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Title: The Thirty-Seventh Month Author: Fred M White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1201181h.html Language: English Date first posted: February 2012 Date most recently updated: February 2012 This eBook was produced by: Roy Glashan Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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THE flavour died out of James Costard's cigar. There was a taste in his mouth like that of ashes. It was not altogether, perhaps, the fault of the cigar, which was one usually retailed, if you are extravagant, at nine for the shilling. Costard was particular about his tobacco, but at the present moment he had something else to think about.
He sat there with his head on his hands gazing fixedly at the stage. His breath came with quick gasps through his short black teeth. A plentiful bead of moisture oozed out of his somewhat grimy features. Those strong, square thumbs were trembling, so were the brutal lines of the hard mouth. The stentorian noise of Costard's breathing roused the indignation of the lady behind, and the feathers in her large hat trembled in indignation. She wanted to know audibly why a certain class of people came to a music-hall merely for the sake of spoiling other people's pleasure. But Costard heard nothing of it, otherwise he would have been ready enough with repartee of a pungent and personal nature.
The atmosphere around him Was thick and dank. Behind the halo of tobaoco-smoke the stage loomed aggressively garish. A group of more or less competent actors were playing a boiled-down melodrama with all the intentness befitting their occupation. There was nothing particularly bright or fresh or oiiginal, not too much of the holding of the mirror up to Nature, so to speak; but, after all, the play is the thing, and it had gripped James Costard to the centre of his shrivelled soul. He turned to his companion, a man singularly like himself, who also for the time being had relaxed his grip upon his cigar and was regarding the stage with distended eyes.
"Joe," Costard said hoarsely, "I'll thank you to give me a pinch, old pard. Pinch me 'ard in the fleshy part of the thigh, if you'll be so good. I'll wake up presently and find it no more nor a bloomin' dream.""
"Shut up!" Joe Slagg growled unsympathetically.
Costard shut up accordingly. After all, there seemed to be nothing in the stage performance to fill with fear the heart of a man who boasted, not without justice, that he didn't know what nerves were. To a certain extent, too, the story was commonplace enough. Here was the persecuted heroine, whose delicate husband was falsely accused of stealing the family diamonds from a hard-hearted uncle who had cast him adrift to die of consumption all alone in the hard-hearted world. Here, again, was the heroine compelled to toil as private secretary to the said hard-hearted uncle, so that she might find the means to keep the consumptive hero alive somewhere in the South of France. Apparently there was nothing to cause that unpleasant suggestion of dryness in the back of Jim Costard's throat, or to deprive Joe Slagg's tobacco of its exquisite flavour. And yet they were both following the performance as carefully and earnestly as if they were standing in the dock together charged with some heinous crime, and counsel for the Crown was unfolding some flawless indictment against them. There were others in the packed music-hall, either brutally indifferent, or critical, or damply tearful, according to their various temperaments. But in no case did the play grip a solitary spectator as it gripped those two friends and partners, James Costard and Joseph Slagg.
"I'd like to see the end of it," Costard muttered.
"So you will, you fool!" Slagg responded. "You've only got to wait another ten minutes. Not but what it's queer, as I own freely. Why, it's exactly the same as it was that night three years ago "
It was fortunate, perhaps, that the lady in the liberal hat behind appealed once again for silence. Slagg's reminiscences might have become dangerous, they might have even proved interesting to any plain-clothes police oflicer in the immediate vicinity. But, as a matter of fact, neither of the partners was in the least conscious of what was going on around them. They sat there breathless and perspiring, waiting with an excitement akin to pain for the development of the story.
It was reaching the acute stage now. In ten minutes more, at the outside, they would know the best or worst of it. And then, just as the heroine was taxing her maid with an act of perfidy which had admitted a predatory lover to the house of sorrows, a thin curl of blue smoke rose from the wings, a tiny tongue of flame zigzagged up the prompt flat—then, as if by magic, the whole thing burst into a dazzling blaze, and a thick, acrid smoke hid the stage from view. For the fraction of a second there was a dead silence, then the sound of a woman screaming shrilly in the gallery, and a second later the trampling rush of many feet in the direction of the exits. It was singular, perhaps, that the only people who kept their heads in that headlong stream were Costard and his partner. It was they who rose with one accord, uttering hoarse commands and shrieking lurid jibes and crimson insults. It was they who contrived to beat some spark and semblance of manhood into the cowards who were fighting there, heedless of women and children, for their own safety. Then, as the fireproof curtain came down and the spirals of smoke were whirled upwards, something like order was restored. The women ceased to cry and scream, the shrill treble of childish voices died away. From behind the fireproof curtain could be heard the steady thud-thud of a manual engine, the hiss of water on flame resounded through the emptying theatre.
They were all outside presently, a white-faced mob talking in whispers, a handful of helmeted policemen, a busy doctor here and there, a few ominous-looking ambulances. Costard and Slagg pushed their way through the huddled sheep and turned with common accord into a public-house not far off. They nodded to one another. It seemed to each that this was the time for heroic measures.
"A large brandy, with just a spot of water," Costard suggested tentatively, "that's mine."
"You were always one to think of things," Slagg coincided.
The necessary refreshment was procured and supplemented before Costard began to speak. He produced a fresh cigar and lighted it deliberately.
"Well, what do you think of it?" he asked.
"I dunno," Slagg replied. "My mind's all of a whirl, it is. It ain't the long arm of coincidence, I suppose?"
"What's that?" Costard asked suspiciously.
"Well, it's something what I 'eard in a play years ago. Sort of bad luck—you know what I mean. You think everything's goin' right, when all of a sudden somebody turns up as you thought was dead, or the night watchman's on the premises when you think as 'e's takin' 'is 'olidays. Just the same what 'appened in the play I'm talkin' about. Just as everything was goin' right and 'e was goin' to lead a honest life, up turns somebody as 'e couldn't out without gettin' 'is neck stretched, and 'e says, says 'e, 'The long arm of coincidence is reached for me.' Seems to have reached for us, too, don't it?"
Costard nodded moodily.
"That's about it," he grunted. "Three years ago it is since we got 'old of them stones at Darchester Terrace. Three years ago it is since them sparklers came into our 'ands in the way of business. You remember 'ow it 'appened, don't you?"
"Why, certainly," Slagg replied. "Old gent livin' more or less alone with three servants in Darchester Terrace. 'E ain't got much money, but 'e's got some family diamonds, what possesses what those newspapers call 'istoric interest, and one of them is engraved. We makes up our minds as we're goin' to 'ave them, and you, bein' a better-looking man than me, goes along, and in a short time you manages to win the affections of a nice-looking young female as possesses more beauty than commonsense "
"'Ere, 'old 'ard," Costard interrupted. "Don't forget you're talkin' of the lidy who 'as the honour to be my missus."
"I'd forgotten," Slagg said penitently. "And it's true, all the same. Well, you gets into the 'ouse, and you gets the stones, never knowin' for the moment as 'ow the old man 'as a nephew about the place. And I don't say it's your fault 'as the nephew was found subsequently lyin' at the bottom of the stairs, and that, so to speak, 'e's never been the same man since. Seein' as you'd got the stones in your pocket, and seein' as what your personal safety was in danger, you couldn't do nothing less than out 'im, though I don't 'old with violence myself. I didn't ask no questions at the time; I never asked what became of them stones "
"I've got 'em now," Costard said hoarsely.
"Never dared to part with 'em. And why? Because I was watched all the time; night and day those detectives had their eye upon me. Why, they even made a pretence of searching my room when my back was turned, and shammed that they was thieves all the time. For the best part of a year I couldn't move without bein' followed; not that it mattered, neither. 'Ow was the police to know that the very next night we was in the 'ouse of that old miser at Netting Hill, what we found dead in his bed? I've 'ad a bit of luck in my time, Joe, but nothin' like that. Why, there the poor old beggar lay dead, and all we 'ad to do was to 'elp ourselves to his money and securities; and when they found 'im afterwards, why, there was nothing to be said or done except bury 'im. They couldn't find no relative and they couldn't find no friends. And they comes to the natural conclusion that he couldn't have no money, and there we were on velvet, with a matter of ten thousand pounds between us, and not a soul the wiser."
Slagg chuckled greasily.
"And then we sets up in partnership, coal and corn dealers and general contractors. We turns our back upon a life of crime, and now we're honoured and respected and makin' more money than whatever we did on the cross. Why, bless you, with any luck, we shall be members of the Board of Guardians yet."
"Not me," Costard said contemptuously. "No Board of Guardians for me. It pays us a sight better to contract with 'em for coal and supplies. But that's business. That's the way to become honoured and respected, and perhaps finish up with a knighthood. But we're wandering from the point, as the newspaper chaps say. What about the long arm of coincidence? And what about the play we've been watching to-night? 'Ere we are with the old story set out. Why, the very 'set' is a copy of the room in Darchester Terrace, the same diamonds, 'ere's the same persecuted 'eroine secretly married to the old man's nepliew, 'ere's the 'eroine tumbling to the fact that the maid what she trusts so implicitly is at the bottom of the 'ole business. I don't like it, Joe. I don't like it a bit. Somebody knows all about it, and somebody's put it all into a play. And somebody'll be coming along to you one of these days doin' a little bit of blackmail. And you know what blackmail is."
Slagg grinned uncomfortably.
"I did it once," he muttered, "but it didn't pay. Leastways, it didn't pay the second time. I shouldn't have expected as 'ow such a slim-lookin', soft-spoken chap could 'ave been so 'andy with 'is fists. Knocked me about something cruel, he did. But you're quite right, mate, that there blackmail is a good business when you've got something to go on. And if these people start about us, we'll have nothing left in twelve months' time. But perhaps you're only frightenin' yourself unnecessarily. P'raps that long arm of coincidence "
"Long arm be 'anged!" Costard growled. "'Ow long is it since that little business at Darchester Terrace?"
"Three years," Slagg said promptly, "and a month."
"Very well, then, just look at your programme for to-night's show. Look at your programme and tell me what's the name of that 'ere play as we see this evenin'."
Slagg took the programme from his pocket and unfolded it.
"Whew!" he exclaimed. "It's called 'The Thirty-Seventh Month,' and this is the thirty-seventh month. You're quite right, mate. This thing means blackmail. Makes me feel cold up and down my spine. And yet I dunno. Seems to me as we should have been better off if we'd seen the end of the play. Been able to grip the situation, p'raps. And now it'll probably be months before the music-'all will be fit for another audience. And meanwhile "
"Ah, meanwhile," Costard said ruminatively. "That's the point of the 'ole thing, Joe. What we've got to find out is who wrote that little play, and all about 'im. I dare say that in the fire to-night the book of the play will be destroyed. But the cove what wrote it will certainly 'ave a copy, and we've got to find out who 'e is. We've got to make him safe. We've got, if necessary, to take steps to induce him—"
Costard paused significantly; for a respectable tradesman and a man of some substance, his expression was decidedly murderous. The man was frightened, too; of that there could be no question. His hard, strong mouth was twitching; thin beads of perspiration trickled down his face, carrying channels of dirt with them. For some little time the two men sat moodily sipping their brandy, until a third man came in and nodded as he passed their table.
"This is a bit of luck," Slagg murmured. "That's Tom Carver, stage carpenter at the music-'all, 'e is. I dare say 'e can give us a bit of information. Let's ask 'im over 'ere and stand 'im a drink."
The stage carpenter was nothing loth, and over his refreshment he had certain information to impart. The damage done to the stage had been considerable, most of the property had been burnt out, and there was no likelihood that the music-hall would open its doors again for at least two months.
"It's a pity," Costard said musingly. "It's 'ard on the artistes, and it's 'ard on those what gets a livin' by writin' them plays. Pretty little thing, that, you put up to-night. New author, ain't he? What's 'is name?"
"Party of the name of Braybrooke," the carpenter explained. "I don't know him myself. 'E's one of them amateurs, I'm told. 'E'll 'ave to' write that play all over again now. All the manuscript was burnt— in fact, there's precious little left except what happened to be in the manager's safe. But I dare say 'e's got a copy."
Costard and Slagg exchanged glances.
"'Appen to know where 'e lives?" the latter asked.
"Matter of fact," the stage carpenter went on, "I've got a letter to post to 'im in my pocket. Given me by the manager this evenin', it was. 'Mr. George Braybrooke, 15, Bodington Road, Kensington.' P'raps you wouldn't mind slipping it into the post for me. No, I won't 'ave another, now. I must get back to the theatre. P'raps I shall manage to get 'ome by daylight with any luck."
The speaker rose reluctantly and departed, leaving the letter on the table. Without wasting further words. Costard called for a Post Office Directory. The volume in question proved to be an old one, and contained no such address as Bodington Road in the Kensington postal district.
"More County Council interferences," Costard growled. "Depend upon it, they've been changin' the name of the street. Let's go round to the post-office and 'ave a squint at an up-to-date volume."
They found what they wanted presently, and Costard fluttered over the name in the road. A queer expression came over his face as he laid his dirty thumb on the open page.
"'Ere, this long arm of coincidence of yours seems to be busy," he said. "'Ere we are right enough. Bodington Road, Kensington, lately known as Darchester Terrace, and the number is 15, and it's the same 'ouse where we 'ad the little adventure over the diamonds three years a,go. Good old coincidence! Why, this is like some of them stories you read in the Sunday papers. What luck!"
"Don't see it," Slagg growled uneasily. "Makes it all the worse, don't it? I'd give five pounds to know 'ow this play ended. Five pounds! I'd give fifty."
Costard dragged his companion to the comparative seclusion of the street. He seemed easier in his mind now.
"You're goin' to know," he said. "You must keep your money in your pocket. Do you suppose the same people are still in that 'ouse? Not they. Just consider the look of it. It's a risk, Joe, that's what it is, a risk, and I'm goin' to take it. For one night only, as they say on the concert bill, I'm goin' to depart from the strict paths of virtue. I'm goin' to do a little bit of burglary again. Oh, it's safe enough. Why, I remember that 'ouse as well now as if I'd only been there last week. And I'm going to find that play, and I'm goin' to read it for myself, and I'm goin' to act accordingly. None of your blackmailin' for me. I'll know what to do when the time comes."
"Better wait," Slagg suggested.
"Not me," Costard said truculently. "Forewarned is forearmed. Besides, I'm curious to see this Mr. George Braybrooke. 'E knows a sight too much for me. 'E knows all about it, and 'e's poor, of course."
"'Ow do you know that?" Slagg asked.
Costard looked contemptuously at the speaker, "^
"'Ow do I know.''" he asked. "Why, ain't all those writer fellers poor. Look at Chatterton and Keats and forty more of 'em; they never 'ave a penny to bless themselves with. Now, you come round to-morrow night about seven o'clock, when the missus is out, and we'll settle this little matter."
"All right," Slagg said with an air of reluctance. "I suppose I must. Good night, James, and pleasant dreams."
JAMES COSTARD sat before the fire in his sitting-room, an unusual prey to unusually gloomy thoughts. Had he been a man of culture, he would possibly have called himself an optimist; as it was, he seldom suffered from what he would have called the "'ump." But this was one of those rare occasions, for his glass of peculiarly strident whisky stood untasted by his side, a mass of documents, relating to an exceedingly profitable and therefore particularly rascally contract, were unheeded. In a curious way he was proud of his new respetability. He was proud of his broadcloth suit, of his heavy gold watch-chain and diamond ring. He was proud of his house and his wife and her furs. He was proud, too, to find better and honester men than himself addressing him as "sir" and taking off their hats to him, and now he stood to lose everything.
The venture seemed safe enough. Mrs. Costard had retired to bed and would be fast asleep by this time. With any luck, Costard would be back home again in a couple of hours, and nobody any the wiser as to the result of his little trip. It would be no difficult matter, either, to procure the necessary tools. The coast had been carefully surveyed, and the time for action had arrived.
Costard let himself quietly out of the house and closed the door behind him. For the first time in his life he felt a certain dryness in his throat and a peculiar sensation in the region of his heart. A year or two ago these distressing symptoms would not have manifested themselves. If he had had no friends, he had, at any rate, no enemies, and in those days James Costard had no position to forfeit. But now things were different entirely. He would not like to admit that he was afraid, but it was a fact, all the same.
He came at length to Bodington Road, late Darchester Terrace, and stood there for a minute or two, to make sure that no inquisitive policeman was lingering in the neighbourhood. The street appeared to be absolutely quiet, most of the houses were now discreetly draped in darkness, there was nothing to be seen but an adventurous cat as Costard stole down the area of No. 15. He paused just for a moment to draw a pair of indiarubber overalls over his square-toed, respectable boots; he wanted no dark lantern, and as to the premises, he remembered them perfectly. His bump of locality amounted almost to genius, which was, perhaps, the chief cause why he had never yet actually come within the grip of the law. With a thin-bladed knife he pushed back the catch of the front kitchen window, and a moment later he was in the house.
It was all familiar enough now; his courage was coming back to him, a sense of elation filled him, much as it might have filled a reformed drunkard indulging, after the lapse of time, in a glass of spirits. He felt his way up the stairs, gliding along in the black, velvety darkness until lie reached the hall.
He stopped there to listen, but no sound broke the stillness of the house save the lazy ticking of the grandfather's clock somewhere on the first landing. The atmosphere was warm and clinging and familiar—not a stuffy atmosphere, but a clear and slightly fragrant one that Costard closely associated with old silver and jewels and watches of price. The very scent of it brought vividly back the recollection of more than one brilliantly successful midnight raid. So to speak, it was like the smell of the battle to the warhorse. All Costard's smug respectability dropped from his shoulders now. It would go hard, he told himself, if he did not take toll as recompense for all his trouble.
Not that he forgot his errand. He would have to look for something in the shape of a study where this mysterious George Braybrooke did his literary work. Costard had been reading the magazines of recent years. He had got to know something of the habits of the literary man from the perusal of more or less veracious illustrated interview's with writers of mark. Therefore, he did not expect to find himself confronted with any serious obstacle—such, for instance, as a fireproof safe. A brief investigation of the ground apartments with the aid of an electric torch showed him that he would have to look further afield. There was danger here, as he told himself, creeping up to the second floor.
The sweat was running down his face now as he cautiously tried one room after another. They were bedrooms, for the most part unoccupied, and there at last, at the end of a little corridor by the side of the bathroom, was the very thing he was looking for.
"Not the slightest doubt about it," Costard told himself. Here was a big table littered with papers and proofs, on the opposite side was an American roll-top desk with the flap pulled back. The room was lined with books. On the table stood an electric lamp connected by a flex to a wall plug. Undoubtedly Costard's luck was in now. Beyond any question he was in Mr. George Braybrooke's library. He could not quite understand the presence there of a hat and jacket, indicative of the fact that somewhere in the house was a lady who at that moment was in deep mourning. But this, though it might not have been indifferent to a Sherlock Holmes, was nothing to James Costard. It was a mere detail outside his province. What he had to do now, if possible, was to find the complete manuscript of "The Thirty-Seventh Month," and read it to the end.
It was not such an easy matter as he had expected, but presently he found it. The manuscript Was a rough copy, certainly, but in happened to be typed, and not for the first time in his career James Costard had to bless modern skill and modern advancement.
Yes, here it was, right enough. He hastily ran his eye over the first few pages, eith which he was already familiar. He came at length to that portion of the play which had been interrupted by the unfortunate fire at the theatre, and the further Costard read the more frightened and bewildered did he become,
"It's all here," he muttered to himself as he wiped the gathering beads from his forehead. "Every bit of it. And what's more, the writer of this stuff knows the part that my missus took in the business. And 'ow did 'e know I was fool enough to write Mary a letter? I told her to destroy it... Ah, she seems to have done so... And left a piece of it on the study floor. This Very same study as I'm in now too. Oh, this is worse than I anticipated! This 'ere Braybrooke seems to know everything—? every mortal thing, and no bloomin' error about It, I should like to see that chap, I should like to see him very much indeed. I wonder what 'e's like? I wonder if 'e's a cove what would be easily frightened! I wonder if I could manage to lure him down my way some night—but, no, a chap as clever as that wouldn't be a blithering fool. I'd give a 'undred pounds to know what 'is little game is. I'd give a trifle to know 'ow it was that the business of those diamonds never got into the papers. But what's the use of talkin' like this? Anyway, it couldn't be worse. And that chap's goin' to bide his time like they do in the story books. 'E'll wait till I've got more money. 'E'll wait till I'm Sir James Costard or something of that sort, and then 'e'll come along asking for ten thousand pounds, bold as brass. And I'll have to pay it, too. I only wish I'd got 'im 'ere!"
There was no doubt as to the sincerity of Costard's desire. At the moment he was ready for anything. He had raised his voice unconsciously. So absorbed was he in his work, with the aid of the electric torch, that he heard nothing at all of a sudden creaking on the stairs outside. He did not seem to realise for a full minute that the reading-lamp on the table had suddenly burst into flame, or that the two brackets over the fireplace were also flooding the room with a soft yellow radiance.
When he did so, a great and overwhelming: fear gripped Costard by the heart and heldl him there. Like most of the class, he was; not fond of light except in connection with a public-house or a music-hall. He stood there trembling and sweating in a ludicrous; state of terror, and glancing apprehensively in the direction of the door, as if he fearedl the advent of some tremendous presence. He regretted that he had not brought his. revolver with him, but profound cogitation: had resulted in the abandonment of any policy of that kind. He stood there breathing heavily, he saw the door swing back, and then there entered a tall, slender girl dressed from head to foot in the deepest mourning.
She had a singularly beautiful and refined face, none the less beautiful and refined because it had traces of considerable sorrow and suffering. But, all the same, the blue eyes were quite steady, and the little red mouth was absolutely firm.
"What are you doing here?" the girl asked.
For the moment Costard's repartee failed him. He had nothing to say, no ingenious argument to advance to account for his presence in a strange house at one o'clock in the morning. Much cleverer individuals than Costard would have found themselves at a loss for an argument in similar circumstances.
"What's that got to do with you?" he growled.
It was a futile sort of question, but it was. the best that Costard could put on the spur of the moment.
"This is my house," the girl explained.. "I should like to know what this conduct means,"
Costard was understood to say that he was looking for a gentleman named Braybrooke. He ventured to remark that he had found the front door open, and seeing that he himself and Mr. George Braybrooke were on friendly, not to say affectionate, terms "
"But this is absurd," said the girl, with a slight suggestion of a smile. "I am George Braybrooke—at least, that is the name I adopt for my literary work."
Costard caught his lip between his teeth, and this successfully strangled a curse of bitter disappointment.
"You wrote that little piece called 'The Thirty-Seventh Month'?" he exclaimed. "Why—why—why—"
"You have seen it?" the girl asked quietly.
"Yes, I have seen it," the discomfited Costard said. "And that is why—but you can understand."
Once more the girl smiled strangely.
"I think I do," she said. "Do you happen, for instance, to be a married man? Oh, yes, I see you are. Now, shall we assume that your wife's Christian name is Mary. I am right again, I presume. Let me guess again, and suggest that her name was Mary Winslow."
Costard wiped his heated forehead. The girl stood looking at him out of the depths of her blue eyes as if she were trying to read his inward thoughts.
"This is remarkable," she went on, "most remarkable. Do you know that for the last two years or more I have been engaged as private secretary to an uncle of mine, who, by the way, is dead now—in fact, we buried him a fortnight ago, and the contents of this house belong to me. I stayed on here as secretary to my uncle because I happen to have an invaUd husband whose state of health until quite recently has necessitated his living in the South of France. But you know all that, don't you?"
"I've seen something like it," Costard said earnestly. "I've seen something like it in that little play of yours."
"Of course. That is precisely why you are here this evening. But we will come to that presently. I made that story into a little stage play because it struck me it had strong dramatic possibilities. I will ask your opinion presently, seeing that you have witnessed the play as far as Fate allowed it to go. The cause of my husband's unfortunate state of health lies in the fact that he was nearly murdered three years ago by a ruffian who came here in search of some diamonds which belonged to my uncle. The diamonds disappeared, and my uncle took it into his head to believe that my husband stole them. In the face of facts, it was a ridiculous assumption, but te%re is no accounting for the vagaries of an old man in his second childhood. Much as I disliked it, I remained with my uncle so that I could keep my husband alive. But I guessed where the diamonds were. I dare say you wonder why the police were never put on the track of the mystery but, then, you see, my maid, Mary Winslow, was a great favourite of mine—she was my foster-sister, and on one occasion she saved my life. It is not for me to judge her, it is not for me to wonder that a girl like herself should give her heart to a man—well, like you, for instance. But it was all in the play. I needn't tell you any more about it, because I see you have already read it for yourself. You feared that someone who had got possession of your secret might blackmail you, and you wanted to see exactly how matters stood. Well, they say that truth is stranger than fiction."
"But how did you guess?" Costard stammered.
"I don't guess," the girl said. "I know. That is one of the advantages of possessing an artistic temperament. And so you are Mary Winslow's husband; you are the man who stole my uncle's jewels; you are the man who was nearly responsible for my husband's death three years ago. You don't look like a burglar now, you look like a man who is testing the virtues of respectability. And so you thought that I would blackmail you?"
"Lots of people would," Costard said defiantly.
"Very likely. Perhaps I may yet. It is entirely in your hands. There was no fuss made over the outrage I allude to, it never got into the papers, but the police had the matter in hand all the same. And I could have told them a deal more than I did, only I thought of the foster-sister of whom I was so fond, and I held my tongue. But I don't think you ever disposed of those diamonds—at least, the police said that the man they suspected, which, of course, was you, had not dared to make the attempt. Now, I have only to close the door and lock you in, and then—"
"'Ow much?" Costard said hoarsely. "Name your price."
"Oh, I am going to. My price is the diamonds which you have been unable to dispose of. Come, they are of no use to you, and they will make all the difference in the world to my husband and myself. Turn out your pockets. Give me your watch and chain and notebook. Put them on the table and leave them here, and I will wait till you return with the stones. I think it is a fair bargain."
Very slowly Costard did as he was directed. He breathed hoarsely, and his face shone in the lamplight.
"It's only fair," he muttered, "and I'll do it. And just you wait 'ere an hour and I'll be back again."
"I am sure of that," the girl said significantly. "And now go. If you lose no time, my husband and I will be able to catch the morning express to Paris to-morrow."
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