Jewel Mysteries I have Known/Treasure of White Creek
TREASURE OF WHITE CREEK
TREASURE OF WHITE CREEK
SHE was the daughter of Colonel Kershaw Klein, and he was worth a million, as the society papers said. I had danced with her for the first time in the ball-room of the magnificent house her father had rented in Grosvenor Crescent, on the occasion of her coming of age; and I agreed with the men that she was beyond criticism, an exquisite vision of dark and matured girlhood, so incomparably fascinating that you forget in her company some of her bluntness in speech, and set down the voluptuousness of her glance and mien to the southern luxuriance amidst which she had been reared, and to those "other" notions which prevail in Chili, the land of fleeting republics.
Some part of this perhaps unnecessary adulation may have been due to the fact that I had helped in the production of her perfect picture on the night of which I am speaking. The commercial element will intrude at such times; and I could not help but see that she wore at least eight hundred pounds' worth of my jewels. Had the value of them been double, it would have been the same to me, for of her father's stability I had then no doubt. He had been received and made much of in the highest places, accorded the chief seats at the feasts; entrusted—as the old ladies told you—with the most important missions by Government; and a share in the Western Hill diamond mine at South Africa was not the least substantial factor in the sum of his income. Any and every gem to which he took a fancy I had let him have readily, being assured by an important personage at the Embassy that his credit was unquestionable; and it was a pretty pleasure to me when I first met his daughter to observe how well my diamonds sat upon her, and how shapely were her arms clasped in the ruby bracelets which had been amongst the treasures of Bond Street but three months before. She was, indeed, a sunny child of the South, radiating a warming light about her, tempting you to wait long for a single press of her hand, luring you to follow the sparkle of her eyes even when she looked at you over the shoulder of a dancer who for the moment had the privilege of holding her in the entrancement of the deux temps. There was keen contention for her programme, but somehow I found her disposed to favour me, and danced no less than four with her, to the infinite annoyance of the many youths who eyed me angrily from their watching-ground by the door. They said that they had never seen her brighter; and I was ready to believe them, for she kept her tongue going merrily through the waltzes, and leant upon my arm in a languorous way that was completely entrancing.
At the end of the dance—the next being some newfangled "Barn Dance" wherein men scarce put their hands upon their partners—she said that she would sit in the conservatory and eat ices; and for the first time during the long evening I found myself able to talk easily with her.
"Well," she said, when we had composed ourselves behind a huge fern, and had made a successful attack upon the meringues glacés, "well, this is about splendid; don't you think so?"
I said that nothing could be more delightful.
"And to think that I've never danced with you before; why, you're just perfect," she went on. "I haven't enjoyed myself right along like this since I was in Valparaiso."
"Are the Chilians such wonderful dancers then?" I asked, as she looked up at me bewitchingly.
"They just make a profession of it between the shooting times," said she; and then changing the subject quickly, she asked, "What do you think of the crystals now I've got them on?"
It is not particularly consoling to hear your rubies spoken of as crystals, but her description was accompanied by such a pretty laugh, and she opened her great black eyes so widely, that I smiled when I answered,—
"Why, they're to be envied in such a setting."
"You're the fourth man that has said the same to-night," she exclaimed, putting her glass down and tugging at her glove. "I think that Britishers learn their compliments out of copy-books; they're all presents for good girls. Let's see if you're cleverer at getting a glove on than at making pretty speeches."
The arm that she held out was gloriously white; and as every man knows, the operation of pulling on the glove of a pretty girl is apt to be prolonged. There are fingers to fit, and a little thumb to stroke daintily; while the grip upon the more substantial part of the forearm will bear repetition so long as time serves. I must have occupied myself at least five minutes with her buttons, she finding it necessary to press close to me when I did so; and the task was none the less pleasant when her rich brown hair touched my face, and her dress rustled with her long-drawn breathing. How long the process would have lasted, or what I should have said foolishly in the end, I do not know; but of a sudden she drew her arm away and exclaimed,—
"Oh, I'd quite forgotten; I wanted to ask you about the bull's-eye."
This was her description, I may mention without anger, of the famous White Creek Diamond, which, as all London knows, I have had in my possession for the last two years. Her father, who was reputed to have some commission to buy it for a Persian, was then negotiating with me for its purchase for the sum of one hundred and thirty thousand pounds. He waited only, he said, for the coming of his partner from Valparaiso, to complete the transaction; and it was owing to the intimacy which the pour parlers brought about that I found myself then in his house. How much his daughter knew of the business, however, I could not tell, and I answered her question by another.
"What do you know about the bull's-eye?"
"That you're trying to sell it to my father," she replied, "and that he won't promise to give it to me."
"Have you asked him, then?"
"Have I asked him—why, look at him; isn't he ten years older since he met you in Bond-street?"
"He certainly seems to have something on his mind," said I.
"That's me; he's got me on his mind," she remarked flippantly; "but I wish he'd buy the bull's-eye, and give it to me for a wedding present."
"Oh, you're engaged," I ventured dolefully; "you never told me that——"
"Didn't I?" she answered, "well, of course I am, and here's my partner."
She went away on another man's arm; but she left to me a vision of dark eyes and ivory white flesh; and her breath still seemed to blow balmily upon my forehead. Her partner was a young man just down from Oxford, they told me; seemingly a simple youth, to whom the whole sentence in conversation was as much a mystery as the binomial theorem; but he danced rather well, and I doubt not that she suffered him for that. I watched her through the waltz, and then, after a few words with her father, who promised to call upon me the next day concerning White Creek treasure, I said "Good night" to her. She give me a glance which was more entrancing than any word; and although she had the habit of looking at a man as though she were dying for love of him, I carried it away with me foolishly into the street, when the dawn had broken with summer haze, and an exalting sweetness was in the air.
The invigorating breath of morning somewhat sobered my thoughts; but none the less left the impression of her beauty fermenting in my mind. I turned into Hyde Park, where the trees were alive with song-birds, and the glowing flowers sparkled with the silver freshness of the dew, and set out to walk to Bayswater. In these moments, I forgot the prosaic necessities of forms and customs; and bethought how pleasant it would be if some enchantment could place her at my side, a Phyllis of Mayfair, freed from the tie of conventionality, to look at me for all time with those eyes she had used so well but an hour ago. I forgot her manners of speech, her unpleasing idioms, even the discordant note that her usually melodious voice was sometimes guilty of; forgot all but her ripe beauty, the softness of her touch, the alluring fascination of her way, the unsurpassable play of her mouth, the exquisite perfection of her figure.
Women's eyes make dreamers of us all; and though I have pride in the thought that I am not a susceptible man, I will confess without hesitation that I was as near to being in love on that summer morning in July as was ever a professor of the single state who has come within hail of his thirty-fifth year with the anti-feminine vow unweakened.
At Lancaster Gate I paused a moment, leaning upon the iron rail of the drive to look back at the London veldt fresh to luxuriance in the dew showers which gave many colours in the play of sunlight. There was stillness under the trees, and the hum of the still sleeping city was hushed, though day was seeking to enter the blind-hid windows, and workmen slouched heavily to their labour. The scene was fresh enough, beautiful as many of the city's scenes are beautiful; but I had scarce time to enjoy when I saw the Oxford youth who had last danced with Margaret Klein coming striding over the grass; a masterful pipe in his mouth; and a very rough ulster wrapped round his almost vanishing shoulders. He gave me a cheery nod for greeting, and to my surprise he seated himself upon the seat beside me; and having offered me a cigar, which I took, he found his tongue so readily that I, who had heard his "haw-hawing" in the ball-room, concluded at once that it was assumed and not natural to him. And in this I was right, as the first exchange of speech with him proved.
"I've had a sharp run to catch you," said he, "for this infernal dancing takes it out of you when you're not used to it. I wanted a word with you particularly before this thing goes any further. Do you know anything of these people?"
"Why," said I, "I might ask you that question, since you made yourself so much at home there; don't you know them?"
"No, I'm hanged if I do," said he; "but, if I'm not mistaken, I shall be on very good terms with them before the season's out. You haven't sold them any jewels, have you?"
This was such an extraordinary question that I turned upon him with an angry reply upon my lips; but the word changed to one of amazement when I saw his face closely in the full sunlight. It was no longer the face of an Oxford boy, but of a man of my own age at the least.
"Whew!" I remarked, as I looked full at him, "you've made rather a quick change, haven't you?"
"It's the running," he replied, mopping himself with a handkerchief, and leaving his countenance like a half-washed chess-board, "we're in for another six hours' stew, and my phiz is plastic—I'd better be moving on, lest I meet any of my partners; I might break some hearts, you know; but what I wanted to say was, Don't go making a fool of yourself, Mr. Sutton, over that little witch with the black eyes, and don't, if you love your life, put yourself for a moment in the power of her long-tongued father."
This utterly surprising rejoinder was given without a suspicion of concern or bombast. Many people would have resented it as an impertinence, and a dishonourable slander upon one whose hospitality we had just enjoyed; but I had not been a dealer in jewels for ten years without learning to recognize instantly the "professional" tongue; and I knew that I was talking to a man from Scotland Yard. Yet I must confess that I laughed inwardly at the absurdity of his fears. Few men had come to London with stronger recommendation than Kershaw Klein, and even the banks had trusted him implicitly.
"Are you sure that you are making no mistake?" I asked, as he buttoned up his coat and looked about for a hansom. "You gentlemen have been woefully out lately; I can't forget that one of you cautioned me against Count Hevilick three months ago, and if I'd listened to him I should be worth five thousand less than I am at this moment. If this man is what you think, he's managed to blind a good many big people—and his own Embassy into the bargain."
He thought for some minutes before he answered me, standing with his hands in his pockets and his cigar pointing upwards from the extreme corner of his mouth. His reply was given with a pitying smile, and was patronizing—as are the replies of men convinced but unable to convince.
"Well," he said, exhaling tremendous clouds of smoke, "what I know I know; and what I don't know my wits will find out for me. I gave you the tip because you've done me—though you don't know it—a good many services; but whether you take it or leave it, that's your look out. Only, and this is my last word, don't come complaining to me if the witch walks off with your goods—and don't write to the Times if her father cracks your skull."
He had turned on his heel before I could utter another word; and he left me to walk slowly and thoughtfully to Bayswater, divided in my musings between the vision of the Chilian girl's beauty and the jewels of mine which she wore; but for which her father had not paid. I can only set it down to absurd infatuation; but I admit unhesitatingly that I did not very much care then whether the financial part of the business left me lacking the money or possessed of it. A rash disregard for expense is the surest sign that a woman has interested you; a longing to pay her milliner's bills is a necessary instinct to the disposition for marriage. I was at that time, and in the exhilaration of wish that came of the power of morning, quite ready to let so perfect a creature remain indebted to me for anything; and this was natural since the spice of a little suspicion is often the most attractive flavour in a woman's character. But the question of the treasure of White Creek was another matter altogether. The great diamond was not my own, although it lay at that time in my safe in Bond Street. It was the property of a syndicate, in which I held a third of the shares; but the others looked to me for the safe disposal of the stone, and for the profit of ten thousand pounds which we hoped to get by its sale. My responsibility, then, was no usual one; and the barest suggestion that I was trafficking with a swindler was enough to set me itching with anxiety.
I went home in this mood, but not to sleep. A feverish dreaming—chiefly of a seductive girl with black-brown wavy hair and black eyes that searched and fascinated with an inexplicable spell—served me for rest; and at eleven o'clock I was at my office, and the Chilian was with me. He was a man of fine presence, a long black beard falling upon his ample chest, and a certain refinement of carriage and bearing giving him a dignity which is not usual in an American. The object of his visit was twofold, to pay the bill he owed me, and to tell me that his partner, Hermann Rudisic, would reach London from Valparaiso in a week's time; when he would bring him to me to complete the purchase of the great stone. He said further that as the season was over he had taken a place near Basingstoke, the Woodfields it was named; and that he hoped his daughter, who did not do well in an English climate, would benefit by the wealth of pine-trees about the house. He finished by giving me a reference to his London bankers, and also another to one of the best known of the financiers in Lombard Street. In due course I communicated with both firms, and received answers which set every doubt about the financial position of Kershaw Klein at rest. The bankers declared that I might trust him unhesitatingly for such a sum as I named. The other replied that the Colonel's brother was of great standing and position in Chili, and that he himself carried letters which proved his undoubted probity. More complete vindication could not be had; and I went home to laugh consumedly at the gentleman who had found such a mare's nest, and to wonder if my friends would laugh very much if they heard—how little I thought at that time of the old pleasantries with which I had once greeted the tidings of a marriage.
I did not hear more of Klein for some fifteen days, at the end of which time he wrote saying that Hermann Rudisic was with him at Basingstoke; and that they hoped to call upon me on the following Friday. The march of events was from that time quick. On the Thursday I read in a daily paper of an accident in Berkshire to a Chilian visitor, who had been thrown from his carriage and seriously hurt. The account said that his life was despaired of, and that he was then lying at the house of his host, the well-known Colonel Kershaw Klein, who had taken Lord Aberly's place, the Woodfields. On the Friday morning I received a long letter from the Colonel deploring the accident and the delay, more especially because his commission to purchase the stone extended only to the 10th of August, and it was then the third. He hoped, however, that matters would look brighter at the end of that time; and would bring his partner to London the moment he could travel.
Now, at the first thought, this intelligence set all the inherent suspicion, which is a part of me, at work once more. Suggestions of doubt rose again and again, instantly to be suppressed. Had I not satisfied myself completely as to the Colonel's standing, his means, his reputation, and his personal character? Was he not staying in Lord Aberly's house? Had not he passed most brilliantly through a London season? Were there not twenty members of the Bachelors' Club seeking to pay for the sake of his daughter the fine imposed upon amorous backsliders? If one were to suspect every man with such credentials as these, the sooner one shut one's door, and locked one's safe for good, the better for all hope of doing business. Of all this I was certain; and had already come to the determination to put from my mind suspicion both of the Count and his daughter, when there came to me by the afternoon delivery another letter concerning the matter; but this was anonymous, and in a hand I did not know. It was a curious scrawl written upon a slip of account paper, and its contents were but these words:—
"You will be asked to Kershaw Klein's house in three days. I told you the other morning not to trust yourself with the man; I say now, accept the invitation."
This was plainly from my friend of Hyde Park; and I confess that his pompous mysteriousness and pretence of knowledge amused me. Even he no longer complained of Colonel Klein's reputation, nor advised me now to avoid him. His letter finally quieted my scruples, and from that moment I resolved to dally with them no longer; and to let no silly fears delay the negotiations for the sale of the treasure of White Creek.
In this resolution I waited rather anxiously for the coming of Klein and his partner, but three days went, and I saw nothing of them; it being on the Monday morning at eleven o'clock that the former drove up to Bond Street in a single brougham, and came with his daughter into my private office. He seemed in a great state of distress, saying that Rudisic, although better, was still unable to set foot to the ground: and begging me as the time was so short to take the great jewel to Berkshire—his house was just across the line dividing the county from Hampshire—and there to settle the matter that very day. I heard him mechanically; my eyes glued on the exquisite picture which his daughter made; her gown of white delaine showing the mature contour of her figure admirably; and her deep brown hair rolling from the shelter of a great straw hat in silken waves upon her shoulders. If she had fascinated me at the dance, the fascination was intensified there. I would cheerfully have risked the best parcel of rubies in the place to have had the pleasure of keeping her in the office even for an hour; and I did not hesitate one moment in accepting Klein's offer.
"Come down to-day," said he, "and bring your man with you in case we don't do business, and you have to return alone. I don't like mailing with big stuff on me; you never know who gets wind of it. I suppose you have somebody you could take."
Even with the girl's eyes upon me and her laughing threat to "make me tramp at tennis awhile," I had a measure of satisfaction in this request, and thought instantly of Abel.
"Yes," said I, with a light laugh, "I will bring my own detective. He's down below now."
"That's right," said Klein, "and we'll catch the two-forty from Waterloo. I've ordered the carriage to meet that, and there's just time for a snack between whiles. Never forget your food, sir—I don't for all the business in Europe. I once lost a commission for a railway in Venezuela through a sandwich—but there, that's another story, and I'll tell it you over a chop at the Criterion. I guess I've got an appetite on, and so's Margaret, eh, little girl?"
He slapped his chest to signify that a void was there; and we all went off down Piccadilly, returning afterwards for the gem which I had placed in a flat-velvet case. I put it into my jewel pocket, cunningly contrived in my vest, and with no more delay we got to Waterloo and to our saloon, Abel travelling second class, by the bye, and in another compartment. There was a well-turned-out wagonette to meet us when we reached Basingstoke; and after a drive of something under an hour through some of that glorious pine scenery of southern Berkshire, we entered a short drive edged by thick laurels, and were shortly at the gate of the Woodfields. Of the exterior of the house I saw nothing, for, as I descended from the wagonette, I chanced to catch the eye of the footman, who had a finger to his lips; and an exclamation almost broke from my lips. Notwithstanding his disguise I recognized the man in a moment. He was the "Oxford youth" who had given me a cigar in the park on the morning after the dance in Grosvenor Crescent.
The discovery was not a pleasant one. It made discord of all the music of Margaret Klein's voice—she was quickly babbling to me in the old Georgian Hall—and forbade my taking considerable notice of the massive oak of the double staircase, or of the exceedingly bright-nosed "ancestors" who smiled upon us from twenty gilt frames. Abel had come up to my room with me, I pretending that he invariably acted as my valet; and once inside a very large but very ugly square bedchamber, whose windows overlooked the prim lawn and terrace of flowers, I shut the door and had a word with him.
"Abel," said I, "that footman who drove us from the station must be one of the Scotland Yard lot; what's he doing in this house?"
Abel whistled, and by instinct, I suppose, put his hand upon his pistol pocket.
"Have you got your revolver with you, sir?" he asked.
"Of course I have; and I'll take this opportunity to charge all the chambers, but I don't believe for a moment there will be occasion to use it. The man's on a false scent entirely. It's necessary at the same time to act like wise men, and not like fools; and I must count on you to be near me while we're in the place. If there's any knavery afoot, we shan't hear of it until the place is asleep; but come here when I am going to bed, and then we shall know what to do."
I sent him off with this to the servants' quarters, and dressed, though an indescribable sense of nervousness had taken hold of me; and I found myself peering into every cupboard and cranny like an old woman looking for a burglar. The situation was either as dangerous as it could be, or I was the victim of farcical fears. Yet the very shadows across the immense floor, and the aureola upon the carpet about the dressing table seemed to give gloom to the chamber. So thick were the walls of the old house that no sound reached me from the rooms below; and when the gong struck the hour for dinner its note reverberated as a wave of deadened sound through some curtained chapel or chill vault. What did it mean, I kept asking myself; the illness, was it sham? the man from London, was he on a fool's errand? my visit, was it foolhardy? Had I walked into a trap at the bidding of a pretty woman? Were all the guarantees I had received in the Colonel's favour fraudulent or mistaken? I could not think so. Again and again I told myself that the fellow from Scotland Yard was an absurd crank upon a false scent, and that ninety jewellers of a hundred would have done as I had done, and have brought the stone to Berkshire. And with this thought I took a better courage and hastily finished my dressing. I need scarce say that I had the jewel in my pocket when I went to the drawing-room, and that I had already determined that it should not leave me for a moment. I got rid, however, of more of my fears when I entered the artistic and homely room where Margaret Klein was waiting; and in the brighter scene of light and laughter the absurdity of suspicion again occurred to me.
The meal was an excellent one, admirably served; the wine was perfect. I sat at my host's right facing his daughter, who seemed to exert herself unusually to fascinate, making delicate play with her speaking eyes; and promising me all the possibilities of Berkshire rest, if I cared to stay with them over the week. To this her father, the Colonel, who had the ribbon of an Order in his buttonhole, and looked exceedingly handsome, added,—
"And I hope you will, for you're not seeming as well as you were last week. You people in England live in too narrow a circle. A voyage across the pond makes an epoch in your lives; you are scarce prepared to admit yet that there is any other city but London. If you would enlarge the scope of your actions, you would grumble less—and perhaps, if I may say so, allow that other nations share some of your best boasted qualities. Now I am truly cosmopolitan; I regard no city as my home; I would as soon set out on a voyage of three thousand miles as of five. I come to England, and I do it in ten days from Land's End to John o' Groat's; and when I think I'll rest awhile I ask, Where is your pretty county? and I settle for three weeks to explore it."
"I hope Mr. Sutton will do the same," said Margaret, following up his invitation. "I want to learn all about the dames who won't know you unless you had a grandfather; and I should like to see a curate who is passing rich on forty pounds a year. I guess we mean to go right in now we're amongst your best folk."
"I'll stay a day or two with pleasure if you will pilot me," said I, as she rose to go to the drawing-room; but I little knew that my visit was to terminate abruptly in three hours or less, or what was to happen in the between-time.
A lean, lank-looking butler served the Colonel and myself with coffee when she had gone; and after that my host took me to the drawing-room, where I found her engaged in the pursuit of trying over a "coster" song. The Colonel suggested business at once, saying:
"I'll leave you with Margaret while I go up to Hermann and learn if he's well enough to receive us; I dare say you can amuse yourselves. I sha'n't be gone five minutes."
He was really away for twenty minutes; but I did not count the time. The whole situation seemed so curious—on the one hand a London detective playing footman in the house, on the other a delightful host, and a girl whose every word fascinated and whose every motion drew you instinctively to her—that I gave up any attempt to solve it; and beyond the knowledge that I had reason to be watchful, I put no restraint upon myself; but sat at her side while she played the lightest of music; or occasionally leant back to speak to me, so that her hair brushed my face and her eyes almost looked into mine.
"It was good of you to come," she almost whispered in one of these pauses, glancing up timorously, and speaking altogether in the sympathetic tone.
"Do you miss the excitement of London?" I asked, letting my hand rest for a moment on hers.
"I guess not," she replied; "but I miss some one who can talk to me as you talk; you're going to stop awhile, aren't you?"
"I'll stop as long as you ask me to."
When he was gone she went on playing for some minutes, turning away at last impatiently from the piano, and facing round with a serious, almost alarmed look. What she meant to say or do I cannot tell, for at that moment the Colonel came back and told us that his partner was in the dressing-room upstairs, and would be glad to see me at once.
"Margaret may come too?" he asked me. "She would like to see the great stone."
"Of course," I replied; "it will be a pleasure to show it to her."
I cannot tell you why it was, but as we rose together to leave the room I seemed in a moment to realize that the affair had come to a crisis. In that instant, notwithstanding guarantees, references, Margaret Klein's fascinations, and the hundred arguments I had so often used to convince myself of the folly of suspicion, there came to me as distinct and clear a warning as though some human voice had given speech to it. The very silence of the others—for they said no word, and a curious hesitation seemed to come upon them—impressed the conviction of the monition. Once in the hall, my uneasiness became stronger, for there at a table was the footman I had recognized, and as he glanced at me when I passed him his face was knit up as the face of a man thinking; and he let a glass fall at the very moment we reached the stairs. What he wished to convey I do not know; but although I felt there was danger in leaving the ground floor, another force dragged me on behind the Colonel, and kept me advancing unhesitatingly until I had reached the end of the long picture-gallery with him, and he had knocked upon a door in the eastern wing of the rambling mansion. What this force was I do not pretend to explain. It may have been merely the influence of the woman; it may have been my inherent obstinacy and belief in myself; or simple lack of conviction which forbade any public expression of the fears I had fomented. I know only that we waited for some seconds in the passage until a hospital nurse opened the door, and that I found myself at last in a very pretty boudoir, where a pale and sickly-looking man was lying upon a couch, but propped up to greet us. The formalities of introduction were accomplished by the Colonel with great suavity and grace; and the nurse having set chairs at the side of the sick man's couch, and placed a table there, she withdrew, and we were ready for the business.
That you should understand what happened in the next few minutes it is necessary for me to say a word upon the construction of the boudoir. It was a room hung in pink silk and white, and it had two doors in it, giving off to other rooms, whose size I could not see since they were in darkness. For light, we had a lamp with a white shade upon the invalid's table, and two others upon the mantelshelf; while we were seated in a fashion that allayed any fears I might have had of personal and sudden attack. The Colonel lounged in an American rocking-chair, he being nearest to the head of the couch; his daughter leant back against a buhl-work cabinet, she being a little way from the sick man's feet; I had a library-chair, and was alone in an attitude which would allow me to spring to my defence—if that were necessary—without delay. I looked, too, at Hermann Rudisic, the Colonel's partner, and I confess that contempt for his physical powers was my first thought. I was convinced that if it were a question of fight, I could hold the two men until Abel, who was in the servants' hall, came to my assistance; and while the others were present I had no fear of any of those wild machinations which are chiefly the property of imaginative fiction-makers. This knowledge gave to me my nerve again, and without more ado I took the case from my pocket and showed the stone.
The vision of the glorious gem, rippling on its surface with a myriad lights, white, and golden, and many-coloured, in the play of radiating fire, was one that compelled the silence of amazed admiration for many minutes. Margaret Klein first spoke, her face bent to the diamond so that its waves of colour seemed to float up to her ravished eyes; and with a little cry wrung from her satisfaction she said,—
"Oh, Mr. Sutton, it's too beautiful to look at!"
"I am glad that it does not disappoint," said I.
"It could disappoint no one," the invalid said, stretching out a hand which trembled to draw the treasure closer to his eyes.
"It's the whitest stone I've seen for three years," the Colonel remarked coolly, and then, as with a new thought, he added,—
"I believe it's whiter than the Brazilian stone in my old ring. I should like to compare them, if you'll let me? The other stuff is in my dressing-room there; Margaret, will you get it?"
He gave her his keys, and taking a lamp from the shelf, she passed into the chamber which was behind me. In the same moment Rudisic asked his host to prop him up higher upon the couch, and the Colonel had just begun to place the pillows when I heard Margaret's voice crying,—
"Father, I can't open the drawer—it's stuck; do come and help."
It was an act of consummate folly—that I concede you; but I was so completely unaware of any signs of trickery here, and had so forgotten my fears, that I found it the most natural thing in the world to step into the room, and to enjoy helping the girl in her difficulty. I discovered her before an open door—the door of a wardrobe I thought it was for a moment, but I saw at the second look that it gave access to a tiny chamber, whereof the walls were all drawers. Margaret Klein herself stood within this curiously fashioned safe, built as part of the house, and was still struggling with the refractory drawer; so that I had no hesitation—nor, indeed, thought suspiciously—in going to her side. She laughed slyly as we stood in the semi-dark together, and my hand falling by chance on hers, she pressed it, and put her face very close to mine—so close, that to have resisted kissing her would have been a crime for which a man would have repented until his last day. I cannot tell accurately how long I held her in a passionate embrace, feeling her lips glued upon my own; but suddenly and quickly she pushed me from her with a surprising strength of arm, and before I could regain my balance she had sprung into the room, and the door of the small chamber in which I was left swung to with a clang, striking me backwards as it pressed upon me, and coming nigh to stunning me. So thick was this door, so impenetrable, that its closing was succeeded by the stillness of vault or catacomb. I had scarce realized the whole trick, or the terrible predicament sheer folly had placed me in, when I was plunged into the abyss of utter darkness, shut as it were into the coffin that had been prepared for me. A frightful panic, a hideous terror, an indescribable anger, came upon me from the very first moment of that fearful trial. For some minutes—the first minutes of imprisonment in a room where I could stand my height with difficulty, but whose iron sides my elbows touched as I turned—I think my reason must have been paralysed. Rage, shame of my folly, yet, above all, unsurpassable fear, drove me to beat with my fists upon the door, which gave me back the touch of solid steel; to cry out aloud as a man in the throes of painful death; to grind my teeth until pain shot into my brain; to forget, in fact, that I was from that time helpless, and that others alone could give to me life.
When the first great terror had passed, and a mental struggle had left me with some sense, I leant against the steel door, and thought again of my fate. I had little science, yet I knew that the hours of any man, shut in an air-tight chamber such as that room of steel was, could be few. I had heard that asphyxiation was a peaceful death, and think I could have had courage to face it if a little light had been given to me. But I was in utter weighty darkness; I could not even see that dull red light as of one's own soul shining, which may come in the gentler dark of night. There was only upon me that sense of impenetrable blackness, the grim feeling that I had come to my coffin, had slept in it, and arisen to this unspeakable terror. My whole being then seemed to cry aloud for sight, one moment in which living light should again shine upon me. A great craving for air; a sense of terrible effort in the lungs, a rushing of blood to the head—these things succeeded, and as I suffered them flashes of thought came and passed, hope extended a hand to me, processes of reasoning told me that I should be saved, only to convince me the more that I should die.
If I could have reasoned sanely I should have seen that my hope was all bound up in Abel and the detective in the house. Klein, and the invalid, and the girl—they had been gone long since, unless others had put hands upon them. My own servant, I knew, would seek for me first; but even if he came to the safe, how would he open it, how cut through these inches of steel before death had ended it all? It was even possible that the door of the strong room was a concealed door—and so afterwards I proved it to be. In that case, how would they know even of my necessity? These torturing reflections threw at last a glimmer of necessary activity upon my despair. I raised my voice, though I had then the strangest sensation in my veins, and my heart was pumping audibly; and for many minutes I shouted with all my strength. Once I thought that I heard, even through the door, some sound from the other room; yet when I cried louder, and beat again upon the steel, there was no signal. I remained unheeded; my voice gradually failed me; I could cry no longer, but began to sink almost into a coma.
How long this coma lasted I cannot tell. I was roused from it, after a hideous dream of waiting, by sounds of knocking upon some wall near me; and with a new strength I shouted again, and beat again upon the door of steel. Yet, I knew that I was not heard, for the sound of the blows grew fainter and were passing away and life, which had come near again, seemed to pass with them. Then was my supreme moment of misery, yet one giving an inspiration which brought me here to write this record. Recoiling from the door as the knocks without grew fainter, I struck my back against the iron wall, and my pistol, which I had forgotten, pressed into my flesh. Regardless of all thought of consequences, of the path of the bullet, or the effect upon me of the stifling smoke, I fired three rounds from the revolver into the room—and instantly was breathing the densest smoke. Then a sudden faintness took me; and I recollect only that I fell forward into a world of light, and there slept.
"The joke, was, seeing you living, Mr. Sutton, that Abel swallowed the wine that butler gave him, and was made as insensibly drunk as a man who takes stage chloroform. I knew all along that the butler was the one to watch; and while I never thought they'd do you mischief in the room—believing they meant to work after midnight—my men in the grounds clapped the bracelets on the lank chap up by the woods there, and he had the diamond on him."
"And the Colonel and his daughter and the invalid?" I asked, raising myself in the bed of an upper chamber of the Woodfields, on the foot of which sat my old friend, the detective of Hyde Park.
"Got clear away by a back staircase we'd never heard of, through a cellar and a passage to the lower grounds! They knocked old Jimmy, the local policeman, on the head by the spinney, and all they left him was a bump as big as an orange. That girl must have had a liking for you. One of my men nearly took her as she jumped into a dog-cart; but she threw the keys in his face, and he brought them here. I knew nothing about this room, and shouldn't have done except for the ring of your revolver; but the last Lord Aberly built it to take his famous collection of rubies and emeralds, and that lag Klein evidently heard of it, and leased the place furnished on that account."
"How do you know that he was a swindler?"
"I heard of him in New York when I was there last winter. He was wanted for the great mail robbery near St. Louis. A clever scoundrel, too; deceived a heap of folk by forged letters of introduction, and the banks by leaving big deposits with them. He must be worth a pretty pile; but I don't doubt he came over here from America on purpose to steal your diamonds. He was out at the Cape nine months ago, and got to hear all about the White Creek stone. Then he must have known that Herbert Klein, his supposed brother, and a real rich man of Valparaiso, was away yachting in the Pacific; and so he claimed him, and traded on his undoubted couple of million. A clever forger, and the other two with him nearly as smart. It was lucky for you that one of the grooms here had heard of a mysterious place in that dressing-room, and led me, when I missed you, to tap the walls. You were nearly done for, and though you don't know, you've been in bed pretty well a week."
"And the man's daughter?" I asked, a little anxiously.
"His daughter," he replied; "pshaw, she's his wife!—and we'll take the pair of them yet."
But he never did, although the lank butler is now our guest at Dartmoor.