CHAPTER XIV

MR. RICARDO IS BEWILDERED

Ricardo passed a most tempestuous night. He was tossed amongst dark problems. Now it was Harry Wethermill who beset him. He repeated and repeated the name, trying to grasp the new and sinister suggestion which, if Hanaud were right, its sound must henceforth bear. Of course Hanaud might be wrong. Only, if he were wrong, how had he come to suspect Harry Wethermill? What had first directed his thoughts to that seemingly heart-broken man? And when? Certain recollections became vivid in Mr. Ricardo's mind—the luncheon at the Villa Rose, for instance. Hanaud had been so insistent that the woman with the red hair was to be found in Geneva, had so clearly laid it down that a message, a telegram, a letter from Aix to Geneva, would enable him to lay his hands upon the murderer in Aix. He was isolating the house in Geneva even so early in the history of his investigations, even so soon he suspected Harry Wethermill. Brains and audacity—yes, these two qualities he had stipulated in the criminal. Ricardo now for the first time understood the trend of all Hanaud's talk at that luncheon. He was putting Harry Wethermill upon his guard, he was immobilising him, he was fettering him in precautions; with a subtle skill he was forcing him to isolate himself. And he was doing it deliberately to save the life of Celia Harland in Geneva. Once Ricardo lifted himself up with the hair stirring on his scalp. He himself had been with Wethermill in the baccarat-rooms on the very night of the murder. They had walked together up the hill to the hotel. It could not be that Harry Wethermill was guilty. And yet, he suddenly remembered, they had together left the rooms at an early hour. It was only ten o'clock when they had separated in the hall, when they had gone, each to his own room. There would have been time for Wethermill to reach the Villa Rose and do his dreadful work upon that night before twelve, if all had been arranged beforehand, if all went as it had been arranged. And as he thought upon the careful planning of that crime, and remembered Wethermill's easy chatter as they had strolled from table to table in the Villa des Fleurs, Ricardo shuddered. Though he encouraged a taste for the bizarre, it was with an effort. He was naturally of an orderly mind, and to touch the eerie or inhuman caused him a physical discomfort. So now he marvelled in a great uneasiness at the calm placidity with which Wethermill had talked, his arm in his, while the load of so dark a crime to be committed within the hour lay upon his mind. Each minute he must have been thinking, with a swift spasm of the heart, "Should such a precaution fail—should such or such an unforeseen thing intervene," yet there had been never a sign of disturbance, never a hint of any disquietude.

Then Ricardo's thoughts turned as he tossed upon his bed to Celia Harland, a tragic and a lonely figure. He recalled the look of tenderness upon her face when her eyes had met Harry Wethermill's across the baccarat-table in the Villa des Fleurs. He gained some insight into the reason why she had clung so desperately to Hanaud's coat-sleeve yesterday. Not merely had he saved her life. She was lying with all her world of trust and illusion broken about her, and Hanaud had raised her up. She had found some one whom she trusted—the big Newfoundland dog, as she expressed it. Mr. Ricardo was still thinking of Celia Harland when the morning came. He fell asleep, and awoke to find Hanaud by his bed.

"You will be wanted to-day," said Hanaud.

Ricardo got up and walked down from the hotel with the detective. The front door faces the hillside of Mont Revard, and on this side Mr. Ricardo's rooms looked out. The drive from the front door curves round the end of the long building and joins the road, which then winds down towards the town past the garden at the back of the hotel. Down this road the two men walked, while the supporting wall of the garden upon their right hand grew higher and higher above their heads. They came to a steep flight of steps which makes a short cut from the hotel to the road, and at the steps Hanaud stopped.

"Do you see?" he said. "On the opposite side there are no houses; there is only a wall. Behind the wall there are climbing gardens and the ground falls steeply to the turn of the road below. There's a flight of steps leading down which corresponds with the flight of steps from the garden. Very often there's a SERJENT-DE-VILLE stationed on the top of the steps. But there was not one there yesterday afternoon at three. Behind us is the supporting wall of the hotel garden. Well, look about you. We cannot be seen from the hotel. There's not a soul in sight—yes, there's some one coming up the hill, but we have been standing here quite long enough for you to stab me and get back to your coffee on the verandah of the hotel."

Ricardo started back.

"Marthe Gobin!" he cried. "It was here, then?"

Hanaud nodded.

"When we returned from the station in your motor-car and went up to your rooms we passed Harry Wethermill sitting upon the verandah over the garden drinking his coffee. He had the news then that Marthe Gobin was on her way."

"But you had isolated the house in Geneva. How could he have the news?" exclaimed Ricardo, whose brain was whirling.

"I had isolated the house from him, in the sense that he dared not communicate with his accomplices. That is what you have to remember. He could not even let them know that they must not communicate with him. So he received a telegram. It was carefully worded. No doubt he had arranged the wording of any message with the care which was used in all the preparations. It ran like this"—and Hanaud took a scrap of paper from his pocket and read out from it a copy of the telegram: "'Agent arrives Aix 3.7 to negotiate purchase of your patent.' The telegram was handed in at Geneva station at 12.45, five minutes after the train had left which carried Marthe Gobin to Aix. And more, it was handed in by a man strongly resembling Hippolyte Tace—that we know."

"That was madness," said Ricardo.

"But what else could they do over there in Geneva? They did not know that Harry Wethermill was suspected. Harry Wethermill had no idea of it himself. But, even if they had known, they must take the risk. Put yourself into their place for a moment. They had seen my advertisement about Celie Harland in the Geneva paper. Marthe Gobin, that busybody who was always watching her neighbours, was no doubt watched herself. They see her leave the house, an unusual proceeding for her with her husband ill, as her own letter tells us. Hippolyte follows her to the station, sees her take her ticket to Aix and mount into the train. He must guess at once that she saw Celie Harland enter their house, that she is travelling to Aix with the information of her whereabouts. At all costs she must be prevented from giving that information. At all risks, therefore, the warning telegram must be sent to Harry Wethermill."

Ricardo recognised the force of the argument.

"If only you had heard of the telegram yesterday in time!" he cried.

"Ah, yes!" Hanaud agreed. "But it was only sent off at a quarter to one. It was delivered to Wethermill and a copy was sent to the Prefecture, but the telegram was delivered first."

"When was it delivered to Wethermill?" asked Ricardo.

"At three. We had already left for the station. Wethermill was sitting on the verandah. The telegram was brought to him there. It was brought by a waiter in the hotel who remembers the incident very well. Wethermill has seven minutes and the time it will take for Marthe Gobin to drive from the station to the Majestic. What does he do? He runs up first to your rooms, very likely not yet knowing what he must do. He runs up to verify his telegram."

"Are you sure of that?" cried Ricardo. "How can you be? You were at the station with me. What makes you sure?"

Hanaud produced a brown kid glove from his pocket.

"This."

"That is your glove; you told me so yesterday."

"I told you so," replied Hanaud calmly; "but it is not my glove. It is Wethermill's; there are his initials stamped upon the lining—see? I picked up that glove in your room, after we had returned from the station. It was not there before. He went to your rooms. No doubt he searched for a telegram. Fortunately he did not examine your letters, or Marthe Gobin would never have spoken to us as she did after she was dead."

"Then what did he do?" asked Ricardo eagerly; and, though Hanaud had been with him at the entrance to the station all this while, he asked the question in absolute confidence that the true answer would be given to him.

"He returned to the verandah wondering what he should do. He saw us come back from the station in the motor-car and go up to your room. We were alone. Marthe Gobin, then, was following. There was his chance. Marthe Gobin must not reach us, must not tell her news to us. He ran down the garden steps to the gate. No one could see him from the hotel. Very likely he hid behind the trees, whence he could watch the road. A cab comes up the hill; there's a woman in it—not quite the kind of woman who stays at your hotel, M. Ricardo. Yet she must be going to your hotel, for the road ends. The driver is nodding on his box, refusing to pay any heed to his fare lest again she should bid him hurry. His horse is moving at a walk. Wethermill puts his head in at the window and asks if she has come to see M. Ricardo. Anxious for her four thousand francs, she answers 'Yes.' Perhaps he steps into the cab, perhaps as he walks by the side he strikes, and strikes hard and strikes surely. Long before the cab reaches the hotel he is back again on the verandah."

"Yes," said Ricardo, "it's the daring of which you spoke which made the crime possible—the same daring which made him seek your help. That was unexampled."

"No," replied Hanaud. "There's an historic crime in your own country, monsieur. Cries for help were heard in a by-street of a town. When people ran to answer them, a man was found kneeling by a corpse. It was the kneeling man who cried for help, but it was also the kneeling man who did the murder. I remembered that when I first began to suspect Harry Wethermill."

Ricardo turned eagerly.

"And when—when did you first begin to suspect Harry Wethermill?"

Hanaud smiled and shook his head.

"That you shall know in good time. I am the captain of the ship." His voice took on a deeper note. "But I prepare you. Listen! Daring and brains, those were the property of Harry Wethermill—yes. But it is not he who is the chief actor in the crime. Of that I am sure. He was no more than one of the instruments."

"One of the instruments? Used, then, by whom?" asked Ricardo.

"By my Normandy peasant-woman, M. Ricardo," said Hanaud. "Yes, there's the dominating figure—cruel, masterful, relentless—that strange woman, Helene Vauquier. You are surprised? You will see! It is not the man of intellect and daring; it's my peasant-woman who is at the bottom of it all."

"But she's free!" exclaimed Ricardo. "You let her go free!"

"Free!" repeated Ricardo. "She was driven straight from the Villa Rose to the depot. She has been kept AU SECRET ever since."

Ricardo stared in amazement.

"Already you knew of her guilt?"

"Already she had lied to me in her description of Adele Rossignol. Do you remember what she said—a black-haired woman with beady eyes; and I only five minutes before had picked up from the table—this."

He opened his pocket-book, and took from an envelope a long strand of red hair.

"But it was not only because she lied that I had her taken to the depot. A pot of cold cream had disappeared from the room of Mlle. Celie."

"Then Perrichet after all was right."

"Perrichet after all was quite wrong—not to hold his tongue. For in that pot of cold cream, as I was sure, were hidden those valuable diamond earrings which Mlle. Celie habitually wore."

The two men had reached the square in front of the Etablissement des Bains. Ricardo dropped on to a bench and wiped his forehead.

"But I am in a maze," he cried. "My head turns round. I don't know where I am."

Hanaud stood in front of Ricardo, smiling. He was not displeased with his companion's bewilderment; it was all so much of tribute to himself.

"I am the captain of the ship," he said.

His smile irritated Ricardo, who spoke impatiently.

"I should be very glad," he said, "if you would tell me how you discovered all these things. And what it was that the little salon on the first morning had to tell to you? And why Celia Harland ran from the glass doors across the grass to the motor-car and again from the carriage into the house on the lake? Why she did not resist yesterday evening? Why she did not cry for help? How much of Helene Vauquier's evidence was true and how much false? For what reason Wethermill concerned himself in this affair? Oh! and a thousand things which I don't understand."

"Ah, the cushions, and the scrap of paper, and the aluminium flask," said Hanaud; and the triumph faded from his face. He spoke now to Ricardo with a genuine friendliness. "You must not be angry with me if I keep you in the dark for a little while. I, too, Mr. Ricardo, have artistic inclinations. I will not spoil the remarkable story which I think Mlle. Celie will be ready to tell us. Afterwards I will willingly explain to you what I read in the evidences of the room, and what so greatly puzzled me then. But it is not the puzzle or its solution," he said modestly, "which is most interesting here. Consider the people. Mme. Dauvray, the old, rich, ignorant woman, with her superstitions and her generosity, her desire to converse with Mme. de Montespan and the great ladies of the past, and her love of a young, fresh face about her; Helene Vauquier, the maid with her six years of confidential service, who finds herself suddenly supplanted and made to tend and dress in dainty frocks the girl who has supplanted her; the young girl herself, that poor child, with her love of fine clothes, the Bohemian who, brought up amidst trickeries and practising them as a profession, looking upon them and upon misery and starvation and despair as the commonplaces of life, keeps a simplicity and a delicacy and a freshness which would have withered in a day had she been brought up otherwise; Harry Wethermill, the courted and successful man of genius.

"Just imagine if you can what his feelings must have been, when in Mme. Dauvray's bedroom, with the woman he had uselessly murdered lying rigid beneath the sheet, he saw me raise the block of wood from the inlaid floor and take out one by one those jewel cases for which less than twelve hours before he had been ransacking that very room. But what he must have felt! And to give no sign! Oh, these people are the interesting problems in this story. Let us hear what happened on that terrible night. The puzzle—that can wait." In Mr. Ricardo's view Hanaud was proved right. The extraordinary and appalling story which was gradually unrolled of what had happened on that night of Tuesday in the Villa Rose exceeded in its grim interest all the mystery of the puzzle. But it was not told at once.

The trouble at first with Mlle. Celie was a fear of sleep. She dared not sleep—even with a light in the room and a nurse at her bedside. When her eyes were actually closing she would force herself desperately back into the living world. For when she slept she dreamed through again that dark and dreadful night of Tuesday and the two days which followed it, until at some moment endurance snapped and she woke up screaming. But youth, a good constitution, and a healthy appetite had their way with her in the end.

She told her share of the story—she told what happened. There was apparently one terrible scene when she was confronted with Harry Wethermill in the office of Monsieur Fleuriot, the Juge d'instruction, and on her knees, with the tears streaming down her face, besought him to confess the truth. For a long while he held out. And then there came a strange and human turn to the affair. Adele Rossignol—or, to give her real name, Adele Tace, the wife of Hippolyte—had conceived a veritable passion for Harry Wethermill. He was of a not uncommon type, cold and callous in himself, yet with the power to provoke passion in women. And Adele Tace, as the story was told of how Harry Wethermill had paid his court to Celia Harland, was seized with a vindictive jealousy. Hanaud was not surprised. He knew the woman-criminal of his country—brutal, passionate, treacherous. The anonymous letters in a woman's handwriting which descend upon the Rue de Jerusalem, and betray the men who have committed thefts, had left him no illusions upon that figure in the history of crime. Adele Rossignol ran forward to confess, so that Harry Wethermill might suffer to the last possible point of suffering. Then at last Wethermill gave in and, broken down by the ceaseless interrogations of the magistrate, confessed in his turn too. The one, and the only one, who stood firmly throughout and denied the crime was Helene Vauquier. Her thin lips were kept contemptuously closed, whatever the others might admit. With a white, hard face, quietly and respectfully she faced the magistrate week after week. She was the perfect picture of a servant who knew her place. And nothing was wrung from her. But without her help the story became complete. And Ricardo was at pains to write it out.

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