CHAPTER VIII

THE CAPTAIN OF THE SHIP

Hanaud walked away from the Villa Rose in the company of Wethermill and Ricardo.

"We will go and lunch," he said.

"Yes; come to my hotel," said Harry Wethermill. But Hanaud shook his head.

"No; come with me to the Villa des Fleurs," he replied. "We may learn something there; and in a case like this every minute is of importance. We have to be quick."

"I may come too?" cried Mr. Ricardo eagerly.

"By all means," replied Hanaud, with a smile of extreme courtesy. "Nothing could be more delicious than monsieur's suggestions"; and with that remark he walked on silently.

Mr. Ricardo was in a little doubt as to the exact significance of the words. But he was too excited to dwell long upon them. Distressed though he sought to be at his friend's grief, he could not but assume an air of importance. All the artist in him rose joyfully to the occasion. He looked upon himself from the outside. He fancied without the slightest justification that people were pointing him out. "That man has been present at the investigation at the Villa Rose," he seemed to hear people say. "What strange things he could tell us if he would!"

And suddenly, Mr. Ricardo began to reflect. What, after all, could he have told them?

And that question he turned over in his mind while he ate his luncheon. Hanaud wrote a letter between the courses. They were sitting at a corner table, and Hanaud was in the corner with his back to the wall. He moved his plate, too, over the letter as he wrote it. It would have been impossible for either of his guests to see what he had written, even if they had wished. Ricardo, indeed, did wish. He rather resented the secrecy with which the detective, under a show of openness, shrouded his thoughts and acts. Hanaud sent the waiter out to fetch an officer in plain clothes, who was in attendance at the door, and he handed the letter to this man. Then he turned with an apology to his guests.

"It is necessary that we should find out," he explained, "as soon as possible, the whole record of Mlle. Celie."

He lighted a cigar, and over the coffee he put a question to Ricardo.

"Now tell me what you make of the case. What M. Wethermill thinks—that is clear, is it not? Helene Vauquier is the guilty one. But you, M. Ricardo? What is your opinion?"

Ricardo took from his pocket-book a sheet of paper and from his pocket a pencil. He was intensely flattered by the request of Hanaud, and he proposed to do himself justice. "I will make a note here of what I think the salient features of the mystery"; and he proceeded to tabulate the points in the following way:

(1) Celia Harland made her entrance into Mme. Dauvray's household under very doubtful circumstances.

(2) By methods still more doubtful she acquired an extraordinary ascendency over Mme. Dauvray's mind.

(3) If proof were needed how complete that ascendency was, a glance at Celia Harland's wardrobe would suffice; for she wore the most expensive clothes.

(4) It was Celia Harland who arranged that Servettaz, the chauffeur, should be absent at Chambery on the Tuesday night—the night of the murder.

(5) It was Celia Harland who bought the cord with which Mme. Dauvray was strangled and Helene Vauquier bound.

(6) The footsteps outside the salon show that Celia Harland ran from the salon to the motor-car.

(7) Celia Harland pretended that there should be a seance on the Tuesday, but she dressed as though she had in view an appointment with a lover, instead of a spiritualistic seance.

(8) Celia Harland has disappeared.

These eight points are strongly suggestive of Celia Harland's complicity in the murder. But I have no clue which will enable me to answer the following questions:

(a) Who was the man who took part in the crime? (b) Who was the woman who came to the villa on the evening of the murder with Mme. Dauvray and Celia Harland?

(c) What actually happened in the salon? How was the murder committed?

(d) Is Helene Vauquier's story true?

(e) What did the torn-up scrap of writing mean? (Probably spirit writing in Celia Harland's hand.)

(f) Why has one cushion on the settee a small, fresh, brown stain, which is probably blood? Why is the other cushion torn?

Mr. Ricardo had a momentary thought of putting down yet another question. He was inclined to ask whether or no a pot of cold cream had disappeared from Celia Harland's bedroom; but he remembered that Hanaud had set no store upon that incident, and he refrained. Moreover, he had come to the end of his sheet of paper. He handed it across the table to Hanaud and leaned back in his chair, watching the detective with all the eagerness of a young author submitting his first effort to a critic.

Hanaud read it through slowly. At the end he nodded his head in approval.

"Now we will see what M. Wethermill has to say," he said, and he stretched out the paper towards Harry Wethermill, who throughout the luncheon had not said a word.

"No, no," cried Ricardo.

But Harry Wethermill already held the written sheet in his hand. He smiled rather wistfully at his friend.

"It is best that I should know just what you both think," he said, and in his turn he began to read the paper through. He read the first eight points, and then beat with his fist upon the table.

"No no," he cried; "it is not possible! I don't blame you, Ricardo. These are facts, and, as I said, I can face facts. But there will be an explanation—if only we can discover it."

He buried his face for a moment in his hands. Then he took up the paper again.

"As for the rest, Helene Vauquier lied," he cried violently, and he tossed the paper to Hanaud. "What do you make of it?"

Hanaud smiled and shook his head.

"Did you ever go for a voyage on a ship?" he asked.

"Yes; why?"

"Because every day at noon three officers take an observation to determine the ship's position—the captain, the first officer, and the second officer. Each writes his observation down, and the captain takes the three observations and compares them. If the first or second officer is out in his reckoning, the captain tells him so, but he does not show his own. For at times, no doubt, he is wrong too. So, gentlemen, I criticise your observations, but I do not show you mine."

He took up Ricardo's paper and read it through again.

"Yes," he said pleasantly. "But the two questions which are most important, which alone can lead us to the truth—how do they come to be omitted from your list, Mr. Ricardo?"

Hanaud put the question with his most serious air. But Ricardo was none the less sensible of the raillery behind the solemn manner. He flushed and made no answer.

"Still," continued Hanaud, "here are undoubtedly some questions. Let us consider them! Who was the man who took a part in the crime? Ah, if we only knew that, what a lot of trouble we should save ourselves! Who was the woman? What a good thing it would be to know that too! How clearly, after all, Mr. Ricardo puts his finger on the important points! What did actually happen in the salon?" And as he quoted that question the raillery died out of his voice. He leaned his elbows on the table and bent forward.

"What did actually happen in that little pretty room, just twelve hours ago?" he repeated. "When no sunlight blazed upon the lawn, and all the birds were still, and all the windows shuttered and the world dark, what happened? What dreadful things happened? We have not much to go upon. Let us formulate what we know. We start with this. The murder was not the work of a moment. It was planned with great care and cunning, and carried out to the letter of the plan. There must be no noise, no violence. On each side of the Villa Rose there are other villas; a few yards away the road runs past. A scream, a cry, the noise of a struggle—these sounds, or any one of them, might be fatal to success. Thus the crime was planned; and there WAS no scream, there WAS no struggle. Not a chair was broken, and only a chair upset. Yes, there were brains behind that murder. We know that. But what do we know of the plan? How far can we build it up? Let us see. First, there was an accomplice in the house—perhaps two."

"No!" cried Harry Wethermill.

Hanaud took no notice of the interruption.

"Secondly the woman came to the house with Mme. Dauvray and Mlle. Celie between nine and half-past nine. Thirdly, the man came afterwards, but before eleven, set open the gate, and was admitted into the salon, unperceived by Mme. Dauvray. That also we can safely assume. But what happened in the salon? Ah! There is the question." Then he shrugged his shoulders and said with the note of raillery once more in his voice:

"But why should we trouble our heads to puzzle out this mystery, since M. Ricardo knows?"

"I?" cried Ricardo in amazement.

"To be sure," replied Hanaud calmly. "For I look at another of your questions. 'WHAT DID THE TORN-UP SCRAP OF WRITING MEAN?' and you add: 'Probably spirit-writing.' Then there was a seance held last night in the little salon! Is that so?"

Harry Wethermill started. Mr. Ricardo was at a loss.

"I had not followed my suggestion to its conclusion," he admitted humbly.

"No," said Hanaud. "But I ask myself in sober earnest, 'Was there a seance held in the salon last night?' Did the tambourine rattle in the darkness on the wall?"

"But if Helene Vauquier's story is all untrue?" cried Wethermill, again in exasperation.

"Patience, my friend. Her story was not all untrue. I say there were brains behind this crime; yes, but brains, even the cleverest, would not have invented this queer, strange story of the seances and of Mme. de Montespan. That is truth. But yet, if there were a seance held, if the scrap of paper were spirit-writing in answer to some awkward question, why—and here I come to my first question, which M. Ricardo has omitted—why did Mlle. Celie dress herself with so much elegance last night? What Vauquier said is true. Her dress was not suited to a seance. A light-coloured, rustling frock, which would be visible in a dim light, or even in the dark, which would certainly be heard at every movement she made, however lightly she stepped, and a big hat—no no! I tell you, gentlemen, we shall not get to the bottom of this mystery until we know why Mlle. Celie dressed herself as she did last night."

"Yes," Ricardo admitted. "I overlooked that point." "Did she—" Hanaud broke off and bowed to Wethermill with a grace and a respect which condoned his words. "You must bear with me, my young friend, while I consider all these points. Did she expect to join that night a lover—a man with the brains to devise this crime? But if so—and here I come to the second question omitted from M. Ricardo's list—why, on the patch of grass outside the door of the salon, were the footsteps of the man and woman so carefully erased, and the footsteps of Mlle. Celie—those little footsteps so easily identified—left for all the world to see and recognise?"

Ricardo felt like a child in the presence of his schoolmaster. He was convicted of presumption. He had set down his questions with the belief that they covered the ground. And here were two of the utmost importance, not forgotten, but never even thought of.

"Did she go, before the murder, to join a lover? Or after it? At some time, you will remember, according to Vauquier's story, she must have run upstairs to fetch her coat. Was the murder committed during the interval when she was upstairs? Was the salon dark when she came down again? Did she run through it quickly, eagerly, noticing nothing amiss? And, indeed, how should she notice anything if the salon were dark, and Mme. Dauvray's body lay under the windows at the side?"

Ricardo leaned forward eagerly.

"That must be the truth," he cried; and Wethermill's voice broke hastily in:

"It is not the truth and I will tell you why. Celia Harland was to have married me this week."

There was so much pain and misery in his voice that Ricardo was moved as he had seldom been. Wethermill buried his face in his hands. Hanaud shook his head and gazed across the table at Ricardo with an expression which the latter was at no loss to understand. Lovers were impracticable people. But he—Hanaud—he knew the world. Women had fooled men before to-day.

Wethermill snatched his hands away from before his face.

"We talk theories," he cried desperately, "of what may have happened at the villa. But we are not by one inch nearer to the man and woman who committed the crime. It is for them we have to search."

"Yes; but except by asking ourselves questions, how shall we find them, M. Wethermill?" said Hanaud. "Take the man! We know nothing of him. He has left no trace. Look at this town of Aix, where people come and go like a crowd about the baccarat-table! He may be at Marseilles to-day. He may be in this very room where we are taking our luncheon. How shall we find him?"

Wethermill nodded his head in a despairing assent.

"I know. But it is so hard to sit still and do nothing," he cried.

"Yes, but we are not sitting still," said Hanaud; and Wethermill looked up with a sudden interest. "All the time that we have been lunching here the intelligent Perrichet has been making inquiries. Mme. Dauvray and Mlle. Celie left the Villa Rose at five, and returned on foot soon after nine with the strange woman. And there I see Perrichet himself waiting to be summoned."

Hanaud beckoned towards the sergent-de-ville.

"Perrichet will make an excellent detective," he said; "for he looks more bovine and foolish in plain clothes than he does in uniform."

Perrichet advanced in his mufti to the table.

"Speak, my friend," said Hanaud.

"I went to the shop of M. Corval. Mlle. Celie was quite alone when she bought the cord. But a few minutes later, in the Rue du Casino, she and Mme. Dauvray were seen together, walking slowly in the direction of the villa. No other woman was with them."

"That is a pity," said Hanaud quietly, and with a gesture he dismissed Perrichet.

"You see, we shall find out nothing—nothing," said Wethermill, with a groan.

"We must not yet lose heart, for we know a little more about the woman than we do about the man," said Hanaud consolingly.

"True," exclaimed Ricardo. "We have Helene Vauquier's description of her. We must advertise it."

Hanaud smiled.

"But that is a fine suggestion," he cried. "We must think over that," and he clapped his hand to his forehead with a gesture of self-reproach. "Why did not such a fine idea occur to me, fool that I am! However, we will call the head waiter."

The head waiter was sent for and appeared before them.

"You knew Mme. Dauvray?" Hanaud asked.

"Yes, monsieur—oh, the poor woman! And he flung up his hands.

"And you knew her young companion?"

"Oh yes, monsieur. They generally had their meals here. See, at that little table over there! I kept it for them. But monsieur knows well"—and the waiter looked towards Harry Wethermill—"for monsieur was often with them."

"Yes," said Hanaud. "Did Mme. Dauvray dine at that little table last night?"

"No, monsieur. She was not here last night."

"Nor Mlle. Celie?"

"No, monsieur! I do not think they were in the Villa des Fleurs at all."

"We know they were not," exclaimed Ricardo. "Wethermill and I were in the rooms and we did not see them."

"But perhaps you left early," objected Hanaud.

"No," said Ricardo. "It was just ten o'clock when we reached the Majestic."

"You reached your hotel at ten," Hanaud repeated. "Did you walk straight from here?"

"Yes."

"Then you left here about a quarter to ten. And we know that Mme. Dauvray was back at the villa soon after nine. Yes—they could not have been here last night," Hanaud agreed, and sat for a moment silent. Then he turned to the head waiter.

"Have you noticed any woman with Mme. Dauvray and her companion lately?"

"No, monsieur. I do not think so."

"Think! A woman, for instance, with red hair."

Harry Wethermill started forward. Mr. Ricardo stared at Hanaud in amazement. The waiter reflected.

"No, monsieur. I have seen no woman with red hair."

"Thank you," said Hanaud, and the waiter moved away.

"A woman with red hair!" cried Wethermill. "But Helene Vauquier described her. She was sallow; her eyes, her hair, were dark."

Hanaud turned with a smile to Harry Wethermill.

"Did Helene Vauquier, then, speak the truth?" he asked. "No; the woman who was in the salon last night, who returned home with Mme. Dauvray and Mlle. Celie, was not a woman with black hair and bright black eyes. Look!" And, fetching his pocket-book from his pocket, he unfolded a sheet of paper and showed them, lying upon its white surface a long red hair.

"I picked that up on the table—the round satinwood table in the salon. It was easy not to see it, but I did see it. Now, that is not Mlle. Celie's hair, which is fair; nor Mme. Dauvray's, which is dyed brown; nor Helene Vauquier's, which is black; nor the charwoman's, which, as I have taken the trouble to find out, is grey. It is therefore from the head of our unknown woman. And I will tell you more. This woman with the red hair—she is in Geneva."

A startled exclamation burst from Ricardo. Harry Wethermill sat slowly down. For the first time that day there had come some colour into his cheeks, a sparkle into his eye.

"But that is wonderful!" he cried. "How did you find that out?"

Hanaud leaned back in his chair and took a pull at his cigar. He was obviously pleased with Wethermill's admiration.

"Yes, how did you find it out?" Ricardo repeated.

Hanaud smiled.

"As to that," he said, "remember I am the captain of the ship, and I do not show you my observation." Ricardo was disappointed. Harry Wethermill, however, started to his feet.

"We must search Geneva, then," he cried. "It is there that we should be, not here drinking our coffee at the Villa des Fleurs."

Hanaud raised his hand.

"The search is not being overlooked. But Geneva is a big city. It is not easy to search Geneva and find, when we know nothing about the woman for whom we are searching, except that her hair is red, and that probably a young girl last night was with her. It is rather here, I think—in Aix—that we must keep our eyes wide open."

"Here!" cried Wethermill in exasperation. He stared at Hanaud as though he were mad.

"Yes, here; at the post office—at the telephone exchange. Suppose that the man is in Aix, as he may well be; some time he will wish to send a letter, or a telegram, or a message over the telephone. That, I tell you, is our chance. But here is news for us."

Hanaud pointed to a messenger who was walking towards them. The man handed Hanaud an envelope.

"From M. le Commissaire," he said; and he saluted and retired. "From M. le Commissaire?" cried Ricardo excitedly.

But before Hanaud could open the envelope Harry Wethermill laid a hand upon his sleeve.

"Before we pass to something new, M. Hanaud," he said, "I should be very glad if you would tell me what made you shiver in the salon this morning. It has distressed me ever since. What was it that those two cushions had to tell you?"

There was a note of anguish in his voice difficult to resist. But Hanaud resisted it. He shook his head.

"Again," he said gravely, "I am to remind you that I am captain of the ship and do not show my observation."

He tore open the envelope and sprang up from his seat.

"Mme. Dauvray's motor-car has been found," he cried. "Let us go!"

Hanaud called for the bill and paid it. The three men left the Villa des Fleurs together.

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