ir Peter Charmeigh had warned his wife more than once that she would be robbed of her diamonds if she was not more careful to lock them up. The newspapers were chronicling great jewel robberies at this time; and Sir Peter one day emphasised his warnings by bringing home from London a fine ebony strong-box, with the most adorable of gold keys attached as a pendant to a bracelet.
This pretty gift quite delighted Lady Charmeigh, who convoked all her acquaintances to the Hall to see her wonderful anti-burglar safe. A description of it somehow got into the county papers. It was of globular shape, about the size of a big schoolroom globe, and mounted in the same fashion on a stand with a pivot. An ingenious mechanism, which had to be wound up every morning, kept it spinning round all day at the rate of thirty revolutions a minute, and any attempt to check it in its course resulted in the ringing of a loud alarum. The way to stop it was to press with the foot a nob on one of the legs of the stand, and when it had ceased revolving, to form a word with some movable letters set in a circular plate at the top of the globe. After this it was all plain sailing. You had only to insert the gold key in a cavity of the middle letter, which formed a keyhole, to give one turn to the right, and two to the left, and then the box opened of itself into two halves, each forming a receptacle full of compartments lined with blue velvet. There was a place for rings, another for bracelets, a third for tiaras, one for money, and so forth; and all were perfectly adapted to their special uses. In fact, it was a beautiful box, and Lady Charmeigh spent a most amusing week in experimenting on it before her friends, who knew not whether to admire it most when it spun round and round, making its steel incrustations flash in the light, or when it stood open revealing a wealth of trinkets almost unmatched, for the "Charmeigh diamonds" were famous from London to Amsterdam.
Unfortunately Lady Charmeigh was one of those persons who soon tire of a new toy. A pretty little woman with large earnest blue eyes and a smiling mouth, she had in many things the ways of a petted child, and could not bear trouble nor contradiction. So long as her safe gave her amusement, she scrupulously locked up her jewels in it; but when the novelty had worn off and it became a question of touching a nob, forming a word, and turning a key once to the right and twice to the left every time she wanted to get out a ring or a locket, she began to find the process troublesome. Sir Peter made things worse by solemnly winding up the mechanism himself every morning and lecturing upon its perfections. He was as proud of the safe as if he was the inventor, and took an altogether professional pleasure in polishing its steel-work with a piece of wash-leather, and explaining how the key should be turned, with a little push forward to start some hidden spring about which he was very learned. Sir Peter was a rather fidgety middle-aged gentleman, with a fat face, and there were times when, hearing him prose about the beauties of machinery, Lady Charmeigh felt inclined to sit down and scream. Besides, there was another cause of irritation. The talismanic word necessary to open this precious strong-box altered every day of the week, so that Lady Charmeigh, who had a defective memory, was constantly making mistakes. She spelt "Jupiter" when it ought to have been "Mercury," and finding the box would not cease its spinning, tried to stop it with her small hands; whereupon it would set up a yelling with its alarum like that of a peevish beast molested. Any one who knows what a pretty woman's nerves are, will quite understand how, at the end of a fortnight, Lady Charmeigh came to hate her strong-box with an intense and unquenchable loathing. The very sound it made in revolving, a well-oiled purring sound, was odious to her; and if it had not been for her maid, who took as great a delight in the instrument as Sir Peter did, Lady Charmeigh would have left off locking up her jewelry in it, and practised some little deceit towards her husband; but every time she forgot to lock up a trinket, Martha (or Patty) Raggles, her maid, would exclaim,
"O, my lady, think of what Sir Peter would say if he knew you left those jools a-lyin' about, and he so afeard of burglars. O my goodness!"
Patty was herself very much afraid of thieves. She was a simple good-natured country wench, who had lived a little while with Lady Charmeigh before the latter's marriage; and who, having spent five years in her service since, had become expert at hair-dressing, lace-ironing, and dress-making - more so than at speaking elegant English. Her colloquialisms were vulgar, but her heart was sound, and her mistress was very fond of her; for, indeed, Lady Charmeigh liked all people who were good-natured and did not tease her, and bore her occasional outbreaks of bad temper with philosophy. However, there were some tiffs between her ladyship and the maid respecting the strong-box. Lady Charmeigh thought Patty too officious about it, and reminded her rather tartly that when the box had first come into the house she - Patty - had been horribly afraid of it as of a live thing. This was perfectly true; but we grow accustomed to things we had at first disliked; and Patty had made friends with the "live" box, as she might with a snappish dog who had proved tractable on closer acquaintance. There was even something pathetic in her artless admiration of its strength and beauties; and as the girl was right to advise her mistress to be cautious about her jewels of so great price, Lady Charmeigh gave up quarrelling about the matter. Only it so chanced that Patty went home for a month's holiday to keep house for a married sister who was ill; and then Lady Charmeigh took an easy opportunity of removing all her trinkets from the safe, unknown to her husband, and restoring them to her drawers. Sir Peter continued to wind up the safe gravely every morning; but there was nothing in it.
Now it was about a week after this little daily farce had begun to be enacted - a week, that is, after Patty's departure - when Charmeigh Hall became the scene of a memorable burglary which furnished a month's table-talk to every mansion in England.
One November evening, while Sir Peter was entertaining some of his brother magistrates and their wives at dinner, Lady Charmeigh's dressing-room was entered by means of a ladder placed under a window that looked into the garden, and the safe, the famous safe, was broken open like a walnut. The burglars must have commenced operations very soon after the company sat down to dinner, and they must have been amazingly quick about their work; for it was no later than eight when a housemaid entering the room surprised them, and gave instant alarm by screaming and falling down in hysterics. The burglars decamped with alacrity; and the company, attracted by the noise, hurried upstairs, preceded by Sir Peter, with his mouth full and a napkin in one hand. It was a singular sight. Ladies shivering in their dinner-dresses, and huddling close to gentlemen in evening clothes; Lady Charmeigh herself, pale with terror, and crossing her hands over the low body of her cerise dress, as if afraid that some robbers would snatch at the lovely pearl necklace which she wore round her throat; and then fat Sir Peter, who looked as if he wished he had brought a poker with him instead of a napkin, which was not much of a weapon to fight with in case of assault.
There was a moment's anxious silence when the door of the dressing-room was reached; and then a very shout of anguish escaped from Sir Peter, who tottered with sudden faintness: "Great heavens, the safe has been ransacked, and all the jewels have been stolen!"
"The Charmeigh diamonds stolen!" This dismayed cry was echoed by the entire company, including footmen, butler, cook, and housemaids grouped at the top of the staircase in attitudes expressive of consternation. The butler felt so bad that he sat down on the stairs to compose himself, and the tallest of the pair of housemaids tried to soothe him.
"O dear, dear!" cried Lady Charmeigh; and she too being overcome, staggered into the room, and sank on an ottoman.
"Poor thing!" exclaimed a certain Lady Vilious, who was her best friend, and had always envied her the possession of these diamonds. "Poor dear! perhaps the thieves will be caught with their plunder. Let us hope so!"
"Never!" yelled Sir Peter, mopping the dew of emotion off his face with the napkin. "Those fellows are never caught; they get clean away, and have the diamonds recut in Holland. Think of that! Diamonds which have been in my family for two centuries, and worth a hundred thousand pounds at least!" Something like a sob accompanied these words.
"It is indeed a loss!" ejaculated Lady Vilious with a great show of sympathy; but there was a gleam in her eyes. She was a mincing sort of lady, with thin lips and a cold glance. By this time everybody had crowded into the dressing-room. The chill night air blowing through the open window struck upon the bare shoulders of the ladies; the wax-candles flickered; some of the gentlemen craned out of the window, peering through the darkness for sight or sound of the retreating thieves. One of them hallooed because he espied a cat.
Most of those present, however, concentrated their attention upon the impenetrable safe which had yielded so ignominiously to a first attack. It had evidently been burst, and not left open accidentally by Lady Charmeigh, as Sir Peter at first suspected; for it bore marks of violence. The thieves must have got possession of the secret for stopping its rotation, since the alarums had not been sounded; but they had failed to form the word which made the lock act, and so they had simply prised the two halves of the safe apart with their crowbars. There stood the globe open, and void of everything except a small portrait of Sir Peter on enamel, which the thieves had had the bad taste not to regard as valuable. For the rest, they seemed to have laid hand on every trinket, large or small; and thus the disaster was revealed as being so big that Sir Peter's visitors felt as if common expressions of sympathy would be mockery. Even the plumper and older squires, who were disgusted at having been roused from dinner between the fish and the entrées, recognised that there are conjunctures in which a host may be pardoned for forgetting that there are still two courses to discuss. They surrounded Lady Charmeigh, whom they naturally imagined to be plunged in an abyss of grief - one of the worst griefs that a pretty woman can know; for diamonds are not only precious in themselves, but they are dewdrops on feminine beauty, and help to make it shine.
Judge, then, of the surprise of the assemblage when her ladyship, who appeared to be sobbing with her face buried in her handkerchief, suddenly looked up, her features being aglow with merriment, and burst into an incontrollable fit of laughter. The guests glanced at one another, thinking she must have lost her reason; but when peal after peal had rung out from her pretty mouth, without evoking one responsive smile, she checked herself, and rose, blushing but still amused.
"Excuse me, I know it's very wrong," she said; "but the fact is my jewels have not been stolen at all. See here; and, unlocking the glass door of her wardrobe, she pointed to a multitude of velvet and shagreen cases lying all unharmed upon the shelves.
"What, you had not put them in the safe, then?" exclaimed Sir Peter, divided between intense relief and annoyance that his orders had not been obeyed.
"No; I thought it would be unsafe to do so," said Lady Charmeigh, with a fresh laugh. "Everybody has been talking so much of my strong-box that I felt convinced its secrets must have become matters of notoriety; so I reasoned that if burglars broke into the house they would spend all their efforts on the safe, without exploring elsewhere. And it seems I was right."
"Bravo!" ejaculated Lady Charmeigh's cousin, Dick Lyster, a Hussar. "By Jove, that's what I call good tactics, cousin." And so said all the other gentlemen, with applauding murmurs.
"And do you mean to say there was nothing whatever in the box?" asked Sir Peter, who could scarcely believe he had a wife of so much wit.
"Nothing of consequence: I had removed all my treasures," answered my lady.
"You forget your husband's portrait, my dear," remarked Lady Vilious, who had been smiling yellow, as the French say.
"O, I left that in the box, so as to be able to say truthfully that it did contain something precious," replied Lady Charmeigh, with ready tact; but she mentally scored down her good friend for reprisals on the earliest opportunity.
"Well, all I can say is that you deserve to be made keeper of the Crown jewels, cousin Amy," cried Captain Dick, with genuine admiration. "You have found out the true uses of safes."
"Yes, to put nothing in them," smiled Lady Charmeigh. "And now let us go back to dinner; I am really ashamed that our appetites should have been spoiled for nothing."
They did return to dinner, some with appetites rather renovated than impaired; and the talk at table was all about the ingenuity and sense which the winsome hostess had displayed, not only in taking her measures against burglars, but in keeping her counsel about them. In the course of the evening servants were despatched to give information to the police, and detectives were sent afield, who of course discovered nothing, after the manner of their kind, though they went to work with sapient looks and handfuls of "clues." During a whole fortnight, however, the papers discussed the great burglary at Charmeigh Hall, and Lady Charmeigh was complimented on her "happy thought." She became quite a heroine, renowned among fair women as a type of the prudent châtelaine.
All this was very fine; but Sir Peter Charmeigh did not feel much like a hero. He and the maker of the safe laid their heads together, and agreed that this triumph of mechanical craft ought never to have been burst open, and could not have been if the most ordinary rules of dynamics had been followed in forcing it. They were like the historians, enumerating the hundred and one reasons why Waterloo ought not to have been won by the English. The safe-maker wrote a letter to the Times on this subject, and Sir Peter gloomily recommended it to the perusal of his wife, who, however, preferred to read the leading articles, in which her praises were set forth. Since the burglary she had adopted rather a hoighty-toity attitude, as of one who has asserted her wisdom beyond dispute. Sir Peter was humiliated, and there came a day when he seriously began to think that his wife's pride required taking down a little.
One is sorry to say that these views, too candidly expressed, led to some disagreeable scenes. Sir Peter was a pompous man, who liked to play Sir Oracle in his own house, and his occupation would have been gone if he had been obliged to give up fault-finding and counselling. The first time that he heard Lady Charmeigh yawn over some wise saw of his, it was as though the knell of marital authority had sounded in his ears, and he expressed himself bitterly on this point to Dick Lyster, who was staying at the Hall. He could not have chosen a better confidant or a worse one: a better, for Dick liked him and gave him ready sympathy; a worse one, for this same Dick was an incorrigible practical joker, who forthwith began turning over a plan for getting a good laugh out of the domestic situation.
"Look here," said he to the Baronet, as they sat together over their walnuts and wine. "You must teach Amy a lesson, or else she'll be losing her jewels from over-confidence."
"That's what I'm always telling her, but she won't listen," answered miserable Sir Peter. "Those wretched newspapers have turned her head. She has no consideration for my feelings nor for my experience."
"You must recover your prestige with a grand stroke," remarked the Hussar. "Suppose you prove to Amy that you are right by stealing all her jewels yourself."
"I steal my wife's jewels?"
"Yes; you can make a capital joke of it. You leave the Hall, saying you are going up to London on business for two days; you return quietly in the evening, enter the house without being seen, and carry off the jewels in the night to your dressing-room. In the morning, after Amy has had a good scare, you come forward and explain the pleasantry. I'll be bound you are master in your own house after that!"
"You have queer ideas, Dick," said Sir Peter, amazed, but evidently tempted. "If I were ten years younger I don't say..."
"What have ten years to do with it? You are quite young enough to enter into a piece of fun. However, just leave the business details to me; I will be your confederate and help to mount this little comedy."
Sir Peter had not sagacity enough to see that a husband who plots how he may inflict a deep wound on his wife's vanity is playing a dangerous game. He looked only to the recovery of his supremacy, though, to do him justice, he really did feel very anxious about the Charmeigh diamonds, which were his family pride. When a family has nothing else to be proud of, it takes to being proud about its belongings; and since the burglary, Sir Peter had often reflected with indignation that it was a melancholy thing to see a hundred thousand poundsí worth of property in the hands of a giddy little woman, who had no proper respect for her treasure. Why, that very evening Sir Peter had seen a priceless necklace lying on the dressing-room table with no one present to guard it. On the whole, though, it is doubtful whether the Baronet would have entered into Dick Lyster's scheme had not the Hussar plied him with a glass or two of port in excess of his usual ration. This set him babbling about the obstinacy and foolishness of women - subjects upon which country gentlemen are always very eloquent when they have well drunk. By the end of an hour he was almost game for anything, and kept chuckling to himself in anticipation of the triumph he should enjoy when he heard his Amy "screaming and wringing her hands all over the place." He was imparting his vision of this bliss to Dick, when the butler entered to say that my lady's maid had a message to deliver; and next moment Patty Raggles came in to announce that Lady Charmeigh felt indisposed and had gone up to her room, so that she begged the gentlemen to excuse her for not meeting them at tea in the drawing-room. As Dick and Sir Peter were the only gentlemen in question, this incident was of not much consequence; but it surprised Sir Peter to see Patty, whom he believed to be still away on her holiday.
"Why, Patty, I did not know you had returned," said he.
"Yes, Sir Peter. I came back this evening," rejoined the damsel, with a curtsey.
"Home air seems to have done you good; your cheeks are like roses. Well, I suppose you heard of the great burglary that took place here whilst you were gone?"
"Yes, Sir Peter; it gave me quite a turn. O, those burglars! only to think of their wicked impudence! And then that safe too, who'd ever have thought it would have let itself be burst open? But you see, Sir Peter, you and I was in the wrong, and my lady was right after all."
Sir Peter pulled a face, and Dick Lyster smiled.
"I never much liked that girl," remarked the Baronet when Patty left the room; but Dick, making the most of his opportunity, observed that it was time for Sir Peter to be up and stirring, since his servants were criticising his judgment. Then abruptly:
"But why not act this very night? The occasion is most propitious. Amy has gone to bed early, the maid will be busy chattering about her holiday adventures in the servants' hall. I am sure that jewelry will be lying about in heaps on all the tables."
"But how am I to act to-night?" asked Sir Peter, feeling a little of his valour ooze out of him.
"Why, we'll sit up until all the household are in bed, and then go into the garden and see if it isn't possible for you to effect an entrance through some window or unlocked door that will give you an opportunity of testing the vigilance of your servants."
"Isn't it rather a queer thing to do? I think I should look very foolish if caught climbing through a window with a ladder. Why, one of the servants might send a charge of shot into my back."
"No fear; we'll manage so as not to be seen."
"But, I say, don't you feel it's rather a cold night? Shouldn't we do well to put the thing off till we have matured our plans?
Sir Peter was evidently trying to back out; but Dick Lyster would not allow him to do this. "No," said he, giving him a slap on the thigh; "I want to see you wearing the domestic crown again. I'll make a potentate of you in your own despite. No funking now."
A couple of hours later, when midnight had struck, and all Charmeigh Hall was hushed in repose, two figures might have been seen groping their way like malefactors in the obscurity of the garden. It was a very dark night indeed, and Sir Peter's teeth chattered partly from cold and partly from nervousness, though he had sought to steady himself with pretty deep potations. Dick Lyster was grinning like a Cheshire cat. As he made for the shed where the gardeners kept their ladders, he could not help laughing at the remarkable aspect of Sir Peter, who, to equip himself for his burglary, had put on a thick overcoat, furred gloves, and a flannel cricket-cap, which he had tied down on his head with a silk pocket-handkerchief, intended to protect his ears. He could no more have run, if chevied, than a wine-tun can gallop. However, there were impulses of resolution in his demeanour, and he kept on repeating that he was doing all this solely to assert his dignity. "A man must be a man," said he dolefully, as his teeth chattered.
A ladder was soon found, and the two men carrying it across the garden with stealthy steps planted it under the window of Lady Charmeigh's dressing-room. Dick, who was a nimble gymnast, then made haste to climb the ladder, and on reaching the top tried the window, which by an almost miraculous coincidence proved to be open. This Dick announced, when he had slid down like a monkey, and the news exasperated Sir Peter, who saw in it another proof of his wife's incurable giddiness, for he never suspected that Dick himself had unfastened the bolt that afternoon. "Why, Amy must be mad to act in this way less than a month after the burglary; and a window open in November too!"
"Such a woman deserves to lose her jewels," concurred the Hussar feelingly.
"She never deserved to have any; and I say when I've got them, I've a good mind to lodge them in the bank; that will tease her."
"Right you are; your thoughts are those of a sage. But look sharp now."
"That ladder seems a very tall one," observed Sir Peter, with his foot on the lowest rung. "But mind you, I am only doing this strange thing out of regard for my dignity."
"Of course; and I'll mount guard below from the same feeling," laughed Dick. "Up you go."
The ascent of Sir Peter up the ladder did not prove such an easy and graceful affair as Dick's had been. It rather resembled the progress of a stout bear up a pole. Twice the corpulent Baronet paused and listened to the sad soughing of the wind through the chestnut-trees of his park, for it seemed as though he heard voices mocking him. Once he uttered an exclamation on feeling the ladder creak; and when he got to the top and placed his hand on the cold stone of the window-sill a shiver ran through his limbs. Here a little piece of high gymnastics became necessary, for the problem to be solved was how to get into the room without any noise. To an agile man this would have been easy; but to a fat one it was a thing of trouble, causing wheezes and puffings, besides profuse perspiration. Intent on his dignified purpose, though, Sir Peter made his best exertions, and contrived somehow to land himself into the dressing-room on his back with a soft thump like that of a bag of linen for the wash. Luckily the carpet was thick, and the noise woke no echoes. Crawling to his legs in the dim light - for there were embers of a fire still aglow in the grate - Sir Peter leaned out of the window, and signalled to Dick that it was "all right" by waving his handkerchief. Then he thrust a match against a red coal, and proceeded to light one of the candles on the chimney-piece. This was a delicate moment. If Lady Charmeigh saw the light through her bedroom door, which stood ajar, the whole enterprise would break down. But her ladyship was sound asleep. Sir Peter satisfied himself about that by entering her room on tiptoe, and listening to her breathing soft and regular as an infant's.
"Foolish woman," he repeated, as he stood by the bed. "Here now, if I were a real burglar, I could kill her outright."
The thought made him shudder, but it also impelled him with the desire to do his work quickly and to do it well. He caught sight of himself in a glass, and felt that he looked like a real burglar, insomuch that he was startled by the expression of rapine imprinted on his sleek face. It is a fact that the countenances of men reflect their occupations pretty vividly. Sir Peter exhibited quite a burglarious dexterity of touch in running his hands over the toilet-table in the bedroom to find out whether there were any valuables there. He durst not bring a light into the room, and it was some moments before he could accustom his eyes to the semi-obscurity. When he did so he perceived that there were no trinkets at all lying about. The only thing on the table was a gold porte-bonheur, with the key of the famous safe attached to it by a chain. Sir Peter looked into the wardrobe, whose door was open - same result. Not an article of any sort that thieves would care to take was visible. "Why," soliloquised the disgusted Baronet, "I shouldn't wonder if, now that the secret of the safe is exploded, Amy had taken to lodging her jewels there just to spite me."
He returned noiselessly to the dressing-room, and there sure enough saw the globular strong-box standing in its appointed corner, and revolving with that quiet purring sound which Lady Charmeigh had lately abhorred.
Now the sight profoundly astonished Sir Peter, for he was not aware that the safe had been mended. It moreover incensed him, for that Lady Charmeigh should have entered into communication with the safe-maker without telling him anything about it was evidently a slight upon that marital dignity concerning which he was so sensitive. As Sir Peter seldom went into his wife's dressing-room, he had not seen the strong-box for more than a fortnight, and he now began to walk round and round it, examining it with the stealthy attention of a caged animal inspecting some strange thing. It had been perfectly mended, and looked from its massiveness as if it could defy the attacks of any gang of cracksmen.
"Well, of all the perverse, incomprehensible, wayward creatures, women are the worst!" exclaimed Sir Peter. "Only to think of the jewels being in that safe now. Amy has forgotten to lock up her key, though, which is just like her. I'll open the box, and as sure as I'm alive every diamond shall be put into the bank tomorrow. We shall see what you think of your precious cleverness then, my lady!"
Sir Peter chuckled in malicious glee, and stole back to the bedroom. As he returned with the bracelet and key, he looked out of the window and saw Dick Lyster smoking a cigar patiently at the foot of the ladder. It had been arranged that Dick should remain at this post until the burglary had been consummated, and then go off to bed, leaving the ladder standing under the open window to frighten the servants in the morning. Sir Peter, on his side, was to return to his own quarters without, of course, passing through the window again. So confident did the Baronet now feel of success that, to spare Dick the trouble of remaining out longer in the cold, he dropped his pocket-handkerchief into the garden, which was the preconcerted signal that everything had gone off well and that Dick might depart. Having done this, Sir Peter, who felt hot from perspiration and excitement, doffed his overcoat, coat, and gloves, and betook himself to business, key in hand.
"Let me see, to-day is Thursday," said he, "so 'Jupiter' will be the word." He touched the nob on the stand with his foot, and the globe became motionless. A few turns of the disk at the top of the globe brought up the letters of the word 'Jupiter,' and then Sir Peter inserted his key into a cavity between the body and the dot of the middle letter i. But at this moment an appalling thing occurred. A Roman candle starting up under the marauder's nose exploded with a deafening bang, the alarum began to ring like mad, and at the same time Sir Peter felt his hand tight imprisoned in a steel loop which clutched him with bruising force.
"Help!" bawled the miserable man, for the clasp hurt him, besides which his hair and eyebrows had been singed by the powder of the Roman candle, and he was frightened out of his wits. "Help! murder! thieves! Hie, Amy!"
Lady Charmeigh, unable to distinguish the sound of her husband's voice, had jumped out of bed in a panic and run into the passage, where she was uttering piercing shrieks. These, joined to the maddened vociferations of Sir Peter, who was the more scarified from being in the dark, as he had upset the candle and could not understand what was happening to him, speedily roused the whole household. There was a stampede of feet down corridors, an opening and shutting of doors, and then presently Sir Peter heard the sharp firm voice of Patty Raggles saying,
"O, it's a burglar caught in your ladyship's new trap. We needn't be afraid of him. Just let me teach him a lesson with this riding-whip. Come along, John, Thomas, Charles, all of you."
The door of the dressing-room was thrown back and a curious procession filed in - the butler and footmen in shirtsleeves and trousers, the maids in their smocks and flannel petticoats; behind all, Lady Charmeigh wrapped in a peignoir, and trembling. But Patty Raggles, with a quite manly courage, strode in front brandishing one of her mistress's riding-whips. Sir Peter had become silent and sheepish, expecting to be released, and he turned a bewildered countenance towards his servants, forgetting that it was impossible for them to recognise him with his blackened face, to say nothing of the cricket-cap and handkerchief which converted him into a villainous guy. Besides, the noise of the alarum, which continued to ring twice as loud as any telegraph-bell, drowned the sound of his voice, when he piteously ejaculated,
"You is it?" answered Patty Raggles roughly; and, to the horror and fury of Sir Peter, the strong-armed wench began belabouring the chubbiest parts of his lower man with terrific slashing cuts. "There, take that," she said, "and that, and that! Now a few on the hands to warm you this cold weather. Ah, you don't like it, I see! well, try another dose on the legs - whish, whish!"
It was in vain that poor fat Sir Peter leaped, danced, yelled, cursed; the louder he roared, the more was the natural sound of his voice altered; and, meanwhile, his gambols were so ludicrous, he was evidently suffering such exquisite pain from his whipping, that the spectators could not forbear to laugh. Lady Charmeigh, whose risible faculties were easily stirred, was the first to set the example, and though she said, "Enough, Patty, enough," she could not check her tittering. The servants, emboldened by her conduct, fairly guffawed to see a rogue, as they imagined, get his full deserts, and so the comedy might have continued some time longer, had not Dick Lyster suddenly appeared on the scene in a dressing-gown, and exclaimed,
"I say, what's all this uproar? Why, it's Sir Peter you are thrashing!"
"Sir Peter!" cried Patty, falling back, and she let the whip drop.
"Sir Peter!" exclaimed Lady Charmeigh, stupefied, and she advanced as if doubting whether this were not a hoax. "Why, how come you to be here?" she cried, as soon as she could recognise her lord.
"Loose me from this, will you?" roared the Baronet, ferocious from pain and rage.
"Why, how are you caught?" said Lady Charmeigh. "Let me see, I don't know if I remember how this catch can be unfastened. Do you, Patty?"
"Yes, my lady; I'll loose Sir Peter," said Patty bustling forward. "And, O sir, I'm so sorry for the whipping I gave yer. I do hope your poor body isn't sore?"
"Out of my sight, you drab!" thundered the Baronet, as soon as he was released. "Never let me see you again; and all you others clear off this instant. What are you all gaping at?"
Sir Peter was quite wild, and the room was cleared without more ado; but as soon as the husband and wife were alone together, Lady Charmeigh became grave, and said severely,
"Now will you please explain to me how you came to cause such a scandalous scene?"
"O, bother!" groaned Sir Peter. "Fetch me some arnica; I feel as if my wrist were coming off. And, O, mercy, look at my hands and legs!"
From that hour Sir Peter Charmeigh was a subjugated man. Not that her ladyship made an ungenerous use of her triumph; for she was, indeed, very good-natured in trying to salve the wounds inflicted on her husband's self-esteem, not less than in embrocating those which his limbs had endured. Knowing how painful it must be to him to see in the house servants who had been witnesses of his discomfiture, she dismissed most of them, and would even have found a new situation for Patty Raggles had Sir Peter insisted on it; but he did not, for the wench became meek and hysterical, vowing she was ready to die of grief for having whipped so good a master, and promising to throw herself into a pond if she were discharged. Sir Peter told her to stay and be hanged; and he appeared to be insensible to his wife's blandishments, though she really did all that a loving wife can do to atone for her share in his misadventure. But the story had of course leaked out, and Sir Peter was chaffed by his country friends in a style most galling to the pride of a consequential man. Wherever he went - whether to cover-side, magistrates' meetings, agricultural shows - he was jocosely asked whether Lady Charmeigh's diamonds were safe, and some ill-natured wag had the baseness to send her ladyship anonymously a new riding-whip with a facetious inscription on its gold nob. To make matters worse, Sir Peter began to have misgivings that the whole affair of the sham burglary had been planned between Dick Lyster and Patty Raggles on purpose to get him punished and to make him ridiculous. Lady Vilious, Amy's good friend, set this rumour about, and caused much annoyance to Lady Charmeigh by so doing. Her ladyship roundly taxed the Hussar with the imputed freak; but he denied with so much earnestness, word-of-honouring, and so forth, that there was no option but to believe him. However, Lady Charmeigh deemed it good policy to remove her safe out of Sir Peter's sight. It was stowed away in a lumber-room, and the Baronet never made any allusions to it. It was noticed also that his interest in machinery perceptibly declined from this time.
Everything passes, even rancour among married couples; and so it befell that, after a few months, the recollection of his trouble grew less bitter in Sir Peter's mind, and matters ran again in their old grooves at Charmeigh Hall. No more burglars were heard of, and Lady Charmeigh, trusting in her good star, fell to thinking that since her diamonds had braved such desperate raids, they must have charmed lives. But in this she was wrong, and it was her destiny to go through a much more trying experience than the first two which had fallen to her lot.
Spring came, and with it the London season, when the Charmeighs were wont to remove to their town house in Park-lane. The day fixed for their departure was a fine sunny Monday in April; but the sudden illness of one of Sir Peter's uncles obliged the Baronet to go and spend a few days with the relative, and so Lady Charmeigh went to London alone. Her servants accompanied her, and with them Patty Raggles. Now Patty had been in unaccountably low spirits for some weeks past, and her mistress was very anxious about her. There were times when the girl was almost flighty with a causeless gaiety, and others when she appeared smitten with hypochondria, so sullen was she and peevish. Lady Charmeigh was too good-hearted a little woman not to endeavour with all her might to ascertain the motives for her favourite servant's depression of spirits; and she had ended by eliciting, after some trouble, that Patty was in love with one of the footmen who had been discharged after the affair with Sir Peter. This man, said Patty, had thoughts of emigrating to America, and she wanted to go with him, though the idea of expatriation made her wretched. There were perhaps other causes for her sadness which she did not mention; anyhow, on the evening of her arrival in London, while Lady Charmeigh was sitting in her boudoir after dinner, Patty startled her mistress by saying that she meant to leave her situation in three days. Her manner was agitated, and she seemed ready to cry; but she did not actually shed tears, only whimpered.
"Well, but, Patty, this is surely a foolish resolution. Why does not Charles Brown stay in England? I told you he should have money until he had procured himself a new situation."
"It's all of no use, my lady. He wants to go to America to better himself. He's not the sort to be a footman, my lady; such work isn't good enough for him."
"But he may go farther to fare worse - you should tell him that; and in any case, you, Patty, ought not to leave this country until you are sure of finding a home elsewhere."
"I can't let Charles go alone, my lady; he would be taking up with some other girl if I did."
"I am afraid you will regret acting with this precipitation."
"Perhaps I shall, my lady; but it can't be helped. What I'm most sorry for is the leaving you." Hereupon Patty Raggles burst out crying in earnest.
Lady Charmeigh could not see laughter without laughing, nor tears without weeping; so when her maid had left the room she sat down to have a good cry, all comfortably by herself. This by and by produced a reaction under the form of a desire to go to bed and put disagreeables out of mind. But when her ladyship was undressed the sleepiness wore off, and she felt rather inclined to have a cup of tea and read a novel. So she wrapped herself in her dressing-robe and sat down in a cosy armchair opposite the fire, with an amusing book on her lap. It was then nearly midnight, and Patty, after having set the tea-tray, retired to rest. Presently Lady Charmeigh heard the servants putting the chain to the hall-door, and the house became silent. By this time the amusing book had produced the usual effect, and Lady Charmeigh felt drowsy. She closed her eyes, and sank into an agreeable doze.
This had lasted, perhaps, an hour, when she was abruptly roused by a sensation of somebody being present in the room. She opened her eyes, and to her speechless stupefaction saw two tall men standing before her with crape masks on their faces. To scream was impossible in the hideous terror she felt; she could only rise to her feet and murmur inarticulately, whilst her eyes were distended to twice their natural size. Her brain swam, and she had a vague idea that she was dreaming; but this thought was soon dispelled.
"Now, ma'am, we're not going to hurt you if you don't make a noise," said one of the men rather kindly than gruffly. "If you scream, see this;" and he held up the naked blade of a razor.
"But what do you want?" faltered Lady Charmeigh, who was blanched of all colour, and could hardly speak her words.
"Your jewels, ma'am. Give us your keys. Sit quiet, and we sha'n't touch you."
"Never!" cried Lady Charmeigh, with the courage of the desperate. "You are wicked men. You may kill me if you like; but, O, help, O!"
As she opened her mouth to cry, one of the men brusquely encircled her with his arms and held her tight, while the other pressed a handkerchief over her mouth and nostrils. There was chloroform on the handkerchief, and so much of it that Lady Charmeigh gasped. For a few seconds she attempted to struggle; but then her limbs relaxed, she drew a deep breath, and sank back unconscious. Her aggressors gently deposited her on the floor.
When Lady Charmeigh came to herself, after an interval of time which she could not reckon, she found she had been robbed of every valuable she possessed. The Charmeigh diamonds were gone to the last one; the very rings on her fingers had been taken; her money, her watch, the silver-gilt mountings of her dressing-case - all had disappeared. The plunder carried off was immense, and the burglary had been managed in the most orderly fashion. The house was as tranquil as if no deed of evil had been perpetrated there.
It remained tranquil, for Lady Charmeigh made no outcries. Oddly enough, her first sensation on coming to herself was not one of terror. The burglars had not hurt her, and were little likely to do so now that they were gone. As soon as the perception of realities forced itself upon her mind, as soon as she could grasp the extent of her enormous loss, and speculate as to what Sir Peter would think of it, Lady Charmeigh felt, above all, indignation at having been outwitted, and a burning desire to be even with her plunderers. She asked herself who these rascals could be; and straight her thoughts flew to the suspicion that Patty must have had some hand in abetting them.
Why she thought this it would have been difficult for her to say at first, but once the suspicion had shaped itself in her mind, a hundred small side facts came to confirm it. To begin with, Patty's invariably officious zeal about the safety of the jewels; then her recent low spirits and wayward manners; and, again, her connection with that discharged footman, Charles Brown. It somehow seemed to Lady Charmeigh that before fainting she had had time to recognise Charles Brown in one of the two burglars. If this were the case, then, possibly, Patty and Charles had been confederates in the first burglary, and Patty's holiday had only been taken so that she might be out of the range of suspicion when the crime was perpetrated. All this was horribly black, but Lady Charmeigh's eyes seemed to see clear into many things now.
There is in some of those little women who are habitually frivolous a surprising fund of latent strength. It is not often brought into play; but when needed, it supplies an electrical courage and a large amount of cool craft. It struck Lady Charmeigh by intuition, that if she wanted to recover her diamonds (and she did, with a vengeance), she must make no noise, but simply have Patty watched. She must also begin by practising some deep dissimulation. Accordingly, she neither rang bells nor summoned men-servants - whose fidelity she could little trust - but she took her bedchamber candle and went quietly to Patty's room. For a moment she feared that the girl might have fled with the plunderers and their booty; but no, Patty was in bed, and pretending to be asleep. A lame pretence at best, for there was a candle burning on the chimneypiece, and Patty was but partially undressed - two damning circumstances. Lady Charmeigh, however, took notes with her eyes only, and said nothing to excite alarm.
"Look here, Patty," she began, with forced calmness; "don't be frightened at what I am going to say; but there has been a burglary here."
"A burglary! O my lady!" exclaimed Patty Raggles, with well-feigned terror.
"Hush! don't scream, don't say anything; but listen - we must keep our presence of mind."
Lady Charmeigh proceeded to narrate the incidents of the outrage, her maid listening the while with haggard eyes and a nervous tremor in all her limbs.
"Well, I repeat, we must make no noise," concluded Lady Charmeigh quietly; "if we do we may raise some alarm, and destroy all my chances of recovering the jewels. Only, as soon as daylight comes and you can leave the house without suspicion, you must go to Scotland-yard and give private information to the police. It is not necessary that I should go with you."
"Very well, my lady," said Patty, and Lady Charmeigh distinctly saw a light shoot through her eyes. "O, O, my lady," added she suddenly, "what fears you must have been in! Are you sure you are not hurt?"
"No. Never mind me," said Lady Charmeigh composedly. "Try to go to sleep; I am going back to my room. It still wants two or three hours to morning." Saying this, she went.
She had admirably played her part, and Patty suspected nothing. But the girl's duplicity and wickedness almost sickened her mistress. "When the wretched creature goes out she won't go to Scotland-yard, I know," soliloquised Lady Charmeigh. "She will run to join that man Charles, and then leave the country; but I will have her followed."
The night wore on wearily enough, but Lady Charmeigh was ready dressed and equipped when Patty appeared before her at eight o'clock, and said she was going to execute her errand. Lady Charmeigh dismissed the girl with a recommendation to return quickly; but as soon as ever Patty was out of the house her ladyship put on her bonnet and went after her. She had to hide herself under the porticos of houses more than once to escape observation, in case the runaway should look round; but she soon had the satisfaction of seeing Patty take a cab. A hansom passed immediately afterwards, and Lady Charmeigh hailed it. A policeman was standing near a lamp-post, and she beckoned to him.
"Here, jump into this cab with me, if you please. I want you to join me in giving chase to some burglars, the worst the world has ever seen. O, you have no idea what people they are!"
Two hours later Lady Charmeigh had recovered possession of all her diamonds. The case was never mentioned in the papers, for Sir Peter and his wife were willing to hush up the matter. The plunder was all found in a house rented by Charles Brown, who, instead of being prosecuted, received money to go to America along with Patty. All this was very wrong, compounding of a felony, and so forth; but as Sir Peter remarked, "There has been too much fuss already about these Charmeigh diamonds."
He had the grace to add, though - and this was Lady Charmeigh's best reward -
"A woman who can recover her diamonds as my wife did deserves to have them. Her wits are the best patent safes I know of."