The Prisoner in the Opal


Evelyn Devenish’s Letters

A.E.W. Mason

IN THE FIRST of the marked passages, Evelyn Devenish, writing from Biarritz to Suvlac, reluctantly agreed to a marriage between Diana Tasborough and Robin Webster. “Of course she’s in love with you. She has already sent Bryce Carter about his business. She can’t talk for five minutes without bringing you in. . . . I sometimes wish that you were disfigured and rather horribly, so that no one in the world except myself would willingly look at you. . . . Oh, I’d make up for them! But we are as poor as rats, and nothing’s any good without money.”

Once he was married to Diana, there would be money to burn—for both of them. There was to be but the most momentary of suspensions in their own relationship. A whole code of conduct was laid down for him, and very authoritatively. Diana was to become a negligible apanage, a sack of money. If she suffered—well, all the better.

Already there were allusions to the ceremonies of the conference room. She herself had embraced the faith with the fervour of a Madame de Montespan. She would keep her lover by the Devil’s rites, and at the same time reduce Diana to the abject position of a Mormon’s wife. Diana was to be initiated into those mysteries. She was to be provoked by subtle appeals to her curiosity, her love of excitement. She was to be persuaded that she had committed the unforgivable sin. Remorse and the fear of scandal would turn her into a puppet.

Other letters, some written whilst Evelyn Devenish was away in Bordeaux, some even when she and Robin Webster were under the same roof and Marianne was used to carry them, described the gradual progress of the plot. Diana hesitated, was afire now, terrified at another time. She stood at the edge of a sea, venturing a foot in and withdrawing it to the warmth of the solid sand, thrilled and tormented. Of Evelyn she had no suspicion. “He loves me, I know,” she said to her. “Whatever he has done in the past, or whomever he has been friendly with, doesn’t matter at all. And what he wishes—even that!—yes, yes.”

Hanaud laid a broad hand upon the typed copies. “So you see the position of affairs. Both of these young women in love with Robin Webster, and both of them fooled by him. Evelyn Devenish will let him marry Diana Tasborough, so long as she keeps him for herself. Meanwhile he keeps her letters. Diana is certain that he loves her, and if he worships the Devil—well, so will she. And he? Robin Webster? He cares not a snap of the fingers for either of them. No, he is ‘L’homme a femmes,’ and to be ‘L’homme a femmes,’ my friend, means that you mustn’t be touched by one of them. You must be without pity; they must be so many sleepers over which the rails of your destiny will run.” He looked with a curious smile at Mr. Ricardo. “Did you know that one of the Devil’s names was Robin? Yes. That, too, I learnt at the Archiepiscopal Palace in diving into some old books. Robin Abiron, Robin this and Robin that—Satan himself, eh?” and with another glance he nodded his head gravely. “Yes, I, too, wonder”; and then with a burst of violence: “If you and I, who after all have lived in the world, and outlived our youth and all its romance—if you and I draw in our breath with a shiver and say, ‘I wonder,’ is it strange that these girls, their emotions stirred, their nerves frayed, should say instead, ‘I believe’? Look at this!”

He turned back a couple of sheets and showed to Mr. Ricardo a passage which had not been underscored.

“Remember that Diana Tasborough, who had befriended Evelyn Devenish, was being played by her like a fish on a hook. To what sort of passion must Evelyn Devenish have been wrought, before she could write this of her friend,” and Mr. Ricardo read:

What do I want her to be? I haven’t the slightest difficulty. The dog that runs about after its master with its leash in its mouth. I have never discovered a better image of humiliation than that.

Mr. Ricardo gasped, as he read the contemptuous prophecy; and it was with a shock of relief that he realized that this could never be fulfilled.

“That’s the position, then,” said Hanaud, “when Joyce Whipple, disturbed by the letters she had received from Diana, puts off that urgent return of hers to America, and invites herself to the Château Suvlac. Inexplicable the queer visions which Diana’s commonplace letters set passing so vividly before Joyce Whipple’s eyes. Eh? Yes, inexplicable—unless you are inclined to believe that at times the other hidden things outside,” and with a great sweep of his arm he suggested the curve of a firmament which was a prison dome, “outside this world, break through to punish or to save.”

“Save?” cried Mr. Ricardo, who could not imagine how Diana Tasborough was to be saved from an explicit responsibility in the murder of Evelyn Devenish.

“Yes, saved,” continued Hanaud firmly. “That you will see. But first, see how the coming of Joyce Whipple upsets the carriage of the pears!”

“The apple-cart,” said Mr. Ricardo resignedly.

“If you like it that way, I make the concession,” Hanaud returned amiably. “Read!” and he placed a broad finger-end upon a sentence, so that Mr. Ricardo had to push it away before he could read at all.

You stare at her, like a schoolboy at a girl with a plait down her back. You are troubled when she speaks to you. You jump when she comes near you. You look—silly—yes, silly, Robin!

And again, a little farther on:

She’s not even pretty really. And she’s certainly nothing else. She’s green, Robin, a little green thing for a little green boy. Oh, if I thought you were serious!

There it was. Robin Webster had met his fate, as people said at the beginning of the nineteenth century. At the first sight of Joyce Whipple the fires which he was accustomed to inspire seized upon and held him. He must give now, he who had only taken. Her image was impressed upon the retinas of his eyes so that everywhere he must see her. He could not hide his passion and he did not want to. It was a glory to him of which he wished all the world to know.

“Your name upon my forehead and my brow.”

He shut his mind away from the whispers of prudence, and was blind to the spectacle of jealousy. Diana, indeed, moving with the bandage of her dreams across her eyes, remained undisturbed. She was no more aware of the new and enormous change in the disposition of the household than of her companion’s petulance. But Evelyn Devenish was of another mould. Accusations, reproaches, threats, alternated with violent appeals. Finally the threats became one threat, the appeals one demand. She wrote:

It’s intolerable. I don’t want to threaten but you have got to do what I want. My necklace has gone and you know where and why. You won’t find it difficult to arrange. I don’t believe for a moment that she’s going to America. She’s spying. I am sure of it. I have watched her listening. She means to use her journey to America as an excuse to get away when she has found out what she wants, and then she s going to make all the trouble she can to save Diana. I am sure of it. But you can use the journey to America as an excuse. She is going from Bordeaux to Cherbourg, she says. You can drive her into Bordeaux the night before she goes. She hasn’t any friends there to see her off. You must fix it up or I’ll do what she’s meaning to do. Yes, I will. The whole story—the Black Mass, our plan concerning Diana—yes, I’d rather pull the whole neighbourhood down with a crash and go down with it myself than allow things to go on as they are going. Do you know I went to the Cave of the Mummies today? You remember that boy? I dream of that—just that for her! It would serve her right for interfering—for throwing herself at you. You needn’t think she cares for you. You don’t mean the least little thing to her. We shall all be at Mirandol on Wednesday night. You can arrange the little that is left to be arranged there, and then on Thursday—she can go with you to Bordeaux.

This was the last extract to which Hanaud called Mr. Ricardo’s attention. He took back the copies of the letters and, replacing them in his portfolio, locked it.

“So there’s the history of this crime up to the point where Joyce Whipple begins her story,” he said. “Evelyn Devenish demanding the murder of Joyce Whipple under the threat of a complete exposure; Diana Tasborough in a maze of fear and excitement; Robin Webster at his wits’ ends, desiring Joyce as he had never desired anyone, and solving his dilemma as he thought by one swift blow which would implicate everyone, you understand—Diana, the Judge, Cassandre de Mirandol. Not one would be able to lift a finger against him. Not one but must conspire to bury that crime amongst the mysteries which have baffled the police. Yes, and he would have succeeded—but for the audacity and the devotion of your little friend, Joyce Whipple.”

He stood up as he ended his speech and reached for his hat. Mr. Ricardo, however, did not move. He looked about the room rather sadly.

“I am sorry,” he said. “I had a hope that Diana, somehow, would be found quite outside the crime. But since she was here upon that night—here in this room all ablaze with light—” He did not finish the sentence. But, in his turn, he stood up and took one last look about the room. His eyes met the eyes of the image upon the wall, and now could meet them. Hanaud’s hand fell upon his shoulder.

“I shall put your mind at ease,” he said gravely. “Diana Tasborough was not here upon that night. It was I who told her of the murder of Evelyn Devenish. Let us go!”

He locked the door of the conference room behind him and handed the key to the sergeant in charge.

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