Final Proof: or, The Value of Evidence
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"A secret closet, with a spring catch."
In another moment, the girl was replacing the books, and, this done, she hurried from the library, locking the door after her. Mr. Mitchel emerged from his hiding-place, and, going to the shelf where the girl had been, removed the books and searched for the spring which would unlock the secret compartment. It was not easily found, but Mr. Mitchel was a patient and persistent man, and after nearly an hour discovered the way of removing a sliding panel, and took an envelope from the recess behind. Carrying this to the fireplace, he dropped to his knees, and withdrawing its contents, held in his hand a Bank of England note for one thousand pounds. He looked at it, smiled, and said in a low tone:
"And Mr. Barnes was so certain that he would catch the thief!" Then he smiled again, replaced the books on the shelf, decided that the large sofa might serve as a comfortable bed, and so went to sleep.
He was awakened early, by a sense of cold. Starting up, for a moment dazed by his unfamiliar surroundings, he gazed first at the gray ashes of the dead fire in the grate, and then looked towards the windows thickly covered with frost, and shivered. Remembering where he was, he threw his arms about, and walked up and down the long room to start his blood moving, and induce a little warmth. Presently he went to the back windows and looked at the beautiful frosting, which resembled long fern leaves. Suddenly he seemed unusually interested, and especially attracted to one of the panes. He examined this closely, and taking a note-book from his pocket made a rapid sketch of the pattern on the glass. Then he raised the sash, looked out upon the shed, and emitted a low whistle. Next he stepped out through the window, went down on his hands and knees upon the tinned roof, and looked closely at something which he saw there. Returning to the room, one would have said that his next act was the most curious of all. He again opened the secret panel, and replaced the envelope containing the bank-note. Then he went to the table where Mr. Van Rawlston claimed that the note had vanished, and he sat in the chair where Mr. Van Rawlston had been when he read the will.
Several hours later when Mr. Van Rawlston came in, Mr. Mitchel was sitting in the same chair looking through a Bible.
"Well," said Mr. Van Rawlston. "How did you pass the night? Did the thief pay you a visit?"
"I think so," replied Mr. Mitchel.
"Then you know who took the note?" asked Mr. Van Rawlston, eagerly.
"Perhaps; I do not like to jump to conclusions. This is a magnificent Bible, Mr. Van Rawlston. Is it in the sale to-day? If so, I think I will bid on it."
"Oh, yes; it is to be sold," replied Mr. Van Rawlston, testily. He thought Mr. Mitchel merely wished to change the subject, and at that moment he was more interested in bank-notes than in Bibles. He had no idea that Mr. Mitchel really coveted the Bible. But then he did not know that Mr.Mitchel collected books as well as gems. He was therefore much astonished, some hours later, when the auction was in progress, to find Mr. Mitchel not only bidding on the Bible, but bidding heavily.
At first the bidding was spiritless, and the price rose slowly until Mr. Mitchel made an offer of five hundred dollars. After a moment's hesitation young Eggleston bid fifty dollars more, and it was seen that the contest was now between him and Mr. Mitchel. Bidding fifty dollars at a time the price rose to nine hundred dollars, when Eggleston remarked:
"I bid nine-fifty," then turned to Mr. Mitchel and added, "This is a family relic, sir, and I hope you will not raise me again."
"This is an open sale, I believe," said Mr. Mitchel, bowing coldly. "I offer a thousand dollars."
"One thousand and fifty," added Eggleston, quickly.
At this moment Mr. Barnes entered the room, accompanied by a short, young man, and Mr. Mitchel's attention seemed attracted away from the Bible. The auctioneer noticing this, called him by name, and asked if he wished to bid again.
"One moment, please," said Mr. Mitchel. "May I look again at the volume?"
It was passed to him, and he appeared to scrutinize it closely, started slightly as though making a discovery, and handed it back, saying:
"I have made a mistake. I supposed that this was a genuine Soncino, but I find that it is only a reprint." Then he turned to Eggleston with a curious smile, and said, "You may have the family relic. I shall not bid against you."
The auction over, the crowd dispersed, and when all strangers had departed, Mr. Mitchel nodded meaningly to Mr. Barnes, and approached young Eggleston, who was tying up the Bible in paper. Touching him upon the arm, he said very quietly:
"Mr. Eggleston, I must ask the officer here to arrest you!"
Eggleston's hands quivered over the knot, and he seemed too agitated to speak. The detective realizing that Mr. Mitchel had solved the problem, quickly stepped closer to Eggleston.
"What does this mean?" asked Mr. Van Rawlston.
"Call Miss Hetheridge, and I will explain," said Mr. Mitchel.
"No, no! Not before her!" cried Eggleston, breaking down completely. "I confess! I loved Alice, and wished to make it impossible for her to marry Lumley. The note is here! Here, in the Bible. I stole it, and hid it there!" With nervous fingers he tore off the wrappings, and rapidly turning the pages searched for the note. "Heavens! It is not here!" He looked at Mr. Mitchel inquiringly.
"No; it is not there. You paid too much for that Bible. Mr. Van Rawlston, I prefer to have the lady called, if you please."
Mr. Van Rawlston left the room, and Mr. Mitchel addressed Mr. Barnes.
"By the way, Barnes, have you abandoned your theory?"
"I suppose I must now, though I had not up to a moment ago. I found Mr. Lumley, and accused him of the theft. He would offer no explanation, but willingly agreed to return with me."
"We seem to have arrived just in time," said Mr. Lumley, quietly.
"In the very nick of time, as you shall hear," said Mr. Mitchel. "Ah, here is Miss Hetheridge. Will you be seated, please, Miss Hetheridge." He bowed courteously as the young woman sat down, and then proceeded.
"I did not think that the bank-note had been removed from this room. Why? Because I argued that the theft and the hiding must have necessarily occupied but a moment; a chosen moment when the attention of all three others was attracted away from the table where it lay. The one chance was that Miss Hetheridge may have hidden it in the folds of her gown. The men's pockets seemed too inaccessible. I agreed with Mr. Barnes, that the lady would scarcely steal what was her own, though even that was possible if she did not know that it was to be hers. For a similar reason, I did not suspect Mr. Lumley, and thus by elimination there was but one person left upon whom to fasten suspicion. I supposed he would return here during the night to recover the bank-note, and I remained in this room to watch for him."
At this Miss Hetheridge made a movement of her lips as though about to speak, but no words escaped, and she shrank back in her chair.
"During the night," proceeded Mr. Mitchel, "Miss Hetheridge came into this room, and hid something. After she had left the room, relocking the door with a duplicate key, I found what she had hidden. It was a one thousand-pound note."
There was silence for a moment, then Miss Hetheridge cried out:
"I can explain!"
"That is why I sent for you," said Mr. Mitchel.
"The note was my own," said the girl, speaking rapidly, "but after the disappearance of the other, I was afraid to have it in my room lest it be found, and seem to inculpate me. I only received it a few days before my dear uncle died. He told me that his brother William had sent it as a present to my mother upon her marriage, but as he had doubted the good intentions of my father, he had kept the matter a secret. As both my parents died, he had held the note in trust for me. He did not invest it, because he thought that his own fortune would be an ample legacy to leave me. A short time before he died, I passed my twenty-first birthday, and he gave me the note. That is the whole truth."
"To which I can testify," interjected Mr. Lumley. "And I may now add that Miss Hetheridge had not only promised to be my wife, but she offered me the use of her money to buy the partnership, which to Mr. Barnes seemed such a suspicious act."
"I have only to explain then," continued Mr. Mitchel, "how it was that I decided that Miss Hetheridge was not the thief. This morning I found heavy frost on the window-panes. Upon one, however, I noticed a circular, transparent spot, where the pattern of the frosting had been obliterated. Instantly I comprehended what had occurred. The thief, the real thief, had come in the night, or rather in the morning, for I know almost the hour. He stood upon the shed outside, and melted the frost by breathing upon the pane, with his mouth close to the glass. Thus making a peep-hole, he must have seen me asleep on the sofa, and so knew that it would be useless for him to attempt an entrance. As the person who did this trick stood upon the shed, I had but to measure the distance from the shed to his peep-hole to be able to guess his height, which I estimated to be more than six feet. Next, there was some very interesting evidence in the frost on the tin roof. The marks made by the man's feet, or his heels rather, for the frost was so light that only the impressions of the nails in the heels would show. My own made complete little horseshoe-shaped marks composed of dots. But those of my predecessor were scarcely more than half a curve, which proved that he walks on the side of his foot, thus slightly lifting the opposite side from the ground, or roof, as it was in this instance. This much decided me that Miss Hetheridge was not the thief, and I returned her bank-note to the place where she had hidden it. Then I sat at the table where the will was read, and studied the situation. The easiest way to hide the note quickly seemed to be to slip it into the Bible which stood on the table. Therefore I was not surprised when I found the bank-note which I have here."
He drew forth the bank-note from his pocket and handed it to Mr. Van Rawlston, who asked:
"But why, then, did you try to buy the Bible?"
"I had no idea of doing so. You forget that I had not seen Mr. Lumley. He, too, might have been six feet high, and he, too, might have had the habit of walking on the side of his heel, as I quickly observed that Mr. Eggleston does. With only one of the men before me I decided to run up the price of the Bible, knowing that if he were guilty he would bid over me. Mr. Eggleston followed my lead, and I was almost sure of his guilt, when he made the remark that he was buying a family relic. It was a possible truth, and I was obliged to go on bidding, to see how anxious he was to possess the volume. Then, as I said awhile ago, Mr. Lumley arrived in the nick of time. One glance at his short stature, and I was ready to let the Bible go."
"You said you could almost tell the hour at which this man peeped through the window," said Mr. Barnes.
"Ah, I see! You wish me to teach you tricks in your own trade, eh? Well, frost forms on a window-pane when the thermometer is near or below thirty-two. On the wall here I found a recording thermometer, which discloses the fact that at three o'clock this morning the temperature was as high as forty-five, while at four it was below thirty. Frost began to form between those hours. At five it was so cold, twenty degrees, that I awoke. Our man must have come between half-past four and five. Had he come before then, his peep-hole would have been fully covered again with frost, whereas it was but thinly iced over, the mere freezing of the water of the melted frost, there being no design, or pattern, as there was over every other part of the window-pane. So I may offer you a new version of an old saw, and say that, 'Frost shows which way a thief goes.'"