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WHEN the card was brought in to me, I looked upon it with some misgiving, for I scented a commercial transaction, and, although such cases are lucrative enough, nevertheless I, Eugene Valmont, formerly high in the service of the French Government, do not care to be connected with them. They usually pertain to sordid business affairs, presenting little that is of interest to a man who, in his time, has dealt with subtle questions of diplomacy upon which the welfare of nations sometimes turned.
The name of Bentham Gibbes is familiar to everyone, connected as it is with the much-advertised pickles, whose glaring announcements in crude crimson and green strike the eye throughout Great Britain, and shock the artistic sense wherever seen. Me! I have never tasted them, and shall not so long as a French restaurant remains open in London. But I doubt not they are as pronounced to the palate as their advertisement is distressing to the eye. If, then, this gross pickle manufacturer expected me to track down those who were infringing upon the recipes for making his so-called sauces, chutneys, and the like, he would find himself mistaken, for I was now in a position to pick and choose my cases, and a case of pickles did not allure me. "Beware of imitations," said the advertisement; "none genuine without a facsimile of the signature of Bentham Gibbes." Ah, well, not for me were either the pickles or the tracking of imitators. A forged check! yes, if you like, but the forged signature of Mr. Gibbes on a pickle bottle was out of my line. Nevertheless, I said to Armand: "Show the gentleman in," and he did so.
To my astonishment there entered a young man, quite correctly dressed in the dark frock coat, faultless waistcoat and trousers that proclaimed a Bond Street tailor. When he spoke his voice and language were those of a gentleman.
"Monsieur Valmont?" he inquired.
"At your service," I replied, bowing and waving my hand as Armand placed a chair for him, and withdrew.
"I am a barrister with chambers in the Temple," began Mr. Gibbes, "and for some days a matter has been troubling me about which I have now come to seek your advice, your name having been suggested by a friend in whom I confided."
"Am I acquainted with him?" I asked.
"I think not," replied Mr. Gibbes, "he also is a barrister with chambers in the same building as my own. Lionel Dacre is his name."
"I never heard of him."
"Very likely not. Nevertheless, he recommended you as a man who could keep his own counsel, and if you take up this case I desire the utmost secrecy preserved, whatever may be the outcome."
I bowed, but made no protestation. Secrecy is a matter of course with me.
The Englishman paused for a few moments as if he expected fervent assurances; then went on with no trace of disappointment on his countenance at not receiving them.
"On the night of the twenty-third, I gave a little dinner to six friends of mine in my own rooms. I may say that so far as I am aware they are all gentlemen of unimpeachable character. On the night of the dinner I was detained later than I expected at a reception, and in driving to the Temple was still further delayed by a block of traffic in Piccadilly, so that when I arrived at my chambers there was barely time for me to dress and receive my guests. My man Johnson had everything laid out ready for me in my dressing room, and as I passed through to it I hurriedly flung off the coat I was wearing and carelessly left it hanging over the back of a chair in the dining room, where neither Johnson nor myself noticed it until my attention was called to it after the dinner was over, and everyone rather jolly with wine.
"This coat contains an inside pocket. Usually any frock coat I wear at an afternoon reception has not an inside pocket, but I had been rather on the rush all day. My father is a manufacturer whose name may be familiar to you, and I am on the directors' board of his company. On this occasion I took a cab from the city to the reception I spoke of, and had no time to go and change at my rooms. The reception was a somewhat bohemian affair, extremely interesting, of course, but not too particular as to costume, so I went as I was. In this inside pocket rested a thin package, composed of two pieces of cardboard, and between them rested five twenty-pound Bank of England notes, folded lengthwise, held in place by an elastic rubber band. I had thrown the coat across the chair back in such a way that the inside pocket was exposed, leaving the ends of the notes plainly recognizable.
"Over the coffee and cigars one of my guests laughingly called attention to what he termed my vulgar display of wealth, and Johnson, in some confusion at having neglected to put away the coat, now picked it up, and took it to the reception room where the wraps of my guests lay about promiscuously. He should, of course, have hung it up in my wardrobe, but he said afterwards , he thought it belonged to the guest who had spoken. You see, Johnson was in my dressing room when I threw my coat on the chair in the corner while making my way thither, and I suppose he had not noticed the coat in the hurry of arriving guests, otherwise he would have put it where it belonged. After everybody had gone , Johnson came to me and said the coat was there, but the package was missing, nor has any trace of it been found since that night."
"The dinner was fetched in from outside, I suppose?"
"How many waiters served it?"
"Two. They are men who have often been in my employ on similar occasions, but, apart from that, they had left my chambers before the incident of the coat happened."
"Neither of them went into the reception room, I take it?"
"No. I am certain that not even suspicion can attach to either of the waiters."
"Your man Johnson——?"
"Has been with me for years. He could easily have stolen much more than the hundred pounds if he had wished to do so, but I have never known him to take a penny that did not belong to him."
"Will you favor me with the names of your guests, Mr. Gibbes ?"
"Viscount Stern sat at my right hand, and at my left Lord Templemere; Sir John Sanclere next to him, and Angus McKeller next to Sanclere. After Viscount Stern was Lionel Dacre, and at his right, Vincent Innis."
On a sheet of paper I had written the names of the guests, and noted their places at the table. "Which guest drew your attention to the money?"
"Is there a window looking out from the reception room?"
"Two of them."
"Were they fastened on the night of the dinner party?"
"I could not be sure; very likely Johnson would know. You are hinting at the possibility of a thief coming in through a reception-room window while we were somewhat noisy over our wine. I think such a solution highly improbable. My rooms are on the third floor, and a thief would scarcely venture to make an entrance when he could not but know there was company being entertained. Besides this, the coat was there less than an hour, and it appears to me that whoever stole those notes knew where they were."
"That seems reasonable," I had to admit. "Have you spoken to anyone of your loss?"
"To no one but Dacre, who recommended me to see you. Oh, yes, and to Johnson, of course."
I could not help noting that this was the fourth or fifth time Dacre's name had come up during our conversation.
"What of Dacre?" I asked.
"Oh, well, you see, he occupies chambers in the same building on the ground floor. He is a very good fellow, and we are by way of being firm friends. Then it was he who had called attention to the money, so I thought he should know the sequel."
"How did he take your news?"
"Now that you call attention to the fact, he seemed slightly troubled. I should like to say, however, that you must not be misled by that. Lionel Dacre could no more steal than he could lie."
"Did he show any surprise when you mentioned the theft?"
Bentham Gibbes paused a moment before replying, knitting his brows in thought.
"No," he said at last; "and, come to think of it, it appeared as if he had been expecting my announcement."
"Doesn't that strike you as rather strange, Mr. Gibbes?"
"Really, my mind is in such a whirl, I don't know what to think. But it's perfectly absurd to suspect Dacre. If you knew the man you would understand what I mean. He comes of an excellent family, and he is—oh! he is Lionel Dacre, and when you have said that you have made any suspicion absurd."
"I suppose you caused the rooms to be thoroughly searched. The packet didn't drop out and remain unnoticed in some corner?"
"No; Johnson and myself examined every inch of the premises."
"Have you the numbers of the notes?"
"Yes; I got them from the bank next morning. Payment was stopped, and so far not one of the five has been presented. Of course, one or more may have been cashed at some shop, but none have been offered to any of the banks."
"A twenty-pound note is not accepted without scrutiny, so the chances are the thief may find some difficulty in disposing of them."
"As I told you, I don't mind the loss of the money at all. It is the uncertainty, the uneasiness caused by the incident which troubles me. You will comprehend how little I care about the notes when I say that if you are good enough to interest yourself in this case, I shall be disappointed if your fee does not exceed the amount I have lost."
Mr. Gibbes rose as he said this, and I accompanied him to the door assuring him that I should do my best to solve the mystery. Whether he sprang from pickles or not, I realized he was a polished and generous gentleman, who estimated the services of a professional expert like myself at their true value.
I shall not set down the details of my researches during the following few days, because the trend of them must be gone over in the account of that remarkable interview in which I took part somewhat later. Suffice it to say that an examination of the rooms and a close cross-questioning of Johnson satisfied me he and the two waiters were innocent. I became certain no thief had made his way through the window, and finally I arrived at the conclusion that the notes were stolen by one of the guests. Further investigation convinced me that the thief was no other than Lionel Dacre, the only one of the six in pressing need of money at this time. I caused Dacre to be shadowed, and during one of his absences made the acquaintance of his man Hopper, a surly impolite brute, who accepted my golden sovereign quickly enough, but gave me little in exchange for it. While I conversed with him, there arrived in the passage where we were talking together a huge case of champagne, bearing one of the best known names in the trade, and branded as being of the vintage of '78. Now I knew that the product of Camelot Freres is not bought as cheaply as British beer, and I also had learned that two short weeks before Mr. Lionel Dacre was at his wits' end for money. Yet he was still the same briefless barrister he had ever been.
On the morning after my unsatisfactory conversation with his man Hopper, I was astonished to receive the following note, written on a dainty correspondence card:
3 AND 4, VELLUM BUILDINGS, INNER TEMPLE, E.C. Mr. Lionel Dacre presents his compliments to Monsieur Eugene Valmont, and would be obliged if Monsieur Valmont could make it convenient to call upon him in his chambers to-morrow morning at eleven.
HAD the young man become aware that he was being shadowed, or had the surly servant informed him of the inquiries made? I was soon to know. I called punctually at eleven next morning, and was received with charming urbanity by Mr. Dacre himself. The taciturn Hopper had evidently been sent away for the occasion.
"My dear Monsieur Valmont, I am delighted to meet you," began the young man with more *of effusiveness than I had ever noticed in an Englishman before, although his very next words supplied an explanation that did not occur to me until afterwards as somewhat farfetched. "I believe we are by way of being countrymen, and, therefore, although the hour is early, I hope you will allow me to offer you some of this bottled sunshine of the year '78 from la belle France, to whose prosperity and honor we shall drink together. For such toast any hour is propitious," and to my amazement he brought forth from the case I had seen arrive two days before a bottle of that superb Camelot Freres' '78.
"Now," said I to myself, "it is going to be difficult to keep a clear head if the aroma of this nectar rises to the brain. But tempting as is the cup, I shall drink sparingly, and hope he may not be so judicious."
Sensitive, I already experienced the charm of his personality, and well understood the friendship Mr. Bentham Gibbes felt for him. But I saw the trap spread before me. He expected, under the influence of champagne and courtesy, to extract a promise from me which I must find myself unable to give.
"Sir, you interest me by claiming kinship with France. I had understood that you belonged to one of the oldest families of England."
"Ah, England!" he cried, with an expressive gesture of outspreading hands truly Parisian in its significance. "The trunk belongs to England, of course, but the root—ah! the root—Monsieur Valmont, penetrated the soil from which this wine of the gods has been drawn."
Then filling my glass and his own he cried: "To France, which my family left in the year 1066!"
I could not help laughing at his fervent ejaculation.
"1066! With William the Conqueror! That is a long time ago, Mr. Dacre."
"In years perhaps; in feelings but a day. My forefathers came over to steal, and, Lord! how well they accomplished it. They stole the whole country—something like a theft, say I—under that prince of robbers whom you have well named the Conqueror. In our secret hearts we all admire a great thief, and if not a great one, then an expert one, who covers his tracks so perfectly that the hounds of justice are baffled in attempting to follow them. Now even you, Monsieur Valmont (I can see you are the most generous of men, with a lively sympathy found to perfection only in France), even you must suffer a pang of regret when you lay a thief by the heels who has done his task deftly."
"I fear, Mr. Dacre, you credit me with a magnanimity to which I dare not lay claim. The criminal is a danger to society."
"True, true, you are in the right, Monsieur Valmont. Still, admit there are cases that would touch you tenderly. For example, a man ordinarily honest; a great need; a sudden opportunity. He takes that of which another has abundance, and he, nothing. What then, Monsieur Valmont? Is the man to be sent to perdition for a momentary weakness?"
His words astonished me. Was I on the verge of hearing a confession? It almost amounted to that already.
"Mr. Dacre," I said, "I cannot enter into the subtleties you pursue. My duty is to find the criminal."
"Again I say you are in the right, Monsieur Valmont, and I am enchanted to find so sensible a head on French shoulders. Although you are a more recent arrival, if I may say so, than myself, you nevertheless already give utterance to sentiments which do honor to England. It is your duty to hunt down the criminal. Very well. In that I think I can aid you, and thus have taken the liberty of requesting your attendance here this morning. Let me fill your glass again, Monsieur Valmont."
"No more, I beg of you, Mr. Dacre."
"What, do you think the receiver is as bad as the thief?"
I was so taken aback by this remark that I suppose my face showed the amazement within me. But the young man merely laughed with apparently free-hearted enjoyment, poured more wine into his own glass, and tossed it off. Not knowing what to say, I changed the current of conversation.
"Mr. Gibbes said you had been kind enough to recommend me to his attention. May I ask how you came to hear of me? "
"Ah! who has not heard of the renowned Monsieur Valmont," and as he said this, for the first time there began to grow a suspicion in my mind that he was chaffing me, as it is called in England—a procedure which I cannot endure. Indeed, if this gentleman practiced such a barbarism in my own country he would find himself with a duel on his hands before he had gone far. However, the next instant his voice resumed its original fascination, and I listened to it as to some delicious melody.
"I need only mention my cousin, Lady Gladys Dacre, and you will at once understand why I recommended you to my friend. The case of Lady Gladys, you will remember, required a delicate touch which is not always to be had in this land of England, except when those who possess the gift do us the honor to sojourn with us."
I noticed that my glass was again filled, and bowing an acknowledgment of his compliment, I indulged in another sip of the delicious wine. I sighed, for I began to realize it was going to be very difficult for me, in spite of my disclaimer, to tell this man's friend he had stolen the money. All this time he had been sitting on the edge of the table, while I occupied a chair at its end. He sat there in careless fashion, swinging a foot to and fro. Now he sprang to the floor, and drew up a chair, placing on the table a blank sheet of paper. Then he took from the mantelshelf a packet of letters, and I was astonished to see they were held together by two bits of cardboard and a rubber band similar to the combination that had contained the folded bank notes. With great nonchalance he slipped off the rubber band, threw it and the pieces of cardboard on the table before me, leaving the documents loose to his hand.
"Now, Monsieur Valmont," he cried jauntily, "you have been occupied for several days on this case, the case of my dear friend Bentham Gibbes, who is one of the best fellows in the world."
"He said the same of you, Mr. Dacre."
"I am gratified to hear it. Would you mind letting me know to what point your researches have led you?"
"They have led me in a direction rather than to a point."
"Ah! In the direction of a man, of course?"
"Who is he?"
"Will you pardon me if I decline to answer this question at the present moment?"
"That means you are not sure."
"It may mean, Mr. Dacre, that I am employed by Mr. Gibbes, and do not feel at liberty to disclose the results of my quest without his permission."
"But Mr. Bentham Gibbes and I are entirely at one in this matter. Perhaps you are aware that I am the only person with whom he has discussed the case besides yourself."
"That is undoubtedly true, Mr. Dacre; still, you see the difficulty of my position."
"Yes, I do, and so shall press you no farther. But I also have been studying the problem in a purely amateurish way, of course. You will perhaps express no disinclination to learn whether or not my deductions agree with yours."
"None in the least. I should be very glad to know the conclusion at which you have arrived. May I ask if you suspect anyone in particular?"
"Yes, I do."
"Will you name him?"
"No; I shall copy the admirable reticence you yourself have shown. And now let us attack this mystery in a sane and businesslike manner. You have already examined the room. Well, here is a rough sketch of it. There is the table; in this corner stood the chair on which the coat was flung. Here sat Gibbes at the head of the table. Those on the left-hand side had their backs to the chair. I, being on the center to the right, saw the chair, the coat, and the notes and called attention to them. Now our first duty is to find a motive. If it were a murder our motive might be hatred, revenge, robbery—what you like. As it is simply the stealing of money, the man must have been either a born thief or else some hitherto innocent person pressed to the crime by great necessity. Do you agree with me, Monsieur Valmont?"
"Perfectly. You follow exactly the line of my own reasoning."
"Very well. It is unlikely that a born thief was one of Mr. Gibbes's guests. Therefore we are reduced to look for a man under the spur of necessity; a man who has no money of his own, but who must raise a certain amount, let us say, by a certain date. If we can find such a man in that company, do you not agree with me that he is likely to be the thief?"
"Yes, I do."
"Then let us start our process of elimination. Out goes Viscount Stern, a lucky individual with twenty thousand acres of land, and God only knows what income. I mark off the name of Lord Templemere, one of his Majesty's judges, entirely above suspicion. Next, Sir John Sanclere; he also is rich, but Vincent Innis is still richer, so the pencil obliterates both names. Now we arrive at Angus McKeller, an author of some note, as you are well aware, deriving a good income from his books and a better one from his plays; a canny Scot, so we may rub his name from our paper and our memory. How do my erasures correspond with yours, Monsieur Valmont?"
"They correspond exactly, Mr. Dacre."
"I am flattered to hear it. There remains one name untouched, Mr. Lionel Dacre, the descendant, as I have said, of robbers."
"I have not said so, Mr. Dacre."
"Ah! my dear Valmont, the politeness of your country asserts itself. Let us not be deluded, but follow our inquiry wherever it leads. I suspect Lionel Dacre. What do you know of his circumstances before the dinner of the twenty-third?"
As I made no reply he looked up at me with his frank, boyinsh face illumined by a winning smile.
"You know nothing of his circumstances?" he asked.
"It grieves me to state that I do. Mr. Lionel Dacre was penniless on the night of the dinner."
"Oh, don't exaggerate, Monsierur Valmont," cried Dacre, with a gesture of pathetic protest; "his pocket held one sixpence, two pennies, and a half-penny. How came you to suspect he was penniless?"
"I knew he ordered a case of champagne from the Lonsdon representative of Camelot Freres, and was refused unless he paid money down."
"Quite right, and then when you were talking to Hopper you saw that the case of champagne delivered. Excellent! excellent! Monsieur Valmont. But will a man steal, think you, even to supply himself with so delicious a wine as this we have been tasting?—and, by the way, forgive my neglect. Allow me to fill your glass, Monsieur Valmont."
"Not another drop, if you will excuse me, Mr. Dacre."
"Ah, yes, champagne should not be mixed with evidence. When we have finished, perhaps. What further proof have you discovered, monsieur?"
"I hold proof that Mr. Dacre was threatened with bankruptcy if, on the twenty-fourth, he did not pay a bill of seventy-eight pounds that had been long outstanding. I hold proof that this was paid, not on the twenty-fourth, but on the twenty-sixth. Mr. Dacre had gone to the solicitor and assured him he would pay the money on that date, whereupon he was given two days' grace."
"Ah, well, he was entitled to three, you know, in law. Yes, there, Monsieur Valmont, you touch the fatal point. The threat of bankruptcy will drive a man in Dacre's position to almost any crime. Bankruptcy to a barrister means ruin. It means a career blighted; it means a life buried, with little chance of resurrection. I see, you grasp the supreme importance of that bit of evidence. The case of champagne is as nothing compared with it, and this reminds me that in the crisis now upon us I shall take another sip, with your permission. Sure you won't join me?"
"Not at this juncture, Mr. Dacre."
"I envy your moderation. Here's to the success of our search, Monsieur Valmont."
I felt sorry for the gay young fellow as with smiling face he drank the champagne.
"Now, monsieur," he went on, "I am amazed to learn how much you have discovered. Really, I think tradespeople, solicitors, and all such should keep better guard on their tongues than they do. Nevertheless, these documents at my elbow, which I expected would surprise you, are merely the letters and receipts. Here is the communication from the solicitor threatening me with bankruptcy; here is his receipt dated the twenty-sixth; here is the refusal of the wine merchant, and here is his receipt for the money. Here are smaller bills liquidated. With my pencil we will add them up. Seventy-eight pounds—the principal debt—bulks large. We add the smaller items and it reaches a total of ninety-three pounds seven shillings and fourpence. Let us now examine my purse. Here is a five-pound note; there is a golden sovereign. I now count out and place on the table twelve and sixpence in silver and twopence in coppers. The purse thus becomes empty. Let us add the silver and copper to the amount on the paper. Do my eyes deceive me, or is the sum exactly a hundred pounds? There is your money fully accounted for."
"Pardon me, Mr. Dacre," I said, "but there is still a sovereign resting on the mantelpiece."
Dacre threw back his head and laughed with greater heartiness than I had yet known him to indulge in during our short acquaintance.
"By Jove!" he cried; "you've got me there. I'd forgotten entirely about that pound on the mantelpiece, which belongs to you."
"To me? Impossible!"
"It does, and cannot interfere in the least with our century calculation. That is the sovereign you gave to my man Hopper, who, knowing me to be hard pressed, took it and shamefacedly presented it to me, that I might enjoy the spending of it. Hopper belongs to our family, or the family belongs to him. I am never sure which. You must have missed in him the deferential ring of a manservant in Paris, yet he is true gold, like the sovereign you bestowed upon him, and he bestowed upon me. Now here, monsieur, is the evidence of the theft, together with the rubber band and two pieces of cardboard. Ask my friend Gibbes to examine them minutely. They are all at your disposition, monsieur and thus you learn how much easier it is to deal with the master than with the servant. All the gold you possess would not have wrung these incriminating documents from old Hopper. I was compelled to send him away to the West End an hour ago, fearing that in his brutal British way he might assault you if he got an inkling of your mission."
"Mr. Dacre," said I slowly, "you have thoroughly convinced me——"
"I thought I would," he interrupted with a laugh.
"—that you did not take the money."
"Oho, this is a change of wind, surely. Many a man has been hanged on a chain of circumstantial evidence much weaker than this which I have exhibited to you. Don't you see the subtlety of my action? Ninety-nine persons in a hundred would say: 'No man could be such a fool as to put Valmont on his own track, and then place in Valmont's hands such striking evidence.' But there comes in my craftiness. Of course, the rock you run up against will be Gibbes's incredulity. The first question he will ask you may be this: 'Why did not Dacre come and borrow the money from me?' Now there you find a certain weakness in your chain of evidence. I knew perfectly well that Gibbes would lend me the money, and he knew perfectly well that if I were pressed to the wall I should ask him."
"Mr. Dacre," said I, "you have been playing with me. I should resent that with most men, but whether it is your own genial manner or the effect of this excellent champagne, or both together, I forgive you. But I am convinced of another thing. You know who took the money."
"I don't know, but I suspect."
"Will you tell me whom you suspect?"
"That would not be fair, but I shall now take the liberty of filling your glass with champagne."
"I am your guest, Mr. Dacre."
"Admirably answered, monsieur," he replied, pouring out the wine, "and now I offer you a clew. Find out all about the story of the silver spoons."
"The story of the silver spoons! What silver spoons?"
"Ah! That is the point. Step out of the Temple into Fleet Street, seize the first man you meet by the shoulder, and ask him to tell you about the silver spoons. There are but two men and two spoons concerned. When you learn who those two men are, you will know that one of them did not take the money, and I give you my assurance that the other did."
"You speak in mystery, Mr. Dacre."
"But certainly, for I am speaking to Monsieur Eugene Valmont."
"I echo your words, sir. Admirably answered. You put me on my mettle, and I flatter myself that I see your kindly drift. You wish me to solve the mystery of this stolen money. Sir, you do me honor, and I drink to your health."
"To yours, monsieur," said Lionel Dacre, and thus we drank and parted.
On leaving Mr. Dacre I took a hansom to a cafe in Regent Street, which is a passable imitation of similar places of refreshment in Paris. There, calling for a cup of black coffee, I sat down to think. The clew of the silver spoons! He had laughingly suggested that should take by the shoulders the first man I met, and ask him what the story of the silver spoons was. This course naturally struck me as absurd, and he doubtless intended it to seem absurd. Nevertheless, it contained a hint. I must ask somebody, and that the right person, to tell me the tale of the silver spoons.
Under the influence of the black coffee I reasoned it out in this way. On the night of the twenty-third one of the six guests there present stole a hundred pounds, but Dacre had said that an actor in the silver-spoon episode was the actual thief. That person, then, must have been one of Mr. Gibbes's guests at the dinner of the twenty-third. Probably two of the guests were the participators in the silver-spoon comedy, but, be that as it may, it followed that one, at least, of the men around Mr. Gibbes's table knew the episode of the silver spoons.
Perhaps Bentham Gibbes himself was cognizant of it. It followed, therefore, that the easiest plan was to question each of the men who partook of that dinner. Yet if only one knew about the spoons, that one must also have some idea that these spoons formed the clew which attached him to the crime of the twenty-third, in which case he was little likely to divulge what he knew to an entire stranger.
Of course, I might go to Dacre himself and demand the story of the silver spoons, but this would be a confession of failure on my part, and I rather dreaded Lionel Dacre's hearty laughter when I admitted that the mystery was too much for me. Besides this I was very well aware of the young man's kindly intentions toward me. He wished me to unravel the coil myself, and so I determined not to go to him except as a last resource.
I resolved to begin with Mr. Gibbes, and, finishing my coffee, I got again into a hansom, and drove back to the Temple. I found Bentham Gibbes in his room, and after greeting me, his first inquiry was about the case.
"How are you getting on?" he asked.
"I think I'm getting on fairly well," I replied, "and expect to finish in a day or two, if you will kindly tell me the story of the silver spoons."
"The silver spoons?" he echoed, quite evidently not understanding me.
"There happened an incident in which two men were engaged, and this incident related to a pair of silver spoons. I want to get the particulars of that."
"I haven't the slightest idea of what you are talking out," replied Gibbes, thoroughly bewildered. "You will need to be more definite, I fear, if you are to get any help from me."
"I cannot be more definite, because I have already told you all I know."
"What bearing has all this on our own case?"
"I was informed that if I got hold of the clew of the silver spoons I should be in a fair way of settling our case."
"Who told you that?"
"Mr. Lionel Dacre."
"Oh, does Dacre refer to his own conjuring?"
"I don't know, I'm sure. What was his conjuring?"
"A very clever trick he did one night at dinner here about two months ago."
"Had it anything to do with silver spoons?"
"Well, it was silver spoons or silver forks, or something of that kind. I had entirely forgotten the incident. So far as I recollect at the moment there was a sleight-of-hand man of great expertness in one of the music-halls, and the talk turned upon him. Then Dacre said the tricks he did were easy, and holding up a spoon or a fork, I don't remember which, he professed his ability to make it disappear before our eyes, to be found afterwards in the clothing of some one there present. Several offered to bet that he could do nothing of the kind, he said he would bet with no one but Innis, who sat opposite him. Innis, with some reluctance, accepted the bet, and then Dacre, with a great show of the usual conjurer's gesticulations, spread forth his empty hands, and said we should find the spoon in Innis's pocket, and there, sure enough, it was. It seemed a proper sleight-of-hand trick, but we were never able to get him to repeat it."
"Thank you very much, Mr. Gibbes; I think I see daylight now."
"If you do you are cleverer than I by a long chalk," cried Bentham Gibbes as I took my departure.
I went directly downstairs, and knocked at Mr. Dacre's door once more. He opened the door himself, his man not yet having returned.
"Ah, monsieur," he cried, "back already? You don't mean to tell me you have so soon got to the bottom of the silver-spoon entanglement?"
"I think I have, Mr. Dacre. You were sitting at dinner opposite Mr. Vincent Innis. You saw him conceal a silver spoon in his pocket. You probably waited for some time to understand what he meant by this, and as he did not return the spoon to its place, you proposed a conjuring trick, made the bet with him, and thus the spoon was returned to the table."
"Excellent! excellent, monsieur! that is very nearly what occurred, except that I acted at once. I had had experiences with Mr. Vincent Innis before. Never did he enter these rooms of mine without my missing some little trinket after he was gone. Although Mr. Innis is a very rich person, I am not a man of many possessions, so if anything is taken, I meet little difficulty in coming to a knowledge of my loss. Of course, I never mentioned these abstractions to him. They were all trivial, as I have said, and so far as the silver spoon was concerned, it was of no great value either. But I thought the bet and the recovery of the spoon would teach him a lesson; it apparently has not done so. On the night of the twenty-third he sat at my right hand, as you will see by consulting your diagram of the table and the guests. I asked him a question twice, to which he did not reply, and looking at him I was startled by the expression in his eyes. They were fixed on a distant corner of the room, and following his gaze I saw what he was staring at with such hypnotizing concentration. So absorbed was he in contemplation of the packet there so plainly exposed, now my attention was turned to it, that he seemed to be entirely oblivious of what was going on around him. I roused him from his trance by jocularly calling Gibbes's attention to the display of money. I expected in this way to save Innis from committing the act which he seemingly did commit. Imagine then the dilemma in which I was placed when Gibbes confided to me the morning after what had occurred the night before. I was positive Innis had taken the money, yet I possessed no proof of it. I could not tell Gibbes, and I dared not speak to Innis. Of course, monsieur, you do not need to be told that Innis is not a thief in the ordinary sense of the word. He had no need to steal, and yet apparently cannot help doing so. I am sure that no attempt has been made to pass those notes. They are doubtless resting securely in his house at Kensington. He is, in fact, a kleptomaniac, or a maniac of some sort. And now, monsieur, was my hint regarding the silver spoons of any value to you?"
"Of the most infinite value, Mr. Dacre."
"Then let me make another suggestion. I leave it entirely to your bravery; a bravery which, I confess, I do not myself possess. Will you take a hansom, drive to Mr. Innis's house on the Cromwell Road, confront him quietly, and ask for the return of the packet? I am anxious to know what will happen. If he hands it to you, as I expect he will, then you must tell Mr. Gibbes the whole story."
"Mr. Dacre, your suggestion shall be immediately acted upon, and I thank you for your compliment to my courage."
I found that Mr. Innis inhabited a very grand house. After a time he entered the study on the ground floor, to which I had been conducted. He held my card in his hand, and was looking at it with some surprise.
"I think I have not the pleasure of knowing you, Monsieur Valmont," he said courteously enough.
"No. I ventured to call on a matter of business. I was once investigator for the French Government, and now am doing private detective work here in London."
"Ah! And how is that supposed to interest me? There is nothing that I wish investigated. I did not send for you, did I?"
"No, Mr. Innis, I merely took the liberty of calling to ask you to let me have the package you took from Mr. Bentham Gibbes's frock-coat pocket on the night of the twenty-third."
"He wishes it returned, does he?"
Mr. Innis calmly walked to a desk, which he unlocked and opened, displaying a veritable museum of trinkets of one sort and another. Pulling out a small drawer he took from it the packet containing the five twenty-pound notes. Apparently it had never been opened. With a smile he handed it to me.
"You will make my apologies to Mr. Gibbes for not returning it before. Tell him I have been unusually busy of late."
"I shall not fail to do so," said I, with a bow.
"Thanks so much. Good morning, Monsieur Valmont."
"Good morning, Mr. Innis."
And so I returned the packet to Mr. Bentham Gibbes, who pulled the notes from between their pasteboard protection, and begged me to accept them.