The Girl From Nowhere
by George Woodruff Johnston
Author of "the Hidden Clew," Etc.
The clew to the mystery of the missing ruby lay in the answer to the question: Where was the Girl from Nowhere when the lights went out?
A HARD day at the hospital, followed by four acts of a tedious problem play, had made me very drowsy, and under the impression that the meek, white-faced man leaning over me was a patient who had entered my office unannounced, I came within an ace of shaking hands with him and offering him a chair. But luckily at this juncture my wife tapped my foot under the table, and, with a start, I reawoke to the fact that I was one of a large after-theater supper party as Mrs. Cartright's house in Washington Place, and discovered that the man I was preparing to greet so cordially was the butler, about to fill my glass with some of her famous Chambertin. I also became conscious that a woman was talking. It was Mrs. Letterby. I should have recognized that thin, high-pitched voice of hers anywhere--the voice of one who takes life hard and finds no humor in it.
"Yes, that's my daughter; that's Ethel, in blue, at the far end of the table, next to young Hapwood," she was saying proudly to all whom it might concern. "She came home last week--finished school, you know."
"Really! God bless my soul, how the kiddies do grow up!" This in a rumbling bass from John Limpet, a big man with a fat, impressive face, who was Mrs. Cartright's attorney, and, though a lion in the courtroom, was the most amiable of lambs in social life.
"Don't they!" sighed Mrs. Letterby. "I'm glad to have Ethel at home, of course; but"--lowering her tone a trifle--"she's brought a schoolmate with her who, I fear, is going to prove a great responsibility." At this she sighed again and glanced around in search of sympathy.
"Responsibility? Too bad! But none of us can shirk it, can we?" murmured Limpet consolingly, holding his glass of rich, red wine up to the light. "By the way," he added, "is the girl here--the one you speak of? I don't remember meeting her at the theater?"
"Yes," Mrs. Letterby replied: "she's sitting on the other side of young Hapwood--the frail, dreamy-looking girl, with brown hair and eyes, dressed in white. Don't you think her rather pretty, Doctor Dannart?" she asked, turning to me.
"Very!" I was able to answer truthfully.
"Now, the curious thing about the girl is this," continued Mrs. Letterby, in a voice which traveled much farther than she thought it did: "When she was quite a child, a man, supposedly her father, brought her to Miss Ribbon's boarding school and left her there. That was in old Miss Lavinia Ribbon's day; her nieces have the school now. And the girl has been there ever since! She's never had any other home! She doesn't even know who she is or where she comes from!"
"You might call her The Girl from Nowhere, then," said Limpet good-humoredly.
"You might certainly," agreed Mrs. Letterby. "She calls herself Madge Carrick, however."
"What became of the man?" asked Bessington, who had become a father for the first time a month or two before, and was conscious of a rapidly awakening paternal instinct.
"Vanished!" exclaimed Mrs. Letterby melodramatically. "He kissed the child good-by, put on his hat, and walked out of the door into--oblivion!"
A subdued murmur of horror at the thought of such unnatural conduct on the part of a male parent arose from among the mothers at our end of the table, which murmur gave way to lazy laughter when Tony Habersham said a bit too loudly to a neighbor: "What the deuce does a fellow want in oblivion with a hat, I should like to know?"
But Mrs. Letterby had her revenge. She immediately fixed Tony with her compelling eye, and incidentally our hostess, Mrs. Cartright, next to whom he sat.
"It's all Ethel's fault," she told them querulously; "I mean about asking the girl to stay with us and loading me with the responsibility of looking after her. That's the trouble with Ethel-- she's so soft-hearted! It began with stray kittens and things she'd bring home, and now it's this stray girl. Why, I remember a blind beggar--"
But I had heard all this a hundred times before--the history of the plain and futile Ethel as recounted by her loving mother-- and my attention wandered to Mrs. Cartright, who had temporarily detached herself from Mrs. Letterby, and, shivering slightly, was speaking over her shoulder to a footman.
Mrs. Cartright was a widow, wonderfully beautiful in an opulent, exotic way. Sleepy-eyed, indolent, and careless, she had a temper, all the same, which would flare up in spite of her at the most inopportune and unexpected moments. But her friends readily pardoned her and forgot; for they knew how kind, how forgiving, how absurdly generous she really was, and how the memory of these tropic outbursts mortified and distressed her.
She had finished with the footman now, and sat there listening indulgently to Mrs. Letterby's rigmarole, a great, pear-shaped ruby--the glorious "Sun of Ceylon"--hanging about her neck by a slender chain and burning on her breast.
"Did you hear, Doctor Dannart?" she asked, catching my eye and smiling slowly. "In a way there is something sad, almost tragic, in Mrs. Letterby's story of this girl."
"I should think so," the latter declared, motioning the butler not to fill her glass again. "The money that's been sent her twice a year from some unknown source answered well enough while she was at boarding school. But here comes the pinch: Madge Carrick has grown up with rich girls; she's learned their ways; but, now that she's done with school, she can't go on with the life they'll lead-- not on the amount she's been getting heretofore. It's impossible!"
"Rather a bad fix Madge is in--not?" exclaimed Tony Habersham ingenuously. "Knew a girl like that once--went to the bowwows."
At this moment, Mrs. Cartright, with a nod, rose from the table. Those who had seen her signal followed her example; others who had not remained seated, and there was a brief period of confusion.
As I pushed back my chair, I observed that a maid had appeared from behind the screen in front of the pantry door, and--probably in response to an order given the footman--was approaching her mistress with the evident intent of laying about her shoulders a silvery wisp of lace she carried in her hand.
And then, without an instant's warning, the lights went out and the room was plunged in total darkness.
"Look out, girls! We are going through a tunnel!" I heard some one say.
At this there was a general laugh, followed immediately by a shrill scream and a heavy fall.
In a twinkling I awoke from the drowsy state in which I had just now found myself, and instinctively leaped to my feet and dragged aside the heavy curtains of the tall French window a few steps back of my place. Thereupon the pallid sheen of the electric lamps in the street flooded the room and dimly illumined it. Turning quickly, I saw a blot of shadow on the floor, my fellow guests--some rising from the table, others clustered about it--and, farther off, a vague figure in rapid motion.
"Stop!" I cried. "Who are you, there? What are you after?"
The form halted, and a voice replied. "I'm the underfootman, sir. I was going to see what ails the lights."
"Stand still! I'll do it," said I. "Where is the switch?"
The lamps in brackets along the walls had not been burning--only the shaded electric candles on the table; but, following the man's directions, I soon found the buttons controlling each, and with two pushes the room was brilliantly illuminated.
"Hello!" ejaculated Bessington, leaning over the back of his chair. "Someone's hurt!"
I glanced down. It was the maid, stretched out flat on the floor and looking rather white. But as I stepped toward her, she sat up, arranged her skirts, and scrambled to her feet. I noticed that she still held the scarf which she had been about to lay on Mrs. Cartright's shoulders when the room went dark.
"Has anything happened, Doctor Dannart?" cried Mrs. Letterby nervously.
For a moment we all gazed searchingly at one another, expecting to find we knew not what. Then some of the women began to chatter.
"Nothing's happened, apparently," I reassured my questioner. "But some one screamed. Who was it?"
There was no reply.
"That's odd! I certainly heard a woman's shriek. Sure it wasn't you?" I asked the maid.
"Yes, sir--no, sir. I mean--I didn't scream," she answered confusedly.
"Did you trip in the dark? How did you come to be on the floor, anyhow?" I eyed the girl suspiciously.
"I fell, sir. It was like some one threw me down."
"I was probably responsible for that," young Hapwood explained. "When I heard the yell, I jumped up and knocked against somebody."
To me this seemed plausible. Hapwood had been sitting between Ethel Letterby and her friend, Madge Carrick, and when I first saw the maid she was lying directly behind his chair.
"That may be," I conceded. "But how about the lamps? There was nothing wrong with the current. Some one switched them off. Who was it?"
As before, there was no answer to my question.
"Well," said I, annoyed, "it's plain the house is haunted. We hear a scream, but no one gave it; the lights are turned out, but no one did it."
As I finished speaking, I discovered that Mrs. Cartright, unobserved by the others, was beckoning to me. Her sleepy eyes were blazing now, and her indolent body was tense and quivering with excitement as she stood alone by the great mantelpiece at the end of the room, one hand outstretched across her bosom.
"What's wrong?" I asked anxiously.
Without a word, she turned her back on the rest and let fall her hand.
The ruby was gone!
"Not that!" I exclaimed, amazed, horrified.
"Yes--an outrage--in my own house--at my own table!" she stammered, vainly trying to control herself. "None of the servants would have done this--they have been with me too long. And why rob me now by force? I am careless, forgetful; they have had, would have, a thousand better opportunities."
"By force? It was you, then, who screamed?" I queried.
"Yes. See this!"
Thereupon she unclasped her other hand, disclosing the chain by which the gem had hung; and I quickly noted that, fragile as they seemed, the links had held, and that it was the ring to which the ruby had been attached that had parted. Then she pointed to a red line at the back and left side of her neck where the chain, in response to the jerk upon it, had bruised her soft, white skin.
In a flash I turned about.
"Please stay where you are!" I begged. "Everybody, I mean! No one must leave the room! And kindly touch nothing, disturb nothing!" Then I called Limpet, and, while the rest looked on, puzzled, we three hurriedly discussed what was to be done.
At first Mrs. Cartright was wholly unmanageable. Her inflammable temper had got the best of her, and she would hear of nothing but the police. But finally our quieting influence prevailed, and, facing the others, who were still grouped about the table, I said calmly:
"I am sorry to say Mrs. Cartright has lost her ruby--'the Sun of Ceylon.' It disappeared when the lights went out. Now, this sort of thing is horribly awkward. It's embarrassing to her, to all of us. What shall we do about it?"
This statement of mine, as noncommittal as it was, effected an immediate change in the atmosphere of the room, and suspicion, like a blight, fell upon all within it. Mrs. Cartright's guests began to stare blankly about them and to draw ever so little away from one another. Mrs. Letterby sank into her chair, and, calling her daughter to her side, dampened a fine lace handkerchief with a few perfunctory tears. Tony Habersham, who knew--and was aware that everyone else knew--what thin financial ice he was skating on and in what desperate need he stood of money in any form--lost some of his airy manner. Even the servants were influenced by the disclosure that had just been made. The butler, a pallid, middle-aged man, of meek and lowly look, was obviously unstrung, and fussed about, fumbling with wineglasses and rumpled napkins and the other litter of the meal that still remained upon the table. The maid stood folding and unfolding Mrs. Cartright's scarf twenty times a minute as she kept an anxious eye fixed on the younger footman--he who had been so quick about the lights. Only the older of the two footmen retained a measure of his usual stolidity, yet seemed afraid to venture from the safe harbor he had found near the sideboard.
"Well? What's to be done?" I repeated. "It's getting late; or, rather, early, and we've got to clear this thing up somehow. What do you suggest, Bessington?"
"You can search me," replied the latter, with a shrug. "I haven't got the ruby."
"But not me," declared Mrs. Bessington, taking her husband literally. "I'd die before I'd submit to such an indignity!"
Mrs. Cartright frowned angrily and started to speak; but I broke in before she had opportunity to make matters worse.
"Before we talk about searching anybody," I proposed, "let us give the person who took the gem a chance to return it. I'll switch off the lights, and hope, indeed, expect, that when I turn them on again, we'll find the ruby laying on the table. If we don't -- well, it's Mrs. Cartright's property, and this is her house, and each of us, for his own sake and the sake of the rest, will have to do as she wishes -- guests and servants alike."
After a moment's delay, I closed the window curtains, then pressed the two black electric buttons, and again the room was plunged in darkness. I slowly counted ten, and once more switched the current on.
There was no sign of the ruby!
Everybody was now collected about the table, peering down at it as if hypnotized. Only one person was seated--the girl, Madge Carrick. She occupied her former place; and, as my eyes roamed about to make quite sure whether or not the gem had been restored, I was immediately struck by her appearance. She sat leaning forward, staring in front of her, her head in her hands; and, as I watched, she shivered, started to go to Mrs. Letterby, changed her mind, and sank into her chair again, letting her arms fall hopelessly upon the table.
"A little pressure--just a little pressure, my dear young Miss from Nowhere!" I heard in a rumbling whisper over my shoulder; and, without turning around, I knew Limplet, too, had seen the girl's discomfiture, and that with cold, immobile face and half-closed eyes he was regarding her as he did those witnesses whom he purposed presently to flay alive.
"Hold on, man!" I expostulated. "That may be fright, worry--anything on the poor young one's face--but it isn't guilt."
"If not guilt, it's guilty knowledge," he rejoined. "You can't fool me; I've seen too many of 'em. Where was she when the lights went out?"
"I give it up. I was pretty nearly asleep and hardly knew where I was myself."
"Hum! I'll find out, then."
Smiling in friendly fashion, he next spoke loud enough for all to hear.
"Doctor Dannart," said he, in an easy, natural voice, "predicted that this would turn out to be an embarrassing situation for all of us. And it would have proved so had it not been for Mrs. Cartright's good sense and her desire that none of her guests should be in the least annoyed by reason of her loss."
That was not according to the facts, but it got over; for now it was Limpet in his role of jury lawyer who was talking, one who could make you see black and white if he only tried hard enough.
"Happily the mystery of the missing ruby has been solved--or nearly solved," he continued affably. "But before we bid Mrs. Cartright good night, and she thanks you all for the patience and forbearance you have shown, I shall ask you to do one thing for me. Will each of you stand or sit in the pace you occupied at the moment the room went dark? You would oblige me immensely by doing so."
After some confusion and delay, the scene Limpet wished to reenact was set, and I observed that Mrs. Cartright, the central figure, having passed from the head almost to the foot of the table on her way to the door, had, at the moment indicated, reached a point opposite the place occupied by Ethel Letterby. She stood there now, the maid a little behind and a little to the right of her--directly back of young Hapwood's chair, it is true, but so far from it that he could not possibly have knocked against her when she sprang up. Some of the guests had preceded Mrs. Cartright, others followed her, while most of them still hung about the table. Among the last was Mrs. Letterby; and behind her waited the butler, whose proffer of wine she had so recently declined. One footman hovered near the sideboard; his fellow, who had claimed, when I stopped him, to be on his way to the electric switch, could not remember exactly where he was when darkness overtook him.
"Remarkable thing!" said I to Limpet; "everyone except the maid fights shy of the position at Mrs. Cartright's right hand, yet, to judge from the location of the bruises on her neck, the tug on the chain must have come from the right and a little in front of her."
Limpet paid no attention to my remark, and I saw that his eyes were still fixed on Madge Carrick. As I had already noted, whereas guests and servants alike had all shown more or less interest in the reproduction of the scene desired, she had sat there motionless in her place, nervous, brooding, obviously the prey of an ever-increasing distress of mind. Of course, the inevitable happened--her mere attitude made her conspicuous among the rest, and soon not only Limpet but all others were regarding her dubiously. Conscious of this, she flushed, paled, and sprang up as if to rush from the room; but immediately sank back into her chair again.
If at this juncture some one had only moved, had only spoken, there is no telling what next she might have done. But the deadly silence and the spying of all those strange, unsympathetic eyes were too much for her, and she broke down. Limpet was getting help from every side in the "little pressure" he deemed so efficacious.
"Oh, why do you all stare at me like that?" she cried, in futile exasperation. "But I know. You think I took the ruby. I did not! I did not!" And then she covered her eyes and moaned helplessly.
Ethel Letterby pushed aside her mother's detaining hand and ran to the girl and put her arm about her; and this seemed to give her a little courage.
Then Limpet spoke. "My dear," he inquired suavely, "where were you when the lamps went out?"
"I was just getting up--getting up," she stammered, "to thank Mrs. Cartright. I had never been to the theater before. I had never been to a supper party before. I had never been away from school--anywhere! I was going to thank her--she had been so sweet--to ask me."
"That was very nice of you--very nice, indeed, my dear," he continued. "But it isn't too late now to show your appreciation. Just tell Mrs. Cartright where the ruby is. You couldn't thank her in any neater way. And you know where it is; I can read it in your face."
That face was twitching now, and tears filled the girl's eyes; but she neither moved nor spoke.
"Come! Won't you tell her?"
"Why will you persist in being unkind to one who has been kind to you?" Limpet asked gently.
"It's because you would then suspect me all the more of having taken it," the tortured girl burst out. "Oh, is there no one who will help me?" she cried, looking wildly about her. "No! No! Except for Ethel, I haven't a friend here. I heard what was said of me just now--no father, no mother, left at a boarding school. 'The Girl from Nowhere,' you called me. Even Mrs. Letterby said I was a stray whom Ethel had picked up and brought into the house!"
The people, facing Madge Carrick in a wide-flung circle, were now growing restless and whispering together. Mrs. Cartright called Limpet to one side and seemed to remonstrate with him. But he shook his head and returned to the table. It was clear that his fighting blood was up and that nothing could stop him.
"Miss Carrick," said he, "you have just stated that such and such things would happen if you disclosed where the jewel was. That proves my contention; for one cannot disclose what one does not know. And to hide an object that has been stolen is as bad--"
"Hold on, Limpet!" exclaimed young Hapwood, turning very red. "Don't you think you've badgered Miss Carrick enough? I do!"
"I am Mrs. Cartright's attorney, young man, and likewise her friend--the oldest here, perhaps," Limpet flashed back at him. "Just whom to you represent?"
"I don't represent anybody," the latter retorted hotly, squaring his broad shoulders and throwing up his handsome head; "but until Mrs. Cartright puts me out, there'll be no more of this underhand cross-examination!"
An awkward pause followed, and then Mrs. Letterby spoke.
"Oh, Madge," complained she petulantly, "do tell Mr. LImpet what he wants to know. I'm worn out. See, I believe it's daylight!"
Sure enough, when one of the menservants had pulled aside the curtains, dawn entered the room, looking doubly cold and gray against the yellow glow of the electric lights.
I glanced at the windows, and then back toward the girl sitting at the table--and at that instant I saw the ruby!
At first I marveled how the jewel could have so long escaped detection with all those eyes gazing apparently directly at it. But then I realized how cleverly it had been concealed, and that my position in relation to the changed lighting of the room had alone made it visible to me.
At the same instant, also, I appreciated that Madge Carrick was right. In the beginning I had thought her attitude a foolish one; but now I understood that, whether guilty or not, silence was the only weapon she had wherewith to defend herself. For if she had stolen the ruby, to betray its whereabouts would be almost tantamount to a confession of her guilt; whereas, if she were innocent, the act of disclosure would merely serve to increase the suspicion and hostility already manifest toward herself, while it aided the actual thief to keep his or her identity hidden. There was no escape for her. She had been nailed fast to her place by the scrutiny of more than twenty pairs of eyes.
But now I was in a quandary. I alone shared her secret. What use should I make of it? I glanced at the girl, pale, haggard, desperate; at the futile Ethel trying to console her; at Hapwood, flaming, but helpless to aid her, and, last of all, at Limpet, preparing to take another twist with the thumbscrews; and, for good or ill, I set in action a plan which at the moment flashed into my mind.
"Mrs. Cartright," said I, with a decision and harshness which were purposely assumed, "don't you think this has gone far enough? Miss Carrick has had her opportunity and has turned it down. With your permission, I'll telephone for the police. They'll know how to handle her."
I crossed the room in the midst of a deathlike silence and took up the telephone instrument. But before I could unhook the receiver, I heard a voice-- a feeble, shaking voice.
"Stop!" it quavered. "Don't telephone! I did it--I did it!"
I hugged myself at the quick success of my plan. If--as I had argued--Madge Carrick were guilty, my threat would merely end an intolerable situation. If innocent, the real thief would have the horror of her position so sharply brought home to him that should but one spark of decency still burn within him, he would inevitably reveal himself. The last had happened. I dropped the telephone and turned to see who it was who spoke in tones so full of terror and remorse.
It was the butler!
"You!" cried Mrs. Cartright, amazed.
"Yes, madam; it was I, God help me!"
"But why? I don't understand. You have been with me for years. I always trusted you."
"I know, madam; but when I heard the lady and gentleman at the table say--" He stopped and flung out his hands in despair. "No! No! Forget that, please! I shouldn't have said it. I would have bitten out my tongue before I said it."
The man was beside himself. His long, thin face was the color of chalk, and he clung to a chair for support.
"Do you dare tell me that you were led to attack and rob me through any remark made by my guests? That is absurd! It is worse; it is a falsehood!"
"Believe me, Mrs. Cartright, it's true. If you will grant me one last favor before they take me away--if you will only ask the ladies to step into the library--I will prove to you that it is true. I will confess everything--everything!"
But when all the others had gone from the room except Mrs. Cartright, Limpet, Hapwood, and myself, the butler stood there voiceless, a forlorn, dejected figure.
"Now out with your cock-and-bull story," commanded Limpet impatiently, "and let us have done with this thing for good and all!"
"I will--I will, sir!" the man whispered hoarsely, peering anxiously about him. "When I heard her say--when I heard Mrs. Letterby say that now that she had left school she could not keep up; and Mr. Habersham, he said--he told what often happens--what might happen to a young girl--"
"She? Had left school? Of whom are you talking?" demanded Mrs. Cartright.
"Of Madge Carrick, madam."
"Miss Madge Carrick, you mean. But what is she to you?"
"She is my daughter, Mrs. Cartright."
"Yes. And I wanted her to be like her mother was who died when Madge was a little thing, not like me--sunk, sunk in the struggle of life to what I am. You will never believe me, but I was once--- Never mind; it's no odds what I once was. The world has been too much for me--that's all--too much! But for her sake I fought on. I have pinched myself to the bone for her. I hid myself from her, I changed my name that she might have her chance--that she might not be dragged down with me. I would gladly have died for her. And the thought that, after all, I had failed, that now she needed more than I could possibly give her, and the danger Mr. Habersham spoke of--it made me crazy, Mrs. Cartright; the temptation was too much for me, and I turned out the lights and snatched the ruby."
He stopped for a moment to wipe away the beaded sweat on his forehead, and then went on dejectedly:
"And now my hopes, my foolish hopes have all come to nothing. I am done for. But whatever happens, I beg you, Mrs. Cartright, I implore all of you to keep my secret! Do that much, not for me, but for her! That is all I ask--let her have her chance--let her have her chance!"
"But the jewel? Where is it?" inquired Limpet.
With a shudder, the butler went to the table and out of a glass of the ruby colored wine standing at his daughter's place--where the crossing of the lights from the lamps and windows had made it visible to her and to me--he lifted the gem, wiped it patiently upon a napkin, and handed it to his mistress. And then he set about clearing the table, quite automatically, the force of year-long habit surviving even the stunning blow he had received.
"When did you hide it there?" I asked him.
The man gazed at me dully. "When you turned out the lights, sir," said he, "and I suspected that we would all be searched, I was worse frightened than ever. Then suddenly I thought of the wine, and I dropped the ruby into a full glass which stood before my daughter. I had watched her--had seen that she drank nothing--and felt sure it would be safe there until I could take it out later on."
"And it was you who knocked the maid down?"
"Accidentally, sir. The room was dark; she stepped in my way."
"Did you hear that, Hapwood?"
The young man nodded and left the room.
"That'll do!" said Limpet. "Now, Dannart, you can call the police."
"No!" declared Mrs. Cartright impulsively. "This has been enough of a tragedy already!"
"What!" exclaimed Limpet. "You'd let the man off? Impossible!"
Mrs. Cartright flushed and her eyes gleamed.
"Remember," said she, "that I was the person injured, and the only one! My heart tells me to forgive. But if I punish, it shall not be in a way that will affect this man alone. All of us who have heard this pitiful story must do our utmost to forget it. Whatever may have happened--to-night or in the past--the girl shall have her chance!"
And then her expression changed. She smiled gently, and, laying one hand lightly on Limpet's arm and one on mine, she said: "But see! We need not trouble ourselves. It has already come to her."
She was right. In the hall beyond stood The Girl from Nowhere, and helping her into her wrap, was young Hapwood, on whose handsome face there shone that look of youth and hope which laughs at difficulties and conventions--at everything, in fact, but love!
This story is from the July 23, 1915 issue of The Popular Magazine. The entire issue is available at the Internet Archive, but only as image files -- that is, a png image of each page. You can find the info page here, and a zip file with the page images here (it's approximately a Gig of files.)
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