Chapter 21




THE HEART OF THE PUZZLE.


The next morning I swallowed my pride and sought out Durbin. He had superintended the removal of Mrs. Jeffrey's effects from the southwest chamber, and should know, if any one, where this filigree ball was now to be found. Doubtless it had been returned with the other things to Mr. Jeffrey, and yet, who knows? Durbin is sly and some inkling of its value as a clue may have entered his mind. If so, it would be anywhere but in Mr. Jeffrey's or Miss Tuttle's possession.

To test my rival's knowledge of and interest in this seemingly trivial object, I stooped to what I can but consider a pardonable subterfuge. Greeting him in the offhand way least likely to develop his suspicion, I told him that I had a great idea in connection with the Jeffrey case and that the clue to it lay in a little gold ball which Mrs. Jeffrey sometimes wore and upon which she set great store. So far I spoke the truth. It had been given her by some one--not Mr. Jeffrey--and I believed, though I did not know, that it contained a miniature portrait which it might be to our advantage to see.

I expected his lip to curl; but for a wonder it maintained its noncommittal aspect, though I was sure that I caught a slight, very slight, gleam of curiosity lighting up for a moment his calm, gray eye.

"You are on a fantastic trail," he sneered, and that was all.

But I had not expected more. I had merely wished to learn what place, if any, this filigree ball held in his own suspicions, and in case he had overlooked it, to jog his curiosity so that he would in some way betray its whereabouts.

That, for all its seeming inconsequence, it did hold some place in his mind was evident enough to those who knew him; but that it was within reach or obtainable by any ordinary means was not so plain. Indeed, I very soon became convinced that he, for one, had no idea where it was, or after the suggestive hint I had given him he would never have wasted a half-hour on me. What was I to do then? Tell my story to the major and depend on him to push the matter to its proper conclusion? "Not yet," whispered pride. "Durbin thinks you a fool. Wait till you can show your whole hand before calling attention to your cards." But it was hard not to betray my excitement and to act the fool they considered me when the boys twitted me about this famous golden charm and asked what great result had followed my night in the Moore house. But remembering that he who laughs last laughs best, and that the cause of mirth was not yet over between Durbin and myself, I was able to preserve an impassive exterior even when I came under the major's eye. I found myself amply repaid when one of the boys who had studiously avoided chaffing me dropped the following words in my ear:

"I don't know what your interest is in the small gold charm you were talking about, but you have done some good work in this case and I don't mind telling you what I know about it. That little gold ball has caused the police much trouble. It is on the list of effects found in the room where the candle was seen burning; but when all these petty belongings of Mrs. Jeffrey's were gathered up and carried back to her husband, this special one was not to be found amongst them. It was lost in transit, nor has it ever been seen since. And who do you think it was who called attention to this loss and demanded that the article be found? Not Mr. Jeffrey, who seems to lay little or no stress upon it, but the old man they call Uncle David. He who, to all appearance, possessed no interest in his niece's personal property, was on hand the moment these things were carried into her husband's house, with the express intention, it seems, of inquiring for this gold ball, which he declared to be a family heirloom. As such it belonged to him as the present holder of the property, and to him only. Attention being thus called to it, it was found to be missing, and as no one but the police seemed to be to blame for its loss the matter was hushed up and would have been regarded as too insignificant for comment, the trinket being intrinsically worthless, if Mr. Moore had not continued to make such a fuss about it. This ball, he declared, was worth as much to a Moore as all the rest of his property, which was bosh, you know; and the folly of these assertions and the depth of the passions he displayed whenever the subject was mentioned have made some of us question if he is the innocent inheritor he has tried to make himself out. At all events, I know for a certainty that the district attorney holds his name in reserve, if the grand jury fails to bring in an indictment against Miss Tuttle."

"The district attorney is wise," I remarked, and fell athinking.

Had this latent suspicion against Mr. Moore any solid foundation? Was he the guilty man? The memorandum I had come across in the book which had been lately pulled down from the library shelves showed that, notwithstanding his testimony to the contrary, he had been in that house close upon that fatal night, if not on the very night itself. It also showed his extreme interest in the traditions of the family. But did it show anything more? Had he interrupted his writing to finish his query in blood, and had one of his motives for this crime been the acquisition of this filigree ball? If so, why had he left it on the table upstairs? A candle had been lit in that room--could it have been by him in his search for this object? It would be a great relief to believe so. What was the reason then that my mind refused so emphatically to grasp this possibility and settle upon him as the murderer of Mrs. Jeffrey? I can not tell. I hated the man, and I likewise deeply distrusted him. But I could not, even after this revelation of his duplicity, connect him in my thoughts with absolute crime without a shock to my intuitions. Happily, my scruples were not shared by my colleagues. They had listed him. Here I felt my shoulder touched, and a newspaper was thrust into my hand by the man who had just addressed me.

"Look down the lost and found column," said he. "The third advertisement you will see there came from the district attorney's office; the next one was inserted by Mr. Moore himself."

I followed his pointing finer and read two descriptions of the filigree ball. The disproportion in the rewards offered was apparent. That promised by Uncle David was calculated to rouse any man's cupidity and should have resulted in the bauble's immediate return.

"He got ahead of the police that time," I laughed. "When did these advertisements appear?"

"During the days you were absent from Washington."

"And how sure are you that he did not get this jewel back?"

"Oh, we are sure. His continued anxiety and still active interest prove this, even if our surveillance had been less perfect."

"And the police have been equally unsuccessful?"

"Equally."

"After every effort?"

"Every."

"Who was the man who collected and carried out those things from the southwest chamber?"

He smiled.

"You see him," said he.

"It was you?"

"Myself."

"And you are sure this small ball was among them?"

"No. I only know that I have seen it somewhere, but that it wasn't among the articles I delivered to Mr. Jeffrey."

"How did you carry them?"

"In a hand-bag which I locked myself."

"Before leaving the southwest chamber?"

"Yes."

"Then it is still in that room?"

"Find it," was his laconic reply.

Here most men would have stopped, but I have a bulldog's tenacity when once I lay hold. That night I went back to the Moore house and, taking every precaution against being surprised by the sarcastic Durbin or some of his many flatterers, I ransacked the southwest chamber on my own behalf for what certainly I had little reason to expect to find there.

It seemed a hopeless cause from the first, but I acted as if no one had hunted for this object before. Moving every article, I sought first on the open floor and then in every possible cranny for the missing trinket. But I failed to find it and was about to acknowledge myself defeated when my eye fell on the long brocaded curtains which I had drawn across the several windows to hide every gleam of light from the street. They were almost free from folds, but I shook them well, especially the one nearest the table, and naturally with no effect.

"Folly," I muttered, yet did not quite desist. For the great tassels still hung at the sides and-- Well! you may call it an impossible find or say that if the bauble was there it should have been discovered in the first search for it! I will not say no. I can only tell you what happened. When I took one of those tassels in my band, I thought, as it twirled under my touch, that I saw something gleam in its faded old threads which did not belong there. Startled, and yet not thoroughly realizing that I had come upon the object of my search, I picked at this thing and found it to be a morsel of gold chain that had become entangled in it. When I had pulled it out, it showed a small golden ball at one end, filigreed over and astonishingly heavy for its size and apparent delicacy.

How it came there--whether it rolled from the table, or was swept off inadvertently by the detective's hand, and how it came to be caught by this old tassel and held there in spite of the many shakings it must have received, did not concern me at this momentous instant. The talisman of this old family was found. I had but to discover what it held concealed to understand what had baffled Mr. Moore and made the mystery he had endeavored to penetrate so insolvable. Rejoicing in my triumph, but not wasting a moment in self-congratulation, I bent over the candle with my prize and sought for the clasp or fastening which held its two parts together. I have a knack at clasps and curious fastenings and was able at first touch to spring this one open. And what did I find inside? Something so different from what I expected, something so trivial and seemingly harmless, that it was not until I recalled the final words of Uncle David's memorandum that I realized its full import and the possibilities it suggested. In itself it was nothing but a minute magnifying glass; but when used in connection with--what? Ah, that was just what Uncle David failed to say, possibly to know. Yet this was now the important point, the culminating fact which might lead to a full understanding of these many tragedies. Could I hope to guess what presented itself to Mr. Moore as a difficult if not insolvable problem? No; guessing would not answer. I must trust to the inspiration of the moment which suggested with almost irresistible conviction:

The picture! That inane and seemingly worthless drawing over the fireplace in The Colonel's Own, whose presence in so rich a room has always been a mystery!

Why this object should have suggested itself to me and with such instant conviction, I can not readily say. Whether, from my position near the bed, the sight of this old drawing recalled the restless nights of all who had lain in face of its sickly smile, or whether some recollection of that secret law of the Moores which forbade the removal of any of their pictures from the time-worn walls, or a remembrance of the curiosity which this picture excited in every one who looked at it--Francis Jeffrey among the number--I no sooner asked myself what object in this house might possibly yield counsel or suggest aid when subjected to the influence of a magnifying glass, than the answer, which I have already given, sprang instantly into my mind: The picture!

Greatly excited, I sprang upon a chair, took down the drawing from the wall and laid it face up on the bed. Then I placed the glass over one of the large coils surrounding the insipid face, and was startled enough, in spite of all mental preparation, to perceive the crinkly lines which formed it, resolve themselves into script and the script into words, some of which were perfectly legible.

The drawing, simple as it looked, was a communication in writing to those who used a magnifying glass to read it. I could hardly contain my triumph, hardly find the self-control necessary to a careful study of its undulating and often conflicting lines and to the slow picking out of the words therein contained.

But when I had done this, and had copied the whole of the wandering scrawl on a page of my note book the result was of value.

Read, and judge for yourself.

"Coward that I am, I am willing to throw upon posterity the shadow of a crime whose consequences I dare not incur in life. Confession I must make. To die and leave no record of my deed is impossible. Yet how tell my story so that only my own heirs may read and they when at the crisis of their fate? I believe I have found the way by this drawing and the injunction I have left to the holders of the filigree ball.

"No man ever wished his enemy dead more than I did, and no man ever spent more cunning on the deed. Master in my own house, I contrived a device by which the man who held my fate in his hands fell on my library hearth with no one near and no sign by which to associate me with the act. Does this seem like the assertion of a madman? Go to the old chamber familiarly called "The Colonel's Own." Enter its closet, pull out its two drawers, and in the opening thus made seek for the loophole at the back, through which, if you stoop low enough, you can catch a glimpse of the library hearth and its great settle. With these in view, slip your finger along the wall on your right and when it touches an obstruction --pass it if it is a handle, for that is only used to rewind the apparatus and must be turned from you until it can be turned no farther; but if it is a depression you encounter, press, and press hard on the knob concealed within it. But beware when any one you love is seated in that corner of the settle where the cushion invites rest, lest it be your fate to mourn and wail as it is mine to curse the hour when I sought to clear my way by murder. For the doom of the man of blood is upon me. The hindrance is gone from my life, but a horror has entered it beyond the conception of any soul that has not yielded itself to the unimaginable influences emanating from an accomplished crime. I can not be content with having pressed that spring once. A mania is upon me which, after thirty years of useless resistance and superhuman struggle, still draws me from bed and sleep to rehearse in ghastly fashion that deed of my early manhood. I can not resist it. To tear out the deadly mechanism, unhinge weight and drum and rid the house of every evidence of crime would but drive me to shriek my guilt aloud and act in open pantomime what I now go through in fearsome silence and secrecy. When the hour comes, as come it must, that I can not rise and enter that fatal closet, I shall still enact the deed in dreams, and shriek aloud in my sleep and wish myself dead and yet fear to die lest my hell be to go through all eternity, slaying over and over my man, in ever growing horror and repulsion.

"Do you wish to share my fate? Try to effect through blood a release from the difficulties menacing you."




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