IX. The Mouse Nibbles at the Net
 

The next day saw me at police headquarters begging an interview from the inspector, with the intention of confiding to him a theory which must either cost me his sympathy or open the way to a new inquiry, which I felt sure would lead to Mr. Durand's complete exoneration.

I chose this gentleman for my confidant, from among all those with whom I had been brought in contact by my position as witness in a case of this magnitude, first, because he had been present at the most tragic moment of my life, and secondly, because I was conscious of a sympathetic bond between us which would insure me a kind hearing. However ridiculous my idea might appear to him, I was assured that he would treat me with consideration and not visit whatever folly I might be guilty of on the head of him for whom I risked my reputation for good sense.

Nor was I disappointed in this. Inspector Dalzell's air was fatherly and his tone altogether gentle as, in reply to my excuses for troubling him with my opinions, he told me that in a case of such importance he was glad to receive the impressions even of such a prejudiced little partizan as myself. The word fired me, and I spoke.

"You consider Mr. Durand guilty, and so do many others, I fear, in spite of his long record for honesty and uprightness. And why? Because you will not admit the possibility of another person's guilt,--a person standing so high in private and public estimation that the very idea seems preposterous and little short of insulting to the country of which he is an acknowledged ornament."

"My dear!"

The inspector had actually risen. His expression and whole attitude showed shock. But I did not quail; I only subdued my manner and spoke with quieter conviction.

"I am aware," said I, "how words so daring must impress you. But listen, sir; listen to what I have to say before you utterly condemn me. I acknowledge that it is the frightful position into which I threw Mr. Durand by my officious attempt to right him which has driven me to make this second effort to fix the crime on the only other man who had possible access to Mrs. Fairbrother at the fatal moment. How could I live in inaction? How could you expect me to weigh for a moment this foreigner's reputation against that of my own lover? If I have reasons--"

"Reasons!"

"--reasons which would appeal to all; if instead of this person's having an international reputation at his back he had been a simple gentleman like Mr. Durand,--would you not consider me entitled to speak?"

"Certainly, but--"

"You have no confidence in my reasons, Inspector; they may not weigh against that splash of blood on Mr. Durand's shirt-front, but such as they are I must give them. But first, it will be necessary for you to accept for the nonce Mr. Durand's statements as true. Are you willing to do this?"

"I will try."

"Then, a harder thing yet,--to put some confidence in my judgment. I saw the man and did not like him long before any intimation of the evening's tragedy had turned suspicion on any one. I watched him as I watched others. I saw that he had not come to the ball to please Mr. Ramsdell or for any pleasure he himself hoped to reap from social intercourse, but for some purpose much more important, and that this purpose was connected with Mrs. Fairbrother's diamond. Indifferent, almost morose before she came upon the scene, he brightened to a surprising extent the moment he found himself in her presence. Not because she was a beautiful woman, for he scarcely honored her face or even her superb figure with a look. All his glances were centered on her large fan, which, in swaying to and fro, alternately hid and revealed the splendor on her breast; and when by chance it hung suspended for a moment in her forgetful hand and he caught a full glimpse of the great gem, I perceived such a change in his face that, if nothing more had occurred that night to give prominence to this woman and her diamond, I should have carried home the conviction that interests of no common import lay behind a feeling so extraordinarily displayed."

"Fanciful, my dear Miss Van Arsdale I Interesting, but fanciful."

"I know. I have not yet touched on fact. But facts are coming, Inspector."

He stared. Evidently he was not accustomed to hear the law laid down in this fashion by a midget of my proportions.

"Go on," said he; "happily, I have no clerk here to listen."

"I would not speak if you had. These are words for but one ear as yet. Not even my uncle suspects the direction of my thoughts."

"Proceed," he again enjoined.

Upon which I plunged into my subject.

"Mrs. Fairbrother wore the real diamond, and no imitation, to the ball. Of this I feel sure. The bit of glass or paste displayed to the coroner's jury was bright enough, but it was not the star of light I saw burning on her breast as she passed me on her way to the alcove."

"Miss Van Arsdale!"

"The interest which Mr. Durand displayed in it, the marked excitement into which he was thrown by his first view of its size and splendor, confirm in my mind the evidence which he gave on oath (and he is a well-known diamond expert, you know, and must have been very well aware that he would injure rather than help his cause by this admission) that at that time he believed the stone to be real and of immense value. Wearing such a gem, then, she entered the fatal alcove, and, with a smile on her face, prepared to employ her fascinations on whoever chanced to come within their reach. But now something happened. Please let me tell it my own way. A shout from the driveway, or a bit of snow thrown against the window, drew her attention to a man standing below, holding up a note fastened to the end of a whip-handle. I do not know whether or not you have found that man. If you have-- " The inspector made no sign. "I judge that you have not, so I may go on with my suppositions. Mrs. Fairbrother took in this note. She may have expected it and for this reason chose the alcove to sit in, or it may have been a surprise to her. Probably we shall never know the whole truth about it; but what we can know and do, if you are still holding to our compact and viewing this crime in the light of Mr. Durand's explanations, is that it made a change in her and made her anxious to rid herself of the diamond. It has been decided that the hurried scrawl should read, 'Take warning. He means to be at the ball. Expect trouble if you do not give him the diamond,' or something to that effect. But why was it passed up to her unfinished? Was the haste too great? I hardly think so. I believe in another explanation, which points with startling directness to the possibility that the person referred to in this broken communication was not Mr. Durand, but one whom I need not name; and that the reason you have failed to find the messenger, of whose appearance you have received definite information, is that you have not looked among the servants of a certain distinguished visitor in town. Oh," I burst forth with feverish volubility, as I saw the inspector's lips open in what could not fail to be a sarcastic utterance, "I know what you feel tempted to reply. Why should a servant deliver a warning against his own master? If you will be patient with me you will soon see; but first I wish to make it clear that Mrs. Fairbrother, having received this warning just before Mr. Durand appeared in the alcove,--reckless, scheming woman that she was!-- sought to rid herself of the object against which it was directed in the way we have temporarily accepted as true. Relying on her arts, and possibly misconceiving the nature of Mr. Durand's interest in her, she hands over the diamond hidden in her rolled-up gloves, which he, without suspicion, carries away with him, thus linking himself indissolubly to a great crime of which another was the perpetrator. That other, or so I believe from my very heart of hearts, was the man I saw leaning against the wall at the foot of the alcove a few minutes before I passed into the supper-room."

I stopped with a gasp, hardly able to meet the stern and forbidding look with which the inspector sought to restrain what he evidently considered the senseless ravings of a child. But I had come there to speak, and I hastily proceeded before the rebuke thus expressed could formulate itself into words.

"I have some excuse for a declaration so monstrous. Perhaps I am the only person who can satisfy you in regard to a certain fact about which you have expressed some curiosity. Inspector, have you ever solved the mystery of the two broken coffee-cups found amongst the debris at Mrs. Fairbrother's feet? It did not come out in the inquest, I noticed."

"Not yet," he cried, "but--you can not tell me anything about them!"

"Possibly not. But I can tell you this: When I reached the supper-room door that evening I looked back and, providentially or otherwise--only the future can determine that--detected Mr. Grey in the act of lifting two cups from a tray left by some waiter on a table standing just outside the reception-room door. I did not see where he carried them; I only saw his face turned toward the alcove; and as there was no other lady there, or anywhere near there, I have dared to think--"

Here the inspector found speech.

"You saw Mr. Grey lift two cups and turn toward the alcove at a moment we all know to have been critical? You should have told me this before. He may be a possible witness."

I scarcely listened. I was too full of my own argument.

"There were other people in the hall, especially at my end of it. A perfect throng was coming from the billiard-room, where the dancing had been, and it might easily be that he could both enter and leave that secluded spot without attracting attention. He had shown too early and much too unmistakably his lack of interest in the general company for his every movement to be watched as at his first arrival. But this is simple conjecture; what I have to say next is evidence. The stiletto--have you studied it, sir? I have, from the pictures. It is very quaint; and among the devices on the handle is one that especially attracted my attention. See! This is what I mean." And I handed him a drawing which I had made with some care in expectation of this very interview.

He surveyed it with some astonishment.

"I understand," I pursued in trembling tones, for I was much affected by my own daring, "that no one has so far succeeded in tracing this weapon to its owner. Why didn't your experts study heraldry and the devices of great houses? They would have found that this one is not unknown in England. I can tell you on whose blazon it can often be seen, and so could-- Mr. Grey."