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By Maurice Leblanc
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2014 MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.
All rights reserved.
THE TRAGEDY AT THE PALACE HOTEL
MR. KESSELBACH STOPPED SHORT ON the threshold of the sitting-room, took his secretary's arm and, in an anxious voice, whispered:
"Chapman, some one has been here again."
"Surely not, sir," protested the secretary. "You have just opened the hall-door yourself; and the key never left your pocket while we were lunching in the restaurant."
"Chapman, some one has been here again," Mr. Kesselbach repeated. He pointed to a traveling-bag on the mantelpiece.
"Look, I can prove it. That bag was shut. It is now open."
"Are you quite sure that you shut it, sir? Besides, the bag contains nothing but odds and ends of no value, articles of dress ..."
"It contains nothing else, because I took my pocket-book out before we went down, by way of precaution ... But for that ... No, Chapman, I tell you, some one has been here while we were at lunch."
There was a telephone on the wall. He took down the receiver:
"Hallo! ... I'm Mr. Kesselbach ... Suite 415 ... That's right ... Mademoiselle, would you please put me on to the Prefecture of Police ... the detective department ... I know the number ... one second ... Ah, here it is! Number 822.48 ... I'll hold the line."
A moment later he continued:
"Are you 822.48? I should like a word with M. Lenormand, the chief of the detective-service. My name's Kesselbach ... Hullo! ... Yes, the chief detective knows what it's about. He has given me leave to ring him up ... Oh, he's not there? ... To whom am I speaking? ... Detective-sergeant Gourel? ... You were there yesterday, were you not, when I called on M. Lenormand? Well, the same thing that I told M. Lenormand yesterday has occurred again to-day ... Some one has entered the suite which I am occupying. And, if you come at once, you may be able to discover some clues ... In an hour or two? All right; thanks ... You have only to ask for suite 415 ... Thank you again."
Rudolf Kesselbach, nicknamed alternatively the King of Diamonds and the Lord of the Cape, possessed a fortune estimated at nearly twenty millions sterling. For the past week, he had occupied suite 415, on the fourth floor of the Palace Hotel, consisting of three rooms, of which the two larger, on the right, the sitting-room and the principal bedroom, faced the avenue; while the other, on the left, in which Chapman, the secretary, slept, looked out on the Rue de Judée.
Adjoining this bedroom, a suite of five rooms had been reserved for Mrs. Kesselbach, who was to leave Monte Carlo, where she was at present staying, and join her husband the moment she heard from him.
Rudolf Kesselbach walked up and down for a few minutes with a thoughtful air. He was a tall man, with a ruddy complexion, and still young; and his dreamy eyes, which showed pale blue through his gold-rimmed spectacles, gave him an expression of gentleness and shyness that contrasted curiously with the strength of the square forehead and the powerfully-developed jaws.
He went to the window: it was fastened. Besides, how could any one have entered that way? The private balcony that ran round the flat broke off on the right and was separated on the left by a stone channel from the balconies in the Rue de Judée.
He went to his bedroom: it had no communication with the neighboring rooms. He went to his secretary's bedroom: the door that led into the five rooms reserved for Mrs. Kesselbach was locked and bolted.
"I can't understand it at all, Chapman. Time after time I have noticed things here ... funny things, as you must admit. Yesterday, my walking-stick was moved ... The day before that, my papers had certainly been touched ... And yet how was it possible? ...
"It is not possible, sir!" cried Chapman, whose honest, placid features displayed no anxiety. "You're imagining things, that's all ... You have no proof, nothing but impressions, to go upon ... Besides, look here: there is no way into this suite except through the entrance-lobby. Very well. You had a special key made on the day of our arrival: and your own man, Edwards, has the only duplicate. Do you trust him?"
"Of course I do! ... He's been with me for ten years! ... But Edwards goes to lunch at the same time that we do; and that's a mistake. He must not go down, in future, until we come back."
Chapman gave a slight shrug of the shoulders. There was no doubt about it, the Lord of the Cape was becoming a trifle eccentric, with those incomprehensible fears of his. What risk can you run in an hotel, especially when you carry no valuables, no important sum of money on you or with you?
They heard the hall-door opening. It was Edwards. Mr. Kesselbach called him:
"Are you dressed, Edwards? Ah, that's right! ... I am expecting no visitors to-day, Edwards ... or, rather, one visitor only, M. Gourel. Meantime, remain in the lobby and keep an eye on the door. Mr. Chapman and I have some serious work to do."
The serious work lasted for a few minutes, during which Mr. Kesselbach went through his correspondence, read three or four letters and gave instructions how they were to be answered. But, suddenly, Chapman, waiting with pen poised, saw that Mr. Kesselbach was thinking of something quite different from his correspondence. He was holding between his fingers and attentively examining a pin, a black pin bent like a fish-hook:
"Chapman," he said, "look what I've found on the table. This bent pin obviously means something. It's a proof, a material piece of evidence. You can't pretend now that no one has been in the room. For, after all, this pin did not come here of itself."
Certainly not," replied the secretary. "It came here through me."
"What do you mean?"
"Why, it's a pin which I used to fasten my tie to my collar. I took it out last night, while you were reading, and I twisted it mechanically."
Mr. Kesselbach rose from his chair, with a great air of vexation, took a few steps and stopped.
"You're laughing at me, Chapman, I feel you are ... and you're quite right ... I won't deny it, I have been rather ... odd, since my last journey to the Cape. It's because ... well ... you don't know the new factor in my life ... a tremendous plan ... a huge thing ... I can only see it, as yet, in the haze of the future ... but it's taking shape for all that ... and it will be something colossal ... Ah, Chapman, you can't imagine ... Money I don't care a fig for: I have money, I have too much money ... But this, this means a great deal more; it means power, might, authority. If the reality comes up to my expectations, I shall be not only Lord of the Cape, but lord of other realms as well ... Rudolf Kesselbach, the son of the Augsburg ironmonger, will be on a par with many people who till now have looked down upon him ... He will even take precedence of them, Chapman; he will, take precedence of them, mark my words ... and, if ever I ..."
He interrupted himself, looked at Chapman as though he regretted having said too much and, nevertheless, carried away by his excitement, concluded:
"You now understand the reasons of my anxiety, Chapman ... Here, in this brain, is an idea that is worth a great deal ... and this idea is suspected perhaps ... and I am being spied upon ... I'm convinced of it ..."
A bell sounded.
"The telephone," said Chapman.
"Could it," muttered Kesselbach, "by any chance be ...?" He took down the instrument. "Hullo! ... Who? The Colonel? Ah, good! Yes, it's I ... Any news? ... Good! ... Then I shall expect you ... You will come with one of your men? Very well ... What? No, we shan't be disturbed ... I will give the necessary orders ... It's as serious as that, is it? ... I tell you, my instructions will be positive ... my secretary and my man shall keep the door; and no one shall be allowed in ... You know the way, don't you? ... Then don't lose a minute."
He hung up the receiver and said:
"Chapman, there are two gentlemen coming. Edwards will show them in ..."
"But M. Gourel ... the detective-sergeant ...?"
"He will come later ... in an hour ... And, even then, there's no harm in their meeting. So send Edwards down to the office at once, to tell them. I am at home to nobody ... except two gentlemen, the Colonel and his friend, and M. Gourel. He must make them take down the names."
Chapman did as he was asked. When he returned to the room, he found Mr. Kesselbach holding in his hand an envelope, or, rather, a little pocket-case, in black morocco leather, apparently empty. He seemed to hesitate, as though he did not know what to do with it. Should he put it in his pocket or lay it down elsewhere? At last he went to the mantelpiece and threw the leather envelope into his traveling-bag:
"Let us finish the mail, Chapman. We have ten minutes left. Ah, a letter from Mrs. Kesselbach! Why didn't you tell me of it, Chapman? Didn't you recognize the handwriting?"
He made no attempt to conceal the emotion which he felt in touching and contemplating that paper which his wife had held in her fingers and to which she had added a look of her eyes, an atom of her scent, a suggestion of her secret thoughts. He inhaled its perfume and, unsealing it, read the letter slowly in an undertone, in fragments that reached Chapman's ears:
"Feeling a little tired ... Shall keep my room to-day ... I feel so bored ... When can I come to you? I am longing for your wire ..."
"You telegraphed this morning, Chapman? Then Mrs. Kesselbach will be here to-morrow, Wednesday."
He seemed quite gay, as though the weight of his business had been suddenly relieved and he freed from all anxiety. He rubbed his hands and heaved a deep breath, like a strong man certain of success, like a lucky man who possessed happiness and who was big enough to defend himself.
"There's some one ringing, Chapman, some one ringing at the hall door. Go and see who it is."
But Edwards entered and said:
"Two gentlemen asking for you, sir. They are the ones ..."
"I know. Are they there, in the lobby?"
"Close the hall-door and don't open it again except to M. Gourel, the detective-sergeant. You go and bring the gentlemen in, Chapman, and tell them that I would like to speak to the Colonel first, to the Colonel alone."
Edwards and Chapman left the room, shutting the door after them. Rudolf Kesselbach went to the window and pressed his forehead against the glass.
Outside, just below his eyes, the carriages and motor-cars rolled along in parallel furrows, marked by the double line of refuges. A bright spring sun made the brass-work and the varnish gleam again. The trees were putting forth their first green shoots; and the buds of the tall chestnuts were beginning to unfold their new-born leaves.
"What on earth is Chapman doing?" muttered Kesselbach. "The time he wastes in palavering! ..."
He took a cigarette from the table, lit it and drew a few puffs. A faint exclamation escaped him. Close before him stood a man whom he did not know.
He started back:
"Who are you?"
The man—he was a well-dressed individual, rather smart-looking, with dark hair, a dark moustache and hard eyes—the man gave a grin:
"Who am I? Why, the Colonel!"
"No, no ... The one I call the Colonel, the one who writes to me under that ... adopted ... signature ... is not you!"
"Yes, yes ... the other was only ... But, my dear sir, all this, you know, is not of the smallest importance. The essential thing is that I ... am myself. And that, I assure you, I am!"
"But your name, sir? ..."
"The Colonel ... until further orders."
Mr. Kesselbach was seized with a growing fear. Who was this man? What did he want with him?
He called out:
"What a funny idea, to call out! Isn't my company enough for you?"
"Chapman!" Mr. Kesselbach cried again. "Chapman! Edwards!"
"Chapman! Edwards!" echoed the stranger, in his turn. "What are you doing? You're wanted!"
"Sir, I ask you, I order you to let me pass."
"But, my dear sir, who's preventing you?"
He politely made way. Mr. Kesselbach walked to the door, opened it and gave a sudden jump backward. Behind the door stood another man, pistol in hand. Kesselbach stammered:
"Edwards ... Chap ..."
He did not finish. In a corner of the lobby he saw his secretary and his servant lying side by side on the floor, gagged and bound.
Mr. Kesselbach, notwithstanding his nervous and excitable nature, was not devoid of physical courage; and the sense of a definite danger, instead of depressing him, restored all his elasticity and vigor. Pretending dismay and stupefaction, he moved slowly back to the chimneypiece and leant against the wall. His hand felt for the electric bell. He found it and pressed the button without removing his finger.
"Well?" asked the stranger.
Mr. Kesselbach made no reply and continued to press the button.
"Well? Do you expect they will come, that the whole hotel is in commotion, because you are pressing that bell? Why, my dear sir, look behind you and you will see that the wire is cut!"
Mr. Kesselbach turned round sharply, as though he wanted to make sure; but, instead, with a quick movement, he seized the traveling-bag, thrust his hand into it, grasped a revolver, aimed it at the man and pulled the trigger.
"Whew!" said the stranger. "So you load your weapons with air and silence?"
The cock clicked a second time and a third, but there was no report.
"Three shots more, Lord of the Cape! I shan't be satisfied till you've lodged six bullets in my carcass. What! You give up? That's a pity ... you were making excellent practice!"
He took hold of a chair by the back, spun it round, sat down a-straddle and, pointing to an arm-chair, said:
"Won't you take a seat, my dear sir, and make yourself at home? A cigarette? Not for me, thanks: I prefer a cigar."
There was a box on the table: he selected an Upmann, light in color and flawless in shape, lit it and, with a bow:
"Thank you! That's a perfect cigar. And now let's have a chat, shall we?"
Rudolf Kesselbach listened to him in amazement. Who could this strange person be? ... Still, at the sight of his visitor sitting there so quiet and so chatty, he became gradually reassured and began to think that the situation might come to an end without any need to resort to violence or brute force.
He took out a pocket-book, opened it, displayed a respectable bundle of bank-notes and asked:
The other looked at him with an air of bewilderment, as though he found a difficulty in understanding what Kesselbach meant. Then, after a moment, he called:
The man with the revolver stepped forward.
"Marco, this gentleman is good enough to offer you a few bits of paper for your young woman. Take them, Marco."
Still aiming his revolver with his right hand, Marco put out his left, took the notes and withdrew.
"Now that this question is settled according to your wishes," resumed the stranger, "let us come to the object of my visit. I will be brief and to the point. I want two things. In the first place, a little black morocco pocket-case, shaped like an envelope, which you generally carry on you. Secondly, a small ebony box, which was in that traveling-bag yesterday. Let us proceed in order. The morocco case?"
The stranger knit his brows. He must have had a vision of the good old days when there were peremptory methods of making the contumacious speak:
"Very well. We shall see about that. And the ebony box?"
"Ah," he growled, "you're getting at me, my good man!" He twisted the other's arm with a pitiless hand. "Yesterday, Rudolf Kesselbach, you walked into the Crédit Lyonnais, on the Boulevard des Italiens, hiding a parcel under your overcoat. You hired a safe ... let us be exact: safe No. 16, in recess No. 9. After signing the book and paying your safe-rent, you went down to the basement; and, when you came up again, you no longer had your parcel with you. Is that correct?"
"Then the box and the pocket-case are at the Crédit Lyonnais?"
"Give me the key of your safe."
Marco ran up.
"Look sharp, Marco! The quadruple knot!"
Before he had even time to stand on the defensive, Rudolf Kesselbach was tied up in a network of cords that cut into his flesh at the least attempt which he made to struggle. His arms were fixed behind his back, his body fastened to the chair and his legs tied together like the legs of a mummy.
"Search him, Marco."
Marco searched him. Two minutes after, he handed his chief a little flat, nickel-plated key, bearing the numbers 16 and 9.
"Capital. No morocco pocket-case?"
"It is in the safe. Mr. Kesselbach, will you tell me the secret cypher that opens the lock?"
Excerpted from 813 by Maurice Leblanc. Copyright © 2014 MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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