The Castlecourt Diamond Case, Novel Magazine, 1906/Part 1
I HAD been in Lady Castlecourt's service two years when the Castlecourt diamonds were stolen. I am not going to give an account of how I was suspected and cleared. That's not the part of the story I'm here to set down. It's about the disappearance of the diamonds that I'm to tell, and I'm ready to do it to the best of my ability.
We were up in London, at Burridge's Hotel, for the season. Lord Castlecourt's town house at Grosvenor Gate was let to some rich Americans, and for two years now we had stayed at Burridge's. It was the 3rd of April when we came to town—my lord, my lady, Chawlmers (my lord's man), and myself. The children had been sent to my lord's aunt, Lady Mary Cranbury.
Lord Castlecourt didn't like going to the hotel at all. Chawlmers used to tell me how he'd talk sometimes. Chawlmers has been with my lord ten years, and was born on the estate of Castlecourt Marsh Manor. But my lord generally did what my lady wanted, and she was not at all partial to the country. She'd say to me—she was always full of her jokes:
“Yes, it's an excellent place, the country—an excellent place to get away from, Jeffers. And the further away you get, the more excellent it seems.”
My lady had been born in Ireland, and lived there till she was a woman grown. (It's not for me to comment on my betters, but I've heard it said she didn't have a decent frock to her back till old Lady Bundy took her up and brought her to London. Her father was a clergyman, the Rev. McCarren Duffy, of County Clare, and they do say he hadn't a penny to his fortune, and that my lady ran wild in cotton frocks and with holes in her stockings till Lady Bundy saw her.
I've heard tell that Lady Bundy said of her she'd be the most beautiful woman in London since the Gunnings (whoever they were), and just brought her up to town and fitted her out from top to toe. In a month she was the talk of the season, and before it was over she was betrothed to the Marquis of Castlecourt.
But she was the beggar on horseback you hear people talk about. Lord Castlecourt wasn't what would be called a millionaire, but he'd give her more in a month than she'd had before in five years, and she'd spend it all and want more.
If she saw a pretty thing in a shop she'd buy it, and if she had not got the ready money they'd give her the credit; for, being the Marchioness of Castlecourt, all the shop people were on their knees to her, trying to get her patronage. Then, when the bills would come in, she would be quite surprised and wonder how she had come to spend so much, and hide them from Lord Castlecourt. Afterwards she'd forget all about them, even where she'd put them.
Lord Castlecourt was so fond of her he'd have forgiven her anything. They'd been married five years when I entered my lady's service, and he was as much in love with her as if he'd been married but a month. And I don't blame him. She was the prettiest lady and the most coaxing I ever laid eyes on.
She might well be Irish; there was blarney on her tongue for all the world, and money ready to drop off the ends of her fingers into any palm that was held out. There was no story of misfortune but would bring the tears to her eyes and her purse to her hand; generous and soft-hearted she was to every creature that walked.
No one could be angry with her long. I've seen Lord Castlecourt begin to scold her, and end by laughing at her and kissing her. Not but what she respected him and loved him. She did both, and she was afraid of him, too. No one knew better than my lady when it was time to stop trifling with my lord and be serious.
It was Lord Castlecourt's custom to go to Paris two or three times every year. He had a sister married there of whom he was very fond, and he and her husband would go off shooting boars to a place with a name I can't remember. My lady was always happy to go to Paris. She'd say she loved it, and the theatres, and the shops—though what she could see in it I never understood. A dirty, trashy city, and full of men ready to ogle an honest, Christian woman, as if she was what half the women look like that go prancing along the streets there.
My lady spent a good deal of her time with the dressmakers, and she and I were for ever going up to top storeys in little, silly lifts that go up of themselves. I'd a great deal rather have walked than trusted myself to such unsafe, French contrivances—underhand, dangerous things, that might burst at any moment, I say.
The year before the time I am writing of we went to Paris, as usual, in March. We stopped at the Bristol, and stayed a month. My lady went out a great deal, and between whiles was, as usual, at what they call there couturières, at the jewellers, or the shops in the Rue de la Paix. She also bought from Bolkonsky, the furrier, a very smart jacket of Russian sable that I'll be bound cost a pretty penny.
When we went back to London for the season her beauty and her costumes were the talk of the town. Old Lady Bundy's maid told me that Lady Bundy went about saying: “And but for me, she'd be the mother of the red-headed larrykins of an Irish Squireen!” Which didn't seem to me nice talk for a lady.
We spent that summer at Castlecourt Marsh Manor very quietly, as was my lord's wish. My lady did not seem in as good spirits as usual, which I set down to the country life, that she always said bored her. Once or twice she told me that she felt ill, which I'd never known her to say before, and one day in the late summer I discovered her in tears. She did not seem to be herself again till we went to Paris in October.
Then she brightened up, and was soon in higher spirits than ever. She was on the go continually—often would go out for lunch, and not be back till it was time to dress for dinner. She enjoyed herself in Paris very much, she told me. And I think she did, for I never saw her more animated—almost excited with high spirits and success.
The following spring we left Castlecourt Marsh Manor, and, as I said before, came to Burridge's on April 3rd. The season was soon in full swing, and my lady was going out morning, noon, and night. There was no end to it, and I was worn out.
When she was away in the afternoon I'd take forty winks on the sofa, and have Sara Wight, the housemaid of our rooms, bring me a cup of tea. Then she'd sometimes take one herself, and we'd gossip a bit over it.
If I'd known what an important person Sara Wight was going to turn out I'd have taken more notice of her. But, unfortunately, thieves don't have a mark on their brow like Cain, and Sara was the last girl anyone would have suspected was dishonest. All that I ever thought about her was that she was a neat, civil-spoken girl, who knew her betters and her elders when she saw them.
She was quick on her feet, modest and well-mannered—not what you'd call good looking: too pale and small for my taste, and Chawlmers quite agreed with me. The one thing I noticed about her were her hands, which were white and fine like a lady's. Once when I asked her how she kept them so well, she laughed, and said, not having a pretty face, she tried to have pretty hands.
“Because a girl ought to have something pretty about her, oughtn't she, Miss Jeffers?” she said to me, quiet and respectful as could be.
I answered, as I thought it was my duty, that:
“Beauty was only skin deep, and if your character was honest your face would take care of itself.”
She looked down at her hands, and smiled a little and said:
“Yes, I suppose that's true, Miss Jeffers. I'll try to remember it. It's what every girl ought to feel, I'm sure.”
Sara Wight had the greatest admiration for Lady Castlecourt. She'd manage to be standing about in doorways and on the stairs when my lady passed down to go to dinner and to the opera. Then she'd come back and tell me how beautiful my lady was, and how she envied me being her maid. While she was talking she'd help me tidy up the room, and sometimes—because she admired my lady so—I'd let her look at the new clothes from Paris as they hung in the wardrobe. Sara would gape with admiration over them. She spoke a little about my lady's jewels, but not much. I'd have suspected that.
It was in the fifth week after we came to town—to be exact, on the afternoon of the fourth day of May—that the diamonds were stolen. As I've been so badgered and questioned and tormented about it, I've got it all as clear in my head as a photograph just how it was and just what time everything happened.
That evening my lady was going to dinner at the Duke of Duxbury's. It was to be a great dinner—a prince and a Prime Minister, and I don't know what else be sides. My lady was to wear a new gown from Paris and the diamonds. She told me when she went out what she would want and when she would be back. That was at four, and I was not to expect her in till after six.
Some time before that I got her things ready, the gown laid out, and the diamonds on the dressing-table. They were kept in a leather case of their own, and then put in a dispatch-box that shut with a patent lock. When we travelled I always carried this box—that is, when my lady used it. A good deal of the time it was at the bankers'.
Lord Castlecourt was very particular about the diamonds. Some of them had been in his family for generations. The way they were set now—in a necklace with pendants, the larger stones surrounded by smaller ones—had been a new setting made for his mother. My lady wanted them changed, and I remember that Lord Castlecourt was vexed with her, and she couldn't pet and coax him back into a good humour for some days.
One of the last things that I did that afternoon, while arranging the dressing-table, was to open the dispatch-box and take the leather case out. Though it was May, and the days were very long, I turned on the electric lights, and, unclasping the case, looked at the necklace.
I was standing this way when Chawlmers comes to the side door of the room (the whole suite was connected with doors) and asks me if I could remember the number of the bootmakers where my lady bought her riding-boots. Some friend of Chawlmers wanted to know the address.
I couldn't at first remember it, and I was standing this way, trying to recollect, when I heard the clock strike six. I told Chawlmers I'd get it for him. I was certain it was in my lady's desk, and I put the case down on the bureau, and Chawlmers and I together went into the sitting-room (the door open between us and my lady's room) and looked for it.
We found it in a minute, and Chawlmers was writing it down in his pocket-book when I thought I heard (so light and soft you could hardly say you'd heard anything) a rustle like a woman's skirt in the next room. For a second I thought it was my lady, and I jumped, for I'd no business at her desk, and I knew she'd be vexed and scold me.
Chawlmers didn't hear anything, and looked at me astonished. Then I ran to the door and peeped in. There was no one there, and I thought, of course, I'd been mistaken.
We didn't leave the room directly, but stood by the desk talking for a bit. When I told this to the detectives, one of the papers said it showed “how deceptive even the best servants were.” As if a valet and a lady's maid couldn't stop for a moment to talk! Poor things! we work hard enough most of the time, I'm sure.
And that we weren't long standing there idle can be seen from the fact that I heard half-past six strike. I was for urging Chawlmers to go then, as Lady Castlecourt might be in at any moment; but he hung about, following me into my lady's room, helping me draw the curtains and turn on all the lights, for my lady can't bear to dress by daylight.
It was nearly seven o'clock when we heard the sound of her skirts in the passage. Chawlmers slipped off into his master's rooms, shutting the door quietly behind him.
My lady was looking very beautiful. She had on a blue hat trimmed with blue and grey hydrangeas, and underneath it her hair was like spun gold, and her eyes looked soft and dark. It never seemed to tire her to be always on the go. But I'd thought lately she'd been doing too much, for sometimes she was pale, and once or twice I thought she was out of spirits—the way she'd been in the country last summer.
She seemed so that night, not talking as much as usual. There were some letters for her on the corner of the dressing-table, and I could see her face in the glass as she read them. One made her smile, and then she sat thinking and biting her lip, which was as red as a cherry. She seemed to me to be preoccupied.
When I was making the side waves of her hair—which everybody knows is a most critical operation—she jerked her head, and said suddenly she wondered how the children were. I never before knew my lady to think about the children when her hair was being waved.
She was sitting in front of the dressing-table, her toilet complete, when she stretched out her hand to the leather case of the diamonds. I was looking at the reflection in the mirror, thinking that she was as perfect as I could make her. She, too, had been looking at the back of her head, and still held the small glass in one hand. The other she reached out for the diamonds. The case had a catch that you had to press, and I saw, to my surprise, that she raised the lid without pressing this. Then she gave a loud exclamation. There were no diamonds there!
She turned round and looked at me, and said:
“How odd! Where are they, Jeffers?”
I felt suddenly as if I were going to fall dead, and afterwards, when my lady stood by me and said it was nonsense to suspect me, one of the things she brought up as a proof of my innocence was the colour I turned and the way I looked at that moment.
“Jeffers!” she said, suddenly rising up quickly out of her chair. And then, without my saying a word, she went white and stood staring at me.
“My lady, my lady,” was all I could falter out, “I don't know—I don't know!”
“Where are they, Jeffers? What's happened to them?”
My voice was all husky, like a person's with a cold, as I stammered:
“They were in the case an hour ago.”
My lady caught me by the arm, and her fingers gripped tight into my flesh.
“Don't say they're stolen, Jeffers!” she cried out. “Don't tell me that! Lord Castlecourt would never forgive me. He'll never forgive me! They're worth thousands and thousands of pounds! They can't have been stolen!”
She spoke so loud they heard her in the next room, and Lord Castlecourt came in. He was a tall gentleman, a little bald, and I can see him now in his black clothes, with the white of his shirt bosom gleaming, standing in the doorway looking at her. He had a surprised expression on his face, and was frowning a little; for he hated anything like loud talking or a scene.
“What's the matter, Gladys?” he said. “You're making such a noise I heard you in my room. Is there a fire?”
She made a sort of grasp at the case, and tried to hide it. Chawlmers was in the doorway behind my lord, and I saw him staring at her and trying not to. He told me afterwards she was as white as paper.
“The diamonds,” she faltered out—“your diamonds—your family's—your mother's.”
Lord Castlecourt gave a start, and seemed to stiffen. He did not move from where he was, but stood rigid, looking at her.
“What's the matter with them?” he said, quickly and quietly, but not as if he were calm.
She threw the case she had been trying to hide on the dressing-table. It knocked over some bottles, and lay there open and empty. My lord sprang at it, took it up, and shook it.
“Gone?” he said, turning to my lady. “Stolen, do you mean?”
“Yes—yes—yes,” she said, like that—three times; and then she fell back in the chair and put her hands over her face.
Lord Castlecourt turned to me.
“What does this mean, Jeffers? You've had charge of the diamonds.”
I told him all I knew as well as I could, what with my legs trembling that they'd scarce support me, and my tongue dry as a piece of leather. When I got near the end, my lady interrupted me, crying out:
“Herbert, it isn't my fault, it isn't! Jeffers will tell you I've taken good care of them. I've not been careless or forgetful about them, as I have about other things. I have been careful of them! It isn't my fault, and you mustn't blame me!”
Lord Castlecourt made a sort of gesture towards her to be quiet. I could see it meant that. He kept the case, and, going to the door, locked it.
“How long have you been in these rooms?” he said, turning round on me with the key in his hand.
I told him, trembling, and almost crying. I had never seen my lord look so terribly stern. I don't know whether he was angry or not, but I was afraid of him, and it was for the first time; for he'd always been a kind and generous master to me and the other servants.
“My lord,” I said, feeling suddenly weighed down with dread and misery, “you surely don't think I took them?”
“I'm not thinking anything,” he said. “You and Chawlmers are to stay in this room, and not move from it till you get my orders. I'll send at once for the police."
My lady turned round in her chair and looked at him.
“The police?” she said: “Oh, Herbert, wait till to-morrow. You're not even sure yet that they are stolen.”
“Where are they, then?” he says, quickly and sharply. “Jeffers says she saw them in that case an hour ago. They are not in the case now. Do either you or she know where they are?”
I was down on my knees, picking up the bottles that had been knocked over by the empty jewel-case.
“Not I, my lord,” I said, and I began to cry.
“The matter must be put in the hands of the police at once,” my lord said. “I'll have the hotel policeman here in a few minutes, and the rooms searched. Jeffers and Chawlmers and their luggage will be searched to-morrow.”
My lady gave a sort of gasp. I was close to her feet, and I heard her. But, for myself, I just broke down, and, kneeling on the floor with the overturned bottles spilling cologne all round me, cried worse than I've done since I was in short frocks.
“Oh, my lady, I didn't take them! I didn't! You know I didn't!” I sobbed out.
My lady looked very miserable.
“My poor Jeffers,” she said, and put her hand on my shoulder, “I'm sure you didn't. If I'd only a sixpence in the world I'd stake that on your honesty.”
Lord Castlecourt did not say anything. He went to the bell and pressed it. When the boy answered it he gave him a message in a low tone, and it didn't seem five minutes before two strange men were in the room. I did not know till afterwards that one was the manager, and the other the hotel policeman. I stopped my crying as best I could, and heard my lord telling them that the diamonds were gone, and that Chawlmers and I had been the only people in the room all the afternoon. Then he said he wanted them to communicate at once with Scotland Yard, and have a capable detective sent to the hotel.
“Lady Castlecourt and I are going out to dinner,” he said, looking at his watch. “We shall have to leave, at the latest, within the next twenty minutes.”
Lady Castlecourt cried out at that.
“Herbert, I don't see how I can go to that dinner. I am altogether too upset, and, besides, we'll be too late. It's eight o'clock now.”
“We can make the time up in the carriage,” my lord said; and he went into the next room with the policeman, where they talked together in low voices. I helped my lady on with her cloak, and she stood waiting, her eyebrows drawn together, looking very pale and worried. When my lord came back he said nothing, only nodded to my lady that he was ready, and, without a word, they left the room.
I tried to tidy the bureau and pick up the bottles as well as I could, and every time I looked at the door into the sitting room. I saw the policeman's head peering round the door-post at me.
That was an awful night. I did not know it till afterwards, but both Chawlmers and I were under what they call “surveillance.” I did not know either that Lord Castlecourt had told the policeman he believed us to be innocent; that we were of excellent character, and nothing but positive proof would make him think either of us guilty. All I felt, as I tossed about in bed, was that I was suspected, and would be arrested and probably put in gaol. Fifteen years of honest service in noble families wouldn't help me much if the detectives took it into their heads I was guilty.
The next morning we heard about the disappearance of Sara Wight, and things began to look brighter. Sara had left the hotel at a little after seven the evening before, speaking to no one, and carrying a small portmanteau.
When they came to examine her room and her box they found a jacket and skirt hanging on the wall, some burnt papers in the grate, and the box almost empty, except for some cheap cotton underclothes and a dirty wadded quilt put in to fill up. Sara had given no notice, and had never told any of her fellow servants that she was dissatisfied with her place or wanted to leave.
That morning, Mr. Brison, the Scotland Yard detective, had us up in the sitting room, asking us questions till I was fair muddled, and didn't know truth from lies. Lord Castlecourt and my lady were both present, and Mr. Brison was forever politely asking my lady questions till she got quite angry with him, and said she wasn't at all sure the diamonds were stolen; they might have been mislaid, and would turn up somewhere. Mr. Brison was surprised, and asked my lady if she had any idea where they were liable to turn up; and my lady looked annoyed, and said it was a silly question, and that she “wasn't a clairvoyant.”
Three days after this Mr. John Gilsey, who is a detective, and, I have heard since, a very famous gentleman, was engaged by Lord Castlecourt to “work upon the case.”
Mr. Gilsey was very soft-spoken and pleasant. He did not muddle you, as Mr. Brison did, and it was very easy to tell him all you knew or could remember, which he always seemed anxious to hear. He had me up in the sitting-room twice, once alone and once with Mr. Brison, and they asked me a host of questions about Sara Wight. I told them all I could think of; and when I came to her hands, and how they were white and fine, like a lady's, I saw Mr. Brison look at Mr. Gilsey and raise his eyebrows.
“Does it seem to you,” he says, scribbling words in his note-book, “that this sounds like Laura the Lady?”
And Mr. Gilsey answered:
“The manner of operating sounds like her, I must admit.”
“She was in Chicago when last heard of,” says Mr. Brison, stopping in his scribbling, “but we've information within the last week that she's left there.”
“Laura the Lady is in London,” Mr. Gilsey remarked, looking at his finger nails. “I saw her three weeks ago at Earl's Court.”
Mr. Brison got red in the face and puffed out his lips, as if he were going to say something, but decided not to. He scribbled some more, and then, looking at what he had written as if he were reading it over, says:
“If that's the case, there's very little doubt as to who planned and executed this robbery.”
“That's a very comfortable state of affairs to arrive at,” says Mr. Gilsey, “and I hope it's the correct one.” And that was all he said that time about what he thought.
After this we stayed on at Burridge's for the rest of the season, but it was not half as cheerful or gay as it had been before. My lord was often moody and cross, for he felt the loss of the diamonds bitterly; and my lady was out of spirits and moped, for she was very fond of him, and to have him take it this way grieved her.
Mr. Brison or Mr. Gilsey were constantly popping in and murmuring in the sitting room, but seemed to get no further on—at least, there was no talk of finding the diamonds, which was all that counted.
This is all I know of the theft of the necklace. What happened at that time, and what Mr. Gilsey calls “the surrounding circumstances of the case,” I have tried to put down as clearly and as simply as possible. I have gone over them so often, and been forced to be so careful that I think they will be found to be quite correct in every particular.
■ ■ ■
I NEVER was so glad of anything in my life as to get out of that beastly hole, Chicago. I'll certainly never go back again unless there is an inducement big enough to compensate for the elevated railway, the lake, the noise, the winds, the restaurants, the climate, and the people. Ugh, what a nightmare!
England's the country for me, and London is the focus of it. You can live like a Christian here, enjoy all the refinements and decencies of life for a reasonable consideration.
How my heart leapt when I saw the old, grey, sooty walls looming up through the river haze—I thought it best to sneak in by the back way, because if I go up the front stairs and ring the bell there may be loiterers about who had seen Laura the Lady before, and might become impertinently curious about her future movements.
And then when I saw Tom waiting for me—my own Tom, that I lawfully married in a burst of affection three years ago, at Leamington—I shouted out greetings, and danced on the deck, and waved my handkerchief. It was worth while having lived in Chicago for a year to come back to London and Tom and a little furnished flat in Knightsbridge.
We were very respectable and quiet for a month—just a few callers climbing up the front stairs, and demure female tea parties at intervals. I bought plants to put in the windows, and did knitting in a conspicuous solitude which the neighbours could overlook. When I saw the maiden lady opposite scrutinising me through an opera-glass I felt like sending her my marriage certificate to run her eyes over and return.
We even hired a maid-of-all-work from an agency as a touch of local colour on this sweet, domestic picture. But when the Castlecourt diamond scheme began to ripen I nagged at her till she was impudent and bundled her off. Maud Durlan came in then, put on a cap and apron, and played her part a good deal better than she used to when she acted soubrettes on the halls.
We were two weeks lying low, maturing our plans, though when I left Chicago I knew what I was coming back for. Outwardly all was the same as usual—the decent callers still climbed the front stairs, and elderly ladies who, without any stretch of imagination might have been my mother and aunts, dropped in for tea.
I used to wonder how the people on the floor below—they were the family of a man who made rubber tyres for bicycles—would have felt if they could have seen Maud, our neat and respectable slavey, sitting with the French heels of her slippers caught on the third shelf of the bookcase, dropping cigarette ashes into the waste-paper basket.
When all was ready, Tom and I left for a “business” trip on the Continent. We went away in a four-wheeler, driven by Handsome Harry, the top piled with luggage, my face at the window smiling a last, cautioning good-bye to Maud. Five days later, under the name of Sara Wight, I was installed as housemaid on the third floor of Burridge's Hotel.
I had done work of that kind before—once in New York, and at another time in Paris; having been born and spent my childhood in that cheerful city, my French is irreproachable. The famous robbery of the Comtesse de Chateaugay's rubies was my work—but I mustn't brag about past exploits
After I had never been engaged in a hotel theft of the importance of the Castlecourt one. The necklace was valued, roughly speaking, at about eight thousand pounds. The stones were not so remarkable for size as for quality. They were of an unusually even excellence and pure water.
After I had been in the hotel for a few days and watched the Castlecourt party, all apprehension left me, and I felt confident and cool. They were an extremely simple lot. Lady Castlecourt was a beauty—a seductive, smiling, white and gold person, without any sense at all. Her husband adored her. Being a man of some brains, that was what might have been expected.
What might not have been expected was that she appeared to reciprocate his affection. Having made a careful study of the manners and customs of the upper classes, I was not prepared for this. I note it as one of those exceptions to a rule which occurs now and then in the animal kingdom.
Besides the marquis and his lady, there were a maid and a valet to be considered. The former was a worthy, dense woman named Sophy Jeffers, close on to forty, and of the unredeemed ugliness of the normal lady's maid. Such being the case, it was but natural to find that she was in love with Chawlmers, the valet, who was twenty-seven and good-looking.
Jeffers was too truthful to tamper with her own age, but she did not feel it necessary to keep up the same rigid standard when it came to Chawlmers. It was less of a lie to make him ten years older than herself ten years younger. From these facts I drew my deductions as to the sort of adversary Jeffers might be, and I found that, by a modest avoidance of Chawlmers' society, I could make her my lifelong friend.
The evening of the Duke of Duxbury's dinner was the time I decided upon as the most convenient for taking the stones. I heard from Jeffers that the marquis and marchioness were going. My lady left her rooms that afternoon, and I heard her tell Jeffers that she would not be back till after six, and to have everything ready.
Off and on, for the next two hours, I was doing work about the corridor with a duster. It was near six when I heard the two servants talking in the sitting-room. A bird's-eye view through the keyhole showed me where they were, and that they were engaged in searching for something in the desk. It was my chance.
With my housemaid's pass-key I opened the door a crack, and peeped in. The leather case of the diamonds stood on the dressing table, not twenty feet from the door. It did not take five minutes to enter, open the case, take the necklace, and leave. Jeffers heard me. She was in the room almost as I closed the door. Before she could have got into the hall I was in the broom-closet hunting for a dust-pan. But she evidently suspected nothing, for the door did not open and there was no indication of disturbance.
Two days later Tom and I returned from our “business trip” to the Continent. I quite prided myself on the way our luggage was labelled. It had just the right knocked about, piebald look. We drove up in a four-wheeler, Handsome Harry on the box, and Maud opened the door for us.
For the next few days we lay low and kept indoors. We spent the time peacefully in the kitchen, breaking the setting of the diamonds and reading about the robbery in the papers. As soon as things simmered down, Tom was to take the stones across to Holland, where they would be distributed. We threw away the settings, and put the diamonds in a small box of chamois skin that I pinned to my corset with a safety-pin.
That was the way things were—untroubled as a summer sea—till ten days after our return, when I began to get restive. I had had what they call in America “a strenuous time” at Burridge's, working like a slave all day, with not a soul to speak to but a parcel of ignorant servant women, and I wanted livening up. I longed for the light and noise of Piccadilly, the crowd and the restaurants; but what I wanted particularly was to go to the theatre and see a play called The Forgiven Prodigal.
Maud and Tom raised a clamour of disapproval.
What was the use of running risks? Did I think, because I'd been in Chicago for nearly a year, that I was forgotten? Did I think the men in Scotland Yard who knew me were all dead? Did I think the excitement of the Castlecourt robbery was over and done with? I yawned at them, and then told them, with a gentle smile, that they were a “pusillanimous pair.” There might be many men in Scotland Yard who knew me, and that, as they say in Chicago, “is all the good it would do them.”
They couldn't arrest me for sitting peacefully at a theatre looking at a play. As for connecting me with Sara Wight, I would give anyone a hundred pounds who, when I was dressed and had my warpaint on, would find in me a single suggestion of the late housemaid at Burridge's. So I talked them down; and if I didn't convince them of the reasonableness of my arguments, I at least soothed their fears.
I dressed myself with especial care, and when the last rite of my toilet was accomplished looked critically in the glass to see if anything of Sara Wight remained. The survey contented me. Sara's mother, if there be such a person, would have denied me.
I was all in black, a sweeping, spangly dress I had bought in New York, cut low, and my neck is not my weak point, especially when crème de violettes has been rubbed over it. My hair was waved (Maud does it very well, much better than she cooks, I regret to say), and dressed high, with a small wreath of red geraniums round it. Nose powdered to a probable, ladylike whiteness, a touch of rouge, a tiny mouche near the corner of one eye, and long, black gloves—and, presto!
I wore no jewels—their owners might recognise them. One could hardly say I “wore” the Castlecourt diamonds, which were pinned to my corset with a safety-pin. They were rather uncomfortable, but they were the only things about me that were.
As I stood in front of the glass putting on finishing touches, Maud left the room, and went to the drawing-room to watch for Handsome Harry, who was to drive our hansom. I did not like taking a hired driver, and, thank goodness, I didn't! I was putting a last touch of scarlet on my lips, when she came back, stepping softly, and with her eyes round and uneasy looking.
“I don't know whether I'm nervous,” she says, “but there's a man just gone by in a hansom, and he leant out and looked hard at our windows.”
“I hope it amused him,” I said, looking critically at my lips, to see if they were not a little too incredibly ruddy. “It's a harmless and innocent way of passing the time, so we mustn't be hard on him if it doesn't happen to be very intellectual. Come, help me on with my cloak, and don't stand there like Patience on a monument staring at thieves.”
I was irritated with Maud, trying to upset my peace of mind that way. She'd had any amount of good times while I'd been at Burridge's with my nose to the grindstone. And here she was, the first time I'd got a chance to have a spree, looking like a depressed owl and talking like the warning voice of conscience! As she silently held up my cloak and I thrust my hand in the sleeve, I said over my shoulder:
“And you needn't go upsetting Tom by telling him about strange men in hansoms who stare up at our front windows. I want to have a good time this evening, and not feel that I'm sitting by a guilty being who jumps every time he's spoken to as if the curse of Cain were on him.”
Maud said nothing, and I shook myself into my cloak and swept out to the hall, where Tom was waiting.
There had been a slight fog all the afternoon, and now it was thick, not a “pea soup” one, but a good, damp, obscuring fog—a regular “burglar's delight!”
As we came down the steps we saw the two hansom lamps making blurs, like lights behind white cotton screens. Tom was grumbling about it and going on generally as he helped me in. And just at that minute, still and quick, like a picture going across a magic-lantern slide, I saw a man on the other side of the street step out of the shadow of a porch, and glide swiftly and softly past the light of the lamp and up the street, to where the form of a waiting hansom loomed. It was all very simple, and natural, but his walk was odd, so noiseless and stealthy.
I got in, and Tom followed me. He hadn't seen anything. For the moment I didn't speak of it, because I wasn't sure. But I've got to admit that my heart beat against the Castlecourt diamonds harder than was comfortable.
We started, and I listened, and faintly, some way behind us, I heard the ker-lump!—ker-lump!—ker-lump! of another horse's hoofs on the asphalt. I leant forward over the door, and tried to look back. Through the mist I saw the two yellow eyes of the hansom behind us. Tom asked me what was the matter, and I told him. He whistled—a long, single note—then leant back very steady and still. We didn't say anything for a bit, but just sat tight and listened.
It kept behind us that way for about ten minutes. Then I pushed up the trap, and said to Harry:
“What's this hansom behind us up to, Harry?”
“That's what I want to know,” he says, quietly and low.
“Lose it, if you can, without being too much of a Jehu,” I answered, and shut the trap.
He tried to lose it, and we began a chase, slow at first, and then faster and faster, down one street and up the other. The fog by this time was as thick and white as wool, and we seemed to break through it like a ship, as if we were going through something dense and hard to penetrate.
It seemed to me, too, a maddeningly quiet night. There was no traffic, no noise of wheels to get mixed with ours. The ker-lump! ker-lump! of our horse's hoofs came back as clear as sounds in a calm at sea from the long lines of house fronts.
And that infernal hansom never lost us. It kept just the same distance behind us. We could hear its horse's hoofs, like an echo of our own, beating through the fog. It got no nearer; it went no faster. It did not seem in a hurry, it never deviated from our track. There was something hideously unagitated and cool about it—a sort of deadly, sinister persistence. I saw it in imagination, like a live monster with bulging yellow eyes, staring with gloating greediness at us as we ran feebly along before it.
Tom didn't say much. He doesn't in moments like this. He's got the nerve all right, but not the brain. There's no inventive ability in Tom. He's not built for crises.
Handsome Harry now and then dropped some remark through the trap, which was like a trickle of icy water down one's spine. I began to realise that my lips were dry, and that the insides of my gloves were damp. I knew that whatever was to be done had to come from me. I'd got them into this, and, as they say in Chicago, “it was up to me” to get them out.
I leant over the doors, and looked at the street we were going through. I knew that part of London like a book—the insides of some of the houses as well as the outsides; it's a part of our business in which I'm supposed to be quite an expert.
The street was a small one near Walworth Crescent, the houses not the smartest in the locality, but good, solid, reliable buildings inhabited by good, solid, reliable people. The lower floors were all alight. It was the heart of the season, and in many of them there were dinners afoot.
I thought, with a flash of longing—such as a drowning man might feel if he thought of suddenly finding himself on terra firma—of serene, smiling people sitting down to soup. I'd have given the Castlecourt diamonds at that moment to have been sitting down with them to cold soup, sour soup, greasy soup, any kind of soup—only to be sitting down to soup!
We turned a corner sharp, going now at a tearing pace, and I saw before us a length of street wrapped in fog, and blurred at regular intervals by the light of lamps. It looked ghostlike—so white, so noiseless, lined on either side by dim house fronts blotted with an indistinct splutter of lights. There was not a sound but our own horse's hoof-beats, and far off, like a noise muffled by cotton wool, the echo of our pursuer's.
Through the opaque, motionless curtain of the fog I saw that the vista into which I stared was deserted. There was not a human figure or a vehicle in sight. It was a lull; a moment of respite, a moment of incalculable value to us!
My mind was as clear as crystal, and I felt a sense of cool, high exhilaration.
I have only felt this way in desperate moments, and this was a truly desperate moment—a pursuer on our heels and the diamonds on me.
I leant over the doors, and looked up the line of houses. It was Hanley Street. Who lived in Hanley Street that—— Suddenly I remembered that I knew all about the people who lived at No. 15. They were Americans named Kennedy—a man, his wife, and a little girl. He was manager of the London branch of a Chicago concern called the “Colonial Box, Tub, and Cordage Company,” that I had often heard of in America. We had marked the house, and made extensive investigations before I left, intending to add it to our list, as Mrs. Kennedy had some handsome jewellery and silver.
Since my return I had seen her name in the papers at various entertainments, and Maud had told me a lot about her social successes. She was pretty, and people were taking her up. All this—that it takes me some minutes to tell—flashed through my mind in a revolution of the wheels.
I could see now that the windows of No. 15 were lit up. The Kennedys were evidently at home, perhaps had a dinner on. They, along with the rest of the world, would in a minute be sitting down to soup. They might be sitting down now; it was close on to half-past eight. Why could not we sit down with them?
I lifted the top, and said to Harry:
“Is the hansom round the corner yet?”
“No,” he answered; “it is our only chance. They're still a bit behind us. I can tell by the sound.”
“Drive to No. 15, second from the corner,” I said, “and go for all you're worth!”
I dropped the trap, and as we tore down to No. 15 I spoke in a series of broken sentences to Tom.
“We're going in here to dinner. You must look as if it was all right. If we carry it off well, they won't dare to question. We're Major and Mrs. Thatcher, of the Lancers, who arrived on Saturday from India. They're Americans, and won't know anything, so you can say what you like. Give them India hot from the pan. I've been living in London while you've been away. That's how I come to know them and you don't. My Christian name's Ethel, yours is Harry. Do the dull, heavy, haw-haw style. Americans expect it.”
We brought up at the kerb with a jerk, threw back the doors, and dashed up the steps. I caught a vanishing glimpse of Handsome Harry leaning far forward to lash the horse as the hansom went bounding off into the fog. As we stood pressed against the door, Tom whispered:
“What the dickens is their name?”
“Kennedy,” I hissed at him—“Cassius P. Kennedy. Came originally from Necropolis City, Ohio; lived in Chicago as a clerk in the Colonial Box, Tub, and Cordage Company, and then was made manager of the London branch. Their weak point is Society. If any people are there, keep your mouth shut. Be dense and unresponsive.”
We heard the rattle of the pursuing hansom at the end of the street, then through the ground glass of the door saw a manservant's approaching figure.
“Only stay a few minutes over the coffee. We're going on to the opera,” I whispered, as the door opened.
I swept in, Tom on my heels. We came as fast as we could without actually falling in and dashing the servant aside, for the noise of our pursuer was loud in our ears, and we knew we were lost if we were seen entering. As Tom somewhat hastily shut the door, I was conscious of the expression of blank surprise on the face of the solemn butler. He did not say anything, but looked it. I slid out of my cloak, and handed it, languidly, to him.
“No, I won't go upstairs,” I said, in answer to his glare of growing amazement.
Then I turned to the glass in the hat-rack, and began to arrange my hair. I could see, reflected in it, a pair of portières, half-open, and affording a glimpse of a room beyond, bathed in the subdued rosy light of lamps. I was conscious of movement there behind the portières—a stir of skirts, a sort of hush of curiosity.
There had been the sound of voices when we came in. Now I noticed the stealthy, occasional sibilance of a whisper. There was no dinner-party. We were going to dine en famille. So much the better. My hair neat, I turned to the butler, and, touching the jet of my corsage with an arranging hand, murmured:
“Major and Mrs. Thatcher."
The man drew back the curtain, and, with our name going before us in loud announcement, I rustled into the room, Tom behind me.
Standing beside a glowing fire, and facing the entrance in attitudes of expectancy, were a young man and woman. In the soft, pink lamplight I had an impression of their two astonished countenances, or, rather, astonished eyes, for they were making a spirited struggle to obliterate all surprise from their faces. The woman was succeeding the better. She did it quite well. When she saw me she smiled almost naturally, and came forward with a fair imitation of a hostess' welcoming manner.
She was young and very pretty—a fine featured, delicate woman, in a floating lace tea-gown. Her hand was thin and small, a real American hand, and gleamed with rings. I could see her husband, out of the tail of my eye, battling with his amazement and staring at Tom. Tom was behind me, looming up bulkily, not saying anything, but looking blankly through the glass wedged in his eye, and pulling his moustache.
“My dear Mrs. Kennedy,” I said, in my sweetest and most languid drawl, “are we late? I hope not. There is such a fog that really I thought we'd never get here.”
My fingers touched her hand, and my eyes looked into hers. She was immensely curious and upset, but she smiled boldly and almost easily. I could see her inward wrestlings to place me, and to wonder if she could possibly have asked us, and had forgotten that, too.
“And at last,” I continued glibly, “I am able to present my husband. I was afraid you were beginning to think he was a myth. Harry, dear, Mrs. and Mr. Kennedy.”
They all bowed. Tom held out his big paw, and took her little hand for a moment, and then dropped it. He had just the stolid, awkward, owlish look of a certain kind of Army man.
“Awfully glad to get here, I'm sure,” he boomed out. And then he said: “What!” and looked at Mr. Kennedy.
Mr. Kennedy was not as much master of the situation as his wife. He wasn't exactly frightened, but he was inwardly distracted with not knowing what to do.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said loudly to Tom, quite forgetting his English accent. “Glad you could get around here. Foggy night, all right!”
I looked at the clock. Tom stood solemnly on the hearth-rug, staring at the fire. The Kennedys, for a moment, could think of nothing to say, and I had to look at the clock again, screw up my eyes, and remark:
“Just half-past. We're not really late at all. You know, Harry is such a punctual person, and he's afraid I've got into unpunctual habits while he's been away.”
“He has been away for some time, hasn't he?” said Mrs. Kennedy, looking from one to the other with piquant eyes that yearned for information.
“Four years with the Lancers in India,” Tom boomed out again, without moving his eyes from the fire.
The Kennedys were relieved. They'd got hold of something. They both sat down, and it was obvious that they gathered themselves together for new efforts.
I did likewise. I realised that I must be biographical to a reasonable extent—just enough to satisfy curiosity without giving the impression that I was sitting down to tell my life-story, the way the heroine does in the first act of a play.
“He arrived only last Saturday,” I said, “and you may imagine how pleased I was to be able to bring him to-night, in answer to your kind invitation.”
“Only too glad he could come,” murmured Mrs. Kennedy, oblivious of the terrified side-glance that her husband cast in her direction. “Very fortunate that you had this one evening disengaged.”
“I'm taking him about everywhere,” I continued, with girlish loquacity. “People had begun to think that Major Thatcher was a myth, and I'm showing them that there's a good deal of him and he's very much alive. For four years, you know, I've been living here, first in those miserable lodgings in Half-Moon Street, and after that in my flat—you know it—in Gower Street. A nice little place enough, but much nicer now, with Harry in it.”
“Of course,” said Mrs. Kennedy, as sympathetically as was compatible with her eagerness to pounce upon such crumbs of information as I let drop. “How dull these four years have been for you!”
“Dull!” I echoed, “dull is not the word!” And I gave my eyes an expressive, acrobatic roll towards the ceiling.
“She couldn't have stood it out there,” said Tom, in an unexpected bass growl. “Too hot! Ethel can't stand the heat—never could.”
Then he lapsed into silence, staring at the fire under Mr. Kennedy's fascinated gaze. Dinner was just then announced, and I heard him saying as he walked in behind us:
“Is India very hot, Mrs. Kennedy? Once in Delhi I sat for four days in a cold bath, and read the Waverley novels.”
To which Mrs. Kennedy answered brightly:
“I should think that would have put you to sleep, and you might have been drowned.”
That was one of the most remarkable dinners I ever sat through. Of the two couples, the Kennedys were the least at ease. They were more afraid of being found out than we were. The cold sweat would break out on Mr. Kennedy's brow when the conversation edged up towards the subject of previous meetings, and Mrs. Kennedy would begin to talk feverishly about other things.
She was the kind of woman who hates to be unequal to any social emergency; and I am bound to confess, considering how unprepared she was, she held her own in this one with tact and spirit. She had the copious flow of small talk so many Americans seem to have at command, and it rippled fluently and untiringly on from the soup to the savoury. I added to the impression I had already made by alluding to various titled friends of mine, letting their names drop carelessly from my lips as the pearls and diamonds fell from the mouth of the virtuous princess.
Tom did well, too—excellently well. When the conversation showed signs of languishing, he began about India. He gave us some strange pieces of information about that distant land which I think he invented on the spur of the moment, and he told several anecdotes which were quite deadly and without point. When they were concluded, he gave a short, deep laugh, let his eye-glass fall out, looked at us one after the other, and said: “What!”
I would have enjoyed myself immensely if a sense of heavy uneasiness had not continued to weigh on me. What troubled me was the uncertainty of knowing whether we really had escaped our pursuers.
There was the horrible possibility that they had seen us enter the house, and were waiting to grab us as we came out. If they were there, and I was caught with the diamonds in my possession, it would be a pretty dark outlook for Laura the Lady—so dark I could not bear to picture it, even in thought.
As I talked and laughed with my hosts, my mind was turning over every possible means by which I could get rid of the stones before I left the house, trying to think up some way in which I could dispose of them, and yet which would not place them quite beyond reclaiming. I think my nerves had been shaken by that spectral pursuit in the fog. Anyway, I wasn't going to risk a second edition of it.
We sat over dinner a little longer than an hour. It was not yet ten when Mrs. Kennedy and I rose, and with a reminder to Tom that we were to “go to the opera,” I trailed off in advance of my hostess across the hall into the drawing-room.
Here we sat down by a little gilt table, and disposed ourselves to endure that dreary period when women have to put up with one another's society for ten minutes. It was my opportunity of getting rid of the diamonds, and I knew it.
We had sipped our coffee for a few minutes, and dodged about with the usual commonplaces, when I suddenly grew grave, and, leaning towards Mrs. Kennedy, said:
“Now that we are alone, my dear Mrs. Kennedy, I must ask you about a matter of which I am particularly anxious to hear more.”
She looked at me with furtive alarm. I could see she was nerving herself for a grapple with the unknown.
“What matter?” she said.
I lowered my voice to the key of confidences that are dire if not indiscreet.
“How about poor Amelia?” I murmured.
She dropped her eyes to her cup, frowning a little. I was thrilling with excitement, waiting to hear what she was going to say. After a moment she lifted her face, perfectly calm and grave, to mine, and said:
“Really, the subject is a very painful one to me. I'd rather not talk about it!”
It was a master-stroke. I could not have done better myself. I eyed her with open admiration. You never would have thought it of her, she seemed so young. After she had spoken she gave a sigh, and again looked down at her cup, with an expression on her face of pensive musing. At that moment the voices of the men leaving the dining-room struck on my ear.
I put my hand into the front of my dress, and undid the safety-pin. My manner became furtive and hurried.
“Mrs. Kennedy,” I said, leaning across the table, and speaking almost in a whisper, “I entirely sympathise with your feelings, but I am very much worried about Amelia. You know the—the—the—circumstances." She raised her eyes, looked into mine, and nodded darkly. “Well, I have something here for her. It's nothing much,” I said, in answer to a look of protest I saw rising in her face—“just a trifle I would like you to give her. She will understand.”
I drew out the bag, and I saw her looking at it with curious, uneasy eyes. The men were approaching through the back drawing room. I rose to my feet, and still with the secret, hurried air, I said:
“Don't give yourself any trouble about it. It's just from me to her. Our husbands, of course, mustn't know. I'll put it in here. Poor Amelia!”
There was a silver and crystal bowl on the table, and I put the bag into it and placed a book over it.
“Mrs. Thatcher,” she said quickly, “really I—”
“Hush!” I said dramatically, “it's for Amelia! We understand!”
And then the men entered the room.
We left a few minutes later. The butler called a cab for us, and even if a person had never been a thief he ought to have had some idea of how he felt as we issued out of that house and walked down the steps. We neither of us spoke till we got inside the hansom and drove off-safe for the time, anyway.
We went to Handsome Harry's place for that night, and sent him back for Maud, with the message she must get out immediately with what things she could bring. By eleven she was with us with her trunk and mine on top of a four-wheeler.
The next morning we all scattered—I for Calais en route for Paris, and Tom for Edinburgh. Maud went to join a theatrical company that she acts with “between whiles.” We had to leave a good many things in the flat; but I felt we'd got out cheaply, and had no regrets.
That is the history of my connection with the Castlecourt diamond robbery. Of course it was not the end of the connection of our gang with the case, but my actual participation ended here. I was simply an interested spectator from this time onwards. My statement is merely the record of my own personal share in the theft, and as such is written with as much clearness andas I, who am unused to the pen, have got at my command.
Next month Mr. Cassius P. Kennedy, the American who received a surprise visit from “Major and Mrs. Thatcher,” and Mr. Gilsey, the detective, will tell what they knew of the robbery. These narratives will prove equally as fascinating as the foregoing.