The Master of Mysteries/The Count's Comedy
THE COUNT'S COMEDY
ENGROSSED in his own thoughts a young man waited in the great dim studio of Astro the Seer, nervously punching the magnificent Turkish rug with the ferrule of his cane. He was young, well groomed and smartly dressed, apparently well-bred. It was evident that he was more worried than impatient.
He looked up with a scowl as Astro, dressed in his red silk robe, wearing his turban with the moonstone clasp, leisurely entered the apartment. For a moment the young man gazed at the Seer as if to estimate the man's caliber and character. Astro said nothing; but, bowing gravely, took his seat on the big couch and lazily lighted his water-pipe, waiting for his visitor to speak.
"I have come to you," the young man said finally, "although I must confess I don't quite believe in occult powers, because I have an idea that you must know considerable about human nature. You certainly see plenty of it."
Astro bowed again, and a faint smile curled his lips.
"I have also heard you called the Master of Mysteries," the young man continued.
Again Astro bowed.
The young man rose and handed the palmist a card. It read, "Mr. John Wallington Shaw."
Astro looked at it and tossed it on the table.
"I suppose you know who I am?"
Astro again bowed.
"It's a part of your business, I suppose. You may have read in the papers also of my sister's engagement to Count D'Ampleri?"
The same sober gesture of assent from the palmist.
Shaw sat down again, shoved his hands into his pockets, crossed his legs, and leaned back. "Mr. Astro," he said, "I have come here on a queer errand. I suppose you see many strange things in your profession, and it seemed to me that your experience would enable you to give me some help. What I want you to do first is to believe something that's nearly incredible."
"My dear sir," said Astro, speaking at last, "nothing is incredible. From what I know of life, the more impossible it seems to be, the more probable it is. For that matter, one has only to read the papers. But seriously, if I can help you in any way, I shall be glad to do so."
Shaw now took a gold cigarette case from his pocket, selected a cigarette, knocked it against his fist, and struck a match. After the first long inhalation he remarked, "You'll promise, then, to believe the extraordinary story I tell you?"
"Mr. Shaw," Astro replied, "it's easy enough for me to perceive that you are a gentleman. I expect an equal amount of perception from you. At any rate, I hardly see why you should come here to tell me an untruth."
"But what I mean is, I'm afraid you'll think I'm—well, a bit crazy. It's simply too ridiculous. Why, I wouldn't believe it myself, hardly!"
"Let's have it. You have really excited my curiosity." Astro folded his arms and looked at Shaw with sharp eyes. "You certainly show no symptoms of derangement yet."
Shaw gave a nervous laugh. "Oh, it isn't I; it's my sister. That's why it is so hard to tell. I assume, of course, that this confession will be kept confidential. Not only that, but I expect you to help me out—for an ample consideration."
Astro bowed. "I have secrets enough in this head of mine to destroy a dozen of the first families of New York," he said a little dryly.
Shaw shrugged his shoulders. "Very well. I'll waste no more time. You'll see how useless it is to appeal to the police, or even to my lawyer. But first, have you heard of the robbery of Mrs. Landor's jewels?"
"Oh, yes. The thief, I believe, has never been discovered. It always seemed to me curious, too, that no reward for their return had ever been offered. But what have they to do with your sister?"
Shaw gazed up at the ceiling, then down at the floor. "Really, I'm almost ashamed to tell the story, it's so confoundedly absurd. We are Westerners, you know, of good, sound, and healthy stock. We're as sane as Shakespeare. No trace of brain storms or paranœa in our family! The thing hasn't gone far; but it will be talked about if I can't stop it; that is, if you can't. I don't know what to do. I'm up a tree. You've got to get hold of whoever's responsible for this thing, and tie them up, some way. It's a serious problem for us."
Astro put his fingers to his lips and yawned.
Shaw took the hint and proceeded abruptly: "Mrs. Lander's jewels are at my house, a whole teapotful of them!"
"Ah! You know the thief, then?"
"No, I don't; nor do I know what the deuce I'm to do with the loot! One thing you are to do is to return it."
"And be accused of the theft myself?"
"Oh, that won't need to follow. They have to be sent back somehow. I don't want my sister to be accused of cleptomania; the other thing is quite bad enough. The idea of a gorilla in a top hat and all that! It would make a pretty scandal if it was found out; I can fancy how people would talk. We have a great many friends, you know." He smiled cynically at the word.
"She is innocent, I presume, then?" said Astro. "But what about the gorilla?"
"There's no use in beating about the bush any longer," said Shaw. "Only, you see, I wanted to make sure of you before I trusted you with the secret. I'll go ahead with it, and if you call it a cock and bull story, I don't see that I can blame you. You see, it was this way: We were down at our country place at Lakeside,—a big, rambling old house with a veranda all round it and long French windows opening out on it. My sister's room has a little balcony; it's on the second floor. She had gone up-stairs to dress for dinner. I was in my own room, a little way down the hall, and my door was closed at the time. We had a lot of company down for the week-end; it was ten days ago."
"Who were there?"
"Oh, the count, of course, and his valet, and the Churches—you know, Simeon Church and his wife— the Raddelle girls, and two or three others. I'll give you a list later, if you like."
"All right, go ahead."
"It happened, as I say, just before dinner; about half past seven. It was quite dark. We don't light up much outside,—there was nothing going on at that time. Well, I heard her door open, and then she was pounding on mine, and she called out, 'John, John! Come here quick!' I opened the door, half-dressed as I was, and she was in a deuce of a funk. She grabbed me by the arm and pulled me down the hall and shut her door. Then she said, 'Oh! what shall I do?' I said, 'What's the matter, Ethel? Have you been robbed?' She was nearly fainting, and I thought she would drop before she could speak. But finally I got it out of her. And her story was a wonder, and that's a fact!"
Shaw, in his excitement, rose and gesticulated.
"She had sent her maid out of the room for something, and had her back to the French window and was stooping to pick up a comb, when she heard the sash open, and she looked around in a fright. There, standing right in front of her, was a big black gorilla, bowing to her."
"H'm!" Astro concealed his amusement.
"Wait! I made her tell me the story half a dozen times, and it was the same each time. The thing had on a silk hat, and a Peter Pan collar, a red necktie, and white kid gloves, and pearl gray spats buttoned around his knees."
Astro could control his mirth no longer, and his grave demeanor exploded in a gust of hilarity. Shaw, despite his anxiety, had to join the laugh.
"What do you think of that for a fairy tale? But that's not half. This baboon—"
"You said gorilla before."
"Well, gorilla, then; it doesn't matter in a nightmare like that. He held a china soup-plate in one hand, and in the other a black bag, a cloth bag. By Jove! that much I can swear to myself! I've seen it. Well, the chimpanzee thing—"
"I thought it was a baboon."
"How the blazes do I know? I wasn't there, and if I had been I shouldn't have known the difference. It may have been a monkey or an anthropoid ape, for all I know. Anyway, it set the soup-plate down on the dressing-table, and tipped its hat and said, 'Miss Ethel Shaw, I believe?'"
"Ah!" said Astro. "Now we're getting warmer!"
"Warm! He's made it hot enough for poor Ethel, I can tell you! Then, without waiting for an answer,—Ethel was out of her wits by this time, though she half suspected a practical joke, too,—the orang-utan—"
"Or monkey," Astro interjected, smiling.
"Yes, or gibbon perhaps—held out the bag to her. It said, 'From your friends and well-wishers in the lunatic asylum.' Then it did a graceful two-step over to the window, recited ' plus 2xy plus ,' and vanished on to the balcony. My sister was so frightened that she dropped the bag, and—bing!—out dropped Mrs. Landor's pearls and brooches and rings and things all over the floor. Now I ask you what kind of a story is that to get all about town?" He stared at the Master of Mysteries gloomily."Well, it certainly would add to the gaiety of nations," Astro remarked quietly; "but it looks like a
Then it did a graceful two-step, recited "," and vanished onto the balcony.
"We'd be laughed out of court," Shaw said.
"Did your sister give you any further description of the creature, anything that could identify the masquerader?"
"Why, she said he was a little knock-kneed, she thought; but that might have been on account of the spats." He grinned sadly, in spite of himself. "Oh, I forgot! By Jove! yes! His breath smelled of garlic, and he wore automobile goggles!"
This was too much for Astro. It was some time before he could take the thing seriously.
Shaw waited patiently until the palmist stopped laughing. "I knew you'd think I was a blanked fool," he said mournfully; "but it's no joke to the Shaw family, I assure you. Anybody would say Ethel was crazy. I did myself, the very first time she told me this yarn. I said, 'Ethel, you're foolish!' But there was the stuff to prove it! Then she began to cry. The worst of it is, the count is absolutely convinced that Ethel is mad.
"As soon as we had dressed and gone down to dinner, Ethel told the story to the whole crowd. Of course we consider D'Ampleri already as virtually a member of the family, and the others are old friends. Oh, their friendship will be tested, all right enough! The count looked shocked and changed the subject pointedly, as if the thing was suspicious. It was perfectly evident that he discredited my sister. It made me foam at the mouth; but what could I do? What can we do now? Ethel, of course, persisted in her story, and the count has grown cooler and cooler ever since. I'm afraid he'll talk. We can keep the others quiet, easily enough. They have skeletons of their own to hide. What do you make of it, anyhow? Is there any way out?"
Astro puffed at his water-pipe for a few moments in silence, as he thought. The smoke, rising in a blue swaying curve, writhed in a faint arabesque against the velvet hangings of the walls. Shaw had begun punching holes in the rug with his cane again. From the portières leading to the reception-room, where Valeska, Astro's pretty assistant, sat, pretending to work, came a silvery chime of bells as the tall clock struck four. It had begun to grow a little dark. Astro pressed a switch and lighted an electric lamp depending from the ceiling. Instantly the walls glittered with points of light from the embroideries, the weapons, the golden carvings, and other decorations.
"What is your father worth?" the palmist asked.
Shaw seemed to awaken from a daze. "If you had asked me two weeks ago, I'd have said, roughly, four millions, or possibly five. But this recent deal in lead has bit him hard. His shrinkage is nearly seventy-five per cent., I suppose. He was almost ruined, in fact. But if you're in doubt as to your fee, why, that'll be all right. It's worth five thousand dollars to us to have the matter settled. We'd have to pay that in blackmail, I suppose. If you can think of any way to return the jewels and no questions asked and head off this insanity charge, the money's yours."
"Had any dowry been settled on Count D'Ampleri?"
Shaw blushed faintly. "Oh, I say!" he began.
"I'm aware that it's a Continental practise, that's all," Astro said suavely. "It is inevitable with an international marriage, isn't it?"
"Yes. I fought against it as hard as I could; but Ethel can make the governor do anything she likes. Besides, my mother was set on the match, you know, and she helped arrange all that. They do it through lawyers, you know. It isn't quite so crude as it sounds; but it's bad enough. Yes, we arranged to buy the title for Ethel, I suppose." He kept his eyes on the rug in some embarrassment. There was a trace of anger in his tone. It was evident that the affair did not please him in any way.
"Very well. I'll undertake the commission, delicate as it is," Astro said, rising. "I'd like to have the jewels delivered here sometime next week. You had best bring them yourself. I wish also you'd find out just when the Count D'Ampleri arrived in America, and by what boat. I suppose you can tell me the day and hour of your sister's birth?"
Shaw wheeled round on him. "Oh, come, now!" he protested. "I came to you because you know or ought to know most of the weaknesses of human nature; but if you think I take any stock in astrology or occultism—"
"What was the date, did you say?" Astro's voice was hard.
"October 14th, 1885; nine a. m., I believe." Shaw scowled.
"My dear Mr. Shaw," said Astro, "if you give me this commission, you must let me do it my own way. It won't matter to you, I should think, how I do it. You are, I presume, an agnostic. Very good, I am a fatalist. Go to a detective or a doctor, if you prefer modern science. I prefer the ancient lore."
"I came to you because you've done harder things than this," Shaw said to placate the independent Seer. "Go ahead with your cusps and nativities, if you like, only get us out of this fearful mess as safely and quickly as you can."
"I hope to see you on Monday," said Astro, bowing with dignity.
John Wallington Shaw left the room. As soon as he had departed, Valeska entered, laughing, the dimples showing in her cheeks and chin.
Astro's pose had gone. He threw off his robe and turban. "Did you hear the uncouth history?" he asked.
Valeska nodded. "Of all things! Can it be true?"
"Easily. Simple as milk. And at the same time one of the cleverest schemes I ever heard of. It's all straight; that is, all except the jewels. That we'll have to investigate."
"But I don't understand it at all," Valeska pouted.
"Have you happened to hear that Count D'Ampleri has been paying rather too marked attention, for an engaged man, to Miss Belle Miller, the lady whom the cruel wits of the Four Hundred have dubbed the 'Bay Mare'?"
"I knew she was in here one day for a reading."
"And was much interested in my prediction that she was to marry a titled foreigner. I heard the gossip at the Lorssons the day I went to that tea. I never forget items of that sort. They are more important than horoscopes."
"I think I have a glimmer of light now," said Valeska. "The Bay Mare is an heiress, isn't she?"
"Rather! Old man Miller owns half of Buffalo."
"And Shaw is on the verge of failure."
"And the count wants a good excuse to transfer his affections and his hopes of a permanent income. What better escape than to impute insanity to Miss Ethel Shaw? I say it's a merry scheme."
Valeska frowned. "It's horribly cruel!"
"Well, it's infamously Italian, if you like. Fancy one of the Borgias reappearing to grace the twentieth century! But you can't deny it is cleverly worked out. Insanity is one of the best reasons for not marrying, even for a fortune-hunting foreigner. Every one will pity him, instead of blaming him, and he'll walk out of the Shaw family into the arms of the Millers. He only wanted to be well off with the old love before he was on with the new. But I'll forgive him anything for the sake of the automobile goggles."
"And the Peter Pan collar!" cried Valeska, laughing. "Couldn't you hear me giggling in the closet?"
"The Landor jewels, though!" said Astro thoughtfully. "If it wasn't for them, one might suspect that Miss Ethel had taken an overdose of headache powders. Acetanilid does affect the brain, you know."
"The question is, who played the gorilla?"
"Ah, an Italian, I'm afraid. If you'll pardon the pun, I think that garlic puts us on the scent. As I see it, it's a case where our friend McGraw can help us out. I'll try him. There'll be no particular credit in it for him; but, what's just as good, there'll be money."
From an interview with his friend, the police lieutenant, that night Astro found out that no one had been suspected of the robbery of Mrs. Landor's jewels strongly enough to warrant arrest. Ethel Shaw and her fiance were both present at the Landor reception held on the night when the jewels were stolen. A charge of cleptomania might, therefore, be reasonably preferred against her. As young Shaw had said, such an accusation, coupled with her testimony as to the method by which she obtained the jewels, would deal a serious blow to the Shaws' social aspirations.
McGraw had too often profited by Astro's assistance in puzzling cases not to do his best to help the palmist; but nothing was known by the police about the count or his valet. It was found, however, that, on his passage across the Atlantic in the Penumbria, Count D'Ampleri had taken no servant. This of itself was of sufficient importance for Astro to request McGraw to look up the man and furnish a description of him and his circumstances. This, in a few days, revealed the fact that the valet had a dubious reputation, and it was suspected that he had been in prison. McGraw himself was not sure at first; but subsequently a brother officer familiar with the Italian quarter of New York positively identified him as Kneesy Tim, who had done time for second-story work, and was so called among his pals on account of his knock-knees.
It did not take the officer long after that to ascertain through the detective force that Tim had attended the Landor reception as Count D'Ampleri's valet. The line of evidence was now direct. Tim had welded the most important link of it himself by appearing as the bearer of the stolen jewels. His boldness was accounted for, of course, by the fact that he relied on his ludicrous appearance to make Miss Shaw's story incredible, at the same time preventing any identification of himself. In all this it was impossible not to suspect the count of being an accessory; if, indeed, he did not plan the whole thing.
But why had the thief been willing to surrender such valuable booty? If the count were merely after money, here was a treasure in the hands of his accomplice. The answer was an easy one for Astro to solve when Shaw produced the black bag full of Mrs. Landor's heirlooms.
The jewels were all false. Astro's critical eyes needed but one careful look at them. They were marvelous imitations; but of no possible use to any one except the owner who would never be suspected of having hypothecated her celebrated gems. It was evident now why Mrs. Landor—the respectable, aristocratic Mrs. Lemuel Landor, of the Landor jewels—had never offered a reward for their capture. Astro, cynical as he was, familiar as he was with the many hypocrisies of the upper ten of the town, could not help laughing when he held the famous Landor tiara up to Valeska's envious view.
"I'll never believe in anybody or anything again!" she exclaimed. "Did you tell Mr. Shaw?"
"Not after his remarks on my profession," said Astro, with a decided shake of his head. "That's the time he did himself out of a hearty laugh at Mrs. Landor's expense. In any case, I don't believe in ever telling any more than is necessary."
"The count is an ordinary crook, then?"
"I doubt that. Nor is he even an ordinary count. He's a clever bourgeois Frenchman. I have talked with him and know. I imagine that he picked up this fellow Tim to help him play the part, and found out afterward what he was and used him. But that doesn't matter. We have them now on the hip."
"And how are you going to fix him? From what I hear, he is more attentive than ever to the Bay Mare, and people are talking about it."
"That doesn't matter. If Miss Ethel can get rid of him without his telling that ridiculous story, she'll undoubtedly call it good riddance to bad rubbish. And I will fix that."
"My dear, if you'll walk up and down on Eighth Avenue, between Thirty-seventh and Thirty-eighth Streets, from twelve till half past to-morrow night, you'll see. And," he continued, smiling to himself, "I think it will be worth your attendance. I think we might ask Shaw to escort you, if he's willing to disguise himself a little, enough so that the count won't recognize him."
"I shall be there," said Valeska.
"I promise a comedy," said Astro. "By the by, it may interest you to know that I have rented a room at number 573 Eighth Avenue."
"Indeed!" said Valeska, raising her brows. "I imagine from your tone that I'm not to ask you any questions; but I would like to know if you are through with McGraw?"
"No, indeed. McGraw is to figure as the deus ex machina; also he is to earn two thousand dollars. One he will collect from me, and one from Mrs. Landor, who will be very glad to pay, I imagine, if he acts strictly in a private capacity. In other words, it is not particularly to Mrs. Landor's interest for the public to know that she has sold her jewels and wears paste."
"I begin dimly to comprehend now," Valeska mused. "You will emulate the Mikado of Japan, and 'let the punishment fit the crime'?"
Astro replied, "My dear, in the mutual interaction of telepathic vibrations, one neutralizes the other. Two loud sounds can be made to produce a silence. Selah. 'Tara ak khaldah maha tara. Abracadabra, maha tara.'"
"Boom-de-ay!" Valeska added gaily.
"Precisely. And, speaking of nonsense, I didn't ask you to get me a pair of white duck trousers and a yellow-striped blazer and an old woman's wig and a green umbrella and a white top hat, did I?" He looked thoughtfully at his finger nails.
"No, you didn't," she replied briskly; "nor a bottle of soothing syrup nor a tombstone."
"Nevertheless, you will do this to-morrow morning, and have them sent to number 573 Eighth Avenue."
"I agree, if you'll only let me add some rubber boots."
"Well, as a special favor, yes. Now run along and I'll get to work. Oh, Tim was arrested to-day, on suspicion of having stolen the Landor jewels. Too bad, isn't it?"
He sat down, thereupon, to write a letter as follows:
"Commesso sbaglio gravissimo. Lei è in un gran pericolo. Venga a trovarmi martedi a mezzanotte sulla porta del no. 573 Eighth Avenue. Venga solo. T."
"Terrible mistake made. You are in great danger. Meet me Tuesday at midnight in the doorway of number 573 Eighth Avenue. Come alone. T."
Roughly scrawled on brown paper, and put into a plain but dirty envelope, the note was convincing. Tim, at any rate, would not be able to deny it for some time. It was not a message that the Count D'Ampleri would dare ignore.
The Count D'Ampleri did not ignore it. Smart and aristocratic in appearance, though foreign-looking with his Parisian silk hat, his queer trousers, and his waxed and pointed mustache, he was prompt at the rendezvous. Valeska and John Wallington Shaw, drifting slowly down the block, noticed him there waiting in the dusky doorway, looking impatiently up and down, smoking a cigarette. The count seemed to be a bit uneasy. He lighted one cigarette after another.
The two spectators passed again, talking absorbedly one to the other, but watching guardedly as they passed. At the Thirty-seventh Street corner they noticed a man standing, his back against a lamp-post. A child would have known him to be a policeman in plain clothes. His burly figure, his bull neck, the very cut of his mustache, proved it indubitably. He gave them a wink as they passed him. They crossed to the other side of the avenue and walked slowly. As they reached the far end of the block they suddenly stopped. Valeska began to giggle, pointed, and excitedly watched the scene across the street. Shaw seized her arm and hurried her over the crossing and to the front of the doorway. The little drama was almost over. As they stopped, staring, a fantastic figure retreated, entered the door, and banged it behind him.
They were laughing at the count's discomfiture as McGraw came up. He took his cue like an actor, and walking up to the count grabbed him fiercely by the arm.
"Now then," he said harshly, "what you a-doin' here? What's that you got there?" He pointed to a black bag the Italian still held in his hand.
"Who are you, anyway?" said the count angrily. "Vat beesness of yours? Tell me that!"
"I'll show you!" and McGraw threw back his coat and displayed his badge. "See here now! What have you got in that bag at this time of night, hangin' round in this doorway?"
"My God! I don't know myself!" the count exclaimed.
"I'll see, then," said McGraw, and snatching it from him he opened the bag and drew out a diamond tiara.
"You don't know!" he thundered. "We'll see about that at the station-house! Come along with me!"
The count, seeing the jewels, seemed almost ready to faint with surprise and horror. "But I am very innocent!" he wailed. "I am ze Count D'Ampleri. I live at ze Saint Regis! You shall see! Before heaven! I never knew that things was there! It was give me just now, by—by—" He paused, discomfited.
"Well, by whom?" was McGraw's inquiry.
"You will not believe—nobody won't believe—it ees too much! A mad woman she give me zis bag just now zis minute!"
"What kind of a woman? Out with it!"
"Oh! what shall I say? You will not believe. A woman like a man, with white pantaloon, with a topper hat, a yellow jacquette with stripes like zis." He made a pitiful gesture down the front of his coat.
"Aw, g'wan!" said McGraw. "D'you expect me to believe a pipe dream like that? That's the worst I ever heard, and I've heard some thin ones, too!"
"But I tell ze truth, I swear it! She have a green ombrelle."
"Any more? Go as far as you like." McGraw's tone was affable.
"She wear big boots of la gomme,—what you call it—rubbaire."
McGraw towered above him now, and calmly folded his arms. "No blue whiskers, or purple hat pins stuck in her face, was they? She wasn't chewin' shavin's or had red fire on her hands, I suppose? Lord, man! you got no imagination at all! Why, I can dream out things that would make that old lady seem like a fashion-plate. When I dope 'em out they generally wears armor plate and glass gloves at least. But I guess that'll be about all for you. I'm going to run you in."
The count in despair appealed to Valeska. "But ze lady and ze gentleman, she see ze old woman! Ask them! I am spik ze truth to you!"
Valeska, smothering her laughter, did her best to speak calmly. "We saw nothing at all, officer. The man must be intoxicated."
"Or crazy," Shaw put in wickedly.
"You see nozzing?" the count ejaculated in amazement. Then he dropped in a dejected huddle, nodding his head sillily.
McGraw motioned to Valeska, and nodded toward Thirty-seventh Street.
"Well, I'll have to go," she said, smiling. "You'd better be careful, officer; he may be dangerous." And so saying she walked away with Shaw, who was too nearly hysterical with mirth to speak for a while. When he did, it was to say:
"Will you kindly inform Astro when you see him that I take back what I said about horoscopes and occultism? I am quite sure he will understand."
She repeated the message next day, when she and Astro found themselves alone in the studio. Astro smiled. "If they were all like John Wallington Shaw," he said, "you and I wouldn't make much of a living, little girl." Then he added irrelevantly, "I understand that the Count D'Ampleri is to sail on the Germanic next week."
"Oh. Then McGraw let him off?"
"All McGraw wanted was to get his thousand out of Mrs. Landor, and the less talk about it the better. He telephoned me this morning to say that she gave him a very lively half-hour, but paid. By the way, I wonder if Shaw told his sister Ethel how the matter was solved?"
"He said he intended to, before he went to bed."
"Then we may consider the episode closed." Astro took down a volume of Immanuel Kant. Before he began his reading he remarked casually, "It was a narrow escape for all three. I don't know exactly which one to congratulate the most."
"I'd congratulate the old lady with the white duck trousers and the blazer," said Valeska. "I think she had the merriest time of all."
"Yes," said Astro, his eyes twinkling, "I think so myself!"