Chapter X
 

The General sat for a time staring hard at the bit of torn lace and the broken beads. Then he spoke out firmly:

"It is my duty to withhold nothing. It is not the lace. That I could not swear to; for me--and probably for most men--two pieces of lace are very much the same. But I think I have seen these beads, or something exactly like them, before."

"Where? When?"

"They formed part of the trimming of a mantle worn by the Contessa di Castagneto."

"Ah!" it was the same interjection uttered simultaneously by the three Frenchmen, but each had a very different note; in the Judge it was deep interest, in the detective triumph, in the Commissary indignation, as when he caught a criminal red-handed.

"Did she wear it on the journey?" continued the Judge.

"As to that I cannot say."

"Come, come, General, you were with her constantly; you must be able to tell us. We insist on being told." This fiercely, from the now jubilant M. Flocon.

"I repeat that I cannot say. To the best of my recollection, the Countess wore a long travelling cloak--an ulster, as we call them. The jacket with those bead ornaments may have been underneath. But if I have seen them,--as I believe I have,--it was not during this journey."

Here the Judge whispered to M. Flocon, "The searcher did not discover any second mantle."

"How do we know the woman examined thoroughly?" he replied. "Here, at least, is direct evidence as to the beads. At last the net is drawing round this fine Countess."

"Well, at any rate," said the detective aloud, returning to the General, "these beads were found in the compartment of the murdered man. I should like that explained, please."

"By me? How can I explain it? And the fact does not bear upon what we were considering, as to whether any one had left the car."

"Why not?"

"The Countess, as we know, never left the car. As to her entering this particular compartment,--at any previous time,--it is highly improbable. Indeed, it is rather insulting her to suggest it."

"She and this Quadling were close friends."

"So you say. On what evidence I do not know, but I dispute it."

"Then how could the beads get there? They were her property, worn by her."

"Once, I admit, but not necessarily on this journey. Suppose she had given the mantle away--to her maid, for instance; I believe ladies often pass on their things to their maids."

"It is all pure presumption, a mere theory. This maid--she has not as yet been imported into the discussion."

"Then I would suggest that you do so without delay. She is to my mind a--well, rather a curious person."

"You know her--spoke to her?"

"I know her, in a way. I had seen her in the Via Margutta, and I nodded to her when she came first into the car."

"And on the journey--you spoke to her frequently?"

"I? Oh, dear, no, not at all. I noticed her, certainly; I could not help it, and perhaps I ought to tell her mistress. She seemed to make friends a little too readily with people."

"As for instance--?"

"With the porter to begin with. I saw them together at Laroche, in the buffet at the bar; and that Italian, the man who was in here before me; indeed, with the murdered man. She seemed to know them all."

"Do you imply that the maid might be of use in this inquiry?"

"Most assuredly I do. As I tell you, she was constantly in and out of the car, and more or less intimate with several of the passengers."

"Including her mistress, the Countess," put in M. Flocon.

The General laughed pleasantly.

"Most ladies are, I presume, on intimate terms with their maids. They say no man is a hero to his valet. It is the same, I suppose, with the other sex."

"So intimate," went on the little detective, with much malicious emphasis, "that now the maid has disappeared lest she might be asked inconvenient questions about her mistress."

"Disappeared? You are sure?"

"She cannot be found, that is all we know."

"It is as I thought, then. She it was who left the car!" cried Sir Charles, with so much vehemence that the officials were startled out of their dignified reserve, and shouted back almost in a breath: "Explain yourself. Quick, quick. What in God's name do you mean?"

"I had my suspicions from the first, and I will tell you why. At Laroche the car emptied, as you may have heard; every one except the Countess, at least, went over to the restaurant for early coffee; I with the rest. I was one of the first to finish, and I strolled back to the platform to get a few whiffs of a cigarette. At that moment I saw, or thought I saw, the end of a skirt disappearing into the sleeping-car. I concluded it was this maid, Hortense, who was taking her mistress a cup of coffee. Then my brother came up, we exchanged a few words, and entered the car together."

"By the same door as that through which you had seen the skirt pass?"

"No, by the other. My brother went back to his berth, but I paused in the corridor to finish my cigarette after the train had gone on. By this time every one but myself had returned to his berth, and I was on the point of lying down again for half an hour, when I distinctly heard the handle turned of the compartment I knew to be vacant all through the run."

"That was the one with berths 11 and 12?"

"Probably. It was next to the Countess. Not only was the handle turned, but the door partly opened--"

"It was not the porter?"

"Oh, no, he was in his seat,--you know it, at the end of the car,--sound asleep, snoring; I could hear him."

"Did any one come out of the vacant compartment?"

"No; but I was almost certain, I believe I could swear that I saw the same skirt, just the hem of it, a black skirt, sway forward beyond the door, just for a second. Then all at once the door was closed again fast."

"What did you conclude from this? Or did you think nothing of it?"

"I thought very little. I supposed it was that the maid wished to be near her mistress as we were approaching Paris, and I had heard from the Countess that the porter had made many difficulties. But you see, after what has happened, that there was a reason for stopping the train."

"Quite so," M. Flocon readily admitted, with a scarcely concealed sneer.

He had quite made up his mind now that it was the Countess who had rung the alarm-bell, in order to allow of the escape of the maid, her confederate and accomplice.

"And you still have an impression that some one--presumably this woman--got off the car, somehow, during the stoppage?" he asked.

"I suggest it, certainly. Whether it was or could be so, I must leave to your superior judgment."

"What! A woman climb out like that? Bah! Tell that to some one else!"

"You have, of course, examined the exterior of the car, dear colleague?" now said the Judge.

"Assuredly, once, but I will do it again. Still, the outside is quite smooth, there is no foot-board. Only an acrobat could succeed in thus escaping, and then only at the peril of his life. But a woman--oh, no! it is too absurd."

"With help she might, I think, get up on to the roof," quickly remarked Sir Charles. "I have looked out of the window of my compartment. It would be nothing for a man, nor much for a woman if assisted."

"That we will see for ourselves," said the detective, ungraciously.

"The sooner the better," added the Judge, and the whole party rose from their chairs, intending to go straight to the car, when the policeman on guard appeared at the door, followed close by an English military officer in uniform, whom he was trying to keep back, but with no great success. It was Colonel Papillon of the Embassy.

"Halloa, Jack! you are a good chap," cried the General, quickly going forward to shake hands. "I was sure you would come."

"Come, sir! Of course I came. I was just going to an official function, as you see, but his Excellency insisted, my horse was at the door, and here I am."

All this was in English, but the attache turned now to the officials, and, with many apologies for his intrusion, suggested that they should allow his friend, the General, to return with him to the Embassy when they had done with him.

"Of course we will answer for him. He shall remain at your disposal, and will appear whenever called upon." He returned to Sir Charles, asking, "You will promise that, sir?"

"Oh, willingly. I had always meant to stay on a bit in Paris. And really I should like to see the end of this. But my brother? He must get home for next Sunday's duty. He has nothing to tell, but he would come back to Paris at any time if his evidence was wanted."

The French Judge very obligingly agreed to all these proposals, and two more of the detained passengers, making four in all, now left the station.

Then the officials proceeded to the car, which still remained as the Chief Detective had left it.

Here they soon found how just were the General's previsions.