Chapter XI:

Strange Happenings
~ 1


Now the dingy little apartment in the Rue Villedot was silent and dark. The elegant little lamp with its rose-coloured shade was turned down in the withdrawing-room, leaving only a tiny glimmer of light, which failed to dispel the gloom around. The nocturnal visitors had departed more than a quarter of an hour ago; nevertheless, the beautiful hostess had not yet gone to bed. In fact, she had hardly moved since she bade the final adieu to her timorous lover. The enforced gaiety of the last few moments still sat like a mask upon her face. all that she had done was to sink with a sigh of weariness upon the settee.


And there she remained, with neck craned forward, listening, straining every nerve to listen, even though the heavy, measured footsteps of the five men had long since ceased to echo up and down the stone passages and stairs. Her foot, in its quaint small sandal, beat now and then an impatient tattoo upon the threadbare carpet. Her eyes at intervals cast anxious looks upon the old-fashioned clock above the mantelpiece.


It struck half-past two. Whereupon Theresia rose and went out into the vestibule. Here a tallow candle flickered faintly in its pewter sconce and emitted an evil-smelling smoke, which rose in spirals to the blackened ceiling.


Theresia paused, glanced inquiringly down the narrow passage which gave access to the little kitchen beyond. Between the kitchen and the corner of the vestibule where she was standing, two doors gave on the passage: her bedroom, and that of her maid Pepita. Theresia was vividly conscious of the strange silence which reigned in the whole apartment. The passage was pitch dark save at its farthest end, where a tiny ray of light found its way underneath the kitchen door.


The silence was oppressive, almost terrifying. In a hoarse, anxious voice, Theresia called:


"Pepita!"


But there came no answer. Pepita apparently had gone to bed, was fast asleep by now. But what had become of Bertrand?


Full of vague misgivings, her nerves tingling with a nameless fear, Theresia picked up the candle and tiptoed down the passage. Outside Pepita's door she paused and listened. Her large dark eyes looked weird in their expression of puzzlement and of awe, the flickering light of the candle throwing gleams of orange-coloured lights into the depths of the widely dilated pupils.


"Pepita!" she called; and somehow the sound of her own voice added to her terror. Strange that she should be frightened like this in her own familiar apartment, and with a faithful, sturdy maid sleeping the other side of this thin partition wall!


"Pepita!" Theresia's voice was shaking. She tried to open the door, but it was locked. Why had Pepita, contrary to her habit, locked herself in? Had she, too, been a prey to some unexplainable panic? Theresia knocked against the door, rattled the handle in its socket, called more loudly and more insistently, "Pepita!" and, receiving no reply, fell, half-swooning with fear, against the partition wall, whilst the candle slipped out of her trembling grasp and fell with a clatter to the ground.


She was now in complete darkness, with senses reeling and brain paralysed. how long she remained thus, in a state bordering on collapse, she did not know; probably not more than a minute or so. Consciousness returned quickly, and with it the cold sweat of an abject fear; for through this returning consciousness she had perceived a groan issuing from behind the locked door. But her knees were still shaking; she felt unable to move.


"Pepita!" she called again; and to her own ears her voice sounded hoarse and muffled. Straining her ears and holding her breath, she once more caught the sound of a smothered grown.


Whereupon, driven into action by the obvious distress of her maid, Theresia recovered a certain measure of self-control. Pulling herself vigorously together, she began by groping for the candle which had dropped out of her hand a while ago. Even as she stooped down for this she contrived to say in a moderately clear and firm voice:


"Courage, Pepita! I'll find the light and come back." Then she added: "Are you unable to unlock the door?"


To this, however, she received no reply save another muffled groan.


Theresia now was on her hands and knees, groping for the candlestick. Then a strange thing happened. Her hands, as they wandered vaguely along the flagged floor, encountered a small object, which proved to be a key. In an instant she was on her feet again, her fingers running over the door until they encountered the keyhole. into this she succeeded, after further groping, in inserting the key; it fitted and turned the lock. She pushed open the door, and remained paralysed with surprise upon the threshold.


Pepita was reclining in an arm-chair, her hands tied behind her, a woollen shawl wound loosely around her mouth. in a distant corner of the room, a small oil-lamp, turned very low, cast a glimmer of light upon the scene. For Theresia to run to the pinioned woman and undo the bonds that held her was but the work of a few seconds.


"Pepita!" she cried. "What in heaven's name has happened?"


The woman seemed not much the worse for her enforced duress. She groaned, and even swore under her breath, and indeed appeared more dazed than hurt. Theresia, impatient and excited, had to shake her more than once vigorously by the shoulder before she was able to gather her scattered wits together.


"Where is M. Bertrand?" Theresia asked repeatedly, ere she got a reply from her bewildered maid.


At last Pepita was able to speak.


"In very truth, Madame," she said slowly, "I do not know."


"How do you mean, you do not know?" Theresia queried, with a deepened frown.


"Just what I saw, my pigeon," Pepita retorted with marked acerbity. "You ask me what has happened, and I say I do not know. You want to know what has become of M. Bertrand. Then go and look for yourself. When I last say him, he was in the kitchen, unfit to move, the poor cabbage!"


"But, Pepita," Theresia insisted, and stamped her foot with impatience, "you must know how you came to be sitting here, pinioned and muffled. Who did it? Who has been here? God preserve the woman, will she never speak!"


Pepita by now had fully recovered her senses. She had struggled to her feet, and went to take up the lamp, then led the way toward the door, apparently intent on finding out for herself what had become of M. Bertrand and in no way sharing her mistress's unreasoning terror. She halted on the threshold and turned to Theresia, who quite mechanically started to follow her.


"M. Bertrand was sitting in the arm-chair in the kitchen," she said simply. "I was arranging a cushion for his head, to make him more comfortable, when suddenly a shawl was flung over my head without the slightest warning. I had seen nothing; I had not heard the merest sound. And I had not the time to utter a scream before I was muffled up in the shawl. Then I was lifted off the ground as if I were a sack of feathers, and I just remember smelling something acrid which made my head spin round and round. But I remember nothing more after until I heard voices in the vestibule when thy guests were going away. Then I heard thy voice and tried to make thee hear mine. And that is all!"


"When did that happen, Pepita?"


"Soon after the last of thy guests had arrived. I remember I looked at the clock. It must have been half an hour after midnight."


While the woman spoke, Theresia had remained standing in the middle of the room, looking in the gloom like an elfin apparition, with her clinging, diaphanous draperies. A frown of deep puzzlement lay between her brows and her lips were tightly pressed together as if in wrath; but she said nothing more, and when Pepita, lamp in hand, went out of the room, she followed.


~ 2


When, the kitchen door being opened, that room was found to be empty, Theresia was no longer surprised. Somehow she had expected this. She knew that Bertrand would be gone. The windows of the kitchen gave on the ubiquitous wrought-iron balcony, as did all the other windows of the apartment. That those windows were unfastened, had only been pushed to from the outside, appeared to her as a matter of course. It was not Bertrand who had thrown the shawl over Pepita's head; therefore some one had come in from the outside and had kidnapped Bertrand - some one who was peculiarly bold and daring. He had not come in from the balcony and through the window, because the latter had been fastened as usual by Pepita much earlier in the evening. No! He had gone that way, taking Bertrand with him; but he must have entered the place in some other mysterious manner, like a disembodied sprite bent on mischief or mystery.


Whilst Pepita fumbled and grumbled, Theresia started on a tour of inspection. Still deeply puzzled, she was no longer afraid. With Pepita to speak and the lamps all turned on, her habitual courage and self-possession had quickly returned to her. She had no belief in the supernatural. Her materialistic, entirely rational mind at once rejected the supposition, hinted at by Pepita, that magical powers had been at work to take Bertrand Moncrif to a place of safety.


Something was going on in her brain, certain theories, guesses, conjectures, which she was passionately eager to set at rest. Nor did it take her long. Candle in hand, she had gone round to explore. No sooner had she entered her own bedroom than the solution of the mystery lay revealed before her, in a shutter, forced open from the outside, a broken pane of glass which had allowed a hand to creep in and surreptitiously turn the handle of the tall French window to allow of easy ingress. It had been quickly and cleverly done; the splinters of glass had made no noise as they fell upon the carpet. But for the disappearance of Bertrand, the circumstances suggested a nimble housebreaker rather than a benevolent agency for the rescue of young rashlings in distress.


The frown of puzzlement deepened on Theresia Cabarrus's brow, and her mobile mouth with the perfectly arched if somewhat thin lips expressed a kind of feline anger, whilst the hand that held the pewter candlestick trembled perceptibly.


Pepita's astonishment expressed itself by sundry exclamations: "Name of a name!" and "Is it possible?" The explanation of the mystery had loosened her tongue, and while she set stolidly to work to clear up the debris of glass in her mistress's bedroom, she allowed free rein to her indignation against the impudent marauder, who in doubt had only been foiled in his attempt at wholesale robbery by some lucky circumstance which would presently come to light.


The worthy old peasant absolutely refused to connect the departure of M. Bertrand with so obvious an attempt at housebreaking.


"M. Bertrand was determined to go, the poor cabbage!" she said decisively; "since thou didst make him understand that his staying here was a danger to the front door whilst thou wast engaged in conversation with that pack of murderers, whom may the good God punish one of these days!"


From which remark we may gather that Pepita had not imbibed revolutionary ideals with the air of her native Andalusia.


Theresia Cabarrus, wearied beyond endurance by all the events of this night, as well as by her old servant's incessant gabble, finally sent her, still muttering and grumbling, to bed.