A BATTLE OF WITS

KATH LYN RHODES April 15 1923

A BATTLE OF WITS

KATH LYN RHODES April 15 1923

A BATTLE OF WITS

KATH LYN RHODES

IT WAS at dinner that Mr. Tressider started telling us about the famous ruby he had

bought a week previously, and seeing our interest he went on to promise us a sight of it before we left the house.

“It is worth a small fortune,” he said,smiling, “and if I had not promised my wife”— he bowed to her across the table—"that I would try to acquire it for a silver wedding-present to complete her collection, I should have jibbed at the price.”

“But it is worth it, Harry,” Mrs. Tressider’s soft voice chimed in. “When once we have decided on the setting I shall be sure of a unique jewel for State occasions.” “Aren't you afraid to keep anything so valuable in the house?" asked Jim Benson. "One hears so constantly of jewel robberies that it doesn’t

seem safe---”

“Oh. it will goto the bank with, the others, of course.” interrupted Tressider, quickly. ”1 don’t believe in tempting people, whether one’s own servants or outsiders, by leaving valuable stuff about. But it is quite secure at present; my safe is absolutely reliable, and alt my servants are trustworthy.”

“Of course,” Dolly Tressider took a hand. “Don’t suggest burglars, please, Mr. Benson. I should die of fright if I met one in the middle of the night.”

“He wouldn’t hurt you, you little idiot.” This fraternal speech came from Dicky, of course. “I expect he would be quite polite and gentlemanly.

The old-fashioned Bill Sikes has gone out ROW, and Raffles or Chat French chap. Arsene Lupin, are all the rage. Why, you might meet a swell cracksman in society every day of your life and not know him for a thief.”

Jim Benson smiled.

“Personally, I think the Raffles craze is overdone,” he said. ‘T don’t fancy' he would have much of a chance in real life. The police and the detective force are too well manned, nowadays, for even a clever criminal to escape for long.”

*T can’t agree with you there,” broke in a quiet voice from a corner of the table, where sat a young man rejoicing in the name of Theodore Sparrow. “I think a clever criminal might enjoy a long run— the difficulty is that so few criminals are clever.”

' j ’HIS assertion raised a per* feet storm of protest in which Dicky joined heartily, but young Sparrow remained quite unruffled by our vehemence, and when there was a lull raised his voice quietly and remarked—

“A clever criminal, so far as I can see. need never be caught at all, save by the interposition of bad luck, or the treachery of a comrade. But the ordinary criminal, being only a normally brainy person, can’t stand up against unforeseen circumstance and gives himself away by little «careless acts and miscalculations.

“It is a pityMr. Sparrow is not a detective,” said .Jim Benson gravely, “he would be an excellent rival to Sherlock Holmes.”

Sparrow' coloured slightly, but he replied as quietly as usual.

“L nfortunately I am only a hard-w'orking journalist,” he said, “hut in my spare moments I have done a little reading on the subject of crime; and from that I deduce my former remarks.”

“Well, let’s stop talking of crime, anyway,” said Beryl Miller, Mr. Tressider’s handsome niece from America. “I m afraid that Uncle won’t show' us the stone at all if we don’t stop right away. Don’t you agree, Mr. Benson?” "Quite 30, Miss Miller,” Benson smiled politely.

The others took the hint and changed the conversation; and presently Mrs. Tressider rose and carried off the ladies, leaving us to a more desultory conversation,

and the enjoyment of our host’s most excellent wines.

Looking idly after Dolly as she passed, last of all, out of the room, 1 missed a movement in the corner of the table, and looking round was pleased to find young Sparrow at my elbow. He was a queer, silent fellow, by no means given to the common journalistic fault of "gassing;” we had been at school together, but had not met very often of late, and I was quite pleased to see his

light eyes and] hear his quiet, yet arresting, voice again.

Now, after a few preliminaries, he launched an unexpected question at my head.

“Say, Don,”-—my name is Gordon Osmond—-“do you know that chap Benson well? Is hé a friend of the family, or what? I’ve been here a lot with Dick lately, and he is always here nowadays, though formerly one never met him.”

“I don’t know much about the fellow,” I admitted. “Dolly—Miss Tressider—talks about him-a bit. He saved her from a bad smash with a motor one day and the family took him up, but I know nothing of him personally.

Why do you ask?”

“Oh, for no reason except that I don’t care for him overmuch. Seems to me a bit too pleasant and glib, don’t you know, and has too little to say about his belongings, but it may be all my fanejr, of course.”

“So you imagine he’s not what he appears to be,” I jeered gently. “I say, Sparrow, haven’t you grown out of your Sherlock Holmes days yet?”

He laughed rather grudgingly.

“I always was a suspicious beast,” he admitted, “but really in my trade one sees such queer things. Give me a journalist’s life for interest and entertainment—how you can stick a dull berth in Somerset House beats me, Don.” “Couldn’t be helped,” I said ruefully, “but perhapkl’ll get out of it some day.”

At that moment old Tressider rose.

“Well, come along if you’ve had enough to drink,” he said, genially; “and I’ll fetch the ruby for you to see. Hope you’re none of you Raffles in disguise,” he laughed, “but with Theodore here I’m pretty safe.”

JN THE hall I was button-

holed by Lindsay, a fellow to whom I had recently sold my motor-bike, and in spite of my protests I was forced to listen while he poured forth the wonderful records he had made and broken since my Douglas passed into his possession.

Owing to his persistence we were the last to enter the drawling room, only to learn from the footman that the party had adjourned to the billiard-room for a game.

To the billiard room we accordingly proceeded, and entered to find everyone there, standing or sitting about in attitudes of anticipation evidently awaiting the arrival of the famous ruby.

Just as we entered we heard Benson’s voice, explaining something to Dolly Tressider.

“You see, I take the ball so,” —he held a red billiard ball in one hand and pushed it up his cuff in the manner of a professional conjuror—“I hold it out in the palm of my hand so,”— illustrating' with a gesture— “then, hey, presto! it is gone, vanished into space.”

Dolly laughed delightedly.

“I say! You are clever! But where has it gone to?”

“Into his pocket, I should say,” said Dicky sturdily. “It is an old trick, Benson, that!”

“Is it?” Benson laughed goodnaturedly. “Do it yourself, then, if you can.”

But Dicky declined to accept the challenge for the time being, since a general turning of heads in the direction of the door showed Mr. Tressider entering the room carrying something carefully in his hand.

“Hurry up, Dad,”—this from Dolly—“Beryl’s just dying to look, aren’t you, dear?”

“Yes, indeed!” The girl approached her uncle eagerly. “Oh, Uncle, do let me look—if I’m good may I hold it in my hand afterwards?”

Smiling at his niece’s request, Mr. Tressider nodded: and then, calling us to approach as near as possible, he opened the velvet-lined case he held and disclosed the treasure within.

It was a beauty and no mistake. Of a deep, rich colour, it was absolutely flawless; and though not vulgarly large it was of a fair size—a jewel to make its possessor the envy of all her women friends—and enemies.

Everyone excepting Mrs. Tressider, who sat smiling gently on us from her armchair, crowded round to look; and with a smile Mr. Tressider handed it to me, as the nearest to him, and bade me look at it and pass it on. In a few moments the ruby had made the round of the circle, and all had something to say in eulogy of its magnificence.

When we had all looked and admired, Mr. Tressider regained possession of the stone, and walking over to his wife’s chair laid it lightly on her silken lap.

“There, my dear!” he smiled down at her affectionately, “the famous ruby is yours.”

She looked up at him with her loving, dark eyes and was just about to speak when there was a wild scream in the hall outside—a scream in a woman’s voice, followed by that most terrible of all cries—

“Fire! Fire! Help! Fire!”

In a second all else was forgotten. With one accord the party, guests and host alike, forsook the billiard room and poured out, pell-mell, into the hall. It was a queer, wild rush through the doorway, everyone anxious to know the meaning of that cry, and personally I confess that I expected to find one of the women servants in flames or the house burning madly. Only Mrs. Tressider, who suffered from a slight lameness, did not move,'and her husband called out reassuringly to her as he rushed away—

“All right, my dear. You sit still and we’ll investigate.”

Just as the last straggler reached the hall yet another shock came upon us. With what seemed like one accord the electric lights in the hall and billiard-room went out, leaving us in the dark, with that dreadful cry still ringing in our ears.

Well, there was a babel then. Everyone began to talk at once; I heard thewords “wire fused,” “currentcut off,” and so forth, while we fell helplessly over each other in the dark. One of the girls cried out, and I clutched at an arm which ought by right to have belonged to Dolly, but didn’t; and everything was in the wildest confusion when a clear voice, which I recognized as Theodore’s, rose above the din. .

“It’s not the current, Mr. Tressider—at least the other rooms are lighted.” And so, sure enough, they were, as we could see through the half-open doprs.

Mr. Tressider called out something in reply, and the next instant the hall was brilliantly lighted again, while I «aw Theodore move just inside the door of the billiardroom, which was quite close, and illuminate that room also.

Everyone looked a bit foolish. I found myself supporting a young married woman who was pretending to faint, while Jim Benson was bending over Dolly. We blinked at the light like aslot of owls, and for a second no one spoke, till Dicky said suddenly,

THUS reminded, Mr. Tressider lost no time in making enquiries. Some of the servants were hanging about, and on being summoned underwent a swift cross-examination. '

Yes, one or two of them had thought they heard a cry in the hall. No, no one had seen anything unusual, there was no smell of burning, so sign of fire; and no one would confess to having raised the alarm.

Mr. Tressider despatched a couple of men to look round the place, and then turned back to his excited guests.

“I say, how about that fire, Dad? There doesn’t seem to be much wrong.”

“I am very sorry .you have been alarmed,” he said frankly. “So far as I can judge there is no need for anxiety — probably the whole scare arose through some hysterical housemaid who called out unnecessarily, but in any case there is no more to be done and we may as well return to the billiard-room.”

With sighs of relief we all herded back into the room.

Dicky, despatched previously by his father, was already there, reassuring his mother, and a minute or two later everyone was sufficiently collected to think of the game which had hitherto been delayed.

As we moved forward to the table Mr. Tressider uttered an exclamation.

“The ruby! I had forgotten it—but you have it safe, Mary, my dear?”

Mrs. Tressider started in dismay.

“The ruby! It was on my lap—it must have slipped off somehow.”

“Slipped off? Isn’t it here, then?”

“No,” Mrs. Tressider was pale. “It is certainly not here now. But I never even

got up, Richard, till you all came in . you called out at once when the light went out and I sat quite still.”

“Then you must have it yet,” said her husband decisively, and he went across to her chair and examined her lap as though he expected to find the ruby safely there.

But the ruby was not there; and in an instant everything was in confusion once more.

The ruby had disappeared off Mrs. Tressider’s lap, and the question was, where was it now? The floor of the billiard room was of polished wood, with one beautiful rug in front of the fireplace, on which Mrs. Tressider’s chair was placed.

It was obvious that if the stone had fallen to the ground it could not escape detection on the polished surface, and the Persian rug was the only possible place in which it could evade notice.

Instantly the rug was searched byhalf-aT dozen willing guests; but though it was lifted carefully up and shaken over the billiard table no stone fell out. The

floor was next investigated thoroughly, but with the same result. Mrs. Tressider retired into the drawing-room to shake out her silken skirts to see if the ruby might possibly have secreted itself in some fold or other; but she returned disconsolate, and Mr. Tressider called a halt.

“TT’S no use, my friends,” he said quietly, “the ruby has disappeared I don’t know how, but taken in connection with the false alarm of fire and the darkness which overtook us, it looks to me like an organized robbery. Oh, don’t be alarmed”—he smiled at his lady guests—“in all probability the thief, if thief there was, knew of my purchase of the ruby and has been hanging round for days to get hold of it. He will be far away by this time, and if you will go on with your game I will go and telephone to the police to tell them what has happened.”

“Allow me, sir“’ Sparrow, who was standing near the

dcor, FT eke quietly, “let me telephone for you. . I think Mrs. Tressider would be glad if you stayed with her.”

“Right—thanks, my boy.” Mr. Tressider moved nearer his wife while Sparrow slipped quietly out. In a minute he returned, and again cur fcest pressed us to forget the matter.

But everyone looked frightfully uncomfortable. It was an awkward thing to happen, and personally I felt anything but happy. It was very decent of our host to pass it off like this, but I didn’t like the position, and I was meditating a speech of my own when to my relief Theodore spoke again.

“Excuse me, sir,” he said, “I don’t think we can forget the matter so easily. A valuable ruby—a very valuable ruby”— he emphasized the words slightly— “disappears when we are your guests, and in spite of your courtesy the inference is obvious. One of us may—mind, I don’t say ‘mus t’—o n 1 y ‘may’—have appropriated it; and in justice to ourselves I think we ought to be given the chance of vindicating ¿our honour by turning out our pockets so that it may be sure that no one of us has taken your , i ruby.”

Mr. Tressider 10 ok e d mighty uncomfortable at this cool proposal, and his colour rose.

/‘No, no, Sparrow, certainly not,” he said jerkily, “such a thing is quite impossible. You mean well. I’m sure, but oblige me by dropping the subject at once.” Sparrow shrugged his shoulders, but said nothing further, and was turning away when Jim Benson spoke.

“If you will allow me to say so, Mr. Tressider,” he began, “I quite agree with Mr. —er—Sparrow. Of course this is largely a family party”—he glanced round—“but some of us are comparative strangers and I think it would be fairer to let us do £s Mr. Sparrow suggests. Otherwise we shall never feel quite cleared from suspicion.”

Theodore flashed a quick look at the speaker, then glanced at me, and I obeyed the glance.

“I agree with these two gentlemen, sir,” I said quickly, “and with your permission I’ll lead the way.”

In another minute I had emptied my pockets on to the table, and Theodore, obeying in his turn my nod, moved forward and ran his hands down me in the approved style of a professional search.

NATURALLY, as i had not stolen the ruby it was not found on me, and when I was done with, the other men went through the same ordeal without flinching, in spite of some distressed murmurs from our host.

The last two were Sparrow and Jim Benson, and before Theodore could prevent him the latter placed himself in front of the journalist.

“Pockets f i r s t—right.” He immediately plunged his hand into his various pockets and produced a sovereign purse, empty, a gold pencil-case and one or two other odds and ends, finishing up with a red billiard ball which he fished out with an apologetic laugh.

“My conjuring trick.” he said ruefully, “I have given my effect away after all, Miss Tressider.”

He placed the ball on the table and went through his ordeal, after which Sparrow took his place and the same thing was carried out once more.

Even the girls insisted on sharing the performance, and turned out the absurd little bags in which they carried their fans and handkerchiefs,

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shook out their bridge purses and so forth, but the ruby was not to be found, and at last Mr. Tressider authoritatively stopped the search.

“Now we have done enough,” he said decisively. “Remember, all of you this personal search was quite against my wishes, and I can only apologize to you all very sincerely for the trouble you have been caused this evening.”

AS WE indulged in a final peg, still in A the billiard room, from which no one seemed inclined to move, I found Theodore Sparrow by my side.

“Queer affair, eh?” I said, “Deuced uncomfortable for us all, if the ruby isn’t traced, isn’t it?”

“Think so?” Theodore’s light eyes looked at me curiously. “Don’t you really know where the ruby is, old chap?”

“Know where it is?” I stared. “Of course not—and no more do you.”

“Oh, yes I do,” he said quietly, almost indifferently, “and I know where it will be to-night—in old Tressider’s safe.”

I looked at him aghast.

“But how can you know?”

“Oh, I haven’t got it,” he said grinning, “but I know who has, and I know who called fire, and who turned out the lights.”

Mystified, I was about to speak, when he interrupted me by rising.

“Must say good-night to the ladies,” he rejninded me carelessly; then, “oh, wait a moment, Benson, won’t you—and we can go together.”

Just for an instant I fancied I saw Benson’s face change. The next second he said heartily—

“Certainly—you are leaving now, aren’t you?”

“Yes, this instant.” But it struck me Theodore was uncommonly slow in making his farewells, and even after the ladies had gone and the other men were departing he lingered in the billiard room chatting desultorily to me. At last we were the only two left in the room, and Sparrow was bending over the table idly picking up one billiard ball after another as we talked when he raised himself up sharply and said in a whisper.

“Look out. Now for the critical moment, Don.”

As he spoke Jim Benson looked in. He had on a light overcoat and carried his hat.

“Are you ready?” He approached the table casually and began to play with the balls which lay on the green surface as Theodore had been doing a moment before. “I don’t want to hurry you you know, but—”

AS HE spoke he was apparently pracA tising his former conjuring trick, and I was watching him idly from the background, aware of some mental tension in the atmosphere, when Theodore strode forward suddenly and spoke sternly.

“See here, Benson,” he said, “the game’s up. I saw it long ago, but I didn’t want to give you away. Where’s that ruby?”

Benson grew white as chalk, but he tried to brazen it out.

“What ruby—I don’t understand.”

“Don’t you? Then allow me. .

With a swift gesture he dived his hand into the other man’s overcoat pocket and brought out a red billiard ball. Benson made a grab at it, his face distorted with passion, but Theodore was too quick for him. In a flash he had unscrewed the ball, which was made in two halves, each half hollow, and had shaken out the ruby which lay snugly hidden within.

“Very ingenious, my friend,” said Sparrow quietly. “I understand now the meaning of your conjuring performance this evening. If a billiard ball was found in your pocket after showing your trick, it was easy to laugh it off and trust to luck to slip it back unobserved—as you slipped it into your overcoat pocket just now. Unfortunately for you it so happens that I myself placed the balls on the table when we first thought of a

game of pyramids or pool in which the ladies could join, and I knew the number of balls perfectly well. The ball which came out of your pocket during the mockery of a search was an extra one; and it lay on the table with the others for the rest of the evening. Yet just now, after your apparently idle fidgeting with the balls, that extra one had disappeared

. and naturally I guessed that in transferring it to your pocket you had taken your own property—probably a ball made to your own design; and moreover a very convenient hiding-place for a nice, fat ruby, eh?”

His victim said nothing, staring in stony anguish at the journalist’s impassive face, and I found myself wondering how the scene would end.

“Of course I knew the alarm of fire was the result of ventriloquism,” went on Sparrow calmly, “and it was easy enough to turn off the lights in the general confusion and steal the ruby. It puzzled me at first that you were quite willing to be searched with the others, but when I saw the ball I knew the truth at once.”

“You are a very clever detective,” said Benson, trying to infuse a sneer into his tone, though his voice shook pitiably.

“May I ask how you propose to act now?”

“I propose to put the ruby in the fireplace, on the top of the unlighted fire,” said Theodore quietly. “It is the only place no one thought of searching but I have been calculating that when Mrs. Tressider rose from her chair as the lights went up it was just possible for the ruby to fly from her lap on to the top of the sticks and things. Of course it is not in the least likely that such a thing would happen, and if I could think of a better plan I would, but time presses and it will have to do.”

“And then—the police, and all the rest?” Benson’s face looked haggard.

“Oh, the police are safe enough—I never rang them up at all, and was going to tell Mr. Tressider at the last moment that I wasn’t able to get on to them just then. . . but I don’t want to be hard on you, and if you’ll swear to drop out of the Tressider’s circle I’ll say nothing. One word, though. Why did you do it?”

“Why? Because I was a fool,” said Benson recklessly, “because I’ve lived by my wits so long that I’ve learned to underrate other people’s wits—because I can’t run straight now—the other thing is in my blood. But I’ll clear out, I swear it. I’ve a chance to leave England, and I’ll go. But” he hesitated, and for a moment he looked almost wistful—“but I ... .1 mean what I say when I tell you I’m—I’m grateful to you.”

Theodore brushed aside the words and slipping across to the fireplace laid the stone in place.

“But how will you ensure its discovery?”

“Easily—I’ll throw a lighted cigarette there in a minute and hasten to pick it up. Don’t you worry—and here’s Mr. Tressider. Keep cool, now, and get away as soon as possible.”

Mr. Tressider entered the room, frankly astonished to see us still there.

“Here you are! I was afraid I’d missed

you.

“No—we’re just going—at least Benson is in a hurry, but I’ve a word to say to Dick if you don’t mind, and Don here will wait for me.”

“Right. . . .1 must apologize once more to you, Mr. Benson,” said our host, shaking hands with the wretched young man. “But you must come again soon. . . my daughter wants to see some more of your conjuring tricks!”

“I fear I shall not be able to come again,” said Benson heavily. “Iam leaving England almost immediately, Mr. Tressider.” . , „ ,

“Really? Well, any time we shall be delighted to see you. Goodbye. Goodbye!”

He walked to the door with his departting guests; and, as he lighted the cigarette which was to be the means of the ruby’s discovery, Theodore turned to me with a smile.

“What did I tell you, Don?” he asked quietly. “All stupid criminals a, a caught out sooner or later. If our young friend had covered up his theft by returning one of the balls on the table to the basket over yonder when he had got the ruby, my calculations would have led me nowhere, and he’d have pocketed the ball again when he did the trick just now and gone home quietly with his booty. But that’s what I say—the ordinary criminal is an essentially stupid person.”

And in this instance, at least, I agreed with him.