As there were two good men on duty that night, I did not see why I should remain at my desk, even though there was an unusual stir created in our small town by the grand ball given at The Evergreens.
But just as I was preparing to start for home, an imperative ring called me to the telephone, and I heard:
“Halloo! Is this the police-station?”
“Well, then, a detective is wanted at once at The Evergreens. He cannot be too clever or too discreet. A valuable jewel has been lost, which must be found before the guests disperse for home. Large reward if the matter ends successfully.”
“May I ask who is speaking to me?”
It was the mistress of The Evergreens and giver of the ball.
“Madam, a man shall be sent at once. Where will you see him?”
“In the butler’s pantry at the rear. Let him give his name as Jennings.”
“Very good. Good-bye.”
A pretty piece of work! Should I send Hendricks or should I send Hicks? Hendricks was clever and Hicks discreet, but neither united both qualifications in the measure demanded by the sensible and quietly resolved woman with whom I had just been talking. What alternative remained? But one: I must go myself.
It was not late — not for a ball-night, at least — and as half the town had been invited to the dance, the streets were alive with carriages. I was watching the blink of their lights through the fast-falling snow when my attention was drawn to a fact which struck me as peculiar. These carriages were all coming my way instead of rolling in the direction of The Evergreens. Had they been empty this would have needed no explanation; but, so far as I could see, most of them were full, and that, too, of loudly-talking women and gesticulating men.
Something of a serious nature must have occurred at The Evergreens. Rapidly I paced on, and soon found myself before the great gates.
A crowd of vehicles of all descriptions blocked the entrance. None seemed to be passing up the driveway; all stood clustered at the gates; and as I drew nearer I perceived many an anxious head thrust forth from their quickly-opened doors, and heard many an ejaculation of disappointment as the short interchange of words went on between the drivers of these various turnouts and a man drawn up in quiet resolution before the unexpectedly barred entrance.
Slipping round to this man’s side, I listened to what he was saying. It was simple, but very explicit.
“Mrs. Ashley asks everybody’s pardon, but the ball can’t go on to-night. Something has happened which makes the reception of further guests impossible. To-morrow evening she will be happy to see you all. The dance is simply postponed.”
This he had probably repeated forty times, and each time it had probably been received with the same mixture of doubt and curiosity which now held the lengthy procession in check.
Not wishing to attract attention, yet anxious to lose no time, I pressed up still nearer, and, bending towards him from the shadow cast by a convenient post, uttered the one word:
Instantly he unlocked a small gate at his right. I passed in, and with professional sang-froid proceeded to take my way to the house through the double row of evergreens bordering the semicircular approach.
As these trees stood very close together, and were, besides, heavily laden with fresh-fallen snow, I failed to catch a glimpse of the building itself until I stood in front of it. Then I saw that it was brilliantly lighted, and gave evidence here and there of some festivity; but the guests were too few for the effect to be very exhilarating, and, passing around to the rear, I sought the special entrance to which I had been directed.
A heavy-browed porch, before which stood a caterer’s wagon, led me to a door which had every appearance of being the one I sought. Pushing it open, I entered without ceremony, and speedily found myself in the midst of twenty or more coloured waiters and chattering housemaids. To one of the former I addressed the question:
“Where is the butler’s pantry? I am told that I shall find the lady of the house there.”
“Your name?” was the curt demand.
I was taken through narrow passages and across one or two storerooms to a small but well-lighted closet, where I was left, with the assurance that Mrs. Ashley would presently join me. I had never seen this lady, but I had often heard her spoken of as a woman of superior character and admirable discretion.
She did not keep me waiting. In two minutes the door opened, and this fine, well-poised woman was telling her story in the straightforward manner I so much admire.
The article lost was a large ruby of singular beauty and great value, the property of Mrs. Burton, the Senator’s wife, in whose honour this ball was being given. It had not been lost in the house, nor had it been originally missed this evening. Mrs. Burton and herself had attended the great football game in the afternoon, and it was on the college campus that Mrs. Burton had first dropped her invaluable jewel. But a reward of five hundred dollars having been at once offered to whomever should find and restore it, a great search had followed, which ended in its being picked up by one of the students, and brought back as far as the driveway in front of The Evergreens, when it had again disappeared, and in a way to rouse conjecture of the strangest and most puzzling character.
The young man who had brought it thus far bore the name of John Deane, and was a member of the senior class. He had been the first to detect its sparkle in the grass, and those who were near enough to see his face at that happy moment say that it expressed the utmost satisfaction at his good luck.
“You see,” said Mrs. Ashley, “he has a sweetheart, and five hundred dollars looks like a fortune to a young man just starting life. But he was weak enough to take this girl into his confidence; and on their way here — for both were invited to the ball — he went so far as to pull it out of his pocket and show it to her.
“They were admiring it together, and vaunting its beauties to the young lady friend who had accompanied them, when their carriage turned into the driveway and they saw the lights of the house flashing before them. Hastily restoring the jewel to the little bag he had made for it out of the finger-end of an old glove — a bag in which he assured me he had been careful to keep it safely tied ever since picking it up on the college green — he thrust it back into his pocket and prepared to help the ladies out. But just then a disturbance arose in front. A horse which had been driven up was rearing in a way that threatened to overturn the light buggy to which it was attached. As the occupants of this buggy were ladies, and seemed to have no control over the plunging beast, young Deane naturally sprang to the rescue. Bidding his own ladies alight and make for the porch, he hurriedly ran forward and, pausing in front of the maddened animal, waited for an opportunity to seize him by the rein. He says that as he stood there facing the beast with fixed eye and raised hand, he distinctly felt something strike or touch his breast. But the sensation conveyed no meaning to him in his excitement, and he did not think of it again till, the horse well in hand and the two alarmed occupants of the buggy rescued, he turned to see where his own ladies were, and beheld them looking down at him from the midst of a circle of young people, drawn from the house by the screaming of the women. Instantly a thought of the treasure he carried recurred to his mind, and releasing the now quieted horse, he thrust his hand hastily into his pocket. The jewel was gone. He declares that for a moment he felt as if he had been struck on the head by one of the hoofs of the frantic horse he had just handled. But immediately the importance of his loss and the necessity he felt for instant action restored him to himself, and shouting aloud, “I have dropped Mrs. Burton’s ruby!” he begged every one to stand still while he made a search for it.
“This all occurred, as you must know, more than an hour and a half ago, consequently before many of my guests had arrived. My son, who was one of the few spectators gathered on the porch, tells me that there was only one other carriage behind the one in which Mr. Deane had brought his ladies. Both of these had stopped short of the stepping-stone, and as the horse and buggy which had made all this trouble had by this time been driven to the stable, nothing stood in the way of his search but the rapidly accumulating snow, which, if you remember, was falling very thick and fast at the time.
“My son, who had rushed in for his overcoat, came running down the steps to help him. So did some others. But, with an imploring gesture, he begged to be allowed to conduct the search alone, the ground being in such a state that the delicately-mounted jewel ran great risk of being trodden into the snow and thus injured or lost. They humoured him for a moment, then, seeing that his efforts bade fair to be fruitless, my son insisted upon joining him, and the two looked the ground over, inch by inch, from the place where Mr. Deane had set foot to ground in alighting from his carriage to the exact spot where he had stood when he had finally seized hold of the horse. But no ruby. Then Harrison (that is my son’s name) sent for a broom and went over the place again, sweeping aside the surface snow and examining carefully the ground beneath, but with no better results than before. No ruby could be found. My son came to me panting. Mrs. Burton and myself stood awaiting him in a state of suspense. Guests and f�te were alike forgotten. We had heard that the jewel had been found on the campus by one of the students, and had been brought back as far as the step in front, and then lost again in some unaccountable manner in the snow, and we hoped, nay, expected from moment to moment, that it would be brought in.
“When Harrison finally entered, pale, dishevelled and shaking his head, Mrs. Burton caught me by the hand, and I thought she would faint. For this jewel is of far greater value to her than its mere worth in money, though that is by no means small.
“It is a family jewel, and was given to her by her husband under special circumstances. He prizes it even more than she does, and he is not here to counsel or assist her in this extremity. Besides, she was wearing it in direct opposition to his expressed wishes. This I must tell you, to show how imperative it is for us to recover it; also to account for the large reward she is willing to pay. When he last looked at it he noticed that the fastening was a trifle slack, and, though he handed the trinket back, he told her distinctly that she was not to wear it till it had been either to Tiffany’s or Starr’s. But she considered it safe enough, and put it on to please the boys, and lost it. Senator Burton is a hard man and — in short, the jewel must be found. I give you just one hour in which to do it.”
“But, madam ——” I protested.
“I know,” she put in, with a quick nod and a glance over her shoulder to see if the door was shut. “I have not finished my story. Hearing what Harrison had to say, I took action at once. I bade him call in the guests, whom curiosity or interest still detained in the porch, and seat them in a certain room which I designated to him. Then, after telling him to send two men to the gates with orders to hold back all further carriages from entering, and two others to shovel up and cart away to the stable every particle of snow for ten feet each side of the front step, I asked to see Mr. Deane. But here my son whispered something into my ear, which it is my duty to repeat. It was to the effect that Mr. Deane believed that the jewel had been taken from him; that he insisted, in fact, that he had felt a hand touch his breast while he stood awaiting an opportunity to seize the horse. ‘Very good,’ said I, ‘we’ll remember that too; but first see that my orders are carried out, and that all approaches to the grounds are guarded and no one allowed to come in or go out without permission from me.’
“He left us, and I was turning to encourage Mrs. Burton when my attention was caught by the eager face of a little friend of mine, who, quite unknown to me, was sitting in one of the corners of the room. She was studying my countenance with a subdued anxiety, hardly natural in one so young, and I was about to relieve my mind by questioning her when she made a sudden rush and vanished from the room. Some impulse made me follow her. She is a conscientious little thing, but timid as a hare, and though I saw she had something to say, it was with difficulty I could make her speak. Only after the most solemn assurances that her name should not be mentioned in the matter would she give me the following bit of information, which you may possibly think throws another light upon the affair. It seems that she was looking out of one of the front windows when Mr. Deane’s carriage drove up. She had been watching the antics of the horse attached to the buggy, but as soon as she saw Mr. Deane going to the assistance of those in danger, she let her eyes stray back to the ladies whom he had left behind him in the carriage.
“She did not know these ladies, but their looks and gestures interested her, and she watched them quite intently as they leaped to the ground and made their way toward the porch. One went on quickly, and without pause, to the step; but the other — the one who came last — did not do this. She stopped a moment, perhaps to watch the horse in front, perhaps to draw her cloak more closely about her, and when she again moved on it was with a start and a hurried glance at her feet, terminating in a quick turn and a sudden stooping to the ground. When she again stood upright she had something in her hand which she thrust furtively into her breast.”
“How was this lady dressed?” I inquired.
“In a white cloak, with an edging of fur. I took pains to learn that too, and it was with some curiosity, I assure you, that I examined the few guests that had now been admitted to the room I had so carefully pointed out to my son. Two of them wore white cloaks, but one of these was Mrs. Dalrymple, and I did not give her or her cloak a second thought. The other was a tall, fine-looking girl, with an air and bearing calculated to rouse admiration if she had not looked so disturbed. But her preoccupation was evident, a circumstance which, had she been Mr. Deane’s fianc�e, would have needed no explanation; but, as she was only that lady’s friend, its cause was not so apparent.
“The floor of the room, as I had happily remembered, was covered with crash, and as I lifted each garment off — I allowed no maid to assist me in this — I shook it well; ostensibly because of the few flakes clinging to it, really to see if anything could be shaken out of it. Of course, I met with no success. I had not expected to, but it is my disposition to be thorough. These wraps I saw all hung in an adjoining closet, the door of which I locked — here is the key — after which I handed my guests over to my son, and went to notify the police.”
I bowed, and asked where the young people were now.
“Still in the drawing-room. I have ordered the musicians to play, and consequently there is more or less dancing. But, of course, nothing can remove the wet blanket which has fallen over us all — nothing but the finding of this jewel. Do you see your way to accomplishing this? We are from this very moment at your disposal; only I pray that you will make no more disturbance than is necessary, and, if possible, arouse no suspicions you cannot back up by facts. I dread a scandal almost as much as I do sickness and death, and these young people — well, their lives are all before them, and neither Mrs. Burton nor myself would wish to throw the shadow of a false suspicion over any one of them.”
I assured her that I sympathised with her scruples, and would do my best to recover the ruby without inflicting undue annoyance upon the innocent. Then I inquired whether it was known that a detective had been called in. She seemed to think it was suspected by some, if not by all. At which my way seemed a trifle complicated.
We were about to proceed when another thought struck me.
“Madam, you have not said whether the carriage itself was searched.”
“I forgot. Yes, the carriage was thoroughly overhauled before the coachman left the box.”
“Who did this overhauling?”
“My son. He would not trust any one else in a business of this kind.”
“One more question, madam. Was any one seen to approach Mr. Deane on the carriage-drive prior to his assertion that the jewel was lost?”
“No. And there were no tracks in the snow of any such person. My son looked.”
And I would look, or so I decided within myself, but I said nothing; and in silence we proceeded toward the drawing-room.
I had left my overcoat behind me, and always being well dressed, I did not present so bad an appearance. Still, I was not in party attire, and naturally could not pass for a guest even if I had wanted to, which I did not. I felt that I must rely on insight in this case, and on a certain power I had always possessed of reading faces. That the case called for just this species of intuition I was positive. Mrs. Burton’s ruby was within a hundred yards of us at this very moment, probably within a hundred feet; but to lay hands on it and without scandal — well, that was a problem calculated to rouse the interest of even an old police-officer like myself.
A strain of music — desultory, however, and spiritless, like everything else about the place that night — greeted us as Mrs. Ashley opened the door leading directly into the large front hall.
Immediately a scene meant to be festive, but which was, in fact, desolate, burst upon us. The lights, the flowers, and the brilliant appearance of such ladies as flitted into sight from the almost empty parlours, were all suggestive of the cheer suitable to a great occasion; but, in spite of this, the effect was altogether melancholy, for the hundreds who should have graced this scene, and for whom this illumination had been made and these festoons hung, had been turned away from the gates, and the few who felt they must remain, because their hostess showed no disposition to let them go, wore any but holiday faces, for all their forced smiles and pitiful attempts at nonchalance and gaiety.
I scrutinised these faces carefully. I detected nothing in them but annoyance at a situation which certainly was anything but pleasant.
Turning to Mrs. Ashley, I requested her to be kind enough to point out her son, adding that I should be glad to have a moment’s conversation with him before I spoke to Mr. Deane.
“That will give Mr. Deane time to compose himself. He is quite upset. Not even Mrs. Burton can comfort him. My son — oh, there is Harrison!”
A tall, fine-looking young man was crossing the hall. Mrs. Ashley beckoned to him, and in another moment we were standing together in one of the empty parlours. I gave him my name and told him my business. Then I said:
“Your mother has allotted me an hour in which to find the valuable jewel which has just been lost on these premises.” Here I smiled. “She evidently has great confidence in my ability. I must see that I do not disappoint her.”
All this time I was examining his face. It was not only handsome, but expressive of great candour. The eyes looked straight into mine, and, while showing anxiety, betrayed no deeper emotion than the occasion naturally called for.
“Have you any suggestions to offer? I understand that you were on the ground almost as soon as Mr. Deane discovered his loss.”
His eyes changed a trifle, but did not swerve. Of course, he had been informed by his mother of the suspicious action of the young lady who had been a member of that gentleman’s party, and shrank, as any one in his position would, from the responsibilities entailed by this knowledge.
“No,” said he. “We have done all we can. The next move must come from you.”
“I know of one that will settle the matter at once,” I assured him, still with my eyes fixed scrutinisingly on his face —“a universal search, not of places, but of persons. But it is a harsh measure.”
“A most disagreeable one,” he emphasised, flushing. “Such an indignity offered to guests would never be forgotten or forgiven.”
“True. But if they offered to submit to this themselves?”
“If you, the son of the house — their host, we may say — should call them together, and for your own satisfaction empty out your pockets in the sight of every one, don’t you think that all the men, and possibly all the women too”— here I let my voice fall suggestively —“would be glad to follow suit? It could be done in apparent joke.”
He shook his head with a straightforward air, which set him high in my estimation.
“That would call for little but effrontery on my part,” said he. “But think how it would affect these boys who came here for the sole purpose of enjoying themselves. I will not so much as mention the ladies.”
“Yet one of the latter ——”
“I know,” he quietly acknowledged, growing restless for the first time.
I withdrew my eyes from his face. I had learned what I wished. Personally, he did not shrink from search, therefore the jewel was not in his pockets. This left but two persons for suspicion to halt between. But I disclosed nothing of my thoughts; I merely asked pardon for a suggestion that, while pardonable in a man accustomed to handle crime with ungloved hands, could not fail to prove offensive to a gentleman like himself.
“We must move by means less open,” I concluded. “It adds to our difficulties, but that cannot be helped. I should now like a glimpse of Mr. Deane.”
“Do you not wish to speak to him?”
“I should prefer a sight of his face first.”
He led me across the hall and pointed through an open door. In the centre of a small room containing a table and some chairs I perceived a young man sitting, with fallen head and dejected air, staring at vacancy. By his side, with hand laid on his, knelt a young girl, striving in this gentle but speechless way to comfort him. It made a pathetic picture. I drew Ashley away.
“I am disposed to believe in that young man,” said I. “If he still has the jewel, he would not try to carry off the situation just this way. He really looks broken-hearted.”
“Oh, he is dreadfully cut up! If you could have seen how frantically he searched for the stone, and the depression into which he fell when he realised that it was not to be found, you would not doubt him for an instant. What made you think he might still have the ruby?”
“Oh, we police-officers think of everything. Then the fact that he insists that something or some one touched his breast on the driveway strikes me as a trifle suspicious. Your mother says that no second person could have been there, or the snow would have given evidence of it.”
“Yes; I looked expressly. Of course, the drive itself was full of hoof-marks and wheel-tracks, for several carriages had already passed over it. Then there were all of Deane’s footsteps, but no other man’s, so far as I could see.”
“Yet he insists that he was touched or struck.”
“With no one there to touch or strike him.”
Mr. Ashley was silent.
“Let us step out and take a view of the place,” I suggested. “I should prefer doing this to questioning the young man in his present state of mind.” Then, as we turned to put on our coats, I asked with suitable precautions: “Do you suppose that he has the same secret suspicions as ourselves, and that it is to hide these he insists upon the jewel’s having been taken away from him at a point the ladies are known not to have approached?”
Young Ashley looked more startled than pleased.
“Nothing has been said to him of what Miss Peters saw Miss Glover do. I could not bring myself to mention it. I have not even allowed myself to believe ——”
Here a fierce gust, blowing in from the door he had just opened, cut short his words, and neither of us spoke again till we stood on the exact spot in the driveway where the episode we were endeavouring to understand had taken place.
“Oh,” I cried, as soon as I could look about me; “the mystery is explained. Look at that bush, or perhaps you call it a shrub. If the wind were blowing as freshly as it is now, and very probably it was, one of those slender branches might easily be switched against his breast, especially if he stood, as you say he did, close against this border.”
“Well, I’m a fool. Only the other day I told the gardener that these branches would need trimming in the spring, and yet I never so much as thought of them when Mr. Deane spoke of something striking his breast.”
As we turned back I made this remark:
“With this explanation of the one doubtful point in his otherwise plausible account, we can credit his story as being in the main true, which,” I calmly added, “places him above suspicion and narrows our inquiry down to one.”
We had moved quickly, and were now at the threshold of the door by which we had come out.
“Mr. Ashley,” I continued, “I shall have to ask you to add to your former favours that of showing me the young lady in whom, from this moment on, we are especially interested. If you can manage to let me see her first without her seeing me, I shall be infinitely obliged to you.”
“I do not know where she is. I shall have to search for her.”
“I will wait by the hall door.”
In a few minutes he returned to me.
“Come,” said he, and led me into what I judged to be the library.
With a gesture towards one of the windows, he backed quickly out, leaving me to face the situation alone. I was rather glad of this. Glancing in the direction he had indicated, and perceiving the figure of a young lady standing with her back to me on the farther side of a flowing lace curtain, I took a few steps toward her, hoping that the movement would cause her to turn. But it entirely failed to produce this effect, nor did she give any sign that she noted the intrusion. This prevented me from catching the glimpse of her face which I so desired, and obliged me to confine myself to a study of her dress and attitude.
The former was very elegant, more elegant than the appearance of her two friends had led me to expect. Though I am far from being an authority on feminine toilets, I yet had experience enough to know that such a gown represented not only the best efforts of the dressmaker’s art, but very considerable means on the part of the woman wearing it.
This was a discovery which instantly altered the complexion of my thoughts; for I had presupposed her a girl of humble means, willing to sacrifice certain scruples to obtain a little extra money. This imposing figure might be that of a millionaire’s daughter; how, then, could I associate her, even in my own mind, with theft? I decided that I must see her face before giving answer to these doubts.
She did not seem inclined to turn. She had raised the shade from before the wintry panes and was engaged in looking out. Her attitude was not that of one simply enjoying a moment’s respite from the dance. It was rather that of an absorbed mind brooding upon what gave little or no pleasure; and as I further gazed and noted the droop of her lovely shoulders and the languor visible in her whole bearing, I saw that a full glimpse of her features was imperative. Moving forward, I came upon her suddenly.
“Excuse me, Miss Smith,” I boldly exclaimed; then paused, for she had turned instinctively, and I had seen that for which I had risked this daring move. “Your pardon,” I hastily apologised. “I mistook you for another young lady,” and drew back with a low bow to let her pass, for I saw that her mind was bent on escape.
And I did not wonder at this, for her eyes were streaming with tears, and her face, which was doubtless a pretty one under ordinary conditions, looked so distorted with distracting emotions that she was no fit subject for any man’s eye, let alone that of a hard-hearted officer of the law on the lookout for the guilty hand which had just appropriated a jewel worth anywhere from eight to ten thousand dollars.
Yet I was glad to see her weep, for only first offenders weep, and first offenders are amenable to influence, especially if they have been led into wrong by impulse, and are weak rather than wicked.
Anxious to make no blunder, I resolved, before proceeding further, to learn what I could of the character and antecedents of the suspected one, and this from the only source which offered — Mr. Deane’s affianced.
This young lady was a delicate girl, with a face like a flower. Recognising her sensitive nature, I approached her with the utmost gentleness. Not seeking to disguise either the nature of my business or my reasons for being in the house, since all this gave me authority, I modulated my tone to suit her gentle spirit, and, above all, I showed the utmost sympathy for her lover, whose rights in the reward had been taken from him as certainly as the jewel had been taken from Mrs. Burton. In this way I gained her confidence, and she was quite ready to listen when I observed:
“There is a young lady here who seems to be in a state of even greater trouble than Mr. Deane. Why is this? You brought her here. Is her sympathy with Mr. Deane so great as to cause her to weep over his loss?”
“Frances? Oh no. She likes Mr. Deane and she likes me, but not well enough to cry over our misfortunes. I think she has some trouble of her own.”
“One that you can tell me?”
Her surprise was manifest.
“Why do you ask that? What interest can a police-officer, called in, as I understand, to recover a stolen jewel, have in Frances Glover’s personal difficulties?”
I saw that I must make my position perfectly plain.
“Only this: She was seen to pick up something from the driveway, where no one else had succeeded in finding anything.”
“She? When? Who saw her?”
“I cannot answer all these questions at once,” I said, smiling. “She was seen to do this — no matter by whom — while you were stepping down from the carriage. As you preceded her, you naturally did not observe this action, which was fortunate, perhaps, as you would scarcely have known what to do or say about it.”
“Yes, I should,” she retorted with a most unexpected display of spirit. “I should have asked her what she had found, and I should have insisted upon an answer. I love my friends, but I love the man I am to marry better.”
Here her voice fell, and a most becoming blush suffused her cheek.
“Quite right,” I assented. “Now will you answer my former question? What troubles Miss Glover? Can you tell me?”
“That I cannot. I only know that she has been very silent ever since she left the house. I thought her beautiful new dress would please her, but it does not seem to. She has been unhappy and preoccupied all the evening. She only roused a bit when Mr. Deane showed us the ruby, and said —— Oh, I forgot!”
“What’s that? What have you forgot?”
“Your remark of a moment ago. I wouldn’t add a word ——”
“Pardon me,” I smilingly interrupted, looking as fatherly as I could, “but you have added this word, and now you must tell me what it means. You were going to speak of the interest she showed in the extraordinary jewel which Mr. Deane took from his pocket, and ——”
“In what he said about the reward he expected. That is, she looked eagerly at the ruby, and sighed when he acknowledged that he expected it to bring him five hundred dollars before midnight. But any girl of means no larger than hers might do that. It would not be fair to lay too much stress on a sigh.”
“Is not Miss Glover wealthy? She wears a very expensive dress, I observe.”
“I know it, and I have wondered a little at it, for her father is not called very well off. But perhaps she bought it with her own money. I know she has some; she is an artist in burnt wood.”
I let the subject of Miss Glover’s dress drop. I had heard enough to satisfy me that my first theory was correct. This young woman, beautifully dressed, and with a face from which the rounded lines of early girlhood had not yet departed, held in her possession, probably at this very moment, Mrs. Burton’s magnificent jewel. But where? On her person or hidden in some of her belongings? I remembered the cloak in the closet, and thought it wise to assure myself that the jewel was not secreted in this garment before I proceeded to extreme measures. Mrs. Ashley, upon being consulted, agreed with me as to the desirability of this, and presently I had this poor girl’s cloak in my hands.
Did I find the ruby? No; but I found something else tucked away in an inner pocket which struck me as bearing quite pointedly upon this case. It was the bill — crumpled, soiled, and tear-stained — of the dress whose elegance had so surprised her friends and made me for a short time regard her as the daughter of wealthy parents. An enormous bill, which must have struck dismay to the soul of this self-supporting girl, who probably had no idea of how a French dressmaker can foot up items. Four hundred and fifty dollars, and for one gown! I declare I felt indignant myself, and could quite understand why she heaved that little sigh when Mr. Deane spoke of the five hundred dollars he expected from Mrs. Burton, and, later, when, in following the latter’s footsteps up the driveway, she stumbled upon this same jewel, fallen, as it were, from his pocket into her very hands, how she came to succumb to the temptation of endeavouring to secure this sum for herself.
That he would shout aloud his loss, and thus draw the whole household out on the porch, was, naturally, not anticipated by her. Of course, when this occurred, the feasibility of her project was gone, and I only wished that I had been present and able to note her countenance, as, crowded in with others on that windy porch, she watched the progress of the search, which every moment made it not only less impossible for her to attempt the restoration upon which the reward depended, but must have caused her to feel, if she had been as well brought up as all indications showed, that it was a dishonest act of which she had been guilty, and that, willing or not, she must look upon herself as a thief so long as she held the jewel back from Mr. Deane or its rightful owner. But how face the publicity of restoring it now, after so elaborate and painful a search, in which even the son of her hostess had taken part!
That would be to proclaim her guilt, and thus effectually ruin her in the eyes of everybody concerned. No, she would keep the compromising article a little longer, in the hope of finding some opportunity of returning it without risk to her good name. And so she allowed the search to proceed.
I have entered thus elaborately into the supposed condition of this girl’s mind on this critical evening that you may understand why I felt a certain sympathy for her, which forbade harsh measures. I was sure, from the glimpse I had caught of her face, that she longed to be relieved from the tension she was under, and that she would gladly rid herself of this valuable jewel if she only knew how. This opportunity I proposed to give her; and this is why, on returning the bill to its place, I assumed such an air of relief on rejoining Mrs. Ashley.
She saw, and drew me aside.
“You have not found it,” she said.
“No,” I returned; “but I am positive where it is.”
“And where is that?”
“Over Miss Glover’s uneasy heart.”
Mrs. Ashley turned pale.
“Wait,” said I. “I have a scheme for getting it back without making her shame public. Listen!” and I whispered a few words in her ear.
She surveyed me in amazement for a moment, then nodded, and her face lighted up.
“You are certainly earning your reward,” she declared; and summoning her son, who was never far away from her side, she whispered her wishes. He started, bowed, and hurried from the room.
By this time my business in the house was well known to all, and I could not appear in hall or parlour without a great silence falling upon every one present, followed by a breaking up of the only too small circle of unhappy guests into agitated groups. But I appeared to see nothing of all this till the proper moment, when, turning suddenly upon them all, I cried out cheerfully, but with a certain deference I thought would please them:
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have an interesting fact to announce. The snow which was taken up from the driveway has been put to melt in the great feed caldron over the stable fire. We expect to find the ruby at the bottom, and Mrs. Ashley invites you to be present at its recovery. It has now stopped snowing, and she thought you might enjoy the excitement of watching the water ladled out.”
A dozen girls bounded forward.
“Oh yes! What fun! Where are our cloaks — our rubbers?”
Two only stood hesitating. One of these was Mr. Deane’s lady-love, and the other her friend, Miss Glover. The former, perhaps, secretly wondered. The latter — but I dared not look long enough or closely enough in her direction to judge rightly of her emotions. Amid the bustle which now ensued I caught sight of Mr. Deane’s face peering from an open doorway. It was all alive with hope. I also perceived a lady looking down from the second storey, who I felt sure was Mrs. Burton herself. Evidently my confident tone had produced more effect than the words themselves. Every one looked upon the jewel as already recovered, and regarded my invitation to the stable as a ruse by which I hoped to restore universal good feeling by giving them all a share in my triumph.
All but one! Nothing could make Miss Glover look otherwise than anxious, restless, and unsettled; and though she followed in the wake of the rest, it was with hidden face and lagging step, as if she recognised the whole thing as a farce, and doubted her own power to go through it calmly.
“Ah, ha! my lady,” thought I, “only be patient and you will see what I shall do for you.” And, indeed, I thought her eye brightened as we all drew up around the huge caldron standing full of water over the stable stove. As pains had already been taken to put out the fire in this stove, the ladies were not afraid of injuring their dresses, and consequently crowded as close as their numbers would permit. Miss Glover especially stood within reach of the brim, and as soon as I noted this, I gave the signal which had been agreed upon between Mr. Ashley and myself. Instantly the electric lights went out, leaving the place in total darkness.
A scream from the girls, a burst of hilarious laughter from their escorts, mingled with loud apologies from their seemingly mischievous host, filled up the interval of darkness which I had insisted should not be too soon curtailed; then the lights flared up as suddenly as they had gone out, and while the glare was fresh on every face, I stole a glance at Miss Glover to see if she had made good use of the opportunity given her for ridding herself of the jewel by dropping it into the caldron. If she had, both her troubles and mine were at an end; if she had not, then I need feel no further scruple in approaching her with the direct question I had hitherto found it so difficult to put.
She stood with both hands grasping her cloak, which she had drawn tightly about the rich folds of her new and expensive dress; but her eyes were fixed straight before her, with a soft light in their depths which made her positively beautiful.
The jewel is in the pot, I inwardly decided, and ordered the two waiting stablemen to step forward with their ladles. Quickly those ladles went in, but before they could be lifted out dripping, half the ladies had scurried back, afraid of injury to their pretty dresses. But they soon sidled forward again, and watched with beaming eyes the slow but sure emptying of the great caldron at whose bottom they anticipated finding the lost jewel.
As the ladles were plunged deeper and deeper, the heads drew closer, and so great was the interest shown that the busiest lips forgot to chatter, and eyes whose only business up till now had been to follow with shy curiosity every motion made by their handsome young host now settled on the murky depths of the great pot whose bottom was almost in sight.
As I heard the ladles strike this bottom, I instinctively withdrew a step in anticipation of the loud hurrah which would naturally hail the first sight of the lost ruby. Conceive, then, my chagrin, my bitter and mortified disappointment, when, after one look at the broad surface of the now exposed bottom, the one shout which rose was: “Nothing!”
I was so thoroughly put out that I did not wait to hear the loud complaints which burst from every lip. Drawing Mr. Ashley aside (who, by the way, seemed as much affected as myself by the turn affairs had taken), I remarked to him that, after this, there was only one course left for me to take.
“And what is that?”
“To ask Miss Glover to show me what she picked up from your driveway.”
“And if she refuses?”
“To take her quietly with me to the station, where we have women who can make sure that the ruby is not on her person.”
Mr. Ashley made an involuntary gesture of strong repugnance.
“Let us pray that it will not come to that,” he objected hoarsely. “Such a fine figure of a girl! Did you notice how bright and happy she looked when the lights sprang up? I declare she struck me as lovely.”
“So she did me, and caused me to draw some erroneous conclusions. I shall have to ask you to procure me an interview with her as soon as we return to the house.”
“She shall meet you in the library.”
But when, a few minutes later, she joined me in the room just designated, I own that my task became suddenly hateful to me. She was not far from my own daughter’s age, and, had it not been for her furtive look of care, appeared almost as blooming and bright. Would it ever come to pass that a harsh man of the law should feel it his duty to speak to my Flora as I must now speak to the young girl before me? The thought made me inwardly recoil, and it was in as gentle a manner as possible that I made my bow and began with the following remark:
“I hope you will pardon me, Miss Glover — I am told that is your name. I hate to disturb your pleasure”— this with the tears of alarm and grief rising in her eyes —“but you can tell me something which will greatly simplify my task, and possibly put matters in such shape that you and your friends can be released to your homes.”
She stood before me with amazed eyes, the colour rising in her cheeks. I had to force my next words, which, out of consideration for her, I made as direct as possible.
“Yes, miss. What was the article you were seen to pick up from the driveway soon after leaving your carriage?”
She started, then stumbled backward, tripping in her long train.
“I pick up?” she murmured. Then with a blush, whether of anger or pride I could not tell, she coldly answered: “Oh, that was something of my own — something I had just dropped. I had rather not tell you what it was.”
I scrutinised her closely. She met my eyes squarely, yet not with just the clear light I should, remembering Flora, have been glad to see there.
“I think it would be better for you to be entirely frank,” said I. “It was the only article known to have been picked up from the driveway after Mr. Deane’s loss of the ruby; and though we do not presume to say that it was the ruby, yet the matter would look clearer to us all if you would frankly state what this object was.”
Her whole body seemed to collapse, and she looked as if about to sink.
“Oh, where is Minnie? Where is Mr. Deane?” she moaned, turning and staring at the door, as if she hoped they would fly to her aid. Then, in a burst of indignation which I was fain to believe real, she turned on me with the cry: “It was a bit of paper which I had thrust into the bosom of my gown. It fell out ——”
“Your dressmaker’s bill?” I intimated.
“She stared, laughed hysterically for a moment, then sank upon a sofa nearby, sobbing spasmodically.
“Yes,” she cried, after a moment; “my dressmaker’s bill. You seem to know all my affairs.” Then suddenly, and with a startling impetuosity, which drew her to her feet: “Are you going to tell everybody that? Are you going to state publicly that Miss Glover brought an unpaid bill to the party, and that because Mr. Deane was unfortunate enough, or careless enough, to drop and lose the jewel he was bringing to Mrs. Burton she is to be looked upon as a thief, because she stooped to pick up this bill which had slipped inadvertently from its hiding-place? I shall die if you do!” she cried. “I shall die if it is already known,” she pursued with increasing emotion. “Is it? Is it?”
Her passion was so great, so much greater than any likely to rise in a breast wholly innocent, that I began to feel very sober.
“No one but Mrs. Ashley, and possibly her son, know about the bill,” said I, “and no one shall if you will go with that lady to her room, and make plain to her, in the only way you can, that the extremely valuable article which has been lost to-night is not in your possession.”
She threw up her arms with a scream. “Oh, what a horror! I cannot! I cannot! Oh, I shall die of shame! My father! My mother!” And she burst from the room like one distraught.
But in another moment she came cringing back.
“I cannot face them,” she said. “They all believe it; they will always believe it unless I submit! Oh, why did I ever come to this dreadful place? Why did I order this hateful dress, which I can never pay for, and which, in spite of the misery it has caused me, has failed to bring me the ——” She did not continue. She had caught my eye and seen there, perhaps, some evidence of the pity I could not but experience for her. With a sudden change of tone she advanced upon me with the appeal: “Save me from this humiliation. I have not seen the ruby. I am as ignorant of its whereabouts as — as Mr. Ashley himself. Won’t you believe me? Won’t they be satisfied if I swear ——”
I was really sorry for her. I began to think, too, that some dreadful mistake had been made. Her manner seemed too ingenuous for guilt. Yet where could that ruby be, if not with this young girl? Certainly, all other possibilities had been exhausted, and her story of the bill, even if accepted, would never quite exonerate her from secret suspicion while that elusive jewel remained unfound.
“You give me no hope,” she moaned. “I must go out before them all, and ask to have it proved that I am no thief. Oh, if God would only have pity ——!”
“Or some one should succeed in finding —— Halloo, what’s that?”
A shout had risen from the hall beyond.
She gasped, and we both plunged forward. Mr. Ashley, still in his overcoat, stood at the other end of the hall, and facing him were ranged the whole line of young people whom I had left scattered about in the various parlours. I thought he appeared to be in a peculiar frame of mind; and when he glanced our way, and saw who was standing with me in the library doorway, his voice took on a tone which made me doubt whether he was about to announce good news or bad.
But his first word settled that question.
“Rejoice with me!” he cried. “The ruby has been found! Do you want to see the culprit, for there is a culprit? We have him at the door. Shall we bring him in?”
“Yes, yes!” cried several voices, among them that of Mr. Deane, who now strode forward with beaming eyes and instinctively lifted hand. But some of the ladies looked frightened, and Mr. Ashley, noting this, glanced for encouragement in our direction.
He seemed to find it in Miss Glover’s eyes. She had quivered and nearly fallen at that word found, but had drawn herself up by this time, and was awaiting his further action in a fever of relief and hope, which, perhaps, no one but myself could fully appreciate.
“A vile thief! A most unconscionable rascal!” vociferated Mr. Ashley. “You must see him, mother; you must see him, ladies, else you will not realise our good fortune. Open the door there, and bring in the robber!”
At this command, uttered in ringing tones, the huge leaves of the great front-door swung slowly forward, revealing two sturdy stablemen leading into view —a huge horse.
The scream of astonishment which went up from all sides, united to Mr. Ashley’s shout of hilarity, caused the animal, unused, no doubt, to drawing-rooms, to rear to the length of his bridle. At which Mr. Ashley laughed again, and gaily cried:
“Confound the fellow! Look at him, mother! look at him, ladies! Do you not see guilt written on his brow? It is he who has made us all this trouble. First, he must needs take umbrage at the two lights with which we presumed to illuminate our porch; then, envying Mrs. Burton her ruby and Mr. Deane his reward, seek to rob them both by grinding his hoofs all over the snow of the driveway till he came upon the jewel which Mr. Deane had dropped from his pocket, and, taking it up in a ball of snow, secrete it in his left hind shoe — where it might be yet, if Mr. Spencer”— here he bowed to a strange gentleman who at that moment entered —“had not come himself for his daughters, and, going first to the stable, found his horse so restless and seemingly lame — there, boys, you may take the wretch away now and harness him, but first hold up that guilty left hind hoof for the ladies to see — that he stooped to examine him, and so came upon this.”
Here the young gentleman brought forward his hand. In it was a nondescript little wad, well soaked and shapeless; but once he had untied the kid, such a ray of rosy light burst from his outstretched palm that I doubt if a single woman there noted the clatter of the retiring beast or the heavy clang made by the two front-doors as they shut upon the robber. Eyes and tongues were too busy, and Mr. Ashley, realising, probably, that the interest of all present would remain, for a few minutes at least, with this marvellous jewel so astonishingly recovered, laid it, with many expressions of thankfulness, in Mrs. Burton’s now eagerly outstretched palm, and advancing towards us, greeted Miss Glover with a smile.
“Congratulate me,” he prayed. “All our troubles are over. Oh, what now?”
The poor young thing, in trying to smile, had turned as white as a sheet. Before either of us could interpose an arm, she had slipped to the floor in a dead faint. With a murmur of pity and possibly of inward contrition, he stooped over her, and together we carried her into the library, where I left her in his care, confident, from certain indications, that my presence would not be greatly missed by either of them.
Whatever hope I may have had of reaping the reward offered by Mrs. Ashley was now lost, but in the satisfaction I experienced at finding this young girl as innocent as my Flora, I did not greatly care.
Well, it all ended even more happily than may here appear. The horse not putting in his claim to the reward, and Mr. Spencer repudiating all right to it, it was paid in full to Mr. Deane, who, accompanied by his two ladies, went home in as buoyant a state of mind as was possible to him after the great anxieties of the preceding two hours. I was told that Mr. Ashley declined to close the carriage door upon them till the whole three had promised to come again the following night.
Anxious to make such amends as I personally could for my share in the mortification to which Miss Glover had been subjected, I visited her in the morning, with the intention of offering a suggestion or two in regard to that little bill. But she met my first advance with a radiant smile and the glad exclamation:
“Oh, I have settled all that! I have just come from Madame Dupr�‘s. I told her that I had never imagined the dress could possibly cost more than a hundred dollars, and I offered her that sum if she would take the garment back. And she did, she did, and I shall never have to wear that dreadful satin again!”
I made a note of this dressmaker’s name. She and I may have a bone to pick some day. But I said nothing to Miss Glover. I merely exclaimed:
“Oh, I have an old spotted muslin which, with a few natural flowers, will make me look festive enough. One does not need fine clothes when one is — happy.”
The dreamy far-off smile with which she finished the sentence was more eloquent than words, and I was not surprised when some time later I read of her engagement to Mr. Ashley.
But it was not till she could sign herself with his name that she told me just what underlay the misery of that night. She had met Harrison Ashley more than once before, and, though she did not say so, had evidently conceived an admiration for him which made her especially desirous of attracting and pleasing him. Not understanding the world very well, certainly having very little knowledge of the tastes and feelings of wealthy people, she conceived that the more brilliantly she was attired the more likely she would be to please this rich young man. So in a moment of weakness she decided to devote all her small savings (a hundred dollars, as we know) to buying a gown such as she felt she could appear in at his house without shame.
It came home — as dresses from French dress-makers are very apt to do — just in time for her to put it on for the party. The bill came with it, and when she saw the amount — it was all itemised, and she could find no fault with anything but the summing up — she was so overwhelmed that she nearly fainted. But she could not give up her ball; so she dressed herself, and, being urged all the time to hurry, hardly stopped to give one look at the new and splendid gown which had cost so much. The bill — the incredible, the enormous bill — was all she could think of, and the figures, which represented nearly her whole year’s earnings, danced constantly before her eyes. She could not possibly pay it, nor could she ask her father to do so. She was ruined. But the ball and Mr. Ashley — these still awaited her; so presently she worked herself up to some anticipation of enjoyment, and, having thrown on her cloak, was turning down her light preparatory to departure, when her eye fell on the bill lying open on her dresser.
It would never do to leave it there — never do to leave it anywhere in her room. There were prying eyes in the house, and she was as ashamed of that bill as she might have been of a contemplated theft. So she tucked it into her corsage, and went down to join her friends in the carriage.
The rest we know, with the exception of one small detail which turned to gall whatever enjoyment she was able to get out of the evening. There was a young girl present, dressed in a simple muslin gown. While looking at it, and inwardly contrasting it with her own splendour, Mr. Ashley passed by with another gentleman, and she heard him say:
“How much better young girls look in simple white than in the elaborate silks suited only to their mothers!”
Thoughtless words — possibly forgotten as soon as uttered — they sharply pierced this already sufficiently stricken and uneasy breast, and were the cause of the tears which had aroused my suspicion when I came upon her in the library, standing with her face to the night.
But who can say whether, if the evening had been devoid of these occurrences, and no emotions of contrition and pity had been awakened in her behalf in the breast of her chivalrous host, she would ever have become Mrs. Ashley?
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:09