This is the story as Mr. Ricardo wrote it out from the statement of Celia herself and the confession of Adele Rossignol. Obscurities which had puzzled him were made clear. But he was still unaware how Hanaud had worked out the solution.
"You promised me that you would explain," he said, when they were both together after the trial was over at Aix. The two men had just finished luncheon at the Cercle and were sitting over their coffee. Hanaud lighted a cigar.
"There were difficulties, of course," he said; "the crime was so carefully planned. The little details, such as the footprints, the absence of any mud from the girl's shoes in the carriage of the motor-car, the dinner at Annecy, the purchase of the cord, the want of any sign of a struggle in the little salon, were all carefully thought out. Had not one little accident happened, and one little mistake been made in consequence, I doubt if we should have laid our hands upon one of the gang. We might have suspected Wethermill; we should hardly have secured him, and we should very likely never have known of the Tace family. That mistake was, as you no doubt are fully aware—"
"The failure of Wethermill to discover Mme. Dauvray's jewels," said Ricardo at once.
"No, my friend," answered Hanaud. "That made them keep Mlle. Celie alive. It enabled us to save her when we had discovered the whereabouts of the gang. It did not help us very much to lay our hands upon them. No; the little accident which happened was the entrance of our friend Perrichet into the garden while the murderers were still in the room. Imagine that scene, M. Ricardo. The rage of the murderers at their inability to discover the plunder for which they had risked their necks, the old woman crumpled up on the floor against the wall, the girl writing laboriously with fettered arms 'I do not know' under threats of torture, and then in the stillness of the night the clear, tiny click of the gate and the measured, relentless footsteps. No wonder they were terrified in that dark room. What would be their one thought? Why, to get away—to come back perhaps later, when Mlle. Celie should have told them what, by the way, she did not know, but in any case to get away now. So they made their little mistake, and in their hurry they left the light burning in the room of Helene Vauquier, and the murder was discovered seven hours too soon for them."
"Seven hours!" said Mr. Ricardo.
"Yes. The household did not rise early. It was not until seven that the charwoman came. It was she who was meant to discover the crime. By that time the motor-car would have been back three hours ago in its garage. Servettaz, the chauffeur, would have returned from Chambery some time in the morning, he would have cleaned the car, he would have noticed that there was very little petrol in the tank, as there had been when he had left it on the day before. He would not have noticed that some of his many tins which had been full yesterday were empty to-day. We should not have discovered that about four in the morning the car was close to the Villa Rose and that it had travelled, between midnight and five in the morning, a hundred and fifty kilometres."
"But you had already guessed 'Geneva,'" said Ricardo. "At luncheon, before the news came that the car was found, you had guessed it."
"It was a shot," said Hanaud. "The absence of the car helped me to make it. It is a large city and not very far away, a likely place for people with the police at their heels to run to earth in. But if the car had been discovered in the garage I should not have made that shot. Even then I had no particular conviction about Geneva. I really wished to see how Wethermill would take it. He was wonderful."
"He sprang up."
"He betrayed nothing but surprise. You showed no less surprise than he did, my good friend. What I was looking for was one glance of fear. I did not get it."
"Yet you suspected him—even then you spoke of brains and audacity. You told him enough to hinder him from communicating with the red-haired woman in Geneva. You isolated him. Yes, you suspected him."
"Let us take the case from the beginning. When you first came to me, as I told you, the Commissaire had already been with me. There was an interesting piece of evidence already in his possession. Adolphe Ruel—who saw Wethermill and Vauquier together close by the Casino and overheard that cry of Wethermill's, 'It is true: I must have money!'—had already been with his story to the Commissaire. I knew it when Harry Wethermill came into the room to ask me to take up the case. That was a bold stroke, my friend. The chances were a hundred to one that I should not interrupt my holiday to take up a case because of your little dinner-party in London. Indeed, I should not have interrupted it had I not known Adolphe Ruel's story. As it was I could not resist. Wethermill's very audacity charmed me. Oh yes, I felt that I must pit myself against him. So few criminals have spirit, M. Ricardo. It is deplorable how few. But Wethermill! See in what a fine position he would have been if only I had refused. He himself had been the first to call upon the first detective in France. And his argument! He loved Mlle. Celie. Therefore she must be innocent! How he stuck to it! People would have said, 'Love is blind,' and all the more they would have suspected Mile. Celie. Yes, but they love the blind lover. Therefore all the more would it have been impossible for them to believe Harry Wethermill had any share in that grim crime."
Mr. Ricardo drew his chair closer in to the table.
"I will confess to you," he said, "that I thought Mlle. Celie was an accomplice."
"It is not surprising," said Hanaud. "Some one within the house was an accomplice—we start with that fact. The house had not been broken into. There was Mlle. Celie's record as Helene Vauquier gave it to us, and a record obviously true. There was the fact that she had got rid of Servettaz. There was the maid upstairs very ill from the chloroform. What more likely than that Mlle. Celie had arranged a seance, and then when the lights were out had admitted the murderer through that convenient glass door?"
"There were, besides, the definite imprints of her shoes," said Mr. Ricardo.
"Yes, but that is precisely where I began to feel sure that she was innocent," replied Hanaud dryly. "All the other footmarks had been so carefully scored and ploughed up that nothing could be made of them. Yet those little ones remained so definite, so easily identified, and I began to wonder why these, too, had not been cut up and stamped over. The murderers had taken, you see, an excess of precaution to throw the presumption of guilt upon Mlle. Celie rather than upon Vauquier. However, there the footsteps were. Mlle. Celie had sprung from the room as I described to Wethermill. But I was puzzled. Then in the room I found the torn-up sheet of notepaper with the words, 'Je ne sais pas,' in mademoiselle's handwriting. The words might have been spirit-writing, they might have meant anything. I put them away in my mind. But in the room the settee puzzled me. And again I was troubled—greatly troubled."
"Yes, I saw that."
"And not you alone," said Hanaud, with a smile. "Do you remember that loud cry Wethermill gave when we returned to the room and once more I stood before the settee? Oh, he turned it off very well. I had said that our criminals in France were not very gentle with their victims, and he pretended that it was in fear of what Mlle. Celie might be suffering which had torn that cry from his heart. But it was not so. He was afraid—deadly afraid—not for Mlle. Celie, but for himself. He was afraid that I had understood what these cushions had to tell me."
"What did they tell you?" asked Ricardo.
"You know now," said Hanaud. "They were two cushions, both indented, and indented in different ways. The one at the head was irregularly indented—something shaped had pressed upon it. It might have been a face—it might not; and there was a little brown stain which was fresh and which was blood. The second cushion had two separate impressions, and between them the cushion was forced up in a thin ridge; and these impressions were more definite. I measured the distance between the two cushions, and I found this: that supposing—and it was a large supposition—the cushions had not been moved since those impressions were made, a girl of Mlle. Celie's height lying stretched out upon the sofa would have her face pressing down upon one cushion and her feet and insteps upon the other. Now, the impressions upon the second cushion and the thin ridge between them were just the impressions which might have been made by a pair of shoes held close together. But that would not be a natural attitude for any one, and the mark upon the head cushion was very deep. Supposing that my conjectures were true, then a woman would only lie like that because she was helpless, because she had been flung there, because she could not lift herself—because, in a word, her hands were tied behind her back and her feet fastened together. Well, then, follow this train of reasoning, my friend! Suppose my conjectures—and we had nothing but conjectures to build upon—were true, the woman flung upon the sofa could not be Helene Vauquier, for she would have said so; she could have had no reason for concealment. But it must be Mlle. Celie. There was the slit in the one cushion and the stain on the other which, of course, I had not accounted for. There was still, too, the puzzle of the footsteps outside the glass doors. If Mlle. Celie had been bound upon the sofa, how came she to run with her limbs free from the house? There was a question—a question not easy to answer."
"Yes," said Mr. Ricardo.
"Yes; but there was also another question. Suppose that Mlle. Celie was, after all, the victim, not the accomplice; suppose she had been flung tied upon the sofa; suppose that somehow the imprint of her shoes upon the ground had been made, and that she had afterwards been carried away, so that the maid might be cleared of all complicity—in that case it became intelligible why the other footprints were scored out and hers left. The presumption of guilt would fall upon her. There would be proof that she ran hurriedly from the room and sprang into a motor-car of her own free will. But, again, if that theory were true, then Helene Vauquier was the accomplice and not Mlle. Celie."
"I follow that."
"Then I found an interesting piece of evidence with regard to the strange woman who came: I picked up a long red hair—a very important piece of evidence about which I thought it best to say nothing at all. It was not Mlle. Celie's hair, which is fair; nor Vauquier's, which is black; nor Mme. Dauvray's, which is dyed brown; nor the charwoman's, which is grey. It was, therefore, the visitor's. Well, we went upstairs to Mile. Celie's room."
"Yes," said Mr. Ricardo eagerly. "We are coming to the pot of cream."
"In that room we learnt that Helene Vauquier, at her own request, had already paid it a visit. It is true the Commissaire said that he had kept his eye on her the whole time. But none the less from the window he saw me coming down the road, and that he could not have done, as I made sure, unless he had turned his back upon Vauquier and leaned out of the window. Now at the time I had an open mind about Vauquier. On the whole I was inclined to think she had no share in the affair. But either she or Mlle. Celie had, and perhaps both. But one of them—yes. That was sure. Therefore I asked what drawers she touched after the Commissaire had leaned out of the window. For if she had any motive in wishing to visit the room she would have satisfied it when the Commissaire's back was turned. He pointed to a drawer, and I took out a dress and shook it, thinking that she may have wished to hide something. But nothing fell out. On the other hand, however, I saw some quite fresh grease-marks, made by fingers, and the marks were wet. I began to ask myself how it was that Helene Vauquier, who had just been helped to dress by the nurse, had grease upon her fingers. Then I looked at a drawer which she had examined first of all. There were no grease-marks on the clothes she had turned over before the Commissaire leaned out of the window. Therefore it followed that during the few seconds when he was watching me she had touched grease. I looked about the room, and there on the dressing-table close by the chest of drawers was a pot of cold cream. That was the grease Helene Vauquier had touched. And why—if not to hide some small thing in it which, firstly, she dared not keep in her own room; which, secondly, she wished to hide in the room of Mlle. Celie; and which, thirdly, she had not had an opportunity to hide before? Now bear those three conditions in mind, and tell me what the small thing was."
Mr. Ricardo nodded his head.
"I know now," he said. "You told me. The earrings of Mlle. Celie. But I should not have guessed it at the time."
"Nor could I—at the time," said Hanaud. "I kept my open mind about Helene Vauquier; but I locked the door and took the key. Then we went and heard Vauquier's story. The story was clever, because so much of it was obviously, indisputably true. The account of the seances, of Mme. Dauvray's superstitions, her desire for an interview with Mme. de Montespan—such details are not invented. It was interesting, too, to know that there had been a seance planned for that night! The method of the murder began to be clear. So far she spoke the truth. But then she lied. Yes, she lied, and it was a bad lie, my friend. She told us that the strange woman Adele had black hair. Now I carried in my pocket-book proof that that woman's hair was red. Why did she lie, except to make impossible the identification of that strange visitor? That was the first false step taken by Helene Vauquier.
"Now let us take the second. I thought nothing of her rancour against Mlle. Celie. To me it was all very natural. She—the hard peasant woman no longer young, who had been for years the confidential servant of Mme. Dauvray, and no doubt had taken her levy from the impostors who preyed upon her credulous mistress—certainly she would hate this young and pretty outcast whom she has to wait upon, whose hair she has to dress. Vauquier—she would hate her. But if by any chance she were in the plot—and the lie seemed to show she was—then the seances showed me new possibilities. For Helene used to help Mlle. Celie. Suppose that the seance had taken place, that this sceptical visitor with the red hair professed herself dissatisfied with Vauquier's method of testing the medium, had suggested another way, Mlle. Celie could not object, and there she would be neatly and securely packed up beyond the power of offering any resistance, before she could have a suspicion that things were wrong. It would be an easy little comedy to play. And if that were true—why, there were my sofa cushions partly explained."
"Yes, I see!" cried Ricardo, with enthusiasm. "You are wonderful."
Hanaud was not displeased with his companion's enthusiasm.
"But wait a moment. We have only conjectures so far, and one fact that Helene Vauquier lied about the colour of the strange woman's hair. Now we get another fact. Mlle. Celie was wearing buckles on her shoes. And there is my slit in the sofa cushions. For when she is flung on to the sofa, what will she do? She will kick, she will struggle. Of course it is conjecture. I do not as yet hold pigheadedly to it. I am not yet sure that Mlle. Celie is innocent. I am willing at any moment to admit that the facts contradict my theory. But, on the contrary, each fact that I discover helps it to take shape.
"Now I come to Helene Vauquier's second mistake. On the evening when you saw Mlle. Celie in the garden behind the baccarat-rooms you noticed that she wore no jewellery except a pair of diamond eardrops. In the photograph of her which Wethermill showed me, again she was wearing them. Is it not, therefore, probable that she usually wore them? When I examined her room I found the case for those earrings—the case was empty. It was natural, then, to infer that she was wearing them when she came down to the seance."
"Well, I read a description—a carefully written description—of the missing girl, made by Helene Vauquier after an examination of the girl's wardrobe. There is no mention of the earrings. So I asked her—'Was she not wearing them?' Helene Vauquier was taken by surprise. How should I know anything of Mlle. Celie's earrings? She hesitated. She did not quite know what answer to make. Now, why? Since she herself dressed Mile. Celie, and remembers so very well all she wore, why does she hesitate? Well, there is a reason. She does not know how much I know about those diamond eardrops. She is not sure whether we have not dipped into that pot of cold cream and found them. Yet without knowing she cannot answer. So now we come back to our pot of cold cream."
"Yes!" cried Mr. Ricardo. "They were there."
"Wait a bit," said Hanaud. "Let us see how it works out. Remember the conditions. Vauquier has some small thing which she must hide, and which she wishes to hide in Mlle. Celie's room. For she admitted that it was her suggestion that she should look through mademoiselle's wardrobe. For what reason does she choose the girl's room, except that if the thing were discovered that would be the natural place for it? It is, then, something belonging to Mlle. Celie. There was a second condition we laid down. It was something Vauquier had not been able to hide before. It came, then, into her possession last night. Why could she not hide it last night? Because she was not alone. There were the man and the woman, her accomplices. It was something, then, which she was concerned in hiding from them. It is not rash to guess, then, that it was some piece of the plunder of which the other two would have claimed their share—and a piece of plunder belonging to Mlle. Celie. Well, she has nothing but the diamond eardrops. Suppose Vauquier is left alone to guard Mlle. Celie while the other two ransack Mme. Dauvray's room. She sees her chance. The girl cannot stir hand or foot to save herself. Vauquier tears the eardrops in a hurry from her ears—and there I have my drop of blood just where I should expect it to be. But now follow this! Vauquier hides the earrings in her pocket. She goes to bed in order to be chloroformed. She knows that it is very possible that her room will be searched before she regains consciousness, or before she is well enough to move. There is only one place to hide them in, only one place where they will be safe. In bed with her. But in the morning she must get rid of them, and a nurse is with her. Hence the excuse to go to Mlle. Celie's room. If the eardrops are found in the pot of cold cream, it would only be thought that Mlle. Celie had herself hidden them there for safety. Again it is conjecture, and I wish to make sure. So I tell Vauquier she can go away, and I leave her unwatched. I have her driven to the depot instead of to her friends, and searched. Upon her is found the pot of cream, and in the cream Mlle. Celie's eardrops. She has slipped into Mlle. Celie's room, as, if my theory was correct, she would be sure to do, and put the pot of cream into her pocket. So I am now fairly sure that she is concerned in the murder.
"We then went to Mme. Dauvray's room and discovered her brilliants and her ornaments. At once the meaning of that agitated piece of hand-writing of Mlle. Celie's becomes clear. She is asked where the jewels are hidden. She cannot answer, for her mouth, of course, is stopped. She has to write. Thus my conjectures get more and more support. And, mind this, one of the two women is guilty—Celie or Vauquier. My discoveries all fit in with the theory of Celie's innocence. But there remain the footprints, for which I found no explanation.
"You will remember I made you all promise silence as to the finding of Mme. Dauvray's jewellery. For I thought, if they have taken the girl away so that suspicion may fall on her and not on Vauquier, they mean to dispose of her. But they may keep her so long as they have a chance of finding out from her Mme. Dauvray's hiding-place. It was a small chance but our only one. The moment the discovery of the jewellery was published the girl's fate was sealed, were my theory true.
"Then came our advertisement and Mme. Gobin's written testimony. There was one small point of interest which I will take first: her statement that Adele was the Christian name of the woman with the red hair, that the old woman who was the servant in that house in the suburb of Geneva called her Adele, just simply Adele. That interested me, for Helene Vauquier had called her Adele too when she was describing to us the unknown visitor. 'Adele' was what Mme. Dauvray called her."
"Yes," said Ricardo. "Helene Vauquier made a slip there. She should have given her a false name."
"It is the one slip she made in the whole of the business. Nor did she recover herself very cleverly. For when the Commissaire pounced upon the name, she at once modified her words. She only thought now that the name was Adele, or something like it. But when I went on to suggest that the name in any case would be a false one, at once she went back upon her modifications. And now she was sure that Adele was the name used. I remembered her hesitation when I read Marthe Gobin's letter. They helped to confirm me in my theory that she was in the plot; and they made me very sure that it was an Adele for whom we had to look. So far well. But other statements in the letter puzzled me. For instance, 'She ran lightly and quickly across the pavement into the house, as though she were afraid to be seen.' Those were the words, and the woman was obviously honest. What became of my theory then? The girl was free to run, free to stoop and pick up the train of her gown in her hand, free to shout for help in the open street if she wanted help. No; that I could not explain until that afternoon, when I saw Mlle. Celie's terror-stricken eyes fixed upon that flask, as Lemerre poured a little out and burnt a hole in the sack. Then I understood well enough. The fear of vitriol!" Hanaud gave an uneasy shudder. "And it is enough to make any one afraid! That I can tell you. No wonder she lay still as a mouse upon the sofa in the bedroom. No wonder she ran quickly into the house. Well, there you have the explanation. I had only my theory to work upon even after Mme. Gobin's evidence. But as it happened it was the right one. Meanwhile, of course, I made my inquiries into Wethermill's circumstances. My good friends in England helped me. They were precarious. He owed money in Aix, money at his hotel. We knew from the motor-car that the man we were searching for had returned to Aix. Things began to look black for Wethermill. Then you gave me a little piece of information."
"I!" exclaimed Ricardo, with a start.
"Yes. You told me that you walked up to the hotel with Harry Wethermill on the night of the murder and separated just before ten. A glance into his rooms which I had—you will remember that when we had discovered the motor-car I suggested that we should go to Harry Wethermill's rooms and talk it over—that glance enabled me to see that he could very easily have got out of his room on to the verandah below and escaped from the hotel by the garden quite unseen. For you will remember that whereas your rooms look out to the front and on to the slope of Mont Revard, Wethermill's look out over the garden and the town of Aix. In a quarter of an hour or twenty minutes he could have reached the Villa Rose. He could have been in the salon before half-past ten, and that is just the hour which suited me perfectly. And, as he got out unnoticed, so he could return. So he did return! My friend, there are some interesting marks upon the window-sill of Wethermill's room and upon the pillar just beneath it. Take a look, M. Ricardo, when you return to your hotel. But that was not all. We talked of Geneva in Mr. Wethermill's room, and of the distance between Geneva and Aix. Do you remember that?"
"Yes," replied Ricardo.
"Do you remember too that I asked him for a road-book?"
"Yes; to make sure of the distance. I do."
"Ah, but it was not to make sure of the distance that I asked for the road-book, my friend. I asked in order to find out whether Harry Wethermill had a road-book at all which gave a plan of the roads between here and Geneva. And he had. He handed it to me at once and quite naturally. I hope that I took it calmly, but I was not at all calm inside. For it was a new road-book, which, by the way, he bought a week before, and I was asking myself all the while—now what was I asking myself, M. Ricardo?"
"No," said Ricardo, with a smile. "I am growing wary. I will not tell you what you were asking yourself, M. Hanaud. For even were I right you would make out that I was wrong, and leap upon me with injuries and gibes. No, you shall drink your coffee and tell me of your own accord."
"Well," said Hanaud, laughing, "I will tell you. I was asking myself: 'Why does a man who owns no motor-car, who hires no motor-car, go out into Aix and buy an automobilist's road-map? With what object?' And I found it an interesting question. M. Harry Wethermill was not the man to go upon a walking tour, eh? Oh, I was obtaining evidence. But then came an overwhelming thing—the murder of Marthe Gobin. We know now how he did it. He walked beside the cab, put his head in at the window, asked, 'Have you come in answer to the advertisement?' and stabbed her straight to the heart through her dress. The dress and the weapon which he used would save him from being stained with her blood. He was in your room that morning, when we were at the station. As I told you, he left his glove behind. He was searching for a telegram in answer to your advertisement. Or he came to sound you. He had already received his telegram from Hippolyte. He was like a fox in a cage, snapping at every one, twisting vainly this way and that way, risking everything and every one to save his precious neck. Marthe Gobin was in the way. She is killed. Mlle. Celie is a danger. So Mile. Celie must be suppressed. And off goes a telegram to the Geneva paper, handed in by a waiter from the cafe at the station of Chambery before five o'clock. Wethermill went to Chambery that afternoon when we went to Geneva. Once we could get him on the run, once we could so harry and bustle him that he must take risks—why, we had him. And that afternoon he had to take them."
"So that even before Marthe Gobin was killed you were sure that Wethermill was the murderer?"
Hanaud's face clouded over.
"You put your finger on a sore place, M. Ricardo. I was sure, but I still wanted evidence to convict. I left him free, hoping for that evidence. I left him free, hoping that he would commit himself. He did, but—well, let us talk of some one else. What of Mlle. Celie?"
Ricardo drew a letter from his pocket.
"I have a sister in London, a widow," he said. "She is kind. I, too, have been thinking of what will become of Mlle. Celie. I wrote to my sister, and here is her reply. Mlle. Celie will be very welcome."
Hanaud stretched out his hand and shook Ricardo's warmly.
"She will not, I think, be for very long a burden. She is young. She will recover from this shock. She is very pretty, very gentle. If—if no one comes forward whom she loves and who loves her—I—yes, I myself, who was her papa for one night, will be her husband forever."
He laughed inordinately at his own joke; it was a habit of M. Hanaud's. Then he said gravely:
"But I am glad, M. Ricardo, for Mlle. Celie's sake that I came to your amusing dinner-party in London."
Mr. Ricardo was silent for a moment. Then he asked:
"And what will happen to the condemned?"
"To the women? Imprisonment for life."
"And to the man?"
Hanaud shrugged his shoulders.
"Perhaps the guillotine. Perhaps New Caledonia. How can I say? I am not the President of the Republic."