A STARTLING DISCOVERY
Harry Wethermill, however, was not so easily satisfied.
"Surely, monsieur, it would be well to know whither she is going," he said, "and to make sure that when she has gone there she will stay there—until we want her again?"
Hanaud looked at the young man pityingly.
"I can understand, monsieur, that you hold strong views about Helene Vauquier. You are human, like the rest of us. And what she has said to us just now would not make you more friendly. But—but—" and he preferred to shrug his shoulders rather than to finish in words his sentence. "However," he said, "we shall take care to know where Helene Vauquier is staying. Indeed, if she is at all implicated in this affair we shall learn more if we leave her free than if we keep her under lock and key. You see that if we leave her quite free, but watch her very, very carefully, so as to awaken no suspicion, she may be emboldened to do something rash—or the others may."
Mr. Ricardo approved of Hanaud's reasoning.
"That is quite true," he said. "She might write a letter."
"Yes, or receive one," added Hanaud, "which would be still more satisfactory for us—supposing, of course, that she has anything to do with this affair"; and again he shrugged his shoulders. He turned towards the Commissaire.
"You have a discreet officer whom you can trust?" he asked.
"Certainly. A dozen."
"I want only one."
"And here he is," said the Commissaire.
They were descending the stairs. On the landing of the first floor Durette, the man who had discovered where the cord was bought, was still waiting. Hanaud took Durette by the sleeve in the familiar way which he so commonly used and led him to the top of the stairs, where the two men stood for a few moments apart. It was plain that Hanaud was giving, Durette receiving, definite instructions. Durette descended the stairs; Hanaud came back to the others.
"I have told him to fetch a cab," he said, "and convey Helene Vauquier to her friends." Then he looked at Ricardo, and from Ricardo to the Commissaire, while he rubbed his hand backwards and forwards across his shaven chin.
"I tell you," he said, "I find this sinister little drama very interesting to me. The sordid, miserable struggle for mastery in this household of Mme. Dauvray—eh? Yes, very interesting. Just as much patience, just as much effort, just as much planning for this small end as a general uses to defeat an army—and, at the last, nothing gained. What else is politics? Yes, very interesting."
His eyes rested upon Wethermill's face for a moment, but they gave the young man no hope. He took a key from his pocket.
"We need not keep this room locked," he said. "We know all that there is to be known." And he inserted the key into the lock of Celia's room and turned it.
"But is that wise, monsieur?" said Besnard.
Hanaud shrugged his shoulders.
"Why not?" he asked.
"The case is in your hands," said the Commissaire. To Ricardo the proceedings seemed singularly irregular. But if the Commissaire was content, it was not for him to object.
"And where is my excellent friend Perrichet?" asked Hanaud; and leaning over the balustrade he called him up from the hall.
"We will now," said Hanaud, "have a glance into this poor murdered woman's room."
The room was opposite to Celia's. Besnard produced the key and unlocked the door. Hanaud took off his hat upon the threshold and then passed into the room with his companions. Upon the bed, outlined under a sheet, lay the rigid form of Mme. Dauvray. Hanaud stepped gently to the bedside and reverently uncovered the face. For a moment all could see it—livid, swollen, unhuman.
"A brutal business," he said in a low voice, and when he turned again to his companions his face was white and sickly. He replaced the sheet and gazed about the room.
It was decorated and furnished in the same style as the salon downstairs, yet the contrast between the two rooms was remarkable.
Downstairs, in the salon, only a chair had been overturned. Here there was every sign of violence and disorder. An empty safe stood open in one corner; the rugs upon the polished floor had been tossed aside; every drawer had been torn open, every wardrobe burst; the very bed had been moved from its position.
"It was in this safe that Madame Dauvray hid her jewels each night," said the Commissaire as Hanaud gazed about the room.
"Oh, was it so?" Hanaud asked slowly. It seemed to Ricardo that he read something in the aspect of this room too, which troubled his mind and increased his perplexity.
"Yes," said Besnard confidently. "Every night Mme. Dauvray locked her jewels away in this safe. Vauquier told us so this morning. Every night she was never too tired for that. Besides, here"—and putting his hand into the safe he drew out a paper—"here is the list of Mme. Dauvray's jewellery."
Plainly, however, Hanaud was not satisfied. He took the list and glanced through the items. But his thoughts were not concerned with it.
"If that is so," he said slowly, "Mme. Dauvray kept her jewels in this safe, why has every drawer been ransacked, why was the bed moved? Perrichet, lock the door—quietly—from the inside. That is right. Now lean your back against it."
Hanaud waited until he saw Perrichet's broad back against the door. Then he went down upon his knees, and, tossing the rugs here and there, examined with the minutest care the inlaid floor. By the side of the bed a Persian mat of blue silk was spread. This in its turn he moved quickly aside. He bent his eyes to the ground, lay prone, moved this way and that to catch the light upon the floor, then with a spring he rose upon his knees. He lifted his finger to his lips. In a dead silence he drew a pen-knife quickly from his pocket and opened it. He bent down again and inserted the blade between the cracks of the blocks. The three men in the room watched him with an intense excitement. A block of wood rose from the floor, he pulled it out, laid it noiselessly down, and inserted his hand into the opening.
Wethermill at Ricardo's elbow uttered a stifled cry. "Hush!" whispered Hanaud angrily. He drew out his hand again. It was holding a green leather jewel-case. He opened it, and a diamond necklace flashed its thousand colours in their faces. He thrust in his hand again and again and again, and each time that he withdrew it, it held a jewel-case. Before the astonished eyes of his companions he opened them. Ropes of pearls, collars of diamonds, necklaces of emeralds, rings of pigeon-blood rubies, bracelets of gold studded with opals—Mme. Dauvray's various jewellery was disclosed.
"But that is astounding," said Besnard, in an awe-struck voice.
"Then she was never robbed after all?" cried Ricardo.
Hanaud rose to his feet.
"What a piece of irony!" he whispered. "The poor woman is murdered for her jewels, the room's turned upside down, and nothing is found. For all the while they lay safe in this cache. Nothing is taken except what she wore. Let us see what she wore."
"Only a few rings, Helene Vauquier thought," said Besnard. "But she was not sure."
"Ah!" said Hanaud. "Well, let us make sure!" and, taking the list from the safe, he compared it with the jewellery in the cases on the floor, ticking off the items one by one. When he had finished he knelt down again, and, thrusting his hand into the hole, felt carefully about.
"There is a pearl necklace missing," he said. "A valuable necklace, from the description in the list and some rings. She must have been wearing them;" and he sat back upon his heels. "We will send the intelligent Perrichet for a bag," he said, "and we will counsel the intelligent Perrichet not to breathe a word to any living soul of what he has seen in this room. Then we will seal up in the bag the jewels, and we will hand it over to M. le Commissaire, who will convey it with the greatest secrecy out of this villa. For the list—I will keep it," and he placed it carefully in his pocket-book.
He unlocked the door and went out himself on to the landing. He looked down the stairs and up the stairs; then he beckoned Perrichet to him.
"Go!" he whispered. "Be quick, and when you come back hide the bag carefully under your coat."
Perrichet went down the stairs with pride written upon his face. Was he not assisting the great M. Hanaud from the Surete in Paris? Hanaud returned into Mme. Dauvray's room and closed the door. He looked into the eyes of his companions.
"Can't you see the scene?" he asked with a queer smile of excitement. He had forgotten Wethermill; he had forgotten even the dead woman shrouded beneath the sheet. He was absorbed. His eyes were bright, his whole face vivid with life. Ricardo saw the real man at this moment—and feared for the happiness of Harry Wethermill. For nothing would Hanaud now turn aside until he had reached the truth and set his hands upon the quarry. Of that Ricardo felt sure. He was trying now to make his companions visualise just what he saw and understood.
"Can't you see it? The old woman locking up her jewels in this safe every night before the eyes of her maid or her companion, and then, as soon as she was alone, taking them stealthily out of the safe and hiding them in this secret place. But I tell you—this is human. Yes, it is interesting just because it is so human. Then picture to yourselves last night, the murderers opening this safe and finding nothing—oh, but nothing!—and ransacking the room in deadly haste, kicking up the rugs, forcing open the drawers, and always finding nothing—nothing—nothing. Think of their rage, their stupefaction, and finally their fear! They must go, and with one pearl necklace, when they had hoped to reap a great fortune. Oh, but this is interesting—yes, I tell you—I, who have seen many strange things—this is interesting."
Perrichet returned with a canvas bag, into which Hanaud placed the jewel-cases. He sealed the bag in the presence of the four men and handed it to Besnard. He replaced the block of wood in the floor, covered it over again with the rug, and rose to his feet.
"Listen!" he said, in a low voice, and with a gravity which impressed them all. "There is something in this house which I do not understand. I have told you so. I tell you something more now. I am afraid—I am afraid." And the word startled his hearers like a thunderclap, though it was breathed no louder than a whisper, "Yes, my friends," he repeated, nodding his head, "terribly afraid." And upon the others fell a discomfort, an awe, as though something sinister and dangerous were present in the room and close to them. So vivid was the feeling, instinctively they drew nearer together. "Now, I warn you solemnly. There must be no whisper that these jewels have been discovered; no newspaper must publish a hint of it; no one must suspect that here in this room we have found them. Is that understood?"
"Certainly," said the Commissaire.
"Yes," said Mr. Ricardo.
"To be sure, monsieur," said Perrichet.
As for Harry Wethermill, he made no reply. His burning eyes were fixed upon Hanaud's face, and that was all. Hanaud, for his part, asked for no reply from him. Indeed, he did not look towards Harry Wethermill's face at all. Ricardo understood. Hanaud did not mean to be deterred by the suffering written there.
He went down again into the little gay salon lit with flowers and August sunlight, and stood beside the couch gazing at it with troubled eyes. And, as he gazed, he closed his eyes and shivered. He shivered like a man who has taken a sudden chill. Nothing in all this morning's investigations, not even the rigid body beneath the sheet, nor the strange discovery of the jewels, had so impressed Ricardo. For there he had been confronted with facts, definite and complete; here was a suggestion of unknown horrors, a hint, not a fact, compelling the imagination to dark conjecture. Hanaud shivered. That he had no idea why Hanaud shivered made the action still more significant, still more alarming. And it was not Ricardo alone who was moved by it. A voice of despair rang through the room. The voice was Harry Wethermill's, and his face was ashy white.
"Monsieur!" he cried, "I do not know what makes you shudder; but I am remembering a few words you used this morning."
Hanaud turned upon his heel. His face was drawn and grey and his eyes blazed.
"My friend, I also am remembering those words," he said. Thus the two men stood confronting one another, eye to eye, with awe and fear in both their faces.
Ricardo was wondering to what words they both referred, when the sound of wheels broke in upon the silence. The effect upon Hanaud was magical. He thrust his hands in his pockets.
"Helene Vauquier's cab," he said lightly. He drew out his cigarette-case and lighted a cigarette.
"Let us see that poor woman safely off. It is a closed cab I hope."
It was a closed landau. It drove past the open door of the salon to the front door of the house. In Hanaud's wake they all went out into the hall. The nurse came down alone carrying Helene Vauquier's bag. She placed it in the cab and waited in the doorway.
"Perhaps Helene Vauquier has fainted," she said anxiously: "she does not come." And she moved towards the stairs.
Hanaud took a singularly swift step forward and stopped her.
"Why should you think that?" he asked, with a queer smile upon his face, and as he spoke a door closed gently upstairs. "See," he continued, "you are wrong: she is coming."
Ricardo was puzzled. It had seemed to him that the door which had closed so gently was nearer than Helene Vauquier's door. It seemed to him that the door was upon the first, not the second landing. But Hanaud had noticed nothing strange; so it could not be. He greeted Helene Vauquier with a smile as she came down the stairs.
"You are better, mademoiselle," he said politely. "One can see that. There is more colour in your cheeks. A day or two, and you will be yourself again."
He held the door open while she got into the cab. The nurse took her seat beside her; Durette mounted on the box. The cab turned and went down the drive.
"Goodbye, mademoiselle," cried Hanaud, and he watched until the high shrubs hid the cab from his eyes. Then he behaved in an extraordinary way. He turned and sprang like lightning up the stairs. His agility amazed Ricardo. The others followed upon his heels. He flung himself at Celia's door and opened it He burst into the room, stood for a second, then ran to the window. He hid behind the curtain, looking out. With his hand he waved to his companions to keep back. The sound of wheels creaking and rasping rose to their ears. The cab had just come out into the road. Durette upon the box turned and looked towards the house. Just for a moment Hanaud leaned from the window, as Besnard, the Commissaire, had done, and, like Besnard again, he waved his hand. Then he came back into the room and saw, standing in front of him, with his mouth open and his eyes starting out of his head, Perrichet—the intelligent Perrichet.
"Monsieur," cried Perrichet, "something has been taken from this room."
Hanaud looked round the room and shook his head.
"No," he said.
"But yes, monsieur," Perrichet insisted. "Oh, but yes. See! Upon this dressing-table there was a small pot of cold cream. It stood here, where my finger is, when we were in this room an hour ago. Now it is gone."
Hanaud burst into a laugh.
"My friend Perrichet," he said ironically, "I will tell you the newspaper did not do you justice. You are more intelligent. The truth, my excellent friend, lies at the bottom of a well; but you would find it at the bottom of a pot of cold cream. Now let us go. For in this house, gentlemen, we have nothing more to do."
He passed out of the room. Perrichet stood aside, his face crimson, his attitude one of shame. He had been rebuked by the great M. Hanaud, and justly rebuked. He knew it now. He had wished to display his intelligence—yes, at all costs he must show how intelligent he was. And he had shown himself a fool. He should have kept silence about that pot of cream.