The House of the Arrow


The Secret

A.E.W. Mason

THE GARDEN CHAIRS were already set but upon a lawn towards the farther end of the garden in the shadow of the great trees. Hanaud led the way towards them.

“We shall be in the cool here and with no one to overhear us but the birds,” he said, and he patted and arranged the cushions in a deep armchair of basket-work for Ann Upcott. Jim Frobisher was reminded again of the solicitude of a doctor with an invalid and again the parallel jarred upon him. But he was getting a clearer insight into the character of this implacable being. The little courtesies and attentions were not assumed. They were natural, but they would not hinder him for a moment in his pursuit. He would arrange the cushions with the swift, deft hands of a nurse—yes, but he would slip the handcuffs on the wrists of his invalid, a moment afterwards, no less deftly and swiftly, if thus his duty prompted him.

“There!” he said. “Now, Mademoiselle, you are comfortable. For me, if I am permitted, I shall smoke.”

He turned round to ask for permission of Betty, who with Jim had followed into the garden behind him.

“Of course,” she answered; and coming forward, she sat down in another of the chairs.

Hanaud pulled out of a pocket a bright blue bundle of thin black cigarettes and lit one. Then he sat in a chair close to the two girls. Jim Frobisher stood behind Hanaud. The lawn was dappled with sunlight and cool shadows. The blackbird and the thrush were calling from bough and bush, the garden was riotous with roses and the air sweet with their perfume. It was a strange setting for the eerie story which Ann Upcott had to tell of her adventures in the darkness and silence of a night; but the very contrast seemed to make the story still more vivid.

“I did not go to Monsieur de Pouillac’s ball on the night of April the 27th,” she began, and Jim started, so that Hanaud raised his hand to prevent him interrupting. He had not given a thought to where Ann Upcott had been upon that night. To Hanaud, however, the statement brought no surprise.

“You were not well?” he asked.

“It wasn’t that,” Ann replied. “But Betty and I had—I won’t say a rule, but a sort of working arrangement which I think had been in practice ever since I came to the Maison Grenelle. We didn’t encroach upon each other’s independence.”

The two girls had recognized from their first coming together that privacy was the very salt of companionship. Each had a sanctuary in her own sitting-room.

“I don’t think Betty has ever been in mine, I only once or twice in hers,” said Ann. “We had each our own friends. We didn’t pester each other with questions as to where we had been and with whom. In a word, we weren’t all the time shadows upon each other’s heels.”

“A wise rule, Mademoiselle,” Hanaud agreed cordially. “A good many households are split from roof to cellar by the absence of just such a rule. The de Pouillacs then were Mademoiselle Betty’s friends.”

“Yes. As soon as Betty had gone,” Ann resumed, “I told Gaston that he might turn off the lights and go to bed whenever he liked; and I went upstairs to my own sitting-room, which is next to my bedroom. You can see the windows from here. There!”

They were in a group facing the back of the only house across the garden. To the right of the hall stretched the line of shuttered windows, with Betty’s bedroom just above. Ann pointed to the wing on the left of the hall and towards the road.

“I see. You are above the library, Mademoiselle,” said Hanaud.

“Yes. I had a letter to write,” Ann continued, and suddenly faltered. She had come upon some obstacle in the telling of her story which she had forgotten when she had uttered her cry in the library. She gasped. “Oh!” she murmured, and again “Oh!” in a low voice. She glanced anxiously at Betty, but she got no help from her at all. Betty was leaning forward with her elbows upon her knees and her eyes on the grass at her feet and apparently miles away in thought.

“Yes, Mademoiselle,” Hanaud asked smoothly.

“It was an important letter,” Ann went on again, choosing her words warily, much as yesterday at one moment in her interrogatory Betty herself had done—concealing something, too, just as Betty had done. “I had promised faithfully to write it. But the address was downstairs in Betty’s room. It was the address of a doctor,” and having said that, it seemed that she had cleared her obstacle, for she went on in a more easy and natural tone.

“You know what it is, Monsieur Hanaud. I had been playing tennis all the afternoon. I was pleasantly tired. There was a letter to be written with a good deal of care and the address was all the way downstairs. I said to myself that I would think out the terms of my letter first.”

And here Jim Frobisher, who had been shifting impatiently from one foot to the other, broke in upon the narrative.

“But what was this letter about and to what doctor?” he asked.

Hanaud swung round almost angrily. “Oh, please!” he cried. “These things will all come to light of themselves in their due order, if we leave them alone and keep them in our memories. Let Mademoiselle tell her story in her own way,” and he was back at Ann Upcott again in a flash.

“Yes, Mademoiselle. You determined to think out the tenor of your letter.”

A hint of a smile glimmered upon the girl’s face for a second. “But it was an excuse really, an excuse to sit down in my big arm-chair, stretch out my legs and do nothing at all. You can guess what happened.”

Hanaud smiled and nodded. “You fell fast asleep. Conscience does not keep young people, who are healthy and tired, awake,” he said.

“No, but it wakes up with them,” Ann returned, “and upbraids at once bitterly. I woke up rather chilly, as people do who have gone to sleep in their chairs. I was wearing a little thin frock of pale blue tulle—oh, a featherweight of a frock! Yes, I was cold and my conscience was saying, ‘Oh, big lazy one! And your letter? Where is it?’

“In a moment I was standing up and the next I was out of the room on the landing, and I was still half dazed with sleep. I closed my door behind me. It was just chance that I did it. The lights were all out on the staircase and in the hall below. The curtains were drawn across the windows. There was no moon that night. I was in a darkness so complete that I could not see the glimmer of my hand when I raised it close before my face.”

Hanaud let the end of his cigarette drop at his feet. Betty had raised her face and was staring at Ann with her mouth parted. For all of them the garden had disappeared with its sunlight and its roses and its singing birds. They were upon that staircase with Ann Upcott in the black night. The swift changes of colour in her cheeks and of expression in her eyes—the nervous vividness of her—compelled them to follow with her.

“Yes, Mademoiselle?” said Hanaud quietly.

“The darkness didn’t matter to me,” she went on, with an amazement at her own fearlessness, now that she knew the after-history of that evening. “I am afraid now. I wasn’t then,” and Jim remembered how the night before in the garden her eyes had shifted from this dark spot to that in search of an intruder. Certainly she was afraid now! Her hands were clenched tight upon the arms of her chair, her lips shook.

“I knew every tread of the stairs. My hand was on the balustrade. There was no sound. It never occurred to me that anyone was awake except myself. I did not even turn on the light in the hall by the switch at the bottom of the stairs. I knew that there was a switch just inside the door of Betty’s room, and that was enough. I think, too, that I didn’t want to rouse anybody. At the foot of the stairs I turned right like a soldier. Exactly opposite to me across the hall was the door of Betty’s room. I crossed the hall with my hands out in front of me,” and Betty, as though she herself were crossing the hall, suddenly thrust both her hands out in front of her.

“Yes, one would have to do that,” she said slowly. “In the dark—with nothing but space in front of one—Yes!” and then she smiled as she saw that Hanaud’s eyes were watching her curiously. “Don’t you think so, Monsieur Hanaud?”

“No doubt,” said he. “But let us not interrupt Mademoiselle.”

“I touched the wall first,” Ann resumed, “just at the angle of the corridor and the hall.”

“The corridor with the windows on to the courtyard on the one side and the doors of the receptions on the other?” Hanaud asked.


“Were the curtains drawn across all those windows too, Mademoiselle?”

“Yes. There was not a glimmer of light anywhere. I felt my way along the wall to my right—that is, in the hall, of course, not the corridor—until my hands slipped off the surface and touched nothing. I had reached the embrasure of the doorway. I felt for the door-knob, turned it and entered the room. The light switch was in the wall at the side of the door, close to my left hand. I snapped it down. I think that I was still half asleep when I turned the light on in the treasure-room, as we called it. But the next moment I was wide awake—oh, I have never been more wide awake in my life. My fingers indeed were hardly off the switch after turning the light on, before they were back again turning the light off. But this time I eased the switch up very carefully, so that there should be no snap—no, not the tiniest sound to betray me. There was so short an interval between the two movements of my hand that I had just time to notice the clock on the top of the marquetry cabinet in the middle of the wall opposite to me, and then once more I stood in darkness, but stock-still and holding my breath—a little frightened—yes, no doubt a little frightened, but more astonished than frightened. For in the inner wall of the room, at the other end, close by the window, there,”—and Ann pointed to the second of those shuttered windows which stared so blankly on the garden—“the door which was always locked since Simon Harlowe’s death stood open and a bright light burned beyond.”

Betty Harlowe uttered a little cry. “That door?” she exclaimed, now at last really troubled. “It stood open? How can that have been?”

Hanaud shifted his position in his chair, and asked her a question. “On which side of the door was the key, Mademoiselle?”

“On Madame’s, if the key was in the lock at all.”

“Oh! You don’t remember whether it was?”

“No,” said Betty. “Of course, both Ann and I were in and out of Madame’s bedroom when she was ill, but there was a dressing-room between the bedroom and the communicating door of my room, so that we should not have noticed.”

“To be sure,” Hanaud agreed. “The dressing-room in which the nurse might have slept and did when Madame had a seizure. Do you remember whether the communicating door was still open or unlocked on the next morning?”

Betty frowned and reflected, and shook her head. “I cannot remember. We were all in great trouble. There was so much to do. I did not notice.”

“No. Indeed why should you?” said Hanaud. He turned back to Ann. “Before you go on with this curious story, Mademoiselle, tell me this! Was the light beyond the open door, a light in the dressing-room or in the room beyond the dressing-room, Madame Harlowe’s bedroom, or didn’t you notice?”

“In the far room, I think,” Ann answered confidently. “There would have been more light in the treasure-room otherwise. The treasure-room is long, no doubt, but where I stood I was completely in darkness. There was only this panel of yellow light in the open doorway. It lay in a band straight across the carpet and it lit up the sedan chair opposite the doorway until it all glistened like silver.”

“Oho, there is a sedan chair in that museum?” said Hanaud lightly. “It will be interesting to see. So the light, Mademoiselle, came from the far room?”

“The light and—and the voices,” said Ann with a quaver in her throat.

“Voices!” cried Hanaud. He sat up straight in his chair, whilst Betty Harlowe went as white as a ghost. “Voices! What is this? Did you recognize those voices?”

“One, Madame’s. There was no mistaking it. It was loud and violent for a moment. Then it went off into a mumble of groans. The other voice only spoke once and very few words and very clearly. But it spoke in a whisper. There was, too, a sound of—movements.”

“Movements!” said Hanaud sharply; and with his voice his face seemed to sharpen too. “Here’s a word which does not help us much. A procession moves. So does the chair if I push it. So does my hand if I cover a mouth and stop a cry. Is it that sort of movement you mean, Mademoiselle?”

Under the stern insistence of his questions Ann Upcott suddenly weakened.

“Oh, I am afraid so,” she said with a loud cry, and she clapped her hands to her face. “I never understood until this morning when you spoke of how the arrow might be used. Oh, I shall never forgive myself. I stood in the darkness, a few yards away—no more—I stood quite still and listened and just beyond the lighted doorway Madame was being killed!” She drew her hands from her face and beat upon her knees with her clenched fists in a frenzy.

“Yes, I believe that now! Madame cried in the hoarse, harsh voice we knew. ‘Stripped, eh? Stripped to the skin!’ and she laughed wildly; and then came the sound, as though—yes, it might have been that!—as though she were forced down and held, and Madame’s voice died to a mumble and then silence—and then the other voice in a low, clear whisper, ‘That will do now.’ And all the while I stood in the darkness—oh!”

“What did you do after that clear whisper reached your ears?” Hanaud commanded. “Take your hands from your face, if you please, and let me hear.”

Ann Upcott obeyed him. She flung her head back with the tears streaming down her face.

“I turned,” she whispered. “I went out of the room. I closed the door behind me—oh, ever so gently. I fled.”

“Fled? Fled? Where to?”

“Up the stairs! To my room.”

“And you rang no bell? You roused no one? You fled to your room! You hid your head under the bedclothes like a child! Come, come, Mademoiselle!”

Hanaud broke off his savage irony to ask: “And whose voice did you think it was that whispered so clearly, ‘That will do now’? The stranger’s you spoke of in the library this morning?”

“No, Monsieur,” Ann replied. “I could not tell. With a whisper one voice is like another.”

“But you must have given that voice an owner. To run away and hide—no one would do that.”

“I thought it was Jeanne Baudin’s.”

And Hanaud sat back in his chair again, gazing at the girl with a look in which there was as much horror as incredulity. Jim Frobisher stood behind him ashamed of his very race. Could there be a more transparent subterfuge? If she thought that the nurse Jeanne Baudin was in the bedroom, why did she turn and fly?

“Come, Mademoiselle,” said Hanaud. His voice had suddenly become gentle, almost pleading. “You will not make me believe that.”

Ann Upcott turned with a helpless gesture towards Betty. “You see!” she said.

“Yes,” Betty answered. She sat in doubt for a second or two and then sprang to her feet.

“Wait!” she said, and before anyone could have stopped her she was skimming half-way across the garden to the house. Jim Frobisher wondered whether Hanaud had meant to stop her and then had given up the idea as quite out of the question. Certainly he had made some small quick movement; and even now, he watched Betty’s flight across the broad lawn between the roses with an inscrutable queer look.

“To run like that!” he said to Frobisher, “with a boy’s nimbleness and a girl’s grace! It is pretty, eh? The long slim legs that twinkle, the body that floats!” and Betty ran up the stone steps into the house.

There was a tension in Hanaud’s attitude with which his light words did not agree, and he watched the blank windows of the house with expectancy. Betty, however, was hardly a minute upon her errand. She reappeared upon the steps with a largish envelope in her hand and quickly rejoined the group.

“Monsieur, we have tried to keep this back from you,” she said, without bitterness but with a deep regret. “I yesterday, Ann today, just as we have tried for many years to keep it from all Dijon. But there is no help for it now.”

She opened the envelope and, taking out a cabinet photograph, handed it to Hanaud. “This is the portrait of Madame my aunt at the time of her marriage with my uncle.”

It was the three-quarter length portrait of a woman, slender with the straight carriage of youth, in whose face a look of character had replaced youth’s prettiness. It was a face made spiritual by suffering, the eyes shadowed and wistful, the mouth tender, and conveying even in the hard medium of a photograph some whimsical sense of humour. It made Jim Frobisher, gazing over Hanaud’s shoulder, exclaim, not “She was beautiful,” but “I would like to have known her.”

“Yes! A companion,” Hanaud added. Betty took a second photograph from the envelope. “But this, Monsieur, is the same lady a year ago.” The second photograph had been taken at Monte Carlo, and it was difficult to believe that it was of the same woman, so tragic a change had taken place within those ten years. Hanaud held the portraits side by side. The grace, the suggestion of humour had all gone; the figure had grown broad, the features coarse and heavy; the cheeks had fattened, the lips were pendulous; and there was nothing but violence in the eyes. It was a dreadful picture of collapse.

“It is best to be precise. Mademoiselle,” said Hanaud gently, “though these photographs tell their unhappy story clearly enough. Madame Harlowe, during the last years of her life, drank?”

“Since my uncle’s death,” Betty explained. “Her life as very likely you know already, had been rather miserable and lonely before she married him. But she had a dream then on which to live. After Simon Harlowe died, however—” and she ended her explanation with a gesture.

“Yes,” Hanaud replied, “of course, Mademoiselle, we have known, Monsieur Frobisher and I, ever since we came into this affair that there was some secret. We knew it before your reticence of yesterday or Mademoiselle Upcott’s of today. Waberski must have known of something which you would not care to have exposed before he threatened your lawyers in London, or brought his charges against you.”

“Yes, he knew, and the doctors and the servants of course, who were very loyal. We did our best to keep our secret, but we could never be sure that we had succeeded.”

A friendly smile broadened Hanaud’s face. “Well, we can make sure now and here,” he said, and both the girls and Jim stared at him.

“How?” they exclaimed in an incredulous voice.

Hanaud beamed. He held them in suspense. He spread out his hands. The artist as he would have said, the mountebank as Jim Frobisher would have expressed it, had got the upper hand in him, and prepared his effect.

“By answering me one simple question,” he said. “Have either of you two ladies received an anonymous letter upon the subject?”

The test took them all by surprise; yet each one of them recognized immediately that they could hardly have a better. All the secrets of the town had been exploited at one time or another by this unknown person or group of persons—all the secrets, that is, except this one of Mrs. Harlowe’s degradation. For Betty answered: “No! I never received one.”

“Nor I,” added Ann.

“Then your secret is your secret still,” said Hanaud.

“For how long now?” Betty asked quickly, and Hanaud did not answer a word. He could make no promise without being false to what he had called his creed.

“It is a pity,” said Betty wistfully. “We have striven so hard, Ann and I,” and she gave to the two men a glimpse of the life the two girls had led in the Maison Grenelle. “We could do very little. We had neither of us any authority. We were both of us dependent upon Madame’s generosity, and though no one could have been kinder when—when Madame was herself, she was not easy when she had—the attacks. There was too much difference in age between us and her for us really to do anything but keep guard.

“She would not brook interference; she drank alone in her bedroom; she grew violent and threatening if anyone interfered. She would turn them all into the street. If she needed any help she could ring for the nurse, as indeed she sometimes, though rarely, did.” It was a dreadful and wearing life as Betty Harlowe described it for the two young sentinels.

“We were utterly in despair,” Betty continued. “For Madame, of course, was really ill with her heart, and we always feared some tragedy would happen. This letter which Ann was to write when I was at Monsieur de Pouillac’s ball seemed our one chance. It was to a doctor in England—he called himself a doctor at all events—who advertised that he had a certain remedy which could be given without the patient’s knowledge in her food and drink. Oh, I had no faith in it, but we had got to try it.”

Hanaud looked round at Frobisher triumphantly. “What did I say to you, Monsieur Frobisher, when you wanted to ask a question about this letter? You see! These things disclose themselves in their due order if you leave them alone.”

The triumph went out of his voice. He rose to his feet and, bowing to Betty with an unaffected stateliness and respect, he handed her back the photographs.

“Mademoiselle, I am very sorry,” he said. “It is clear that you and your friend have lived amongst difficulties which we did not suspect. And, for the secret, I shall do what I can.”

Jim quite forgave him the snub which had been administered to him for the excellence of his manner towards Betty. He had a hope even that now he would forswear his creed, so that the secret might still be kept and the young sentinels receive their reward for their close watch. But Hanaud sat down again in his chair, and once more turned towards Ann Upcott. He meant to go on then. He would not leave well alone. Jim was all the more disappointed, because he could not but realize that the case was more and more clearly building itself from something unsubstantial into something solid, from a conjecture to an argument—this case against someone.

The House of the Arrow - Contents    |     X - The Clock Upon the Cabinet

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