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The Tragedy at the "Loup Noir" by Unknown

 

The Boy at the corner of the table flicked the ash of his cigar into the fire.

"Spiritualism is all rot!" he declared.

"I don't know," the Host reflected thoughtfully. "One hears queer stories sometimes."

"Which reminds me——" started the Bore.

But before he could proceed any further the little French Judge ruthlessly cut him short.

"Bah!" Contempt and geniality were mingled in his tone. "Who are we, poor ignorant worms, that we should dare to say 'is' or 'is not'? Your Shakespeare, he was right! 'There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy!'"

The faces of the four Englishmen instantly assumed that peculiarly stolid expression always called forth by the mention of Shakespeare.

"But Spiritualism——" started the Host.

Again the little French Judge broke in:

"I who you speak, I myself know of an experience, of the most remarkable, to this day unexplained save by Spiritualism, Occultism, what you will! You shall hear! The case is one I conducted professionally some two years ago, though, of course, the events which I now tell in their proper sequence, came out only in the trial. I string them together for you, yes?"

The Bore, who fiercely resented any stories except his own, gave vent to a discontented grunt; the other three prepared to listen carefully. From the drawing-room, whither the ladies had retired after dinner, sounded the far-away strains of a piano. The little French Judge held out his glass for a crème de menthe; his eyes were sparkling with suppressed excitement; he gazed deep into the shining green liquid as if seeing therein a moving panorama of pictures, then he began:

On a dusky autumn evening, a young man, tall, olive-skinned, tramps along the road leading from Paris to Longchamps. He is walking with a quick, even swing. Now and again a hidden anxiety darkens his face.

Suddenly he branches off to the left; the path here is steep and muddy. He stops in front of a blurred circle of yellow light; by this can one faintly perceive the outlines of a building. Above the narrow doorway hangs a creaking sign which announces to all it may concern that this is the "Loup Noir," much sought after for its nearness to the racecourse and for its excellent ménage.

"Voilà!" mutters our friend.

On entering, he is met by the burly innkeeper, a shrewd enough fellow, who has seen something of life before settling down in Longchamps. The young man glances past him as if seeking some other face, then recollecting himself demands shelter for the night.

"I greatly fear——" began the innkeeper, then pauses, struck by an idea. "Holà, Gaston! Have monsieur and madame from number fourteen yet departed?"

"Yes, monsieur; already early this morning; you were at the market, so Mademoiselle settled the bill."

"Mademoiselle Jehane?" the stranger looks up sharply.

"My niece, monsieur; you have perhaps heard of her, for I see by your easel you are an artist. She is supposed to be of a rare beauty; I think it myself." Jean Potin keeps up a running flow of talk as he conducts his visitor down the long bare passages, past blistered yellow doors.

"It is a double room I must give you, vacated, as you heard, but this very morning. They were going to stay longer, Monsieur and Madame Guillaumet, but of a sudden she changed her mind. Oh, she was of a temper!" Potin raises expressive eyes heavenwards. "It is ever so when May weds with December."

"He was much older than his wife, then?" queries the artist, politely feigning an interest he is far from feeling.

"Mais non, parbleu! It was she who was the older—by some fifteen years; and not a beauty. But rich—he knew what he was about, giving his smooth cheek for her smooth louis!"

Left alone, Lou Arnaud proceeds to unpack his knapsack; he lingers over it as long as possible; the task awaiting him below is no pleasant one. Finally he descends. The small smoky salle à manger is full of people. There is much talk and laughter going on; the clatter of knives and forks. At the desk near the door, a young girl is busy with the accounts. Her very pale gold hair, parted and drawn loosely back over the ears, casts a faint shadow on her pure, white skin. Arnaud, as he chooses a seat, looks at her critically.

"Bah, she is insignificant!" he thinks. "What can have possessed Claude?"

Suddenly she raises her eyes. They meet his in a long, steady gaze. Then once again the lids are lowered.

The artist sets down his glass with a hand that shakes. He is not imaginative, as a rule, but when one sees the soul of a mocking devil look out, dark and compelling, from the face of a Madonna, one is disconcerted.

He wonders no more what had possessed Claude. On his way to the door a few moments later, he pauses at her desk.

"Monsieur wishes to order breakfast for to-morrow morning?"

"Monsieur wishes to speak with you."

She smiles demurely. Many have wished to speak with her. Arnaud divines her thoughts.

"My name is Lou Arnaud!" he adds meaningly.

"Ah!" she ponders on this for an instant; then: "It is a warm night; if you will seat yourself at one of the little tables in the courtyard at the back of the house, I will try to join you, when these pigs have finished feeding." She indicates with contempt the noisily eating crowd.

They sit long at that table, for the man has much to tell of his young brother Claude; of the ruin she has made of his life; of the little green devils that lurk in a glass of absinthe, and clutch their victim, and drag him down deeper, ever deeper, into the great, green abyss.

But she only laughs, this Jehane of the wanton eyes.

"But what do you want from me? I have no need of this Claude. He wearies me—now!"

Arnaud springs to his feet, catching her roughly by the wrist. He loves his young brother much. His voice is raised, attracting the notice of two or three groups who take coffee at the iron tables.

"You had need of him once. You never left him in peace till you had sucked him of all that makes life good. If I could——"

Jean Potin appears in the doorway.

"Jehane, what are you doing out here? You know I do not permit it that you speak with the visitors. Pardon her, monsieur, she is but a child."

"A child?" The artist's brow is black as thunder. "She has wrecked a life, this child you speak of!"

He strides past the amazed innkeeper, up the narrow flight of stairs, and down the passage to his room.

Sitting on the edge of the huge curtained four-poster bed, he ponders on the events of the evening.

But his thoughts are not all of Claude. That girl—that girl with her pale face and her pale hair, and eyes the grey of a storm cloud before it breaks, she haunts him! Her soft murmuring voice has stolen into his brain; he hears it in the drip, drip of the rain on the sill outside.

Soon heavy feet are heard trooping up the stairs; doors are heard to bang; cheery voices wish each other good-night. Then gradually the sounds die away. They keep early hours at the "Loup Noir"; it is not yet ten o'clock.

Still Arnaud remains sitting on the edge of the bed; the dark plush canopy overhead repels him, he does not feel inclined for sleep. Jehane! what a picture she would make! He must paint her!

Obsessed by this idea, he unpacks a roll of canvas, spreads it on the tripod easel, and prepares crayons and charcoal; he will start the picture as soon as it is day. He will paint her as Circe, mocking at her grovelling herd of swine!

He creeps into bed and falls asleep.


Softly the rain patters against the window-pane.

A distant clock booms out eleven strokes.

Lou Arnaud raises his head. Then noiselessly he slides out of bed on the chill wooden boarding. As in a trance he crosses the room, seizes charcoal, and feverishly works at the blank canvas on the easel.

For twenty minutes his hand never falters, then the charcoal drops from his nerveless fingers! Groping his way with half-closed eyes back to the bed, he falls again into a heavy, dreamless slumber.


The early morning sun chases away the raindrops of the night before. Signs of activity are abroad in the inn; the swish of brooms; the noisy clatter of pails. A warm aroma of coffee floats up the stairs and under the door of number fourteen, awaking Arnaud to pleasant thoughts of breakfast. He is partly dressed before his eye lights on the canvas he had prepared.

"Nom de Dieu!"

He falls back against the wall, staring stupefied at the picture before him. It is the picture of a girl, crouching in a kneeling position, all the agony of death showing clearly in her upturned eyes. At her throat, cruelly, relentlessly doing their murderous work, are a pair of hands—ugly, podgy hands, but with what power behind them!

The face is the face of Jehane—a distorted, terrified Jehane! Arnaud recoils, covering his eyes with his hands. Who could have drawn this unspeakable thing? He looks again closely; the style is his own! There is no mistaking those bold, black lines, that peculiar way of indicating muscle beneath the tightly stretched skin—it is his own work! Anywhere would he have known it!

A knock at the door! Jean Potin enters, radiating cheerfulness.

"Breakfast in your room, monsieur? We are busy this morning; I share in the work. Permit me to move the table and the easel—Sacré-bleu!"

Suddenly his rosy lips grow stern. "This is Jehane. Did she sit for you—and when? You only came last night. What devil's work is this?"

"That is what I would like to find out; I know no more about it than you yourself. When I awoke this morning the picture was there!"

"Did you draw it?" suspiciously.

"Yes. At least, no! Yes, I suppose I did. But I——"

Potin clenches his fist: "I will have the truth from the girl herself! There is something here I do not like!" Roughly he pushes past the artist and mounts to Jehane's room.

She is not there, neither is she at her desk. Nor yet down in the village. They search everywhere; there is a hue and cry; people rush to and fro.

Then suddenly a shout; and a silence, a dreadful silence.

Something is carried slowly into the "Loup Noir." Something that was found huddled up in the shadow of the wall that borders the courtyard. Something with ugly purple patches on the white throat.

It is Jehane, and she is dead; strangled by a pair of hands that came from behind.

The story of the picture is rapidly passed from mouth to mouth. People look strangely at Lou Arnaud; they remember his loud, strained voice and threatening gestures on the preceding night.

Finally he is arrested on the charge of murder.


I was the judge, gentlemen, on the occasion of the Arnaud trial.

The prisoner is questioned about the picture. He knows nothing; can tell nothing of how it came there. His fellow-artists testify to its being his work. From them also leaks out the tale of his brother Claude, of the latter's infatuation and ruin. No need now to explain the quarrel in the courtyard. The accused has good reason to hate the dead girl.

The Avocat for the defence does his best. The picture is produced in court; it creates a sensation.

If only Lou Arnaud could complete it—could sketch in the owner of those merciless hands. He is handed the charcoal; again and again he tries—in vain.

The hands are not his own; but that is a small point in his favour. Why should he have incriminated himself by drawing his own hands? But again, why should he have drawn the picture at all?

There is nobody else on whom falls a shadow of suspicion. I sum up impartially. The jury convict on circumstantial evidence, and I sentence the prisoner to death.

A short time must elapse between the sentence and carrying it into force. The Avocat for the defence obtains for the prisoner a slight concession; he may have picture and charcoal in his cell. Perhaps he can yet free himself from the web which has inmeshed him!

Arnaud tries to blot out thought by sketching in and erasing again fanciful figures twisted into a peculiar position; he cannot adjust the pose of the unknown murderer. So in despair he gives it up.

One morning, three days before the execution, the innkeeper comes to visit him and finds him lying face downwards on the narrow pallet. Despite his own grief, he is sorry for the young man; nor is he convinced in his shrewd bourgeois mind of the latter's guilt.

"You must draw in the second figure," he repeats again and again. "It is your last, your only chance! Think of the faces you saw at the 'Loup Noir.' Do none of them recall anything to you? You quarrelled with Jehane in the garden about your brother. Then you went to your room. Oh, what did you think in your room?"

"I thought of your niece," responds Arnaud wildly. "How very beautiful she was, and what a model she would make. Then I prepared a blank canvas for the morning, and went to bed. When I woke up the picture was there."

"And you remember nothing more—nothing at all?" insists Jean Potin. "You fell asleep at once? You heard no sound?"

Against the barred window of the cell the rain patters softly. A distant clock booms out eleven strokes.

Something in the artist's brain seems to snap. He raises his head. He slides from the bed. As in a trance he crosses the cell, seizes a piece of charcoal, and feverishly works at the picture on the easel!

Not daring to speak, Jean Potin watches him. The figure behind the hands grows and grows beneath Arnaud's fingers.

A woman's figure!

Then the face: a coarse, malignant face, distorted by evil passions.

"Ah!"

It is a cry of recognition from the breathless innkeeper. It breaks the spell. The charcoal drops, and the prisoner, passing his hand across his eyes, gazes bewildered at his own work.

"Who? What?"

"But I know her! It is the woman in whose room you slept! She was staying at the 'Loup Noir' the very night before you arrived, and she left that morning. She and her husband, Monsieur Guillaumet. But it is incredible if she should have——"

I will be short with you, gentlemen. Madame Guillaumet was traced to her flat in Paris. Arnaud's Avocat confronted her with the now completed picture. She was confounded—babbled like a mad woman—confessed!

A reprieve for further inquiry was granted by the State. Finally Arnaud was cleared, and allowed to go free.

The motive for the murder? A woman's jealousy. Monsieur and Madame Guillaumet had been married only ten months. Her age was forty-nine; his twenty-seven. Every second of their married life was to her weighted with intolerable suspicions; how soon would this young husband, so dear to her, forsake her for another, now that his debts were paid? It preyed upon her mind, distorting it, unbalancing it; each glance, each movement of his she exaggerated into an intrigue.

On their way to Paris they stayed a few days at the "Loup Noir"; Charles Guillaumet was interested in racing. Also, he became interested in a certain Mdlle. Jehane. Madame, quick to see, insisted on an instant departure.

The evening of the day of their departure she missed her husband, and found he had taken the car. Where should he have gone? Back to the inn, of course, only half-an-hour's run from Paris. She hired another car and followed him, driving it herself. It was not a pleasant journey. The first car she discovered forsaken, about half-a-mile distant from the inn. Her own car she left beside it, and trudged the remaining distance on foot.

The rest was easy.

Finding no sign of Guillaumet in front of the house, she stole round to the back. There she found a door in the wall of the courtyard—a door that led into the lane. That door was slightly ajar. She slipped in and crouched down in the shadow.

Yes, there they were, her husband and Jehane; the latter was laughing, luring him on—and she was young; oh, so young!

The woman watched, fascinated.

Charles bade Jehane good-bye, promising to come again. He kissed her tenderly, passed through the gate; his steps were heard muffled along the lane.

Jehane blew him a kiss, and then fastened the little door.

A distant clock boomed out eleven strokes, and a pair of hands stole round the girl's throat, burying themselves deep, deep in the white flesh.


"And the husband, was he an accessory after the fact?" inquired the Boy.

"Possibly he guessed at the deed, yes; but, being a weakling, said nothing for fear of implicating himself. It wasn't proved."

The Host moved uneasily in his chair.

"Do you mean to tell me that the mystery of the picture has never been cleared up?" he asked. "Could Arnaud have actually seen the murder from his window, and fixed it on the canvas?"

The little French Judge shook his head.

"Did I not tell you that his window faced front?" he replied. "No, that point has not yet been explained. It is beyond us!"

He made a sweeping gesture, knocking over his liqueur glass; it fell with a crash on the parquet floor.

The Bore woke with a start.

"And did they marry?" he queried.

"Who should marry?"

"That artist-chap and the girl—what was her name?—Jehane."

"Monsieur," quoth the little French Judge very gently and ironically, "I grieve to state that was impossible, Jehane being dead."

The Boy at the corner of the table stood up and threw the stump of his cigar into the fire.

"I think Spiritualism is all rot!" he declared.