up by that bolt. His body swayed a little. I had the clearest impression of a man about to faint. Then he spoke, and in a voice so weak and feeble that I cannot but pity him. And it was a long while before he turned round and showed us his face again. So I wonder all the more. And I remember that Robin Webster has a wounded hand. And when we reach the Château Suvlac I make an excuse to send you on and I speak privately with your chauffeur. Aha, you did not like it that I converse with your chauffeur. No, but it was well I converse with him. I learn two things—yes, first an idiom, which I will use in due time, and next an important confirmation of my idea. I say: ‘When that gentleman hangs himself by the left hand to the bolt of the window, what air had he?’ I ask him that, and he answer—now let me get it right—he answer: ‘Gorblimey, he was all in. He looked for it.’ Gorblimey—yes, that was good—I make a note to remember him, but the rest, ‘He was all in. He looked for it’—that I found, even with my knowledge of your tongue, a little difficult. So I have to do the examination, and I find the chauffeur means just what I expected. Tidon was about to faint. He had dashed his hand down upon his desk and was in such pain that he must hang himself to the window bolt to save himself from falling. There, then, are I and the chauffeur. Now for you.”

“Yes, now for me,” said Mr. Ricardo, leaning forward with enjoyment, all his dignity and indignation quite forgotten. He was to hear what a fine part he had played in this investigation. He was not very sure about it himself. But he was going to be told now.

“We were on the terrace of Suvlac, you and I. You look through the window and you see in the shadow of that room a man with his back to you.”


“And you cry out in a voice of great certainty; ‘The Examining Judge.’”


“But it was not the examining judge at all. No, it was Robin Webster. Now those two men, they are not so unlike one another. No! On the other hand, they are not so like one another, either. So I ask myself, indeed I ask you, if you remember, why you make this mistake with so much conviction. You cannot tell me. Nevertheless, I wonder. There must be some reason. And then I see. That poor man supports his right hand between the buttons of his jacket, just as Robin Webster supports his right hand in a sling. That little fact opens a world to me of conjectures and possibilities. The injury done to Webster by the wine-press—it may be—yes, no doubt. But I think it more likely that both the examining judge and Webster receive their hurt at the same place and in the same way. You see, I begin to ask myself, have I an enemy in that excellent examining judge? Oh, you help me—all through this case you help me very much.”

“How? How?” Mr. Ricardo asked greedily as he helped himself to a filet mignon. “For instance?”

“In the little things and the big things,” Hanaud replied. “For the little things you tell me of the great change in Mademoiselle Tasborough—how she, who had queened it in her small set, was now the submissive poor companion and did not seem to notice the alteration in her position. To me that was very interesting. The old lady of no account for years, suddenly finding herself in authority, seizing upon it, presuming upon it, becoming captious and petulant—that I understand easily. But the young queen with her fine clothes and her money and her houses, submitting to orders and reprimands—in these days—and untroubled by them—no, that puzzled me. The little pinpricks, the continual finding fault—they get on the nerves. One resents them more and more instead of ceasing to notice them at all. It was significant, that curious detail—much more significant than the fact that she had given up London in the season for Biarritz out of it. You suggested to me some very strange revolution in that Miss Tasborough’s character, the coming of a great obsession. Yes.”

Hanaud sat for a little while with a smile upon his face. Morning and evening he was in the habit of warning himself, “You have to deal with people, not with marionettes,” and it was a very definite pleasure to him, when he was led to the truth out of a very jungle of mystery by some curiously illuminating little sidelight thrown by a variation in conduct and character, which at first sight might seem of no more importance whatever. Mr. Ricardo, however, was not content to leave him long in this contented muse.

“And in the big way I helped you too?”

“To be sure. This Brie is excellent, isn’t it? At the Chapon Fin, whether it be an aquarium or a rock-garden, one eats well. So! Some coffee and some fine de la maison? Yes? And one of those big fat cigars which spoil the fit of your fine tourist suit. Good. I light him, and I tell you quick what you want to know. Else the next time you give me a cigar, I find a ninety-per-cent dose of prussic acid waiting for me within it. Yes, my friend, in the big things you help me. For if you had not seen the lights blazing in the conference room of the Château Mirandol at two o’clock in the morning, we should all still be adrift in the mist you speak of, and the adorable Joyce Whipple would be lying still and silent under the clay of the Rue Gregoire instead of sauntering in with the pretty nonchalance of her kind in her smart blue frock, her taupe silk stockings and her shining little decorative shoes, to take luncheon with her lover at the Chapon Fin.”

A very pleasant and friendly look lit up his face as he spoke, and Mr. Ricardo turned about in his chair. Joyce Whipple was standing just within the doorway of the restaurant, heeding no one except Bryce Carter, who was asking the head waiter for a table. The newspapers had not as yet any further developments of the crime of Suvlac to offer to their readers. No one in the restaurant, except Hanaud and Ricardo, had a suspicion that the very trim and pretty girl standing by the door was the one whose disappearance was supposed to be utterly baffling the police. Though there were signs to Mr. Ricardo’s eyes of the ordeal she had been through in the pallor of her cheeks and the shadows about her big eyes, and in a certain gesture and look of wonder when she took her seat at her table, as though she could not believe that she was alive and free. But her eyes very quickly returned to her companion’s face.

“We shall take no notice of them, eh?” said Hanaud. “Not a glance! Not even at those slim young legs. No! We leave them to talk, and I tell you they will not talk about dead kings. No, Gorblimey!”

Julius Ricardo let the uncouth phrase pass without a reprimand. If Hanaud had the ambition to talk like a chauffeur, that was his affair. Ricardo would not interfere. He was suddenly in pain. He had been pierced by the injustice of his friends.

There was Joyce Whipple at the table across the restaurant, her eyes shining, dimples coming and going in her cheeks, and not a thought for him. Had she or had she not told the story of her adventures that morning? Yes, she had. And Hanaud knew that story? He did. He had no doubt taken some action upon it? He had. Well, then! Here was the man who had helped kept in the dark. What a scandal!

“I do not even know who killed Evelyn Devenish,” he exclaimed, spreading out his hands.

“To that I can answer,” Hanaud replied gravely, “this: Robin Webster was arrested at eleven o’clock this morning on a charge of murder.”

“And Diana Tasborough?” Mr. Ricardo asked.

“Oh, no, no, my friend. That young lady had nothing to do with it.”

“In spite of that obsession?”

“Because of that obsession,” replied Mr. Hanaud, and Mr. Ricardo was conscious of an immense relief.

“And the old lady on the throne?” he pursued.

“Still on the throne,” answered Hanaud, and Mr. Ricardo, to his shame, had no feelings of relief or otherwise.

But at last he had persuaded Hanaud into a mood of disclosure, and his questions tumbled out of him, leaping and clashing and swirling like a mill-race through a half-opened sluice.

“Why did Robin Webster kill Evelyn Devenish? And where? And what did Joyce Whipple mean when she cried, ‘It is not I who dispense the cold’? And why did the Abbé Fauriel cross himself and creep about so furtively afterwards? And what was it that you, Hanaud, discovered in Diana Tasborough’s room? And where was Diana when Joyce Whipple snapped off the light and I rapped upon the glass door? And how did the mask come to be caught up in the tree? Yes, and a word about that tumbled bed, if you please. And how, in spite of your fine cordon of police, was Joyce brought to the Rue Gregoire? And how did you learn of her coming? And why did you seal up an empty cupboard, and a room with nothing in it but for a few chairs and tables? Yes, and since we are talking of the Château Mirandol, who spread the mustard gas upon the gate, and why? Give me an answer to some of these perplexities and then I have a hundred other questions for you. For instance, how did Joyce Whipple’s bracelet find itself in the basket? And how—”

But at this point Hanaud clutched his forehead with his hands in so desperate a frenzy that Mr. Ricardo faltered.

“If you continue,” Hanaud warned him, “in one minute I go blah-blah.”

“Blah, one word,” Mr. Ricardo corrected, the habit of accuracy reasserting its authority.

“Well, blah, then, if you insist—though I should have said—well, let it go. More of your questions and I am blah. Yes, for just at this moment I cannot answer half of them. In two days’ time, perhaps. Oh, you shall know all, my friend, never fear, but first let me get smooth and straight the history of this dark and lawless business.”

He sat and smoothed out the white tablecloth with gentle sweeping movements of his palms, as if he were wiping away the creases and folds in the record of the amazing crime. Then he smiled a little and raised his eyes to his companion’s face.

“Meanwhile I give you an answer to two questions you have not asked. Why was there something familiar and precise and pedantic in the utterance of Robin Webster? Aha! You jump. Yes, you had forgotten. And why was the flyleaf torn from some of the volumes in that queer little collection at the head of his bed? Aha! You jump again. Good! You do well to jump. The answer to both those questions is the same: Robin Webster is a renegade priest.”

If Ricardo had jumped a little at the questions, he rose clean out of his chair at the answer. For a moment he felt his hair stirring upon his scalp. Then he slowly let himself down again.

“Of course,” he said in a whisper. Then he lifted his eyes in a piteous appeal. “When I read a book, I must first of all look at the last page. I cannot bear it unless I do.”

Hanaud smiled. “You have only, I think, to look across the room to see the last page of this book,” he said. But he started as he spoke, and directed a warning glance at his companion. For Joyce Whipple and Bryce Carter were crossing to their table. Joyce held out a hand to each of the two men.

“I have only this instant seen you. How shall I thank you?” she asked in a low voice, but tears sprang into her eyes, and to both of them they were thanks enough.

“I shall tell you how,” Hanaud replied. “You shall sit down and take your coffee with us.”

But Joyce shook her head. “We hurried over our coffee, because I want to get back to my bed. I could sleep for two days,” and though she laughed, she delicately yawned. It was as much as she could do to keep her eyes open.

“I have an idea,” cried Hanaud. “You shall sleep for two days, mademoiselle. That is the time I want. And in two days’ time we dine together, the four of us, at my little hotel on the Place des Quinconces, and then we tell, each in turn, what each one knows, and then this poor Mr. Ricardo will be able to sleep too, Gorblimey!”

Joyce Whipple looked a little puzzled, but as Mr. Ricardo was delighted to observe, she was too well bred to pass any comment on the unexpected ejaculation.

The Prisoner in the Opal - Contents    |     XXIV - Meaning of the Conference Room

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