AT THE VILLA
The drive curved between trees and high bushes towards the back of the house, and as the party advanced along it a small, trim, soldier-like man, with a pointed beard, came to meet them. It was the man who had looked out from the window, Louis Besnard, the Commissaire of Police.
"You are coming, then, to help us, M. Hanaud!" he cried, extending his hands. "You will find no jealousy here; no spirit amongst us of anything but good will; no desire except one to carry out your suggestions. All we wish is that the murderers should be discovered. Mon Dieu, what a crime! And so young a girl to be involved in it! But what will you?"
"So you have already made your mind up on that point!" said Hanaud sharply.
The Commissaire shrugged his shoulders.
"Examine the villa and then judge for yourself whether any other explanation is conceivable," he said; and turning, he waved his hand towards the house. Then he cried, "Ah!" and drew himself into an attitude of attention. A tall, thin man of about forty-five years, dressed in a frock coat and a high silk hat, had just come round an angle of the drive and was moving slowly towards them. He wore the soft, curling brown beard of one who has never used a razor on his chin, and had a narrow face with eyes of a very light grey, and a round bulging forehead.
"This is the Juge d'Instruction?" asked Hanaud.
"Yes; M. Fleuriot," replied Louis Besnard in a whisper.
M. Fleuriot was occupied with his own thoughts, and it was not until Besnard stepped forward noisily on the gravel that he became aware of the group in the garden.
"This is M. Hanaud, of the Surete in Paris," said Louis Besnard.
M. Fleuriot bowed with cordiality.
"You are very welcome, M. Hanaud. You will find that nothing at the villa has been disturbed. The moment the message arrived over the telephone that you were willing to assist us I gave instructions that all should be left as we found it. I trust that you, with your experience, will see a way where our eyes find none."
Hanaud bowed in reply.
"I shall do my best, M. Fleuriot. I can say no more," he said.
"But who are these gentlemen?" asked Fleuriot, waking, it seemed, now for the first time to the presence of Harry Wethermill and Mr. Ricardo.
"They are both friends of mine," replied Hanaud. "If you do not object I think their assistance may be useful. Mr. Wethermill, for instance, was acquainted with Celia Harland."
"Ah!" cried the judge; and his face took on suddenly a keen and eager look. "You can tell me about her perhaps?"
"All that I know I will tell readily," said Harry Wethermill.
Into the light eyes of M. Fleuriot there came a cold, bright gleam. He took a step forward. His face seemed to narrow to a greater sharpness. In a moment, to Mr. Ricardo's thought, he ceased to be the judge; he dropped from his high office; he dwindled into a fanatic.
"She is a Jewess, this Celia Harland?" he cried.
"No, M. Fleuriot, she is not," replied Wethermill. "I do not speak in disparagement of that race, for I count many friends amongst its members. But Celia Harland is not one of them."
"Ah!" said Fleuriot; and there was something of disappointment, something, too, of incredulity, in his voice. "Well, you will come and report to me when you have made your investigation." And he passed on without another question or remark.
The group of men watched him go, and it was not until he was out of earshot that Besnard turned with a deprecating gesture to Hanaud.
"Yes, yes, he is a good judge, M. Hanaud—quick, discriminating, sympathetic; but he has that bee in his bonnet, like so many others. Everywhere he must see l'affaire Dreyfus. He cannot get it out of his head. No matter how insignificant a woman is murdered, she must have letters in her possession which would convict Dreyfus. But you know! There are thousands like that—good, kindly, just people in the ordinary ways of life, but behind every crime they see the Jew."
Hanaud nodded his head.
"I know; and in a Juge d'Instruction it is very embarrassing. Let us walk on."
Half-way between the gate and the villa a second carriage-road struck off to the left, and at the entrance to it stood a young, stout man in black leggings.
"The chauffeur?" asked Hanaud. "I will speak to him."
The Commissaire called the chauffeur forward.
"Servettaz," he said, "you will answer any questions which monsieur may put to you."
"Certainly, M. le Commissaire," said the chauffeur. His manner was serious, but he answered readily. There was no sign of fear upon his face.
"How long have you been with Mme. Dauvray?" Hanaud asked.
"Four months, monsieur. I drove her to Aix from Paris."
"And since your parents live at Chambery you wished to seize the opportunity of spending a day with them while you were so near?"
"When did you ask for permission?"
"On Saturday, monsieur."
"Did you ask particularly that you should have yesterday, the Tuesday?"
"No, monsieur; I asked only for a day whenever it should be convenient to madame."
"Quite so," said Hanaud. "Now, when did Mme. Dauvray tell you that you might have Tuesday?"
Servettaz hesitated. His face became troubled. When he spoke, he spoke reluctantly.
"It was not Mme. Dauvray, monsieur, who told me that I might go on Tuesday," he said.
"Not Mme. Dauvray! Who was it, then?" Hanaud asked sharply.
Servettaz glanced from one to another of the grave faces which confronted him.
"It was Mlle. Celie," he said, "who told me."
"Oh!" said Hanaud, slowly. "It was Mlle. Celie. When did she tell you?"
"On Monday morning, monsieur. I was cleaning the car. She came to the garage with some flowers in her hand which she had been cutting in the garden, and she said: 'I was right, Alphonse. Madame has a kind heart. You can go to-morrow by the train which leaves Aix at 1.52 and arrives at Chambery at nine minutes after two.'"
"'I was right, Alphonse.' Were those her words? And 'Madame has a kind heart.' Come, come, what is all this?" He lifted a warning finger and said gravely, "Be very careful, Servettaz."
"Those were her words, monsieur."
"'I was right, Alphonse. Madame has a kind heart'?"
"Then Mlle. Celie had spoken to you before about this visit of yours to Chambery," said Hanaud, with his eyes fixed steadily upon the chauffeur's face. The distress upon Servettaz's face increased. Suddenly Hanaud's voice rang sharply. "You hesitate. Begin at the beginning. Speak the truth, Servettaz!"
"Monsieur, I am speaking the truth," said the chauffeur. "It is true I hesitate ... I have heard this morning what people are saying ... I do not know what to think. Mlle. Celie was always kind and thoughtful for me ... But it is true"—and with a kind of desperation he went on—"yes, it is true that it was Mlle. Celie who first suggested to me that I should ask for a day to go to Chambery."
"When did she suggest it?"
"On the Saturday."
To Mr. Ricardo the words were startling. He glanced with pity towards Wethermill. Wethermill, however, had made up his mind for good and all. He stood with a dogged look upon his face, his chin thrust forward, his eyes upon the chauffeur. Besnard, the Commissaire, had made up his mind, too. He merely shrugged his shoulders. Hanaud stepped forward and laid his hand gently on the chauffeur's arm.
"Come, my friend," he said, "let us hear exactly how this happened!"
"Mlle. Celie," said Servettaz, with genuine compunction in his voice, "came to the garage on Saturday morning and ordered the car for the afternoon. She stayed and talked to me for a little while, as she often did. She said that she had been told that my parents lived at Chambery, and since I was so near I ought to ask for a holiday. For it would not be kind if I did not go and see them."
"That was all?"
"Very well." And the detective resumed at once his brisk voice and alert manner. He seemed to dismiss Servettaz's admission from his mind. Ricardo had the impression of a man tying up an important document which for the moment he has done with, and putting it away ticketed in some pigeon-hole in his desk. "Let us see the garage!"
They followed the road between the bushes until a turn showed them the garage with its doors open.
"The doors were found unlocked?"
"Just as you see them."
Hanaud nodded. He spoke again to Servettaz. "What did you do with the key on Tuesday?"
"I gave it to Helene Vauquier, monsieur, after I had locked up the garage. And she hung it on a nail in the kitchen."
"I see," said Hanaud. "So any one could easily, have found it last night?"
"Yes, monsieur—if one knew where to look for it."
At the back of the garage a row of petrol-tins stood against the brick wall.
"Was any petrol taken?" asked Hanaud.
"Yes, monsieur; there was very little petrol in the car when I went away. More was taken, but it was taken from the middle tins—these." And he touched the tins.
"I see," said Hanaud, and he raised his eyebrows thoughtfully. The Commissaire moved with impatience.
"From the middle or from the end—what does it matter?" he exclaimed. "The petrol was taken."
Hanaud, however, did not dismiss the point so lightly.
"But it is very possible that it does matter," he said gently. "For example, if Servettaz had had no reason to examine his tins it might have been some while before he found out that the petrol had been taken."
"Indeed, yes," said Servettaz. "I might even have forgotten that I had not used it myself."
"Quite so," said Hanaud, and he turned to Besnard. "I think that may be important. I do not know," he said.
"But since the car is gone," cried Besnard, "how could the chauffeur not look immediately at his tins?"
The question had occurred to Ricardo, and he wondered in what way Hanaud meant to answer it. Hanaud, however, did not mean to answer it. He took little notice of it at all. He put it aside with a superb indifference to the opinion which his companions might form of him.
"Ah, yes," he said, carelessly. "Since the car is gone, as you say, that is so." And he turned again to Servettaz.
"It was a powerful car?" he asked.
"Sixty horse-power," said Servettaz.
Hanaud turned to the Commissaire.
"You have the number and description, I suppose? It will be as well to advertise for it. It may have been seen; it must be somewhere."
The Commissaire replied that the description had already been printed, and Hanaud, with a nod of approval, examined the ground. In front of the garage there was a small stone courtyard, but on its surface there was no trace of a footstep.
"Yet the gravel was wet," he said, shaking his head. "The man who fetched that car fetched it carefully."
He turned and walked back with his eyes upon the ground. Then he ran to the grass border between the gravel and the bushes.
"Look!" he said to Wethermill; "a foot has pressed the blades of grass down here, but very lightly—yes, and there again. Some one ran along the border here on his toes. Yes, he was very careful."
They turned again into the main drive, and, following it for a few yards, came suddenly upon a space in front of the villa. It was a small toy pleasure-house, looking on to a green lawn gay with flower-beds. It was built of yellow stone, and was almost square in shape. A couple of ornate pillars flanked the door, and a gable roof, topped by a gilt vane, surmounted it. To Ricardo it seemed impossible that so sordid and sinister a tragedy had taken place within its walls during the last twelve hours. It glistened so gaudily in the blaze of sunlight. Here and there the green outer shutters were closed; here and there the windows stood open to let in the air and light. Upon each side of the door there was a window lighting the hall, which was large; beyond those windows again, on each side, there were glass doors opening to the ground and protected by the ordinary green latticed shutters of wood, which now stood hooked back against the wall. These glass doors opened into rooms oblong in shape, which ran through towards the back of the house, and were lighted in addition by side windows. The room upon the extreme left, as the party faced the villa, was the dining-room, with the kitchen at the back; the room on the right was the salon in which the murder had been committed. In front of the glass door to this room a strip of what had once been grass stretched to the gravel drive. But the grass had been worn away by constant use, and the black mould showed through. This strip was about three yards wide, and as they approached they saw, even at a distance, that since the rain of last night it had been trampled down.
"We will go round the house first," said Hanaud, and he turned along the side of the villa and walked in the direction of the road. There were four windows just above his head, of which three lighted the salon, and the fourth a small writing-room behind it. Under these windows there was no disturbance of the ground, and a careful investigation showed conclusively that the only entrance used had been the glass doors of the salon facing the drive. To that spot, then, they returned. There were three sets of footmarks upon the soil. One set ran in a distinct curve from the drive to the side of the door, and did not cross the others.
"Those," said Hanaud, "are the footsteps of my intelligent friend, Perrichet, who was careful not to disturb the ground."
Perrichet beamed all over his rosy face, and Besnard nodded at him with condescending approval.
"But I wish, M. le Commissaire"—and Hanaud pointed to a blur of marks—"that your other officers had been as intelligent. Look! These run from the glass door to the drive, and, for all the use they are to us, a harrow might have been dragged across them."
Besnard drew himself up.
"Not one of my officers has entered the room by way of this door. The strictest orders were given and obeyed. The ground, as you see it, is the ground as it was at twelve o'clock last night."
Hanaud's face grew thoughtful.
"Is that so?" he said, and he stooped to examine the second set of marks. They were at the righthand side of the door. "A woman and a man," he said. "But they are mere hints rather than prints. One might almost think—" He rose up without finishing his sentence, and he turned to the third set and a look of satisfaction gleamed upon his face. "Ah! here is something more interesting," he said.
There were just three impressions; and, whereas the blurred marks were at the side, these three pointed straight from the middle of the glass doors to the drive. They were quite clearly defined, and all three were the impressions made by a woman's small, arched, high-heeled shoe. The position of the marks was at first sight a little peculiar. There was one a good yard from the window, the impression of the right foot, and the pressure of the sole of the shoe was more marked than that of the heel. The second, the impression of the left foot, was not quite so far from the first as the first was from the window, and here again the heel was the more lightly defined. But there was this difference—the mark of the toe, which was pointed in the first instance, was, in this, broader and a trifle blurred. Close beside it the right foot was again visible; only now the narrow heel was more clearly defined than the ball of the foot. It had, indeed, sunk half an inch into the soft ground. There were no further imprints. Indeed, these two were not merely close together, they were close to the gravel of the drive and on the very border of the grass.
Hanaud looked at the marks thoughtfully. Then he turned to the Commissaire.
"Are there any shoes in the house which fit those marks?"
"Yes. We have tried the shoes of all the women—Celie Harland, the maid, and even Mme. Dauvray. The only ones which fit at all are those taken from Celie Harland's bedroom."
He called to an officer standing in the drive, and a pair of grey suede shoes were brought to him from the hall.
"See, M. Hanaud, it is a pretty little foot which made those clear impressions," he said, with a smile; "a foot arched and slender. Mme. Dauvray's foot is short and square, the maid's broad and flat. Neither Mme. Dauvray nor Helene Vauquier could have worn these shoes. They were lying, one here, one there, upon the floor of Celie Harland's room, as though she had kicked them off in a hurry. They are almost new, you see. They have been worn once, perhaps, no more, and they fit with absolute precision into those footmarks, except just at the toe of that second one."
Hanaud took the shoes and, kneeling down, placed them one after the other over the impressions. To Ricardo it was extraordinary how exactly they covered up the marks and filled the indentations.
"I should say," said the Commissaire, "that Celie Harland went away wearing a new pair of shoes made on the very same last as those."
As those she had left carelessly lying on the floor of her room for the first person to notice, thought Ricardo! It seemed as if the girl had gone out of her way to make the weight of evidence against her as heavy as possible. Yet, after all, it was just through inattention to the small details, so insignificant at the red moment of crime, so terribly instructive the next day, that guilt was generally brought home.
Hanaud rose to his feet and handed the shoes back to the officer.
"Yes," he said, "so it seems. The shoemaker can help us here. I see the shoes were made in Aix."
Besnard looked at the name stamped in gold letters upon the lining of the shoes.
"I will have inquiries made," he said.
Hanaud nodded, took a measure from his pocket and measured the ground between the window and the first footstep, and between the first footstep and the other two.
"How tall is Mlle. Celie?" he asked, and he addressed the question to Wethermill. It struck Ricardo as one of the strangest details in all this strange affair that the detective should ask with confidence for information which might help to bring Celia Harland to the guillotine from the man who had staked his happiness upon her innocence.
"About five feet seven," he answered.
Hanaud replaced his measure in his pocket. He turned with a grave face to Wethermill.
"I warned you fairly, didn't I?" he said.
Wethermill's white face twitched.
"Yes," he said. "I am not afraid." But there was more of anxiety in his voice than there had been before.
Hanaud pointed solemnly to the ground.
"Read the story those footprints write in the mould there. A young and active girl of about Mlle. Celie's height, and wearing a new pair of Mlle. Celie's shoes, springs from that room where the murder was committed, where the body of the murdered woman lies. She is running. She is wearing a long gown. At the second step the hem of the gown catches beneath the point of her shoe. She stumbles. To save herself from falling she brings up the other foot sharply and stamps the heel down into the ground. She recovers her balance. She steps on to the drive. It is true the gravel here is hard and takes no mark, but you will see that some of the mould which has clung to her shoes has dropped off. She mounts into the motor-car with the man and the other woman and drives off—some time between eleven and twelve."
"Between eleven and twelve? Is that sure?" asked Besnard.
"Certainly," replied Hanaud. "The gate is open at eleven, and Perrichet closes it. It is open again at twelve. Therefore the murderers had not gone before eleven. No; the gate was open for them to go, but they had not gone. Else why should the gate again be open at midnight?"
Besnard nodded in assent, and suddenly Perrichet started forward, with his eyes full of horror.
"Then, when I first closed the gate," he cried, "and came into the garden and up to the house they were here—in that room? Oh, my God!" He stared at the window, with his mouth open.
"I am afraid, my friend, that is so," said Hanaud gravely.
"But I knocked upon the wooden door, I tried the bolts; and they were within—in the darkness within, holding their breath not three yards from me."
He stood transfixed.
"That we shall see," said Hanaud.
He stepped in Perrichet's footsteps to the sill of the room. He examined the green wooden doors which opened outwards, and the glass doors which opened inwards, taking a magnifying-glass from his pocket. He called Besnard to his side.
"See!" he said, pointing to the woodwork.
"Finger-marks!" asked Besnard eagerly.
"Yes; of hands in gloves," returned Hanaud. "We shall learn nothing from these marks except that the assassins knew their trade."
Then he stooped down to the sill, where some traces of steps were visible. He rose with a gesture of resignation.
"Rubber shoes," he said, and so stepped into the room, followed by Wethermill and the others. They found themselves in a small recess which was panelled with wood painted white, and here and there delicately carved into festoons of flowers. The recess ended in an arch, supported by two slender pillars, and on the inner side of the arch thick curtains of pink silk were hung. These were drawn back carelessly, and through the opening between them the party looked down the length of the room beyond. They passed within.