"I was sent to you," Mrs. Allardyce explained, "by Lady Moreland, who tells me that it is part of your business to let houses which are suffering from an evil reputation. There is 19, Aubrey Gardens, for instance, the place has now been empty for five years, and I am told that it ought to fetch at least six hundred a year. With a limited income like mine the matter is serious."
Mr. Bruce Abbey murmured his sympathy, and intimated that Mrs. Allardyce could do no better than to give him the details.
"Very well," she said. "The last tenant was a rich young man connected with the city. He was about to be married, the house was just furnished when one evening he came back rather earlier than usual, and when he went to bed, locked the door behind him. The next morning his man could not make him hear, and burst the door open. To his surprise, the room was empty, and my tenant has not been seen since. And here comes the really strange part of the mystery. My tenant's fiancee was discovered dead in her bed, though there was no suspicion of foul play attaching to the matter. After this, all sorts of complications arose, and finally we came to a kind of compromise by leaving the dead man's furniture at No. 19, so that my lawyers might let the house ready furnished. By a strange coincidence, Mr. Bentley Allen, the actor, and his wife became tenants of the house—the coincidence being, that they were cousins of my mysterious tenant. At the end of the week, Mrs. Allen declared that she would not stay in the house another moment, as she had seen the ghost of James Hartopp. Unless you can explain all this, I shall never make a penny out of the place again."
Mrs. Allardyce departed, leaving Abbey to grapple with his facts. In the course of the day he elicited the information that the missing man was the son of one George Hartopp, who some years before was head of a flourishing business in the city. Latterly, the Hartopp connection had fallen off considerably, so that the young man was hardly justified in taking a house like 19, Aubrey-gardens. Also, he had been mixed up in rather a shady set, which tended towards a certain theory which was shaping itself in Abbey's mind. The first thing was to discover the name of the lady to whom Hartopp had been engaged. Investigation showed that she was a certain Selina Snow, only daughter of Mrs. Snow, of Lexington-crescent, the widow of the notorious Chicago millionaire of that name. Abbey smiled as he read the letter containing these facts.
"Here, what a slice of luck," he muttered, "Fancy finding Mrs. Snow again! Evidently she is a cleverer woman than what I took her for. I think I'll run round and see Mr. Bentley Allen."
The comedian was busy in his flat looking over a new play. He listened gravely as Abbey stated his business, and professed himself ready to do anything which would lead to the clearing up of the mystery surrounding James Hartopp.
"I suppose you want to know all about my wife and her delusion over the ghost of James Hartopp," he said. "It was on the fifth evening after we had taken up our abode at Aubrey Gardens, and my wife had gone to her room to dress for dinner. The bedroom is behind the drawing-room, and I was in my dressing-room when I heard a fearful scream. I found my wife terrified and impressed with the belief that she had seen the ghost of James Hartopp. Of course, it sounded very absurd, but she said that he was pale and unshaven, and that he was smoking a cigarette. Strange to say, the place smelt strongly of smoke, and there was a pile of ashes by the door."
"What do you make of it?" Abbey asked.
"Overwork," Allen said. "We had a very long tour in the South, and my wife is far from well. I look upon the whole thing as nothing more than a delusion."
"I don't agree with you," Abbey said, quietly. "I am firmly convinced that she did see James Hartopp. Now, tell me, what do you suppose Miss Snow died of—I mean the girl to whom your cousin was engaged?"
"Oh, there was no doubt about that!" Allen exclaimed. "Beyond all question she was suffering from an old-standing complaint—heart failure, and all that kind of thing."
"Well, I don't wish to contradict you," Abbey said; "but I am sure that you are altogether wrong. You may laugh at me, if you like, but it is my firm conviction that Miss Snow is not dead at all, and I shall be in a position to prove it to you before many days have passed. This is one of the strangest cases I have ever handled."
"Well, I wish you luck with it," Allen said. "And now, if I can't tell you anything else, I shall be glad to be alone again, for I am exceedingly busy."
Abbey took the hint and departed. By the time he reached his office he had pretty well worked the matter out. It seemed quite plain. Hartopp had vanished from his locked bedroom, probably because his creditors were getting importunate. And Abbey knew a great deal about Miss Selina Snow and her sudden death. The girl and her mother had come within his influence in connection with quite another matter, and, this being so, Abbey saw his way how to act.
It was nearly dark when he left his office and walked in the direction of Aubrey Gardens. There was no caretaker in No. 19; but Abbey had the keys in his pocket. With the aid of an acetylene lantern he hoped to make one or two useful discoveries before long. His first visit was, naturally, to the bedroom where the ghost had appeared. By the side of the bed was a small ventilator let into a stained-glassed window some two feet square. With the aid of a chair. Abbey proceeded to investigate. The little window looked sheer down into the hall, as the lane of light in the gulf of darkness clearly showed. Abbey smiled to himself as he walked on towards the dressing room; he saw that somebody had dropped some cigarette-ash on the fender. The end of the cigarette had fallen inside. He picked it up and chuckled.
"Ah," he said. "This is Perique tobacco mixed with Havannah. Corelli and Co. on the end, Bond-street. Unless I am mistaken, Corelli have only had a Bond-street branch for a year or so, and this house has been empty more than twice that time. I wonder if it is possible, that the electric light has been left connected?"
The light flared out, and yet when Abbey went down in the basement he found the meter had been cut off. But a bare wire had been attached to the main close to the back door. A bit of clumsy amateur work, but enough to show Abbey that the house had been used. A moment later and Abbey was in Cornell's shop in Bond-street asking questions as to the cigarette end which he carried in his hand. A very gentlemanly assistant recognised the brand, but explained that it was never stocked, seeing that the cigarettes contained opium and were more or less of a sedative. As a matter of fact, the cigarettes were only made to order, and, doubtless, the stump that Abbey held in his hand had been one of a lot recently supplied to a lady who had called only yesterday for a further supply.
"Would you mind telling me where your customer lives?" Abbey asked, boldly. "As a matter of fact. I know her and her habits, and that is why I came here to inquire. I know that my request is somewhat unusual, and if you object—"
The assistant volunteered the address without hesitation.
Panton-street is quite a respectable thoroughfare, as Abbey well knew—a street once inhabited by doctors and lawyers and the like, but now given over to the letting of superior lodgings. A day later, and Abbey was established on the second floor suite for a more or less indefinite period, at the outlay of something like twenty-five shillings, payable in advance. Beyond a pair of blue spectacles, he had no disguise whatever.
The second day passed and the evening came with no practical results whatever. It was summer time, and Abbey appeared to have a weakness for smoking cigarettes in the gardens opposite, what time he wore a pair of tennis shoes. He was thus engaged on the second evening, when the door of his temporary lodgings opened and a tall, dark woman emerged. She pulled a veil over her face, and started as if on some definite errand up the road.
"My woman for a million!" Abbey murmured. "I felt certain of it. And if she is not going to 19 Aubrey Gardens, I'll eat my tennis shoes. Nice, comfortable wear they are for an evening like this, too."
Abbey chuckled as he prepared to follow. It was exactly as he had expected. The woman in the veil was fairly close to 19 Aubrey Gardens now. A street hawker selling music of the pirate variety was importuning the veiled figure to buy. Presently she tossed a coin to the fellow, and he rammed a few sheets of vilely-printed music into her hand. He turned away and passed Abbey, whistling as if he had other work to do. Abbey gave him a quick, suspicious glance as he passed.
"Gustave Markel, the banknote paper thief," Abbey muttered. "I hope the recognition was not mutual. Ah, there she goes."
Very coolly, the woman in the veil let herself in No. 19 with a latchkey. The darkness was gathering fast now, and Abbey was conscious that his heart was quickening. He crossed over to No. 19, and gently inserted his key in the door. It gave as silently as the grave, and the next instant Abbey was groping along like a cat in the velvet throat of darkness.
Bruce Abbey stood there in the midst of the purple shadows. He could discern very dim outlines here and there, for the shutters were closed, and there was no gleam of light from without. There was danger here, too, how great a danger he had not fully realised till he had recognised the identity of the pseudo vendor of street music. It was four years since Abbey had come across Gustave Markel, in connection with the disappearance of certain parcels of banknote paper, and Abbey knew what a poisonous scoundrel he had to deal with here.
Abbey shut his teeth tightly together, and resolved to see this affair through personally. There were deeper and more serious matters here than the mere solution of the mystery of the empty house. The intruder listened intently for a time, but no sound broke the dumming silence of his ears. Greatly daring, he produced his acetylene lamp, and flashed a quick lance of light around. The lambent flame picked out the stairway, and Abbey took a rapid mental photograph of his bearings. It seemed to him that he could hear something overhead. Very quietly he crept upwards. Surely enough somebody was busy in one of the rooms, somebody else was talking, there was a steady thud like the rattle of a hand printing-press. But the door of the room was locked as Abbey's nervous fingers discovered.
How to get those rats to move was the next problem. It would have been easy to call in the police, but Abbey's first duty was to his client, and be did not want any scandal if it could be avoided. The little man's brains were working rapidly. He wanted to disturb those people upstairs, but he desired to do it by natural means, something in the way of a plausible accident.
Illumination came at length with the recollection that the locked room overhead was brilliantly lighted. Abbey had seen that through the keyhole. Those people upstairs were doing something that required a good light, hence the way in which the electric wires in the basement had been manipulated. Why not cut that light off? It only required to remove a lamp from anywhere in the house, and short circuit the current by the application of a knife blade to the positive and negative poles in the lamp socket. This would instantly blow out the fuses and render every lamp inoperative. There would be nothing here to arouse suspicion.
With the aid of the acetylene lantern. Abbey unshipped a lamp and applied the blade of his knife to the poles. A second later, and there came the shuffle of feet overhead, and then footsteps coming down the stairs. A match scratched, a man's voice quietly swore. Abbey could hear a woman saying something also.
"Fuses gone," the man muttered.
"I told you they were not strong enough. Anyway, we can soon put that straight. Wait here till I run round to the nearest ironmonger's and get some fine copper wire. It is a confounded nuisance, all the same!"
The front door opened and closed quietly, there was pitchy darkness once more. Quite rigid, Abbey stood by the door of the dining-room; it seemed to him that he could hear the woman moving about quite close to him. As he stepped back instinctively, his foot touched a chair that scraped against the polished surround of the carpet, there was a muttered exclamation, and a hand touched Abbey on the breast. Instantly he grasped a supple white wrist, as quickly his arm was about the figure of the woman.
"I should strongly advise you not to cry out," Abbey said, breathlessly. "I should have preferred for the present to have remained hidden. But since you have discovered me—"
"Who are you?" the woman whispered. "Who are you?"
"Who I am is absolutely immaterial—your identity is quite a different matter. I should advise you not to struggle. I grant you that the situation is a strange, not to say alarming one, but that is surely nothing for Miss Selina Snow."
The woman merely gasped, but she was too absolutely astonished to struggle.
"I know all about you," Abbey went on. "Miss Selina Snow, only daughter and heiress of the late Ezra Snow of New York. The late Ezra was a clever man, but he died a little before his time, so that he left absolutely nothing. But you were too wise to let anybody know that, otherwise you would not have dragged your mother to England and posed here as a woman of great wealth. Do I interest you?"
The woman in Abbey's grasp shivered. It was horrible to be there in the velvet darkness in the grip of this stranger, who seemed to know everything.
"I do interest you." Abbey resumed. "It was a good time while it lasted, eh? But even London tradesmen get tired of giving credit. You had to look about you. You decreed to become the wife of Mr. James Hartopp. You thought one another rich; when you found out your mistake it was almost too late. That is why you two hit upon the desperate course of blackmailing Lord Rentonby, who put the case in the hands of a certain solicitor. His lordship was young, and having a distinguished political career before him, he decided to pay. But unhappily for you, the blackmail game seemed so good that you played it also on Sir Charles Gavern, who came to the same solicitor. Then to use a vulgarism, all the fat was in the fire. When Sir Charles discovered what was taking place he lost his temper, and instead of leaving it to the lawyer he came to your house and made a scene. He was not satisfied with that, but he must needs go and call on your lover and confederate, James Hartopp, hence the disappearance of the latter, hence your unhappy demise."
"Selina Snow was buried, and a proper certificate given," the woman said, sullenly.
"I do not doubt the certificate," said Abbey. "To my certain knowledge at least three of your servants were confederates. Long before you had planned a good and certain way of escape if the police ever wanted you. Near your house was a doctor whose name has since disappeared from the 'Medical Register.' He was one of the black sheep of a noble profession. I knew him, and the lawyer who I alluded to just now knew him also. We saved an innocent young girl's reputation from that scoundrel. And when I heard that he had given the certificate of Miss Snow's death from heart failure and that no inquest was necessary, I knew what to think."
"Oh, you are a clever man," the woman said, bitterly. "Go on!"
"Is there any need?" Abbey asked. "I could have opened the eyes of the police, but really it was no business of mine to do so, seeing that our clients had got off scot-free. I might have done the same as regards James Hartopp, but again it was no business of mine."
"Then why are you worrying me now?" the woman asked.
"Oh, now I am acting for a client, the lady who owns this house. She desires this mystery to be all cleared up, about the ghost that appeared to Mrs. Allen, and so on. Well, it was easy to guess who the ghost was. Of course, Hartopp wanted something from the safe in his dressing-room, and he chose the wrong time to steal into the house. He was smoking a cigarette at the time, you recollect. Well, that cigarette end interested me, but not nearly so much as the discovery of the other cigarette ends made by Corelli and Co., of Bond-street. As Corelli and Co. have only been in Bond-street for—"
"What a fool I have been!" the woman cried. "I had quite forgotten."
"Of course you had. But you are still wondering. You see, I was the confidential clerk of Mr. Ashton King, and it was I who interviewed you for Lord Rentonby. On that occasion you gave me a certain cigarette of Perique and Havannah tobacco. An soon as I found those stubs manufactured by Corelli and Co., I saw everything. This house was empty: it had a bad reputation; Hartopp possessed the key. There was a fine secret place to carry on any little conspiracy, such as banknote forgery and the like."
"Ah!" the woman gasped. "You are a fiend! Go on."
"Presently, perhaps. But unless I am greatly mistaken, that is Mr. Hartopp coming back. Now, I have no sentimental feeling in the case, and care nothing for your forgery, though I did see Gustave Markel pass you that bank paper to-night. Do as I ask you, and you are free to leave the house presently, but understand that I am going to lay Hartopp by the heels. The production of the pretty rascal is absolutely necessary for the welfare of my client. Mr. Hartopp is calling you. Please reply."
The woman obeyed without the slightest hesitation. Hartopp wanted a candle, and he was directed where to find one. A few minutes later and the light came up once more; a long ray of it shot down the stairs from the room above. Hartopp ran up nimbly, calling to his confederate to follow him.
"If I were you," Abbey said, grimly, "I should do nothing of the kind. I should quietly slide out of the front door and vanish discreetly. Let me go upstairs."
The woman drew a deep breath as Abbey released the grip on her arm. She appeared to display no feeling or emotion whatever; she knew quite well when she was beaten, for her companion in crime she cared nothing. There was a rustle of drapery, a little puff of cool air, and the front door opened and closed gently.
"I made no mistake in my judgment of her," Abbey muttered. "Now for my bird."
Hartopp stood in the centre of a blaze of light examining a sheet of crisp paper with an air of critical approval.
"I don't think they could be bettered, Selina," he said.
"Really, I don't think they could," Abbey said, coolly. "Miss Selina Snow has ceased to take an interest in engravings, however valuable, preferring scenery and travel at present. Now, I am armed, and the police are not far off. Sit down, James Hartopp, and take it quietly, or it will be all the worse for you. If you prefer to fight—"
But there was no fight, not an ounce left in the detected criminal. He listened quietly enough whilst Abbey recited the main heads of his discoveries, and he ticked them off with frequent raising of his dull eyes.
"What do you require of me?" he said at length.
"Why, to accompany me to Bow-street." Abbey explained. "Subsequently, the police can come here and take care of those little efforts of yours. James Hartopp's sensational story will make fine copy for the papers to-morrow. Come along. In a few weeks' time from now, Mrs. Allardyce can pick and choose her own tenants for this house. Curious phase of human nature, but there it is."
As Abbey had prophesied, the strange case of James Hartopp made a fine sensation in the cheaper press. Within a few days Abbey was the richer by a hundred pounds, and Mrs. Allardyce had secured a tenant, in every way desirable at a rent considerably in excess of any previous amount paid for that desirable mansion known as No. 19, Aubrey gardens.