The Prisoner in the Opal


Meaning of the Conference Room

A.E.W. Mason

A FORTNIGHT passed, however, before routine had finished its work and placed the woven pattern of the crime in the great detective’s hands. Hanaud then sought out once more Mr. Ricardo and his fine Rolls-Royce car, and an hour afterwards the two men stood at the top of the staircase outside the conference room. It was eleven o’clock in the morning, the sunlight pouring in through every window and lying in great splashes of gold upon the floor; and the house as still as a tomb. For the Vicomte, still at provisional liberty, had gone to his lodging in Bordeaux, and only the police occupied this château on the Gironde. The broad linen bands with the official seals had been removed, but the door was still locked, and Hanaud, in his most vexatiously dramatic mood, took a portentous time to discover the key in his pockets.

“It was within this room, then, that Evelyn Devenish was murdered,” said Mr. Ricardo in a voice of awe.

“It was here,” said Hanaud. “Perhaps at—the very moment when you were looking out towards the lighted windows from your bedroom.”

“I heard no cry,” said Mr. Ricardo, shaking his head. He had not forgotten the distance between the two houses, but he could not believe that so direful a crime had been committed in that bright room without some message floating across the night’s dark silence to call him out of his indifference.

“There was no cry,” Hanaud replied. From his sombre certitude he might have assisted at the scene. “A moan perhaps, a rattle in the throat, hardly even that—” and turning the key he threw open the door.

Like a good stage-manager he had prepared his effects. The long room was no longer a conference room though more than ever it was a place of assembly. For the leaves of the long table had been removed, and the table itself, dwarfed into insignificance, barely occupied a corner. On the other hand, the chairs which had lined the side wall were now ranged in orderly rows facing the dais, with a straight passage from the door dividing them like an aisle. But it was the aspect of the dais itself which riveted Mr. Ricardo’s attention and set his eyes blinking. The table had been set forward from the wall, and in place of the green baize it was draped now with a black coffin-pall bordered with white. Upon the pall were laid out three great books with broad markers of crimson silk and gold clasps which locked, a chalice and a box of gold inlay, and two big golden candelabra, each with six branches, and each branch holding a tall black candle compounded of sulphur and pitch. The candles were lit, and burned with a blue flame and an evil stench. And a great crucifix of ebony with an ivory Christ stood upside down. Mr. Ricardo realized with a shock of repulsion that he was gazing at a horrid parody of an altar.

He lifted his eyes above the dais. The cupboard was open, its doors rounded at the top lay flat on either side against the wall, and the white paint, so fresh and thickly bedaubed over the recess on his last visit, had now with infinite care been scraped away. He was gazing at an altar-screen painted by a degenerate who had dipped his brush in nightmares. On one panel nude figures holding hands danced wildly back to back; on the other, deformities with white fat human faces to turn the heart sick, crawled and swarmed in a house of pain. The rewards here, the tortures there, and between them on the wall of the recess, a youth, a figure of sheer beauty, slender, erect, and white as a girl, with a face too delicate for a man’s, and blue lustrous eyes which seemed to claim all other eyes and burned with an unutterable sadness. With a shiver Ricardo averted his gaze. He turned to the windows and saw the good sunlight lying broad on green vines and brown river and the white sails of ships. But, even so, he felt those blue eyes intolerably bright burning into his back, and bidding him turn and share their immitigable misery.

“The room, then, was in this array that night when I looked across from my window in the Château Suvlac?” he asked in a low voice, as a man speaks in a chapel. But he spoke still looking from the window to the Gironde, and though he was unaware of it, his hands clung to the frame.

“There was one great difference,” said Hanaud behind him, and for once Mr. Ricardo’s curiosity was stilled. He shrank even from a guess as to wherein that difference had lain. With a movement of real violence, he unlatched and flung open the window and leaning out drank in the clean, fresh air. He was afraid now to know what had happened in that room. He had a glimpse into an abyss where loathsome creatures pullulated in a slime. He heard Hanaud move down the room and blow out the candles.

“Those three books?” he asked.

Hanaud answered with some pride, like a man who has just learnt a new thing. “They are ‘The Grimoire of Honorius,’ ‘The Lemegeton or Lesser Key of Solomon Rabbi,’ and ‘The Grand Grimoire.’”

Mr. Ricardo was no wiser. “What do they contain?”

“Conjurations, rituals. This,” he said, touching ‘The Grand Grimoire’, “evokes the supreme Fly-the-Light by means of the Blasting Rod which drove Adam and Eve from Paradise. This,” and he touched ‘The Lesser Key’, “sets out the prayers by which the evil spirits can be conjured to harm one who is hated, and this,” his hand rested on ‘The Grimoire of Honorius’, “has been held to advocate murder.”

He had begun upon a satirical note, but it did not carry him beyond the first of the volumes. For the other two he had only scorn and anger, knowing the deed which they had been ranged upon that table to set off.

“And the youth painted on the altar-screen?” Mr. Ricardo asked.

“The lord of all evil,” Hanaud replied. “Lucifer, Satan—another name too, Adonis”—and, as Mr. Ricardo started—“yes, Adonis.”

He seated himself by the side of Ricardo in the recess of the window. “My friend, it is not always as a goat that the devil is worshipped. Even in the old days he was supposed to appear in silken habiliments, the young man, beautiful and cold as ice, who gave nothing in return for worship but disappointment. Adonis is one of his names.”

Mr. Ricardo, however, was not thinking of that queer identification of the Devil with the shepherd of the legends. He was recalling the scene at the dinner-table on the night of his arrival at the Château Suvlac, when Joyce broke out in a little crescendo of hysteria to Evelyn Devenish: “You needn’t look at me. It’s not I who dispense the cold.” Mr. Ricardo turned himself about now and faced the picture of the marvellous youth, his sandals laced about his legs, his leopard skin girdled about his waist and his long spear in his hand. Wherever he turned the blue eyes seemed to follow him, unutterably sad, commanding his allegiance.

“So Joyce knew,” he said, forcing himself from the contemplation of the appealing figure upon the wall. “Already on that night she knew of this room!”

“Something of this room,” Hanaud corrected.

“And understood its rites.”

“Again, something of its rites.”

“As you did—at once. Yes,” and Mr. Ricardo marvelled as he recollected here a detail, there another which had been, which still was, a mystery to him, and yet from the beginning had been lucid as glass to his companion.

But Hanaud was quicker to read Mr. Ricardo’s mind than he had been any of those mysteries. “”No, my friend,” he urged. “You may turn Adonis into the Devil if you like, but you mustn’t turn me into a God. I understood not the first little least thing about that saying of Joyce Whipple’s. I was as puzzled as you—yes, until that hour when you saw me coming out of the Archiepiscopal Palace at Bordeaux.”

“But I never told you that I saw you,” Mr. Ricardo exclaimed.

“No, but you did see me. I saw that you saw me. There were you in the centre of the square standing with the mouth open and the eyes all poppy, saying to yourself ‘Gorblimey!’”

“Never,” Mr. Ricardo interrupted energetically. “Nor are my eyes poppy. On the contrary. In moments of agitation they recede.”

“Gorblimey, or the words to that effect,” Hanaud continued calmly. “I had spent an hour, then, with his Grace’s librarian and I had learnt some things, I can tell you. Oh! Oh! Oh! Very disappointing, the Devil. Even the meat at those old Sabbaths was offal, and he himself spreading the cold of the glaciers about him.” Suddenly he stretched out a hand towards the left-hand panel of the ingenious altar-screen. “No wonder they danced furiously, those poor people in their forest glades. No wonder the first in favour was the one who danced faster than the others. They had to keep warm,” and again the note of satire died away. “Yet let us not forget. All these ludicrous mad fancies led to a great crime—committed here—in this sunlit room in which we sit—as in other places they have often done before.”

He looked about the room, reconstructing in his thoughts the succession of events, and resumed:

“I have brought you here not to tell you what happened. That Joyce Whipple can do far better than I, for with her own eyes she saw. But I prepare you for it. I made nothing of her cry, ‘It is not I who dispense the cold.’ No, but certain other things perplexed me. The fact that the Abbé Fauriel secretly crossed himself. Eh? I was interested. Then his vestments had been stolen—curious?—and the next morning, or the same night, returned. Aha! I begin to smell a skunk. Yes! Then in the room of Mademoiselle Tasborough I come across a remarkable thing.”

“Yes,” said Ricardo. “I am there. A picture of the Doge’s Palace on the Grand Canal, though for the life of me I could not see anything remark able in it at all.”

“There was nothing remarkable in it,” Hanaud observed. “No. What I did see was that,” and again his hand darted out towards the altar. “A crucifix with an ivory figure of the Christ hung above her writing-table against the wall with its head down, the feet up. I didn’t move it.”

“I agree,” said Ricardo. “You touched nothing.”

“You and I went on to Villeblanche, and whilst we were away the Abbé Fauriel called.”

Again Mr. Ricardo agreed, but he was able to add a trifle to their common store of recollections. “We found when we got back that he was with old Mrs. Tasborough.”

“True. But before visiting madame he had paid a visit to mademoiselle, who was still resting in her room. And he, too, saw that crucifix. She had not changed its position. She probably never thought of it.”

“He came back to change it!” cried Mr. Ricardo. “He meant to change it secretly, to avoid the scandal. That was why he crept so furtively along the terrace. That was why you said the readjustment had been made!”

“Yes. The second time we entered that room I slipped the crucifix off its nail and set it to stand upon the table and against the wall, as a crucifix should stand, whilst you, my friend, were probing the mysteries of the Grand Canal.”

At another time Mr. Ricardo might well have taken offence at Hanaud’s irony and repelled it with stinging words such as “Oh, indeed!” and “To be sure.” But he was by now wrought to a pitch of amazement and perplexity which made everything trivial except the satisfaction of his curiosity. The amateur of sensations sat forward in the window—seat, his mind a-tiptoe on the most satisfying expectations. Even the question he was now to utter had its thrill; and he attuned his voice to the proper note of awe.

“So in this—chapel—on that night, the Black Mass was celebrated?”


“By Robin Webster?”

“By Robin Webster, the priest.”

As he spoke, Hanaud took his blue packet of cigarettes from his pocket. Mr. Ricardo, on the other hand, was so startled that he almost put out a hand to restrain his companion from a sacrilege. And even when the smoke of the cigarette rose blue, turned brown and shredded away, spreading its pungent odour about this recess of the window, he had a feeling that an indiscretion was being committed. The next minute, however, Hanaud began to talk.

“A pretty affair! The old Sabbaths—one can understand them better. Poor serfs, hungry, without pleasures, in revolt against the great injustice which gave all the colour of the world to a handful of nobles and all the misery of the world to the rest. One can see them fermenting to ecstasies of blasphemy and abomination in some forest glade or old burial-ground. But the Black Mass. That’s sheer decadence. The people of disappointed ambitions, those who have exhausted the normal joys and crave the forbidden ones, those who would sell their immortal souls for a new thrill, those who look to Satan for the gifts which Christ refuses, the whole body of degenerates with the blackmailers who live on them—criminals seeking accomplices, poisoners seeking protection—you heard the mother Chicholle. There were great ones whom she would betray. That’s the spirit and that’s the congregation too. Great ones rubbing shoulders with the witches of the slums, and all of them looking for their profit to Adonis there”—and once again his arm shot out with a big outspread hand denouncing the idolatry—“Adonis the Sterile.”

“Really! Really!” said Mr. Ricardo, himself aware of the inadequacy of his comment.

“It was the Vicomte de Mirandol who began the cult here. An odd, exotic creature, half crazy with long vigils, a shallow erudition and a lack of recognition, he found importance and no doubt, too, a response to a thread of mysticism in his nature. Satan’s agent in the Gironde! A position, you understand, full of flattery. It needed a daring man. He stood aloof, awe-inspiring, wrapped in wickedness like a black cloak. And he believed it all. And not he alone. From the days of Madame de Montespan and the Abbé Guibourg, the Black Mass has had its congregation. Ennui, yielding to excitement, that to the conviction that the unpardonable sin of The Revelations has been committed, that again to a savage glorying in it—like a child in a rage at being punished who mutters obstinately, ‘Rakah, Rakah,’ because he who says the word can never be forgiven. Tidon joins the brotherhood—Paris may be the nearer. Diana Tasborough becomes a candidate. Here a person of standing, there a woman of the town. Jeanne Corisot would hear of it. The very thing for her! And the mother Chicholle! There will be pickings for her out of it. For the people who use the Black Mass are people who want evil things safely done.”

Gradually the pieces of the puzzle were fitting themselves together in Mr. Ricardo’s sight. He could imagine whispers of the celebration spreading very quietly, very gradually, but also very certainly. The dark secret could not be smothered. And whoever had it would also have all the worshippers in the hollow of his hand. He or she could insist upon admittance; and the cult with its associates would become almost automatically an organization for malevolence and crime. Diana Tasborough’s obsession, her insensibility to her companion’s petulant assumption of authority, at once became easy to understand. What would even the most persistent stream of querulous reprimands matter to a girl possessed by the unholy excitement of a dreadful and forbidden creed?

“But, of course, the keystone of the whole black business was the fact that Robin Webster was an ordained priest. The Black Mass postulates the supremacy of God. God has to be lured and tricked into the wafer and the wine, before He can be made subject to Satan. Only a priest can do that. The celebrant of the Devil’s Mass must be the celebrant of the Mass of God. The Abbé Guibourg, Gille Lefrance, Davot, Mariette—they were all true priests, even as Robin Webster.”

“Yes, who was he?” Mr. Ricardo asked.

“A curious history. He belonged to the Gironde. His family goes back to those days when Bordeaux was English. The Websters grew vines and made wine in the Gironde as far back as the old times when Gaufridi was burnt for witchcraft at Aix-en-Provence. They fell upon evil days. From proprietors they dwindled to managers and not very successful merchants in Bordeaux. Robin Webster’s father was the last of them. Robin the son was mistaken enough to believe that he had a vocation for the priesthood. Odd? But people are odd. There isn’t anyone, if you could lay out on a plate the inside of his mind as a surgeon lays out the inside of your body, whom you could call commonplace. There’s some queer imp at the heart of each one of us. He was sent to Beaumont College, officiated for a time at a church in London—he was there when his father died—wearied of it and went off.”

“With Evelyn Devenish,” Mr. Ricardo declared confidently, but Hanaud shook his head.

“She had predecessors. Ho, ho, that fellow! I tell you. With his white hair and his fine looks, and his air of a man set apart, and a suggestion of passion which his eyes would let you see for a moment, he was fatal. The women tumbled for him—”

“Fell for or tumbled to,” said Mr. Ricardo amiably, “and it is the first you mean. It would have been preferable if you had meant the second.”

For once in a way Hanaud was baffled. He stared at his friend suspiciously, fearing that his leg was being distinctly drawn, but he did not dispute; he swept on with his story. “So much information we owe to routine. But we should still have been in very great difficulty but for one thing.”

“That bundle of letters in Robin Webster’s room which you photographed,” said the irrepressible Mr. Ricardo.

“This time, my friend, you are right,” Hanaud replied as he lit another cigarette. “That bundle of letters told the whole of the curious little story of passion and intrigue which led to the sale of the Blackett necklace to the mother Chicholle and reached its abominable climax in this room.”

“And he kept those letters!” cried Mr. Ricardo astonishment. But a moment afterwards he remembered a case in his own country in which letters just as fatal had been preserved. “Isn’t it strange that passion should so mislead a man?”

“No! No!” Hanaud interrupted. “In Webster’s room, I told you, there was another reason besides passion which made a man keep letters to his undoing. And I preferred even then that second reason of the two. It was cunning, it was a horrible kind of prudence which persuaded Robin Webster to keep those letters. All the passion was on the other side. He—with the letters he kept the mastery over a woman mad with jealousy. For they were fatal letters scribbled by Evelyn Devenish, some in that very house down there, the Château Suvlac.”

At what precise date Evelyn Devenish and Robin Webster had met, Hanaud was unaware. It was certainly before Webster had introduced Evelyn Devenish to Diana Tasborough at Biarritz. But there had been a compact between the two of them that all letters should be destroyed on the day they were received. Evelyn Devenish, to whose foresight the compact was due, had kept to the bargain faithfully. Not a shred of a letter had been discovered amongst her possessions. And up to a certain date, when they were all together at Biarritz, Robin Webster had kept his word too. But there had come a time when Evelyn Devenish’s passion grew exacting and even dangerous. The letters gave to her lover a hold over her. He could answer threat with threat.

“One side of the correspondence—his,” Hanaud continued, “had been destroyed. He was sure of Evelyn’s loyalty. No written page of his could be brought out of the ashes to convict him. He was in a position to say, ‘I didn’t answer that,’ or ‘I was careful to make no suggestion,’ or ‘All my letters were intended to bring Evelyn into a reasonable frame of mind.’ On the other hand, he was in a position to say to her at any moment—and the moment was coming—‘I have done with you, and you will kindly keep as quiet as a mouse, or I cause you aggravations and inconveniences.’”

“But after Evelyn Devenish was dead,” Mr. Ricardo exclaimed, “the letters had lost their value. Also, it seems, they were dangerous to him. He would have destroyed them on that night when Evelyn Devenish died.”

“On that night, as you will see,” Hanaud replied, “the good Robin Webster was very busy. The morning found him still at his labours. Had it not been very necessary that he should hold a little committee meeting at the Château Mirandol with our dear Vicomte and that ambitious young judge, those letters would have been little grey flakes before we ever cast our eyes on them.”

Hanaud opened the leather portfolio which he had laid upon the table, and took out a copy of the photographed letters.

“Look at this passage,” he said, and he pointed to the beginning of one of them. It had been written at Biarritz when Robin Webster had returned to his duties at Suvlac. “Ah, the poor woman! One who loves and one who is loved. The eternal story.” Mr. Ricardo read;—


I shut my eyes. I won’t see—yet how can I not see? Whenever I have finished a letter to you, I begin another. I notice all the little things that happen, and sift them out into things which may amuse you, and things which won’t. And every little thing which will, I write down at once, whether it is a book I am reading or some queer-looking stranger who comes into the restaurant, or some funny story, so that in two days I have a great long letter written to you. And all yours begin “Darling, since the post is going out in half an hour I am writing a line to you in haste” . . . 

Hanaud turned over a page or two and came to the last of them, a dozen in all. Passages in them were heavily underlined with a blue pencil.

“Read them in their order,” said Hanaud; and Mr. Ricardo took the letters upon his knee.

The Prisoner in the Opal - Contents    |     XXV - Evelyn Devenish’s Letters

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