The Rome Express by Arthur Griffiths
The three officials went straight to where the still open window showed the particular spot to be examined. The exterior of the car was a little smirched and stained with the dust of the journey, lying thick in parts, and in others there were a few great splotches of mud plastered on.
The detective paused for a moment to get a general view, looking, in the light of the General's suggestion, for either hand or foot marks, anything like a trace of the passage of a feminine skirt, across the dusty surface.
But nothing was to be seen, nothing definite or conclusive at least. Only here and there a few lines and scratches that might be encouraging, but proved little.
Then the Commissary, drawing nearer, called attention to some suspicious spots sprinkled about the window, but above it towards the roof.
"What is it?" asked the detective, as his colleague with the point of his long fore-finger nail picked at the thin crust on the top of one of these spots, disclosing a dark, viscous core.
"I could not swear to it, but I believe it is blood."
"Blood! Good Heavens!" cried the detective, as he dragged his powerful magnifying glass out of his pocket and applied it to the spot. "Look, M. le Juge," he added, after a long and minute examination. "What say you?"
"It has that appearance. Only medical evidence can positively decide, but I believe it is blood."
"Now we are on the right track, I feel convinced. Some one fetch a ladder."
One of these curious French ladders, narrow at the top, splayed out at the base, was quickly leaned against the car, and the detective ran up, using his magnifier as he climbed.
"There is more here, much more, and something like--yes, beyond question it is--the print of two hands upon the roof. It was here she climbed."
"No doubt. I can see it now exactly. She would sit on the window ledge, the lower limbs inside the car here and held there. Then with her hands she would draw herself up to the roof," said the Judge.
"But what nerve! what strength of arm!"
"It was life and death. Within the car was more terrible danger. Fear will do much in such a case. We all know that. Well! what more?"
By this time the detective had stepped on to the roof of the car.
"More, more, much more! Footprints, as plain as a picture. A woman's feet. Wait, let me follow them to the end," said he, cautiously creeping forward to the end of the car.
A minute or two more, and he rejoined his colleagues on the ground level, and, rubbing his hands, declared joyously that it was all perfectly clear.
"Dangerous or not, difficult or not, she did it. I have traced her; have seen where she must have lain crouching ever so long, followed her all along the top of the car, to the end where she got down above the little platform exit. Beyond doubt she left the car when it stopped, and by arrangement with her confederate."
"And at a point near Paris. The English General said the halt was within twenty minutes' run of the station."
"Then it is from that point we must commence our search for her. The Italian has gone on the wrong scent."
"Not necessarily. The maid, we may be sure, will try to communicate with her mistress."
"Still, it would be well to secure her before she can do that," said the Judge. "With all we know now, a sharp interrogation might extract some very damaging admissions from her," went on the detective, eagerly. "Who is to go? I have sent away both my assistants. Of course I can telephone for another man, or I might go myself."
"No, no, dear colleague, we cannot spare you just yet. Telephone by all means. I presume you would wish to be present at the rest of the interrogatories?"
"Certainly, you are right. We may elicit more about this maid. Let us call in the porter now. He is said to have had relations with her. Something more may be got out of him."
The more did not amount to much. Groote, the porter, came in, cringing and wretched, in the abject state of a man who has lately been drugged and is now slowly recovering. Although sharply questioned, he had nothing to add to his first story.
"Speak out," said the Judge, harshly. "Tell us everything plainly and promptly, or I shall send you straight to gaol. The order is already made out;" and as he spoke, he waved a flimsy bit of paper before him.
"I know nothing," the porter protested, piteously.
"That is false. We are fully informed and no fools. We are certain that no such catastrophe could have occurred without your knowledge or connivance."
"Indeed, gentlemen, indeed--"
"You were drinking with this maid at the buffet at Laroche. You had more drink with her, or from her hands, afterwards in the car."
"No, gentlemen, that is not so. I could not--she was not in the car."
"We know better. You cannot deceive us. You were her accomplice, and the accomplice of her mistress, also, I have no doubt."
"I declare solemnly that I am quite innocent of all this. I hardly remember what happened at Laroche or after. I do not deny the drink at the buffet. It was very nasty, I thought, and could not tell why, nor why I could not hold my head up when I got back to the car."
"You went off to sleep at once? Is that what you pretend?"
"It must have been so. Yes. Then I know nothing more, not till I was aroused."
And beyond this, a tale to which he stuck with undeviating persistence, they could elicit nothing.
"He is either too clever for us or an absolute idiot and fool," said the Judge, wearily, at last, when Groote had gone out. "We had better commit him to Mazas and hold him there in solitary confinement under our hands. After a day or two of that he may be less difficult."
"It is quite clear he was drugged, that the maid put opium or laudanum into his drink at Laroche."
"And enough of it apparently, for he says he went off to sleep directly he returned to the car," the Judge remarked.
"He says so. But he must have had a second dose, or why was the vial found on the ground by his seat?" asked the Chief, thoughtfully, as much of himself as of the others.
"I cannot believe in a second dose. How was it administered--by whom? It was laudanum, and could only be given in a drink. He says he had no second drink. And by whom? The maid? He says he did not see the maid again."
"Pardon me, M. le Juge, but do you not give too much credibility to the porter? For me, his evidence is tainted, and I hardly believe a word of it. Did he not tell me at first he had not seen this maid after Amberieux at 8 P.M.? Now he admits that he was drinking with her at the buffet at Laroche. It is all a tissue of lies, his losing the pocket-book and his papers too. There is something to conceal. Even his sleepiness, his stupidity, are likely to have been assumed."
"I do not think he is acting; he has not the ability to deceive us like that."
"Well, then, what if the Countess took him the second drink?"
"Oh! oh! That is the purest conjecture. There is nothing whatever to suggest or support that."
"Then how explain the finding of the vial near the porter's seat?"
"May it not have been dropped there on purpose?" put in the Commissary, with another flash of intelligence.
"On purpose?" queried the detective, crossly, foreseeing an answer that would not please him.
"On purpose to bring suspicion on the lady?"
"I don't see it in that light. That would imply that she was not in the plot, and plot there certainly was; everything points to it. The drugging, the open window, the maid's escape."
"A plot, no doubt, but organized by whom? These two women only? Could either of them have struck the fatal blow? Hardly. Women have the wit to conceive, but neither courage nor brute force to execute. There was a man in this, rest assured."
"Granted. But who? That fire-eating Sir Collingham?" quickly asked the detective, giving rein once more to his hatred.
"That is not a solution that commends itself to me, I must confess," declared the Judge. "The General's conduct has been blameworthy and injudicious, but he is not of the stuff that makes criminals."
"Who, then? The porter? No? The clergyman? No? The French gentlemen?--well, we have not examined them yet; but from what I saw at the first cursory glance, I am not disposed to suspect them."
"What of that Italian?" asked the Commissary.
"Are you sure of him? His looks did not please me greatly, and he was very eager to get away from here. What if he takes to his heels?"
"Block is with him," the Chief put in hastily, with the evident desire to stifle an unpleasant misgiving. "We have touch of him if we want him, as we may."
How much they might want him they only realized when they got further in their inquiry!