A t half past four on the afternoon of August the 18th I sat down with a sheet of hotel paper in front of me to solve a problem.
For a long time I stared at the blank paper. Then I held it up to read the watermark. At last I wrote on it, very slowly and clearly, this sentence:
“If it takes one man three days to eliminate three suspects, how long, other factors remaining constant, will it take the same man to eliminate eight more suspects?”
I considered this for a bit. Then I wrote below it: “Answer: eight days,” and underlined it.
After that I drew a gallows with a corpse suspended from it. The corpse I labeled “SPY.” Then I added a fat stomach to it, penciled in large globules of sweat, and altered the label to “BEGHIN.” Last of all I deleted the stomach, added a lot of hair and semicircles under the eyes and rechristened it “ VADASSY.” I made a halfhearted attempt to sketch in the hangman.
Eight days! And I had less than eight hours! Unless, of course, Koche allowed me to stay after all. Schimler was his friend, and if Schimler told him that I was not a crook… But did Schimler really know that I was not a crook? Perhaps I ought to go back to his room and explain. Though what was the use? I had practically no money left. I could not afford to stay any longer in the Reserve even if I were allowed to. That was another contingency that Beghin had omitted to provide for. Beghin! The man’s incompetence and stupidity were monumental.
By the time I had destroyed the sheet of paper on which I had been scribbling and taken another, it was five o’clock. I looked out of the window. The sun had moved round so that now the sea looked like a shimmering pool of liquid metal. The sides of the hills across the bay glowed redly above their fringe of trees. A shadow had begun to move across the beach.
It would be good now, I thought, to be in Paris. The afternoon city heat would have gone. It would be good to sit under the trees in the Luxembourg, the trees near the marionette theater. It would be quiet there now. There would be no one there but a student or two reading. There you could listen to the rustle of leaves unconscious of the pains of humanity in labor, of a civilization hastening to destruction. There, away, from this brassy sea and blood-red earth, you could contemplate the twentieth-century tragedy unmoved; unmoved except by pity for mankind fighting to save itself from the primeval ooze that welled from its own subconscious being.
But this was St. Gatien, not Paris; the Reserve, not the Luxembourg Gardens; and I was an actor, not an onlooker. What was more, I should shortly become, unless I were very clever or very lucky, no more than a “noise off.” I came back to business.
The Skeltons, the Vogels, Roux and Martin, the Clandon-Hartleys, and Duclos-I stared at the list miserably. The Skeltons, now! What did I know about them? Nothing, except that their parents were due to arrive the following week on the Conte di Savoia. That and the fact that this was their first trip abroad. They could be eliminated straight away, of course. Then I paused. Why “of course”? Was this the calm, dispassionate examination of all the available facts? No, it wasn’t. I knew nothing of the Skeltons except what they had told me. Perhaps, for that matter, I had eliminated Schimler and Koche a little too readily. But then there were his passports and the conversation I had overheard between him and Koche to confirm what he had said. The Skeltons, however, had nothing to confirm their story. They must be investigated.
The Vogels? The temptation was to eliminate them also. No spy could be so grotesquely unlike a spy as Vogel. But they, too, must be questioned discreetly.
Roux and Martin? Except that Roux talked rather ugly French and that the woman was excessively affectionate there was nothing to single them out for special attention. To be investigated, nevertheless.
The Clandon-Hartleys looked more interesting. I knew a good deal about them. All of it was unconfirmed, of course, but it was interesting. And there was one very suggestive point. The Major was short of money. He had twice tried to borrow. Moreover, according to Duclos, he had been expecting money that had not arrived. Payment for the photographs? It was a distinct possibility. The Major, Duclos had insisted, was desperate. Well, that was possible, too. And Mrs. Clandon-Hartley was an Italian. It all fitted together very nicely.
Old Duclos, however, was by no means a reliable witness. His imagination was, as I knew only too well, extremely fertile. He himself could scarcely be classed as a suspect. He was too unlikely. But then they were all unlikely. What did I know about Duclos? Simply that he was, or appeared to be, a petty industrialist with a penchant for gossiping and cheating at friendly games. Where did that get me? Nowhere.
And then I made what I conceived to be a great discovery. Anyone but a hopeless nincompoop would have made it before. I decided that it was no use studying these persons’ normal behavior-nothing was easier than to play a part while everyone accepted you at your face value-the thing to do was to proceed on the assumption that every one of them was a liar and force them all into the open. I should not be friendly with them. I should quarrel. I should not calmly accept their own estimates of themselves, but question and analyze. I had been begging the whole question. It was time I adopted an aggressive policy.
But how did one carry out an aggressive policy in such circumstances? Was I to roam the grounds of the Reserve like a hungry mastiff snapping viciously at all who crossed my path? No, the thing to do was to question, to be inquisitive; and then, when the bounds of common politeness was reached, I must overstep them. I must blunder amiably but inexorably over people’s feelings until they betrayed themselves. Then, I promised myself, I would swoop like a hawk on the guilty wretch.
At twenty-five past five I wrote the nine names down on my piece of paper, shut my eyes, moved my pencil in a circle and-stabbed. Then I opened my eyes and saw that the Vogels were to be my first victims. I combed my hair and descended in search of them.
They were, as usual, on the beach together with Duclos, the Skeltons, and the French pair. As I appeared Monsieur Duclos sprang from his deck-chair and hurried to meet me. Too late, I remembered that I had neglected to provide myself with a reasonable explanation for the recovery of the “stolen” property.
I almost turned and ran. Then, as I was hesitating, I saw that it was too late for flight. Duclos was bearing down on me. I attempted to pass him with a genial nod, but he executed a swift outflanking movement and I found myself walking side by side with him towards the others.
“We expected to hear before,” he said breathlessly. “The police have been called in?”
I shook my head. “No. Fortunately they were not necessary.”
“The valuables have been found?”
He ran on ahead to announce the fact. “The thief,” I heard him saying, “has been found. The missing valuables have been returned.”
As I came up they clustered round me excitedly, asking questions.
“Was it one of the servants?”
“The English major, without a doubt…”
“Please!” I held up a repressive hand. “There is no question of a guilty person. The valuables were not stolen.”
There was a gasp.
“The whole thing,” I said with uneasy gaiety, “was a mistake… a rather stupid mistake. It appears”-I racked my brain desperately for a way out of the difficulty-“it appears that the box was pushed out of sight under the bed when the room was cleaned.” It sounded inexpressibly feeble.
Roux pushed his way between the Vogels. “Then how,” he demanded triumphantly, “does it come about that the locks on the suitcase were broken open?”
“Ah, yes,” said Herr Vogel.
“Yes, indeed!” echoed his wife.
“What does he say?” said Skelton.
To gain time I translated. “I don’t,” I added, “know what he’s talking about.”
He looked puzzled. “Weren’t the locks of your case burst open? I thought you said they were.”
I shook my head slowly. I had an idea.
Roux had been listening to this exchange with puzzled impatience. I turned to him.
“I was explaining, Monsieur, that you were under a misapprehension. I don’t know where you gained your information, but there was certainly no question of the locks of my case being forced. I did discuss the matter, in confidence, with Monsieur Duclos here, but nothing was said of locks. “If,” I went on severely, “false rumors have been circulated by some person unaware of the true facts, a most unfortunate situation will have been created. Was it your impression, Herr Vogel, that the locks had been forced?”
Vogel shook his head hastily.
“No, indeed!” added Frau Vogel.
“Monsieur Roux,” I pursued heavily, “I take it that you…” But he interrupted me.
“What is this nonsense?” he demanded irritably. “It was the old one there”-he pointed to Duclos-“who told us all.”
Eyes turned on Monsieur Duclos. He drew himself up. “I, Messieurs,” he said, sternly, “am a businessman of long experience. I am not in the habit of betraying confidences.”
Roux laughed loudly and unpleasantly. “Do you deny that you told Vogel and myself of the theft and that you stated that the locks were forced?”
“In confidence, Monsieur, in confidence!”
“Bah!” Roux turned to Mademoiselle Martin. “In confidence! You heard him, ma petite? ”
“He admits it. In confidence, of course!” He jeered. “But he admitted to having invented the affair of the locks.”
Monsieur Duclos bristled. “That, Monsieur, is unjust!”
Roux laughed and put his tongue out very rudely. I began to feel sorry for Monsieur Duclos. After all, I had told him that the locks had been forced. But he was already rallying to his own defense. He stuck his beard forward ferociously.
“If I were a young man, Monsieur, I should strike you!”
“Perhaps,” put in Vogel anxiously, “we should discuss the matter calmly.” He hitched up his braces a further centimeter and laid a hand on Roux’s shoulder.
It was shaken off impatiently. “There is no point,” declared Roux loudly, “in discussing anything with this old imbecile.”
Monsieur Duclos drew a deep breath. “You are, Monsieur,” he said deliberately, “a liar! It was you who stole the valuables from Monsieur Vadassy. Otherwise, how do you know that the locks of the suitcase were forced? I, Duclos, denounce you. Thief and liar!”
For a moment there was dead silence, then Skelton and Vogel together leaped on the enraged Roux as he sprang at his accuser, and grabbed his arms.
“Let me go!” Roux shouted furiously, “and I will strangle him!”
As this was precisely what Vogel and Skelton feared, they hung on. Monsieur Duclos stroked his beard calmly and regarded the struggling Roux with interest.
“Thief and liar!” he repeated, as though we had not heard him the first time.
Roux yelped with rage and tried to spit at him.
“I think, Monsieur Duclos,” I said, “that it will be better if you go upstairs.”
He struck an attitude. “I will leave the beach, Monsieur, only when Roux has apologized.”
I was about to argue that the apology, if any was due to Roux, when Mademoiselle Martin, who had been having hysterics in the background, created a diversion by flinging her arms round her lover’s neck and exhorting him to kill. She was removed in floods of tears by Frau Vogel and Mary Skelton. By this time, however, Roux had found tongue and was hurling insults at all and sundry.
“Species of monkeys!”
Monsieur Duclos’s calm deserted him. He leaped into the breach. “Species of impotent goat!” he retorted hotly.
Mademoiselle Martin screamed. Roux, incensed, focused his attention once more on his enemy.
“Species of diseased camel!” he bawled.
“Misbegotten cretin!” roared Monsieur Duclos.
Roux licked his lips and swallowed hard. For a moment I thought he was beaten. Then I saw that he was gathering his forces for the coup de grace. His lips worked. He drew a deep breath. There was a fraction of a second’s silence. Then, with the full force of his lungs, he hurled the word in Monsieur Duclos’s face.
Given the appropriate circumstances almost any word denoting a political or religious creed can become a deadly insult. At a conference of Moslem dignitaries the word “Christian” could no doubt be used with devastating effect. At a gathering of middle-aged White Russians the word “Bolshevik” would probably be reckoned a virulent term of abuse. But this was not a gathering of White Russians.
For a moment there was not a sound. Then someone giggled. It was, I think, Mary Skelton. It was enough. We started to laugh. Monsieur Duclos, after one bewildered look round, managed to join in convincingly. Only Roux and Odette Martin did not laugh. For a moment he glared at us savagely. Then he wrenched himself free of Vogel and Skelton and stalked off across the beach towards the steps. She followed. As she caught up with him he turned and shook a fist at us.
“Well,” said Skelton, “I don’t know what it was all about, but we certainly do see life at the Reserve.”
Monsieur Duclos was preening himself-a Ulysses after the fall of Troy. He shook hands all round.
“A dangerous type, that!” he commented at large.
“A type of garngstair!” said Herr Vogel.
To my relief they seemed to have forgotten the original point at issue. Not so, however, the Skeltons.
“I followed most of that,” said the girl. “The old Frenchman was right, wasn’t he? You did say that the locks were forced, didn’t you?” She looked at me curiously.
I felt myself reddening.
“No. You must have been mistaken.”
“In other words,” said Skelton slowly, “it was one of the guests.”
“I don’t understand you.”
“O.K. We get it.” He grinned. “The stuff returned and no questions asked. Say no more.”
“Speak for yourself, Warren. As between friends, Mr. Vadassy, was it one of the servants or wasn’t it?”
I shook my head miserably. This was very difficult.
“You don’t mean to say it was one of the guests?”
“It wasn’t anybody.”
“You’re most unconvincing, Mr. Vadassy.”
This I could well believe. Fortunately, Monsieur Duclos chose this moment to announce in penetrating tones that he was going to make a formal complaint to the manager.
I excused myself to the Skeltons and took him aside.
“I should be most grateful, Monsieur, if you would say nothing further about the matter. The whole affair has been most unpleasant and in a sense I am responsible. I am anxious for it to be forgotten. I should esteem it a personal favor to myself if you would overlook this unfortunate occurrence.”
He stroked his beard and shot a quick glance at me over the top of his pince-nez.
“The man insulted me, Monsieur. And in public.”
“Quite so. But we all saw how you dealt with the fellow. He came out of the affair very badly. I cannot help feeling that you would lose face by prolonging the issue. It is best to ignore such types.”
He considered the point. “You may be right. But he had no right to say that the locks were forced when I had told him quite clearly that there was no question of violence.” His eyes met mine without a flicker.
One could only bow to such devastating mental agility. “His behavior demonstrates,” I agreed, “that he was well aware of being in the wrong.”
“That is true. Very well, Monsieur, at your request I take the matter no further. I accept your assurance that my honor has been upheld.”
We bowed. He turned to the others.
“At this Monsieur’s request,” he announced impressively, “I have agreed to take the matter no further. It is concluded.”
“A wise decision,” said Vogel gravely and winked at me.
“This Roux, however, must take care,” added Monsieur Duclos ominously. “I will suffer no further insults from him. A dirty type, beneath contempt. You observe that he is not married to Mademoiselle. Poor child! That such a type should lure her from the path of virtue!”
“Yes, yes.” Herr Vogel hitched up his trousers, winked at me, and wandered off, followed by Duclos.
“A dirty type,” I could hear the old man saying; “a very dirty type.”
The Skeltons were anointing each other with sun oil. I lay back on the sand and thought of Roux.
A bad-tempered, unpleasant man; and yet you could see why the woman found him attractive. There was a lithe precision in his movements; he was at once aggressively masculine and subtly feminine; probably he was a good lover.
He gave the impression of possessing both rat-like cunning and rat-like simplicity. A small, quick mind and a dangerous one. You would know what he thought when he acted. Yes, he would be dangerous all right. Physically strong, too: his body was amazingly wiry. He reminded you of a ferret.
Ferret! That was a word that Schimler had used. “It’s amazing the way they ferret things out.” I could hear him saying it. “We heard that a Gestapo agent had been sent into France.” Fool! I ought to have thought of that before. The Gestapo agent, the man who had been sent into France to “persuade” a German to return to Germany, the man whom Schimler thought had identified him, the man who would not act until he was sure of his prey-Roux. It was as clear as daylight.
I shut my eyes, smiling to myself.
“What’s the joke, Mr. Vadassy?” said Mary Skelton.
I opened my eyes. “There’s no joke. I was just thinking.”
“Well, it looks pretty good from here.”
It felt good, too. I had had another idea.