THE UNOPENED LETTER
The hall of the hotel had been cleared of people. At the entrance from the corridor a porter barred the way.
"No one can pass," said he.
"I think that I can," said Hanaud, and he produced his card. "From the Surete at Paris."
He was allowed to enter, with Ricardo at his heels. On the ground lay Marthe Gobin; the manager of the hotel stood at her side; a doctor was on his knees. Hanaud gave his card to the manager.
"You have sent word to the police?"
"Yes," said the manager.
"And the wound?" asked Hanaud, kneeling on the ground beside the doctor. It was a very small wound, round and neat and clean, and there was very little blood. "It was made by a bullet," said Hanaud—"some tiny bullet from an air-pistol."
"No," answered the doctor.
"No knife made it," Hanaud asserted.
"That is true," said the doctor. "Look!" and he took up from the floor by his knee the weapon which had caused Marthe Gobin's death. It was nothing but an ordinary skewer with a ring at one end and a sharp point at the other, and a piece of common white firewood for a handle. The wood had been split, the ring inserted and spliced in position with strong twine. It was a rough enough weapon, but an effective one. The proof of its effectiveness lay stretched upon the floor beside them.
Hanaud gave it to the manager of the hotel.
"You must be very careful of this, and give it as it is to the police."
Then he bent once more over Marthe Gobin.
"Did she suffer?" he asked in a low voice.
"No; death must have been instantaneous," said the doctor.
"I am glad of that," said Hanaud, as he rose again to his feet.
In the doorway the driver of the cab was standing.
"What has he to say?" Hanaud asked.
The man stepped forward instantly. He was an old, red-faced, stout man, with a shiny white tall hat, like a thousand drivers of cabs.
"What have I to say, monsieur?" he grumbled in a husky voice. "I take up the poor woman at the station and I drive her where she bids me, and I find her dead, and my day is lost. Who will pay my fare, monsieur?"
"I will," said Hanaud. "There it is," and he handed the man a five-franc piece. "Now, answer me! Do you tell me that this woman was murdered in your cab and that you knew nothing about it?"
"But what should I know? I take her up at the station, and all the way up the hill her head is every moment out of the window, crying, 'Faster, faster!' Oh, the good woman was in a hurry! But for me I take no notice. The more she shouts, the less I hear; I bury my head between my shoulders, and I look ahead of me and I take no notice. One cannot expect cab-horses to run up these hills; it is not reasonable."
"So you went at a walk," said Hanaud. He beckoned to Ricardo, and said to the manager: "M. Besnard will, no doubt, be here in a few minutes, and he will send for the Juge d'Instruction. There is nothing that we can do."
He went back to Ricardo's sitting-room and flung himself into a chair. He had been calm enough downstairs in the presence of the doctor and the body of the victim. Now, with only Ricardo for a witness, he gave way to distress.
"It is terrible," he said. "The poor woman! It was I who brought her to Aix. It was through my carelessness. But who would have thought—?" He snatched his hands from his face and stood up. "I should have thought," he said solemnly. "Extraordinary daring—that was one of the qualities of my criminal. I knew it, and I disregarded it. Now we have a second crime."
"The skewer may lead you to the criminal," said Mr. Ricardo.
"The skewer!" cried Hanaud. "How will that help us? A knife, yes—perhaps. But a skewer!"
"At the shops—there will not be so many in Aix at which you can buy skewers—they may remember to whom they sold one within the last day or so."
"How do we know it was bought in the last day or so?" cried Hanaud scornfully. "We have not to do with a man who walks into a shop and buys a single skewer to commit a murder with, and so hands himself over to the police. How often must I say it!"
The violence of his contempt nettled Ricardo.
"If the murderer did not buy it, how did he obtain it?" he asked obstinately.
"Oh, my friend, could he not have stolen it? From this or from any hotel in Aix? Would the loss of a skewer be noticed, do you think? How many people in Aix to-day have had rognons a la brochette for their luncheon! Besides, it is not merely the death of this poor woman which troubles me. We have lost the evidence which she was going to bring to us. She had something to tell us about Celie Harland which now we shall never hear. We have to begin all over again, and I tell you we have not the time to begin all over again. No, we have not the time. Time will be lost, and we have no time to lose." He buried his face again in his hands and groaned aloud. His grief was so violent and so sincere that Ricardo, shocked as he was by the murder of Marthe Gobin, set himself to console him.
"But you could not have foreseen that at three o'clock in the afternoon at Aix—"
Hanaud brushed the excuse aside.
"It is no extenuation. I OUGHT to have foreseen. Oh, but I will have no pity now," he cried, and as he ended the words abruptly his face changed. He lifted a trembling forefinger and pointed. There came a sudden look of life into his dull and despairing eyes.
He was pointing to a side-table on which were piled Mr. Ricardo's letters.
"You have not opened them this morning?" he asked.
"No. You came while I was still in bed. I have not thought of them till now."
Hanaud crossed to the table, and, looking down at the letters, uttered a cry.
"There's one, the big envelope," he said, his voice shaking like his hand. "It has a Swiss stamp."
He swallowed to moisten his throat. Ricardo sprang across the room and tore open the envelope. There was a long letter enclosed in a handwriting unknown to him. He read aloud the first lines of the letter:
"I write what I saw and post it to-night, so that no one may be before me with the news. I will come over to-morrow for the money."
A low exclamation from Hanaud interrupted the words.
"The signature! Quick!"
Ricardo turned to the end of the letter.
"She speaks, then! After all she speaks!" Hanaud whispered in a voice of awe. He ran to the door of the room, opened it suddenly, and, shutting it again, locked it. "Quick! We cannot bring that poor woman back to life; but we may still—" He did not finish his sentence. He took the letter unceremoniously from Ricardo's hand and seated himself at the table. Over his shoulder Mr. Ricardo, too, read Marthe Gobin's letter.
It was just the sort of letter, which in Ricardo's view, Marthe Gobin would have written—a long, straggling letter which never kept to the point, which exasperated them one moment by its folly and fired them to excitement the next.
It was dated from a small suburb of Geneva, on the western side of the lake, and it ran as follows:
"The suburb is but a street close to the lake-side, and a tram runs into the city. It is quite respectable, you understand, monsieur, with a hotel at the end of it, and really some very good houses. But I do not wish to deceive you about the social position of myself or my husband. Our house is on the wrong side of the street—definitely—yes. It is a small house, and we do not see the water from any of the windows because of the better houses opposite. M. Gobin, my husband, who was a clerk in one of the great banks in Geneva, broke down in health in the spring, and for the last three months has been compelled to keep indoors. Of course, money has not been plentiful, and I could not afford a nurse. Consequently I myself have been compelled to nurse him. Monsieur, if you were a woman, you would know what men are when they are ill—how fretful, how difficult. There is not much distraction for the woman who nurses them. So, as I am in the house most of the day, I find what amusement I can in watching the doings of my neighbours. You will not blame me.
"A month ago the house almost directly opposite to us was taken furnished for the summer by a Mme. Rossignol. She is a widow, but during the last fortnight a young gentleman has come several times in the afternoon to see her, and it is said in the street that he is going to marry her. But I cannot believe it myself. Monsieur is a young man of perhaps thirty, with smooth, black hair. He wears a moustache, a little black moustache, and is altogether captivating. Mme. Rossignol is five or six years older, I should think—a tall woman, with red hair and a bold sort of coarse beauty. I was not attracted by her. She seemed not quite of the same world as that charming monsieur who was said to be going to marry her. No; I was not attracted by Adele Rossignol."
And when he had come to that point Hanaud looked up with a start.
"So the name was Adele," he whispered.
"Yes," said Ricardo. "Helene Vauquier spoke the truth."
Hanaud nodded with a queer smile upon his lips.
"Yes, there she spoke the truth. I thought she did."
"But she said Adele's hair was black," interposed Mr. Ricardo.
"Yes, there she didn't," said Hanaud drily, and his eyes dropped again to the paper.
"I knew her name was Adele, for often I have heard her servant calling her so, and without any 'Madame' in front of the name. That is strange, is it not, to hear an elderly servant-woman calling after her mistress, 'Adele,' just simple 'Adele'? It was that which made me think monsieur and madame were not of the same world. But I do not believe that they are going to be married. I have an instinct about it. Of course, one never knows with what extraordinary women the nicest men will fall in love. So that after all these two may get married. But if they do, I do not think they will be happy.
"Besides the old woman there was another servant, a man, Hippolyte, who served in the house and drove the carriage when it was wanted—a respectable man. He always touched his hat when Mme. Rossignol came out of the house. He slept in the house at night, although the stable was at the end of the street. I thought he was probably the son of Jeanne, the servant-woman. He was young, and his hair was plastered down upon his forehead, and he was altogether satisfied with himself and a great favorite amongst the servants in the street. The carriage and the horse were hired from Geneva. That is the household of Mme. Rossignol."
So far, Mr. Ricardo read in silence. Then he broke out again.
"But we have them! The red-haired woman called Adele; the man with the little black moustache. It was he who drove the motor-car!"
Hanaud held up his hand to check the flow of words, and both read on again:
"At three o'clock on Tuesday afternoon madame was driven away in the carriage, and I did not see it return all that evening. Of course, it may have returned to the stables by another road. But it was not unusual for the carriage to take her into Geneva and wait a long time. I went to bed at eleven, but in the night M. Gobin was restless, and I rose to get him some medicine. We slept in the front of the house, monsieur, and while I was searching for the matches upon the table in the middle of the room I heard the sound of carriage wheels in the silent street. I went to the window, and, raising a corner of the curtains, looked out. M. Gobin called to me fretfully from the bed to know why I did not light the candle and get him what he wanted. I have already told you how fretful sick men can be, always complaining if just for a minute one distracts oneself by looking out of the window. But there! One can do nothing to please them. Yet how right I was to raise the blind and look out of the window! For if I had obeyed my husband I might have lost four thousand francs. And four thousand francs are not to be sneezed at by a poor woman whose husband lies in bed.
"I saw the carriage stop at Mme. Rossignol's house. Almost at once the house door was opened by the old servant, although the hall of the house and all the windows in the front were dark. That was the first thing that surprised me. For when madame came home late and the house was dark, she used to let herself in with a latchkey. Now, in the dark house, in the early morning, a servant was watching for them. It was strange.
"As soon as the door of the house was opened the door of the carriage opened too, and a young lady stepped quickly out on to the pavement. The train of her dress caught in the door, and she turned round, stooped, freed it with her hand, and held it up off the ground. The night was clear, and there was a lamp in the street close by the door of Mme. Rossignol's house. As she turned I saw her face under the big green hat. It was very pretty and young, and the hair was fair. She wore a white coat, but it was open in front and showed her evening frock of pale green. When she lifted her skirt I saw the buckles sparkling on her satin shoes. It was the young lady for whom you are advertising, I am sure. She remained standing just for a moment without moving, while Mme. Rossignol got out. I was surprised to see a young lady of such distinction in Mme. Rossignol's company. Then, still holding her skirt up, she ran very lightly and quickly across the pavement into the dark house. I thought, monsieur, that she was very anxious not to be seen. So when I saw your advertisement I was certain that this was the young lady for whom you are searching.
"I waited for a few moments and saw the carriage drive off towards the stable at the end of the street. But no light went up in any of the rooms in front of the house. And M. Gobin was so fretful that I dropped the corner of the blind, lit the candle, and gave him his cooling drink. His watch was on the table at the bedside, and I saw that it was five minutes to three. I will send you a telegram to-morrow, as soon as I am sure at what hour I can leave my husband. Accept, monsieur, I beg you, my most distinguished salutations.
Hanaud leant back with an extraordinary look of perplexity upon his face. But to Ricardo the whole story was now clear. Here was an independent witness, without the jealousy or rancours of Helene Vauquier. Nothing could be more damning than her statement; it corroborated those footmarks upon the soil in front of the glass door of the salon. There was nothing to be done except to set about arresting Mlle. Celie at once.
"The facts work with your theory, M. Hanaud. The young man with the black moustache did not return to the house at Geneva. For somewhere upon the road close to Geneva he met the carriage. He was driving back the car to Aix—" And then another thought struck him: "But no!" he cried. "We are altogether wrong. See! They did not reach home until five minutes to three."
Five minutes to three! But this demolished the whole of Hanaud's theory about the motor-car. The murderers had left the villa between eleven and twelve, probably before half-past eleven. The car was a machine of sixty horse-power, and the roads were certain to be clear. Yet the travellers only reached their home at three. Moreover, the car was back in Aix at four. It was evident they did not travel by the car.
"Geneva time is an hour later than French time," said Hanaud shortly. It seemed as if the corroboration of this letter disappointed him. "A quarter to three in Mme. Gobin's house would be a quarter to two by our watches here."
Hanaud folded up the letter, and rose to his feet.
"We will go now, and we will take this letter with us." Hanaud looked about the room, and picked up a glove lying upon a table. "I left this behind me," he said, putting it into his pocket. "By the way, where is the telegram from Marthe Gobin?"
"You put it in your letter-case."
"Oh, did I?"
Hanaud took out his letter-case and found the telegram within it. His face lightened.
"Good!" he said emphatically. "For, since we have this telegram, there must have been another message sent from Adele Rossignol to Aix saying that Marthe Gobin, that busybody, that inquisitive neighbour, who had no doubt seen M. Ricardo's advertisement, was on her way hither. Oh it will not be put as crudely as that, but that is what the message will mean. We shall have him." And suddenly his face grew very stern. "I MUST catch him, for Marthe Gobin's death I cannot forgive. A poor woman meaning no harm, and murdered like a sheep under our noses. No, that I cannot forgive."
Ricardo wondered whether it was the actual murder of Marthe Gobin or the fact that he had been beaten and outwitted which Hanaud could not forgive. But discretion kept him silent.
"Let us go," said Hanaud. "By the lift, if you please; it will save time."
They descended into the hall close by the main door. The body of Marthe Gobin had been removed to the mortuary of the town. The life of the hotel had resumed its course.
"M. Besnard has gone, I suppose?" Hanaud asked of the porter; and, receiving an assent, he walked quickly out of the front door.
"But there is a shorter way," said Ricardo, running after him: "across the garden at the back and down the steps."
"It will make no difference now," said Hanaud.
They hurried along the drive and down the road which circled round the hotel and dipped to the town.
Behind Hanaud's hotel Ricardo's car was waiting.
"We must go first to Besnard's office. The poor man will be at his wits' end to know who was Mme. Gobin and what brought her to Aix. Besides, I wish to send a message over the telephone."
Hanaud descended and spent a quarter of an hour with the Commissaire. As he came out he looked at his watch.
"We shall be in time, I think," he said. He climbed into the car. "The murder of Marthe Gobin on her way from the station will put our friends at their ease. It will be published, no doubt, in the evening papers, and those good people over there in Geneva will read it with amusement. They do not know that Marthe Gobin wrote a letter yesterday night. Come, let us go!"
"Where to?" asked Ricardo.
"Where to?" exclaimed Hanaud. "Why, of course, to Geneva."