Stories by Foreign Authors (French I)/The Black Pearl
THE BLACK PEARL
From "Jettatura and Other Stories,"
published by Brentano's.
Copyright, 1888, by Brentano's.
WHEN it rains in Amsterdam, it pours; and when the thunder takes a hand in the performance things are pretty lively; this is what my friend Balthazar Van der Lys was saying to himself one summer night, as he ran along the Amstel on his way home to escape the storm. Unfortunately, the wind of the Zuiderzee blew faster than he could run. A frightful gust tore along the quay, unhinging hundreds of shutters and twisting scores of signs and lamp-posts. At the same moment, a number of towels and handkerchiefs which had been hung out to dry were blown pell-mell into the canal, followed by Balthazar's hat, and it is the greatest wonder in the world that he was not treated to a bath himself. Then there was another flash of lightning, a deafening roar of thunder, and the rain came down in torrents anew, literally wetting our poor friend to the skin, and causing him to redouble his speed.
On reaching the Orphelinat Straat he rushed under the awning of a shop to seek refuge from the rain; in his hurry he did not take time to look where he was going, and the next moment he found himself fairly in the arms of another man, and the two went rolling over and over together. The person thus disturbed was seated at the time in an arm-chair; this person was no other than our mutual friend, Cornelius Pump, who was undoubtedly one of the most noted savants of the age.
"Cornelius! what the mischief were you doing in that chair?" asked Balthazar, picking himself up.
"Look out!" exclaimed Cornelius, "or you will break the string of my kite!"
Balthazar turned around, believing that his friend was joking; but, to his surprise, he saw Conielius busily occupied in winding up the string of a gigantic kite, which was floating above the canal at a tremendous height, and which apparently was struggling fiercely against all effort made to pull it in. Cornelius pulled away with all his might in one direction, while the kite pulled away in another. The monstrous combination of paper and sticks was ornamented with a tremendous tail, which was decorated with innumerable pieces of paper.
"A curious idea!" remarked Balthazar, "to fly a kite in such a storm."
"I am not doing so for fun, you fool," answered Cornelius with a smile; "I wish to verify the presence of nitric acid in yonder clouds, which are charged with electricity. In proof of which, behold!" and with a desperate effort the man of science succeeded in pulling down the kite, and pointed with pride to the bits of paper which had been burned a dark red.
"Oh, bah!" replied Balthazar in that tone of voice so common to those who do not understand anything of these little freaks of science. "A nice time to experiment, upon my word!"
"The best time in the world, my friend," simply answered Cornelius. "And what an observatory! you can see for yourself! there is not an obstruction in the way! a glorious horizon! ten lightning-rods in sight and all on fire! I have been keeping my weather eye open for this storm, and I am delighted that it has put in an appearance at last!"
A violent thunder-clap shook the ground like an earthquake.
"Go on! grumble away as much as you please," muttered Cornelius. "I have discovered your secret and will tell it to the world."
"And what is there so interesting in all this, anyway?" asked Balthazar, who, owing to his drenching, was in anything but a good humor.
"You poor fool," replied Cornelius, with a smile of pity; "now tell me, what is that?"
"Why, a flash of lightning, of course!"
"Naturally! but what is the nature of that flash?"
"Why, I always supposed that all flashes were alike."
"That shows how much you know!" answered Cornelius, in a tone of disgust. "Now, there are several classes of lightning; for instance, lightning of the first class is generally in the form of a luminous furrow and is very crooked and forked, affecting a zig-zag movement, and of a white or purple color; then, there is the lightning of the second class, an extended sheet of flame, usually red, and which embraces the entire horizon in circumference; and finally, lightning of the third class, which is invariably in the form of a rebounding, rolling, spherical body; the question is whether it is really globular in shape or merely an optical illusion? This is exactly the problem I have been trying to solve! I suppose you will say that these globes of fire have been sufficiently observed by Howard, Schübler, Kamtz—"
"Oh, I don't know anything at all about such rot, so I won't venture an opinion. The rain is coming down again and I want to go home."
"Wait a moment," calmly replied Cornelius; "and as soon as I have seen a spherical or globular flash I will—"
"I have n't time to wait: besides, I would be a fool when I only have to go a hundred feet to reach my door. If you want a good fire, a good supper, a good bed, and a good pipe, you will be welcome; and If you want to look at a globe, why, the globe of my lamp is at your disposal. I can say no more."
"Stop a moment, my flash will be along presently."
Balthazar, whose patience was now well-nigh exhausted, was preparing to take his departure, when suddenly the sky was lighted up by a bright flash, while the thunder burst with a loud report a short distance away. The shock was so violent that it almost knocked Balthazar over.
"That was a spherical globe, and no mistake!" joyfully exclaimed Cornelius; "I have made a wonderful discovery: let's go to supper!" Balthazar rubbed his eyes and felt of his limbs to assure himself that he was still in the land of the living.
"The lightning struck near my house!"
"Not at all," replied Cornelius, "it was in the direction of the Hebrew quarter."
Balthazar did not stop to hear any more, but started off on a dead run; Cornelius picked up his little bits of paper and was soon following at his heels, in spite of the drenching rain.
An hour later the two friends, having enjoyed a bountiful supper, seated themselves in comfortable chairs, and between the whiffs of their meerschaums laughed at the storm which was still raging furiously outside.
"This is what I call real enjoyment," remarked Cornelius. "A good bottle of white curacoa, a good fire, good tobacco, and a congenial friend to talk to; am I not right, Christina?"
Christina came and went; she was here, there, and everywhere at the same time, removing plates and placing fresh glasses and a huge earthen jug on the table. At the mention of her name by Cornelius she blushed a fiery red, but said nothing in reply.
Christina (it is high time that we tell you) was a young girl who had been raised out of charity, in the house of our friend Balthazar.
Shortly after the death of her husband, Madame Van der Lys, Balthazar's mother, felt some one tugging at her dress as she was kneeling at her devotions one Sunday morning; fearing that some one was trying to pick her pocket she grasped the hand of the supposed offender. The hand belonged to a little girl, and was as cute and small as it is possible for a hand to be. The good woman was deeply moved at this exhibition of crime in one so young, and her first thought was to let the little one go; but she finally decided to give the waif a home, like the dear, good woman that she was. Then she led little Christina out of the church and made her accompany her home, the child crying all the while with fear that her aunt would whip her, Madame Van der Lys told her not to be afraid, and succeeded at last in obtaining the information that the child's parents belonged to that class of idlers who spend their time in running about fairs and kermesses; that the child had been broken in at an early age to all the tricks adopted by strolling mountebanks; that the father had been killed while performing a dangerous feat on the horizontal bar; that the mother died in want and misery; and finally that the aunt was an old hag who used to beat her black and blue, and who was instructing her in all the branches of crime. I do not know whether you have ever met Madame Van der Lys, but she was as good a woman as her son is good a man. She therefore decided to keep the child, whom the aunt never called to reclaim. She brought her up well and had her educated by an excellent woman. It was not long before the little waif knew how to spell, read, and write, and she soon became a model of good manners and refinement. Then, when the old lady shuffled off this mortal coil she had the satisfaction of leaving behind her, in addition to Gudule, the cook, a lass of fifteen who was as bright as a florin, and who would never permit her master's fire to go out for want of proper attention. In addition to all these good qualities, she was polite, refined, clever, and pretty; at least such was the opinion of our friend Cornelius, who had discovered in her eyes a look not at all unlike a flash of lightning of the third class. But, a truce to this! If I gossip any more I will be divulging family secrets!
I will add, however, that Christina always gave Cornelius a hearty welcome because he brought her interesting books. The young savant made a greater fuss over this little housekeeper than over all the painted beauties of the town. But it seemed as if the storm had paralyzed the young girl's tongue. She had declined to take her seat at the table, and, under the pretext of waiting on the two friends, she came and went, scarcely listening to what they had to say, replying only in monosyllables, and making the sign of the cross every time there was a flash of lightning. Shortly after their supper, Balthazar turned round to ask her a question, but she was no longer there, having retired to her room. He rose from his chair, and approaching the door of her room, listened attentively; but as all was silent he was evidently convinced that the young girl was already fast asleep, for he returned to his place and sat down beside Cornelius, who was busily engaged filling his pipe.
"What's wrong with Christina to-night?" he asked, pointing to her room.
"Oh, it's the storm," replied Balthazar; "women are so timid!"
"If it were otherwise, we would be deprived of the pleasure of protecting them as we would children—especially Christina, who is anything but strong. I really can't look at her without crying; she is so frail, so delicate!"
"Oh, ho, master Cornelius!" exclaimed Balthazar, with a knowing smile; "you are almost as enthusiastic over Christina as you were over the lightning a little while ago!"
Cornelius blushed to the very roots of his hair as he replied: "Oh, it's not the same kind of enthusiasm, however!"
"I suppose not!" remarked Balthazar with a hearty laugh. Then, taking Cornelius by the hand and looking him square in the face, he added: "Come now, you don't imagine that I can't see what is going on? You don't only amuse yourself at flying your kite over the Amstel, overgrown boy that you are, but you also play at racquets with Christina, and your two hearts answer the place of shuttlecocks."
"What, you suppose that—" muttered the savant, evidently confused.
"For over three months I have known that it was not merely to see my beautiful countenance that you have called here twice a day—at noon, on your way to the zoological garden, and at four on your way home."
"But this is the shortest way," ventured Cornelius.
"Yes, I know—to the heart!"
"Come, now, let us reason: Christina is unlike most girls of her age; she has a wise head and a loving heart, I assure you; she is certainly clever enough to admire and appreciate such a talented person as Mijnheer Cornelius Pump, who thinks nothing of lending her his rare books. You squeeze her hands, you are solicitous for her health. You read her a regular lecture on chemistry every time you see a spot on her dress, on natural history whenever you see a pot of flowers, and on anatomy whenever you see the cat! She listens to what you have to say with open ears, and a look of attention which is really charming; and yet you would pretend that love is a minor consideration in all this, especially when the man of science is only twenty-five and his pupil just eighteen?"
"Well, then, I do love her, since you will have it so!" answered Cornelius, with a look of defiance in his eyes. "So kindly tell me what you propose to do about it!"
"That's for you to say—"
"Oh, I intend to make her my wife!"
"Then, why the mischief don't you tell her so?"
"That's precisely what I intend to do."
"Then embrace me!" exclaimed Balthazar, "and drink to the health of Cupid, for I, too, am going to get married!"
"I congratulate you, my boy; and who is the fortunate one?"
"And I am going to marry Mademoiselle Suzanne Van Miellis, the daughter of the rich banker," continued Balthazar, all in one breath.
Cornelius gave a low whistle, which, translated, means: the devil!
"And just think of it—I have loved her for over six years! I never wanted to pop the question because I was afraid her father would tell me that it was his money and not his daughter that I was after. But my opportunity came at last. Her father died a short time ago, leaving her his sole heiress: she is one of the wealthiest girls in the town."
"The wealthiest by far," gravely interrupted Cornelius.
"One day as we were walking together by the river she stopped for a moment and looking into my eyes, she said: 'Now, my friend, I don't want you to bear me any ill-feeling for what I am going to say; but, since the death of my father, and coming into my inheritance, I assure you that I am most unhappy. I can no longer distinguish between those who love me for my riches and those who love me for myself; there are so many who pretend to adore me that I am suspicious of them all; and I would rather throw my fortune into the Amstel than wed a man who would aspire to my hand through mercenary motives!'
"'Ah, mademoiselle,' I sighed; you can understand that I was not over-anxious to be mistaken for one of these fortune-hunters.
"'Oh, my dear friend,' she exclaimed, 'I know that you are not that kind of a man. Now I am going to tell you my ideal of a husband. I would never accept the love of a man who had not cared for me previous to the death of my father. Ah! I would indeed be confident of that man's love, and I would return it to him a hundredfold!'
"'Then I am that man!' I cried out; 'I have loved you for over six long years, and I never dared to tell you so, although you must have noticed that I was slowly but surely dying for the want of your affection!' Then she looked down at the ground, and whispered; 'Maybe I have,' and she looked at me as if trying to read the truth in my eyes. It was easy to see that she wanted to believe what I said, but was afraid to do so.
"'Then you can prove the truth of your assertion,' she remarked; after a brief pause. 'Do you remember the first time we met, you gave me a bunch of flowers? One of these was in the shape of a little heart, with two blue wings on each side. Well, then—' 'I know what you are going to say. Then as we were looking at this little flower together, our heads almost touched and your curls brushed against my face; as you perceived how close we were to one another, you suddenly drew back, and the flower was detached from its stem. I can still hear your little cry of disappointment ringing in my ears. Then you began to cry, and, as you were not looking, I picked up the little flower.' 'And you have it?' she asked. 'Yes, I have always kept it as a souvenir of the happiest moment in my existence, I will bring it with me the next time I call.'
"You should have seen the look of joy which spread over Suzanne's countenance at that moment! She held out her pretty hand, which I eagerly grasped and carried to my lips. 'Ah, my friend,' said she, 'this is all I wanted to know, and I am indeed happy! If you picked up that little flower it was because you loved me already at that time, and if you have preserved it, 't is because you love me still! Bring it tomorrow; it will be the most welcome wedding-gift you could possibly give me!'
"Oh, my dear old Cornelius, judge of my surprise, of my delight, when I heard those words! I was tempted to do something rash; I was wild with joy. Suddenly her mother happened along. I threw my arms around the old lady's neck and kissed her on both cheeks—this cooled me off. Then I grabbed my hat and took to my heels, intending to return with the flower this very night. But this confounded storm has upset all my plans, and I will have to postpone my visit until tomorrow. There, you have the whole story of my courtship in a nutshell!"
"May heaven be praised!" exclaimed Cornelius, as he threw his arms around his friend. "Two weddings at the same time! Long live Madame Balthazar! Long live Madame Cornelius! Here's to the little Balthazars and the little Corneliuses!"
"Will you be quiet!" laughingly remarked Balthazar, placing his hand over his friend's mouth in order to silence him. "You will wake up Christina."
"Oh, I won't say another word, I promise you. And now show me your celebrated flower with its blue wings."
"I have it locked up in a little steel casket, which is hidden away with a lot of jewelry in my desk. I have had it framed in a little locket, surrounded with gold and black pearls. I was looking at it only this morning; it is charming, you can judge for yourself."
So saying, he took up the lamp, and, taking a huge bunch of keys from his pocket, he opened the door of his study. He had hardly crossed the threshold when Cornelius heard him cry out in surprise. He rose to go to his assistance, when Balthazar, pale as death, reappeared in the entrance:
"My God! Cornelius."
"What is it? what is wrong?" exclaimed the man of science.
"Great heavens! I am ruined! Come here! Look!"
And Balthazar raised his lamp so as to light up the interior of his study.
What Cornelius saw justified Balthazar's exclamation of surprise. The floor was literally strewn with papers of all kinds, and this profusion of documents clearly proved that something extraordinary had occurred. A large portfolio in which Balthazar kept all his private papers was torn open, notwithstanding that it had a steel lock, and was thrown carelessly on the floor, the papers it had contained being scattered far and wide.
But this was nothing when compared with that which was to follow. Balthazar now rushed up to his secrétaire. The lock had been forced. The top of the desk had been completely hacked to pieces, a great portion being reduced to splinters. The nails were twisted all out of shape, and the screws and hinges had alike received rough usage. As to the lid, it had been forced so as to permit the introduction of a hand in the pigeon-holes and private drawers.
But, strange to relate, most of the drawers containing valuable papers had not been touched by the thief, his attention evidently having been entirely absorbed in the contents of those which had contained gold and silver. About fifteen hundred ducats, two hundred florins, and the little steel casket filled with jewels, of which we have heard Balthazar speak, were missing. This drawer was completely empty; everything had disappeared, gold, silver, jewels, without leaving a trace behind; and Balthazar experienced a still greater loss when, on picking up the steel casket from the floor, he perceived that the medallion had been taken along with the rest!
This discovery affected him more than the loss of all his money. Rushing to the window, he threw it open and cried out at the top of his voice:
"Help! Help! Stop thief!"
All the population turned out, and, in accordance with the custom, would have answered this call for aid with, "Fire! Here we come!" had not the first cry attracted a squad of policemen who were passing that way. They ran up to Balthazar's house, and M. Tricamp, the sergeant, realizing that a robbery had been committed, first cautioned him to make less noise, and then demanded that he and his men be admitted without further delay.
The door opened noiselessly and M. Tricamp entered on tiptoe, followed by another of his men, whom be left on guard in the vestibule, with orders not to permit any one either to come in or go out. It was almost twelve o'clock; the neighbors were fast asleep, and it was easy to see that Gudule, the deaf cook, and Christina, fatigued by the emotions caused by the storm, had heard nothing unusual, as both were sleeping the sleep of the just.
"And now," said the sergeant, lowering his voice, "what is it all about?"
Balthazar dragged him into the study and pointed to the torn papers and broken secrétaire.
M. Tricamp was a little man, whose legs were not big enough to support his unwieldy form; nevertheless, he was very sharp and unusually active. He had one more little peculiarity—he was frightfully near-sighted, which compelled him to look at what he was examining at very short range.
He was evidently surprised, but it was part of his stock-in-trade not to exhibit surprise at anything. He therefore contented himself with muttering: "Very good! very good!" and he cast a look of contentment around the room.
"You see, Mijnheer, what has happened!" exclaimed Balthazar, with a voice choked with emotion.
"Perfectly!" replied M. Tricamp, with an air of importance. "The secrétaire has been broken open, your portfolio has been tampered with! Very well, it is superb!"
"Superb! Why, what do you mean?"
"They took all the money, I suppose?" continued the sergeant.
"Yes, all the money which was in my desk."
"And the jewels, and my medallion!"
"Bravo! a case of premeditated robbery! Capital! And you suspect no one?"
"No one, Mijnheer."
"So much the better. Then we will have the pleasure of discovering the criminals."
Balthazar and Cornelius looked at each other in surprise; but M. Tricamp continued in the same unconcerned manner:
"Let us examine the door!"
Balthazar pointed to the massive door of the Study, which was provided with an old-fashioned brass lock, the likes of which are only found in the Netherlands at the present time.
Tricamp turned the key. Crick! Crack! It was evident that the lock had not been tampered with.
"And the window?" asked the officer, handing Balthazar the key of the study.
"The window was closed," said Cornelius: "we opened it when we called for assistance. Besides, Mijnheer, it has stout iron bars, and no one could possibly pass through there."
M. Tricamp assured himself that such was the case, and he remarked that not even a child could effect an entrance through those bars. Then he closed and bolted the window and turned his attention towards the fireplace.
Balthazar followed all of his movements without uttering a word.
M. Tricamp leaned over and examined the interior of the fireplace most minutely; but here again nothing but failure rewarded him for his trouble. A thick wall had been built there recently, allowing only enough room for a small stovepipe.
M. Tricamp did not question for a moment whether this opening would permit the passage of a human being, for it seemed altogether too improbable, therefore, when he drew himself up, he appeared to be anything but pleased.
"Hum! Hum!" he muttered; "the devil," and he looked up at the ceiling, having replaced his eyeglass with a pair of spectacles. Then he took the lamp from Balthazar and placed it on the secrétaire, removing the shade; and this movement suddenly revealed to him a clue which had entirely escaped their attention until now.
An old knife, a gift from a friend in the Dutch Indies, was driven into the wainscoting, about three feet above the secrctaire and half-way between the floor and the ceiling.
Now, what was that old knife doing there?
A few hours previous to this discovery it was lying safe and snug in Balthazar's desk.
At the same moment Tricamp drew attention to the fact that the wire which was attached to the bell was twisted and broken and was fastened about the handle of the knife. He sprang upon a chair, and from there to the top of the desk, from whence he proceeded to examine this bit of fresh evidence.
Suddenly he gave a cry of triumph. He only had to raise his hand between the knife and the picture moulding to ascertain that a large piece of wall paper had been cut out, together with the wood and the plastering, the whole being replaced with a care to defy the closest inspection.
This discovery was so unexpected that the young men could not withhold their admiration at the sergeant's skill. M. Tricamp remarked that the paper had been removed with the greatest skill, thus denoting the work of a professional thief. Raising himself on tiptoe, he placed his hand through the opening and assured himself that the paper in the adjoining room had been tampered with in precisely the same manner.
There was no longer any room for doubt; the thief had certainly entered the room through this aperture. M. Tricamp descended from his pedestal and proceeded to describe the movements of the malefactors from the moment of their arrival until their departure, just as if he had witnessed the whole performance.
"The manner in which that knife has been planted in the wall plainly proves that it was intended as a step to assist the thief in his descent. The wire was used as a sort of rope by which he guided himself on his way back. Now, does n't this strike you as being rational enough?"
Balthazar and Cornelius listened to this explanation with bated breath. But the former was not the kind of man to enthuse over a description of a theft, especially when he was the loser by the operation. What he wanted to know was where his medallion had gone; now that he knew how the thief had entered, he was anxious to know how he had gone out.
"Have patience," remarked M. Tricamp, following up his clue witn professional pride: "now that we know their movements, we must assure ourselves as to their temperament—"
"What nonsense! We haven't the time to bother our heads about such rot!"
"Pardon me," replied Tricamp, "but in my estimation, this is very important. The study of psychology in criminals is a more important feature than all the quack examinations formerly so popular with the police."
"But, Mijnheer, while you are discussing the methods of the police the thief is running away with my money."
"Well, let him run, we will catch him fast enough!" coldly replied M. Tricamp. "I claim that it is necessary to study the nature of the game in order to run it down. Now, all robberies differ more or less; and it is rarely that murders are committed in the same manner. For instance, two servant girls were accused of stealing their mistress's shawl. I discovered the criminal at the first glance. The thief had the choice of two cashmeres; one was blue and the other white; now, she stole the blue one. One of the servants was a blonde and the other had red hair. I was confident that the blonde was guilty—the red-headed girl would never have selected the blue shawl on account of the combination."
"Wonderful!" remarked Cornelius.
"Then hurry up and tell me the name of the thief, for my patience is well-nigh exhausted."
"I can't do this at the start, but I claim that this is the criminal's first robbery. You will no doubt not credit this assertion, as you will probably say to yourself that it shows the workmanship of an old hand; but any child could loosen a bit of dried-up wall-paper. I will say nothing regarding your portfolio, or your broken secrétaire, for that plainly bears the imprint of a novice's hand."
"Then you are sure it is the work of a novice?" interrupted Cornelius.
"Undoubtedly. I will add that he is a clumsy greenhorn. An out-and-out thief would never have left your room in such disorder; he would take more pride in his workmanship. Furthermore, the criminal is neither very strong nor very tall, otherwise he could have drawn himself up there without the aid of that knife and bit of wire."'
"But it must have required considerable strength to demolish that desk in that fashion."
"Not at all; a child, or even a woman—"
"A woman?" exclaimed Balthazar.
"Since I first set my foot in this room, such has been my impression."
Balthazar and Cornelius looked at one another, in doubt as to whom he could possibly suspect.
"Now then, to sum up: it is a young woman; she must be young or she would not climb so well—petite, since she needed a wire to pull herself up with. Then, again, she must be familiar with your habits, for she took advantage of your absence to commit the felony, and she went direct to the drawer in which you kept your money, as she apparently did not bother her head about the others. In a word, if you have a young housekeeper or servant you need look no further, for she is the guilty one!"
"Christina!" exclaimed the young men in one breath.
"Ah! So there is a Christina about the premises!" remarked M. Tricamp smilingly; "well then, Christina is guilty!"
Both Cornelius and Balthazar were pale as death. Christina! Little Christina, so good, so kind, so pretty, a thief—nonsense! And then they remembered her origin and the manner in which she was adopted. She was only a Bohemian after all! Balthazar dropped into a chair as if he had been shot, and Cornelius felt as if his heart had just been seared with a red-hot iron.
"Will you kindly send for this person?" suddenly remarked M. Tricamp, awakening them from their reverie. "Or, better still, let us visit her room."
"Her room—her room," faltered Balthazar; "why, there it is," and he pointed to the adjoining apartment.
"And it took all this time for you to make up your mind who had committed the theft!" said the sergeant with a sneer.
"But," ventured Cornelius, "she certainly must have heard us."
Tricamp picked up the lamp, and, pushing open the door of the adjoining room, entered, followed by the young men—the room was empty! Simultaneously they exclaimed, "She has escaped!"
M. Tricamp felt under the mattress to see whether he could find any of the stolen property. "She has not even slept on the bed to-night," he said, after carefully inspecting the couch.
At the same moment they heard the sound of struggling outside, and the officer who had been left on guard downstairs entered the room, pushing Christina before him. The poor girl appeared more surprised than afraid.
"This young woman was attempting to escape, Mijnheer; I arrested her just as she was drawing the bolts of the back door," said the officer.
Christina looked around her with such an air of innocence that no one believed in her guilt, excepting, of course, M. Tricamp.
"But do tell me what this all means?" asked she of the officer who locked the door after her. "Why don't you tell them who I am?" she continued, addressing Balthazar.
"Where have you been?" he demanded.
"I have been upstairs with old Gudule, who, you know, is afraid of the lightning. As I was very tired, I fell asleep in the arm-chair in her room. When I awoke I looked out of the window, and as the storm had ceased I came downstairs with the intention of going to bed; but I first desired to assure myself that you had bolted the door, and it was at that moment that this gentleman placed his hand on my shoulder and informed me that I was under arrest. And, I assure you, he has given me a good fright—"
"You lie!" coarsely interrupted M. Tricamp. "You were just going out when my man arrested you; and I will add that you did not go to bed so as to avoid the trouble of dressing when the moment arrived for you to make your escape."
Christina looked at him in astonishment. "Escape? What escape?" she asked.
"Ah!" muttered M. Tricamp. "What nerve, what deceit!"
"Come here," said Balthazar, who knew not what to believe, "and I will tell you what it all means!"
He took the young girl by the arm and dragged her into the adjoining room.
"My God!" exclaimed the young woman, as she crossed the threshold and perceived the scene of devastation for the first time; "who could have done this?"
Her surprise seemed to be so sincere that Balthazar hesitated for a moment, but M. Tricamp was not so easily affected; he dragged Christina by the arm up to the secrétaire and exclaimed:
"You did it!"
"I!" cried out Christina, who did not as yet realize what it all meant.
She looked at Balthazar as if to read his thoughts, then she cast a glance at the drawer of the secrétaire, and seeing that it was empty, she realized at last the terrible meaning of their accusation. With a heartrending cry, she exclaimed:
"My God! And you say I have done this!"
But no one had the courage to answer her; Christina advanced a step closer to Balthazar, but he only lowered his eyes at her approach. Suddenly she raised her hand to her heart, as if she were suffocating—she attempted to speak—she tried to pronounce two or three words, but all she could say was: "A thief! They say I am a thief!" and she fell backwards on the floor as if dead! Cornelius precipitated himself towards her and raised her gently in his arms.
"No!" he cried; "no! it is impossible! This child is innocent!"
Then he carried the young girl into her room and laid her on the bed. Balthazar followed him, and it was easy to see that he was deeply affected. M. Tricamp, still smiling, entered immediately after them, but one of his officers motioned to him that he had something to communicate to him.
"Mijnheer, we already have obtained some information regarding this young woman."
"Well, and what do you know?"
"The baker across the way says that a little while before the storm he saw Mademoiselle Christina at the window of the ground-floor. She slipped a package to a man who was standing outside; this man wore a long cloak and a slouch hat—"
"A package, eh?" muttered M. Tricamp; "excellent! Now, secure the witness, and keep a sharp watch outside. In the first place, go and send the cook to me at once."
The officer withdrew, and M. Tricamp entered Christina's room.
The young woman was stretched out on the bed in a dead faint, and Cornelius was rubbing her hands. Without stopping to notice the condition of the girl, he proceeded with his examination of the premises. He started in with the bureau and overhauled all the drawers. Then he approached Balthazar with a smile of satisfaction on his face.
"After all, what proof is there that this young girl is guilty?" asked the latter as he gazed tenderly upon the unconscious woman.
"Why, this!" answered M. Tricamp, as he handed Balthazar one of the missing pearls.
"Where did you find this?"
"There," and he pointed to the top drawer of Christina's bureau.
Balthazar rushed up to the drawer and began to overhaul all of the young girl's effects, but his search did not result in his finding any more of the stolen jewels.
At this moment Christina opened her eyes, and looking around her as if to recall the situation, burst into tears as she buried her face in the pillow.
"Oh, ho!" ejaculated M. Tricamp, "tears, eh? She is going to confess; "and as he leaned over her, he added in his sweetest voice: "Come, my child, return good for evil and confess the truth. Confession is good for the soul. After all, we are not all perfect. Now, I suppose, you permitted yourself to be led astray, or you allowed yourself to succumb to a passion for finery. You wanted to make yourself look pretty, eh, my dear, to please some one you love?"
"What an idea, Mijnheer!" interrupted Cornelius.
"Hush, young man! I know what I am talking about. This woman has an accomplice as sure as my name is Tricamp;" and leaning over Christina, he continued, "Am I not right, my dear?"
"Oh, why don't you kill me, instead of torturing me thus!" cried Christina, with a fresh outburst of tears.
This was so unexpected that M. Tricamp started back in surprise.
"Kindly leave us alone with the girl, Mijnheer; your presence irritates her," remarked Balthazar; "if she has anything to confess she will do so to my friend and me."
M. Tricamp bowed himself out of the room.
"Oh, just as you please," he replied, "but be very careful; she is a clever minx."
Cornelius almost closed the door in the sergeant's face; then the two young men approached Christina, who had assumed a sitting posture, and was staring before her into space.
"Come, my child," said Balthazar, as he held out his hand; "we are now alone; you are with friends, so you need not be afraid."
"I don't want to stay—here! I want to go away! Oh, let me—let me go!"
"No, Christina, you cannot leave here until you answer us," said Cornelius.
"Tell us the truth, I beg of you, Christina," added Balthazar, "and I promise you no harm will come to you—I swear it on my honor. I will forgive you, and no one will ever know of this—I swear it, Christina, I swear it before God!—don't you hear me, my child?"
"Yes!" answered Christina, who did not appear to be listening. "Oh, if I could only cry—if I could only cry!"
Cornelius seized the young girl's burning hands in his. "Christina, my child, God forgive us all, and we love you too much not to pardon you. Listen to me, I beg you. Don't you recognize me?"
"Yes," said Christina, as her eyes filled with tears.
"Well, then, I love you, do you hear?—I love you with all my heart!"
"Oh!" said the young girl as she burst into tears; "and yet you believe that I am a thief!"
"No, no!" hastily exclaimed Cornelius, "I do not believe it, I do not believe it! but, my dear child, you must help me to justify you, you must assist me to discover the criminal, and to do this you must be frank and tell me everything."
"Yes, you are good, you alone are kind to me. You pity me and do not believe what they say! they accuse me because I am a Bohemian— because I stole when I was a child. And they call me a thief!—a thief!—They call me a thief!!—
And she fell backwards on the bed, sobbing as if her heart would burst.
Balthazar could stand this no longer: he tell upon his knees by the side of the bed, and exclaimed in a voice of pity as if he himself was the accused instead of the accuser:
"Christina, my sister, my child, my daughter—look at me! I am on my knees before you! I ask your forgiveness for the wrong I have done you. No one will say anything, no one will do anything; it is all over!—do you hear? I hope you do not wish to repay all the kindness my mother and I have shown you by making me suffer all the tortures of the damned? Well, then, I beg you to tell me what has become of my little medallion—(I do not ask you where it is, you understand?—I do not wish to know that, for I do not suspect you). But if you do know where it is, I beg of you to help me find it. I implore you by the love you bore my mother, whom you called your own, I implore you to find it—this is all I want. My future happiness depends on the recovery of this jewel—give me back my medallion—please give me back my medallion."
"Oh!" answered Christina in despair, "I would give my life to be able to tell you where it is!"
"But I have n't got it; I have n't got it!" she cried, wringing her hands.
Balthazar, exasperated, sprang to his feet: "But, wretched woman—"
Cornelius silenced him with a gesture, and Christina raised her hands to her forehead.
"Ah!" she said, as she burst into a loud laugh, "when I am mad, this farce will be ended, I suppose?"
And, overcome with emotion, she fell backward, hiding her face in the pillow as if determined not to utter another word.
Cornelius dragged Balthazar out of the room; he staggered as though he had been shot. In the other room they found M. Tricamp, who had not been wasting his time. He had been cross-examining the old cook, Gudule, who, most unceremoniously aroused by one of the officers, was still half asleep.
"Come, come, my good woman," remarked M. Tricamp, "control yourself, if you please!"
"Oh, my good master, my good master!" she exclaimed, as Balthazar entered the room accompanied by Cornelius. "What's the matter; they dragged me out of bed, and they are asking me all kinds of questions! For mercy's sake, tell me what it is all about!"
"Don't be alarmed, my good woman," said Balthazar kindly, "you have nothing to do with all this. But I have been robbed and we are looking for the thief."
"You have been robbed?"
"My God! I have lived in this house for over thirty years, and not as much as a pin was ever stolen before! Oh, Mijnheer, why did n't they wait until I was dead before they began their thieving?"
"Come, come, don't give way like that, my good woman," said M. Tricamp.
"You will have to speak a little louder, Mijnheer, the woman is deaf," remarked Balthazar.
"Now, I want to know whether you were in the house when the robbery was committed?" continued M. Tricamp, raising his voice.
"But I never go out at all, Mijnheer."
"Did n't you go out at all this evening?"
"I was n't outside the house; besides, it was very stormy, and at my age one does n't venture out in a blinding rain-storm for fun."
"Then you were in your room?"
"No, Mijnheer, I was in the kitchen most of the day, knitting by the stove."
"And you never left the kitchen for a moment?"
"Not for a minute—until I went upstairs to bed."
"Is your eyesight good?"
"Mijnheer?" questioned Gudule, not having heard aright.
"I asked you if you had good eyes," repeated M. Tricamp.
"Oh! I can see all right, even if I am a little bit hard of hearing. And I have a good memory, too—"
"So you have a good memory, eh? Then tell me who called here to-day."
"Oh, there was the postman—and a neighbor who called to borrow a pie-plate—and Petersen who came to ask something of Christina."
"Indeed! And who is this Petersen?"
"A neighbor, Mijnheer; a night-watchman; my master knows him well."
"Yes," said Balthazar, addressing the sergeant, "he is the poor devil who lost his wife a month ago, and his two little children are both sick. We help the poor fellow from time to time."
"And this Petersen was in the house to-day?"
"No, Mijnheer," replied Gudule; "he only spoke to Christina from the sidewalk."
"And what did he tell her?"
"I did not hear, Mijnheer."
"And did no one else call after him?"
Gudule asked him to repeat the question, then she replied:
"No one at all."
"And where was Christina while you were knitting?"
"Why, the dear child was looking after the cooking for me, as I was too tired to move from my chair. She is so kind and obliging!"
"But she was n't in the kitchen all the time?"
"No, Mijnheer, she retired to her own room towards evening."
"So you say she retired to her own room towards evening?"
"Yes, Mijnheer, to dress for supper."
"And—did she remain in her room a long time?"
"About an hour, Mijnheer?"
"Yes, fully an hour, Mijnheer."
"And you heard nothing during all this time?"
"I beg your pardon—"
"I asked you if you heard any noise—for instance, the sound of some one hammering wood?"
"Yes, gentlemen, she is as deaf as a doorpost," said M. Tricamp, turning towards the young men. Then he approached Gudule, and raising his voice he added:
"I suppose the storm was at its height at this time?"
"Oh, yes, Mijnheer, I could hear the thunder plain enough."
"She has no doubt confounded the noise made by the thief, in breaking in, with the roar of the elements," he muttered to himself. "And then?" he asked of Gudule in a louder voice.
"And then, Mijnheer, night had fallen and the storm raged furiously; master had not returned. I was terribly frightened; I got down on my knees and said my prayers. Just then Christina came down from her room; she was as white as a ghost, and was trembling all over. Then the thunder burst overhead and deafened me—"
"Ah! then you noticed that she was nervous?"
"Certainly! And so was I; the storm frightened me almost to death. Shortly after this, master knocked at the door, and Christina let him in. Now, Mijnheer, this is all I know, as sure as I am an honest woman."
"Don't cry, my good woman; I tell you that no one suspects you."
"But then, master, who do they suspect? Merciful Father!" she exclaimed as the truth flashed upon her. "Then they accuse Christina?"
No one answered her.
"Ah!" continued the old woman; "you do not answer me! Master, is this true?"
"My poor Gudule!"
"And you let them accuse little Christina!" continued the old woman, who would not be silenced. "That angel of kindness and loveliness sent to us from Heaven!"
"Come, come, if it is not you it must be her," brutally interrupted Tricamp.
"Oh, why don't they blame me? I am an old woman and have not long to live; but this child is innocent and I won't let them touch a hair of her head! Ah, Mijnheer Balthazar, do not let them touch Christina, she is a sacred trust. Don't listen to that bad man—he is the cause of all this trouble!"
M. Tricamp made a sign to his men, and they seized the old woman by the arm. Gudule advanced a few steps, then fell on her knees near the fireplace, weeping and bemoaning her fate. M. Tricamp then ordered his men not to disturb the woman as she knelt there offering up a prayer to Heaven that Christina should not suffer for a crime committed by another.
"You see," remarked the agent of police, turning towards Cornelius, "that no one has called here whom we might have cause to suspect—neither the postman, the neighbor, or that fellow Petersen. It therefore remains between the old woman and the young girl; and, as I do not believe the old one is sufficiently active to perform gymnastics, I beg you to draw your own conclusions."
"Oh, do not ask me to form an opinion; I really do not know what to think; it seems as if it were all a frightful nightmare!"
"I don't know whether it is a dream, but it strikes me that I am pretty wide awake, and that I reason remarkably well."
"Yes, yes," said Cornelius, pacing nervously up and down the room, "you reason remarkably well!"
"And my suppositions are logical enough."
"Yes, yes, very logical."
"And so far I have not made a single error. Therefore, you must admit that the young girl is guilty."
"Well then, no!" eagerly replied Cornelius, looking the sergeant square in the face. "No! I will never believe her guilty, unless she says so herself! And God knows—she might declare that she is guilty, and yet I would protest that she is innocent!"
"But," objected the sergeant, "what proofs can you produce? I, at least, have proven the truth of my assertions."
"Ah! I know nothing, I can prove nothing," replied Cornelius, "and everything you have said, every proof you have produced, is not to be disputed—"
"But my conscience revolts against your assertions nevertheless, and something seems to cry out: 'No, no, her dear face, her despair, her agony, are not those of a guilty wretch, and I swear that she is innocent! I can't prove it—but still I am sure of it, and I will assert it in the face of the most damaging evidence! Oh, do not listen to her accusers! They will lie away the future of a noble girl! Their logic is born of earthly evidence—mine comes direct from heaven, and is therefore true!"
"Do not heed them," continued Cornelius, whose excitement was now intense; "and remember that when your pride is ready to dispute the existence of a God, something within you cries out to affirm that He does exist! And now since this voice proclaims the innocence of the girl, how could I suspect her?"
"If the police reasoned like that, criminals would have an easy time of it."
"Oh, I will not attempt to convince you," added Cornelius; "continue your work! Go on with your search for evidence, and pile your proofs one upon the other in your efforts to crush this unfortunate child; on the other hand, I will begin my search to discover the proofs of her innocence!"
"Then I would advise you not to include this among the latter."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that I found this black pearl—"
"In her bureau drawer."
"Yes, my friend," interrupted Balthazar, "he found it in my presence in her drawer."
Cornelius eagerly seized the pearl. The proof was so convincing that he no longer knew what to believe. The miserable little pearl burned his hand as though it were a red-hot coal—he looked at it instinctively without being able to see it—and yet he could not remove his eyes from this bit of damning evidence! Balthazar took him by the hand, but Cornelius did not appear to notice him. He never removed his eyes from the pearl, yet the sight of it filled him with horror.
"Cornelius!" exclaimed Balthazar, now thoroughly alarmed; but Cornelius pushed him roughly aside, and leaned over so as to obtain a better view of the pearl.
"What's the matter with you, Cornelius?" Balthazar asked again.
"Get out of my way!" and he once more pushed his friend aside as he rushed to the open window.
Balthazar and Tricamp exchanged a knowing glance—while Cornelius, feverish with excitement, rushed into the study.
"He has gone mad!" grumbled M. Tricamp as he followed him with his eyes. "Will you permit me to give a drink of curacoa to my men? It is daylight now, and the air is somewhat chilly,"
"With pleasure. There is the bottle; let the men help themselves."
Tricamp then left the room. As Balthazar turned around, he perceived old Gudule still kneeling in the corner. A moment later he had rejoined Cornelius in the study.
Cornelius was examining the handle of the knife with the greatest attention. This scrutiny lasted several minutes; then, without offering a word of explanation, he mounted a chair and proceeded to examine the piece of broken wire.
"Where is the bell?" he suddenly demanded of Balthazar, who really believed that his friend had taken leave of his senses.
"In the hallway."
Cornelius pulled the wire a number of times, but the bell did not ring.
"Ah! she did not overlook anything; she has removed the tongue!" remarked Balthazar with a sneer.
Cornelius, still as silent as a sphinx, continued his examination of the wire; it passed through a little tin tube about the size of a putty-blower; the wire moved freely in this groove, therefore there was nothing out of gear in that direction.
"Now, look at the bell and tell me if it rings when I pull the wire."
Balthazar went out into the hall and did as directed.
"Does it move?" called out Cornelius.
"Just a little," answered Balthazar, "but it can't ring, because the bell is turned upside down, with the tongue in the air."
"Good! We will look into that later. Now, steady the secrétaire while I get up there."
Then, with the assistance of the knife, Cornelius drew himself up painfully to where the paper had been removed, as if he desired to test the practicability of such an ascension.
Just then Gudule set up a frightful howl outside; Balthazar left his friend in mid-air, while he ran out to see what was the matter.
"Oh, master," she cried; "she has just escaped!"
"Yes, Mijnheer, I saw her as she fled through the garden. Make haste and follow her before it is too late!"
"The little serpent!" exclaimed M. Tricamp; "she was playing possum then after all. Now then, my lads, let me see how soon you will catch her."
All the officers started off, with Tricamp at their head; while Balthazar ran into the young girl's room, to assure himself that she was no longer there.
Instead of Christina, Balthazar was confronted by Cornelius, who had entered the room through the opening in the partition.
"That's right! Look for her, my friend. You must now admit that she is guilty, as she has just run away."
"I tell you that she is innocent," exclaimed Cornelius as his eyes flashed fire; "we alone are guilty—for we have wrongfully accused an innocent person!"
"You must be mad!"
"You will not say so after I have proven to you that I know the name of the thief," continued Cornelius, as he smiled sarcastically at the doubts expressed on Balthazar's countenance. "And I am going to tell you how he entered and how he went out! In the first place, he did not come in by this window, nor by that opening; he simply glided down your chimney, and, via the fireplace, reached your study."
"You say that the thief entered my study by the chimney?"
"Certainly! And as he is celebrated for his weakness for metals, his first move was to gather your gold and your silver; then he forced the steel lock of your portfolio and the iron lock of your secrétaire, and gathering together your florins, your ducats, and your jewels, he carried them off, leaving your knife as a memento of his little visit. From the study, he jumped into the room of this unfortunate child, dashing through; the woodwork and paper in his mad flight, and dropping the pearl in this drawer as he passed through here.—And if you want to know what has become of your medallion, look!"
He drew aside the curtains of the bed and pointed to the little copper crucifix suspended on the wall, and which was now completely gilded in melted gold.
"This is what he did with your medallion!—"
And, plunging his hand into the receptacle for the holy water, he drew out the glass covers of the medallion, which were moulded together with the flower in the centre.
"And this is what he did with the rest!"
Balthazar gazed upon his friend with astonishment. He did not know what to expect next.
"And now, if you want to know how he went out," continued Cornelius as he dragged him to the window, "look!"
He pointed to the top pane of the window, which was pierced by a little hole about the size of a cent.
"But what does all this mean!" exclaimed Balthazar, who began to believe that he, too, was taking leave of his senses, "Who did this?"
"Why, you fool! Can't you see that the house has been struck by lightning!!"
Balthazar might have been struck by lightning, too, for that matter, as he was more dead than alive, when he at last realized how they had all been deceived by the hand of Nature. A loud noise was heard outside. They both rushed to the window and looked out.
A crowd surrounded the house as four officers, carrying a stretcher, on which Christina was lying, entered the front door!
The poor child in her despair had thrown herself into the Amstel, but Petersen the night-watchman, like the brave lad that he was, had sprung into the water and pulled her out.
After she had been put to bed, and had received a visit from a physician, who prescribed plenty of rest and quiet, M. Tricamp approached the young men.
"As the young girl is not in a condition to be removed to-day, my men and I will retire."
"Why, has n't Cornelius told you? Christina is innocent and we know the thief."
"The thief!" exclaimed M. Tricamp, "and who is it!"
"Why, the lightning, of course!" laughingly replied Balthazar.
M. Tricamp opened his eyes in amazement, as he repeated:
"Why, naturally!" replied Cornelius; "you apply the study of psychology in your criminal researches, while I employ my knowledge of meteorology—that's the only difference in our methods."
"And you pretend to say that all this was caused by lightning?" demanded M. Tricamp, who was losing his temper.
"Why, all this is as nothing when compared with some of the capers lightning has been known to cut. How about the tack it tears up from the carpet and drives through a mirror without cracking the glass; and the key it takes out of the lock and conceals in the ice-box; and the package of cigarettes it delicately removes from the bronze ash-receiver which it has ignited; and the silver it volatilizes through the silken meshes of a purse without damaging the latter; and the needles it magnetizes so thoroughly that they run after a hammer; and the pretty little hole it made in Christina's window; and the wall-paper it so deftly disarranged to furnish you with your wonderful clue; and this medallion, the glass of which it melted without injuring in the least the flower it contained, thus forming the most beautiful specimen of enamel I have ever seen, and making a finer wedding gift than the most skilled artist could have turned out; and finally, the gold of the medallion which gilded Christina's crucifix!"
"Humbug!" protested M. Tricamp, "it is impossible! And how about the package! The package she was seen to hand a man from out the window?"
"The man is here to answer that question himself!"—and a perfect Colossus entered the room.
"At your service. And the package contained some old dresses for my little children."
"Old clothes, that's excellent!" replied Tricamp, who was fairly boiling over with rage. "But how about the gold and the silver, the ducats and the florins, and the other jewels; where are they?"
"Zounds!" exclaimed Cornelius, striking his forehead; "that reminds me—"
He sprang on the table, and reaching up to the overturned bell, he suddenly exclaimed:
"Here they are!"
A huge ingot of gold, silver, and jewels fell on the floor from the bell, together with the tongue of the bell, which had been detached, the whole being melted solidly together.
M. Tricamp picked up the ingot and examined it carefully.
"But tell me," he asked, "what put you on the track?"
Cornelius smiled as he replied:
"This black pearl, Mijnheer, which you handed to me, defying me to prove Christina's innocence in the face of such evidence,"
"The black pearl!"
"Exactly, Mijnheer! Do you see this little white speck? Well, that was caused by electricity! And, thanks to this little speck, I have succeeded in saving the honor of a fellow-being."
"You must accept my congratulations," said he, bowing humbly; "the man of science is more far-sighted than the police, and in future I intend to add the study of natural philosophy and meteorology to my other acquirements. Were it not for this undoubted proof I might have committed a still more serious error. I actually began to suspect that you were her accomplice."
And then M. Tricamp withdrew, in order not to show his embarrassment, and Gudule rushed in to say that Christina was better and had heard everything through the partition.
"My little Christina," said Balthazar as hs knelt by her bedstead a little later, "if you do not want to make me unhappy pray do not refuse to accept this little token of my esteem."
And he placed the ingot of melted gold and jewels on the bed.
"Oh, you must take it, for you need a dower—" exclaimed Balthazar as he pressed her hand.
"That is, if you will accept me for a husband?" added Cornelius.
Christina did not reply, but she gave the man who had saved her honor a look which certainly did not mean—No.