In which Peter Hames, amateur sleuth, listens to a lie—and likes it
PETER HAMES was dining in august company—as a matter of fact at a Hôtel de Paris gala dinner. It is true that he occupied a somewhat lowly place at the table, but his presence in itself at such a gathering was unusual, and probably to be accounted for by the persuasions of Sybil Christian—the very attractive young woman seated exactly opposite him. During the first possible pause in the conversation she leaned across the table and addressed him, half seriously, but with a humorous light in her eyes.
"I rang you up at your villa just after you had left," she confided, "and I couldn't get hold of you here before dinner, there was such a crush. Did you hear what happened at the Casino this afternoon?" He shook his head.
"I have heard of nothing special," he admitted. "I have been at home all day, trying to finish up some work. I did start down here rather early, though. I hadn't the faintest idea what time dinner was."
"You remember your Irish friend, Paddy Collins?"
"Am I ever likely to forget him?" Peter Hames groaned. "He's in Ireland now—gone to visit an invalid uncle who owns a large whisky distillery."
"He may have been there," Sybil Christian conceded, "but I can assure you that he is in a much less reputable place at the present moment."
"Tell me about him," Hames begged.
There was a brief delay, owing to the service of dinner. Then she leaned toward him once more.
"It seems," she recounted, "that he arrived in Monte Carlo this afternoon, went straight to the Casino, and emerged about half an hour later carrying a croupier in his arms, having knocked down two chefs and the door attendant."
"Good God!" Peter Hames exclaimed, with a sinking heart. "Where is he now?"
"In prison, and likely to stay there for a long time, unless someone interferes."
"But what on earth happened in the Casino? Paddy can generally be trusted to behave like an ordinary human being in the middle of the day."
"No one knows."
Their conversation was broken into. Sybil's next-door neighbor claimed her attention, and Peter Hames, too, was constrained to do his duty. The dinner seemed interminable. As soon as it was over he made his excuses to his hostess, slipped away from the group in the lounge of the Hôtel de Paris who were preparing to invade the Sporting Club, wrote a brief note, and, enclosing his card, placed both in an envelope and dispatched it by a special messenger. An hour or so later Paddy Collins, crumpled but cheerful, joined him in the hotel bar. It was, on the latter's part, at any rate, a riotous meeting, and if Peter Hames' manner was a little strained, his friend was blissfully oblivious of the fact.
"Peter Hames, laddie, you'll never guess where I've come from," the Irishman challenged, wresting a bottle of whisky firmly from the barman's hand and pouring out double portions.
"I think I could if I tried," was the dry response.
"Straight out of prison, my lad—a nasty, dirty little hole, too, that a full-grown man ought to have been able to push his way out of with his elbows. I'm a jailbird, Peter. That's what I am. It's the first time this side of the briny, anyway."
"What did you do to get in there?" his friend asked severely.
Paddy Collins looked thoughtfully into his tumbler.
"'Tis a long story," he replied. "You know that I went to Ireland to look up the old folks, if any of them were left, at Limerick, especially my old uncle Henry, who had the good sense to be born a whisky distiller."
Peter Hames admitted that he had that much knowledge of his friend's intentions.
"When I got to Limerick—about two o'clock in the afternoon it was—I drove straight to the old address and found myself in the midst of a funeral. Old Uncle Henry—eighty-two he was—had died four days previously, and they were in the act of burying the old boy that day. I smartened up as well as I could and drove out to the churchyard, and, as soon as the proceedings were over, a little black-coated man tapped me on the shoulder and invited me up to the house.
"There was plenty of good stuff going in the dining-room—enough to make the wake a properly cheerful affair—but they didn't lead me to it—not at once, that is. They dragged me to the library to hear the will read. Peter, lad, it takes something to knock the stuffing out of me, but as soon as I could see daylight through that gibberish of words and begin to understand what it was all about, I was like a dazed creature. The old man had left a pot of money, and it seems he had but three relatives in the world—myself, his brother and his brother's child. He left the whole of his money to whichever of the three who, due notice having been given of his death, should attend his funeral. Bejabbers, I was the only one there!"
"And you hadn't had any notice!" Peter Hames exclaimed.
"The notice had been sent to me all right, by letter and cable, but it had gone to New York," Paddy Collins explained. "Me turning up on the exact day was just a stroke of luck, and nothing else. If I hadn't been present at the funeral, the money would have gone to add another wing to the Limerick Infirmary. I'm feeling I shall make a better use of it."
"And what about your uncle Henry's brother and his daughter?" Peter Hames asked.
"There was never a mention of them, but I've a word or two to say to you later on, Peter, upon the subject. At present I'm feeling I must take another glass of that whisky, for I'm what you might call dazed. Two hundred thousand pounds, that's what the old man left, and him making it all out of distilling whisky when it's a job he should have done for love. I've got a draft for five thousand pounds in my pocket to be going on with, and a good fat bundle of notes to pay my way until I open a banking account."
Peter Hames shook hands with his friend.
"Heartiest congratulations!" he said. "Now, would you mind coming down to earth for a minute or two and explaining how it was that you spent your first two hours here in prison?"
"That was just an unfortunate incident," Paddy Collins confided. "I was coming to it in due course. You know I'm not a superstitious fellow as a rule, for an Irishman. Listen to this: Number seven was the number of my voîture on the train, number seven was the number of my compartment, number seven was the number of my table in the dining-room, seventy francs was my dinner bill, leaving out the bottle of whisky I'd paid for directly I boarded the train, and when I was stepping into the Hôtel de Paris bus at Monte Carlo station a little carriage came trotting up—number seven. I ask you, Peter Hames, what should you say would be the action of a reasonable man under those circumstances?"
"I can guess what you did, anyway," Peter Hames observed.
"Sure, you'd have a thick head if you didn't. I jumped into the carriage. I stopped at the Casino. I changed some money. I put one hundred and eighty francs on number seven. Up that sweet little number rolled. There I stood with both hands open, and not a farthing did I touch."
"Some dingy-looking, crooked-faced South American bad been backing six, the carrés and chevaux, and my plaque had got edged off onto the six. They all came round me, and argued, but not one word could I understand, my French being of the slow-motion variety, and they chattering like a cageful of parakeets, so I just took the little man who was holding back my money—a chef they call him, I think—by the seat of his pants and the back of his collar, and I carried him out of the place, and a couple of chaps like undertakers' clerks, who tried to interfere, got it in the neck. I laid him down amongst the flowers in the garden opposite, and I was just stepping across to the Hôtel de Paris, as peaceful as possible, to take a little refreshment, when the army they'd telephoned for marched up and I was in for it.
"I couldn't take on the whole dozen of them, and, besides, I should have hated to have spoilt their uniforms. What I don't understand is, how did I get out so soon? To hear them all chattering round me, I thought I was there for life... And what might your business be, sir?" he broke off, turning to address a very polite young man in dinner clothes but with an official air who was standing by his side.
"The management of the Casino desired me to bring to you this six thousand three hundred francs with their compliments, Monsieur Collins," the young man explained, handing him a packet. "They regret very much that there was a little misunderstanding about your stake. They enclose also an annual ticket, which they trust you will accept with their compliments, as the one you had upon your person when you were arrested has been canceled. Is there anything further I can do for you, sir?"
Paddy Collins looked at the money and blinked. He looked at the ticket, enclosed in a very ornamental leather case, and blinked again. Then he laid his hand upon the shoulder of the messenger.
"You will take a glass of wine with us, sir," he begged, "and explain this unheard-of generosity."
The young man extricated himself.
"Monsieur will pardon me," he apologized. "I am an official of the Casino, and I am not allowed to drink at the bars. I wish you a very good evening, sir."
He bowed and took his departure. Paddy Collins scratched his head.
"Can you beat it, Peter?" he demanded. "Me knocking them all about in the beginnings of a temper, which I surely was. Then all these apologies, paying up my money without a word. Do they take me for royalty in disguise?"
Peter Hames smiled.
"I can explain it all, Paddy," he replied, "but if I were you, I wouldn't ask any questions. You remember our little adventure upon the hillside. Those people would have done anything in the world for us. Directly I heard of your trouble I sent a card round, and you see the result."
"And they say there's no gratitude in this world!" Paddy Collins exclaimed fervently. "I'm a royalist for life. I'll teach those little devils how to fight if the country ever gets into trouble."
"In the meantime, my friend," Peter Hames suggested, "let us take those two easy chairs in the corner, and you can tell me just why you came rushing back here instead of taking the boat from Queenstown."
Paddy Collins edged his glass surreptitiously towards the barman and afterwards followed his friend in the direction indicated.
"I'll tell you. The fact is, Peter, I'm not a greedy man. I'm not for keeping the whole of Uncle Henry's money for myself just because his brother and the little colleen didn't roll up for the funeral. I made inquiries of the lawyer as to their whereabouts, and he discovered that they'd been settled down in this part of the world for the last seven or eight years. Maybe you know the neighborhood."
Peter Hames studied the half sheet of paper which his friend pushed across to him. Upon it was neatly typewritten:
Mr. Dennis Charles Collins and Miss Eileen
Château d'Amaris, St. Pierre, A. M.
"I know about where it is," Peter Hames acknowledged. "It's a wild strip of country up between St. Jeannet and Pouget-Théniers. I'll look it up on the map and take you over there any day you like."
"And it's myself will be very obliged," Paddy Collins declared heartily. "The man has prospered seemingly, and I'm not entirely at my ease with people living in castles, even when they're blood relations. If you've no engagement, we'll be off to see them tomorrow."
PETER HAMES wiped the perspiration from his forehead and consigned to the nethermost corners of hell all maps and makers of maps who had attempted to deal with the region in which, on the following afternoon, they had found themselves, for the last two hours, hopelessly lost.
"My friend Paddy Collins," he confided, with manifest irritation, "I should imagine you are the sort of man who has led many people into foolish enterprises, but I warn you this is the last time I come château-hunting with you."
"Now what's got you, man?" the Irishman rejoined from his very comfortable seat. "Myself, I think the whole place is fine. Marvelous country! The perfume from those peach trees we passed down in the valley reminded me of the smell of my late uncle's distillery, and as for the roses on that last slope, next time you stop this old bus of yours I'm for helping myself to a handful."
Peter Hames drew slowly to a standstill. There was a precipice on his left, some six or seven hundred feet high, and with barely a tree on its stony surface to break one's fall. On the right, the barren hill stretched still higher, and seemed to become bleaker, save for one small stretch of cultivated land some distance ahead of them. The track along which they had been proceeding—roads had disappeared long ago—left them a bare six inches upon each side. Peter Hames, notwithstanding the fact that he was a skillful driver, began to feel that he had had enough of it. He pointed forward.
"If your Château d'Amaris is hidden on the other side of that gate, well and good. If not, I warn you that if, as seems possible from here, there is room to perform the operation, I am going to turn round and creep stealthily back to safety."
"Well spoken, my lad," Paddy Collins applauded, knocking the ashes from his pipe. "You're learning the gift of the gab from me. Proceed, and I will be a consenting party to your bargain. If no signs of the château of my respected relatives should be visible when we have passed that gate, we will steal slowly back to the land of cafés and civilization."
They moved slowly onward. A few yards from the gate Peter Hames brought the car once more to a standstill. The gate itself presented difficulty. It had apparently been withdrawn from its hinges and it was leaning in dissolute abandon, one end against a battered post and the other against a fragment of stone wall. Paddy Collins dealt with the matter in logical fashion. He removed the obstacle bodily and leaned it up against the stones. Then he waved his companion on.
"Here," he remarked, "we have space—parklike space. Something tells me that we are near the end of our quest."
Peter Hames drove between the gateposts, bore to the right toward a clear space in the rock-strewn stretch of turf and, safe from the precipice on one side and the mountain on the other, lit a cigarette with a sigh of relief.
"Farther than this, Paddy my friend," he announced, "I do not risk my car. Below, behind the orange trees there, sheltered by that row of cypresses, there is something which may be a cow barn, or may be your relatives' château. I propose that you complete your investigations on foot."
"Come out of it!" Paddy Collins begged. "I'm a shy man, and I've left my card case at home. It's not for me to go butting in on those who may have forgotten their own native language."
His friend slipped from his place.
"Under those circumstances," he assented, "I will accompany you on foot."
They marched off together, finding themselves on a sort of plateau of short, green turf, studded everywhere with boulders of ancient gray rock. The wind from the snow-capped mountains by which they were encircled stung their faces. The place had almost an Alpine aspect and atmosphere.
"What a site for a golf course!" Peter Hames mused, looking around him.
"Good feeding for goats," his companion observed.
They drew nearer to what was evidently a human habitation. With every yard their astonishment grew. It was an ancient-enough building of Provençal type, but from basement to its dilapidated roof it betrayed every sign of neglect and decay. It stood in the midst of the uncultivated land, with no possible pretense at an avenue or a garden. A gate, also hingeless and without fastening, led into a vineyard, in which no living thing was visible.
Yet the situation itself was almost incredibly beautiful. As they passed down to the front they had a glorious view of the long green slope, falling into a bottomless valley—a slope commencing with olive trees, starred farther down with yellow gorse, late-blossoming peach trees, great bushes of wild roses, a long, irregular tangle of orange trees grown wild, yielding to the mountain winds a medley of faint and unanalyzable perfume. To the right there was an amply planted but neglected apple orchard, the fluttering petals of which added further sweetness to the air. Farther away still, desperate efforts had been made to cultivate a small plot of arable land. Higher up, at the rear of the house, was another miserable-looking vineyard, the vines, unpruned and neglected crawling upon the ground.
"If this is the Château anything," Peter Hames exclaimed, as they turned the corner, "I shall be inclined to eat my hat!"
"One can but inquire," his friend suggested with unabated cheerfulness. "Whatever it may be, we're here, and there's a door anyway, swinging on its own hinges."
They knocked upon it—a firmly closed, oaken structure, worn and worm-eaten with time. There was no reply. Out of a shed behind them a man came with a great roll of binding material under his arm and a pitchfork over his shoulder. He was a huge fellow, gaunt and bent from stooping, with a black beard streaked with gray and a sunburnt complexion, yet somehow utterly unlike the natives of the place. Peter Hames raised his hat.
"Monsieur," he began, "c'est ici le Château d'Amaris?"
The man's eyes were fixed upon Paddy Collins. For a moment he made no reply. When he did, he spoke English with a pronounced Irish accent.
"This is the Château d'Amaris," he assented. "What about it?"
Peter Hames glanced toward his friend, who came beamingly forward.
"Are you Dennis Collins from Limerick, who married a Miss Levine from these parts?" he demanded.
"What if I am?" the man rejoined ungraciously. "Explain your business. I have learned to be suspicious of all strangers."
This was the style of conversation which suited Paddy Collins. Too much politeness, as he often maintained, got on his nerves.
"I shouldn't think you'd find many strangers would want to come to such a God-forsaken spot," he remarked. "I, being your nephew, and nephew also of old Henry Collins of Limerick, have nearly smashed up my friend's beautiful car and broken my own neck, to come and find you out. Are you mad, man, to live amidst a mass of precipices like this?"
"Are you my brother's son, Paddy, who went off to America fifteen years ago?"
"Sure, don't you recognize me?"
A black thundercloud seemed to have darkened the man's face. He grabbed his pitchfork short.
"Well, if that's who you are, clear out," he ordered, "before I spit you with this."
"'Tis true Irish hospitality, although on foreign soil," Paddy Collins declared, with unabated cheerfulness, but keeping his eye carefully upon the pitchfork. "This is the château right enough, Peter. It is me uncle who's speaking to us so eloquently. Things have apparently gone wrong with him the day. Still, before I leave, having risked my life and the life of my friend, in coming, could I have a word with my own cousin Eileen?"
The man was shaking with fury. What the next move might have been none of them knew, but suddenly the oaken door was dragged creakingly back and a girl stepped out. She was strangely clad, like a peasant working in the fields. Her complexion was roughened with stinging winds from snow-covered hills and hours of midday sunshine, but nothing spoilt her beauty. Straight and firm she stood, so slender that her figure seemed like the figure of a boy. Her voice was soft and liquid, but there was pride in its tone, in the poise of her daintily shaped chin and in the subdued flash of her dark blue eyes.
"I fear that my father is receiving you gentlemen unkindly," she said. "Will you forgive him? He has just had a great disappointment. Please let me know who you are and what you want. Our abode and manner of living do not, unfortunately, permit me to offer you anything in the shape of hospitality."
Paddy Collins' bow was the gesture of a courtier.
"It's little Eileen," he exclaimed, "and she's all in the clouds and not knowing her cousin Paddy."
"I know too much of you," she answered coldly. "I know that you managed to present yourself at the funeral at exactly the right moment and take the whole of Uncle Henry's money. A cousinly action that!"
"I was always a bright lad," Paddy Collins murmured.
"We don't want you here—you or your friend," his uncle shouted. "When I threatened you I meant it. Get off these premises."
"You're hasty, Uncle Dennis," his nephew remonstrated. "If you knew the trouble we've had to get here you'd be welcoming us a little more politely. Since we are here make up your mind to listen to what I have to say. It's likely enough the last time I shall ever make the expedition. My friend here values his car and his life too highly to attempt it again, and I am of the opinion that any hired vehicle would have been lying by now at the foot of the precipice. I'm a diffident speaker, and the sun is too hot on me. I'd do better sitting down, if it's only on your stone floor inside."
"A diffident speaker," his uncle muttered fiercely. "You talk like a mechanical doll."
The girl pointed to the door, which she pushed a little farther open. "If you are not man enough to stand the sunshine," she scoffed, "pray accept the shelter of our roof. We offer no apologies. We can afford to pay none, even of the natives, to help us. The factory at Grasse is paying less for our blossoms because our pruning is bad. Our vines have failed; we cannot borrow a horse to plow our land. Our herbage would feed no animal worth keeping. Therefore," she added, as the two men passed before her into a huge but bleak sitting-room, "we have no carpet upon our stone floor, and most of our furniture has been carted away upon the vans of antique dealers. If you can find anywhere to sit, sit; if you can find anything to say, say it. Then go."
"Going would be best," the man muttered.
"'Tis borne in upon me," Paddy Collins declared, seating himself with the utmost care upon the corner of a chair, one leg of which was bound up in straw matting, "that in the minds of you two I am not a popular person."
"Popular!" the black-bearded man groaned, handling his pitchfork lovingly. "The only way you'd ever be popular with me, young man, is never to have been born."
"And you, Cousin Eileen?" Paddy asked. "Are you as bitter against me, too?"
She stood with her hand resting upon the huge chimneypiece, a miracle of suggestive grace.
"You appear to be a full-grown man," she observed scornfully. "It seems a pity you couldn't have made some sort of a place for yourself in the world without sneaking round waiting for old men to die."
"That's how you're thinking of me, is it?" Paddy Collins sighed, and there was a little hurt tremor in his tone, which his friend had never heard there before.
She shrugged her shoulders.
"You have told us who you are," she said, "and my father, I can see, is becoming impatient. He is a man of violent temper, and up here amongst the mountains, he has time to brood. It irks him, too, that to you, who are his kith and kin, he has no hospitality to offer. It would be well, I think, for your safety, and my comfort, if you departed."
"My business is not yet finished," Paddy Collins insisted stubbornly, and there was in his eyes a light which flashed back into hers.
"Finish it then quickly," she enjoined. "It is not that I have any care for the safety of either of you, but if the sun sets in that bank of clouds, or before it reaches the snow-capped mountains, you'll be lucky if you find the valleys again.
"You are skilled in the weather portents," Paddy Collins remarked.
"Your visit of courtesy," she said, "has lasted fully long enough. My father and I would be glad to be relieved of your presence."
Peter Hames was already eager to depart. His companion, however, was slow in rising to his feet, and made no movement toward the door.
"It is myself who is a little stupid with the words this morning," he acknowledged. "This is a visit of business, though I was willing to make it one of courtesy as well, being happy," he added, looking straight into the girl's eyes, "to discover a relative so gracious and so charming as you, Cousin Eileen. However, it is surely not my lucky day. I'll get to the business. There was a codicil to my uncle's will which required a legatee or heir—that being me—to visit those members of the family who could be discovered, which it seems are only you two, and ascertain whether there was any real reason why they did not attend the funeral. I have to make a report to the lawyer, and if his idea is that the excuse, if any, is a good one, some redistribution of the estate has to be effected."
"Say that again," the old man gasped.
"I'll get out of those legal words which fit me tongue badly," Paddy Collins acquiesced. "What I've got to write to the lawyer is that, misfortune having overtaken you, you hadn't the money for the passages to Ireland, and when I tell him that you'll get a slice of the estate. I'm not saying how much, because I don't know, but it would be somewhere about forty thousand pounds, I daresay, or something like that."
The man was shaking. It was not a pleasant sight to see his face twitch and his body quiver. He made no attempt at words. The girl's voice trembled, but the fire in her eyes was undimmed.
"You're mocking us, Cousin Paddy," she challenged, with a sob in her throat. "May you be damned into hell if you are!"
"By the soul of the old man himself I swear that I am not," Paddy declared fervently. "It is my honest belief—my conviction—that on my report there'll be some forty thousand pounds coming to you both. In fact, I'll guarantee it."
"Five million francs!" Dennis Collins muttered. "Five millions!"
He looked at his hands, hard as leather, and the pitchfork slipped from his grasp and fell clattering onto the stone floor. Peter Hames, and perhaps his companion too, were suddenly aware of a queer tremor of shame because of the clothes they wore, and the lives they had lived in ease and comfort. The drama of the little scene imposed itself painfully upon them—the old man's bones, the skin tightly drawn across his cheeks and withered at the throat; the girl's leanness, interwoven with the splendor of her youth, the lines of suffering about her proud mouth. These were the marks of no ordinary poverty, but of that poverty which makes a torment of the days, a tantalizing hell of that sweet cavalcade of beauty amongst which the grim struggle was fought...
Suddenly the old man called out. His head fell into his hands. The girl left her place by the mantelpiece and rushed to his side. Her arms were wound around his neck. She pressed her cheek to his. Peter Hames and his companion tiptoed their way out of the place, sped over the rough ground and never spoke until they were in the car and on their homeward way.
"It's a queer codicil, that, Paddy," Peter Hames observed.
"Aye, it is that," Paddy assented.
"Did it ever exist?" his friend inquired.
"Be asking no questions," Paddy Collins enjoined, as he pointed to the telegraph office down in the valley, for which they had been searching. "Can't you see they're eaten up with pride, those two, and money from me would burn in their gizzards. They are going to get it through the lawyer, put in proper shape. I'll just send them a word of confirmation too, so that they'll know we were no bogy men."
Peter Hames watched his friend scurry into the telegraph office, and out in the sunshine heard his strident inquiries as to how soon a telegram could be delivered at the Château d'Amaris with a fee of ten times the original charge. Presently he emerged, his business satisfactorily concluded, a huge grin upon his face. Peter Hames suddenly leaned forward and shook his friend by the hand.
"You're a damned good fellow, Paddy," he said with a little catch in his tone.
"You're another, Peter," was the hearty response. "What do we do about that?"
He pointed down the village street. Swinging in the light breeze was the sign of a café:
LE CAFÉ DES BONS AMIS.