Final Proof: or, The Value of Evidence
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"I should say she was a clever woman."
"Just the word. Some, who could say nothing more, said she was altogether too clever. It was this woman who sold me the ruby."
"The first acquisition to your collection?"
"Yes. I may as well briefly give you the facts, for thus you may see the connection between the two affairs. Land is not so valuable in our southern country as it is here in New York, and the houses of the wealthy are often in the midst of extensive gardens. Some of these not only have beautiful flower-beds, but likewise palms, cacti, oleanders, azaleas, and other tropical plants. Madame Damien's residence was in a garden which might almost be called a miniature park. The paths were of snow-white oyster shells, rolled and beaten until they resembled smooth white marble. The hedges were of arbor vit? cut with square top, except here and there where the trees were trained to form arched gateways through which the flower-beds could be reached. In places, often nearly concealed by flowering plants, were little houses, – lovers' nooks they are called, – made also of trained arbor vit?. Of larger trees there were the palmetto, the orange, and the magnolia. On f?te nights these beautiful grounds would be illuminated with Chinese lanterns, sufficiently numerous to make the scene a veritable fairy picture, but not shedding enough light to interfere with the walks of lovers who sought the garden paths between the dances."
"Your description reminds one of Eden."
"The similarity is greater than you imagine, for the serpent lurked in the rose bowers. At one of Madame Damien's masquerade f?tes I had left the warm rooms for a breath of the perfume-laden air without, and was walking along a path which led to the farthest end of the garden, when I was attracted by a stifled cry. I stopped and listened, and as it was not repeated I was just thinking that I had heard the mournful cry of a dove, when a tug at my sleeve caused me to turn quickly. At my side was a little creature in a green domino scarcely distinguishable from the shrubbery that lined the walk. The girl stood on her toes, drew my head down to hers, and in a frightened tone whispered:
"'The men. They mean mischief – to them – in there.'
"She pointed to one of the little arbor-vit? houses near us, and turning fled back along the path before I could restrain her.
"Much mystified, I stepped softly toward the little house, intending to discover if possible who might be within, when I seemed to hear voices behind me. Listening intently, I traced the sounds to the opposite side of the hedge, and therefore I crept cautiously in that direction, satisfied that here were the men to whom the girl had made allusion. Here is what I heard:
"'As they come out, we must follow them. When I whistle, you jump on madame; I will take care of him. I will undertake to hurt him enough to make him squeal. That will alarm Madame, who will be so fearful lest her precious lover be hurt that you will have no difficulty in getting the ruby.'"
"Quite a neat little plot; only needs the detail of garroting to afford us a perfect picture of the Spanish brigand," said Mr.Barnes.
"The men were undoubtedly professional thieves who considered the masquerade a good opportunity. As soon as they mentioned the ruby, I knew that the woman was none other than Madame Damien, who possessed a stone of rare beauty which she frequently wore. The point of greatest interest was that Madame seemed about to lose her usual good luck by having one of her love affairs discovered. How could I warn her without myself learning who was with her? Strange though it may seem, I had no wish to know the name of her companion, so I hit upon an expedient. Going to the door of the little house I called aloud:
"'Madame Damien! Will you allow me to speak to you a moment?' Of course she did not reply. From the deathlike stillness of the place one might have thought it empty. I was too sure, however, that she was there, so I spoke again.
"'Madame, your very life is in danger, if you do not come out and speak to me.' In an instant she was at my side, talking in a quick whisper.
"'Who are you? What do you mean?'
"'Pardon my intruding, but I was obliged to adopt this course, I assure you.'
"I was speaking loudly enough to be heard by the men on the other side of the hedge. 'I was passing here just now, with no suspicion that you were here, alone,' – I purposely used the word, so that she might feel easy about her companion, – 'when I chanced to overhear the plotting of two ruffians who are even now hidden in the hedge. They are lying in wait for you, intending to rob you of your ruby.'
"'Steal my ruby? I don't understand.'
"'Had I not heard their plan, they would undoubtedly have partly strangled you while they stole the jewel. It was to save you from the danger of this encounter and the loss that I felt it my duty to call you out to speak with me.'
"'What shall I do?'
"'I advise you to sell the stone to me.'
"'Sell it to you? How would that help matters?'
"'I have my check-book with me. You know who I am, – Leroy Mitchel. There is light enough by this lantern to write, and I have a fountain-pen. If you sell me the ruby, and take the check, you may safely go to the house. The would-be thieves are listening and perhaps watching us. Consequently, they will know of this transaction and will have no reason to follow you.'
"'I can take care of myself, especially as I am armed. I shall follow you in a few moments, and I am sure no attack will be made upon me.'
"She hesitated a moment. She did not really wish to sell the stone, yet her only other alternative was to inform me that as another man was present we might go to the house together without fear. But not wishing to disclose the presence of this other man, she decided to sell me the stone, or rather to appear to do so, for her plan was to return my check later and recover the ruby. This offer she made to me on the following day, but I declined because the idea of forming my collection of rare gems had entered my mind when I heard the plotters talking. Before finally yielding she made one effort, being a plucky woman.
"'I need not sell you the ruby, Mr. Mitchel, for if, as you say, you are armed, I have no fear of accepting your escort to the house.'
"This of course would have defeated my purpose, so I hastily explained to her that I wished to stay behind because I intended to attempt to capture one or both of the ruffians. Whether or not she might have found some other means of avoiding my offer, she did not think of one then, so she handed me the ruby and I gave her the check. After she had left me, I cautiously searched the hedges but met no one. I was satisfied, however, that the men had heard all that had passed, and I also believed that they might still imagine that there would be a chance to get the ruby, under the supposition that my purchase was but a pretense, and that as soon as I should return to the parlors I would restore the jewel. It was for this reason that I wore it conspicuously in my scarf."
"What of the little woman in the green domino? Did you see her again?"
"I caught a glimpse of her only, though I am sure she got a better view of me. It was in the house. Here, also, there was a profusion of green, the place being literally strewn with potted plants. I was standing near a group of palms when I caught sight of my lady of the green domino, gazing intently at me. As she saw that I had detected her presence, she swiftly glided away, and I lost her in the throng. I was certain, however, that she saw the ruby in my scarf, and so knew that I had prevented the mischief of which she had warned me."
"It would have been interesting to discover her identity."
"All in good time, Mr. Detective. We come now to the story of the string of pearls. It was just three weeks later. Madame was holding another f?te. Once more I was destined to play eavesdropper, though this time with even still more startling results. I had been dancing a quadrille, my unknown partner being charmingly dressed in a costume which at the time I did not understand. I had noticed her several times during the evening, standing always alone, apparently neglected by the young men. So I asked her to be my partner, rather in the spirit of giving her some of the pleasures of the evening, though you must understand that I was at that time young myself and quite susceptible to the charms of the opposite sex. She had seemed reluctant at first to dance with me, and then, as though impulsively altering her mind, she had expressed her willingness more in act than by any word, for she had not spoken. Clutching my arm nervously, she had led me a little way across the floor, and stopped where a couple was needed to fill a quadrille. En vis-?-vis was a couple who attracted her attention to such an extent that I almost imagined that my partner had brought me into this set with the purpose of watching them. The man was unmistakably dressed as Romeo, while the costume of his partner was as mystifying to me as that of the girl beside me. I afterwards learned that she was assuming the guise of Helen of Troy."
"Your hostess, Madame Damien, I'll be bound."
"You make a good guesser, Mr. Barnes. Madame Damien it was, though, truth to tell, I was so much interested in the silent, watchful girl beside me that I paid little attention to the others. The quadrille had just ended and I was wondering how best to make my little sphinx talk, when a strange thing happened. The couple opposite to us crossed toward us, and as they approached my partner swayed as though about to fall, and then suddenly toppled over against me, and in a whisper she said:
"'I am dizzy. Take me out in the air.'
"Just then, 'Helen of Troy,' hanging on the arm of her 'Romeo,' passed so close to us that the women's costumes touched. She looked scrutinizingly at the girl with me, and I heard her say to her companion, —
"'That girl is a sphinx.'
"Then they passed on. Her words startled me, for I had just used the epithet in my own mind in connection with my partner. I thought of her as a sphinx because of her silence. But now that some one else called her a sphinx, I observed that she wore a curious head-dress which reminded one of the great monument of the Eastern desert. Perhaps, then, she was but playing the part which she had assumed with her costume. At all events there seemed to be a mystery worthy of the effort at penetration. So I hurried out into the air with my little sphinx, and soon we were walking up one of the snow-white walks. I tried to induce her to talk, but though she seemed willing to remain in my companionship, she trembled a good deal but kept as mum as the stone image to which I now likened her. I was wondering by what device I might make her talk, when she utterly startled me by crying out:
"'I wish I dared to tell you everything. Perhaps you might help me.'
"'Tell me what you will, little one,' said I, 'and I will help you if I can, and keep your secret besides.'
"'Oh, there is no secret,' she exclaimed; 'I am not so wicked as that. But we cannot talk here. Come, I know a place.'
"I followed her as she hurried me on, more mystified than before. She tells me 'there is no secret,' and that she is 'not as wicked as that.' Why need she be wicked, to have a secret? I could not fathom it, but as I was to know all, even though it were no secret, I was able to await the telling. Oddly enough, as it seemed to me then, she led me to the very lovers' nook in which I had found Madame Damien when I purchased the ruby. Before entering, my little sphinx took the precaution to extinguish the lanterns at the doorway, so that when we passed inside we were in gloom as impenetrable as that of one of the passageways in the pyramids. She seemed familiar with the place, for she took my hand and led me away to one side, where there was a rustic bench. Here we sat down, and after a few minutes she began.
"'You do not know me, of course,' said she.
"'Why, no,' I replied; 'how should I?'
"'I was afraid you might have recognized my voice. But then I haven't spoken much to you, have I?'
"'No; but now I do recognize your voice at least. It was you who warned me, here at this very spot, at the last f?te. Was it not?'
"'Yes; I heard the men talking and I was afraid they might hurt – might hurt some one. Then you came along, and so I told you. I recognized you to-night because you have the same dress.'
"I began to suspect that the 'some one' whom she had shielded that night was not our fair hostess, but rather the man who had been with her. I was wondering whether it would be wise to ask her this question, or whether to wait for her to tell her story in her own way, when I was startled at feeling the softest of hands pressed tightly over my lips, and to hear a whisper close to my ear.
"'Don't speak,' she said; 'they are coming – they are coming here.'
"I strained my ears and at first heard nothing, but love sharpens the ears I suppose, for presently I did hear footsteps, and then low voices, growing louder as though approaching, and finally the persons, evidently a man and woman, actually entered our place of concealment. The situation was embarrassing, especially as that little hand still rested over my mouth as though warning me to do nothing. Luckily, the intruders did not come to our side of the place, but took seats apparently opposite. They were talking in earnest tones, the woman finishing a sentence as they came in.
"' – my mind, whether to release you or not. At all events, I must know more about this somewhat curious proposition of yours.'
"I recognized at once the voice of Madame Damien. It was evident, therefore, that the man was her partner of the dance, and that it was he who had been with her in this place on the other occasion seemed a probability. He answered her as follows:
"'I do not think the proposition is a curious one. I only do what women always do. Certainly my sex should have the same privileges in an affair of this character.'
"'That is a question that philosophers might discuss,' said Madame Damien, 'but we need not. Whether you have the right or not it is evident that you choose to exercise it. And what is this right?'
"'The right to tell you the truth. The right to tell you that I do not love you, that I have made a terrible blunder.'
"The little hand over my mouth trembled violently, and slipped away. I could hear the girl next to me breathing so distinctly that it seemed odd that the others did not hear also. Perhaps they were too much occupied with their own affair.
"'The right to tell me that you do not love me,' repeated Madame; 'but you have so often told me that you do love me, and you have told me of your love so eloquently, that now when you come to me and say that you have made a blunder, naturally I have the right to question you. Here are two opposite statements. How am I to know which to believe?'
"'I am telling you the truth, now.'
"'Perhaps; you may be right. You may know your heart at last, and if what you say is really true, of course I have no desire to try to keep what you only supposed to be love, however eloquently you told about it, however well you played the part. The awkward thing is that to-morrow, next week, by the new moon perhaps, you may be at my feet again singing the same old songs, old love songs. You will tell me that what you say then is truth, but that what you are telling me now is false. How, then, shall I know what to think?'
"'What I tell you now is true. I shall not tell you otherwise at any time in the future.'
"'Of this you are quite sure?'
"Up to this point the woman had spoken softly, almost with love in her voice. It sounded like a mother talking with her son who was confessing a change of heart, or rather a change of sweethearts. Now, suddenly, all was changed. When she spoke again it was in the voice of rage, almost of hate. It was the woman spurned; more than that, – it was the woman jealous of the rival who had replaced her in her lover's heart.
"'So you are quite sure that you will not make love to me again!' she cried, with such ferocity that the girl beside me moved closer to me as though seeking protection; 'you are sure of that? Then you love another. There is no other test by which you could be so sure. Answer me, is it true? Is it true, I say? Answer me at once; I want no lies.'
"'Well, and what if it is true,' said the man, angered by her speech.
"'What if it is true? You ask me that? Well, I'll answer. If it is true, then the other girl is welcome to you. She may have you, with your second-hand love. May she be happy in the love that changes with the moon. So much for her. But with you. Ah, that must be different. You wish to be released? Well, you shall pay for your liberty, my fickle lover; you shall pay!'
"'I will pay you whatever you demand. What is it?'
"'So. You value your liberty so much that you promise before you know my terms! Very well, then. You will bring me to-night, before an hour has passed, the string of pearls that your mother wore on her wedding-day.'
"'My God, no! Not that! It is impossible!'
"'How quickly you make and break promises! Your ideas of honor are as slim as your notions of love. And why is it impossible to give me the pearls?'
"'They are not mine. Anything that is mine I will give. But the pearls are not mine.'
"'If not yours whose are they, pray?'
"'Let me explain. They have been in my family for generations. They were taken from an idol in Mexico by one of my ancestors who was with Cortez. He gave them to his bride, and declared that they should descend to the eldest sons for all time, to be given as a bridal present to their wives. Moreover he declared that so long as this behest was strictly followed, no dishonor should come to our house and name.'
"'What you tell me makes me only more determined to have the pearls. Your ancestor was a good prophet. You dishonor your house when you offer me your love and then withdraw from your contract. You asked me to be your wife, and according to your ancestor's will the pearls should be my bridal decoration. I could claim them in that manner, did I choose.'
"'What do you mean?'
"'I mean to have those pearls. No other woman shall wear them. If the loss brings dishonor to your house, yours is the fault. But I have talked long enough. I loathe myself for bartering with you. Now I give you my command. Bring me those pearls within an hour.'
"She rose and started to leave the place. The man jumped up and called after her:
"'What if I should refuse?'
"She paused for a moment to reply, and her words reminded me of the hiss of a serpent.
"'If you do not obey, when my guests unmask to-night I will announce my engagement, our engagement, and introduce you as my Romeo.'
"She laughed mockingly, and hurried away. The man did not wait, but went out immediately. I felt about for my companion, but she seemed not to be near me. I took out a match and struck it, only to find myself alone. Seated nearer to the door than I, she must have slipped out without my knowledge."
"Then you did not learn the secret of your sphinx maiden after all," said Mr. Barnes.
"Not immediately. But hear the sequel. You may be sure I was near our hostess when midnight arrived and the moment came to unmask. Madame Damien herself gave the signal, and then, standing at the end of the room, she slowly unwound a thread-lace scarf which covered her head and face, serving in place of a mask, and draped about her shoulders. The shawl thrown aside revealed her bare neck, around which hung resplendent the pearls in your hand. Madame made a sensation with her pearls. Though she owned many jewels of rare price she often wore them, and her guests were quite familiar with her usual display; but pearls she had never worn before. And such pearls! What wonder there were whisperings and guessings! I looked around for the other two actors in the romantic drama, but neither Romeo nor my sphinx maiden was to be seen.
"Refreshments were served in several small rooms, and it was from one of these that presently a cry was heard that startled all of the guests, so that they rushed back into the main ballroom. There we found Madame Damien, pale with rage, calling for her servants, who rushed from all directions.
"'I have been robbed,' she cried; 'robbed of my pearls! They have been taken from me within a minute! Let no one leave the house! Close and lock the doors! No one shall leave this house, until my pearls are restored!'
"Imagine the consternation and indignation which this aroused. Madame was so enraged at the loss, and so wildly determined to recover the jewels, her jealous fear lest her rival might obtain them so intense, that she had entirely forgotten all the courtesy and duties of a hostess to her guests. All that she knew, all that she cared for, was that the person who had robbed her was still in the house, and she wished to prevent escape.
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