Chapter XIII
 

The examination was now over, and, the dispositions having been drawn up and signed, the investigating officials remained for some time in conference.

"It lies with those three, of course--the two women and the Italian. They are jointly, conjointly concerned, although the exact degrees of guilt cannot quite be apportioned," said the detective.

"And all three are at large!" added the Judge.

"If you will issue warrants for arrest, M. le Juge, we can take them--two of them at any rate--when we choose."

"That should be at once," remarked the Commissary, eager, as usual, for decisive action.

"Very well. Let us proceed in that way. Prepare the warrants," said the Judge, turning to his clerk. "And you," he went on, addressing M. Flocon, "dear colleague, will you see to their execution? Madame is at the Hotel Madagascar; that will be easy. The Italian Ripaldi we shall hear of through your inspector Block. As for the maid, Hortense Petitpre, we must search for her. That too, sir, you will of course undertake?"

"I will charge myself with it, certainly. My man should be here by now, and I will instruct him at once. Ask for him," said M. Flocon to the guard whom he called in.

"The inspector is there," said the guard, pointing to the outer room. "He has just returned."

"Returned? You mean arrived."

"No, monsieur, returned. It is Block, who left an hour or more ago."

"Block? Then something has happened--he has some special information, some great news! Shall we see him, M. le Juge?"

When Block appeared, it was evident that something had gone wrong with him. His face wore a look of hot, flurried excitement, and his manner was one of abject, cringing self-abasement.

"What is it?" asked the little Chief, sharply. "You are alone. Where is your man?"

"Alas, monsieur! how shall I tell you? He has gone--disappeared! I have lost him!"

"Impossible! You cannot mean it! Gone, now, just when we most want him? Never!"

"It is so, unhappily."

"Idiot! Triple idiot! You shall be dismissed, discharged from this hour. You are a disgrace to the force." M. Flocon raved furiously at his abashed subordinate, blaming him a little too harshly and unfairly, forgetting that until quite recently there had been no strong suspicion against the Italian. We are apt at times to expect others to be intuitively possessed of knowledge that has only come to us at a much later date.

"How was it? Explain. Of course you have been drinking. It is that, or your great gluttony. You were beguiled into some eating-house."

"Monsieur, you shall hear the exact truth. When we started more than an hour ago, our fiacre took the usual route, by the Quais and along the riverside. My gentleman made himself most pleasant"

"No doubt," growled the Chief.

"Offered me an excellent cigar, and talked--not about the affair, you understand--but of Paris, the theatres, the races, Longchamps, Auteuil, the grand restaurants. He knew everything, all Paris, like his pocket. I was much surprised, but he told me his business often brought him here. He had been employed to follow up several great Italian criminals, and had made a number of important arrests in Paris."

"Get on, get on! come to the essential."

"Well, in the middle of the journey, when we were about the Pont Henri Quatre, he said, 'Figure to yourself, my friend, that it is now near noon, that nothing has passed my lips since before daylight at Laroche. What say you? Could you eat a mouthful, just a scrap on the thumb-nail? Could you?'"

"And you--greedy, gormandizing beast!--you agreed?"

"My faith, monsieur, I too was hungry. It was my regular hour. Well--at any rate, for my sins I accepted. We entered the first restaurant, that of the 'Reunited Friends,' you know it, perhaps, monsieur? A good house, especially noted for tripe a la mode de Caen." In spite of his anguish, Block smacked his fat lips at the thought of this most succulent but very greasy dish.

"How often must I tell you to get on?"

"Forgive me, monsieur, but it is all part of my story. We had oysters, two dozen Marennes, and a glass or two of Chablis; then a good portion of tripe, and with them a bottle, only one, monsieur, of Pontet Canet; after that a beefsteak with potatoes and a little Burgundy, then a rum omelet."

"Great Heavens! you should be the fat man in a fair, not an agent of the Detective Bureau."

"It was all this that helped me to my destruction. He ate, this devilish Italian, like three, and I too, I was so hungry,--forgive me, sir,--I did my share. But by the time we reached the cheese, a fine, ripe Camembert, had our coffee, and one thimbleful of green Chartreuse, I was plein jusqu'au bec, gorged up to the beak."

"And what of your duty, your service, pray?"

"I did think of it, monsieur, but then, he, the Italian, was just the same as myself. He was a colleague. I had no fear of him, not till the very last, when he played me this evil turn. I suspected nothing when he brought out his pocketbook,--it was stuffed full, monsieur; I saw that and my confidence increased,--called for the reckoning, and paid with an Italian bank-note. The waiter looked doubtful at the foreign money, and went out to consult the manager. A minute after, my man got up, saying:

"'There may be some trouble about changing that bank-note. Excuse me one moment, pray.' He went out, monsieur, and piff-paff, he was no more to be seen."

"Ah, nigaud (ass), you are too foolish to live! Why did you not follow him? Why let him out of your sight?"

"But, monsieur, I was not to know, was I? I was to accompany him, not to watch him. I have done wrong, I confess. But then, who was to tell he meant to run away?"

M. Flocon could not deny the justice of this defence. It was only now, at the eleventh hour, that the Italian had become inculpated, and the question of his possible anxiety to escape had never been considered.

"He was so artful," went on Block in further extenuation of his offence. "He left everything behind. His overcoat, stick, this book--his own private memorandum-book seemingly--"

"Book? Hand it me," said the Chief, and when it came into his hands he began to turn over the leaves hurriedly.

It was a small brass-bound note-book or diary, and was full of close writing in pencil.

"I do not understand, not more than a word here and there. It is no doubt Italian. Do you know that language, M. le Juge?"

"Not perfectly, but I can read it. Allow me."

He also turned over the pages, pausing to read a passage here and there, and nodding his head from time to time, evidently struck with the importance of the matter recorded.

Meanwhile, M. Flocon continued an angry conversation with his offending subordinate.

"You will have to find him, Block, and that speedily, within twenty-four hours,--to-day, indeed,--or I will break you like a stick, and send you into the gutter. Of course, such a consummate ass as you have proved yourself would not think of searching the restaurant or the immediate neighbourhood, or of making inquiries as to whether he had been seen, or as to which way he had gone?"

"Pardon me, monsieur is too hard on me. I have been unfortunate, a victim to circumstances, still I believe I know my duty. Yes, I made inquiries, and, what is more, I heard of him."

"Where? how?" asked the Chief, gruffly, but obviously much interested.

"He never spoke to the manager, but walked out and let the change go. It was a note for a hundred lire, a hundred francs, and the restaurant bill was no more than seventeen francs."

"Hah! that is greatly against him indeed."

"He was much pressed, in a great hurry. Directly he crossed the threshold he called the first cab and was driving away, but he was stopped--"

"The devil! Why did they not keep him, then?"

"Stopped, but only for a moment, and accosted by a woman."

"A woman?"

"Yes, monsieur. They exchanged but three words. He wished to pass on, to leave her, she would not consent, then they both got into the cab and were driven away together."

The officials were now listening with all ears.

"Tell me," said the Chief, "quick, this woman--what was she like? Did you get her description?"

"Tall, slight, well formed, dressed all in black. Her face--it was a policeman who saw her, and he said she was good-looking, dark, brunette, black hair."

"It is the maid herself!" cried the little Chief, springing up and slapping his thigh in exuberant glee. "The maid! the missing maid!"