Jewel Mysteries I have Known/The Seven Emeralds
THE SEVEN EMERALDS
THE SEVEN EMERALDS
THE man stood upon the weir-bridge watching me, a conspicuous man with strange clothes for river-work upon him, and a haunting activity which drove him from the lock to the inn, and again from the inn to the lock with a crazy restlessness which was maddening. I had been for some hours whipping the mill-stream, which lies over against the lockhouse at Pangbourne; but meeting with no success amongst the chub, which on this particular July evening were aggravatingly indifferent even to the succulent frog, I had punted to the bushes in the open river; and there lit my pipe and fell to speculation upon him who favoured me with so close an attention. I have said that he was a conspicuous man, and to this I owed it that I had seen him. He wore the straw hat of Jesus College, Cambridge, and a velvet coat which shone brown and greasy in the falling sunlight; but his legs were encased in salmon-pink riding breeches, and he had brown boots reaching to his knees. Beyond this, he was singularly handsome, so far as I could judge with the river's breadth between us; and his hair was fair with a ridiculous golden strain quite unlooked for in one who has grown to manhood. Why he watched me so closely I could not even conjecture, but the fact was not to be disputed. I had lain by the mill since the forenoon, and since the forenoon he had hugged to the weir-bridge or to the lockhouse, giving no attention to the score of small boats and launches which passed up or down to Goring or Mapledurham; or even to the many pretty women who basked upon the cushions of punts or pair-oars. I alone was the object of his gaze, and for me he seemed to wait through the afternoon and until the twilight.
Now, had the man hailed me, I should have gone shorewards at once, for my curiosity had been petted by his attentions until it waxed warm and harassing, but this he did not do; keeping his eyes upon me even when I had rested from casting and sat idling in the punt. It would have been easy, I concede, to have gone up river toward Goring and so to have avoided him; but this would have cut short the chance of explanation, and have left ungratified my desire to know who he was, and wherefrom came his embarrassing interest in my failure to ensnare the exasperating chub. So I sat there, in turn wondering if he were honest or a rogue, an adventurer or an idler, a river-man or a fop from Piccadilly. And as the problem was beyond me, I left it at last; and taking up my punt-pole I gave three or four vigorous thrusts which sent me immediately to the landing-stage of the Swan Inn, and thence to my room.
It may be urged that this was an indifferent way of dealing with the man in the velvet coat if I wished to know more of him; but I had taken that little parlour of the inn which juts out upon the hard of the boathouse; and I could see from my open windows both the panorama of the lock and that of the open reach away towards the islands. It was now close upon the hour of seven, and the most part of the river lay in cooling shadow. I could hear by no means inharmonious music floating out over the water from a girl's guitar; there were several launches waiting for the lock-gates; and I recall well the face of a very remarkable woman, who presently came to the landing-stage in a gig, the cushions of which were of an aggressive yellow, but one which was a striking contrast to her black hair and ivory-white skin. Quite apart, however, from her indisputable beauty, I had reason to watch this conspicuous oarswoman, for no sooner had she come to the landing-stage than the man in the velvet coat went to her assistance, and taking a number of bags and baskets from the boat, accompanied her up the village high street, and so carried her from my view.
Here then, thought I, is the end of my mystery. The man had been waiting for the return of his wife, when I, with preposterous conceit, plumed myself that he had been looking to speak with me. What creatures of ideas we are! And when I reflected upon it, certainly it was monstrous absurd to think that one man should wish to watch another failing to catch fish through a long summer's afternoon. Indeed, I laughed heartily at myself as the maid set my dinner, and I put my creel and rod upon the piano (one puts everything upon the piano in a Thames village) before daring the very substantial, if rural, repast served to me.
One dines up river, as most people know, in semi-public state. Loafers, loiterers, fruit-sellers, boatmen—all these congregate near the open window, and discuss verbally the dishes which the diner discusses more substantially. Custom so stales us that this publicity in no way interferes with our pleasure. I have so long learned to tolerate the presence before my casement of oarsman, pedlar, and even the less welcome bargee, that these now are almost as salt to my appetite. And for the matter of that, on the evening of which I am writing, the crowd was less than usual, being composed of one vendor of fruit, three men in obviously Cheapside blazers, and an old woman who sold boot-laces and discussed the weather with me through the casement at one and the same time. She was such a merry old soul, and gave me so much of her history and of that of her son, who was "fightin' for his quane and counthry" in a place which she could not mind herself of, that I forgot the ridiculous romance of the velvet-coated man, and even his existence, until of a sudden he presented himself, no longer watching me upon the bridge, but standing at the casement, and asking to be admitted.
"I'm most horribly sorry," said he, "to intrude upon you at your dinner, but my train leaves for town in ten minutes, and I particularly want your opinion upon something which they tell me you know more about than any man in England."
"By all means," said I. "But your estimate of my opinion is hopelessly flattering; it concerns jewels, I suppose?"
"Exactly," said he; "and I shall be under very large obligations to you if you will tell me whether two emeralds I have in my pocket are of any value, and if so, where would be the best place to dispose of them?"
He took a little paper box from his coat, and laid it near to my plate. I saw that it was a box which had contained tabloids of nitro-glycerine (a drug prescribed for diseases of the heart); and that it had been sold by a chemist of the name of Benjamin Wain, whose shop was in the High Street at Reading. These things I observed with my intuitive habit of grasping detail, learnt in long contention with rogues; and then forgot them as the man opened a screw of tissue paper, and I beheld two of the finest emeralds I have seen during my career. The stones were perfectly matched, of a rich velvety, but brilliant colour, and came, I did not doubt after my first sight of them, from the Upper Orinoco or from Columbia. Their weight I judged to be about five carats each, and I knew that if they were without a flaw, which very few emeralds are, they would be worth fifteen hundred pounds at a very low estimate. All this passed through my mind like a flash; but with admiration of the gems, which brought covetousness in its path, there came at once the other thought—what is this man doing here with these stones, and how comes it that he can carry them and yet be unconscious of their value? But this I endeavoured to conceal, and waited for him to speak.
"Well," said he, after a pause, "do you find much the matter with them?"
"I should want my glass to see," said I with caution; "the light is failing, and my eyes are not as good as they were."
"You mean a magnifying glass, I suppose?" said he, producing a lens from his pocket. "Well, I happen to have one."
Why it was I cannot tell you, but this trifling circumstance I marked down in my mind as my first sound cause of suspicion against him. Perhaps I coupled it with that spontaneous distrust which I felt when first he spoke, for the very softness of his voice was obviously assumed; and now that I saw him near to me, I did not fail to notice that the velvet coat was much worn, and the rowing club tie he wore frayed beyond respectability. But I took his lens, and, having examined the stones long and critically under it, I found them to be without flaw or blemish. Then I gave him my opinion.
"They are fine stuff," said I; "do you happen to know where they come from?"
I looked him full in the face when I spoke, and observed a slight drawing of the lines above his mouth. When he answered me I was sure that he had thought out a lie—and with effort.
"I believe they come from Salzburg," he stammered; "at least I have heard so."
"That could not possibly be," said I; "the worst emeralds we have are the best product of that mine. I fancy they are from Venezuela."
"Ah, that's the place," said he, "I remember it now; but I've a wretched head for geography."
While he said this the train to London steamed out of the railway station, which is not a stone's throw from the inn, and he, forgetful of his tale to me, sat watching it unconcernedly. I had discovered him in a second lie, and I waited to entrap him to a third with the practised pleasure of a cross-examiner.
"Do you sell these stones for yourself or as an agent?" I asked, assuming some authority as I felt surer of him. His hesitation in answering was merely momentary, but it was enough for my purpose.
"For myself," said he; and then with clumsy maladroitness he added, "They were left to me by my father, and I have never had the heart to offer them to any one. I'll tell you what, though; if you'll give me a thousand pounds for the pair, you shall keep them."
"That's a long price," said I; "and if you don't mind the suggestion, my dinner's getting cold."
I had spoken thus with the design of putting him off; but he was undisguisedly an ill-bred man, and I saw that I could have bought the emeralds from him for five hundred pounds. My hint—if such you could call it—fell upon deaf ears; and he, seeming not to hear it, continued to argle-bargle, but betraying himself in every word he said.
"Come, now," he cried, "you don't want to be hard upon me; give me a check for five hundred, and send the balance to Brighton in a week if you find them as good as you think. That's a fair offer, isn't it?"
"The offer is fair enough," said I; "but you forget that I did not come here to buy emeralds. I am in Pangbourne to catch chub, as you saw this afternoon."
"I'm afraid I can't agree to that," he replied with a laugh; "I did not see you catch chub this afternoon—I saw you miss three."
"The bait was poor," I said meaningly; "fish are as canny as men, and don't take pretty things if they think there's a hook in them."
This I gave him with such a stare that he rose up suddenly from his chair, and, having made a bungling parcel of his jewels, went off by himself. He had to pass my window as he left the inn, and as he crossed the road I called after him, saying—
"You'll be losing your train to London."
"Be d——d to that!" said he; and with such a salute he turned the angle of the road, and I lost sight of him.
But I thought much of his emeralds through the night, both in my walk across the old wooden bridge to Whitchurch, when the river lay dark and gloomy with the sough of the breeze in the reeds and sedge-grass; and again as I lay in the old wooden "best-bed" of the inn, and contemplated the "sampler" which bore witness to the energy of one Jane Atkins, whose work it was. By what chance had the man found me out? Whence came his seedy clothes and his jewels? Who was the pretty woman who had gone up from the hard with him? He had come by the stones fraudulently, of course; had the case been different he would have sent them to London to a house of substance, and there got his price for them. At one time I felt that it lay upon me to advise the police in Reading of the offer I had received; at another, there came some regret for the stones, and at the manner of his departure. The season had been one of emeralds. I could have sold the pair he had for some profit, and, as my greed told me, I could have bought them cheap. At the end of it I fell asleep to dream that I rowed to Mapledurham in an emerald boat, and that a man with emerald eyes steered me abominably.
On the next day, quite early in the morning, I set out in a dogcart for Reading, having a rendezvous with Barisbroke at the Kennet's mouth, whence we were to start for a day's sport upon that fish-breeding river. My drive took me by the old Bath-road, turning to the left midway up the village street; but I had not gone very far upon the Reading-road before I saw the handsome woman—the wife, as I assumed, of the velvet-coated man—now dressed with exceeding poorness, and carrying a heavy bag towards the biscuit town. At this point the sun beat early upon the sandy way with a shimmer of white and misty light, which promised great heat of the forenoon; there was scarce a quiver of wind in the woods to the left of me, and I did not doubt that walking was a great labour. Yet, when I reined in the cob, and asked the woman, if at least I might not carry her bag to Reading and leave it for her, she thanked me somewhat curtly, I thought, and evidently resented any notice of her difficulty. It occurred to me, as I drove on, that the man, who had been with her on the previous day, had really left by the last train for London; but when I came into Reading, and was about to cross the High Street, to reach Earleigh, I saw the name Benjamin Wain superscribed above a little chemist's shop, and I stopped at once. I know that a country tradesman will gossip like a fishwife; and I asked the man for some preparation which he could not possibly find in the pharmacopœia, and so began to feel my ground.
"You're well ahead of the times here," said I, looking at his show-case, which was woefully destitute of drugs. "I shouldn't have thought that you'd be asked for tabloids in a place like Reading."
"Oh, but we are," said he, readily; "it's a wonderfully advanced town is Reading—you won't get much in Regent Street which is not here. I've lived in Reading all my life—and seen changes, sir, indeed I have!"
"You know most of the people then?" said I, with a purpose.
"Ay," said he, "I've born and buried a many, so to speak; seen children grow to men and women, and men and women grow to children—you wouldn't think it perhaps!"
"No," said I, "you don't show it; but your reputation, if I may say so, goes beyond this place. I was in Pangbourne yesterday, where a tall, yellow-haired man was speaking of you; who is he, I wonder?"
"A tall, yellow-haired man!" he exclaimed, putting his finger in the centre of his forehead as if in aid of memory; "I didn't know there were such in Reading. A tall, yellow—let me see, now——"
"You sold him some tabloids of nitro-glycerine; perhaps that will help to his identification?" said I.
"Ah, now I know you're wrong," said he; "there's only one man within five miles of here who uses that stuff, and he hasn't got yellow hair—ha, ha, he hasn't got any at all."
"Who is he?" I asked with growing curiosity.
"Why, old Jabez Ladd, the miser, out at Yore Park; he takes that stuff for his heart, sir. Wonderful weak heart he has, too; but he hasn't got yellow hair—no, I may say with conviction that he has no hair at all."
I had learnt all I needed, for the mere mention of the name Jabez Ladd was sufficient for me. At the man's words a whole freshet of ideas seemed to rush to my mind. I had known the miser for years as one of the hardest jewel buyers in the country; I had sold him thousands of pounds' worth of stuff; I had heard the strangest traditions of his astounding meanness and self-denial. They even said that he forbade himself a candle after dusk, and that his fare was oatmeal and brown bread; while he lived in a house which would not have been a poor retreat for a millionaire. This I knew, but the words of the apothecary had made other things clear to me—one, that the yellow-haired man had got his emeralds in a box which must have come from Ladd's house, since he alone in the neighbourhood took tabloids of nitro-glycerine; another, that the man's very shabbiness and obvious shuffling pointed very strongly to the conclusion that he should be watched.
Of these things was I sure as I met Barisbroke, and I turned them over in my mind often during the moderate sport of the forenoon, and after. Not that I had any troublesome friendship for Ladd, who was no sort of a man to think about; yet I could not forget that he was a buyer, and it seemed both wise and likely to be profitable to warn him. Possibly I had reared a fine superstructure of suspicion upon a mere flimsy basis of prejudice; but in any case I could do no harm, I thought, and might even sell the old scoundrel a parcel of jewels in the attempt. His house, as I then knew, lay over by the hills of Caversham; and I remembered that I could take it by a circuitous route which would bring me to Pangbourne, after I had passed through Mapledurham and Whitchurch. In the end, I resolved at least to see the old man; and when I had dined at a ridiculously early hour with Barisbroke, I crossed the river by the white bridge, and in thirty minutes I was at the gate of Yore Hall.
I am no archæologist, and have an exceedingly poor eye for a building; but my first impression of this hall was a pleasing one. It is true that the wooden gate of the drive was broken down, and the garden-land beyond it nothing but a tangle of swaying grass, thistle, and undergrowth, preparing one for poor things to come; but the house itself was a massive and even a grand attempt at a towered and battlemented structure, built in stout stone with Norman windows, and the pretence of a keep, which gave strength to its air of antiquity. When I came near to it, I saw that many of the gargoyles had fallen from the roof of the left wing, which seemed to be unfinished, and the parapet was broken away and decaying above the porch; while—and this was even more singular—there did not seem a single curtain to the house. It was now upon the hour of seven, and a glimmer of sunlight shining redly upon the latticed casements lit up the façade with a greater brilliance than one looks to see out of Italy. There were rooks circling and cawing in the great elms by the moat which ran round three sides of the house; I could hear the baying of a hound in the courtyard by the stables—but of man or woman I saw nothing, though I rang the great bell thrice, and birds fled from the eaves at the clatter, and the rabbits that had sported by the thicket disappeared in the warren.
Some minutes after the third ring, and when I was preparing to drive off and leave Jabez Ladd to his own affairs, the stable door opened, and a girl came out, dressed, it seemed to me, curiously in a smart white frock; but with untidy hair, though much of it; and an exceedingly pretty face, which had been the prettier for a little scouring. The creature had great dark eyes like a grisette of Bordeaux; and when she saw me, stood swaying upon her feet, and laughing as she bit at her apron-strings, as though my advent was an exceedingly humorous thing. Then she said,—
"Is it Mr. Ladd you're wanting?"
I told her that it was.
"You'll not be a county man?" she asked.
"I'm from London," said I, "and my name is Bernard Sutton. Tell Mr. Ladd that I'll not keep him five minutes."
"There's no need," said she, simpering again; "he's been a-bed since the milk."
"In bed!" cried I amazed.
"Yes," said she, "it's over late for company; but if ye'll write something I'll run up with it; the housekeeper's away sick."
She seemed to think that all this was a good joke, and wondered, I doubt not, that I did not simper at her again. I was on the very point of whipping up the nag, and leaving such a curious household, when one of the landing windows went up with a creak, and Ladd himself, with a muffler round his throat, was visible.
"What d'ye want in my grounds?" he roared. "Here, you hussy, what are ye chattering there for?—thought I was asleep did ye—ha!"
"Good evening, Mr. Ladd," said I, quietly; "I'm sorry, but I appear to have disturbed you. I've a word for your ear if you'll come down."
"Hullo," cried he, in his cracked and piercing voice; "why it's you, is it? egad, I thought you were the butcher! What's your business?—I'm biding in bed, as you can see."
"I can't shout," said I, "and my business is private."
"Won't it wait?" he snarled. "You haven't come to sell me anything?"
"I don't sell stuff in the street," said I; "come down and I'll talk to you. But if you don't want to hear—well, go to bed."
His curiosity got the better of him at this point, and he snapped out the words, "I'm coming down," and then disappeared from the window. But he had no intention of opening the front door, as I found presently when of a sudden he appeared at a casement upon the ground floor, and resumed the conversation.
"You're not asking after my health," said he, "but I'll let you know that I'm eat up with cold; can ye have done with it straight off?"
"Yes," said I, leaning over from the dog-cart to spare my voice. "Do you know a tall man with yellow hair who's got two emeralds to sell?"
At these words his face whitened in the sunlight, and he opened his great mouth as though to speak, but no sound came. Then quickly he drew a small box from his pocket, such as I had seen in the hands of the velvet-coated man, and took a tabloid from it.
"I'll be about letting you in," said he, as he went to shut down the casement.
But I said, "I think not, there's a drive of five miles to Whitchurch before me, and this horse trips."
"For the love of God," cried he, suddenly putting off all self-restraint, "don't go till I've heard you—man, my life may depend upon it!"
"How's that?" said I.
"I'm going to tell you," said he; "and if ye'll stay, we'll crack a bottle of port together."
He had whetted my curiosity now, and presently I heard him nagging at the pretty girl who had first greeted me. After that he threw the stable door wide open, and dressed only, as I could see, in a loose dressing-gown and a pair of carpet slippers, he led the horse to a stall that had the half of a roof; crying to the maid to get her down to the house of a man he named, there to beg a feed of corn and the loan of a boy. But while he was doing it, he shivered incessantly, and seemed eaten up with fear.
"You appear to think that I'm putting up with you," said I, when I heard his orders; "there's no need to look after the nag—I shan't be here ten minutes."
"Not ten minutes!" he exclaimed, still with quavering voice. "Oh, but you will—when you've heard my talk. Would you see me murdered?"
I did not answer, being in the main amused at his attempts to get the horse out of the trap, and particularly to unbuckle the very stiff belly-band. The girl had gone tripping off with herself to the village as I thought; but though at that time I had no intention of staying beyond an hour with him, I unshafted the animal myself, and tethered the beast to the rickety manger, throwing my own rug across his loins; then I followed Ladd through a black and smoke-washed kitchen to a dingy apartment near the hall, and, the place being shuttered, he kindled a common paraffin lamp, which might have cost a shilling but would have been dear at two.
"I'll be getting the port," said he, casting a wistful look at me in the hope, perhaps, that I should decline his invitation to a glass, "you'll not mind refreshment after your drive?"
"Thanks; you may be sure I won't," said I; and while he was gone fumbling down the passage, I saw that his dining-room had once been a fine apartment, oak-panelled and spacious; and that ancestors, whose rubicund jowls spoke of "two-bottle" men, now seemed to survey the economy below with agony unspeakable. For the rest, there was little in the room but depressing Victorian chairs in mahogany, and a piano with a high back, such as our grandmothers played upon.
When Ladd came back, he had a bottle in his hand. I smiled openly when I saw that it was a pint; but he decanted it with a fine show of generosity, and pushing a glass to me, took up the matter which interested him at once.
"Where did ye see my nephew?" he asked, while I sipped the wine with satisfaction; "it'll have been in London, perhaps?"
"I saw him—if he was your nephew—at Pangbourne last night," said I; "he had a pretty woman with him, and wanted to sell me two emeralds."
"That must have been the wife he married in San Francisco," cried he, "but she has no sinecure; you didn't hear that I paid his passage abroad last spring after he'd robbed me of a thousand—— Well and it was emeralds he wanted to sell you?"
"Two of the finest I have ever seen," said I, "and matching perfectly."
The import of the emeralds had evidently been lost upon him until this time; but now of a sudden he realized that he might be concerned in the business, and his agitation was renewed. "I wonder what emeralds they were?" he asked as if of himself; then turning to me, he exclaimed, "Will you come upstairs with me a minute?"
He did not wait for me to answer, but led the way up bare stone steps to a landing off which there led two long passages; and in a big and not uncomfortable bedroom he showed me three safes, one a little one, which he opened, and took therefrom a case containing seven emeralds of a size and quality apparently similar to the two I had seen at Pangbourne. But when he gave them to me to examine I saw at once that five of them were genuine and two were false.
"Well," said he, after I had looked at them long and closely, "how do you like them?"
"I like them well enough," said I; "at least, I like five of them, but the other two are glass!"
At this he cried, "Oh, my God!" and clutched the stones from me with the trembling fingers of a madman. When he had seen them for himself—being judge enough to follow me in my conclusions—he began to roar out oaths and complaints most pitifully, cursing his nephew as I have never heard a man cursed before or since. In my endeavour to calm him, I asked how it could possibly be that this fellow he feared had got access to his safe; but he poured out only an incoherent tale, begging me to send for the police, then not to leave him, then falling to prophecy, and declaring that he would be murdered before the month was out. It was altogether the most moving sight I have ever seen—pointing strongly to the conclusion that the man was mad; and, in fact, where his jewels were concerned, sanity was not his strong point.
By and by he got sufficient reason to tell me that he had the administration of some of his nephew's property, and that in his work he had first fallen foul of a man, headstrong, vindictive, by no means honest, and, in some moods, dangerous. Yet, even knowing his relative's character and the threats he had urged against him, he could not tell how the safe was broken, or by what means the emeralds had gone. He was not even aware that his nephew was in England; and I had been the first to bring intelligence of his coming. I asked him, naturally, if these two stones represented the whole of his loss, and at that he fell off again to his raving, but took two keys of the larger safes from a secret drawer in the smaller as I could see; and began to pour upon the faded bed-cover a wealth of treasure which might have bought a city. Here were rubies of infinite perfection, diamonds set in a hundred shapes, ropes of pearls, boxes of opals, bracelets of every known pattern, rings scarce to be numbered, aigrettes, necklaces—in short, such a stupendous show that the dark and dingy bedroom was lighted with wondrous light, a myriad rays flashing up from the bed, until the whole place seemed touched with a wand, and changed to a chamber of a thousand colours. Before the bed of jewels the old man stood chattering and moaning; now bathing, as it were, in the gems, now letting them ripple over his hands, or addressing tender endearments to them; or clutching them with nervous avidity as though he feared even my companionship.
In the midst of this strange scene, and while we were both held spellbound by the wondrous vision of wealth, a sudden exclamation drew the miser from his employment. It came from the girl who had been sent to the village, she now standing in the doorway of the bedroom, and crying, "Oh, good Lord!" as she saw the glitter of the gems. But Ladd turned upon her at the words, and grasped her by the wrists, crying out as he had cried when first he knew that he was robbed.
"You hussy," he hissed, bending her by the arms backward almost to the floor; "what do you watch me for? What do you mean by coming here? Where are the emeralds you have stolen? Tell me, wench; do you hear? Tell me, or I shall hurt you!"
He held her in so firm a grasp that I feared she would suffocate, and went to pull him off; at which action he turned to cry out against me; but the anger had played upon him so that he fainted suddenly all across the bed, and amongst the jewels. The girl, whom he had forced upon the floor, now rose impudently, and said,—
"Did ye ever see the like of him?—but I'll make him pay for it! Oh, you needn't look, he's that way often. He'll come to in a minute; but he won't find me in the house to-morrow—wages or no wages."
"Do what you like," I cried to her angrily, "but don't chatter. Have you got any brandy in the house?"
"Brandy! and for him!" said she, arranging her dress which he had torn. "Is it me that should be running for it? Not if I know it; brandy, I like that!"
"Then leave the room," I exclaimed imperatively; and with that she went off, banging the door behind her, and I was alone with the man and his jewels. I think it was the strangest situation I have ever known. Some thousands of pounds' worth of gems lay scattered upon the coverlet, upon the sheets, and even upon the carpet. Ladd himself lay like the figure upon a tomb, white and motionless; there was only the light of a common paraffin lamp; and three parts of the room lay in darkness. My first thought was for the man's life, and remembering that I had a flask in my pocket, I forced brandy between his clenched teeth, and laid him flat upon his back. In a few moments there was a perceptible, though very quick beat of his pulse, and after that, when he had taken more of the spirit, he opened his eyes, and endeavoured to raise himself; but I forbade him roughly, and gathering up his gems I bundled them in the greater safe, and turned the key upon them. He however, watched me with glazing eyes, scarce being able, for lack of strength, to utter a word; but he motioned for me to give him the key, and this he placed under the pillow of his bed, and fell presently into a gentle sleep, which was of good omen.
I should mention that it was now full dark outside, and, as I judged, about the hour of ten. I had got the man's jewels into his safe for him, and he was sleeping; but where the bewitching little hussy was I did not know; or what was the value of the old man's fears about his nephew. It was clear to me, however, that he had been robbed, probably by the immediate agency of the girl who acted as his servant; and it was equally obvious that I had no alternative but to stay by him, even if prospect of probable business in the future had not moved me to do so. An inspection of his room by the flickering light of the lamp disclosed to me a small dressing-room leading from it, this containing a sofa; and when I had quite assured myself that my patient, as I chose to regard him, slept easily, and that his pulse was no longer intermittent nor faint, I took my boots off and lay down upon the hard horsehair antiquity which was to serve me for bed. Strange to say, in half an hour I fell into a dreamless sleep, for I was heavy with fatigue, and had walked many hours upon the Kennett's bank; but when I awoke, the room was utterly dark, and the screams of a dying man rang in my ears.
In moments of emergency one's individuality asserts itself in curious actions. I am somewhat stolid, and a poor subject for panics, and I remember on this particular occasion that my first act was to draw on my boots with deliberation, and even to turn in the tags carefully before I struck a match, and got a sight of the scene which I remember so well though many months have passed since its happening. When I had light, I found Ladd standing by the door of his large safe, which was open, but there was a deep crimson stain upon his shirt, and he no longer had the voice to scream. In fact, he was dying then; and presently he fell prone with a deep gasp, and I knew that he was dead. In the same instant a black shadow, as of a man, passed between me and the flicker of the light; and as the match went out the door of the chamber swung upon its hinges, and the assassin passed from the room.
Now, Ladd had scarce fallen before I was in the dark passage, listening with great tension of the ear for a sound of the hiding man's footstep. But the place was as still as the grave; and then there came upon me the horrid thought that the fellow lurked with me about the room's door, and presently would serve me as he had served the other. Cold with fear at the possibility, I struck a match, and advanced along the passage, using half a box of lucifers in the attempt. At the corner I came suddenly upon a cranny; and as the light died away, two gleaming eyes shot up glances to mine, and a man sprang out flashing a blade in the air, but rushing past me, and fleeing like the wind towards the southern wing—the unfinished one. So swift did he go that I saw nothing of his face, and it seemed scarce a moment before I heard a door open, and another great cry, followed by a splashing of water and utter silence.
This second cry took, I think, what little nerve I had left; and while the echo of it was still in the passages my last match went out. The place was now black with unbroken darkness; every step that I took appeared to reach mysterious stairs and to send me staggering; but at last a sudden patch of moonlight from a corner encouraged me to go on, and I reached the spot where the man had disappeared. At that point a door creaked and banged upon its hinges, but the white light coming through it saved me from the fate of him who had gone before. It showed me at a glance that the door was built in a side of the unfinished wall of the wing, and that the man, who evidently had mistaken it for the entrance to the back staircase, which I saw a few feet farther on, had crashed down fifty feet into the moat below, carrying, as I supposed, his plunder in his hands. Then I knew the meaning of the gurgling cry and the horrid thud; and terror seemed to strike me to my very marrow.
How I got out of the house I do not know to this day. Thrice I made a circuit of winding corridors only to find myself again before the room where Ladd's body lay in the circle of moonlight which the window focused upon the safe; thrice I reached doors which seemed to give access to the yard; but led only into gloomy shuttered chambers where curious shapes of the yellow rays came through the dusty crevices. At last, however, I reached the frowsy kitchen, and the yard, and stood a minute to breathe the chill night air, and to think what was to be done; whither first to go; to whom to appeal. The whine of a voice from the stable seemed to answer me. I entered the roofless shanty, and there found the dark-eyed girl sitting upon a rotting garden roller, and quivering in every limb. She too was dressed ready to accompany the man who then lay in the moat, I did not doubt; but at the first sight of me she started up with blanched face, and clinging to me she cried,—
"Take me away; oh, my God, take me away from it!" and rather incoherently she muttered that she was innocent, and protested it in a score of phrases. I saw a flush of dawn-light upon her babyish face as she spoke, and it occurred to me when I was putting the horse to the dog-cart that she was unmistakably pretty, and that her customary occupation was not that of a housemaid. But I only said to her,—
"Keep anything you have to say for the police. I am going to fetch them." And with that I drove off, and the last I saw of my lady showed her as she sat moaning on the straw, her hair tumbling upon her shoulders, and her face buried in her hands.
The trial of this woman, and her acquittal by the jury, are well remembered in Caversham; nor is the mystery of Jabez Ladd's jewels and their disappearance by any means an infrequent topic for alehouses. What became of the precious stones which Arthur Vernon Ladd, the old man's nephew, took from the safe on the night he murdered his uncle, one man alone knows—and that is myself. The people of the town will tell you that the moat was dragged and drained with no result. I myself saw the body of the murderer—the velvet-coated man of Pangbourne; but although at least a couple of thousand pounds worth of jewels were missing from the safe, there was not one of them about him, or to be found upon the concrete bottom of the moat into which he had dropped with the blood of Ladd fresh upon his hands. In vain the police searched the girl—her name was Rachel Peters, she said—and her boxes; equally in vain the old house was ransacked from top to bottom. The thing was a black mystery; it was gossip not only for inns and beerhouses, but for the county. The report of it spread even to America, and to this moment it has remained unsolved.
The jewels being undiscoverable, and Ladd having been murdered to my knowledge by his nephew, the girl, Rachel Peters, was, as I have said, discharged. She returned to the old house for her boxes, and immediately disappeared from the knowledge of the county. Ten months later I saw her dancing on the stage of an opera house in Florida, and she was wearing five of the seven emeralds which Ladd had lost! The spectacle seemed so amazing to me that I sought her out between the acts, and found her as full of chic and verve as a Parisian soubrette. Nor did she disguise anything from me, telling me everything over a cigarette with a relish and a sparkle which was astounding to see.
"Yes," said she—but I give her story in plain words, for her way of telling it is not to be written down—"I had known Vernon Ladd for years. I doubt if there was a worse man in Europe; but I was frightened of him, and I entered old Ladd's service at his wish to help him to steal the jewels. We got at the emeralds first, because they were in the small safe; but we didn't know where the keys of the other safe were, and we put two sham emeralds in the case to keep the old boy quiet while we worked. That night you came to the house Vernon Ladd was already inside, concealed behind the old man's bed; and he watched you open the great safe and spread the jewels. The mischief of it was that Ladd woke up five minutes too soon, and caught the boy by the throat—you know what he got for that, for you saw it and you know how Vernon mistook the door, and went down in a hurry. Well, when you'd gone for the police, I ran round to the back of the house, and what should I see but the bag of jewels stuck on a ledge just under the landing window. He'd dropped them as he fell, and there they were lying so plain that one could have seen them a mile off. I just ran up and reached them with my arm, but when I was in the stable again, and thinking of hiding them, I heard you driving up the road, and I slipped the bag in the first thing handy—it was your own fishing creel.
"No, you never found them, did you? just because they were hanging up there plain for every one to see. When the judge discharged me at the Court, I went again to the house to get my box, never thinking to see the stones; but you'd gone away without the creel, and it was the first thing I touched lying in the straw of the stable. You may be sure it didn't lie there long. I'd saved up enough money for a passage to the States, and when I got here I started as an actress, as I was before, and I sold the things one by one. These emeralds are all that's left—and if you're a brick, you'll buy them!"
This was her story. She was a clever woman, and having been discharged on the accusation of robbing the dead miser Ladd, could not be sent to her trial again. Her invitation for me to buy the emeralds was tempting. I had already purchased two from the unhappy lady of Pangbourne, who was married to the velvet-coated Vernon Ladd, and is now living in seclusion in Devonshire. The other five would have made the set of great value. Ladd had no heirs; it was altogether a nice point. I debated it.