The STRANGE ADVENTURE of a RIALTO RAIN-STORM
Author of "The Prairie Wife," "The Hand of Peril." etc.
I LIFTED my face to the sudden pelt of the rainshower, feeling very much like a second edition of King Lear as I did so. Not that I had lost a kingdom, or that I’d even been turned out of an ungrateful home-circle! But something quite as disturbing, in its own small way, had overtaken me.
I had been snubbed by Mary Lockwood. While I stood watching that sudden shower empty upper Broadway as quickly as a fusillade of bullets might have emptied it, I encountered something which quite as promptly emptied my own heart. It was the cut direct. For as I crouched back under my dripping portico, like a toad under a rhubarb-leaf, I caught sight of the only too familiar wine-colored landaulet as it swung about into Longacre Square. I must have started forward a little, without being quite conscious of the movement. And through the sheltering plate-glass of the dripping hood I caught sight of Mary Lockwood herself.
She saw me at the same time that I saw her. In fact, she turned and stared at me. I couldn’t have escaped her, as I stood there under the street-lamp. But no slightest sign of recognition came from that coldly inquiring face. She neither smiled nor bowed nor looked back. And the wine-colored landaulet swept on, leaving me standing there with my sodden hat in my hand and a great ache of desolation in my heart.
She must have seen me, I repeated as I turned disconsolately back and stood watching men and women still ducking under doorways and dodging into sidestreets and elbowing into theatre-lobbies. It seemed, during the next few moments, as though that territory once known as the Rialto were a gopher-village and some lupine hunger had invaded it. Before the searching muzzles of those rain-gusts all pleasure-seekers promptly vanished. Gaily cloaked and slippered women stampeded away as though they were made of sugar and they and their gracious curves might melt into nothing at the first touch of water. Above the sidewalk, twenty paces from the empty doorway where I loitered, an awning appeared, springing up like a mushroom from a wet meadow. In toward one end of this awning circled a chain of limousines and taxicabs, controlled by an impassive Hercules in dripping oil-skins. And as a carrier-belt empties grain into a mill-bin, so this unbroken chain ejected hurrying men and women across the wet curb into the lightspangled hopper of the theatre-foyer. And the thought of that theatre, with its companionable crush of humanity, began to appeal to my sodden and rainswept spirit.
Yet I stood there, undecided, watching the last of the scattering crowd, watching the street that still seemed an elongated bull ring where a matador or two still dodged the taurine charges of vehicles. I watched
the electric display signs that ran like liquid ivy about the shop fronts, and then climbed and fluttered above the roofs, misty and softened by rain. I watched the ironic heave n s pour their unabating floods down on that conges ted and overripe core of a city that no water could wash clean.
Then the desolation of the empty streets seemed to grow un be a rabie. The spray that blew in across my dampened knees made
me think of shelter, I saw the lights of the theatre no more than twenty paces away. It was already a warren of crowded life. The thought of even what diluted companionship it might offer me continued to carry an appeal that became more and more clamorous.
A moment later I stood before its box-office window no wider than a mediaeval leper-squint, from which cramped and hungry souls buy access to their modern temples of wonder.
“Standing room only,” announced the autocrat of the wicket. And I meekly purchased my admissionticket, remembering that the head usher of that particular theatre had in the past done me more than one slight service.
Yet the face of this haughtily obsequious head usher, as his hand met mine in that free-masonry which is perpetuated by certain silk-threaded scraps of oblong paper, was troubled.
“I haven’t a thing left,” he whispered.
I peered disconsolately about that sea of heads seeking life through the clumsy lattice of polite melodrama.
“Unless,” added the usher at my elbow, “you’H take a seat in that second lower box?”
Even through the baize doors behind me I could hear the beat and patter of the rain. It was a case of any port in a storm.
“That will do nicely,” I told him and a moment later he was leading me down a side aisle into the curtained recess of the box entrance.
Yet it was not ordained that I should occupy that box in lonely and unrivaled splendor. One of its chairs, set close to the brass rail and plush-covered parapet that barred it off from the more protuberant stage box, was already occupied by a man in full evening dress. He, like myself, perhaps, had never before shared a box with other than his own acquaintances. At any rate, before favoring me with the somewhat limited breadth of his back, he turned on me one sidelong and unmistakably resentful stare.
YET I looked at this neighbor of mine, as I seated myself, with more interest than I looked at the play-actors across the footlights, for I rather preferred life in the raw to life in the syrups of stage emotionalism.
It startled me a little to find that the man, at the moment, was equally oblivious of anything taking place on the stage. His eyes, in fact, seemed fixed on the snowy white shoulders of the woman who sat at the back of the stage box directly in front of him. As I followed the direction of his gaze I was further surprised to discover the object on which it was focused. He was staring, not at the woman herself, but at a pigeon-blood ruby set in the clasp of some pendant or necklace encircling her throat.
There was, indeed, some excuse for his staring at
it. In the first place it was an extraordinarily large and vivid stone. But against the background where it lay» against the snow-white column of the heck (whitened, perhaps, by a prudent application of rice powder) it stood out in limpid ruddiness, the most vivid of fire against the purest of snow. It was a challenge to attention. It caught and held the eye. It stood there, just below where the hair billowed into its crown of Venetian gold, as semaphoric as a yard-lamp to a night traveler. And I wondered, as I sat looking at it, what element beyond curiosity could coerce the man at my side into studying it so indolently and yet so intently.
About the man himself there seemed little that was exceptional. Beyond a certain quick and shrewd alertness in his eye movements as he looked about at me from time to time with a muffled resentment which I found not all to my liking, he seemed medium in everything, in coloring, in stature, in apparel. His face was of the neutral sallowness of the sedentary New Yorker. His intelligence seemed that of the pre-occupied office-worker who could worm his way into an ill-fitting dress suit and placidly approve of secondrate melodrama. He seemed so without interest, in fact, that I was not averse to directing my glance once more toward the pigeon-blood ruby which glowed like a live coal against the marble whiteness of the neck in front of me.
TT may have been mere accident, or it may have been A that out of our united gaze arose some vague psyehic force which disturbed this young woman. For as I sat there staring at the shimmering jewel, its wearer suddenly turned her head and glanced back at me. The next moment I was conscious of her nod and smile, unmistakably in my direction.
Then I saw who it was. I had been uncouthly staring at the shoulderblades of Alice Churchill—they were the Park Avenue Churchills—and further back in the box I caught a glimpse of her brother Benny, who had come North, I knew, from the Nicaraguan coast to recuperate from an attack of fever.
Yet I gave little thought to either of them, I must confess. At the same time that I had seen that momentarily flashing smile I had also discovered that the jeweled clasp on the girl’s neck was holding in place a single string of graduated pearls, of very lovely pearls, the kind about which the frayed-cuff garretauthor and the Sunday “yellows” forever love to romance. I was also not unconscious of the quick and covert glance of the man who sat so close to me.
Then I let my glance wander back to the ruby, apparently content to study its perfect cutting and its unmatchable coloring. And I knew that the man beside me was also sharing in that spectacle. I was, in fact, still staring at it, so unconscious of the movement of the play on the stage that the “dark scene,” when every light in the house went out for a second or two, came to me with a distinct sense of shock.
A murmur of approval went through the house as the returning light revealed to them a completely metamorphosed stage-setting. What this setting was I did not know, nor did I look up to see. For as my idly inquisitive glance once more focused itself on the columnar white neck that towered above the chairback a second and greater shock came to me. Had that neck stood there without a head I could have been scarcely more startled.
THE pigeon-blood ruby was gone. There was no longer any necklace there. The column of snow was without its touch of ruddy light. It was left as disturbingly bare as a target without its bull’s-eye. It reminded me of a marble grate without its central point of fire.
My first definite thought was that I was the witness of a crime as audacious as it was bewildering. Yet, on second thought, it was simple enough. The problem of proximity had already been solved. With the utter darkness had come the opportunity, the opportunity that obvio¿riy had been watched for. With one movement of the hand the n. ;-ïdace had been quietly and cunningly removed.
My next quick thought was that the thief sat there
in tny immediate neighborhood. There could be no other. There was no room for doubt. By some mysterious and dexterous movement the man beside me had reached forward and with that delicacy of touch born of much experience had unclasped the jewels, all the time shrouded by the utter darkness. The audacity of the thing was astounding, yet the completeness with which it had succeeded was even more astounding.
I sat there compelling myself to a calmness which was not easy to achieve. I struggled to make my scrutiny of this strange companion of mine as quiet and leisured as possible.
Yet he seemed to feel that he was still under my eye. He seemed to chafe at that continued survey; for even as I studied him I could see a fine sweat of embarrassment come out on his face. He did not turn and look at me directly, but it was plain that he was only too conscious of my presence. And even before I quite realized that he was about, he reached quietly over, and taking up his hat and coat, rose to his feet and Slipped out of the box.
That movement on his part swept away my last shred of hesitation. The sheer precipitancy of his flight was proof enough of his offence. His obvious effort to escape made me more than ever determined to keep on his trail.
And keep on his trail I did, from the moment he sidled guiltily out of that lighted theatre foyer into the still drizzling rain of Broadway. Stronger and ever stronger waves of indignation kept sweeping through me as I watched him skulk northward, with a furtive glance over his shoulder as he fled.
HE was a good two hundred feet ahead of me when I saw him suddenly veer about and dodge into a doorway. I promptly threw decorum away and ran, ran like a rabbit, until I came to that doorway. I saw, as I passed through it, that it was nothing more than the Broadway entrance to the Hotel Knickerbocker. Complex and intricate as the paths of that crowded lair of life might be, I felt that under the circumstances he would not remain within its walls. And I was right in this, for as I stepped into its pillared rotunda I caught sight of my quarry hurrying out through one of the doors that opened on Fortysecond Street.
I gained the open just in time to see him dodging down into the kiosk of a subway entrance. J3e was through the gate before I could catch up with him. I had no time to turn back and buy a ticket, for guards were already slamming shut the doors of a south-bound “local.”
“Buy rae a ticket,” I called to the astonished “chopper” as I tossed a dollar bill over the arm which he thrust out to stop me. I did not wait to argue it out, for the car door in front of me was already beginning to close. I had just time to catapult my body in between that sliding door and its steel frame.
I knew, as I caught my breath again, that I was on the platform of the car behind the jewel thief.
And I stood there, carefully scrutinizing the line of car doors as we pulled into the Grand Central station. I did the same as we passed Thirty-third Street and the same again at Twenty-eighth Street. The man had given no sign that he actually knew I was on his track. He might or might not have seen me. As to that I had no means of being certain. But I was certain of the fact that he was making off in a panic of indeterminate fear, that he was doing his utmost to evade pursuit.
This came doubly home to me as the train stopped at Twenty-third Street, and I saw him step quickly out of the far end of the car, look about him, and dart across the station platform and up the stairway two steps at a time.
I was after him, even more hurriedly. By the time I reached the street he was swinging up on the step of a cross-town surface car.
To catch that car was out of the
question, but I waited a moment and swung aboard the one that followed it, thirty yards in the rear. Peering ahead, I could plainly see him as he dropped from this car on the northeast corner of Sixth Avenue. I could see him as he hurried up the steps of the Elevated, crossed the platform, and without so much as buying a ticket, hurried down the southeast flight of steps.
I had closed in on him by this time, so that we were within a biscuit toss of each other. Yet never once did he look about. He was now doubling on his tracks, walking rapidly eastward along Twenty-third Street. I was close behind him as he crossed Broadway, turning south, and then suddenly tacking about, entered the Bartholdi Hotel. There he exactly repeated his manœuvre of the Knickerbocker, circling around to the hotel’s side entrance on Twenty-third Street.
EVEN as he emerged into the open again he must have seen the antediluvian night-hawk cab waiting there at the curb. What his directions to the driver were I had no means of knowing. But as that dripping and water-proofed individual brought his whip lash down on his steaming horse a door slammed shut in my face. Once more I so far forgot my dignity as to dodge and run like a rabbit, this time to the other side of the cab as it swung briskly northward. One twist and pull threw the cab door open and I' tumbled in—tumbled in to see my white-faced and frightened jewel-thief determinedly and frenziedly holding down the handle of the opposite door.
His face went ashen as I came sprawling and lurching against him. He would have leaped bodily from the carriage, which was now swinging up an all but deserted Fifth Avenue, only I caught and held him there with a grimness born of repeated exasperation.
He showed no intention of meekly submitting to that detaining grasp. Seeing that he was finally cornered, he turned on me and fought like a rat. His
strength, for one of his weight, was surprising. Much more surprising, however, was his ferocity. And it was a strange struggle, there in the half light of that musty and many-odored night-hawk cab. There seemed something subterranean about it, as though it were a battle at the bottom of a well. And but for one thing, I imagine, it would not, for me, have been a pleasant encounter. It’s a marvelous thing, however, to know that you have Right on your side. The panoply of Justice is as fortifying as any chain armor ever made.
And I knew, as we fought like two wharf rats under a pier-end, that I was right. I knew that my cause was the cause of law and order. That knowledge gave me both a strength and a boldness which carried me through, even when I saw my writhing and desperate thief groping and grasping for his hip pocket, even when I saw him draw from it a magazine revolver that looked quite ugly enough to stampede a regiment. And as that sodden-leathered night-hawk went placidly rolling up Fifth Avenue we twisted and panted and grunted on its floor as though it were a mail-coach in the Sierras of sixty years ago, fighting for the possession of that ugly firearm.
How I got it away from him I never quite knew. But when I came to my senses I had him on the cab floor and my knee on his chest, with his body bent up like a letter “U.” I held him there while I went through his pockets, quietly, deliberately, one by one, with all the care of a customs inspector going through a suspected smuggler.
HAD no time to look over his wallet (which I remembered as being as big as a brief-bag) or his papers, nor had I time to make sure how much of the jewelry he wore might be his own. The one thing I wanted was the pearl necklace with the pigeon-blood ruby. And this necklace I found, carefully wrapped in a silk handkerchief tucked down in his right-hand waistcoat pocket—which, by the way, was provided with a buttoned flap to make it doubly secure.
I looked over the necklace to make sure there could be no mistake. Then I again wrapped it up in the silk handkerchief and thrust it well down in my own waistcoat pocket.
“Get up!” I. told the man on the cab floor.
I noticed, as I removed my knee from his chest, what a sorry condition his shirt-front was in and how his tie had been twisted around under his ear. He lay back against the musty cushions, breathing hard and staring at me out of eyes that were by no means kindly.
“You couldn’t work it!” I said, as 1 pocketed the revolver, and having readjusted my own tie, buttoned my overcoat across a sadly crumpled shirt front. Then for the first time the thief spoke.
“D’you know what this’ll cost you?” he cried, white to the lips.
“That’s not worrying me,” was my calm retort “I got what I came after.”
He sat forward in his seat with a face that looked foolishly threatening. ,
“Don’t imagine you can get away with that,” he declared. I could afford to smile at his impotent fury.
“Just watch me!” I told him. Then I added more soberly, with my hand on the door knob: “And if you interfere with me after I leave this cab, if you so much as try to come within ten yards of me to-night, I’ll give you what’s coming to you.”
I opened the door as I spoke, and dropped easily from the still moving cab to the pavement. I stood there for a moment, watching its placid driver as he went on up the Avenue. The glass-win do wed door still swung open, swaying back and forth like a hand slowly waving me good-bye.
Then I looked at my watch, crossed to the University Club, jumped into a waiting taxi, and dodged back to the theatre, somewhat sore in body but rather weH satisfied in mind.
Continued on page 63
Continued f rom page 33
\ PECULIAR feeling of superiority possessed me, as I presented my door-check and was once more ushered back to my emutv box. Durin”the last hour and a half that pit full of languideyed people had been witnessing a tawdry imitation of adventure. They had been swrallowung a capsule of imitation romance, while I, betw’een the time of leaving and re-entering that garishly lighted foyer, had revelled in adventure at first hand, had taken chances and faced dangers and righted a great wrong. , ,,
T felt inarticulately proud of myself as I watched the final curtain come down. This pride became a feeling of elation as I directed my glance toward Alice Churchill, who had risen in the box in front of mine, and was again showering on me the warmth of her friendly smile. I knew I w’as still destined to be the god from the machine. It was plain that she was still unconscious of her loss.
I stopped her and her hollow-cheeked brother on their way out, surprising them a little, I suppose, by the unlookedfor cordiality of my greeting.
“Can’t you two children take a bite with me at Sherry’s?” I amiably suggested. I could see brother and sister exchange glances.
“Benny oughtn’t to be out late, she demurred.
“But I’ve something rather important to talk over,” J pleaded.
And Benny mould like to get a glimpse at Sherry’s again,” interposed the thincheeked youth just back from the wilds, ^nd without more ado I bundled them into a taxi and carried them oti with me, wondering just what would be the best way of bringing up the subject in hand.
I found it much harder, in fact, than I had expected. And I was, as time went on, more and more adverse to betraying my position, to descending mildly from my pinnacle of superiority, to burning my little pinwheel of power. I was like a puppy with its first buried bone. I knew’ w’hat I carried so carefully wrapped up in my waistcoat pocket. I rememb€?r6ci liow it Had come thsic, cind during that quiet supper hour I was inordinately proud of myself.
I sat looking at the girl w'ith her towering crown of reddish-gold hair. She, in turn, was gazing at her own foolishly distorted reflection in the polished bowl of the chafing-dish from which I had just served her with capon a la reine. She sat there gazing at her reflected face, gazing at it with a sort of studious yet impersonal intentness. Then I saw' her suddenly lean forward in her chair, still looking at the grotesque image of herself in the polished . silver. I could not help noticing her j quickly altering expression, the inaiticulate gasp of her parted lips, the hand that went suddenly up to her throat. I saw the fingers feel around the base of the compactly slender neck, and the momentary look of stupor that once more swept over her face.
She ate a mouthful of capon, studiously, without speaking. Then she looked up at us again. It was then that her brother Benny for the first time noticed her change of color.
“What’s wrong?” he demanded, his thin young face touched suddenly with anxiety.
The girl, when she answered him. spoke very quietly. But I could see what a struggle it was costing her.
“Now, Benny, I don’t want any fuss, ’
she said, almost under her breath. “I don’t want either of you to get excited, for it can’t do a bit of good. But my necklace is gone.”
“Gone?” gasped Benny. “It can’t be!” “It’s gone,” she repeated, with her vacant eyes on me as her brother prodded and felt about her skirt, and then shook out her crumpled opera cloak.
“Does this happen to be it?” I asked, with all the nonchalance at my command. Andf as I spoke I unwrapped the string of pearls with the pigeon-blood ruby and let them roll on the white damask that lay between us.
SHE looked at them without moving, her eyes wide with wonder. I could see the color come back into her face. It was quite reward enough to witness the relieving warmth returned to those widened eyes, to bask in that lovely and liquid glance of gratitude.
“How,” she began a little weakly, as she reached over and took them up in her fingers, “how did you get them?” “You lost them in the theatre-box during the first act.” I told her. Her brother Benny wiped his forehead.
“And it’s up to a woman to drop forty thousand dollars and never know it,” he cried.
I watched her as she turned them over in her hands. Then she suddenly looked up at me, then down at the jewels, then up at me again.
“This is not my necklace,” were the astonishing words that I heard fall from her lips. I knew, of course, that she was mistaken.
“Oh, yes, it is,” I quietly assured her. She shook her head in negation, still staring at me.
“What makes you think so?” she said. “I don’t think it, I know it,” was my response. “Those aren’t the sort of stones that grow on every bush in this town.”
She was once more studying the necklace. And once more she shook her head.
“But I am left-handed,” she was explaining, as she still looked down at them, “and I had my clasp, here on the ruby at the back, made that way. This clasp is right-handed. Don’t you see, it’s on the wrong side.”
“But you’ve only got the thing upside down,” cried her brother. And I must confess that a disagreeable feeling began to manifest itself in the pit of my stomach as he moved closer beside her and tried to reverse the necklacé so that the clasp would stand a left-handed one.
He twisted and turned it fruitlessly for several moments.
“Isn’t that the limit?” he finally murmured, sinking back in his chair and regarding me with puzzled eyes. The girl, too, was once more studying my face, as though my movement represented a form of uncouth jocularity which she could not quite comprehend.
“What’s the answer, anyway?” asked the mystified youth.
BUT his bewilderment was as nothing compared to mine. I reached over for the string of pearls with the ruby clasp. I took them and turned them over and over in my hands, weakly, mutely, as though they themselves might in some way solve an enigma which seemed inscrutable. And I had to confess that the whole thing was too much for me. I was still looking down at that lustrous row of pearls, so appealing to the eye in their absolute and perfect graduation, when I heard the younger man at my side call my name aloud.
“Kempton!” he said, not exactly in alarm and not precisely in anxiety, yet with a newer note that made me look up sharply.
As I did so I was conscious of the figure so close behind me, so near my chair that even while I had already felt his presence there, I had for the moment taken him for my scrupulously attentive waiter. But as I turned about and looked up at this figure I saw that I was mistaken. My glance fell on a wideshouldered and rather portly man with quiet and very deep-set gray eyes. What disturbed me even more than his presence there at my shoulder was the sense of power, of unparaded superiority, on that impassive yet undeniably intelligent face.
“I want to see you,” he said, with an unemotional matter-of-factness that in another would have verged on insolence.
“About what?” I demanded, trying to match his impassivity with my own.
He nodded toward the necklace in my hand.
“About that,” he replied.
“What about that?” I languidly inquired.
The portly man at my shoulder did not answer me. Instead he turned and nodded toward a second man, a man standing half a dozen paces behind him, in a damp overcoat and a sadly rumpled shirt front.
I felt my heart beat faster of a sudden, for it took no second glance to tell me that this second figure was the jewel thief whom I had trailed and cornered in the musty-smelling cab.
I felt the larger man’s sudden grip on my shoulder—and his hand seemed to have the strength of a vise—as the smaller man, still pale and dishevelled, stepped up to the table. His face was not a pleasant one.
Benny Churchill, whose solicitous eyes bent for a moment on his sister’s startled face, suddenly rose to his feet.
“Look here,” he said, with a quiet vigor of which I had not dreamedhim capable, “there’s not going to be any scene here.” He turned to the man at my shoulder. “I don’t know who you are, but I want you to remember there’s a lady at this table. Remember that, please, or I’ll be compelled to teach you how to !”
“Sit down!” I told him. “For heaven’s sake, sit down, all of you! There’s nothing to be gained by heroics. And if we’ve anything to say, we may as well say it decently.”
The two men exchanged glances as I ordered two chairs for them.
“Be so good,” I continued, motioning them 'toward these chairs. “And since we have a problem to discuss, there’s no reason wo can’t discuss it in a semicivilized manner.”
“It’s not a problem,” said the man at my shoulder, with something disagreeably like a sneer.
“Then let’s not make it one,” I protested.
npIIE man behind me was the first to drop into the empty seat on my left. The other man crossed to the farther side of the table, still watching me closely. Then he felt for the chair and slowly sank into it; but not once did he take his eyes from my face. I was glad that our circle had become a compact one, for the five of us were now ranged sufficiently close about the table to fence off our little white-linen Kingdom of dissension from the rest of the room.
“That man’s armed, remember!” the jewel thief suddenly cried to the stranger on my left. He spoke b th warningly and indignantly. His flash of anger, in fact, seemed an uncontrollable one.
“Where’s your gun?” said the quieteyeo man at my side. His own hand was in his pocket, I noticed, and there was a certain malignant line of purpose about his mouth which I did not at all like.
Yet I was able to laugh a little as I put the magazine revolver down on the table; it had memories which were amusing.
The quick motion with which he removed that gun, however, was even more laughable. Yet my returning sense of humor in no way impressed him.
“Where’d you get that gun?” he inquired.
I nodded my head toward the whitefaced man opposite me.
‘T took it away from your friend there,” was my answer.
“And what else did ycu take?”
There was something impress’ve about the man’s sheer impersonality. It so kept things down to cases.
“This pearl necklace with the ruby clasp.” I answered.
“Why?” demanded my interlocutor.
“Because he stole it,” was my prompt retort. The big man was silent for a moment.
“From the lady you have the honor of facing,” I answered.
“Where?” was his next question.
I told him where. He was again silent for a second or two.
“D’you know who this man is?” he said, with a curt head-nod toward his white-faced colleague.
“Yes,” I answered.
“What is he?”
“He’s a jewel thief.”
nr HE two men stared at each other.
Then the man at my side rubbed his chin between a meditative thumb and forefinger. He was plainly puzzled. He began to take on human attributes, and he promptly became a less interesting and a less impressive figure. He looked at Alice Churchill and at her brother, and then back at me again.
Then, having once more absently caressed his chin, he swung around and faced the wondering and silent girl who sat opposite him.
“Excuse me, miss, but would you mind answering a question or two?”
It was her brother who spoke before she had time to answer.
“Wait,” he interposed. “Just who are you. anyway?”
The man, for answer, lifted the lapel of his coat and exhibited a silver badge.
“Well, what does that mean?” demanded the quite unimpressed youth. “That I’m an officer.”
“What kind—a detective?”
“For what? For this place?”
“No, for the Maiden Lane Protective Association.”
“Well, what’s that got to do with us?” The large-bodied man looked at him a little impatiently.
“You’ll understand that when the time comes,” was his retort. “Now, young lady,” he began again, swinging back to the puzzzled girl, “do you say you lost a necklace in that theatre box?” The girl nodded.
“Yes, I must have,” she answered, looking a little frightened.
“And you say it was stolen from you?” “No, I didn’t say that. I had my necklace on when I was in the box—both Benny and I know that.”
“And it disappeared?”
“I noticed it was gone when I sat down at the table here.”
The dominating gentleman turned round to me.
“You saw' the necklace from the second box?” he asked.
“I did,” was my answer.
“And you saw it disappear?” he demanded.
“I sawr when it disappeared,” I retorted.
'TMIE jewel thief with the crumpled shirt front tried to break in at this juncture, but the bigger man silenced him with an impatient side swing of the hand.
“When was that?” he continued. “What difference does it make?” I calmly inquired, resenting the peremporiness of his interrogations.
He stepped short and looked up at me. Then the first ghost of a smile, a patient and almost sorrowful smile, came to his lips.
“WTell, we’ll go at it another way. You witnessed this man aci-oss the table take the necklace from the young lady?”
“It practically amounts to that.”
“That is, you actually detected him commit this crime?”
“I don’t think I said that.”
“But you assumed he committed this crime?”
“Just when was it committed?” “Duringwhat they call a dark change in the first act.”
“You mean the necklace was on before that change and gone when the lights were turned up again?”
“And the position and actions of this man were suspicious to ycu?” “Extremely so.”
“In what way?”
“In different ways.”
“He had crowded suspiciously close to the wearer of the necklace?”
“And his eyes were glued on it during the early part of that act?”
“They certainly were.”
“And you watched him?”
“With almost as much interest as he watched the necklace.”
“And after the dark change, as you call it; the lady’s neck was bare?”
“You’re sure of this?”
“And what did this man across the table do?”
“Having got what he was after, he hurried out of the theatre and made his escape—or tried to make his escape.” “It embarrassed him, I suppose, to have you studying him so closely?”
“He certainly looked embarrassed.” “Of course,” admitted my interrogator. Then he sighed deeply, almost contentedly, after which he sat with contemplative and pursed-up lips.
“I guess I’ve got this whole snarl now,” he complacently admitted. “All but one kink.”
“What one kink?” demanded Benny Churchill.
The man at my side did not answer him. Instead, he rose to his feet.
“I want you to come with me,” he had the effrontery to remark, with a curt head-nod in my direction.
“I much prefer staying here,” I retorted. And for the second time he smiled his saddened smile.
“Oh, it’s nothing objectionable,” he explained. “Nobody’s going to hurt you. And we’ll be back here in ten minutes.” “But, oddly enough, I have rooted objections to deserting my guests.” “Your guests won’t be sorry, I imagine,” he replied, as he looked at his silver turnip of a watch. “And we’re losing good time.”
“Please go,” said Alice Churchill, emboldened, apparently, by some instinctive conclusion which she could not, or did not care to explain. And she was backed up. I roy a nod from her brother.
I ALSO noticed, as I rose to my feet, that I still held the necklace in my hand. I was a little puzzled as to just what to do with it.
“That,” said the sagacious stranger, “you’d better leave here. Let the young lady keep it until we get back. And you, Fessant,” he went on, turning to the belligerent-lipped jewel thief, “you stay right here and make yourself pleasant. And without bein’ rude, you might see that the young lady and her brother stay right here with you.”
Then he took me companior.ably by the arm and led me away.
“What’s the exact meaning’ of all this?” I inquired as we threaded our course out to the cab stand and went dodging westward along Forty-third Street in a taxi. The rain, I noticed through the fogged window, was still falling.
“I want you to show me exactly where that man sat in that box,” was his answer. “And two minutes in the theatre will do it.”
“And what good,” I inquired, “is that going to do me?”
“It may do you a lot of good,” he retorted, as he flung open the cab door.
“I feel rather sorry for you if it doesn’t,” was my answer as I followed him out. We had drawn up before a desolate-looking stage door over which burned an even more desolate-look ng electric bulb. The man turned and looked at me with a snort ghost of a grunt, more of disgust than contempt.
“You’re pretty nifty, aren’t you, for a New York edition of Jesse James?”
AND without waiting for my answer he began kicking on the shabby looking stage door with his foot. He was still kicking there when the door itself was opened by a man in a gray uniform, obviously the night watchman.
“Hello, Tim!" said the one.
“Hello, Bud!” said the other. “Doorman gone?”
"’Bout an hour ago!”
Then ensued a moment of silence. “Burnside say anything was turned in?”
“Didn’t hear of it!” was the watchman’s answer.
“My friend here thinks he’s left something in a box. Could you let us through?” '
“Sure,” was the easy response. “I’ll
throw on the house-lights for youse. Watch your way!”
He preceded us through a maze of painted canvas and what looked like the backs of gigantic picture frames. He stepped aside for a moment to turn on a switch. Then he opened a narrow door covered with sheet iron, and we found ourselves facing the box entrances.
My companion motioned me into the second box while he stepped briskly into that nearer the footlights.
“Now, the young lady sat there,” he said, placing the gilt chair back against the brass railing. Then he sat down in it. facingthe stage. Having done so, he took off his hat and placed it on the box floor. “Now you show me where that man sat.”
I placed the chair against the plushcovered parapet and dropped into it.
“Here,” I explained, “within two feet of where you are.”
“All right!” was his sudden and quite unexpected rejoinder. “That’s enough! That’ll do!”
He reached down and groped about for his hat before rising from chair. He brushed it with the sleeve of his coat absently, and then stepped out of the box.
“We’d better be getting back,” he called to me from the sheet-iron covered doorway.
“Back to what?” I demanded,as I followed him out through the canvas! lined maze again, -feeling that he was in some way tricking me, resenting the foolish mystery which he was flinging about the whole foolish manoeuvre.
“Back to those guests of yours and some good old-fashioned common sense,” was his retort.
BUT during the ride back to Sherry’s 1 he had nothing further to say to me. His answers to the questions I put to him were either evasive or monosyllabic. He even yawned, yawned openly and audibly, as we drew up at the carriage entrance of that munificently lighted hostelry. He nowseemed nothing more than a commonplace man tired out at the completion of a commonplace task. He even seemed a trifle impatient at my delay as I waited to check my hat and coat—a formality in which he did not join me.
“Now, I can give you people just two minutes,” he said, as the five of us were once more seated at the same table and he once more consulted his turnip of a watch. “And I guess that’s more’n we’ll need.”
He turned to the wan and tired-eyed girl, who, only too plainly, had not altogether enjoyed her wait.
“You’ve got the necklace?” he asked. She held up a hand from which the string of graduated pearls dangled. The man then turned to me.
“You took this string of pearls away from this man?” he asked, with a quick nod toward the jewel thief.
“I assuredly did,” was my answer. “Knowing he had taken them from this young lady earlier in the evening?” “Your assumption bears every mark of genius!” I assured him.
He turned back to the girl.
“Is that your necklace?” he curtly demanded.
The girl looked at me with clouded’ j and troubled eyes. We all felt, in some j foolish way, that the moment was a j climactic one.
“No!” she answered, in little more than a whisper.
She nodded her head without speaking. The man turned to me. [
“Yet you followed this man, assaulted him and forcibly took that necklace 1 away from him?”
“Hold on!” 1 cried, angered by that calmly pedagogic manner of his. “I
want you to un-”
He stopped me with a sharp move of the hand.
“Don’t go over all that!” he said. “It’s I a waste of time. The point is, that necklace is not your friend’s. But I’m going to tell you what it is. It’s a duplicate of it, stone for stone. The lady, I think, will agree with me on that. Am I right?”
The girl nodded.
“Then what the devil’s this man doing with it?” demanded Benny
Churchill, before any of us could speak.
“S’pose you wait and find out who this man is!”
“Well, who is he?” I inquired, resolved that no hand, however artful, was going to pull the wool over my eyes.
“This man,” said my imperturbed and big-shouldered friend, “is the pearlmatcher for Cohen and Greenhut, the Maiden Lane Importers. Wait, don’t interrupt me. Miss Churchill’s necklace, I understand, was one of the finest in this town. His house had an order to duplicate it. He took the first chance, when the pearls had been matched and strung, to see that he’d done his job right.”
“And you mean to tell me,” I cried, “that he hung over a box rail and lifted a string of pearls from a lady’s neck just to-”
“Hold on there, my friend,” cut in the big-limbed man. “He found this lady was going to be in that box wearin’ that necklace.”
“And having reviewed its chaste beauty, he sneaked out of his own box and ran like a chased cur!”
“Hold your horses now! Can’t you see that he thought you were the crook? If you had a bunch of stones like that on you and a stranger butted in and started trailin’ you, wouldn’t you do your best to melt away when you had the chance?” demanded the officer. Then he looked at me again with his wearily uplifted eyebrows. “Oh, I guess you were all right as far as you w'ent, but, like most amateurs, you didn’t go quite far enough !”
It was Benny Churchill who spoke up before I could answer. His voice, as
he spoke, was oddly thin and childlike.
“But why in heaven’s name should he want to duplicate my sister’s jewelry?” “For another woman, with more money than brains, or the know-how, or whatever you want to call it,” was the impassive response.
I saw the girl across the table from me push the necklace away from her, and leave it lying there in a glimmering heap on the white table. I promptly and quietly reached out and took possession of it, for I still had my own ideas of the situation.
“That’s all very well,” I cried, “and very interesting. But what I want to know is: who got the first necklace?” The big-framed man looked once more at his watch. Then he looked a little wearily at me.
“I got ’em!” he said.
“You’ve got them?” echoed both the girl and her brother. It was plain that the inconsequentialities of the last hour had been a little too much for them.
The man thrust a huge hand down in the pocket of his damp and somewhat unshapely overcoat.
“Yes, I got ’em here,” he explained as he drew his hand away and held the glimmering string up to the light. “I picked ’em up from the corner of that box where they slipped off the lady’s neck.”
He rose placidly and ponderously to his feet.
“And I guess that’s about all,” he added as he squinted through an uncurtained strip of plate glass and slowly turned up his coat collar, “except that some of us outdoor guys’ll sure get web-footed if this rain keeps up!”