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29-B: A Dramatic Dénouement (continued)

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Author Topic: 29-B: A Dramatic Dénouement (continued)  (Read 26 times)
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« on: January 11, 2023, 05:12:17 am »

M. Boirac paused. He had been speaking in a high-pitched voice and gesticulating as if overwhelmed with excitement. He seemed unconscious of his hearers, as if, carried away by his recollections, he was mentally living over again the awful scene, passing once more through the frenzy of that terrible time. Then after a few moments’ silence he pulled himself together and went on in a more normal tone.

“I determined to send the body to Felix, not only to satisfy my hate, but in the hope that his efforts to get rid of it would bring suspicion of the murder on him. Where, I wondered, could I get a receptacle in which to send it? And then it occurred to me that in the study adjoining was the cask that had just arrived with my statue. It was large, strongly made and bound with iron. It would suit my purpose admirably.

“I crossed to the study and unpacked the group. Then quite coolly I carried the body in and placed it in the cask. The idea that I must divert suspicion from myself grew in my mind, and I therefore took off my wife’s evening shoes as their presence would tend to show she had not left the house. I filled up the cask with sawdust, ramming it tight. The body being so much larger than the group, there was a lot of sawdust over. This I swept up with the clothes brush from the hall and put in a handbag, which I locked. Finally I replaced the wooden top of the cask loosely as before, though still strongly enough not to come out if the cask was moved. When I had finished no one would have suspected that anything had been tampered with.

“It was my intention to create the impression that my wife had gone away with Felix. To this end two things appeared immediately necessary. Firstly, such of her outdoor clothes as she probably would have worn must disappear. I accordingly picked up the group and her shoes and went to her room. There I threw the shoes down carelessly before a chair, as if she had changed them. I took her fur coat, a hat, and a pair of walking shoes, and, with the group, carried them to my dressing-room. The only place I could think of for hiding them was in a couple of empty portmanteaux, so I packed the group in one and the clothes in another, carefully locking both.

“The second point was to produce a letter purporting to be from my wife to myself, in which she would say she loved Felix and had gone away with him. I had not time to write one then, but for temporary purposes I put an old letter of my own into a new envelope, addressing it to myself as best I could in my wife’s hand. This I left on my desk.

“I had already spent over three-quarters of an hour and it was nearly one. I took a final look round to see that nothing had been forgotten, and was just leaving the drawing-room when my eye caught a glint of light from the carpet immediately behind the chair in which my wife had died. I stepped over and saw it was a brooch which had evidently been torn from her dress during the struggle. I broke out into a cold sweat as I thought how nearly I had missed it, and realised that its discovery by some one else might have disproved my story and brought me to the scaffold. With no clear idea except to hide it, I put it in my waistcoat pocket, took my hat, and, letting myself out, drew the door sharply behind me. After strolling as far as the Champs Élysées and back, I re-entered with my key. As I had hoped and intended, the shutting of the front door had been heard, and I found the butler obviously uneasy at my wife’s disappearance. I endeavoured to confirm his suspicions that she had gone away with Felix, and, as you know, completely succeeded.

“Most of that night I spent in my study working out my plans. There was first of all the cask. A cask had been sent me by Dupierre, and it was obvious I must return them an empty one against it or I would give myself away. Where was this empty one to come from?

“It was clear to me that I must get a precisely similar cask to return, and the only way I could do so would be to order another group, in the hope that it would be sent packed in the same way. But obviously I could not have this group sent to me. The idea then occurred to me that I must write in some imaginary name ordering the statue to be delivered at some place such as a station cloak-room, to be kept till called for. There I could get it without letting my identity become known.

“But this plan did not please me. I was afraid the police would be able to trace me. I thought over it again, and then I saw that if I ordered it in Felix’s name it would meet the case. It would account for his getting the cask I was sending him, and he would not be believed when he denied ordering it. But I couldn’t give Felix’s name and address, for then he might get both casks, and I would be as badly fixed as ever. Finally I worked out the plan you know. I forged an order in Felix’s hand for the companion group to my own to be sent to Felix at an imaginary address, made a tracing of it, left the letter in Dupierre’s letter-box on Monday night, telephoned them on Tuesday morning ascertaining by what route and train they were sending the group, went to London, met it and had it left in a shed there, all as you must have learnt.”

“A moment, please,” interrupted La Touche. “You are going a little too quickly for me. You say you made a tracing of your forged order for the companion group and left the letter in Dupierre’s letter-box. I don’t quite understand that.”

“Oh, you hadn’t found that out, had you not? I will explain. I was in Paris, you see, when I forged the letter. But Dupierre must believe it came to him from London, or his suspicions would be aroused. I met the difficulty by sticking on the envelope a cancelled stamp from a letter I had received from London, copying the remainder of the postmark with a little lampblack. Then I went down to Grenelle in the middle of Monday night and dropped the letter into Dupierre’s box. He would find it next morning all correct with its English stamp, cancelled in a London office.”

In spite of their loathing for this callous and cynical criminal, La Touche and Mallet could not but be impressed by the cleverness of the trick. All the detectives concerned had argued that as the order for the statue had been received apparently from London on Tuesday, it must have been posted there on Monday, and that as Felix was there and Boirac in Paris, the former must have posted it. But how simply they had been duped! Truly, thought the detectives with unwilling admiration, Boirac had deserved to succeed.

“But the tracing?” persisted La Touche.

“I thought that not only must Dupierre believe the letter came from London, but some definite proof that Felix had written it must be provided. I did it in this way. After I had written the letter I made a careful tracing of it on a bit of tracing paper. As you probably know, I visited St. Malo when in London, and there, with Felix’s pen and ink, I retraced over the writing and blotted it. This gave the impression.”

Again his hearers had to admit a rueful admiration for the ingenious ruse. The finding of the impression had seemed so conclusive, and—it was only a trick. And what a simple trick—when you knew it!

“That is quite clear, thank you,” said La Touche.

“I met the cask in London and brought it to the shed,” went on the manufacturer. “There, after dismissing the carter, I opened the cask, took out the statue, packed it in a portmanteau I had with me, took the label off the cask and put it carefully in my pocket, replacing it with one addressed to Jacques de Belleville at the Gare du Nord. As you know, this Jacques de Belleville was myself.

“As you found Dubois, the carter, you will have learnt the method by which I exchanged the casks, sending that containing the body from my house to Felix, while the other, which I had emptied in London, went back to Dupierre. You understand that part of it?”


“So much then for the getting of the body to Felix. But it was my desire not only to give him the shock of opening the cask and discovering it; I wished also to make the police suspicious so that he would be watched and his attempts to get rid of the corpse discovered. In this case I intended he should be charged with the murder, incidentally clearing me. To ensure this result I set myself to construct such evidence as would weave a net round him from which he would be unable to escape. Gradually the details of my plan arranged themselves in my mind.

“Firstly, it was necessary that I should really have the letter of farewell, the envelope of which I had prepared, and which I had pretended to find on going to my study. Collecting a number of specimens of my wife’s handwriting from her davenport, I forged the letter I showed to the French police. Putting it away for future use, I burnt the specimens to prevent them from being compared with the forgery.

“The problem of getting Felix to meet the cask which I intended to send him, and while doing so to attract the attention of the police, then occupied my thoughts. After much consideration I decided on the plan you know. It happened that some three weeks previously I had been seated in the Café Toisson d’Or, when a bad neuralgic headache had come on, and I had moved into an alcove to be as private as possible. While there I had seen Felix come in and begin talking to a group of men. I had not made myself known, as I was in considerable pain, but I had overheard their conversation and learnt the arrangement Felix and his friend Le Gautier had made about the lottery. This I now decided to use, and I drafted a letter to Felix purporting to come from Le Gautier, mentioning this matter of the lottery to make it seem genuine. I also drafted a slip about money I intended to send in the cask. The contents of this letter and slip you know. These I put away in my pocket-book, to be used later.

“The next evening, Monday, I pretended to unpack the cask. I brought the group I had taken out of it on the previous Saturday from the portmanteau in which I had hidden it, and placed it on the table in my study. On the floor, about the cask, I sprinkled some of the sawdust from the handbag. By this manœuvre I hoped if suspicion arose it would be argued that as the cask was not unpacked till Monday night, the body could not have been put into it on the night of the dinner. As you know, this ruse also succeeded. I also took the label off the cask and put it in my pocket.

“Opening the cask again, I put in £52 10s. in English gold, to correspond with my slip. I hoped that, if the police got hold of the cask, they would assume that Felix had put in this money in order to strengthen his story that the cask had been sent to him. I put in sovereigns instead of French gold with the intention of making this theory more likely, as I hoped it would be argued that Felix in his agitation had overreached himself, and forgotten from what country the cask was supposed to be coming.

“Calling François, I told him I had unpacked the statue, and when Messrs. Dupierre sent for the cask he was to give it to them. Then, informing him that I would be from home for a couple of nights, I left next morning by the early train for London.

“On the Monday I had purchased a false beard and arranged to get myself up to resemble Felix, and I wore this disguise all the time till my return. I brought with me on the journey the portmanteau containing my wife’s clothes, and, on board the boat, from a quiet place on the lower deck, slipped these articles overboard without being observed. On arrival in London I arranged with a carting firm to carry about the cask on the next two days, as you already know. I then went out to St. Malo, Felix’s house, which I found after some judicious inquiries. A careful reconnoitre showed me it was unoccupied. I tried round the windows and had the luck to find one unhasped. Opening it, I crept into the house and went to the study. There by the light of an electric torch I carefully inked over the tracing I had made of the forged letter ordering the cask, and blotted it on Felix’s pad. This, I felt sure, would be found, and would seem to prove that he had written the order.

“I had foreseen that it would be argued that Felix must be innocent because not only would he have no motive to murder my wife, but also he would naturally be the last man in the world to do such a thing. It was necessary for me, therefore, to provide a motive. For this purpose I had written a letter purporting to be from a girl whom Felix had wronged. Having crumpled this letter I put it into the side pocket of one of Felix’s coats. I hoped this would be found, and that it would be argued that my wife had got hold of it and that there had been a quarrel which led to her death. Crumpling it was to suggest Felix had snatched it from her, thrust it into his pocket and forgotten it.

“As I stood in the study a further idea occurred to me. I had thought of a use for a brooch that had dropped from my wife’s clothes. It had fallen just behind the chair she had been sitting in, and I thought if I placed it on the floor behind a chair in his room, it would suggest she had been murdered here. My eye fell on a chair with a low back, standing in front of a curtain, and I saw at once it would suit my purpose. I dropped the brooch behind it and it caught on the braid at the bottom of the curtain. There it was hidden from casual inspection by the chair, but I knew the police would not overlook it. I withdrew without disturbing anything or leaving traces, closed the window, and returned to the city.

“Such was my plot, and, but for your cleverness, it would have succeeded. Is there any other point on which you are not clear?”

“Only one, I think,” answered La Touche. “You were heard to telephone on the Monday from the Café at Charenton to your butler and chief clerk. They received their messages on the Tuesday from Calais. How did you manage that?”

“Easily. I never telephoned on Monday at all. I slipped a tiny wooden wedge into the instrument to prevent the hook rising when I lifted off the receiver. No call was therefore made on the exchange, though I went through the form of speaking. Any other point?”

“I do not think so,” returned La Touche, who again could not but feel a kind of rueful admiration for this ingenious ruffian. “Your statement has been very complete.”

“It is not quite complete,” M. Boirac resumed. “There are two more points of which I wish to speak. Read that.”

He took a letter from his pocket and handed it to La Touche. Both men leaned a little forward to look. As they did so there was a slight click and the light went out. What sounded like Boirac’s chair was heard falling.

“Hold the door!” yelled La Touche, springing to his feet and fumbling for his electric torch. Mallet leaped for the door, but, tripping over the chair, missed it. As La Touche flashed on his light they could see it closing. There was a low, mocking laugh. Then the door slammed and they heard the key turn in the lock. La Touche fired rapidly through the panels, but there was no sound from without. Then Mallet flung himself on the handle. But at his first touch it came off. The holes for the screws had been enlarged so that they had no hold.

The door opened inwards, and presented to the imprisoned men a smooth, unbroken surface, with nothing on which to pull. To push it towards the hall was impossible, as it shut solidly against the frame. Their only hope seemed to be to split it, but as they gazed at its solid oak timbers this hope died.

“The window,” cried La Touche, and they swung round. The sashes opened readily, but outside were shutters of steel plate, closely fastened. Both men shoved and prised with all their might. But Boirac had done his work well. They were immovable.

As they stood panting and baffled, Mallet’s eye caught the switch of the electric light. It was off. He clicked it on. Though no answering flood of light poured down, he noticed something that interested him.

“Your torch, La Touche!” he cried, and then he saw what it was. Tied to the switch was a length of fisherman’s gut. Practically invisible, it passed down the wall and through a tiny hole in the floor. Any one pulling it from below would switch off the light.

“I don’t understand,” said La Touche. “That means he had a confederate?”

“No!” cried Mallet, who had been looking about with the torch. “See here!”

He pointed to the chair Boirac had occupied and which now lay on its side on the floor. Fastened to the left arm was another end of gut which also entered a hole in the floor.

“I bet those are connected!”

Their curiosity temporarily overcame their fears. La Touche turned on the switch and Mallet, pulling the gut at the arm of the chair, heard it click off again.

“Ingenious devil,” he muttered. “It must go round pulleys under the floor. And now he has cut off the current at the meter.”

“Come on, Mallet,” La Touche called. “Don’t waste time. We must get out of this.”

Together they threw themselves on the door with all the weight of their shoulders. Again they tried, and again, but to no purpose. It was too strong.

“What does it mean, do you think?” panted Mallet.

“Gas, I expect. Perhaps charcoal.”

“Any use shouting at the window?”

“None. It’s too closely shuttered, and it only opens into a courtyard.”

And then suddenly they perceived a faint odour which, in spite of their hardened nerves, turned their blood cold and set them working with ten times more furious energy at the door. It was a very slight smell of burning wood.

“My God!” cried Mallet, “he’s set the house on fire!”

It seemed impossible that any door could withstand so furious an onslaught. Had it opened outwards, hinges and lock must long since have given away, but the men could not make their strength tell. They worked till the sweat rolled in great drops down their foreheads. Meanwhile the smell increased. Smoke must be percolating into the room.

“The torch here,” cried La Touche suddenly.

Taking his pistol, he fired a number of shots on the bolt of the lock.

“Don’t use them all. How many have you?”

“Two more.”

“Keep them.”

The lock seemed shattered, but still the door held. The men’s efforts were becoming frenzied when Mallet had an idea. Along the farther wall of the room stood a heavy, old-fashioned sofa.

“Let’s use the couch as a battering-ram.”

The room was now thick with smoke, biting and gripping the men’s throats. Hampered by coughing and bad light, they could not work fast. But at last they got the couch across the room and planted end on to the door. Standing one at each side, they swung it back and then with all their strength drove it against the timber. A second time they drove, and a third, till at the fourth blow there was a sound of splitting wood, and the job was done.

Or so they thought. A moment later they found their mistake. The right bottom panel only was gone.

“The left panel! Then the bar between!”

Though the men worked feverishly, their operations took time. The smoke was now increasing rapidly. And then suddenly La Touche heard a terrible, ominous sound. Crackling was beginning somewhere not far off.

“We haven’t much time, Mallet,” he gasped, as the sweat poured down his face.

Desperately they drove the couch against the bar. Still it held. The terrible fear that the couch would come to pieces was in both their hearts.

“The torch!” cried Mallet hoarsely. “Quick, or we’re done!”

Drawing his magazine pistol and holding it close to the door, he fired its full charge of seven shots at the vertical bar. La Touche instantly grasped his idea, and emptied his two remaining shots at the same place. The bar was thus perforated by a transverse line of nine holes.

There was a singing in the men’s ears and a weight on their chests as, with the energy of despair, they literally hurled the heavy couch against the weakened bar. With a tearing sound it gave way. They could get through.

“You for it, Mallet! Quick!” yelled La Touche, as he staggered drunkenly back. But there was no answer. Through the swirling clouds the detective could see his assistant lying motionless. That last tremendous effort had finished him.

La Touche’s own head was swimming. He could no longer think connectedly. Half unconsciously he pulled the other’s arms to the hole. Then, passing through, he turned to draw his confrère out. But the terrible roaring was swelling in his ears, the weight on his chest was growing insupportable, and a black darkness was coming down over him like a pall. Insensible, he collapsed, half in and half out of the doorway.

As he fell there was a lurid flicker and a little dancing flame leaped lightly from the floor.

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