The Prisoner in the Opal


The Night of Wednesday

A.E.W. Mason

“ON the Wednesday after luncheon I took Evelyn Devenish aside upon the terrace and startled her thoroughly by saying: ‘It’s for tonight, isn’t it?’

“Her eyes opened to their full width in consternation, and the blood left her face.

“‘For tonight? What’s for tonight?’ she stuttered, and waited in suspense for my answer. I took a little malicious pleasure in keeping her for as long as I could safely do it in her embarrassment and agitation.

“‘What?’ I repeated with an air of surprise, ‘Oh, you won’t have forgotten! I can’t believe it,’ and with every fresh sentence I spoke she lost more and more of her power to dissimulate, until her face looked like a pair of hard eyes bright with hate set in a white mask. I thought indeed as I looked at her: ‘There’s the very disguise for me.’ But at the same time I realized that I wasn’t being very wise. So I said quickly:

“‘You promised me a sleeping-draught for tonight, Mrs. Devenish. I have been looking forward to it tremendously.’

“The colour rushed back into her face. ‘Of course, I hadn’t forgotten,’ she answered. ‘You shall certainly have it, Joyce.’ Then she changed her note. ‘I want you to do something for me in return. Oh, a little thing! It’ll sound silly to you. Perhaps it is. But I am rather superstitious,’ and she pulled herself up as though she had said too much. ‘I want you to lend me something you usually wear—that bracelet, for instance,’ and she pointed to the gold band round my wrist. ‘I’ll give it back to you tomorrow.’

“No doubt I looked surprised. I couldn’t imagine why even the most superstitious person should want it. It wasn’t a charm, or a thing which is supposed to bring luck, like a bracelet of elephant’s hair. It was just a strip of gold with a fire opal at the clasp. I unfastened it, however, and gave it to her.

“‘Of course you can have it,’ I said, rather amused. Evelyn Devenish almost snatched at it. Then she looked at me with amusement too, but a secret sort of amusement, as though I was the greatest fool in the world to let her have it.

“I waited until after tea in the garden—we had no expedition arranged for that day—and then I slipped out alone for a walk, with the varnish, a small paint-brush and a thick pair of gloves in my handbag. I went by the hill road to the little gate in the tall hedge of the Mirandol garden. No one was within sight. I put on the thick gloves and painted the latch and the post and the rail carefully and quickly. Then I made a bundle of the bottle, the brush and the gloves and pushed it deep into the hedge; from which place Monsieur Hanaud has, I think, recovered it.”

Hanaud contented himself with a nod of assent. This was not the moment for even the most commodious of phrases. For a curious uneasiness had been gaining upon Joyce’s small audience. Each one felt that he was a spectator of the events which he was merely hearing related. Each one was present in the rose-pink château of Suvlac, watched the lone, fine-hearted girl in her crusade against the powers of darkness, and trembled at the issue. She was there in front of them, but the pinewood walls of the homely restaurant had fallen apart and they walked with her in the glamour of her high adventure.

“Whilst I was dressing for dinner Evelyn Devenish knocked at my door and entered the room.

“‘Here’s the draught for you,’ she said. ‘There are a few more crystals than there were last time. But not too many. I should take them all.’

“She pushed the white packet into my hand and went out again. The packet was a good deal heavier than the one which she had originally given me, and I was afraid to use it all. I dissolved about three-quarters of the crystals in a small amount of water whilst I finished dressing, poured the draught carefully into a little medicine bottle, corked the bottle and hid it in a drawer. Then I went down to dinner and found you”—she turned towards Mr. Ricardo with a smile. “You gave me a fine shock afterwards, although you were unaware of it, but at that moment I was delighted to see you. I had been alone before—now I had someone who would stand by my side.”

“Yes, yes! To be sure, I was there,” said Mr. Ricardo, feeling quite ready for everything now that the danger of everything had passed. He was unable, indeed, to understand in what way he could have caused Joyce Whipple any serious alarm. Joyce was making a mistake. Her memories of that night were not unnaturally confused.

“I welcomed you all the more,” Joyce continued, “because we were all, with the exception of Robin Webster, nervous on that evening. He was as calm, as self-assured, as though he had no anxiety upon his mind heavier than a doubt whether the shower of rain would fall in time to increase the vintage. But the rest of us were troubled, and when the Abbé Fauriel arrived with his story of the stolen vestments, I think we were all on the edge of hysteria. I know that I made the most terrible blunder when I cried out: ‘It is not I who dispense the cold!’ There was not a soul in the dining-room except the servants, Mrs. Tasborough and Mr. Ricardo who did not understand my allusion. I had given away my knowledge of the horrible secret which bound that little household as clearly as if I had stood up and cried it aloud. I remember that Evelyn Devenish, after the moment of consternation had passed, looked triumphantly across the table at Robin Webster. She was saying by her expression as clearly as words could have said: ‘What did I tell you? She knows.’

“There was, indeed, a little conference held upon the terrace after dinner between her and Robin Webster and de Mirandol. But they had no reason to think that I was aware of what they had planned for tonight, and as for tomorrow—well, Evelyn Devenish had made her arrangements for me. I was afraid for a moment that the celebration might be put off until the Friday. For I had no excuse for altering my arrangements. I was bound to go in the morning. But as the conference broke up, de Mirandol said in his high voice: ‘At one o’clock, then.’ Then a low cry of impatience from Evelyn Devenish, but he added ‘tomorrow,’ and they all laughed.

“The arrangement was to hold, then. I have explained to you how I had slipped into the way of preparing the drinks of the party. I ran off to my room, got the little bottle with the sleeping-draught, and holding it in my handkerchief, returned to the drawing-room just in time to hear Mrs. Tasborough calling for Diana to mix a nightcap for the Abbé. Diana, Mr. Ricardo at all events will remember, came into the room last of all, and asked me for a brandy-and-soda. The table was so placed that I had my back to the room. I took the cork out of the little bottle, put some brandy into the glass, and then, tilting the siphon with my left hand, squirted the soda-water into it. At the same time I was holding the glass on the table with my right hand, and I was able to empty the little phial into the brandy under cover of the noise made by the siphon. Immediately afterwards, the Abbé Fauriel and the others who were not staying in the house departed, and we dispersed to our rooms. It was still very early.”

“Yes,” Mr. Ricardo agreed. “I remember that it was exactly ten minutes to eleven when I began to prepare myself for bed.”

“I had made up my mind to wait for an hour and a half before I stole down to Diana’s room. I took off my dress and changed into black stockings and shoes, and put on a dressing-gown, all in a foolish fever. But after that I had nothing to do and I have never known time creep so slowly. With the passage of each everlasting minute I shrank more and more from the peril in front of me. I saw myself detected, my mask stripped from me. I imagined Evelyn Devenish gloating over me, her hate satisfied. But I had a shivery sort of intuition that even she could not be as cruel as de Mirandol with his red lips and his big, flabby face. And the mere sight of my bed, with its white sheet turned neatly down, began to make me drowsy. I began to argue: ‘Suppose that I went to bed, Diana could not leave the house tonight. That’s certain and that’s the main thing.’

“Of course it wasn’t. The main thing was that there shouldn’t be another opportunity of repeating tonight with Diana present. But the invitation of my pillows was becoming irresistible, would have already become irresistible if I had not had just one little spark of shame glowing within me at the thought that all my fine plans and resolutions were dwindling to nothing at all because I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Then I sprang up and turned out the light. I couldn’t go on with the white sheets and the pillows shouting to me not to be a fool. In the dark, unable to see them, I might be better able to keep awake. And it was lucky that I did turn the light out. For a few minutes later, as I was sitting on the edge of the bed, I heard the scrape of a foot upon the stone staircase outside my door. Someone—Evelyn Devenish—it could only be her—was listening outside my door to make sure that I was asleep. At once I was wide awake and certain too that I was late, that I ought to be now dressed and ready in the hall. I had a fear that she would go into Diana’s room, and I listened for the sound of a door opening and shutting, for a startled cry, for a rush of feet. But when a few moments afterwards I opened my own door, the house was so silent that I felt I could have heard a mouse stirring.

“I had closed my shutters and drawn the curtains over the windows, when I first went upstairs. I turned on the light again and looked at my watch. It was within a few minutes of half-past twelve. I crept downstairs and very gently opened Diana’s door. Her light was still burning, but she herself lay upon her bed in the dress which she had been wearing, breathing easily and sound asleep. I laid a quilt over her, took from the drawer the black velvet suit, the cassock, the domino and the mask, and was turning towards the door when I saw a parcel wrapped up in brown paper upon the table. For all I knew, it might have something to do with the dress she was to have worn. I unfolded it and saw that it was the lace-edged surplice which upon special days I had seen the Abbé’s acolyte wearing at High Mass. I added it to my little pile of clothes, turned out the light, took the key from the lock, and after going out locked the door behind me. I didn’t want Evelyn Devenish to blunder into the room at the last moment and find her asleep. If she tried the door, she would think that Diana had already made her way to our rendezvous and had locked her door for safety.

“At ten minutes to one, then, dressed and masked, I slipped out of the front door and went quickly down the road to the farm buildings. A small car without any lights stood in the road. Robin Webster quite undisguised sat at the wheel, with a woman beside him—Evelyn Devenish. She threw open the door upon her side, but I had quickness enough to see that fortune was favouring me. I waved with my hand, ‘The answer is in the negative,’ and climbed into the dickey. Neither Robin Webster nor Evelyn pressed the invitation to join them, and the car ran swiftly along the road across the pasture and up the hill to the gate. I let them both get down first, and I was still indeed on the step when I heard a stifled oath from Webster and a little cry of annoyance from Evelyn Devenish. Both of them had got some of my professor’s varnish on their hands, and when I reached them they were rubbing it off as best they could with their handkerchiefs. ‘Be careful of the gate. It’s sticky,’ said Robin Webster as he swung it open. I passed through behind him and Evelyn Devenish, and I kicked it to with my foot. I wanted everybody who used that gate tonight to open it with a hand upon the latch. The front door of the house was open and the passage lit. The light streaming through the doorway showed me some small groups of people, and here the light revealed a mask, there an enshrouding cloak. There were lights, too, in the library upon the ground floor, and the shadows of people moving to and fro were flung upon the gravel. The company, indeed, was larger than I expected, and at one moment I welcomed it as a security, at another I dreaded it as multiplying the chances of detection.

“‘This way,’ said Robin Webster quietly, and he led us round to the back of the house. Here Monsieur de Mirandol was waiting, and we went up by a back staircase to a small room behind the conference room, and leading into it by a door in the panel. On a chair were the vestments of the Abbé Fauriel. Monsieur de Mirandol was in a fever. His face was patched with red and his hands shaking.

“‘You are ready?’ he asked. ‘It is time.’

“Evelyn Devenish laughed, upon a low thrilling note.

“‘This is my moment,’ she said. ‘The old days shall be the new days. What happened once shall happen again. As she won, so shall I.’

“They were the words of the fortune-teller, of the charlatan making mysteries, but they were uttered in a voice so passionate and sincere that I couldn’t doubt they meant all the world to her. ‘Lord of the Earth!’ she cried in a low voice, and sobbed and spoke her prayer again. ‘Lord of the Earth,’ and she crossed herself upwards instead of downwards with her thumb. ‘Give him back to me!’ She looked at Robin Webster, her eyes shining bright through the holes of a black silk mask. She was wearing a long cloak which she held close about her, and I noticed for the first time, with a shock, that her feet in her slippers were bare. ‘Give him back to me,’ she repeated like a woman distracted, and de Mirandol took her by the elbow.

“‘Come!’ he said, and he led her into the big room, closing the door behind him. I heard the clicking of the switches of the electric light; and a few minutes later a subdued clatter of people entering the room and taking their places.

“Meanwhile Robin Webster had stood like a figure of stone, with his eyes bent upon the floor. He raised his face with a sigh of relief. He slipped off his long coat, and I saw that he was wearing a priest’s cassock. He put on the alb and the stole very slowly, a man wrapt in his dreams. He took something from the pocket of his coat, which he hid in his sleeve. Then he turned and looked at me. I had taken off my domino. He pointed to a table on which a censer of gold with golden chains was resting. It was filled with incense waiting to be kindled, and a box of matches stood upon the table beside it. I struck a match and lit the incense and took the censer in my hand. A smoke curled up from it black as pitch, and the fumes filled the room with an odour acrid, intoxicating. All the while his eyes were watching me. Every moment I expected a cry from him: ‘Who are you?’ But no cry came. I stood up and faced him, swinging the censer to and fro across my body and between us, so that I saw him only through a mist of smoke.

Even so, I felt he must know me, he stood and stared with so set a face, and such unwinking eyes. Suddenly an intense relief came over me. For I realized that though he stared, he did not see. I was nothing to him. His thoughts were turned in upon himself. A slow smile flickered about his mouth, his tongue moistened his lips, and he felt his sleeve with his right hand—to make sure. I know now that he was savouring the moment which was to set him free from the tedium and the exactions of his mistress—savouring it with a voluptuous slow delight.

“‘Now,’ he said, and he opened the door. A blaze of light rushed in on us.

“I followed him, with a prayer on my lips and a terrible fear at my heart. But no longer a fear lest I should blunder and be discovered. I had passed beyond that. I suppose the fumes of the incense were making me drunk. But I was at that moment afraid as I hope I shall never be again afraid that I should see Satan himself taking shape in that room in the midst of his worshippers, baleful and hideous, with death in the mere pointing of his finger. What protection would my disguise be then? I went forward dazed and stunned. The room was a blur to me. But in a little while my vision cleared. I saw the room about half full, and not a soul in it but was masked and wore some concealing wrap. But here and there beneath the wraps of the women I could see the sheen of white shoulders and the flash of jewels. And all of them were muttering and whispering so that the room was filled as with the hum of bees. Then as Robin Webster prostrated himself before the altar I took my position at the side and behind him. The altar was a living woman. Yes!

“A great lamp hung in the ceiling flung down a light golden and dazzling. It lit up the youth beautiful with the blue, sorrow-haunted eyes, and the two panels at the side, and it poured upon Evelyn Devenish, stretched naked upon her back on a black coffin-pall. Her eyes were closed, but her bosom rose and fell with her tumultuous breathing, and her arms were outstretched stiff and rigid to make with her outstretched body the form of a cross. I understood then what her words had meant in the little room:

“‘As she won, so shall I.’

“For just so Madame de Montespan once had lain as an altar for the Abbé Guibourg, that she might win back the wandering passion of her royal lover. And she had won it back.

“Robin Webster began the service of the Mass with the murmured Latin prayers and, as the ritual ordained, I changed my place from side to side, swung the censer and bent the knee. It was the true Mass, the Mass meant to deceive. For not until the Flesh had been made bread and the Blood wine, could begin the orgy of jeers and mockery, the frenzy of the adoration of Satan which in half an hour would make of that room a stew, a sty of animals met in a battle of lust. So the prayers to the true God followed one upon the other, and as I passed from one end of the altar to the other I saw my gold bracelet glittering upon Evelyn Devenish’s wrist and—yes—a smear of the varnish dark on the palm of her hand. She had called herself superstitious, I remembered, when she borrowed the bracelet. She had gone back to the most ancient superstition in the world. If she wore something of mine in this supreme crisis, she would draw into herself and out of me the innermost heart of me, and all that I had of power to attract. As the sacred climax approached, a great trembling took her body and limbs, her eyes opened and fixed themselves on the Adonis; cries, uttered low like the whimperings of an animal, broke continually from her lips. Robin Webster took the chalice and raised it above his head, and then placed it between her breasts and bent over her, fumbling at his sleeve. The cries of Evelyn Devenish melted into one long-drawn wail, a convulsion shook her from head to foot, there was a rattle in her throat, her arms relaxed, and once more she lay still. Robin Webster raised the chalice again, and every murmur ceased. I could not look round, but I was as sure as if I had looked round that everyone in that assembly was fixed like stone in an extremity of horror. I was standing on the left-hand side by Evelyn Devenish’s feet, and Robin Webster’s back quite obscured my view. I saw him lift the chalice a third time, and now like corn in a wind the assembly swayed and bent. The murmurs broke out again, louder, more hysterical. Robin Webster stooped with the chalice in his hand, and I heard the trickle of a liquid running into it. Suddenly a woman screamed, there was a grating and overturning of chairs, a frenzied movement, and above the clamour rose the voice of Robin Webster, ringing triumphant, as he stretched out his arms with the cup between his palms towards the picture of Adonis.

“‘Now, if ever, greet your worshippers! You have a sacrifice worthy of you. Come! Come!’

“But even above his voice there rang another, more violent, more terrible, and it uttered one word only.


“I saw Robin Webster turn about towards the room; I saw Evelyn Devenish with the hilt of a knife upright above her heart, and her breast striped with blood; I felt myself caught up in a whirl of people, and then I heard above the uproar an order given with authority:

“‘Lock the door! No one must go!’

“I dived, I reached the little door in the panelled wall. I opened it and slipped through. There was a bolt on that inner side. I shot it into its socket and raced down the staircase, tearing the surplice off me as I ran. It was white, and even in the darkness would guide a pursuit. I dropped it in the back entrance of the house, ran through the garden, unlatched the gate with a hand protected by the cassock, and ran down the hill towards Suvlac. There was no pursuit. In the confusion my escape was overlooked.

“But it couldn’t be overlooked for long. I knew authority when I heard it. The voice which had ordered, ‘Lock the door! No one must go!’—I know now that it was the voice of Arthur Tidon, the judge. Then I only knew that it was the voice of a man with the habit of command and his wits under control. Neither Monsieur de Mirandol nor Robin Webster frightened me now. It was the unknown owner of that voice. I took my mask off” my head and carried it in my hand. I ran past the farm buildings—they were all in darkness—and up the slope to the Château Suvlac. I looked to the house of Mirandol on the hill. The lights were still blazing in the long upper room. They were debating there still; but with authority to conduct the debate. The debate wouldn’t last long. They must act, and again I thought, with the authority of that voice to direct the action, it would be swift and decisive.

“I let myself into the house by the glass door of the drawing-room, and crept along the passage to Diana’s room. I unlocked the door and turned up the light. She had not stirred since I had left her. I locked the door now from the inside. I had to undress her and put her properly to bed. That was absolutely urgent. Up there on the hill, when it came to counting heads, the absence of the acolyte was certain to be discovered. They had already without a doubt discovered it now—Robin Webster and de Mirandol and the man with the voice. They would not be disturbed, however, so long as they believed the acolyte to be Diana. They would assume that she had fled, just as I did flee, at the first commotion.

“‘No one,’ I argued, ‘of all those present can afford to give one word of information about this crime. They dare not confess that they were assisting at this abominable blasphemy. Robin Webster knew that very well when he planned to commit it. They are all his confederates, bound by their own interests to the strictest secrecy. Very well. Very likely everyone will be compelled to unmask. Certainly they will disperse at once, and two or three will be left to decide what to do—Robin Webster, Monsieur de Mirandol and the Voice. But what those three decide they must tell Diana. They must prepare her for the morning. They must come here tonight and soon—very soon. If they find her asleep in the dress she wore this evening, they must know that I took her place.’

“So I set to work. Oh, but it was difficult! I had to be very gentle lest I should wake her. She was a good weight too. I had to get everything off and her pyjamas on. It was done at last, but, oh, the time it took! Every moment I expected the sound of a footfall in the corridor. I got her properly into her bed, then I turned out the light, unlocked the door, left it shut and unlocked, and stole up the staircase to my own room. I locked myself in, turned on my light, and like a fool collapsed on my bed. I didn’t faint, but I felt—oh, awful!! cried until it seemed impossible that I had any tears left. I had to stuff the bed-sheet into my mouth to stop myself from screaming. I felt that I was falling right through the bed down precipice after precipice. I thought that I was dying.

“I don’t know how long the fit lasted. But after a time I sat up with just one longing—to get into the open air. With my windows shuttered and the door locked, I was being stifled in a prison. And then I remembered the gabare. It came three times a week to Suvlac and left in the night with the tide for Bordeaux. I had seen its mast above the little dock that very day. I might be in time to catch it before it sailed if I hurried. The captain would give me a passage if I paid enough for it. I didn’t trouble about my clothes; I didn’t think of anything except putting as wide a distance as possible between me and this house. I snatched up the domino and the mask—that I did not dare to leave behind—and turning out my light I stole from the room. My quickest way to the harbour was by the terrace door in Diana’s room. It was latched but not locked. I ran down the steps across the lawn, stumbled at the flower-bed, ran on and came to a dead stop at the bottom of the avenue. The gabare had gone. I flung the mask up into a tree. I had a horror of it. I felt that it made me an accomplice in the crime, and I was conscious of the most intense relief when at last I was free of it. I turned to the right and ran up the avenue in the black shelter of the trees. I had a thought of taking refuge with Marianne and Jules Amadee, but I still clung desperately to a hope that if only I could talk with Diana first of all, we could arrange some story which would keep her out of the scandal of the crime altogether. I reasoned that once back again in my room with the door locked and my bed drawn across it, I should be safe till morning. And morning could not be far away.

“But as I flitted across the terrace I saw something move behind the window of the library—you,” and Joyce Whipple turned to Mr. Ricardo. “I sprang into Diana’s room, locked the glass door and turned on the light for a moment. It was just as I had left it. Diana had not moved. And then someone knocked. My fingers were on the switch. I turned the light out. This was my moment. If the pursuers were out upon the terrace, I had time to reach my room and barricade it. I sped up the little staircase, went into my room. I was too late. The men from the Château Mirandol had been led by Robin Webster to Diana’s room. They had found her sunk in a sleep so impenetrable that drugs alone could account for it. It was clear that I had taken her place. And whilst my fingers fumbled in the darkness for the switch a cloak was thrown over my head and a hand was pressed over my mouth. I did go out in a faint then. For when I came to myself I was being carried from a motor-car into Monsieur de Mirandol’s house. There were three men, Monsieur de Mirandol himself, Robin Webster, and a man who still wore a mask upon his face. I was carried down to a cellar, and whilst the man in the mask stood over me, the two others brought a mattress and a water-jug and things like that.

“‘We’ll decide about her tomorrow’ said the man with the mask, and I shivered. For I had recognized his voice. It was the voice of the man who had cried: ‘Lock the door!’ I remember that Robin Webster went out of the cellar last, and before he went he stooped down over me and whispered: ‘Don’t lose heart! I’ll save you.’

“But of course he couldn’t. I hadn’t a hope that he could. He must agree to what the others decided.

“There was a grating in the cellar under the ceiling which let in air and a trickle of grey light. Some time after it was day Monsieur de Mirandol brought me some food and I implored him to let me go. I don’t know what I promised, but he never replied to me at all. Then the evening afterwards, Tidon and de Mirandol came together. They handcuffed me and put a gag in my mouth and tied my legs. I was carried upstairs by Tidon. His car was at the door, with an all-weather body closed, and no chauffeur. He laid me on the floor and covered me with a rug, and after a minute or two the car moved off.”

Hanaud nodded his head.

“Tidon was the one man who could drive into Bordeaux through my cordon without his car being searched,” he said. “But even so he took his precautions, the good man. As he neared Bordeaux he made a circuit of the town, and in some by-lane mademoiselle here was transferred to a horse-drawn conveyance driven by a kind friend of the widow Chicholle.”

The Prisoner in the Opal - Contents    |     XXIX - Hanaud Dots the T’s

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