In the small chamois bag lurking next his heart was the talisman that was to make an existence of comfort and good living possible to the vagabond and outcast. The diamond is the true philosopher’s stone.
Nicholas put in a few days sauntering about Melbourne, swinging a neatly-rolled silk umbrella, smoking very excellent cigars. He passed several frowsy acquaintances of other days, and on two he bestowed small alms. He felt great satisfaction in the fact that none of his former companions recognised Nickie the Kid in the well-groomed, well-dressed, sleek, whiskered citizen.
On the third afternoon Mr. Crips entered a jeweller’s shop, and placing a small stone on the pad before the man behind the counter, said:
“Would you be so good as to tell me the value of that diamond, sir? I picked it up on the floor of a first-class railway carriage the other day, and having no means of testing it, I thought I might, eh, venture to ask an expert.”
The jeweller took up the stone, examined it, subjected it to a simple test, and handed it hack to Mr. Crips:
“A good carbon, but practically valueless,” he said.
Had Nicholas Crips received a blow full in the face he would not have betrayed greater consternation. His cheeks turned grey, he gripped the counter, all his assumed ease fell from him, he dropped every precaution, forgot the grim necessity for care and cunning.
“It is not a diamond?” he gasped.
The jeweller shook his head. “It’s an awful disappointment,” he said, “but you may be sure you’ll hear of it pretty quickly if you ever have the luck to pick up a true diamond of that size.”
Nicholas hadn’t the spirit to thank the man. He turned into the street. The buildings swam in a garish light, he felt his head rocking, and his feet seemed scarcely to touch the paving stones rising and dipping under him like a choppy sea. He drifted into a bar, and drank brandy, and went forth again with renewed strength and revived hopes.
The jeweller was mistaken or ignorant, the diamonds must be genuine. Nickie selected another stone, and told the same tale at a pawnbroker’s shop in another part of the city. The benignant Hebrew passed judgment after a glance.
“Paste, my boy,” he said, “not vorth ninepenth.”
Grown rash in his anguish and anxiety, Nicholas Crips visited other shops. The experts all told the same tale. The chamois bag held nothing but carbon counterfeits! The prospect of a life of ease and elegance faded away. It had been a vision, an illusion. Nickie’s philosophy was not proof against this stroke. He felt broken, beaten. In the seclusion of his small room in a respectable suburban boarding-house, Nicholas wept and brooded. And now that the possibility of the splendid reward was gone, Nickie dwelt upon the fearful risk he had run more than he had done in all the long months since he knelt by the murdered man in Bigg’s Buildings. He realised that in offering these sham stones for inspection he had probably done a mad thing. The act might bring the noose about his neck, if he were arrested, who would believe the absurd story he had to tell.
Nickie had been careful to betray no particular interest in the great murder case in the presence of his friends in the Museum of Marvels. He knew that the fictitious Rev. Andrew Rowbottom had been inquired for by the police as a man who might provide a clue, but the search for him had not been warmly followed up, it being assumed that he was some trumpery imposter. In any case, his importance was forgotten in a splendid dramatic idea entertained by the detectives, inculpating a clever and notorious criminal. The notorious criminal proved an alibi, and after being a nine days’ wonder the great diamond robbery and murder case was supplanted in the public mind by an even more sensational crime. Nickie in his terror of being associated with the murder had been careful, up to now, to betray no interest. He had evaded conversation about it, and only occasional papers had come into his hands at the show. Now he was eager to know all the evidence, anxious to account for the presence of the paste stones in the pocket of a reputable diamond dealer.
Mr. Crips determined to seek out “Mary Stuart.” All hope of a comfortable future was not lost. “Mary Stuart” must provide for her scape-goat. It should be her pleasing duty to clothe and feed that hapless animal for the remainder of its days.
In pursuit of his inquiries Nicholas turned up at Whitecliff on the following Sunday afternoon. To the immense astonishment of the master and mistress of that stuccoed mansion, Nickie was neat and clean, spick and span: he wore pince-nez glasses and spoke like a gentleman.
Nickie greeted his brother William with chastened melancholy, his manner towards his sister-in-law was courteous and kindly. He talked of reformation and a new life, of the honourable and onerous position he now occupied in a reputable Sydney business, and of his approaching marriage with an excellent, middle-aged, maiden lady of means. Deftly he worked round to a tall, aristocratic woman who had appeared a Mary Queen of Scots at the memorable fancy-dress ball at Whitecliff.
Brother William groaned, sister Jean sat up very straight, and sniffed ominously. “The creature!” she said.
“That woman was no friend of ours, Nicholas,” said brother William, hastily.
“I met her in your house,” said Nicholas, “and from a brief conversation I had I was deeply interested. It has occurred to me lately that if she still holds the same views she would be of vast assistance to my firm in a transaction we are meditating.”
“Have nothing to do with her,” cried William. “The creature was an adventuress; she worked her way into our confidence with trickery and fraud, presenting herself in society here as a lady of title. It was afterwards proved that she had come to the country as the companion of an infamous scamp who at that very time was serving a sentence of seven years for attempted burglary and firing on the police. The woman disappeared shortly after the occasion you mention. She left the country, I imagine. At any rate, the police were pursuing her for some time for passing valueless cheques. Please do not mention her name in this house; it awakens painful recollections, Nicholas.”
Mrs. William sniffed more significantly than before. “Williams cashed one of those cheques,” she said bitterly, with a venomous glance at her lord that told volumes.
Nicholas recognised in that moment that the prospect of an easy, well-clothed, well-fed, middle age at the expense of Mary Queen of Scots was out of the question. He consoled himself to some small extent by borrowing ten pounds from brother William after dinner.
Mr. Crips employed himself on the following day reading up the murder case in back numbers of the Age in the newspaper annex of the Public Library. He had to read a great deal of superfluous matter, and of many idle schemes and excursions on the part of the police before he came upon an illuminating little item in the shape of a casual hit of testimony from a friend of the dead man. The friend explained that the diamond dealer always carried in a small leather bag in his breast pocket a fine assortment of paste brilliants, with the deliberate intention of deceiving thieves who might attack him at any time. His idea was that the thieves would seize this case and make off without prosecuting a further search. But the murderer, whoever he was, was not content with the false stones; he had secured £5,000 worth of pure diamonds!
The story of the paste jewels was not repeated, and nobody seemed to have found any significance in it. At this late hour Nicholas Crips discovered so much meaning in it that he went out into the wide Domain to be alone among the trees to think it over. His thoughts came back always to the crucial point.
“I got the paste brilliants,” he muttered. “She got the real diamonds. She had them about her when I entered. She knew of the carbons, and she stalled me off with them. Lord, what a mug I was!”
Even in his great bitterness of spirit Nicholas could not help admiring the woman who had so completely sold him, and raising his hand in a mock salute, he said aloud:
“Mary Queen of Scots. You’re a DAISY!!”
From Prince’s Bridge that night Mr. Crips emptied a small bag of glittering mock diamonds into the river, and, two days later, he looked over the rail of an out going steamer, watching Australia receding in the distance, and, to his fertile imagination, the outline on the horizon took the shape of a gallows with a pendant noose.