Martin Hewitt, Investigator, by Arthur Morrison

vi.

The Stanway Cameo Mystery.

It is now a fair number of years back since the loss of the famous Stanway Cameo made its sensation, and the only person who had the least interest in keeping the real facts of the case secret has now been dead for some time, leaving neither relatives nor other representatives. Therefore no harm will be done in making the inner history of the case public; on the contrary, it will afford an opportunity of vindicating the professional reputation of Hewitt, who is supposed to have completely failed to make anything of the mystery surrounding the case. At the present time connoisseurs in ancient objects of art are often heard regretfully to wonder whether the wonderful cameo, so suddenly discovered and so quickly stolen, will ever again be visible to the public eye. Now this question need be asked no longer.

The cameo, as may be remembered from the many descriptions published at the time, was said to be absolutely the finest extant. It was a sardonyx of three strata — one of those rare sardonyx cameos in which it has been possible for the artist to avail himself of three different colors of superimposed stone — the lowest for the ground and the two others for the middle and high relief of the design. In size it was, for a cameo, immense, measuring seven and a half inches by nearly six. In subject it was similar to the renowned Gonzaga Cameo — now the property of the Czar of Russia — a male and a female head with imperial insignia; but in this case supposed to represent Tiberius Claudius and Messalina. Experts considered it probably to be the work of Athenion, a famous gem-cutter of the first Christian century, whose most notable other work now extant is a smaller cameo, with a mythological subject, preserved in the Vatican.

The Stanway Cameo had been discovered in an obscure Italian village by one of those traveling agents who scour all Europe for valuable antiquities and objects of art. This man had hurried immediately to London with his prize, and sold it to Mr. Claridge of St. James Street, eminent as a dealer in such objects. Mr. Claridge, recognizing the importance and value of the article, lost no opportunity of making its existence known, and very soon the Claudius Cameo, as it was at first usually called, was as famous as any in the world. Many experts in ancient art examined it, and several large bids were made for its purchase.

In the end it was bought by the Marquis of Stanway for five thousand pounds for the purpose of presentation to the British Museum. The marquis kept the cameo at his town house for a few days, showing it to his friends, and then returned it to Mr. Claridge to be finally and carefully cleaned before passing into the national collection. Two nights after Mr. Claridge’s premises were broken into and the cameo stolen.

Such, in outline, was the generally known history of the Stanway Cameo. The circumstances of the burglary in detail were these: Mr. Claridge had himself been the last to leave the premises at about eight in the evening, at dusk, and had locked the small side door as usual. His assistant, Mr. Cutler, had left an hour and a half earlier. When Mr. Claridge left, everything was in order, and the policeman on fixed-point duty just opposite, who bade Mr. Claridge good-evening as he left, saw nothing suspicious during the rest of his term of duty, nor did his successors at the point throughout the night.

In the morning, however, Mr. Cutler, the assistant, who arrived first, soon after nine o’clock, at once perceived that something unlooked-for had happened. The door, of which he had a key, was still fastened, and had not been touched; but in the room behind the shop Mr. Claridge’s private desk had been broken open, and the contents turned out in confusion. The door leading on to the staircase had also been forced. Proceeding up the stairs, Mr. Cutler found another door open, leading from the top landing to a small room; this door had been opened by the simple expedient of unscrewing and taking off the lock, which had been on the inside. In the ceiling of this room was a trap-door, and this was six or eight inches open, the edge resting on the half-wrenched-off bolt, which had been torn away when the trap was levered open from the outside.

Plainly, then, this was the path of the thief or thieves. Entrance had been made through the trap-door, two more doors had been opened, and then the desk had been ransacked. Mr. Cutler afterward explained that at this time he had no precise idea what had been stolen, and did not know where the cameo had been left on the previous evening. Mr. Claridge had himself undertaken the cleaning, and had been engaged on it, the assistant said, when he left.

There was no doubt, however, after Mr. Claridge’s arrival at ten o’clock — the cameo was gone. Mr. Claridge, utterly confounded at his loss, explained incoherently, and with curses on his own carelessness, that he had locked the precious article in his desk on relinquishing work on it the previous evening, feeling rather tired, and not taking the trouble to carry it as far as the safe in another part of the house.

The police were sent for at once, of course, and every investigation made, Mr. Claridge offering a reward of five hundred pounds for the recovery of the cameo. The affair was scribbled off at large in the earliest editions of the evening papers, and by noon all the world was aware of the extraordinary theft of the Stanway Cameo, and many people were discussing the probabilities of the case, with very indistinct ideas of what a sardonyx cameo precisely was.

It was in the afternoon of this day that Lord Stanway called on Martin Hewitt. The marquis was a tall, upstanding man of spare figure and active habits, well known as a member of learned societies and a great patron of art. He hurried into Hewitt’s private room as soon as his name had been announced, and, as soon as Hewitt had given him a chair, plunged into business.

“Probably you already guess my business with you, Mr. Hewitt — you have seen the early evening papers? Just so; then I needn’t tell you again what you already know. My cameo is gone, and I badly want it back. Of course the police are hard at work at Claridge’s, but I’m not quite satisfied. I have been there myself for two or three hours, and can’t see that they know any more about it than I do myself. Then, of course, the police, naturally and properly enough from their point of view, look first to find the criminal, regarding the recovery of the property almost as a secondary consideration. Now, from my point of view, the chief consideration is the property. Of course I want the thief caught, if possible, and properly punished; but still more I want the cameo.”

“Certainly it is a considerable loss. Five thousand pounds ——”

“Ah, but don’t misunderstand me! It isn’t the monetary value of the thing that I regret. As a matter of fact, I am indemnified for that already. Claridge has behaved most honorably — more than honorably. Indeed, the first intimation I had of the loss was a check from him for five thousand pounds, with a letter assuring me that the restoration to me of the amount I had paid was the least he could do to repair the result of what he called his unpardonable carelessness. Legally, I’m not sure that I could demand anything of him, unless I could prove very flagrant neglect indeed to guard against theft.”

“Then I take it, Lord Stanway,” Hewitt observed, “that you much prefer the cameo to the money?”

“Certainly. Else I should never have been willing to pay the money for the cameo. It was an enormous price — perhaps much above the market value, even for such a valuable thing — but I was particularly anxious that it should not go out of the country. Our public collections here are not so fortunate as they should be in the possession of the very finest examples of that class of work. In short, I had determined on the cameo, and, fortunately, happen to be able to carry out determinations of that sort without regarding an extra thousand pounds or so as an obstacle. So that, you see, what I want is not the value, but the thing itself. Indeed, I don’t think I can possibly keep the money Claridge has sent me; the affair is more his misfortune than his fault. But I shall say nothing about returning it for a little while; it may possibly have the effect of sharpening everybody in the search.”

“Just so. Do I understand that you would like me to look into the case independently, on your behalf?”

“Exactly. I want you, if you can, to approach the matter entirely from my point of view — your sole object being to find the cameo. Of course, if you happen on the thief as well, so much the better. Perhaps, after all, looking for the one is the same thing as looking for the other?”

“Not always; but usually it is, or course; even if they are not together, they certainly have been at one time, and to have one is a very long step toward having the other. Now, to begin with, is anybody suspected?”

“Well, the police are reserved, but I believe the fact is they’ve nothing to say. Claridge won’t admit that he suspects any one, though he believes that whoever it was must have watched him yesterday evening through the back window of his room, and must have seen him put the cameo away in his desk; because the thief would seem to have gone straight to the place. But I half fancy that, in his inner mind, he is inclined to suspect one of two people. You see, a robbery of this sort is different from others. That cameo would never be stolen, I imagine, with the view of its being sold — it is much too famous a thing; a man might as well walk about offering to sell the Tower of London. There are only a very few people who buy such things, and every one of them knows all about it. No dealer would touch it; he could never even show it, much less sell it, without being called to account. So that it really seems more likely that it has been taken by somebody who wishes to keep it for mere love of the thing — a collector, in fact — who would then have to keep it secretly at home, and never let a soul besides himself see it, living in the consciousness that at his death it must be found and this theft known; unless, indeed, an ordinary vulgar burglar has taken it without knowing its value.”

“That isn’t likely,” Hewitt replied. “An ordinary burglar, ignorant of its value, wouldn’t have gone straight to the cameo and have taken it in preference to many other things of more apparent worth, which must be lying near in such a place as Claridge’s.”

“True — I suppose he wouldn’t. Although the police seem to think that the breaking in is clearly the work of a regular criminal — from the jimmy-marks, you know, and so on.”

“Well, but what of the two people you think Mr. Claridge suspects?”

“Of course I can’t say that he does suspect them — I only fancied from his tone that it might be possible; he himself insists that he can’t, in justice, suspect anybody. One of these men is Hahn, the traveling agent who sold him the cameo. This man’s character does not appear to be absolutely irreproachable; no dealer trusts him very far. Of course Claridge doesn’t say what he paid him for the cameo; these dealers are very reticent about their profits, which I believe are as often something like five hundred per cent as not. But it seems Hahn bargained to have something extra, depending on the amount Claridge could sell the carving for. According to the appointment he should have turned up this morning, but he hasn’t been seen, and nobody seems to know exactly where he is.”

“Yes; and the other person?”

“Well, I scarcely like mentioning him, because he is certainly a gentleman, and I believe, in the ordinary way, quite incapable of anything in the least degree dishonorable; although, of course, they say a collector has no conscience in the matter of his own particular hobby, and certainly Mr. Wollett is as keen a collector as any man alive. He lives in chambers in the next turning past Claridge’s premises — can, in fact, look into Claridge’s back windows if he likes. He examined the cameo several times before I bought it, and made several high offers — appeared, in fact, very anxious indeed to get it. After I had bought it he made, I understand, some rather strong remarks about people like myself ‘spoiling the market’ by paying extravagant prices, and altogether cut up ‘crusty,’ as they say, at losing the specimen.” Lord Stanway paused a few seconds, and then went on: “I’m not sure that I ought to mention Mr. Woollett’s name for a moment in connection with such a matter; I am personally perfectly certain that he is as incapable of anything like theft as myself. But I am telling you all I know.”

“Precisely. I can’t know too much in a case like this. It can do no harm if I know all about fifty innocent people, and may save me from the risk of knowing nothing about the thief. Now, let me see: Mr. Wollett’s rooms, you say, are near Mr. Claridge’s place of business? Is there any means of communication between the roofs?”

“Yes, I am told that it is perfectly possible to get from one place to the other by walking along the leads.”

“Very good! Then, unless you can think of any other information that may help me, I think, Lord Stanway, I will go at once and look at the place.”

“Do, by all means. I think I’ll come back with you. Somehow, I don’t like to feel idle in the matter, though I suppose I can’t do much. As to more information, I don’t think there is any.”

“In regard to Mr. Claridge’s assistant, now: Do you know anything of him?”

“Only that he has always seemed a very civil and decent sort of man. Honest, I should say, or Claridge wouldn’t have kept him so many years — there are a good many valuable things about at Claridge’s. Besides, the man has keys of the place himself, and, even if he were a thief, he wouldn’t need to go breaking in through the roof.”

“So that,” said Hewitt, “we have, directly connected with this cameo, besides yourself, these people: Mr. Claridge, the dealer; Mr. Cutler, the assistant in Mr. Claridge’s business; Hahn, who sold the article to Claridge, and Mr. Woollett, who made bids for it. These are all?”

“All that I know of. Other gentlemen made bids, I believe, but I don’t know them.”

“Take these people in their order. Mr. Claridge is out of the question, as a dealer with a reputation to keep up would be, even if he hadn’t immediately sent you this five thousand pounds — more than the market value, I understand, of the cameo. The assistant is a reputable man, against whom nothing is known, who would never need to break in, and who must understand his business well enough to know that he could never attempt to sell the missing stone without instant detection. Hahn is a man of shady antecedents, probably clever enough to know as well as anybody how to dispose of such plunder — if it be possible to dispose of it at all; also, Hahn hasn’t been to Claridge’s to-day, although he had an appointment to take money. Lastly, Mr. Woollett is a gentleman of the most honorable record, but a perfectly rabid collector, who had made every effort to secure the cameo before you bought it; who, moreover, could have seen Mr. Claridge working in his back room, and who has perfectly easy access to Mr. Claridge’s roof. If we find it can’t be none of these, then we must look where circumstances indicate.”

There was unwonted excitement at Mr. Claridge’s place when Hewitt and his client arrived. It was a dull old building, and in the windows there was never more show than an odd blue china vase or two, or, mayhap, a few old silver shoe-buckles and a curious small sword. Nine men out of ten would have passed it without a glance; but the tenth at least would probably know it for a place famous through the world for the number and value of the old and curious objects of art that had passed through it.

On this day two or three loiterers, having heard of the robbery, extracted what gratification they might from staring at nothing between the railings guarding the windows. Within, Mr. Claridge, a brisk, stout, little old man, was talking earnestly to a burly police-inspector in uniform, and Mr. Cutler, who had seized the opportunity to attempt amateur detective work on his own account, was groveling perseveringly about the floor, among old porcelain and loose pieces of armor, in the futile hope of finding any clue that the thieves might have considerately dropped.

Mr. Claridge came forward eagerly.

“The leather case has been found, I am pleased to be able to tell you, Lord Stanway, since you left.”

“Empty, of course?”

“Unfortunately, yes. It had evidently been thrown away by the thief behind a chimney-stack a roof or two away, where the police have found it. But it is a clue, of course.”

“Ah, then this gentleman will give me his opinion of it,” Lord Stanway said, turning to Hewitt. “This, Mr. Claridge, is Mr. Martin Hewitt, who has been kind enough to come with me here at a moment’s notice. With the police on the one hand and Mr. Hewitt on the other we shall certainly recover that cameo, if it is to be recovered, I think.”

Mr. Claridge bowed, and beamed on Hewitt through his spectacles. “I’m very glad Mr. Hewitt has come,” he said. “Indeed, I had already decided to give the police till this time to-morrow, and then, if they had found nothing, to call in Mr. Hewitt myself.”

Hewitt bowed in his turn, and then asked: “Will you let me see the various breakages? I hope they have not been disturbed.”

“Nothing whatever has been disturbed. Do exactly as seems best. I need scarcely say that everything here is perfectly at your disposal. You know all the circumstances, of course?”

“In general, yes. I suppose I am right in the belief that you have no resident housekeeper?”

“No,” Claridge replied, “I haven’t. I had one housekeeper who sometimes pawned my property in the evening, and then another who used to break my most valuable china, till I could never sleep or take a moment’s ease at home for fear my stock was being ruined here. So I gave up resident housekeepers. I felt some confidence in doing it because of the policeman who is always on duty opposite.”

“Can I see the broken desk?”

Mr. Claridge led the way into the room behind the shop. The desk was really a sort of work-table, with a lifting top and a lock. The top had been forced roughly open by some instrument which had been pushed in below it and used as a lever, so that the catch of the lock was torn away. Hewitt examined the damaged parts and the marks of the lever, and then looked out at the back window.

“There are several windows about here,” he remarked, “from which it might be possible to see into this room. Do you know any of the people who live behind them?”

“Two or three I know,” Mr. Claridge answered, “but there are two windows — the pair almost immediately before us — belonging to a room or office which is to let. Any stranger might get in there and watch.”

“Do the roofs above any of those windows communicate in any way with yours?”

“None of those directly opposite. Those at the left do; you may walk all the way along the leads.”

“And whose windows are they?”

Mr. Claridge hesitated. “Well,” he said, “they’re Mr. Woollett’s, an excellent customer of mine. But he’s a gentleman, and — well, I really think it’s absurd to suspect him.”

“In a case like this,” Hewitt answered, “one must disregard nothing but the impossible. Somebody — whether Mr. Woollett himself or another person — could possibly have seen into this room from those windows, and equally possibly could have reached this room from that one. Therefore we must not forget Mr. Woollett. Have any of your neighbors been burgled during the night? I mean that strangers anxious to get at your trap-door would probably have to begin by getting into some other house close by, so as to reach your roof.”

“No,” Mr. Claridge replied; “there has been nothing of that sort. It was the first thing the police ascertained.”

Hewitt examined the broken door and then made his way up the stairs with the others. The unscrewed lock of the door of the top back-room required little examination. In the room below the trap-door was a dusty table on which stood a chair, and at the other side of the table sat Detective–Inspector Plummer, whom Hewitt knew very well, and who bade him “good-day” and then went on with his docket.

“This chair and table were found as they are now, I take it?” Hewitt asked.

“Yes,” said Mr. Claridge; “the thieves, I should think, dropped in through the trap-door, after breaking it open, and had to place this chair where it is to be able to climb back.”

Hewitt scrambled up through the trap-way and examined it from the top. The door was hung on long external barn-door hinges, and had been forced open in a similar manner to that practiced on the desk. A jimmy had been pushed between the frame and the door near the bolt, and the door had been pried open, the bolt being torn away from the screws in the operation.

Presently Inspector Plummer, having finished his docket, climbed up to the roof after Hewitt, and the two together went to the spot, close under a chimney-stack on the next roof but one, where the case had been found. Plummer produced the case, which he had in his coat-tail pocket, for Hewitt’s inspection.

“I don’t see anything particular about it; do you?” he said. “It shows us the way they went, though, being found just here.”

“Well, yes,” Hewitt said; “if we kept on in this direction, we should be going toward Mr. Woollett’s house, and his trap-door, shouldn’t we!”

The inspector pursed his lips, smiled, and shrugged his shoulders. “Of course we haven’t waited till now to find that out,” he said.

“No, of course. And, as you say, I didn’t think there is much to be learned from this leather case. It is almost new, and there isn’t a mark on it.” And Hewitt handed it back to the inspector.

“Well,” said Plummer, as he returned the case to his pocket, “what’s your opinion?”

“It’s rather an awkward case.”

“Yes, it is. Between ourselves — I don’t mind telling you — I’m having a sharp lookout kept over there”— Plummer jerked his head in the direction of Mr. Woollett’s chambers —“because the robbery’s an unusual one. There’s only two possible motives — the sale of the cameo or the keeping of it. The sale’s out of the question, as you know; the thing’s only salable to those who would collar the thief at once, and who wouldn’t have the thing in their places now for anything. So that it must be taken to keep, and that’s a thing nobody but the maddest of collectors would do, just such persons as —” and the inspector nodded again toward Mr. Woollett’s quarters. “Take that with the other circumstances,” he added, “and I think you’ll agree it’s worth while looking a little farther that way. Of course some of the work — taking off the lock and so on — looks rather like a regular burglar, but it’s just possible that any one badly wanting the cameo would like to hire a man who was up to the work.”

“Yes, it’s possible.”

“Do you know anything of Hahn, the agent?” Plummer asked, a moment later.

“No, I don’t. Have you found him yet?”

“I haven’t yet, but I’m after him. I’ve found he was at Charing Cross a day or two ago, booking a ticket for the Continent. That and his failing to turn up to-day seem to make it worth while not to miss him if we can help it. He isn’t the sort of man that lets a chance of drawing a bit of money go for nothing.”

They returned to the room. “Well,” said Lord Stanway, “what’s the result of the consultation? We’ve been waiting here very patiently, while you two clever men have been discussing the matter on the roof.”

On the wall just beneath the trap-door a very dusty old tall hat hung on a peg. This Hewitt took down and examined very closely, smearing his fingers with the dust from the inside lining. “Is this one of your valuable and crusted old antiques?” he asked, with a smile, of Mr. Claridge.

“That’s only an old hat that I used to keep here for use in bad weather,” Mr. Claridge said, with some surprise at the question. “I haven’t touched it for a year or more.”

“Oh, then it couldn’t have been left here by your last night’s visitor,” Hewitt replied, carelessly replacing it on the hook. “You left here at eight last night, I think?”

“Eight exactly — or within a minute or two.”

“Just so. I think I’ll look at the room on the opposite side of the landing, if you’ll let me.”

“Certainly, if you’d like to,” Claridge replied; “but they haven’t been there — it is exactly as it was left. Only a lumber-room, you see,” he concluded, flinging the door open.

A number of partly broken-up packing-cases littered about this room, with much other rubbish. Hewitt took the lid of one of the newest-looking packing-cases, and glanced at the address label. Then he turned to a rusty old iron box that stood against a wall. “I should like to see behind this,” he said, tugging at it with his hands. “It is heavy and dirty. Is there a small crowbar about the house, or some similar lever?”

Mr. Claridge shook his head. “Haven’t such a thing in the place,” he said.

“Never mind,” Hewitt replied, “another time will do to shift that old box, and perhaps, after all, there’s little reason for moving it. I will just walk round to the police-station, I think, and speak to the constables who were on duty opposite during the night. I think, Lord Stanway, I have seen all that is necessary here.”

“I suppose,” asked Mr. Claridge, “it is too soon yet to ask if you have formed any theory in the matter?”

“Well — yes, it is,” Hewitt answered. “But perhaps I may be able to surprise you in an hour or two; but that I don’t promise. By the by,” he added suddenly, “I suppose you’re sure the trap-door was bolted last night?”

“Certainly,” Mr. Claridge answered, smiling. “Else how could the bolt have been broken? As a matter of fact, I believe the trap hasn’t been opened for months. Mr. Cutler, do you remember when the trap-door was last opened?”

Mr. Cutler shook his head. “Certainly not for six months,” he said.

“Ah, very well; it’s not very important,” Hewitt replied.

As they reached the front shop a fiery-faced old gentleman bounced in at the street door, stumbling over an umbrella that stood in a dark corner, and kicking it three yards away.

“What the deuce do you mean,” he roared at Mr. Claridge, “by sending these police people smelling about my rooms and asking questions of my servants? What do you mean, sir, by treating me as a thief? Can’t a gentleman come into this place to look at an article without being suspected of stealing it, when it disappears through your wretched carelessness? I’ll ask my solicitor, sir, if there isn’t a remedy for this sort of thing. And if I catch another of your spy fellows on my staircase, or crawling about my roof, I’ll — I’ll shoot him!”

“Really, Mr. Woollett ——” began Mr. Claridge, somewhat abashed, but the angry old man would hear nothing.

“Don’t talk to me, sir; you shall talk to my solicitor. And am I to understand, my lord”— turning to Lord Stanway —“that these things are being done with your approval?”

“Whatever is being done,” Lord Stanway answered, “is being done by the police on their own responsibility, and entirely without prompting, I believe, by Mr. Claridge — certainly without a suggestion of any sort from myself. I think that the personal opinion of Mr. Claridge — certainly my own — is that anything like a suspicion of your position in this wretched matter is ridiculous. And if you will only consider the matter calmly ——”

“Consider it calmly? Imagine yourself considering such a thing calmly, Lord Stanway. I won’t consider it calmly. I’ll — I’ll — I won’t have it. And if I find another man on my roof, I’ll pitch him off!” And Mr. Woollett bounced into the street again.

“Mr. Woollett is annoyed,” Hewitt observed, with a smile. “I’m afraid Plummer has a clumsy assistant somewhere.”

Mr. Claridge said nothing, but looked rather glum, for Mr. Woollett was a most excellent customer.

Lord Stanwood and Hewitt walked slowly down the street, Hewitt staring at the pavement in profound thought. Once or twice Lord Stanway glanced at his face, but refrained from disturbing him. Presently, however, he observed: “You seem, at least, Mr. Hewitt, to have noticed something that has set you thinking. Does it look like a clue?”

Hewitt came out of his cogitation at once. “A clue?” he said; “the case bristles with clues. The extraordinary thing to me is that Plummer, usually a smart man, doesn’t seem to have seen one of them. He must be out of sorts, I’m afraid. But the case is decidedly a most remarkable one.”

“Remarkable in what particular way?”

“In regard to motive. Now it would seem, as Plummer was saying to me just now on the roof, that there were only two possible motives for such a robbery. Either the man who took all this trouble and risk to break into Claridge’s place must have desired to sell the cameo at a good price, or he must have desired to keep it for himself, being a lover of such things. But neither of these has been the actual motive.”

“Perhaps he thinks he can extort a good sum from me by way of ransom?”

“No, it isn’t that. Nor is it jealousy, nor spite, nor anything of that kind. I know the motive, I think— but I wish we could get hold of Hahn. I will shut myself up alone and turn it over in my mind for half an hour presently.”

“Meanwhile, what I want to know is, apart from all your professional subtleties — which I confess I can’t understand — can you get back the cameo?”

“That,” said Hewitt, stopping at the corner of the street, “I am rather afraid I can not — nor anybody else. But I am pretty sure I know the thief.”

“Then surely that will lead you to the cameo?”

“It may, of course; but, then, it is just possible that by this evening you may not want to have it back, after all.”

Lord Stanway stared in amazement.

“Not want to have it back!” he exclaimed. “Why, of course I shall want to have it back. I don’t understand you in the least; you talk in conundrums. Who is the thief you speak of?”

“I think, Lord Stanway,” Hewitt said, “that perhaps I had better not say until I have quite finished my inquiries, in case of mistakes. The case is quite an extraordinary one, and of quite a different character from what one would at first naturally imagine, and I must be very careful to guard against the possibility of error. I have very little fear of a mistake, however, and I hope I may wait on you in a few hours at Piccadilly with news. I have only to see the policemen.”

“Certainly, come whenever you please. But why see the policemen? They have already most positively stated that they saw nothing whatever suspicious in the house or near it.”

“I shall not ask them anything at all about the house,” Hewitt responded. “I shall just have a little chat with them — about the weather.” And with a smiling bow he turned away, while Lord Stanway stood and gazed after him, with an expression that implied a suspicion that his special detective was making a fool of him.

In rather more than an hour Hewitt was back in Mr. Claridge’s shop. “Mr. Claridge,” he said, “I think I must ask you one or two questions in private. May I see you in your own room?”

They went there at once, and Hewitt, pulling a chair before the window, sat down with his back to the light. The dealer shut the door, and sat opposite him, with the light full in his face.

“Mr. Claridge,” Hewitt proceeded slowly, “when did you first find that Lord Stanway’s cameo was a forgery?”

Claridge literally bounced in his chair. His face paled, but he managed to stammer sharply: “What — what — what d’you mean? Forgery? Do you mean to say I sell forgeries? Forgery? It wasn’t a forgery!”

“Then,” continued Hewitt in the same deliberate tone, watching the other’s face the while, “if it wasn’t a forgery, why did you destroy it and burst your trap-door and desk to imitate a burglary?”

The sweat stood thick on the dealer’s face, and he gasped. But he struggled hard to keep his faculties together, and ejaculated hoarsely: “Destroy it? What — what — I didn’t — didn’t destroy it!”

“Threw it into the river, then — don’t prevaricate about details.”

“No — no — it’s a lie! Who says that? Go away! You’re insulting me!” Claridge almost screamed.

“Come, come, Mr. Claridge,” Hewitt said more placably, for he had gained his point; “don’t distress yourself, and don’t attempt to deceive me — you can’t, I assure you. I know everything you did before you left here last night — everything.”

Claridge’s face worked painfully. Once or twice he appeared to be on the point of returning an indignant reply, but hesitated, and finally broke down altogether.

“Don’t expose me, Mr. Hewitt!” he pleaded; “I beg you won’t expose me! I haven’t harmed a soul but myself. I’ve paid Lord Stanway every penny back, and I never knew the thing was a forgery till I began to clean it. I’m an old man, Mr. Hewitt, and my professional reputation has been spotless until now. I beg you won’t expose me.”

Hewitt’s voice softened. “Don’t make an unnecessary trouble of it,” he said. “I see a decanter on your sideboard — let me give you a little brandy and water. Come, there’s nothing criminal, I believe, in a man’s breaking open his own desk, or his own trap-door, for that matter. Of course I’m acting for Lord Stanway in this affair, and I must, in duty, report to him without reserve. But Lord Stanway is a gentleman, and I’ll undertake he’ll do nothing inconsiderate of your feelings, if you’re disposed to be frank. Let us talk the affair over; tell me about it.”

“It was that swindler Hahn who deceived me in the beginning,” Claridge said. “I have never made a mistake with a cameo before, and I never thought so close an imitation was possible. I examined it most carefully, and was perfectly satisfied, and many experts examined it afterward, and were all equally deceived. I felt as sure as I possibly could feel that I had bought one of the finest, if not actually the finest, cameos known to exist. It was not until after it had come back from Lord Stanway’s, and I was cleaning it the evening before last, that in course of my work it became apparent that the thing was nothing but a consummately clever forgery. It was made of three layers of molded glass, nothing more nor less. But the glass was treated in a way I had never before known of, and the surface had been cunningly worked on till it defied any ordinary examination. Some of the glass imitation cameos made in the latter part of the last century, I may tell you, are regarded as marvelous pieces of work, and, indeed, command very fair prices, but this was something quite beyond any of those.

“I was amazed and horrified. I put the thing away and went home. All that night I lay awake in a state of distraction, quite unable to decide what to do. To let the cameo go out of my possession was impossible. Sooner or later the forgery would be discovered, and my reputation — the highest in these matters in this country, I may safely claim, and the growth of nearly fifty years of honest application and good judgment — this reputation would be gone forever. But without considering this, there was the fact that I had taken five thousand pounds of Lord Stanway’s money for a mere piece of glass, and that money I must, in mere common honesty as well as for my own sake, return. But how? The name of the Stanway Cameo had become a household word, and to confess that the whole thing was a sham would ruin my reputation and destroy all confidence — past, present, and future — in me and in my transactions. Either way spelled ruin. Even if I confided in Lord Stanway privately, returned his money, and destroyed the cameo, what then? The sudden disappearance of an article so famous would excite remark at once. It had been presented to the British Museum, and if it never appeared in that collection, and no news were to be got of it, people would guess at the truth at once. To make it known that I myself had been deceived would have availed nothing. It is my business not to be deceived; and to have it known that my most expensive specimens might be forgeries would equally mean ruin, whether I sold them cunningly as a rogue or ignorantly as a fool. Indeed, my pride, my reputation as a connoisseur, is a thing near to my heart, and it would be an unspeakable humiliation to me to have it known that I had been imposed on by such a forgery. What could I do? Every expedient seemed useless but one — the one I adopted. It was not straightforward, I admit; but, oh! Mr. Hewitt, consider the temptation — and remember that it couldn’t do a soul any harm. No matter who might be suspected, I knew there could not possibly be evidence to make them suffer. All the next day — yesterday — I was anxiously worrying out the thing in my mind and carefully devising the — the trick, I’m afraid you’ll call it, that you by some extraordinary means have seen through. It seemed the only thing — what else was there? More I needn’t tell you; you know it. I have only now to beg that you will use your best influence with Lord Stanway to save me from public derision and exposure. I will do anything —— pay anything — anything but exposure, at my age, and with my position.”

“Well, you see,” Hewitt replied thoughtfully, “I’ve no doubt Lord Stanway will show you every consideration, and certainly I will do what I can to save you in the circumstances; though you must remember that you have done some harm — you have caused suspicions to rest on at least one honest man. But as to reputation, I’ve a professional reputation of my own. If I help to conceal your professional failure, I shall appear to have failed in my part of the business.”

“But the cases are different, Mr. Hewitt. Consider. You are not expected — it would be impossible — to succeed invariably; and there are only two or three who know you have looked into the case. Then your other conspicuous successes ——”

“Well, well, we shall see. One thing I don’t know, though — whether you climbed out of a window to break open the trap-door, or whether you got up through the trap-door itself and pulled the bolt with a string through the jamb, so as to bolt it after you.”

“There was no available window. I used the string, as you say. My poor little cunning must seem very transparent to you, I fear. I spent hours of thought over the question of the trap-door — how to break it open so as to leave a genuine appearance, and especially how to bolt it inside after I had reached the roof. I thought I had succeeded beyond the possibility of suspicion; how you penetrated the device surpasses my comprehension. How, to begin with, could you possibly know that the cameo was a forgery? Did you ever see it?”

“Never. And, if I had seen it, I fear I should never have been able to express an opinion on it; I’m not a connoisseur. As a matter of fact, I didn’t know that the thing was a forgery in the first place; what I knew in the first place was that it was you who had broken into the house. It was from that that I arrived at the conclusion, after a certain amount of thought, that the cameo must have been forged. Gain was out of the question. You, beyond all men, could never sell the Stanway Cameo again, and, besides, you had paid back Lord Stanway’s money. I knew enough of your reputation to know that you would never incur the scandal of a great theft at your place for the sake of getting the cameo for yourself, when you might have kept it in the beginning, with no trouble and mystery. Consequently I had to look for another motive, and at first another motive seemed an impossibility. Why should you wish to take all this trouble to lose five thousand pounds? You had nothing to gain; perhaps you had something to save — your professional reputation, for instance. Looking at it so, it was plain that you were suppressing the cameo — burking it; since, once taken as you had taken it, it could never come to light again. That suggested the solution of the mystery at once — you had discovered, after the sale, that the cameo was not genuine.”

“Yes, yes — I see; but you say you began with the knowledge that I broke into the place myself. How did you know that? I can not imagine a trace ——”

“My dear sir, you left traces everywhere. In the first place, it struck me as curious, before I came here, that you had sent off that check for five thousand pounds to Lord Stanway an hour or so after the robbery was discovered; it looked so much as though you were sure of the cameo never coming back, and were in a hurry to avert suspicion. Of course I understood that, so far as I then knew the case, you were the most unlikely person in the world, and that your eagerness to repay Lord Stanway might be the most creditable thing possible. But the point was worth remembering, and I remembered it.

“When I came here, I saw suspicious indications in many directions, but the conclusive piece of evidence was that old hat hanging below the trap-door.”

“But I never touched it; I assure you, Mr. Hewitt, I never touched the hat; haven’t touched it for months ——”

“Of course. If you had touched it, I might never have got the clue. But we’ll deal with the hat presently; that wasn’t what struck me at first. The trap-door first took my attention. Consider, now: Here was a trap-door, most insecurely hung on external hinges; the burglar had a screwdriver, for he took off the door-lock below with it. Why, then, didn’t he take this trap off by the hinges, instead of making a noise and taking longer time and trouble to burst the bolt from its fastenings? And why, if he were a stranger, was he able to plant his jimmy from the outside just exactly opposite the interior bolt? There was only one mark on the frame, and that precisely in the proper place.

“After that I saw the leather case. It had not been thrown away, or some corner would have shown signs of the fall. It had been put down carefully where it was found. These things, however, were of small importance compared with the hat. The hat, as you know, was exceedingly thick with dust — the accumulation of months. But, on the top side, presented toward the trap-door, were a score or so of raindrop marks. That was all. They were new marks, for there was no dust over them; they had merely had time to dry and cake the dust they had fallen on. Now, there had been no rain since a sharp shower just after seven o’clock last night. At that time you, by your own statement, were in the place. You left at eight, and the rain was all over at ten minutes or a quarter past seven. The trap-door, you also told me, had not been opened for months. The thing was plain. You, or somebody who was here when you were, had opened that trap-door during, or just before, that shower. I said little then, but went, as soon as I had left, to the police-station. There I made perfectly certain that there had been no rain during the night by questioning the policemen who were on duty outside all the time. There had been none. I knew everything.

“The only other evidence there was pointed with all the rest. There were no rain-marks on the leather case; it had been put on the roof as an after-thought when there was no rain. A very poor after-thought, let me tell you, for no thief would throw away a useful case that concealed his booty and protected it from breakage, and throw it away just so as to leave a clue as to what direction he had gone in. I also saw, in the lumber-room, a number of packing-cases — one with a label dated two days back — which had been opened with an iron lever; and yet, when I made an excuse to ask for it, you said there was no such thing in the place. Inference, you didn’t want me to compare it with the marks on the desks and doors. That is all, I think.”

Mr. Claridge looked dolorously down at the floor. “I’m afraid,” he said, “that I took an unsuitable rôle when I undertook to rely on my wits to deceive men like you. I thought there wasn’t a single vulnerable spot in my defense, but you walk calmly through it at the first attempt. Why did I never think of those raindrops?”

“Come,” said Hewitt, with a smile, “that sounds unrepentant. I am going, now, to Lord Stanway’s. If I were you, I think I should apologize to Mr. Woollett in some way.”

Lord Stanway, who, in the hour or two of reflection left him after parting with Hewitt, had come to the belief that he had employed a man whose mind was not always in order, received Hewitt’s story with natural astonishment. For some time he was in doubt as to whether he would be doing right in acquiescing in anything but a straightforward public statement of the facts connected with the disappearance of the cameo, but in the end was persuaded to let the affair drop, on receiving an assurance from Mr. Woollett that he unreservedly accepted the apology offered him by Mr. Claridge.

As for the latter, he was at least sufficiently punished in loss of money and personal humiliation for his escapade. But the bitterest and last blow he sustained when the unblushing Hahn walked smilingly into his office two days later to demand the extra payment agreed on in consideration of the sale. He had been called suddenly away, he exclaimed, on the day he should have come, and hoped his missing the appointment had occasioned no inconvenience. As to the robbery of the cameo, of course he was very sorry, but “pishness was pishness,” and he would be glad of a check for the sum agreed on. And the unhappy Claridge was obliged to pay it, knowing that the man had swindled him, but unable to open his mouth to say so.

The reward remained on offer for a long time; indeed, it was never publicly withdrawn, I believe, even at the time of Claridge’s death. And several intelligent newspapers enlarged upon the fact that an ordinary burglar had completely baffled and defeated the boasted acumen of Mr. Martin Hewitt, the well-known private detective.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/m/morrison/arthur/martin-hewitt-investigator/chapter6.html

Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 17:11