The Prisoner in the Opal


The Inspiration from the Mask

A.E.W. Mason

BUT even then Hanaud must interfere. “Let us make everything plain as the bedpost,” he said with a sweep of his hand. “I put the questions.”

“Yes?” Joyce replied, leaning towards him with a little frown of concentration upon her face.

There were difficulties in her story which she was well aware she could not answer. Why some men, for instance, of the stamp which other men detest evoke the blindest love in women. And why the adoration of idols and false gods is eternal. And why what is clean and of good repute is put aside for what is foul. She had no explanations to offer. She could only say: “Here at Suvlac these things were so, as they are so elsewhere.” But no such baffling problems were presented to her by Hanaud.

“When you come out for the first time on to the terrace at the Château, you see de Mirandol and Madame Devenish?”


“And they give you the once-over?”


“And that evening—with Robin Webster—you come over at him at once?”

Joyce blushed and answered rather shyly: “I’m afraid that I did.”

“I would not distress you,” said Hanaud apologetically. “I get the facts fixed in my mind. Now, as Mr. Ricardo would say, pray proceed.”

But Mr. Ricardo with some indignation raised a protesting voice. “Certainly, Joyce, you shall not let them distress you. He was not getting the facts fixed in his mind. He has had them there for many a day. No, he was getting the phrases fixed in his mind, and I can promise you, in revenge, that he will use them proudly on the most inappropriate occasions.”

Hanaud waved an indulgent hand. “Well, well, such phrases are commodious. Pray, Mademoiselle Whipple, proceed!”

And she took up her story again. Her problem was how to rescue Diana from that unholy gang, in spite of herself; how to disperse them and send them to hide their faces and their names in the by-ways of the earth; and how to do it without involving her in a ruin of scandal and disgrace.

“I tossed about all night, and when the morning dawned I was no nearer to a solution,” she said. “But I had reached one conviction. I must myself know all that was to take place on the Wednesday week in the house of Monsieur de Mirandol. I had certainty in myself, but none for anyone to whom I might tell the story. I must have every circumstance of the ceremony so exact that no one could doubt I spoke the truth. In a word I must be present in the house of Monsieur de Mirandol, I must be an eye-witness, and more, I must have some evidence to prove who out of the Château Suvlac took a part in those orgies of horror. Oh, I knew very well that my plan was dangerous—I mean dangerous for me. But I thought that if I could once secure my evidence, then perhaps from a distance, when I was safe, I could threaten to make it all public, and under that threat exact my conditions. Oh, it wasn’t very brave, I know, but I had to release Diana if I could, without doing her any harm.”

“Mademoiselle,” said Hanaud gently, “I should welcome in myself a little more of just that cowardice.”

Joyce Whipple smiled her thanks at him. “That is so prettily said that I shall make you out a long list of the most commodious American phrases I can think of,” she said, and went back to her story. “I could get the evidence, I thought. You see, we had all walked up to the Château Mirandol the day before, to take tea there and see the library. We went along the road past the farm buildings and up the hill and entered the grounds by the little gate in the high hedge. It was the natural way from the Château Suvlac, and I felt sure that it would be the one used on Wednesday week. Now, I had a great friend in Professsor Brewer, as you all know. He had served during the war in one of the Intelligence Divisions, and amongst the many stories he told me about those times was this. Just before the Irish rising, the Germans, by means of their submarines, were in touch with Irish leaders on the West Coast. It was necessary to identify those leaders, and an empty house on a lonely strip of cliff was suspected to be their meeting-place. But so many precautions were taken, and so much vigilance used at the times when these meetings took place, that no raid would have had any chance of success. Not a soul would have been found near the spot. Accordingly Professor Brewer concocted a mixture of mustard-gas and varnish which if you touched it would not trouble you for an hour or so, but after that time would develop a sore on your hand which no remedy could heal within six weeks. He was taken over to the West Coast on a trawler, and landed on a dark night on the beach at the foot of the cliff. He climbed up the cliff and smeared with his varnish the little gate which led to the front door. The authorities then had only to wait and gather in anyone going about with an obstinate sore on the palm of his hand. I remembered this story during my sleepless night, and the next morning I wrote to him at Leeds asking him to send me some of the varnish in a registered packet, and telling him why I wanted it.

“My next step was a little more difficult. In answer to Monsieur de Mirandol’s complaint that his ceremonies were trop repandu, there had been mention that the company went to them masked, and again M to O inclusive assured me that the answer was sound. I wondered whether a mask was supposed to be sufficient or whether some more complete disguise was adopted. I hoped the latter. It was reasonable to assume that a blasphemy of this kind would be celebrated late at night after the world had gone to bed. The participants would assemble secretly, and it would be as easy for me to creep down the stairs and out of the glass doors of the Château Suvlac and up the hill to Mirandol as it would be for anyone else. But once there the case would be altered. I might by keeping my eyes wide open and imitating the others take a place without committing an error which would attract everyone’s attention. But I should have been at Suvlac for a fortnight. Would a mask be enough to disguise me? Especially from Robin Webster, the celebrant, whose eyes made me hot and cold as they slid covetously over me from my head to my shoes. Was a domino used? I could get that and a mask, no doubt, in a big town like Bordeaux without the slightest difficulty.

“I thought of a way to make sure. My bedroom, as you all know, was above Diana’s. I had been put up there at Evelyn Devemsh’s suggestion, so that on the night of Wednesday week I might be out of the way. But there was a spiral staircase at my door which opened on to the ground-floor corridor at the side of Diana’s door. I had but to wait for an opportunity when Diana had gone out, slip into her room and discover if I could what she was going to wear. In the event of her unexpected return, escape to my own room would be simple.

“I got my opportunity two days later. Evelyn Devemsh and Robin Webster drove in to Bordeaux during the morning in the small two-seater, intending to lunch and spend the day there, and in the afternoon Diana and Mrs. Tasborough went off in the large car to pay a duty visit to a family in Arcachon. The only risk, therefore, that I ran was lest Marianne should come out from her kitchen and catch me. I was as quick as I could be, therefore, in running through Diana’s clothes. But I had, of course, to refold and relay everything exactly as I found it, and I had been three-quarters of an hour at this work before I came across, at the bottom of a drawer, a boy’s black velvet suit, a short cassock of scarlet velvet, and a black domino to cover them. There was a white cardboard box.

I opened it and caught my breath. I almost cried out. For in the box lay that curiously odious mask with the purple lips, the livid face and bright red hair with which you are all familiar. It—shocked me. Yes! I hardly dared to touch it. It was so perfect, so unutterably sad and at the same time evil in its expression. It seemed somehow to be alive.” Joyce was talking almost in a whisper, with her face quite pale and her forehead puckered, as she lived again through that moment of discovery. “I had a stupid fear that if I touched it, it would spring at me, spring at my face and do me some devilish harm—perhaps even kill. I felt all at once very lonely in that sunlit, silent room, and a wasp suddenly buzzing upon a pane startled me out of my wits. I was seized by a panic. I was overwhelmed by a desire to run—anywhere from that accursed house, and leave it and everyone in it behind me for ever—whilst there was time. You know the way nervous people have of turning the head this way and that over the shoulder lest somebody should be coming up secretly behind them. Well, I suddenly saw myself in the mirror doing just that, with a face of sheer terror. The sight brought me back a little to my senses. It shamed me. And a queer notion—I was in the mood for queer notions—came into my head that if I put the mask on I should lose my fear, I should even get some inspiration which would help me.

“I took it out of its box very gingerly and put it on. It didn’t want any strings. For it fitted well over the back of my head and quite closely over my face. I looked at myself in the mirror. It was incredible how completely another personality had been fitted on to me with the mask. My own eyes were there shining through the long curled delicate eyelashes, but I could not have identified them myself. I had only to wear some dress no one at Suvlac had seen me in, alter it to give me a look of greater age, and with a mask like that over my head and face my own mother could not have recognized me.

“Yes, but I couldn’t get a mask like that. It was the work of a real artist, a mask as finished as an ode of Horace. And then in a flash the inspiration did come. If I could take Diana’s place! The dress itself showed that she was to take an actual part in the celebration. She was to be the acolyte who swings the censer. If I could take her place—and get away scot-free afterwards! Why, I should be mistress of the position and Diana would be unhurt. I could threaten, I could expose, if the law had a punishment for this particular abomination, I could help the law to inflict it—and Diana would not be touched. If I could only take her place! And the moment after the inspiration came, and whilst I was still standing before the mirror looking through the eye-holes of the mask, came the means of realizing it. They just unrolled themselves out in front of me.

“I won’t say that I wasn’t desperately frightened. I was. I knew that I should receive very little mercy from Evelyn Devenish once I was helpless in her hands. I shivered as I stood there. But it wasn’t all from fear. There was excitement in it too.

“I took off the mask—reluctantly—for I fancied that with its removal my inspiration would vanish too, and my plan become an absurdity. But they both remained with me. I held the mask in my hand until I felt sure of them. Then I replaced it in its white cardboard box, set everything in order, and slipped out of the room. The house was still empty. I went down to a bench at the bottom of the garden and, sitting there, worked out my plan step by step, trying to think of every flaw in it, of every possibility of failure. But, of course, the dreadful crime which did ruin it altogether never entered into my mind.

“That evening was of good augury. I had made a guess that Evelyn Devenish was a woman who would never move without a little store of soporifics. I told her after dinner that I was sleeping badly at Suvlac, but that since I didn’t have a doctor’s prescription, I didn’t see how I was going to get a sleeping-draught which it would be worth while to take. Evelyn Devenish first of all laughed contemptuously at my innocence. But she ceased to laugh. She looked at me curiously, and then with a gleam of pleasure.

“‘But, of course, I can help you,’ she cried. So I was right in my guess. ‘I have some chloral in crystals. I’ll fetch you a few,’ and she hurried off to her room.

“I think it had come into her head that a good strong sleeping-draught taken by me on the evening of Wednesday week would be a sound proposition. I should be kept out of the way very completely. I was the more sure of that when she returned with a little paper packet. For she particularly insisted that I should let her know in the morning what effect the crystals had had.

“‘You must dissolve them in water, of course,’ she said. ‘I have given you quite a small dose to be on the safe side. But it’s important that I should know tomorrow how it has worked.’

“I promised to let her know, and took the crystals to my room. But once there, I was frightened to use them. Yet I had got to use them. I knew nothing about sleeping-draughts. I have slept like a baby all my life. I hadn’t the slightest idea whether it was a weak dose or a strong dose—or even too strong a dose which had been given to me. Yes, that fear was unpleasantly vivid to me. I watched the crystals disappearing in the water under the light of the lamp by my bed and I wondered whether I was not dissolving enough to put me out of the way for good and all. Evelyn’s hard eyes had held so mocking a smile: she had looked me over with such complete contempt. On the other hand, she was probably experimenting—just as I was. She was finding out how much of the chloral was required to induce sleep so profound that nothing would disturb it on the night of Wednesday week—just as I was. I got into bed and drank the glassful of water in a hurry. I was in a panic when I had done it, and I tried quite uselessly not to sleep at all. ‘I won’t,’ I said to myself. ‘I won’t.’ And the next thing I remember was looking at my watch in broad daylight and realizing that it was half-past eleven and my coffee stone-cold on the table at my side. I felt a little heavy, but nothing worse; and I was inclined to doubt whether if I had been naturally a light sleeper, the dose would have been strong enough. So all that I said to Evelyn was:

“‘Yes, I slept a good deal better. I didn’t wake up so often.’

“Evelyn Devenish nodded her head.

“‘Well, I’ll give you a stronger draught next time. But it mustn’t be yet. If you get into the habit of taking this stuff it won’t have any effect. You shall have some more of the crystals in a week’s time, if you remind me.”

“Now, a week brought us exactly to the Wednesday when I was to be out of the way. I thanked her very gratefully for her kindness. She must have taken me for a zany, I slipped my foot so stupidly into her trap.

“So far all was very promising, but I had one more precaution to take. I knew that the celebration of the Black Mass followed the ritual of the true Mass, and I must be familiar with it. I therefore attended the little church at Suvlac assiduously during the next week, and I am afraid that I left the Abbé Fauriel under the belief that he was in the way of making a valuable convert of a girl from the United States with millions of money. As a matter of fact, I was watching every movement of the one small boy of the village who acted as his acolyte. There were movements not so very easy to get into one’s head. For sometimes they corresponded with the movements of the priest, sometimes they were in a sort of opposition, like—I don’t use the words irreverently—like dancers setting to partners. However, by the Wednesday, what with attendance at the church and rehearsing in my bedroom, I felt that I could get through. On Tuesday morning, too, the registered parcel arrived from Leeds, and so everything was ready.”

Joyce Whipple drew in a breath as she thus reached the last stage of her adventure, and sat with her eyes brooding upon the table. A bottle of Evian water stood in the centre. She touched the arm of her lover and asked for a glass of it.

“Mademoiselle,” Hanaud said gently, “if you are disturbed by your recollections of that night, you must not let us add the distress of relating them to us here. You will, alas! have to tell them once more.”

“At the Cour d’Assizes,” she answered. “I know, and I confess that I shrink from the prospect of the publicity and the gaping faces. But it will help me against that hour of ordeal if I tell it first among my friends. My story will be all the more ordered, and its repetition less of a penance.”

She drained her glass of water and resumed.

The Prisoner in the Opal - Contents    |     XXVIII - The Night of Wednesday

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