The Masque of Tragedy
THE MASQUE OF TRAGEDY
By ETHEL WATTS MUMFORD
Author of "All In the Night's Work," (with George Bronson-Howard)
"Blind Blue Men," etc.
EVEN A DETECTIVE ON A HOLIDAY MAY JOIN THE MAD MASQUERS OF NEW ORLEANS AT CARNIVAL TIME. YET EVEN THERE MYSTERY AND TRAGEDY MAY HAUNT HIS HOURS OF PLAYTIME—AND NO MAN MAY ESCAPE HIS DESTINY
WITH a little sigh of satisfaction, Clinton Braithwait leaned back as far as he could without losing his precarious balance, and squinted happily at the study of the picturesque courtyard his last brush stroke had completed. Then his glance lifted from the picture and roved over the scene it portrayed—rose-tinted walls covered with fig vine, balconies, blue and green, now faded to exquisitely tender tones, butter-colored oil jars, dripping clusters of purple flowers, a banana tree and two oleanders, trenchantly green against the low, open patterned brick wall at the far end of the garden, where presided a gaudy Madonna in a niche above a gurgling fountain. Beautiful, peaceful, fragrant.
The peculiar, brooding charm that is New Orleans, the New Orleans of the vieux Carré—the old French and Spanish quarter—permeated this, the home of Mesdemoiselles Bébé and Roxanne Dumontel. The artist turned quickly at the sound of footsteps under the echoing arch behind him that opened on the street. There approached a handsome middle-aged citizen of New Orleans, slender, quick of movement, mobile of countenance.
"Hello," said the newcomer, with hardly a trace of French accent. "How did you manage it?"
"Manage what, Thiery?" said Braithwait, grinning a welcome.
"To get Mlle. Bébé's permission to paint this courtyard. She's sicked the dog on more artists than you can count, for daring so much as to shoot a covetous glance at her pet banana tree. You must have hypnotized her. Roxanne, she is amiable, but Bébé—oh, la, la!"
Braithwait removed the canvas, set it against the wall and proceeded to unlimber the collapsible easel.
"Vamped the dog first, and then an extraordinary lady, whether she is Bébé or Roxanne I haven't the honor of knowing. But she's sixty and dresses in sprigged muslin."
"That's Bébé, right enough. Roxanne is the elder, but she looks ten years younger—fact is, poor Mlle. Bébé isn't more than thirty-five, if she's that. Hers is a queer story and a sad one."
Gaston Thiery started guiltily as the creaking of a board and the sweep of a raised Venetian blind warned them of the approach of the subject of their talk.
"Bon jour, mam'selle," called Thiery, advancing quickly into the center of the garden. "I see you have raised the embargo in favor of my friend, Monsieur Braithwait. Be careful, mademoiselle, he is a dangerous charmer."
The woman, a miniature creature, smiled down upon her visitors and leaned her crossed arms on the balcony rail. "What would you?" she asked with the tiniest of tiny shrugs. "He comes in, your friend, he implores, he cajoles. I am not of stone. If it were not for my fiancé, I might be foolish—but as it is, I feel safe enough to give him the permission." She had the dried look of a withered rosebud; her small features were finely wrinkled, as if a cobweb had been laid over them; her large, heavily pouched black eyes were feverishly bright; her voice, drawling in her soft Creole speech, had withal a curious sharpness, the pitch of strained nerves.
Braithwait joined his friend under the balcony. "I am very grateful, I assure you, mademoiselle, and I shall avail myself often of the privilege you were so gracious to give. There are a dozen angles of your charming garden, every one an inspiration."
"Of a surety, come when you wish— Ah, Roxanne is calling me. Bon jour, messieurs." She waved a blue-veined band and hurried into the house.
"My compliments—a complete conquest," laughed Thiery. "Are your labors ended? Then come with me to the Guiries', and we will lunch."
Braithwait nodded agreement, gathered his paraphernalia and followed his friend out into the sun-drenched street.
"Her fiancé?" he said in a puzzled tone. "Is that dear little old thing engaged?"
"That's part of the story," said Thiery. "Wait till we are settled with a table between us and I'll tell you the whole thing. It's worth listening to. You'd never guess, for instance, that that piece of Dresden China had been in jail, now would you?"
"I wouldn't and I don't," said Braithwait flatly. "I've been a detective long enough to know criminal earmarks when I see them. That woman is as innocent as a child—I'd bet on it."
"And keep your money," Gaston agreed. "She is innocent and a child, but—here we are. I'll order because I know what and how, and then I'll relieve your curiosity." He summoned a waiter, held a confidential conversation, and having arranged things to his satisfaction, slumped into his chair and leaned across the table.
"This all happened about fifteen years ago. At the time it made a tremendous stir, for Mlle. Bébé was the prettiest thing in ten counties then, all eyes and enameled skin, and a mouth as red as a chili pepper. She certainly was a belle, beaux in rows, but she wouldn't look at one of 'em until along comes a rank outsider, an added starter, a dark horse in the race. A quiet spoken, slim, good-looking chap he was. Nobody knew anything about him. He said he came from New York, and his name was Jack Creel. He seemed to have plenty of money, and he was stopping at the St. Charles Hotel. Well, as it came about, Mlle. Bébé and Roxanne and a dozen or so escorts go to the races one fine day, and from her box Bébé looks down and sees this Creel, and he looks up and sees Bébé. Bang!—they're off! How they managed to meet Bébé never would tell. You know how carefully guarded are our girls of the old French families, but love will find the way, and they found theirs. First we began hearing rumors that they were seen together at strange places and stranger hours. In the dusk of the Cathedral at twilight, they were stumbled on by one of the devout gossips. Stepping out of the dining-room at Antoines' they were marked by the bon vivants. Driving in mysterious barouches, by any and all who cared to look—that sort of thing. I was a bit hurt myself—a little bit sentimental about Bébé, to tell the truth. How my sisters 'Oh'd' and 'Ah'd' and gossiped. However, it ended by Bébé's announcing that she is engaged. And, of course, that's a terrible breech of etiquette, and the whole Dumontel connection fall upon this Creel and demanded his pedigree, and any excuse he may have for being alive.
"He's got a pretty good bank balance, it seems, and is very vague as to ancestry. All the Dumontels and the Chaberts and the Dequenes are wild. But Bébé just beams. They're going to be married, and then to Paris to live. The nine days' wonder passes by, and then he goes North to settle up his affairs. What happened next, of course, didn't come out until afterward. But it was like this: He writes her from New York that he has a surprise in store for her. She is to tell no one, but he will be in New Orleans just one night. It's Carnival time. If a masquer climbs her wall at twelve o'clock of a certain night, she is not to be frightened. It will be—'guess who?' All very romantic.
"Sure enough, she's in the garden—I don't mean the courtyard where you were painting, but the garden that makes the corner of Esplanade, and is shut off from it by a good seven foot high brick wall, with a little green door on the side street. There she waits, palpitating. In comes the masked lover, and well—one can imagine it. Moonlight, distant music, tin horns, confetti, Carnival. He puts into her hands a pearl necklace—an astounding thing, the sort that wraps three or four times around the throat and then hangs to the waist. They are big, evenly matched pearls, a wonder string. He tells her it is an heirloom, his one great treasure. When they are in Paris he will sell it and they will have a fortune. She is to tell no one, not even sister Roxanne, not a word. It is their secret.
"Her family have treated him shabbily he explained, had more than hinted that he was a fortune-hunting pauper. He didn't choose to pander to their greed. Let them think what they chose. It was his little vengeance. Let her hide his treasure and keep it very, very carefully, unsuspected of anyone. He would leave for the North in the morning, and make his official appearance a week or ten days later, for the wedding. And poor Bébé is such an innocent little love-sick ninny that ever} word is gospel, and her Jack the most marvellous poetic figure. And, of course, girl-like, she can't stand having those divine pearls in her possession and not showing them. So what does she do but wear them to the Carnival Ball.
"At first everyone takes it for granted that they are just Mardi Gras paste, so she gets annoyed at that, and acts so mysteriously that pretty soon the story goes from lip to lip that this is the gift of the groom-to-be. And from that, the few people at the ball who really are experts and can tell the real from the imitation however good, spot that necklace as being something priceless. The length of it, the unusual size of the pearls, perfectly matched, make it something quite unique—and presto! the fat's in the fire.
"A few days, nearly a week later, a detective arrives from the North. Mr. Jack Creel has been located and arrested. The pearls answer to the description given by Mrs. Charling Bullard, of Washington, of her stolen jewels. Mr. Creel, it turns out, is wanted for a whole series of robberies.
"With her world crumbling about her ears, Mlle. Bébé refuses to believe. She refuses to divulge the whereabouts of the necklace. She repeats his statement to her, that the pearls are his, an heirloom. Nothing can move her. She changes her story a dozen times—she's given the pearls to a messenger; she doesn't know where they are, the string she wore to Carnival ball was only a lot of cheap beads she had bought, and strung herself. She believes absolutely in her fiancé. He is a persecuted angel. She will stand by him forever. And stand by him she did.
"She is searched, the house is searched. She is called an accessory after the fact, and in spite of the whole Dumontel clan, they put Bébé in jail. She goes quite cheerfully, with her poodle and her negro maid, and her little portable altar and her special chocolate pot. And the pearls never were found from that day to this. They've never been seen. But her devotion and faith couldn't save Creel. There was too much against him. They couldn't prove the Bullard robbery on him, but they didn't need that one. Bébé was in jail when his trial came on. They brought her up North and faced her with him in hopes she'd break down, but she didn't, merely said, as she always had, that she loved him and believed in him; insisting that all the accusations against him were lies. She even accused her revered aunts and uncles—she and Roxanne were orphans—of committing perjury and joining in a conspiracy to break up her marriage. She was the despair of everyone, friend, foe and family. He was given a long sentence. There was a terrible scene in court. She had literally to be torn from him, they say, and he broke down and cried like a child.
"From then on, poor Mlle. Bébé began to fail. At first it was melancholia. When he died of pneumonia a year later in prison, they tried to keep it from her. But she found out. A convict, who had made friends with Creel in prison, wrote her about it, presumably at the dying man's request. She nearly died, too, but she pulled through, and then—suddenly she became cheerful and happy. She was waiting for him to come. She thought that he had just gone North to settle his affairs and was coming in a few days, and then they'd be married. She's perfectly sane on all other matters, but in this she's just gone back and stayed as matters were before the catastrophe. But she's grown old in jumps, as you might say, just withering away, but happy always, looking forward to her wedding day. Her gown has been hanging in her closet, they tell me, for fifteen years, and she is always ordering orange blossoms from the florists. They all know her and respectfully take her orders and fail to fill them. But Roxanne gave her a wax wreath under glass, and she's quite content with that. Poor little Mlle. Bébé! The sight of her always goes to my heart. Why couldn't she have lavished all that faith and love on somebody worthy of it? Irony of fate. Poor little soul!
"Ah, there comes our quail roasted in vine leaves, see if you don't like them."
But Braithwait hardly glanced at the succulent birds, as they were ceremoniously presented to his attention. "Of course, she's got the pearls cached somewhere," he said thoughtfully, "with this delusion that he is coming and that she is to be married, she would obey his instructions. She is holding them for him. It is their nest egg for the future. But where could she have put them so securely that not in all this searching and overhauling they have never come to light?" He grinned ruefully. "I almost wish, my good Thiery, that you hadn't told me the tale of Mlle. Bébé's love tragedy. I'm on my vacation, and when I'm vacationing I make it a point to be my artist self, pure and simple. I'm supposed to be a painter now, and here you're rousing my sleeping sleuth instinct. Hang it all! I wanted to leave my profession behind me when I came back here. I wanted to be an artist and a gourmet. Let me compliment you, by the way, in your choice in quail in grape leaves; it's a new one on me, but I'll say it's a little bit of all right."
The subject of Mlle. Bébé and the vanishing pearls would not so easily be set aside. As they sipped the last taste of the heavy black Louisiana after luncheon coffee, Braithwait came out of a prolonged reverie.
"Are they sure that the sister Roxanne knows nothing of the whereabouts of the pearls?" he asked.
The white-haired, olive-skinned Thiery opened wide black eyes. His own mind had been traveling back into the past. "Not she. A simple creature, Roxanne. If she had known anything the priest would have learned of it before now. No, she doesn't know—and there is another point of tragedy. Bébé was always devout; when she was a very young girl, she had a notion of taking the veil, but this love affair estranged her from the church. What it must have cost her—la pauvre! She still has her plaster saints all over the house, and as I told you, she took her little portable altar to jail with her. However, she seems to have worked out a plan of doing without, as you might say, the middle man. She deals direct with her saints. Of course, in her twisted mind she has the idea of pursuit. She does not dare confide in anything human. Alas, I must confess, my friend, it is my tragedy, too. I have never married." Thiery rose nervously and reached for his hat. "Allons! If you are painting this afternoon, you had best install yourself before the light begins to change. Since you have forgotten that you are a detective, remember that you are a painter."
"You're right," agreed Braithwait. "I have an appointment this afternoon with the northeast corner of the Cabildo. Good-by, and thank you for all your forms of entertainment. That story and quails in vine leaves, what more could an artist Sherlock want?"
They parted before the door of the little restaurant, and Braithwait took his leisurely way to Jackson Square and the ancient Cabildo.
BUT in spite of the lure of warm color, architectural felicities and linear perfections, his mind would travel back to the vision of the tiny dried rosebud woman, leaning with crossed arms on the gallery rail, looking down with feverishly bright black eyes, at the faithful lover while she talked of a fiancé, dead long ago, of whose passing she had only the message written by a fellow convict. Perhaps heaven in its mercy had blanked out the sorrows, leaving her the happy illusion of expectancy forever.
When he left the quiet of the interior court of the old prison, it was to meet the blast of playing bands. The streets were full of hurrying people, men and women in tinsel and rainbow colors, crowded taxis from which fluttered the Carnival colors of purple, yellow and green. Dusk was hovering in the sky, and the myriad electric lights swung above across the wide thoroughfare, made a golden haze in the misty atmosphere. The contrast of the stillness of the prison yard and the gathering festivity of the street was startling. Why not play truant himself? The next day would bring the finale, the mad climax. The license of Mardi Gras made every man and woman abroad in the jostling throng a possible acquaintance, a friend and companion, maybe for an hour or the night long, or a lifetime—who knew? Braithwait ducked out of the crowd and into a costumer's. There was little left for choice, but he bought a cheap suit of the black and white of Pierrot, a black skull cap and a supply of grease paint and powder.
For that night and half the next day Braithwait disappeared from the earth, and another Pierrot had joined the black and white army that danced in and out of house, club and café. Dawn found him and a motley crew of bedraggled merry-makers on the shores of the lake. A breakfast at the Bungalow, topped off by a taxi race into town that avoided disaster by a miracle. It was nearly noon, and Rex had taken the city keys in his keeping, when the thought of his room, a bath and a shave loomed up as the three things most to be desired in a topsy-turvy world. Without the formality of a leave-taking, Braithwait abandoned the remains of the party and sought his hotel. The streets were littered with serpentine and confetti, sodden and mired with the tramplings of the mob. The wires across the streets and the crisscrossed lines of light bulbs, were dripping with colored ribbon, like Spanish moss of a live oak. The streets were nearly deserted of masquers now. The idea of rest and recuperation against the festivities to be renewed with the afternoon had penetrated to the weary minds and tired feet of the quondam revelers.
Braithwait glanced up the marble flight of stairs leading into the hotel, as he paid his cab fare, and stopped open-mouthed. By the center pillar stood Gaston Thiery. His skin was ashen, his face drawn in hard lines of anxiety and pain, his eyes deep sunken and filled as if with a film of withheld tears. The man was a wreck! Forgetting his disguise, Braithwait rushed up to his friend, seizing his shoulder almost roughly.
"In heaven's name, what's wrong with you, man?" he demanded.
"Braithwait!" Thiery gasped. "Thank God! I've been waiting for you since seven o'clock. Been to your room—asked everywhere. Quick; quick, come with me—at once."
The detective became suddenly aware of his bedraggled finery. "Let me get this confounded stuff off. What's happened?"
"Never mind, come as you are. Here, taxi!" Thiery gripped the detective's arm with nervous fingers that dug into the flesh as he thrust his reluctant companion into the vehicle, and gave the Dumontel address to the driver.
Braithwait started. "Where? The Dumontels? What's wrong there?"
The car had started. Thiery leaned forward, covering his face with his hand. He was crying. Great scalding tears slipped between his fingers. Shocked and puzzled, Braithwait laid a sympathetic hand on the other's shoulder.
"What is it, mon vieux? How can I help? Come, come, get a grip on yourself."
The Frenchman pulled himself together with a tearing effort. "It's Mademoiselle Bébé," he whispered hoarsely. "She's dead—murdered!"
"What!" exclaimed Braithwait. "Murdered! Why? What for? Are you sure?"
"You shall see," said Thiery. "I have held them all off. I made Roxanne insist. The Chief of Police knows of you. I explained who you are. She has not been moved, nothing has been touched—and she so gentle. It is this cursed story of the pearls, I feel sure of it, and yet—but you shall see, you shall see." The little man placed a snaking hand on the limp, soiled folds of the Pierrot ruff. "I trust to you, my friend, to see that this devil is punished. He must be found. The most dastardly, the most cowardly—" he choked.
"I'll do everything I can, you may be sure of that." Braithwait's face was grim beneath its streaked coat of powder and smeared rouge. The cab rattled to the curb. Already a knot of curious neighbors were gathered at the wide entrance under the fan arch where they were held back by a policeman. At a word from Thiery the guardian permitted them to enter the familiar courtyard. All was as sunny calm and softly gay as ever—the red bird in its cage warbled sleepily, the vivid green banana leaves rustled together, whispering.
Thiery led the way up the stairs to the first gallery and knocked on the double doors. Roxanne, a tall, slender woman, who bore herself with dignity in spite of the ravages of shock and grief, admitted them.
Gaston clasped both her hands in his."I have brought him. He will give us our one consolation, Roxanne. He will not let her murderer go unpunished. He, of all the world, is the one man I could trust—and he is here."
Miss Dumontel looked at the tattered masquerader without surprise. "They have waited, monsieur," she said gravely. "The coroner is here, and the police. They all knew her—she was the friend of everybody, my poor Bébé." She turned toward a door leading from the salon, which, when opened, revealed a corridor that at its further end, terminated in an iron, festooned balcony that overlooked the garden. Right and left were doors, and a transverse hall ran the entire depth of the old mansion. Before the door to the left of the hall window, sat a blue-coated officer.
"There," said Roxanne, giving a sudden racking sob. "Was it not enough that her life was ruined, that her beautiful mind was broken? And now, mon Dieu—this!" She controlled herself. "He will show you, monsieur. I—I cannot. It was I, who found her," she added simply, as she turned away.
The policeman rose, received Thiery's explanation as if expecting it, looked at Braithwait curiously, and, unlocking the door, preceded them into the room. The tall windows stood open, their blue painted shutters folded back. The broad green, varnished leaves of a magnolia tree thrust themselves over the wrought iron balcony railing. The floor was of red tile, the furniture, huge polished mahogany pieces, an immense canopied bed, an armoire of gigantic proportions, a rosewood prie dieu drawn up beside the bed. In the middle of the western wall was a small open fireplace, whose shelf was ornamented by a Sevres clock, and two plaster statues of St. Joseph and St. Anthony. On a stand between the windows stood what the investigator recognized as the portable altar, mentioned by Thiery. It was of gilded wood, with painted panels, but the figure that should have stood before it, on the little Gothic pedestal, was not in its place.
Braithwait took in the details of the room before he permitted himself to look at the almost doll-like figure that lay outflung before the opened casements. Then he went close and knelt down beside it. Mlle. Bébé was miraculously young in death. She looked a girl again, the fine web of wrinkles that had covered her face like a veil, blurring her features, was gone, wiped away, leaving them chiseled and cameo-like. She was dressed in an elaborate negligée, such as a Creole bride of fifteen years ago would inevitably have selected for her trousseau. Her almost white hair fell in soft curls about the still brow. She looked, not old, not even her years, but like some powdered-haired belle of the eighteenth century. The black lashes that swept her cheeks and the dark arches of her brows enhanced the illusion.
Carefully, after closely examining the corpse, the detective lifted it in his arms. The cause of death was instantly apparent. The neck was broken. She had fallen, or been thrown with great violence, her head striking on the stone lintel of the French window. The two brass sunken sockets that received the old-fashioned closing rods operated by the turning of the door-like knob, were directly at the base of the skull. Death had been instantaneous. He laid her gently back, and rose from her side. His gaze traveled out to the stone-floored balcony with its hand-wrought delicate iron railings. He stepped over the dead hands that seemed to bar his passage. The balcony, as he had surmised, ran the entire length of the house, overhanging the garden. A trellis covered with vines came up nearly to its base, forming an iron pergola. Through the crowding leaves he could make out the forms of green-painted benches and seats below, evidently a little arbor for hot weather relaxation. The high wall that shut the garden from the street was pierced almost directly opposite by a small green door. Once inside the enclosure any agile person could easily climb the trellis, pull himself up and over the railing, and enter the room. If Mlle. Bébé had been murdered, this was certainly the way her assailant had come. There was proof of it in plain sight—broken tendrils, freshly scraped paint, the heavy imprint of a foot in the moist soil.
Braithwait turned back into the room. Both Thiery and the officer were regarding him expectantly as if they believed him capable of unravelling the mystery at once. Standing still in the middle of the room, he studied all the surroundings once more in detail. There had been no struggle, evidently. Only two things attracted attention in the orderly chamber—the door of the great armoire stood open, revealing a white satin wedding dress, turned ivory with age. Other dresses, sheer embroidered trifles of lawn and mull. Evidently in this wardrobe the bereft bride had stored her trousseau. One hook was empty, evidently the gorgeous wrapper that now clothed the stiffened form, had hung there. Why had she, if frightened in the night by an intruder, put on this treasured, locked away, garment, instead of slipping at once into the handy familiar bathrobe which was by her bed? Little pale blue silken mules were on the waxen feet, the square-toed black kid bedroom slippers stood undisturbed on theknitted mat. But most puzzling clue of all, the only object in the room that was out of place or damaged, was a colored plaster figure of St. Rita. It lay on the floor, broken in three pieces. Braithwait picked up the base and tried it on the empty pedestal of the altar. It fitted exactly. This, then, was the occupant of the little shrine. The statue was hollow. He examined each piece carefully. It had been stuffed with cotton. Here and there on the rough contours of the casting, shreds adhered. He looked at the base once more. It had been crudely sealed with wax, yellow wax, such as votive candles are made of.
He replaced the shards and again made the tour of the room, once more bent above the body and studied its expression, the attitude of the hands, the manner of its position.
"I believe," he said slowly, "she kept the pearls in that statue. Of course, they couldn't find them. She had them with her. I think you told me, Thiery, that even in jail she took her little altar. Do you see," he held a fragment toward him, "the bits of cotton wool clinging there? She packed the inside with it, so the contents wouldn't rattle. She sealed the base with wax candles she bought at the Cathedral and brought home with her instead of burning on the altar. There would be nothing to account for that wax. Thus far I think I'm right; but who in the world could know or guess that, after all these years? Who came here to compel her to give them up? And how could he force the secret she had kept against all odds for years. The only person who possibly could have made her tell, the man she loved and who gave the pearls into her keeping—is dead. I confess I don't get it; but someone was here, and someone killed her, though I doubt if that was intentional. She fell, or was thrown. It was the way her head hit the stone lintel and the brass cups."
Thiery's eyes were bitter, hard. "But he killed her, just the same. To kill her was like killing a child. Look how little she is, how helpless!" The tears sprang again to his eyes. "You've got to find the brute. Think, think hard. Things don't just happen. There is a reason for everything. Somebody knew, somebody must have known."
"He came in," Braithwait continued, "either over the wall, or through that green door—but that's a detail. He climbed to the balcony by way of the arbor. He knew which were her windows, for his tracks land over the railing directly in front of them, not further down, which would have been an easier climb, if you look and see. We have to deal with someone who knew. And why is she dressed in that lace negligee? As I read the signs, she wanted to look her best. Could she have expected someone?"
Thiery blanched, his fists clenched. "How dare you?" he snarled. "Were you not my friend——!"
The detective held up a restraining hand. "Remember that we have to deal with a defective reason," he cautioned. "She lived emotionally, as you told me, in the past. You are not to take offense at what I say. You are to try and help me. It is for you to think."
Thiery sobered. "Perhaps Roxanne," he ventured, "but no. I knew as much and more of my poor dear little friend than her sister, and I tell you there is no one. If anyone who was capable of committing this crime had known, then this would have been done long ago——"
"Unless," interrupted the policeman shrewdly, "that person had only just found out—something that mademoiselle herself may have said may have informed this person."
"This person may have signaled to her, given her time to throw on that lace gown. It isn't conceivable that she, a modest, shrinking creature, would have dressed herself before someone already in the room. She must have realized he was there outside, for look, there is a brooch fastened at her neck. She took time to put it on, hurriedly, no doubt—but she dressed. I don't understand it at all." Braithwait thrust his hands deep into the wide pockets of the black and white trousers, hunching up the long blouse from which half of the huge black buttons had been torn away. Pierrot's black skull cap was awry and his own tawny hair escaped in a yellow halo. Black, white and red had mingled in indescribable confusion on his face. As he raised his eyes, he caught sight of his reflection in the long mirror hung on the inside of the wardrobe door. He started, shrugged and grinned, and then stiffened like a bird dog at point. He stared and his eyes widened. He seemed hypnotized by his own double in the glass. "By God!" he exclaimed. "By God! that's it. I've got it! I know!"
He dashed past his amazed companions, through the salon, where the startled Roxanne rose to meet him, down the steps to the courtyard and out to the street, breaking through the curious crowd and thrusting aside the policeman on watch. Down the avenue, now beginning to fill again with the gaudy costumes of the fête, he ran like one possessed. Waving aside all delay and interference, he made his way directly to the Chief of Police. That functionary, at first angry and disbelieving, became excitedly convinced, anxiously coöperative. To Braithwait's reiterated demands for immediate action he responded with efficient zeal.
"Are you sure you can pick up his trail?" the detective inquired. "It's not so easy, but he can't have left the city yet, unless he got aboard of some tramp freighter sailing this morning. Have everyone that leaves the mouth of the river overhauled. Send a police boat down immediately."
Unmindful of his appearance, Braithwait paced the floor.
"How long has he been out? Got long distance? Has he had time to grow a mustache or beard? Are there any distinguishing marks? Has anything happened of recent years that might serve as further means of identification?"
There were delays inevitable, but fretting. At last the required information was forthcoming. Eric Johns had been released on the 18th of January—time off for good behavior. Followed a chart of measurements; a notation as to where fingerprints and photographs were available. There was a white scar in his hair over the left ear. He was known to have gone to friends in Atlanta, Georgia.
"Trail him from there," ordered Braithwait. "They will have had an eye on him at headquarters. At any rate they can verify that he's left. Get busy now, time is precious."
More long distance, and while the sergeant was busy at the task, under Braithwait's nervous directions, plainclothes men, on duty watching the harvesting of the pickpockets convened by Carnival, were called in and despatched north, east, south and west. A description of the wanted man was circulated. With radio rapidity, the dragnet was spread.
"You're right," came the voice of the chief, as he glanced over the shoulder of the man at the telephone who was jotting down in shorthand the words that were pouring over the wire from Atlanta. "He gave them the slip. Got out of town some time last week. They haven't the remotest idea where he went. He'd got a job in a garage, and seemed to be working honestly; lived with his friends, didn't go to any of the hangouts."
"All right," the detective cut in, "tell them to get in touch with the people he stayed with—they may come across with something." He looked at his colleague, suddenly conscious of his bedraggled state.
"You're all in, Mr. Braithwait," the chief said kindly. "You need a bath and a change. I'll send you to your hotel in one of the department cars. There's nothing more you can do now, until we begin to get reports in."
Braithwait looked at his torn and soiled blouse and spattered trousers, no longer white. "Pretty tough looking customer—what? But just the same I'm grateful to these sad rags. I'll tell you why later on, if you haven't guessed it already."
"Guessed what—that you've been forty-eight hours without sleep? I don't have to guess, I know," said the officer.
"Not that at all," said the detective, yawning. "But never mind, you're right. Me for forty winks and some every day clothes. I've had about all of this tragic masquerade that I can use. Put me aboard your dreadnought and pack me home. If anything stirs, wake me upland for goodness' sake, don't call me unless there is."
Braithwait, as it happened, was allowed all of ten hours of rest before he was called—he was even up and dressed before his telephone rang.
"We've got him," said the voice of the chief over the wire. "Picked him up in New Iberia. Think he was headed west. He won't talk. No trace of pearls. Kelly and Bassee are bringing him back."
"Not in the baggage and not on him, hey?" said Braithwait sharply. "Get a specimen of his handwriting. Go to the post office here in the city and find out what packages were sent out by parcel post, early this morning. It's dollars to doughnuts he's mailed them to himself under another name—somewhere west, since he was headed that way. But don't neglect address in Mexico, either. Probably it's insured—he wouldn't take a chance on losing them. Have them look up registered packages first of all."
"At that, you may be right," came the answer. "I'll have the P.O. combed inside of half an hour. Call you again later."
It was hardly more than the time specified when the bell jangled once more.
"There are three packages registered, between 9 and 11 a. m.," the chief reported. "One to Galveston, one to Los Angeles, and one to San Francisco. We're having all three watched for on delivery. If he's sent them to himself, he won't be there to receive it. But we'll have 'em all held for identification in case he's got a pal at the other end. All the other stuff that went through unregistered was bulky stuff and from known residents. We've checked up all the stations."
"Good," approved Braithwait. "My bet is Galveston. Just a hunch, of course, but I think he'll make for a port less conspicuous than San Francisco, and more handy than Los Angeles. However, we mustn't be too sure, our man's no fool."
Braithwait hung up, and, realizing that the hunger that gripped him was the natural result of semi-starvation, betook himself to breakfast. Later he went in search of Thiery and found the little Frenchman in the depths of despair. There was no justice in the world—all his faith in Braithwait's prowess had ebbed.
"I don't blame you," said the detective; "but I'm sure, positive, and it's straight deductions. I'm not just playing a hunch. Poor Mlle. Bébé's ghost is not going to walk, demanding vengeance, though I doubt if she was ever the sort to demand it—" He paused and his eyes had a far away look. "Funny thing—imagination," he said softly. "Do you know I can see what happened last night, as clearly and in detail as if I'd been hidden in that great armoire of hers watching it all. There's only one detail that is still a mystery to me, but that I'll know very soon. I'm going to have the prisoner brought directly to the Dumontel house. He's due in an hour, if he isn't here already. Wait, I'll telephone." He was gone only a few moments, when he returned, he nodded with an air of satisfaction. "Come on, Thiery, let's go. The chief is coming, too." He laid his hand with a comforting gesture on Thiery's bowed shoulder.
Into the silent courtyard, now blurring into the soft shadows of twilight they made their way. The curious crowd had dispersed, only the policeman on duty differentiated the entrance under the ancient doorway from its counterparts up and down the street. Here and there a citizen hurrying home, or a brightly-garbed masquer on his way to dinner, enlivened the thoroughfare.
"He's coming now," said Braithwait, as he caught the distant sound of an approaching patrol wagon.
"We'll go straight to Mlle. Bébé's room. She will confront him."
Roxanne, her dignity broken by the strain, admitted them tearfully. She had been advised by telephone of what was to happen.
"Leave this to us, Mlle. Dumontel," said Braithwait sympathetically; "but rest assured, justice is not going to be cheated this time."
With her handkerchief to her eyes, the bereaved sister motioned them to proceed down the corridor.
On the bed in Mlle. Bébé's virginal room lay the little corpse, so small, so young seeming, like a child asleep. She was dressed in the lace negligee, for in this, Roxanne had decided, Mlle. Bébé was to be buried. At head and foot the soft radiance of many candles glowed. An ebony and silver crucifix lay on the still breast beneath her delicate hands. Through the open window the breeze stole softly, bending the candles' flame. On the floor lay, undisturbed at the detective's orders, the three pieces of the broken statuette of St Rita. The officer sitting outside the door, saluted respectfully. With a sob, Thiery threw himself on his knees by the bedside, his lips moving in silent prayer.
"What I am going to do," whispered Braithwait, "will be rather spectacular. Don't let it get on your nerves, old man. I'm going to put over a third degree of my own invention, from inside that armoire. When the chief is here, tell him, so the suspect won't hear you. Get him outside. The chances are that the guilty man will be so upset at sight of his victim he won't notice anything else. Listen—I hear them."
He tiptoed to the massive wardrobe, tested its balance and stepped inside. Its depth was sufficient to readily conceal him, behind the pendant clothing and the cardboard boxes he had to push aside. The doors he left ajar.
Thiery rose to his feet, and a moment later, the door to the passage was pushed open and the chief entered. Close behind him, between two uniformed policemen, stumbled a haggard, wild-eyed man. As his gaze fell upon the dead woman he gave a smothered shriek and, had it not been for the men beside him, would have crumpled to the floor.
The chief spoke low, his voice reproachful. "How could you kill a helpless little woman like that?"
The prisoner began to tremble, his handcuffs rattled sharply.
"Eric Johns," said an eerie voice. "Eric Johns!"
The prisoner struggled, twisted, fought; even the men who held him paled.
Thiery, close to the chief, was whispering eagerly.
"And you swore you were my pal," said the voice, "and you used all I told you—to rob her—the woman I loved. You had learned that for love of me, me—Creel—she had lost her reason. You waited till it was Carnival time, till you could come in the disguise and masque I told you I had worn, when I came to her with the pearls. You thought that, seeing you, she would think it was I come again. And for me she would reveal the hiding place of the trust she had kept so long and well."
Half-fainting the accused reeled. His face was ghastly, sweat poured from his brow. "I didn't kill her. I didn't, I didn't!" he screamed. "She tried to follow me. I threw her down—I didn't know—I didn't know!"
"She thought I had come back to her," the hollow voice went on. "She told you the hiding place. You couldn't wait. You broke the statue, the necklace fell out, the pearls—my pearls—I had gambled my life for. You threw her from you, when she clung, thinking that her lover was leaving her—you!"
"Oh, my God! Listen, I didn't mean to kill her," cried the frantic prisoner. "I did dress as you told me you had that night—in a black Spanish costume with a red cape. She fell for it, yes, and let me in—but I didn't mean to kill her, didn't even know she was dead till now. I thought it out. The pearls weren't no use to her—she was crazy. If she'd died, nobody would have known, they'd 'a' been just lost. Creel, Creel, for the love of God, don't haunt me! You'd 'a' done the same thing yourself, you know you would."
He groveled, his breath came in hoarse rattling gasps.
The cool voice of the chief cut the pause. "What did you do with the loot, Johns?"
"I'll give 'em back, I will," panted the huddled wreck on the floor. "I sent them to Galveston by parcel post, to William Haynes—that's the name I used. I faked stuff to identify myself with. I'll get 'em—I'll send for 'em—but for the love of God, get a priest, and have him lay that ghost. He was my pal, Creel was, and I went back on him. I double-crossed him after he was dead, but so help me, I didn't kill her. She was such a little bit of a thing I just shook her off, and she fell, I didn't even look back, just thought she dropped—so help me, Creel, that's the God's truth." With an unconsciously dramatic gesture he approached the bed and laid his shaking hand on the two quiet ones that lay above the crucifix.
"I do believe you." The impulsive Frenchman spoke for all present. The thief turned his haggard eyes gratefully to his face. "I do believe you," Thiery repeated, "and I loved her."
"Take the prisoner down," said the chief huskily. "I'll join you in a moment."
Between the two guards Eric Johns was led from the room. A moment later Braithwait appeared at the door of the wardrobe and stepped to the floor. Even his steeled nerve was shaken. It showed in the drawn look about his mouth and eyes.
"Poor devil!" he said at length. "Poor devil—anyway we got the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." He paused, then crossed softly to the window. "She saw the masquer in the garden," he said dreamily, as one recalling a half-forgotten memory. "He must have called to her, somehow attracted her attention, so she flew to the great armoire, hurried into her beautiful gown, found her satin mules, fastened the lace at her throat with the brooch he had given her, and opened the windows to let him in. Anyway, she had her little moment of happy illusion before she went."
The Chief of Police came up to Braithwait and held out his hand. "You were right every inch of the way. What put you on the trail?"
"The fifteen years' lapse of time," said Braithwait. "If it had been possible for anyone having the requisite knowledge and capable of such a thing to act before, he would have acted. In the second place, when I caught sight of my own reflection in the mirror, I suddenly remembered Thiery's story, of how Creel had warned her the night he brought the pearls, to expect a masquer in her garden. Had anyone known all this and known also the poor woman's delusions, which was a very open secret, there would be ninety-nine chances to a hundred that thewould be received with open arms, and the secret of the lost pearls revealed. It would be the only way to break through her habit of secrecy. And, of course, the man who had been Eric John's pal in prison, who had written to the fiancée the particulars of his death, would be the one person in the world who would know in all probability how he had disguised himself on that fateful night, and he would have had to wait fifteen years, until he had served his term to make use of his knowledge. Well, the mystery is cleared. Eric Johns goes back to jail. Mrs. Charling Bullard of Washington, will get the agreeable surprise of her life—and Mademoiselle Bébé has entered into rest. Saint Rita pray for her."