Produced by Suzanne Shell, Ted Garvin and PG Distributed Proofreaders
[Illustration: “_M. Flocon interposed with uplifted hand_.”]
The ROME EXPRESS
By Arthur Griffiths
With a frontispiece in colours
By Arthur O. Scott
THE ROME EXPRESS
The Rome Express, the _direttissimo_, or most direct, was approaching Paris one morning in March, when it became known to the occupants of the sleeping-car that there was something amiss, very much amiss, in the car.
The train was travelling the last stage, between Laroche and Paris, a run of a hundred miles without a stop. It had halted at Laroche for early breakfast, and many, if not all the passengers, had turned out. Of those in the sleeping-car, seven in number, six had been seen in the restaurant, or about the platform; the seventh, a lady, had not stirred. All had reentered their berths to sleep or doze when the train went on, but several were on the move as it neared Paris, taking their turn at the lavatory, calling for water, towels, making the usual stir of preparation as the end of a journey was at hand.
There were many calls for the porter, yet no porter appeared. At last the attendant was found–lazy villain!–asleep, snoring loudly, stertorously, in his little bunk at the end of the car. He was roused with difficulty, and set about his work in a dull, unwilling, lethargic way, which promised badly for his tips from those he was supposed to serve.
By degrees all the passengers got dressed, all but two,–the lady in 9 and 10, who had made no sign as yet; and the man who occupied alone a double berth next her, numbered 7 and 8.
As it was the porter’s duty to call every one, and as he was anxious, like the rest of his class, to get rid of his travellers as soon as possible after arrival, he rapped at each of the two closed doors behind which people presumably still slept.
The lady cried “All right,” but there was no answer from No. 7 and 8.
Again and again the porter knocked and called loudly. Still meeting with no response, he opened the door of the compartment and went in.
It was now broad daylight. No blind was down; indeed, the one narrow window was open, wide; and the whole of the interior of the compartment was plainly visible, all and everything in it.
The occupant lay on his bed motionless. Sound asleep? No, not merely asleep–the twisted unnatural lie of the limbs, the contorted legs, the one arm drooping listlessly but stiffly over the side of the berth, told of a deeper, more eternal sleep.
The man was dead. Dead–and not from natural causes.
One glance at the blood-stained bedclothes, one look at the gaping wound in the breast, at the battered, mangled face, told the terrible story.
It was murder! murder most foul! The victim had been stabbed to the heart.
With a wild, affrighted, cry the porter rushed out of the compartment, and to the eager questioning of all who crowded round him, he could only mutter in confused and trembling accents:
“There! there! in there!”
Thus the fact of the murder became known to every one by personal inspection, for every one (even the lady had appeared for just a moment) had looked in where the body lay. The compartment was filled for some ten minutes or more by an excited, gesticulating, polyglot mob of half a dozen, all talking at once in French, English, and Italian.
The first attempt to restore order was made by a tall man, middle-aged, but erect in his bearing, with bright eyes and alert manner, who took the porter aside, and said sharply in good French, but with a strong English accent:
“Here! it’s your business to do something. No one has any right to be in that compartment now. There may be reasons–traces–things to remove; never mind what. But get them all out. Be sharp about it; and lock the door. Remember you will be held responsible to justice.”
The porter shuddered, so did many of the passengers who had overheard the Englishman’s last words.
Justice! It is not to be trifled with anywhere, least of all in France, where the uncomfortable superstition prevails that every one who can be reasonably suspected of a crime is held to be guilty of that crime until his innocence is clearly proved.
All those six passengers and the porter were now brought within the category of the accused. They were all open to suspicion; they, and they alone, for the murdered man had been seen alive at Laroche, and the fell deed must have been done since then, while the train was in transit, that is to say, going at express speed, when no one could leave it except at peril of his life.
“Deuced awkward for us!” said the tall English general, Sir Charles Collingham by name, to his brother the parson, when he had reentered their compartment and shut the door.
“I can’t see it. In what way?” asked the Reverend Silas Collingham, a typical English cleric, with a rubicund face and square-cut white whiskers, dressed in a suit of black serge, and wearing the professional white tie.
“Why, we shall be detained, of course; arrested, probably–certainly detained. Examined, cross-examined, bully-ragged–I know something of the French police and their ways.”
“If they stop us, I shall write to the _Times_” cried his brother, by profession a man of peace, but with a choleric eye that told of an angry temperament.
“By all means, my dear Silas, when you get the chance. That won’t be just yet, for I tell you we’re in a tight place, and may expect a good deal of worry.” With that he took out his cigarette-case, and his match-box, lighted his cigarette, and calmly watched the smoke rising with all the coolness of an old campaigner accustomed to encounter and face the ups and downs of life. “I only hope to goodness they’ll run straight on to Paris,” he added in a fervent tone, not unmixed with apprehension. “No! By jingo, we’re slackening speed–.”
“Why shouldn’t we? It’s right the conductor, or chief of the train, or whatever you call him, should know what has happened.”
“Why, man, can’t you see? While the train is travelling express, every one must stay on board it; if it slows, it is possible to leave it.”
“Who would want to leave it?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said the General, rather testily. “Any way, the thing’s done now.”
The train had pulled up in obedience to the signal of alarm given by some one in the sleeping-car, but by whom it was impossible to say. Not by the porter, for he seemed greatly surprised as the conductor came up to him.
“How did you know?” he asked.
“Know! Know what? You stopped me.”
“Who rang the bell, then?”
“I did not. But I’m glad you’ve come. There has been a crime–murder.”
“Good Heavens!” cried the conductor, jumping up on to the car, and entering into the situation at once. His business was only to verify the fact, and take all necessary precautions. He was a burly, brusque, peremptory person, the despotic, self-important French official, who knew what to do–as he thought–and did it without hesitation or apology.
“No one must leave the car,” he said in a tone not to be misunderstood. “Neither now, nor on arrival at the station.”
There was a shout of protest and dismay, which he quickly cut short.
“You will have to arrange it with the authorities in Paris; they can alone decide. My duty is plain: to detain you, place you under surveillance till then. Afterwards, we will see. Enough, gentlemen and madame”–
He bowed with the instinctive gallantry of his nation to the female figure which now appeared at the door of her compartment. She stood for a moment listening, seemingly greatly agitated, and then, without a word, disappeared, retreating hastily into her own private room, where she shut herself in.
Almost immediately, at a signal from the conductor, the train resumed its journey. The distance remaining to be traversed was short; half an hour more, and the Lyons station, at Paris, was reached, where the bulk of the passengers–all, indeed, but the occupants of the sleeper–descended and passed through the barriers. The latter were again desired to keep their places, while a posse of officials came and mounted guard. Presently they were told to leave the car one by one, but to take nothing with them. All their hand-bags, rugs, and belongings were to remain in the berths, just as they lay. One by one they were marched under escort to a large and bare waiting-room, which had, no doubt, been prepared for their reception.
Here they took their seats on chairs placed at wide intervals apart, and were peremptorily forbidden to hold any communication with each other, by word or gesture. This order was enforced by a fierce-looking guard in blue and red uniform, who stood facing them with his arms folded, gnawing his moustache and frowning severely.
Last of all, the porter was brought in and treated like the passengers, but more distinctly as a prisoner. He had a guard all to himself; and it seemed as though he was the object of peculiar suspicion. It had no great effect upon him, for, while the rest of the party were very plainly sad, and a prey to lively apprehension, the porter sat dull and unmoved, with the stolid, sluggish, unconcerned aspect of a man just roused from sound sleep and relapsing into slumber, who takes little notice of what is passing around.
Meanwhile, the sleeping-car, with its contents, especially the corpse of the victim, was shunted into a siding, and sentries were placed on it at both ends. Seals had been affixed upon the entrance doors, so that the interior might be kept inviolate until it could be visited and examined by the Chef de la Surete, or Chief of the Detective Service. Every one and everything awaited the arrival of this all-important functionary.
M. Flocon, the Chief, was an early man, and he paid a first visit to his office about 7 A.M.
He lived just round the corner in the Rue des Arcs, and had not far to go to the Prefecture. But even now, soon after daylight, he was correctly dressed, as became a responsible ministerial officer. He wore a tight frock coat and an immaculate white tie; under his arm he carried the regulation portfolio, or lawyer’s bag, stuffed full of reports, dispositions, and documents dealing with cases in hand. He was altogether a very precise and natty little personage, quiet and unpretending in demeanour, with a mild, thoughtful face in which two small ferrety eyes blinked and twinkled behind gold-rimmed glasses. But when things went wrong, when he had to deal with fools, or when scent was keen, or the enemy near, he would become as fierce and eager as any terrier.
He had just taken his place at his table and begun to arrange his papers, which, being a man of method, he kept carefully sorted by lots each in an old copy of the _Figaro_, when he was called to the telephone. His services were greatly needed, as we know, at the Lyons station and the summons was to the following effect:
“Crime on train No. 45. A man murdered in the sleeper. All the passengers held. Please come at once. Most important.”
A fiacre was called instantly, and M. Flocon, accompanied by Galipaud and Block, the two first inspectors for duty, was driven with all possible speed across Paris.
He was met outside the station, just under the wide verandah, by the officials, who gave him a brief outline of the facts, so far as they were known, and as they have already been put before the reader.
“The passengers have been detained?” asked M. Flocon at once.
“Those in the sleeping-car only–“
“Tut, tut! they should have been all kept–at least until you had taken their names and addresses. Who knows what they might not have been able to tell?”
It was suggested that as the crime was committed presumably while the train was in motion, only those in the one car could be implicated.
“We should never jump to conclusions,” said the Chief snappishly. “Well, show me the train card–the list of the travellers in the sleeper.”
“It cannot be found, sir.”
“Impossible! Why, it is the porter’s business to deliver it at the end of the journey to his superiors, and under the law–to us. Where is the porter? In custody?”
“Surely, sir, but there is something wrong with him.”
“So I should think! Nothing of this kind could well occur without his knowledge. If he was doing his duty–unless, of course, he–but let us avoid hasty conjectures.”
“He has also lost the passengers’ tickets, which you know he retains till the end of the journey. After the catastrophe, however, he was unable to lay his hand upon his pocket-book. It contained all his papers.”
“Worse and worse. There is something behind all this. Take me to him. Stay, can I have a private room close to the other–where the prisoners, those held on suspicion, are? It will be necessary to hold investigations, take their depositions. M. le Juge will be here directly.”
M. Flocon was soon installed in a room actually communicating with the waiting-room, and as a preliminary of the first importance, taking precedence even of the examination of the sleeping-car, he ordered the porter to be brought in to answer certain questions.
The man, Ludwig Groote, as he presently gave his name, thirty-two years of age, born at Amsterdam, looked such a sluggish, slouching, blear-eyed creature that M. Flocon began by a sharp rebuke.
“Now. Sharp! Are you always like this?” cried the Chief.
The porter still stared straight before him with lack-lustre eyes, and made no immediate reply.
“Are you drunk? are you–Can it be possible?” he said, and in vague reply to a sudden strong suspicion, he went on:
“What were you doing between Laroche and Paris? Sleeping?”
The man roused himself a little. “I think I slept. I must have slept. I was very drowsy. I had been up two nights; but so it is always, and I am not like this generally. I do not understand.”
“Hah!” The Chief thought he understood. “Did you feel this drowsiness before leaving Laroche?”
“No, monsieur, I did not. Certainly not. I was fresh till then–quite fresh.”
“Hum; exactly; I see;” and the little Chief jumped to his feet and ran round to where the porter stood sheepishly, and sniffed and smelt at him.
“Yes, yes.” Sniff, sniff, sniff, the little man danced round and round him, then took hold of the porter’s head with one hand, and with the other turned down his lower eyelid so as to expose the eyeball, sniffed a little more, and then resumed his seat.
“Exactly. And now, where is your train card?”
“Pardon, monsieur, I cannot find it.”
“That is absurd. Where do you keep it? Look again–search–I must have it.”
The porter shook his head hopelessly.
“It is gone, monsieur, and my pocket-book.”
“But your papers, the tickets–“
“Everything was in it, monsieur. I must have dropped it.”
Strange, very strange. However–the fact was to be recorded, for the moment. He could of course return to it.
“You can give me the names of the passengers?”
“No, monsieur. Not exactly. I cannot remember, not enough to distinguish between them.”
“_Fichtre_! But this is most devilishly irritating. To think that I have to do with a man so stupid–such an idiot, such an ass!”
“At least you know how the berths were occupied, how many in each, and which persons? Yes? You can tell me that? Well, go on. By and by we will have the passengers in, and you can fix their places, after I have ascertained their names. Now, please! For how many was the car?”
“Sixteen. There were two compartments of four berths each, and four of two berths each.”
“Stay, let us make a plan. I will draw it. Here, now, is that right?” and the Chief held up the rough diagram, here shown–
[Illustration: Diagram of railroad car.]
“Here we have the six compartments. Now take _a_, with berths 1, 2, 3, and 4. Were they all occupied?”
“No; only two, by Englishmen. I know that they talked English, which I understand a little. One was a soldier; the other, I think, a clergyman, or priest.”
“Good! we can verify that directly. Now, _b_, with berths 5 and 6. Who was there?”
“One gentleman. I don’t remember his name. But I shall know him by appearance.”
“Go on. In _c_, two berths, 7 and 8?”
“Also one gentleman. It was he who–I mean, that is where the crime occurred.”
“Ah, indeed, in 7 and 8? Very well. And the next, 9 and 10?”
“A lady. Our only lady. She came from Rome.”
“One moment. Where did the rest come from? Did any embark on the road?”
“No, monsieur; all the passengers travelled through from Rome.”
“The dead man included? Was he Roman?”
“That I cannot say, but he came on board at Rome.”
“Very well. This lady–she was alone?”
“In the compartment, yes. But not altogether.”
“I do not understand!”
“She had her servant with her.”
“In the car?”
“No, not in the car. As a passenger by second class. But she came to her mistress sometimes, in the car.”
“For her service, I presume?”
“Well, yes, monsieur, when I would permit it. But she came a little too often, and I was compelled to protest, to speak to Madame la Comtesse–“
“She was a countess, then?”
“The maid addressed her by that title. That is all I know. I heard her.”
“When did you see the lady’s maid last?”
“Last night. I think at Amberieux. about 8 p.m.”
“Not this morning?”
“No, sir, I am quite sure of that.”
“Not at Laroche? She did not come on board to stay, for the last stage, when her mistress would be getting up, dressing, and likely to require her?”
“No; I should not have permitted it.”
“And where is the maid now, d’you suppose?”
The porter looked at him with an air of complete imbecility.
“She is surely somewhere near, in or about the station. She would hardly desert her mistress now,” he said, stupidly, at last.
“At any rate we can soon settle that.” The Chief turned to one of his assistants, both of whom had been standing behind him all the time, and said:
“Step out, Galipaud, and see. No, wait. I am nearly as stupid as this simpleton. Describe this maid.”
“Tall and slight, dark-eyed, very black hair. Dressed all in black, plain black bonnet. I cannot remember more.”
“Find her, Galipaud–keep your eye on her. We may want her–why, I cannot say, as she seems disconnected with the event, but still she ought to be at hand.” Then, turning to the porter, he went on. “Finish, please. You said 9 and 10 was the lady’s. Well, 11 and 12?”
“It was vacant all through the run.”
“And the last compartment, for four?”
“There were two berths, occupied both by Frenchmen, at least so I judged them. They talked French to each other and to me.”
“Then now we have them all. Stand aside, please, and I will make the passengers come in. We will then determine their places and affix their names from their own admissions. Call them in, Block, one by one.”
The questions put by M. Flocon were much the same in every case, and were limited in this early stage of the inquiry to the one point of identity.
The first who entered was a Frenchman. He was a jovial, fat-faced, portly man, who answered to the name of Anatole Lafolay, and who described himself as a traveller in precious stones. The berth he had occupied was No. 13 in compartment _f_. His companion in the berth was a younger man, smaller, slighter, but of much the same stamp. His name was Jules Devaux, and he was a commission agent. His berth had been No. 15 in the same compartment, _f_. Both these Frenchmen gave their addresses with the names of many people to whom they were well known, and established at once a reputation for respectability which was greatly in their favour.
The third to appear was the tall, gray-headed Englishman, who had taken a certain lead at the first discovery of the crime. He called himself General Sir Charles Collingham, an officer of her Majesty’s army; and the clergyman who shared the compartment was his brother, the Reverend Silas Collingham, rector of Theakstone-Lammas, in the county of Norfolk. Their berths were numbered 1 and 4 in _a_.
Before the English General was dismissed, he asked whether he was likely to be detained.
“For the present, yes,” replied M. Flocon, briefly. He did not care to be asked questions. That, under the circumstances, was his business.
“Because I should like to communicate with the British Embassy.”
“You are known there?” asked the detective, not choosing to believe the story at first. It might be a ruse of some sort.
“I know Lord Dufferin personally; I was with him in India. Also Colonel Papillon, the military attache; we were in the same regiment. If I sent to the Embassy, the latter would, no doubt, come himself.”
“How do you propose to send?”
“That is for you to decide. All I wish is that it should be known that my brother and I are detained under suspicion, and incriminated.”
“Hardly that, Monsieur le General. But it shall be as you wish. We will telephone from here to the post nearest the Embassy to inform his Excellency–“
“Certainly, Lord Dufferin, and my friend, Colonel Papillon.”
“Of what has occurred. And now, if you will permit me to proceed?”
So the single occupant of the compartment _b_, that adjoining the Englishmen, was called in. He was an Italian, by name Natale Ripaldi; a dark-skinned man, with very black hair and a bristling black moustache. He wore a long dark cloak of the Inverness order, and, with the slouch hat he carried in his hand, and his downcast, secretive look, he had the rather conventional aspect of a conspirator.
“If monsieur permits,” he volunteered to say after the formal questioning was over, “I can throw some light on this catastrophe.”
“And how so, pray? Did you assist? Were you present? If so, why wait to speak till now?” said the detective, receiving the advance rather coldly. It behooved him to be very much on his guard.
“I have had no opportunity till now of addressing any one in authority. You are in authority, I presume?”
“I am the Chief of the Detective Service.”
“Then, monsieur, remember, please, that I can give some useful information when called upon. Now, indeed, if you will receive it.”
M. Flocon was so anxious to approach the inquiry without prejudice that he put up his hand.
“We will wait, if you please. When M. le Juge arrives, then, perhaps; at any rate, at a later stage. That will do now, thank you.”
The Italian’s lip curled with a slight indication of contempt at the French detective’s methods, but he bowed without speaking, and went out.
Last of all the lady appeared, in a long sealskin travelling cloak, and closely veiled. She answered M. Flocon’s questions in a low, tremulous voice, as though greatly perturbed.
She was the Contessa di Castagneto, she said, an Englishwoman by birth; but her husband had been an Italian, as the name implied, and they resided in Rome. He was dead–she had been a widow for two or three years, and was on her way now to London.
“That will do, madame, thank you,” said the detective, politely, “for the present at least.”
“Why, are we likely to be detained? I trust not.” Her voice became appealing, almost piteous. Her hands, restlessly moving, showed how much she was distressed.
“Indeed, Madame la Comtesse, it must be so. I regret it infinitely; but until we have gone further into this, have elicited some facts, arrived at some conclusions–But there, madame, I need not, must not say more.”
“Oh, monsieur, I was so anxious to continue my journey. Friends are awaiting me in London. I do hope–I most earnestly beg and entreat you to spare me. I am not very strong; my health is indifferent. Do, sir, be so good as to release me from–“
As she spoke, she raised her veil, and showed what no woman wishes to hide, least of all when seeking the good-will of one of the opposite sex. She had a handsome face–strikingly so. Not even the long journey, the fatigue, the worries and anxieties which had supervened, could rob her of her marvellous beauty.
She was a brilliant brunette, dark-skinned; but her complexion was of a clear, pale olive, and as soft, as lustrous as pure ivory. Her great eyes, of a deep velvety brown, were saddened by near tears. She had rich red lips, the only colour in her face, and these, habitually slightly apart, showed pearly-white glistening teeth.
It was difficult to look at this charming woman without being affected by her beauty. M. Flocon was a Frenchman, gallant and impressionable; yet he steeled his heart. A detective must beware of sentiment, and he seemed to see something insidious in this appeal, which he resented.
“Madame, it is useless,” he answered gruffly. “I do not make the law; I have only to support it. Every good citizen is bound to that.”
“I trust I am a good citizen,” said the Countess, with a wan smile, but very wearily. “Still, I should wish to be let off now. I have suffered greatly, terribly, by this horrible catastrophe. My nerves are quite shattered. It is too cruel. However, I can say no more, except to ask that you will let my maid come to me.”
M. Flocon, still obdurate, would not even consent to that.
“I fear, madame, that for the present at least you cannot be allowed to communicate with any one, not even with your maid.”
“But she is not implicated; she was not in the car. I have not seen her since–“
“Since?” repeated M. Flocon, after a pause.
“Since last night, at Amberieux, about eight o’clock. She helped me to undress, and saw me to bed. I sent her away then, and said I should not need her till we reached Paris. But I want her now, indeed I do.”
“She did not come to you at Laroche?”
“No. Have I not said so? The porter,”–here she pointed to the man, who stood staring at her from the other side of the table,–“he made difficulties about her being in the car, saying that she came too often, stayed too long, that I must pay for her berth, and so on. I did not see why I should do that; so she stayed away.”
“Except from time to time?”
“And the last time was at Amberieux?”
“As I have told you, and he will tell you the same.”
“Thank you, madame, that will do.” The Chief rose from his chair, plainly intimating that the interview was at an end.
He had other work to do, and was eager to get at it. So he left Block to show the Countess back to the waiting-room, and, motioning to the porter that he might also go, the Chief hastened to the sleeping-car, the examination of which, too long delayed, claimed his urgent attention.
It is the first duty of a good detective to visit the actual theatre of a crime and overhaul it inch by inch,–seeking, searching, investigating, looking for any, even the most insignificant, traces of the murderer’s hands.
The sleeping-car, as I have said, had been side-tracked, its doors were sealed, and it was under strict watch and ward. But everything, of course, gave way before the detective, and, breaking through the seals, he walked in, making straight for the little room or compartment where the body of the victim still lay untended and absolutely untouched.
It was a ghastly sight, although not new in M. Flocon’s experience. There lay the corpse in the narrow berth, just as it had been stricken. It was partially undressed, wearing only shirt and drawers. The former lay open at the chest, and showed the gaping wound that had, no doubt, caused death, probably instantaneous death. But other blows had been struck; there must have been a struggle, fierce and embittered, as for dear life. The savage truculence of the murderer had triumphed, but not until he had battered in the face, destroying features and rendering recognition almost impossible.
A knife had given the mortal wound; that was at once apparent from the shape of the wound. It was the knife, too, which had gashed and stabbed the face, almost wantonly; for some of these wounds had not bled, and the plain inference was that they had been inflicted after life had sped. M. Flocon examined the body closely, but without disturbing it. The police medical officer would wish to see it as it was found. The exact position, as well as the nature of the wounds, might afford evidence as to the manner of death.
But the Chief looked long, and with absorbed, concentrated interest, at the murdered man, noting all he actually saw, and conjecturing a good deal more.
The features of the mutilated face were all but unrecognizable, but the hair, which was abundant, was long, black, and inclined to curl; the black moustache was thick and drooping. The shirt was of fine linen, the drawers silk. On one finger were two good rings, the hands were clean, the nails well kept, and there was every evidence that the man did not live by manual labour. He was of the easy, cultured class, as distinct from the workman or operative.
This conclusion was borne out by his light baggage, which still lay about the berth,–hat-box, rugs, umbrella, brown morocco hand-bag. All were the property of some one well to do, or at least possessed of decent belongings. One or two pieces bore a monogram, “F.Q.,” the same as on the shirt and under-linen; but on the bag was a luggage label, with the name, “Francis Quadling, passenger to Paris,” in full. Its owner had apparently no reason to conceal his name. More strangely, those who had done him to death had been at no pains to remove all traces of his identity.
M. Flocon opened the hand-bag, seeking for further evidence; but found nothing of importance,–only loose collars, cuffs, a sponge and slippers, two Italian newspapers of an earlier date. No money, valuables, or papers. All these had been removed probably, and presumably, by the perpetrator of the crime.
Having settled the first preliminary but essential points, he next surveyed the whole compartment critically. Now, for the first time, he was struck with the fact that the window was open to its full height. Since when was this? It was a question to be put presently to the porter and any others who had entered the car, but the discovery drew him to examine the window more closely, and with good results.
At the ledge, caught on a projecting point on the far side, partly in, partly out of the car, was a morsel of white lace, a scrap of feminine apparel; although what part, or how it had come there, was not at once obvious to M. Flocon. A long and minute inspection of this bit of lace, which he was careful not to detach as yet from the place in which he found it, showed that it was ragged, and frayed, and fast caught where it hung. It could not have been blown there by any chance air; it must have been torn from the article to which it belonged, whatever that might be,–head-dress, nightcap, night-dress, or handkerchief. The lace was of a kind to serve any of these purposes.
Inspecting further, M. Flocon made a second discovery. On the small table under the window was a short length of black jet beading, part of the trimming or ornamentation of a lady’s dress.
These two objects of feminine origin–one partly outside the car, the other near it, but quite inside–gave rise to many conjectures. It led, however, to the inevitable conclusion that a woman had been at some time or other in the berth. M. Flocon could not but connect these two finds with the fact of the open window. The latter might, of course, have been the work of the murdered man himself at an earlier hour. Yet it is unusual, as the detective imagined, for a passenger, and especially an Italian, to lie under an open window in a sleeping-berth when travelling by express train before daylight in March.
Who opened that window, then, and why? Perhaps some further facts might be found on the outside of the car. With this idea, M. Flocon left it, and passed on to the line or permanent way.
Here he found himself a good deal below the level of the car. These sleepers have no foot-boards like ordinary carriages; access to them is gained from a platform by the steps at each end. The Chief was short of stature, and he could only approach the window outside by calling one of the guards and ordering him to make the small ladder (_faire la petite echelle_). This meant stooping and giving a back, on which little M. Flocon climbed nimbly, and so was raised to the necessary height.
A close scrutiny revealed nothing unusual. The exterior of the car was encrusted with the mud and dust gathered in the journey, none of which appeared to have been disturbed.
M. Flocon reentered the carriage neither disappointed nor pleased; his mind was in an open state, ready to receive any impressions, and as yet only one that was at all clear and distinct was borne in on him.
This was the presence of the lace and the jet beads in the theatre of the crime. The inference was fair and simple. He came logically and surely to this:
1. That some woman had entered the compartment.
2. That whether or not she had come in before the crime, she was there after the window had been opened, which was not done by the murdered man.
3. That she had leaned out, or partly passed out, of the window at some time or other, as the scrap of lace testified.
4. Why had she leaned out? To seek some means of exit or escape, of course.
But escape from whom? from what? The murderer? Then she must know him, and unless an accomplice (if so, why run from him?), she would give up her knowledge on compulsion, if not voluntarily, as seemed doubtful, seeing she (his suspicions were consolidating) had not done so already.
But there might be another even stronger reason to attempt escape at such imminent risk as leaving an express train at full speed. To escape from her own act and the consequences it must entail–escape from horror first, from detection next, and then from arrest and punishment.
All this would imperiously impel even a weak woman to face the worst peril, to look out, lean out, even try the terrible but impossible feat of climbing out of the car.
So M. Flocon, by fair process of reasoning, reached a point which incriminated one woman, the only woman possible, and that was the titled, high-bred lady who called herself the Contessa di Castagneto.
This conclusion gave a definite direction to further search. Consulting the rough plan which he had constructed to take the place of the missing train card, he entered the compartment which the Countess had occupied, and which was actually next door.
It was in the tumbled, untidy condition of a sleeping-place but just vacated. The sex and quality of its recent occupant were plainly apparent in the goods and chattels lying about, the property and possessions of a delicate, well-bred woman of the world, things still left as she had used them last–rugs still unrolled, a pair of easy-slippers on the floor, the sponge in its waterproof bag on the bed, brushes, bottles, button-hook, hand-glass, many things belonging to the dressing-bag, not yet returned to that receptacle. The maid was no doubt to have attended to all these, but as she had not come, they remained unpacked and strewn about in some disorder.
M. Flocon pounced down upon the contents of the berth, and commenced an immediate search for a lace scarf, or any wrap or cover with lace.
He found nothing, and was hardly disappointed. It told more against the Countess, who, if innocent, would have no reason to conceal or make away with a possibly incriminating possession, the need for which she could not of course understand.
Next, he handled the dressing-bag, and with deft fingers replaced everything.
Everything was forthcoming but one glass bottle, a small one, the absence of which he noted, but thought of little consequence, till, by and by, he came upon it under peculiar circumstances.
Before leaving the car, and after walking through the other compartments, M. Flocon made an especially strict search of the corner where the porter had his own small chair, his only resting-place, indeed, throughout the journey. He had not forgotten the attendant’s condition when first examined, and he had even then been nearly satisfied that the man had been hocussed, narcotized, drugged.
Any doubts were entirely removed by his picking up near the porter’s seat a small silver-topped bottle and a handkerchief, both marked with coronet and monogram, the last of which, although the letters were much interlaced and involved, were decipherable as S.L.L.C.
It was that of the Countess, and corresponded with the marks on her other belongings. He put it to his nostril, and recognized at once by its smell that it had contained tincture of laudanum, or some preparation of that drug.
M. Flocon was an experienced detective, and he knew so well that he ought to be on his guard against the most plausible suggestions, that he did not like to make too much of these discoveries. Still, he was distinctly satisfied, if not exactly exultant, and he went back towards the station with a strong predisposition against the Contessa di Castagneto.
Just outside the waiting-room, however, his assistant, Galipaud, met him with news which rather dashed his hopes, and gave a new direction to his thoughts.
The lady’s maid was not to be found.
“Impossible!” cried the Chief, and then at once suspicion followed surprise.
“I have looked, monsieur, inquired everywhere; the maid has not been seen. She certainly is not here.”
“Did she go through the barrier with the other passengers?”
“No one knows; no one remembers her; not even the conductor. But she has gone. That is positive.”
“Yet it was her duty to be here; to attend to her service. Her mistress would certainly want her–has asked for her! Why should she run away?”
This question presented itself as one of infinite importance, to be pondered over seriously before he went further into the inquiry.
Did the Countess know of this disappearance?
She had asked imploringly for her maid. True, but might that not be a blind? Women are born actresses, and at need can assume any part, convey any impression. Might not the Countess have wished to be dissociated from the maid, and therefore have affected complete ignorance of her flight?
“I will try her further,” said M. Flocon to himself.
But then, supposing that the maid had taken herself off of her own accord? Why was it? Why had she done so? Because–because she was afraid of something. If so, of what? No direct accusation could be brought against her on the face of it. She had not been in the sleeping-car at the time of the murder, while the Countess as certainly was; and, according to strong presumption, in the very compartment where the deed was done. If the maid was afraid, why was she afraid?
Only on one possible hypothesis. That she was either in collusion with the Countess, or possessed of some guilty knowledge tending to incriminate the Countess and probably herself. She had run away to avoid any inconvenient questioning tending to get her mistress into trouble, which would react probably on herself.
“We must press the Countess on this point closely; I will put it plainly to M. le Juge,” said the detective, as he entered the private room set apart for the police authorities, where he found M. Beaumont le Hardi, the instructing judge, and the Commissary of the Quartier (arrondissement).
A lengthy conference followed among the officials. M. Flocon told all he knew, all he had discovered, gave his views with all the force and fluency of a public prosecutor, and was congratulated warmly on the progress he had made.
“I agree with you, sir,” said the instructing judge: “we must have in the Countess first, and pursue the line indicated as regards the missing maid.”
“I will fetch her, then. Stay, what can be going on in there?” cried M. Flocon, rising from his seat and running into the outer waiting-room, which, to his surprise and indignation, he found in great confusion.
The guard who was on duty was struggling, in personal conflict almost, with the English General. There was a great hubbub of voices, and the Countess was lying back half-fainting in her chair.
“What’s all this? How dare you, sir?”
This to the General, who now had the man by the throat with one hand and with the other was preventing him from drawing his sword. “Desist–forbear! You are opposing legal authority; desist, or I will call in assistance and will have you secured and removed.”
The little Chief’s blood was up; he spoke warmly, with all the force and dignity of an official who sees the law outraged.
“It is entirely the fault of this ruffian of yours; he has behaved most brutally,” replied Sir Charles, still holding him tight.
“Let him go, monsieur; your behaviour is inexcusable. What! you, a military officer of the highest rank, to assault a sentinel! For shame! This is unworthy of you!”
“He deserves to be scragged, the beast!” went on the General, as with one sharp turn of the wrist he threw the guard off, and sent him flying nearly across the room, where, being free at last, the Frenchman drew his sword and brandished it threateningly–from a distance.
But M. Flocon interposed with uplifted hand and insisted upon an explanation.
“It is just this,” replied Sir Charles, speaking fast and with much fierceness: “that lady there–poor thing, she is ill, you can see that for yourself, suffering, overwrought; she asked for a glass of water, and this brute, triple brute, as you say in French, refused to bring it.”
“I could not leave the room,” protested the guard. “My orders were precise.”
“So I was going to fetch the water,” went on the General angrily, eying the guard as though he would like to make another grab at him, “and this fellow interfered.”
“Very properly,” added M. Flocon.
“Then why didn’t he go himself, or call some one? Upon my word, monsieur, you are not to be complimented upon your people, nor your methods. I used to think that a Frenchman was gallant, courteous, especially to ladies.”
The Chief looked a little disconcerted, but remembering what he knew against this particular lady, he stiffened and said severely, “I am responsible for my conduct to my superiors, and not to you. Besides, you appear to forget your position. You are here, detained–all of you”–he spoke to the whole room–“under suspicion. A ghastly crime has been perpetrated–by some one among you–“
“Do not be too sure of that,” interposed the irrepressible General.
“Who else could be concerned? The train never stopped after leaving Laroche,” said the detective, allowing himself to be betrayed into argument.
“Yes, it did,” corrected Sir Charles, with a contemptuous laugh; “shows how much you know.”
Again the Chief looked unhappy. He was on dangerous ground, face to face with a new fact affecting all his theories,–if fact it was, not mere assertion, and that he must speedily verify. But nothing was to be gained–much, indeed, might be lost–by prolonging this discussion in the presence of the whole party. It was entirely opposed to the French practice of investigation, which works secretly, taking witnesses separately, one by one, and strictly preventing all intercommunication or collusion among them.
“What I know or do not know is my affair,” he said, with an indifference he did not feel. “I shall call upon you, M. le General, for your statement in due course, and that of the others.” He bowed stiffly to the whole room. “Every one must be interrogated. M. le Juge is now here, and he proposes to begin, madame, with you.”
The Countess gave a little start, shivered, and turned very pale.
“Can’t you see she is not equal to it?” cried the General, hotly. “She has not yet recovered. In the name of–I do not say chivalry, for that would be useless–but of common humanity, spare madame, at least for the present.”
“That is impossible, quite impossible. There are reasons why Madame la Comtesse should be examined first. I trust, therefore, she will make an effort.”
“I will try, if you wish it.” She rose from her chair and walked a few steps rather feebly, then stopped.
“No, no, Countess, do not go,” said Sir Charles, hastily, in English, as he moved across to where she stood and gave her his hand. “This is sheer cruelty, sir, and cannot be permitted.”
“Stand aside!” shouted M. Flocon; “I forbid you to approach that lady, to address her, or communicate with her. Guard, advance, do your duty.”
But the guard, although his sword was still out of its sheath, showed great reluctance to move. He had no desire to try conclusions again with this very masterful person, who was, moreover, a general; as he had seen service, he had a deep respect for generals, even of foreign growth.
Meanwhile the General held his ground and continued his conversation with the Countess, speaking still in English, thus exasperating M. Flocon, who did not understand the language, almost to madness.
“This is not to be borne!” he cried. “Here, Galipaud, Block;” and when his two trusty assistants came rushing in, he pointed furiously to the General. “Seize him, remove him by force if necessary. He shall go to the _violon_–to the nearest lock-up.”
The noise attracted also the Judge and the Commissary, and there were now six officials in all, including the guard, all surrounding the General, a sufficiently imposing force to overawe even the most recalcitrant fire-eater.
But now the General seemed to see only the comic side of the situation, and he burst out laughing.
“What, all of you? How many more? Why not bring up cavalry and artillery, horse, foot, and guns?” he asked, derisively. “All to prevent one old man from offering his services to one weak woman! Gentlemen, my regards!”
“Really, Charles, I fear you are going too far,” said his brother the clergyman, who, however, had been manifestly enjoying the whole scene.
“Indeed, yes. It is not necessary, I assure you,” added the Countess, with tears of gratitude in her big brown eyes. “I am most touched, most thankful. You are a true soldier, a true English gentleman, and I shall never forget your kindness.” Then she put her hand in his with a pretty, winning gesture that was reward enough for any man.
Meanwhile, the Judge, the senior official present, had learned exactly what had happened, and he now addressed the General with a calm but stern rebuke.
“Monsieur will not, I trust, oblige us to put in force the full power of the law. I might, if I chose, and as I am fully entitled, commit you at once to Mazas, to keep you in solitary confinement. Your conduct has been deplorable, well calculated to traverse and impede justice. But I am willing to believe that you were led away, not unnaturally, as a gallant gentleman,–it is the characteristic of your nation, of your cloth,–and that on more mature consideration you will acknowledge and not repeat your error.”
M. Beaumont le Hardi was a grave, florid, soft-voiced person, with a bald head and a comfortably-lined white waistcoat; one who sought his ends by persuasion, not force, but who had the instincts of a gentleman, and little sympathy with the peremptory methods of his more inflammable colleague.
“Oh, with all my heart, monsieur,” said Sir Charles, cordially. “You saw, or at least know, how this has occurred. I did not begin it, nor was I the most to blame. But I was in the wrong, I admit. What do you wish me to do now?”
“Give me your promise to abide by our rules,–they may be irksome, but we think them necessary,–and hold no further converse with your companions.”
“Certainly, certainly, monsieur,–at least after I have said one word more to Madame la Comtesse.”
“No, no, I cannot permit even that–“
But Sir Charles, in spite of the warning finger held up by the Judge, insisted upon crying out to her, as she was being led into the other room:
“Courage, dear lady, courage. Don’t let them bully you. You have nothing to fear.”
Any further defiance of authority was now prevented by her almost forcible removal from the room.
The stormy episode just ended had rather a disturbing effect on M. Flocon, who could scarcely give his full attention to all the points, old and new, that had now arisen in the investigation. But he would have time to go over them at his leisure, while the work of interrogation was undertaken by the Judge.
The latter had taken his seat at a small table, and just opposite was his _greffier_, or clerk, who was to write down question and answer, _verbatim_. A little to one side, with the light full on the face, the witness was seated, bearing the scrutiny of three pairs of eyes–the Judge first, and behind him, those of the Chief Detective and the Commissary of Police.
“I trust, madame, that you are equal to answering a few questions?” began M. le Hardi, blandly.
“Oh, yes, I hope so. Indeed, I have no choice,” replied the Countess, bravely resigned.
“They will refer principally to your maid.”
“Ah!” said the Countess, quickly and in a troubled voice, yet she bore the gaze of the three officials without flinching.
“I want to know a little more about her, if you please.”
“Of course. Anything I know I will tell you.” She spoke now with perfect self-possession. “But if I might ask–why this interest?”
“I will tell you frankly. You asked for her, we sent for her, and–“
“She cannot be found. She is not in the station.”
The Countess all but jumped from her chair in her surprise–surprise that seemed too spontaneous to be feigned.
“Impossible! it cannot be. She would not dare to leave me here like this, all alone.”
“_Parbleu_! she has dared. Most certainly she is not here.”
“But what can have become of her?”
“Ah, madame, what indeed? Can you form any idea? We hoped you might have been able to enlighten us.”
“I cannot, monsieur, not in the least.”
“Perchance you sent her on to your hotel to warn your friends that you were detained? To fetch them, perhaps, to you in your trouble?”
The trap was neatly contrived, but she was not deceived.
“How could I? I knew of no trouble when I saw her last.”
“Oh, indeed? and when was that?”
“Last night, at Amberieux, as I have already told that gentleman.” She pointed to M. Flocon, who was obliged to nod his head.
“Well, she has gone away somewhere. It does not much matter, still it is odd, and for your sake we should like to help you to find her, if you do wish to find her?”
Another little trap which failed.
“Indeed I hardly think she is worth keeping after this barefaced desertion.”
“No, indeed. And she must be held to strict account for it, must justify it, give her reasons. So we must find her for you–“
“I am not at all anxious, really,” the Countess said, quickly, and the remark told against her.
“Well, now, Madame la Comtesse, as to her description. Will you tell us what was her height, figure, colour of eyes, hair, general appearance?”
“She was tall, above the middle height, at least; slight, good figure, black hair and eyes.”
“That depends upon what you mean by ‘pretty.’ Some people might think so, in her own class.”
“How was she dressed?”
“In plain dark serge, bonnet of black straw and brown ribbons. I do not allow my maid to wear colours.”
“Exactly. And her name, age, place of birth?”
“Hortense Petitpre, thirty-two, born, I believe, in Paris.”
The Judge, when these particulars had been given, looked over his shoulder towards the detective, but said nothing. It was quite unnecessary, for M. Flocon, who had been writing in his note-book, now rose and left the room. He called Galipaud to him, saying sharply:
“Here is the more detailed description of the lady’s maid, and in writing. Have it copied and circulate it at once. Give it to the station-master, and to the agents of police round about here. I have an idea–only an idea–that this woman has not gone far. It may be worth nothing, still there is the chance. People who are wanted often hang about the very place they would _not_ stay in if they were wise. Anyhow, set a watch for her and come back here.”
Meanwhile, the Judge had continued his questioning.
“And where, madame, did you obtain your maid?”
“In Rome. She was there, out of a place. I heard of her at an agency and registry office, when I was looking for a maid a month or two ago.”
“Then she has not been long in your service?”
“No; as I tell you, she came to me in December last.”
“Strongly. She had lived with good families, French and English.”
“And with you, what was her character?”
“Well, so much for Hortense Petitpre. She is not far off, I dare say. When we want her we shall be able to lay hands on her, I do not doubt, madame may rest assured.”
“Pray take no trouble in the matter. I certainly should not keep her.”
“Very well, very well. And now, another small matter. I see,” he referred to the rough plan of the sleeping-car prepared by M. Flocon,–“I see that you occupied the compartment _d_, with berths Nos. 9 and 10?”
“I think 9 was the number of my berth.”
“It was. You may be certain of that. Now next door to your compartment–do you know who was next door? I mean in 7 and 8?”
The Countess’s lip quivered, and she was a prey to sudden emotion as she answered in a low voice:
“It was where–where–“
“There, there, madame,” said the Judge, reassuring her as he would a little child. “You need not say. It is no doubt very distressing to you. Yet, you know?”
She bent her head slowly, but uttered no word.
“Now this man, this poor man, had you noticed him at all? No–no–not afterwards, of course. It would not be likely. But during the journey. Did you speak to him, or he to you?”
“No, no–distinctly no.”
“Nor see him?”
“Yes, I saw him, I believe, at Modane with the rest when we dined.”
“Ah! exactly so. He dined at Modane. Was that the only occasion on which you saw him? You had never met him previously in Rome, where you resided?”
“Whom do you mean? The murdered man?”
“No, not that I am aware of. At least I did not recognize him as a friend.”
“I presume, if he was among your friends–“
“Pardon me, that he certainly was not,” interrupted the Countess.
“Well, among your acquaintances–he would probably have made himself known to you?”
“I suppose so.”
“And he did not do so? He never spoke to you, nor you to him?”
“I never saw him, the occupant of that compartment, except on that one occasion. I kept a good deal in my compartment during the journey.”
“Alone? It must have been very dull for you,” said the Judge, pleasantly.
“I was not always alone,” said the Countess, hesitatingly, and with a slight flush. “I had friends in the car.”
“Oh–oh”–the exclamation was long-drawn and rather significant.
“Who were they? You may as well tell us, madame, we should certainly find out.”
“I have no wish to withhold the information,” she replied, now turning pale, possibly at the imputation conveyed. “Why should I?”
“And these friends were–?”
“Sir Charles Collingham and his brother. They came and sat with me occasionally; sometimes one, sometimes the other.”
“During the day?”
“Of course, during the day.” Her eyes flashed, as though the question was another offence.
“Have you known them long?”
“The General I met in Roman society last winter. It was he who introduced his brother.”
“Very good, so far. The General knew you, took an interest in you. That explains his strange, unjustifiable conduct just now–“
“I do not think it was either strange or unjustifiable,” interrupted the Countess, hotly. “_He_ is a gentleman.”
“Quite a _preux cavalier_, of course. But we will pass on. You are not a good sleeper, I believe, madame?”
“Indeed no, I sleep badly, as a rule.”
“Then you would be easily disturbed. Now, last night, did you hear anything strange in the car, more particularly in the adjoining compartment?”
“No sound of voices raised high, no noise of a conflict, a struggle?”
“That is odd. I cannot understand it. We know, beyond all question, from the appearance of the body,–the corpse,–that there was a fight, an encounter. Yet you, a wretched sleeper, with only a thin plank of wood between you and the affray, hear nothing, absolutely nothing. It is _most_ extraordinary.”
“I was asleep. I must have been asleep.”
“A light sleeper would certainly be awakened. How can you explain–how can you reconcile that?” The question was blandly put, but the Judge’s incredulity verged upon actual insolence.
“Easily: I had taken a soporific. I always do, on a journey. I am obliged to keep something, sulphonal or chloral, by me, on purpose.”
“Then this, madame, is yours?” And the Judge, with an air of undisguised triumph, produced the small glass vial which M. Flocon had picked up in the sleeping-car near the conductor’s seat.
The Countess, with a quick gesture, put out her hand to take it.
“No, I cannot give it up. Look as near as you like, and say is it yours?”
“Of course it is mine. Where did you get it? Not in my berth?”
“No, madame, not in your berth.”
“Pardon me, we shall not tell you–not just now.”
“I missed it last night,” went on the Countess, slightly confused.
“After you had taken your dose of chloral?”
“And why did you want this? It is laudanum.”
“For my nerves. I have a toothache. I–I–really, sir, I need not tell you all my ailments.”
“And the maid had removed it?”
“So I presume; she must have taken it out of the bag in the first instance.”
“And then kept it?”
“That is what I can only suppose.”
When the Judge had brought down the interrogation of the Countess to the production of the small glass bottle, he paused, and with a long-drawn “Ah!” of satisfaction, looked round at his colleagues.
Both M. Flocon and the Commissary nodded their heads approvingly, plainly sharing his triumph.
Then they all put their heads together in close, whispered conference.
“Admirable, M. le Juge!” said the detective. “You have been most adroit. It is a clear case.”
“No doubt,” said the Commissary, who was a blunt, rather coarse person, believing that to take anybody and everybody into custody is always the safest and simplest course. “It looks black against her. I think she ought to be arrested at once.”
“We might, indeed we ought to have more evidence, more definite evidence, perhaps?” The Judge was musing over the facts as he knew them. “I should like, before going further, to look at the car,” he said, suddenly coming to a conclusion.
M. Flocon readily agreed. “We will go together,” he said, adding, “Madame will remain here, please, until we return. It may not be for long.”
“And afterwards?” asked the Countess, whose nervousness had if anything increased during the whispered colloquy of the officials.
“Ah, afterwards! Who knows?” was the reply, with a shrug of the shoulders, all most enigmatic and unsatisfactory.
“What have we against her?” said the Judge, as soon as they had gained the absolute privacy of the sleeping-car.
“The bottle of laudanum and the porter’s condition. He was undoubtedly drugged,” answered the detective; and the discussion which followed took the form of a dialogue between them, for the Commissary took no part in it.
“Yes; but why by the Countess? How do we know that positively?”
“It is her bottle,” said M. Flocon.
“Her story may be true–that she missed it, that the maid took it.”
“We have nothing whatever against the maid. We know nothing about her.”
“No. Except that she has disappeared. But that tells more against her mistress. It is all very vague. I do not see my way quite, as yet.”
“But the fragment of lace, the broken beading? Surely, M. le Juge, they are a woman’s, and only one woman was in the car–“
“So far as we know.”
“But if these could be proved to be hers?”
“Ah! if you could prove that!”
“Easy enough. Have her searched, here at once, in the station. There is a female searcher attached to the detention-room.”
“It is a strong measure. She is a lady.”
“Ladies who commit crimes must not expect to be handled with kid gloves.”
“She is an Englishwoman, or with English connections; titled, too. I hesitate, upon my word. Suppose we are wrong? It may lead to unpleasantness. M. le Prefet is anxious to avoid complications possibly international.”
As he spoke, he bent over, and, taking a magnifier from his pocket, examined the lace, which still fluttered where it was caught.
“It is fine lace, I think. What say you, M. Flocon? You may be more experienced in such matters.”
“The finest, or nearly so; I believe it is Valenciennes–the trimming of some underclothing, I should think. That surely is sufficient, M. le Juge?”
M. Beaumont le Hardi gave a reluctant consent, and the Chief went back himself to see that the searching was undertaken without loss of time.
The Countess protested, but vainly, against this new indignity. What could she do? A prisoner, practically friendless,–for the General was not within reach,–to resist was out of the question. Indeed, she was plainly told that force would be employed unless she submitted with a good grace. There was nothing for it but to obey.
Mother Tontaine, as the female searcher called herself, was an evil-visaged, corpulent old creature, with a sickly, soft, insinuating voice, and a greasy, familiar manner that was most offensive. They had given her the scrap of torn lace and the debris of the jet as a guide, with very particular directions to see if they corresponded with any part of the lady’s apparel.
She soon showed her quality.
“Aha! oho! What is this, my pretty princess? How comes so great a lady into the hands of Mother Tontaine? But I will not harm you, my beauty, my pretty, my little one. Oh, no, no, I will not trouble you, dearie. No, trust to me;” and she held out one skinny claw, and looked the other way. The Countess did not or would not understand.
“Madame has money?” went on the old hag in a half-threatening, half-coaxing whisper, as she came up quite close, and fastened on her victim like a bird of prey.
“If you mean that I am to bribe you–“
“Fie, the nasty word! But just a small present, a pretty gift, one or two yellow bits, twenty, thirty, forty francs–you’d better.” She shook the soft arm she held roughly, and anything seemed preferable than to be touched by this horrible woman.
“Wait, wait!” cried the Countess, shivering all over, and, feeling hastily for her purse, she took out several napoleons.
“Aha! oho! One, two, three,” said the searcher in a fat, wheedling voice. “Four, yes, four, five;” and she clinked the coins together in her palm, while a covetous light came into her faded eyes at the joyous sound. “Five–make it five at once, d’ye hear me?–or I’ll call them in and tell them. That will go against you, my princess. What, try to bribe a poor old woman, Mother Tontaine, honest and incorruptible Tontaine? Five, then, five!”
With trembling haste the Countess emptied the whole contents of her purse in the old hag’s hand.
“_Bon aubaine_. Nice pickings. It is a misery what they pay me here. I am, oh, so poor, and I have children, many babies. You will not tell them–the police–you dare not. No, no, no.”
Thus muttering to herself, she shambled across the room to a corner, where she stowed the money safely away. Then she came back, showed the bit of lace, and pressed it into the Countess’s hands.
“Do you know this, little one? Where it comes from, where there is much more? I was told to look for it, to search for it on you;” and with a quick gesture she lifted the edge of the Countess’s skirt, dropping it next moment with a low, chuckling laugh.
“Oho! aha! You were right, my pretty, to pay me, my pretty–right. And some day, to-day, to-morrow, whenever I ask you, you will remember Mother Tontaine.”
The Countess listened with dismay. What had she done? Put herself into the power of this greedy and unscrupulous old beldame?
“And this, my princess? What have we here, aha?”
Mere Tontaine held up next the broken bit of jet ornament for inspection, and as the Countess leaned forward to examine it more closely, gave it into her hand.
“You recognize it, of course. But be careful, my pretty! Beware! If any one were looking, it would ruin you. I could not save you then. Sh! say nothing, only look, and quick, give it me back. I must have it to show.”
All this time the Countess was turning the jet over and over in her open palm, with a perplexed, disturbed, but hardly a terrified air.
Yes, she knew it, or thought she knew it. It had been–But how had it come here, into the possession of this base myrmidon of the French police?
“Give it me, quick!” There was a loud knock at the door. “They are coming. Remember!” Mother Tontaine put her long finger to her lip. “Not a word! I have found nothing, of course. Nothing, I can swear to that, and you will not forget Mother Tontaine?”
Now M. Flocon stood at the open door awaiting the searcher’s report. He looked much disconcerted when the old woman took him on one side and briefly explained that the search had been altogether fruitless.
There was nothing to justify suspicion, nothing, so far as she could find.
The detective looked from one to the other–from the hag he had employed in this unpleasant quest, to the lady on whom it had been tried. The Countess, to his surprise, did not complain. He had expected further and strong upbraidings. Strange to say, she took it very quietly. There was no indignation in her face. She was still pale, and her hands trembled, but she said nothing, made no reference, at least, to what she had just gone through.
Again he took counsel with his colleague, while the Countess was kept apart.
“What next, M. Flocon?” asked the Judge. “What shall we do with her?”
“Let her go,” answered the detective, briefly.
“What! do you suggest this, sir,” said the Judge, slyly. “After your strong and well-grounded suspicions?”
“They are as strong as ever, stronger: and I feel sure I shall yet justify them. But what I wish now is to let her go at large, under surveillance.”
“Ah! you would shadow her?”
“Precisely. By a good agent. Galipaud, for instance. He speaks English, and he can, if necessary, follow her anywhere, even to England.”
“She can be extradited,” said the Commissary, with his one prominent idea of arrest.
“Do you agree, M. le Juge? Then, if you will permit me, I will give the necessary orders, and perhaps you will inform the lady that she is free to leave the station?”
The Countess now had reason to change her opinion of the French officials. Great politeness now replaced the first severity that had been so cruel. She was told, with many bows and apologies, that her regretted but unavoidable detention was at an end. Not only was she freely allowed to depart, but she was escorted by both M. Flocon and the Commissary outside, to where an omnibus was in waiting, and all her baggage piled on top, even to the dressing-bag, which had been neatly repacked for her.
But the little silver-topped vial had not been restored to her, nor the handkerchief.
In her joy at her deliverance, either she had not given these a second thought, or she did not wish to appear anxious to recover them.
Nor did she notice that, as the bus passed through the gates at the bottom of the large slope that leads from the Lyons Station, it was followed at a discreet distance by a modest fiacre, which pulled up, eventually, outside the Hotel Madagascar. Its occupant, M. Galipaud, kept the Countess in sight, and, entering the hotel at her heels, waited till she had left the office, when he held a long conference with the proprietor.
A first stage in the inquiry had now been reached, with results that seemed promising, and were yet contradictory.
No doubt the watch to be set on the Countess might lead to something yet–something to bring first plausible suspicion to a triumphant issue; but the examination of the other occupants of the car should not be allowed to slacken on that account. The Countess might have some confederate among them–this pestilent English General, perhaps, who had made himself so conspicuous in her defence; or some one of them might throw light upon her movements, upon her conduct during the journey.
Then, with a spasm of self-reproach, M. Flocon remembered that two distinct suggestions had been made to him by two of the travellers, and that, so far, he had neglected them. One was the significant hint from the Italian that he could materially help the inquiry. The other was the General’s sneering assertion that the train had not continued its journey uninterruptedly between Laroche and Paris.
Consulting the Judge, and laying these facts before him, it was agreed that the Italian’s offer seemed the most important, and he was accordingly called in next.
“Who and what are you?” asked the Judge, carelessly, but the answer roused him at once to intense interest, and he could not quite resist a glance of reproach at M. Flocon.
“My name I have given you–Natale Ripaldi. I am a detective officer belonging to the Roman police.”
“What!” cried M. Flocon, colouring deeply. “This is unheard of. Why in the name of all the devils have you withheld this most astonishing statement until now?”
“Monsieur surely remembers. I told him half an hour ago I had something important to communicate–“
“Yes, yes, of course. But why were you so reticent. Good Heavens!”
“Monsieur was not so encouraging that I felt disposed to force on him what I knew he would have to hear in due course.”
“It is monstrous–quite abominable, and shall not end here. Your superiors shall hear of your conduct,” went on the Chief, hotly.
“They will also hear, and, I think, listen to my version of the story,–that I offered you fairly, and at the first opportunity, all the information I had, and that you refused to accept it.”
“You should have persisted. It was your manifest duty. You are an officer of the law, or you say you are.”
“Pray telegraph at once, if you think fit, to Rome, to the police authorities, and you will find that Natale Ripaldi–your humble servant–travelled by the through express with their knowledge and authority. And here are my credentials, my official card, some official letters–“
“And what, in a word, have you to tell us?”
“I can tell you who the murdered man was.”
“We know that already.”
“Possibly; but only his name, I apprehend. I know his profession, his business, his object in travelling, for I was appointed to watch and follow him. That is why I am here.”
“Was he a suspicious character, then? A criminal?”
“At any rate he was absconding from Rome, with valuables.”
“A thief, in fact?”
The Italian put out the palms of his hands with a gesture of doubt and deprecation.
“Thief is a hard, ugly word. That which he was removing was, or had been, his own property.”
“Tut, tut! do be more explicit and get on,” interrupted the little Chief, testily.
“I ask nothing better; but if questions are put to me–“
The Judge interposed.
“Give us your story. We can interrogate you afterwards.”
“The murdered man is Francis A. Quadling, of the firm of Correse & Quadling, bankers, in the Via Condotti, Rome. It was an old house, once of good, of the highest repute, but of late years it has fallen into difficulties. Its financial soundness was doubted in certain circles, and the Government was warned that a great scandal was imminent. So the matter was handed over to the police, and I was directed to make inquiries, and to keep my eye on this Quadling”–he jerked his thumb towards the platform, where the body might be supposed to be.
“This Quadling was the only surviving partner. He was well known and liked in Rome, indeed, many who heard the adverse reports disbelieved them, I myself among the number. But my duty was plain–“
“Naturally,” echoed the fiery little detective.
“I made it my business to place the banker under surveillance, to learn his habits, his ways of life, see who were his friends, the houses he visited. I soon knew much that I wanted to know, although not all. But one fact I discovered, and think it right to inform you of it at once. He was on intimate terms with La Castagneto–at least, he frequently called upon her.”
“La Castagneto! Do you mean the Countess of that name, who was a passenger in the sleeper?”
“Beyond doubt! it is she I mean.” The officials looked at each other eagerly, and M. Beaumont le Hardi quickly turned over the sheets on which the Countess’s evidence was recorded.
She had denied acquaintance with this murdered man, Quadling, and here was positive evidence that they were on intimate terms!
“He was at her house on the very day we all left Rome–in the evening, towards dusk. The Countess had an apartment in the Via Margutta, and when he left her he returned to his own place in the Condotti, entered the bank, stayed half an hour, then came out with one hand-bag and rug, called a cab, and was driven straight to the railway station.”
“And you followed?”
“Of course. When I saw him walk straight to the sleeping-car, and ask the conductor for 7 and 8, I knew that his plans had been laid, and that he was on the point of leaving Rome secretly. When, presently, La Castagneto also arrived, I concluded that she was in his confidence, and that possibly they were eloping together.”
“Why did you not arrest him?”
“I had no authority, even if I had had the time. Although I was ordered to watch the Signor Quadling, I had no warrant for his arrest. But I decided on the spur of the moment what course I should take. It seemed to be the only one, and that was to embark in the same train and stick close to my man.”
“You informed your superiors, I suppose?”
“Pardon me, monsieur,” said the Italian blandly to the Chief, who asked the question, “but have you any right to inquire into my conduct towards my superiors? In all that affects the murder I am at your orders, but in this other matter it is between me and them.”
“Ta, ta, ta! They will tell us if you will not. And you had better be careful, lest you obstruct justice. Speak out, sir, and beware. What did you intend to do?”
“To act according to circumstances. If my suspicions were confirmed–“
“Why–that this banker was carrying off any large sum in cash, notes, securities, as in effect he was.”
“Ah! You know that? How?”
“By my own eyes. I looked into his compartment once and saw him in the act of counting them over, a great quantity, in fact–“
Again the officials looked at each other significantly. They had got at last to a motive for the crime.
“And that, of course, would have justified his arrest?”
“Exactly. I proposed, directly we arrived in Paris, to claim the assistance of your police and take him into custody. But his fate interposed.”
There was a pause, a long pause, for another important point had been reached in the inquiry: the motive for the murder had been made clear, and with it the presumption against the Countess gained terrible strength.
But there was more, perhaps, to be got out of this dark-visaged Italian detective, who had already proved so useful an ally.
“One or two words more,” said the Judge to Ripaldi. “During the journey, now, did you have any conversation with this Quadling?”
“None. He kept very much to himself.”
“You saw him, I suppose, at the restaurants?”
“Yes, at Modane and Laroche.”
“But did not speak to him?”
“Not a word.”
“Had he any suspicion, do you think, as to who you were?”
“Why should he? He did not know me. I had taken pains he should never see me.”
“Did he speak to any other passenger?”
“Very little. To the Countess. Yes, once or twice, I think, to her maid.”
“Ah! that maid. Did you notice her at all? She has not been seen. It is strange. She seems to have disappeared.”
“To have run away, in fact?” suggested Ripaldi, with a queer smile.
“Well, at least she is not here with her mistress. Can you offer any explanation of that?”
“She was perhaps afraid. The Countess and she were very good friends, I think. On better, more familiar terms, than is usual between mistress and maid.”
“The maid knew something?”
“Ah, monsieur, it is only an idea. But I give it you for what it is worth.”
“Well, well, this maid–what was she like?”
“Tall, dark, good-looking, not too reserved. She made other friends–the porter and the English Colonel. I saw the last speaking to her. I spoke to her myself.”
“What can have become of her?” said the Judge.
“Would M. le Juge like me to go in search of her? That is, if you have no more questions to ask, no wish to detain me further?”
“We will consider that, and let you know in a moment, if you will wait outside.”
And then, when alone, the officials deliberated.
It was a good offer, the man knew her appearance, he was in possession of all the facts, he could be trusted–
“Ah, but can he, though?” queried the detective. “How do we know he has told us truth? What guarantee have we of his loyalty, his good faith? What if he is also concerned in the crime–has some guilty knowledge? What if he killed Quadling himself, or was an accomplice before or after the fact?”
“All these are possibilities, of course, but–pardon me, dear colleague–a little far-fetched, eh?” said the Judge. “Why not utilize this man? If he betrays us–serves us ill–if we had reason to lay hands on him again, he could hardly escape us.”
“Let him go, and send some one with him,” said the Commissary, the first practical suggestion he had yet made.
“Excellent!” cried the Judge. “You have another man here, Chief; let him go with this Italian.”
They called in Ripaldi and told him, “We will accept your services, monsieur, and you can begin your search at once. In what direction do you propose to begin?”
“Where has her mistress gone?”
“How do you know she has gone?”
“At least, she is no longer with us out there. Have you arrested her–or what?”
“No, she is still at large, but we have our eye upon her. She has gone to her hotel–the Madagascar, off the Grands Boulevards.”
“Then it is there that I shall look for the maid. No doubt she preceded her mistress to the hotel, or she will join her there very shortly.”
“You would not make yourself known, of course? They might give you the slip. You have no authority to detain them, not in France.”
“I should take my precautions, and I can always appeal to the police.”
“Exactly. That would be your proper course. But you might lose valuable time, a great opportunity, and we wish to guard against that, so we shall associate one of our own people with you in your proceedings.”
“Oh! very well, if you wish. It will, no doubt, be best.” The Italian readily assented, but a shrewd listener might have guessed from the tone of his voice that the proposal was not exactly pleasing to him.
“I will call in Block,” said the Chief, and the second detective inspector appeared to take his instructions.
He was a stout, stumpy little man, with a barrel-like figure, greatly emphasized by the short frock coat he wore; he had smallish pig’s eyes buried deep in a fat face, and his round, chubby cheeks hung low over his turned-down collar.
“This gentleman,” went on the Chief, indicating Ripaldi, “is a member of the Roman police, and has been so obliging as to offer us his services. You will accompany him, in the first instance, to the Hotel Madagascar. Put yourself in communication with Galipaud, who is there on duty.”
“Would it not be sufficient if I made myself known to M. Galipaud?” suggested the Italian. “I have seen him here, I should recognize him–“
“That is not so certain; he may have changed his appearance. Besides, he does not know the latest developments, and might not be very cordial.”
“You might write me a few lines to take to him.”
“I think not. We prefer to send Block,” replied the Chief, briefly and decidedly. He did not like this pertinacity, and looked at his colleagues as though he sought their concurrence in altering the arrangements for the Italian’s mission. It might be wiser to detain him still.
“It was only to save trouble that I made the suggestion,” hastily put in Ripaldi. “Naturally I am in your hands. And if I do not meet with the maid at the hotel, I may have to look further, in which case Monsieur–Block? thank you–would no doubt render valuable assistance.”
This speech restored confidence, and a few minutes later the two detectives, already excellent friends from the freemasonry of a common craft, left the station in a closed cab.
“What next?” asked the Judge.
“That pestilent English officer, if you please, M. le Juge,” said the detective. “That fire-eating, swashbuckling soldier, with his blustering barrack-room ways. I long to come to close quarters with him. He ridiculed me, taunted me, said I knew nothing–we will see, we will see.”
“In fact, you wish to interrogate him yourself. Very well. Let us have him in.”
When Sir Charles Collingham entered, he included the three officials in one cold, stiff bow, waited a moment, and then, finding he was not offered a chair, said with studied politeness:
“I presume I may sit down?”
“Pardon. Of course; pray be seated,” said the Judge, hastily, and evidently a little ashamed of himself.
“Ah! thanks. Do you object?” went on the General, taking out a silver cigarette-case. “May I offer one?” He handed round the box affably.
“We do not smoke on duty,” answered the Chief, rudely. “Nor is smoking permitted in a court of justice.”
“Come, come, I wish to show no disrespect. But I cannot recognize this as a court of justice, and I think, if you will forgive me, that I shall take three whiffs. It may help me keep my temper.”
He was evidently making game of them. There was no symptom remaining of