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The novel The Deadly Fresco, thought to have been written in 1930, is one of the rarer Peter Cheyney works. Only two copies of the print edition were available at AbeBooks.com when this bibliographic was prepared (March 2017).
It was presumably first published as a magazine or newspaper serial in the UK, although no bibliographic record could be found to confirm this assumption. It was, however, syndicated in Australia, where it was published under Peter Cheyney's name, making its first known appearance as a serial in The Age, Melbourne, at the beginning of 1932. Three years later, in 1935, it was reprinted in the Adelaide newspaper The Chronicle. The present RGL e-book edition of the novel was produced from image files of The Chronicle available in the digital archive of the National Library of Australia.
The Deadly Fresco was first published in book form in 1939 by the Moray Press, Edinburgh, Scotland—without the definite article in the title. On this occasion Cheyney used the nom de plume "Lyn Southney"—a portmanteau made up from elements of his full name: Reginald EveLyn Peter Southouse-Cheyney.
Revised French and Italian versions of The Deadly Fresco were published in the 1950's as Slim Callaghan novels.
The Parisian publisher Presses de la Cité released its adaptation of the novel under the title Monsieur Callaghan in September 1953 as Book No. 142 in the series "Un Mystère". Another French edition was published in 1982 under the title Mister Callaghan by Édito-Service, Les Classiques du crime, Paris.
The Italian version of The Deadly Fresco was published in 1955 under the title Non cé due senza tre (All Things Come in Threes) by Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, Milan, as Book No. 331 in the series "Il Giallo Mondadori."
Thanks and credit for making this work available for publication by RGL go to the Australian bibliophile Terry Walker, who pre-processed the version of the story serialised in the Adelaide Chronicle.
—Roy Glashan, 20 March 2017
DUPLESSIS switched off the light which stood immediately over his typewriter, leaving the room illuminated only by a shaded light in the corner. He walked to the window, and looked out on to Shoe Lane, deserted except for two or three newsprint vans on their way to Fleet Street Then, whistling to himself, he walked to the door, took his hat off a peg, put it on, opened the door, and stood still listening.
Somebody was coming up the stairs. The offices had been closed hours ago. There was no reason for anybody to call. Duplessis amused himself by wondering who this visitor, who chose midnight as a time for visiting the office, might be. The steps continued. They had reached the third floor landing. They paused.
Duplessis smiled to himself. 'Not very young,' he murmured. 'Over thirty-five they always wait on the third floor for a moment's rest—and it's a woman. I wonder what she wants. It can't be the cleaner; she's gone hours ago.'
The steps continued. The visitor was negotiating the last flight of stairs, the flight that led into Duplessis's outer office. He threw his hat back on to its peg, switched on all the lights, lit a cigarette, and waited. At the back of his head was an idea. The steps halted at the door of the outer office.
Duplessis got up, walked through his own office, crossed the outer office, and opened the door. A woman, much younger than he had thought—he judged her age to be about thirty—exquisitely dressed, stood on the threshold. She was tall, and had dark hair. The eye-veil which she wore half-concealed, and lent an air of mystery to, her face, but Duplessis could see the shadows beneath her eyes.
'Are you Mr. Peter Duplessis?' she said. She spoke English well, although her accent was obviously French.
'I am,' he said. 'Won't you come in?'
He led the way into the inner office, drew forward a comfortable chair, and sat down at his desk. He was not particularly surprised; firstly, because he had found life too adventurous ever to be surprised, and, secondly, because he had seen this woman the night before in the lounge at the Alcazar Hotel. She had been talking to Romanes, a Spaniard—an old acquaintance of Duplessis. More, they had obviously been talking about him. He was prepared to be interested.
She took off her gloves, and, with fingers which trembled, fumbled at the catch of her handbag. He noticed the value of the rings which she wore, and which glittered as her hands moved. Eventually she opened the bag, and took out a thick envelope which she laid on the corner of his desk. While she was doing this Duplessis, without appearing to be too interested, was watching her; looking at her face; trying to come to some conclusion; trying to label her as he did everyone he met.
Having put the envelope on the corner of his desk, she looked at him.
'You will probably be surprised at the lateness of my visit, M'sieur,' she said, 'but the business which brings me here is urgent. Last night I spoke to my friend, Sen˜or Romanes. I told him that I wanted certain things done. At this moment you came into the lounge at the Alcazar, where I am staying. He said that you were the man I wanted, so I have come. In that envelope are Bank of England notes to the value of £5,000. This is a first payment on account of expenses to which you may be put if you agree to do this business. I think you will agree. Senor Romanes said that you have the nature which is interested in odd things.'
Duplessis smiled. 'I am very interested, Mademoiselle, already. I began to be interested when I heard you coming up the stairs. I am always interested when someone calls to see me at midnight. May I ask exactly what this business is?'
'I will tell you,' she said, 'and I will be as brief as possible. It was arranged six months ago that I should marry a gentleman by the name of Etienne Sardonin. The name is French, but he is an Englishman. Have you heard the name?'
'I have heard the name, but just how, and when, and where, I cannot, remember,' said Duplessis. 'I've got an idea I saw it in a newspaper.'
'You did,' she went on. 'Etienne Sardonin was sentenced at your Old Bailey two weeks ago to two years' imprisonment for forgery. It is with regard to this entirely false charge that I wish to see you. I know that he is innocent.'
Duplessis smiled once more, 'Mademoiselle,' he said, 'there was never yet a woman who was in love with a man who did not believe him innocent of any charge. Yet I should like to tell you before going any further that under our English system of justice it is very seldom that an innocent man is convicted.'
'That may be true, M'sieur,' she said, 'but there may also be occasions on which a man, knowing himself to be innocent, may be placed in a position in which he cannot effectively defend himself.'
Duplessis took out his cigarette-case, offered it to her, and, after she had shaken her head, lit a cigarette for himself.
'In other words, you suggest that Mr. Sardonin was—shall we say—framed.'
She nodded. 'I believe that is correct,' she said. 'Let me tell you the circumstances. Six months ago M. Sardonin left Paris. He came to England. He had interests here. He has five houses, some large, some small. He wished to let or sell these houses. It was necessary that he should come to England to consult with his partner, a Mr. Vowles—John X. Vowles. The arrangement was that at the end of six months M. Sardonin considered that this business would be finished. I was to come to England to join him; we were to be married. Two months ago I was informed that he had been arrested. It was not possible for me to come to England immediately, but through friends I was able to find out the details of the case. The prosecution was started by a letter written by Mr. Vowles to Scotland Yard. The letter stated that six cheques, abstracted from his cheque book, had been forged for amounts up to £4,000. He suggested that the forger was M. Sardonin. My fiancé was arrested, the evidence produced against him was overwhelming, but, what was more interesting, was the fact that he scarcely attempted to defend himself.'
'Perhaps he realised that it was hopeless,' said Duplessis.
'I'm afraid that that was not the reason, M'sieur,' said the woman. 'Consider the facts of the case. The forgery which this man Vowles alleged took place almost immediately after M. Sardonin's arrival in England. This Vowles has told me himself that he discovered it three weeks after that. Why, then, did he not write his letter to the police immediately? Why did he wait for nearly four months before taking steps which brought about the prosecution of M. Sardonin? I asked him why. He said he 'wished to give him a chance.' A chance for what, M'sieur? That's what I would like you to find out, because, does it not seem obvious to you that the reason that this man Vowles did not act earlier was because during those three months some situation occurred between himself and M. Sardonin which caused Vowles to write that letter to the police? Does it not seem to you that if M. Sardonin had agreed to do something which this man Vowles wanted, that letter would never have been written?'
Duplessis nodded. 'That seems logical enough,' he said. 'What sort of a fellow is Vowles?'
'He's a terrible man,' said the woman, 'one has only to look at him to realise that he is dishonest, and that he would do anything.'
Duplessis considered. 'Exactly what do you want me to do. Mademoiselle?' he said. 'There's nothing that I can do that the police can't do for you.'
She smiled. Duplessis noted the beauty of her mouth and teeth.
'What will the police do for me. M'sieur?' she said. 'They would have put my fiancé in prison. This case is closed. M. Romanes told me that you were a man of intelligence, of courage, and that you liked the solution of difficult problems. Well, here is a difficult one. If, as I believe, M. Sardonin was tricked into appearing to be a forger it will be possible for you to find that out. You must find that out. It is necessary that he be released from prison within six months at the latest. I don't mind what means you employ, and this money is to cover any expense you may be put to. If you succeed there will be a like sum on the day that M. Sardonin leaves prison.'
Duplessis blew a smoke-ring across the room. 'Your offer is attractive, Mademoiselle,' he said. 'With your permission I will consider it tonight, and telephone you tomorrow morning. In the meantime you had better put those banknotes back into your bag.'
She smiled. 'No M'sieur,' she said. 'Put them in your drawer. If you decide tomorrow that this business doesn't interest you bring them back to me when you come to tell me. I am Mademoiselle de Guerrac, and I am staying at the Alcazar Hotel.'
She got up. She looked terribly tired. Apparently the interview was at an end. Duplessis rose.
'Can I get you a cab?' he said. 'Thank you; I have a car at the corner of Fleet Street,' she replied. 'Good night, M'sieur.'
She turned, and walked through the outer office, Duplessis standing at the door of the inner room, his eyes appreciating her graceful walk. Then, as she reached the open door of the outer office, he spoke.
'Excuse me, Mademoiselle,' he said, 'I would like to ask you a favour.'
She turned smilingly. 'What is it, M'sieur?'
'I wonder if you could give me a cigarette' said Duplessis.
'Of course,' she said, and her fingers went to her handbag. Then her expression changed.
'I am so sorry, M'sieur,' she said, 'I have just remembered that I have smoked my last one. My case is empty. Once more I am sorry. Good night, M'sieur.'
Duplessis walked back to his chair, and sat down. He took his cigarette case from his pocket, and lit another cigarette. Then he took off the telephone receiver, and called the number of 'The Evening Leader.' He was soon through.
'Give me the Night Editor,' he told the switchboard. 'Hallo, is that you Le Clerq? How's tricks? Listen! Could you send somebody down to the library, and give me the dope on the Sardonin case—five weeks old case of forgery—prosecution started by a letter written by a man named Vowles to Scotland Yard.'
He waited, blowing smoke rings. In three minutes' time Le Clerq's voice came over the 'phone.
'Hallo! Listen, P.D.; funny case, this. A forgery case. Sardonin put Vowles' signature on six cheques; total value about four thousand, seven hundred. Vowles waited for three months, and then writes to Scotland Yard. Sardonin hadn't got a leg to stand on—practically admitted that he had forged the cheques. Vowles' reason for not bringing the charge earlier was that he wanted to give Sardonin a chance to repay the money. Sardonin got two years. Not a bad looking fellow. I was in the court myself; he didn't look to me like a forger. Anything else?'
'No thanks,' said Duplessis. 'Oh, listen! Something funny's turned up tonight. I know you like a spot of mystery. I might ask you to give me a hand. I'll ring you through sometime. So long.'
He replaced the receiver, got up, and stood, his hands in his pockets, in the middle of the room pondering. He found life amusing. He liked weird things happening at late hours of the night. Incidentally, Duplessis did not dislike Mademoiselle de Guerrac... a strange, exotic personality, he thought.
Once more he took his hat off the peg and opened the inner office door, and once more he stood listening. Somebody was coming up the stairs.
'Funny,' thought Duplessis. 'How do they all get in? I forgot to ask her how she got through the door at the bottom. Fairly old, this one,' he said to himself. 'He's stopping every seven stairs, but, by Jove! when he does start he moves quickly. Old man, I should say, and rather perturbed.'
The hurried steps ascended. Every six or seven stairs they stopped. But now Duplessis could almost hear the wheezy breathing of the man. As the steps neared the landing, Duplessis, his hat over one eye, his tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles perched precariously on the end of his nose, walked across the outer office and opened the door. He looked down on the face of the short, stumpy, and greasy bowler-hatted man who stood on the landing, the man who was forced to look up at Duplessis' six feet of height.
Duplessis grinned. For the face before him was a face seared with every conceivable vice. He remembered Mlle.'s expression... 'an awful face, a terrible man.'
With some gusto Duplessis removed his black felt hat.
'Mr. John X. Vowles, I believe,' he said. 'Come in, Mr. Vowles, we are open all night.'
VOWLES sat in the chair in which Mademoiselle de Guerrac had sat. He peered across the smoke-filled room at Duplessis, who, his hat over one eye, his horn-rims dangling in his fingers, puffed clouds of smoke out of a black pipe, and regarded the other with obvious dislike. Behind the thick lenses of his glasses Vowles' eyes grinned viciously.
'That's my story, Mr. Duplessis,' he said, 'and you can take it or leave it. She's daft—daft, I tell you... mad as a hatter. You'll thank me for saving you some trouble. You wouldn't be the first man she's made a fool of. When I went round to see 'er tonight...'/p>
Duplessis snapped out—'What did you go to see her for?'
'Easy on... easy, on,' snarled Vowles. 'I don't like people snappin' and snarlin' at me.'
Duplessis got up. He stood over the other and twisted his fingers into Vowles' coat collar./p>
'Just at this minute, you'll like what I want,' he said grimly. 'What did you go to see her for?' he repeated.
Vowles twisted himself out of Duplessis' grip.
'If you'll leave me alone I'll tell you,' he said in a surly voice. 'I went to see 'er because I knew she'd come over here on some silly business. I knew she'd be getting 'erself, an' probably others, into trouble. I wanted to tell 'er the facts of the case about this feller of 'ers. She believes he's a little hero, an' I know he's a damned crook. And because I was the one who had to put a stop to his nonsense I knew that she'd start making trouble for me as soon as she could.'
Duplessis grinned. 'I'm not surprised at anyone trying to make trouble for a man like you, Vowles,' he said. 'It would be a good turn for humanity if someone makes so much trouble for you that you were pushed off the earth. But you haven't answered my question except by telling me some rubbish. Why should Mademoiselle de Guerrac want to make trouble for an insignificant nonentity like you?'
Vowles' face flamed with rage. He was playing into Duplessis' hands. That worthy, who had long realised that the best way to make a man tell the truth was to make him lose his temper, was being as insulting as he possibly could. Vowles was obviously cunning, and the only way to make him forget any carefully thought out line of talk was to enrage him to an extent when self-control was impossible.
Vowles leaned forward in his chair, his lips working angrily. 'Of course she's goin' to try to make trouble for me,' he said. 'I was the feller who got Sardonin put in quod—an' it served him right too. If he didn't want to go there he should 'ave acted straight. But he couldn't. He 'ad to be crooked—like she is—for I tell you she's as crooked as 'Ell. I knew jolly well that when she come over here she did it because she was goin' to start something—and you bet she was going to have a cut at me.'
'Really?' sneered Duplessis. 'Very interesting, Vowles. But just tell me something, will you? How did you know she was coming over. Who told you that Anne de Guerrac was coming to England?'
Vowles licked his lips. He was caught. He said nothing. Duplessis laughed.
'I see, Vowles... I am beginning to see quite a lot. So there was somebody in Paris who let you know, that she was coming over, was there? Somebody who wised you up that Anne de Guerrac was coming over to England for the express purpose of making things pretty hot for you, and you thought that you'd get in first and keep your eye on her, and when she came along to see me you guessed that she was coming to ask me to help her to prove that Sardonin was innocent, and that you had framed him in some way or other, and you thought that you'd get in first and try to stop it, did you?'
Duplessis paused and regarded the other cynically.
'Well, isn't that the truth?'
'No, it ain't,' Vowles snarled. 'No it ain't, Mr. Clever, see!' He settled himself in his chair after the manner of a man who is preparing himself for a wordy argument. 'I never 'ad anybody In Paris to let me know if she was comin' over,' he continued. 'I knew she was comin' over because she let me know 'erself. I 'ad to see 'er as a matter of fact, an' I was still prepared to try to be decent to 'er. In a way I was sorry, for 'er. But I could see she was still playin' the high-falutin', treatin' me like a bit of dirt, an' I could tell by 'er attitude that she was going to make as much trouble for me as she could. She's like that.'
He stopped speaking, and Duplessis did not reply. As a matter of fact the latter was wondering just why Anne de Guerrac, who had gone to the trouble of blackening Vowles' character as much as possible, had not informed him that she had had a meeting with Vowles, and had not intimated any reason for this meeting. Duplessis wondered just why de Guerrac was holding out on him over this point. He looked up.
'What did she want to see you about, Vowles?' he asked.
Vowles grinned wickedly. 'Why ask me, Mr. Knowall,' he said. 'Why not ask 'er? I don't 'ave to discuss my private business with you, you know. Besides, I should 'ave thought that If de Guerrac 'ad come 'ere to ask you to 'elp get that pretty boy of 'ers out of prison that she'd 'ave told you all about everything!'
He peered at Duplessis. 'I told you she was crooked,' he said, 'an 'ere's the proof of it Why, she ain't even straight with you. She don't even tell you the truth, an' you fall for 'er an' start brow-beatin' an' bullyin' me—the feller who's doin' 'is best to try an' stop you makin' a fool of yourself.'
'Very nice of you, I'm sure.' answered Duplessis. 'Do you usually take so much trouble over people whom you've never even met, Vowles?'
He knocked his pipe out on his shoe. 'The fact of the matter is, Vowles, that you came here tonight because you were frightened of Anne de Guerrac getting some really intelligent help, and you thought that by putting a spoke in her wheel you'd either frighten me off or I would consider that I didn't want anything to do with the job.
'Well, I'm not a person who is easily frightened, specially by a little dirty-necked runt like you. In fact, If I were you, I should be rather careful. A good hiding might do you good and it wouldn't take me two seconds' thought to give you one either. Anyhow, how did you know that she was coming down here tonight?'
'If you'd give me a chance, I'd tell you,' replied Vowles. 'I told you. I went to see 'er tonight because I knew she'd be up to some funny business, an' I didn't want 'er to start makin' some more trouble for 'erself. First of all I thought I'd let 'er go to blazes and get 'erself into another mess, an' then I thought I'd try an' do 'er a good turn. Just as I was gettin' to the hotel I saw 'er car start off. I thought she might be movin' permanently or something, so I hopped in a taxi, and followed her car...'
'How did you know it was her car?' said Duplessis, 'Vowles, you're a liar—you've been having her watched—haven't you?'
Vowles straightened his rumpled collar.
'Well, supposin' I 'ave?' he admitted. 'I suppose I'm entitled to look after myself, ain't I? You know what these bloomin' foreigners are. You never know where you are with them. Directly they put Sardonin away I thought she'd come over 'ere and start something. You take my tip an' steer clear of Mademoiselle de Guerrac—as she calls 'erself. I know 'er. She's the Vicomtesse Anne de Guerrac, an' there ain't a copper in France who don't know her...'
'How do you know?' said Duplessis quickly.
'Sardonin told me,' countered the other as rapidly. 'I know what I'm talking about. She'll make a fool out of you as she's done with others. She'll use your brains, an' then leave you as cold as ice. You mark my words.'
Duplessis refilled his pipe. 'Supposing I told you that she'd made an advance payment on account of expenses in connection with certain services which I might be able to render. What would you say about that?' asked Duplessis.
Vowles grinned. He got up, plunged his hand into his overcoat pocket, and produced a broken cigarette. He licked it, inserted it into the corner of his mouth, and, producing a single match, from another pocket, lit it.
'I'll be goin',' he said, moving towards the door. He turned and faced Duplessis, his hand on the door-handle.
'If she's made you a payment on account of expenses, then I'm Dutch,' he grinned. 'Mind you, I don't say that she hasn't given you a cheque; but if I was you I'd put it through the bank before I reckoned the money was mine. She's a specialist in stumer cheques, is Mademoiselle de Guerrac. Well... good-night to you. If you want to see me at any time you'll find me in the estate office—High street, Bealthorpe. Only don't come any of your rough stuff. I don't like it.'
'Don't you?' said Duplessis pleasantly. 'Get out, Vowles.'
'I'm gettin',' said the other. 'But you can't frighten me any more than she can. I've got the law on my side, an' I'm goin' to keep it there. Good-night.'
Duplessis listened to his footsteps as they retreated down the stairs. Then he heard the front door bang. He knocked his pipe out carefully on the grate; then, unlocking his desk drawer, he took out the packet which Mlle. de Guerrac had left. The payment on account. He opened the thick manila envelope, and took out the fifty one-hundred pound notes. He switched on the reading-lamp on his desk, and, holding the notes underneath the light, examined them carefully.
His mouth twisted in a wry smile.
The notes were counterfeit!
LE CLERQ examined carefully the cigarette which he held between his fingers.
'It doesn't make any difference to me,' he said, 'and I don't see how it's going to make any difference to the police. It was pretty lucky that our fellow at Birchgate is intelligent—although newspaper-men are supposed to be intelligent .'
Duplessis crumbled his bread, and amused himself by taking pot-shots at an adjacent fern with the breadcrumbs.
'Just tell me again exactly what happened, J.L.,' he said. 'I want to get the sequence right in my mind. It's an extraordinary coincidence.'
'That's what struck me,' said Le Clerq. 'You telephoned me at half past twelve, and asked for that information about the Sardonin case. That was the exact time, I know, because every enquiry put through our library is time-marked. It was about forty minutes after that that our Birchgate man got through. Probably we were the first people to get the story, and I could have run it as a 'scoop,' but I didn't think I'd run the whole of the story until I'd seen you. Hastings, our Birchgate man is a friend—naturally—of the local police sergeant. This sergeant, passing this empty bungalow on the Birchgate road at about a quarter past twelve, stood up in the porch because it had started to rain. Idle curiosity made him flash his bullseye through the window, and there, inside, lying in the room, was Nirac. The sergeant didn't know he was dead, and, being a pal of Hastings, and thinking that Nirac was dead, he dashed to a telephone box about two hundred yards from the bungalow, phoned up Hastings—who was in bed—and told him to come along. Hastings arrived quickly on his motor-bike, and he and the sergeant forced the door. They looked at Nirac, and agreed that he was dead. Then the sergeant left Hastings with the body while he went off once more to telephone the Chief Constable's office at Gafield, ten miles away. He hadn't been gone more than a couple of minutes before Nirac began to move. Hastings says that he seemed to be in a sort of paralytic fit, and that he had a length of string in his hands, which he had twisted round his fingers. Anyhow, thinking that Nirac might say something which would give him a clue, Hastings knelt down by his side and listened. Sure enough, Nirac tried to mumble something, and Hastings distinctly heard him mutter—not once, but two or three times... "Sardonin"... "Sardonin." A couple of minutes after Nirac actually did die.'
'Now Hastings is a clever fellow. When the sergeant came back he didn't say a word about Nirac not having been dead before, or about having mentioned this name, because he knew that if he had, every reporter on every local rag would have had it the next day. Hastings's idea was to phone me through and give me the story so that we could come out this morning with some really startling front-page stuff. He telephoned the stuff through at ten past one, and, of course, the first thing that struck me was the fact that here is a fellow, dying in some strange way down at a little seaside place in a newly-built unlet bungalow, mumbling the name of a man about whom you telephoned forty minutes previously. Now it struck me that you might know something about this Sardonin—something more than we knew—so I ran the story of the death in the ordinary way just on the chance that we might come out with a better story a little later. We've said nothing about Sardonin at all.'
'I'm glad you didn't,' said Duplessis, 'because if looks to me as if you're going to get a pretty big story before this is through. There's something funny going on, J.L. What connection is there between the Nirac who died murmuring Sardonin's name, the woman who comes to me, and hands me five thousand pounds worth of counterfeit money in order to get Sardonin out of prison, and this little swine Vowles who says that Sardonin's a crook, and that the woman's a crook? Interesting little problem.'
'Got any ideas at all?' said Le Clerq.
'I've got several,' answered Duplessis, 'but before I discuss those with you I want to put to you what I consider to be a rather amusing viewpoint on this thing generally.
'Supposing that this case, as we know it up to the moment, had been the opening of a detective story. If this was so, we should find that there would be several methods of investigation, several clues waiting to be followed up; or else I should be able to phone Detective Inspector Somebody-or-Other at Scotland Yard—an old friend of mine—who would promptly give me a great deal of information about Sardonin, Mademoiselle de Guerrac, Vowles, or anybody else. This is where all detective fiction fails, it's never really true to life, inasmuch as the intelligence of the reader is invariably insulted by having some surprise sprung upon him in the last chapter which the solver of the mystery knew right from the beginning, but about which he kept silent simply so that the reader might be trapped.
'But how different is my situation! I can't go to the police and ask them about Sardonin. We know all that they know about him. At the moment we haven't any means of checking up on Mademoiselle de Guerrac or the Vicomtesse Anne de Guerrac, or whatever he calls herself. The only fact that we do know about her is that she handed me £5,000 worth of stumer banknotes.'
Le Clerq whistled. 'By Jove!' he said. 'Then Vowles is right—she's a crook.'
'Just a minute,' said Duplessis. 'Don't you realise that you're doing exactly what the mystery-story writer wants his reader to do?—you, a hardened pressman, too!'
Le Clerq grinned.
'Well, I suppose pressmen are as big fools as other people,' he said. 'But I'll be glad to know just why I'm like the mystery-story reader in coming to the conclusion that Mademoiselle is a crook because she's given you £5,000 worth of bad notes!'
'The reason is perfectly simple,' said Duplessis. 'You're jumping to a conclusion. When all is said and done the only thing that matters in life is truth and the best way to arrive at truth is logic. If some of our professional detectives knew a little more about mathematics, algebra, and geometry, there might be less murders unsolved. Just because you are taking a superficial view of this fact the mathematical equation in your mind is something like this.'
Duplessis pulled his notebook from his pocket, wrote swiftly, and passed it to Le Clerq, who read:
de Guerrac + £5,000 (counterfeit) = a crook.
'Well, what's the matter with that?' laughed Le Clerq. 'That seems to me to be a perfectly good equation.'
'Does it really?' said Duplessis. 'Well, let me give you a few more.'
He took the notebook from Le Clerq's hand, and wrote for a few seconds. He then threw it across the table, and Le Clerq read:
de Guerrac + £5,000 (counterfeit) = X.
X = (x.i.
'Well, P.D., what does this mean?' he said.
'Just this,' said Duplessis. 'We agree that de Guerrac + £5,000 (counterfeit) = a crook. We agree that a crook = X. But X. may equal one of three things—x.d., a deliberate crook, i.e., one who has deliberately endeavoured to buy my services with false money—x.i., an innocent crook; innocent because she doesn't know the money is counterfeit, and that somebody had palmed it on her—or, x.e., an enquiring crook who has deliberately handed me counterfeit notes in order to find out whether I was honest enough to take back the money to her today when it was arranged that I should see her to inform her whether I would handle this case or not, or whether I would endeavour to pay the money into my bank, or make some use of it before seeing her.
'Now,' continued Duplessis, 'I think we may eliminate two of these queries. This woman, if she meant what she said when she told me her original story, wouldn't have given me counterfeit money. That cancels x.d.—the deliberate crook.
'The woman is obviously intelligent, and we know that she didn't come to me until she had made full enquiries about me from Romanes. That cancels x.e.. Therefore, the only thing we have left is x.i.. And what does that mean? It means that somebody else has planted on this unfortunate woman—who probably knows little about high denomination English bank-notes—£5,000 of bad notes.
'Now,' continued. Duplessis, with a grin, 'can you think of a good reason for someone doing such a thing, because it seems quite simple and obvious to me.'
Le Clerq considered.
'No, I can't,' he said eventually. 'What's the reason?'
Duplessis lit another cigarette, and grinned at Le Clerq across the table.
'Just this, my old fathead,' he said. 'Whoever gave that money to Anne de Guerrac gave it to her because they knew she was going to give it to me, and because they thought when I discovered it was counterfeit I would tell her to go to blazes and refuse to have anything further to do with this business. And, don't you see she must have got it from somebody else? She didn't get it from a bank, did she? Banks don't issue counterfeit money.'
Le Clerq nodded. 'You're right, P.D.,' he said. 'It's funny how one never sees the obvious. What else have you got up your sleeve?'
'Well,' said Duplessis, 'there's one other point which also seems rather obvious to me. Is there anybody whom we might justifiably consider to know that Anne de Guerrac was coming to see me? Yes, there's Mr. John X. Vowles—for the very simple reason that he arrived shortly after she had left. He knew that she was coming to see me, and he suggested to my mind by telling me that she was known to every copper in Paris that she was a crook.'
'Now,' said Duplessis, 'why did he make that remark? He made it because he knew that directly he said "crook" I should think of the money she'd given me. I played into his hands. I promptly told him, as a proof of my idea of her integrity, that she'd given me in advance a large sum on account of expenses. And what does Mr. Vowles say then? Promptly he says: "If she's given you a cheque clear it before you consider the money to be yours." And here, Mr. Vowles, knowing what he does know, gives himself right away. And what is it that he does know? He admitted to me that he had been having this woman watched since she arrived in England. She's been in England only three days. You bet Vowles has been able to find out what I was able to find out this morning by a simple enquiry to my bank manager—that she has not got a bank account in this country. In other words, Vowles knew that she'd given me notes, but he said cheque just so that I should think he knew nothing about the bank-notes. Whereas I believe that Mr. Vowles knew all about the bank-notes for the very simple reason that I am firmly convinced that he gave them to de Guerrac to give to me.'
Le Clerq whistled.
'This is getting interesting, P.D.,' he said.
'Very interesting,' agreed Duplessis, 'and even, more interesting when we come to consider the fact that Anne de Guerrac informed me that Vowles was a horrible man, and Vowles, on his part, informed me that Anne de Guerrac is a crook. Does it not rather look to you as if there is some sort of partnership between our lady and our gentleman friend?'
'That's all very well,' protested le Clerq, 'but if that's so why should not she have known that the notes were counterfeit when she gave them to you?'
'Because, my dear fathead, if she had known they were counterfeit she would know also that the fact must be discovered within a few days. One of those notes, no matter how many people changed it, would have been presented at a bank within three or four days. It would have been traced back to me, and I should have known. If the woman's a crook she'd be clever enough to know that.'
'That's all very well,' said Le Clerq, 'but if there's some partnership between Vowles and Anne de Guerrac, why should he give her the counterfeit notes to give you?'
'I don't know,' said Duplessis. 'There are lots of things I don't know. But, now. J.L., let's be constructive. From the few facts we've got, let's work out a plan of campaign. I rely on you for your assistance. You know jolly well that behind all this business is a big newspaper story, and, in return for getting the inside stuff on that story and getting a scoop that will make every other paper sit up. You've got to help me.'
'I'm at your disposal, P.D.,' said Le Clerq. 'As a matter of fact, I bad a confidential talk with, the Editor this morning, and told him what had happened. He's given me a free hand. We want a big story; we want to boost our circulation. The late edition of The Echo is running us too close at the moment. This may put us ahead. What do you want me to do?'
'The first thing you might do,' said. Duplessis, 'is to do something, which, had you been a really intelligent man, you'd have done already. Look at a map, and what will you find? You will find another fact which is amusing—that the bungalow where Nirac was murdered happens, purely by coincidence one imagines, to be only seven miles from Bealthorpe where Vowles has his office. Your correspondent, Hastings, covers the whole of that area. He'll probably know lots of people in Bealthorpe just as he knows everybody in Birchgate. You've got to go down and see him.
'Hastings has got to do this. He's got to find out if Mr. John X. Vowles employs a secretary or a typist, and if he does, Hastings—without arousing suspicion in the girl's mind—has got to make it worth her while to give up her job with Vowles. Simultaneously if he doesn't already know Vowles he must scrape an acquaintanceship with him, which is easy enough—and suggest to Vowles just at the right moment that he knows of a secretary or typist, who is very intelligent, very cheap, and knows how to keep her mouth shut. If Vowles falls for it, by a strange coincidence my own typist will be this paragon of virtues. We've got to get her into Vowles' office somehow, and once she's there—with Hastings in the neighbourhood—we shall have a pretty good combination working in that part of the world. Can you fix that?'
'That's easy,' said Le Clerq. 'I'll telephone Hastings to come up and see me this evening. He's a good man, and he'll love this. It's the sort of job he likes.'
Duplessis signalled the waiter for the bill.
'To my mind,' said he, 'the most interesting part of the whole business is this—there must be some connection between the dead Nirac, Vowles, and Anne de Guerrac. There must be—even if it's only the fact that the three of them know Sardonin's name. We've got to work from that angle.'
'But how can you?' asked Le Clerq. 'Even if the three of them did know Sardonin's name, or actually knew him, how is that fact going to enable you to do anything?'
Duplessis sighed once more.
'Listen, my lad,' he said. 'Don't you realise this? De Guerrac has come to see me about Sardonin to tell me that he's innocent. Vowles, either accidentally, or somehow in connection with de Guerrac, comes to tell me that Sardonin is a crook and that de Guerrac is a crook. Nirac, dying in some lonely bungalow, finds Sardonin's name to be the last word he wants to utter. Do you mean to tell me that, whether there's any connection or not between de Guerrac and Vowles, they're not going to meet to discuss this death? If neither of them knew Nirac each of them will believe the other did. If they both knew Nirac they will certainly want to discuss it, even if they're sworn enemies. That's why I want to get Miss Day into Vowles' office. I've got an idea that Anne de Guerrac is going to call on Mr. Vowles shortly—or vice versa—and, as I want to see Vowles myself, I'd rather like to time my visit so that we three meet together.'
Le Clerq nodded. 'May I be allowed to ask what you want to see Vowles for?' he said.
Once more Duplessis sighed, the largest sigh of all.
'My dear old J.L.,' he said, 'once again you missed the whole crux of the situation. Now, at the moment, nobody—with the exception of Hastings, yourself and myself—knows that Nirac died after mentioning Sardonin's name. Even Mr. Vowles doesn't know. It seems to me to be the obvious thing for me to do to wander down and see Mr. Vowles to point out to him that it is rather a coincidence that, on the night when Anne de Guerrac has come to me and talked Sardonin, when he has followed her and talked Sardonin, at the very time he is in my office this Nirac is lying in a lonely bungalow also talking Sardonin. I'm going to suggest to Mr. Vowles just this—that, whilst the police don't know that Nirac said "Sardonin," they're not going to be in the remotest degree interested in Mr. Vowles, but if I tell them that Nirac used the word before he died, they're going to be very interested in anybody who knows anything about Sardonin. In other words, they may find that they want to question Mr. Vowles. Now, it may very easily be that Mr. Vowles doesn't want to attract the attention of the police at this moment. If he's an innocent man and doesn't care he's going to tell me to go to blazes, but If he's not he's going to tell me what I want to know.'
Le Clerq nodded./p>
'There are moments,' he said, 'when I really believe you've got a brain. What Is it you want to know from Vowles?'
Duplessis threw his cigarette end into an ash tray.
'I want to ask him,' he said, 'just how Nirac died, and who killed him, because I believe that Vowles or de Guerrac—or both of them—know.'
EXACTLY one fortnight after his interview with Mlle. de Guerrac in the Shoe Lane office at midnight, Duplessis, carefully dressed in brown, and with a smile which was almost too nonchalant, wandered down the High street at Bealthorpe, and looked for the office of Mr. John X. Vowles. He found it. Standing on the corner opposite an old church, the estate office—the facia of which proclaimed 'The Bealthorpe-Birchgate Estate Co., Ltd.'—was bathed in the last rays of a sun which had, for once, worked overtime. And the beauty of the day pleased Duplessis; he found it in keeping with the interview which he anticipated. Duplessis had an idea that Mr. Vowles was going to talk.
He pushed open the door, and found himself in an outer office. In the corner, seated before a typewriter, was Miss Day. She looked up, but gave no sign of recognition.
'Mr. Vowles?' asked Duplessis.
'If you'll wait a moment, I'll ask if he can see you,' she replied demurely.
The right eyelid of Mr. Duplessis flickered as she walked towards the door which led into the inner office, and the left eyelid of the admirable Miss Day flickered back.
After a moment, she reappeared.
'Mr. Vowles will see you, sir,' said Miss Day.
Duplessis walked into the inner office. Vowles, seated before a large oak desk, looked up with a grin. Duplessis, seating himself without invitation in an armchair, gazed around the room with interest. Plans of the surrounding country covered the walls. The office looked efficient and well-furnished, and Mr. Vowles looked a great deal better in it than he did out of it, thought Duplessis.
Vowles opened a drawer, took out a box of cigarettes, and, after licking the end of one, lit it. He was about to replace the box in the drawer when Duplessis, rising quickly, leaned across the desk, took the box from Vowles, and helped himself. He returned to his chair, and, leaning back, puffed at the cigarette, still regarding Vowles with amusement.
'Funny, aren't you?' said Vowles.
'You mustn't be rude, Vowles,' said Duplessis. 'You must always ask people to have a cigarette—even if you can't really afford it.'
Vowles sniffed. 'Cut the cackle,' he said. 'What is it you want?'
Duplessis grinned. 'I want to know all sorts of things, Johnny, my lad,' he said. 'And the funny part about it is that you are going to tell me all the things I want to know!'
'Am I?' he said, 'and why?'
Duplessis threw the cigarette away, and, taking his pipe and pouch from his pocket, proceeded to fill and light his pipe. Then he produced his tortoiseshell-rimmed spectacles, and gazed benevolently at Vowles, who, during all this business, had concealed his temper and impatience as best he could.
'I'll tell you why,' said Duplessis eventually. 'And there is more than one reason. Why did you give Anne de Guerrac the packet of stumer banknotes? That's the first thing I want to ask.'
Vowles sprung round on his revolving chair.
'Now listen here,' he said. 'I've had enough of you and your cock-and-bull stories. I told you that de Guerrac was a crook, and you wouldn't believe me. Have a look at me! Do I look the sort of man who's going to give a fool woman five thousand pounds' worth of counterfeit money? I wouldn't do it. I've got too much sense. Why should I do it?'
'I'll tell you,' said-Duplessis. 'Sardonin went to prison for forging your name to half-a-dozen cheques—so you say, and so you said in the witness-box—and, for some reason best known to you and Sardonin, he didn't think it worth while to make much of a fight against your charge. Very well; the next move in the game is that Anne de Guerrac comes over to England at the request of Sardonin's lawyer, who informs her that she is to make every endeavour to prove his innocence; that these were Sardonin's final instructions, and that, if she will apply to you, you will hand her a packet containing sufficient money to pay all necessary expenses. She comes to you, and you hand her the packet, and it is full of stumer bank-notes—well... didn't you know?'
'Listen, Mr. Clever,' he said. 'Doesn't it strike you as being funny that Sardonin, after getting away with forging my name and doing me down for nearly five thousand pounds, should leave a packet with me containing very nearly that amount to be handed to some young woman when she comes for it. Do you think I'm mad?'
'No, I don't, to tell you the truth, Vowles,' he said. 'I think that you're just careless sometimes. And why suggest that Sardonin handed you the packet to give her? Why should he? Surely you don't think that I'm fool enough to believe that he'd trust you with money! No... that money came from someone else—and it wasn't counterfeit when that someone handed it to you. You changed the notes, my lad!'
'Did I really?' snarled Vowles. 'How very funny we are, ain't we?'
He laughed and puffed at his cigarette, highly amused.
'Perhaps, Mr. Knowall, you'll tell me just who this mysterious someone was—this person who hands me five thousand pounds to give to the de Guerrac woman?'
Duplessis removed his pipe from his mouth and smiled archly at Vowles.
'Yes, I'll tell you,' he said, 'although you know perfectly well already, my friend. You got that money from a gentleman named Alphonse Nirac—a man who was found dead thirteen days ago in an empty bungalow at Birchgate—the bungalow to which you had sent him on the afternoon of the day on which you came up to London to see Anne de Guerrac—on the afternoon of the night on which you came to see me at my Shoe Lane office. That's where you got it, my friend... well?'
Vowles sprang to his feet. His eyes were blazing, and his fingers played with the heavy paper-weight on his desk. For a moment Duplessis thought that Vowles would spring at him and strike. But he continued to smile blandly. Then he recovered himself with an effort. He dropped back into his seat, and looked at Duplessis. After a moment he spoke, almost choking with suppressed rage.
'That's a lie, Duplessis,' he said '—a lie, and you know it. I tell you I don't know that those notes were counterfeit. I never knew they were counterfeit, and I still don't believe that they were. That cursed woman changed 'em. Why shouldn't she? There's every reason why she should.'
'Now that's interesting,' said Duplessis. 'So there's every reason why she should have changed the real notes for counterfeit ones, is there, my little Johnny lad. Well, you tell me why—and make it a good lie, my lad, or else I might not believe it—see?'
'What the hell do I care if you believe it or not!' Vowles snarled. His face was working with passion. 'I don't care what you believe. I'll tell you why she changed 'em. She changed 'em because she had got a few pounds between herself and starvation—that's why. She had to put up a show. She'd promised Sardonin that she would come over and help to get him out of the jug, and she had to pretend that she was doing it.'
'Yes,' sneered Duplessis. 'How do you know?'
'I don't know,' said Vowles. 'I'm guessin'—same as you are. Now, I'll tell you something else. I didn't know what was in that packet. I wanted to know, but the damned thing was sealed all over, and sealed with not only sealing-wax, but waxed thread and I couldn't open it. If I guessed that there was five thousand in that packet I'd have taken it to the police. An' why? Because, don't you see, you damned fool, that was the money that Sardonin stole from me; that was the money he got with the forged cheques plus a bit more that I suppose he'd saved. Sardonin's clever all right. He knows he's got to do his time, but he hands a sealed packet to his lawyer, an' tells him that he's to give it to this woman, so that he knows the money'll be all right when he comes out of quod. I told the lawyer that she would be seein' me, and he gave me the packet to give to her—an' why does he do that?
'I'll tell you why, because I suppose Sardonin has told him that the packet contained unimportant papers. He thought, the same as I did, that that packet contained plans and paper relating to this estate in which Sardonin is a partner with me. I give it to the woman, and she changes the notes, knowing damned well that she can always say that I changed 'em, an' it's only her word against mine! She's clever all right. She knows that she's got a chance of getting away with the story. She knows that if somebody goes to the police an' tells 'em that tale they'll half believe it right away. An' do you want to know why they will? I'll tell you, Mr. Clever, because I've been in quod once before, an' once a man's done time they'll believe anything against 'im! But she won't do it 'erself—'cos why? 'Cos everybody knows that she's a dope fiend. She's been takin' it for years, an' they might think that she's a bit off 'er 'ead. But if you tell 'em they might believe it, so she comes to you and strings you along, an' because you like 'er pretty ways you've fallen for it like the damned fool that you are.'
Duplessis smiled. 'Very pretty, Vowles,' he said amicably. 'I told you to tell me a good lie, and you've certainly done your best. But it's not quite good enough, my friend. You didn't get that packet from Sardonin's solicitor—or anybody else's solicitors—you got it from Alphonse Nirac, on the day he died, and I've got every reason to believe that it contained five thousand pounds in Bank of England notes. I've got every reason to believe that you chanced them, and, just remember this, Johnny, my lad, even if you believed that the money was the actual money which Sardonin got on your forged cheques—if ever he did forge your cheques—and even if you believed that this was his method of passing it to Anne de Guerrac, it's still a criminal offence for you to have changed the notes. But I don't believe you. I want to know why Nirac came here, and gave you that packet of money, and I want to know just what you know about Nirac, and why you changed over the money, and you're going to tell me the truth, Vowles, and if you'll keep your head shut for about five minutes I'm tell you just why you're going to tell me the truth.
'Would you like to listen quietly? Good. Well, here's the story as I see it, and here's the story as the police will see it if I go to them and tell them what I believe.
'First of all I would like you to know, all about the death of our late Mr. Alphonse Nirac. You've read your newspapers, and you know that the coroner's jury brought in a verdict of death from natural causes. They brought in this verdict for the very simple reason that they couldn't very well bring in anything else. All the medical evidence went to show that Nirac died in some sort of paralytic fit, and all the evidence went to show that Nirac was a man in a very bad state of health who might easily have had such a fit. The police were unable to find out anything about Nirac except that he had landed at Dover the day before from France, and that he had stayed the night in a Dover hotel and that he left the Dover hotel, and took a train to Birchgate. They believe that he got into the bungalow somehow for the same reason that the police-sergeant who found him went there—merely to escape from the rain.
'But what you don't know is that, whilst the police-sergeant was away telephoning, somebody that I know, who had stayed with Nirac, found that he wasn't dead. He was able to move, and before he died he said a name twice —'Sardonin—Sardonin.'
'And Anne de Guerrac tells me that she knows that Nirac came to England to see you; that he came to you to speak to you about the purchase of this very bungalow; she believes that he got into that bungalow with the key which you gave him, and that somehow somebody was able to get that key from Nirac so that it was not discovered on his body after death. Nirac, according to Anne de Guerrac, was to hand you a packet containing five thousand pounds in banknotes. She says that he did so; she says that you must have changed the bank-notes because she knows that the original notes in the packet were good notes, and not at all counterfeit.
'Now, supposing she and I go to the police, and tell them this story. What will be the result? If you deny that you saw Nirac on that day who is going to believe you? He left Dover for Birchgate by an early train. He arrived at Birchgate at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and it is a strange coincidence that you were not in Bealthorpe on that afternoon.'
'Yet, for some reason best known to yourself, late that afternoon you dash up to town, and proceed to watch Anne de Guerrac, who has been in London for a few days only, but whom you have been having watched. You follow her to my office, and you tell me that she is a crook, suggesting that any cheque she may have given me will be returned. You knew that she had no banking account. You, yourself, have just said that "she had only a few pounds between herself and starvation." How did you know? You knew jolly well that she had no banking account, and you knew just as well that the notes to the envelope were counterfeit because you changed them, and you thought that I would immediately chuck up the whole business, and leave this unfortunate woman in a position in which she was absolutely helpless.
'If we go to the police they will believe our story. They have not been particularly interested in the death of Nirac because they believe he was an odd stranger who went into an empty house because he felt a fit coming on, and who died there. But if we tell them that Nirac came to England to meet you; that he brought you a packet of notes worth five thousand pounds; that we had every reason to believe that you substituted counterfeit notes for the real ones, don't you realise that every action on your part during that day substantiates our story?
'You'll be in queer street. You admit that you've been in prison once, and I shouldn't be at all surprised if you didn't go there again. Firstly, you will be suspected of having something to do with Nirac's death—even if they don't suspect you of that they will want to know why you left him alone In that bungalow, and where the key was. They will want to know about the money, and the only person who could clear you by saying that he didn't give you the package—Nirac—is dead.
'Anne de Guerrac lied to me—at least, she didn't lie, but she didn't tell me the whole truth. She didn't tell me that you sent round that packet of notes to her hotel on the evening of the day she came to see me.
'How will you explain to the police about obtaining possession of five thousand pounds in notes after you left Nirac? If you say that the notes were good ones that makes it all the worse for you. If Nirac didn't give them to you where did you get them?'
Vowles looked straight in front of him. He looted like a trapped animal Eventually he spoke. His voice was hoarse, and his hands were shaking.
'It's a lie,' he said. 'A damnable lie!'
Duplessis got up, refilled his pipe, and lit it, then he took off his spectacles, and slipped them into his top waistcoat pocket.
'That's the joke, Johnny, my lad,' he said. 'I'm with you for once. I believe that it is a lie, but it's a damned good one. It's so good that the police on the evidence of Anne de Guerrac and myself will have quite a lot to say to Mr. John X. Vowles. It's such a good lie that even if you don't go back to prison it will ruin you by the time the case is through.
'I'm not particularly clever, but I'm not going to be made a fool of by you. You're going to come across with what I want, and you're going to tell me the truth; or Anne de Guerrac and myself are going to the police to do our duty as law-abiding citizens! I've got you' where I want you—you mean, grasping, greasy-hatted little liar! Well, what's it to be?'
Vowles rested his head between his hands.
'You've got me beat, Duplessis,' he said. 'I was a fool. I didn't think you had the brains. I'm beat, and I know it. Come back here at nine o'clock tonight, and I'll spill the beans. I don't want to talk now—I feel ill.'
Duplessis grinned. 'I bet you do,' he said. 'I'll come back at nine o'clock. So long, Johnny!'
He walked out of the office, solemnly winking at Miss Day as he passed her in the outer office.
Outside, in the street, he looked quickly around him, crossed the road, and unostentatiously joined a man of medium height who was looking in a draper's shop window.
Duplessis looked into the window, too. 'Don't turn your head, Hastings,' he said. 'But hang around, and watch Vowles' office. I want an exact description of anyone who goes in there between now and nine o'clock. Understand?'
'You bet,' said Hastings.
IT was twenty minutes after Duplessis had spoken to Hastings outside the draper's shop that he wandered into the bar parlour of the King's Arms at the end of Bealthorpe High Street and met Le Clerq, who was waiting him. Duplessis wasted no time. 'I've just left Vowles' office,' he said, 'and Hastings is going to keep an eye on the place till I go back there at nine o'clock. Vowles has got the wind up, and he says he's going to tell me the true story at nine; but he won't—for a very simple and obvious reason.'
'Which is?' queried Le Clerq.
'Which is—that he can't,' replied Duplessis. 'Vowles is in a bad jam—almost as bad a one as we're in. Originally he got mixed up in this business simply because he was playing some game of his own, and now the more he struggles to get out of it the deeper in he'll get. Listen to this.
'I accused Vowles of meeting Nirac at Birchgate on the afternoon of the day that he died. When I mentioned Nirac's name Vowles wasn't a bit surprised. He didn't say "Who's Nirac?" and you must remember that there was no way in which Vowles could know Nirac's name—even the police don't know it to this day. We know it because Anne de Guerrac told me that Nirac was expected, and described him. I built up a good case against Vowles. I pointed out to him that the bungalow was his. I also pointed out to him that no entrance had been forced except by the police and Hastings.
'How, then, did Nirac get inside, except by a key, and how was it that no key was found on Nirac? Very obviously because someone had opened the door for Nirac to go in, and that same person had left the bungalow before Nirac's death, and, very possibly, before his paralytic fit started. If Vowles had had any sense he would have told me to go to blazes, because nobody could have proved that he murdered Nirac, and, even supposing that he let the man into the bungalow, and then left him there to have a fit, that is no crime. Anyway. I pressed hard on the point that Vowles had seen Nirac on the day that he died, and that he had got from Nirac the notes, and had changed them for counterfeit notes, simply because I knew I was building up an excellent police case against Vowles, and because Vowles, having, as he told me himself, been in prison before, the police might be quite severe with him.
'Now, what does Vowles do? He first of all says he got the money from Sardonin's lawyers: that he got it in a package so cleverly sealed that it was impossible for him to open it; that he would have opened it if he could; that he handed it to Anne de Guerrac believing it contained relatively important papers. I promptly accused him of being a liar. I told him that he got the notes from Nirac, and for some reason he finds it worth while to allow me to think that is the truth, when all the time I happen to know that Vowles had got those notes from Sardonin's lawyers. So, in a nutshell, here is the position. In order to keep me quiet Vowles voluntarily confesses that he got that packet of notes from Nirac, that he saw Nirac on that afternoon, and that he was, possibly, with Nirac in the bungalow. Why does he do this? Obviously, only for one reason. Not knowing that I have been to Sardonin's solicitors, he wishes to prevent me from going there?
'Now, let's go back, and reiterate my interview of last week with Sardonin's lawyers. Sardonin, just before his committal to prison, hands a heavily-sealed packet to his lawyers, informing them that in the event of his conviction it is to be handed to Mr. Vowles. He also orders that Anne de Guerrac is to be written to, and informed that in the event of his conviction she is to come to England, and will be handed a packet by Mr. Vowles containing certain instructions, but she isn't told where this packet is coming from.
'Two days after my original interview with Vowles I saw Anne de Guerrac. I said nothing to her about the notes being counterfeit. Obviously, she doesn't know that they're counterfeit. I asked her where she got those notes. She told me from Vowles. She got them in the evening of the day on which she came to see me. I asked her if she knew where Vowles got them from. She said Yes, Vowles had got them from the man who had been found dead in the bungalow at Birchgate, that his name was Nirac, and that she knew he was coming to England to bring the money to Vowles. I asked her why she hadn't told me that she had got the money from Vowles, more especially as she had warned me against him. She replied, quite sincerely, I believe, that he brought it to her because he had been told by Sardonin's lawyers to do so, but that, in spite of that fact, she distrusts and loathes Vowles, and believes that he was Sardonin's evil influence, and that it's through Vowles that Sardonin's now in prison.
'Now, all this seems rather a mix-up; and I think the solution isn't going to be very difficult. The point is this. Does de Guerrac know where Vowles really got the notes, and is she trying to foist on his shoulders an accusation of being concerned in the death of Nirac, simply, because she dislikes him, and wishes to be revenged on him because she believes he caused Sardonin's downfall? Or, does she really and honestly believe that Nirac brought over those notes? On the other hand, why is it that Vowles prefers me to think that he met Nirac on that afternoon, and got the money from him rather than I should know that he actually did get it from Sardonin's lawyers?
'Now bear this in mind. Early in my talk with him this afternoon he told me that he had got the money from Sardonin's lawyers. Half-an-hour later he admits that he got it from Nirac. What had made him change his mind? That's what I want to know, and if I can find an answer to that question we shall have progressed.
'Now, the whole Joke is that Vowles doesn't know that I've seen Sardonin's lawyers; he doesn't know that I've confirmed his original story, namely, that they gave him the package, believing, themselves, that it contained important papers. For some reason best known to himself, he's prepared to let me believe that he got the notes from Nirac, and when I go back at nine o'clock tonight he's going to have some wonderful cock-and-bull story which will (a) explain why Nirac was to give him the notes; (b) explain why and how he knew Nirac was coming: (c) how he knew Nirac's name; and (d) a possible motive that Nirac would have for giving him counterfeit notes—because, whatever happens, Vowles must protect himself from the charge that he changed the notes.
'I don't see how we can go any further at the moment, J.L., and I think the best thing to do is to have some dinner.'
They went upstairs to the dining room, and ordered supper. In the middle of it Hastings arrived.
'Some fellow has gone into Vowles' office,' he said. 'He came wandering down the High Street about half an hour ago; he's a foreigner—a Frenchman, I should say. He can only speak a few words In English. He actually asked me where Vowles' office was, and I showed him. Miss Day had gone; she had left some twenty-five minutes, and Vowles opened the door himself. This French fellow went in, and stayed with Vowles for about five minutes—certainly not more than ten. Then he came out. He had an envelope in his hand, and I got the impression that Vowles had just given it to him. They nodded to each other, and this fellow walked rapidly off to the place where the motor bus stops—the one that goes to Frampton Gate. That's about eight miles from here on the coast. Then Vowles went back into the office.'
'That's interesting,' said Duplessis. 'I wonder who this fellow may be. Vowles seems to be having a lot of visitors lately—Nirac, a fortnight ago, who was a foreigner, and now this fellow. I wonder what his name is? What did he look like, Hastings?'
'Oh, I don't know,' said Hastings. 'He might have been anything. He was badly dressed, and had bowed shoulders—a thin, meagre, little man with heavily rimmed eyes. I noticed that his hands were trembling when he spoke to me. He might nave been a clerk—anything, but he certainly hadn't got enough money to buy himself a decent suit of clothes, and his shoes needed repairing.'
Duplessis looked at his watch. 'Well, he may, or may not, have anything to do with it,' he said, 'and I think it would be a good idea, Hastings, if you waited until that 'bus comes back, and had a few words with the driver. Find out just where this fellow was going to. He would have to ask the conductor to put him off at some place or other—he wouldn't know the country. Try and get a line on it. Find out where he is—where he's going—anything you can. Come back here at ten o'clock. I should think I'll be back by then from my interview with Vowles.'
'Right ho!' said Hastings, and went off.
Le Clerq passed the time as best he could reading old copies of Punch, and smoking innumerable cigarettes. He had become keenly interested in the mystery which was intriguing them all. Behind it he smelt a first-class newspaper story, and he was certain that, somehow or other, Duplessis would worry out the truth.
At five-to-ten Duplessis returned, his hat over one eye, and obviously pleased with life. He dropped into a chair opposite Le Clerq in the deserted dining-room, and took a cigarette from his friend's proffered case.
'I thought so,' he said. 'Our dear little Vowles has done to de Guerrac exactly what she tried to do to him. She tried to push the responsibility of the Nirac business on to Vowles, and he's returned the compliment. Here's his story.
'He says that he told me this afternoon that he got the money from Sardonin's lawyers because he wanted to keep free from any responsibility of having met Nirac on the afternoon that he died, and also because his original instructions were that he would get the package from Sardonin's lawyers. He says that a day or two after his committal somebody or other posted to him a letter written from Sardonin—a letter which Sardonin had written a week before. In this letter Sardonin said that he was sorry he caused such a lot of trouble, but the as he was paying for it with two years' imprisonment, he'd be awfully glad If Vowles would do him a favour—if he'd take a package which his lawyers had and would hand it to Mademoiselle de Guerrac when she came and asked for it. But, said he, a week after that be got another letter, which, unfortunately, he destroyed—a letter from this man named Nirac, who was then in France, pointing out that he had the package of which Mr. Vowles had been told; that he was coming to England just for the day, and that he would like to meet Mr. Vowles somewhere where be might privately hand him the package. Vowles says he wrote a reply, and said that a good place to be with him would be The Bungalow, at Birchgate, because Nirac could come straight to Dover, and from there to Birchgate, where it would be convenient for Vowles to meet him. Vowles says he went there in the early afternoon to The Bungalow, and waited for Nirac, who, presently, appeared. But imagine, Vowles' surprise when, five minutes later, Mademoiselle de Guerrac appears, she having also been informed by a letter from Nirac that he's coming to hand the package to Mr. Vowles. Vowles says that Nirac handed him the package, and that he obeyed Sardonin's request, and handed it to the woman. Nirac then said that he had private business to discuss with Mademoiselle de Guerrac and Vowles went and left them together in The Bungalow. He says that it seemed they weren't very well disposed to each other, and, knowing de Guerrac's uncontrollable temper he wouldn't be at all surprised if she hadn't created some circumstance which ended in Nirac's fit. Vowles said Nirac looked very ill.'
Duplessis blew a smoke-ring, and gazed at it as it sailed across the room. 'Observe the situation, J.L.,' he said 'How these two people love each other! De Guerrac tells me a story which makes it appear that Vowles met Nirac that afternoon, and was with him before, or when, he became ill. Vowles counters by telling another story—one which makes de Guerrac to be the responsible person.'
Le Clerq pondered. 'And which do you believe, P.D.?' he asked.
'I don't know,' said Duplessis. 'I feel this way. I distrust Vowles because he's trying to deceive me but I don't feel that the woman is trying to deceive me. I feel that up to a point she's honest and sincere, and that after that point she's doing things without my knowledge, but for the purpose of carrying out some plans of her own.'
'What do you intend to do?' asked Le Clerq. 'Have you got any line of action?'
'I have,' said Duplessis. 'When in doubt, don't! Don't you realise this Nirac came to this country for a reason? Obviously, according to their own statement—and there's some grain of truth under all these lies—both Vowles and Anne de Guerrac were interested in Nirac. Nirac is dead, but the situation remains the same. There's something afoot, and in a minute either Anne de Guerrac or Vowles will make another move. Obviously things can't be left as they are. Something's got to happen, it stands to reason that Sardonin requested his lawyers to hand that package to Vowles for some definite purpose. I believe that purpose was that the woman should have the money in order to attempt to prove his innocence. I'm not certain whether Vowles substituted counterfeit notes for the real ones or not. It's the sort of thing he might easily do. He might even feel justified in doing so, telling himself that he was taking back his own money—the money of which Sardonin had defrauded him. But I have no proof of that, and, for some unknown reason, which I can't fathom, I feel that Vowles may be telling the truth when he says that he didn't change that money. In other words, we've come to a full stop. We can go to the police and tell them what we know, in which case nothing will happen at all, because there's not one shred of definite evidence to connect either de Guerrac or Vowles with Nirac's death. Whereas, if we're patient, and watch closely, something may happen which will Rive us a fresh lead.'
'I think you're right, Duplessis,' said Le Clerq. 'Hallo, here's Hastings coming up the stairs. I'd know his step anywhere.'
The door opened, and Hastings came into the room. His face was as white as a sheet. Little beads of perspiration stood cut on his forehead. He was gasping for breath, and had obviously been running.
'Take a pew, Hastings,' said Duplessis, 'and have a whisky and soda. If you try and talk now we certainly shan't understand what you say. Take it quietly, m'lad.'
Hastings gulped down his drink, then he leaned forward, his hands clutching the arms of the chair.
'I went up to the bus stop,' he said, 'and waited for the Frampton Gate bus to come back. I know the conductor, and I asked him about this fellow—this funny little foreigner. He said that the man had got on the bus. and had asked to be dropped at Smugglers' Rest. Smugglers' Rest is a little house that stands at the top of the old Frampton Gate. It's called Smugglers' Rest because it used to be a hut where smugglers stored their goods pending collection. A couple of years ago the place was rebuilt, and turned Into a little villa. It's owned by the Bealthorpe-Birchgate Estate Company.
'Now, Kennedy—that's the conductor—wondered what the devil the fellow would be doing going out to Smugglers' Rest. Nobody would ever take that place—it's too isolated. On a windy night it shakes. It's an awful jerry-built place—most of Vowles' places are. Now Kennedy was interested. He stopped the bus at the nearest point to the house and watched this man walk across the fields towards it. Kennedy kept the bus back for a minute or two. He waited until the man had nearly reached the house—until he saw him put his hand in his pocket, obviously to get out the key—then he came back. I got into the 'bus, and waited till it started off again. You see, it makes one more journey past Frampton Gate to Dellthorpe on the other side, and back again.
'I was as impatient as the deuce. Eventually, the 'bus started. I had got an idea,' said Hastings, an awful idea. I remembered the way that the sergeant and I had found Nirac in that other place, and wondered if we were going to find this fellow like that. I dismissed the idea as being absurd. Kennedy stopped the 'bus at Smugglers' Rest for me, and I walked across the field. I walked round to the front of the house, and tried to look through the windows, but the blinds were down. Then I went round to the back—the blinds were down there. Then it suddenly occurred to me that, had this fellow got a key, be might have opened the front door, and not locked it after him, He had got to come back, anyway. I ran back to the front of the house, and tried the door. It was open. I went In.'
Hastings gave a little shudder.
'I found him in the room on the right of the door, just inside the hall. He was all twisted up; his face looked as if it had been all screwed up with something. He'd obviously died In terrible pain—and he was dead right enough. I ran out of the house, ran back to the 'bus and told Kennedy what had happened, and we started to drive back to Bealthorpe. But, as luck would have It, on the way we met the Sergeant on the bicycle and we took him back with us. He's there now. I got back as quickly as I could, and came up here to tell you. I wanted you to know first.'
Duplessis lit a cigarette. 'I thought something would happen in a minute,' he said. 'This is where we get our fresh start. Had this fellow got anything on him, Hastings?'
'Nothing,' said Hastings, 'no passport, no railway ticket, nothing at all. He had a few pounds is English money.'
'It's a funny thing,' said Duplessis. 'a funny thing. It seems to me that people come over here for the express purpose of meeting Mr. Vowles. They meet Mr. Vowles, and then they die. I wonder what was in that envelope that you saw, Hastings? I wonder if It were the key of the Smugglers' Rest? I wonder if it were something else?'
IT was half-past one in the morning when Duplessis appeared in the billiard room at the King's Arms, and interrupted Le Clerq and Hastings in their fifth game.
'Look here, Hastings,' said Duplessis, 'you get off home, and go to bed. You've done a good day's work today, but there's even more important work to be done tomorrow. Somehow, I want you to find that sergeant of yours, and get out of him the police surgeon's report on this fellow who was found up at Smugglers' Rest. I want to know how he died.'
'That won't be difficult,' said Hastings. 'I know the police, surgeon. I'll get that out of him all right.'
'Good,' said Duplessis. 'I shall be here in the morning, but I expect to be leaving in the afternoon, so let me know as much as you can before I go.'
Hastings nodded. 'I shan't be sorry to go to bed,' he said. 'We're not used to this excitement in Bealthorpe. Good-night.'
Le Clerq put his cue back in the rack.
'Well, P.D.,' he said, 'have you thought it out? What are you going to do about it?'
'It isn't so difficult as it seems,' said Duplessis. 'After all, there's nothing like the truth, and even if Vowles and Anne de Guerrac like to go on fabricating stories there's going to come a time when they've got to tell the truth just for their own sakes, and that time is coming very shortly, I believe.
'Take the situation with this man who's been found dead at Smugglers' Rest. It isn't too good for Vowles. Of course, Vowles may consider himself to be safe, because, after all. I don't think anybody could actually prove that he had anything to do with this second death, any more than they could prove that he had with the first. Yet, at the same time, it stands to reason that no man's nerves are going to stand continuous shocks. Get your hat, old bean. Let's go along and see Mr. Vowles. They tell me he lives in the street almost opposite. I think well try a little third degree.'
THEY soon found Vowles' house. It was a pretty, white-painted house with some tendrils of ivy overhanging an old-fashioned porch. The place looked attractive in the bright moonlight. Duplessis seized the knocker, and banged loudly on the door. There was no reply, and it was only after continuous bombardment with the knocker that a window was opened on the first floor and Vowles' head appeared.
'Good morning, Vowles,' called Duplessis. 'Come down and open the door, will you? We want to talk to you.'
'Well, I don't want to talk to you,' said Vowles. 'I've had enough of you. You mind your own business, and leave me to mind mine. Who the 'ell do you think you are, knocking people up at night!'
Duplessis lit a cigarette. 'Don't you like it?' he sneered. 'What are you going to do about it? Send for the police. That might be a good idea. They might be interested to know that that little French friend of yours, who called soon after I left this afternoon, has been found dead up at Smugglers' Rest. Don't you think that might interest them?'
Vowles' face was ghastly in the moonlight.
'That's a damn lie,' he said. 'It must be a lie. Look 'ere, what the devil—?'
'Cut the cackle, Vowles,' said Duplessis. 'Come down, and open the door. You're sot in a position to argue, my friend.'
Three minutes later Duplessis, Le Clerq, and Vowles were seated in the pleasant sitting-room on the ground floor. Vowles, who had slipped on a check dressing-gown, was, obviously in a state of nerves. Duplessis threw a cigarette across the table to Vowles.
'Not feeling so good, are, you?' he said. 'And I don't wonder at it. You know, Vowles, you're a first-class mug. Take a tip from me, and give it up.'
A little of Vowles' old antagonism returned. 'I'm a first-class mug, am I?' he said. 'All right. Why?'
'Why?' sneered Duplessis. 'You poor fool. So I have to tell you why, do I? All right. Here goes. I'm going to tell you why, and the funny thing is that you've got to agree that I'm right. You see, Vowles, life is divided roughly into two parts—the part which is true, and the part which is lies. You've got to belong to one of those two parts.
'You've either got to be logical—that is, truthful—or you've got to be a liar, but the devil of it is that if you're a liar you've got to be clever, and you're not clever, Vowles. I'll tell you why. I don't care whether you know anything about what happened to Nirac before he died. I don't care whether you had anything to do with this new death. But I do know this—if you didn't, in both cases it looks as if you did. And if you did, it's going to be pretty hard for you to prove you didn't. So; what hope have you got, anyway? I don't want to bore you, but here, briefly, is the situation as far as you're concerned.
'Anne de Guerrac says you were the last person to see Nirac alive. You retaliate by saying that she was the last person to see him alive. But you can't say that about this fellow. I had a man watching your office after I left. This fellow, who's dead, actually asked him where your place was. You were seen handing him an envelope, and he went straight away to Smugglers' Rest and found whatever was waiting for him. But the point is this, Vowles—did you know what was waiting for that man at Smugglers' Rest? Now, be careful, you've told me a lot of lies today. One said this afternoon that you were prepared to allow me to believe that you had received that package from Nirac rather than I should go and see Sardonin's solicitors and hear that the package came from them. You poor fool. Hadn't you got enough brains to realise that they would be the first people I'd go and see? Then, when I came back this evening, you've got another pretty story you tell me. But, because I saw you were frightened this afternoon, you thought that I would believe it was the truth. Now, let's have no more lies, Vowles. Because, if I believe you're lying, I'll take you straight round to the station now, and get a charge made. The police'll be Jolly glad to hold somebody, even if it's only on suspicion, and, to tell you the truth, I don't particularly want to do that, Vowles. I don't want you arrested.'
'What d'yer mean?' said Vowles, passing his tongue over his lips, which were dry and almost white. 'What d'yer mean—you don't want me arrested?'
'I'll tell you what I mean,' said Duplessis with a grin. 'I want you so that I can come and worry you. I want you here so that I can confront you with fact after fact, and add up and subtract your poor, silly lies, and so get at the truth. You're no good to me in a cell; but, take the tip from me, Vowles. I want the truth tonight, or that's where you're going to be.
'Now, first of all, this fellow who died tonight. Where is his passport? Don't worry to tell me you've not got it I suppose you're going to tell me that he got into England without one, or that he threw it away after he had arrived. There was nothing on that man when they found him, except a few pounds in English money. You've got his passport, haven't you?'
'Have I, Mr. Clever?' sneered Vowles. 'Well, I haven't. He didn't have a passport. He came over on a day trip from Boulogne. You don't need a passport for that.'
'I see,' said Duplessis. 'So you knew he was coming over did you? You expected him? You knew he wouldn't have a passport? So that's how Nirac got over. Is it? Day trip from Boulogne? I see. That's a pretty good idea. These visitors of yours aren't going to stay in England? They come over on day trips? A very good idea. Clever, Vowles. It's so much easier to kill a man when he hasn't got a passport on him, isn't it? Then nobody knows who he is.'
Vowles glared at Duplessis, and his fingers, holding the half-smoked cigarette shook.
'Well, I don't know anythin' about it,' he said stubbornly, 'and, what's more, I don't care; I'm entitled to do my business. If people come to my office I'm entitled to see 'em. What 'appens to 'em when they get outside I don't know, and I don't care. What do I care if you go to the-police? What can they prove? Although I might be able to tell 'em somethin', I don't know anythin' about this feller. I know 'is name—Dupont—but I know somebody who might know somethin' about it...' Vowles grinned viciously... 'What about Mademoiselle de Guerrac?' he said. 'It might be a good thing to see if she was in the neighbour'ood of the Smugglers' Rest tonight. It might be a good thing to find out just what she's been doin' today. That's all I've got to say. Now, you get out. I'm sick of you.'
Duplessis smiled, 'We'll go when we want to, Vowles,' he said. 'Anyhow, I know what your attitude is. I don't want to do it, but I'm going to do it. I'm going to the police. The dead can't be brought to life, Vowles, but it's an extraordinary coincidence that these people—these strange individuals who come over on day trips—should die after they've met you. I'm going to make it my business to see that the others don't die when they come over.'
Vowles' face turned grey. Duplessis's eyes gleamed, and he continued quickly. 'So there are some others are there, you lousy little liar? There are some more coming over, and you're waiting for them like a spider? I'm going to know something more about this Bealthorpe-Birchgate Estate Company. There's something foul going on, Vowles, and you're in it—in it up to the neck, and if you won't speak here you'll speak somewhere else—somewhere where they'll make you speak. You look to me just like the sort of fellow who ought to stand on a six foot drop with a really nice piece of manila rope round his neck, and I've got an idea that that's where you'll end.'
Vowles tried to speak, but the sound that came from between his lips was a gasp.
'Now, look,' he said, 'I'll tell yer I don't know anythin' about this—I don't know 'ow these fellers died. If I knew I'd tell yer. I'd do anythin' to get rid of yer with yer damn, sneakin' pryin' questions.'
'That's all right,' said Duplessis. 'Don't get excited. I don't want to know how those fellers died. I just want to know what this man, Dupont, came to see you about. You expected him, didn't you? How do you know his name? The same way that you knew Nirac's, for the very simple reason that you had had communication with him before. You're a fool, Vowles. You've got some game on—probably some low-down, sneaking game. You're not a big enough man to commit murder—you haven't got the guts. But fate has been a little bit unkind to you, and on two occasions your little plans have been rather upset by the fact that the central character in each case has died. Take a tip from me, Vowles, you get ahead with the story. What did Nirac come over for? What did Dupont come over for?'
Vowles got up and walked to the sideboard where a bottle of whisky stood. He helped himself liberally and gulped down the spirit neat. Then he turned round and faced Duplessis.
'Look 'ere,' he said, 'it's no good beatin' about the bush; I'll tell yer what I know about Nirac, and I'll tell yer what I know about Dupont. I haven't done anythin'—only what's legitimate business. We've got some 'ouses round 'ere. The Bungalow at Birchgate is one of them—Smugglers' Rest is another. Now then, these 'ouses were built for some clients that Sardonin got—French' people.
'When Sardonin went to quod I 'ad a bit of a row with 'is lawyers about this business—'e's 'alf-partner with me yer see. They don't like me. They said I'd got to be jolly careful 'ow I ran that business while 'e was in quod.
'Well, as yer know, Sardonin's done me down. 'E 'ad the only money I've got, and I don't see why I shouldn't try and get a bit of it back. I wanted to get the premiums on these places, so I wrote to the people, and told 'em if they liked to come over and see the places now that they're finished, I'd pay their fares. Nirac came over. Sardonin told me 'e was a French business man. 'E was going to buy The Bungalow at Birchgate.
'I went over there and met 'im, and showed 'im the place. But I'll tell you something'. I'll take my dyin' oath that I left Nirac outside that place at Birchgate, and the door was locked... when she comes along—de Guerrac. I want to know 'ow Nirac got back into The Bungalow. There's only one way 'e would 'ave got back. She let 'im in, and 'ow did she let 'im in? Well, she must 'ave a key. It's easy enough for 'er to have one. She's Sardonin's girl—'e was supposed to marry 'er, and she's probably up against me for sellin' the places while Sardonin's in quod. But what do I care about that?
'Now then, this feller, Dupont, arrives. Funny little feller. Where the devil 'e was goin' to get the money to pay for Smugglers' Rest I don't know. Six 'undred quid we want for that place, and 'e don't look worth tuppence to me. Any'ow, it was Sardonin's business, and as long as the money was paid, what did I care? Dupont said 'e wanted to see the 'ouse, and I gave 'im the key in an envelope. 'E went off. Well, now yer say 'e's dead, but I don't know why 'e's dead. 'Ow should I know ?'
Duplessis lit another cigarette.
'All right, Vowles. Just let's imagine, for the sake of argument, that your story's true. Isn't it rather a coincidence that these two men should die, and that they should both elect to die in one of your houses?'
Vowles pondered. 'Look 'ere, Mr. Duplessis,' he said. 'There's somethin' funny about this—somethin' that I don't understand. You take this feller, Dupont. All the time 'e was in my office this afternoon 'e was shakin' and tremblin'. 'E couldn't keep still. The eyes were all funny. I noticed it, and d'yer know why I noticed it? 'Cause Nirac looked just the same. Both of 'em looked to me as if they was damned ill, but I can't tell yer why.'
Duplessis thought for a moment. 'Well, the police surgeon will have something to say about that, I expect.' he said. 'But, tell me, Vowles, who are the other people who are coming over? And where are their houses?'
'There's two more,' said Vowles. 'A feller with a funny name, Baourdat, and another feller called Ragosin. Ragosin is supposed to take a fairly big place we've got. It's called 'The Last House.' It's over at Chellingford—six miles away. It's called 'The Last House' 'cause it's the last 'ouse in the village, see?
'Well, that was Ragosin. Baourdat—'e's takin' a good place, too. 'E's takin' The Priory Lodge at Birchgate—about two miles from The Bungalow. Then we've got another place—The Old Mill Cottage at Eastgate. That's on the other side of Birchgate—about nine miles from 'ere. Now, there's been trouble about that place. Sardonin's lawyers say that I'm not to sell it or dispose of it in any way. You see, Sardonin built that place for 'imself . 'E was goin' to live there with de Guerrac when they got married.... If they ever did get married,' added Vowles with a sneer. 'Anyway, they served me with a notice that said that Sardonin 'ad paid a deposit on the property, and I wasn't to dispose of it—and it's true enough, 'e 'ad paid a deposit, and, apparently, I can't get rid of the place—it's got to stay there until 'e comes out.'
'You know, Vowles,' said Duplessis, 'I'm beginning to like you. You're becoming quite intelligent. I actually believe you're telling the truth. Now, you can prove your still further intelligence by taking me to see these places tomorrow. We wont worry about the Smugglers' Rest—the police will be too interested in that at the moment, although they probably won't connect Dupont's death with that in any way. But we'll go and see The Bungalow at Birchgate. Well see the Chellingford House, The Priory Lodge, and we might even look at The Old Mill Cottage at Eastgate. I'm rather interested in these houses of yours, Vowles.'
'I don't care,' said Vowles. 'You can' see 'em with pleasure. I've got nothing to be afraid or ashamed of.'
'All right,' said Duplessis. 'We'll let you continue with your beauty sleep. I'll come round in the morning to your office at eleven o'clock, and we'll make a little tour of inspection. Good-night, Vowles.'
Duplessis got up, and, followed by Le Clerq, walked to the sitting-room door. He had his hand on the door-handle when Vowles spoke.
'Look 'ere, guv'ner,' said Vowles. 'I don't understand you. You were supposed to be in this business to try and prove that Sardonin didn't twist me for nearly five thousand quid. Well, your interest don't seem to stop there. You seem interested in all sorts of things that aren't any concern of Sardonin's. 'E's in quod, and I think 'e'll stay there, and I'll tell you what think. Sardonin is pretty well known in Paris—so is du Guerrac. Dupont didn't like the pair of 'em, neither did Nirac. It seems to me there's somethin' on—somethin' between these people, who come over to see these places which Sardonin 'ad arranged to sell 'em, and this woman of 'is. I believe de Guerrac could tell yer a great deal more than I can. I believe she knows what's behind all this. I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't her 'erself.'
Duplessis considered, for a moment before he spoke. 'Do you know, Vowles,' he said eventually, 'I shouldn't be surprised If you weren't right. I don't think I like Anne de Guerrac.'
LE CLERQ and Duplessis were seated at breakfast on the following morning when Hastings appeared. Hastings was one of those men who are quite unable to prevent their faces from showing their state of mind, and, obviously, he was excited.
'I think I've pulled a break, Mr. Duplessis,' he said. 'You remember you asked me to find out what the police-surgeon thought about this fellows death up at Smugglers' Rest. Well, he's coming round to talk to you about it. He should be here in a few minutes. You see, he's not a bad sort of surgeon. As a matter of fact, he's rather keen on anything that's a bit mysterious, and I told him about Mr. Le Clerq being on the staff of a good London paper, and I rather fancy that he thinks there's a chance of seeing his name in print. Anyhow, he said he'd come round and tell you what he thought about it. Maybe he'll be able to tell you something about Nirac too.'
Duplessis nodded. 'Good work, Hastings,' he said. 'Now, I want you to do something else for me, only be careful, and don't be too obvious.
'Vowles told me last night that the Bealthorpe-Birchgate Estate Company was owned by himself and Sardonin, who, of course is, and has been for some time, in prison. Now this may or may not be true, but if it's true its more or less certain that Sardonin would have been seen round about the different places where these properties are situated at some time or other. It would be most natural for both him and Vowles to inspect the places together. Find out, if you can, whether this is so. Find out exactly what sort of man Sardonin was. When you've done that, do something else for me. Hire a car, or get a fast train—whichever is most convenient—go up to town, go down to Somerset House, and search for all information that you can find about the Bealthorpe-Birchgate Estate Company. The names of the Directors, and any agreements made with reference to the formation of this company must be shown. Try and get back so as to be here about dinner-time tonight. In fact, you might as well dine with us here. We ought to be back by then from a little tour of Inspection we're making.'
'Right ho!' said Hastings, who was, obviously, pleased at being given something further to do on a case which, to him, was assuming universal importance. 'I can hear the doctor's car—there's a knock in that engine which I'd recognise anywhere. I'll bring him up, and then clear off quickly.'
Duplessis and Le Clerq were agreeably surprised by the appearance of the county police-surgeon, whose name was Massingham. He wasted no time in irrelevant chatter, but came to the point at once.
'Well, Mr. Le Clerq,' he said, 'Hastings, whom I know very well, tells me that your paper is very interested in these two deaths. Candidly, so am I. In fact, I'm rather sorry in one way that the inquest on the first man—the man who was found over at Birchgate—is closed, because, although I haven't got enough new facts sufficiently strong for me to ask the coroner to re-open the Birchgate inquest, having regard to this second death, I wish I could do so.'
Massingham drew a chair up to the table, and accepted the cup of coffee which Le Clerq had poured out for him.
'You see,' he continued, 'a police surgeon's got to be pretty careful—coroners are always inclined to believe the worst—and if I'd made any suggestion of foul play as regards the Birchgate death we should have had the whole country police turned inside out looking for a possible murderer... and,' continued the Doctor, with a smile, 'I've no doubt the imagination of the inhabitants round here would have quickly produced half a dozen potential criminals.
'There's something strange about these two deaths. Unfortunately, I only feel that. I have no definite medical evidence to support my feeling.'
Duplessis passed the Doctor a cigarette—he was becoming interested.
'Let's deal with the Birchgate case first, Doctor,' he said. 'Give us your unofficial opinion. Needless to say, none of this is going into print. Mr. Le Clerq will give you his word about that. But we are rather interested personally. What do you think about the Birchgate death?'
'To tell you the truth,' said the Doctor, 'I've got two lines of thought—one official and one unofficial. Officially—and here I'm speaking simply on what I found after my examination as a police-surgeon—and a police surgeon's examination is, unfortunately restricted to certain definite angles of thought—my business was to tell the coroner what I considered to be the cause of death, and there's not the slightest doubt that the man who was found in the Birchgate bungalow died in a paralytic fit and, in point of fact, it seems fairly obvious that the actual cause of death would be shock, causing heart failure. Unfortunately, it was quite impossible for me to get any previous medical history of this man. No one knew who he was, what he was, or where he came from. It was really a most amazing case. The man's body was fairly well nourished. But the thing which aroused my suspicion was this—the man was obviously a drug addict, and had been for some considerable time. I've made rather a study of drugs, and I should think that this man had been taking hashish for quite a period. On the right arm were a large number of marks which showed me that a syringe had been used. These marks extended almost down to the wrist, and the bottom one, which was on the inside of the right wrist, almost on the side of the fleshy part of the hand, was, obviously, a recent one. Now, I don't suggest that these injection marks had anything to do with the hashish-taking—drug addicts who use hashish take it by the mouth or inhale it. They don't inject it. But the after-effects of this drug are so bad that one invariably finds that the hashish-taker will use some other form of drug such as morphine or cocaine in order to escape these after-effects. Now, it seems that this last injection-mark right down on the right wrist must have been made within an hour of the man's death, and it seems very peculiar to me that a man who had had an injection of any sedative could die so soon afterwards in a paralytic fit. You see, it's simply a matter of theory, because there's no doubt that the man actually did die of a fit.
'Now, here again, in this case up at Smugglers' Rest, we have certainly different circumstances, but something which seems—vaguely, I grant—allied to the first case.'
'You think that there was some similarity in the deaths?' interrupted Duplessis.
'Yes—and no,' said the Doctor. 'You see, this fellow who died up at Smugglers' Rest was, obviously, a tailor. You look surprised. Well, it's really quite simple fellow The second finger of the right hand had a little ridge round it. This is caused by the continuous wearing of a thimble. Now then, on the top of the finger were many little indentures on a very hard skin. These were made by the end of the needle pressing into the finger at times when, through hurry or carelessness, the man had omitted to put on the thimble. Another thing is this—the left-hand lapel of his coat was practically a mass of tiny holes which the common, spongy material showed clearly, caused, obviously, by the fact that he stuck pins—as every tailor does—in that lapel. Also, he had a reel of cotton in his hands.
'Now, at first, before I came to the conclusion that the man was a tailor, I had an idea that there might be some similarity between these marks, and the marks on the first man's wrist. Now, of course, I know that the needle marks are quite innocent. Yet, this original thought, though obviously quite erroneous, somehow connected the two deaths in my mind. Actually, I've reported to the police that the cause of death in the Smugglers' Rest case is heart failure, and, quite candidly, I can see no other cause. Hastings told me that when he found the man his face was all twisted up as if he had died in great pain, but when I examined the man there was very little distortion of the features. The man has a wizened, lined face, and it occurred to me that, in his shock at finding the body, and in the half light of the room, Hastings, who, after all, is a journalist, might easily have allowed his imagination a little play. It's funny that these two men should have died in empty houses, but that I take to be mere coincidence. In any event, that's not my business.'
The Doctor rose, 'I must be getting along,' he said. 'I've got to prepare my report for the coroner. Sorry I haven't been able to tell you more, but if anything else turns up I'll certainly let you know.'
'Not very much use to us,' said Duplessis when the Doctor had gone. 'A lot of theory and precious little fact—and I'm rather fond of fact.
'Rather funny about Nirac being a drug fiend, but I don't see why he shouldn't be. The only reason we think it mysterious is because he's dead, whereas it's much more plausible for a drug addict to be found dead in a deserted house than it is for someone who is not. Anyhow, let's go round and collect friend Vowles.'
THEY found Vowles waiting for them.
'I've got the car,' he said, indicating a second-hand specimen. 'I thought it'd be easier for us. What d'yer want to see first?'
'Well,' said Duplessis, 'I think we'll go and see The Bungalow at Birchgate first. After that well go on to The Priory Lodge—that's two miles away on the other side. Then, if the map's correct, you can turn down the Chellingford road, and we can look at The Last House there. I'd rather like to finish at the Old Mill Cottage. It wont take us long, will it. Vowles?'
'It won't take yer long,' said Vowles, ''cause there's nothin' ter see when yer get there, unless you want to inspect the bathroom taps. All these places are unfurnished. What about Smugglers' Rest?'
'Smugglers' Rest, I should think, will be full of policemen,' said Duplessis, with a grin, 'and I don't think we want to get mixed up with the police, do we, Vowles? We'll let them mind their own business for a bit.'
Vowles grunted, and got into the car.
THERE was little to be seen at The Bungalow at Birchgate. It was a five-roomed bungalow standing back from the main road. There, was a central porch, and a large window on each side. It was through the right-hand window that the police sergeant had originally seen Nirac. They walked through the empty rooms, but there was nothing to attract special attention. After walking round the place, Duplessis sat on an empty wooden box which stood on the floor of the right-hand room—the room in which Nirac had been found.
'Doesn't seem anything here,' he said. 'Do you notice anything, Vowles? You know the place?'
'There's nothin' at all,' said Vowles. 'I come to these places once a week just to 'ave a look round like, and I'd notice at once if there was anythin' different. Some old bits of shavin's about the floor—a smell of paint—an' nothin' else.'
'All right,' said Duplessis. 'Let's get along.'
Ten minutes later they stopped at Priory Lodge—a very different place from The Bungalow. It was an imposing house, standing within iron gates. A small, circular carriage-drive led up to the entrance. Inside there was, as before, nothing of note. Vowles' was, obviously, uninterested in the inspection.
They finished in a room on the third floor. It was a small bedroom—evidently intended for a servant's room—bare as all the other rooms were, except for a rickety chair.
'Notice anything?' asked Duplessis.
'Of course I don't,' said Vowles. 'Why should I notice anythin'? The place is just the same as it always was.'
Duplessis grinned. 'Vowles,' he said pleasantly, 'you're either a liar or a fool.'
'Now, look 'ere,' said Vowles, 'I've not come out to be insulted by you. I'm doin' my best to 'elp yer. You've threatened me, an' laughed at me, an' insulted me, an' I've 'ad enough of it. I might just as well 'ave the p'lice enquirin' about the place as you. You're worse than a p'liceman—'e 'as to be civil, anyway. I don't know that I wouldn't prefer 'em—they're not so sneery as you are.'
'Well, well,' said Duplessis. 'Very likely you're only a fool, Vowles. Perhaps you're not such a liar after all.'
'What the 'ell d'yer mean, anyway?' said Vowles. ''Ow am I a liar or a fool?'
'Don't worry your head,' said Duplessis. 'I'll tell you in a little while. Let's get along.'
'We'd better get along to The Old Mill Cottage,' said Vowles, 'that's the nearest place to 'ere, although it ain't a cottage—it's as big as Priory Lodge, in fact.'
'I don't think so,' said 'Duplessis. 'We'll go to the Chellingford place first, then we'll come back and look at The Old Mill Cottage last of all.'
'What's the idea?' asked Vowles.
'Never mind,' said Duplessis, 'your curiosity can be satisfied later.'
Half an hour's driving brought them to The Last House at Chellingford. As Vowles pointed out, it derived its name from the fact that it was the last house in the village. Separated from the road by a little lawn, and bounded by a low, stone wall, it possessed the pleasant and quiet appearance of a rectory or a vicarage. Duplessis pointed this out.
'Well, it used ter be,' said Vowles. 'It was the vicarage, but it was a bit leaky, and the vicar moved to the other end of the town. I meant to 'ave the place repaired, but I 'aven't worried seein' that Sardonin was in quod.'
They inspected the place rapidly. Le Clerq, who was really rather bored, contented himself with an occasional glance into all the rooms. Duplessis, however, was becoming more interested. He seemed to be looking for something. In a room at the back of the house, which Vowles informed him had originally been the dining room, he asked his usual question.
'Course not,' answered Vowles. 'What's, there to notice?'
Duplessis smiled. 'Come on,' he said. 'Let's go along to The Old Mill Cottage.'
'THIS is the place,' said Vowles. as they drove back towards Birchgate. 'All the other places are a bit jerry-built, but we put good labour an' good material into this place. Sardonin wanted it like that. Course, I know why now. 'E made up 'is mind that 'e'd 'ave it for 'imself. It's the best of the 'ole lot, an' we could 'ave sold it for a lot more money than well ever get for any of the other places. Wish I could sell it, too, but I told you 'is lawyers served me with a notice about it, an' I cant.'
The inspection of The Old Mill Cottage, which, far from being a cottage, was a first-class, twelve-roomed, two-storey house of a most attractive and substantial kind, was a mere repetition of the previous visits. When it was over, and Vowles was locking the front door, Duplessis asked the usual question.
'Notice anything, Vowles?'
'I wish you wouldn't ask me that,' said Vowles. 'It gets my goat. If I noticed anythin' rd say so.'
'Well, open the door again,' said Duplessis, 'and I'll show you something.'
VOWLES, with a surprised look, opened the door. Duplessis walked past him. The door opened into a broad hall. On the opposite side of the hall a flight of oak stairs ran up to the floor above. The walls of the hall were panelled in antique oak. Duplessis pointed to the opposite wall—to the part below the stairway. Three or four feet below the actual stairs a fresco had been set in the oak panelling.
'Well,' said Vowles, 'what about it?'
'That's what I want to know,' said Duplessis. 'I've been into four out of five of the houses owned by the Bealthorpe-Birchgate Estate Company, Vowles, and I've noticed this—that, although all of the houses are different in quality and design, in one room of each of these houses is that fresco. Why?'
'Well, I don't know,' said Vowles, 'except that we 'ad the fresco, and I suppose we added it. Ah! I remember now,' he said, 'another of de Guerrac's bloomin' ideas. We bought an old 'ouse once, and one side of one of the walls 'ad that fresco on it. It was about fifteen feet long. It's rather an old one, you'll see—only made of stucco and painted over—but when we looked at it she liked the design—thought it looked a bit antique, and she persuaded us to stick a bit up in each' one of the 'ouses—said it would bring us luck, or some rubbish like that.'
'I see,' said Duplessis. 'It's not worth anything, is it?'
'Nothin' at all,' said Vowles. 'As a matter of fact. I think it spoils the look of that wall. Nice oak staircase, nice oak bordering, and that bloomin' thing stuck up there. It looks awful to me.'
'Does it?' said Duplessis. 'Vowles, what's behind that fresco?'
'What d'yer mean?' said Vowles. 'There ain't anything be'ind it.'
'Right ho!' said Duplessis. 'Then we'll smash it. Do you mind?'
'I don't mind,' said Vowles. 'I'd be very glad, so long as you don't mind apologising to the lady.'
A sneer passed over his face. Duplessis walked over, and stood looking at the fresco.
'Really very pretty,' he said. 'It's fairly old. The fresco was originally set in stucco, and then looks as if some composition like imitation marble had been stuck over it. Pretty design, too. Five Greek centurions, all following each other, each with his shield and spear. The other pieces in the other houses are the same—and I suppose. Vowles,' he called over his shoulder, 'there's one at Smugglers' Rest, isn't there?'
'Course there is,' said Vowles, 'I told you there's one in all the 'ouses.'
Duplessis held his ash walking-stick by the ferrule, and standing back, hit the fresco fairly in the middle, with the ash crook. At the first blow the stucco cracked, and, at the second fell in a dozen pieces to the floor. Behind, the oak panelling was the same as anywhere else in the room.
'I suppose you thought there was a trap-door or somethin',' said Vowles.
'To tell you the truth, I did.' said Duplessis, 'but, obviously, there's not. There's just wall.'
'Yes, and there's just wall to all the other 'ouses, too,' said Vowles. 'I ought to know. I stuck the frescos up myself. I know what's behind them. Just wall.'
'I see,' said Duplessis. 'All right, Vowles. Now you tell me something else, and don't think too long about it, otherwise I might think you're trying to make something up, and you haven't got a quick brain, Vowles.'
'All right,' said Vowles. 'I'm waiting. 'What is it? I ain't got anythin' to make up. I've told you that before.'
'Well,' said Duplessis. 'just tell me this: These four houses that we've seen this morning are all bare; There's no furniture—nothing in them. Who put that wooden box in the right-hand room at The Bungalow? Who put that rickety chair in the room upstairs at Priory Lodge? Who put that old, broken-down cabinet in the dining room at The Last House at Chellingford, and who put that piece of broken step-ladder over there, Vowles?'
He pointed to the article mentioned, which stood in a corner of the hall.
Vowles scratched his head. 'That's damn funny,' he said. 'I've never noticed them, I've never noticed them 'cause they've always been here. But they wasn't 'ere when those 'ouses was finished, I know. I went round every 'ouse just seein' if any tools were left be'ind, or anythin' like that. They weren't 'ere then. Well, what do they matter? What's an old chair—an old cabinet—an old packing case, or a piece of broken step-ladder?'
'Oh, nothing much,' said Duplessis, 'except this. The five men in the fresco at The Bungalow was so high up that it could be reached only by an averaged-sized man standing on the packing case, which, strangely enough, was in that room. The five men in the fresco in the servant's bedroom at The Priory Lodge was at such a height that it could be reached by someone standing on the ramshackle chair. Was it a coincidence, Vowles, that the broken cabinet stood in the dining room at The Last House at Chellingford, and that the five men in the fresco were in the dining room too? Is it a coincidence that here, in this hall, where we've just smashed the fresco, is a broken piece of step-ladder just high enough to enable a man to reach the fresco? Is it just a coincidence?'
Vowles scratched his head. 'I don't know about coincidence,' he said, 'but it's damn funny. But, then. It's only funny 'cause we've noticed it. I expect you could find coincidences like that in every 'ouse you went into. Life's a matter of coincidence.'
'That may be,' said Duplessis, 'time will show. Anyhow, we can't do any more good by hanging round here, so perhaps you will be good enough to drive us back to the King's Arms.'
Vowles nodded, and they got into the car. They drove back to Bealthorpe in silence. Duplessis appeared to be thinking deeply. Le Clerq, who was becoming thoroughly intrigued, and who, himself had been struck by the amazing coincidence of the frescoes, smoked silently. Vowles, his eyes on the road, said nothing, but, out of the corner of his eye, Duplessis could see that Vowles was thinking.
As they neared Bealthorpe a few heavy drops of rain fell, and, as they reached the hotel entrance, the storm broke.
'Well, thanks for the buggy ride, Vowles,' said Duplessis.
'Oh, that's all right,' said Vowles. 'I 'ope you're satisfied, that's all. You know, Mr. Duplessis, I've done my best for you right along—right from the time when I came up to your office and ticked you off about this business, but you 'aven't given me much of a break, 'ave you? You've called me everythin' you could lay yer tongue to, and you've questioned me like a bloomin' K.C. D'yer think I'd be presumptuous if I asked,' continued Vowles, with a half grin, 'if you've done with me now?'
Duplessis pondered. 'I should think so, Vowles,' he said. 'Yes. I've got an idea we shan't meet you any more, and, mark you, I think that you've been very lucky. Oh, I'm not suggesting you're had anything to do with these deaths. In point of fact I'm rather inclined to believe that they're both natural deaths. At the same time, it might have been very inconvenient for you to be mixed up in a police case. You're not very popular round here, are you, Vowles?'
'What do I care,' said Vowles. 'whether I'm popular or not? I'm sick of this place, I'm going to get out of it as soon as I can.'
'And when will that be?' asked Duplessis.
'As soon as I've sold these 'ouses,' answered Vowles. 'I'm going to sell 'em all except The Old Mill Cottage, and 'alf the purchase money is going to be deposited with Sardonin's lawyers, I'll play square with him even although 'e twisted me.'
'Very heroic of you, I'm sure,' said Duplessis. 'Well, so long, Vowles.'
'Good-bye!' said Vowles. He drove off down the High street.
IN their sitting room Le Clerq and Duplessis discussed the situation.
'Funny thing about those frescoes,' said Le Clerq. 'I wonder if there's anything in that.'
'I wonder, too,' said Duplessis. 'There might be. On the other hand it may be just a coincidence. We mustn't consider that too much. At the same time we must remember it.'
'What do you think about Vowles now?' asked Le Clerq. 'Do you think he's telling the truth, or do you think he's got something up his sleeve?'
'I certainly think he's telling the truth now,' said Duplessis. 'On the other hand I don't think he's telling the whole truth... and there's a big difference. It may be that Vowles knows something more about these mysterious deaths, and it may be that he knows nothing, but I believe he's got some game on. What it Is I haven't the remotest idea.'
'What's the next move in the game?' asked Le Clerq.
'Well, you'll be wanting to get back to your job,' said Duplessis, 'and I'm going up to town. I don't think there's anything more to be done here. I don't think the inquest on Dupont will bring anything fresh to light. The police will make all the enquiries they can, but who's there to enquire from? They will probably question Vowles, but Vowles can't tell them anything—and if he knows anything he can keep quiet about it—nothing more, I mean, than what he's told us. The doctor's report will, obviously, be that death was from natural causes. In a fortnight the whole thing will have frittered out.'
'So you're stuck?' said Le Clerq.
'Oh, no!' replied Duplessis. 'In point of fact most of this business up to date has been a verbal war between Vowles and de Guerrac. Obviously, they don't like each other. Obviously, they've put everything they could on each other's shoulders. Well, we've heard Vowles' side of the story. Now I think it would be an excellent idea to hear de Guerrac's case. You see, we can use a great deal of what Vowles has told us in order to check up what the lady has to say.'
Le Clerq nodded. Tell me, P.D.,' he said, 'what do you think of de Guerrac?'
Duplessis grinned. 'I like her, Le Clerq,' he said. 'When I say I like her I mean I like that style of woman. You see, I don't know anything at all about her, and, quite candidly, I'm beginning to believe that she knows rather a lot about these mysterious deaths. Do you remember, Vowles said that he wouldn't be surprised if she'd been found hanging about Smugglers' Rest at the time Dupont went were? That's one thing we've got to find out. She admits she saw Nirac on the afternoon that he died, although who was the last one with him is a difficult question. I wonder how Nirac got into that bungalow if what Vowles says is true.
'You remember, Vowles says that they met de Guerrac outside. He suggests that she had a key. He says, "Why shouldn't she 'ave a key? She's Sardonin's girl." One might continue that line of reason, and say that she has a key to every one of these houses. We might ask her that, anyway.'
Le Clerq smiled. 'You're very trustful, P.D., sometimes, aren't you?' he said. 'Are you sure she'll tell you the truth?'
'I don't care,' said Duplessis. 'In point of fact people can't continue telling lies for ever. They've got to give themselves away sooner or later. Look what we've learnt from Vowles' lies. If we learn as much from de Guerrac, we shan't have done so badly. In the meantime, I'm going to have a pot of tea and smoke a pipe in my bedroom. You, I suppose, will continue to read copies of Punch nearly a hundred years old. I wonder why it is that provincial hotels always have back numbers of Punch, but never current ones?'
UPSTAIRS in his bedroom, Duplessis paced the floor. He found himself in a quandary. He had definitely begun to think that Anne de Guerrac could throw very much more light on the mystery than he had believed possible. In spite of the lies which Vowles had told originally Duplessis believed that there was a substratum of truth in his present story. For some reason, which he could not explain, he was quite unable to forget the idea that there was some connection between the frescoes in the houses and the deaths of Nirac and Dupont... and these frescoes had apparently been placed on the walls at the instigation of Anne de Guerrac, so that one thing was obvious—de Guerrac had been to England before this last visit, and she had been in company with Vowles, If not with Vowles and Sardonin. Duplessis thought, as he lit his pipe, that it was rather unfortunate for Sardonin to be incarcerated in prison at a time when these mysterious events were taking place on property which was, anyhow, fifty per cent. his. Duplessis wished that he could have a quiet talk with Sardonin. He felt that there might be a lot to be learnt about Vowles. It was quite apparent that Vowles disliked Sardonin intensely, which was, perhaps, natural, seeing that Sardonin had been convicted of stealing money from Vowles. Yet, at the same time, Duplessis realised that there might be something in the original theory of de Guerrac's that Sardonin had been framed, and that, for some reason, he had been unable adequately to defend himself against the charge brought by Vowles. If this were so there could only be one reason, and that reason would be that Vowles was in a position in which he could blackmail Sardonin. On the other hand, it seemed to Duplessis that Vowles certainly had not the brains to blackmail any intelligent person... but again, one never knew. Duplessis hoped that some good might come of his interview with de Guerrac.
Although he was deeply interested in the mystery, he was rather out of pocket. Five thousand pounds worth of counterfeit notes pay for very little, and his journalistic work had suffered considerably during the last fortnight. Duplessis wondered whether he ought to wash his hands of the whole business... whether they were simply indulging in a chase which would lead nowhere. In any event, Duplessis made up his mind that he would tell Anne de Guerrac that the notes which she had given him were counterfeit. He was, by now, firmly convinced that she did not know that they were not good notes. He was keen to see what her reaction to this information would be.
Outside the rain pattered dismally down. Looking out of the window, his hands in his pockets, Duplessis found himself sympathising with this unfortunate woman, whose prospective husband was in prison, who found herself in a strange country, using what might easily be her last capital in an endeavour to secure the release of her prospective husband. There was something weirdly attractive about the woman, Duplessis thought. Yet, on the other hand, history had told him that it was invariably the bad women who were the most attractive. But, supposing that Anne de Guerrac were entirely bad, he could conceive no possible reason for her coming to him for assistance. Surely, If she had some axe to grind in this business, she could have done it without his help. Yet, Duplessis remembered the warning which Vowles had given him on that first night in the Shoe Lane office. 'She's made a fool of other men, and she'll make a fool out of you.'
The idea of being made a fool of did not appeal to Duplessis in the remotest degree. But being entirely truthful with himself, he was beginning to realise that his main interest in this case had been the fact that he had thought he was helping this woman. Additionally, of course, there had been his own interest in something which was mysterious—the weird attraction of solving the unknown. Yet it would be logical for her to endeavour to disguise facts from himself, and it seemed to Duplessis that de Guerrac must have withheld a great deal of important information from him. After all, she had said nothing to him about the meeting earlier In the day with Vowles and Nirac at Birchgate. Why? Obviously she had not been frank. Still more obviously, there was some good reason for reticence.
There was a knock at the door, and Le Clerq entered.
'Here's a telegram for you, P.D.—thought it might be something important, so I brought it up.'
Duplessis tore open the envelope and read the telegram. Then he gave a long low whistle. 'Read that, J.L.,' he said.
Le Clerq took the telegram, and a look of amazement came over his face. The telegram was from Hastings, and read:—
BEALTHORPE-BIRCHGATE ESTATES, LIMITED, REGISTERED 1927, JOHN XERXES VOWLES. HALF-SHARE ACQUIRED DECEMBER, 1929, BY ETIENNE SARDONIN, NEW FREE ISSUE OF ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND POUND SHARES, JANUARY, 1931, VICOMTESSE ANNE DE GUERRAC.
NEXT afternoon found Duplessis on his way to the Alcazar Hotel. He was undecided as to the line which he was going to take with Mlle. de Guerrac—undecided because he did not know just how much of the truth she had kept to herself. He realised that there was a great deal in the old English form of legal oath... 'the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.' The words stuck in his mind. P>She greeted him charmingly and ordered tea. Duplessis watched her as she moved over to ring the bell. There was no doubt, he thought, that this woman was attractive, and she seemed, too, to possess some quality which appealed to him. He smiled to himself because he was experienced enough to know that bad women are usually more attractive than good ones.
'Vicomtesse,' he said to her over the tea-table, 'originally you asked my assistance. You gave me the impression that you were relying on me to help you in a rather difficult situation. Quite candidly, I wasn't at all keen on the job, but, for some reason or other—and I'm still not sure what it is—I rather wanted to help you.'
She smiled. 'You have always been very nice to me, M'sieu Duplessis,' she said. 'What is on your mind?'
He laughed. 'To tell you the truth,' said he, 'on my way here I was thinking of the oath which a witness takes in an English court. He swears by Almighty God to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.'
'Now,' Duplessis continued, 'perhaps you've told me the truth—although I don't think you have—but I'm still more certain that you haven't told me the whole truth; and I'm even more certain that you haven't told me "nothing but the truth." I wonder If you'd put that right?'
She looked serious. 'I'm sorry that you distrust me,' she said. 'Will you ask me what you want to know?'
'Yes I will,' said Duplessis, 'and where I can I'll tell you why I'm asking.
'It seems to me that Vowles and yourself had rather a competition in trying to make each other out to be the last person who saw that Nirac. Well, quite candidly, I'm not very interested in that. But what I am interested in is this.... Were you, by any chance, anywhere near Smugglers' Rest at Frampton Gate when Dupont died? If you were—why?
'The same question applies to Nirac. How did you know that Nirac was going to be at The Bungalow? How did you know that Dupont was going to be at the Smugglers' Rest? It's a certainty that Vowles didn't tell you.'
She got up, and walked to the window. Below—and it seemed miles away—Duplessis could hear the Piccadilly trams. His quick eye noticed favourably the charming attire of the Vicomtesse de Guerrac and the wonderful way in which she wore her clothes. He noticed, too, the heavy circles under the turquoise eyes, and the trembling, jewel-laden fingers. She spoke, half turned away from him, looking out of the window.
'I knew Nirac was coming over,' she said. 'I knew Dupont was coming over. I heard from Paris.'
'I see,' said Duplessis quickly, 'you heard from Paris. Would it be curious, Vicomtesse, to ask who it was informed you? Tell me, was it one of these people who are interested in these houses of Vowles?'
She made no reply. As she was about to speak, after a long pause, Duplessis stopped her.
'Oh, no,' he said, 'I don't want to hear it now—you've had much too long to make it up. If you'd wanted to answer you'd have answered at once. Let me ask you another question—and I'd like you to answer this one quickly.'
As she turned towards him, Duplessis shot out his question. 'Why were you issued with a hundred thousand pounds' worth of free shares in this Bealthorpe-Birchgate Estate Company, Mademoiselle?' he said. 'Why were you such a fool as to accept a share certificate for a hundred thousand pounds secured on four or five houses stuck down on the coast in England?—property which, on the face of it, isn't worth, at an outside valuation, more than fifteen thousand pounds?'
She flushed. 'Things are not always what they seem, M'sieu,' she said. 'It has not occurred to you that these shares might have been given to me to secure me, so that I might show that I had some claim.'
'A claim?' interrupted Duplessis. 'I see. Against whom? Vowles?'
She turned towards the window again.
'Who else?' she said. 'Who else could it be but Vowles?'
Duplessis got up. 'Vicomtesse,' he said, 'come and sit down. You're much too nervy to be standing up—besides, I want to talk to you, and I want to talk to you seriously. This thing's got beyond a joke, you know.'
She smiled—it was a sad, cynical smile.
'Do you think I do not realise that, M'sieu?' she said. 'However, I will do as you ask.'
She returned to the armchair which she had vacated. Duplessis sat down opposite.
'I don't want you to think me rude,' he said, 'but I'm going to talk to you rather personally. I am not going to ask you if you knew Nirac. It doesn't matter awfully. But Nirac was a drug fiend. He took hashish, and after he had taken hashish he injected morphia or morphine, or some other such seductive drug. The same was true of Dupont. He, too, was a drug addict. Possibly, you wonder why I'm telling you this. But I'm trying to piece together the odd pieces in a jig-saw puzzle. I'm trying to think mathematically. I'm trying to put together all the things which are alike. Because, you know, there's a rule in mathematics—things which are equal to each other are equal to themselves.'
'Mademoiselle,' said Duplessis very quietly, 'you, too, take hashish, I believe. You smoke it.'
She flushed. Then she got up, and walked over to the mantelpiece. She rested her arms on it, and her head in her hands.
'How did you know that?' she asked.
Duplessis shrugged. 'I'm not a fool, Mademoiselle,' said he. 'On the first night when you came to my office I noticed your eyes, your trembling fingers. I realised that you were much too fastidious a person to use a needle for drug injection. I wondered just what sort of drug you were taking. It wasn't cocaine, because, Mademoiselle, you haven't the blue nose of the cocaine-sniffer. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that you would take any drug in a cigarette. It would be the most fastidious way. That's why, Vicomtesse, as you were leaving my office, I asked you to give me a cigarette. You said 'Yes,' and were about to open your bag when you suddenly remembered that you'd smoked your last one. In fact,' said Duplessis, 'you remembered that the cigarettes in your case were drugged.'
'Well, what you say is true, M'sieu,' she said in a low voice, 'but you must realise that life for me has been very difficult. Last year, in Paris, at a time when I felt that I could bear things no longer, a friend advised me to smoke this thing. He said it would do me no harm, but I feel it difficult to continue without it now.'
'I see,' said Duplessis. 'That's not quite so good, is it?'
She turned and faced him. 'In any event, M'sieu,' she said, 'what is this to do with this business?'
'Just this,' said Duplessis. 'I've been round these houses owned by this Estate Company in which you're so much a shareholder, and I've found another coincidence—a piece of fresco, Mademoiselle, stuck up on the walls—the same fresco used in a cheap bungalow and in a gentleman's country house; in fact, in every one of these houses which are all so different in character and in price. I find that two of the men who came to these houses, and who died there, were drug-takers, and that you, yourself, are a drug-taker. Is it just a coincidence that all the houses have a fresco? Is it just a coincidence that the people connected with them take drugs?'
She shrugged. But he had noticed her eyes gleam when he had mentioned the fresco.
'What is this fresco to do with me?' she said. 'It was a silly idea—an idea worthy of the individual who thought of it—our friend, Mr. Vowles.'
'I see,' said Duplessis. 'But, do you know, Mademoiselle, that Vowles says it was your idea?'
Her eyes flashed. 'Will you believe this Vowles—this what you call scum, she said, 'before me? I tell you, M'sieu, that Vowles is a liar. I have told you from the first that he is a liar.'
Duplessis shrugged. 'Very well, Vicomtesse,' he said, 'I don't mind. In point of fact, why shouldn't you be right? I, too, believe that Vowles as a liar. But let's leave the subject—lets come to something rather more interesting and which concerns me rather more personally... a question of money.'
She looked up.
'Money?' There was a note of surprise in her voice. 'You feel that you want more, M'sieu? The money I gave you was not enough?'
Duplessis smiled. 'I'm afraid you must prepare yourself for a little shock,' he said. 'You see, you haven't given me any money. The fifty one-hundred-pound notes which you gave me were counterfeit. They were very well made, Vicomtesse, but they weren't made by the Bank of England. They're not worth the paper they're printed on.'
For a moment Duplessis thought that she would fall to the ground. A spasm shook her from head to foot. Then she recovered herself, but her eyes were blazing. She said nothing. Only a gasp escaped her. Then, after a minute, when she was about to speak, Duplessis interrupted her.
'Now, Vicomtesse,' he said, 'I want you not to do one thing. I want you not to tell me that Vowles changed that money. I don't believe it. I know my man, I've been able to study Mr. Vowles considerably. In point of fact, I know him quite well, and I tell you that John X. Vowles hadn't got the guts to change that money. He's been in prison once, and, believe me, he wouldn't chance going there again. Vowles is a man who would do all or nothing.'
'What do you mean by that, M'sieu?' she asked.
Duplessis could see that she was still trembling. He leaned forward.
'I mean this, Mademoiselle,' he said. 'If Vowles were forced into a corner he would fight like a rat in a trap. He would do anything. In fact, he would even kill. If you told me that Vowles had had something to do with the deaths of Nirac and Dupont I might believe you. He'd kill if he were in a corner, but he wouldn't have changed those notes. He knew he couldn't get away with that. He knew it would be found out. Vowles is a fool, but he's not a madman,'
Her voice was low. 'Vowles must have changed those notes,' she said 'He must have changed them.'
'I see.' said Duplessis. 'Why must he nave changed them? Why not Nirac himself, Vicomtesse?'
He waited for her reply, but she said nothing.
'Mademoiselle,' he said, 'I'm very glad that you've not told me that Nirac might have changed the notes because I'll tell you this—I don't believe that Nirac brought those notes over; in fact, I know he didn't. I know where Vowles got those notes. He got them in a sealed packet from your fiancé's solicitors, and he gave that packet to you... but the packet which you brought me, Vicomtesse wasn't sealed.'
Her face was white as death. She looked at him coldly.
'M'sieu Duplessis.' she said—and her voice was trembling, 'do you suggest that I changed those notes?'
Duplessis shrugged. 'I don't know. But here are the notes. Look at them—'
He took the pseudo bank-notes from his pocket, and handed them to her. As his fingers touched hers he felt that hers were cold as ice. She looked at the notes.
'These are the same notes.' she said. 'Now I look at them carefully I see that they are false. But I ask you to believe, M'sieu... I swear to you that I didn't know.'
'I believe you, Mademoiselle,' said Duplessis.
'Then Vowles must have changed the notes.' She nodded. 'Of course Vowles must have changed the notes,' she said. 'Who else could have changed them? Who else?'
Duplessis walked to the window, and looked out. For a moment he believed that he was dreaming, or that he had gone mad. He turned again, and looked at the woman. Then, with an effort, he stopped himself from speaking. But an idea had come to Duplessis—an idea about this woman which was so amazing that he found it almost unbelievable. He left the window, and walked towards her.
'Vicomtesse,' he said quietly, 'I know how you feel, and if you believe sincerely that Vowles changed this money you must hate Vowles... you must hate him. Don't you think that we'd better deal with Mr. Vowles?'
He looked at her smilingly, but in his eyes was a challenge.
'M'sieu Duplessis,' she said very quietly—but there was a quality in her voice which, somehow, reminded Duplessis of steel, 'I do not think that you need trouble about Mr. Vowles I will deal with Mr. Vowles.... I will deal with. Mr. Vowles very quickly, I promise you.'
Duplessis noticed her clenched fingers. He smiled.
'Vicomtesse,' he said, 'may I have another cup of tea? I know it's cold, but I like cold tea. And I think we're becoming just a little dramatic aren't we? Don't you think that you and I have got to keep very cool, very calm, very level-headed?'
She smiled, and returned to the tea table.
'The tea is not too cold, M'sieu,' she said, 'and it is not often that I am dramatic.'
Duplessis took the cup from her hand. 'I'm glad of that, Vicomtesse,' he said, 'because I think that you should know that I think sufficiently of your courage to imagine that you might do anything to Mr. Vowles if you were sufficiently roused... and,' he continued, 'there have been too many deaths at Birchgate, two too many deaths.'
She looked at him. through lowered lids, and smiled.
'M'sieu,' she said, 'do you think that I would bother to kill Mr. Vowles? If I were to kill anybody it would be somebody who is worth while. Mr. Vowles is not worth killing.
'But, M'sieu, you must allow me to make some new arrangement about this money. I must see that you have some real money. It becomes increasingly necessary that Mr. Sardonin should be released from prison. I don't want to stay in this England of yours interminably. Also, I am ill. This situation gets on my nerves, and I find that, more and more, I require the help of—things—of these cigarettes in order that I may not go quite mad. Besides, M'sieu Duplessis, I cannot expect you to give all your time, and take all this trouble for nothing.'
Duplessis grinned. 'Do you know, Mademoiselle,' he said, 'I thought that myself. I've wasted an awful lot of time, and also this business has cost me a certain amount of money, and so I have...'
Her expression changed. Something like fear came into her eyes. 'And so you think, M'sieu, that you will give It up?' she interrupted. 'That you cannot help me?'
'On the contrary, Vicomtesse,' said Duplessis. 'I want to help you. This business interests me. I find myself to the middle of a maze. I want to find my way out. I find myself holding three or four little threads of a tangled skein, and I rather want to unravel that skein. Perhaps, Mademoiselle, it's mere curiosity, or perhaps I'm interested In something else.'
She glanced at him quickly. 'In what, M'sieu?' she said.
Duplessis got up. 'I have a great deal to do, Mademoiselle,' he said, 'and I must go. As for my interest, I've been interested in... well, Mademoiselle, in most of the bad women of history. I'm always interested in people.'
She raised her eyebrows. 'So, M'sieu, you consider me to be a bad woman,' she said.
Duplessis took his hat. 'No, Mademoiselle,' he said, 'I don't believe you to be a bad woman. On the contrary, I believe you to be a good one—very good, almost too good to be true. Au revoir, Mademoiselle, till the next time.'
He smiled at her and went. She stood in the middle of the floor, looking at the door long after he had shut it.
DUPLESSIS, seated in his office, with his feet on his desk, his horn-rimmed spectacles perched precariously on the end of his nose, and a large pipe in his mouth, considered at length his interview of the day before with Mlle. La Vicomtesse de Guerrac.
The more he considered the mentality of this woman the more he was astounded at her coolness and reserve. Duplessis had told her that he held in his fingers a few threads of a tangled skein, and he had an Idea that he stood a good chance of unravelling this skein. Duplessis' mind, which was of the card-index variety, had stored away every incident, every fact, which had happened since he had begun this investigation three weeks ago.
But his mind was not entirely card-index. Occasionally, Duplessis had a flash of intuition of the type which is usually called feminine, and he began to wonder whether he had not wasted a great deal of time on a wild goose chase. He realised that he had placed far too much importance on the deaths of Nirac and Dupont. True, these were strange occurrences, but Duplessis wondered whether they had any real bearing on the central idea which was now in his mind.
He tried to work out some picture into which these two deaths would fit as part of some preconceived scheme. At the moment he found it difficult. The skein was well ravelled, thought Duplessis, as well ravelled as the string which had been twisted round the hands of the unfortunate Nirac. The skein had been as well wound as the reel of cotton which Dupont had grasped as he died. Duplessis wondered about that string, and about that reel of cotton. What could they have to do with this thing? Yet, in his mind, there was a definite idea that, sooner or later, he would find some connecting point. Once more he pondered over two remarks which Anne de Guerrac had made the day before—two remarks which, casual as they may have seemed at the time, now took, in the mind of Duplessis, the form of pivots from which much might be learned. The first—'who else was there to change it?'
'Well,' pondered Duplessis, 'who else was there to change it?' He blew clouds of smoke at the ceiling, and a little smile played round his mouth. The other remark—'Vowles is not worth killing.' Why was Vowles not worth killing? If anybody was worth killing why not Vowles?
Taking it for the sake of argument that the deaths of Nirac and Dupont had not been natural, were they worth killing? Why was Dupont—this little, weedy, poor, French tailor—worth killing?... If he had been killed.
Duplessis took his feet off his desk, and picked up the telephone. He called the Alcazar Hotel, and asked for the Vicomtesse's suite. Her maid answered.
'Mademoiselle La Vicomtesse is not In town, M'sieu,' said the French girl. 'She 'as gone away. She does not zink she will be back until tomorrow.'
Duplessis said, 'Thank you.' and hung up the receiver.
So Anne de Guerrac had gone away. It did not require much thinking as to where she had gone, thought Duplessis. Probably, at this moment, one of those little conversations between the enterprising Vowles and the attractive, unhappy Vicomtesse de Guerrac was now in full swing. She had said that she would deal with Vowles. Duplessis wondered exactly how she would deal with him. Rather a tough proposition, Duplessis thought, a woman dealing, with Vowles. But for the moment he did not believe that there was any reason for him to be too interested in any conversation between Vowles and the lady.
Duplessis put down his pipe and lit a cigarette. It seemed to him that he must take desperate measures, if need be. It was obvious that he was going to get little help from Mlle. de Guerrac from now on. On this point he had made up his mind. At the same time Duplessis did not consider that he would need a great deal of help—if one or two other things went as he wanted them to go.
He left his office, picked up a cab in Fleet street, and drove to the Alcazar. He went straight up to de Guerrac's suite, and rang the bell. The maid, whom he had heard called Hortense, opened the door. She looked surprised.
'M'sieu, I told you zat Mademoiselle La Vicomtesse would not be back until tomorrow.'
'I know,' said Duplessis, 'but I want to talk to you, Hortense. I want you to let me have ten minutes of your valuable time.'
'Entrez, M'sieu,' said the maid.
Duplessis went in to the sitting-room. He sniffed, and it seemed that in some vague way there was a perfume—a subtle one—of Anne de Guerrac. He remembered his interview of yesterday when he had watched tar across the tea table.
'Listen to me, Hortense,' he said. 'Are you fond of Mademoiselle la Vicomtesse?'
The girl nodded. 'M'sieu,' she said, 'I zink zat I would die for 'er.'
'Excellent.' said Duplessis. 'Well nobody's going to ask you to do that. But I would like you to know, Hortense, that I consider your mistress to be in very grave danger—danger which is so urgent that I must ask you to help me.'
The girl looked troubled.
'What do you want to do, M'sieu?' she said. 'I am so frightened.'
'You're not the only one,' said Duplessis. 'So am I. But you have noticed things, I expect, Hortense.'
The maid nodded. 'M'sieu, 'ow could I 'elp noticin'?' she said. 'Mademoiselle 'as been so terribly un'appy. It 'as almos' broken my 'eart. In Paris at ze end of las' year it was terrible. Always zese meetings, always zis secrecy, zis air of mystery, wiz Mademoiselle becomin' paler, more ill every day. I zought...'
'Just a minute,' said Duplessis, 'what meetings?'
'Zese men,' said the maid, 'zese men 'oo are all so ill.'
Duplessis nodded. 'Nirac was one of them, wasn't he, Hortense?' he said, 'and Dupont?'
'Yes,' said the maid, 'and one called Ragosin. 'E was a gentleman, was M. Ragosin. And Baourdat, 'e was very rich—very rich. And M. Vowles, sneakin' about ze place like a shadow.'
Duplessis nodded. 'Tell me,' he said, 'was not Mr. Sardonin able to help the Vicomtesse?'
The girl shook her head. 'I don't zink so.' she said. 'M. Sardonin was very worried. Also, 'e did not come very often. If 'e did it was only for a minute. Some'ow—I do' not know why—it seemed zat Mademoiselle believed zat whatever was wrong would be right when M. Sardonin came to Englan'. But, no, it seemed zat zings got worse. For some time Mademoiselle 'ad been smokin' zese cigarettes—zese 'orrible zings which make 'er so ill. Zen, some time after M. Sardonin was in Englan', she became more worried, more ill. She smoked more cigarettes. Zen, las' of all, came zis 'orrible news—zat M. Sardonin 'ad been arrested—imprisoned. At first I zought zat Mademoiselle would go mad. But, after, she became very cool, very quiet. She seemed to 'ave made up 'er mind about somezin'. It was ze coolness of someone 'oo's what you call desperate,' said Hortense. 'Zen we came over to England.'
Duplessis lit a cigarette. 'Tell me, Hortense.' he said, 'who was the friend who introduced to the Vicomtesse these drugged cigarettes?'
The girl shrugged her shoulders. 'I do not know, M'sieu,' she said. 'But I would not be surprised if it were not M. Vowles.'
She looked round, and then approached closer to Duplessis. 'I tell you, M'sieu,' she said. 'I believe zat it was M. Vowles 'oo got zese drugs. I believe it was 'im. Zis Dupont—Mademoiselle 'as tol' me of 'is deat! 'E was nuzzing—a little journeyman tailor. I believe zat 'e was ze man 'oom M. Vowles sen' out wiz ze drugs, 'because I noticed zat when Mademoiselle 'ad no more cigarettes Dupont would come, an' she would 'ave a good supply afterwards.'
Duplessis nodded. 'Vowles doesn't seem to be popular,' he said.
'Mademoiselle 'ates 'im,' said the maid, 'an' I 'ate 'im, too. 'E's an awful man.'
Duplessis pondered. So Vowles had been in Paris, drug-peddling. Duplessis was not surprised. Vowles was the sort of cheapjack who would be well content to make a good living out of the misfortunes of other people. He would not have peddled drugs in England, thought Duplessis. The laws were much too strict there, but in Paris, if you know the place to go to, a packet of cocaine can be pushed over the counter with the same frankness as a box of cigarettes or a packet of tobacco. Vowles might easily be in his element—large profits and very little risk.
He threw the stub of his cigarette into the fire-grate, and lit another.
'Hortense,' he said, 'you don't think that I would do anything which would hurt Mademoiselle, do you?'
The girl looked at him. 'No. M'sieu,' she said. 'Why should you? Why do you ask me zat?'
'Just for this reason,' said Duplessis. 'I think that it is very necessary that I examine any private papers which the Vicomtesse may have. Do you know if she has any such papers, and, if so, do you know where she keeps them?'
The girl hesitated.
'M'sieu,' she said, 'I know a little of Mademoiselle's private affairs. She 'as some papers. She keeps zem in a black portfolio. It is locked always, an' ze portfolio is in 'er wardrobe in a drawer which is also locked. I 'ave seen 'er open ze portfolio an' look at ze papers, but I do not know what is inside it.'
Duplessis smiled. 'I want to look at those papers, Hortense,' he said, 'and I give you my word that it is right that I should do so. If I don't it may be necessary for me to give the police such information that they certainly will want to see those papers.'
The maid shook her head. 'M'sieu,' she said, 'zat is as it may be, but I cannot 'elp you do a zing like zat It is not my affair. If you want to do somezin' like zat you mus' tell Mademoiselle herself. No, it is not possible.'
Duplessis shrugged his shoulders. But luck favoured him. The telephone on the small table at his elbow jangled. The maid stepped forward, but before she could take up the instrument Duplessis took it.
'Hallo,' said a voice. Before Duplessis could reply, another voice interposed.
'You're on to the wrong suite,' said the voice, evidently that of the girl on the hotel switchboard. 'Just a minute, and I'll get you the one you want.' Then to Duplessis. 'Will you hang up, please.'
Duplessis blessed his luck, and did nothing of the sort. With one of the fingers with which he held the telephone he pressed down the receiver hook, and then continued speaking.
'Oh, Mademoiselle la Vicomtesse,' he said, 'I'm delighted that you've rung up. At this moment I've been speaking to Hortense. I told her that it was necessary that I should look at those papers of yours—that it must be done today—but, like a good maid, she said it was quite impossible, more especially as they were locked up'...'Oh, yes. Mademoiselle, certainly. She's to meet you where?'...'At Charing Cross. When?'...'In twenty minutes time. Very well, Mademoiselle. I'll wait here till you return with Hortense.'
He hung up the receiver. 'Hortense,' he said, 'this solves the difficulty. Luckily we shan't be forced to do anything which Mademoiselle doesn't know about. As you've heard, she wants you to meet her at Charing Cross in twenty minutes time. She's coming straight back, and I'm to await her here.'
The maid was entirely deceived.
'Very well, M'sieu,' she said, and went out. Duplessis waited until he heard the outer door of the suite close behind the maid. Then he went outside into the hall and opened the doors of the rooms until he found what was, obviously, Anne de Guerrac's bedroom. Opposite to him, on the other side of the room, was a large wardrobe—one of those fitted with drawers on one side. In one of those drawers, thought Duplessis, would be the portfolio which was also locked. He hoped the locks would not be too difficult.
Duplessis realised that he was taking a chance—taking a chance of finding in the portfolio what he thought would be there, something which would decide definitely in his mind that the idea—the idea which had come to him during the last 12 hours—was right....
He walked over, and knelt down before the wardrobe, testing the bottom drawer by pulling and pushing it back. The lock was, obviously, an old fashioned one, and in three minutes, by the expert use of the strongest blade in his pen-knife, Duplessis had forced down the tooth of the lock, and had the drawer open. No luck. The drawer was filled with feminine fripperies, and nothing else.
It took Duplessis another five minutes to get the second drawer open. He realised that time was precious. In another 15 minutes Hortense would arrive at Charing Cross, and, finding no Vicomtesse awaiting her, would probably return. And Duplessis wanted as much time as he could get.
He was lucky over the second drawer. Underneath a pile of laces and silk stockings he found the portfolio. It was a heavy, black, leathern affair with a good steel-lined lock. Duplessis realised that he could not spare the time to force it. In any event, Anne de Guerrac would know, sooner or later, what he had done. He closed the now blunted blade of his pen-knife, and opening a smaller, sharp blade, proceeded to cut through, the leather of the portfolio round the lock. He had just about completed this process, was just about to open the portfolio, when he heard a voice... Someone was outside.
With a shrug, Duplessis realised that there was nothing to be done. If it were a hotel servant he would probably find himself arrested. If it were Hortense returned before her expected time, he could deal with the situation. It was neither.
It was Anne de Guerrac.
She stood at the open door regarding him with a mixture of suspicion, dislike, and contempt.
'I didn't expect to find you here. M'sieu,' she said. 'Certainly, I didn't expect to find you trying to read my private papers. Do they interest you so much? Would not it have been better for you to have asked me if you might look at them, instead of coming here and tricking my unfortunate maid? I met her a little way away looking for a taxi-cab, and she told me of your pretended conversation with me.'
Duplessis rose from his knees. The fact that the Vicomtesse had told him he might look through the portfolio told him Very plainly that what he sought was not there.
'I'm sorry, Mademoiselle,' said Duplessis, 'but you seem so reluctant to tell me the whole truth, as I told you yesterday, that I imagined myself forced to conduct this little Investigation. However; since you give me permission to look through your papers I feel that I don't want to do so.'
She nodded. 'I am very disappointed in you, M'sieu Duplessis,' she said. 'I did not think that you were like that.'
Duplessis smiled cynically. 'No, Vicomtesse,' he said, 'you didn't think that I was 'like that? In other words, you thought that I'd be entirely honest with you. Ask yourself—have you been entirely honest with me? Have you played a straight game by me? Have you told me the truth since this business began, or have you not? Why be surprised, Mademoiselle, that there are two of us who aren't entirely honest?'
She paused for a moment, and then spoke. 'I do not think, M'sieu, that there is anything further for us to discuss.' she said.
'It seems not. Mademoiselle,' said Duplessis, 'at least not at the moment. But if I may ask a question, tell me, did you succeed in dealing with Mr. Vowles?'
She smiled. Duplessis saw her white teeth. 'Oh, yes,' she said. 'I've dealt with Mr. Vowles quite successfully.'
She made an almost imperceptible movement of the hand which held her handbag. Duplessis noticed it.
'Is there anything else I can tell you, M'sieu, before you go?' she added pointedly.
Duplessis moved towards the door.
'I don't think so, Vicomtesse,' he said. 'It only remains for me to get my hat and take my leave. But, do you know, I've an idea that we shall meet again—that we shall meet quite a lot more.'
She smiled—a little sadly, Duplessis thought.
'I do not think so, M'sieu Duplessis,' she said. 'I had hoped so. I do not think so now. Good-bye.'
DUPLESSIS, walking up and down his office like a caged lion, waited anxiously for the arrival of Miss Day. After leaving the Alcazar Hotel, he had immediately telephoned to Hastings at Birchgate and instructed him to get hold of his secretary and send her up to the office at once.
Duplessis was hoping that she would be able to tell him something of de Guerrac's movements that morning. He knew that the Vicomtesse had, in all probability, tackled Vowles in his own office. It was eight o'clock when Miss Day arrived. She wasted no time, and, after laying down her handbag and gloves, sat down, and in her quiet, competent voice told Duplessis what she knew.
'The Vicomtesse arrived at eleven o'clock yesterday morning, Mr. Duplessis,' she said. 'Mr. Vowles was in the inner office at work. I announced her, and she went in. At first I could hear nothing at all because they were both speaking quietly, but after a while the lady raised her voice, and I heard her accuse Mr. Vowles of having swindled Sardonin. Then, for a while, although I had my ear to the keyhole, I could hear nothing—just a murmur of conversation. But, after a while, I heard the Vicomtesse say something about one hundred thousand pounds worth of shares. Vowles laughed, and I distinctly heard him say, "You must be mad!" Then the Vicomtesse spoke again; she spoke very rapidly, and for some time. Vowles seemed to be listening intently. Then, after she had spoken for quite a time, I heard him say, "My God! My God!" Then the Vicomtesse continued speaking. Again I couldn't hear what she said except these words—"'How did they die? How did they die?"
'About twenty minutes after this,' Miss Day continued, 'the Vicomtesse came out of Vowles' office. She had a foolscap envelope in her hand which she was putting into her handbag. Vowles saw her to the street door, and, after she had gone, returned to his office. He looked very white, very frightened.'
Duplessis nodded, and continued his walk up and down the office. So Vowles was frightened. That would not be a very difficult process for the Vicomtesse; anyone could frighten Vowles. Duplessis wondered why he had laughed when she had told him about the one hundred thousand pounds' worth of shares, why he had said, 'you must be mad'—but, almost as he asked himself the question, he found the answer. The tangled skein was beginning to come less ravelled than ever. Duplessis was beginning to see daylight at last.
He sat down, and thought about his plan of action. Whatever happened, he considered it absolutely necessary that the next individual to come over and see Vowles must be stopped. He swung round on his chair, and faced Miss Day.
'Now, look here, Miss Day,' he said, 'listen very carefully to me. You must get back to Bealthorpe on the last train tonight, and turn up at the office tomorrow morning as if nothing had happened, but if anybody comes to see Vowles, if any more of these foreigners arrive, you've got to get at them; in particular, see if they've got a letter from anybody asking them to come over to England. If they have, hang on to it, and let me have it. Whatever happens, I must have such a letter, because it seems obvious to me that these people receive their instructions to come over from somebody.'
Miss Day picked up her bag and gloves. 'I understand,' Mr. Duplessis,' she said. 'I hope it won't be too difficult to get that letter—if there is one, that is. It's all right if Mr. Vowles' office door is shut, because then I could ask anybody to show me the letter before announcing them to Mr. Vowles. Then, somehow, whilst they are with him, I could manage to make something else look like the letter which they'd given me, put it into an envelope, and hand them the fake when they came out of the office. With luck, they wouldn't open it. Anyhow, I'll do my best.'
After Miss Day had gone Duplessis paced the office deep in thought. He was perfectly certain that the situation would come to a climax very shortly. Somebody was going to do something; whether that somebody was Vowles or de Guerrac, or some other unknown individual, Duplessis could not say. At the present moment his mind was concentrated on Vowles' remark on hearing about the one hundred thousand pounds worth of shares, and his evident horror or shock which had forced from him the exclamation, 'My God!' after de Guerrac had finished speaking.
Why had Vowles laughed, and said 'You must be mad,' when he had heard about the shares, and what, afterwards, caused him to change his tone so quickly? What was in the envelope which Anne de Guerrac had put into her handbag when she left Vowles' office?
For an hour Duplessis walked up and down the room turning these facts, coupled with de Guerrac's remark of the day before, over in his mind, and then, out of the blue, came another idea, a second solution, and one which fitted in with, and matched up with, his idea of the day before. Duplessis sat down, and smoked a ruminative cigarette; then he put on his hat, and walked slowly down the stairs—he had come to his decision.
Once in Fleet street. Duplessis hailed a taxi-cab, and told the man to drive him to St. John's Wood. He stopped the cab near Lords Cricket Ground, and walked for some way, turning off into a quiet avenue, bordered by trees. Presently he approached a large house which stood back from the road in its own grounds. Duplessis walked up the carriage-drive, and rang the bell, and, after a moment, the door was opened by a liveried porter.
'Dr. Harding in?' asked Duplessis. 'I know it's pretty late to be paying calls, but I want to see the Doctor rather urgently. Incidentally, I know he'll see me. Tell him that it's Peter Duplessis.'
He waited until the man returned.
'The Doctor will see you, sir,' said the porter.
Duplessis followed the man, and presently was ushered into a long, low room at the back of the house.
Harding, who was seated behind a desk on the far side of the room, rose as Duplessis entered.
'Well, Peter,' he said, 'it's a long time since I've seen you. What's the news? Don't tell me that 'you want to enter my home of rest!'
Duplessis grinned. 'No, it's not as bad as that, Harding,' he said. 'But, to tell you the truth, I want to ask you to do me a pretty big favour—and I'm wondering if I've got the nerve to do it!'
Harding laughed. 'There isn't very much I can refuse you, Peter,' he said. 'If it weren't for you I should be sleeping soundly under one of those little wooden crosses which abound in Flanders. I haven't forgotten 1916, you know.'
'Oh, rats,' said Duplessis. 'That was nothing, and, since you mention it; it might easily be a lot easier for me to do what I did for you than for you to do what I want to ask you to do. After all, you're a doctor, and you belong to a profession which has to be fairly particular as to what it does.'
Harding smiled. 'Well, I promise to do what I can,' he said. 'What's the trouble?'
He pushed over a box of cigarettes. Duplessis took one and lit it.
'I want to kidnap a woman, Doctor,' he said. 'And after I've kidnapped her I want to bring her here, and I want to leave her here, knowing that you won't let her out of this place until I give you the tip. It's a matter of life and death.'
'That's a pretty tall order,' he said. 'Incidentally, Peter, I didn't know that you went in for kidnapping women. As you are aware this home of mine is reserved exclusively for drug cases—I don't run it as a prison for kidnapped women!'
Duplessis laughed. 'I know you don't,' he said. 'But this particular woman is a drug case.' He leaned towards Harding. 'Now, look here, Harding,' he said, 'you know me pretty well, and you know that I don't get up to funny tricks unless there's a pretty good reason. And believe me there is a pretty good reason. I promise you that. You know all that there is to know about drugs, and you can guess what sort of a mental state a woman is in who has been taking hashish by smoking it in cigarettes for about six months. You know more about that than I do, but I believe that the effects aren't so good.'
Harding looked grave. 'They certainly are not,' he said grimly. 'Hashish is a foul drug. It takes quite a time to destroy a healthy body, but it has a particularly pernicious effect on the mind. The after-effects of hashish are very serious. Often it produces a state akin to insanity when the subject of the drug loses all control, and isn't really responsible.'
'Exactly,' said Duplessis. 'That's the reason why I want to know that this particular lady is safe and sound in your keeping. I believe that she has arrived in a state of mind in which she's not responsible—and I think that, unless she's looked after, she may do something which is pretty serious. You see, Harding, this woman is determined. Normally, I should say, she's one of those quiet people who feel things rather intensely, and who's inclined to want to get her own way in most things. In the usual course of events this might not matter, but after six months of hashish the result might not be particularly healthy—for some one else.'
'I see,' said Harding quietly, 'I see.'
'I'm glad you see,' said Duplessis. 'Quite candidly, Harding, unless this woman's taken care of—and pretty quickly—I'm afraid that there'll be a bunch of trouble for somebody. It might even be a case of killing.'
'What about her friends?' said Harding. 'Is there no one to look after her?'
'At the moment, no,' replied Duplessis. 'No one at all; and, in fact, I know that she'd refuse to come here if she were asked to, but I don't propose to ask her,' he continued grimly.
'Hence the kidnapping,' he said. 'And, supposing I agree to take this "case"—to put it professionally—how do you propose to do this kidnapping?'
'With the aid of a chloroform pad which I am optimistic enough to think that you'll give me, Harding,' he said. 'That's the only way it's going to be done. I propose to get the lady into a taxi-cab on some pretext or other, and once she's inside I'm going to put her to sleep. Then I propose to tell the driver to come straight along here. I'll try and let you know what time we shall arrive, and your people can be ready to take her in. Then, once she's in, you don't let her out until I give the word that it's safe for her to come out. Incidentally, Harding, you might try your hand at a cure while she's in here. I don't think it'll be difficult.'
'Why not?' asked the Doctor. 'Hashish-takers are fairly rare, but it's not easy to cure a bad case.'
'This isn't really a bad case,' said Duplessis. 'The woman concerned isn't the type who'd normally take drugs. She's much too fastidious. Unfortunately, these hashish cigarettes were introduced to her at a time when she was terribly worried, and she's smoked them when things have got a little bit too much for her. But she's still very energetic and mentally alert; she's just got one idea that's wrong—an idea that is unconnected with the drug, but which the drug may well make stronger, it's a bad idea, too, Harding. I'm not going to tell you what it is, because I honestly believe that within the next two or three days you'll know the entire truth about everything.'
Harding nodded. 'Well, Peter,' he said, 'you've got your nerve, I must say, coming along here and expecting me to take in your kidnapped drug cases. However, I think that I'd better do it in the interests of all concerned! The lady certainly seems to need some treatment. By the way, what sort of person is she?'
He leaned across the table as an idea suddenly struck him. 'Look here, Peter,' he said, 'you said something about preventing somebody's death. This woman hasn't killed anyone, has she?'
Duplessis blew a smoke ring.
'I wish you wouldn't be so curious. Harding, old man,' he said. 'But if you want a straight answer to your question—I don't know. She may have; on the other hand, she may not have, but, in any event, I don't see what that has to do with the question.
'You see, Harding, there are times when we must broaden our minds a little more than usual. I know that there isn't any real excuse for killing people, but circumstances alter cases, and mistakes happen in the best regulated families!'
Harding grinned. 'It doesn't help me to have proverbs quoted at me. Peter,' he said. 'However, have it your own way; I'll stand for it. When do you think that you'll be kidnapping this mysterious and drugged charmer?'
Duplessis thought for a moment. 'I don't know... at least I'm not quite certain.' He considered for a moment. 'With luck I shall do the job tomorrow night.'
Harding nodded. 'What's her heart like?' he asked. 'Bit weak, do you think?'
Duplessis nodded. 'I should think it might easily be, Harding,' he said. 'Why?'
'I was thinking about the chloroform,' replied the doctor. 'You'd better have a mixture of chloroform and ether. I'll make you up a bottle—one that can be slipped easily into your pocket. I've got a little syringe bottle—you'd betted have that; then you can have the pad in your pocket, and when the time comes you simply turn the end of the bottle into the pad, and, by pressing the stud in the bottom of the bottle, you empty the contents on to the pad. That suit you?'
'You're being pretty decent to me, Harding,' he said.
Harding laughed. 'It's my turn to eat rats now,' he replied. 'By the way, Peter—am I allowed to ask what you're getting out of this business? You usually have a fairly good financial brain. Anything in it for you?'
'I'm afraid not,' said Duplessis. 'At the beginning I thought that there might be, but now I'm not so sure. I'm intrigued, that's all, and I'm fool enough to enjoy the process—up to a point, anyhow. I'm certainly losing money over it.'
'Help yourself to a cigarette whilst I go and prepare your dope,' said Harding. 'It's a pretty awful thing when I find myself—a medical practitioner—aiding and abetting you in your unlawful schemes. By the way, just how long is this lady going to be left on my hands? I hope you're not going to leave her here permanently, and forget to fetch her.'
'I shan't do that.' smiled Duplessis. 'Incidentally, just how long does it take you to cure a case of hashish taking?'
Harding paused on his way to the door.
'Not so long in this case,' he said. 'If she's as mentally alert and active as you say, she can't have inhaled a great deal of the stuff. Maybe, the cigarettes have only an infinitesimal amount of it in them, and a person who is drugging through worry is much more quickly cured than one who's drugging through inclination. The great thing to do is to remove the cause of the worry; I shan't be long.'
The door closed behind him. Left by himself, Duplessis took another cigarette, and indulged in his favourite amusement of blowing smoke rings. As they sailed ceilingwards he asked himself if he had been foolish to make the arrangement with Harding. The Doctor had been good enough. Heaven knew, but supposing he had been wrong—supposing there was a flaw in his theory....
Duplessis realised that he might easily be laying up a store of trouble for himself. He comforted himself with the thought that in any event, the enforced stay in Harding's nursing home would do the Vicomtesse no harm. Perhaps it would be a good thing. Perhaps, if the worst came to the worst, it would be good if she were somewhere where the police could find her if Duplessis found that he was unable to prove his theory, and see the job through on his own. He was banking on one fact.
It was quite obvious to him that Anne de Guerrac had brought to a successful conclusion her interview with Vowles... and what could success mean to her? Herein lay the crux of the whole matter.
And in one other thing; the thing he required; the urgent and necessary thing for which he depended on Miss Day.
If he obtained this third link in his chain he felt that success was obtainable—and what a story it would make. What a newspaper story! Duplessis smiled as he visualised Le Clerq's face when he heard the truth.
Fifteen minutes later he left the place. The little bottle and the pad lay in an envelope in his breast pocket. He walked rapidly towards Baker Street, turning over in his mind snatches of conversation, odd remarks on the part of Vowles and of de Guerrac, checking back on things, trying to prove himself wrong.
NEXT morning found Duplessis in a state of nerves. It seemed to him that he had committed himself to more or less desperate measures, and now he wondered whether those measures would be necessary. He had not long to wait. At twelve o'clock, after he had been drumming his heels on his desk for two hours, a boy arrived. He had ridden up from Birchgate on Hastings' motor-bicycle.
'I've brought a packet from Miss Day, sir,' he said, throwing the packet on the table casually. 'She said it was rather urgent. Any message? Miss Day said there was no answer so far as she was concerned.'
'Then there's no answer,' said Duplessis.
He nodded to the boy, and almost before the door had closed, he had torn open the package with fingers which were not as steady as usual. Inside was a little sheaf of papers, and on top, In Miss Day's neat typewriting, a letter from her. He read it.
Dear Mr. Duplessis.
Things have been happening down here. First of all, Mr. Vowles seems to be clearing things up in the office. He gives me the impression that he is going to leave, and I expect you will think, as I do, that, if I am right, his departure has something to do with a visit from the lady yesterday.
This morning he wrote out a large cheque, and, by what I overhead of a telephone conversation which he had with his bank manager, it seems that he is clearing and closing his account at the bank.
But, possibly what's more important to you, having regard to what you told me yesterday, another man has been here—a Frenchman. I believe. His name is Ragosin. He came in this morning when Mr. Vowles was out at the bank, and he actually handed to me a letter. You will remember that you told me it was awfully important that I should, if possible, let you have any letter brought by any fresh arrival. Here it is.
This man, Ragosin, looked very ill. Also, he seemed very angry. I told him that Mr. Vowles was out. He asked when he would be in. I thought it best to say that I did not know. Then I said that I was conversant with all Mr. Vowles' private affairs, and asked if I could help him. He threw the letter on my table, and said, 'When Vowles comes in give him that. He'll know where to find me. I shan't come back here.'
I wanted to find out where he was going, so I asked him if he was certain that Mr. Vowles knew where he could find him. He said, 'Yes, he knows I'm going to The Last House. If Vowles doesn't come whilst I'm there tell him I shall come back for him.'
Then he turned, but, as he was going out of the office, another letter, which he held in his hands when he gave me the first one, slipped from between his fingers. He did not notice it. He was so enraged that he could hardly open the door. I enclose this second letter, and you will see that it appears to have been sent by the lady.
If there is anything more that I can do will you please telephone me. I have got an idea that this office will be closed this afternoon, and that Mr. Vowles will discharge me. If this is so I shall go to the Kings Arms and await instructions from you.
In spite of Duplessis' efforts to control himself some little beads of perspiration broke out on his forehead. He threw aside Miss Day's letter, and scanned the next letter, which, in her careful blue pencil, she had marked '1'. He read it. The letter was dated five days before. It was addressed from the Bealthorpe-Birchgate Estate Office, and it read:
Dear Mr. Ragosin,
With reference to our arrangements with you, we shall be very glad if you will come to England on Thursday next, and, if possible, arrive at this office at eleven o'clock in the morning.
There you will be able to discuss with Mr. Vowles the completion of the documents which will enable you to take over your property—The Last House at Chellingford—and any other facts as arranged between yourself and us.
We sincerely hope that you are better in health. May we advise you to concentrate on keeping in the open air as much as possible? We think this will be necessary to your well-being. Take your own line in this matter, and do not be dissuaded, therefore, by anything you may hear.
Our other friends nave been, and will be, written to in these same terms, and, for our mutual benefit, perhaps it would be wise to destroy this letter.
pp. The Bealthorpe-Birchgate Estate Co., Ltd., X.L.
In one glance Duplessis saw that the ink of this letter was months old. Also, he was intrigued by the letter. The first part of it was obvious to him, but it was the second part on which he concentrated. But he wasted no further time on scanning this letter. He turned to the other one, and a grim smile played about his lips as he saw that it was dated two days ago from The Alcazar Hotel, and was marked: 'Urgent—By Air Mail.'
Turning over the letter, he saw that it was signed by Anne de Guerrac, and was written in French. He read it quickly:—
My Dear M. Ragosin,
I entreat you not to take any notice of any letter which you may receive asking you to come to England. For your welfare you must stay where you are. Believe me when I tell you that I have this business in hand. We have been fools, and we must pay for our folly. I shall see Vowles, and I shall do my best to see that accounts are squared. Once more I entreat you not to come to England.
Anne de Guerrac.
Duplessis did not wait. In two minutes he was down the stairs—in four he was in a taxicab, having promised the driver double fare to get to Somerset House quickly.
In twenty minutes he was in the Companies Search room at Somerset House with the complete file of documents relating to the Bealthorpe-Birchgate Estate Company before him. He turned quickly to the agreement dated January, 1931, signed by the proprietors of The Bealthorpe-Birchgate Estate Company, specially allotting the Vicomtesse Anne de Guerrac 'one hundred thousand pounds of shares in consideration of services rendered.'
He looked at the signatures to this agreement. Under a microscope he examined the signature of the witnesses. Then, using the microscope, he examined the letter written to Ragosin—the letter from the Bealthorpe-Birchgate Estate Company, which told, him to come to England. Duplessis knew most of the things that he wanted to know, but there was one thing he did not know.
He folded back the letter so that he could concentrate on the second paragraph:—
We sincerely hope that you are better in health. May we advise yon to concentrate on keeping in the open air as much as possible. We think this will be necessary to your well being. Take your own line in this matter, and do not be dissuaded, therefore, by anything you may hear.
Obviously, this was some form of code. It was certain that this code paragraph had been included in the formal letters written to Nirac and Dupont—the letters which had brought them to England.
Duplessis stared at the handwriting before him. It was certain that this paragraph was in all the letters, for the writer said:—'Our friends have been, or will be, written to in the same terms.'
This letter—the crux of the whole mystery, which, in all probability, the man Ragosin had only kept because in his fury he had disobeyed de Guerrac's injunction not to come to England—was a facsimile of the letters sent to Nirac and Dupont, but they, believing something, had obeyed the writer's injunction to destroy the letter.
Believing something! A shudder run down Duplessis's spine. The mystery of the five men in the fresco was a mystery no longer. Death stalked at Birchgate, it lay in wait by day and by night, and this letter, with its cynical wishes for the health of the recipient—this devilish letter—was the third common denominator.
Five people who were all drug addicts; five houses with the ominous fresco set in the wall of each—the mark of death; and now these letters, each with its paragraph of death.
Duplessis got to his feet. He dashed up the stairs, past the bewildered porter at Somerset House gates, flung himself into his waiting taxi-cab, and ordered the man to drive him to the Alcazar.
With fingers that shook he pressed the bell outside de Guerrac's suites Hortense opened the door.
'Hortense,' said Duplessis, 'I must see the Vicomtesse immediately.'
Hortense regarded him coldly. She had not forgotten the faked telephone message of yesterday.
'Ze Vicomtesse is out, M'sieu,' she said. 'She will not be back till zis evening until eight o'clock.'
'Hortense,' said Duplessis, 'if you don't want to see what the inside of a police station looks like within five minutes tell me what the Vicomtesse has been doing today.'
Hortense shrugged her shoulders.
'I do not understand you, M'sieu,' she said. 'But zere is no reason why you should not know. Ze Vicomtesse is so 'appy. She 'as been successful. Zis morning she telephoned Scotland Yard. She is to go zere tomorrow. She is so pleased.'
In her excitement Hortense forgot that she was angry with Duplessis. 'But, M'sieu,' she continued, 'it is so strange. Alzough Mademoiselle is pleased, she still smokes zose cigarettes. She smokes too many of zose cigarettes.'
Duplessis did not wait. He ran quickly downstairs, out into the street, and found a telephone in a tobacconist's opposite. He put through a trunk call to Hastings at Birchgate, and gave a sigh of relief as he heard the voice of the Leader correspondent on the telephone.
'Thank God you're in, Hastings,' said Duplessis. 'Now, listen to me, I and don't make any mistake. Get a car, go over to The Last House at Chellingford, and stand on the doorstep. Don't let anybody go inside. If you find a man called Ragosin in the neighbourhood—Miss Day will give you a description—you'll find her at the King's Arms—hold him, and bring him back to London. Don't let that man out of your sight. Do you understand?'
'OK.,' said Hastings. 'Something happening?'
'You bet,' said Duplessis. 'Something is happening. Telephone me through at my office if you want me, or when you've got Ragosin. I'm going back there now. I'll wait for your call.'
Duplessis went back and steeled himself to the nearest approach to patience that he could manage. He wondered what was happening everywhere—whether Hastings had got to The Last House; where Anne de Guerrac was; what Scotland Yard were doing; where Ragosin was. All these thoughts flitted through his mind, intermingled with mind-pictures of the fresco, the paragraph in the letter and the face of Anne de Guerrac.
Four o'clock... five o'clock... six o'clock... but nothing had happened. The half-a-dozen telephone calls to Hastings's house evinced no reply. Calls to the King's Arms for Miss Day were fruitless, she had gone out with Mr. Hastings. Calls to the Bealthorpe-Birchgate Estate Office resulted in nothing but the noise of the telephone ringing the other end.
At a quarter-past-six Duplessis, who had by this time recovered some of his usual self-control, went out and ordered tea at the café next door to his office, leaving a clerk sitting by the telephone with instructions to run down for Duplessis if anyone came through—but there was no call. At seven o'clock, still wondering, Duplessis returned to the office, and, as he did so, the bell rang. In two strides he was at the instrument.
It was Hastings speaking.
'Is that you, Mr. Duplessis?' said Hastings. 'I've got some pretty bad news for you. After I got your call I went to the King's Arms and picked up Miss Day. I thought I'd take her with me; she'd recognise this Ragosin straight away. But when we got there somebody had been there first. The door was open, and I went in. I went through to the back of the house, and I was just in time to stop Miss Day going in. I'm jolly glad I did. Vowles was there, lying on the floor. The police-surgeon says he must have been strangled half an hour before we got to the house. We found Ragosin afterwards. You remember the overgrown shrubbery that runs by the side of the house? We found him there, lying in the weeds—dead.'
'I see,' said Duplessis. 'Well, that's that. Listen, Hastings, have you looked at Vowles? Had he got anything in his hands?'
'Funny you should ask that,' said Hastings. 'He had a piece of string—at least, we thought it was a piece of string about 12 inches long clutched in one hand. One end of it had been broken. Ragosin had the other end, but he had a longer piece. It was twisted round his left wrist. It was about eight feet long, and on the end of it was a little lead weight. I believe it's what they call a plumb line.'
'I see,' said Duplessis, somewhat wearily. 'Listen, Hastings I'll be down tonight about ten o'clock and you can tell the Chief Constable not to worry his head about this. I know all about it.'
'By Jove!' said Hastings, 'You do? Is it going to be a scoop for us, Mr. Duplessis?'
'It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good,' he said. 'It wasn't so good for Vowles, or Ragosin. I expect it'll be pretty good for you, Hastings. You'll get your scoop.'
He hung up the receiver. What a fool Ragosin had been. The ways of men are indeed strange, thought Duplessis. He took off the receiver once more, and 'phoned the Alcazar Hotel. A glance at his watch told him that it was ten minutes past eight. Dusk was falling. Hortense answered him, and, in a minute, in reply to his request, he heard Anne de Guerrac's voice on the telephone.
'I can congratulate you, Vicomtesse,' he said. 'You've been successful—but not quite successful enough. But you've made one mistake.'
'And what was that, M'sieu?'
Her voice was brighter than he had heard it before.
'You shouldn't have telephoned Scotland Yard this morning, Mademoiselle,' he said. 'You employed the wrong technique. Why wouldn't you let me help you, even if we did agree to disagree last evening? I could have arranged your business much more quickly for you.'
'I would have asked you, M'sieu,' she replied, 'but I thought you would not be interested.'
'I shall always be interested in you, Vicomtesse,' said Duplessis. 'I'll come straight along to the hotel. If you'll meet me at the entrance I'll keep my cab waiting, and in half an hour I promise you your business in this country will be settled.'
'You are still charming, M'sieu Duplessis,' she replied. 'I will be there.'
'Good.' said Duplessis. 'I'll come right along. He hung up the receiver, and put on his hat. Then he unlocked a drawer in his desk and took from it a bottle of chloroform and ether which Harding had given him and the pad.
AS his cab approached the Alcazar Hotel, Duplessis could see Anne de Guerrac as she stood in the entrance. The brilliant lights above the hotel entrance shone full upon her. She looked, as usual, charming, but more bright, more alert, than she had ever appeared before. The cab stopped, and Duplessis got out, telling the man to wait. He advanced towards de Guerrac, and raised his hat with a smile as charming as her own.
'I congratulate you, Vicomtesse,' he said. 'With your permission we won't discuss this matter at all. Just for a little while let's think about other things.'
'But, M'sieu,' she protested, 'you promised that very soon after you met me here you would have...'
'I always keep my promises, Vicomtesse,' said Duplessis, 'at least, when I can. And in this case I think I shall be able to keep it. I promised you that within half an hour of meeting you here your business in England would be settled. It will be. In the meantime I want you to do me a favour.
'I think you'll agree that, whether or not I displeased you by opening your portfolio last evening, I've done a great deal of work for you.'
She nodded. Her eyes were wondering.
'Therefore,' said Duplessis, 'I consider that I'm entitled to some slight recompense. Don't you think so?'
'But, of course, M'sieu, she said. 'What can I do?'
'Just this,' said Duplessis. 'Would you drink a cocktail with me in the lounge?'
'It is not difficult to accede to such a request, M'sieu Duplessis.' she said, 'except that I do not usually drink cocktails.'
'On this occasion, Vicomtesse,' he said, 'you must.'
He led her to a table, and pushed forward a chair for her, but, instead of summoning the waiter, he walked over to the cocktail bar in the corner.
'I want a whisky and soda for myself,' he said to the cocktail-shaker, 'and in the other glass I want a portion of brandy. But squeeze a little lemon into it so that it looks like a cocktail.'
The man nodded, and prepared the drinks. Duplessis carried them back himself to their table. He handed her the little glass of brandy which, with a few flecks of lemon pulp on the top and the cherry beneath, looked like a cocktail.
'Now, Vicomtesse,' he said, 'as this is my reward for my services, you must do as I tell you. This cocktail is a very special one. It is called 'The Road to Nowhere,' and it must be drunk in one gulp. I would like to see you drink it.'
'You are in a joking mood, M'sieu,' she said, 'but I must pay my debts. Bonne chance!' She raised the glass and drank the brandy; then, put the glass on the table with a grimace.
'I do not like your cocktail, M'sieu,' she said. 'It tastes to me like brandy.'
'It was,' said Duplessis.
She looked at him surprised.
'Why?' she asked.
'Let's get our cab,' said Duplessis, 'and let's settle this business of yours inside. When we're on our way I'll tell you why. I know that you don't want to waste any time.'
He helped her into the taxi. He had already given the driver the destination to which he was to drive. As they sped up Regent street, Duplessis. looking out of the window, compared the bright lights and the happy faces of the passers-by with the death that hovered about Birchgate.
She roused him from his reverie. 'M'sieu Duplessis,' she said, with a smile, 'may I have your explanation about the brandy? I am interested. Also, where are we going? That interests me, too. Do we go to your Commissioner of Police—or where?'
Duplessis smiled in the darkness. His right hand was busy behind him.
'I'll satisfy your curiosity, Vicomtesse,' he said. 'Sometimes people who've been taking drugs have hearts which aren't very strong, and it's not wise to give them the mildest mixture of chloroform until their heart is slightly stimulated. Therefore, I took pains to ensure that you should be in a right condition to receive what I have prepared for you. With regard to your destination, you're going to the house of a friend of mine—a nursing-home You'll stay there until I say you shall come out.'
Her eyes flashed in the darkness.
'I do not like this joke, M'sieu,' she said.
'I don't, particularly,' said Duplessis, 'but it's a necessary one. Keep quite still, Vicomtesse.'
His left arm went about her shoulders, holding her as in a vice. With his right hand he pressed the chloroform pad over her nose. For a second she struggled—then sank back in the corner of the cab, a limp figure. Duplessis put the pad in his pocket. Then he put his head out of the window.
'Step on it!' he told the driver.
Twenty minutes later two white-coated porters received the inanimate form of Anne de Guerrac, and, as the doors of the private hospital closed behind her, Duplessis jumped back into the cab and drove to the nearest garage. Whilst they were getting ready the car which he ordered, Duplessis telephoned Le Clerq, telling him where he was.
'Come right along, J.L.,' he said. 'I've got the biggest story for you that your papers ever ran, but we've got to get down to Birchgate quickly before the police start spilling the beans to any odd pressmen who may get wind that there's something afoot. Be quick.'
As they sped through the night air in silence, Duplessis pieced together the pieces in his jigsaw puzzle. He could only guess the beginning, although he knew the end. But he could imagine the scene in Paris; he could imagine the sinister figure of Vowles sneaking round the back streets of Montmartre and Montparnasse. He could visualise the pathetic figure of Nirac, the man of business; of Dupont, the unfortunate little journeyman tailor whom fate had swept into this strange net. The wealth of Ragosin did not save him. But, now, at least, Baourdat was saved. Fate had been good to Baourdat.
The road sped under them. It was a quarter to eleven when they pulled up outside The Last House at Chellingford. It looked ghostly in the moonlight as if it knew what lay within it, and what lay without in the shrubbery.
Inside the hall were Hastings, Massingham, the police-surgeon, and three other men. Hasting came forward.
'Sorry I'm late,' said Duplessis.
'I'm glad you've come,' said Hastings. 'Mr. Duplessis, this is Colonel Grant, the Chief Constable. These are detective officers. Naturally they were very interested when I said that you could supply all information concerning this affair.'
'I can,' said Duplessis. 'Colonel Grant, it's better for me to show you how Nirac died at The Bungalow at Birchgate; how Dupont died at the Smugglers' Rest, and how Ragosin died here, than to talk a lot, for my story will take a long time to tell. However, if we go to The Priory Lodge at Birchgate, I'll satisfy your curiosity. I'll talk to you as we drive over.'
They got into the car. Duplessis produced from his pocket the letter—the mysterious letter which had brought Ragosin to England.
'If you examine this letter, gentlemen,' he said, 'you'll see that the ink is old. It's been written some months ago. It tells Ragosin to come to England, and complete the arrangements about taking over his house at Chellingford. Nirac received such a letter with regard to The Bungalow at Birchgate. Dupont received one with regard to the Smugglers' Rest. But observe the paragraph—the second paragraph—gentlemen:—"We sincerely hope that you are better in health. May we advise you to concentrate on keeping in the open air as much as possible. We think this will be necessary to your well-being. Take your own line in this matter, and do not be dissuaded, therefore, by anything you may hear."
'You will observe that the individual written to is told to keep in the open air as much as possible. He is also enjoined to take his own line no matter who may try to dissuade him.
'Now, gentlemen, knowing that this paragraph was in each letter—for in the letter itself is a line which says, "our other friends have been written to in the same terms"—I compared this similarity with the fact that each of these houses possesses a fresco. The result, after a little thought, was obvious. "Keep in the open air as much as possible." Open air. Does that suggest anything to you, gentlemen?'
The quick brain of Hastings got it.
'By Jove!' he said, 'open air—al fresco.'
'Exactly,' said Duplessis, al fresco. And after the word fresco is suggested—and, obviously, the recipient of the letter had been previously told what this would mean—he's told to 'take his own line.'
'Now, you'll remember that about the hands of Nirac was found a length of twisted string; that the tailor, Dupont, had a reel of cotton in his hand—it would serve the same purpose. Here, in this house, Vowles has been found with a piece of string in his hand; the remainder, torn from him by Ragosin, was found where he was found.
'"Take your own line." Obviously, gentlemen, take a plumb-line from the fresco. And if we take a line from the fresco in The Priory Lodge—the house which was intended for Baourdat, who has not yet received his letter because the time is not yet ripe—we shall see how these men died.'
As he spoke the car turned into the drive of Priory Lodge. They got out. In single file they walked up the stairs to the servant's bedroom—the room on the wall of which the fresco was set.
Hastings, armed with an electric torch, led the way. From his pocket Duplessis produced another, together with a small ball of string.
'Gentlemen,' he said, as they stood in the eerie room lighted by the beams of the two flashlights, 'here we have these little figures in the fresco The first, I imagine, would represent Nirac for he came over first; the second Dupont; the third, Ragosin. But, therefore, this being the house intended for Baourdat the fourth figure would be his. You'll notice that I have a drawing-pin attached to one end of this string, and a weight on the other. I imagine that the indenture on the centre of the shield of the Greek centurion in the fresco is the spot to which I fix the end of my string. You'll notice, also, that I shall require something to stand on to reach it, although I'm fairly tall; and you'll notice that that article has already been supplied by some thoughtful individual. This broken chair will enable me to reach the fresco just as the other odd pieces of furniture in the other houses would serve the same purpose.'
Duplessis got on to the chair, and fixed his drawing-pin in the centre of the centurion's shield.
'Now,' he said, 'it seems obvious to me that this spot, on which the weight stands, isn't the spot indicated by the writer of the letter. It's too obvious and it wouldn't have needed any plumb-line to find it—the eye would have done that. So I imagine that we must swing this plumb-line in a half-circle, keeping the string taut, and somewhere on the line traced—the half-circle made by the plumb-line—we shall find what we are looking for.'
Duplessis took the plumb-line between his fingers, and, holding the string taut, traced a half-circle on the wall. Suddenly, he gave an exclamation.
'Here it is, gentlemen,' he said. He pointed with his finger directly underneath the weight on the end of the string. Just on the right of the fireplace was an old-fashioned carved bell-push.
Hastings stepped forward, his hand outstretched. 'So this is what—'
Duplessis pushed him back.
'Idiot!' he said. 'Do you want to be the fourth murder case in this district? You'll get a scare in a minute.'
'Gentlemen,' continued Duplessis, 'I think that when I press this bell-push with the leg of this chair we shall see a remarkably simple little apparatus work. I believe that the pushing of this knob will release a spring, and through the top of the knob will come a syringe needle which will be covered with some potent form of poison, and which would penetrate the finger of anyone pressing it. Now. it stands to reason that that poison can't be liquid, otherwise it would have dried up or evaporated with the passage of time. Therefore, it must be some oily or greasy compound which can be smeared on the end of the needle, and which would not evaporate.
'Doctor, perhaps you would like to have a look at the end of the chair leg after I've used it.'
Duplessis handed his torch to one of the police officers. The two beams of light from the two torches concentrated on the knob of the bell-push. Picking up the chair Duplessis pressed one of the legs against the bell-push. There were three little clicks, and in ghostly silence of the dark room the watchers saw the bell knob draw back into the wall and shoot out in the quickness of a second. Duplessis turned the chair leg towards the doctor. It was an old rounded leg, and the end had been varnished over, but in the middle of the varnish there was a needle hole, and round the hole a tiny speck of grease showed.
'You were right, Duplessis,' he said. 'That's some form of curare poison. The tiniest speck of it in the smallest wound causes death in twenty minutes.'
Duplessis threw down the chair, and the noise echoed throughout the empty house.
'And that's that,' he said. 'That's how Nirac and Dupont died, and Ragosin. As for Vowles' death, the explanation is simple. Vowles knew nothing of the secret of the fresco, although there's no doubt that he was originally an accomplice in some plan to defraud these men. Yesterday, however, he learnt that there was some method being employed of killing the people who came over to take these houses. Now, I don't know why Vowles went to The Last House at Chellingford, but he either went there to investigate this business for himself, or he went there to warn Ragosin. Presumably, he arrived first, and was endeavouring to find the spot on the wall with his plumb-line when Ragosin came in. Now, Vowles didn't intend to press that spot because he knew that death lay that way. But Ragosin didn't know that. He believed that if he pressed that spot some concealed safe in the wall would open, and in it he'd find the money of which he'd been defrauded by the Bealthorpe-Birchgate Estate Company. He recognised Vowles, and thought that Vowles was once again endeavouring to steal what was his. He sprang on him and strangled him. Ragosin is a big man, and Vowles isn't much of a scrapper. I expect you found, Doctor, that the thumb-prints on Vowles' throat matched those of Ragosin's hands, didn't you?'
The Doctor nodded. 'Well, it was rather a pity for Ragosin that he killed Vowles,' continued Duplessis. 'Having done so, he tore the plumb-line from Vowles' hand, and found the spot on the wall for himself. Rather an unlucky business for Mr. Ragosin,' added Duplessis. 'That's the story of Vowles' death.'
'Well, we're very much obliged to you, Mr. Duplessis,' said Colonel Grant. 'Your explanation is, obviously a true one. At the same time, I should be very interested to hear who's responsible for this.'
'I'm afraid I can't discuss that at the moment, Colonel,' said Duplessis, 'but I can promise you this—that the murderer will be in the hands of the police within the next twenty-four hours. I don't want to say any more at the moment, but if you'll be good enough to accompany me in the morning to Scotland Yard the whole thing will be made quite plain to you. I only suggest such a procedure because the Yard has already been approached on a matter which, whilst having nothing actually to do with these murders, has a decided bearing on them.'
The Colonel nodded.
'Well, it's obvious we can't do anything more tonight,' he said, 'and I'll do as you suggest, Mr. Duplessis. In the meantime, we'll leave a man on duty here, and I think the best place for us is bed.'
'By the way,' he continued. 'I hope there aren't any more of these death houses in the district.'
'I don't think so,' said Duplessis. 'I don't think you need worry any more, except it might be a good thing to have this infernal machine, or whatever you like to call it, taken out of this wall. It may work again, you know.'
'That shall be done in the morning.' said the Chief Constable. 'Well, gentlemen, let's be off; this place gives me the creeps.'
IT was eight o'clock. The first shadows of dusk were creeping over the metropolis. Pleasure-seeking crowds thronged the streets in the West End of London. In the Assistant Commissioner's room at Scotland Yard, a man, smiling sardonically, handcuffed, stood between two warders whilst a charge of murder against him in respect of Alphonse Nirac, Edouard Dupont, and Victor Emile Ragosin was read to him.
Down in Fleet street the giant presses of 'The Evening Leader' thundered out the exclusive story of the Birchgate murders. In his office, a damp proof-copy in his hand, the inevitable cigarette in his mouth, Le Clerq saw the reward of his patience.
Duplessis, walking up Regent street, his hands in his pockets, his hat at the usual angle, considered, with a certain amount of satisfaction and a certain amount of diffidence, the interview that lay before him. A newspaper van dashed past him, and by the time he got to the top of Regent Street he was able to buy and read Le Clerq's story. The heavy captions stared him in the face as he opened the paper:
DEATH IN THE FRESCO
JOURNALIST CLEARS UP THE MYSTERY
Duplessis grinned. The advertisement would do him no harm, anyhow.
In Oxford street he debated as to whether he should take a cab or walk.
During the early part of the day, in the intervals of elucidating the mystery to the Scotland Yard authorities, he had looked forward to this evening. Now he found a certain reluctance possessing him. Once or twice he stopped uncertainly as if he would retrace his steps and go home. But, on second thoughts, this idea was impossible. Considering the matter impersonally, he realised that his diffidence was due to the fact that he did not know what the attitude of Anne de Guerrac might be, and he was not too keen to admit to himself that he was perturbed by this thought.
Eventually, with a half-shrug of the shoulders, he hailed a passing taxi-cab, and drove to the nursing home. Arrived there, he handed his paper to Harding, in whose room he was seated.
'There's the story, Harding,' he said. 'Just how it applies to the Vicomtesse I'll tell you some other time. By the way, how is she?'
'Not too bad,' said Harding. 'I'm afraid you rather exaggerated her case. She'll be all right quite soon. She's not at all a good specimen of a drug addict. She has a good constitution, and I don't think she'll be here very long—unless,' he continued with a smile, 'this kidnapping business is to go on indefinitely.'
'I don't think so,' said Duplessis. 'It's quite safe for her to go out any time she's fit now. By the way, Harding, can I see her? I want to talk to that lady.'
'Why not?' said Harding. 'It would probably do her good.'
He rang a bell.
It was only when Duplessis saw the pale face of Anne de Guerrac framed by the ruffled pillows that he realised her beauty. In his previous interviews with her his mind, torn by suspicion and doubt, had failed to recognise the perfection of her features. She opened her eyes wearily, but they brightened perceptibly as they recognised him. He sat down by the bedside.
'Well, M'sieu Duplessis?' she said.
'Well, Mademoiselle?' he said. He paused, finding it rather difficult to talk.
'I expect you have come to ask me to forgive you for kidnapping me,' she said. 'Is that right?'
Duplessis shook his head.
'No,' he said. 'I'm not in the remotest degree sorry that I kidnapped you. In fact, I'm very glad.
'Aren't you foolish? Haven't you been the most foolish woman? And there isn't any necessity to ask me why. It was, obviously, so silly of you to plan a revenge on Sardonin which could only bring you very near to death or, at least, imprisonment for life, whilst all the time the law was quite prepared to do what you'd have done.'
She paled. 'You mean—?' she asked.
'I mean,' said Duplessis, 'that they've brought Sardonin from prison this afternoon; that this evening he's being charged with the murders of Nirac. Dupont and Ragosin. Nothing can save him. He'll be sentenced to the death which he so richly deserves. What a pity that Ragosin didn't take your letter seriously. He would have been so much better if he'd stayed in France.'
She leaned back. Duplessis saw the relief in her eyes.
'How did you find out?' she said?
'I was just lucky,' said Duplessis: 'I put two and two together without making five out of them. But you guessed it before me, you know. Tell me if I am right. Wasn't it when Dupont died that you suspected Sardonin?'
'And,' continued Duplessis, 'you suspected him because you remembered that the idea of placing the frescoes on the walls was his. That's why you were so remarkably careful to tell me that it was Vowles' idea. I knew Vowles wasn't the sort of man to pull the clever stuff like that, and I wondered why you were so careful to endeavour to implicate Vowles. Then the explanation came to me. Obviously, you couldn't say it was Sardonin because you wanted to get Sardonin out of prison so that you could kill him yourself, which, after all, is a very dangerous process for so charming an individual as yourself to indulge in.'
'Then,' he continued, 'you made me certain. One remark of yours definitely put me on the right track. When you said, 'Who else could have done it?' you started my mind on a train of thought which could only lead in one direction. Mind you, I was an awful ass. I argued with my friend, Le Clerq, right at the beginning of this business that the probability was that you didn't know the notes were counterfeit, and I was too much of a fool to apply the same argument to Vowles, poor devil. He didn't know they were counterfeit, either. Directly I realised this I knew that Sardonin had put those counterfeit notes in that envelope, sealing it down so that nobody but yourself could open it without detection for one purpose.'
'What was that?' she asked.
'It's quite obvious,' said Duplessis, 'Sardonin knew that you were under the influence of this drug. He had told you to come, take this money, and get some reliable person to help you get him out of prison—at least, he wrote this to you. Sardonin believed that that individual, receiving those counterfeit banknotes, would promptly inform you of the fact, and refuse to do anything to assist you. He also imagined that, under the influence of the drug, and being thoroughly enraged, you would believe, as you did believe at first, that Vowles had changed the notes. Sardonin thought that you would kill Vowles, which was exactly what he wanted. Vowles knew too much. Anyhow,' said Duplessis, 'I think it's all pretty clear now.'
She turned her head towards him.
'Is it all clear?' she said.
'Oh, I think so,' said Duplessis. 'I think I can guess the first part of the story, more especially as I took the opportunity of writing last week to a friend of mine in Paris—a man who knows what's going on; he's a journalist; they always know the bad side of life—and asking a few questions about you.'
'So you know all about me, M'sieu?' she said.
Duplessis thought he saw her lips tremble.
'Mademoiselle,' he said, 'I think I can guess—and I guess something like this. There was once a rather foolish young woman. She was without relations. Her father had died shortly before, leaving her far too much money. His death upset her, and when she met a rather unattractive Englishman—one Etienne Sardonin—she believed that she loved him. Women always believe that they love the wrong man first of all,' said Duplessis, with a grin.
'Anyhow, in her Sardonin saw a means of easy wealth. It wasn't the first time he'd used his method. His business was to get in touch with the rich ne'er-do-wells who frequented the better-class night clubs in Paris, and to introduce to them different drugs through his associate, Vowles, a common Englishman. Poor little Dupont, the journeyman tailor, was probably the man who actually delivered the stuff, wasn't he?'
'I thought so,' said Duplessis. 'Some time towards the end of last year,' he continued, 'things got too hot for Mr. Sardonin. None of you suspected that he was the man who was really responsible for your taking this drug. He came to England, having obtained possession of very nearly everything which you, Nirac, Ragosin and Baourdat had in the world. From England he wrote you that letter telling you that he was afraid that Vowles would implicate him in something which would land him in prison. In point of fact, as you well know, he had arranged that Vowles would put him in prison, because he considered that that was the only place where he would be safe. He had heard that Dupont had squealed, and that you, at least, knew that Sardonin was the man responsible. But I imagine our friend to have been very clever. Before he left France he had told you that he would make it his business to see that your finances were put right. Under an oath of secrecy he had told Nirac, Baourdat and Ragosin the same thing. Dupont, also, was promised a certain reward for behaving himself. Then, in order to keep you quiet for a little while, Sardonin sent you that worthless certificate for a hundred thousand pounds worth of shares in the Bealthorpe-Birchgate Estate Company. I don't wonder Vowles laughed when he heard of it, because Vowles knew nothing about it. The agreement under which the company issued you these shares, which were signed by Vowles and Sardonin, had never been seen by Vowles. His signature was a forgery, Sardonin being responsible. When you came over to England you came over with the idea of getting Sardonin out and killing him. Luckily for you, the notes were counterfeit. Had they been real, who knows? I might have succeeded in forcing some sort of confession out of Vowles—something which would have got Sardonin out. But how unfortunate that would have been for you. You'd probably be in a cell at the moment. And you saved me this trouble. You got the confession from Vowles.'
'How did you know that?' she asked.
'It was obvious,' said Duplessis. 'When you came back after your last interview with Vowles you said that you had succeeded. What could success mean to you? Only that you had achieved something which would get Sardonin out of prison. Well, logically, there was only one way you could get him out. That was by taking a confession from the man who was actually responsible to Scotland Yard. You got that confession from Vowles.
'You got more. You got the whole story from Vowles. How Sardonin had arranged that this pseudo-forgery should take place. Vowles was jolly glad to get an opportunity of getting clear of the country. He'd have given twenty confessions to have got out of that mess at Birchgate, especially when he knew that Sardonin was a murderer—although neither he nor you knew exactly how he was a murderer, and how the deaths were achieved. Neither did I at the time. I expected it had something to do with the fresco, but it was only when I got the six months' old letter, which had been posted by Vowles to Ragosin just as the other letters had been kept and posted by him on the dates given him by Sardonin, that the whole thing became clear to me. Sardonin had probably promised Vowles that when these four men came over and bought their houses Vowles would have some additional share of the loot—the loot consisting of your money in the main I take it, and the balance he'd got from the other three unfortunates. But he was clever enough not to let Vowles know where this money was, although it was obvious.'
'Was it obvious?' she said. 'Where was it?'
'It was obvious enough to me,' said Duplessis. 'There were five houses, and four men to be killed. The Old Mill Cottage was the place which Sardonin had taken steps to ensure should remain in his possession. I went there very early this morning I found a spot with the plumb-line from the fifth man in the fresco, and, as I expected, Mr. Sardonin's wall safe opened. In it were what I expected to find—bearer securities belonging to you, bearer bonds, money.
'I've got that for you,' said Duplessis. 'It's safely stowed away in my bank at the moment. Vowles was a fool—he's always been a fool, that one. He missed his opportunity, but I rather fancy that curiosity got the better of him. He was clever enough, to close his business down and clear his banking account, but he wasn't clever enough to get away when he had the opportunity. Curiosity killed Vowles. Directly he had a chance he went over to The Last House to warn Ragosin. Had he been content to do that he'd have been all right, but the probability is that Vowles, having, by some means best known to himself, got an idea about the fresco, was experimenting with the plumb-line when Ragosin arrived.
'Ragosin was shot full of dope. He probably caught Vowles in the act, and Ragosin, like the others, had been told very much, in confidence by Sardonin that he would find his money in the wall by pressing the spot indicated. Ragosin thought that Vowles was after it, so he killed Vowles—which, after all, is no great loss to the community, but very inconvenient for Mr. Vowles.'
'So Vowles is dead?' she murmured.
'Exactly,' said Duplessis. 'The only lucky one seems to be M. Baourdat. You'll have to arrange to send Baourdat back his money.'
'That will not be difficult, M'sieu,' she said. 'I know him. He was a friend of my brother's.'
'Good,' said Duplessis.
'Also,' she continued, 'M. Baourdat was not the only lucky one. I think that I have been very lucky, too.'
'Mademoiselle,' said Duplessis, 'I think you have been. You know, you're not at all the conventional type of murderess. Incidentally, I hope you won't be annoyed with me when I tell you that I think that if it had come to the actual point you never would have killed Sardonin. I don't think you could have done it, but I could not take any chances. And, you know, this isn't; a bad home, is it?'
'I have been very happy during the short time I have been here,' she said. 'Now I feel happier still. A little brightness has come back Into the world—a world which seemed so very dark and empty.'
'That sounds good to me,' said Duplessis. 'In three or four weeks' time, Mademoiselle, I expect you to be looking more radiant than ever.'
He got up, and held out his hand. 'Good-bye, Mademoiselle,' he said.
She hesitated. 'I do not like to shake hands with you, M'sieu Duplessis,' she said, 'because I do not like to hear you say "Good-bye." Shall we not say "Au revoir"?'
'Why not?' said Duplessis. 'It was only because I wanted to hear you say that that I said "good-bye." I hope we shall meet again, Mademoiselle.'
In the half darkness he saw her smile. 'I am sure of it. M'sieu,' she said. 'When I am better I will telephone you, and if you will wait in your so very high office at Shoe Lane perhaps I will come and see you. You must remember that the notes were counterfeit. You are still unrewarded.'
Duplessis paused, his hand on the door-knob.
'Mademoiselle La Vicomtesse,' he said, 'I am very patient because I have learnt that all things come to him who waits.'
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