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Chapter 22

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« on: January 30, 2023, 05:27:50 am »

"A LADY to see you, sir."

"What sort of a lady, Joe?"

"Furren, I should say, sir, by the way she speaks. I arskt her if she had an appointment, and she said no, but she said she wanted to see you on very urgent and particular business. I told her most people says that wot comes to see you, but she says hers was reely important. Arskt me to tell you, sir, that it was about the Riversbrook case."

"The Riversbrook case? I'll see her, Joe. Has not Stork returned yet?"

"No, sir."

"Tell him to go to his dinner when he comes back. Show the lady in, Joe."

Crewe regarded his caller keenly as Joe ushered her in, placed a chair for her, and went out, closing the door noiselessly behind him. She was a tall, well-dressed, graceful woman, fairly young, with dark hair and eyes. She looked quickly at the detective as she entered, and Crewe was struck by the shrewd penetration of her glance.

"You are Monsieur Crewe, the great detective—is it not so?" she asked, as she sat down. The glance she now gave the detective at closer range from her large dark eyes was innocent and ingenuous, with a touch of admiration. The contrast between it and her former look was not lost on Crewe, and he realised that his visitor was no ordinary woman.

"My name is Crewe," he said, ignoring the compliment. "What do you wish to see me for?"

The visitor did not immediately reply. She nervously unfastened a bag she carried, and taking out a singularly unfeminine-looking handkerchief—a large cambric square almost masculine in its proportions, and guiltless of lace or perfume—held it to her face for a moment. But Crewe noticed that her eyes were dry when she removed it to remark:

"What I say to you, monsieur, is in strictest confidence—as sacred as the confession."

"Anything you say to me will be in strict confidence," said Crewe a little grimly.

"And the boy? Can he not hear through the keyhole?" Crewe's visitor glanced expressively at the door by which she had entered.

"You are quite safe here, madame—mademoiselle, I should say," he added, with a quick glance at her left hand, from which she slowly removed the glove as she spoke.

"Mademoiselle Chiron, monsieur," said Gabrielle, flashing another smile at him. "I am Madame Holymead's relative—her cousin. I come to see you about the dreadful murder of the judge, Madame's friend."

"You come from Mrs. Holymead?" said Crewe quickly. "Then, Mademoiselle Chiron, before—"

"No, no, monsieur, no!" Her agitation was unmistakably genuine. "I do not come from Madame Holymead. I am her relative, it is true, but I come—how shall I say it?—from myself. I mean she does not know of my visit to you, monsieur."

"I quite understand," replied Crewe.

"Monsieur Crewe," said Gabrielle hurriedly, "although I have not come from Madame Holymead, it is for her sake that I come to see you—to save her from the persecution of one of your police agents who wants to ask her questions about this so sordid—so terrible a crime! He has come once, this agent—last night he came—and he told me he wanted to question Madame Holymead about the murder of her dear friend the judge. I do not want Madame worried with these questions, so I told him Madame was away in the motor in the country; but he says he will come again and again till he sees her. Madame is distracted when she learns of his visit; it opens up her bleeding heart afresh, for she and her husband were intime with the dead judge, and deeply, terribly, they deplore his so dreadful end. I see Madame cry, and I say to myself I will not let this little police agent spoil her beauty and give her the migraine: his visits must be, shall be, prevented. I have heard of the so great and good Monsieur Crewe, and I will go and see him. We will—as you say in your English way—put our heads together, this famous detective and I, and we will find some way of—how do you call it?—circumventing this police agent so that my dear Madame shall cry no more. Monsieur Crewe, I am here, and I beg of you to help me."

Crewe listened to this outburst with inward surprise but impassive features. Apparently the police had come to the conclusion that they had blundered in arresting Birchill for the murder of Sir Horace Fewbanks, and had recommenced inquiries with a view to bringing the crime home to somebody else. He did not know whether their suspicions were now directed against Mrs. Holymead, but they had conducted their preliminary inquiries so clumsily as to arouse her fears that they did. So much was apparent from Mademoiselle Chiron's remarks, despite the interpretation she sought to place on Mrs. Holymead's fears. He wondered if the "police agent" was Rolfe or Chippenfield. It was obvious that the cool proposal that he should help to shield Mrs. Holymead against unwelcome police attentions covered some deeper move, and he shaped his conversation in the endeavour to extract more from the Frenchwoman.

"I am very sorry to hear that Mrs. Holymead has been subjected to this annoyance," he said warily. "This police agent, did he come by himself?"

"But yes, monsieur, I have already said it."

"I know, but I thought he might have had a companion waiting for him in a taxi-cab outside. Scotland Yard men frequently travel in pairs."

"He had no taxi-cab," declared Mademoiselle Chiron, positively. "He walked away on foot by himself. I watched him from the window."

Crewe registered a mental note of this admission. If she had watched the detective's departure from the window she evidently had some reason for wanting to see the last of him. Aloud he said:

"I expect I know him. What was he like?"

"Tall, as tall as you, only bigger—much bigger. And he had the great moustache which he caressed again and again with his fingers." Gabrielle daintily imitated the action on her own short upper lip.

"I know him," declared Crewe with a smile. "His name is Rolfe. There should be nothing about him to alarm you, mademoiselle. Why, he is quite a ladies' man."

Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders disdainfully.

"That may be," she replied; "but I like him not, and I do not wish him to worry Madame Holymead."

"But why not let him see Mrs. Holymead?" suggested Crewe, after a short pause. "As he only wants to ask her a few short questions, it seems to me that would be the quickest way out of the difficulty, and would save you all the trouble and worry you speak of."

"I tell you I will not," declared Gabrielle vehemently. "I will not have Madame Holymead worried and made ill with the terrible ordeal. Bah! What do you men—so clumsy—know of the delicate feelings of a lady like Madame Holymead? The least soupçon of excitement and she is disturbed, distraite, for days. After last night—after the visit of the police agent—she was quite hysterical."

"Why should she be when she had nothing to be afraid of?" rejoined Crewe.

He spoke in a tone of simple wonder, but Gabrielle shot a quick glance at him from under her veiled lashes as she replied:

"Bah! What has that to do with it? I repeat: Monsieur Crewe, you men cannot understand the feelings of a lady like Madame Holymead in a matter like this. She and her husband were, as I have said before, intime with the great judge. They visited his house, they dined with him, they met him in Society. Behold, he is brutally, horribly killed. Madame, when she hears the terrible news, is ill for days; she cannot eat, she cannot sleep; she can interest herself in nothing. She is forgetting a little when the police agents they catch a man and say he is the murderer. Then comes the trial of this man at the court with so queer a name—Old Bailee. The papers are full of the terrible story again; of the dead man; how he looked killed; how he lay in a pool of blood; how they cut him open! Madame Holymead cannot pick up a paper without seeing these things, and she falls ill again. Then the jury say the man the police agents caught is not the murderer. He goes free, and once more the talk dies away. Madame Holymead once more begins to forget, when this police agent comes to her house to remind her once more all about it. It is too cruel, monsieur, it is too cruel!"

Gabrielle's voice vibrated with indignation as she concluded, and Crewe regarded her closely. He decided that her affection for Mrs. Holymead was not simulated, and that it would be best to handle her from that point of view.

"I am sorry," he said coldly, "but I do not see how I can help you."

"Monsieur," said the Frenchwoman, clasping her hands, "I entreat you not to say so. It would be so easy for you to help—not me, but Madame."

"How?"

"You know this police agent. You also are a police agent, though so much greater. Therefore you whisper just one little word in the ear of your friend the police agent, and he will not bother Madame Holymead again. I think you could do this. And if you need money to give to the police agent, why, I have brought some." She fumbled nervously at her hand-bag.

"Stay," said Crewe. "What you ask is impossible. I have nothing whatever to do with Scotland Yard. I could not interfere in their inquiries, even if I wished to. They would only laugh at me."

Gabrielle's dark eyes showed her disappointment, but she made one more effort to gain her end. She leant nearer to Crewe, and laid a persuasive hand on his arm.

"If you would only make the effort," she said coaxingly, "my beautiful Madame Holymead would be for ever grateful."

"Mademoiselle, once more I repeat that what you ask is impossible," returned Crewe decisively. "I repeat, I cannot see why Mrs. Holymead should object to answering a few questions the police wish to ask her. She is too sensitive about such a trifle."

Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders slightly in tacit recognition of the fact that the man in front of her was too shrewd to be deceived by subterfuge.

"There is another reason, monsieur," she whispered.

"You had better tell it to me."

"If you had been a woman you would have guessed. The great judge who was killed was in his spare moments what you call a gallant—he did love my sex. In France this would not matter, but in England they think much of it—so very much. Madame Holymead is frightened for fear the least breath of scandal should attach to her name, if the world knew that the police agent had visited her house on such an errand. Madame is innocent—it is not necessary to assure you of that; but the prudish dames of England are censorious."

"The Scotland Yard people are not likely to disclose anything about it," said Crewe.

"That may be so, but these things come out," retorted Gabrielle.

"Monsieur," she added, after a pause, and speaking in a low tone, "I know that you can do much—very much—if you will, and can stop Madame Holymead from being worried. Would you do so if you were told who the murderer was—I mean he who did really kill the great judge?" Crewe was genuinely surprised, but his control over his features was so complete that he did not betray it. "Do you know who Sir Horace Fewbanks's murderer is?" he asked, in quiet even tones. "Monsieur, I do. I will tell you the whole story in secret—how do you say?—in confidence, if you promise me you will help Madame Holymead as I have asked you." "I cannot enter into a bargain like that," rejoined Crewe. "I do not know whether Mrs. Holymead may not be implicated—concerned—in what you say."

"Monsieur, she is not!" flashed Gabrielle indignantly. "She knows nothing about it. What I have to tell you concerns myself alone."

"In that case," rejoined Crewe, "I think you had better speak to me frankly and freely, and if I can I will help you."

"You are perhaps right," she replied. "I will tell you everything, provided you give me your word of honour that you will not inform the police of what I will tell you."

"If you bind me to that promise I do not see how I can help you in the direction you indicate," said Crewe, after a moment's thought. "If the police are asked to abandon their inquiries about Mrs. Holymead, they will naturally wish to know the reason."

"You are quite right," said Gabrielle. "I did not think of that. But if I tell you everything, and you have to tell the police agents so as to help Madame, will you promise that the police agents do not come and arrest me?"

"Provided you have not committed murder or been in any way accessory to it, I think I can promise you that," rejoined Crewe.

"Monsieur, I do not understand you, but I can almost divine your meaning. Your promise is what you call a guarded one. Nevertheless, I like your face, and I will trust you."

Gabrielle relapsed into silence for some moments, looking at Crewe earnestly.

"Monsieur," she said at length, "it is a terrible story I have to relate, and it is difficult for me to tell a stranger what I know. Nevertheless, I will begin. I knew the great judge well."

"You knew Sir Horace Fewbanks?" exclaimed Crewe.

"He was—my lover, monsieur."

She brought the last two words out defiantly, with a quick glance at Crewe to see how he took the avowal. She seemed to find something reassuring in his answering glance, and she continued, in more even tones:

"I had often seen him at the house of Madame Holymead when I came to London to visit her. I admired Sir Horace when I saw him—often he used to call and dine, for he was the friend of Monsieur Holymead. But Madame told me that the great judge was what in England you call a lover of the ladies—that he was dangerous—so I must be careful of him. I used to look at him when he called, and thought he was handsome in the English way, and sometimes he looked at me when he was unobserved, and smiled at me. But Madame did not like me looking at him; she said I was foolish; she warned me to be careful."

Gabrielle shrugged her shoulders expressively.

"Of what use was Madame's warning? It did but make me wish to know more of this great lover of my sex. He saw that, and made the opportunity, and made love to me. He was so ardent, so fervid a lover that I was conquered.

"After we had been lovers I told him my secret—that I was married. Pierre Simon, my husband, was a bad man, and so I left him. But Madame must not know that I was married, for that is my secret. It does not do to tell everything—besides, it would have distressed her.

"Monsieur, I was happy with my lover, the great judge. He was charming. He had that charm of manner which you English lack. Faithful? I do not know. Often we were together, and often we wrote letters when to meet was impossible. He kept my letters—they amused him so, he said—they were so French, so piquant, so different to English ladies' letters. Alas, monsieur, there had been others—many others there must have been, for he understood my sex so well.

"One afternoon I was out for a walk looking in the great shops in Regent Street, when I felt a hand placed on my shoulder, and looking round I saw Pierre, my husband. He was pleased at the meeting, but I was not pleased. He took me to a café where we could talk. It was what he always did talk about—money, money, money. He always wanted money. He said I must find him some, and when I told him I had none he said I must find some way of getting it, or he would come to the house and expose my secret. I walked away out of the café and left him there. But I soon saw him again, and again. He followed me and talked to me against my will.

"Monsieur, I was very much distressed, and for a long time I tried to think of a way to get rid of Pierre, for I was afraid that he would come to the house and tell Madame Holymead I was married. Then I thought of the great judge, my lover. He would know how to send Pierre away, for Pierre would be frightened of him. But Sir Horace was in Scotland, shooting the poor birds. But I wrote to him and asked him for my sake to come at once, because I was in distress and needed help. Monsieur, he came—but he came to his death. He sent me a letter to meet him at Riversbrook at half-past ten o'clock. He was sorry it was so late, but he thought it would be safer not to come to the house till after dark in the long summer evening, for people were so censorious. I was to tell Madame Holymead that I was going to the theatre with a friend.

"I was so pleased to think that I would get rid of Pierre, that on the morning, when he stopped me to ask me again about the money, I showed him the letter of the great judge, and told him I would make the judge put him in prison if he did not go away and leave me alone. 'He is your lover,' said Pierre. 'I will kill him.' But I laughed, for I knew Pierre did not care if I had many lovers. I said to him, 'Pierre, you would extort the money'—blackmail, the English call it, do they not, Monsieur Crewe?—'but you would not kill. Sir Horace is not afraid of you. If you go near him he would have you taken off to gaol,' But Pierre he was deep in thought. Several times he said, 'I want money,' Each time I said to him, 'Then you must work for it,' 'That is no way to get money,' he answered. 'This great judge, he has much money, is it not so?'

"I left him, monsieur, thinking of money. But I did not know how bad his thoughts were. I returned home, and I told Madame Holymead I would go to the theatre that night. I left the house at eight o'clock, and after walking along Piccadilly and Regent Street took the train to Hampstead. Then I walked up to the house of Sir Horace so as not to be too early. The gate was open and I thought that strange, but I had no thought of murder. As I walked up the garden I heard a shot—two shots—and then a cry, and the sound of something falling on the floor. The door of the house was open, and the light was burning in the hall. Upstairs I heard the noise of footsteps—quick footsteps—and then I heard them coming down the staircase. I was afraid, and I hid myself behind the curtains in the hall. The footsteps came down, and nearer and nearer, and when they passed me I looked out to see. Monsieur, it was Pierre. I called to him softly, 'Pierre, Pierre!' He looked round, and his face, it was so different—so dreadful. He did not know my voice, and he ran away from me with a cry.

"Monsieur, my heart is a brave one. I have not what you call nerves, but when I knew I was alone in the great house with I knew not what, a great fear clutched me. I stood still in the hall with my eyes fixed on the stairs above. At first all was silent, then I heard a dreadful sound—a groan. I wanted to run away then, monsieur, but the good God commanded me to go up and into the room, where a fellow creature needed me. I went upstairs, and along to the door of a room which was half open. I pushed it wide open and went in.

"Mon Dieu! the judge was alone there, dying. Pierre had shot him. He lay along the floor, gasping, groaning, and the blood dripping from his breast. When I saw this I ran forward and took his poor head on my knee, and tried to stop the blood with my handkerchief. But as I did this the judge groaned once more. He knew me not, though I called him by name. In terrible agony he writhed his head off my breast. His hand clutched at the hole in his breast, closing on my handkerchief. And so he died.

"Monsieur, strange it may seem, but I do assure you that I became calm again when he was dead. I rose to my feet and looked round me in the room. On the floor near him I saw a revolver. I picked it up and hid it in my bag. The tube of it was warm. Then I sat down in a chair and thought what I must do. The police must not know I was there. They must not know he was my lover. I thought of my letters that I wrote to him. He had them hidden in a little drawer at the back of his desk—a secret drawer. Often had he showed me my letters there, and once he had showed me where to find the spring that opened the drawer. So I searched for the spring and I found it. The drawer opened and there were my letters tied together. I took them all and hid them in my bag, and then I closed the hiding place. There remained but the handkerchief which my lover held in his hand. I tried to get it out, but I could not. In my hurry I dragged it out—it came away then, but left a little bit in his hand. It did not show. I dared not wait longer. I turned out the light, and hurried out of the room and downstairs. Again I turned out the light, and closed the door, and hurried away.

"That, monsieur, is my story."

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