The Hat Trick

Churchill Williams July 1 1907

The Hat Trick

Churchill Williams July 1 1907

The Hat Trick

Churchill Williams

in Scribner’s Magazine

MY name is George Cuthbert, and I am on the pay-roll of a large retail jewelry firm, though you would never guess that unless you had a daughter married, or celebrated your silver wedding, or something of that sort. Even then, when I presented myself at your house in frock coat or evening clothes you probably would pay me the compliment of momentarily doubting my introduction. For I do not look my part, and whatever success I have achieved is due partly to the offices of a good tailor, partly to an inheritance of gentle blood some way back in the family of which I am rather proud. Yet, for all that, I am a detective and my particular business it is to watch over wedding presents and the like while they are on display in your house.

A “near” detective, some of the facetious among my profession dub me, in derisive reference to the apparently passive nature of my duties and to the inexpertness as criminals of most of those against whom I pit myself. But, though my job usually calls for no greater physical exertion than holding down a chair in some inconspicuous corner or strolling among the well-dressed people and showing a casual interest in grandfather clocks, impracticable vases, silverware, crystal, and piles of painted china, I am always busy hearing and seeing things which I am not supposed to hear or see, and maybe, putting these together and pulling them apart again in an effort to keep myself from being fooled by my ears and eyes. For in my business there is nothing to be mistrusted more than those same obvious deductions by which the detective at large often fortifies the indications of circumstantial evidence. There is no person, as my experience shows, upon whose countenance guilt frequently is writ so large as the unthinking individual suddenly apprised of the fact that his or her innocent

examination of one of Mary’s wedding gifts is being watched by a strange man. And there is nothing easier than to mistake the wealthiest or most aristocratic old lady or gentleman for someone who has no right at all in such company, so seldom do the outward and visible signs of virtue agree with those of money or pedigree. My part it is to pick out the one and occasional offender from among the hundred habitually honest men and women—an offender, too, who presents to suspicious observation the very articles of identity, behavior, and dress which have just served as passport at the front door. Moreover, for me to make a single slip is fatal; no explanation explains, no apology atones for an error on my part, whether of omission or commission. And—but I think you will see that there are difficulties in my position, and that my post calls for something besides an acceptable presence and a cultivated appreciation of luxurious surroundings and pretty girls.

Of what I accomplish—ah! there’s the rub ! There is relatively little that is spectacular in my part; the newspapers are the last places in the world where anything about me must appear. And negative evidence, as I have learned, is not always convincing. Perhaps, then, as it will do no harm, I cannot better illustrate what sometimes falls my way than tell you of the wedding at the Anthony Tromwells, and of the problem I was there called on to settle—all within an hour and with no chance to get at the primary facts except through hearsay.

Tromwell wasn’t his name, but it will do as well as any other for the banker whose daughter had been married that evening at six o’clock, and whose wedding reception filled the big house on the avenue. There had been plenty of toasting and fun-making, and it was after ten o’clock when the last carriage rolled away and the

older members of the two families, eight in all, picked their way across the flower and rice strewn hall to the small breakfast room in the rear, where a table awaited them with the butler in attendance. From my post in a room near the head of the first landing I faintly heard them joking about their weariness, then an intervening door was closed, and the house was quiet except for the movements and whispered gossip of the maids straightening up the rooms about me.

It was my lazy hour, and, with eyes half closed, I was enjoying the prospect of one of Mr. Tromwell’s excellent cigars, when the electric lights about me lost their incandescence and the room was in darkness. Instantly I rose to my feet and moved to the doorway, standing across its threshold and blocking entrance to the room. Looking through a window, I noted that the street lamps, too, had failed showing that the loss of light was accidental. Still, I remained in the doorway. But nothing happened, and, when, after half a minute, the lamps flashed up again, I was the only one in the room and a long look at the tables made me sure that none of the gifts had been disturbed. I returned to my chair, and fifteen minutes, perhaps, had passed when I heard a door below sharply opened and my own name called by Mr. Tromwell. His voice was very even, obviously restrained in view of the fact that he was calling me himself when servants were plenty ; and I was at the head of the stairs almost at once.. He stood in the doorway of the breakfast room and beckoned me to come down. I did so, wondering and just a bit apprehensive of what champagne and the spirit of the evening might have suggested to him as a joke. But it was no joke; that I saw immediately I entered the room.

It was a square room of moderate size, and lighted with softly shaded incandescent globes. In its centre was a round table of mahogany, now bare of cloth, and on this were a partly demolished plateau of • fruit with plates of nuts, wine glasses, a flagon of Burgundy, and a flask of cordial.

The chairs about the table had been pushed back. Five of them were still occupied by ladies, among whom I recognized Mrs. Tromwell. Three chairs were empty, and for these Mr. Tromwell and two elderly men who stood back of them accounted.

Mr. Tromwell had closed the door behind him, locking it as my ears informed me, and now came forward. “This is Mr. Cuthbert,” he said to the rest, and went on, after an instant’s pause in which I noticed his throat working spasmodically: “Mr. Cuthbert, there has been an accident, a rather unusual accident, in a way. One of the ladies has lost a jewel—she believes, within the past twenty minutes. As we have all looked for it vainly, at my suggestion we have called you down. You see, it is—well, a very valuable jewel—a large ruby, and, I suppose we are all a little overstrained. Anyhow, we haven’t been able to find it, though we’ve hunted everywhere and done everything that suggested itself. Of course, it’s absurd—the ruby is somewhere in the room and we have overlooked it. The point is—it must be found. So we ask you to find it, if

you can, and-” he looked at me

significantly—“find it as quickly as possible.. There are reasons, you will understand, why none of us should leave this room until—that is why no one else should enter this room—a servant, for instance—until it is found. The ruby was missed a minute or so after the lights went out; Mrs. Campion is sure it was in her tiara a few minutes earlier. I had dismissed Treadwell, my butler, a little while before that, and I am absolutely sure, as are we all, that no one was in the room at the time except ourselves. I am sure of this, because an oil lamp burns in the hall and the pantry is lighted by gas, and while it was dark I happened to notice the streaks of light under both doors. Had

they been opened by anyoneBut

—well, that is all, except that you are to go ahead, do what you see fit, and ask whatever questions you wish. We are all agreed on that, I believe?” He

looked at the others, and I observed no sign of dissent.

But my own face, if expressive of my feelings, must have indicated a decided distaste for the task set me. In point of fact, the wish uppermost in my mind was that I had never seen the inside of Mr. Tromwell’s house; for already it was patent to me that the chances of my coming out of the experience with anything but discredit were about one to ten. Why did I feel that way? You will laugh at me, but it remains, so. From the moment Mr. Tromwell ceased speaking and I let my glance travel over his guests I was pretty sure of one thing. The ruby had not been lost; it had been stolen, and stolen by somebody still in the room. This extraordinary suggestion which may have been born, in my own case, of the atmosphere of tense nerves and the despatch with which I was summoned to the room, I distinctly perceived reflected in the faces of those about me. Just how this expressed itself so definitely I cannot say, but it was there. These people were uneasy; they avoided looking at one another. It was plain they shared a common suspicion, to which not one of them would give name or direction, and yet each instinctively knew that he was suspected by the rest. But at me they did look, and it was that which warned me of danger ahead. I had been brought down to try to find the ruby. It was my business to find it. I must ask questions to do so. They foresaw that. Of what else I would do they had a very hazy, but very uncomfortable apprehension. And because of this and of what might result, already they were putting themselves in an attitude of defence—of defiance. Under such circumstances it was plain that I could expect but very little help from them. Also—and this is what concerned me personally the most—it was perfectly plain that, whether or not I found the ruby, I would probably earn their everlasting illwill in trying to find it. If I failed to find it, each of them would continue to suspect the others and blame me for the suspicion. If I fixed upon the

thief I would be held responsible for putting the brand upon one to whom they were bound by ties of blood and affection.

It was too late for me to retreat, and inaction would do me no good. The best I could do was to go ahead and play for time; perhaps circumstance might accomplish for me what I balked at doing myself. So, because it was obviously the first move (though it was to be an empty performance, as, I believe, they also foresaw), I asked them all to move to the end of the room while I made a search. The result of twenty minutes of this sort of thing, in which I twice went over every square inch of the floor, as well as the table and chairs, was only to tighten the nerves of us all and bring the crisis closer ; and, as I straightened up and pretended to be busy picking a bit of fluff from my trousers, I felt rather than heard the intake of breath with which my watchers prepared themselves against what they anticipated would be my next move.

But for any suggestion of a search of their persons I was no more ready than I was inclined and that is saying that I refused to consider it even privately. Before I did that—well, I was prepared to do a good many other things. So I asked them separately to tell me what they could remember of the few minutes immediately preceding and following the discovery of the jewel’s loss; and I gave them the idea that the fact that a hitor-miss hunt had failed only showed that the search must be gone at more systematically.

What I learned from their answers, however, did not help me much. They were alike sure that the ruby had been in Mrs. Campion’s tiara, and that it was missed a few minutes after the lights had flashed up again. Also thev were certain that no one but themselves had been in the room during the interval. Most of the rest of what they said I was convinced was borrowed of their wishes, or colored by their individual temperaments.

Mrs. Campion, a stout, elderly and, except for her rings and the tiara,

rather severely dressed lady, whose extreme pallor was accented by two bright spots at the cheek bones, contributed the only suggestive information. When the lights went out, she said, she was leaning forward and slightly toward a Mr. Crane, who sat on her left. Startled at the sudden darkness, she had straightened up and dropped both hands upon the arms of her chair; an instant afterward, she thought, she felt a slight tug at her hair, but to this, at the time, she had paid no attention. Indeed, she hastened to add, she had not recalled the impression until the present moment.

I had questioned Mrs. Campion the last of all, and I had purposely avoided showing any interest in the tiara to which the ruby had been attached. But her mention of that tug at her hair made it unwise, if not impracticable, for me to do so any longer. I asked to be allowed to examine the tiara. The moment it was in my hand the absurdity of the theory that the jewel had been accidently shaken loose became too plain to be entertained even for the temporary ease of mind of the party. The ornament was somewhat oddly fashioned. It was of finely wrought gold and supported two slendor sprays of diamonds of moderate size but excellent value. Between these the ruby had swung in a stout arch of gold by a thin, gold, split ring; and this ring, luckily, still remained in place. But now it was split in two places—once where the jeweller had opened and closed it to fasten the setting of the jewel in position, again where it was severed, as if by some edge not overly sharp which had sheared through it unevenly, leaving a gap of perhaps a sixteenth of an inch.

So much I took in at a glance, and it did not particularly surprise me. Nor do I think a muscle quivered in my face. At least, there was nothing in my voice which would have encouraged those about me to think that the tiara had revealed anything. Nevertheless, it was very much in my mind to wish I could inspect the pocket knives in the room, and particularly those pocket knives which

might be fitted with nail scissors, if stout ones. That, however, being out of the question just yet, I turned once more to the room, and, with what had just been told me, reconstructed for myself a picture of the party around the table as it must have loôked at the moment the lights went out.

The room had but two windows, which, as I had assured myself, were locked on the inside. I therefore dismissed finally from my mind the idea that the ruby had been stolen by someone not now in the room. A massive sideboard, a serving table behind a shoulder-high, three-fold, leather screen in one corner, and the dining table, with the chairs, were its only furniture. The table, now pushed back, had stood in the centre of the room. Mr. Tromwell had sat with his back toward the door into the hallway; Mrs. Tromwell, with her back toward the only other door, which was partly behind the screen and opened into the pantry. On Mrs. Tromwell's right had sat a Mr. Crane, the father of the bridegroom; and at his right hand had been seated Mrs. Campion. It was toward this Mr. Crane that Mrs. Campion said she had been turned when the lights went out ; and it was Mr. Crane who specially interested me at this moment. For, other things being equal, and so they appeared to be, it was the persons who had been seated on either side of Mrs. Campion during those few seconds of darkness who would have had the best, if not the only chance, of securing the ruby without attracting the attention of the rest of the table; and it was the person on Mrs. Campion's lift who would have been in a position to use his hight hand to most advantage in reaching around and above her shoulder in doing this. Decidedly there were reasons why Mr. Crane should interest me.

And yet, as I looked at the man, tall, grey-haired, sober-faced, perhaps sixty, and recalled his honorable career as a merchant and his rating in Bradstreet's, I was almost for laughing at myself. Thinkable motive in his case there was none, and every dictate of common sense, every

rule of life, should have restrained him. If it had not been that these same conditions and precisely the same argument applied with equal force to each and every one of his fellowguests, I am sure I would have eliminated Mr. Crane from the calculation without a further thought.

As it was, in a sort of stubborn rebellion against the logic of the situation, and with no thought save to stave off a little longer the confession of my failure which seemed inevitable, I knelt once more at the spot where Mrs. Campion had sat, pretending to examine the floor. And then it was that I chanced upon my first real clue.

I was bending down, one hand resting on the table, my eyes lowered, when my fingers encountered something hard and metallic on the mahogany surface. It had an unfamiliar feel, and, as I rose, I casually glanced at it. It was a pair of grape-scissors, silver mounted, and, for an instant, my grasp loosened. Then a remembrance of that severed link of gold in the tiara leaped to my mind, and I covered the scissors, and presently walked over to the screen, on the excuse of looking at the door to the pantry. Under an electric light over the serving table, unobserved, I examined the scissors; and on the cutting edge of one of the blades, near its end, I found a tiny flake of color, scarcely more than a stain, yet unmistakably a particle of gold. At the first touch it was brushed from the steel, drifted to the floor, and was lost. But I had seen it. That was enough for me just then.

I had found the scissors lying in front of where Mr. Crane had been seated; but that might mean much or nothing at all ; for whatever was on the table doubtless had been moved many times in the last three-quarters of an hour. Therefore, I dismissed the connection from my mind and tried to hit upon a plan by which I could make use of what seemed sure —that the scissors had been used by the thief. But here I was confronted by the same difficulty which had hampered me all along. To disclose

what I had just found was to declare my belief in a theft—and that was not to be considered. I came from behind the screen almost ready to acknowledge that I could not find the jewel, and to make my apologies and retreat as quickly as possible.

They were all looking at me, the same anxious question in their faces, and I was trying for the words which should release me when my glance wandered from Mr. Tromwell, who stood at the end of the table, to the lady who sat next to him. She had been leaning back in the chair, but now her head was craned forward, and I saw her eyes widen as, for an instant, they fixed themselves, not upon my face, but, apparently, upon my right hand, which hung by my side. Then, with a wrench which I could not miss, she controlled herself and smiled faintly, as she looked up at her host.

For a moment afterward I was motionless ; and, to be quite frank, what I did then was prompted rather by impulse than by reason, though afterward it was plain enough to me. But, whatever its inspiration, the move was effective. I walked down the room, and, as I came close to the table, paused and laid my closed hand upon it. When I lifted it the scissors lay before the woman who had been staring at them. It was done with all the caielessness I could assume, and, I dare say, no one but she noticed that I had done it at all, or that the scissors lay there.

But she noticed it; and she knew I had deliberately done it, and that the scissors Were intended to carry a message to her. Her back was toward me, but her face would have served me scarcely better ; for the struggle between fright and the effort to restrain it was palpable in the convulsive movement of her head and shoulders. I have seen a good many frightened people, but this was a palsy which made me forget everything else for the moment in my pity for her, and dread lest others should observe it. Partly to cover her misery, partly to give her wits the chance to help her out of the straits she was in,

as I hoped they would, I stepped back and turned on Mr. Tromwell with a question. “Is Mrs. Campion absolutely certain that the ruby is not caught in some fold of her gown?” I asked. “The longer I think of it,” I added, “the more likely it seems to me that that is where it is, after all.”

Mrs. Campion spoke up for herself promptly. She was very certain the ruby was not where I suggested. She called my attention to the fact that her gown was close-fitting to the neck and almost without lace or loose trimming. The other ladies who had aided her in the examination of her gown and hair were equally positive that the jewel was not concealed there.

“Then,” I said, “it seems to me that almost surely it must still be caught in some fold of the clothing of those who sat next to her. It is certainly not on the floor. And what is left? The sideboard—the ceiling— the walls? Those are hardly likely places-”

Mr. Crane contriving a laugh which was altogether miserable, interrupted me. “I never knew it before,” he said ; “but I am beginning to wonder if, after all’ I am not, unknown to myself, a magician in disguise; or perhaps my alter ego was at work while we sat there in the dark and got in his fine hand with that ruby. Who knows ? I don’t. At any rate, I insist on the point being settled, and right now. I want to be searched and searched thoroughly—by an expert. Mr. Cuthbert-”

He had spoken with an effort, for all the lightness of his tone, and his words came slowly. But for my part I had hardly heard them; for every sense had been busy with something going on back of him, back of all of them but the woman whom I pitied. She had risen from her chair as I made my last suggestion to Mr. Tromwell, and moved toward the end of the room. It was as if she was going to speak to her hostess, and, at first, I thought this was her intention. But in front of the sideboard she paused, and I saw her hand outreached. Then she tilted her head a little, and I caught a glimpse of a glass raised to

her lips. The light struck out flashes of deep red from the facets of its cutting. And on the instant I knew where the ruby had been and—where it was now. There were seven glasses on the table—three of them with a remnant of wine still in them ; four of them partly emptied of the almost colorless liqueur they had held. But at the place on Mrs. Campion’s right there was no glass of any kind, though a tiny red stain there showed where one had been. In that glass, concealed by the wine, the ruby must have rested while we searched. And now —now it had just passed from the glass to the mouth of the woman who had been seated there.

My pity for the woman almost changed to disgust as I realized this; for with twenty chances to drop the jewel on the floor so that I might pick it up and declare it found, she had done, it seemed, the one thing which made it most difficult to avoid complicating her. And yet, almost as quickly, I understood why she had done it. The theft of the ruby had been the act of an impulse ; the temptation to secure what in her eyes was one of the most beautiful and desirable things in the world had carried away her senses. Her person, glittering with diamonds, advertised her ruling passion; and splendid as these jewels of hers were, none of them, from what I know of rubies, was probably anything like as valuable as the stone which had been in Mrs. Campion’s tiara. Of that splendid stone she probably had been envious for a long time. Of it she had been thinking when suddenly the lights went out,

andShe had come to her senses

when it was too late, and, in her extremity, her wits had deserted her. To her there had not seemed to be any way out; and the sight of those scissors and my aimless mention of the sideboard had turned her fright to blind desperation. Now-Curious-

ly enough the thing which I said to myself at this point was: “You drove her to that move ; she’s gone to pieces ; you’ve got to help her out.”

But Mr. Crane had walked around the table, and evidently expected me

to carry out his demand to be cleared. “It’s the first time, Mr. Cuthbert,” he said, “that you’ve been called on to expose a magician, I suppose?”

I fell in with his spirit of jocularity. “The very first time,” I said. “It’s usually been the other way with me.

I am something of an amateur magician myself. Still I’ll try-”

So suddenly that, when I recovered myself, it was to see them staring at me, I checked myself there, smitten with an idea which, for all its grotesqueness, was an inspiration. And, more slowly I repeated: “Of course, I’ll try what I can do. That is, if you’ll let me do it my own way,” I added.

“By all means,” Mr. Crane returned. “I’m at your service. Begin.”

“Very well,” I said. “But not with you. With Mr. Tromwell, if he is willing.”

Mr. Tromwell’s brows came together. “I don’t quite understand this, Mr. Cuthbert,” he said; “but— if—if-”

“It may not amount to anything,” I put in quickly. “But it may be— At any rate, have I your permission to go ahead?”

He nodded, and I did not wait for the warning which I saw was almost on his lips. “One moment,” I explained, and, unlocking the door, passed into the hall. On a table there were several silk hats. I picked up one and returned to the room. At the far end I took my stand.

“If you please,” I said, “this trick you have all doubtless seen before, but never done in just the way I do it. It is a variation of my own, and it requires the assistance of everyone in the room. I have named it ‘The Recovery of the Lost Ruby.’ Mr. Tromwell, will you kindly go behind that screen at the other end of the room and remain there till I call you. When I do call, you are to come out with your right hand clenched tightly and held at the full length of your arm in front of you. Then walk straight to me, put your hand down into this hat until it almost touches the bottom, and open it. Afterward, please take your stand over there by the door.

And, remember, if the thing is to be successful, not a word must be spoken by anyone while the trick is in progress. Now, if you please!”

Mr. Tromwell walked behind the screen! I snatched two napkins from the table and, dropping one into the bottom of the hat, covered its upturned brim with the other, completely concealing its interior. Then, at my call, Mr. Tromwell came out, and, thrusting his hand beneath the enveloping napkin, did as directed. Mr. Crane came next; the ladies followed. There was some little smothered laughing, but the strain was still upon the party.

I had kept my gaze upon the face of each one as he or she advanced toward me with outsretched hand, and so when, at last, it was the turn of the woman with the diamonds, for a moment I held her eyes. They faltered and she was very pale, but in them was a question ; and in mine, I believe, she read the answer she wanted. At any rate, there was at her lips, as she slid her hand beneath the napkin, a quivering twitch which warned me, if I would save her, to be quick.

As she turned away, I laid the hat, still covered with the napkin, upon the table. “In all legerdemain,” I said, “the odd factor must be in the magician’s favor. It is that which enables him to win. So it must be in this experiment. I have hunted for the missing jewel, perhaps, more thoroughly than any of you. I have had my opportunity to find it; and with this opportunity my—temptations. Who

knows but what I did find it—upon the floor or—somewhere, and now have it? That chance you must allow to remain a—chance. But this is the trick of ‘The Recovery of the Lost Ruby.’ So-”

I slipped my clenched right hand into the hat and brought it out swiftly. The hat I overturned upon the table and drew away .the napkins.

There was an instant’s silence and the craning forward of heads; then a gasp of astonishment, an applauding laugh from the men, and from the women a little cry of delight—from all but one woman.