At the Villa Rose/XII

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At the Villa Rose by A. E. W. Mason
XII: The Aluminum Flask

"I have telephoned to Lemerre, the Chef de la Surete at Geneva," said Hanaud, as the car sped out of Aix along the road to Annecy. "He will have the house watched. We shall be in time. They will do nothing until dark."

But though he spoke confidently there was a note of anxiety in his voice, and he sat forward in the car, as though he were already straining his eyes to see Geneva.

Ricardo was a trifle disappointed. They were on the great journey to Geneva. They were going to arrest Mlle. Celie and her accomplices. And Hanaud had not come disguised. Hanaud, in Ricardo's eyes, was hardly living up to the dramatic expedition on which they had set out. It seemed to him that there was something incorrect in the great detective coming out on the chase without a false beard.

"But, my dear friend, why shouldn't I?" pleaded Hanaud. "We are going to dine together at the Restaurant du Nord, over the lake, until it grows dark. It is not pleasant to eat one's soup in a false beard. Have you tried it? Besides, everybody stares so, seeing perfectly well that it is false. Now, I do not want tonight that people should know me for a detective; so I do not go disguised."

"Humorist!" said Mr. Ricardo.

"There! you have found me out!" cried Hanaud, in mock alarm. "Besides, I told you this morning that that is precisely what I am."

Beyond Annecy, they came to the bridge over the ravine. At the far end of it, the car stopped. A question, a hurried glance into the body of the car, and the officers of the Customs stood aside.

"You see how perfunctory it is," said Hanaud and with a jerk the car moved on. The jerk threw Hanaud against Mr. Ricardo. Something hard in the detective's pocket knocked against his companion.

"You have got them?" he whispered.

"What?"

"The handcuffs."

Another disappointment awaited Ricardo. A detective without a false beard was bad enough, but that was nothing to a detective without handcuffs. The paraphernalia of justice were sadly lacking. However, Hanaud consoled Mr. Ricardo by showing him the hard thing; it was almost as thrilling as the handcuffs, for it was a loaded revolver.

"There will be danger, then?" said Ricardo, with a tremor of excitement. "I should have brought mine."

"There would have been danger, my friend," Hanaud objected gravely, "if you had brought yours."

They reached Geneva as the dusk was falling, and drove straight to the restaurant by the side of the lake and mounted to the balcony on the first floor. A small, stout man sat at a table alone in a corner of the balcony. He rose and held out his hands.

"My friend, M. Lemerre, the Chef de la Surete of Geneva," said Hanaud, presenting the little man to his companion.

There were as yet only two couples dining in the restaurant, and Hanaud spoke so that neither could overhear him. He sat down at the table.

"What news?" he asked.

"None," said Lemerre. "No one has come out of the house, no one has gone in."

"And if anything happens while we dine?"

"We shall know," said Lemerre. "Look, there is a man loitering under the trees there. He will strike a match to light his pipe."

The hurried conversation was ended.

"Good," said Hanaud. "We will dine, then, and be gay."

He called to the waiter and ordered dinner. It was after seven when they sat down to dinner, and they dined while the dusk deepened. In the street below the lights flashed out, throwing a sheen on the foliage of the trees at the water's side. Upon the dark lake the reflections of lamps rippled and shook. A boat in which musicians sang to music, passed by with a cool splash of oars. The green and red lights of the launches glided backwards and forwards. Hanaud alone of the party on the balcony tried to keep the conversation upon a light and general level. But it was plain that even he was overdoing his gaiety. There were moments when a sudden contraction of the muscles would clench his hands and give a spasmodic jerk to his shoulders. He was waiting uneasily, uncomfortably, until darkness should come.

"Eat," he cried—"eat, my friends," playing with his own barely tasted food.

And then, at a sentence from Lemerre, his knife and fork clattered on his plate, and he sat with a face suddenly grown white.

For Lemerre said, as though it was no more than a matter of ordinary comment:

"So Mme. Dauvray's jewels were, after all, never stolen?"

Hanaud started.

"You know that? How did you know it?"

"It was in this evening's paper. I bought one on the way here. They were found under the floor of the bedroom."

And even as he spoke a newsboy's voice rang out in the street below them. Lemerre was alarmed by the look upon his friend's face.

"Does it matter, Hanaud?" he asked, with some solicitude.

"It matters—" and Hanaud rose up abruptly.

The boy's voice sounded louder in the street below. The words became distinct to all upon that balcony.

"The Aix murder! Discovery of the jewels!"

"We must go," Hanaud whispered hoarsely. "Here are life and death in the balance, as I believe, and there"—he pointed down to the little group gathering about the newsboy under the trees—"there is the command which way to tip the scales."

"It was not I who sent it," said Ricardo eagerly.

He had no precise idea what Hanaud meant by his words; but he realised that the sooner he exculpated himself from the charge the better.

"Of course it was not you. I know that very well," said Hanaud. He called for the bill. "When is that paper published?"

"At seven," said Lemerre.

"They have been crying it in the streets of Geneva, then, for more than half an hour."

He sat drumming impatiently upon the table until the bill should be brought.

"By Heaven, that's clever!" he muttered savagely. "There's a man who gets ahead of me at every turn. See, Lemerre, I take every care, every precaution, that no message shall be sent. I let it be known, I take careful pains to let it be known, that no message can be sent without detection following, and here's the message sent by the one channel I never thought to guard against and stop. Look!"

The murder at the Villa Rose and the mystery which hid its perpetration had aroused interest. This new development had quickened it. From the balcony Hanaud could see the groups thickening about the boy and the white sheets of the newspapers in the hands of passers-by.

"Every one in Geneva or near Geneva will know of this message by now."

"Who could have told?" asked Ricardo blankly, and Hanaud laughed in his face, but laughed without any merriment.

"At last!" he cried, as the waiter brought the bill, and just as he had paid it the light of a match flared up under the trees.

"The signal!" said Lemerre.

"Not too quickly," whispered Hanaud.

With as much unconcern as each could counterfeit, the three men descended the stairs and crossed the road. Under the trees a fourth man joined them—he who had lighted his pipe.

"The coachman, Hippolyte," he whispered, "bought an evening paper at the front door of the house from a boy who came down the street shouting the news. The coachman ran back into the house."

"When was this?" asked Lemerre.

The man pointed to a lad who leaned against the balustrade above the lake, hot and panting for breath.

"He came on his bicycle. He has just arrived."

"Follow me," said Lemerre.

Six yards from where they stood a couple of steps led down from the embankment on to a wooden landing-stage, where boats were moored. Lemerre, followed by the others, walked briskly down on to the landing-stage. An electric launch was waiting. It had an awning and was of the usual type which one hires at Geneva. There were two sergeants in plain clothes on board, and a third man, whom Ricardo recognised.

"That is the man who found out in whose shop the cord was bought," he said to Hanaud.

"Yes, it is Durette. He has been here since yesterday."

Lemerre and the three who followed him stepped into it, and it backed away from the stage and, turning, sped swiftly outwards from Geneva. The gay lights of the shops and the restaurants were left behind, the cool darkness enveloped them; a light breeze blew over the lake, a trail of white and tumbled water lengthened out behind and overhead, in a sky of deepest blue, the bright stars shone like gold.

"If only we are in time!" said Hanaud, catching his breath.

"Yes," answered Lemerre; and in both their voices there was a strange note of gravity.

Lemerre gave a signal after a while, and the boat turned to the shore and reduced its speed. They had passed the big villas. On the bank the gardens of houses—narrow, long gardens of a street of small houses—reached down to the lake, and to almost each garden there was a rickety landing-stage of wood projecting into the lake. Again Lemerre gave a signal, and the boat's speed was so much reduced that not a sound of its coming could be heard. It moved over the water like a shadow, with not so much as a curl of white at its bows.

Lemerre touched Hanaud on the shoulder and pointed to a house in a row of houses. All the windows except two upon the second floor and one upon the ground floor were in absolute darkness, and over those upper two the wooden shutters were closed. But in the shutters there were diamond-shaped holes, and from these holes two yellow beams of light, like glowing eyes upon the watch, streamed out and melted in the air.

"You are sure that the front of the house is guarded?" asked Hanaud anxiously.

"Yes," replied Lemerre.

Ricardo shivered with excitement. The launch slid noiselessly into the bank and lay hidden under its shadow. Hanaud turned to his associates with his finger to his lips. Something gleamed darkly in his hand. It was the barrel of his revolver. Cautiously the men disembarked and crept up the bank. First came Lemerre, then Hanaud; Ricardo followed him, and the fourth man, who had struck the match under the trees, brought up the rear. The other three officers remained in the boat.

Stooping under the shadow of the side wall of the garden, the invaders stole towards the house. When a bush rustled or a tree whispered in the light wind, Ricardo's heart jumped to his throat. Once Lemerre stopped, as though his ears heard a sound which warned him of danger. Then cautiously he crept on again. The garden was a ragged place of unmown lawn and straggling bushes. Behind each one Mr. Ricardo seemed to feel an enemy. Never had he been in so strait a predicament. He, the cultured host of Grosvenor Square, was creeping along under a wall with Continental policemen; he was going to raid a sinister house by the Lake of Geneva. It was thrilling. Fear and excitement gripped him in turn and let him go, but always he was sustained by the pride of the man doing an out-of-the-way thing. "If only my friends could see me now!" The ancient vanity was loud in his bosom. Poor fellows, they were upon yachts in the Solent or on grouse-moors in Scotland, or on golf-links at North Berwick. He alone of them all was tracking malefactors to their doom by Leman's Lake.

From these agreeable reflections Ricardo was shaken. Lemerre stopped. The raiders had reached the angle made by the side wall of the garden and the house. A whisper was exchanged, and the party turned and moved along the house wall towards the lighted window on the ground floor. As Lemerre reached it he stooped. Then slowly his forehead and his eyes rose above the sill and glanced this way and that into the room. Mr. Ricardo could see his eyes gleaming as the light from the window caught them. His face rose completely over the sill. He stared into the room without care or apprehension, and then dropped again out of the reach of the light. He turned to Hanaud.

"The room is empty," he whispered. Hanaud turned to Ricardo.

"Pass under the sill, or the light from the window will throw your shadow upon the lawn."

The party came to the back door of the house. Lemerre tried the handle of the door, and to his surprise it yielded. They crept into the passage. The last man closed the door noiselessly, locked it, and removed the key. A panel of light shone upon the wall a few paces ahead. The door of the lighted room was open. As Ricardo stepped silently past it, he looked in. It was a parlour meanly furnished. Hanaud touched him on the arm and pointed to the table.

Ricardo had seen the objects at which Hanaud pointed often enough without uneasiness; but now, in this silent house of crime, they had the most sinister and appalling aspect. There was a tiny phial half full of a dark-brown liquid, beside it a little leather case lay open, and across the case, ready for use or waiting to be filled, was a bright morphia needle. Ricardo felt the cold creep along his spine, and shivered.

"Come," whispered Hanaud.

They reached the foot of a flight of stairs, and cautiously mounted it. They came out in a passage which ran along the side of the house from the back to the front. It was unlighted, but they were now on the level of the street, and a fan-shaped glass window over the front door admitted a pale light. There was a street lamp near to the door, Ricardo remembered. For by the light of it Marthe Gobin had seen Celia Harland run so nimbly into this house.

For a moment the men in the passage held their breath. Some one strode heavily by on the pavement outside—to Mr. Ricardo's ear a most companionable sound. Then a clock upon a church struck the half-hour musically, distantly. It was half-past eight. And a second afterwards a tiny bright light shone. Hanaud was directing the light of a pocket electric torch to the next flight of stairs.

Here the steps were carpeted, and once more the men crept up. One after another they came out upon the next landing. It ran, like those below it, along the side of the house from the back to the front, and the doors were all upon their left hand. From beneath the door nearest to them a yellow line of light streamed out.

They stood in the darkness listening. But not a sound came from behind the door. Was this room empty, too? In each one's mind was the fear that the birds had flown. Lemerre carefully took the handle of the door and turned it. Very slowly and cautiously he opened the door. A strong light beat out through the widening gap upon his face. And then, though his feet did not move, his shoulders and his face drew back. The action was significant enough. This room, at all events, was not empty. But of what Lemerre saw in the room his face gave no hint. He opened the door wider, and now Hanaud saw. Ricardo, trembling with excitement, watched him. But again there was no expression of surprise, consternation, or delight. He stood stolidly and watched. Then he turned to Ricardo, placed a finger on his lips, and made room. Ricardo crept on tiptoe to his side. And now he too could look in. He saw a brightly lit bedroom with a made bed. On his left were the shuttered windows overlooking the lake. On his right in the partition wall a door stood open. Through the door he could see a dark, windowless closet, with a small bed from which the bedclothes hung and trailed upon the floor, as though some one had been but now roughly dragged from it. On a table, close by the door, lay a big green hat with a brown ostrich feather, and a white cloak. But the amazing spectacle which kept him riveted was just in front of him. An old hag of a woman was sitting in a chair with her back towards them. She was mending with a big needle the holes in an old sack, and while she bent over her work she crooned to herself some French song. Every now and then she raised her eyes, for in front of her, under her charge, Mlle. Celie, the girl of whom Hanaud was in search, lay helpless upon a sofa. The train of her delicate green frock swept the floor. She was dressed as Helene Vauquier had described. Her gloved hands were tightly bound behind her back, her feet were crossed so that she could not have stood, and her ankles were cruelly strapped together. Over her face and eyes a piece of coarse sacking was stretched like a mask, and the ends were roughly sewn together at the back of her head. She lay so still that, but for the labouring of her bosom and a tremor which now and again shook her limbs, the watchers would have thought her dead. She made no struggle of resistance; she lay quiet and still. Once she writhed, but it was with the uneasiness of one in pain, and the moment she stirred the old woman's hand went out to a bright aluminium flask which stood on a little table at her side.

"Keep quiet, little one!" she ordered in a careless, chiding voice, and she rapped with the flask peremptorily upon the table. Immediately, as though the tapping had some strange message of terror for the girl's ear, she stiffened her whole body and lay rigid.

"I am not ready for you yet, little fool," said the old woman, and she bent again to her work.

Ricardo's brain whirled. Here was the girl whom they had come to arrest, who had sprung from the salon with so much activity of youth across the stretch of grass, who had run so quickly and lightly across the pavement into this very house, so that she should not be seen. And now she was lying in her fine and delicate attire a captive, at the mercy of the very people who were her accomplices.

Suddenly a scream rang out in the garden—a shrill, loud scream, close beneath the windows. The old woman sprang to her feet. The girl on the sofa raised her head. The old woman took a step towards the window, and then she swiftly turned towards the door. She saw the men upon the threshold. She uttered a bellow of rage. There is no other word to describe the sound. It was not a human cry; it was the bellow of an angry animal. She reached out her hand towards the flask, but before she could grasp it Hanaud seized her. She burst into a torrent of foul oaths. Hanaud flung her across to Lemerre's officer, who dragged her from the room.

"Quick!" said Hanaud, pointing to the girl, who was now struggling helplessly upon the sofa. "Mlle. Celie!"

Ricardo cut the stitches of the sacking. Hanaud unstrapped her hands and feet. They helped her to sit up. She shook her hands in the air as though they tortured her, and then, in a piteous, whimpering voice, like a child's, she babbled incoherently and whispered prayers. Suddenly the prayers ceased. She sat stiff, with eyes fixed and staring. She was watching Lemerre, and she was watching him fascinated with terror. He was holding in his hand the large, bright aluminium flask. He poured a little of the contents very carefully on to a piece of the sack; and then with an exclamation of anger he turned towards Hanaud. But Hanaud was supporting Celia; and so, as Lemerre turned abruptly towards him with the flask in his hand, he turned abruptly towards Celia too. She wrenched herself from Hanaud's arms, she shrank violently away. Her white face flushed scarlet and grew white again. She screamed loudly, terribly; and after the scream she uttered a strange, weak sigh, and so fell sideways in a swoon. Hanaud caught her as she fell. A light broke over his face.

"Now I understand!" he cried. "Good God! That's horrible."