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THERE was not in London a happier couple than Sir George Hilton and his wife Ellen until a series of most extraordinary and quite inexplicable thefts threw a gloom over their household, and ended by almost creating an actual spirit of mutual suspicion and reciprocal mistrust between the two themselves.
They were both wealthy. Sir George occupied a trusted position as undersecretary in the Foreign Office, his wife's drawing-rooms were thronged by the very bloom, as it were, of all that the world-metropolis could offer in art and literature, science, and politics.
Their house in Grosvenor Square—familiarly known as the Grange— was an ancient mansion, and it was furnished in the heavy style of the early Victorian era. Its prevailing air was solidity. It had thick, solid doors, with solid keys and solid bolts to each. Its shutters and windows were solid.
It seemed, therefore, that the very imp of levity had invaded its solid atmosphere when things of unique value begun to disappear mysteriously from the locked apartment sacred to the use of Sir George and his wife.
The apartment consisted of four intercommunicating rooms—Lady Hilton's room on the west, her boudoir next to it on the east, and next to that the bathroom, and beyond that again Sir George's room, The apartment could only he entered by the doors which gave respectively from each of the rooms onto the corridor, and each of these doors was fitted with patent locks, bolts, and burglar alarms, as also were the shutters at the windows, all of which overlooked the square, some thirty feet beneath.
The first of these inexplicable disappearances occurred one evening when Lady Hilton, having dressed for dinner, save for the rings she had left in her bedroom in a tray on the toilet-table near the door leading into the corridor, was awaiting in her boudoir the completion of Sir George's toilet, and carrying on with him a more or less continued conversation through the open doors. All the doors leading into the.corridor were locked. Ail the windows were shuttered, save for the foot of space at the top, where the circulating ventilators were open. Sir George, strolling through his wife's boudoir, preceded her through the bedroom to open the door for her.
His wife, pausing at the tray where she had left her rings, gave an exclamation of alarm, which stayed Sir George's hand as he was about to shoot back the bolt. The four rings—priceless heirlooms—were gone. In vain they searched, both for rings and concealed thief. There was no one in the room. The bolts of all the doors were shot. But the rings were gone. Nor were the experts of Scotland Yard able either to trace them or to offer any feasible explanation of their disappearance. In fact, their conclusion was briefly summed up in the nasty dilemma, "if Sir George hasn't got them, his wife must have."
After that Sir George's scarf-pins and his diamond solitaire ring vanished; then a priceless pearl pendant belonging to his wife, then a purseful of sovereigns, then a necklace of rubies—and always when Sir George and his wife were together in the rooms, with the doors and windows secure from intrusion. The chimneys were out of the question, for they were barred both at the top and above the grates. The position had already become intolerable, and almost grotesque, when a tragic climax was put upon it by the disappearance of a packet of State papers which Sir George had left in the pocket of his coat thrown over a chair, while he proceeded to take his preprandial tub. When he returned to his room the coat was on the floor, and the envelope containing the papers had vanished.
This time he knew that his wife had not even been near his room. He called her in, and in an agitated voice broke the news to her,
"Are they of great importance?" she asked.
"My dear," he said gravely, "the despatch is a communiqué to the French Government of what we are prepared to do in her aid in case Turkey persists in playing into the hands of Germany in the Near East. Unless I have them by to-morrow morning I am ruined and disgraced, and my career is at an end."
"Then there's only one thing to be done," said Lady Hilton, with emphasis. "Send for Sexton Blake."
And they did.
Blake had solved many a "poser" in his vivid and varied career, but he had never before met with one that so "left him on the mat" as did this.
The personnel of Sir George's household did not afford any clue.
"There is not a person in my employ," said Sir George, "who has not been with me for at ten years, with the sole exception of the Swiss governess, and she has been here a year."
"And she is a good and sweet woman," said Lady Hilton, "as ingenuous as a child."
"Has she been out this evening?" asked Blake, with sudden suspicion.
"Oh. dear, no!" said Lady Hilton, "I will enquire if you like. But I am sure she has not. She never goes out alone, except to early service at half-past six at St. Margaret's."
"To Mass, I suppose?" asked Blake.
"No, she is a Protestant, but most devout," replied Lady Hilton.
"And the rooms opposite yours in the corridor?" asked Blake. "How are they occupied?"
"The room opposite mine is occupied by my private secretary— Julian Herder, said Sir George. "The other three are guest rooms and at present vacant."
"Did your secretary know you had these papers?" asked Blake.
"No one knew," replied Sir George, "it was only at the last moment the chief asked me to look over them and see that all was right."
"And Mr, Herder has been with you some time?" pursued Blake.
"Fifteen years," replied Sir George, "I have the utmost, confidence in him. In fact, when my wife and I go away—which we often do—we always leave our house here entirely in his charge, and as he has practically control of the many valuables in it, he could have robbed us right and left had be been so disposed."
"May I ask if I could occupy the room opposite yours to-night, Lady Hilton?' asked Blake. "And that no one, not even the servants, may know of my presence. By the way, have any of your guests ever suffered similar losses?"
"The Duchess of Bury, who was staying a few months since in the room you are about to occupy averred that she had lost her diamond necklace under exactly similar conditions," replied Lady Milton. "But as I had told her of our strange experience, and as she was up to her eyes in debt, I really did not believe her, though Sir George paid the value of the necklace."
Blake rubbed his bands gently together, and almost purred in his contentment.
"I think I can promise yon the papers, Sir George," he said, "before breakfast time to-morrow morning, And I should not be surprised if I recovered, also, your more personal possessions, including the duchess's necklace. And now, if you will excuse me, I will retire to my room,"
Sir George showed him across, The corridor was in darkness, but Blake's keen eyes had nearly the visual faculty of a cat in the dark, and he smiled grimly to himself as he entered the room and locked and bolted the door, for he could have sworn that in the far end of the corridor, beyond Sir George's room, there was the figure of a man in a long grey dressing-gown blotted against the wall.
His bed was in the centre of the room. He arranged a bolster in it, heaped the clothes about the pillow then stole across to the door and stood rigid against the wall, to the left of the hinges.
It was at five-thirty the next morning that Blake left his room on tip-toe, locked his door behind him, and, pocketing the key, crept noiselessly across to Lady Hilton's door, where for a couple of minutes he stood as if listening. Then he made his way silently down the stairs, let himself out by the hall window, which he closed after him, and snapped back the catch with a little steel blade of his own contrivance, and so gained the street.
At six-twenty he was making his way down the street in which St. Margaret's Church lies and following, from the opposite side, the neat trim figure of the Hiltons' governess, of whom he had never lost sight since she stepped demurely out of the front door of the Grange twenty minutes previously.
Just as demurely she stepped into the porch of St. Margaret's Church, and Blake's keen eyes noted that she transferred a brown parcel to a heavily-cloaked man, who, without saluting her, immediately stepped into the street and made with quick steps towards Bruton street.
Blake shadowed him, and as the man was inserting his latchkey into his door, Blake's hand gripped his arm.
"I have you covered," said the detective sternly, "You are my prisoner. Lead the way to your rooms. If you make the slightest fuss, you go to Bow-street, and I doubt if your employers will thank you for the scandal"
"I am in your hands," said the other man coolly.
He led the way up to his rooms, and as he opened the door, Blake snapped a pair of handcuffs over his wrists, and, thrusting a hand into his cloak, drew out the brown parcel.
"That is all I want from you at present, Herr Baron," he said. "I shall lock you in your rooms, and if you are wise you will wait quietly my return. I will not keep you long."
Blake pushed him gently in, locked the door, pocketed the key, and regained the street, Making his way leisurely to St. Margaret's, he opened the parcel, made sure that the packet contained Sir George's despatch, scanned a short note, written in a fine, scholarly hand, and arrived at the church just as the Hiltons' governess was leaving it.
He followed her leisurely, and rejoined her on the Grange doorstep. As the door opened, the governess, with a slight bow, would have passed him, but he detained her with a gesture.
"Sir George wishes to see you," he said, and noted her eyes dilate with sudden fear.
"Sir George is in the library, sir," said the butler, and led the way there.
Sir George was there, with his wife and the secretary, who, seeing the governess enter with Blake, half started from his chair, and sat down again, pale to the lips.
"Your despatch, Sir George," said the detective coolly, handing the document to the baronet. "And this letter, sir, he said, turning to the secretary, "is, I believe, yours."
Herder stretched out his hand mechanically, and Blake, with a swift movement, braceleted it in a handcuff, threw himself on him, and gathered his other wrist into the fellow-bracelet.
Herder sat livid, speechless. The governess had sunk half fainting into a chair. Sir George and his wife had sprung to their feet dismayed.
"What on earth " began the baronet, in a tone of exasperation. Blake stayed him with a gesture, holding out to him the letter taken from the fateful parcel.
"That, I think, is his writing," he said. "I took it from Baron X., of Bruton-street, with the despatch. Both were handed him by that lady, who, you will find, is your secretary's wife, Your jewellery you will no doubt find concealed in her boxes."
"But, Mr. Blake, what does it mean? How did you find out?" cried Lady Hilton.
"It means," said Blake drily, "that Herder grew tired of dependence and honest work, and determined on a life of ease. Being a careful and ingenious being, he pursued a plan that very nearly baffled even my skill. As you see from the note there, his wife was to receive fifty thousand pounds from the baron to- morrow, and they would then have chosen discreet moments to withdraw from your Service with your jewels. You found my note this morning?"
"Yes. And have never ceased to wonder how it came to be on my bed," cried Lady Hilton.
"I threw it in," said Blake, "by the same way in which Herder ingeniously devised a means of entrance. Your rooms, like the duchess's, had been entered by the door, had been unlocked and unbolted from the outside, and re-locked and re-bolted from the outside. It was the only possible explanation. And you yourself named the only possible man who could have controlled such a feat when you told me that your secretary frequently had the house at his disposal, I confess I could not conceive how he could have done it. It never entered my head to imagine it. But I saw that he suspected my disguise in the drawing-room, and I caught sight of him in the night, concealed in the corridor, as I crossed it to my room, and I felt quite sure that he would satisfy himself I was in bed before he proceeded to visit his wife's room and give her instructions. I therefore arranged a dummy figure in my bed and flattened myself behind my door.
"I had not long to wait, At two o'clock I heard a faint noise, and my eyes, accustomed to the darkness, saw the panel of my door—the panel below the lock—glide swiftly, gently up. A ray of light shone in on my bed, and I saw Herder's face—masked— give one glance in. Then the panel moved downwards again.
"I waited an hour. Then I left my room, assured myself, by listening at his door, that he was asleep, and, returning, examined the panel. Once in possession of the secret, the discovery of the mechanism was child's play. The top panel was hollow, and twice the thickness of the bottom. By a pressure of the bottom groining it could be slipped up into the one above, giving to the operator access to the bolts and key within.
"I wrote your note, and tested the facility of the mechanism by raising your panel a few inches, and throwing the letter in. Then I quitted the house and followed Mrs. Herder, with the result you know. The baron is at present handcuffed and locked in his rooms, and awaits your disposal."