THE MARDI GRAS
Cross and the Hammer: A Tale of the Days of the Vikings
Flamehair the Skald: A Tale of the Days Of Hardrede
The Mesa Trail
The Mardi Gras Mystery
THE MARDI GRAS
JOHN NEWTON HOWITT
garden city, n. y., and toronto
DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
COPYRIGHT, 1920, 1921, BY
DOUBLEDAY, PAGE & COMPANY
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, INCLUDING THAT OF TRANSLATION
INTO FOREIGN LANGUAGES, INCLUDING THE SCANDINAVIAN
THE MARDI GRAS
THE MARDI GRAS MYSTERY
CarnivalJACHIN FELL pushed aside the glass curtains between the voluminous over-draperies in the windows of the Chess and Checkers Club, and gazed out upon the riotous streets of New Orleans. Half an hour he had been waiting here in the lounge room for Dr. Cyril Ansley, a middle-aged bachelor who had practised in Opelousas for twenty years, and who had come to the city for the Mardi Gras festivities. Another man might have seemed irritated by the wait, but Jachin Fell was quite unruffled.
He had much the air of a clerk. His features were thin and unremarkable; his pale eyes constantly wore an expression of wondering aloofness, as though he saw around him much that he vainly tried to understand. In his entire manner was a shy reticence. He[pg 4]was no clerk, however, this was evident from his attire. He was garbed from head to foot in soberly blending shades of gray whose richness was notable only at close view. One fancied him a very precise sort of man, an old maid of the wrong sex.
Doctor Ansley, an Iverness flung over his evening clothes, entered the lounge room, and Fell turned to him with a dry, toneless chuckle.
"You're the limit! Did you forget we were going to the Maillards' to-night?"
Ansley appeared vexed and irritated. "Confound it, Fell!" he exclaimed. "I've been all over town looking for El Reys. Caught in a crowd—no El Reys yet!"
Again Fell uttered his toneless chuckle. His voice was absolutely level, unmarked by any change of inflection.
"My dear fellow, there are only three places in the city that can afford to carry El Reys in these parlous times! This club, however, happens to be one of the three. Here, sit down and forget your troubles over a real smoke! We need not leave for fifteen minutes yet, at least."
Doctor Ansley laid aside his cape, stick,[pg 5]and hat, and dropped into one of the comfortable big chairs. He accepted the proffered cigar with a sigh. Across his knees he laid an evening paper, whose flaring headlines proclaimed an extra.
"I suppose you've been gadding all around the town ever since the Revellers opened the season?" he inquired.
"Hardly," said Fell with his shy air. "I'm growing a bit stiff with age, as Eliza said when she crossed the ice. I don't gad much."
"You intend to mask for the Maillards'?" Ansley cast his eye over the gray business attire of the little man.
"I never mask." Jachin Fell shook his head. "I'll get a domino and go as I am. Excuse me—I'll order a domino now, and also provide a few more El Reys for the evening. Back in a moment."
Doctor Ansley, who was himself a non-resident member of the club and socially prominent when he could grant himself leisure for society, followed the slight figure of the other man with speculative eyes. Well as he knew Jachin Fell, he invariably found the man a source of puzzled speculation.
[pg 6]During many years Jachin Fell had been a member of the most exclusive New Orleans clubs. He was even received in the inner circles of Creole society, which in itself was evidence supreme as to his position. At this particular club he was famed as a wizard master of chess. He never entered a tournament, yet he consistently defeated the champions in private matches—defeated them with a bewildering ease, a shy and apologetic ease, an ease which left the beholders incredulous and aghast.
With all this, Jachin Fell was very much of a mystery, even among his closest friends. Very little was known of him; he was inconspicuous to a degree, and it was usually assumed that he was something of a recluse, the result of a thwarted love affair in his youth. He was a lawyer, and certainly maintained offices in the Maison Blanche building, but he never appeared in the courts and no case of his pleading was known.
It was said that he lived in the rebuilt casa of some old Spanish grandee in the Vieux Carre, and that this residence of his was a veritable treasure-trove of historic and beautiful things. This was mere rumour, adding a[pg 7]spice of romance to the general mystery. Ansley knew him as well as did most men, and Ansley knew of a few who could boast of having been a guest in Jachin Fell's home. There was a mother, an invalid of whom Fell sometimes spoke and to whom he appeared to devote himself. The family, an old one in the city, promised to die out with Jachin Fell.
Ansley puffed at his cigar and considered these things. Outside, in the New Orleans streets, was rocketing the mad mirth of carnival. The week preceding Mardi Gras was at its close. Since the beginning of the new year the festival had been celebrated in a steadily climaxing series of balls and entertainments, largely by the older families who kept to the old customs, and to a smaller extent by society at large. Now the final week was at hand, or rather the final three days—the period of the great balls, the period when tourists were flooding into town; for tourists, the whole time of Mardi Gras was comprised within these three days. Despite agonized predictions, prohibition had not adversely affected Mardi Gras or the gaiety of its celebration.
[pg 8]Now, as ever, was Mardi Gras symbolized by masques. In New Orleans the masquerade was not the pale and pitiful frolic of colder climes, where the occasion is but one for display of jewels and costumes, and where actual concealment of identity is a farce. Here in New Orleans were jewels and costumes in a profusion of splendour; but here was preserved the underlying idea of the masque itself—that in concealment of identity lay the life of the thing! Masquers swept the streets gaily; if harlequin husband flirted with domino wife—why, so much the merrier! There was little harm in the Latin masque, and great mirth.
When Jachin Fell returned and lighted his cigar he sank into one of the luxurious chairs beside Ansley and indicated the newspaper lying across the latter's knee, its flaring headlines standing out blackly.
"What's that about the Midnight Masquer? He's not appeared again?"
"What?" Ansley glanced at him in surprise. "You've not heard?"
Fell shook his head. "I seldom read the papers."
"Good heavens, man! He showed up last[pg 9]night at the Lapeyrouse dance, two minutes before midnight, as usual! A detective had been engaged, but was afterward found locked in a closet, bound with his own handcuffs. The Masquer wore his usual costume—and went through the party famously, stripping everyone in sight. Then he backed through the doors and vanished. How he got in they can't imagine; where he went they can't imagine, unless it was by airplane. He simply appeared, then vanished!"
Fell settled deeper into his chair, pointed his cigar at the ceiling, and sighed.
"Ah, most interesting! The loot was valued at about a hundred thousand?"
"I thought you said you'd not heard of it?" demanded Ansley.
Fell laughed softly and shyly. "I didn't. I merely hazarded a guess."
"Wizard!" The doctor laughed in unison. "Yes, about that amount. Exaggerated, of course; still, there were jewels of great value——"
"The Masquer is a piker," observed Fell, in his toneless voice.
"Eh? A piker—when he can make a hundred-thousand-dollar haul?"
[pg 10]"Don't dream that those figures represent value, Doctor. They don't! All the loot the Masquer has taken since he began work is worth little to him. Jewels are hard to sell. This game of banditry is romantic, but it's out of date these days. Of course, the crook has obtained a bit of money, but not enough to be worth the risk."
"Yet he has got quite a bit," returned Ansley, thoughtfully. "All the men have money, naturally; we don't want to find ourselves bare at some gay carnival moment! I'll warrant you've a hundred or so in your pocket right now!"
"Not I," rejoined Fell, calmly. "One ten-dollar bill. Also I left my watch at home. And I'm not dressed; I don't care to lose my pearl studs."
"Eh?" Ansley frowned. "What do you mean?"
Jachin Fell took a folded paper from his pocket and handed it to the physician.
"I met Maillard at the bank this morning. He called me into his office and handed me this—he had just received it in the mail."
Doctor Ansley opened the folded paper; an exclamation broke from him as he read[pg 11]the note, which was addressed to their host of the evening.
Joseph Maillard, President,
Exeter National Bank, City.I thank you for the masque you are giving to-night. I shall be present. Please see that Mrs. M. wears her diamonds—I need them.
The Midnight Masquer.
Ansley glanced up. "What's this—some hoax? Some carnival jest?"
"Maillard pretended to think so." Fell shrugged his shoulders as he repocketed the note. "But he was nervous. He was afraid of being laughed at, and wouldn't go to the police. But he'll have a brace of detectives inside the house to-night, and others outside."
Ever since the first ball of the year by the Twelfth Night Club this Midnight Masquer, as he was termed, had held New Orleans gripped in terror, fascination, and vivid interest. Until a month previous to this week of Mardi Gras he had operated rarely; he had robbed with a stark and inelegant forcefulness, a brutality. Suddenly his methods changed—he appeared and transacted his business with a romantic courtesy, a daredevil[pg 12]gaiety; his robberies became bizarre and extraordinary.
During the past month he appeared at least once a week, now at some private ball, now at some restaurant banquet, but always in the same garb: the helmet, huge goggles and mask, and leathern clothes of a service aviator. On these occasions the throbbing roar of an airplane motor had been reported so that it was popular gossip that he landed on the roof of his designated victims and made his getaway in the same manner—by airplane. No machine had ever been seen, and the theory was believed by some, hooted at by others.
The police were helpless. The Midnight Masquer laughed openly at them and conducted his depredations with brazen unconcern, appearing where he was least expected. The anti-administration papers were clamouring about a "crime wave" and "organization of crooks," but without any visible basis for such clamours. The Midnight Masquer worked alone.
Doctor Ansley glanced at his watch, and deposited his cigar in an ash tray.
"We'd best be moving, Fell. You'll want a domino?"
"Do you seriously think that note is genuine?"
Fell shrugged lightly. "Who knows? I'm not worried. Maillard can afford to be robbed. It will be interesting to see how he takes it if the fellow does show up."
"You're a calm one!" Ansley chuckled. "Oh, I believe the prince is to be there to-night. You've met him, I suppose?"
"No. I've had a rush of business lately, as Eliza said when she crossed the ice: haven't gone out much. Heard something about him, though. An American, isn't he? They say he's become quite popular in town."
Ansley nodded. "Quite a fine chap. His mother was an American—she married the Prince de Gramont; an international affair of the past generation. De Gramont led her a dog's life, I hear, until he was killed in a duel. She lived in Paris with the boy, sent him to school here at home, and he was at Yale when the war broke. He was technically a French subject, so he went back to serve his time.
"Still, he's an American now. Calls himself[pg 14]Henry Gramont, and would drop the prince stuff altogether if these French people around here would let him. He's supposed to be going into some kind of business, but just now he's having the time of his life. Every old dowager is trying to catch him."
Jachin Fell nodded. "I've no use for nobility; a rotten crowd! But this chap appears interesting. I'll be glad to size him up. Ah, here's my domino now!"
A page brought the domino. Fell, discarding the mask, threw the domino about his shoulders, and the two men left the club in company.
They sought their destination afoot—the home of the banker Joseph Maillard. The streets were riotous, filled with an eddying, laughing crowd of masquers and merrymakers of all ages and sexes; confetti twirled through the air, horns were deafening, and laughing voices rose into sharp screams of unrestrained delight.
Here and there appeared the rather constrained figures of tourists from the North. These, staid and unable to throw themselves into the utter abandon of this carnival spirit, could but stare in perplexed wonder at the[pg 15]scene, so alien to them, while they marvelled at the gaiety of these Southern folk who could go so far with liberty and yet not overstep the bounds of license.
At last gaining St. Charles Avenue, with the Maillard residence a half-dozen blocks distant, the two companions found themselves well away from the main carnival throngs. Even here, however, was no lack of revellers afoot for the evening—stray flotsam of the downtown crowds, or members of neighbourhood gatherings on their way to entertainment.
As the two walked along they were suddenly aware of a lithe figure approaching from the rear; with a running leap and an exclamation of delight the figure forced itself in between them, grasping an arm of either man, and a bantering voice broke in upon their train of talk.
"Forfeit!" it cried. "Forfeit—where are your masks, sober gentlemen? This grave physician may be pardoned, but not a domino who refuses to mask! And for forfeit you shall be my escort and take me whither you are going."
Laughing, the two fell into step, glancing at the gay figure between them. A Columbine,[pg 16]she was both cloaked and masked. Encircling her hair was a magnificent scarf shot with metal designs of solid gold—a most unusual thing. Also, from her words it was evident that she had recognized them.
"Willingly, fair Columbine," responded Fell in his dry and unimpassioned tone of voice. "We shall be most happy, indeed, to protect and take you with us——"
"So far as the door, at least," interrupted Ansley, with evident caution. But Fell drily laughed aside this wary limitation.
"Nay, good physician, farther!" went on Fell. "Our Columbine has an excellent passport, I assure you. This gauzy scarf about her raven tresses was woven for the good Queen Hortense, and I would venture a random guess that, clasped about her slender throat, lies the queen's collar of star sapphires——"
"Oh!" From the Columbine broke a cry of warning and swift dismay. "Don't you dare speak my name, sir—don't you dare!"
Fell assented with a chuckle, and subsided.
Ansley regarded his two companions with sidelong curiosity. He could not recognize Columbine, and he could not tell whether[pg 17]Fell were speaking of the scarf and jewels in jest or earnest. Such historic things were not uncommon in New Orleans, yet Ansley never heard of these particular treasures. However, it seemed that Fell knew their companion, and accepted her as a fellow guest at the Maillard house.
"What are you doing out on the streets alone?" demanded Fell, suddenly. "Haven't you any friends or relatives to take care of you?"
Columbine's laughter pealed out, and she pressed Fell's arm confidingly.
"Have I not some little rights in the world, monsieur?" she said in French. "I have been mingling with the dear crowds and enjoying them, before I go to be buried in the dull splendours of the rich man's house. Tell me, do you think that the Midnight Masquer will make an appearance to-night?"
"I have every reason to believe that he will," said Jachin Fell, gravely.
Columbine put one hand to her throat, and shivered a trifle.
"You—you really think so? You are not trying to frighten me?" Her voice was no longer gay. "But—the jewels——"
[pg 18]"Wear them, wear them!" There was command in the tone of Fell. "Were they not given you to wear to-night? Then wear them, by all means. Don't worry, my dear."
Columbine said nothing for a moment; her gaiety seemed to be suddenly extinguished and quenched. Ansley was wondering uneasily at the constraint, when at length she broke the silence.
"Since you have ordered, let the command be obeyed!" She essayed a laugh, which appeared rather forced. "Yet, if they are lost and are taken by the Masquer——"
"In that case," said Fell, "let the blame be mine entirely. If they are lost, little Columbine, others will be lost with them, fear not! I think that this party would be a rich haul for the Masquer, eh? Take the rich man and his friends—they could bear plucking, that crowd! Rogues all."
"Confound you, Fell!" exclaimed Ansley, uneasily. "If the bandit does show up there would be the very devil to pay!"
"And Maillard would do the paying." Fell's dry chuckle held a note of bitterness. "Let him. Who cares? Look at his house, there, blazing with lights. Who pays for[pg 19]those lights? The people his financial tentacles have closed their sucker-like grip upon. His wife's jewels have been purchased with the coin of oppression and injustice. His son's life is one of roguery and drunken wildness——"
"Man, are you mad?" Ansley indicated the Columbine between them. "We're not alone here—you must not talk that way——"
Jachin Fell only chuckled again. Columbine's laugh broke in with renewed gaiety:
"Nonsense, my dear Galen! We surely may be allowed to be ourselves during carnival! Away with the heresies of hypocritical society. Our friend speaks the sober truth. We masquers may admit among ourselves that Bob Maillard is——"
"Is not the man we would have our daughters marry, provided we had daughters," said Fell. Then he gestured toward the house ahead of them, and his tone changed: "Still, now that we are about to enter that house, we must remind ourselves of courtesy and the limitations of guests. Say no more. Produce your invitation, Columbine, for I think we shall find that the doors to-night are guarded by Cerberus."
[pg 20]They had come to a file of limousines and cars, and approached the gateway of the Maillard home. They turned into the gate.
The house loomed before them, a great house set amid gardens, stately in the fashion of olden days. The lower floors were discreetly darkened to the streets, but on the upper floor, where was the ballroom with its floor of cypress, there was a glitter of bright lights and open windows. Music drifted to them as they approached. Jachin Fell touched the arm of Ansley and indicated an inconspicuous figure to one side of the entrance steps.
"An outer guardian," he murmured. "Our host, it seems, is neglecting no precaution! I feel sorry for the Masquer, if he appears here."
They came to the doorway. Columbine produced an invitation, duly numbered, and the three entered the house together.
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