[Frontispiece: The gem lay between them, a splash of crimson flame]
The Paternoster Ruby
By CHARLES EDMONDS WALK
Author of "The Silver Blade," "The Yellow Circle," etc.
WITH FOUR ILLUSTRATIONS IN COLOR
BY J. V. McFALL
A. L. BURT COMPANY
A. C. McCLURG & CO.
Published, October 22, 1910
Entered at Stationers' Hall, London, England
M. H. W.
I THE SHERIDAN PARK MYSTERY II THE PRIVATE SECRETARY III SOME DISCOVERIES IV THE RUBY V THE HIDDEN SAFE VI AN EXTRAORDINARY ERRAND VII HOW THE ERRAND ENDED VIII MAILLOT'S EXPERIENCE IX TRACKS IN THE SNOW X THE SECOND STORY XI A PACT XII THE CIPHER XIII DISCLOSURES XIV RIDDLES XV A WOMAN'S SCREAM XVI THE FACE IN THE ALCOVE XVII PRISON DOORS XVIII A FIGHT IN THE DARK XIX BELLE XX GENEVIEVE'S MISSION XXI SHADOWS XXII ASHES OF OLD ROMANCE XXIII BURKE UNBOSOMS XXIV CONFESSION XXV "THIMBLE, THIMBLE—" XXVI THE CIPHER SOLVED
The gem lay between them, a splash of crimson flame . . . Frontispiece
Diagram of second floor
The door opened a few inches, to reveal the figure of Alexander Burke
"I'll shoot," she announced in a tense tone, "so help me, I'll shoot"
"Uncle, Uncle, sit up! Don't go to pieces this way"
THE PATERNOSTER RUBY
THE SHERIDAN PARK MYSTERY
With a screaming of brakes, the elevated train on which I happened to be jerked to a stop, and passengers intending to disembark were catapulted toward the doorways—a convenience supplied gratis by all elevated roads, which, I have observed, is generally overlooked by their patrons. I crammed the morning paper into my overcoat pocket, fell in with the outrushing current of humanity, and was straightway swept upon the platform, pinched through the revolving gates, and hustled down the covered iron stairway to the street. Here the current broke up and diffused, like the current of a river where it empties into the sea.
This was the first wave of the daily townward tide—clerks, shop-girls, and stenographers, for the most part intent upon bread and butter in futuro. The jostling and crowding was like an old story to me; I went through the ordeal each morning with an indifference and abstraction born of long custom.
The time of the year was January, the year itself 1892. A clear, cold air with just enough frost in it to stir sluggish blood, induced one to walk briskly. It was still too early in the day for the usual down-town crowd, and I proceeded as fast as I wanted to, allowing my thoughts to dwell undisturbed on the big news topic of the day, which I had just been reading. And so I did, as I strode along, with the concern of one whose interest is remote, yet in a way affected.
So the great wheat corner was broken at last! The coterie of operators headed by Alfred Fluette had discovered to their dismay that the shorts were anything but "short," for all day yesterday the precious grain had been pouring into the market in a golden flood. Grain-laden vessels were speeding from Argentine, where no wheat was supposed to be; trains were hurrying in from the far Northwest; and even the millers of the land had awakened to the fact that there was more profit in emptying their bins and selling for a dollar and sixty cents a bushel the wheat that had cost them seventy-six cents, than there was in grinding it into flour.
It was another pirate of the pit who had brought disaster to the bulls—no other than that old fox, Felix Page, himself a manipulator of successful big deals, and feared perhaps more than any other figure on the Board of Trade.
But his spectacular smashing of the memorable corner has passed into history. While Fluette's brokers were buying and sending the price soaring—skyrocketing is more descriptive, though—Felix Page was selling in quantities that bewildered and, since it was Page, alarmed the bulls. Insurance on the lakes had ceased with the advent of winter; the granaries of the world were supposed to be scraped clean; so it seemed that he must be rushing headlong to certain destruction. Still, seeing that it was Felix Page who was doing most of the selling, Fluette's crowd was nervous.
And the sequel, in all conscience, warranted their anxiety. For more than a week Felix Page's iron-prowed ships had been crushing and smashing their way through the ice, opening a way for other ships; yesterday they had steamed into port with their precious cargoes, demoralizing the bull clique with a deluge of golden grain.
Page settled; he had sold five million bushels, and he delivered the goods. This was the opening fissure. Fluette was soon overwhelmed, and today he and his crowd would be holding a melancholy wake over the corpse.
This, however, is not a story of stupendous battles in the arena of Commerce. I have merely gone behind my proper starting-point by a matter of ten minutes or so—no more—to lay before you one of those inexplicable coincidences which, when they are flung at us, shake us from our self-possession. The stage was already set for me; serenely unsuspecting, I was headed straight toward it.
Police headquarters was my destination, and I had no sooner stepped across the threshold than I was told that the Captain was wanting to see me at once. So I went direct to his private office, where he was deep in conference with a party of four men, who, in spite of a general air of gloom which seemed to envelop them, looked like a quartet of prosperous brokers. It occurred to me that they might have been struck by the stick of the spent rocket.
As the Captain abruptly broke off an earnest speech to wheel his chair round and address me, the four men stared at me with a curious, unwavering interest.
Fancy how I was staggered by the first words. My chief thrust a card in my direction, on which was pencilled a street number.
"Go to this address at once, Swift," said he. "It looks like murder—old Page."
"Page!" I almost shouted. "You can't mean Felix Page!"
"What's the matter with you? Know anything about it?"
My stupefaction was pronounced enough to excite his wonder. I assure you, we are not often astonished at the Central Office.
I caught my breath and shook my head. Of course, I knew nothing about it. But it was something besides the amazing, unexpected intelligence of Felix Page's death that struck me right between the eyes. With the mention of his name, my mind cut one of those unaccountable capers which everybody has at some time in his life experienced.
The names of Felix Page and Alfred Fluette had been before me in one way or another for days; I had followed the remarkable wheat deal with about the same degree of interest that animated everybody else who was not immediately concerned; but not until this moment had it impressed me that I knew something respecting Page which had not appeared in the papers in connection with the corner. What was it?
But I could not remember. This was the scurvy trick my mind was playing. I stood there staring at the others, and they sat staring at me. A question was halted provokingly upon the very tip of my tongue, which, despite a most earnest whipping of memory, remained obstinately elusive.
Felix Page! What particular, unusual circumstance was associated in my mind with that name? Why should it come to flout me at this juncture without revealing itself?
My ineffectual effort to remember was cut short by my chief. He scowled, manifestly in perplexity at the way the news had affected me.
"These gentlemen," he said, with a gesture indicating the funereal quartet, "were more or less associated with Mr. Page; he don't seem to have had any close friends; but they can tell me nothing. Whatever line you pick up, you must find the end of it at the scene of the crime—the house. The address is on that card.
"Here 's all I know about it: It must have happened sometime during the night; the report came in from Sheridan Park station about daylight. Three men from there, Patrolmen Callahan and O'Brien and a plain-clothes man named Stodger, are at the house holding two suspects until somebody shows up from the Central Office. Stodger 's in a stew; can't seem to make head nor tail of what's happened.
"You hurry, Swift," he curtly concluded; "this is too important a matter to waste time over."
So it was. I saluted and hastily left him.
My brain was still in a whirl; my musings and the blunt, surprising announcement had come too close together for me to regard the supposed crime with unshaken equanimity. Then, too, I was still vainly striving to drag from memory's hiding-place the tantalizing circumstance which I somehow felt was pregnant with possibilities in the light of the financier's death. What on earth was it? I thought of everything else I had ever heard or read about the man.
But I was young—not only in the service, but in years as well—and this was one of my first hard rubs with that heartless old pedagogue, Experience.
Felix Page had enjoyed—I use the word advisedly—a widespread reputation for eccentricity. The word, I held a secret conviction, was merely a polite euphemism to cover his unscrupulous nature. Many acts of his were condoned, or even laughed at, which would have been nothing short of outrageous if performed by another. He had been widely exploited as a "character"; in reality he had been a merciless old skinflint, with a supreme disregard for the rights or pleasures of others.
Still, it is not to be denied that his eccentricity did reveal itself in certain ways. After business hours he retired to a forlorn old mansion, where he lived alone, without kindred (if he had any) or servants, save for an ancient dame who came of mornings to prepare his breakfasts, and to discharge, under his nagging supervision, the few domestic duties necessary to meet his requirements.
Something like a half-hour after leaving the Central Office, I arrived at the Page place. Stodger, a short, fat, good-natured chap, was awaiting my arrival—evidently with some impatience, for he was stamping to and fro before the gate for warmth. As soon as he learned my business he conducted me up to the house.
On the way he gave me a hasty account of the crime, concerning which he frankly and whimsically confessed to be very much at sea.
A description of the house and grounds is in order. The location was all that could be desired, and would have been an ideal place of residence if rehabilitated from its sorry condition of neglect. The house faced the north end of Sheridan Park, a glimpse of whose lagoons could be caught here and there among the leafless trees. It sat well back from the wide boulevard, and, surrounded as it was by fine old elms and beeches and maples, it reminded me of some antiquated English country home, such as I have seen in pictures.
There were any number of chimney clusters; but the general air of the place was extremely cold and forbidding. Notwithstanding it was mid-winter and that an inch or more of snow lay on the ground, there was not a wisp of smoke above any of the chimneys to indicate the welcome presence of a fire below.
A high iron fence extending along the front of the property was divided by a carriage entrance and a smaller gate for pedestrians. The former, barring the way to a weed- and grass-grown drive, was hermetically sealed by rust; while the other was just as permanently fixed open by the accumulation of earth and gravel about its lower part. Two parallel rows of ragged, untrimmed privet designated the tortuous way of the drive to the unused porte-cochere.
"Nasty case," Stodger was imparting, in queer staccato sentences. "Shouldn't have much difficulty, though; responsibility lies between two men. Here all last night. Nobody else. Callahan and O'Brien holdin' 'em. One 's Page's private secretary; fellow named Burke—Alexander Stilwell Burke. Peach of a monicker, ain't it? Has all three sections on his cards.
"The other 's a young lawyer chap; calls himself Royal Maillot. I can't pry out of either of 'em what he was doing here."
"And nobody else, you say?" I asked when he paused.
"Nope—so they say. Either one of 'em might have done it. They 're down on each other for something; glare at each other like—like—you know—cat and dog."
"Well, this fellow Burke—Alexander Stilwell—he comes to our shack some time after two this A. M. Told the desk-sergeant old Page 'd been croaked; wouldn't say anything more. Dippy? Say! Acted like somebody 'd slipped him a round o' knockout-drops. Sure thing, he did. Would n't budge till old Grimes sent me back with him. I 'm only a license inspector, too. This is what I—h'm-m—I butted into. Dev'lish cold, ain't it?"
He had opened the front door and ushered me into a deep, wide hall. A broad stairway, with carved oak balusters, rose on one side to a landing which formed a sort of balcony over the rear end of the hall, and thence continued up to the second story.
With his concluding words, Stodger pointed up to the landing, through whose balusters I could see a hand and a part of a motionless human form stretched out at full length upon the floor.
"Felix Page—b'r-r—dead as a door-nail," Stodger now added. "Slugged over the head with a heavy iron candlestick; find it lying there by him. Think of all that wheat—and them ships crunching through the ice. Say, it's pretty tough, ain't it? He was—but would you rather make an examination first? Or shall I go on?"
I smiled at the man's air of vast importance, which discriminated not at all between grave matters and light. With his queer "hum's" and "haw's," his funny little exclamatory noises and quick, jerky manner of speech, he reminded me of a jolly diminutive priest who had just dined well. Never was mortal freer of affectation. And his cheerfulness? It was as expansive and as volatile as ether. His buoyancy was a perpetual, never-failing tonic for doubt and discouragement, and I have yet to witness him confronted with a situation that could in the least dash his spirits.
He awaited my reply to his question with an air which suggested that nothing less important than the well-being of his very existence was at stake.
"Tell me what you have learned," returned I. Things usually acquire a more comprehensible aspect when you have a few facts by which to measure and weigh them, and I wanted to hear Stodger's story.
"Yip!" he cried cheerily. "Might as well sit here as anywhere else; nobody to disturb us."
Weighted as he was with surplus flesh, his agility was amazing. He wheeled round and plumped down on an oak bench, not unlike a church pew, which stood against the panelled stairway beyond the newel. As I followed I drew my overcoat closer about me, for the hall was cold and dismal.
"This fellow Burke—Alexander Stilwell; queer chap. Close-mouthed? Say!"—he squared around and tapped my chest with an impressive forefinger—"a clam 's real noisy compared with him. Fact. Watched me steady all the time I—you know—looked at the body."
Stodger stopped abruptly, with the manner of one to whom has occurred a sudden brilliant idea. He thumped one fat knee with a pudgy hand, and whispered with suppressed eagerness:
"By jinks, Swift! I have it! I 'll get Burke—Alexander Stilwell. Let him talk—in there"—with a violent gesture toward the opposite side of the hall—"library. What say? There's a—you know—alcove—curtains. I 'll hide behind 'em and listen; if he don't tell the story just like he did to me, why, we 'll call the turn on him. See?"
For various reasons I thought the idea not a bad one, and said so. Stodger was off up the stairs like a shot. He went nimbly round the prostrate figure on the landing without so much as a look toward it, and disappeared.
He and another man appeared, after a while, at the back of the hall, having evidently availed themselves of a rear stairway.
I surveyed the private secretary with much interest, and must even now confess, after no inconsiderable study of the human face, that I have never since beheld one that was so utterly baffling.
He was a slender man of medium height, and of an age that might have been anything between twenty and fifty; his eyes, hair, brows, and lashes were all of a uniform shade of pale yellow—excepting that the eyes had a greenish tint—while his face and thin, nervous hands wore a dead, unwholesome pallor.
The effect was extraordinary. The ageless face looked as if it did not know how to conform to or mirror any inward emotion; and furthermore, one was never precisely positive whether or not the pale eyes were following one, for they somehow, in their uncertain fixedness, suggested the idea that they were windows behind which the real eyes were incessantly vigilant. So it was when Stodger introduced him; I could not tell whether he was watching me or my colleague—or, in truth, whether he was watching either of us.
"Mr. Burke, Mr. Swift," said Stodger, with a grand air—"Mr. Alexander Stilwell Burke." Then, in a hoarse aside to me:
"Little matter I want to look after; just 'tend to it while you two are talking."
THE PRIVATE SECRETARY
Stodger at once left us together, having, I surmised, his own method of getting into the curtained alcove of which he had spoken. In order that he should have ample time to reach it, I held Burke with a question or two in the hall.
"Mr. Burke," said I, "who besides yourself and Mr. Page was in the house last night?"
He replied promptly, but with a deliberate precision, as if he were making a weighty confidential communication, and wanted to be exceedingly careful to convey an exact interpretation of his thoughts.
I might now add that this cautious, reflective manner characterized all his speech, and in time it grew extremely aggravating.
"A young man named Maillot," he said; "Royal Maillot."
"And who is this Royal Maillot?" I next asked.
Was Burke returning my intent look? Or did he have an eye for some fancied movement behind him, or off there toward the closed library door? For the life of me, I could not have told with assurance.
"I can't tell you much from my own knowledge," he presently returned; and now I was pretty positive that he was meeting my regard. "Mr. Maillot is still here, however; he can speak for himself."
"I know that"—curtly; "but I prefer to be informed beforehand—even if it's only by hearsay. Who is Mr. Maillot?"
Again the furtive, wandering look behind the blank of the clean-shaven, ageless features.
"I 've gathered the idea that he 's a young lawyer, and that some business affair brought him here to confer with Mr. Page. He arrived only last night. The whole circumstance was very unusual."
"What do you mean by that?"
Some moments elapsed before he replied.
"Why," presently, "Mr. Page was not in the habit of seeing people here, or—as far as that's concerned—of considering any business matters whatever after he returned home in the evening; this was his invariable rule, excepting—" He paused.
"Excepting what?" I urged.
"Well, occasionally—very rarely—he would have me here. Last night was one of those occasions; he expected to be absent from the city, and there were special instructions that he wanted to give me, concerning certain matters that had to be looked after to-day.
"But, without an exception that I can recall, everybody else who had any business with him was required to go to the Drovers' National, or to his office in the same building.
"Even our relations—our acquaintance—practically ended with each day's business, not to be renewed until the next day; and I suppose I approach nearer than any of his other employees to being what you might call a confidential clerk, or secretary."
I rose briskly to my feet.
"Let's go some place where it's more comfortable," suggested I, throwing open the library door; "in here will do."
He entered unhesitatingly, for it is an easy matter to influence people to your will in such trifling manoeuvres; and as I followed, I glanced about the spacious apartment.
Its walls were wainscoted with oak, save for a narrow painted frieze, and while very few books were in evidence, the place would have been cheerful enough had there been a fire in the wide, handsome brick fireplace, or had there existed any indication at all that the room was ever used by human beings. Before the cold and empty hearth stood a table, where, very likely, Mr. Page had been in the habit of working on those rare occasions of which his secretary had spoken. On the right of this table was the curtained alcove.
Now Burke's conduct during the next second or so was destined, later on, to give me an idea concerning that gentleman, which indirectly aided me in clearing up a puzzling feature of the case. It was this.
As I indicated the chair where I wanted him to sit—one near enough to the alcove for Stodger not only to hear what Burke might say, but also to have the additional advantage of watching him without much likelihood of being observed in turn—I could have sworn that Burke hesitated and bent a doubtful, inquiring look toward the alcove; yet I am not positive that he ceased for a moment his blank, unblinking scrutiny of me. At any rate, he was no sooner seated than he bounded up again.
"We can have a little more light here," said he, starting toward the alcove, behind whose curtains Stodger was at that moment, I daresay, hastily planning a means of precipitate retreat. I was already seated myself, and I stayed his progress only in the nick of time.
"Burke!" I called sharply.
He wheeled about, a trifle disconcerted, I imagined.
"Please sit down," I went on authoritatively. "You are not precisely at liberty to go just where you please; for the present I 'm responsible for your movements."
He shrugged his shoulders and returned to his chair, remarking in an unemotional way:
"I forgot that I was under arrest."
I did n't trouble to define his position. At best it was at that instant an anomalous one; so far as I knew there were no grounds upon which to hold him at all; and while I would have hesitated to say that he was actually in custody, at the same time it is also true that I would not have permitted him to walk out of the house and away, had he desired to do so.
"Now, Mr. Burke," I went on, "tell me just what you know about this matter. Don't slur details; take your time."
"I know very little, Mr. Swift."
"Let's have it, nevertheless."
"About one o'clock last night I had just completed sorting some papers in my room. They had been in a file-case so long that they were very dusty; so when I was through I went to the bath-room—one door from mine—to wash my hands, and while I was so engaged I was startled by a crash, as of some one falling heavily outside.
"I picked up my candle, and looked into the hall. At first I saw nothing, and everything was perfectly quiet; but in a moment I noticed that an etagere, which had always stood at the head of the stairs, was tipped forward against the banisters, and at the same time I heard Mr. Maillot moving about in his room. I was much perplexed to account for such a disturbance at that hour of the night, and for a time I stood motionless, waiting to see what would occur next. I admit that I was even somewhat frightened; but as nothing else happened, I crossed over to Mr. Maillot's door—directly opposite my own—and rapped.
"He threw it open at once. He was holding a hand to his right eye, and glared at me with the uncovered eye. He evidently had slipped hastily into his clothes; his candle was lighted, and I noticed that his hands and face were wet, as if he too had been washing."
"It strikes me that there was an unusual amount of hand-washing," I here observed, "considering the hour of night. Had the household retired?"
"Why—yes, sir—we were supposed to have done so. But Mr. Maillot at once explained why his hands were wet. As he threw open the door, which he did in an angry manner, he asked me what the devil was the matter. I replied that I did n't know. He then stated that he thought the roof had caved in; that the tumult had awakened him, and that in springing out of bed he had nearly knocked an eye out by colliding with some piece of furniture. The pain was for a moment so intense, he said, that he had forgotten all about the noise; so he had lighted a candle and bathed the injured eye. It was already beginning to swell and show signs of discoloration. On my remarking that it was strange the noise hadn't roused Mr. Page, Mr. Maillot at once seized his candle and preceded me into the hall. He was the first to find Mr. Page's body.
"So far as we could determine, he was quite dead. Mr. Maillot at once warned me not to molest anything—he 's a lawyer, I believe—and we agreed that I should notify the police while he remained to guard the house."
Such was Burke's story of the midnight tragedy. Further questioning elicited the assertion that he was utterly unable to account for Maillot's presence in the house; that he had never seen him before, and that he was sure the young man's call had been unexpected by Mr. Page, as the latter had, the last thing the previous evening at his office, instructed Burke to procure a number of specified papers from the file-case, and bring them to the house after supper.
Burke believed it to have been his employer's intention to go through these documents with him, for the purpose of selecting certain ones which had to do with a contemplated business trip to Duluth; but Maillot had arrived about seven o'clock, and he and Mr. Page had at once repaired to the library, where they remained until after eleven o'clock.
Burke had busied himself with other matters until convinced that, as his employer had doubtless given over the Duluth journey, his services would not be required; whereupon he had retired to his own room.
Such minor details were added: the only servant was a woman who came to the house of mornings, and departed before the master went down-town; there was no telephone in the house; and the millionaire's "eccentricities" included, among other things, a preference for candles over any other means of artificial illumination, and a strong disinclination to consume any more fuel than was absolutely necessary.
Learning that the woman servant was at that very moment in the house, I speedily saw to it that a rousing fire was kindled upon every hearth and in every stove; nor were they allowed to die out, as long as I remained beneath the roof. Felix Page would have no further use for his coal and kindling.
When Burke returned from discharging this errand, I continued my questioning.
"So it had been Mr. Page's intention to go to Duluth last night, eh? What for?"
"I don't know. About vessels or his wheat shipments, I suppose; something too important to entrust to the mail or telegraph."
"Did the coming of Mr. Maillot upset his plans?"
"I can't imagine what else caused him to change his mind at the last minute; the journey must have been unusually important to take him away from the city at this time."
Then Maillot's mission could not have been without exceptional weight, I reflected. And unless I was much mistaken, the deferred journey had seriously disarranged some material plan for Mr. Burke. I had nothing more to say, however, for the present.
I sent Burke back to the custody of Callahan and O'Brien, to await the completion of my investigation; for, until I became reasonably sure that I held in my hand all the available facts, it would be rank carelessness on my part to send the whilom secretary about his business.
I would have been hard put to it to interpret the impression which Alexander Burke had made upon my mind, if Stodger had demanded my opinion at that moment. As his round, cherubic face emerged between the curtains, I turned to him with considerable curiosity.
"Told it word for word as he did to me," was my companion's comment. "Could n't have told it better if it had been a piece learnt by heart."
"Oh, he could n't, eh?" observed I, thoughtfully, leading the way to the landing.
But I could not permit myself to theorize at this stage—an indulgence which, when premature, inevitably colors one's opinions, and prejudices all attempts at clear, logical reasoning.
But I was not yet permitted to begin my examination of the body and its immediate surroundings. I had no sooner arrived at the landing than I heard a man's voice, somewhere above in the second story, speaking with a note of determination that demanded some sort of recognition from the person addressed. The clear, ringing, resolute tone made me involuntarily pause and listen.
"Where 's your headquarters man?" the voice was irately demanding. "I want to see him, d' ye hear? You blithering idiot, I 'm going down those stairs; if you want to rough it, just try to stop me."
Another voice was raised in expostulation. Stodger, at my elbow, suddenly chuckled.
"That's him!" he whispered, with an unaccountable excitement. "That's Maillot!"
"He must be a tartar," I observed.
At that instant a stalwart young man, very angry and with one discolored eye that lent him an uncommonly truculent appearance, looked down on us from the upper hall; then he deliberately ignored the arguing policeman, strode to the head of the stairs and descended to the landing.
"It's all right, Callahan," said Stodger to the discomfited blue-coat.
The young man halted before us.
"Ass!" he growled, staring hard at me.
Stodger made the epithet exclusively mine with a bow and a broad grin. Instantly the young fellow flushed and stammered an apology.
"I didn't mean either of you chaps," he explained, in embarrassment. "It's that chuckle-headed hod-carrier in a blue uniform. If he gives me any more of his cheek, I 'll take his club from him and hand him a wallop over the head with it—dashed if I don't."
He looked eminently capable of doing it, too. He paused, his look resting upon me with an interrogation.
"Are you in authority here?" he bluntly demanded.
"I suppose so. Are you Mr. Maillot?"
"I am. And I 'd like to know how much longer I 'll have to stay in this beastly cold-storage warehouse. I 'm plenty tired of it right now, if you want to know."
I smiled at the resolute young fellow; there was something decidedly likable in his frank and handsome countenance, and his blunt, intense manner.
"It all depends, Mr. Maillot. You and Mr. Burke are the only ones who can help me to some sort of solution of this crime—if crime it is; I take it for granted that you are willing to do what you can."
He favored me with another stare, then stood thoughtfully pulling at his lips and gazing at the body.
"Poor chap!" he muttered at length, in a hushed voice. "A ghastly way to die; I 'd give a lot to know how it happened." Then he looked brightly at me, and asked with an almost boyish impulsiveness:
"Are you a detective—like Stodger here?"
"I 'm a detective," I told him; "though I don't know how closely I resemble Stodger." A sound came from that worthy that made me think he was strangling. "Swift is my name."
Maillot suddenly thrust out his right hand.
"Glad to know you, Swift," he said heartily. "You look like a sensible chap. I 'm willing to do all I can to help you—of course I am. It won't be much, I 'm afraid. But if any thick-headed cop says I can't do this or can't do that, there 's going to be trouble. They can't bluff me, and I know they have n't any right to dictate what I shall do."
All of which was quite true. Maillot glanced at the body again, and lowered his voice.
"Say," he said, "can't we go to a more appropriate place to talk matters over?"
"Yes—the library," suggested I.
He drew back, and his face darkened.
"Library!" he echoed.
"There 's a fire there now," I informed him, wondering at his quick-changing moods. Next instant he was talking again, eagerly.
"But—look here, Swift—you have n't examined the body yet, have you? I 'm curious to see whether you discover anything. Queer old chap he was; I don't think anybody ever understood him."
He broke off and eyed Stodger severely.
"What the deuce are you laughing at, Stodger?" he demanded.
Stodger laid a hand upon his arm, and asked with husky eagerness:
"On the level, Maillot—between us, you know—just what did you say last night when somebody pulled the shade down over that lamp of yours?"
"You go to thunder," Maillot retorted, turning his back upon him.
"Pshaw! I 'll bet it was hotter than that," said Stodger, in a disappointed tone.
Now, then, here were the parts of the puzzle I had to piece together in order to gain some conception of the manner in which Felix Page met his death.
The still form lay, as I have already stated, on the landing which extended across the rear of the hall like a balcony. The stairs continued thence up to the second story, but in a direction exactly the reverse of the first flight and on the opposite side of the hall therefrom.
Standing midway upon this landing, I had a view not only of the entire spacious hall, but could also see the top of the etagere tipped forward at the head of the stairs. It had evidently been a receptacle for old magazines and newspapers, all of which, that had not been checked by the balusters, now lay in a confused heap upon the floor just as they slid from the shelves.
Even across the distance which then separated me from this article of furniture—twelve feet, I should say—I could see that the top was coated with dust, save for two spots where the rich red lustre of the polished mahogany shone conspicuously: one about five inches in diameter and forming a perfect octagon, the other much smaller, and ragged in outline.
Here at my feet was the explanation. The base of the iron candlestick accounted for the octagonal design; while the fragments of a shallow, saucer-like sea-shell, which had been utilized as a match holder, accounted for the smaller spot. These two articles manifestly had reposed upon top of the etagere. The matches, to the number of half a dozen or so, were strewn upon the stairs and landing.
I picked up the candlestick from where it lay upon the landing, and examined it with much interest. It was a solid affair of ornamental iron, about fifteen inches high, and weighed some six or eight pounds—clearly a nasty weapon if wielded by a strong arm.
The bit of candle which it had contained lay nearby, one end flattened out from having been crushed under somebody's foot.
At the time of his tragic death Mr. Page was in his sixty-first year, but a large and very vigorous man. He had been garbed in his street clothes (save for a frayed and faded purple smoking-jacket), thus contradicting Burke's belief that the household had retired. On the right temple the mark clearly showed where the candlestick's base had crushed the skull beneath. Death certainly had been instantaneous.
While I held the candlestick in my band, Maillot suddenly exclaimed:
"By George, Swift! the old gentleman's death may have been owing to accident, after all!"
I looked keenly at him.
"Suppose he was here on the landing," the young fellow went on enthusiastically; "suppose somebody knocked that book-case affair suddenly forward—might 've stumbled against it in the dark, you know—why, that heavy candlestick would have put a quietus on any man, falling on his head that way."
But I could not encourage this idea.
"I thought of that as soon as I saw the overturned whatnot," said I; "but several circumstances disprove it.
"In the first place, if the candlestick slid off the top, the dust would show it. Now the shell did slide, for you can plainly see where it scraped the dust in doing so.
"Again, considering your supposition, the candle-stick would have struck about half-way up the flight; if Mr. Page had been at that point on the stairs—in the line of its fall—his head would have been too high to have encountered it. And then, Maillot, look here." I pointed to the object of interest itself.
"If you were carrying it while the candle was lighted," I said, "your thumb would be uppermost, and your little finger nearest the base—would n't they?"
"Very well. Suppose, now, I reverse my grasp—my thumb toward the base, the little finger toward the top—I now have it in a pretty effective position for use as a bludgeon, eh?"
He was following me intently, and now nodded his head in token of comprehension.
"Look at those drippings," I went on; "the hand that last grasped the candlestick did not try to avoid them, although they were yet soft and warm from the flame. It does n't require a trained eye to determine that the thumb was nearest the base."
"I declare!" he wonderingly interrupted. "Blest if you 're not right, Swift. The candle was burning when somebody grabbed it up for use as a club. Whoever it was he caught hold of it with a pretty firm grip."
"An additional argument," I added, "that it was put to some violent use. It is n't necessary to hold it anything near so tight merely to carry it.
"However," I pursued, "the circumstance is in a way unfortunate. While I can gather the idea that the hand was n't inured to hard labor, and that it was a rather long and slender one, it closed so powerfully upon the drippings that the pattern of little lines—the vermiculations which differentiate one man's hand from everybody else's—is merely a blur. As a wax impression of the murderer's hand it is not a success."
My audience seemed to be immensely interested.
But I was not yet through with the wax impression.
"One peculiarity is suggested, though: this is unmistakably the impress of a right hand, and the owner of the hand wore a broad ring on the second finger—an unusual place for a man to sport that sort of jewelry."
The third finger of Maillot's left hand was adorned with a modest signet ring, while the private secretary's abnormally long, bloodless digits bore no sign that they had ever been encircled by any ring at all.
The situation was serious enough, however; the imprint which I assumed to have been made by a ring was so blurred as to leave wide latitude for error respecting any deduction that I might make from it.
I gravely regarded young Maillot, and tried to picture him to myself in the role of a murderer, but was obliged to own that such a thing was exceedingly difficult to do. Still, all things are possible; and the next few minutes had to determine whether I should take him or Burke into custody—maybe both—or permit them to go about their business.
"Mr. Maillot," I said by and by, "I 'll tell you frankly: this business looks pretty bad for you and Burke—unless between you you can help me to place it in an entirely different light."
He paled, but met my level look steadily enough.
As I have already said, he was a good-looking chap, dark of hair, his eyes gray, and he possessed an honest, open countenance that stood a whole lot in his favor. He was tall, with a well-knit, athletic figure that made me fancy he had been an heroic member of his university football team.
But I have known just such men—steady, upright and governed by high standards of conduct—to become in the twinkling of an eye red-handed assassins.
Your man of lofty ideas and honor, in truth, is the more deeply sensible of injury and sometimes the easiest incensed. He is the more keenly hurt when his most sacred feelings are suddenly outraged. Finish off his equipment with a hot, passionate temper, and his resentment is likely to strike as blindly and as effectively as a bolt from a surcharged thunder-cloud. It is the motive that either palliates or makes the crime. A moment's previous reflection often stays the hand from a deed which a lifetime of after regret can not recall.
I could associate these possibilities with Maillot, and yet extend to him my sympathy; for controlling impulses are infinitely various and sometimes not to be held to account.
And so, too, could I have done with Burke, if he had betrayed one trait of a nature to inspire sympathy or engage my goodwill. Still, I meant not to be in the least influenced by my own feelings in the matter, nor do I now believe that I was; I determined to be as just and impartial as possible. Bear in mind that, as yet, I had been given no hint of possible motive.
After a bit Maillot said very soberly:
"The possibility of such a thing never for instant occurred to me; but—Swift—I suppose must meet it somehow."
"You 're beginning excellently," I returned sincerely. "That's the way to look at a thing of this kind. If you 'll not forget that I 'm inclined to be kindly disposed toward you, why, I dare say we can, between us, clear up whatever mystery there is in one-two-three order.
"For example, why you came here last night—your business with Mr. Page—when you tell me that perhaps—"
I stopped. Maillot's face had suddenly become a mirror of consternation.
"Good God, Swift!" he gasped, recoiling, "I—I can't do that!"
I promptly grew grave. And then, from the head of the stairs, came the slow, colorless voice of Alexander Burke.
"How about the Paternoster ruby, Mr. Maillot?" inquired he.
Maillot's hands closed spasmodically; his teeth clicked together; and he slewed round like a released spring.
Next instant, had it not been for the intervening stairs and Stodger's and my quick interposition of our bodies between the two men, matters certainly would have gone hard with the private secretary. Maillot's temper was like gunpowder; the quiet question seemed to sting him to an unreasonable fury.
"You—you spy! You dirty sneak!" he snarled viciously.
Unless I wanted affairs to get away from me entirely, it was high time to assume complete control of them, and immediately to abandon all temporizing measures.
I turned Maillot about without ceremony.
"Go with this man to the library, Stodger," I peremptorily directed. "Burke, you come with me."
In the next ten seconds I had the big library table between the two, Burke impassive, while Maillot glared at him savagely. I wanted to give them time to cool—Maillot, at any rate; so I took advantage of the opportunity to scribble a note to the Captain, hinting at the complications promised by Felix Page's death, and requesting that I be permitted to retain Stodger as an assistant—for I liked the stout, cheerful man who was willing and quick to act upon no more than a hint, and at the same time not disposed to interfere at all with my own modes of procedure. This message I gave to him, requesting that he entrust it to either Callahan or O'Brien for delivery. "Tell 'em to clear out," I added; "I have no use for them here."
Then I thrust my hands into my coat pockets, and fell to pacing the floor while I reflected. That is to say, I reflected after I had secured a good, firm grasp upon the thoughts which skurried helter-skelter, like a flushed covey of quail, through my brain.
The Paternoster ruby!
Here was the very thing I had tried so futilely to recall when the Captain first mentioned Felix Page's death!
Like a flash, the phrase had opened up to me an illimitable vista of possibilities. I went over in mind all that I had ever heard of this famous gem, and wondered—indeed, to tell only the bare truth—I thrilled with the very idea: could it have had any part or place in the financier's death?
The Paternoster ruby!
Those three words were an illumination; memory was flooded; and I glowed with a satisfaction that, in accordance with my custom in such matters, I had collected and preserved every available scrap of information which had in any way to do with this same Paternoster ruby. And right here some of that data must be presented.
First of all, this magnificent gem's known history hinted at no religious association whatever, as its name might seem to imply. In more than one journal I have seen it seriously affirmed that at one time it was a property of that celebrated pope, Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia, father of Caesar and Lucrezia—thus investing it with an antiquity and romance which the facts did not warrant.
But, after all, am I not premature in making this last assertion? Perhaps it will appear before we are through.
The gem first became known to the world and acquired its name through one Luca Paternostro, an Italian dealer in precious stones having his place of business in London, who claimed to have purchased it in the rough from some adventurer whose name is unknown to history. This occurred in the early '80's.
Subsequently it was carefully cut in Amsterdam, a paste replica made for purposes of display in the course of trade, and then added to Paternostro's stock—perhaps not because he expected to dispose of it to the first chance customer, but rather by reason of the prestige which the ownership of so superb a jewel would give him; it was an excellent advertisement.
On the fourth night after he received the cut ruby from the Dutch lapidaries, Paternostro was murdered and the gem stolen from his apartments in Hatton Gardens.
Of course, a stone so celebrated was easy to identify; not alone by means of the paste replica and an accurate preserved description, but its extraordinary and distinguishing features—to say nothing of its value—were not likely to be forgotten by experts who had seen and handled it.
And so, when it appeared in Paris a few months later, Paternostro's heirs and successors in the gem-importing business were promptly on hand to claim their property; an enterprise in which they succeeded after the determination of some legal complications; and the Paternostros started with the ruby on the return to London.
Incidentally, the assassin and thief—an Oriental of undetermined nationality—was also apprehended and, the red-tape of extradition having been gravely untangled, conveyed to England and duly hanged.
Ill-luck, however, followed the ruby. On the boat over from Calais to Dover a confidential employee of the gem merchants, who had accompanied them to Paris, was lost overboard while the vessel was entering the home port. Although this man was known to be an expert swimmer—notwithstanding the attempts at rescue, the proximity of land and the numerous craft of all sorts in the vicinity—a strange fatality seems to have carried him straight to the bottom. After the man vanished beneath the waves, no sign of him was seen again.
In the following year no less than four attempts were made to steal the stone from the Paternostros; but as they had learned caution from their unfortunate predecessor's death—to the extent, at least, of keeping such treasure in bank—these attempts were abortive.
Later several tentative overtures on the part of one of Europe's richest monarchs toward the purchase of the Paternoster ruby came to naught; the price set upon it by the Paternostros was prohibitive; and gradually it came to be forgotten by the public, until the year '84, when interest concerning it was again revived, this time to fever heat.
And now we have Alfred Fluette and Felix Page arrayed against each other once more. Everybody, of course, still remembers the sudden rivalry between these two American citizens, which sprang up in June of that year, for the gem's possession. The complexity of causes which simultaneously inspired them with an inordinate desire for the Paternoster ruby—a desire which seemingly could be appeased only by possession, regardless of cost—was much of a mystery, and afforded the energetic correspondents a fruitful text for many a day. Both, as is well known, had unlimited means with which to indulge their sudden whim; where kings and princes resigned themselves to the melancholy fact that the gem was not for them, these two men battled for it with an unlicensed tendering of fortunes that amazed the world; and one may easily imagine the sleepless anxiety of the Paternostros, as first one and then the other of the millionaires ran up his bid with true American prodigality.
Only—and this the mystifying feature of the episode—Felix Page could never honestly be accused of prodigality in any circumstances. He secured the ruby—at a fabulous price; but in the operation he made at least one bitter, implacable enemy. Alfred Fluette returned to the United States, smarting with the stings of defeat, and pledged to a commercial warfare on the successful millionaire speculator. It waged merrily thenceforward.
Why did Felix Page want the Paternoster ruby? It was impossible even to surmise a tenable theory. His parsimony was notorious; he was a bachelor without known kith or kin, and had never before been known to evince the slightest interest in precious stones.
On the other hand, Mr. Fluette was not only a collector of gems, but his collection was and still is one of the most famous in the world. Perhaps Page was willing to sacrifice a fortune merely to thwart a rival's ambition; perhaps he was only satisfying some old grudge about which the world knew nothing—it was all speculation, and speculation of a most unsatisfying sort, too. He got the stone, at any rate; and here we have another instance of the man's peculiar disposition.
Whatever he did with the ruby nobody knew. There were many connoisseurs and jewelers on this side of the water who were naturally curious to see a gem of such renown; but with characteristic selfishness the new owner refused one and all, not only a glimpse of his costly prize, but would not even impart any information about it. His was a dog-in-the-manger attitude; with no appreciation whatever of his possession, he refused bluntly to allow anybody else to enjoy it. The ruby was kept hid away.
Such, briefly, were the data I had neatly pasted in my scrapbook and which memory had been all the morning trying to recall.
I paused in my promenade to survey Burke: what new adjustment must be made of the bare facts so far gathered; what now, in view of this new element injected into the case, was the attitude of this strange being toward it—my regard shifted to Maillot—and his?
Just at this juncture my cogitations were broken in upon by the door being unceremoniously thrown open. Stodger, much excited, darted in, closing the door after him. He handed me an envelope, accompanying it with a look of suppressed eagerness which suggested certain details pertinent to the missive which were being reserved—with difficulty—for my private hearing.
"Note for Maillot," announced he, his eyes fixed curiously upon the young man.
Maillot, apparently dumfounded, rose slowly to his feet.
"A note—for me!" he faltered. Then, quietly: "Give it to me, Swift."
Our glances met—and stayed. I had the envelope before me pinned to the table with the outspread fingers of my right hand. Maillot was unmistakably in great distress of mind, and his expression was that of a man desperate but determined. Only for a moment I hesitated; then without raising my hand, I slid the envelope across the table to him.
"It's a question of confidence, Mr. Maillot," said I, calmly, endeavoring to convey my earnestness in the look which had not for an instant swayed from his. "I reserve the right, should the occasion arise, to read it; understand?"
With a curt nod of acquiescence, he snatched it up from the table. A glimpse of the handwriting brought a flush to his face and a glad sparkle to his eyes; but the missive troubled him. It was short, and as he slowly returned it to its envelope his hand shook and his countenance grew more and more harassed and perplexed.
I glanced at Burke's pallid features and found them as impassive as any Indian's. It was impossible to determine whether he was watching me or Maillot.
Evidently assuming the incident to be closed, Stodger saw his opportunity to speak again.
"Chap's out here that brought it," said he; "coachman, he looks like; waiting for an answer." Then he turned to me, continuing:
"Four reporters out there, too; what shall I do with 'em?"
Maillot suddenly startled us by smiting the table violently with his fist. He was white, trembling, and apprehensive; but his determination was by no means broken.
"Swift," said he, in a hushed, strained voice, "step aside with me; let me have a word with you."
He seized my arm, and fairly dragged me off toward the curtained alcove.
"Swift," he whispered, not releasing his grip on my arm, "I 'm in a devil of a position. For God's sake, show some sign of humanity! That note was from a young lady—"
"I surmised as much."
"Damn it, man! Don't laugh! I'm more dead in earnest than I ever was before in my life. This means more to me—to her—than you can by any possibility conceive, astute officer of the law though you may be."
My expression must have contained something of surprise at his vehemence, for with an effort he abruptly checked himself and at once went on more calmly.
"Swift, it's the young lady I expect some day to marry; she 's heard a rumor of the tragedy, and is worried about me. The note was brought by her coachman, and she 's waiting on the corner a block from here for me to come to her."
I tried hard to consider what was best to do. Enter a woman into a case like this, and assured conduct becomes an impossibility. Maillot was searching my face eagerly; in a moment he laid more of the matter before me.
"She 's a sensitive, high-strung girl whom the slightest breath of scandal would fairly kill. I can't let her name be dragged into this mess; I can't answer her note, and send the reply away from under your very nose without a word to you. And the reporters! Gracious heavens! Swift, Stodger wanted to know what to do with 'em: for pity's sake, tell him to kill 'em!"
Again I interrupted. I trust that I may in all modesty record that I have more than a spark of the feelings to which the young fellow made such a passionate appeal.
"Look here, Maillot, has the young lady a companion?"
"Yes—usually; a young lady cousin who lives with her."
"Very well. If they happen to be together now, we can settle the matter quite easily. Answer her note; request the two of them to come here in a half-hour. Within that time we can get rid of the reporters, and you can—well, you can collect yourself. If your present expression is an index to what you are likely to say, this will be no place for a young lady—for the next thirty minutes, anyhow."
He caught and wrung my hand.
"Swift, you 're a damn good fellow!" he said impulsively, and hurried back to his seat.
However, I did not forget that I had not heard this young man's story; nor did I fail to consider that he was a lawyer, and hence possessed of advantages for appreciating and intelligently weighing all the chances for and against his sweetheart becoming involved.
As Maillot dropped into his chair, Stodger could no longer contain himself. Drawing me into the hall, though the door was left wide open, he said, in a whisper that was heavy with importance:
"You 'd never guess whose coachman it was."
I made no attempt to, and my stout friend impressively announced:
"What!" Surprise jerked the exclamation from me; but I kept my voice subdued.
"Fact,"—Stodger nodded his round head impressively,—"Alfred Fluette."
Here indeed was the promise of a pretty state of affairs!
THE HIDDEN SAFE
I left the four reporters to Stodger's tender mercies—his instructions did not include any such extreme measures as Maillot had suggested—confident that he was the proper person to relieve me of this unwelcome intrusion. It has always been hard for me to talk to these sharp-eyed, alert young chaps of the press, without saying something I had no business to say. Even if I did n't say it, some one of them would be sure to make a pretty shrewd guess, sometimes causing me no end of trouble. Stodger knew nothing of my intentions; therefore he could let nothing slip that might in any way affect my future movements.
Maillot's note despatched, I directed my attention to ascertaining just what Alexander Burke meant by his reference to the ruby.
His explanation in itself was simple enough. He had heard of the ruby, of course—who had n't?—and during his wanderings through the house the previous night, while he waited for Maillot to finish his business with Mr. Page, he had paused now and then in the vicinity of the library door. Twice he had heard the gem mentioned by those within.
Maillot accepted this statement with an offensive incredulity which was plainly deliberate.
"The house was very quiet," Burke made haste to add.
"Perhaps," Maillot spoke with sneering emphasis, his look frankly hostile, "perhaps you could have heard us; I 'm ignorant of the degree of acuteness to which your hearing has been developed; but"—turning to me—"I want to say, Swift, that during the whole time Mr. Page and I were engaged in this room, our voices were not once raised so that a person beyond the closed door could have heard us intelligibly. I think, Burke, I see the imprint of a keyhole on your ear."
"Temper your language, Maillot," said the other, with a touch of asperity. Instantly Maillot was upon his feet.
"Shut up!" he thundered. "Don't you talk to me, you scamp!"
"Here, don't quarrel," I interposed pacifically, pressing the angry, glaring lawyer back into his chair with a persuasive hand upon his shoulder. I then said to him:
"You might appropriately relate what your business last night with Mr. Page was."
"I will"—bluntly—"to you."
The proposal being a reasonable one, I agreed to defer the matter.
"However," continued I, "while you two are together there are some points upon which I want enlightenment. Reserve your personalities for another time. Is it positive that there was no one else in the house besides yourselves and Mr. Page?"
Neither spoke, each waiting, as it seemed, for the other to reply. My glance travelled between the two, and finally settled upon the secretary, whose long, nervous fingers were beating a silent tattoo upon the table.
"How about it, Mr. Burke?" I pressed him. "Your familiarity with the house entitles you to answer."
"I can take oath there was not," he now said. Stodger had already assured me that when he arrived every door and window was fast on the inside. So I next asked:
"When you went to notify the police, did you depart by way of the front door?"
"I did," he replied in a subdued voice. And Maillot immediately added:
"It was fast, Swift—bolt and spring-latch, both. I remember because the fact made me think there might be somebody else in the house. As soon as Burke left I went over the whole place, methodically and painstakingly, and I can now swear, if anybody was secreted in here anywhere, why, he 's here yet. I inspected every door and window, upstairs and down; all were fast."
The unbroken, spotless mantle of snow outside limited the possibility of ingress or egress without leaving betraying footprints, to either the front or the rear door, where the paths had been kept clear.
Dismissing this nonplussing phase, I turned to the subject of the gem once more.
"Regarding the ruby, Mr. Burke," said I, "do you know where Mr. Page kept it?"
Maillot fixed a scowling look—not at all relieved by his discolored eye—upon the secretary, while that young man thoughtfully shook his head.
"No," Burke said at length; "not certainly. I never heard Mr. Page mention it; but I have an idea that it is in a small concealed safe in his bedroom, because there is where he keeps those things which no eye but his own ever sees."
Was it possible that Felix Page had any hidden treasures of sentiment? If so, here, in all truth, was a surprising side-light thrown into an unsuspected recess of his character. I was to have a hint presently of what was tucked away there.
But Burke had something more to say. "Perhaps,"—slowly—"you would like to see that safe, Mr. Swift. I know where it is located, and can save you a needless search. It will have to be opened later on, I imagine."
"All right," I said, with much interest. "Lead the way."
Burke rose, with a queer glance at Maillot, and—turned toward the curtained alcove.
If he had any intention of moving in that direction, however, he quickly changed his mind; for Maillot and I followed him through the doorway, down the length of the roomy panelled hall, to another door on the same side of the house as the one we had just quitted. I could hear a murmur of voices across the hall, where Stodger was entertaining the reporters.
"The safe," said Burke, as we entered a large, handsome, but very disordered sleeping-chamber, "is what decided Mr. Page on selecting this room in preference to one on the second floor. It was placed here, I suppose, at the time the house was built; it is very artfully hidden."
The bed betrayed the fact that it had not been slept in recently, and the room that it was unused to a cleansing supervision. Some soiled clothing lay in a heap in one corner; a pair of trousers were collapsed over the back of a chair; the dresser-top held a lot of linen and cravats, both clean and soiled; half-closed drawers overflowed with garments that had been thrust in any way, and an over-turned ink bottle on a handsome mahogany stand had never been righted. Even a careless housewife would have been driven insane by such deliberate untidiness.
Our guide picked up a half-burned candle, lighted it, and then opened a closet door. Next instant he started back with a queer cry.
Maillot and I crowded forward and saw—nothing, at first, to explain Burke's conduct. But in a moment I comprehended.
A section of the closet floor was up, and now stood on edge leaning against a wall; beneath it was a shallow, cemented hollow, with four wooden steps leading down to the bottom, where, obviously, one might stand to get conveniently at the small safe thus disclosed.
It was also manifest that somebody had been doing that very thing. For the safe door stood open, as well as the inner door; and a flash of the candle, a single brief glimpse, assured me that—whatever it might have held—it was now as empty as on the day it left the maker's hands.
But, stay—there was something, though not in the safe. I took the candle from Burke, and went down the steps. On the cement floor, in the shadow of the open safe door, was a visiting-card, yellowed by age. I thought it blank at first; but on turning it over I saw some writing, faint and faded but legible, which had been penned by a feminine hand:
"I pray that you be showered with all the blessings of the season. With love from
And in the lower left-hand corner, a date was written—an old, old date: "Xmas, 1857."
Next I satisfied myself that the doors had not been forced, and that every compartment was indeed empty. Then I looked back over my shoulder, to be puzzled by the baffling, indecipherable stare of Burke's tawny eyes. Was he looking at me, at the reaved safe, or at the pathetic little reminder, which I was holding in my hand, of that long-ago Christmas present? Though I could not be certain, I somehow felt that his interest was, at the moment, intense, and that I had been mistaken in thinking him a young man.
As I slipped the time-worn card into a pocket, Maillot's voice broke in harshly upon my meditations.
"So—we have a thief to deal with, as well as an assassin," he observed, his glance roving casually over the secretary. "Burke, how would you, now, account for the safe being open?"
And for the first time I detected a sign of emotion in the yellow eyes: they darted a look toward Maillot, and away again; but it flickered with a spark of malice—gleamed for an instant with a light of malevolent contempt—which made me feel that the fellow had all along been keeping something in reserve, something which must inevitably come to light presently, to Maillot's utter discomfiture and undoing. It suggested that Burke was patiently biding his time until some sudden turn of events should permit him to triumph over the other. Clearly, there was no goodwill lost between these two men.
At once the eyes were again the same blank windows whose scrutiny was so indeterminate. Burke let down the trap-door in the closet floor, and I paused a while to admire how cunningly it had been designed. Although knowing it to be there, I could discern no trace of the aperture. We then reentered the bedroom.
I observed a door in the wall nearest the front of the house, and, seized with a sudden fancy to ascertain upon what it opened, went and laid my hand upon the handle. Burke's steady progress toward the hall door seemed to be aimed at diverting my purpose; realizing that he had failed, he turned and called aloud, staying my hand while it was in the very act of turning the knob.
"That's only the conservatory," his voice rang out; "it's empty—save for dust and cobwebs, there 's nothing in it."
"Nevertheless I have a fancy to explore it," returned I; and I opened the door.
A narrow passage was disclosed, across which was another door. Both swung open noiselessly, a circumstance which struck me, in view of the fact that the conservatory was empty and unused, as being rather odd; and as I closed the second door behind me, I turned round as if to make sure the latch had caught.
The hinges had been freshly oiled.
A bay of glass, semi-opaque with dirt, occupied the space of the outer wall, and the glare from the dazzling snow outside brought out the whole interior with a sort of brutal vividness. A number of water-stained shelves; a few shallow boxes disintegrating and distributing their contents of earth over the floor; one or two crisp, brown, desiccated plant-stalks: such was the interior of this apartment set aside and dedicated to flowers and bright growing things.
And it had been used infrequently as a passageway, too. In the dust on the floor were footprints; some of them old, where later dust had settled, without quite obliterating them; some fresh, as if made but an hour ago.
As I came up to the next door I observed that its hinges had also been freshly lubricated, and was not surprised when it opened without a sound. When I stepped through it, I was in the curtained alcove off the library. Truly, there had been some secret, surreptitious flittings in this old mansion.
At that moment, in my abstraction, I was humming a little tune. I heard Stodger jovially speeding the departing reporters; and after the outside door closed behind the last of them, I shouted for him to enter the library. Our eyes met, and I indicated the secretary by the faintest of signs.
"Mr. Burke," said I, quietly, "will you please wait with Mr. Stodger while I have a few words with Mr. Maillot?"
The blank, pale face was turned briefly toward me—or Maillot—then the man bowed without a word, and followed Stodger. He paused an instant at the door, and looked across his shoulder at Maillot; enigma that he was, I nevertheless again caught a triumphant gleam in the tawny eyes. Then he passed on.
The fire on the wide hearth had been replenished during our round of the rooms; it was now blazing cheerily and doing its best to drive out the chill and the damp from the library; and it was a relief to get back to the easy leather chairs once more. I rested my forearms upon the back of one; but the instant the door closed on Stodger and Burke, young Maillot sank with a groan into a chair by the table.
"The devil! I'm glad you got rid of that fellow," he muttered. "He wears on one like the very deuce."
Now, during the last hour I had been sensible of a growing change in this young man; of a gradually increasing nervousness and apprehension,—as if I had all the time been pointing out little details, which he had previously overlooked and which were forming together, link by link, into a chain that would connect him with the tragedy. Up to the present he had concealed his thoughts only with an effort; but now his expression was become frankly worried and anxious; and as I stood silently regarding him, his agitation measurably increased. At last—
"For God's sake, Swift, don't look at me in that way!" came in a sudden outburst from his tightened lips. "I know—I can see—now that I 've had time to think it over—that the facts are damning. If I close my lips and refuse to make any statement at all, it will be equivalent to a confession. On the other hand—"
I waited, silent, motionless, without removing my eyes from his face. Some moments elapsed before he went on, during which he was patently exerting an effort at self-control.
"Swift," he at last continued, more calmly, "I 'm well aware what your conclusions must be; the responsibility for that old man's death lies between—between that secretary fellow and me; any fool can see that. It's downright devilish to be one of two such alternatives; but if I tell you what brought me here last night—Swift, I just simply can't contemplate doing it!"
Again he paused.
"Take time, Maillot," I admonished, "but choose wisely."
He lifted his head with a little jerk.
"Give me a moment to think. I must decide, and decide irrevocably, whether to become as dumb as a graven image, or else take you into my confidence."
At this unfortuitous instant there came a loud rap upon the door, which immediately opened to disclose the rotund form of Stodger, and behind him two slight figures in furs and veils, bearing into this desolate and gloomy old mansion a delicious flavor of young, dainty, pretty femininity.
"Miss Belle Fluette and Miss Genevieve Cooper—to see Mr. Maillot," announced Stodger, with all the absurd importance of a conscientious flunkey.
One, a tall girl in brown furs and with truly wonderful hazel eyes, came rapidly, gracefully, into the room, her companion following more sedately, and then stopped suddenly, as if petrified. She stood a moment—this haughty, handsome maid—a lovely picture of bewildered astonishment.
"Royal Maillot!" she cried, "whatever in the world has happened to your eye?"
AN EXTRAORDINARY ERRAND
I fancy that in ordinary circumstances Mr. Maillot would have betrayed some discomposure at the unintentional ridicule of this remarkably pretty girl's naivete, and furthermore, that the fact of his not having done so at once perplexed and alarmed her. For a moment she contemplated his worried countenance in round-eyed bewilderment, and then glanced inquiringly at me.
Maillot, in a sober manner, presented me. The handsome brown-eyed girl was Miss Belle Fluette; the other was her cousin, Miss Genevieve Cooper. She, too, was strikingly pretty, but instead of brown, her eyes were a deep and wonderful blue. Her hair was wavy and had many of the bronze lights and shadows that lurked in her cousin's reddish tresses, although it approached nearer a chestnut shade than auburn. She was not so tall as Miss Belle, and was more reserved in her demeanor.
Yet, in her sidewise regard of Maillot, there was a humorous, shrewd appreciation of his damaged appearance, connoting worldly knowledge sufficient to ascribe it to causes not precisely complimentary to his sobriety. Both, however, were very lovely, and very jaunty in their turbans and veils and long fur coats, while their cheeks glowed and their eyes sparkled from the crisp wintry air.
Miss Fluette acknowledged the mention of my name a little distantly. She made me feel that she had already surmised trouble, and that she was disposed to hold me accountable for it.
Miss Cooper was more cordial. She was very gracious, in a quiet, reserved way, and the expression of her blue eyes was so congenial that I caught myself more than once attempting to steal a glimpse of her countenance without her observing me, only to be disconcerted by a candid and not at all shy regard.
"Can we not go at once, Royal?" queried Miss Fluette, doubtfully. "It is dreadfully warm and stuffy in here. Jepson is waiting with the carriage."
I understood clearly, of course, that my presence accounted for her constraint. More than likely she would have given much to have got Maillot away immediately; but he replied, with a gravity that did not ease her mind:
"I 'm afraid not, Bell—not for some minutes. Mr. Swift and I have to to discuss Mr. Page's death."
Instantly her countenance reflected a deep concern.
"It is true, then, is it, that your uncle is dead?" she asked in a hushed voice.
His uncle! For the second time that morning I was staggered. Felix Page's nephew and Alfred Fluette's daughter sweethearts! The two men themselves bitter enemies! One lying cold in death—murdered! Is it any wonder that I was stricken speechless?
"Don't look so astonished, Swift," Maillot was saying. "That is only a part of what I have to tell."
"But—Felix Page your uncle!" I marvelled, as soon as I recovered my breath. "Look here, Maillot, it's not often that I 'm so thunderstruck; why have n't you told me this?"
"It's true," he said slowly; "he was my mother's brother. Neither of us was particularly proud of the connection—not enough to brag of it. I was meaning to tell you, though, Swift; it is an essential part of my story."
He wheeled a chair up to one side of the table for Miss Fluette, and I made haste to perform a like service for Miss Genevieve Cooper; an act which she recognized with a slight smile and one of her friendly looks.
"Perhaps you and Genevieve had better get out of your wraps," the young man suggested to Miss Fluette, "because I want you to hear all I have to say to Mr. Swift; it will take some time."
She was now genuinely alarmed, and the handsome hazel eyes searched his face with an apprehension and dread that made her love for him only too apparent. Most young fellows, I hazard, would court any peril for such a look from a girl as beautiful as Miss Belle Fluette.
And the blue eyes, too, mirrored anxiety; they turned to me in a quick, questioning glance. I tried to disregard them—to ignore the presence of these two pretty girls—and confine myself strictly to what Maillot had to relate. It was not easy to do, since Miss Fluette's attitude toward me had become not only openly accusatory, but more than a little scornful; and I feared, moreover, that I should shortly lose the support of Miss Cooper's sympathetic interest.
First of all, though, both young ladies were anxious for an account of the tragedy—a task of which I relieved Maillot by relating briefly the details as I understood them, but, of course, adding no comment that might be construed as an expression of my opinion as to who might be responsible. They listened attentively; but when I had finished, Miss Fluette turned to Maillot as if I were no longer in the room. I noticed that Miss Cooper's brow was gathered in a little frown—whether of perplexity or disapprobation I could not determine—and that she was looking fixedly at her cousin.
"Royal," said Miss Fluette the instant I was through, "is that—is Mr. Burke here?" Unless I was very much mistaken, the abrupt lowering of her voice which accompanied this question, the sudden narrowing of her eyes, betokened a strong dislike for the secretary. So, then, Miss Fluette was acquainted with him, was she?
"Yes, he's here," Maillot absently replied. Then a swift look—a flash of understanding—passed between the two girls.
Both pairs of eyes, the brown and the blue, avoided mine—in a studied effort, I fancied—when I glanced from one to the other to read further.
After all, I concluded, I was glad these two young ladies happened to be present.
"The object of my coming here last night," the young man at length began, "was known only to myself and Mr. Fluette, although I told Miss Fluette the bare circumstance of my intention. My mission would seem so absurd to any sane man, so utterly hopeless; it would be so impossible to bring any one else to look at the matter from my point of view, that my fear of ridicule stayed me from taking even her into my confidence. It was this."
His voice dropped, and he had every appearance of one who speaks with the utmost reluctance.
"I came to ask my uncle for the Paternoster ruby," he announced.
I merely waited, neither stirring nor speaking; not so the two girls, however, who made no pretence of concealing their amazement.
"You asked him to give it to you?" gasped Miss Fluette.
Maillot laughed bitterly, looking straight at me.
"I did," said he, as one convinced that he would not be believed in any event. "I not only asked him to give it to me—after having stated my reasons—but he promised to do so—this morning."
He seemed to measure our incredulity; to determine if its degree would warrant him in proceeding. My own countenance, I know, told him nothing; but it was obvious that the girls were assimilating his startling affirmations only with the greatest difficulty. I watched them curiously. They knew this young man perhaps better than any one else, and their fresh youthful faces were a clear index to their thoughts. Both were deeply troubled.
And now Miss Cooper, after a quick side-glance at me, spoke. Her voice was remarkably sweet and soft, her whole attitude inexpressibly gentle.
"Royal," said she, "you are greatly wrought up; I think I know why; but take your time, and keep nothing back. The truth is not going to hurt you; lack of candor may be extremely harmful."
He responded to this appeal with a slight gesture and a rather wistful smile; they reflected a certain hopelessness.
"Swift," he bluntly asked me, "have you ever heard of that confounded ruby?"
I told him that I was pretty well acquainted with its history; but did not tell him that I was cognizant of Alfred Fluette's association with it. Neither did I say anything about my knowledge of the long-standing enmity between the two men. I had already received more than one hint that the causes of the tragedy were deep and powerful, whatever their nature—I would have to find this out for myself—and I was extremely curious to hear his story.
"Then you know of the contest several years ago in London for its possession," Maillot pursued; "how Mr. Fluette coveted it for his collection, and how my uncle thwarted his efforts to obtain it. Mr. Fluette is very determined, and when his purpose is once set, it is not an easy matter to change or sway it. He was bitterly disappointed, though he never ceased hoping that some day he should acquire the jewel; but knowing Mr. Page as he did, I believe he was in a measure reconciled to a conviction that he would have to wait until the owner died.
"As I have said, his failure to get the stone was a great blow—perhaps more so than you can imagine; and, besides, my uncle stepping in in the way he did and outbidding him seemed so like a bit of petty spite-work—dog-in-the-manger, you know—that he could n't get over it. The stone cost my uncle a cool five hundred thousand: a pretty big price to pay for the indulgence of a personal grudge, is n't it?
"And now, Swift, knowing all this as I did—the strong aversion which each felt for the other—if I should come to you and tell you that I intended asking my uncle to give me his precious ruby for the purpose of passing it on to Mr. Fluette, would n't you think I had become a fit subject for a lunatic asylum?"
"Yet," returned I, calmly, "you say that you did this, and that your uncle assured you he would give you the stone this morning—promised after he had heard your reasons. I must admit that your present declarations are very extraordinary; perhaps they will not seem so after you 've recounted all the circumstances." And I added a bit grimly: "I'm growing impatient to hear what moved you to come here last night at all."
Once more the friendly blue eyes met mine, and I felt better for their encouragement. But Maillot's look became momentarily apprehensive.
"You already know what my most cherished hope and ambition is," he went on, with a glance at Miss Fluette. Their frequent frank exchange of ardent looks would have made that ambition plain, had I not already been apprised of it. "I 'm fairly well off by reason of a small inheritance from my father, and I 'm just beginning to make certain my foothold in my profession: prospects as good as most young men can boast of, I don't hesitate to say.
"Our engagement, though, has never met the approval of Belle's father. But that fails to express it: he has been actively opposed to me from the very start. We had the support of Mrs. Fluette, however, and so remained hopeful—until one week ago to-night."
He paused, staring gloomily at the table; and both the young ladies now sat with downcast eyes and sober expressions clouding their pretty faces, fairly enveloping the young fellow in their silent sympathy. Lucky chap! Maillot should have stood a good deal, uncomplainingly, too, for their deep interest in his welfare.
He looked up in a moment, and proceeded.
"At that time matters reached a crisis. Last Wednesday evening I called, as I had been in the habit of doing whenever I found an opportunity; and just as I was departing Mr. Fluette sent word to me to come to his study before I left. For a bit we thought he had relented, but on reflection I could n't entertain the idea; so, much dispirited, I went at once to see him.
"He was walking up and down before the fire, and, further than to nod his head toward a chair in a curt invitation for me to be seated, he said nothing for several minutes, but continued to pace thoughtfully back and forth between me and the hearth, as if pondering the best means of opening his mind to me.
"At last he wheeled about midway in his promenade, and bluntly fired his first question.
"'Why do you continue coming here?'" said he.
"The question stung me—of course it did; but I determined to keep my temper at any cost, and before I left, to find out at least one specific, definite reason why he did n't want me. I did, all right.
"Well, I laid my claims before him, pointing out that I was neither a pauper nor a criminal; I told him that Belle and I sincerely loved each other, and concluded by asking him whether he utterly disregarded his daughter's preferences in her choice of friends.
"'Far from it,' he replied. 'But I certainly interfere when I think she is exercising bad judgment in such a choice.'
"All at once he leaned forward and rapped sharply with his knuckles upon the table-desk, before which I was sitting.
"'One thing you fail to take into consideration,' he said, 'whether wilfully or not, I don't know, of course; but—to me—it is the most important factor of all.'
"And now, for the first time, I could see that he was not only possessed by a deep-stirring anger, but that he had been in a white-lipped fury during the whole of our conference. He went on:
"'You are Felix Page's nephew. I would rather see my daughter in her coffin—yes, a thousand times rather—than allied with a man who has a drop of that hound's blood in his veins. That, Mr. Maillot, is my final word.'
"These amazing words, spoken in a voice which trembled with passion, left me speechless. But presently I rose and bowed stiffly, utterly dumfounded by the intensity of his hate for my uncle, but nevertheless keenly incensed and mortified at the injustice he was doing me.
"What had I in common with Felix Page that I should meekly bow my head before the wrath of his enemies? Nothing whatever but that bond of kinship, to which neither of the persons most interested attached the slightest importance. Mr. Page had ignored my very existence—not that I had ever looked to him for anything, because I hadn't; but during all my struggles—through school, college, my efforts at establishing a practice—he never by so much as a word or sign acknowledged that he was aware that there lived anywhere on the face of the earth such a person as Royal Maillot. He had quarrelled with my mother shortly after my father's death—when I was only a kid—because she would not take charge of his household on conditions which would have been intolerable; and then he washed his hands of his sister and her child, I fancy.
"'Mr. Fluette,' said I at last, 'since your objections are not worthy of a man of your intelligence and ideals, I choose to think, therefore, that you don't sincerely entertain them; they are grossly unjust to Belle and me alike.' But he would n't let me go on.
"'Young man,' said he, in another wrathful outburst, 'I certainly admire your cheek—advising me—in my own house, too—as to my treatment of my own family!'
"For a second or two I returned his infuriated look; and then, resolved not to stand there bandying words nor to be led into a quarrel with him, I said:
"'I 'm sorry, Mr. Fluette—more than I can express—that you feel towards me as you do. Nobody could be more ignorant than I am concerning the nature of your feud with Felix Page—unless it is that you are visiting upon me the consequences of his opposition to you in the Board of Trade.'
"He spurned this supposition with a scornful gesture. So I continued:
"'I am glad to know it is not that; I could n't conceive of you doing anything so outrageously unjust. Could anything be more unfair,' I asked him, 'than to make me share all the animosities that Felix Page has engendered? Why, he is scarcely better than a stranger to me; my profound ignorance of his affairs is the best testimony that I can offer in my behalf.'"
He paused a moment and tried to drive the distressed look from Miss Belle's face with a cheering smile. He failed to do so, however, and immediately proceeded with his recital.
"Well, I failed utterly to move him; but you will be more than merely interested in what presently followed. Said he:
"'Admitting all that you say, you have brought forward nothing that is to the point; the one over-shadowing, unalterable fact remains that you are Felix Page's nephew. Prove the contrary to be true—satisfy me that you are free of that detestable blood taint—and you remove the last of my objections to you as a son-in-law.'
"He fell to pacing the floor again, and then presently he stopped and eyed me with a curious expression; I knew that he was turning something over in his mind. When he spoke, his words surprised and puzzled me not a little.
"'If you are so bent upon having Belle,' he said, there 's just one way you may go about getting her.'
"Considering what he had already said, it is no wonder that I did n't know what to say to this. I waited, and his next words betrayed the real cause—at least, I took it to be the real cause—of his bitterness and ill will. There was a sneer in every word.
"'Bring me the Paternoster ruby,' he said, 'and if, in the meantime, she has n't acquired some of the intelligence with which I have always credited her, why, you may take Belle.'
"After I got over being stupefied at the amazing effrontery of the thing—if accepted seriously—I began to do some pretty tall thinking, and I thought rapidly, too.
"'Is that a bargain?' I said at length.
"I spoke quite calmly and seriously, and he favored me with a surprised stare. But he snapped out a curt reply.
"'It is,' said he. 'And I don't give a rap how you get it, either. I wish you success.'
"Was I cast-down and disheartened? Swift—good Lord!—words can't define my feelings. Sly disposition is sanguine enough, but when the blue devils once do get hold of me—well, I 'm all in. I believe I suffer more in the dumps than any other living mortal.
"But somehow or other, that mad proposal stuck by me; it followed me persistently into the depths of my misery and colored all my hopeless cogitations—if only I could get my hands upon that bit of crimson glass! Great Scott, Swift! I believe, had I known where it was and could have gotten at it, I would have stolen it. Yes, sir, sardonically as it was advanced, the proposal to obtain the Paternoster ruby was not to be banished from my mind, and in a day or two I found myself weighing the chances of success.
"Well, the results in favor of accomplishing an undertaking so foolhardy were, even when contemplated in the most favorable light, exactly nil. And then there flashed into my mind a number of questions which—and I trust you 'll believe me when I assert it—had never come to me before: Who was my uncle's heir? To whom, when he died, would the ruby go? Who, or what, was to benefit by all that vast wealth he was so laboriously piling up?
"Now I had—and still have, for that matter—good reasons for believing that I was the only living relative, and of course knew that if he were to die intestate the whole of his property would pass to me simply by operation of law.
"But suppose he had made a will—was it likely that I had been entirely ignored? The drawing of a will is a solemn matter to the party most concerned, and at such a time the tie of blood is apt to urge its claims in a still small voice—a mere whisper, maybe, but astonishingly pertinacious. Therefore, was Mr. Page so indifferent to his only living kin—had all the common feelings of humanity so far evaporated from his heart—that he would remain deaf to that feeble plea?
"The end of this line of thought was a resolution to call upon my uncle, bare my heart to him, and then appeal to him on the strength of our relationship and his loneliness, to aid me. Without presuming that I entertained any expectations from him, still, if he meant to remember me at all, I intended to urge my present necessities as out-weighing every desire and hope of the future.
"Hopeless? Crazy? Of course it was! But I never would have been satisfied until I made the effort. . . . Belle, I want to smoke."
He paused, and producing a cigarette, lighted it. But as it was plain that he had not finished, his hearers were far too absorbed in his surprising recital to break in upon the silence. Miss Fluette had followed his every word with a light of love and sympathy shining in her hazel eyes, which was undoubtedly exerting an encouraging influence over the narrator; but Miss Cooper, I observed—and not without some inward satisfaction—was covertly watching me, as if she would fathom my thoughts and read the effect which the story was producing there.
And right here let me say that at the moment I would have been hard put to it if suddenly called upon to define that effect.
First of all, Maillot had shown that he was keenly sensible of the seriousness of his position, and in looking forward to the incredible story he would have to tell, had realized that its entire trend would mean self-incrimination. As he himself might have phrased it, he was supplying me not only with a motive for the crime, but, from the time of his conversation with Mr. Fluette forward, with evidence which cumulatively inculpated himself.
So far, I had felt like one listening to a confession; as if all that I had already harkened to was but a preamble to the tragedy which was yet to follow. I may go still farther: the thought occurred to me that he might be paving the way for justification for a deed of blood. Convinced that the responsibility for Page's death lay between himself and Burke, it would appear that he was adopting the only means of getting out of a bad hole.
Still I knew in my heart that the denouement of his recital had at best been only hinted at. Had he been under arrest, it would have been my duty to warn him that whatever he might say could be used against him as evidence. Yet I was bound to listen, to encourage him to talk, if he would; but I could not help considering the effect this story would produce upon the minds of a jury. I caught a wistful look in the blue eyes; and then I told Maillot something of what was in my own mind.