The Avalanche/Chapter XIII
Aileen had shrieked and fled. Ruyler stood in the room with the ruby in his open hand. He saw that Hélène was standing quite erect before him. She had made no attempt to leave the room, nor did she appear to be threatened with hysterics.
He groped until he found the electric button. The room, as Ruyler had inferred, was Mrs. Thornton's winter boudoir, a gorgeous room of yellow brocade and oriental stuffs.
"Will you sit down?" he asked.
Hélène shook her head. She was very white and she looked as old as a young actress who has been doing one night stands for three months. Behind the drawn mask of her face there was her indestructible youth, but so faint that it thought itself dead.
She looked at her hands, which she twisted together as if they were cold.
"Will you tell me the truth now?" asked Price.
"Don't you guess it?"
"When I came here to-night I believed that you were the victim of blackmail. I was not watching you--I hope you will take my word for that. We--I had a detective on the case--Spaulding merely wanted to nab the man who was blackmailing you--"
"Do you still believe that?"
"I overheard your conversation with Aileen Lawton. I don't know what to believe."
"I am a gambler. My father was a gambler. He kept a notorious place in San Francisco. His name out here was James Garnett. My grandfather was a gambler. He was even more spectacular--"
"I know all that. Don't mind."
"You knew it?" For the first time she looked at him, but she turned her eyes away at once and stared at the oblong of dark framed by the window. "Why--"
"Spaulding told me to-night only."
"Mother told me a week or so ago. She'd been recognized. Shortly after I married, when she found out how the women played bridge and poker here, she made me promise I'd never touch a card, never play any sort of gambling game. I promised readily enough, and I thought nothing of her insistence. Maman was old-fashioned in many ways--I mean the life we lived in. Rouen was so different from this that I could understand how many things would shock her. I never thought about it--but--it was about six months ago--you were away for a week and I stayed with Polly Roberts at the Fairmont. I knew of course that she played and that Aileen and a lot of the others did, but I hadn't given the matter a thought. One heard nothing but bridge, bridge, bridge. I was sick of the word.
"But I found they played poker. Polly and Aileen, Alice Thorndyke, Janet Maynard, Mary Kimball, Nick Doremus, Rex and one or two other men who could get off in the afternoons.
"I never had dreamed any one in society played for such high stakes. Janet Maynard and Mary Kimball could afford it, but Polly and Alice and Aileen couldn't. Still they often won--enough, anyhow, to clean up and go on. Doremus is a wonderful player. That is how I got interested, watching him after he had explained the game to me.
"It was a long time before I was persuaded to take a hand. It was so interesting just to watch. And not only the game, but their faces. Some would have a regular 'poker face,' others would give themselves away. Once Aileen had the most awful hysterics. We were afraid some one outside would hear her; the deadening was burnt out of the walls of the Fairmont at the time of the fire. But we were in the middle room of the suite.
"Nick told her in his dreadful cold expressionless voice that if she ever did that again he'd never play another game with her. That meant that they'd all drop her, and she came to and promised, and she kept her word. Poker is the breath of life to her. I think she'd become a drug fiend if she couldn't have it.
"At last they persuaded me to play. We were playing at Nick's, and after a light dinner served by his Jap, we went right on playing until midnight. I never thought of you or anything. I seemed to respond with every nerve in my body and brain. I won and won and won, and even when I lost I didn't mind. The sensation, the tearing excitement just under a perfectly cool brain was wonderful.
"I only ceased to enjoy it when I realized what it meant. When I couldn't keep away from it. When I lived for the hour when we would meet,--at Polly's, or at Nick's or at Aileen's--any of the places where we were supposed to be dancing, but where there was no danger of being found out. Of course I dared not have them at home, and the others lived with their families, or had too many servants....
"I came fully to my senses one day when Nick told me I was a born gambler if ever there was one. Then, when I realized, I became desperately unhappy.
"I was the slave of a thing. I was deceiving you. When I was at the table I loved poker better than you, better than anything on earth. When I was alone I hated it. But I couldn't break away. Besides, I didn't always win. I had to play in the hope of winning back. Or if I won a lot it was a point of honor to go on and play again, and give them their chance.
"Mrs. Thornton found out. She gave me a terrible talking to. I am afraid I was very insolent.
"But she came up that night of the Assembly and warned me that you were down stairs. I was playing in Polly's room. We had all danced two or three times and then slipped up to the next floor by different stairs and lifts. I liked her better then. Of course she did it for your sake, not mine. But she's a good sort, not a cat.
"You have not noticed, but I have not bought a new gown this season except that little gray one and this--which was made in the house. I dared not pawn my jewels, for fear you would miss them.
"I have been in hell.
"Then--it was that evening you heard maman reproach me for breaking my promise--I had lost a dreadful lot of money and Nick had scurried round and borrowed it for me. I didn't know then that he meant all the time to get hold of the ruby--I am sure now that he cheated and made me lose.
"Well, I sent the maid away that night and told maman. She was nearly off her head. I never saw her excited before. Then she told me the truth. I felt as if I had been turned to stone. But I felt suddenly cool and wary. I knew I must keep my head. It was as if my father had suddenly come alive in my brain. I had never lied to you before, merely put you off. But how I lied that night! I felt possessed. But I knew I must not be found out, and I made up my mind to stop playing as soon as I came out even. If I had known that my father and my grandfather had been gamblers I never should have touched a card. I'd far rather have drunk poison.
"I made up my mind then, and there to stop and I felt quite capable of it. But I had to go on and square myself, for I owed that money to Nick. But when I played it was with my head only. All the fever had gone out of my veins. I loathed it. I loathed still more deceiving you.
"I won and won and won. I thought I was delivered. I was almost happy again. Some day I meant to tell you--when it was all over.
"Then I began to lose horribly. Thousands. It ran up to twenty thousand. I did not betray myself, and the girls thought I had money of my own and could pay my losses quite easily. They didn't know that Nick always helped me out. He was never the least bit in love with me--he couldn't love any woman--but he said I played such a wonderful game and was such a sport, never lost my head, that he wouldn't lose me for the world--when I threatened to stop and never play again.
"But all the time he wanted the ruby. I found that out when he told me he must have the money inside of a week; he'd taken it out of his business, and it really belonged to his partners, and they'd find him out and send him to prison--
"I offered him my jewels. They would have brought half their value at least. I could have told you they were stolen--only one more lie. It was then he said he must have the ruby. He had known about it ever since you came out here, but after he saw it on me that night at the Gwynnes' he was more than ever determined to have it.
"I laughed at him at first. It seemed preposterous that he could demand a ruby worth two or three hundred thousand dollars in payment for a debt of twenty thousand. I thought of selling my jewels and furs and laces, or pawning them and raising the amount--he only had my I.O.U. for that sum. But I didn't know where to go. So I told Aileen. She wouldn't hear of my disposing of my things, said it would, be all over town in twenty-four hours. She advised me to get the twenty thousand out of you on one pretext or another.
"I tried. You will remember. Then Nick began to haunt me. He whispered in my ear wherever we met. I was nearly frantic. He said he could hold me up to shame without compromising himself. I had written him some frantic letters, and he said they read just like--like--the other thing.
"I felt perfectly helpless. I knew that even if I did manage to pawn the jewels, you would miss them from the safe and trace them. I ceased to feel cool. I nearly went off my head. But I stopped gambling. I felt sure by this time that he could make me lose, but I couldn't prove it. Aileen told me I must give him the ruby. He promised me before Aileen that he would give me back my I.O.U.'s as well as my notes if I would hand over the ruby. He knew I was to wear it to-night.
"Finally I gave in. Yesterday Nick called me up on the telephone and told me to come down to the California Market to lunch, and to bring Aileen. He told me there that unless I promised to give him the ruby to-night, and kept my word, he'd either give my I.O.U.'s and my notes to you or to the _Merry Tattler_. He didn't care which. I could have my choice.
"I said I would do it. But it was terribly conspicuous. Everybody would notice when it was gone. He said I must conceal it anyhow until we unmasked after supper, and then I could pretend I had lost it. He discussed several plans for having me slip it to him, but it was Aileen who insisted we should come here. Mrs. Thornton never opens her boudoir at a party. Everywhere else would be a blaze of light. In this dark corner we should be safe, especially if he came from the outside and I from inside. How did your detective find out?"
"I think Aileen did a decent thing for once in her life."
She went on in her monotonous voice. "I felt reckless after that and I really was gay and almost happy at dinner last night. The die was cast. I didn't much care for anything. I thought perhaps it was my last night with you--that when I told you I had lost the ruby you would suspect and turn me out of your house, tell maman to take me back to Rouen.
"Then came that awful moment when you said you had to go away and I could not wear it. For a few moments I thought I should scream and tell you everything. But I was both too proud and too much of a coward. Then I knew I should have to rob the safe, and somehow I hated that part more than anything else. I did it just ten minutes before Rex and Polly called for me to motor down here. It had seemed the most horrible thing in the world to be a gambler, but it was worse to be a thief.
"I remembered the combination perfectly. I have that sort of memory: it registers photographically. I had seen you move the combination several times. Perhaps I deliberately registered it. I can't say. I have lived in such a maze of intrigue lately. I can't say. That is all--except that I didn't get the letters and the other things."
"He had an envelope in one hand. Spaulding has it beyond a doubt."