Chapter VI
 

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--"

"Yes?"

"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."

"Pretty?"

"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."

"Well recommended?"

"Strongly. She had lived with good families, French and English."

"And with you, what was her character?"

"Irreproachable."

"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?"

"Who else?"

"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?"

"Nothing."

"No sound of voices raised high, no noise of a conflict, a struggle?"

"No, monsieur."

"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."

"But where?"

"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?"

"No, before."

"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."

"Ah!"