The House of the Arrow


The Corona Machine

A.E.W. Mason

THE DETECTIVE’S hand fell softly upon Frobisher’s shoulder warning him to silence; and this warning was needed. The lustres of the big glass chandelier were so many flashing jewels; the mirrors of the girandoles multiplied their candle-lamps; the small gay room was ablaze; and in the glare Betty stood and laughed. Her white shoulders rose from a slim evening frock of black velvet; from her carefully dressed copper hair to her black satin shoes she was as trim as if she had just been unpacked from a band-box; and she was laughing whole-heartedly at a closed sack on the divan, a sack which jerked and flapped grotesquely like a fish on a beach. Someone was imprisoned within that sack. Jim Frobisher could not doubt who that someone was, and it seemed to him that no sound more soulless and cruel had ever been heard in the world than Betty’s merriment. She threw her head back: Jim could see her slender white throat working, her shoulders flashing and shaking. She clapped her hands with a horrible glee. Something died within Frobisher’s breast as he heard it. Was it in his heart, he wondered? It was, however, to be the last time that Betty Harlowe laughed.

“You can get her out, Francine,” she said, and whilst Francine with a pair of scissors cut the end of the sack loose, she sat down with her back to it at the writing-table and unlocked a drawer. The sack was cut away and thrown upon the floor, and now on the divan Ann Upcott lay in her gleaming dancing-dress, her hands bound behind her back, and her ankles tied cruelly together. Her hair was dishevelled, her face flushed, and she had the look of one quite dazed. She drew in deep breaths of air, with her bosom labouring. But she was unaware for the moment of her predicament or surroundings, and her eyes rested upon Francine and travelled from her to Betty’s back without a gleam of recognition. She wrenched a little at her wrists, but even that movement was instinctive; and then she closed her eyes and lay still, so still that but for her breathing the watchers at the door would hardly have believed that she still lived.

Betty, meanwhile, lifted from the open drawer, first a small bottle half filled with a pale yellow liquid, and next a small case of morocco leather. From the case she took a hypodermic syringe and its needle, and screwed the two parts together.

“Is she ready?” Betty asked as she removed the stopper from the bottle.

“Quite, Mademoiselle,” answered Francine. She began with a giggle, but she looked at the prisoner as she spoke and she ended with a startled gasp. For Ann was looking straight at her with the strangest, disconcerting stare. It was impossible to say whether she knew Francine or knowing her would not admit her knowledge. But her gaze never faltered, it was actually terrifying by its fixity, and in a sharp, hysterical voice Francine suddenly cried out:

“Turn your eyes away from me, will you?” and she added with a shiver: “It’s horrible, Mademoiselle! It’s like a dead person watching you as you move about the room.”

Betty turned curiously towards the divan and Ann’s eyes wandered off to her. It seemed as though it needed just that interchange of glances to awaken her. For as Betty resumed her work of filling the hypodermic syringe from the bottle, a look of perplexity crept into Ann Upcott’s face. She tried to sit up, and finding that she could not, tore at the cords which bound her wrists. Her feet kicked upon the divan. A moan of pain broke from her lips, and with that consciousness returned to her.

“Betty!” she whispered, and Betty turned with the needle ready in her hand. She did not speak, but her face spoke for her. Her upper lip was drawn back a little from her teeth, and there was a look in her great eyes which appalled Jim Frobisher outside the door. Once before he had seen just that look—when Betty was lying on Mrs. Harlowe’s bed for Hanaud’s experiment and he had lingered in the treasure-room with Ann Upcott. It had been inscrutable to him then, but it was as plain as print now. It meant murder. And so Ann Upcott understood it. Helpless as she was, she shrank back upon the divan; in a panic she spoke with faltering lips and her eyes fixed upon Betty with a dreadful fascination.

“Betty! You had me taken and brought here! You sent me to Madame Le Vay’s—on purpose. Oh! The letter, then! The anonymous letter!”—and a new light broke in upon Ann’s mind, a new terror shook her. “You wrote it! Betty, you! You—the Scourge!”

She sank back and again struggled vainly with her bonds. Betty rose from her chair and crossed the room towards her, the needle shining bright in her hand. Her hapless prisoner saw it.

“What’s that?” she cried, and she screamed aloud. The extremity of her horror lent to her an unnatural strength. Somehow she dragged herself up and got her feet to the ground. Somehow she stood upright, swaying as she stood.

“You are going to— “ she began, and broke off. “Oh, no! You couldn’t! You couldn’t!”

Betty put out a hand and laid it on Ann’s shoulder and held her so for a moment, savouring her vengeance.

“Whose face was it bending so close down over yours in the darkness?” she asked in a soft and dreadful voice. “Whose face, Ann? Guess!” She shook her swaying prisoner with a gentleness as dreadful as her quiet voice. “You talk too much. Your tongue’s dangerous, Ann. You are too curious, Ann! What were you doing in the treasure-room yesterday evening with your watch in your hand? Eh? Can’t you answer, you pretty fool?” Then Betty’s voice changed. It remained low and quiet, but hatred crept into it, a deep, whole-hearted hatred.

“You have been interfering with me too, haven’t you, Ann? Oh, we both understand very well!” And Hanaud’s hand tightened upon Frobisher’s shoulder. Here was the real key and explanation of Betty’s hatred. Ann Upcott knew too much, was getting to know more, might at any moment light upon the whole truth. Yes! Ann Upcott’s disappearance would look like a panic-stricken flight, would have the effect of a confession—no doubt! But above all these considerations, paramount in Betty Harlowe’s mind was the resolve at once to punish and rid herself of a rival.

“All this week, you have been thrusting yourself in my way!” she said. “And here’s your reward for it, Ann. Yes. I had you bound hand and foot and brought here. The water-lily!” She looked her victim over as she stood in her delicate bright frock, her white silk stockings and satin slippers, swaying in terror. “Fifteen minutes, Ann! That fool of a detective was right! Fifteen minutes! That’s all the time the arrow-poison takes!”

Ann’s eyes opened wide. The blood rushed into her white face and ebbed, leaving it whiter than it was before.

“Arrow-poison!” she cried. “Betty! It was you, then! Oh!” She would have fallen forward, but Betty Harlowe pushed her shoulder gently and she fell back upon the divan. That Betty had been guilty of that last infamy—the murder of her benefactress—not until this moment had Ann Upcott for one moment suspected. It was clear to her, too, that there was not the slightest hope for her. She burst suddenly into a storm of tears.

Betty Harlowe sat down on the divan beside her and watched her closely and curiously with a devilish enjoyment. The sound of the girl’s sobbing was music in her ears. She would not let it flag.

“You shall lie here in the dark all night, Ann, and alone,” she said in a low voice, bending over her. “Tomorrow Espinosa will put you under one of the stone flags in the kitchen. But tonight you shall lie just as you are. Come!”

She bent over Ann Upcott, gathering the flesh of her arm with one hand and advancing the needle with the other; and a piercing scream burst from Francine Rollard.

“Look!” she cried, and she pointed to the door. It was open and Hanaud stood upon the threshold. Betty looked up at the cry and the blood receded from her face. She sat like an image of wax, staring at the open doorway, and a moment afterwards with a gesture swift as lightning she drove the needle into the flesh of her own arm and emptied it.

Frobisher with a cry of horror started forward to prevent her, but Hanaud roughly thrust him back.

“I warned you, Monsieur, not to interfere,” he said with a savage note in his voice, which Jim had not heard before; and Betty Harlowe dropped the needle on to the couch, whence it rolled to the floor.

She sprang up now to her full height, her heels together, her arms outstretched from her sides. “Fifteen minutes, Monsieur Hanaud,” she cried with bravado. “I am safe from you.”

Hanaud laughed and wagged his forefinger contemptuously in her face. “Coloured water, Mademoiselle, doesn’t kill.”

Betty swayed upon her feet and steadied herself. “Bluff, Monsieur Hanaud!” she said.

“We shall see.”

The confidence of his tone convinced her. She flashed across the room to her writing-table. Swift as she was, Hanaud met her there.

“Ah, no!” he cried. “That’s quite a different thing!” He seized her wrists. “Moreau!” he called, with a nod towards Francine. “And you, Monsieur Frobisher, will you release that young lady, if you please!”

Moreau dragged Francine Rollard from the room and locked her safely away. Jim seized upon the big scissors and cut the cords about Ann’s wrists and ankles, and unwound them. He was aware that Hanaud had flung the chair from the writing-table into an open space, that Betty was struggling and then was still, that Hanaud had forced her into the chair and snatched up one of the cords which Frobisher had dropped upon the floor. When he had finished his work, he saw that Betty was sitting with her hands in handcuffs and her ankles tied to one of the legs of the chair; and Hanaud was staunching with his handkerchief a wound in his hand which bled. Betty had bitten him like a wild animal caught in a trap.

“Yes, you warned me. Mademoiselle, the first morning I met you,” Hanaud said with a savage irony, “that you didn’t wear a wrist-watch, because you hated things on your wrists. My apologies! I had forgotten!”

He went back to the writing-table and thrust his hand into the drawer. He drew out a small cardboard box and removed the lid. “Five!” he said. “Yes! Five!”

He carried the box across the room to Frobisher, who was standing against the wall with a face like death. “Look!”

There were five white tablets in the box. “We know where the sixth is. Or, rather, we know where it was. For I had it analysed today. Cyanide of potassium, my friend! Crunch one of them between your teeth and—fifteen minutes? Not a bit of it! A fraction of a second! That’s all!”

Frobisher leaned forward and whispered in Hanaud’s ear; “Leave them within her reach!” His first instinctive thought had been to hinder Betty from destroying herself. Now he prayed that she might, and with so desperate a longing that a deep pity softened Hanaud’s eyes.

“I must not, Monsieur,” he said gently. He turned to Moreau. “There is a cab waiting at the corner of the Maison Grenelle,” and Moreau went in search of it. Hanaud went over to Ann Upcott, who was sitting upon the divan, her head bowed, her body shivering. Every now and then she handled and eased one of her tortured wrists.

“Mademoiselle,” he said, standing in front of her. “I owe you an explanation and an apology. I never from the beginning—no, not for one moment—believed that you were guilty of the murder of Madame Harlowe. I was sure that you had never touched the necklace of pink pearls—oh, at once I was sure, long before I found it. I believed every word of the story you told us in the garden. But none of this dared I show you. For only by pretending that I was convinced of your guilt, could I protect you during this last week in the Maison Grenelle.”

“Thank you, Monsieur,” she replied with a wan effort at a smile.

“But, for tonight, I owe you an apology,” he continued. “I make it with shame. That you were to be brought back here to the tender mercies of Mademoiselle Betty, I hadn’t a doubt. And I was here to make sure you should be spared them. But I have never in my life had a more difficult case to deal with, so clear a conviction in my own mind, so little proof to put before a court. I had to have the evidence which I was certain to find in this room tonight. But I ask you to believe me that if I had imagined for a moment the cruelty with which you were to be handled, I should have sacrificed this evidence. I beg you to forgive me.”

Ann Upcott held out her hand. “Monsieur Hanaud,” she replied simply, “but for you I should not be now alive. I should be lying here in the dark and alone, as it was promised to me, waiting for Espinosa—and his spade.” Her voice broke and she shuddered violently so that the divan shook on which she sat.

“You must forget these miseries,” he said gently. “You have youth, as I told you once before. A little time and——”

The return of Nicolas Moreau interrupted him; and with Moreau came a couple of gendarmes and Girardot the Commissaire.

“You have Francine Rollard?” Hanaud asked.

“You can hear her,” Moreau returned dryly. In the corridor a commotion arose, the scuffling of feet and a woman’s voice screaming abuse. It died away.

“Mademoiselle here will not give you so much trouble,” said Hanaud.

Betty was sitting huddled in her chair, her face averted and sullen, her lips muttering inaudible words. She had not once looked at Jim Frobisher since he had entered the room; nor did she now.

Moreau stooped and untied her ankles and a big gendarme raised her up. But her knees failed beneath her; she could not stand; her strength and her spirit had left her. The gendarme picked her up as if she had been a child; and as he moved to the door, Jim Frobisher planted himself in front of him.

“Stop!” he cried, and his voice was strong and resonant. “Monsieur Hanaud, you have said just now that you believed every word of Mademoiselle Ann’s story.”

“It is true.”

“You believe then that Madame Harlowe was murdered at half-past ten on the night of the 27th of April. And at half-past ten Mademoiselle here was at Monsieur de Pouillac’s ball! You will set her free.”

Hanaud did not argue the point. “And what of tonight?” he asked. “Stand aside, if you please!”

Jim held his ground for a moment or two, and then drew aside. He stood with his eyes closed, and such a look of misery upon his face as Betty was carried out that Hanaud attempted some clumsy word of condolence: “This has been a bitter experience for you, Monsieur Frobisher,” he began.

“Would that you had taken me into your confidence at the first!” Jim cried volubly.

“Would you have believed me if I had?” asked Hanaud, and Jim was silent. “As it was, Monsieur Frobisher, I took a grave risk which I know now I had not the right to take, and I told you more than you think.”

He turned away towards Moreau. “Lock the courtyard doors and the door of the house after they have gone and bring the keys here to me.”

Girardot had made a bundle of the solution, the hypodermic syringe, the tablets of cyanide, and the pieces of cord.

“There is something here of importance,” Hanaud observed, and, stooping at the writing-table, he picked up a square, flat-topped black case. “You will recognize this,” he remarked to Jim as he handed it to Girardot. It was the case of a Corona typewriting machine; and from its weight, the machine itself was clearly within the case.

“Yes,” Hanaud explained, as the door closed upon the Commissaire. “This pretty room is the factory where all those abominable letters were prepared. Here the information was filed away for use; here the letters were typed; from here they were issued.”

“Blackmailing letters!” cried Jim. “Letters demanding money!”

“Some of them,” answered Hanaud.

“But Betty Harlowe had money. All that she needed, and more if she chose to ask for it.”

“All that she needed? No,” answered Hanaud with a shake of the head. “The blackmailer never has enough money. For no one is so blackmailed.”

A sudden and irrational fury seized upon Frobisher. They had agreed, he and Hanaud, that there was a gang involved in all these crimes. It might be that Betty was of them, yes, even led them, but were they all to go scot-free?

“There are others,” he exclaimed. “The man who rode this motor-cycle——”

“Young Espinosa,” replied Hanaud. “Did you notice his accent when you stopped at the fork of the roads in the Val Terzon? He did not mount his cycle again. No!”

“And the man who carried in the—the sack?”

“Maurice Thevenet,” said Hanaud. “That promising young novice. He is now at the Depot. He will never get that good word from me which was to unlock Paris for him.”

“And Espinosa himself—who was to come here tomorrow——” He stopped abruptly with his eyes on Ann.

“And who murdered Jean Cladel, eh?” Hanaud went on. “A fool, that fellow! Why use the Catalan’s knife in the Catalan’s way?” Hanaud looked at his watch. “It is over. No doubt Espinosa is under lock and key by now. And there are others, Monsieur, of whom you have never heard. The net has been cast wide tonight. Have no fear of that!”

Moreau returned with the keys and handed them to Hanaud. Hanaud put them into a pocket and went over to Ann Upcott.

“Mademoiselle, I shall not trouble you with any explanations tonight. Tomorrow you will tell me why you went to Madame Le Vay’s ball. It was given out that you meant to run away. That, of course, was not true. You shall give me the real reason tomorrow and an account of what happened to you there.”

Ann shivered at the memories of that night, but she answered quietly: “Yes. I will tell you everything.”

“Good. Then we can go,” said Hanaud cheerfully.

“Go?” Ann Upcott asked in wonderment. “But you have had us all locked in.”

Hanaud laughed. He had a little surprise to spring on the girl, and he loved surprises so long as they were of his own contriving.

“Monsieur Frobisher, I think, must have guessed the truth. This house, Mademoiselle, the Hotel de Brebizart, is very close, as the crow flies, to the Maison Grenelle. There is one row of houses, the houses of the street of Charles-Robert, between. It was built by Etienne Bouchart de Grenelle, President of the Parliament during the reign of Louis the Fifteenth, a very dignified and important figure; and he built it, Mademoiselle—this is the point—at the same time that he built the Maison Grenelle. Having built it, he installed in it a joyous lady of the province from which it takes its name—Madame de Brebizart. There was no scandal. For the President never came visiting Madame de Brebizart. And for the best of reasons. Between this house and the Maison Grenelle he had constructed a secret passage in that age of secret passages.”

Frobisher was startled. Hanaud had given credit to him for an astuteness which he did not possess. He had been occupied heart and brain by the events of the evening, so rapidly had they followed one upon the other, so little time had they allowed for speculations.

“How in the world did you discover this?” he asked.

“You shall know in due time. For the moment let us content ourselves with the facts,” Hanaud continued. “After the death of Etienne de Grenelle, at some period or another the secret of this passage was lost. It is clear, too, I think, that it fell into disrepair and became blocked. At all events, at the end of the eighteenth century, the Hotel de Brebizart passed into other hands than those of the owner of the Malson Grenelle. Simon Harlowe, however, discovered the secret. He bought back the Hotel de Brebizart, restored the passage and put it to the same use as old Etienne de Grenelle had done. For here Madame Raviart came to live during the years before the death of her husband set her free to marry Simon. There! My little lecture is over. Let us go!”

He bowed low to Ann like a lecturer to his audience and unlatched the double doors of the big buhl cabinet in the recess of the wall. A cry of surprise broke from Ann, who had risen unsteadily to her feet. The cabinet was quite empty. There was not so much as a shelf, and all could see that the floor of it was tilted up against one end and that a flight of steps ran downwards in the thickness of the wall.

“Come,” said Hanaud, producing his electric torch. “Will you take this, Monsieur Frobisher, and go first with Mademoiselle. I will turn out the lights and follow.”

But Ann with a little frown upon her forehead drew sharply back. She put a hand to Hanaud’s sleeve and steadied herself by it. “I will come with you,” she said. “I am not very steady on my legs.”

She laughed her action off, but both men understood it. Jim Frobisher had thought her guilty—guilty of theft and murder. She shrank from him to the man who had had no doubt that she was innocent. And even that was not all. She was wounded by Jim’s distrust more deeply than anyone else could have wounded her. Frobisher inclined his head in acknowledgment and, pressing the button of the torch, descended five or six of the narrow steps. Moreau followed him.

“You are ready, Mademoiselle? So!” said Hanaud.

He put an arm about her to steady her and pressed up a switch by the open doors of the cabinet. The room was plunged in darkness. Guided by the beam of light, they followed Frobisher on to the steps. Hanaud closed the doors of the cabinet and fastened them together with the bolts.

“Forward,” he cried, “and you, Mademoiselle, be careful of your heels on these stone steps.”

When his head was just below the level of the first step he called upon Frobisher to halt and raise the torch. Then he slid the floor-board of the cabinet back into its place. Beneath this a trapdoor hung downwards. Hanaud raised it and bolted it in place.

“We can go on.”

Ten more steps brought them to a tiny vaulted hall. From that a passage, bricked and paved, led into darkness. Frobisher led the way along the passage until the foot of another flight of steps was reached.

“Where do these steps lead, my friend?” Hanaud asked of Frobisher, his voice sounding with a strange hollowness in that tunnel. “You shall tell me.”

Jim, with memories of that night when he and Ann and Betty had sat in the dark of the perfumed garden and Ann’s eyes had searched this way and that amidst the gloom of the sycamores, answered promptly:

“Into the garden of the Maison Grenelle.”

Hanaud chuckled. “And you, Mademoiselle, what do you say?”

Ann’s face clouded over. “I know now,” she said gravely. Then she shivered and drew her cloak slowly about her shoulders. “Let us go up and see!”

Hanaud took the lead. He lowered a trap-door at the top of the steps, touched a spring and slid back a panel. “Wait,” said he, and he sprang out and turned on a light.

Ann Upcott, Jim Frobisher and Moreau climbed out of Simon Harlowe’s sedan chair into the treasure-room.

The House of the Arrow - Contents    |     XXIII - The Truth About the Clock

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