The House of the Arrow


Servants of Chance

A.E.W. Mason

FROBISHER found himself at one end of an oblong room. Opposite to him a couple of windows looked across the shining river to the big Theatre du Chatelet. On his left hand was a great table with a few neatly arranged piles of papers, at which a big, rather heavily built man was sitting. Frobisher looked at that man as a novice in a duelling held might look at the master swordsman whom he was committed to fight, with a little shock of surprise that after all he appeared to be just like other men. Hanaud, on his side, could not have been said to have looked at Frobisher at all; yet when he spoke it was obvious that somehow he had looked and to very good purpose. He rose with a little bow and apologized.

“I have kept you waiting, Mr. Frobisher. My dear friend Mr. Ricardo did not mention your object in his letter. I had the idea that you came with the usual wish to see something of our underworld. Now that I see you, I recognize your wish is more serious.”

Hanaud was a man of middle age with a head of thick dark hair, and the round face and shaven chin of a comedian. A pair of remarkably light eyes under rather heavy lids alone gave a significance to him, at all events when seen for the first time in a mood of good-will. He pointed to a chair.

“Will you take a seat? I will tell you, Mr. Frobisher, I have a very soft place in my heart for Mr. Ricardo, and a friend of his. These are words, however. What can I do?”

Jim Frobisher laid down his hat and stick upon a side-table and took the chair in front of Hanaud’s table.

“I am partner in a firm of lawyers which looks after the English interests of a family in Dijon,” he said, and he saw all life and expression smoothed out of Hanaud’s face. A moment ago he had been in the company of a genial and friendly companion; now he was looking at a Chinaman.

“Yes?” said Hanaud.

“The family has the name of Harlowe,” Jim continued.

“Oho!” said Hanaud.

The ejaculation had no surprise in it, and hardly any interest. Jim, however, persisted.

“And the surviving member of it, a girl of twenty, Betty Harlowe, has been charged with murder by a Russian who is connected with the family by marriage—Boris Waberski.”

“Aha!” said Hanaud. “And why do you come to me, Mr. Frobisher?”

Jim stared at the detective. The reason of his coming was obvious.

And yet—he was no longer sure of his ground. Hanaud had pulled open a drawer in his table and was beginning to put away in it one of his files.

“Yes?” he said, as who should say, “I am listening.”

“Well, perhaps I am under a mistake,” said Jim. “But my firm has been informed that you, Monsieur Hanaud, are in charge of the case,” he said, and Hanaud’s movements were at once arrested. He sat with the file poised on the palm of his hand as though he was weighing it, extraordinarily still; and Jim had a swift impression that he was more than disconcerted. Then Hanaud put the file into the drawer and closed the drawer softly. As softly he spoke, but in a sleek voice which to Frobisher’s ears had a note in it which was actually alarming.

“So you have been informed of that, Mr. Frobisher! And in London! And—yes—this is only Wednesday! News travels very quickly nowadays, to be sure! Well, your firm is correctly informed. I congratulate you. A point is scored by you.”

Jim Frobisher was quick to seize upon that word. He had thought out upon his journey in what spirit he might most usefully approach the detective. Hanaud’s bitter little remark gave him the very opening which he needed.

“But, Monsieur Hanaud, I don’t take that point of view at all,” he argued earnestly. “I am happy to believe that there is going to be no antagonism between us. For, if there were, I should assuredly get the worst of it. No! I am certain that the one wish you have in this matter is to get at the truth. Whilst my wish is that you should just look upon me as a very second-rate colleague who by good fortune can give you a little help.”

A smile nickered across Hanaud’s face and restored it to some of its geniality.

“It has always been a good rule to lay it on with a trowel,” he observed. “Now, what kind of help, Mr. Frobisher?”

“This kind of help, Monsieur Hanaud. Two letters from Boris Waberski demanding money, the second one with threats. Both were received by my firm before he brought this charge, and both of course remain unanswered.”

He took the letters from the long envelope and handed them across the table to Hanaud, who read them through slowly, mentally translating the phrases into French as he read. Frobisher watched his face for some expression of relief or satisfaction. But to his utter disappointment no such change came; and it was with a deprecating and almost regretful air that Hanaud turned to him in the end.

“Yes—no doubt these two letters have a certain importance. But we mustn’t exaggerate it. The case is very difficult.”

“Difficult!” cried Jim in exasperation. He seemed to be hammering and hammering in vain against some thick wall of stupidity. Yet this man in front of him wasn’t stupid.

“I can’t understand it!” he exclaimed. “Here’s the clearest instance of blackmail that I can imagine——”

“Blackmail’s an ugly word, Mr. Frobisher,” Hanaud warned him.

“And blackmail’s an ugly thing,” said Jim. “Come, Monsieur Hanaud, Boris Waberski lives in France. You will know something about him. You will have a dossier.”

Hanaud pounced upon the word with a little whoop of delight, his face broke into smiles, he shook a forefinger gleefully at his visitor.

“Ah, ah, ah, ah! A dossier! Yes, I was waiting for that word! The great legend of the dossiers! You have that charming belief too, Mr. Frobisher. France and her dossiers! Yes! If her coal-mines fail her, she can always keep warm by burning her dossiers! The moment you land for the first time at Calais—boum! your dossier begins, eh? You travel to Paris—so! You dine at the Ritz Hotel—so! Afterwards you go where you ought not to go—so-o-o! And you go back late to the hotel very uncomfortable because you are quite sure that somewhere in the still night six little officials with black beards and green-shaded lamps are writing it all down in your dossier. But—wait!”

He suddenly rose from his chair with his finger to his lips, and his eyes opened wide. Never was a man so mysterious, so important in his mystery. He stole on tiptoe, with a lightness of step amazing in so bulky a man, to the door. Noiselessly and very slowly, with an alert, bright eye cocked at Frobisher like a bird’s, he turned the handle. Then he jerked the door swiftly inwards towards him. It was the classic detection of the eavesdropper, seen in a hundred comedies and farces; and carried out with so excellent a mimicry that Jim, even in this office of the Surete, almost expected to see a flustered chambermaid sprawl heavily forward on her knees. He saw nothing, however, but a grimy corridor lit with artificial light in which men were patiently waiting. Hanaud closed the door again, with an air of intense relief.

“The Prime Minister had not overheard us. We are safe,” he hissed, and he crept back to Frobisher’s side. He stooped and whispered in the ear of that bewildered man: “I can tell you about those dossiers. They are for nine-tenths the gossip of the concierge translated into the language of a policeman who thinks that everybody had better be in prison. Thus, the concierge says: ‘This Mr. Frobisher—on Tuesday he came home at one in the morning and on Thursday at three in fancy dress’; and in the policeman’s report it becomes, ‘Mr. Frobisher is of a loose and excessive life.’ And that goes into your dossier—yes, my friend, just so! But here in the Surety—never breathe a word of it, or you ruin me!—here we are like your Miss Betty Harlowe, ‘we snap us the fingers at those dossiers.’”

Jim Frobisher’s mind was of the deliberate order. To change from one mood to another required a progression of ideas. He hardly knew for the moment whether he was upon his head or his heels. A minute ago Hanaud had been the grave agent of Justice; without a hint he had leaped to buffoonery, and with a huge enjoyment. He had become half urchin, half clown. Jim could almost hear the bells of his cap still tinkling. He simply stared, and Hanaud with a rueful smile resumed his seat.

“If we work together at Dijon, Monsieur Frobisher,” he said with whimsical regret, “I shall not enjoy myself as I did with my dear little friend Mr. Ricardo at Aix. No, indeed! Had I made this little pantomime for him, he would have sat with the eyes popping out of his head. He would have whispered, ‘The Prime Minister comes in the morning to spy outside your door—oh!’ and he would have been thrilled to the marrow of his bones. But you—you look at me all cold and stony, and you say to yourself, ‘This Hanaud, he is a comic!’”

“No,” said Jim earnestly, and Hanaud interrupted the protest with a laugh.

“It does not matter.”

“I am glad,” said Jim. “For you just now said something which I am very anxious you should not withdraw. You held me out a hope that we should work together.”

Hanaud leaned forward with his elbows on his desk. “Listen,” he said genially. “You have been frank and loyal with me. So I relieve your mind. This Waberski affair—the Prefect at Dijon does not take it very seriously; neither do I here. It is, of course, a charge of murder, and that has to be examined with care.”

“Of course.”

“And equally, of course, there is some little thing behind it,” Hanaud continued, surprising Frobisher with the very words which Mr. Haslitt had used the day before, though the one spoke in English and the other in French. “As a lawyer you will know that. Some little unpleasant fact which is best kept to ourselves. But it is a simple affair, and with these two letters you have brought me, simpler than ever. We shall ask Waberski to explain these letters and some other things too, if he can. He is a type, that Boris Waberski! The body of Madame Harlowe will be exhumed today and the evidence of the doctors taken, and afterwards, no doubt, the case will be dismissed and you can deal with Waberski as you please.”

“And that little secret?” asked Jim.

Hanaud shrugged his shoulders.

“No doubt it will come to light. But what does that matter if it only comes to light in the office of the examining magistrate, and does not pass beyond the door?”

“Nothing at all,” Jim agreed.

“You will see. We are not so alarming after all, and your little client can put her pretty head upon the pillow without any fear that an injustice will be done to her.”

“Thank you, Monsieur Hanaud!” Jim Frobisher cried warmly. He was conscious of so great a relief that he himself was surprised by it. He had been quite captured by his pity for that unknown girl in the big house, set upon by a crazy rascal and with no champion but another girl of her own years. “Yes, this is good news to me.”

But he had hardly finished speaking before a doubt crept into his mind as to the sincerity of the man sitting opposite to him. Jim did not mean to be played and landed like a silly fish, however inexperienced he might be. He looked at Hanaud and wondered. Was this present geniality of his any less assumed than his other moods? Jim was unsettled in his estimate of the detective. One moment a judge, and rather implacable, now an urchin, now a friend! Which was travesty and which truth? Luckily there was a test question which Mr. Haslitt had put only yesterday as he looked out from the window across Russell Square. Jim now repeated it.

“The affair is simple, you say?”

“Of the simplest.”

“Then how comes it, Monsieur Hanaud, that the examining judge at Dijon still finds it necessary to call in to his assistance one of the chiefs of the Surete in Paris?”

The question was obviously expected, and no less obviously difficult to answer. Hanaud nodded his head once or twice.

“Yes,” he said, and again “Yes,” like a man in doubt. He looked at Jim with appraising eyes. Then with a rush, “I shall tell you everything, and when I have told you, you will give me your word that you will not betray my confidence to anyone in this world. For this is serious.”

Jim could not doubt Hanaud’s sincerity at this moment, nor his friendliness. They shone in the man like a strong flame.

“I give you my word now,” he said, and he reached out his hand across the table. Hanaud shook it. “I can talk to you freely, then,” he answered, and he produced a little blue bundle of very black cigarettes. “You shall smoke.”

The two men lit their cigarettes and through the blue cloud Hanaud explained: “I go really to Dijon on quite another matter. This Waberski affair, it is a pretence! The examining Judge who calls me in—see, now, you have a phrase for him,” and Hanaud proudly dropped into English more or less. “He excuse his face! Yes, that is your expressive idiom. He excuse his face, and you will see, my friend, that it needs a lot of excusing, that face of his, yes. Now listen! I get hot when I think of that examining judge.”

He wiped his forehead with his handkerchief and, setting his sentence in order, resumed in French.

“The little towns, my friend, where life is not very gay and people have the time to be interested in the affairs of their neighbours, have their own crimes, and perhaps the most pernicious of them all is the crime of anonymous letters. Suddenly out of a clear sky they will come like a pestilence, full of vile charges difficult to refute and—who knows?—sometimes perhaps true. For a while these abominations flow into the letter-boxes and not a word is said. If money is demanded, money is paid. If it is only sheer wickedness which drives that unknown pen, those who are lashed by it none the less hold their tongues. But each one begins to suspect his neighbour. The social life of the town is poisoned. A great canopy of terror hangs over it, until the postman’s knock, a thing so welcome in the sane life of every day, becomes a thing to shiver at, and in the end dreadful things happen.”

So grave and quiet was the tone which Hanaud used that Jim himself shivered, even in this room whence he could see the sunlight sparkling on the river and hear the pleasant murmur of the Paris streets. Above that murmur he heard the sharp knock of the postman upon the door. He saw a white face grow whiter still and eyes grow haggard with despair.

“Such a plague has descended upon Dijon,” Hanaud continued. “For more than a year it has raged. The police would not apply to Paris for help. No, they did not need help, they would solve this pretty problem for themselves. Yes, but the letters go on and the citizens complain. The police say, ‘Hush! The examining magistrate, he has a clue. Give him time!’ But the letters still go on. Then after a year comes this godsend of the Waberski affair. At once the Prefect of Police and the magistrate put their heads together. ‘We will send for Hanaud over this simple affair, and he will find for us the author of the anonymous letters. We will send for him very privately, and if anyone recognizes him in the street and cries “There is Hanaud,” we can say he is investigating the Waberski affair. Thus the writer of the letters will not be alarmed and we—we excuse our faces.’ Yes,” concluded Hanaud heatedly, “but they should have sent for me a year ago. They have lost a year.”

“And during that year the dreadful things have happened?” asked Jim.

Hanaud nodded angrily. “An old, lonely man who lunches at the hotel and takes his coffee at the Grande Taverne and does no harm to anyone, he flings himself in front of the Mediterranean express and is cut to pieces. A pair of lovers shoot themselves in the Forfit des Moissonieres. A young girl comes home from a ball; she says good night to her friends gaily on the doorstep of her house, and in the morning she is found hanging in her ball dress from a rivet in the wall of her bedroom, whilst in the hearth there are the burnt fragments of one of these letters. How many had she received, that poor girl, before this last one drove her to this madness? Ah, the magistrate. Did I not tell you? He has need to excuse his face.”

Hanaud opened a drawer in his desk and took from it a green cover. “See, here are two of those precious letters,” and removing two typewritten sheets from the cover he handed them to Frobisher. “Yes,” he added, as he saw the disgust on the reader’s face, “those do not make a nice sauce for your breakfast, do they?”

“They are abominable,” said Jim. “I wouldn’t have believed——” He broke off with a little cry.

“One moment, Monsieur Hanaud!” He bent his head again over the sheets of paper, comparing them, scrutinizing each sentence. No, there were only the two errors which he had noticed at once. But what errors they were! To anyone, at all events, with eyes to see and some luck in the matter of experience. Why, they limited the area of search at once!

“Monsieur Hanaud, I can give you some more help,” he cried enthusiastically. He did not notice the broad grin of delight which suddenly transfigured the detective’s face. “Help which may lead you very quickly to the writer of these letters.”

“You can?” Hanaud exclaimed. “Give it to me, my young friend. Do not keep me shaking in excitement. And do not—oh! do not tell me that you have discovered that the letters were typed upon a Corona machine. For that we know already.”

Jim Frobisher flushed scarlet. That is just what he had noticed with so much pride in his perspicuity. Where the text of a sentence required a capital D, there were instead the two noughts with the diagonal line separating them (thus, %), which “are the symbol of “per cent”; and where there should have been a capital S lower down the page, there was the capital S with the transverse lines which stands for dollars. Jim was familiar with the Corona machine himself, and he had remembered that if one used by error the stop for figures, instead of the stop for capital letters, those two mistakes would result. He realized now, with Hanaud’s delighted face in front of him—Hanaud was the urchin now—that the Surete was certain not to have overlooked those two indications even if the magistrate at Dijon had; and in a moment he began to laugh too.

“Well, I fairly asked for it, didn’t I?” he said as he handed the letter back. “I said a wise thing to you, Monsieur, when I held it fortunate that we were not to be on opposite sides.”

Hanaud’s face lost its urchin look.

“Don’t make too much of me, my friend, lest you be disappointed,” he said in all seriousness. “We are the servants of Chance, the very best of us. Our skill is to seize quickly the hem of her skirt, when it flashes for the fraction of a second before our eyes.”

He replaced the two anonymous letters in the green cover and laid it again in the drawer. Then he gathered together the two letters which Boris Waberski had written and gave them back to Jim Frobisher.

“You will want these to produce at Dijon. You will go there today?”

“This afternoon.”

“Good!” said Hanaud. “I shall take the night express.”

“I can wait for that,” said Jim. But Hanaud shook his head.

“It is better that we should not go together, nor stay at the same hotel. It will very quickly be known in Dijon that you are the English lawyer of Miss Harlowe, and those in your company will be marked men too. By the way, how were you informed in London that I, Hanaud, had been put in charge of this case?”

“We had a telegram,” replied Jim.

“Yes? And from whom? I am curious!”

“From Miss Harlowe.”

For a moment Hanaud was for the second time in that interview quite disconcerted. Of that Jim Frobisher could have no doubt. He sat for so long a time, his cigarette half-way to his lips, a man turned into stone. Then he laughed rather bitterly, with his eyes alertly turned on Jim.

“Do you know what I am doing, Monsieur Frobisher?” he asked. “I am putting to myself a riddle. Answer it if you can! What is the strongest passion in the world? Avarice? Love? Hatred? None of these things. It is the passion of one public official to take a great big club and hit his brother official on the back of the head. It is arranged that I shall go secretly to Dijon so that I may have some little chance of success. Good! On Saturday it is so arranged, and already on Monday my colleagues have so spread the news that Miss Harlowe can telegraph it to you on Tuesday morning. But that is kind, eh? May I please see the telegram?”

Frobisher took it from the long envelope and handed it to Hanaud, who received it with a curious eagerness and opened it out on the table in front of them. He read it very slowly, so slowly that Jim wondered whether he too heard through the lines of the telegram, as through the receiver of a telephone, the same piteous cry for help which he himself had heard. Indeed, when Hanaud raised his face all the bitterness had gone from it.

“The poor little girl, she is afraid now, eh? The slender fingers, they do not snap themselves any longer, eh? Well, in a few days we make all right for her.”

“Yes,” said Jim stoutly.

“Meanwhile I tear this, do I not?” and Hanaud held up the telegraph form. “It mentions my name. It will be safe with you, no doubt, but it serves no purpose. Everything which is torn up here is burnt in the evening. It is for you to say,” and he dangled the telegram before Jim Frobisher’s eyes.

“By all means,” said Jim, and Hanaud tore the telegram across. Then he placed the torn pieces together and tore them through once again and dropped them into his waste-paper basket. “So! That is done!” he said. “Now tell me! There is another young English girl in the Maison Crenelle.”

“Ann Upcott,” said Jim with a nod.

“Yes, tell me about her.”

Jim made the same reply to Hanaud which he had made to Mr. Haslitt.

“I have never seen her in my life. I never heard of her until yesterday.”

But whereas Mr. Haslitt had received the answer with amazement, Hanaud accepted it without comment.

“Then we shall both make the acquaintance of that young lady at Dijon,” he said with a smile, and he rose from his chair.

Jim Frobisher had a feeling that the interview which had begun badly and moved on to cordiality was turning back upon itself and ending not too well. He was conscious of a subtle difference in Hanaud’s manner, not a diminution in his friendliness, but Jim could find nothing but Hanaud’s own phrase to define the change. He seemed to have caught the hem of the skirt of Chance as it flickered for a second within his range of vision. But when it had flickered Jim could not even conjecture.

He picked up his hat and stick. Hanaud was already at the door with his hand upon the knob.

“Good-bye, Monsieur Frobisher, and I thank you sincerely for your visit.”

“I shall see you in Dijon,” said Jim.

“Surely,” Hanaud agreed with a smile. “On many occasions. In the office, perhaps, of the examining magistrate. No doubt in the Maison Grenelle.”

But Jim was not satisfied. It was a real collaboration which Hanaud had appeared a few minutes ago not merely to accept, but even to look forward to. Now, on the contrary, he was evading it.

“But if we are to work together?” Jim suggested.

“You might want to reach me quickly,” Hanaud continued. “Yes. And I might want to reach you, if not so quickly, still very secretly. Yes.” He turned the question over in his mind. “You will stay at the Maison Grenelle, I suppose?”

“No,” said Jim, and he drew a little comfort from Hanaud’s little start of disappointment. “There will be no need for that,” he explained. “Boris Waberski can attempt nothing more. Those two girls will be safe enough.”

“That’s true,” Hanaud agreed. “You will go, then, to the big hotel in the Place Darcy. For me I shall stay in one that is more obscure, and not under my own name. Whatever chance of secrecy is still left for me, that I shall cling to.”

He did not volunteer the name of the obscure hotel or the name under which he proposed to masquerade, and Jim was careful not to inquire. Hanaud stood with his hand upon the knob of the door and his eyes thoughtfully resting upon Frobisher’s face.

“I will trust you with a little trick of mine,” he said, and a smile warmed and lit his face to good-humour. “Do you like the pictures? No—yes? For me, I adore them. Wherever I go I snatch an hour for the cinema. I behold wonderful things and I behold them in the dark—so that while I watch I can talk quietly with a friend, and when the lights go up we are both gone, and only our empty bocks are left to show where we were sitting. The cinemas—yes! With their audiences which constantly change and new people coming in who sit plump down upon your lap because they cannot see an inch beyond their noses, the cinemas are useful. I tell you. But you will not betray my little secret?”

He ended with a laugh. Jim Frobisher’s spirits were quite revived by this renewal of Hanaud’s confidence. He felt with a curious elation that he had travelled a long way from the sedate dignities of Russell Square. He could not project in his mind any picture of Messrs. Frobisher & Haslitt meeting a client in a dark corner of a cinema theatre off the Marylebone Road, Such manoeuvres were not amongst the firm’s methods, and Jim began to find the change exhilarating. Perhaps, after all, Messrs. Frobisher & Haslitt were a little musty, he reflected. They missed—and he coined a phrase, he, Jim Frobisher! . . . they missed the ozone of police-work.

“Of course I’ll keep your secret,” he said with a thrill in his voice. “I should never have thought of so capital a meeting-place.”

“Good,” said Hanaud. “Then at nine o’clock each night, unless there is something serious to prevent me, I shall be sitting in the big hall of the Grande Taverne. The Grande Taverne is at the corner across the square from the railway station. You can’t mistake it. I shall be on the left-hand side of the hall and close up to the screen and at the edge near the billiard-room. Don’t look for me when the lights are raised, and if I am talking to anyone else, you will avoid me like poison. Is that understood?”

“Quite,” Jim returned.

“And you have now two secrets of mine to keep.” Hanaud’s face lost its smile. In some strange way it seemed to sharpen, the light-coloured eyes became very still and grave. “That also is understood, Monsieur Frobisher,” he said. “For I begin to think that we may both of us see strange things before we leave Dijon again for Paris.”

The moment of gravity passed. With a bow he held open the door. But Jim Frobisher, as he passed out into the corridor, was once again convinced that at some definite point in the interview Hanaud had at all events caught a glimpse of the flickering skirts of Chance, even if he had not grasped them in his hands.

The House of the Arrow - Contents    |     IV - Betty Harlowe

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