Emmuska Orczy.

Castles in the Air online

. (page 12 of 15)
Online LibraryEmmuska OrczyCastles in the Air → online text (page 12 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

Hector Ratichon were in, you cannot be surprised, my dear Sir, that my
dejection fell from me like a cast-off mantle and that all my usual
urbanity of manner returned to me as I informed the elegant gentleman
that M. Ratichon was even now standing before him, and begged him to
take the trouble to pass through into my office.

This he did, and I placed a chair in position for him. He sat down,
having previously dusted the chair with a graceful sweep of his
lace-edged handkerchief. Then he raised a gold-rimmed eyeglass to his
right eye with a superlatively elegant gesture, and surveyed me
critically for a moment or two ere he said:

"I am told, my good M. Ratichon, that you are a trustworthy fellow,
and one who is willing to undertake a delicate piece of business for a
moderate honorarium."

Except for the fact that I did not like the word "moderate," I was
enchanted with him.

"Rumour for once has not lied, Monsieur," I replied in my most
attractive manner.

"Well," he rejoined - I won't say curtly, but with businesslike
brevity, "for all purposes connected with the affair which I desire to
treat with you my name, as far as you are concerned, shall be Jean
Duval. Understand?"

"Perfectly, Monsieur le Marquis," I replied with a bland smile.

It was a wild guess, but I don't think that I underestimated my new
client's rank, for he did not wince.

"You know Mlle. Mars?" he queried.

"The actress?" I replied. "Perfectly."

"She is playing in _Le Rêve_ at the Theatre Royal just now."

"She is."

"In the first and third acts of the play she wears a gold bracelet set
with large green stones."

"I noticed it the other night. I had a seat in the parterre, I may

"I want that bracelet," broke in the soi-disant Jean Duval
unceremoniously. "The stones are false, the gold strass. I admire
Mlle. Mars immensely. I dislike seeing her wearing false jewellery. I
wish to have the bracelet copied in real stones, and to present it to
her as a surprise on the occasion of the twenty-fifth performance of
_Le Rêve_. It will cost me a king's ransom, and her, for the time
being, an infinite amount of anxiety. She sets great store by the
valueless trinket solely because of the merit of its design, and I
want its disappearance to have every semblance of a theft. All the
greater will be the lovely creature's pleasure when, at my hands, she
will receive an infinitely precious jewel the exact counterpart in all
save its intrinsic value of the trifle which she had thought lost."

It all sounded deliciously romantic. A flavour of the past
century - before the endless war and abysmal poverty had killed all
chivalry in us - clung to this proposed transaction. There was nothing
of the roturier, nothing of a Jean Duval, in this polished man of the
world who had thought out this subtle scheme for ingratiating himself
in the eyes of his lady fair.

I murmured an appropriate phrase, placing my services entirely at M.
le Marquis's disposal, and once more he broke in on my polished
diction with that brusquerie which betrayed the man accustomed to be
silently obeyed.

"Mlle. Mars wears the bracelet," he said, "during the third act of _Le
Rêve_. At the end of the act she enters her dressing-room, and her
maid helps her to change her dress. During this entr'acte Mademoiselle
with her own hands puts by all the jewellery which she has to wear
during the more gorgeous scenes of the play. In the last act - the
finale of the tragedy - she appears in a plain stuff gown, whilst all
her jewellery reposes in the small iron safe in her dressing-room. It
is while Mademoiselle is on the stage during the last act that I want
you to enter her dressing-room and to extract the bracelet out of the
safe for me."

"I, M. le Marquis?" I stammered. "I, to steal a - "

"Firstly, M. - er - er - Ratichon, or whatever your confounded name may
be," interposed my client with inimitable hauteur, "understand that my
name is Jean Duval, and if you forget this again I shall be under the
necessity of laying my cane across your shoulders and incidentally to
take my business elsewhere. Secondly, let me tell you that your
affectations of outraged probity are lost on me, seeing that I know
all about the stolen treaty which - "

"Enough, M. Jean Duval," I said with a dignity equal, if not greater,
than his own; "do not, I pray you, misunderstand me. I am ready to do
you service. But if you will deign to explain how I am to break open
an iron safe inside a crowded building and extract therefrom a
trinket, without being caught in the act and locked up for
house-breaking and theft, I shall be eternally your debtor."

"The extracting of the trinket is your affair," he rejoined dryly. "I
will give you five hundred francs if you bring the bracelet to me
within fourteen days."

"But - " I stammered again.

"Your task will not be such a difficult one after all. I will give you
the duplicate key of the safe."

He dived into the breast pocket of his coat, and drew from it a
somewhat large and clumsy key, which he placed upon my desk.

"I managed to get that easily enough," he said nonchalantly, "a couple
of nights ago, when I had the honour of visiting Mademoiselle in her
dressing-room. A piece of wax in my hand, Mademoiselle's momentary
absorption in her reflection while her maid was doing her hair, and
the impression of the original key was in my possession. But between
taking a model of the key and the actual theft of the bracelet out of
the safe there is a wide gulf which a gentleman cannot bridge over.
Therefore, I choose to employ you, M. - er - er - Ratichon, to complete
the transaction for me."

"For five hundred francs?" I queried blandly.

"It is a fair sum," he argued.

"Make it a thousand," I rejoined firmly, "and you shall have the
bracelet within fourteen days."

He paused a moment in order to reflect; his steel-grey eyes, cool and
disdainful, were fixed searchingly on my face. I pride myself on the
way that I bear that kind of scrutiny, so even now I looked bland and
withal purposeful and capable.

"Very well," he said, after a few moments, and he rose from his chair
as he spoke; "it shall be a thousand francs, M. - er - er - Ratichon, and
I will hand over the money to you in exchange for the bracelet - but it
must be done within fourteen days, remember."

I tried to induce him to give me a small sum on account. I was about
to take terrible risks, remember; housebreaking, larceny, theft - call
it what you will, it meant the _police correctionelle_ and a couple of
years in New Orleans for sure. He finally gave me fifty francs, and
once more threatened to take his business elsewhere, so I had to
accept and to look as urbane and dignified as I could.

He was out of the office and about to descend the stairs when a
thought struck me.

"Where and how can I communicate with M. Jean Duval," I asked, "when
my work is done?"

"I will call here," he replied, "at ten o'clock of every morning that
follows a performance of _Le Rêve_. We can complete our transaction
then across your office desk."

The next moment he was gone. Theodore passed him on the stairs and
asked me, with one of his impertinent leers, whether we had a new
client and what we might expect from him. I shrugged my shoulders. "A
new client!" I said disdainfully. "Bah! Vague promises of a couple of
louis for finding out if Madame his wife sees more of a certain
captain of the guards than Monsieur the husband cares about."

Theodore sniffed. He always sniffs when financial matters are on the

"Anything on account?" he queried.

"A paltry ten francs," I replied, "and I may as well give you your
share of it now."

I tossed a franc to him across the desk. By the terms of my contract
with him, you understand, he was entitled to ten per cent, of every
profit accruing from the business in lieu of wages, but in this
instance do you not think that I was justified in looking on one franc
now, and perhaps twenty when the transaction was completed, as a more
than just honorarium for his share in it? Was I not taking all the
risks in this delicate business? Would it be fair for me to give him a
hundred francs for sitting quietly in the office or sipping absinthe
at a neighbouring bar whilst I risked New Orleans - not to speak of the

He gave me a strange look as he picked up the silver franc, spat on it
for luck, bit it with his great yellow teeth to ascertain if it were
counterfeit or genuine, and finally slipped it into his pocket, and
shuffled out of the office whistling through his teeth.

An abominably low, deceitful creature, that Theodore, you will see
anon. But I won't anticipate.


The next performance of _Le Rêve_ was announced for the following
evening, and I started on my campaign. As you may imagine, it did not
prove an easy matter. To obtain access through the stage-door to the
back of the theatre was one thing - a franc to the doorkeeper had done
the trick - to mingle with the scene-shifters, to talk with the supers,
to take off my hat with every form of deep respect to the principals
had been equally simple.

I had even succeeded in placing a bouquet on the dressing-table of the
great tragedienne on my second visit to the theatre. Her dressing-room
door had been left ajar during that memorable fourth act which was to
see the consummation of my labours. I had the bouquet in my hand,
having brought it expressly for that purpose. I pushed open the door,
and found myself face to face with a young though somewhat forbidding
damsel, who peremptorily demanded what my business might be.

In order to minimise the risk of subsequent trouble, I had assumed the
disguise of a middle-aged Angliche - red side-whiskers, florid
complexion, a ginger-coloured wig plastered rigidly over the ears
towards the temples, high stock collar, nankeen pantaloons, a patch
over one eye and an eyeglass fixed in the other. My own sainted mother
would never have known me.

With becoming diffidence I explained in broken French that my deep
though respectful admiration of Mlle. Mars had prompted me to lay a
floral tribute at her feet. I desired nothing more.

The damsel eyed me coldly, though at the moment I was looking quite my
best, diffident yet courteous, a perfect gentleman of the old regime.
Then she took the bouquet from me and put it down on the

I fancied that she smiled, not unkindly, and I ventured to pass the
time of day. She replied not altogether disapprovingly. She sat down
by the dressing-table and took up some needlework which she had
obviously thrown aside on my arrival. Close by, on the floor, was a
solid iron chest with huge ornamental hinges and a large escutcheon
over the lock. It stood about a foot high and perhaps a couple of feet

There was nothing else in the room that suggested a receptacle for
jewellery; this, therefore, was obviously the safe which contained the
bracelet. At the self-same second my eyes alighted on a large and
clumsy-looking key which lay upon the dressing-table, and my hand at
once wandered instinctively to the pocket of my coat and closed
convulsively on the duplicate one which the soi-disant Jean Duval had
given me.

I talked eloquently for a while. The damsel answered in monosyllables,
but she sat unmoved at needlework, and after ten minutes or so I was
forced to beat a retreat.

I returned to the charge at the next performance of _Le Rêve_, this
time with a box of bonbons for the maid instead of the bouquet for the
mistress. The damsel was quite amenable to a little conversation,
quite willing that I should dally in her company. She munched the
bonbons and coquetted a little with me. But she went on stolidly with
her needlework, and I could see that nothing would move her out of
that room, where she had obviously been left in charge.

Then I bethought me of Theodore. I realised that I could not carry
this affair through successfully without his help. So I gave him a
further five francs - as I said to him it was out of my own
savings - and I assured him that a certain M. Jean Duval had promised
me a couple of hundred francs when the business which he had entrusted
to me was satisfactorily concluded. It was for this business - so I
explained - that I required his help, and he seemed quite satisfied.

His task was, of course, a very easy one. What a contrast to the risk
I was about to run! Twenty-five francs, my dear Sir, just for knocking
at the door of Mlle. Mars' dressing-room during the fourth act, whilst
I was engaged in conversation with the attractive guardian of the iron
safe, and to say in well-assumed, breathless tones:

"Mademoiselle Mars has been taken suddenly unwell on the stage.
Will her maid go to her at once?"

It was some little distance from the dressing-room to the wings - down
a flight of ill-lighted stone stairs which demanded cautious ascent
and descent. Theodore had orders to obstruct the maid during her
progress as much as he could without rousing her suspicions.

I reckoned that she would be fully three minutes going, questioning,
finding out that the whole thing was a hoax, and running back to the
dressing-room - three minutes in which to open the chest, extract the
bracelet and, incidentally, anything else of value there might be
close to my hand. Well, I had thought of that eventuality, too; one
must think of everything, you know - that is where genius comes in.
Then, if possible, relock the safe, so that the maid, on her return,
would find everything apparently in order and would not, perhaps,
raise the alarm until I was safely out of the theatre.

It could be done - oh, yes, it could be done - with a minute to spare!
And to-morrow at ten o'clock M. Jean Duval would appear, and I would
not part with the bracelet until a thousand francs had passed from his
pocket into mine. I must get Theodore out of the house, by the way,
before the arrival of M. Duval.

A thousand francs! I had not seen a thousand francs all at once for
years. What a dinner I would have tomorrow! There was a certain little
restaurant in the Rue des Pipots where they concocted a cassolette of
goose liver and pork chops with haricot beans which . . . ! I only
tell you that.

How I got through the rest of that day I cannot tell you. The evening
found me - quite an habitué now - behind the stage of the Theatre
Royal, nodding to one or two acquaintances, most of the people looking
on me with grave respect and talking of me as the eccentric milor. I
was supposed to be pining for an introduction to the great
tragedienne, who, very exclusive as usual, had so far given me the
cold shoulder.

Ten minutes after the rise of the curtain on the fourth act I was in
the dressing-room, presenting the maid with a gold locket which I had
bought from a cheapjack's barrow for five and twenty francs - almost
the last of the fifty which I had received from M. Duval on account.
The damsel was eyeing the locket somewhat disdainfully and giving me
grudging thanks for it when there came a hurried knock at the door.
The next moment Theodore poked his ugly face into the room. He, too,
had taken the precaution of assuming an excellent disguise - peaked cap
set aslant over one eye, grimy face, the blouse of a scene-shifter.

"Mlle. Mars," he gasped breathlessly; "she has been taken ill - on the
stage - very suddenly. She is in the wings - asking for her maid. They
think she will faint."

The damsel rose, visibly frightened.

"I'll come at once," she said, and without the slightest flurry she
picked up the key of the safe and slipped it into her pocket. I
fancied that she gave me a look as she did this. Oh, she was a pearl
among Abigails! Then she pointed unceremoniously to the door.

"Milor!" was all she said, but of course I understood. I had no idea
that English milors could be thus treated by pert maidens. But what
cared I for social amenities just then? My hand had closed over the
duplicate key of the safe, and I walked out of the room in the wake of
the damsel. Theodore had disappeared.

Once in the passage, the girl started to run. A second or two later
I heard the patter of her high-heeled shoes down the stone stairs. I
had not a moment to lose.

To slip back into the dressing-room was but an instant's work. The
next I was kneeling in front of the chest. The key fitted the lock
accurately; one turn, and the lid flew open.

The chest was filled with a miscellaneous collection of theatrical
properties all lying loose - showy necklaces, chains, pendants, all of
them obviously false; but lying beneath them, and partially hidden by
the meretricious ornaments, were one or two boxes covered with velvet
such as jewellers use. My keen eyes noted these at once. I was indeed
in luck! For the moment, however, my hand fastened on a leather case
which reposed on the top in one corner, and which very obviously, from
its shape, contained a bracelet. My hands did not tremble, though I
was quivering with excitement. I opened the case. There, indeed, was
the bracelet - the large green stones, the magnificent gold setting,
the whole jewel dazzlingly beautiful. If it were real - the thought
flashed through my mind - it would be indeed priceless. I closed the
case and put it on the dressing-table beside me. I had at least
another minute to spare - sixty seconds wherein to dive for those
velvet-covered boxes which - My hand was on one of them when a slight
noise caused me suddenly to turn and to look behind me. It all happened
as quickly as a flash of lightning. I just saw a man disappearing
through the door. One glance at the dressing-table showed me the whole
extent of my misfortune. The case containing the bracelet had gone, and
at that precise moment I heard a commotion from the direction of the
stairs and a woman screaming at the top of her voice: "Thief! Stop

Then, Sir, I brought upon the perilous situation that presence of mind
for which the name of Hector Ratichon will for ever remain famous.
Without a single flurried movement, I slipped one of the
velvet-covered cases which I still had in my hand into the breast
pocket of my coat, I closed down the lid of the iron chest and locked
it with the duplicate key, and I went out of the room, closing the
door behind me.

The passage was dark. The damsel was running up the stairs with a
couple of stage hands behind her. She was explaining to them volubly,
and to the accompaniment of sundry half-hysterical little cries, the
infamous hoax to which she had fallen a victim. You might think, Sir,
that here was I caught like a rat in a trap, and with that
velvet-covered case in my breast pocket by way of damning evidence
against me!

Not at all, Sir! Not at all! Not so is Hector Ratichon, the keenest
secret agent France has ever known, the confidant of kings, brought to
earth by an untoward move of fate. Even before the damsel and the
stage hands had reached the top of the stairs and turned into the
corridor, which was on my left, I had slipped round noiselessly to my
right and found shelter in a narrow doorway, where I was screened by
the surrounding darkness and by a projection of the frame. While the
three of them made straight for Mademoiselle's dressing-room, and
spent some considerable time there in uttering varied ejaculations
when they found the place and the chest to all appearances untouched,
I slipped out of my hiding-place, sped rapidly along the corridor, and
was soon half-way down the stairs.

Here my habitual composure in the face of danger stood me in good
stead. It enabled me to walk composedly and not too hurriedly through
the crowd behind the scenes - supers, scene-shifters, principals, none
of whom seemed to be aware as yet of the hoax practised on
Mademoiselle Mars' maid; and I reckon that I was out of the stage door
exactly five minutes after Theodore had called the damsel away.

But I was minus the bracelet, and in my mind there was the firm
conviction that that traitor Theodore had played me one of his
abominable tricks. As I said, the whole thing had occurred as quickly
as a flash of lightning, but even so my keen, experienced eyes had
retained the impression of a peaked cap and the corner of a blue
blouse as they disappeared through the dressing-room door.


Tact, wariness and strength were all required, you must admit, in
order to deal with the present delicate situation. I was speeding
along the Rue de Richelieu on my way to my office. My intention was to
spend the night there, where I had a chair-bedstead on which I had oft
before slept soundly after a day's hard work, and anyhow it was too
late to go to my lodgings at Passy at this hour.

Moreover, Theodore slept in the antechamber of the office, and I was
more firmly convinced than ever that it was he who had stolen the
bracelet. "Blackleg! Thief! Traitor!" I mused. "But thou hast not done
with Hector Ratichon yet."

In the meanwhile I bethought me of the velvet-covered box in my breast
pocket, and of the ginger-coloured hair and whiskers that I was still
wearing, and which might prove an unpleasant "piece de conviction" in
case the police were after the stolen bracelet.

With a view to examining the one and getting rid of the other, I
turned into the Square Louvois, which, as usual, was very dark and
wholly deserted. Here I took off my wig and whiskers and threw them
over the railings into the garden. Then I drew the velvet-covered box
from my pocket, opened it, and groped for its contents. Imagine my
feelings, my dear Sir, when I realised that the case was empty! Fate
was indeed against me that night. I had been fooled and cheated by a
traitor, and had risked New Orleans and worse for an empty box.

For a moment I must confess that I lost that imperturbable sang-froid
which is the admiration of all my friends, and with a genuine oath I
flung the case over the railings in the wake of the milor's hair and
whiskers. Then I hurried home.

Theodore had not returned. He did not come in until the small hours of
the morning, and then he was in a state that I can only describe, with
your permission, as hoggish. He could hardly speak. I had him at my
mercy. Neither tact nor wariness was required for the moment. I
stripped him to his skin; he only laughed like an imbecile. His eyes
had a horrid squint in them; he was hideous. I found five francs in
one of his pockets, but neither in his clothes nor on his person did I
find the bracelet.

"What have you done with it?" I cried, for by this time I was maddened
with rage.

"I don't know what you are talking about!" he stammered thickly, as he
tottered towards his bed. "Give me back my five francs, you thief!"
the brutish creature finally blurted out ere he fell into a hog-like


Desperate evils need desperate remedies. I spent the rest of the night
thinking hard. By the time that dawn was breaking my mind was made up.
Theodore's stertorous breathing assured me that he was still
insentient. I was muscular in those days, and he a meagre, attenuated,
drink-sodden creature. I lifted him out of his bed in the antechamber
and carried him into mine in the office. I found a coil of rope, and
strapped him tightly in the chair-bedstead so that he could not move.
I tied a scarf round his mouth so that he could not scream. Then, at
six o'clock, when the humbler eating-houses begin to take down their
shutters, I went out.

I had Theodore's five francs in my pocket, and I was desperately
hungry. I spent ten sous on a cup of coffee and a plate of fried
onions and haricot beans, and three francs on a savoury pie, highly
flavoured with garlic, and a quarter-bottle of excellent cognac. I
drank the coffee and ate the onions and the beans, and I took the pie
and cognac home.

I placed a table close to the chair-bedstead and on it I disposed the
pie and the cognac in such a manner that the moment Theodore woke his
eyes were bound to alight on them. Then I waited. I absolutely ached
to have a taste of that pie myself, it smelt so good, but I waited.

Theodore woke at nine o'clock. He struggled like a fool, but he still
appeared half dazed. No doubt he thought that he was dreaming. Then I
sat down on the edge of the bed and cut myself off a large piece of
the pie. I ate it with marked relish in front of Theodore, whose eyes
nearly started out of their sockets. Then I brewed myself a cup of
coffee. The mingled odour of coffee and garlic filled the room. It was
delicious. I thought that Theodore would have a fit. The veins stood
out on his forehead and a kind of gurgle came from behind the scarf
round his mouth. Then I told him he could partake of the pie and

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 14 15

Online LibraryEmmuska OrczyCastles in the Air → online text (page 12 of 15)