CHAPTER IX

MME. DAUVRAY'S MOTOR-CAR

They got into a cab outside the door. Perrichet mounted the box, and the cab was driven along the upward-winding road past the Hotel Bernascon. A hundred yards beyond the hotel the cab stopped opposite to a villa. A hedge separated the garden of the villa from the road, and above the hedge rose a board with the words "To Let" upon it. At the gate a gendarme was standing, and just within the gate Ricardo saw Louis Besnard, the Commissaire, and Servettaz, Mme. Dauvray's chauffeur.

"It is here," said Besnard, as the party descended from the cab, "in the coach-house of this empty villa."

"Here?" cried Ricardo in amazement.

The discovery upset all his theories. He had expected to hear that it had been found fifty leagues away; but here, within a couple of miles of the Villa Rose itself—the idea seemed absurd! Why take it away at all—unless it was taken away as a blind? That supposition found its way into Ricardo's mind, and gathered strength as he thought upon it; for Hanaud had seemed to lean to the belief that one of the murderers might be still in Aix. Indeed, a glance at him showed that he was not discomposed by their discovery.

"When was it found?" Hanaud asked.

"This morning. A gardener comes to the villa on two days a week to keep the grounds in order. Fortunately Wednesday is one of his days. Fortunately, too, there was rain yesterday evening. He noticed the tracks of the wheels which you can see on the gravel, and since the villa is empty he was surprised. He found the coach-house door forced and the motor-car inside it. When he went to his luncheon he brought the news of his discovery to the depot."

The party followed the Commissaire along the drive to the coach-house.

"We will have the car brought out," said Hanaud to Servettaz.

It was a big and powerful machine with a limousine body, luxuriously fitted and cushioned in the shade of light grey. The outside panels of the car were painted a dark grey. The car had hardly been brought out into the sunlight before a cry of stupefaction burst from the lips of Perrichet.

"Oh!" he cried, in utter abasement. "I shall never forgive myself—never, never!"

"Why?" Hanaud asked, turning sharply as he spoke.

Perrichet was standing with his round eyes staring and his mouth agape.

"Because, monsieur, I saw that car—at four o'clock this morning—at the corner of the road—not fifty yards from the Villa Rose."

"What!" cried Ricardo.

"You saw it!" exclaimed Wethermill.

Upon their faces was reflected now the stupefaction of Perrichet.

"But you must have made a mistake," said the Commissaire.

"No, no, monsieur," Perrichet insisted. "It was that car. It was that number. It was just after daylight. I was standing outside the gate of the villa on duty where M. le Commissaire had placed me. The car appeared at the corner and slackened speed. It seemed to me that it was going to turn into the road and come down past me. But instead the driver, as if he were now sure of his way, put the car at its top speed and went on into Aix."

"Was any one inside the car?" asked Hanaud.

"No, monsieur; it was empty."

"But you saw the driver!" exclaimed Wethermill.

"Yes; what was he like?" cried the Commissaire.

Perrichet shook his head mournfully.

"He wore a talc mask over the upper part of his face, and had a little black moustache, and was dressed in a heavy great-coat of blue with a white collar."

"That is my coat, monsieur," said Servettaz, and as he spoke he lifted it up from the chauffeur's seat. "It is Mme. Dauvray's livery."

Harry Wethermill groaned aloud.

"We have lost him. He was within our grasp—he, the murderer!—and he was allowed to go!"

Perrichet's grief was pitiable.

"Monsieur," he pleaded, "a car slackens its speed and goes on again—it is not so unusual a thing. I did not know the number of Mme. Dauvray's car. I did not even know that it had disappeared"; and suddenly tears of mortification filled his eyes. "But why do I make these excuses?" he cried. "It is better, M. Hanaud, that I go back to my uniform and stand at the street corner. I am as foolish as I look."

"Nonsense, my friend," said Hanaud, clapping the disconsolate man upon the shoulder. "You remembered the car and its number. That is something—and perhaps a great deal," he added gravely. "As for the talc mask and the black moustache, that is not much to help us, it is true." He looked at Ricardo's crestfallen face and smiled. "We might arrest our good friend M. Ricardo upon that evidence, but no one else that I know."

Hanaud laughed immoderately at his joke. He alone seemed to feel no disappointment at Perrichet's oversight. Ricardo was a little touchy on the subject of his personal appearance, and bridled visibly. Hanaud turned towards Servettaz.

"Now," he said, "you know how much petrol was taken from the garage?"

"Yes, monsieur."

"Can you tell me, by the amount which has been used, how far that car was driven last night?" Hanaud asked.

Servettaz examined the tank.

"A long way, monsieur. From a hundred and thirty to a hundred and fifty kilometres, I should say."

"Yes, just about that distance, I should say," cried Hanaud.

His eyes brightened, and a smile, a rather fierce smile, came to his lips. He opened the door, and examined with a minute scrutiny the floor of the carriage, and as he looked, the smile faded from his face. Perplexity returned to it. He took the cushions, looked them over and shook them out.

"I see no sign—" he began, and then he uttered a little shrill cry of satisfaction. From the crack of the door by the hinge he picked off a tiny piece of pale green stuff, which he spread out upon the back of his hand.

"Tell me, what is this?" he said to Ricardo.

"It is a green fabric," said Ricardo very wisely.

"It is green chiffon," said Hanaud. "And the frock in which Mlle. Celie went away was of green chiffon over satin. Yes, Mlle. Celie travelled in this car."

He hurried to the driver's seat. Upon the floor there was some dark mould. Hanaud cleaned it off with his knife and held some of it in the palm of his hand. He turned to Servettaz.

"You drove the car on Tuesday morning before you went to Chambery?"

"Yes, monsieur."

"Where did you take up Mme. Dauvray and Mlle. Celie?"

"At the front door of the Villa Rose."

"Did you get down from the seat at all?"

"No, monsieur; not after I left the garage."

Hanaud returned to his companions.

"See!" And he opened his hand. "This is black soil—moist from last night's rain—soil like the soil in front of Mme. Dauvray's salon. Look, here is even a blade or two of the grass"; and he turned the mould over in the palm of his hand. Then he took an empty envelope from his pocket and poured the soil into it and gummed the flap down. He stood and frowned at the motor-car.

"Listen," he said, "how I am puzzled! There was a man last night at the Villa Rose. There were a man's blurred footmarks in the mould before the glass door. That man drove madame's car for a hundred and fifty kilometres, and he leaves the mould which clung to his boots upon the floor of his seat. Mlle. Celie and another woman drove away inside the car. Mlle. Celie leaves a fragment of the chiffon tunic of her frock which caught in the hinge. But Mlle. Celie made much clearer impressions in the mould than the man. Yet on the floor of the carriage there is no trace of her shoes. Again I say there is something here which I do not understand." And he spread out his hands with an impulsive gesture of despair.

"It looks as if they had been careful and he careless," said Mr. Ricardo, with the air of a man solving a very difficult problem.

"What a mind!" cried Hanaud, now clasping his hands together in admiration. "How quick and how profound!"

There was at times something elephantinely elfish in M. Hanaud's demeanour, which left Mr. Ricardo at a loss. But he had come to notice that these undignified manifestations usually took place when Hanaud had reached a definite opinion upon some point which had perplexed him.

"Yet there is perhaps, another explanation," Hanaud continued. "For observe, M. Ricardo. We have other evidence to show that the careless one was Mlle. Celie. It was she who left her footsteps so plainly visible upon the grass, not the man. However, we will go back to M. Wethermill's room at the Hotel Majestic and talk this matter over. We know something now. Yes, we know—what do we know, monsieur?" he asked, suddenly turning with a smile to Ricardo, and, as Ricardo paused: "Think it over while we walk down to M. Wethermill's apartment in the Hotel Majestic."

"We know that the murderer has escaped," replied Ricardo hotly.

"The murderer is not now the most important object of our search. He is very likely at Marseilles by now. We shall lay our hands on him, never fear," replied Hanaud, with a superb gesture of disdain. "But it was thoughtful of you to remind me of him. I might so easily have clean forgotten him, and then indeed my reputation would have suffered an eclipse." He made a low, ironical bow to Ricardo and walked quickly down the road.

"For a cumbersome man he is extraordinarily active," said Mr. Ricardo to Harry Wethermill, trying to laugh, without much success. "A heavy, clever, middle-aged man, liable to become a little gutter-boy at a moment's notice."

Thus he described the great detective, and the description is quoted. For it was Ricardo's best effort in the whole of this business.

The three men went straight to Harry Wethermill's apartment, which consisted of a sitting-room and a bedroom on the first floor. A balcony ran along outside. Hanaud stepped out on to it, looked about him, and returned.

"It is as well to know that we cannot be overheard," he said.

Harry Wethermill meanwhile had thrown himself into a chair. The mask he had worn had slipped from its fastenings for a moment. There was a look of infinite suffering upon his face. It was the face of a man tortured by misery to the snapping-point.

Hanaud, on the other hand, was particularly alert. The discovery of the motor-car had raised his spirits. He sat at the table.

"I will tell you what we have learnt," he said, "and it is of importance. The three of them—the man, the woman with the red hair, and Mlle. Celie—all drove yesterday night to Geneva. That is only one thing we have learnt."

"Then you still cling to Geneva?" said Ricardo.

"More than ever," said Hanaud.

He turned in his chair towards Wethermill.

"Ah, my poor friend!" he said, when he saw the young man's distress.

Harry Wethermill sprang up with a gesture as though to sweep the need of sympathy away.

"What can I do for you?" he asked.

"You have a road map, perhaps?" said Hanaud.

"Yes," said Wethermill, "mine is here. There it is"; and crossing the room he brought it from a sidetable and placed it in front of Hanaud.

Hanaud took a pencil from his pocket.

"One hundred and fifty kilometres was about the distance which the car had travelled. Measure the distances here, and you will see that Geneva is the likely place. It is a good city to hide in. Moreover the car appears at the corner at daylight. How does it appear there? What road is it which comes out at that corner? The road from Geneva. I am not sorry that it is Geneva, for the Chef de la Surete is a friend of mine."

"And what else do we know?" asked Ricardo.

"This," said Hanaud. He paused impressively. "Bring up your chair to the table, M. Wethermill, and consider whether I am right or wrong"; and he waited until Harry Wethermill had obeyed. Then he laughed in a friendly way at himself.

"I cannot help it," he said; "I have an eye for dramatic effects. I must prepare for them when I know they are coming. And one, I tell you, is coming now."

He shook his finger at his companions. Ricardo shifted and shuffled in his chair. Harry Wethermill kept his eyes fixed on Hanaud's face, but he was quiet, as he had been throughout the long inquiry.

Hanaud lit a cigarette and took his time.

"What I think is this. The man who drove the car into Geneva drove it back, because—he meant to leave it again in the garage of the Villa Rose."

"Good heavens!" cried Ricardo, flinging himself back. The theory so calmly enunciated took his breath away.

"Would he have dared?" asked Harry Wethermill.

Hanaud leaned across and tapped his fingers on the table to emphasise his answer.

"All through this crime there are two things visible—brains and daring; clever brains and extraordinary daring. Would he have dared? He dared to be at the corner close to the Villa Rose at daylight. Why else should he have returned except to put back the car? Consider! The petrol is taken from tins which Servettaz might never have touched for a fortnight, and by that time he might, as he said, have forgotten whether he had not used them himself. I had this possibility in my mind when I put the questions to Servettaz about the petrol which the Commissaire thought so stupid. The utmost care is taken that there shall be no mould left on the floor of the carriage. The scrap of chiffon was torn off, no doubt, when the women finally left the car, and therefore not noticed, or that, too, would have been removed. That the exterior of the car was dirty betrayed nothing, for Servettaz had left it uncleaned."

Hanaud leaned back and, step by step, related the journey of the car.

"The man leaves the gate open; he drives into Geneva the two women, who are careful that their shoes shall leave no marks upon the floor. At Geneva they get out. The man returns. If he can only leave the car in the garage he covers all traces of the course he and his friends have taken. No one would suspect that the car had ever left the garage. At the corner of the road, just as he is turning down to the villa, he sees a sergent-de-ville at the gate. He knows that the murder is discovered. He puts on full speed and goes straight out of the town. What is he to do? He is driving a car for which the police in an hour or two, if not now already, will be surely watching. He is driving it in broad daylight. He must get rid of it, and at once, before people are about to see it, and to see him in it. Imagine his feelings! It is almost enough to make one pity him. Here he is in a car which convicts him as a murderer, and he has nowhere to leave it. He drives through Aix. Then on the outskirts of the town he finds an empty villa. He drives in at the gate, forces the door of the coach-house, and leaves his car there. Now, observe! It is no longer any use for him to pretend that he and his friends did not disappear in that car. The murder is already discovered, and with the murder the disappearance of the car. So he no longer troubles his head about it. He does not remove the traces of mould from the place where his feet rested, which otherwise, no doubt, he would have done. It no longer matters. He has to run to earth now before he is seen. That is all his business. And so the state of the car is explained. It was a bold step to bring that car back—yes, a bold and desperate step. But a clever one. For, if it had succeeded, we should have known nothing of their movements—oh, but nothing—nothing. Ah! I tell you this is no ordinary blundering affair. They are clever people who devised this crime—clever, and of an audacity which is surprising."

Then Hanaud lit another cigarette.

Mr. Ricardo, on the other hand, could hardly continue to smoke for excitement.

"I cannot understand your calmness," he exclaimed.

"No?" said Hanaud. "Yet it is so obvious. You are the amateur, I am the professional—that is all."

He looked at his watch and rose to his feet.

"I must go" he said and as he turned towards the door a cry sprang from Mr. Ricardo's lips "It is true. I am the amateur. Yet I have knowledge, Monsieur Hanaud which the professional would do well to obtain."

Hanaud turned a guarded face towards Ricardo. There was no longer any raillery in his manner. He spoke slowly, coldly.

"Let me have it then!"

"I have driven in my motor-car from Geneva to Aix," Ricardo cried excitedly. "A bridge crosses a ravine high up amongst the mountains. At the bridge there is a Custom House. There—at the Pont de la Caille—your car is stopped. It is searched. You must sign your name in a book. And there is no way round. You would find sure and certain proof whether or no Madame Dauvray's car travelled last night to Geneva. Not so many travellers pass along that road at night. You would find certain proof too of how many people were in the car. For they search carefully at the Pont de la Caille."

A dark flush overspread Hanaud's face. Ricardo was in the seventh Heaven. He had at last contributed something to the history of this crime. He had repaired an omission. He had supplied knowledge to the omniscient. Wethermill looked up drearily like one who has lost heart.

"Yes, you must not neglect that clue," he said.

Hanaud replied testily:

"It is not a clue. M. Ricardo tells that he travelled from Geneva into France and that his car was searched. Well, we know already that the officers are particular at the Custom Houses of France. But travelling from France into Switzerland is a very different affair. In Switzerland, hardly a glance, hardly a word." That was true. M. Ricardo crestfallen recognized the truth. But his spirits rose again at once. "But the car came back from Geneva into France!" he cried.

"Yes, but when the car came back, the man was alone in it," Hanaud answered. "I have more important things to attend to. For instance I must know whether by any chance they have caught our man at Marseilles." He laid his hand on Wethermill's shoulder. "And you, my friend, I should counsel you to get some sleep. We may need all our strength to-morrow. I hope so." He was speaking very bravely. "Yes, I hope so."

Wethermill nodded.

"I shall try," he said.

"That's better," said Hanaud cheerfully. "You will both stay here this evening; for if I have news, I can then ring you up."

Both men agreed, and Hanaud went away. He left Mr. Ricardo profoundly disturbed. "That man will take advice from no one," he declared. "His vanity is colossal. It is true they are not particular at the Swiss Frontier. Still the car would have to stop there. At the Custom House they would know something. Hanaud ought to make inquiries." But neither Ricardo nor Harry Wethermill heard a word more from Hanaud that night.

Last | Next | Contents