CHAPTER II. The Blue Diamond 1/4

In the evening of the twenty-seventh of March, old General Baron d'Hautrec, who had been French Ambassador in Berlin under the Second Empire, was sleeping comfortably in an easy-chair in the house which his brother had left him six months before, at 134, Avenue Henri-Martin. His lady companion continued to read aloud to him, while Sœur Auguste warmed the bed and prepared the night-light.

As an exceptional case, the sister was returning to her convent that evening, to spend the night with the Mother Superior, and, at eleven o'clock, she said:

"I'm finished now, Mlle. Antoinette, and I'm going."

"Very well, sister."

"And don't forget that the cook is sleeping out to-night and that you are alone in the house with the man-servant."

"You need have no fear for monsieur le baron: I shall sleep in the next room, as arranged, and leave the door open."

The nun went away. A minute later, Charles, the man-servant, came in for his orders. The baron had woke up. He replied himself:

"Just the same as usual, Charles. Try the electric bell, to see if it rings in your bedroom properly, and, if you hear it during the night, run down at once and go straight to the doctor."

"Are you still anxious, general?"

"I don't feel well.... I don't feel at all well. Come, Mlle. Antoinette, where were we in your book?"

"Aren't you going to bed, monsieur le baron?"

"No, no, I don't care to go to bed till very late; besides, I can do without help."

Twenty minutes later, the old man dozed off again and Antoinette moved away on tip-toe.

At that moment, Charles was carefully closing the shutters on the ground floor, as usual. In the kitchen, he pushed the bolt of the door that led to the garden and, in the front hall, he not only locked the double door, but put up the chain fastening the two leaves. Then he went up to his attic on the third floor, got into bed and fell asleep.

Perhaps an hour had elapsed when, suddenly, he jumped out of bed: the bell was ringing. It went on for quite a long time, seven or eight seconds, perhaps, and in a steady, uninterrupted way.

"That's all right," said Charles, recovering his wits. "Some fresh whim of the baron's, I suppose."

He huddled on his clothes, ran down the stairs, stopped before the door and, from habit, knocked. No answer. He entered the room:

"Hullo!" he muttered. "No light.... What on earth have they put the light out for?" And he called, in a whisper, "Mademoiselle!..."

No reply.

"Are you there, mademoiselle?... What's the matter? Is monsieur le baron ill?"

The same silence continued around him, a heavy silence that ended by impressing him. He took two steps forward: his foot knocked against a chair and, on touching it, he perceived that it was overturned. And thereupon his hand came upon other objects on the floor: a small table, a fire-screen. Greatly alarmed, he went back to the wall and felt for the electric switch. He found it and turned on the light.

In the middle of the room, between the table and the looking-glass wardrobe, lay the body of his master, the Baron d'Hautrec.

"What!" he stammered. "Is it possible?"

He did not know what to do and, without moving, with his eyes starting from his head, he stood gazing at the general disorder of the room: the chairs upset, a great crystal candlestick smashed into a thousand pieces, the clock lying on the marble hearth-stone, all signs of a fierce and hideous struggle. The handle of a little steel dagger gleamed near the body. The blade was dripping with blood. A handkerchief stained with red marks hung down from the mattress.

Charles gave a yell of horror: the body had suddenly stretched itself in one last effort and then shrunk up again.... Two or three convulsions; and that was all.

He stooped forward. Blood was trickling from a tiny wound in the neck and spotting the carpet with dark stains. The face still wore an expression of mad terror.

"They've killed him," he stammered, "they've killed him!"

And he shuddered at the thought of another probable crime: was not the companion sleeping in the next room? And would not the baron's murderer have killed her too?

He pushed open the door: the room was empty. He concluded that either Antoinette had been carried off or that she had gone before the crime.

He returned to the baron's room and, his eyes falling upon the writing-desk, he observed that it had not been broken open. More remarkable still, he saw a handful of louis d'or on the table, beside the bunch of keys and the pocketbook which the baron placed there every evening. Charles took up the pocketbook and went through it. One of the compartments contained bank-notes. He counted them: there were thirteen notes of a hundred francs each.

Then the temptation became too strong for him: instinctively, mechanically, while his thoughts did not even take part in the movement of his hand, he took the thirteen notes, hid them in his jacket, rushed down the stairs, drew the bolt, unhooked the chain, closed the door after him and fled through the garden.

Charles was an honest man at heart. He had no sooner pushed back the gate than, under the influence of the fresh air, with his face cooled by the rain, he stopped. The deed of which he had been guilty appeared to him in its true light and struck him with sudden horror.

A cab passed. He hailed the driver:

"Hi, mate! Go to the police-station and bring back the commissary.... Gallop! There's murder been done!"

The driver whipped up his horse. But, when Charles tried to go in again, he could not: he had closed the gate himself and the gate could not be opened from the outside.

On the other hand, it was of no use ringing, for there was no one in the house. He therefore walked up and down along the gardens which, at the La Muette end, line the avenue with a pleasant border of trim green shrubs. And it was not until he had waited for nearly an hour that he was at last able to tell the commissary the details of the crime and hand him the thirteen bank-notes.

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