Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Duchess and the Diamonds (Part Three)

The band had recovered its poise sufficiently to resume its selections, and played a succession of cheerful tunes in an effort to brighten the mood. I danced both with Mr. Windemere and then with Miss Gramercy. None of us could forget the hasty exit of the Duchess, and expressed concern about her well-being. As the music played, female guests would use the powder room to attend to their own needs, and as the door opened we would glimpse the back of the Duchess as she attended to her face. At one point I thought I saw the Duchess return, but on my next turn I saw the door opened again and I saw the Duchess remained in her chair.

Then a piercing shriek was heard over the music, and the band ground to a halt once more. We heard the shriek a second time, then Lady Deanna appeared in the ballroom once more. “I’ve been robbed!” she cried. “My jewels have been stolen!”

The crowd gasped and murmured their disbelief. I smelled a story, and scanned the room for Captain Armstrong. I saw his stout form pushing through a group of guests as he shouted “Make way! Caledon police! Make way for the police!” Catching up to him as he reached the hallway, I started up the stairs with him. “Where do you think you’re going, Miss Jameson? This is police business.”

I kept moving. “You appear to be short-handed, Captain. I thought I could lend a hand. Although I have not the expertise of a trained detective, I have made my living interviewing people and keeping my eyes open to news. It may be the case these skills will be proved useful tonight.”

“It’s highly irregular,” he growled, “but I suppose it’s an irregular situation all around.” We stood in front of the powder room, where he stopped. “I have two conditions for you: first, I do the talking. Second, I have called for reinforcements. When they arrive, your role here ends. Am I clear, Miss Jameson?”

I nodded my assent. Captain Armstrong reached Lady Deanna, who was now accompanied by Baron Slater and the butler, Bartholomew.

“Captain Armstrong of the Caledon police force, Your Grace, and Miss Rhianon Jameson, who is assisting me by taking notes until my squad arrives. What seems to be the problem?” I bristled at the “taking notes” comment, but said nothing. No one noticed that I had neither pen nor paper.

Baron Slater spoke first. “Can we retire to the bedroom suite, Captain? I think Her Grace would be more comfortable speaking there, and we will have a little more privacy.” Armstrong nodded, and our little party made its way up the flying staircase and into the antechamber of the master bedroom.

Lady Deanna tearfully recounted her story. The Baron had stated to those around him that he needed to make an important announcement, and was just about to seek the band leader to ask for a moment where he could make the announcement to all the guests. Then the mystery woman appeared. After this encounter, Lady Deanna had felt humiliated. Before the Baron went further, she explained she needed to compose herself in the powder room. In fact, she also needed to reapply her makeup, which was starting to run from the heat of the ballroom, and wanted to reapply her favorite perfume. Naturally, once seated in the powder room, she removed her pearl-and-diamond necklace and the two diamond bracelets, placing them on a dressing table, as she did not want the antique pearl to come in contact with her perfume, and she did not want her powders to dull the shine of the diamonds.

“And were other guests in the powder room at the same time?” Captain Armstrong asked.

She nodded. “As you saw, it is a large room – my grandmother had it designed for the balls she held, so that a number of guests at a time could use the room to refresh themselves. She felt the ladies should not have to wait for the room to come free. While I was in there, perhaps a dozen people came and went. I was busy with my own tasks, however, and I did not see any of them.”

“Your jewelry was right beside you the entire time?”

“It was always nearby, but not directly beside me. As you can see when you look carefully at the powder room, the best mirror in the room is some ways from the dressing table. Naturally, I had no concerns about the safety of the jewels as I had complete confidence in the integrity of my guests.” Yet when Lady Deanna finished with her makeup case, returned the vial of perfume to its proper location, and went to put on her jewelry, she thought the necklace felt odd. Closer inspection showed to her it was an imitation. Looking at the bracelets, she discovered that they, too, were imitations.

“Might I see the pieces?” the Captain asked. Bartholomew was sent to fetch them. Armstrong scrutinized them as though he were a jeweler. “Yes, I can see. Good enough job to fool a casual glance, but easy enough to see they’re fakes if one takes a hard look.”

“Or if one has owned them for years,” murmured Bartholomew.

“Yes, quite.”

After discovering the ruse, she ran out of the now-empty powder room, where Baron Slater stood waiting, and let loose the cry we all heard. The butler, Bartholomew, was nearby and ran to his mistress’s side.

The Baron said, “I think that takes us to the present. You know the rest, Captain.”

He nodded. “Indeed. Tell me, who had the opportunity to reach the jewels while you rested, madam?”

Lady Deanna looked as though this question had not occurred to her. “I…I don’t know. Helga, my lady’s maid, is the only person who regularly comes into the room. She is helping in the kitchen this evening. She and Bartholomew are the only servants up here regularly, but, of course, both have been with my family for years and are quite beyond reproach.” Bartholomew managed to look both appropriately grateful at Her Grace’s blanket endorsement of his honesty and annoyed that she would even bring up the subject.

“Anyone else?”

“The Baron, of course…”

Baron Slater interrupted. “Yes, my dear, but I don’t think the Captain means me.” He turned to Armstrong. “Naturally, you are aware that I have no need for Miss Varienne’s jewelry, as my family has more money than I could ever use.”

Lady Deanna tittered. “Oh, certainly, Wolfgang. I meant no implication. But honestly, Captain, almost anyone could have been in the powder room with me. As I said, I paid no attention to who was there with me, and, though it may seem odd, no one spoke to me.” No doubt uncertain as to the mood of their hostess after her embarrassment, I thought, but kept that to myself. “And yet I simply cannot imagine any of my guests would have stolen my jewelry.”

I could contain myself no longer. “What about the mysterious woman with your dress? Who was she?”

Captain Armstrong glared at me. “Yes, Your Grace, we were all curious about the lady.”

She looked chagrined. “I…I do not know what to say. I do not know the woman personally, and I cannot imagine who would have proposed her for my guest list. I know many of my guests, but not all of them. This young lady here, for example –” She motioned at me. “– I am not acquainted with her, but I assume she is here because I invited her at the request of someone I know and trust.”

“Colonel Somme, in my case, my lady. And may I say how delighted I am to be here.” This earned me another glare from Captain Armstrong. Perhaps “delighted” was not exactly what I wanted to convey at the present moment.

Lady Deanna waved her hands. “See? Someone knows someone, and there you are. So I assume someone recommended that woman – ” She could not bring herself to use the word “lady.” “– to me. If she did not have an invitation, Bartholomew would not have let her in.” The butler nodded.

“Do you have a guest list?” Armstrong asked. “Perhaps we can determine who she is by process of elimination.”

“Yes, of course. I’m sure Bartholomew has it around somewhere. Now Captain,” she said, pointing a finger at him, “I have no doubt you will use all necessary resources to apprehend this woman and recover my jewels. The cost is not the issue so much as their sentimental value, as they have been in my family for generations. And the principle of the thing, to be robbed at one’s own party, in one’s own house!”

The captain was apparently used to this attitude from prominent citizens. He said soothingly, “Of course we will do what we can to find the culprit and bring him – or her – to justice. But we should not come to premature conclusions about the identity of the thief.”

“Who else do you suppose it could be?” the lady replied indignantly, to which Baron Slater added, “You’re not suggesting one of the other guests could be responsible, are you, Armstrong? If you so much as breathe a word of that suggestion, much less let it find its way into the press, I’ll have your badge!” I had no doubt the reference to the press was directed at me.

“Come now, Baron, no one is suggesting any such thing. I merely urge you not to reach any hasty judgments. Let the law handle this.” He turned to Lady Deanna. “Your Grace, I think we have taken up enough of your time at the moment. I will return downstairs and see what else I can discover.” We made our good-byes, and the captain and I returned to the ballroom. By this time, his men had arrived and were awaiting instruction from their chief. He set them to interviewing the guests. If this had been a gathering of ordinary citizens, I have no doubt he would have also ordered everyone searched in the hopes of finding the jewels and the guilty party in one fell swoop. As it was, however, a search was out of the question. In any event, the culprit had ample opportunity to flee the mansion.

Captain Armstrong wandered to the small balcony where I had seen the mystery woman standing after her encounter with the Duchess. I followed him. “Didn’t I tell you your part in this ended when my men arrived, Miss Jameson?” he growled. “This is official police business, young lady, and I’d thank you to let me get on with it.”

He tried to walk more quickly than I could to signal his desire to put distance between us. His stout figure and short legs did not allow him to outpace me, however. I replied mildly, “You did indeed say that, Captain, and I respect the work you have to do here. If you would indulge me a few more minutes, though, sir, I hope to be of some assistance in helping you clear up this business.”

He sighed. “If you must.”

We soon discovered that there was no direct route to the balcony from the ballroom. Instead, the hallway off the ballroom led to a small library, and it was the library to which the balcony was attached. “Curious that the mystery woman chose to smoke her cigarette on this balcony, so close to the powder room where the crime took place,” I commented. I looked around the library at the dark paneled walls and the volumes of books in their cracked leather bindings. The room was thick with dust, except for an area near an interior wall. A few moments of pressing on the wall revealed the presence of a door carefully constructed to blend into the paneling. I pushed on the door, and it swung open without a sound. A set of narrow stairs spiraled downward. Though the passage was dimly lit, at the bottom we could see a door that led to the lawn facing Loch Wright. Beyond the lawn was an empty boat dock at the shore of the loch.

“I think this explains how our mystery woman disappeared,” I said. Armstrong walked through the doorway and out onto the lawn. A few moments later, he returned, saying, “You must be correct, Miss Jameson. The exterior doorway was unlocked, and there were footprints on the lawn heading both toward and away from the dock. It would have been easy enough for our unknown woman to have gone to the powder room, taken the real jewels, substituted the false ones, and left the mansion in no more than a minute.” He paced the small library. “Although of interest, I fail to see how discovery leads us closer to recovering the jewels. Even as I admonished Lady Deanna to keep an open mind as to the culprit, it seemed clear to me that the unknown woman is the one we want. Find her, we’ll find the jewels, if she has not disposed of them already.”

“Yes, that is so…” I started, hesitantly.

Armstrong stroked his chin, looking thoughtful. “This passageway does confirm something I had been thinking all along: the thief had inside help. We did not know of this passageway, much less that it leads to the dressing room. Nor could someone without intimate knowledge of the household know that Lady Deanna would have placed her jewelry on her dressing room table. I plan to take a harder look at Bartholomew and the lady’s maid, what’s her name, Helga.”

“Yes, Captain, I agree with all that. But your analysis misses the most logical culprit – Lady Deanna herself.”

[Next: the conclusion!]

No comments: