IT was somewhere about the year 1820 that a poor and almost friendless youth, named Samuel Trelawney, found himself in Liverpool, with not even the proverbial sixpence in his pocket. Fortunately he attracted the notice of a gentleman engaged in the East India trade. This gentleman took such a fancy to Samuel that he offered to send him out to his house in Bombay, where he would receive a commercial training. This was the golden opportunity, and eagerly seized upon by the young man, who, after five years in the East Indies, returned to Liverpool owing to the death of his patron. But this time he was no longer a penniless youth. He had managed to scrape a little money together, and having acquired a thorough knowledge of commercial matters, he set up in business on his own account in a very small way. That was the beginning of the great concern that was to extend its ramifications to the four quarters of the globe.
Under Samuel's able guidance the business continued to grow, and he took in a partner—a Mr. Richard Lindmark. Soon the concern began to assume gigantic proportions, and the partners decided to turn it into a joint-stock company. Such a reputation had they gained that the required capital was subscribed three times over.
So much for the history of the firm of Trelawney, Lindmark, and Co. And it is necessary now that some reference should be made to the private history of Mr. Trelawney, who not only retained a very large financial interest in the company, but as managing director had almost the entire control of it.
At this period wonder was often expressed why Mr. Trelawney had never married. But there was a tender passage in his life that he carefully concealed from the vulgar gaze of the curious. He had had his little romance. The lady he loved was a light- headed, frivolous person who, knowing not the treasure she was throwing away, gave him up and bestowed her hand on a handsome but worthless Italian adventurer. There is not the slightest doubt that Mr. Trelawney had been passionately attached to the lady, and he felt the disappointment with a keenness that the world knew little of. But concealing his sorrow as best he could, he took his youngest sister Bertha as his housekeeper.
He had bought a charming estate on the Cheshire side of the Mersey, consisting of a mansion standing in about seven acres of grounds. It was known as the "Dingle," and here Mr. Trelawney and his sister Bertha dispensed lavish hospitality. Soon a mystery in connection with this place cropped up, and set the tongues of the gossips wagging. It was this. Into his house Mr. Trelawney received a boy child with a view to adopting it. Mr. Trelawney went from home one day, and after a week's absence he returned late one night, bringing the child, then about four years old, with him. The following morning he called all his household together in his library and said:
"Being a childless man, and never likely to marry, I intend to adopt this boy, who will be known to you as Jasper Trelawney. You will respect him as my son, for I shall be a father to him, as both his father and mother are dead."
This was all the explanation and information Mr. Trelawney condescended to give; and being so meagre, it simply aroused curiosity without in any way satisfying it.
The child was a dark-eyed, olive-skinned, curly-headed fellow, who speedily became a favourite. From boy to youth, from youth to young manhood every whim and wish of his was gratified by his over-indulgent foster parents—for Bertha Trelawney was no less attached to him than her brother was.
At his own earnest desire he had been taken into the business of Trelawney, Lindmark, and Co., and though he was not quite as steady and persevering as he might have been great hopes were formed of him.
But now the mystery that had begun when Jasper was brought as a child to the "Dingle" was increased by his sudden and unexplained disappearance. All that was allowed to leak out was this: A servant entered the library one morning suddenly not knowing that anyone was there, but to her amazement she saw Mr. Trelawney seated in a chair, though his face was bowed on the table as if he were overcome with some passion of grief. Grasped and crumpled in his left hand was a letter, and on her knees beside him, and weeping bitterly, her hands clasped on his shoulder, was his sister Bertha. The servant withdrew without disturbing them; but this scene had a strange significance when in the course of a day or two it became known that Jasper Trelawney had gone away.
Twenty years went by, and Jasper Trelawney was entirely forgotten by all, perhaps, save his foster parents. Bertha and Mr. Trelawney were growing old, and he had become a silent, reserved, and brooding man. Owing to enfeebled health he was now only nominally the head of the great business which he had been mainly instrumental in building up, but he was said to have wealth almost beyond the dreams of avarice, and so great was the faith of the world in him and his company, that capital to almost any extent might have been obtained.
Fortunate was the man considered who held shares, or could obtain shares, in Trelawney, Lindmark, and Co. It can therefore be understood how those who were interested stood aghast, and how the commercial world was dumfoundered when one day, without any preliminary warning, it was announced that Trelawney, Lindmark, and Co. had failed for an enormous amount, and that everyone interested in the company would be utterly ruined. There was no limited liability then, and many a family, as they read the announcement of the failure, must have felt that misery and poverty stared them in the face. It was said that the assets were practically nil, while the liabilities were enormous. The great London firm of accountants—Rogers, Millbank, and Farmer—were appointed liquidators, and a few days later Mr. Rogers requested me to call upon him. He was a stern, hard-faced, practical man who seemed to ooze figures at every pore, and who had not one single atom of poetry or sentiment in his nature. He viewed the world, life, and all its associations through an atmosphere of arithmetic.
He informed me that enormous sums had been taken out of the business, and never accounted for, by some person unknown; that bogus bonds to a vast amount had been put upon the market, and, what was still more serious, that the register of the bond- holders had been stolen, so as to render it difficult, if not impossible, to detect the bogus bonds from the real ones. It was my task to trace the missing register and to find the thief. There was no suspicion, and no clue. The whole affair seemed an inexplicable mystery.
Having jotted down a few notes, and got all the details from him I could, I took my departure and began to plan out a course of action. From the high opinion in which Mr. Trelawney was held I felt that I could not do better than seek an interview with him at the outset, and I therefore lost no time in going down to the "Dingle."
The time of year was about the middle of October—chill October. A cold wind was moaning over the land, which was sear and brown; and the deep tints of decay dyed the foliage of the trees. Although the coming winter was thus making itself felt, the "Dingle" looked picturesque and beautiful. The grounds were well wooded, and full of many surprises. There were rockeries, arbours, bowers, and green retreats, where gurgled tiny fountains; and through one portion of the estate flowed a stream of deep water, which ultimately formed a miniature lake, on the banks of which was a boat house. Ferns grew everywhere in profusion, but they were drooping now to their winter death. I noted that weeds had been allowed to spring up in the paths, as if the master spirit of the place had ceased to interest himself in it.
As I made my way up through the wooded grounds and crossed a leaf-strewn lawn in front of the house, I beheld an old, bowed, grey-headed man, dressed in a long coat and wide-awake hat. He was pacing to and fro on the gravel path by the main entrance to the house. His hands were clasped behind his back, and seemingly he was so absorbed that he did not notice me until I was close to him. Then he turned suddenly, and confronted me with an inquiring gaze. His face was pale and haggard, and bore evident traces of mental anguish.
"Mr. Trelawney, I presume?" I said, as I raised my hat.
"Alas! yes, I am Trelawney," he answered with a sigh. "Once the head of a great and wealthy commercial house; now a ruined, despairing, and broken man. But you are a stranger to me. Permit me to ask your name and business?"
"My name is Donovan. My business has reference to a painful matter in which I hope for your assistance."
"I am at your service," he answered, mournfully. "Pray, command me. But let us go into the house. It is cold and dreary here."
He led the way through the great hall to the library. A charming room, which—if I may use the expression—was redolent of literature. There were books from floor to ceiling; where books would not go were pictures, all perfect works of art; and where pictures could not be squeezed in there were elegant trifles, such as a man of refined taste loves to gather about him. The window commanded a view over a range of flower-beds to the stream beyond, which had for a background a dark wood, that was sombre with pines and cedars. Mr. Trelawney motioned me to an easy chair of the most ample proportions, delightfully cushioned; and, as I seated myself, he did the same in a similar chair beside the fire.
"I am here on behalf of the liquidators," I began, as he leaned back, folded his hands, and waited for me to speak.
"Yes," was the only answer he made; and it was uttered in a sort of dreamy way, as though his thoughts were not with what he said.
"You are aware," I proceeded, as I watched his face, which seemed to be absolutely expressionless at that moment—"you are aware that a very important book is missing?"
"Yes," he answered, again in the same dreamy way. "I heard it through Rogers, Millbank, and Farmer."
"But do you mean to say, Mr. Trelawney," I exclaimed, "that you did not know the register was missing until the liquidators made it known?"
He started into life at this. He sat up, with his long white hands nervously clutching the ends of the chair-arms; and his pale face lighted up with some inward passion that he was trying hard to conceal.
At this moment the door suddenly opened and a lady entered, but visibly started and drew back as she observed me, and looking at Mr. Trelawney she stammered:
"I—I—beg your pardon, but I didn't know you had anyone with you."
"This is a gentleman from London—Mr. Donovan," he exclaimed, as he sprang to his feet; and then, introducing her to me, he added: "My sister, sir, Miss Bertha Trelawney."
I bowed and she bowed. She was dressed in black; her white hair was neatly arranged beneath a cap; but her face, like her brother's, was pale and lined with thought and care. She seemed greatly agitated and suffering from nervous tremor and I was sure that she regarded me with mixed feelings of anxiety and fear. I watched her narrowly, and saw her exchange looks with her brother.
"Did you wish to speak to me?" asked her brother, apparently with the object of cutting short the interview.
"Yes," came the answer in low tones; and, asking me to excuse him for a few minutes, Mr. Trelawney and his sister went out of the room. In about ten minutes he returned, and he too seemed agitated.
"When my sister entered," he began as he resumed his seat, "I was about to tell you that the discovery of defalcations and the loss of the register is as much a revelation to me as it is to anyone. There is one thing I think that I may mention, and I do it with all reserve. But it is perhaps better that the information should come from me than from anyone else. About two years ago—it may be two and a half, I am not quite clear on the subject—I placed a gentleman in the concern as a confidential clerk. His name was David Brinsley. He was the son of an old friend of mine, who went out to Australia long ago, and died there. David, who had been partly brought up in the colonies, came to England after his father's death and sought me out. As he brought excellent testimonials, I had no hesitation in giving him a position of trust. Three months ago he was taken suddenly ill, and was dead in a few days. I remember now that it was immediately after David's death that I heard something about the register being missing."
"This is a remarkable story, Mr. Trelawney," I remarked, pointedly.
"Heaven forbid," he exclaimed, excitedly, "that I should cast aspersions on the character of a dead man; but I mention the incident for what it is worth. It is for you to make such inquiries as you think the matter deserves."
"Certainly," I answered, in a way intended to suggest that I did not think very much about the matter; but the truth was, I was morally certain I had got hold of the key to the mystery.
As I did not see that any object was to be served by my prolonging the interview then, I took my departure after a few casual questions bearing on the death of David Brinsley. As I left the steps and was crossing the lawn, I turned and looked at the house, and saw at the curtained window of a side room the deathly-white face of a woman, who seemed to be glaring at me. Directly she saw that she was observed, she dropped the curtain which she had been holding aside with her hand, and hurriedly withdrew. This trivial incident was not without its significance for me, and I began to weave out a theory as I pursued my way to Liverpool.
And one resolve I made was to look upon David Brinsley, alive or dead. Of course if, as Mr. Trelawney said, he was dead and buried, I could not see him alive. But, anyway, I wanted to see that he was as dead as he ought to be if he was really buried.
Necessarily there were certain legal formalities to comply with before my resolve could be put into practical shape. But certain information having been lodged, and all the forms of law been duly observed, an order was issued from the Home Office for the exhumation of the body of David Brinsley, who in the death certificate was described as a native of Australia; aged forty; and his decease was attributed to "pericardiac inflammation."
The disinterment took place at night after the cemetery gates were closed for the day. A small tent had been put up near the grave, and the oak coffin having been hoisted from the grave, was placed on trestles in the tent; and the undertaker's men proceeded to remove the lid and expose the face of the corpse, which proved to be in a remarkably good state of preservation. I had taken care to have several persons present who had been acquainted with David Brinsley, and as the lid of the coffin was taken off, I said collectively to these people as they crowded round:
"Look well at the face of that dead man, and tell me if it is David Brinsley's face."
In reply to this question there arose a unanimous chorus of "Noes."
Perhaps I smiled a little to myself in spite of the "solemn presence of the dead," but a man may be pardoned for smiling, even under such circumstances, when he knows that he has achieved a triumph.
Although the plot had apparently thickened, I had picked up some important clues, and diligently set to work to follow them up. Remembering what took place between Mr. Trelawney and his sister on the occasion of my visit to the "Dingle," I felt certain that his secrets were her secrets, and believing, rightly or wrongly, that in her I should find more pliable material to work upon than in him, I decided to seek an interview with her in her brother's absence, and made my plans accordingly.
I went down to the "Dingle" one night, when, as I had previously ascertained would be the case, Mr. Trelawney was absent, and I sent word to Miss Trelawney that I desired to see her on a matter of urgent importance. She received me in the dining-room; a large, heavily-wainscotted and somewhat gloomy chamber, looking very ghostly on this occasion, for the fire had smouldered down to a handful of glowing ashes; and as a current of air that entered from some unseen aperture caused the flame of the large suspended lamp, by which the room was lighted, to flicker and flare, shadows moved to and fro, and chased each other over the table and up the walls, and dived and disappeared into recesses and corners, only to immediately reappear again. It was a chamber of shadows, weird and suggestive, and it brought to my mind the line:
"What shadows we are, and what shadows we pursue!"
As I stood dreaming dreams, a door at the end of the room opened, and Bertha Trelawney entered like a shadow, and we stood face to face. She seemed to me to have grown two or three years older, and she wore a look of ineffable mental suffering.
"You wish to see me?" she murmured, faintly.
"I do, madam," I answered, as I offered her a chair, into which she sank like a mechanical figure. "I am sorry to disturb you at this hour; sorry, too, to intrude upon your sorrow, for you have a sorrow, and a skeleton haunts you."
"What do you mean?" she asked, as she shuddered, sighed and looked nervously around the room.
"I must ask you another question by way of answer to yours," I said. "Did you know David Brinsley?"
"I have seen him," she replied, after some moments of hesitancy.
"Do you believe him to be dead?" The question startled her.
She rose to her feet suddenly; her eyes flashed, and her pale cheeks flushed a little. Pointing at me, and looking altogether as if she was some imperious ruler uttering a stern decree, she said hoarsely:
"Go! quit the house. I'll answer no more questions."
Bearing in mind that it is best to leave an angry woman, like a sleeping dog, alone; and as Miss Bertha Trelawney had so far played into my hands that I felt further questioning then would be supererogation, I bowed as gracefully as I could, and said:
"Certainly, madam, I will comply with your request," and bidding her good-night, which elicited no response, I withdrew; but I was conscious that I took forth from that chamber of shadows a link that would prove an important one in the chain I was patiently trying to piece together. The circumstances of the hour necessarily made me thoughtful, and almost unconsciously I found myself going down the leaf-strewn path beneath the avenue of trees that led to the lodge-gate, when suddenly I was aroused by the sound of someone approaching.
I immediately stepped off the path and amongst the trees, where I stood concealed. The approaching person proved to be Mr. Trelawney.
I followed with the intention of accosting him, but ere he had gone very far his sister met him. She had evidently been on the watch. She was without bonnet, but had wrapped a shawl around her head. She seized his arm eagerly, and I heard her say, in a tone pregnant with anxiety and grief:
"Oh, Samuel! I am so glad you have come. That dreadful man Donovan has been here, and it seems to me as if he had tugged at my very heartstrings and rifled my brain. I must not—dare not—see him again, for he makes me weak and powerless, when I should be strong and defiant."
"What do you mean?" demanded her brother, hotly.
What answer she made to this I know not, for they had passed beyond the radius of my hearing. Yet something—instinct or prescience, call it what you will—prompted me to linger about the house, as if in a vague and undefined way I expected the trees or the stones to make some revelation.
Presently a blaze of light suddenly appeared in an upper chamber. A white blind was drawn at the window, and on this blind the shadow of Mr. Trelawney was thrown, the outlines of his features being plainly visible. Then came another shadow—that of Miss Trelawney. The shadows blended, separated, formed fantastic pictures, and moved in a grotesque way, as shadows of living beings will when thrown on to a screen by a strong light.
Those pictures on the blind were riddles, and long I stayed trying to read them, until the light was extinguished and all was darkness there. I still lingered—still vaguely expecting a revelation—when the stillness of the night was broken by the harsh grating of the opening of a door. It was not the main door, but a side entrance. Concealing myself behind a clump of bushes, I watched and waited, and in a few minutes there came forth a man and woman, carrying what seemed a large box between them. As I recognized in that man and woman Mr. Trelawney and his sister, the movements of the shadow pictures I had seen on the blind were intelligible enough. The Trelawneys had been engaged up in that room packing something up. The something was in the box, and they were going to dispose of it. The box was heavy apparently, and they rested occasionally. As they moved off I followed cautiously. The revelation was coming at last. They went towards the stream of which I have spoken, and when they reached it they slid the box into the water; and I heard the gurgle and splash it made as it sank to the bottom.
Having given their secret into the safe keeping, as they supposed, of this dark stream, the Trelawneys returned to the house, and I went to the spot where the box had been thrown in, and noted the place by fixing a piece of stick in the bank. Then I hurried away, and obtained the assistance of a constable in plain clothes, and, provided with a boat-hook and a rope, I and my companion returned to the "Dingle" grounds. I easily discovered the marked spot on the banks of the stream, and in a short time we had fished up the box. We lost no time in conveying it to a house in the neighbourhood, where I temporarily rented rooms.
The box was an ordinary common deal wine case of the capacity of two dozen bottles, and the lid had been carefully screwed down, necessitating the use of a screw-driver to remove it. The hour was very late—long after midnight—but I had no idea of seeking rest until I learnt what the contents were of that case. Being a stranger in the house, I knew not where to look for a screw-driver. But, placing the box on the table, with two tallow candles on the mantelpiece to give light, my companion and I, by means of a broken-bladed table-knife, combined with infinite patience, managed to draw those screws, and thus release the lid. The box was lined with tin, and, inside, securely wrapped in an india-rubber sheet tied with string, was a parcel, which we proceeded to open with feverish eagerness; and, when the wrapping was removed, lo! the missing register of bond-holders was before us!
That "Dingle" stream, fatal to the hopes and desires of the Trelawneys, had thus revealed part, at least, of their secret; but there was still more to learn, though I never doubted for a moment that I should learn it in due course.
Having snatched a few brief hours of rest, I proceeded to London with the recovered register in my possession, and went at once to Mr. Rogers.
The sentiments which this hard-headed man of figures displayed were by no means in accord with my own feelings, but under the circumstances I had no alternative but to carry out his imperious mandate to arrest Samuel Trelawney without delay.
Two days later I was once more journeying down to the "Dingle," with the warrant for Trelawney's arrest in my pocket. It was late when I arrived at my destination, and the light of the short, bitter November day was fading away. On my inquiring for Mr. Trelawney I was shown into an ante-room, and presently Miss Trelawney came to me. I was struck by some change that was apparent in her. She was neatly dressed in black, and her white hair seemed to have become whiter. In her eyes was a look of infinite plaintiveness, and in her face from which the lines of anxiety and care seemed to have been smoothed away—was an expression that I can only indicate as that of divine resignation. She might, indeed, have sat as a model to some great painter for a picture of a Madonna. In a low voice, in which rang the music of sorrow, she said:
"I have been expecting your coming. You wish to see my brother?"
"I do, madam, for I have an unpleasant duty to perform."
She smiled sadly as she replied:
"If you will follow me I will take you to him."
She led the way across the hall, stopping for a moment at the table to light a tall wax candle that stood there in a silver candlestick, then proceeding, with silent footfalls, she went into the great dining-room—the chamber of shadows, as I have called it—and holding the candle above her head she approached the table, on which something was laid covered over with a sheet. She drew the sheet partly down, saying in her soft, low way: "Here is my brother, Mr. Donovan."
A solemn silence ensued as I gazed upon the dead face of Samuel Trelawney—a face that looked as if it had just been carved by some cunning sculptor to represent supreme tranquillity. Kindly death had smoothed away all the wrinkles, and had wreathed a faint smile about the lips, as if the weary man, with the eloquence of dead dumbness, was saying, "Behold, I sleep the eternal sleep, and the law's vengeance can smite me no more."
As I gently drew the sheet up again, over the marble-like figure, I turned to Miss Trelawney, who was apparently unmoved, and looked at her inquiringly for information. She walked towards the door, and I followed her back to the ante-room, where, sinking into a chair, she said:
"Since my dear brother has entered into his longed-for rest, there is no further necessity for concealment. He has fallen a sacrifice to his faithfulness and love for a worthless woman. Years and years ago he gave his heart to one who knew not how to appreciate it. She deceived him for the sake of a roué and gambler, whom she married. A few years of terrible bitterness; then, neglected and friendless, she lay on her death- bed. In her extremity she sent for my brother, to pray to him for his forgiveness. That was freely granted, and he vowed over her dead body that he would be a father to her orphan boy. Heaven knows how truly he kept that vow. But the boy had the seeds of wickedness within him so firmly rooted, that all the sweet and loving influences that were brought to bear proved of no avail, and he returned what was done for him with base ingratitude. But my poor brother was blind to all the lad's faults, and well-nigh broke his heart when he disappeared, leaving no trace behind him.
"Years afterwards he came back, a poverty-stricken, disgraced man. My brother listened kindly to his story of shame and wrong- doing, and on his promising reformation and for his dead mother's sake he forgave him, and under the name of David Brinsley placed him in a responsible position in the business. It was only to prove, however, the uselessness of scattering seed on barren soil. David Brinsley, the vagabond in heart, became a thief and forger, and the enormous sums out of which he cheated the business were squandered in gambling and dissipation. Yet, notwithstanding all this, my foolish brother said, 'He is the son of the woman I loved, and he must be saved.' I urged him with all the eloquence I could command to have him arrested, but his answer was: 'No; for his mother's sake, I will save him.'
"Brinsley at this time was living with some people who had a son much about his own age, and very like him in build. This son was taken ill, and, after being seen once by a doctor, died. The doctor gave a certificate, but he was told that the name of the deceased was David Brinsley. The parents of the dead man were heavily bribed by my misguided brother to allow this fraud to be perpetrated, and they removed immediately after the funeral, while David Brinsley lay in concealment here, but ultimately fled to Spain.
"In order to hide the extent of this wretched man's defalcations, my brother caused the register to be secretly removed from the office and brought here, but he could never bring himself to destroy it. He always said that some day it must be restored. From that moment his life became a terror to him. On the night that I so abruptly entered the room when you and Samuel were together, I was in a state of horrible distress, for I had just discovered that David Brinsley had gone out and nobody knew where he had gone to. He returned, however, at a very late hour; and subsequently I heard from a private source that you had caused the body of the supposed David Brinsley to be exhumed. I knew then that it was no longer possible to keep our fearful secret. I insisted on Brinsley leaving the house for ever, and, disguised as a clergyman, he went to Spain.
"After your last visit I urged my brother to return the register to the office, but he said he would not do that until he was assured that Brinsley was out of the reach of the law; though, yielding to my entreaties, he consented, with a view to its more effectual concealment, to hide it in the stream. The next morning we found it had been removed, and guessing that you had set a watch upon us, and fearing the dreadful exposure that would ensue, my dear brother's brain gave way, and, unable to endure the misery of his position any longer, he drowned himself in the stream which had failed to keep his secret.
"It is all over now; the sorrow, the suffering, and heart-ache are ended; and after the fitful fever of life, which for him ought to have been almost without a care had it not been for the deception of the woman he loved, he sleeps well. In a little while I shall join him, and realize that peace that the world cannot give."
Such was Miss Trelawney's sad story, which I proved to be correct in every detail. And when I repeated it in substance to Mr. Rogers, he growled and said:
"Ah! it is ten thousand pities that he has cheated the law."
As I have said, Mr. Rogers was an unsentimental man, and judged everything and everybody from his own matter-of-fact point of view. But I, while admitting that Mr. Trelawney was weak and foolish in a worldly sense, could hardly repress a sigh; and was tempted to say, "Judge not harshly, lest ye be judged harshly in return." Altogether it was a pathetic tale of a man's love, a woman's fickleness, and full of a great moral lesson which we who are not without some vein of sentiment may take to heart.
ONE morning a lady drove up in a hansom cab to my office and sought an interview with me. As she stated that her business was urgent she was at once shown into my room. She wore a thick veil, and as she seated herself on the chair I placed for her she threw this veil up and revealed a sweet, pensive face, that was marked with care and anxiety, however, while her eyes were red with weeping. She was a young woman with a fine and intelligent cast of features that betokened good birth and good breeding.
"I have come to you, Mr. Donovan," she began, "to enlist your services in a very painful case."
"I need scarcely say, madam, that I shall be glad to serve you if it is in my power to do so," I answered, feeling full of sympathy for her, even at that early stage of our acquaintance, for she appeared to be dreadfully distressed and to be suffering from some acute sorrow; and what man is there with a spark of chivalry in his nature who can withhold his sympathy from a pretty woman in trouble?
"It is a very painful case indeed," she continued as if she had not noticed my remark. Some sudden emotion overcame her, and she applied her handkerchief to her eyes to dry up the tears that would not be restrained. "I must take you into my confidence, she said in a fretting tone after a long pause."
"A confidence I shall respect," I remarked, "if I can conscientiously do so. But pray do not entrust me with your secrets unless you are quite sure I can be of use."
"Oh, I am sure you can," she exclaimed with a little passionate outburst, and stretching her hands towards me as if in appeal for protection and help. "If I had not thought so I should not have come here. Nor have I taken this step rashly or suddenly. It has cost me much thought and mental distress before I could make up my mind, for I shall have to disclose certain family secrets, and tell you a somewhat long and painful story, if it will not be trespassing on your patience too much."
"Before you proceed further, madam," I said, "permit me to ask if it is a case in which the power of the law is likely to be invoked?"
"Oh, yes," she answered quickly, "I am afraid it will."
"Pray go on, then. I am all ears.
"I may at once state," she continued, "that I have come here unknown to my relatives or friends, and on behalf of a very, very dear sister who would be furious if she knew I had come to you."
I looked at my visitor with quite a new interest as she made this remark, and I could not resist saying:
"May I be permitted to suggest, madam, that as you have come to me entirely on your own responsibility, and on somebody else's business——"
"I assure you it is my business," she put in with an eager quickness that betrayed the anxiety she was suffering from.
"I was going to suggest," I added, "that it might be advisable that you again revolved the matter in your own mind in order to be quite sure that you are justified in making me the repository of your family secrets."
"Mr. Donovan," she answered with a self-confidence and a stately dignity that at once made me feel that there was nothing frivolous about her, and that she had a mind of her own, "Mr. Donovan, I am fully alive to the responsibility I have assumed, and it is only after long and bitter mental suffering that I decided on this step. The business is serious, I assure you, and it affects the interests and wellbeing of one who is absolutely dearer to me than my own life. But may I tell my story in my own way?"
"Most certainly. I will not interrupt again unless I think it necessary."
"My name is Martha Tindall," she began. "I am the youngest daughter of the late General Tindall, who served the Honourable East India Company loyally and well for nearly forty years. My mother died when I was an infant, and my only sister—Lucy—and I were brought up by an aunt. Lucy is one of the most loving, amiable, and pure-minded women on the face of the earth. It may seem to you, perhaps, an exaggerated and sentimental view that I take when I say that my sister has always appeared to me somewhat in the character of a saint."
"You are much attached, then?" I remarked, as she paused again as her feelings once more overcame her.
"Attached!" she exclaimed. "I am sure there never were two sisters who were more devoted to each other than we were."
"You speak in the past sense, Miss Tindall," I observed.
"Yes; because since she married I do not think her affection for me is quite as strong as it was."
"She is married, then?"
"Yes, and that is what I am coming to. It is this marriage which has of late made my life almost a burden to me. My sister is nearly four years my senior. We were the only children of our parents, and for something like eight and twenty years we were scarcely ever separated from each other. I may at once state that our worldly circumstances were all that could be desired, for my dear father was enabled to leave us very comfortably off indeed, and soon after Lucy came of age she succeeded to her share of a fortune which was left to us by a bachelor uncle. I mention this because it has a strong bearing on what I have to tell you. The affection that we bore for each other was such that we made a vow we would never marry, as we could not bear the idea of separation. Indeed, to me the very thought of such a thing was almost unbearable. Now, beyond this attachment and dread of separation I don't know that we were different from any other women. We enjoyed life, we were fond of a certain amount of gaiety, and not averse even to a little adventure, travelling had a fascination for us, and we have been pretty well all over Europe.
"It is now just about five years ago that we were staying at Aix-les-Bains. My sister had been suffering from a slight attack of rheumatism, and she was advised to go through a course of the baths at Aix, hence the reason of our being there. To Aix I attribute all my unhappiness, and had we not gone to Aix I do not suppose I should have come to you to-day for your advice and assistance."
"Ah," I observed reflectively, "our lives after all, whatever may be said to the contrary, do seem to be governed by some immutable law of destiny, which we can no more avoid than we can perform the feat of flying."
"You mean we are not mere creatures of chance?"
"I think that is so," she answered. "At any rate, in my case it does really seem so.
"While at Aix we were introduced to a French gentleman, Count Eugène Rénoul, who endeavoured to make himself particularly fascinating. He was a young man, not more than three-and-twenty who seemed to be leading a fast and somewhat showy sort of life. He was fond of horses and gaiety, and being a Count and a handsome fellow to boot, he had any number of followers, and was looked upon generally as a man whose acquaintance was worth cultivating, and whom it was an honour to know. I confess, however, that he exercised no such influence over me. From the very moment I first saw him I took an instinctive dislike to him. If you were to ask me why I am sure I could not give you an answer. As I had no desire to appear conspicuous or disagreeable, I did all I could to conceal my feelings, particularly as my sister seemed to derive pleasure from his company. But, in a very short time, to my horror and disgust, he gave me to understand that he was desirous of paying his addresses to me. As soon as I became aware of that, I was at pains to make him clearly understand that if I allowed him to do so with any serious intention, I should not only be violating a vow which, rightly or wrongly, I could not but regard as a solemn one, but that I should be doing outrage to my own feelings, inasmuch as I was perfectly sure I could not reciprocate his sentiments. He laughed and said that, being a sanguine man, he should not be daunted by a first failure, and that he hoped in time to win my regard and love.
"This so alarmed me that I urged my sister to leave at once. But she raised an objection. She said that she was benefiting so much by her stay at Aix that she did not see why we should hurry away because a frivolous and light-headed young man chose to express admiration for me. This silenced me. How could I offer any opposition to my beloved sister's wishes? I was content to suffer and endure for her sake, and so I preserved an outward show of cheerfulness and contentment, though all the time a worm was gnawing at the bud and causing me intolerable anguish, for I could not close my eyes to the fact that all the time the Count was endeavouring in every possible way to impress me in his favour. For me to tell him that I did not like him, and never could like him, was of no avail; he simply laughed, and said that fortune favoured the brave and a faint heart never won a fair lady.
"Day after day I longed to hear him announce his intention of leaving, but he did not. And so the days stretched into weeks the weeks to months, and still he lingered. All this time he pressed his attentions on me, but I could not be blind to the fact that my sister was falling a victim to his spells of fascination. In other words she was in love with him, although she denied it when I taxed her with it, and said that he was amusing and that he did pour passer le temps; but beyond that she assured me that she hadn't a serious thought. My sister, I ought to say, could not boast of anything in the shape of good looks, for when she was a child she was the victim of an accident by which she was accidentally scalded on one side of the neck and face. It puckered and drew the skin to such an extent that to my way of thinking it was impossible to suppose any man could be attracted by her face."
"But some men," I ventured to suggest, "look at the beauty of the mind rather than the beauty of the person."
"A few, a very, very few men may," she answered, "but Count Eugène Rénoul cannot be numbered amongst that few. He gave me clearly to understand in many ways that it was not my sister he sought but me."
"He was at least a man of taste," I remarked, as I fixed my eyes on her own pretty face.
"Oh, sir," she exclaimed sadly, "pray do not pay me empty compliments. The business that has brought me here is far too serious for me to listen to them. But, to resume my narrative. The Count at last became so intolerable to me that I told my sister I should go out of my mind if she did not leave, and, seeing that I was really suffering, she consented at last to go. Oh, the relief that decision afforded me! and the day we turned our backs on Aix I prayed to the Lord that I might never again behold the Count. We travelled direct to England, and not until we had been some weeks in our comfortable London home did my wonted cheerfulness return. My dear sister used to twit me sometimes with having taken a stupid prejudice against the Count. And my answer was that some indefinable feeling seemed to warn me against him as a man who was too heartless, too selfish, too worldly, too frivolous to make any woman happy. However, in time his name was no longer mentioned. For myself I had all but forgotten him, and a year drifted away. Then one day I had been out alone on some shopping expedition, and, on my return home in the evening I found to my horror the Count and my sister sitting together. He saw my startled look, my discomfiture, and, rising, he greeted me with some warmth, saying that, being in London on business, he could not possibly resist the temptation to call and renew an acquaintance that had afforded him so much delight and pleasure.
"I left him no room to doubt that to me, at least, his presence was by no means welcome. Nevertheless he continued to call daily for some little time, when at last, to my relief, he announced that he intended to return to France the following day, and in bidding me adieu he said I was cruel, cold, and heartless, and that I had thrown a shadow over his life.
"Although I expressed regret that it was so, I attached no importance to his words, for I was convinced that he was a shallow man and utterly incapable of any sincerity of feeling. For the three months following his departure I was painfully conscious of the fact that my sister had changed in many ways. She seemed to have something on her mind, and when I pressed her to tell me what it was, she laughed, and accused me of being full of fancies. One night I could not resist taxing her with allowing her thoughts to dwell upon the Count, and I reminded her of her vow. For the first time in our lives she expressed anger with me, and said I was doing her an injustice. After that I resolved never to mention the subject again, for I thought it possible my surmises might be incorrect.
"Towards the end of that year Lucy announced to me that a mutual acquaintance—a lady living in Bournemouth—had invited her to spend a week or two with her. I was surprised that I had not been included in the invitation, as it was seldom indeed that my sister would go anywhere without me. However, I kept my thoughts to myself, and saw her off. Almost daily I received letters from her in which she assured me that the only thing lacking to render her happiness perfect was my presence. She was away a month. Then she returned home; and that night, as we were thinking of retiring, she drew an ottoman to my feet and sat down on it, and, resting her left hand on my knees, she said:
"'Martha, do you see that?'
"'What?' I asked.
"'That ring,' she answered, holding up her hand slightly, and for the first time I noticed that amongst other rings which she was in the habit of wearing there was a wedding ring, new and bright. My heart leapt into my mouth, and I know my face blanched as I gasped out, 'What does it mean, Lucy?'
"'It means,' she said, as she drooped her head 'that I am a wife.'
"'A wife?' I echoed, growing cold as if some terrible calamity had suddenly fallen upon me.
"'Yes,' she murmured.
"'Whose wife?' I asked.
"Then, bursting into tears, and hiding her face with her handkerchief, she sobbed:
"'Don't be angry with me, dear, but Count Eugène Rénoul pressed me to become his wife, and I could not resist him.'
"Oh, Mr. Donovan," exclaimed my visitor, as she, too, burst into tears, "you cannot form the slightest conception what I suffered when that announcement was made. It seemed as if my life had suddenly become a blank; as if something had been taken from me that would henceforth leave me lonely and broken hearted. My sister saw how deeply I was affected, and on her knees she implored me to forgive her. She told me that she had long secretly loved the Count. That on the occasion of his last visit to our house, when I refused him, he vowed to her that he did not care for me but loved her, and he asked her to become his wife. She consented. Her friend in Bournemouth was taken into their confidence, and arranged all the business. The marriage was celebrated in Bournemouth, and the Count had just returned to France to arrange some business matters there, and when he came back to England in the course of a fortnight, he and his newly- made wife were going to settle down in London.
"When I recovered from the shock the information caused me, I asked my sister if she had taken any steps to assure herself of the Count's position. Was he really all that he represented himself to be? She answered me that she had the most perfect confidence in him, and that he was a man of unsullied honour. What answer could I make to that? He was now my beloved sister's husband, and all I could do was to pray God to bless her union, and express a fervent hope that her life might be one of unsullied happiness.
"Two years have passed since that dreadful day, for dreadful indeed it was to me, and now I know that my sister's life is an utterly blighted one, and this man who threw his evil spell over her is not only breaking her heart but squandering her fortune. The only time I see her is when she comes to me, for her husband will not allow me to enter their house. She endeavours to hide her sorrow under an assumption of cheerfulness. But in appearance ten years have been added to her age. Her hair is whitening; and lines of anxiety and care are indelibly impressed on her dear face."
"It is a pitiable story," I said, as my visitor once more paused, overcome by her emotion, "but alas, it is by no means an uncommon one. Now what do you wish me to do?"
"To save my beloved sister from a premature grave."
"I do not quite understand you."
"This man is slowly but surely killing her. Yet she is as much fascinated with him as ever. She never breathes a word against him, notwithstanding that his scorn for her and his neglect are terrible."
"He is her husband," I remarked.
"True; and her curse."
"It is not an easy matter for an outsider to interfere between husband and wife."
"It is evident I have not made myself quite clear to you," she said. "This man married my sister for no other reason than to get her money. Now, what I want you to do is to find out his past history, and if possible convince my sister that he is unworthy of her esteem, for I am certain, perfectly certain, that his conduct is such as to justify proceedings being instituted for a divorce."
"But it is necessary that cruelty should also be proved," I reminded her.
"His cruelty is revolting," she cried. "Of course the difficulty is to get my sister to consent to proceedings being taken. She is infatuated, and it is only by showing him to be utterly worthless that this infatuation can be overcome."
I had listened with great interest to this narrative of shame and wrong, for given that what my visitor had told me was true, and even allowing for any exaggerations that her feelings might have led her into, it seemed highly probable that it was another case of misplaced confidence and shameless betrayal. Such things, of course, are common enough; indeed, they are of everyday occurrence, but that ought not to make us any the less anxious to redress the evil, to right the wronged, and punish the wrongdoer. Of course it often happens that the only punishment one can inflict is a public exposure, but as frequently as not that has no more effect than pouring water on the feathers of a living waterfowl. It was this view that led me to make the following remark to the unhappy lady, who seemed to be regarding me with painful anxiety as if hanging on the decision I should give.
"There is no doubt, Miss Tindall, from what you say, that your sister has been badly treated, but it is open to question in my mind whether it is a matter in which the law can interfere."
"Surely, sir," she cried, with anagonized expression, "the law can interfere to save a woman from being slowly done to death by a villain."
"It is a question how she is being done to death," I answered. "There is moral crime and legal crime, and the distinction between the two is very marked. For instance, a man marries a woman for the sake of her money. The woman is older than he is, and not personally attractive. He may neglect her; treat her with unkindness, and so blight her life by his conduct that she gradually pines away. Now, morally, that man would be guilty of her death; but it is hardly a case in which the law could interfere. I think in putting it this way I represent your sister's position."
"Oh, Mr. Donovan, do not dishearten me. You are my last hope. What I want you to do is to pluck the veil from this man's life, so that my sister's eyes may be opened. He has succeeded by some strange fascination in utterly subduing her to his will. She is weak, I know; the world may even call her a fool; but is that any reason why she should be crushed into her grave by this villain, whose stronger will takes hers captive, and leads her like a lamb to the slaughter? I tell you, sir, he is killing her. Her heart is slowly breaking; but she suffers in silence, while he wrongs her and dissipates her fortune. Now it is not her fortune I am thinking of. Let the man have it, so long as he will release my dear sister from his terrible spell, and restore her once more to me, for my life, like hers, is blighted."
The appeal that my visitor had so pathetically made to me I could not possibly be indifferent to, and so I promised her that I would see what I could do, and thus assured she took her leave.
The Count Eugène Rénoul occupied a house in the neighbourhood of Sloane Square, where he lived in considerable style, and I was soon in possession of information that made it clear he was a roué of a pronounced type. He was a handsome man, but bore in his face the traces of dissipation and fast living. His eyes were the most striking feature. In repose they were dreamy and languid, but under emotion or excitement flared up with a brightness that was truly remarkable. His eyes, indeed, gave the face a character and individuality that at once arrested attention. His wife, on the other hand, was something more than plain, with unmistakable indications of a weak will.
The Count's household, as I soon learnt, consisted of, besides himself and wife, a lady housekeeper—young and good looking—a butler, a footman, a cook, and four or five other female domestics, besides a coachman and groom. In this little domestic world the Countess was a cipher, a nonentity, and the lady housekeeper, Mrs. Florence Miller, ruled supreme.
So much came to my knowledge, and justified me, according to my way of thinking, in going much deeper into the Count's affairs. It would have been an insult to the most ordinary intelligence to ask anyone to believe that this man had married Miss Tindall for anything else but her money, and that, coupled with the way he treated her, stamped him as a man of a cowardly and treacherous nature.
In order to carry out my plan it was necessary to take the butler into my confidence. His name was Tonkins, and he had little or no regard for his master, and considerable sympathy for the unfortunate Countess. He readily consented to assist me. He introduced me into the house as his brother out of a situation, and obtained permission from Mrs. Miller for me to stay with him for a few days. I had not been many hours under that roof before I was made aware how thoroughly and absolutely the Countess was under the sway of her husband. But the power that he exercised over her was not of the ordinary kind. He swayed her by some powerful magnetic influence that seemed to deprive her of all power to act independently of his will. Her sister had said to me during the interview in my office, "He has succeeded by some strange fascination in utterly subduing her to his will." Herein Miss Tindall was right. The Count's wife was as potter's clay in his hands; he moulded and shaped her exactly as he wished.
On the third night of my stay in the house the butler informed me that a scene was taking place in the drawing-room between the Count and his wife; and I asked him at once if it was not possible for him to place me in such a position that I might be an ear and eye witness to what was going on. He said it was, for the drawing-room was a large one, and at one end was a conservatory filled with a collection of most beautiful plants. This conservatory could also be entered from the outside passage, and save when the Count had company it was never lighted up. So I was introduced silently into the conservatory, and I took my stand behind a large camellia tree that grew in a gigantic tub, and I was able from my coign of vantage to command a full view of the room. The Countess was sitting in a low chair near the fire and weeping bitterly, and her husband was pacing restlessly up and down, his hands thrust deeply into his pockets, his brows knit with a frown. Suddenly he stopped in his pacing, and exclaimed with brutal coarseness:
"You fool, stop your crocodile tears. Oh, how I hate you. Why don't you die, and relieve me of a burden."
With a moan of pain, and a movement wonderfully suggestive of a flutter like that of a wounded bird, she rose from her seat, fell on her knees at his feet, and, seizing his hand, pressed it to her lips, and said in a tone of poignant grief:
"Ah, Eugène, why do you treat me so cruelly. Is there anything I would not do for you? The very ground you walk on is precious to me——"
"Bah!" he hissed. "I am nauseated by your eternal simpering about the love you bear for me. There, get up and go to your room."
He waved his hand, and she rose, as it were, mechanically, looked at him with a look of such pleading sorrow that a heart less stony than his must have given way. But he bent his strange eyes upon her, and they seemed to me to gleam like the beady eyes of a snake; once more he waved his hand towards the door; and with a silent movement, a movement that was more like gliding than walking, she left the room, and a few minutes later Mrs. Florence Miller entered.
She was a little, fair-haired woman, with a doll-like face, just as pretty as a doll, but just as insipid. She had a pink and white complexion; blue eyes, and white, regular teeth that she fully revealed when she laughed. She literally ran over to him with a short, mincing step, and, throwing her arms round his neck, she said:
"She has been worrying you again, dear. Why do you allow her to do it? Really, it's a marvel to me that you have the patience with her that you have."
"It is no less a marvel to myself," he growled. "I wish the Lord would take her," he added; "she would be better in heaven than here."
"Yes. Poor boy!" said the fair-haired charmer as she patted his cheek. "But, never mind. Perhaps she will go soon. She is not made of cast iron, you know."
"No, but such creatures are not easily killed," he replied.
I did not wait to hear or see more. I had seen enough and heard enough to convince me that the Count was a villain, and the yellow-haired housekeeper a most dangerous woman, who in order to gratify her own selfish desires and aims would stick at nothing. Deception was written large in her waxy face; and in the depths of the soft blue eyes, as it seemed to me, there were indications that, like the purring cat, she could put forth cruel claws, and display a fierce nature if stroked the wrong way.
The next day I left the house, and that night went over to Paris, for all my sympathies for the unhappy Countess were now aroused, and I resolved to leave no stone unturned to save her, if it were possible, from the machinations of her husband and Mrs. Miller. My object in going to Paris was to learn something of the Count's past history. I could not imagine that such a man could have led a blameless life, and I have no doubt there were many dark pages he fain would hide for ever from the light of day. But it was my aim to place these pages before the world, if that could be done, and by convincing the Countess of his perfidy release her from his thrall.
At the very outset of my inquiries I ascertained that the Count was an adventurer of a very dangerous type. He had been many things in turn, and nothing long, and though he had managed to keep outside of the pale of the law it had only been by the skin of his teeth, as the saying is; for he had been mixed up in several very questionable undertakings; but by astuteness, good luck, or something else, he had contrived to escape the meshes of the legal net. The general opinion entertained about him was that he was an unmitigated scoundrel who, if he had had his deserts, would be a chained convict.
For three or four years, it was known, he had lived out of France before he went to England; and those years it was understood had been spent in Frankfort-on-the-Main principally, and so to Frankfort I made my way.
Within twenty-four hours of my arrival in that city I was in possession of the information that Count Eugène Rénoul had married a German lady who was possessed of a considerable fortune. He dissipated that fortune, then deserted her. Of these facts I got the most unmistakable documentary evidence, and armed with that hurried back to London, where I lost no time in seeking an interview with Miss Tindall.
I told her that I thought I was then in a position to say that I had succeeded in doing precisely what she wished me to do, namely, in getting such evidence of the villainy of Count Rénoul that her sister would repulse him, and release herself from his galling thraldom, as she could legally do since the Count had a wife living in Frankfort.
Miss Tindall rejoiced at this news, for it seemed to her to open up a way to a reunion between herself and her sister; and she undertook to have her sister there on a certain day that I might meet her and reveal to her the true character of the man she believed was her lawful husband. That interview duly took place, and anything more distressing I have not met in my experience. I began diplomatically and argumentatively, and endeavoured to show her that the Count had no true regard for her, and that his one aim was to obtain all her money, and that done he would fling her off.
She flashed up into fiery anger at this, and exclaimed: "Sir, I give you credit for good intentions, and acting as you are, no doubt, in concert with my sister, I will believe that you would not intentionally wound my feelings or make me unhappy, and yet you are doing both in speaking disrespectfully of my dear husband. Now, do not forget that he is my husband; and whatever his faults are they concern me alone, and not the outside world."
"You are wrong on both points, my dear lady," I answered. "Firstly, the Count's faults do concern the outside world; and secondly, in leading you to suppose that he is your husband he has shamefully and cruelly deceived you."
At this announcement she uttered a little cry. Then a look of scorn swept over her face as she said, with a sort of sneer:
"This is abominable, absolutely abominable. The Count is my husband, and I will hear no word spoken against him."
It was painfully evident now that the unhappy lady would not be easily convinced. I therefore had no alternative but to lay before her the documentary evidence I had secured of the Count's perfidy. Neither I nor her sister anticipated the result that ensued. She uttered a cry of pain; she placed her hand to her heart, staggered back, and fell on to a couch as if she had been shot. In a few moments, however, she sprang to her feet and said proudly:
"Yes, I see now that I have been deceived; but it is my own fault. I will accept the penalty."
"And what will you do, dear?" asked her sister anxiously.
"I don't know at present. I must think it over. At present my mind is all confused. This man whom I have called husband has been a dream to me. I have worshipped him, and it is very hard to believe that he has so cruelly wronged me."
As the scene was a very painful one I withdrew, feeling that I had no further business there at that juncture. Two or three days later I received a note from Miss Martha Tindall, who informed me that her sister was very ill indeed, and that she was gravely concerned about her. In less than a week after that came a second brief communication announcing the poor lady's death. If ever a woman died of a broken heart, through the perfidy of a villain, it was Miss Tindall. She had endured and suffered at his hands, and would have gone on enduring and suffering so long as she believed she was his true and lawful wife; but the terrible revelations that had to be made were too much for her. She had not sufficient strength of mind to rise to the occasion, and she could not endure the overwhelming sense of shame, wrong, and disappointment, and she drifted out into the dark and silent ocean, a victim to as base treachery as ever was put on record. She had, indeed, loved not wisely but too well.
When affairs came to be investigated, it was found that the Count had had thousands of her money, and he had induced her to make a will entirely in his favour. That will led to long litigation, for it was fiercely contested by the unhappy lady's relatives; and it was finally decided that, as it had been unduly obtained by fraud, deception, and falsehood, it could not be held valid. All this might have been decided by common-sense men in five minutes, and months and months of a solemn farce would thus have been avoided; but then the legal vultures were not likely to let such a good picking escape them, and they swooped and mangled the remains until all that was left for the triumphant relatives were the mouldy bones. Costs, of course, were given against the Count, but as well might they have been given against the man in the moon.
The rascal took good care to make himself non est when wanted, but there was a certain poetic justice in the fact that a few months later he was arrested in Baden-Baden for swindling an hotel-keeper, and was sentenced to a term of imprisonment.
Miss Martha Tindall only survived her sister a year. The bond that had bound them had been too powerful for one to live alone, and Martha's grief for the loss of her other half cankered her life away, and she joined her sister in that better land where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest.
BUSILY engaged one morning in my office in trying to solve some knotty problems that called for my earnest attention, I was suddenly disturbed by a knock at the door, and, in answer to my "Come in!" one of my assistants entered, although I had given strict orders that I was not to be disturbed for two hours.
"Excuse me, sir," said my man, "but a gentleman wishes to see you, and will take no denial."
"I thought I told you not to disturb me under any circumstances," I replied somewhat tartly.
"Yes, so you did. But the gentleman insists upon seeing you. He says his business is most urgent."
"Who is he?"
"Here is his card, sir."
I glanced at the card the assistant handed to me. It bore the name:
COLONEL MAURICE ODELL
THE STAR AND GARTER CLUB
Colonel Maurice Odell was an utter stranger to me. I had never heard his name before; but I knew that the Star and Garter Club was a club of the highest rank, and that its members were men of position and eminence. I therefore considered it probable that the Colonel's business was likely, as he said, to be urgent, and I told my assistant to show him in.
A few minutes later the door opened, and there entered a tall, thin, wiry-looking man, with an unmistakable military bearing. His face, clean shaved save for a heavy grey moustache, was tanned with exposure to sun and rain. His hair, which was cropped close, was iron grey, as were his eyebrows, and as they were very bushy, and there were two deep vertical furrows between the eyes, he had the appearance of being a stern, determined, unyielding man. And as I glanced at his well-marked face, with its powerful jaw, I came to the conclusion that he was a martinet of the old- fashioned type, who, in the name of discipline, could perpetrate almost any cruelty; and yet, on the other hand, when not under military influence, was capable of the most generous acts and deeds. He was faultlessly dressed, from his patent leather boots to his canary-coloured kid gloves. But though, judging from his dress, he was somewhat of a coxcomb, a glance at the hard, stern features and the keen, deep-set grey eyes, was sufficient to dispel any idea that he was a mere carpet soldier.
"Pardon me for intruding upon you, Mr. Donovan," he said, bowing stiffly and formally, "but I wish to consult you about a very important matter, and, as I leave for Egypt to-morrow, I have very little time at my disposal."
"I am at your service, Colonel," I replied, as I pointed to a seat, and began to feel a deep interest in the man, for there was an individuality about him that stamped him at once as a somewhat remarkable person. His voice was in keeping with his looks. It was firm, decisive, and full of volume, and attracted one by its resonance. I felt at once that such a man was not likely to give himself much concern about trifles, and, therefore, the business he had come about must be of considerable importance. So, pushing the papers I had been engaged upon on one side, I turned my revolving chair so that I might face him and have my back to the light, and telling him that I was prepared to listen to anything he had to say, I half closed my eyes, and began to make a study of him.
"I will be as brief as possible," he began, as he placed his highly polished hat and his umbrella on the table. "I am a military man, and have spent much of my time in India, but two years ago I returned home, and took up my residence at the Manor, Esher. Twice since I went to live there the place has been robbed in a somewhat mysterious manner. The first occasion was a little over a year ago, when a number of antique silver cups were stolen. The Scotland Yard authorities endeavoured to trace the thieves, but failed."
"I think I remember hearing something about that robbery," I remarked, as I tried to recall the details. "But in what way was it a mysterious one?"
"Because it was impossible to determine how the thieves gained access to the house. The place had not been broken into."
"How about your servants?" I asked.
"Oh, I haven't a servant who isn't honesty itself."
"Pray proceed. What about the second robbery?"
"That is what I have come to you about. It is a very serious business indeed, and has been carried out in the mysterious way that characterized the first one."
"You mean it is serious as regards the value of the property stolen?"
"In one sense, yes; but it is something more than that. During my stay in India I rendered very considerable service indeed to the Rajah of Mooltan, a man of great wealth. Before I left India he presented me with a souvenir of a very extraordinary character. It was nothing more nor less than the skull of one of his ancestors."
As it seemed to me a somewhat frivolous matter for the Colonel to take up my time because he had lost the mouldy old skull of a dead and gone Rajah, I said, "Excuse me, Colonel, but you can hardly expect me to devote my energies to tracing this somewhat gruesome souvenir of yours, which probably the thief will hasten to bury as speedily as possible, unless he happens to be of a very morbid turn of mind."
"You are a little premature," said the Colonel, with a suspicion of sternness. "That skull has been valued at upwards of twelve thousand pounds."
"Twelve thousand pounds!" I echoed, as my interest in my visitor deepened.
"Yes, sir; twelve thousand pounds. It is fashioned into a drinking goblet, bound with solid gold bands, and encrusted with precious stones. In the bottom of the goblet, inside, is a diamond of the purest water, and which alone is said to be worth two thousand pounds. Now, quite apart from the intrinsic value of this relic, it has associations for me which are beyond price, and further than that, my friend the Rajah told me that if ever I parted with it, or it was stolen, ill fortune would ever afterwards pursue me. Now, Mr. Donovan, I am not a superstitious man, but I confess that in this instance I am weak enough to believe that the Rajah's words will come true, and that some strange calamity will befall either me or mine."
"Without attaching any importance to that," I answered, "I confess that it is a serious business, and I will do what I can to recover this extraordinary goblet. But you say you leave for Egypt to-morrow?"
"Yes. I am going out on a Government commission, and shall probably be absent six months."
"Then I had better travel down to Esher with you at once, as I like to start at the fountain-head in such matters."
The Colonel was most anxious that I should do this, and, requesting him to wait for a few minutes, I retired to my inner sanctum, and when I reappeared it was in the character of a venerable parson, with flowing grey hair, spectacles, and the orthodox white choker. My visitor did not recognize me until I spoke, and then he requested to know why I had transformed myself in such a manner.
I told him I had a particular reason for it, but felt it was advisable not to reveal the reason then, and I enjoined on him the necessity of supporting me in the character I had assumed, for I considered it important that none of his household should know that I was a detective. I begged that he would introduce me as the Rev. John Marshall, from the Midland Counties. He promised to do this, and we took the next train down to Esher.
The Manor was a quaint old mansion, and dated back to the commencement of Queen Elizabeth's reign. The Colonel had bought the property, and being somewhat of an antiquarian, he had allowed it to remain in its original state, so far as the actual building was concerned. But he had had it done up inside a little, and furnished in great taste in the Elizabethan style, and instead of the walls being papered they were hung with tapestry.
I found that besides the goblet some antique rings and a few pieces of gold and silver had been carried off. But these things were of comparatively small value, and the Colonel's great concern was about the lost skull, which had been kept under a glass shade in what he called his "Treasure Chamber."
It was a small room, lighted by an oriel window. The walls were wainscotted half way up, and the upper part was hung with tapestry. In this room there was a most extraordinary and miscellaneous collection of things, including all kinds of Indian weapons; elephant trappings; specimens of clothing as worn by the Indian nobility; jewellery, including rings, bracelets, anklets; in fact, it was a veritable museum of very great interest and value.
The Colonel assured me that the door of this room was always kept locked, and the key was never out of his possession. The lower part of the chimney of the old-fashioned fireplace I noticed was protected by iron bars let into the masonry, so that the thief, I was sure, did not come in at the window, for it only opened at each side, and the apertures were so small that a child could not have squeezed through. Having noted these things, I hinted to the Colonel that the thief had probably gained access to the room by means of a duplicate key. But he hastened to assure me that the lock was of singular construction, having been specially made. There were only two keys to it. One he always carried about with him, the other he kept in a secret drawer in an old escritoire in his library, and he was convinced that nobody knew of its existence. He explained the working of the lock, and also showed me the key, which was the most remarkable key I ever saw; and, after examining the lock, I came to the conclusion that it could not be opened by any means apart from the special key. Nevertheless the thief had succeeded in getting into the room. How did he manage it? That was the problem I had to solve, and that done I felt that I should be able to get a clue to the robber. I told the Colonel that before leaving the house I should like to see every member of his household, and he said I should be able to see the major portion of them at luncheon, which he invited me to partake of.
I found that his family consisted of his wife—an Anglo- Indian lady—three charming daughters, his eldest son, Ronald Odell, a young man about four-and-twenty, and a younger son, a youth of twelve. The family were waited upon at table by two parlour-maids, the butler, and a page-boy. The butler was an elderly, sedate, gentlemanly-looking man, the boy had an open, frank face, and the same remark applied to the two girls. As I studied them I saw nothing calculated to raise my suspicions in any way. Indeed, I felt instinctively that I could safely pledge myself for their honesty.
When the luncheon was over the Colonel produced cigars, and the ladies and the youngest boy having retired, the host, his son Ronald and I ensconced ourselves in comfortable chairs, and proceeded to smoke. Ronald Odell was a most extraordinary looking young fellow. He had been born and brought up in India, and seemed to suffer from an unconquerable lassitude that gave him a lifeless, insipid appearance. He was very dark, with dreamy, languid eyes, and an expressionless face of a peculiar sallowness. He was tall and thin, with hands that were most noticeable, owing to the length, flexibility and thinness of the fingers. He sat in the chair with his body huddled up as it were; his long legs stretched straight out before him; his pointed chin resting on his chest, while he seemed to smoke his cigar as if unconscious of what he was doing.
It was natural that the robbery should form a topic of conversation as we smoked and sipped some excellent claret, and at last I turned to the Colonel, and said:
"It seems to me that there is a certain mystery about this robbery which is very puzzling. But, now, don't you think it's probable that somebody living under your roof holds the key to the mystery?"
"God bless my life, no!" answered the Colonel, with emphatic earnestness. "I haven't a servant in the house but that I would trust with my life!"
"What is your view of the case, Mr. Ronald?" I said, turning to the son.
Without raising his head, he answered in a lisping, drawling, dreamy way:
"It's a queer business; and I don't think the governor will ever get his skull back."
"I hope you will prove incorrect in that," I said. "My impression is that, if the Colonel puts the matter into the hands of some clever detective, the mystery will be solved."
"No," drawled the young fellow, "there isn't a detective fellow in London capable of finding out how that skull was stolen, and where it has been taken to. Not even Dick Donovan, who is said to have no rival in his line."
I think my face coloured a little as he unwittingly paid me this compliment. Though my character for the nonce was that of a clergyman I did not enter into any argument with him; but merely remarked that I thought he was wrong. At any rate, I hoped so, for his father's sake.
Master Ronald made no further remark, but remained silent for some time, and seemingly so absorbed in his own reflections that he took no notice of the conversation carried on by me and his father; and presently, having finished his cigar, he rose, stretched his long, flexible body, and without a word left the room.
"You mustn't take any notice of my son," said the Colonel, apologetically. "He is very queer in his manners, for he is constitutionally weak, and has peculiar ideas about things in general. He dislikes clergymen, for one thing, and that is the reason, no doubt, why he has been so boorish towards you. For, of course, he is deceived by your garb, as all in the house are, excepting myself and my wife. I felt it advisable to tell her who you are, in order to prevent her asking you any awkward questions that you might not be prepared to answer."
I smiled as I told him I had made a study of the various characters I was called upon to assume in pursuit of my calling, and that I was generally able to talk the character as well as to dress it. A little later he conducted me downstairs, in order that I might see the rest of the servants, consisting of a most amiable cook, whose duties appeared to agree with her remarkably well, and three other women, including a scullery-maid; while in connection with the stables were a coachman, a groom, and a boy.
Having thus passed the household in review, as it were, I next requested that I might be allowed to spend a quarter of an hour or so alone in the room from whence the skull and other things had been stolen. Whilst in the room with the Colonel I had formed an opinion which I felt it desirable to keep to myself, and my object in asking to visit the room alone was to put this opinion to the test.
The floor was of dark old oak, polished and waxed, and there was not a single board that was movable. Having satisfied myself of that fact, I next proceeded to examine the wainscotting with the greatest care, and after going over every inch of it, I came to a part that gave back a hollow sound to my raps. I experienced a strange sense of delight as I discovered this, for it, so far, confirmed me in my opinion that the room had been entered by a secret door, and here was evidence of a door. The antiquity of the house and the oak panelling had had something to do with this opinion, for I knew that in old houses of the kind secret doors were by no means uncommon.
Although I was convinced that the panel which gave back a hollow sound when rapped was a door, I could detect no means of opening it. Save that it sounded hollow, it was exactly like the other panels, and there was no appearance of any lock or spring, and as the time I had stipulated for had expired, I rejoined the Colonel, and remarked to him incidentally:
"I suppose there is no way of entering that room except by the doorway from the landing?"
"Oh no, certainly not. The window is too small, and the chimney is barred, as you know, for I saw you examining it."
My object in asking the question was to see if he suspected in any way the existence of a secret door; but it was now very obvious that he did nothing of the kind, and I did not deem it advisable to tell him of my own suspicions.
"You say you are obliged to depart for Egypt tomorrow, Colonel?" I asked.
"Yes. I start to-morrow night."
"Then I must ask you to give me carte blanche in this matter."
"And in order to facilitate my plans it would be as well to make a confidante of Mrs. Odell. The rest you must leave to me."
"What do you think the chances are of discovering the thief?" he asked, with a dubious expression.
"I shall discover him," I answered emphatically. Whereupon the Colonel looked more than surprised, and proceeded to rattle off a string of questions with the object of learning why I spoke so decisively. But I was compelled to tell him that I could give him no reason, for though I had worked out a theory which intuitively I believed to be right, I had not at that moment a shred of acceptable proof in support of my theory, and that therefore I could not commit myself to raising suspicions against anyone until I was prepared to do something more than justify them.
He seemed rather disappointed, although he admitted the soundness of my argument.
"By the way, Colonel," I said, as I was about to take my departure, after having had a talk with his wife, "does it so happen that there is anything the matter with the roof of your house?"
"Not that I am aware of," he answered, opening his eyes wide with amazement at what no doubt seemed to him an absurd question. "Why do you ask?"
"Because I want to go on the roof without attracting the attention of anyone."
"Let us go at once, then," he said eagerly.
"No, not now. But I see that the greater part of the roof is flat and leaded. Now, in the course of two or three days I shall present myself here in the guise of a plumber, and I shall be obliged by your giving orders that I am to be allowed to ascend to the roof without let or hindrance, as the lawyers say."
"Oh, certainly I will; but it seems to me an extraordinary proceeding," he exclaimed.
I told him that many things necessarily seemed extraordinary when the reasons for them were not understood, and with that remark I took my departure, having promised the Colonel to do every thing mortal man could do to recover the lost skull.
Three days later I went down to the Manor disguised as a working plumber, and was admitted without any difficulty, as the Colonel had left word that a man was coming down from London to examine the roof. As a servant was showing me upstairs to the top landing, where a trap-door in the ceiling gave access to the leads, I passed Ronald Odell on the stairs. He was attired in a long dressing-gown, had Turkish slippers on his feet, a fez on his head, and a cigar in his mouth, from which he was puffing great volumes of smoke. His face was almost ghastly in its pallor, and his eyes had the same dreamy look which I had noticed on my first visit. His hands were thrust deep in his pockets, and his movements, and manner were suggestive of a person walking in his sleep, rather than a waking conscious man. This suggestion was heightened by the fact that before I could avoid him he ran full butt against me. That, however, seemed to partially arouse him from his lethargic condition, and turning round, with a fierceness of expression that I scarcely deemed him capable of, he exclaimed:
"You stupid fool, why don't you look where you are going to?"
I muttered out an apology, and he strode down the stairs growling to himself.
"Who is that?" I asked of the servant.
"That's the master's eldest son."
"He is a queer-looking fellow."
"I should think he was," answered the girl with a sniggering laugh. "I should say he has a slate off."
"Well, upon my word I should be inclined to agree with you," I remarked. "What does he do?"
"Nothing but smoke the greater part of the day."
"Does he follow no business or profession?"
"Not that I know of; though he generally goes out between six and seven in the evening, and does not come back till late."
"Where does he go to?"
"Oh, I don't know. He doesn't tell us servants his affairs. But there's something very queer about him. I don't like his looks at all."
"Doesn't his father exercise any control over him?"
"Not a bit of it. Why, his father dotes on him, and would try and get the moon for him if he wanted it."
"And what about his mother?"
"Well, her favourite is young Master Tom. He's a nice lad, now, as different again to his brother. In fact, I think the missus is afraid of Mr. Ronald. He doesn't treat his mother at all well. And now that the Colonel has gone away we shall all have a pretty time of it. He's a perfect demon in the house when his father is not here."
As we had now reached the ladder that gave access to the trap door in the roof, I requested the maid to wait while I went outside.
My object in going on to the roof was to see if there was any communication between there and the "Treasure Chamber." But the only thing I noticed was a trap door on a flat part of the roof between two chimney stalks. I tried to lift the door, but found it fastened. So after a time I went back to where I had left the servant, and inquired of her where the communication with the other trap door was, and she answered:
"Oh, I think that's in the lumber room; but nobody ever goes in there. They say it's haunted." I laughed, and she added, with a toss of her head: "Well, I tell you, I've heard some very queer noises there myself. Me and Jane, the upper housemaid, sleep in a room adjoining it, and we've sometimes been frightened out of our wits."
I requested her to show me where the room was, as I was anxious to see if there was any leakage from the roof. This she did, and, in order to reach the room, we had to mount up a back staircase, and traverse a long passage. At the end of the passage she pushed open a door, saying, "There you are, but I ain't agoing in."
As the room was in total darkness I requested her to procure me a candle, which she at once got, and then she left me to explore the room alone. It was filled up with a miscellaneous collection of lumber, boxes and packing cases predominating. There was a small window, but it was closely shuttered, and a flight of wooden steps led to the trap door I had noticed on the roof. I examined these steps very carefully, and found that they were thickly encrusted with dirt and dust, and had not been trodden upon for a very long time. The door was fastened down by means of a chain that was padlocked to a staple in the wall; and chain and padlock were very rusty.
The walls of the room were wainscotted, and the wainscot in places was decayed and worm-eaten. Going down on my knees, I minutely examined the floor through a magnifying glass and detected footmarks made with slippered feet, and I found they led to one particular corner of the room where a sort of gangway had been formed by the boxes and other lumber being moved on one side. This was very suggestive, and rapping on the wainscot I found that it was hollow. For some time I searched for a means of opening it, but without result, until with almost startling suddenness, as I passed my hand up and down the side of the woodwork, the door swung back. I had unconsciously touched the spring, and peering into the black void thus disclosed by the opening of the door, I was enabled to discern by the flickering light of the candle, the head of a flight of stone steps, that were obviously built in the thickness of the wall.
At this discovery I almost exclaimed "Eureka!" for I now felt that I had the key to the mystery. As I did not wish the servant to know what I was doing, I went to the passage to satisfy myself that she was not observing my movements; but a dread of the ghost-haunted lumber-room had caused her to take herself off altogether.
Closing the door of the room, I returned to the aperture in the wainscot, and minutely examined the head of the steps, where I saw unmistakable traces of the slippered feet which were so noticeable in the dust that covered the floor of the room. Descending the steps, which were very narrow, I reached the bottom, and found further progress barred by a door that was without handle or lock; but, after some time, I discovered a small wooden knob sunk in the woodwork at the side, and, pressing this, the door, with almost absolute noiselessness, slid back, and lo! the "Treasure Chamber" was revealed.
In the face of this discovery, I no longer entertained a doubt that the thief had entered the room by means of this secret passage. And there was no one in the whole household upon whom my suspicions fixed, with the exception of Ronald Odell. If my assumption that he was the thief was correct, the mystery was so far explained; and my next step was to discover why he had robbed his father, and what he had done with the property. He was so strange and peculiar that somehow I could not imagine that he had stolen the things merely for the sake of vulgar gain, my impression being that in carrying off the jewelled skull he was actuated by some extraordinary motive, quite apart from the mere question of theft, and this determined me to shadow him for a time, in the hope that I should succeed in soon obtaining distinct evidence that my theory was correct.
Before leaving the house, I sought an interview with Mrs. Odell, who was anxious to know what the result was of my investigation; but I considered it advisable, in the then state of matters, to withhold from her the discovery I had made. But, as her curiosity to learn what I had been doing on the roof was very great, I informed her that my theory was at first that there was some connection between the roof and the "Treasure Chamber"; but, though I had not proved that to be correct, I nevertheless was of opinion that the purloiner of the articles resided in the house. Whereupon she very naturally asked me if I suspected any particular person. I answered her candidly that I did; but that, in the absence of anything like proof, I should not be justified in naming anyone. I assured her, however, that I would use the most strenuous efforts to obtain the proof I wanted. Before leaving her, I remarked in a casual sort of way:
"I suppose Mr. Ronald is at the head of affairs during his father's absence?"
"Well," she began, with evident reluctance to say anything against her son, "Ronald is of a very peculiar disposition. He seems to live quite within himself, as it were, and takes no interest in anything. As a matter of fact, I see very little of him, for he usually spends his evenings from home, and does not return until late. The greater part of the day he keeps to his rooms. I am sure I am quite concerned about him at times."
The confidential way in which she told me this, and the anxious expression of her face, sufficiently indicated that Ronald was a source of great trouble to her. But I refrained, from motives of delicacy, from pursuing the subject, and was about to take my departure, when she said, with great emphasis: "I do hope, Mr. Donovan, that you will be successful in recovering the goblet; for, quite apart from its intrinsic value, my husband sets great store upon it, and his distress when he found it had been stolen was really pitiable."
I assured her that it would not be my fault if I failed, and I said that, unless the goblet had been destroyed for the sake of the jewels and the gold, I thought it was very probable that it would be recovered. I spoke thus confidently because I was convinced that I had got the key to the puzzle, and that it would be relatively easy to fit in the rest of the pieces, particularly if I could find out where Ronald Odell spent his evenings; for to me there was something singularly suggestive in his going away from home at nights. That fact was clearly a source of grief to his mother, and she had made it evident to me that she did not know where he went, nor why he went. But it fell to my lot to solve this mystery a week later. I shadowed him to a house situated in a cul de sac in the very heart of the city of London.
The houses in this place were tall, imposing looking buildings, and had once been the homes of gentry and people of position. Their day of glory, however, had passed, and they were now for the most part utilized as offices, and were occupied by solicitors, agents, etc. It was a quiet, gloomy sort of region, although it led out of one of the busiest thoroughfares of the great metropolis; but at the bottom of the cul was a wall, and beyond that again an ancient burial-place, where the dust of many generations of men reposed. The wall was overtopped by the branches of a few stunted trees that were rooted in the graveyard; and these trees looked mournful and melancholy, with their blackened branches and soot-darkened leaves.
The house to which I traced Ronald Odell was the last one in the cul on the left-hand side, and consequently it abutted on the graveyard. It was the one house not utilized as offices, and I ascertained that it was in the occupation of a club consisting of Anglo-Indians. But what they did, or why they met, no one seemed able to tell. The premises were in charge of a Hindoo and his wife, and the members of the club met on an average five nights a week. All this was so much more mystery, but it was precisely in accord with the theory I had been working out in my own mind.
The next afternoon I went to the house, and the door was opened to my knock by the Hindoo woman, who was a mild-eyed, sad- looking little creature; I asked her if she could give me some particulars of the club that was held there, and she informed me that it was known as "The Indian Dreamers' Club." But beyond that scrap of information she did not seem disposed to go.
"You had better come when my husband is here," she said, thereby giving me to understand that her husband was absent. But as I deemed it probable that she might prove more susceptible to my persuasive influences than her husband, I asked her if she would allow me to see over the premises. She declined to do this until I displayed before her greedy eyes certain gold coins of the realm, which proved too much for her cupidity, and she consented to let me go inside.
The entrance-hall was carpeted with a thick, massive carpet, that deadened every footfall, and the walls were hung with black velvet. A broad flight of stairs led up from the end of the passage, but they were masked by heavy curtains. The gloom and sombreness of the place were most depressing, and a strange, sickening odour pervaded the air. Led by the dusky woman I passed through a curtained doorway, and found myself in a most extensive apartment, that ran the whole depth of the building. From this apartment all daylight was excluded, the light being obtained from a large lamp of blood-coloured glass, and which depended from the centre of the ceiling. There was also a niche at each end of the room, where a lamp of the old Roman pattern burnt. The walls of the room were hung with purple velvet curtains, and the ceiling was also draped with the same material, while the floor was covered with a rich Indian carpet into which the feet sank. In the centre of the room was a table also covered with velvet, and all round the room were most luxurious couches, with velvet cushions and costly Indian rugs. The same sickly odour that I had already noticed pervaded this remarkable chamber, which was like a tomb in its silence; for no sound reached one from the busy world without.
Although all the lamps were lighted it took me some time to accustom my eyes to the gloom and to observe all the details of the extraordinary apartment. Then I noted that on the velvet on one side of the room was inscribed in letters of gold, that were strikingly conspicuous against the sombre background, this sentence:
TO DREAM IS TO LIVE! DREAM ON,
FOR TO AWAKEN IS TO DIE!
The dim light and the sombre upholstering of the room gave it a most weird and uncanny appearance, and I could not help associating with the Indian Dreamers' Club, rites and ceremonies that were far from orthodox; while the sentence on the velvet, and which I took to be the club's motto, was like the handwriting on the wall at Belshazzar's feast. It was pregnant with a terrible meaning.
While I was still engaged in examining the room a bell rang, and instantly the Hindoo woman became greatly excited, for she said it was her husband, and that he would be so fiercely angry if he found me there that she would not be responsible for the consequences. She therefore thrust me into a recess where a statue had formerly stood, but the statue had been removed, and a velvet curtain hung before the recess. Nothing could have happened more in accord with my desire than this. For I was resolved, whatever the consequences were, to remain in my place of concealment until I had solved the mystery of the club. There was an outer and an inner door, both of them being thickly padded with felt and covered with velvet. When the woman had retired and closed these doors the silence was absolute. Not a sound came to my ears. The atmosphere was heavy, and I experienced a sense of languor that was altogether unusual.
I ventured from my place of concealment to still further explore the apartment. I found that the lounges were all of the most delightful and seductive softness, and the tapestries, the cushions and the curtains were of the richest possible description. It certainly was a place to lie and dream in, shut off from the noise and fret of the busy world. At one end of the room was a large chest of some sort of carved Indian wood. It was bound round with iron bands and fastened with a huge brass padlock. While I was wondering to myself what this chest contained, the door opened and the Indian woman glided in. Seizing me by the arm, she whispered:
"Come, while there is yet a chance. My husband has gone upstairs, but he will return in a few minutes."
"When do the members of the club meet?" I asked.
"At seven o'clock."
"Then I shall remain in that place of concealment until they meet!" I answered firmly.
She wrung her hands in distress, and turned her dark eyes on me imploringly. But I gave her to understand that nothing would turn me from my resolve; and if she chose to aid me in carrying out my purpose, she might look for ample reward. Recognizing that argument would be of no avail, and, evidently in great dread of her husband, she muttered:
"The peril then be on your own head!" and without another word she left the room. The peril she hinted at did not concern me. In fact, I did not even trouble myself to think what the peril might be. I was too much interested for that, feeling as I did that I was about to witness a revelation.
The hours passed slowly by, and as seven drew on I concealed myself once more in the recess, and by slightly moving the curtain back at the edge, I was enabled to command a full view of the room.
Presently the door opened, and the husband of the woman came in. He was a tall, powerful, fierce-looking man, wearing a large turban, and dressed in Indian costume. He placed three or four small lamps, already lighted, and enclosed in ruby glass, on the table; and also a number of quaint Indian drinking cups made of silver, which I recognized from the description as those that had been stolen from the Manor a year or so previously, together with twelve magnificent hookahs. These preparations completed, he retired, and a quarter of an hour later returned and wound up a large musical-box which I had not noticed, owing to its being concealed behind a curtain. The box began to play muffled and plaintive music. The sounds were so softened, the music was so dreamy and sweet, and seemed so far off, that the effect was unlike anything I had ever before heard.
A few minutes later, and the Indian once more appeared. This time he wore a sort of dressing-gown of some rich material braided with gold. He walked backwards, and following him in single file were twelve men, the first being Ronald Odell. Five of them were men of colour; three of the others were half-castes, the rest were whites. But they all had the languid, dreamy appearance which characterized Odell, who, as I was to subsequently learn, was their leader and president.
They ranged themselves round the table silently as ghosts; and, without a word, Ronald Odell handed a key to the Indian, who proceeded to unlock the chest I have referred to, and he took therefrom the skull goblet which had been carried off from Colonel Odell's "Treasure Chamber" by—could there any longer be a doubt?—his own son. The skull, which was provided with two gold handles, and rested on gold claws, was placed on the table before the president, who poured into it the contents of two small bottles which were given to him by the attendant, who took them from the chest. He then stirred the decoction up with a long-handled silver spoon of very rich design and workmanship, and which I recognized, from the description that had been given to me, as one that had been taken from the Colonel's collection. As this strange mixture was stirred, the sickening, overpowering odour that I had noticed on first entering the place became so strong as to almost overcome me, and I felt as if I should suffocate. But I struggled against the feeling as well as I could. The president next poured a small portion of the liquor into each of the twelve cups that had been provided, and as he raised his own to his lips he said:
"Brother dreamers, success to our club! May your dreams be sweet and long!"
The others bowed, but made no response and each man drained the draught, which I guessed to be some potent herbal decoction for producing sleep. Then each man rose and went to a couch, and the attendant handed him a hookah, applied a light to the bowl, and from the smell that arose it was evident the pipes were charged with opium. As these drugged opium smokers leaned back on the luxurious couches, the concealed musical-box continued to play its plaintive melodies. A drowsy languor pervaded the room, and affected me to such an extent that I felt as if I must be dreaming, and that the remarkable scene before my eyes was a dream vision that would speedily fade away.
One by one the pipes fell from the nerveless grasp of the smokers, and were removed by the attendant. And when the last man had sunk into insensibility, the Indian filled a small cup with some of the liquor from the skull goblet, and drained it off. Then he charged a pipe with opium, and coiling himself up on an ottoman, he began to smoke, until he, like the others, yielded to the soporific influences of the drug and the opium and went to sleep.
My hour of triumph had come. I stepped from my place of concealment, feeling faint and strange, and all but overcome by an irresistible desire to sleep. The potent fumes that filled the air begot a sensation in me that was not unlike drunkenness. But I managed to stagger to the table, seize the goblet and the spoon, and make my way to the door.
As I gained the passage the Hindoo woman confronted me, for she was about to enter the room.
"What is the meaning of this?" she cried, as she endeavoured to bar my passage.
"Stand back!" I said, sternly. "I am a detective officer. These things have been stolen and I am about to restore them to their rightful owner."
She manifested supreme distress, but recognized her powerlessness. She dared not raise an alarm, and she might as well have tried to awaken the dead in the adjoining churchyard as those heavily drugged sleepers. And so I gained the street; and the intense sense of relief I experienced as I sucked in draughts of the cold, fresh air cannot be described. Getting to the thoroughfare I hailed a cab, and drove home with my prizes, and the following morning I telegraphed to Egypt to an address the Colonel had given me, informing him that I had recovered the goblet.
The same day I went down to the Manor at Esher, and had an interview with Mrs. Odell. I felt, in the interest of her son, that it was my duty to tell her all I had learnt the previous night. She was terribly distressed, but stated that she had suspected for some time that her son was given to opium smoking, though she had no idea he carried the habit to such a remarkable extreme. She requested me to retain possession of the goblet and the spoon until her husband's return, and, in the meantime, she promised to take her weak and misguided son to task, and to have the secret passage in the wall effectually stopped up.
I should mention that I had managed to save a small quantity of the liquor that was in the goblet when I removed it from the club table; and I sent this to a celebrated analytical chemist for analysis, who pronounced it to be a very powerful and peculiar narcotic, made from a combination of Indian herbs with which he was not familiar.
The dénouement has yet to be recorded. A few days later Ronald Odell, after drugging himself as usual, was found dead on one of the couches at the club. This necessitated an inquest, and the verdict was that he had died from a narcotic, but whether taken with the intention of destroying life or merely to produce sleep there was no evidence to show. Although I had no evidence to offer, I was firmly convinced in my own mind that the poor weak fellow had committed suicide, from a sense of shame at the discovery I had made.
Of course, after this tragic affair, and the exposure it entailed, the Indian Dreamers' Club was broken up, and all its luxurious appointments were sold by auction, and its members dispersed. It appeared that one of the rules was that the members of the club should never exceed twelve in number. What became of the remaining eleven I never knew; but it was hardly likely they would abandon the pernicious habits they had acquired.
In the course of six months Colonel Odell returned from Egypt, and though he was much cut up by the death of his son, he was exceedingly gratified at the recovery of the peculiar goblet, which the misguided youth had no doubt purloined under the impression that it was useless in his father's treasure room, but that it would more fittingly adorn the table of the Dreamers' Club, of which he was the president. I could not help thinking that part of the motto of the club was singularly appropriate in his case: "Dream on, for to awaken is to die." He had awakened from his dream, and passed into that state where dreams perplex not.
MR. JOSEPH HEATHCOTE lived in grand style in one of the mansions in the Bayswater Road. That was his town house, and everything about it suggested affluence and luxury, a plethora, in fact, of this world's gear. But Mr. Joseph Heathcote also had a very snug little box down in Wales not far from Llandudno. It was called Menai Castle, and was not only replete with every comfort but was luxuriously appointed, and to this quiet retreat Mr. Heathcote occasionally retired when he could spare a few days, and give himself a rest from his multifarious duties.
At the period at which I am dealing with the gentleman's career he was a director of numerous companies, amongst many other things. He had been termed in the polite language of the financial papers a "professional guinea pig," and the term was not undeserved, for there is not the slightest doubt that he derived a very handsome income from this source alone. And all that he did for it was to lend the influence of his name, which was at that time a name to conjure with, so far as financial undertakings are concerned.
Mr. Heathcote was a very striking example of a class of men who manage, by some means or other, to make the world believe in them. In personal appearance he was certainly remarkable. Of ponderous structure, with a massive head set on a bull-like neck, a heavy, dull, sensual face, and an abnormal circumference of abdomen, he was a man that one could not pass without noticing. He was a fluent speaker, and had a deep, rounded, melodious voice which he knew how to use with considerable effect. His manner was affable to a degree, his style pleasing, and his plausibility such that anyone might have been deceived by him.
Mr. Heathcote was not an educated man as understood in the scholarly sense, but he was full of information, and possessed of a quick, keen intelligence that enabled him to readily grasp most subjects that he interested himself in, and he had a marvellous head for figures. His respectability and integrity were believed to be proof against the shafts of even the most unprincipled maligner, while his credit was unlimited. He had, in his time, been a very pronounced politician, with strong democratic tendencies, and for a short time he had represented a Welsh constituency in Parliament. On a dissolution taking place, however, he declined to stand again, on the grounds that he could not devote the time to his Parliamentary duties that they required.
Mr. Heathcote was an exceedingly ambitious and a somewhat vain man. He was a member of the Congregationalists, and posed before the world as a sincerely devout and religious man, subscribing very largely towards the support of his own views, and giving ostentatiously to many charities. His business transactions were said to be vast, and his income princely, but no one seemed to know how much he really did possess. What was a fact was that he lived in a style that many of the aristocracy might have envied. He gave good dinners, kept excellent wine, and had the reputation of being one of the most hospitable of hosts.
Mr. Heathcote had for wife a very charming woman who was a striking contrast to her husband, for she was small and delicate, and of a singularly retiring and timid disposition. It is said that extremes meet, and in this case it was really so; but everyone admitted that Mrs. Heathcote was a delightful hostess, and dispensed hospitality in her palatial home with a lavish hand. And yet it had not escaped the eyes of keen observers that in the midst of all her magnificence the lady seemed to be unhappy. It was notorious that she was in entire subjection to her lord. If she held any views about the emancipation of women and women's rights, she kept them very much to herself. Her husband's word was law to her, his slightest wish, if expressed, was speedily obeyed.
The bright, particular star, however, of the Heathcote mansion was Stella, the only child. At this period she was about twenty, and possessed of unusual attractions, and, in addition to the charms that nature had endowed her with, it was generally supposed that she would come into a fortune that was to be calculated by hundreds of thousands. Of course it goes without saying that she had innumerable admirers, for physical beauty and a large fortune besides naturally proved a very strong bait to the unattached young gentlemen who were privileged to have the entrée to the Heathcote mansion.
It was said that Miss Heathcote looked well, dressed well, spoke well, played well, danced well, but that she gave her admirers no encouragement. In fact, she was considered to be somewhat of a riddle, quite beyond the solving of the mashers and dashers who sighed to pay her court. The impression was that she had something on her mind, that her life was not all couleur de rose and that there was a worm gnawing at the bud. The young woman, however, who can steel her heart against all comers must be little short of a phenomenon, and so it came about that at last a bold knight laid siege to her heart and found out a vulnerable point.
The lucky swain was one Philip Dolland, who had studied law and was eating his course of dinners with a view to getting called to the Bar. He was the son of some very worthy people, who farmed somewhat extensively in Westmorland. They came of a race of yeomen whose lines stretched back for centuries. Philip's parents, however, being unfortunately imbued with the spirit of the times, thought it more genteel that their sons should become professional men instead of attaching themselves to the soil that their ancestors had been proud of, and so they were well educated, sent to college, and in due course one entered the ranks of the medical profession, another the navy, a third the army, and the fourth and youngest, that was Philip, chose to tread the path of law. How he became acquainted with Stella Heathcote in the first instance, and how he managed to succeed where his rivals had failed, is not for me to say. The fact remains that he and she were looked upon as engaged lovers, and it was said that Mr. Heathcote was greatly attached to the young man, making much of him, and giving him to understand that the day he led Stella to the altar would make him a wealthy man.
So far all was satisfactory, but there was one little rift in the lute which destroyed the harmony, and what follows in this connection is practically the narrative of Philip which he told to me when he invoked my aid and services. It appears that Miss Heathcote did not disguise from him that he had won her heart. At first she struggled against the growing feeling that she experienced, but it became too strong for her, and he being a persistent lover triumphed so that she had at last to confess herself so far conquered that her love was his. But now arose the mystery. Now was it made manifest to him that at the core of this fair seeming bud a worm lay gnawing there; for sometimes when he told the old love story and whispered to her those sweet nothings which is the language of love, she would suddenly burst into tears, and with a shiver exclaim:
"Oh, Philip, this must end; it must end, for I can never be yours."
When he expressed grief and surprise at her inexplicable decision she would hasten to assure him that no one would ever take his place, for she would be true to him till death. This was nice in a sense, and perhaps poetical, but a young man who has bestowed himself on a woman wants something more than that. Platonic love is all very well in Arcadia, wherever that may be, but it is not appreciated much in the nineteenth century. Anyway, Philip Dolland was not satisfied. There is no doubt he was very much in love indeed; gone over head and ears, as the saying is; and the more he pressed her to name the happy day, the more persistent was she in her determination to remain as she was; and while vowing over and over again that she loved him passionately, she declared she could never be wife to him or any man. Naturally enough, this puzzle affected him. He grew gloomy and miserable; and though she herself tried to keep up a show of outward gaiety and light-heartedness, it was plain to his eyes that she suffered very considerably. At last, the young man resolved to speak to her father on the subject. He did not tell her of this decision, but went straight to Mr. Heathcote, and laid his plaint before him. Mr. Heathcote became stern and angry, and used terms in referring to his daughter which not only amazed Philip but wounded his feelings very much.
"The fact is," said Mr. Heathcote, "Stella is as obstinate as a mule, and she wants treating like a mule. I don't mean to say she should be whacked into submissiveness, she is, perhaps, a little too old for that; but she must be led to understand, in the most unmistakable of terms, that her stubbornness will have to be subdued; and that obedience to her father's wishes, no less than compliance with your desire to make her your wife, is a solemn duty which she must perform; and that refusal to do this will meet with my severest displeasure. Rest assured, young gentleman," he added, in the decisive and emphatic way peculiar to him, "I will bring her to book, and she shall be your wife within two months of this date. No daughter of mine shall play the fool if I can help it."
The interview with the stern father did not afford young Dolland much comfort, for he thought that a woman who was compelled to become a wife against her will was not likely to make her husband very happy. As Mr. Heathcote had thought proper to refer to his daughter as a mule, there can be no disrespect in applying to her the adage about taking a horse to the water but finding it difficult to compel the brute to taste the water against his will. Presumably, Mr. Heathcote had a practical illustration of this. What took place between him and his daughter is not very clear, but a fortnight later Philip Dolland received a letter from her one morning, which came in the nature of a profound shock to him. The following is a copy of the letter:
My Own Dear Philip,
When you receive this I shall be far away. Seek me not, for even if you succeeded in tracing me—which is doubtful—you would find me more obdurate than ever. I am aware that I am mystifying you; but I will go so far as to say that what I do is done in your interests, and for your happiness. Of course that will seem a paradox, and I am sorry I cannot be more explicit. You may, however, accept my solemn assurance that what I say is correct, for if you married me you would ever after curse the day that gave me to you as wife. Oh, Philip, beloved, if you only knew how I love you and how it breaks my heart to tear myself from you, instead of blaming you would bless me, for I cannot blight your happiness; cannot bear to put a thorn in your side, and render your life a misery, as it certainly would be if you married me. My existence of late years has been a living lie. I have had to act a part against which my very soul has revolted, and loving you as I do I could not bear that you should be deceived. Of course when you receive this letter you will suffer for a time; you may even be angry with me, but if you knew all you would pity me, for I am absolutely sacrificing myself to save you. Time will soon assuage your grief; but, though men may at first feel a disappointment keenly, they get over it quickly. They have more distractions than a woman. They go forth into the world and become absorbed in it, and the years, as they go on, heal up the old wounds, leaving never a scar behind. Alas! how different is it with a woman. Love to her is life. Take it away, and what then! She exists, but she does not live. I may seem cruel to you, but I am only cruel to be kind, I am immeasurably crueller to myself, and I mentally exclaim:
"Can I love thee, my beloved—can I love thee?
And is this like love to stand
With no help in my hand,
When strong as death I fain would watch above thee?
May God love thee, my beloved, may God love thee!"
Farewell, dear one, we shall meet no more this side of the grave: but I have a firm belief in the existence of another and a better world, and there, when the sighs and the tears are ended, we shall know the peace the world cannot give us. I pray you now to forget me; and I request as the last request I shall ever make to you not to show this letter to my parents.
It is perhaps more easy to imagine what the feelings of a fine manly young fellow like Philip Dolland would be than to describe them when he found himself in possession of this remarkable document. It was all very well for Stella to say, and woman generally believe it to be so, that a man is incapable of feeling a disappointment of this kind for any length of time. Can there be any doubt that if a man sincerely loves a woman, and loses her, he never quite gets over his loss? He may show it in a different way; he may even become a cynic, and many do, but his life changes and the brightness goes, the flowers wither. Any way, Philip Dolland was crushed, and he poured out his woes into my ear, which was by no means unsympathetic, and the story he told me was substantially that I have given here.
He informed me that the first thing he did on receipt of the letter was to hurry off to the Heathcote mansion, but respecting her request he did not show the letter to her parents. He found her father furious, and he said his daughter was an ingrate, and utterly unworthy of all the care and devotion he had bestowed upon her. He vowed that as she had made her bed so she should lie upon it; and that never a penny piece of his money should she touch; and he even went so far as to hint that, while professing love for Philip, she had in reality bestowed her affections elsewhere.
This made the poor lad angry, for his faith was whole in the woman who had won his heart, and was not to be shaken by her irate and seemingly unfeeling father. So he turned to her mother hoping for explanation and consolation. But he found her, like Niobe, all tears, and though she said nothing harsh against her child, she said nothing in her favour, and Philip's opinion—an opinion I fully shared with him—was that she was so entirely in subjection to her husband that she was afraid to speak her thoughts or give expression to her views; and so, as the young fellow could learn nothing and get no satisfaction in that quarter, he turned to me in his deep distress, and begged me to use my best endeavours to trace the unhappy young lady, for he had an idea that, could he but gain an interview with her, he might overcome her views, and succeed in winning her. I listened to his story and read that letter with more than ordinary interest; for it was so very human, so very womanly, so very full of the moaning of life; and, perhaps above all, the mystery that enshrouded it enhanced my interest.
I knew Mr. Heathcote by repute, for as a public character he was very much in evidence, and he belonged to that class of men who know so well how to beat the drum and blow the trumpet so that they may attract the attention of the world. He had been known to give a magnificent garden party at his castle in Wales, and to take down by special train from London prominent journalists—not that journalists are influenced by that sort of thing, oh, dear, no—and prominent actors, and prominent artists, prominent authors (who, of course, are immaculate), and prominent other bodies; and by this means the doings of Mr. Heathcote were much chronicled; and Mr. Heathcote's name was scarcely ever out of the papers. Now it was stated that he had given a superb entertainment at his Welsh residence, at which a large number of very distinguished guests were present; anon he had taken the chair at some company meeting; again he had given a commission to some well-known artist to paint a picture; again, "with that princely munificence for which he is famed, Mr. Joseph Heathcote has given a thousand pounds towards clearing the debt off so and so," or he had placed five hundred at the disposal of the committee for building such and such an orphanage; or to the society for rescuing gutter urchins, and fitting them to become lord mayors or merchant princes; and so on, and so on ad libitum. For any one, therefore, to confess that he did not know something of Mr. Joseph Heathcote was to confess himself unknown.
It was clear to me, however, from the romance unfolded by young Dolland that in Mr. Heathcote's splendid residence there was a cupboard in which was concealed a grim skeleton, the rattle of whose mouldy bones was heard by Mr. Heathcote above the din of his public life, the beating of his drum, the blowing of his trumpet, and the roaring of his praises from the throats of his sycophants. Given that a man has a long purse, and nothing in the world is easier than to buy other men's praise, for money rules the world, and God rules all; but it is money first and God afterwards. Pondering, therefore, on the matter I thought to myself:
"If I could find out Mr. Heathcote's skeleton I could tell young Dolland why his sweetheart has gone from him. For she has peeped into the closet and seen that skeleton, and it has so shocked her, so horrified her, that she has determined to sacrifice herself; to crumple up her heart as a withered rose leaf rather than let the man she adores be horrified too."
Of course, Philip urged me to express an opinion, but obviously it was a delicate thing for me to do under the circumstances though I did somewhat obscurely hint to him that it was quite within the bounds of possibility, even probability, that a revelation would some day be made which would shock the virtuous world, and cause the highly respectable people who now sat at the great man's feet to rise up and exclaim, "Who'd a' thought it."
"You don't mean to impute anything against the honour and virtue of Miss Heathcote?" he exclaimed in a quick, angry way, peculiar to men who are ready to resent to the death any insult offered to a loved one.
My admiration for him was very considerably quickened by this display of chivalry, and I hastened to assure him that he had failed to comprehend me, and that not for one instant did I entertain a thought of evil about Miss Heathcote. This seemed to give him comfort, and after reflecting for some moments he said, with a sigh:
"Poor girl; I am afraid her nature is supersensitive, and that she has frightened herself with shadows."
"With very substantial shadows, mayhap," I said.
"I do not understand you," he remarked, with a puzzled look on his face.
"Perhaps not, and I am disposed to think that at present it is better that you should not."
He did not seem very satisfied with this answer, and was evidently loth to go; and only after I had assured him again and again that I would lose no time in endeavouring to trace the missing young lady did he take his departure.
Now I was perfectly sure that it would be worse than useless for me to attempt to get any information likely to be of use from Mr. Heathcote. That is, assuming that Philip Dolland had given me a correct version of the interview between them, and I had no reason whatever to doubt that he had. I was therefore under the necessity of waiting on Mrs. Heathcote at an hour when I had learnt that her lord and master was sure to be absent. Indeed, he was very little at home, so numerous were his engagements, so many the calls upon his time. I found the lady to be a weak, nervous woman, who manifested in the most pronounced way her entire subjection to her husband, and it was obvious, too, that she had something on her mind that she wished to conceal, although she made every effort to appear frank and unreserved.
I represented to her that I was much interested in young Dolland, which was a fact; and that he was so unhappy, so cut up, that at his earnest request—another fact—I had undertaken to try and find out for him what had become of the young lady; but I avoided letting my calling be known.
"Can you not form an opinion as to why your daughter has left her home, Mrs. Heathcote?" I queried, after discussing the subject for a few minutes.
"No, I cannot," she answered between her sobs, I am sure she had everything a young girl could desire, and her father was most indulgent with her. But he is a very unforgiving man, I am sorry to say, and he is so indignant, so angry to think that she should have treated him in such an ungrateful way that she can expect no pity, no forgiveness."
"Do you think she is ungrateful?" I asked with point.
"Oh, yes, indeed, I do," answered the lady quickly; but her tone and manner did not impress me with the idea that she was strictly truthful.
"In what way, madam, do you consider she is ungrateful?"
"In what way! Why, in not remembering what her father has done for her."
"Do you think it possible," I ventured to suggest, "that she had some legitimate grounds for being embittered against her father?"
"Certainly not," answered the lady, with an indignant toss of her head. "Why, in the name of goodness, should she be embittered against him?"
I gave her to understand that it was not for me to even hint at a cause at that stage of the proceedings, though I expressed an opinion that there probably was a cause, but this Mrs. Heathcote would not admit. And I did not urge the point further, but came away feeling that she had something in the background that she would not reveal owing to fear of her husband, and that she was really in ignorance of her daughter's whereabouts.
By means of a little judicious and diplomatic inquiry I ascertained that Miss Heathcote had had a French maid by the name of Marie Grenoulin, and that this young woman had been discharged directly after Stella's flight. She had gone to stay at the Catholic Aliens' Home in the Fulham Road. Thither I made my way and sought an interview with Marie, who I found was a highly intelligent young woman, and at first not inclined to be particularly communicative, owing to a fear she had that she might in some way be held responsible for her young mistress's flight.
On my assuring her, however, that under no circumstances would she be called to account, she informed me that she had noticed for a long time that her mistress was very depressed and seemingly unhappy. One day Marie asked her point blank what was the matter with her, and pointed out that she ought to be as happy as the day was long in view of her approaching marriage, and having regard to the splendour with which she was surrounded and her circumstances generally. Then, with a long-drawn sigh, Stella made answer thus:
"Ah, Marie, it isn't always the fairest seeming flower that smells the sweetest, and all that glitters is not gold. There is a canker in my life that poisons it and turns my sweets to gall; and I would rather be the veriest beggar that walks the streets if I had a clear conscience than who I am with all the luxury and wealth at my command."
Naturally Marie was surprised at this confession, and she asked Stella what she had done that her conscience should smite her; but the young lady hastened to correct the false impression she had made by her remark, and said that her conscience did not prick her for anything she had done herself, but she had to play a double part in order not to betray the secrets of others to whom she owed allegiance and duty.
Marie was unable to extract any further admission or confession from her, and she never alluded to the subject again. But on two or three occasions after that Miss Heathcote asked her maid a good many questions about the Roman Catholic Institutions of France, and if it was easy for a young girl—a foreigner—to obtain admission into a French convent.
These particulars which I gathered from Mlle. Grenoulin were instructive and suggestive, and they afforded me a clue as well as food for reflection. Necessarily I asked myself what it was Miss Stella had on her conscience. She had stated that she had not done anything herself that caused her uneasiness, but she was troubled about others. Now what did that point to? To my mind it certainly did seem to corroborate my theory that she had peeped into her father's closet and seen the skeleton. I certainly was not disposed to regard Mr. Heathcote as a saint who could do no wrong. Was it not possible he had climbed to power and wealth by means of which his daughter, as a conscientious young woman, did not approve. And she was willing, as she had said, to sacrifice herself rather than betray him.
The more I revolved the matter in my mind the more did this seem to me probable; for in no other way, by any stretch of imagination, could I account for her flight and strange letter to the man she loved. In the course of my conversation with Marie Grenoulin she had incidentally mentioned that Stella had on several occasions asked her questions concerning the Convent of the Sacred Heart, situated near Macon, in France, and where Marie herself had received her early training and tuition. It occurred to me that these questions must have been put with a distinct object, and that it was probable Miss Heathcote had fled to that refuge to find shelter.
She had taken none of her clothing, of which she had a great quantity, but all her jewellery, which was of considerable value, as well as a sum of money she possessed amounting to nearly four hundred pounds. All this seemed to point to the conclusion I had arrived at. Her ordinary clothing would be useless in the convent, but money and jewellery would be acceptable. I resolved at last, without saying a word to anyone, to start for Macon, and put my theory to the test.
The Convent of the Sacred Heart was a branch of a large monastery and convent situated in Provence, near the Bouche de Rhône. At the convent young girls were trained and educated to take their position in the world; or they could be prepared for taking the veil and entering into the strict seclusion of a monastic life. Their novitiate lasted twelve months before the binding vows were taken, and during the period of the novitiate they could withdraw at any time should they feel disposed to do so.
On arrival at Macon, as soon as I had deposited my few belongings in an hotel, I drove out to the convent, which was charmingly situated in the heart of a forest five miles from the town. It was a quiet, restful place, where one so inclined could lead a devout, contemplative life away from the roar and the fret of a passionate world.
The convent had formerly been a castle; one of those strongholds which studded France during feudal times, but it was at length purchased by the monks of the Provence Monastery, and adapted to the requirements of a religious institution. It was a grey old turreted building, but as far as possible indications of its former warlike character had been removed, and a clock tower, in which hung a deep-toned bell, had been erected. A high wall surrounded the grounds, which were extensive, and an old oak gate gave admission to the grounds. Ringing the bell at this gate, I waited for some minutes, and then a wicket was drawn back and a man's voice inquired my business. I told him it was with the Lady Superior, and of an urgent character. Then there was a jangle of keys, the great lock was turned, the ponderous gate swung on its hinges, and an ancient, withered-faced man gave me admission to the lodge.
Leaving me there for some time, while he went to announce my arrival, he presently returned and bade me follow him, and crossing the well-kept grounds I was conducted to the house of the Lady Superior, who came to me at once. She was a very old woman, with a sweet, pensive face, and a voice so clear, and yet so low and musical, that it was suggestive of a silver bell.
She was so gracious, she looked so benign, and seemed so meek, that I plunged at once into my subject. I told her I was seeking a young English lady who had fled from her home and friends, and I had some reason to think she had sought shelter in that quiet and peaceful retreat.
"Whence comes the young lady?" asked the Superior.
"From London," I answered.
"And her name?"
"Yes," answered the Lady, "she is here, and has begged to be prepared for a religious life. She has renounced the faith into which she was baptized, and has adopted the Roman Catholic Church as her sacred mother. She seems to be very, very unhappy, and to have something preying on her mind; but so far she has not revealed this; nor has she been pressed to do so, as we allow our novices three months for reflection before admitting them to all the rites of the Church, which are necessary they should adopt, before they can qualify for the great step by which they forever renounce the world and all its sin."
I thanked the Lady for her frankness, and begged that I might be allowed to see Miss Heathcote, and I suggested that in order to get her to consent to an interview some diplomacy might be required; but the Lady assured me that she did not anticipate any difficulty.
She left the room in which she had received me; and I waited a full half hour before she returned in company with Miss Heathcote, who was attired in a loose, grey dress, fastened at the waist with a woollen girdle. She wore a grey hood, and a large white collar round her neck. She looked very sweet, very picturesque, and yet withal very sad; and her eyes bore traces of recent tears. She seemed somewhat frightened of me, and clung to the arm of the Lady as if for protection.
When she asked my business, I told her that I should prefer to have an interview with her alone, and I begged that she would grant it. On this she appealed to the Lady Superior for advice and guidance, and was told that if it was likely to conduce to her welfare or comfort, she should comply with my request; and when I assured her that I had not come from her mother or father, but from one who was bowed with sorrow and broken with grief by her flight, she yielded, and the Lady Mother retired.
Then I lost not a moment in making the most of the occasion, and with such eloquence as I could command I drew for Miss Heathcote a picture of her lover's condition, and gave her clearly to understand that I was acting solely and wholly on his behalf. I told her who I was, and that he had engaged my services to trace her; and now that I had found her, I begged and prayed that she would send some message of comfort to the man who was pining for her.
She seemed greatly touched, and wept bitterly, but she said that, having taken the step she had taken, she was determined to go on to the end, for she could not turn back. In this resolve she seemed inflexible, and when at last all my persuasive powers had failed, I exacted from her, with great difficulty, a solemn promise that she would grant her lover an interview, and on that understanding I took my leave and wended my way back to London.
When I informed Philip Dolland with the results of the mission he had entrusted me with, he was so impatient to see Stella once again that he would have started there and then, had a train been leaving. But I urged him to think well of what he was going to do, and I hinted in plainer terms than I had hitherto done that the opinion I had formed of the affair was that Mr. Heathcote was living over a volcano of his own making, and that at any moment it might open and engulf him.
Stella, I suggested, had become aware of this, and being endowed with a high sense of honour, she would not ally herself to a man she loved, lest she might be the medium of bringing disgrace and shame upon him. I thought it right to go so far, so that the young fellow might be better prepared to talk to the lady of his choice. And, assuming that I was in any way correct in my surmises, it was for him to consider whether it would not be better to give up all hope of Stella, and allow her to steadily pursue the course she had decided on, or boldly assure her that, whatever might happen, he was fully prepared to link his fate to hers and share her joys and sorrows alike.
He thanked me for my hints, said they were valuable, and that night left for Macon. I did not see him again for a month, and having become very much absorbed in another case, I had for the time forgotten him, when one morning he drove up to my office in a cab. He told me he had only arrived the previous day from the Continent, and he had been enabled to have several interviews with Stella, thanks to the friendliness displayed by the Lady Superior of the Convent, who had pledged herself that she would not in any way influence Stella's decision, as she deemed it better for the girl's future happiness that she should be allowed to act entirely according to the dictates of her conscience, unbiased by a single word from anyone.
The Lady was a sensible woman, and divined that the girl had been impelled to take the step she had taken by a sudden impulse, the result of a very high sense of right; but the time might come when she would regret it, and yearn again to return to the world; and if such a yearning should come upon her it would tend to interfere with her devotions, and disqualify her for the solemn life she then seemed anxious to adopt.
The consequence of this course on the part of the Mother of the Convent was that Philip was free to exert all his powers of persuasion; but all he succeeded in exacting from Stella was that she would give him her decision one way or the other in six months' time. With this he had to be satisfied, and he returned home in a very unsettled frame of mind, for he alternated between hope and fear, and suspense kept him on the rack.
I advised him to look at the matter philosophically, and believe that "there is a destiny that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we may," and, could we but think so, all things happen for the best. But to attempt to instil philosophy into the mind of an ardent lover is a hopeless task, and though he expressed himself grateful to me, I doubt if he was in any way influenced by what I said.
The weeks rolled on and stretched themselves into months, until four months of the six had expired, when one morning the world was startled by the collapse of a gigantic financial undertaking, in which Mr. Heathcote had been the prime mover and the leading spirit. The collapse involved hundreds and hundreds of people in ruin, and spread misery and suffering amongst families in all parts of the land. Then fraud of a most extensive character was hinted at, and the climax of sensation was reached when it was ascertained that Mr. Joseph Heathcote was afraid to face his enraged dupes and had fled, and that a warrant was out for his arrest.
The revelations that followed brought to light a series of fraudulent transactions that had hardly been paralleled during the century, and it was made clear that the great Joseph Heathcote had for years led a life of falsehood and deceit, trying to cover one wrong with another, and, like all men who do evil, becoming more and more hopelessly entangled the more he struggled to free himself. His once respected and powerful name was besmirched, and men and women execrated him. The volcano had exploded, and it was revealed that all the splendour and wealth he had surrounded himself with for so many years were the result of a course of heartless and cruel fraud, which meant misery and death to many a one who had trusted him.
It redounds to the high-mindedness and noble chivalry of young Dolland, which was in striking contrast to the meanness and chicanery of Heathcote, that he at once started off to Macon, and telling Stella all, begged of her to become his wife. Although at first she was bowed into the dust with shame, love triumphed in the end; for how could she refuse—being a woman—to yield to the prayer of a man who had proved himself so persistent and so true as Dolland had.
Now that the skeleton had been dragged forth into the light of day, and the public were made acquainted with the false life her unhappy father had led, she no longer hesitated to tell her lover what had caused her flight. She had found out by chance that her father was engaged in fraudulent transactions, and she foresaw the day when it would be no longer possible to deceive the world. She felt that she dare not betray her father, and, on the other hand, she dare not deceive her lover, and so she resolved on shutting herself up in a convent where, if she could not forget, she would at least be forgotten.
She was destined, however, for a different fate, and ultimately became the wife of Philip, who succeeded to a small fortune on his father's death, so that he was not compelled to rely on his profession for a livelihood, and he settled down with his charming wife in France.
I may add that Mr. Heathcote was never captured, and it was generally believed that he died a miserable death in the interior of Mexico, where he had sought a refuge from the law he had outraged.
AS everyone knows, the late Lord Middlewick had a perfect craze for collecting rare gems and works of art; and, being a man of unbounded wealth, he was enabled to gratify his tastes to his heart's content.
His cabinet of precious stones was considered to be unique in its way, and contained the very rarest specimens of the world's gems, including some truly magnificent diamonds and pearls. His lordship, however, always considered that the collection was imperfect, owing to the absence of a good specimen of the very peculiar stone known generally as the cat's-eye, on account of its close resemblance, both as regards colour and iridescence, to pussy's optic. This gem seems to be peculiar to the island of Ceylon, but it is seldom that a really good specimen is discovered.
Through some cause that has never been satisfactorily explained, the cat's-eyes have certain flaws in them, particularly as regards their iridescence, which not only greatly depreciate their value, but cause them to be rejected by collectors. It had long been Lord Middlewick's ambition to say that he was the possessor of the most perfect cat's-eye in the world; but, though he had practically ransacked Europe—in fact, it might be said that he had ransacked the world itself—he had not succeeded in obtaining what he wished.
At last a report went the round of the papers that a cat's-eye had been discovered in Ceylon that was absolutely without a flaw. It was said to be as large as a hen's egg, and of such magnificent colour that it was peerless, and was roughly valued at fifty thousand pounds. It was announced that several offers had been made for it, but undoubtedly it would pass into the possession of Lord Middlewick, whose agent was already on his way to Ceylon, and was instructed to secure the gem at any cost.
Four months passed, when there assembled at Lord Middlewick's splendid mansion in Berkshire a large number of ladies and gentlemen, including many well-known experts, who had been specially invited to have the first view of the now renowned cat's-eye, which had arrived the day previous, in charge of his lordship's representative, Mr. Lionel Ashburton, the son of General Ashburton, who distinguished himself so much during the Indian Mutiny.
Mr. Ashburton was well known as an authority on precious stones, and his famous work, "The World's Great Gems," which cost years of research, is still considered the standard book of its kind. Mr. Ashburton had been out to Ceylon to examine and report on the treasure. That report being favourable, he had purchased it for his lordship.
There was a brilliant gathering in what was called the "Green Tapestry Chamber" of his lordship's house. On the table was placed a small iron box, sealed with seals, and triply secured by means of iron bands and padlocks.
All was excitement and eagerness to behold the new acquisition to the collection, which, it was now admitted, would be the most marvellous collection ever got together by one individual. With a great deal of ceremony his lordship proceeded to break the seals, which were all impressed with the stamp of the house of Jeeheboy, Lalam, Goosh & Co. Then the tapes were cut, the padlocks undone, and the lid of the outer box duly opened. In this box was another one, which was also locked and sealed; and this being lifted out and placed on the table, it was opened with no less ceremony in the presence of the assembled company. In this second box was what might be described as the kernel; it was a carved case of sandal-wood, secured with ribbon, and also sealed. The seals were broken, the lid opened, and, amidst the most intense excitement, the stone was lifted out and placed on a bed of spotless white wool, laid on a silver salver. But instantly the countenances of all present fell, and there was a general murmur of astonishment and disappointment; for the stone that the people gazed upon appeared to be nothing more than a common, colourless pebble, such as might be picked up on a sea beach. His lordship turned to Mr. Ashburton, and said:
"There is something wrong here, surely. What does this mean?"
"My God!" exclaimed Mr. Ashburton, who had become deadly pale, "the great cat's-eye has been stolen!"
It is far more easy to imagine the consternation this exclamation caused than to describe it. Mr. Ashburton was so overcome that he fainted, thereby adding to the confusion which the startling discovery had caused. And Lord Middlewick, apologizing to his guests for the unexpected dénouement, despatched the following telegram to me:
"Come down here immediately. If necessary, engage a special train."
This was done, and as soon as I reached the mansion, and my presence was announced, his lordship came hurriedly to me, and conducted me to his library. He was evidently labouring under considerable excitement and distress.
He was a little, middle-aged man, with a most intellectual face, and small, keen grey eyes that had a habit of fixing one, as it were. As he shook me by the hand with that cordiality that was so characteristic of him, he said, with strong emotion manifesting itself in his voice:
"I have sent for you, Donovan, as the only man I know of who is likely to be of service in this extraordinary case. A stone of enormous value—a great cat's-eye, for which I have paid an almost fabulous sum—has been stolen."
He then proceeded to give me all the particulars as I have detailed them at the beginning of my story, and, when he had finished, he asked me what my opinion was.
"It is curious," I remarked thoughtfully.
"Curious!" he echoed excitedly. "It is something more than curious; it's one of the most extraordinary cases I've ever known, and seems to me to admit of but one solution."
"And what is that, my lord?" I asked.
"Well—Ashburton can, if he likes to open his lips, tell us what has become of the stone."
"You impute dishonesty to Ashburton, my lord?" I remarked.
"In plain words—yes."
"I should like to see Mr. Ashburton."
His lordship rang the bell, and a servant appeared.
"Tell Mr. Ashburton to come here," was the order that his lordship gave; and, when the servant had retired to execute the command, I turned to Lord Middlewick—and said:
"I must ask you, my lord, to leave the room during my interview with Mr. Ashburton."
His lordship did not seem very well pleased; but, shrugging his shoulders, he remarked, "Oh, very well, as you like."
A few minutes later, Mr. Ashburton came in. He was a very gentlemanly, quiet-looking man, with a frank, open countenance that immediately impressed me in his favour. He was extraordinarily pale, and looked worried and anxious. He seemed a little surprised at seeing me—a stranger to him—in the room, and said in a somewhat confused way:
"I thought Lord Middlewick was here."
"No, he has retired by my request."
"Indeed; and may I ask what your name is?"
"Certainly. My name is Donovan—Dick Donovan. I am a professional detective; and have been requested by his lordship to try and recover the stolen cat's-eye. But, now, I want you to answer me a few questions, Mr. Ashburton. Did you see the cat's- eye packed?"
"You actually saw it put into the box?
"Undoubtedly I did."
"Who was present at the time?"
"Mr. Jeeheboy, Mr. Goosh, of the firm of Jeeheboy, Lalam, Goosh & Co., from whom the gem was purchased; and Mr. Samuel Prince, head of the Colombo banking firm, Prince, Halford & Payne."
"Was anyone else present?"
"There were two clerks, natives, whose names I do not know."
"And you have no doubt in your own mind that the real stone was placed in the box?"
"Not the slightest doubt. I am absolutely certain it was."
"You then saw the box sealed?"
"Was it ever out of your presence, between the putting in of the stone and the sealing?"
"Not for a single instant."
"Then, unless you were the victim of some strange optical illusion, you are absolutely convinced that the real stone was put into the box, and the box sealed in your presence?"
"I am absolutely convinced that such was the case."
"What was done after that?"
"The package was handed into my care, and I gave a receipt for it."
"I placed it at once in a strong leather trunk, and went on board the P. and O. steamer Bentinck which had just come in."
"And did you embark at once?"
"Were there many passengers on board?"
"Yes, a good many."
"How long did the steamer remain in port after you went on board?"
"About four hours."
"And was the leather trunk containing the cat's eye placed in your cabin?"
"And not removed all the voyage?"
"Was the leather trunk intact when you arrived in London?"
"As far as I know, it was."
"Have you any doubt on the subject?"
"Not the slightest."
"You still have that trunk, I suppose?"
"Certainly I have."
"Could I see it?"
"Oh, yes. Will you see it now?"
"Yes, I should like to do so."
In compliance with my request he led me to his bedroom on the second floor, where in one corner stood a dome-shaped leather trunk of very solid construction. It was secured with two locks in the front, the locks being about a foot apart. I asked to inspect the keys, and Mr. Ashburton at once produced them.
"I see you have two keys?" I remarked.
"Will one key open both locks?"
"No; each lock is of a totally different construction."
I noted that the keys were quite different to ordinary keys. They were made in the shape of a shield, and had an unusual number of wards. I next proceeded to examine the trunk with the aid of a powerful glass, and I was enabled to determine that the brasswork of one lock at least had been considerably filed.
"Now, answer me this, Mr. Ashburton," I remarked. "Have you the faintest idea when and where that lock could have been tampered with?"
"I have not," he exclaimed with strong emphasis. "On my soul, I have not," he added, with a fervency that I felt sure could not have been assumed. I returned to Lord Middlewick, who exclaimed impatiently:
"Well, what's the result now, Donovan?"
"Do you give me carte blanche to act as I like in this matter?"
"I do," he answered.
"Good; then I shall proceed to Colombo at once."
His lordship seemed to think that such a step was unnecessary; but I told him that it was my custom always to begin at the fountain-head in such cases. And in this particular one it was of the highest importance to endeavour, by every possible means, to determine whether the robbery had been effected in transit, or before the box containing the stone was removed from Colombo. As he came to see the whole matter from my point of view, he offered no further argument against the course I proposed, and within two days from that time I was travelling express to Brindisi, to catch the outward-bound P. and O. steamer for the East.
No news had reached Colombo of the loss of the stone when I arrived there, and I had kept my mission a secret from everyone. My first step was to seek an interview with Mr. Jeeheboy, a sedate, dignified Indian gentleman, who received me with the most business-like courtesy; and I at once began to study him, but saw nothing in his manner or style that suggested in the slightest degree the likelihood of his being a party to the theft. After a few preliminary remarks, I said:
"You have recently sold a very fine specimen of a cat's-eye to Lord Middlewick, I understand?"
"I have," he answered; "and I believe it to be one of the finest stones of its kind the world has ever produced."
"You saw it packed, and delivered into the safe keeping of his lordship's agent, did you not?"
"Undoubtedly I did," he exclaimed, as his countenance lighted up with a look of anxious interest.
"You have no manner of doubt in your own mind that the stone was in the box when the box was secured and sealed by you?"
The question caused Mr. Jeeheboy to start visibly, and, though it could not be said that his dusky face grew pale, there were indications in it that clearly betrayed how agitated he was. His dark eyes peered into mine, and for some moments he remained silent, as though somewhat at a loss how to answer me. But at last he said:
"Sir, your question alarms me, for it seems to suggest that something is wrong. I will answer you, however, to the point at once. I am as certain that the cat's-eye was in the box when I set my seal upon it as I am that I am a living man, and talking to you!"
"Did you seal the box yourself?"
"Yes. In the presence of one of my partners and two of my clerks, and of Mr. Prince, head of the banking firm of Prince, Halford & Payne, in whose hands the gem had been placed for safety. But, I beseech you, tell me, has the stone not reached its destination?"
"It has not," I answered. "The stone has been stolen."
"Impossible!" exclaimed Mr. Jeeheboy, perfectly aghast. Then he added quickly, "If that is true, the gentleman—Mr. Ashburton—who took it away, must have stolen it."
"Why do you think so?" I asked, wishing to know whether his opinion was merely the suspicion begotten by circumstances.
"Who else could have done it?" he exclaimed, with the air of a man who felt sure that he was right.
"Ah, that is the problem. Later on I may be able to give you an answer. At present I cannot do so. In the meantime I should like to see your partner, your clerks, and Mr. Prince."
Goosh and the clerks I saw at once, as they were on the premises; and they confirmed, in the most emphatic manner, the statement of the head of the firm—that the stone was safely in the box when the box was sealed.
Having finished my business so far with the firm of Jeeheboy, Lalam, Goosh & Co., I waited on Mr. Prince at his residence, a very handsome bungalow on the outskirts of the town. He was no less surprised than everyone else had been when he heard that the cat's-eye had been stolen; and, if possible, he was even more emphatic than Jeeheboy and Goosh were in stating that the gem was in the box when the box was sealed up.
I now felt perfectly satisfied in my own mind that the great cat's-eye had duly left the island in the care of Mr. Ashburton, and that it had been purloined between that time and the date of the arrival of the box in London. By whom I had yet to learn; but it was clear that the thief must have had a knowledge that the gem was on board. How did he get that knowledge? Mr. Ashburton was not the man to openly proclaim his errand to anyone; but then great publicity had been given to the finding of the stone, and its purchase by Lord Middlewick. That part of the story had long been public property, and the inference I drew was this:—A band of conspirators had leagued themselves together to steal the precious gem. I say "a band of conspirators," because I was quite sure that no person single-handed could have carried out the robbery. And I was no less sure that one or more of the conspirators must have been well acquainted with the way in which the box was sealed up, and, more than that, they must have been provided with the means for closely imitating the seal of Mr. Jeeheboy's firm. The line of argument I pursued suggested at once that a system of espionage had been instituted, and Mr. Ashburton had been closely watched.
This process of ratiocination determined me to make the most searching inquiries as to the strangers who were staying in Colombo at the time Mr. Ashburton was there; and these inquiries brought forth the following suggestive facts:
Two or three weeks before Mr. Ashburton's arrival the Rev. Arthur Jobson and his wife landed from an outward-bound steamer that was going to Calcutta. The Rev. Arthur Jobson was an invalid in, apparently, shattered health, and he had suffered so much at sea that he vowed he would go no further, as he wished to be buried on shore, for he had a sentimental dread of being thrown into the deep. His wife was represented to be a most charming woman, and much sympathy was shown for her and her husband, who was a comparatively young man. She was visited by most of the European residents, and the devotion she displayed for her husband called forth the admiration of everyone.
It was quite thought when he first came on shore that the Rev. Arthur Jobson would not live many weeks, but the climate of Ceylon exerted such a beneficial effect upon him that he began to improve, and when the Bentinck arrived he announced his resolve to give up all idea of going on to Calcutta, which originally had been his destination, and to return home in that vessel. It was understood that his wife was somewhat opposed to the plan, but he was firm in his resolve, and so passages were secured in the Bentinck, and when she sailed on her homeward voyage the Rev. Arthur Jobson and his wife were cabin passengers in her. I learnt that "Jobson" and his wife went on shore at Aden, whence with some difficulty I traced them to Marseilles.
I now asked myself why he had gone to Marseilles. He must have had some special reason for doing so. What was that reason? Seeking for it, I lighted upon what seemed to me the most feasible one, namely, to open up negotiations for the sale of the gem. I was aware that in Marseilles was a firm of Jews, who traded under the style of Moses Cohen & Sons. These enterprising gentlemen were said to be the largest dealers in precious stones and bric-à-brac in Europe, and a little bird had whispered to me that they were not too particular with whom they did business. They would buy gems and jewels from anyone, and ask no questions, so long as they thought they could make money, and avoid complications with the legal authorities.
To Messrs. Moses Cohen & Sons I resolved to go, and, by means of a stratagem, endeavour to worm from them the information I wanted, should it so happen that my surmise was correct. And so one morning I entered their shop, which was situated near the docks.
It was a dingy, ramshackle, tumble-down sort of place, filled up with as strange an assortment of things as could have been found in any part of Europe. There were stuffed crocodiles and precious vases, gold tankards and Indian clubs, rings and jewels, shells and beads, rare rugs, filigree work, specimens of choice mosaic; there were elephants' tusks, and embroidered cloths of barbaric splendour, headdresses, shoes, and sandals from every clime under the sun—in short, it was the most heterogeneous and the oddest collection of things I had ever beheld under one roof, while the combination of scents and smells that assailed the nostrils defies a suggestive description.
I had cropped my hair short à la Française, donned a blue blouse, a much-worn pair of trousers, and sabots. Ostensibly I was a French ouvrier, but from a certain assumed sullen expression, and a furtiveness of look, I might have aroused suspicion that I was not averse to any little enterprise, however illegitimate. Indeed, I had purposely endeavoured to suggest that I was by no means unfamiliar with the French hulks of Brest.
As I entered the emporium of curios I was confronted by a strange-looking little man, who eyed me with a pair of eyes that were as keen as a hawk's, and of a purple blackness of hue. His face was of the most pronounced Jewish type, and his nose singularly suggestive of the beak of a bird of prey. He wore a Persian cap of embroidered velvet, and was otherwise attired in a very much frayed and faded Eastern robe, loosely held together at the waist by a silken cord ornamented with gold thread, while his feet were thrust into a pair of Turkish slippers. In age he was probably about thirty, though he really looked older, while his general expression was that of cupidity and cunning. He was engaged in examining a bundle of silk handkerchiefs from some Eastern bazaar, and, as I entered, he snarled out, as he fixed his eyes upon me:
"What do you want?"
He spoke in French, of course, and I answered him in French.
"I want to see the head of the firm," I said.
"I'm the head at present," he growled again. "What is your business?"
"Trade," I mumbled.
"What have you got to trade?" he demanded in the same growling sort of way.
"Nothing," I answered sharply, "if you treat me like a dog."
"Where do you come from?" he asked with a sort of savage eagerness.
"Paris," was my curt answer.
"So. And what are you?"
"Something more than I seem," I muttered.
"And what have you got to trade?" he asked, growing more eager.
"Gems and jewels," I replied, fixing my eyes upon him, and I saw his grow brighter, if that were possible, while in their dark depths the auri sacra fames manifested itself as I had never to my knowledge seen it do in such a way in any other eyes. The light that gleamed from those dark orbs was the light that comes into the miser's eyes at the sight of a heap of gold.
"Where did you get them?" he fairly gasped out, suppressing his excitement as well as he could, though it was too manifest to be altogether concealed.
"Well, sir, that's my business," I replied; "but I had a hint given me by one who is as staunch as steel that your firm would do a trade. I'd like to see your father, though."
"Because he is not here. I tell you I'm the head at present, and I can do business as well as he can."
I affected not to notice this remark, but asked:
"When will your father be back?"
"I don't know."
"Can you give me no idea?"
"Then I'll come again," I said, and I made a movement as if about to go.
"Stay!" he cried.
"If you want a good market, it is here; and I'll deal fairly with you, if you have stuff that is worth attention."
"Oh, of that there is no doubt. But I'll come again when your father is in."
This reiteration irritated him, and he said in the snarling way I had already noticed:
"You are a fool, and if you won't trade with me, you shan't trade with my father."
"Well, that may be so," I said with indifference, "but I'll try him, anyway."
"Then you'll have to wait a pretty long time."
"Because he's not in the country."
"Where is he?"
"He's in Morocco," came the unguarded answer; and, though it certainly might have been my fancy, I believe I detected in his face evidence of a feeling on his part that he had been foolish in speaking so hurriedly.
"Oh, he's in Morocco, is he!" I exclaimed. "Well, that's unfortunate for me."
Then, after some moments of reflection, I asked, "Are you to be trusted?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, will you treat a fellow squarely, and not give him away?"
"Certainly," he answered, "and secrecy and despatch is our motto."
"Well, I'll think over the matter," I replied, "and come and see you again."
His anger and irritability made themselves manifest. But, without waiting for him to continue the argument, I left the place with an instinctive feeling that I had again struck the trail; for it instantly occurred to me that old Moses Cohen had gone to Morocco in company with Jobson, who had changed his name to Rowland, and if I could establish that fact there could be but one deduction, namely, that they had gone to try and sell the great cat's-eye. I directed my attention now to tracing Rowland, and I found that he and his wife went to Lyons, then doubled back to Marseilles again, and took passage in the French steamer La Pelouse for Algiers, and in that steamer old Cohen also sailed.
The scent was getting hot now, and my surmises were becoming hard facts. In going to Lyons, Rowland had been actuated, no doubt, by the belief that he was making it more difficult for him to be traced; and when he and his wife came back to Marseilles, they had again changed their name, and were then known as Mr. and Mrs. St. John Clair, and in that name they were entered on the passenger list of La Pelouse. That they were the people I wanted there was not the slightest doubt, for the description I received of them tallied exactly with the Rev. Arthur Jobson and his wife, who had been in Colombo.
Perhaps I need scarcely say that as soon as I could possibly get a steamer I was speeding to Algiers after them, and, arrived there, I ascertained they had proceeded to Mogador. This was the place, then, where they hoped to find a market, and to Mogador I resolved to go. But I saw the necessity for taking counsel with the French authorities in Algiers, and I appealed to Colonel Jules Marcet, who was in charge of the garrison. This gentleman promised to aid me in every possible way, and he furnished me with an escort of ten Arab soldiers in charge of two French officers, and an interpreter, and, as I could tolerate no delay, we set off at once.
On reaching Mogador, I learnt that "an old Jew trader," speaking Arabic perfectly, had recently arrived in company with a white man and his wife, and the Jew had brought with him a most wonderful gem, which he was anxious to sell to the Sultan, who was then at his summer palace about twenty miles inland. Accordingly the Jew and the white man and his wife had gone out to him.
It was now necessary to take such steps as would render it tolerably certain that I should recover the long missing gem. To do this some subterfuge would have to be resorted to, for the Sultan was a wily monarch, and, had he been so disposed, he might have sent the stone to some safe place of keeping in the heart of his country, and have defied anyone to obtain possession of it. I therefore, with the approval of the officers of my escort, had a message conveyed to him to say that I had come from England to see him on a very urgent matter indeed, and I humbly craved that he would grant me an audience, as my business was of such a nature that his interests might suffer if he refused to see me.
After waiting a few days his barbaric Majesty's answer came, and it was to the effect that the interview I solicited would be granted, and on the morrow an escort from the palace would arrive to conduct me and my attendants to his presence.
When the next day dawned—it was a day of splendour and heat—fifty picturesque horsemen, each man clad in the ample white garments peculiar to the country, and mounted on a superb Arab steed, clattered into the town, and by command of His Majesty they had brought a spare horse for my use. After some delay we left the strange and quaint town of Mogador and struck inland. I had adopted the dress of the country, even to the ample folds of linen around the head and the peaked embroidered shoes of red Morocco leather. I also carried a native gun, and in my belt two of the large and formidable knives peculiar to the country. But, as a matter of self-protection, I had far more faith in the two heavy six-chambered revolvers, each barrel loaded, which I carried concealed beneath my dress, but easily get-at-able.
As we approached the palace a body of the Sultan's troops lined the road and saluted as we passed; and, entering a great gate-way of exquisite Moorish architecture, I found myself in a quadrangle, in the centre of which was a clump of date-palms; and a fountain gurgled and plashed, impressing one with a most refreshing and delightful sense of coolness. Beneath the shade of the trees a group of men reclined, and a little further off a number of closely veiled women were squatted on the ground; and, though the eyes were the only part of their features exposed, I could not fail to observe, by the expression in the eyes, that they were regarding me with a keen and curious interest.
After being conducted through many winding passages we found ourselves at last in a spacious and magnificent chamber, the walls of which were panelled with gold mosaic. The floor was polished marble, and the vaulted ceiling was coloured blue and studded with stars of gold. Seated cross-legged on a raised dais, and attired in a most wonderful robe of gold and silk, was the Sultan, and surrounding him was an army of attendants; while two gigantic black fellows stood behind him fanning him with ponderous jewelled fans. The whole atmosphere was heavy with the odour of a strange perfume that was thrown up by a tiny fountain in the marble floor.
As I approached His Majesty with the most profound obeisance, I could not repress a start of pleasurable surprise as I observed that, held by a little network of gold thread, a cat's-eye of unsurpassed splendour was glittering on his breast, and I felt that at last I gazed on the stolen gem. Through my interpreter I thus addressed the Sultan, adopting the florid and fulsome style peculiar to the country:
"Oh, most potent and mighty ruler of this great and wondrous land of beauty and light, whose power even kings and other great ones of the earth acknowledge, deign, I humbly crave, to give hearing to thy humble servant who lies in the dust at your feet."
"Speak; we will listen," answered the Sultan.
"This is my story, then, O Mightiness. I come in search of a stolen gem, which is like unto that which glitters on your breast."
The Sultan started, and his dark face flamed up with anger, as he answered:
"This gem have I lawfully acquired within the last few days from a man and woman from your own country, and a Jew of Marseilles, who has frequently supplied me with some of the treasures of the earth."
"Naught but truth could fall from the lips of your Majesty," I replied; "but the Jew and my country people have deceived you and that stone has been stolen from its legitimate owner, a mighty lord of England, and I crave you, ere this Jew and his companions leave your kingdom, to have them seized, and compelled to return to you the money you have paid, and then place in my possession the gem which I have so long sought, in order that I may restore it to its sorrowing owner."
By His Majesty's commands I gave a detailed account of the history of the stone, and satisfied him that I was lawfully empowered to take charge of the gem, and also to convey the man and woman back to England, so that they might receive the measure of punishment due for the crime they had committed.
The Sultan was fiercely angry at being so deceived, and issued orders at once that a band of his picked soldiers should ride with all possible speed to Oran and bring back the man and woman and the Jew; and pending their arrival I was to be detained. For eight days I remained practically a prisoner in the palace, but at last one morning the beating of drums and the shouting of the people announced that the soldiers had returned, and soon I was informed that they had brought the Jew and the "Jobsons" with them.
In the afternoon I was conducted once more to the presence of the Sultan, and confronted with Cohen and his companions. "Jobson," as I had better continue to call him, was a tall, imposing looking man, with quite a patrician cast of face; but his utterly dejected and scared expression showed that he felt the game was up. His wife was a little woman of considerable beauty, with a strong face and a mass of golden hair. She immediately struck me as a woman of an iron will and dogged determination, and I at once concluded that her husband was as potter's clay in her hands.
Cohen was no less striking: he was even a picturesque figure; of very swarthy complexion, and long dark hair falling in greasy ringlets about his neck and shoulders.
With singular adroitness the Sultan subjected him to a most severe cross-examination; and though the Jew with desperate effort tried to justify himself, he had to confess that he had undertaken the commission without duly inquiring how Jobson and his wife had obtained possession of the gem. On his part Jobson did all he could to create an impression that he was a greatly injured man, and that the charge I preferred against him was a false one. But it was very clear that the Sultan did not believe him. And at last, under the impulse of a great fear, he blurted out that the gem had been stolen, but that he was only the agent for others. Whereupon his wife assailed him with a volley of abuse, which corroborated my impression that she was possessed of the will and the mind, and he was a poor weak fool.
The Sultan was evidently much concerned, and, though he had got all the money back that he had paid for the cat's eye, he seemed loth to part with the stone, and said that he would give his decision in two days. In the meantime, I instructed my interpreter to impress upon His Majesty that if he failed to restore the stolen property to the rightful owner, he would most certainly give offence to both England and France.
Whether this empty threat had any effect or not, I don't know; but at the end of the second day he sent word that he would deliver up the gem to me in the presence of his Prime Minister of State and the two French officers, and that I should be free to take Jobson with me out of the country, but that, unless the woman of her own will chose to accompany me, she should not be compelled to go.
The arrangement for delivering up the stone was duly carried out with considerable ceremony, but Mrs. Jobson, after abusing her husband for what she termed his "pitiable weakness and cowardice," said she would remain where she was, let the consequences be what they might.
Having got possession of the stone, I was anxious to leave without a moment's delay, and I requested His Majesty to furnish me with an escort of his most trusted soldiers. He gave me twelve men, and, though night was closing in, I determined to set off immediately, for I had an impression that an attempt might be made to rob me of my precious charge. All night long I travelled without halt, and was truly thankful to ride into Mogador as the day was breaking. I had brought Jobson with me; he seemed utterly broken down and dejected, and he was evidently in fear of his life.
After a brief rest the journey was resumed. The Sultan's soldiers were ordered not to go further than Mogador, and I continued on my way with my original escort, and reached Algiers without adventure. It was then decided that Jobson would have to be detained by the French, pending the formalities of extradition; and, as a steamer was on the point of sailing, I took passage in her. For, while the precious gem remained in my possession, I was restless and sleepless with anxiety for its safety.
It may well be imagined with what joy I found myself in London after my most exciting and adventurous journey. And I immediately telegraphed to Mr. Ashburton, telling him that I had recovered the stone.
Then, ascertaining that Lord Middlewick was at his mansion in Berkshire, I went down by the first train I could get. As I entered the room, he rose, and shook my hand, saying:
"Well, Donovan, it's a long time since I heard anything about you, and I suppose there is no chance now of my ever seeing the lost gem?"
"My lord, I have been following it about the world," I answered.
He smiled a little ironically as he remarked:
"And, like a will-o'-the-wisp, it has led you a useless dance, I presume?"
"Not exactly," I said, smiling in turn, and, producing from my pocket a little packet of tissue paper, I unrolled it; and, as I laid the stone before him, I said: "Here is the lost cat's-eye, my lord, so that you see my journeying has not been useless altogether."
For some moments he could not speak, so great was his mingled surprise and emotion. Then he seized my hand again and wrung it, and exclaimed:
"Well, Donovan, you are the most wonderful fellow I have ever known; and I almost believe you are gifted with powers of necromancy."
"There is nothing wonderful in the feat I have performed," I answered, with—as I hope—becoming modesty. "Endowed with an ability for logical reasoning, I have been able to use such slight clues as I could obtain. The result is, you are now in possession of the gem; and perhaps I need scarcely remind you that Mr. Ashburton's honour is unstained."
"Depend upon it, Donovan," said his lordship, quickly, "that I shall endeavour to make the most ample reparation to Mr. Ashburton for the unjust suspicion I have cast upon him."
It remains for me to say that, after some delay, Jobson was brought over from France, and duly put upon his trial for stealing the gem. His real name was proved to be William Hinton. He was the son of a much-respected clergyman, but had led a wild and restless life, and had married a clever adventuress, who, there was no reason to doubt, had led him astray.
Two other men had been mixed up in the robbery, and had really found the money for Hinton's expenses; but they managed to get out of the country, and thus avoided justice. On his own confession, Hinton was convicted and sentenced to seven years' imprisonment.
What became of his wife I never knew, but it is exceedingly doubtful whether she would ever be allowed the leave the Sultan of Morocco's dominions alive.
I WAS about to start off one summer morning on a little journey of pleasure, when my plans were suddenly altered by the receipt of a telegram from the late Sir Vincent Pickering asking me to go down to his seat near Southampton without delay. The telegram ran as follows:
"Can you come down here at once? Urgent case. Wire reply immediately, and say if I may expect you."
I had some slight knowledge of Sir Vincent, having met him on two occasions. He was a man of many parts. He had served his country with distinction as a soldier, both in the Crimea and in India during the terrible mutiny. He marched with the gallant Havelock to the relief of Lucknow, and was amongst the first to enter Cawnpore after the troops of the ferocious Nana Sahib had been beaten back and shattered. But a stray shot from one of the mutineers, as Sir Vincent and his men rode in, nearly put an end to his career, as the bullet went clean through his body; entering at the breast, passing right through one of the lungs, and coming out at the back. For some time he lay at death's door; but, strangely enough, in spite of all the predictions to the contrary, he recovered.
Having retired from the army he devoted himself to various pursuits. Amongst other things he compiled a very valuable little handbook on "Modern Military Tactics," which is still regarded as a standard work, and displays not only remarkable erudition, but great power of observation and deduction. He was something also of an amateur detective, he was an authority on chess, a capital judge of a horse, and a good deal more than a mere dabbler in archeology and antiquities. Indeed, as an antiquarian, he was respected as an authority, and his thoughtful letters to the Times on the origin of Stonehenge will hardly be forgotten by those who take an interest in the matter.
On the occasion of my last meeting him he had discussed with me the rationale of the whole theory of the detection of crime, and he held that as in the case of the poet—poeta nascitur, non fit—so with a detective. He must be born a detective; he could not be made one. He maintained that to be a detective in the true sense, one must be possessed of a very delicate and keen power to analyse human motives, and to follow up in logical sequence cause and effect, and effect and cause. That is to say, he must have the natural gift of a posteriori and a priori reasoning, for so only could he hope to succeed.
On all these points I was in perfect accord with Sir Vincent, and I was much impressed with his intelligent grasp of all the subjects he discussed. On parting from him he said:
"If ever I should want the services of a man endowed with the highest attributes of the detective's art, I should send for you, Donovan."
This was a very strong compliment, and coming from such a man who, I felt sure, could never resort to one for flattery, I could not fail to appreciate it. Therefore, when his telegram was put into my hands, I resolved, without the slightest hesitation, to forego the pleasure of my anticipated holiday and comply with his request. So I jumped into a hansom, drove to Waterloo, and caught the 11.15 express, telegraphing to Sir Vincent just before the train started that I was en route. On arriving at the terminus I found a gig, in charge of a smart groom, waiting for me. The groom came up to me, and, touching his hat after the manner of grooms, he said:
"Are you the gent, sir, as Sir Vincent is expecting from town?"
I answered that presumably I was the "gent;" and he thereupon informed me that his master had sent him to the station to drive me to the house, as the distance was nearly six miles.
We had to cross the river Itchin by the floating ferry, and then our road for some distance lay by the sea shore. I have always thought that the Southampton waters have a beauty entirely their own; but as I saw them on this brilliant summer day they were enchanting. After passing the grand old ruins of Netley Abbey we turned our backs to the sea, and made our way inland by one of the most charming of lanes, that seemed to be a very paradise of wild flowers. And when we had proceeded along this lane for about a mile we came to the lodge gate of Oakwood Castle, Sir Vincent's residence. It is a fine specimen of old Gothic architecture, and is full of historic interest, while for situation and beautiful surroundings it would be hard to beat.
Sir Vincent received me at the hall door, and shook my hand very warmly, saying he was glad I had come. But, before telling me what the business was, he insisted on my refreshing the inner man by having what he called "a snack," but which proved to be a very sumptuous repast indeed. The snack finished, we discussed a bottle of prime old Burgundy, smoked a choice Havana, and, these important preliminaries being over, we proceeded to business.
"Well, now, Donovan," began my host, in his hearty genial way, "I have got a case that is at once delicate, complicated and curious. I may tell you that up to a week ago I was the proud possessor of a relic which, in its way, was probably unique. It was a massive silver dagger, the handle of which was roughly set with precious stones. Intrinsically the weapon was worth a good deal—as a relic it was priceless, for it is said, upon good authority, to have belonged to Tancred, the renowned Italian poet, and to have been carried by him when he accompanied Godfrey of Bouillon in his crusade against the infidels of the Holy Land."
"That is going back a long time," I remarked, feeling a little incredulous and no doubt expressing my feelings in my look; for Sir Vincent exclaimed quickly:
"Yes, it is a long time: nearly eight hundred years ago, and any relic of such a far-away period must be received with considerable caution. But in this case there are many reasons for believing that the dagger really did belong to Tancred. The blade of the dagger is elaborately engraved, and experts have pronounced the work that of the eleventh or twelfth century. It also bears a Latin couplet roughly scratched into the metal, with the name of Tancred underneath. Now, whether this silver dagger did or did not belong to Tancred is beside the question at present. It is very ancient, that has been admitted; and if it did not belong to Tancred it certainly did belong to someone of note, who lived and flourished hundreds of years ago. I may add that it was presented to my grandfather by the celebrated antiquarian, Professor Von Blumenthal, for services rendered, and since then it has been preserved in my family as a very precious heirloom and priceless relic. Very well; so much for the introduction. Now to the point. That relic, which scarcely anything could have tempted me to part with, has been stolen."
"I expected that that was what you were going to tell me."
"Yes. But the theft is to a certain extent wrapped in mystery. Last week we had a party here, and all the families for miles around were represented. Amongst those who were present was Professor Betterson, the well-known scientist and archeologist. Up to that time I was not personally acquainted with the Professor, for, as you are no doubt aware, he has for many years been engaged in excavating amongst the ruins of Upper Egypt. And, being an enthusiast, he has devoted all his time and attention to the work. My wife and daughters, however, have been in the habit of visiting his family. Recently he returned from the East, and was included amongst our guests last week. As the Professor takes a very keen interest indeed in antiquities, I experienced unusual pleasure in opening my cabinet for his inspection, and displaying my treasures. He was particularly attracted by the silver dagger; its traditional history excited him to an enthusiastic pitch, and he expatiated learnedly on the stirring times when all Christendom was aroused by the outrages committed in the Holy City by the Moslem Infidels.
"Of course he was surrounded by an admiring and attentive audience, and he delivered quite a discourse, which tended to prove that, in the case of this particular dagger, tradition was likely to be correct. At last he handed me the dagger back, and having exhausted the treasures of my cabinet the party directed their attention to something else. A little later I went back into the room, for I remembered that I had forgotten to lock the cabinet, and to my surprise the Professor was there alone, holding the dagger in his hand, and engaged in intently examining it.
"He started on perceiving me, and stammered out some apology; saying that he was quite fascinated with this antiquity which carried him so far back into the past.
"I told him, of course, that I was exceedingly pleased that I possessed anything which could afford him such pleasure, and I begged him to examine the things as much as he liked, and at his leisure. At that moment I was called away by one of my daughters, and I remembered nothing more about the cabinet until the following morning, for my guests of the previous evening occupied all my attention. As soon as I remembered that I had left the cabinet unlocked I hastened down to secure it, and, to my amazement, I found that the silver dagger which I set such store upon was missing."
"And, of course, you haven't recovered it yet?" I remarked, as Sir Vincent paused in his narrative.
"No, certainly not. That is why I have sent for you."
"But you have caused a search to be made?"
"And taken other steps, I presume, to find out what has become of the dagger!"
"I have done all that has suggested itself to me, but without success."
"You have no doubt, I suppose, that the relic has been stolen, Sir Vincent?"
"Not the slightest doubt."
"And have you formed a theory in your own mind as to who the thief is?"
"Yes, I have."
"May I ask you to tell me whom you suspect?"
"That is where I feel the delicacy of the situation," answered Sir Vincent, looking very perplexed. "I am the last man in the world to asperse the character of anyone lightly, and I shrink with peculiar sensitiveness from breathing a word of suspicion without good grounds. But from what I have told you, you have no doubt formed your own opinion, and I shall be glad if you will let me know what you think."
"I would rather that you would name the person whom you suspect, first of all," I said.
"Very well, then. Need I say, that the only person I can suspect is the Professor?"
"And having regard to all the circumstances your suspicions are justifiable."
"I am glad you say so," answered Sir Vincent quickly and with a sigh as though his mind was relieved of some weight.
I knew that he bore the reputation of being a man, not only of unsullied honour, but of a peculiarly sympathetic and kindly disposition, and I could therefore well understand how pained he must have felt in being forced to the belief that a man so eminent and well known as Professor Betterson was, had robbed him.
"Yes," I answered, "but though I acknowledge the justification of your suspicions, I nevertheless think you are wrong."
"In what way?" he asked sharply.
"Before I answer that question, permit me to ask another. Have you mentioned your suspicions to anyone?"
"Not to a soul."
"Have you seen the Professor since?"
"Yes. He called here with his wife and daughters two days after the party."
"And was there anything in his manner that was suggestive of a guilty conscience?"
"Absolutely nothing. He is one of the most perfect gentlemen I have ever met."
"And you still think him guilty?"
"I am sorry to say I am forced to that conclusion."
"And what, sir, do you suppose would be his motive for stealing the dagger?"
"Oh, I do not for a moment suppose that he is a mere vulgar thief who would pilfer for the mere sake of money. Not a bit of it. But you see he is a perfect enthusiast, and, coveting this relic of mine, he could not resist the opportunity afforded him of purloining it."
"But with what motive, do you suppose?"
"Oh, merely for the sake of possession."
"But that would display a form of selfishness which is always associated with the miserly temperament."
"I scarcely follow you," said Sir Vincent.
"I will endeavour to make myself clear. Professor Betterson is a man of world-wide reputation. His Egyptian researches have given him a unique position amongst scholars. Now, he would know perfectly well that he could never show this relic to anyone, because possibly it has not its parallel in the world, and the fact of its having been stolen from you would be sure to become pretty widely known. Consequently, the Professor would have to carefully conceal the stolen treasure from every eye but his own. Therefore, like the miser's hoard, he would keep it for his own selfish gratification. Nor could he be indifferent to the fact, one would think, that if found amongst his possessions after death, his reputation and good name would be for ever blasted, and some of the odium attaching to him would necessarily affect his family. Now, Sir Vincent, I ask you this question, do you think that Professor Betterson is so far forgetful what he owes to his own good name, and those dear to him, as to commit such a theft as this? Every man who commits a crime, unless he is an irresponsible lunatic, does it with some motive.
"To define the motive is one of the first links in the chain of evidence necessary to bring the crime home to him. What could be the Professor's motive? Not mere gain, surely. A passing desire to possess the treasure, as being a very rare and very old one, suggests a motive; but, although I am ready to believe that in a general way human nature is capable of anything that is bad, I find it difficult indeed to persuade myself that a man so greatly endowed, so full of noble thoughts, as is Professor Betterson could be capable of conceiving a theft of this kind."
My line of argument seemed to have a great effect on Sir Vincent. His face wore an expression of puzzled anxiety. He was a man of such high-souled honour that he could not readily lend himself to do an injustice to anyone; and I read by his looks how peculiarly reluctant he was to think ill of a man so eminent and so respected as the Professor. At the same time, looking at the matter from his standpoint, it must have seemed a certainty that Professor Betterson, and nobody else, had purloined the silver dagger. In a troubled way he passed his hand through his hair, and stroked his forehead with his finger tips, and at last he spoke.
"I must admit, Mr. Donovan," he said, "that your argument carries weight; but, then, if Professor Betterson did not steal the dagger, who did?"
"Ah, that is a question I cannot answer at this moment," I replied. "But all the circumstances—everything—points to the Professor as the thief."
"Prima facie, yes. But is it not possible, nay, probable, that some person having the cunning of the fox, noting the circumstances, took advantage of them, in order that his purpose might be accomplished, and the suspicion fall upon Betterson?"
"Great heavens! Donovan, you are perplexing me with doubts and confusing me with potentialities," cried Sir Vincent, as springing up he thrust his hands deep into his pockets and paced the floor uneasily. Then, suddenly pausing, he said: "For what purpose could anyone under this roof have stolen that dagger?"
"I am afraid, Sir Vincent," I answered with a smile, "that your dabbling as an amateur detective has not taught you much. You say the dagger is massive, solid silver?"
"Very well, silver put into the melting pot is silver whether it be ancient or modern. Then, again, you say that the handle is encrusted with rough precious stones."
"These stones would also possess a value, and could readily be sold."
"But, good God! You don't mean to say anyone would be such a vandal as to destroy a link with the past of this kind for the sake of filthy gain. For, at the most, if this precious relic was broken up in the way you suggest, it would only realize a few pounds."
"My dear Sir Vincent," I answered, "vulgar thieves usually are Goths and Vandals, and they steal merely for the sake of gain. Whoever has taken this dagger would be cute enough to know that to offer it for sale in its original state would be an exceedingly risky thing to do, and almost certain to lead to detection. Whereas, if broken up, the metal and the jewels might be sold with no great risk."
"I confess that your arguments unsettle me, but do not convince me," said Sir Vincent.
"And you still think that Professor Betterson is the thief?"
"To be frank with you, I find it difficult to think otherwise. But you don't think so?"
"Pardon me, sir, for not answering the question now."
"Well, then, what do you propose to do?"
"Remain here as your guest for a few days."
"I shall be delighted, of course, for you to do so."
"I must make it a condition, however, that my mission and calling are kept secret from all your household."
"That condition certainly shall be observed."
"Have you made it generally known that this dagger has been stolen?"
"Oh, no. I have mentioned it to no one except my wife and children."
"That was wise of you, and may help us considerably. As regards the plan of action I shall follow, that must be determined to a large extent by circumstances, but I am not without hope that I shall be able to recover the relic."
"I trust you will, for, on my honour, I would rather lose five thousand pounds than this dagger," answered Sir Vincent. "Now, I hope you will make yourself at home. Remember you have carte blanche to do as you like, and I need scarcely say that if you succeed in recovering the silver dagger you will earn my lasting gratitude."
A little later, when I was alone, I went over in my own mind every detail of the case as given to me by Sir Vincent, and I particularly recalled the scene of the Professor delighting his listeners by much learned talk about the crusaders and the stirring times in which they lived; and I felt it might be desirable, as far as possible, to ascertain who were present during that discourse. Then I pictured the Professor alone, examining the silver dagger when he was surprised by his host. It was after that incident that the relic disappeared.
If the Professor took it, it must have been in a moment of aberration of intellect, for one brief moment of reflection would have sufficed to convince him that suspicion must necessarily fall upon him. He could not possibly escape that suspicion. And then, as I had pointed out to Sir Vincent, assuming that the Professor was the thief, he dare not exhibit the treasure to any one. He must keep it locked for ever from the sight of every being but himself.
In spite of a wide experience of remarkable criminals, I could not bring myself to believe in the probability of Professor Betterson jeopardizing his great name and world-wide reputation as a man of science for the sake of being the secret possessor of this interesting relic. I felt, of course, that I should be better able to form an opinion inferentially after I had had an interview with him, and I resolved to have that interview as soon as possible.
The next day, therefore, I asked Sir Vincent to arrange it, and he undertook to drive me over and make a friendly call on the Professor that very afternoon, introducing me as a friend from London who had come down to spend a few days in the neighbourhood.
This was duly carried out, and I found the Professor a most delightful man. He was an enthusiastic Egyptologist, and though in my humble judgment some of his speculations were a little wild, they were none the less delightful, while his charm of manner was irresistible. The absence of dogmatism in his arguments, his deference to the opinions of others, his perfect manners, and the powerful grasp of every subject he discussed, stamped him at once as a man, not only of great intellect, which undoubtedly he was, but a gentleman in the truest sense of the word. As a scholar, too, he ranked very high, and he was said to be one of the best linguists of his day.
Physically, he was scarcely less attractive than he was mentally. He had a splendid frame, which seemed to have been made for endurance and hard work; and a face that at once won you by its frank, bland, open expression, and he had keen penetrating eyes that looked full at you as if their owner feared nothing and had no single secret to conceal from the world.
Before I had been in his company a quarter of an hour I had come to the conclusion that Professor Betterson had no more stolen the silver dagger than I had. He was a man of large means; had a splendid house, and a charming wife and family who looked up to him almost as a demi-god.
As I was taking my leave I asked him if I might call upon him the following day, as I wished to see him on a matter that, to some extent, affected the happiness of a mutual friend. He seemed a little surprised, but with great heartiness, as he grasped my hand, he exclaimed:
"My dear sir, pray hold me at your service, and command me in the way in which I can be of use. I have many engagements to fulfil to-morrow, and a lecture to deliver at Southampton in the evening on Egyptian antiquities, but I will spare you an hour if that will suffice."
I told him that I was sure it would, and I arranged to be at his house at 11 o'clock in the forenoon. In accordance with this appointment, I found myself closeted with him in his study, which was a wonderful place and contained, beside an enormously valuable library of books, a priceless collection of Egyptian antiquities.
"The business which has brought me here, Professor, is of a somewhat painful nature," I began, as agreeable to his request I settled myself in a large easy chair, and, as he happened to sit opposite to me with his face to the window and the morning light shining full upon him, I had the advantage of being able to study every working, every move of his countenance, and I attached much importance to that—for he who examines the changes of the human face with the eye of a student sees many signs and indications which escape the vulgar and merely superficial gaze.
"Indeed," he exclaimed, manifesting keen interest.
"Yes; and, as I said yesterday, it affects to some extent the happiness of a mutual friend."
"Who is the friend?"
"Sir Vincent Pickering," I answered.
"God bless my life, you don't say so. Now, pray tell me what it is, and how I can be of assistance."
"You are aware," I went on, "that our friend Sir Vincent possessed a unique relic in shape of a silver dagger, which tradition says had been worn by Tancred in the Holy Land."
"Of course I am aware of it. I thought it one of the most interesting things I had seen for a long time; and had Sir Vincent not told me it was a family heirloom which was greatly prized, I should, I believe, have tried to tempt him to sell it to me."
As the Professor said this, I watched him very narrowly, and I said to myself:
"If this man is deceiving me, then he is one of the most perfect actors in the world."
There was not the faintest sign in his face that he was speaking anything but the truth. But I had another card to play that would put him still more severely to the test, and still keeping my eyes fixed upon him, I said, somewhat abruptly—
"Well, Professor, that dagger has been stolen."
"Stolen!" he exclaimed, looking perfectly amazed.
"When and how?" he gasped.
"On the night of the party at Sir Vincent's house. How, has yet to be determined."
"You amaze me," he said, thoughtfully. "This is a serious matter, too, for such a thing has a price far beyond mere vulgar commercial calculations."
"Just so; but if the thief was not an antiquarian, then he was a sordid wretch who coolly calculated how many pounds it might be likely to fetch."
"But, great goodness! no one would surely steal such a thing for its mere value as old metal."
"I am afraid, Professor, there are plenty who would. Its loss, I need scarcely tell you, is very severely felt by Sir Vincent, and I am doing all I can to unravel the mystery, and, if possible, recover the relic."
"And I hope to heaven you will succeed," cried the Professor. "And, now, tell me, how can I help you?"
"I am informed by Sir Vincent," I answered, "that when you first examined the dagger you entertained the guests to an interesting discourse.
"Can you tell me who was present then?"
"Indeed, I cannot. I have been so long absent from the country that half the people here about are strangers to me."
"A little later in the evening, I am further informed, you were alone in the room, and intent on examining the relic when Sir Vincent came in."
"Yes," said the Professor, with some eagerness, "I was," and he fixed his keen eyes on me inquiringly, as if he had just realized what I was aiming at.
"Now, Professor," I continued, and I felt that this was a test question, and likely to call forth some signs of guilt if he were really the guilty party, "I am going to put a blunt question to you. Did you put the dagger back in the cabinet?"
"Beyond all question of doubt, sir," he answered, with a touch of indignation, for he could not fail to see that the question was a pointed one. Then suddenly, with a visible start, and an expression of deep concern, he exclaimed, "Good God! you don't mean to say that Sir Vincent suspects me of having stolen the dagger?"
"Let me answer that question, sir, thus: Supposing a man came into this room, even your dearest friend, and you found him a little later greatly interested in something or other that you prize very much. And suppose the following day you missed that very article that your friend seemed so unusually interested in, what would you think?"
"I see what you are driving at," gasped the Professor in very obvious distress. "I am suspected of being the thief in this case, and I confess that the peculiar circumstances favour that view. I was the last person known to have examined the dagger. After that it was missed. What is the logical deduction from that? It is that I took it. But now listen, sir. I put the dagger back into the cabinet. I closed the door and left the room, and never set my eyes upon the dagger again."
"While you were in the room did anyone else enter?"
"No; stay, now I remember, while I was looking at the dagger, Sir Vincent's valet came in. He seemed to me to be a little unsteady on his legs, as if he had been drinking. I was about to speak to him when he stammered out some apology, and left the room. When I myself went out I saw him standing on the landing."
"Did you speak to him then?"
"No; nor he to me."
I felt perfectly convinced now that, however justified by circumstances Sir Vincent's suspicions were, they were not justified by facts, for this worthy gentleman was no more the cause of the dagger being missing than I was. It may well be supposed how terribly distressed he was, and he said he would put off all his engagements for that day and go at once to see Sir Vincent. But against this course I strongly urged him, pledging my word that I would leave no stone unturned to unravel the mystery. And I advised him not to let the matter concern him, for his conscience was clear; and I also pointed out that Sir Vincent really could not avoid the conclusion he had come to.
This was very generously admitted by Professor Betterson, who said that an extraordinary concatenation of circumstances had placed him in an unfavourable light; and it was a proof of how little was required to blast the reputation of any man, for on vulgar tongues this scandal would become virulent poison. Stupid and ignorant people revelled in that sort of thing; and maligners who maligned out of pure spite, and repeated every bit of silly gossip they heard with a keen relish, would make so much out of a grain of irresponsible chatter that no reputation would be safe.
I freely admitted the force of this argument. It is, unfortunately, too true. Some folk seemed to take an absolutely fiendish delight in saying unkind things about other folk. I assured the Professor, however, that I did not think he had much to fear, and that I was perfectly certain that no one would regret unfounded suspicion more than Sir Vincent, who was a generous gentleman, full of noble impulses, and not in the least likely to do an intentional wrong to any one.
I left the Professor somewhat pacified, and proceeded straight back to the Castle, where Sir Vincent met me, being very anxious, naturally, to know what my opinion was now. So I said bluntly:
"You may take it from me, sir, that the Professor is as innocent as an unborn baby, and I beg that you will dismiss all suspicion from your mind as far as he is concerned."
"But who is the thief, then?"
"That I shall be able to tell you before long. Now, tell me; you have a valet in your employ?"
"You have discharged him then?"
"Yes. I discharged him the very day after the party for being intoxicated. I had threatened him on a previous occasion."
"What is his name?"
"Where did you get him from?"
"He came down from London, and was very strongly recommended to me."
"Well, sir, you may depend upon it that John Boardman is the thief."
"But how do you know?"
"Then, if that is so," replied Sir Vincent, sorrowfully, "I have done Professor Betterson a terrible wrong in suspecting him."
"You could not help that," I said. "Any man would have done the same. It is one of those peculiar cases in which a false light distorts our vision and produces a wrong view. Do you know where John Boardman is now?"
"I do not; but I think I can find out, for he has been courting and is engaged to one of our chambermaids. I will instruct my wife to make inquiries."
About a quarter of an hour later Sir Vincent returned to me with the information that Boardman had given his fiancée an address in Southampton; and he had pressed her to leave her situation and marry him immediately, and they would at once start for America; but this she had declined to do.
I at once set off for Southampton, and on going to the address I was informed that Boardman had left the day before for London, and intended to stay with a cousin, who was a groom in the West End. The next train carried me up to town, and I was soon on Boardman's track. His cousin lived over some stables in Perillimore Mews, and there I found Boardman. I at once made a bold shot. I took a policeman with me and arrested Boardman. He was a young fellow of about twenty-two, and when he found himself so unexpectedly trapped he was dumbfounded. And when I told him the charge I preferred against him all his presence of mind forsook him, and he confessed that he had taken the dagger. He had heard the Professor expatiating upon it, and a little later, when he saw the Professor alone in the room, he watched him, and when he saw him leave he went back and took the dagger out of the cabinet, and made himself obnoxious that night to his master in order that he might be summarily discharged.
He bitterly regretted now, for he felt that the dagger was a white elephant, and he was afraid to offer it for sale lest he should be detected. His intention was to have started for America, and endeavoured to have sold it there, if his sweetheart would have married him. But her refusal to do that had disconcerted him altogether. He had brought the relic up to London with him, and he handed it over to me, pleading to me piteously not to ruin his future life. Of course I had no other alternative then than to have him locked up, and I set off immediately for Southampton, and a few hours later had the supreme satisfaction of restoring the much-prized relic to Sir Vincent, who generously and nobly declined to prosecute the wretched youth who had stolen it. I was not sorry for this, for the lad had evidently been led away by an impulse, and was in ignorance of the magnitude of the crime he was committing. As up to that time he had borne an irreproachable character, and his people, though poor, were respectable, it would have been a pity to have turned him into a gaol-bird, and I felt sure that the terrible lesson he had received would have a salutary influence over his future career.
It is satisfactory to me to be able to record that Sir Vincent actually look the lad back again into his service, and he turned out a most faithful and devoted servant; and it is not less satisfactory that the friendship of two such distinguished men as Sir Vincent Pickering and Professor Betterson was not severed by the unpleasant little incident of the silver dagger.
IT was a bitter night in December, now years ago, that a young and handsome man called upon me in great distress, to seek my advice and assistance. It was the third day after Christmas, and having dined, and dined well, I had ensconced myself in my favourite easy chair, before a cheerful fire, and was engaged in the perusal of Charles Dickens's "Cricket on the Hearth," when my visitor was unceremoniously ushered into the room. He held his dripping hat in his hand, and the heavy top-coat he wore was white with snow, which was falling heavily outside. He was well-proportioned, of blonde complexion, and his face at once attracted me by its frank, open expression. He had clear, honest eyes, and a graceful moustache shaded a well-formed mouth.
"Pardon me for intruding upon you," he said, in a somewhat excited tone, as he placed his wet hat on the table and began to pull off his thick woollen gloves, "but, the fact is, I am in a frame of mind bordering upon distraction. Let me introduce myself, however. My name is Harold Welldom Kingsley; Welldom being an old family name. I am the son of the late Admiral Kingsley, who, as you may possibly be aware, distinguished himself greatly in the service of his Queen and country."
"Yes," I answered. "I knew your father by reputation, and I remember that when he died some years ago his remains were accorded a public funeral. I am pleased to make the acquaintance of the son of so distinguished a man. Pray remove your coat and be seated, and let me know in what way I can serve you."
"I am in the Admiralty office," my visitor continued, as he divested himself of his damp coat, and placing it on the back of a chair sat down. Thereupon I pushed the shaded lamp that stood on the table nearer to him, tilting the shade slightly so that the light might fall upon his face, for it is my habit always to study the face of the person with whom I am in conversation. "And I live with my mother and two sisters at Kensington. For three years I have been engaged to a young lady, who is, I may venture to say, the sweetest woman who ever drew the breath of life."
"Ah!" I murmured, with a smile, as I closely watched my visitor, and saw his face light up with enthusiasm as he thus referred to his fiancée, "it is the old story: love is blind and sees no faults until too late."
"In my case it is not so," he exclaimed, with a force of emphasis that carried conviction of his perfect sincerity and a belief in his own infallible judgment. "But we will not discuss that point," he continued. "The business that has brought me here is far too serious for time to be wasted in argument. The young lady who is pledged to me as my wife is, at present, under arrest on the serious charge of having stolen some very valuable jewellery from a well-known firm of jewellers."
"That is a grave charge, indeed," I remarked, with growing interest in my visitor; "but presumably there must have been good prima facie evidence to justify her arrest."
"Yes," Mr. Kingsley exclaimed, with an agonized expression, "that is the most terrible part of the whole affair. I am afraid that legally the evidence will go against her; and yet morally I will stake my very soul on her innocence."
"You speak somewhat paradoxically, Mr. Kingsley," I said, with a certain amount of professional sternness, for it seemed to me he was straining to twist facts to suit his own views.
"To you it will seem so," he answered; "but if you have the patience to listen to me I will tell you the whole story, and I think you will say I am right."
I intimated that I was quite prepared to listen to anything he had to say, and leaning back in my chair with the tips of my fingers together and my eyes half closed—an attitude I always unconsciously assume when engaged in trying to dissect some human puzzle—I waited for him to continue.
"The lady's name is Beryl Artois," he went on. "She was born in France. Her mother was an English lady highly connected; and her father was a Frenchman of independent means. They lived surrounded with every luxury in a small chateau, on the bank of the Seine, not far from St. Germain. Unhappily, Monsieur Artois was fatally fond of a life of ease and pleasure, and dying suddenly after a night of revel in Paris, at a bal masque, during the mi-carême, it was found that he had dissipated his fortune, and left his widow and child totally unprovided for. Even his chateau was mortgaged up to the hilt, and on his furniture was a bill of sale. Not wishing to be dependent on his relations, Madame Artois and her daughter came to London. Beryl at that time was only six years of age. She was a delicate girl, and needed all her mother's care and attention. For a few years Madame earned her living as a teacher of French, music and drawing, and every spare moment she had she devoted to the education and training of her daughter. Unhappily, before Beryl was twelve years of age her doting mother died, and a bachelor uncle, her mother's only brother, took Beryl under his care, and, as he was well off, he engaged a highly-qualified governess for her. I first became acquainted with her when she was eighteen years of age. That is now a little over six years ago; and though I have proved the soundness of the old adage which says that the course of true love never did run smooth, I have every reason to congratulate myself, for, as I have before hinted, Beryl is goodness itself."
"In what way has your wooing been ruffled?" I asked.
"Well, Mr. Tamworth, her uncle, refused for some time to countenance our engagement, and threw every obstacle in the way; and as Beryl was much under his influence, she struggled between what she considered her duty to her uncle and foster father, and love for me. The love has triumphed, and Mr. Tamworth has consented to our union on condition that we wait three years, and I obtain the promotion I hope to obtain in the Government service in that time."
"This is a very pretty, even a romantic, story," I remarked; "but it is as old as the hills, and yet, like all love stories, ever new. But now for the sequel. How comes it that this well- nurtured and well-cared-for young lady has fallen under the suspicion of being a thief?"
"Ah! that is where the mystery comes in," exclaimed Mr. Kingsley in great distress. "I ask you now, is it likely that Beryl, who has everything she requires—for her uncle is wealthy—and who would shudder at anything that by any possible means could be construed as wrong-doing, would descend to purloin jewellery from a jeweller's shop?"
I could not help smiling at what seemed to be the sweet simplicity of this love-stricken young man, nor could I refrain from saying:
"In answer to your question, Mr. Kingsley, permit me to say that the annals of crime contain many such cases. Unhappily, neither education nor moral training is sufficient safeguard against transgression, where the tendency to wrong-doing exists. In the case in point it is very possible that the lady's vanity and love of display have tempted her to her fall."
"For Heaven's sake, Mr. Donovan, don't drive me mad," cried my visitor, with an outburst of passionate distress that begot my fullest sympathy. If all the angels in Heaven were to come down and proclaim Beryl's guilt, I would still believe her innocent.
"May I venture to remark," I answered, "that in all probability this sentiment does more credit to your heart than your head?"
"I tell you, sir," exclaimed Kingsley, almost fiercely, "that Beryl Artois is as innocent as you are!"
"Well, now, Mr. Kingsley," I observed, "as we have had the sentimental and poetical side of the affair, let us go into the more vulgar and prosaic part of the business. Therefore please give me a plain, straightforward answer to the questions I shall put to you. First, where does Mr. Tamworth reside?"
"He resides at Linden House, Thames Ditton."
"You say he is well off?"
"Yes. He keeps numerous servants, rides to hounds, drives his carriage, and is very highly respected."
"Has he always been kind to his niece?"
"In every possible way, I believe."
"And has supplied her with all she has wanted?"
"Yes. I do not think any reasonable request of hers has ever been refused."
"And now, as regards the charge she has to meet. Give me full particulars of that."
"It appears that the day before yesterday she came up to town in the brougham, and drove to Whitney, Blake, and Montague, the well-known jewellers of Regent Street. There she stated that she wished to purchase a diamond bracelet for a New Year's gift, and some costly things were shown to her. But after more than an hour spent in the shop she could not make up her mind, for though she saw what she wanted, the price was higher than she cared to go to; and, before committing herself to the purchase of the article, she was anxious to consult her uncle, since she is necessarily dependent upon him for her pocket money. Consequently, she told the assistant in the shop that she would call again the next day and decide. She thereupon took her departure, and entered the brougham, but had not proceeded very far before the assistant tore down the street, accompanied by a policeman, overtook the brougham, which had been brought to a standstill owing to the congested traffic, and accused Miss Artois of having purloined a diamond pendant worth nearly a thousand pounds. Of course, she most indignantly denied it. But the shopman insisted on giving her in charge."
"And was the pendant found either in the brougham or on her person?"
"Oh, dear, no. Miss Artois begged that the policeman and the shopman would get into the brougham, and that they should drive straight to Scotland Yard. This was done; and though the young lady and the brougham were alike searched, the pendant was not forthcoming. Nevertheless, the shopman persisted in his accusation, and so there was no alternative but to place Miss Artois under arrest."
"This is a very remarkable story," I answered, "and may prove a very serious business indeed for the firm of jewellers if they cannot justify their charge."
"They will never be able to do that," said Kingsley, warmly, "and you may depend upon it, they will have to pay dearly for their error. They maintain, however, that they have certainly lost the jewel; that no one else could possibly have taken it except Miss Artois; and that she must have managed to secrete it in some way. The whole charge, however, is preposterous, and I wish you to thoroughly prove the young lady's innocence in order that an action may be commenced against Whitney, Blake, and Montague."
Promising my visitor that I would do my utmost in his interests, he took his departure, and then, lighting a cigar, I fell to pondering on this—as I had to admit to myself—very remarkable case, assuming that all the facts were as stated by Mr. Kingsley.
It was too late to take any steps that night, but immediately after breakfast the following morning I jumped into a hansom and drove to Whitney, Blake, and Montague's place. As everyone knows, they are a firm of world-wide renown, and I could not imagine them committing such a grave error as to accuse a lady of theft, unless they had very strong reason for believing they were right. I requested an interview with Mr. Whitney, and his version of the affair was substantially the same as that told to me by Mr. Kingsley.
"Of course," added Mr. Whitney, "we rely entirely upon the statement of our manager, Mr. John Coleman, who attended to the lady. Mr. Coleman, I may inform you, has been with the firm since he was seventeen years of age, and he is now over fifty. And as he is a partner in the firm, our faith in him is justified. However, you shall see Coleman and judge for yourself."
Mr. Whitney sounded his bell and requested that Mr. Coleman would come to the room. In a few minutes Coleman entered. He at once struck me as being a very shrewd, keen-eyed man of business. And without any unnecessary verbiage he gave me his account of the affair; according to which he devoted special attention to the young lady, as he thought she was going to be a good customer. There were other customers in the shop at the time, but he conducted her to one end of the counter where there was no one else. She caused him a good deal of trouble, and looked at a large number of things, but did not seem to know her own mind; and at last went away without purchasing anything.
For some few moments just before she left, his attention was drawn off by one of the assistants coming to him to ask a question, and during that time he had little doubt she availed herself of the opportunity to abstract the pendant from the jewel tray upon which he had displayed the things for her inspection.
On her deciding not to purchase then, he placed the tray temporarily in the glass case on the counter, locked the case, putting the key in his pocket, and then conducted Miss Artois to her brougham. He was certainly not absent more than five minutes. By that time there were very few people in the shop, and he proceeded immediately to the case, took out the tray and began to sort the jewels preparatory to restoring them to their respective positions amongst the stock. It was then he missed the pendant which Miss Artois had examined with eager interest, and had asked him many questions about the quality of the stones, their intrinsic value, and their setting. The pendant had originally been made to the order of a lady of title from specially selected stones; but she died before the order was completed, and her executors declined to take the pendant, and, therefore, in order to dispose of it quickly, the firm had offered it for sale at the low price of one thousand pounds.
As soon as he discovered the loss Mr. Coleman ran out of the shop and down the street, and passing a policeman on the way, he demanded his services. As it was the busiest part of the day there was a great deal of traffic, and Miss Artois' brougham had been unable to proceed very far. So convinced was he in his own mind that she was guilty, that, though he was fully alive to the risks he ran if he made a mistake, he did not hesitate to give her into custody, and he was quite prepared to stand or fall by his act.
Although I subjected Mr. Coleman to a very close questioning, I could not shake his evidence in any way. I pointed out to him that there was one serious fact in connection with the case, and that was, he had failed to find the pendant either in the brougham or on Miss Artois' person; and that, however morally certain he might be that the young lady was guilty, no magistrate would convict her on such evidence.
"I am aware of that," answered Mr. Coleman, "but I have employed Detective Spieglemann, of Scotland Yard, to make some inquiries about the lady, and he informs me that, on various occasions when she has visited the shops of well-known tradesmen, goods have afterwards been missed. The victims have almost invariably been jewellers, and the property purloined has generally been of great value."
"If that is correct there is prima facie evidence," I answered; "but still, suspicion is not proof, and unless you have something better to offer, I have no hesitation in saying you will fail to secure a conviction."
Mr. Coleman appeared, for the first time, to be a little disconcerted, and I fancied that I detected signs in his face that he felt he had been somewhat hasty. Nevertheless, he reasserted his belief that the young lady was guilty, though he was utterly unable to suggest what had become of the stolen pendant. Female searchers had subjected Miss Artois to the most rigorous examination, and every nook and cranny of the brougham had been searched.
"May I ask, Mr. Coleman, if Spieglemann was present when the search was made?" I inquired pointedly.
"Oh, yes," exclaimed Coleman. "He happened to be in the Yard at the time, and conducted the search."
"Indeed. And did he think of searching the coachman who drove the brougham?"
As I asked this question, a pallor of alarm spread itself over Coleman's face, and he and Mr. Whitney looked at each other, as each saw, for the first time, that a grave oversight had been committed.
Detective Spieglemann was a German, who had long been attached to the force of Scotland Yard. But though he bore the reputation of being almost preternaturally acute, I had never been able to regard him in any other light than as a very ordinary person, whose German stolidity prevented him from getting out of well- worn grooves.
Of course this expression of opinion will be denounced as mere professional jealousy, but I shall be able to justify my view by hard and indisputable facts.
I have always maintained that the unravelling of anything like a mystery is capable of being elevated to the position of a fine art. Spieglemann, on the other hand, asserted that the whole process was merely a mechanical one, and that only a mechanical mind could succeed. On these points we totally differed, and as I had frequently had the good-fortune to be successful where my rival had failed, I was entitled to claim that my process was the correct one. Mr. Coleman's answer was another item of evidence in my favour. He confessed with unmistakable concern that the coachman had not been searched, and that nobody had suggested that he should be. In fact, no suspicion had fallen upon him. I really could not resist something like a smile as I remarked:
"That was really a most extraordinary oversight, and may prove very serious for you. For, assuming that you are right, and that Spieglemann is right in his statement that the lady lies under suspicion of having been concerned in other cases of a similar kind, is it not highly probable that the coachman has been in collusion with her, and she passed the stolen property to him? If this is not so, how did she get rid of the pendant? Nothing is truer than that in criminal cases it is the seemingly improbable that is most probable.
"Certainly, on the face of it nothing could seem more improbable than that a young lady, well connected and well off, afflicted with kleptomania, should make a confidant of her coachman. Yet it is the most probable thing imaginable, but both you and Spieglemann have overlooked it."
Mr. Coleman was perfectly crestfallen, and freely admitted that a very grave oversight had been committed. Thanking him and Mr. Whitney I withdrew, and it was perfectly clear to me that I left the two gentlemen in a very different frame of mind to what they had been in when I first saw them.
In passing all the facts, as I now knew them, under review, I could not deny that circumstances looked dark against Miss Artois; and aside the possibility that somebody else might have stolen the pendant, I admitted the strong probability that she was in reality the thief. That being so, the idea struck me—and it evidently had not struck anyone else, not even the renowned Spieglemann—that she was a confederate, more likely than not a victim, of the coachman. On this supposition I determined to act, and my next step was to seek an interview with Miss Artois, in order that I might form some opinion of her from personal knowledge. I obtained this interview through the solicitors who had been engaged on her behalf by her devoted lover, Harold Kingsley. Although prepared to find her good looking, I certainly was not prepared for the type of beauty she represented.
I don't think I ever looked upon a more perfect, a sweeter, and I will go so far as to say a more angelic face than she possessed, while her form and mould were such that an artist would have gone into raptures about her. I was informed that she had undergone a preliminary examination before the police magistrate, who had remanded her without bail, although bail had been offered to an unlimited amount by her uncle; but the magistrate had stated that he would consider the question of bail the next time she came before him. As I entered the little cell she occupied at the police station, and introduced myself, giving her to understand at the same time that I was there by request of Mr. Kingsley, she rose from the table at which she had been sitting engaged in the perusal of a book, which I subsequently discovered to be a well-thumbed, dilapidated, and somewhat dirty copy of Moore's Lallah Rookh; and bowing with exquisite grace she said in a low, musical, and touchingly pathetic voice:
"It is good of you to come, and more than kind of Mr. Kingsley to send you; but I am sorry that you have come, and I wish that you would leave me without another word."
Her soft, gazelle-like eyes, although apparently bent upon me, had a far-away look in them; and she spoke as a person in a trance might speak. Altogether there was something about her that at once aroused my curiosity and interest.
"That is a somewhat strange wish, Miss Artois," I answered. "I am here in your interest; and surely you cannot be indifferent to the grave charge that is hanging over you."
"I am not indifferent," she murmured, with a deep sigh.
"Then let me urge you to confide in your solicitors," I said, "and withhold nothing from them that may enable them to prepare your defence."
"I shall confide in no one," she replied in the same indifferent, same sweetly pathetic tone.
"But think of the consequences," I urged.
"I have thought of everything."
"Remember also, Miss Artois, your silence and refusal to give information will be tantamount to a tacit confession of guilt."
For a moment her dreamy eyes seemed to lose their dreaminess and to be expressive of an infinite pain, as she answered with quite a fiery energy:
"I am not guilty!" She laid peculiar emphasis on the word "not."
"Then," said I, quickly, "do all you possibly can to prove your guiltlessness"—and in order that there should be no ambiguity in my meaning, I added—"if you are the victim of anyone, for Heaven's sake let it be known. For the sake of your lover conceal not the truth."
"For the sake of my lover and the love I bear him I will die," she murmured, with the dreaminess which seemed peculiar to her.
"Then withhold nothing from your solicitors," I repeated.
"Go!" she said, peremptorily, as she sank into her seat again, and resumed her reading.
"Have you no message to send to Mr. Kingsley?" I asked.
"Go!" she repeated, without looking at me.
"Let me take some comforting word from you to Mr. Kingsley," I entreated.
She made no reply, but apparently was deeply absorbed in the book. Feeling that it would be useless to remain any longer, I withdrew, and as I did so she did not even look up from the book, nor did she make any response when I bade her adieu.
I had promised to call upon Mr. Kingsley and acquaint him with the result of my interview with Miss Artois; and I carried out this promise with a sense of distress that I could hardly describe, because I was quite unable to give him the assurance he so much wanted that his fiancée was guiltless. Guiltless she was, in one sense, I was sure; but I was conscious of the fact that I was confronted with as complicated a human problem as I had ever been called upon to find a solution of.
I put the best face I could on matters while talking to young Kingsley; and on leaving him I felt convinced that my first surmise with reference to the coachman being a party to the robbery was a correct one. I had not been slow to determine that Miss Artois' temperament was one of those deeply sympathetic and poetic ones which are peculiarly subject to the influence of stronger wills.
In short, I came to the conclusion that the coachman was the really guilty person, and Miss Artois was his victim. He—in my opinion—had exercised some strange mesmeric influence over her, and she had been entirely under his sway. I was confirmed in this view when I learnt that the great Spieglemann had gathered up a mass of circumstantial evidence, which tended to prove that Miss Artois had been in the habit for a long time of visiting some of the leading tradesmen in all quarters of London, and that these tradesmen had been robbed of property which in the aggregate represented many thousands of pounds.
It was altogether a peculiar case, as it presented two startling phases of human nature; and if Miss Artois had sinned, she had sinned not because her inclinations tended that way, but because her non-resisting sympathetic nature had been made an instrument for the profit and gain of a debased and wicked man who did not scruple to use this beautiful girl as a means to an end.
My next step was to hurry off to the Linden House at Thames Ditton, in order that I might get full particulars from Mr. Tamworth of his coachman, before having the man arrested. The Linden House was a large house, standing in its own grounds, and everything about the place was suggestive of wealth and comfort. I was ushered into an elegantly furnished drawing-room, and a little, podgy, bald-headed man, wearing gold eye-glasses, and dressed in a large patterned dressing-gown and Turkish slippers, entered, and eyed me with a pair of strangely keen and hawk-like eyes. It was Mr. Tamworth, Mr. Tamworth, and in many respects he was a striking and remarkable man, for his face was strongly marked, his eyes of unusual, almost unnatural brilliancy, the mouth firm, the square jaw indicative of an iron will. He was perfectly clean shaved, so that every feature, every line and angle were thrown into stronger prominence.
I had not sent my name up to him, but simply an urgent message that a gentleman wished to see him on very pressing and important business.
"Whom have I the pleasure to address?" he inquired as he bowed stiffly.
"My name is Dick Donovan," I answered. "I am—"
He interrupted me by exclaiming:
"Oh, yes, I have heard of you. You are a detective." I bowed. "Presumably," he continued, "you have come here in connection with the case of my dear niece?" He seemed to be overcome by emotion, and turning towards the window he applied a large bandana handkerchief to his eyes.
"I am not indifferent to the fact," I answered, "that the subject is necessarily a delicate and painful one. But from an interview I had with your niece I am forced to the conclusion that she is only guilty in degree."
"How do you mean?" he asked, turning quickly towards me, with an expression of mental suffering on his face.
"I mean that she is a victim to the machinations of a villain."
"A victim," he echoed, hoarsely, "A victim to whom?"
"To your coachman."
He almost reeled at this announcement, and passed his hand over his bald head in a confused, distressed way; and then, with something like a wail he exclaimed:
"My God, this is an awful revelation."
He rushed towards the bell and was about to ring it when I stopped him by saying:
"What are you going to do?"
"Send for Tupper, the coachman."
"Wait a bit," I said, "I should like to have some particulars of Tupper. What is his Christian name?"
"Has he been with you long?"
"Just twelve months, I think."
"Have you ever had occasion to suspect his honesty?"
"Never for a single instant."
"Is he married?"
"I cannot tell you. I absolutely know nothing about his family affairs."
"Well, now, I have a suggestion to make, Mr. Tamworth. I should like you to send for Tupper, and question him closely about what happened on the day that the pendant was stolen. And particularly I would like you to put this question to him, after you have skilfully led up to it: 'Is it possible, Tupper, that my unhappy and misguided niece handed you the pendant, and you know what has become of it?'"
"I will do so," answered Mr. Tamworth, as he went towards the bell.
"Stop a minute, sir," I said. "There is one other important point. It is desirable that Tupper should not see me. Can you conceal me behind that screen in the corner, and in such a position that I can see without being seen? And you must not forget to place Tupper in such a way that I can get a full view of his face."
"I don't think there will be any difficulty in that," Mr. Tamworth answered, and he requested me to follow him behind the screen. I did so, and taking out his penknife he bored a hole in one leaf of the screen, so that anyone looking through the hole commanded a full view of the room.
"There," he said, "I think that will answer your purpose. And now we will have the old villain here."
He rang the bell, and a very respectable-looking man-servant appeared.
"Robert," said Mr. Tamworth, peremptorily, "send the coachman here."
"Tupper's away, sir."
"Yes. He went out last night and didn't come back."
"Where has he gone to?" roared Mr. Tamworth, in his excitement.
"I haven't the remotest idea, sir," answered Robert.
"The double-dyed villain," hissed Mr. Tamworth between his clenched teeth. "The double-dyed villain," he repeated. "But, by Heaven, he shall be brought back, even if it takes all my fortune to effect his capture. That will do, Robert. You may go."
As the man took his departure and closed the door, I stepped from behind the screen. Mr. Tamworth seemed terribly distressed.
"This is an awful bit of business," he exclaimed; you see the arch villain has anticipated this discovery and bolted. "What is to be done now?"
"We must arrest him in his flight," was my answer. "And to facilitate that you must furnish me with a full description of him."
"Unless the rascal has removed it," said Mr. Tamworth, "his likeness hangs over the mantelpiece, in his room above the stable. I will go and get it. You will excuse me."
He hurried from the room, and was absent nearly a quarter of an hour. Then he returned bearing a framed photograph in his hand. It was the likeness of a short, thick-set man in coachman's garb. He had grey whiskers and moustache, and grey hair; and rather a scowling expression of face. I asked Mr. Tamworth if it was a good likeness of John Tupper, and he assured me it was a most excellent likeness.
Promising Mr. Tamworth to do all I could to effect Tupper's arrest, I left Linden House, taking the photograph with me. As soon as I got back to London I hailed a hansom and drove to Whitney, Blake, and Montague's.
"My surmise about the coachman is correct," I said, as I showed them the likeness, and told them that the man had fled. They acknowledged that the likeness was a very striking one, and as I intended to have it reproduced and sent broadcast all over the country, I was hopeful that I should be able to speedily bring about Tupper's arrest.
I lost no time in putting the photo in hand for reproduction, and in the meantime Miss Artois was again brought up before the magistrate, and in view of the facts the solicitors were able to lay before him with reference to Tupper's flight, he no longer hesitated to admit the young lady to bail, her uncle being accepted for two thousand pounds. Two days after her release, young Kingsley called upon me again. He was terribly agitated, and throwing himself into a chair he rocked himself to and fro, and groaned with the anguish that tortured him. When he had somewhat calmed down, he exclaimed in a voice that was broken up with the passion of his grief:
"Mr. Donovan, help me with your advice, or I think I shall go mad. And, above all, do not betray the confidence I am going to repose in you." I assured him that he might trust me, and he proceeded.
"Miss Artois came to me yesterday, and acknowledged that she was an unconscious victim in this terrible business, and said that I must give her up. In spite of my entreaties, my prayers, my tears, she most resolutely declined to tell me whose victim she was, and with a great shudder she said her lips were sealed with a seal she dare not break. I urged her to fly with me. I told her we would be married at once, and seek some corner of the earth where she would be safe, and her answer was that nowhere in the world would she be safe except in the grave."
"You did wrong in urging her to fly," I answered.
"I care not. Wrong or no wrong, I will take her," he cried, passionately. "I tell you, Mr. Donovan, that there is some hideous mystery about this affair, and I will move heaven and earth to save Miss Artois from the machination that is destroying her body and soul."
"Your devotion, your chivalry do you infinite credit," I replied. "Miss Artois shall be saved if it is possible to save her, but, believe me, she cannot be saved by flight. She must remain here subject to the law. To defy the law will be a fatal mistake."
Although he did not seem to be quite convinced of the soundness of my advice, he promised to be entirely guided by me, and in a little while he took his departure, and then I sat down to reflect and ponder, and endeavour to unravel the threads of this tangled skein. One thing I resolved on was to go down to Thames Ditton early on the morrow, and have an interview with Miss Artois in the presence of her uncle. In a little while my servant entered the room and handed me a postal packet, which, on opening, I found was from the lithographers who were reproducing the photograph. It contained the original and a note to say that the reproductions would be ready for distribution the first thing in the morning.
Placing the photo of Tupper on the table, I lit my pipe, and once more throwing myself in my favourite easy chair, I tried by the aid of smoke to solve the mystery surrounding Miss Artois. Presently I found myself almost unconsciously gazing on the photo that lay on the table, in the full rays of the shaded lamp. Suddenly that face presented itself to me as one I had seen before; and I beat my brains, so to speak, to try and think where and when. "Whose face is it? Where have I seen it?" This was the question that, mentally, I repeated over and over again.
After much cogitation, I threw away the stump of my cigar, went to my desk, and taking out a powerful magnifying glass, I returned to the table, and examined the likeness of John Tupper by means of the glass, until, suddenly, like an inspiration, it flashed upon me where and when I had seen the face. It is not often I get excited, but I think I did on that occasion, for I felt certain that I had got hold of a clue to the mystery. I did not sleep much that night, and was up betimes in the morning, and hastened to call upon Mr. Kingsley, to assure him that I believed I was in a fair way to solve the mystery, and I hoped all would be well with Miss Artois.
A week later, on as dark and stormy a night in January as had been known during that winter, I was in an upper room in an old, untenanted house in the Borough. The owner of the house was Mr. Tamworth, of Thames Ditton. Stretched at full length on the dusty floor, with my eye glued to a hole that enabled me to command a view of the room beneath, I was witness of one of the most remarkable and dramatic scenes I had ever looked upon. Thirteen men were in the room, seated at a long deal table. Six sat on one side, six on the other. The thirteenth sat at the head, and was evidently the president. Every man's face was concealed by a hood that entirely covered up the head, two holes being pierced for the eyes. Before the president was a china bowl, and laid across the bowl was a naked dagger.
A small lamp was suspended from the ceiling and threw a feeble light over the scene. In a few minutes one of the men arose and placed a bull's-eye lantern on a shelf in a corner of the room, and in such a position that its rays fell full upon the doorway. That done the president rapped on the table with a wooden mallet. Then the door opened and three men appeared. Two were hooded like the rest. The third was not hooded, and was placed at the end of the table opposite the president, and so that the light of the bull's-eye fell full upon his face. It was a cruel, cunning, almost fierce face. The man was without coat or waistcoat, and his shirt was opened and turned down, exposing his breast, while round his neck was a rope with the free end hanging behind. In a few minutes the president rose, and addressing the bareheaded man, said:
"Your name is Henry Beechworth?"
"Are you willing, Henry Beechworth, to join the Black Brotherhood?"
"And you are willing to take the oath that will bind you to us?"
"Then listen, and I will read the oath to you."
Here the president unrolled a little scroll of paper he had held in his hand, and read out as follows:
"I, Henry Beechworth, hereby of my own free will join the Black Brotherhood, and I vow solemnly by heaven and earth to be true to them, and never utter a single word or give a sign that would be likely to betray any individual of the Brotherhood, or the Brotherhood collectively. And that at any time, should I be arrested, I will give no information against the Brothers, even though my life is at stake. Everything I obtain I will add to the common treasury, and I will at all times be subject to the ruling of the president, whoever he may be. These things I swear to do; and should at any time I break my oath, I hope that I shall go blind. I am aware that the rope I now have round my neck is a symbol that in the event of my betraying the Brotherhood their vengeance will pursue me to the ends of the earth, and that my life will be forfeited."
"You have heard what I have read?" asked the president.
"I have," answered Beechworth.
"And you will subscribe your name to it?"
Here the president made a sign, and one of the two hooded men at the head of the table approached, and receiving the bowl and the dagger, he returned to the novitiate, who, instructed by the president, bent forward. Then the man took up the dagger and with its sharp point made a wound in the fleshy part of the novitiate's breast. Beechworth then bent right over the bowl, so that the blood dropped into it. And when a little had thus been caught, a new quill pen was dipped into it, and handed to Beechworth, who thereupon wrote his name with his own blood on the scroll. This senseless ceremony ended, the wound in the man's breast was sponged, a piece of plaster placed upon it, and he was told that he was now one of the Black Brotherhood, and that his interests were bound up with theirs, and that he must stand or fall with them.
"It only remains now for me to give you the sign," the president added, "by which you may always know a Brother. It is changed every month. For the current month it is the index finger of the left hand placed in the palm of the right hand, thus." Here he gave a practical illustration of how it was to be done. "Then we have a pass-word, also changed every month. The one in use at present is 'Creasus.' We meet here again in three weeks' time, when you will be expected to contribute to the common fund value or money to the extent of a hundred pounds."
The business being ended, all the members of this precious Brotherhood removed their hoods, and the hand of the new member was shaken by the others. Amongst them I recognized the fellow called Robert, who had acted the part of the servant at Linden House when I went there. In a little while the lights were extinguished and the Brotherhood commenced to leave the house, and as they reached the street, to their utter amazement and consternation they were arrested, for the house was surrounded by a cordon of policemen.
It will, of course, be asked how it was I managed to unearth the secrets of the strange society, whose members were banded together with the sole object of enriching themselves by plundering their fellowmen. The question is easily answered. On the night when it dawned upon me that I had seen the face represented by the photograph of John Tupper somewhere before, I was enabled to detect by aid of the magnifying glass that the whiskers were not natural. There were two or three places where the hair did not adhere to the face. I came to the conclusion at once that Tupper was none other than Tamworth, disguised by false whiskers and moustache, and a wig. The dark piercing eyes, too, I was perfectly convinced were Tamworth's eyes. It was naturally a very startling discovery, and I immediately took steps to prove it right or wrong. For several days I shadowed Mr. Tamworth, and at last followed him to the old house in the Borough.
Later on I obtained entrance to the house by means of a false key. In a drawer in a table I found a written circular summoning a meeting for a certain night; and I resolved not only to witness that meeting, but as there could not be a shadow of a doubt that the Black Brotherhood, as they chose to call themselves, met for an unlawful purpose, I took means to have every man Jack of them arrested.
At first, when the news leaked out, people were inclined to think that the Brotherhood was a hoax, but the revelations that were gradually made of their doings caused intense excitement throughout the country. Not only were they bound together by oath, which each man signed with his blood, but they had a formal set of rules and regulations for their guidance. Tamworth was the president, and he, with two others, took charge of all the things that were stolen.
Periodically this property was conveyed to the Continent by some of the members, and there disposed of; the proceeds of the sales being equally divided. In the event of a man being arrested the Brotherhood secretly provided funds for his defence; and if it was a bailable case the bail was always forthcoming, but the accused invariably disappeared unless he felt pretty sure he would only get a light sentence.
The Brotherhood owed its origin and success entirely to the arch villain Tamworth, who had, by some strange mesmeric influence he possessed, been enabled to obtain entire control over the will of his unfortunate niece, Beryl Artois. In order to keep up this influence, he drove his own brougham disguised as a coachman, and whatever she obtained she handed to him immediately and he concealed it. Of course, nothing bulky was ever taken on such occasions. The plunder was either precious stones or jewellery.
In spite of their oath, three of the gang turned Queen's evidence and the conviction of the rest was secured. Tamworth, as the ringleader, was sentenced for life, and the others were dealt with only a little less severely. Tamworth was one of the most accomplished and consummate villains I ever had to deal with; while his power of acting a part, and of concealing his true feelings, was simply marvellous, and would have enabled him to have made a fortune if he had gone upon the stage.
In the face of the exposure I was thus enabled to make, and which left not the slightest doubt that poor Miss Artois had been an unconscious victim of the strange power possessed by her uncle, she was, after being committed for trial and duly tried, acquitted, and her faithful lover, Kingsley, lost no time in making her his wife. And as great sympathy was shown for him and her, a position was found for him abroad, whither he removed with his beautiful bride until time should have wiped the scandal out of the public memory.
ONE morning, as I was sipping my coffee and glancing over the Times, I noticed in the advertising columns of that paper the following advertisement:
TO CAPITALISTS.—A Gentleman or Lady with a few Thousand Pounds at command may hear of a splendid opening to join a Gentleman, well known as a clever Inventor, to work a patent article and place it on the market. This article is of such marvellous, practical utility that when once known it will spring into universal demand. It is confidently calculated that a large fortune can be rapidly secured by an outlay of a few thousand pounds. This is really a chance of a lifetime, and should not be missed. Only principals or their solicitors treated with. Apply in the first instance to "Inventor," care of Jubal Halliday, Esq., Solicitor, Gray's Inn, London.
I read this advertisement with very unusual interest. It was artfully worded and well calculated to catch flats. I was perfectly aware that similar advertisements appeared almost daily in all the big newspapers, for as long as there are fools in the world there will be sharpers, and, as the notorious claimant to the Tichborne estates used to say, "Some men has brains and no money, and some has money and no brains, and them as has money and no brains should support them as has brains and no money."
The Claimant was not the first man to lay down this dictum. In principle it may be said to have been acted upon ever since men peopled the earth. It would almost seem, indeed, to be the working out of Nature's inscrutable law that the strong should prey upon the weak.
In the present instance, however, the somewhat unusual name of Jubal Halliday caused me to take special notice of the advertisement issued with the obvious sanction of that gentleman, with whom I was not altogether unacquainted, and my knowledge of him was not such as to beget my confidence.
This necessitates some explanation. Six or seven years before that morning there had been certain revelations made in connection with a society known as "The Hearts and Hands Building Society."
It was proved to be little better than a bogus company, organized and run by a set of clever rascals on purpose to fleece working men and women of their hard-won earnings. Several of these rascals were brought to book and punished, but one escaped by the skin of his teeth. That one was Jubal Halliday, who for a long time had acted as solicitor to the Society; therefore it was impossible that he could have been in ignorance of what his colleagues were doing. The reason, however, that he got clear was this:—A few months before the smash he resigned his post, and when the swindle was brought to light he stated that the reason he resigned was that he was by no means satisfied with the way things were being worked.
I was engaged in that case to get up evidence against the accused, and in pursuing my inquiries I learned enough of Jubal Halliday, Esquire, solicitor, to convince me that he was not the high-minded and honourable gentleman he represented himself to be. In fact, I had no hesitation in mentally denouncing him as great a swindler as the less fortunate rascals who were then arraigned at the bar of justice. But I could only do this mentally, for the reason that it was almost impossible to get such evidence as would have been required to legally convict him. He was long-headed and clever, and had so played his cards that he had not given himself away. His real reason for severing his connection with the Society was a quarrel he had with the managing director, and there could be little doubt that the quarrel arose about the division of some spoil. It will thus be seen that morally Jubal Halliday was as bad as the rest, but being a sharp lawyer he had managed to keep himself clear of entanglement, and so he escaped, but with his reputation besmirched somewhat in the estimation of the public.
Of course the Incorporated Law Society ought to have taken the matter up, but of course the Incorporated Law Society didn't. It never does, except in very glaring cases which it cannot possibly shirk. In fact, if all the rogues and knaves were to be weeded out from the ranks of the "most honourable legal profession" the Society would be for ever striking solicitors off the roll, and in a short time there would be few lawyers left. That is a result that the world generally might devoutly pray for, but it wouldn't suit the legal sharks, whose ravenous appetites must by some means or other be satisfied.
From what I have stated it will now be understood why my attention was directed so forcibly to that advertisement in the Times. After the investigations into the doings of "The Hearts and Hands Building Society" were closed Mr. Halliday disappeared from my ken, and during the intervening years I had heard nothing whatever about him. I need scarcely perhaps say that as soon as I read the advertisement I felt pretty sure there was something fishy about the concern. Firstly, Halliday's name being there was sufficient in my mind to stamp it as doubtful. Then again, if the wonderful invention was really such a good thing as represented "Inventor" might have got the money he required within twenty-four hours, without going to the expense of advertising in the papers.
In order to put my surmises to the test, and prove myself right or wrong, I resolved to communicate with "Inventor", and lay a trap for him if possible; and to carry out this scheme effectually I called upon the Hon. George Panton, with whom I was well acquainted; and as he was very well known, and reputed to have a large fortune, I felt sure he would prove invaluable if he would lend me his aid. He was a young man, who took a great interest in art; and, as an art patron, he was constantly figuring before the public.
I showed Mr. Panton the advertisement; discussed the matter with him: told him what I knew about Halliday, and asked him to help me in the little scheme I proposed, for if "Inventor" contemplated a fraud I was quite justified in taking steps to protect people from falling into the trap set for them by the artfully-worded advertisement. Mr. Panton at once expressed himself perfectly willing to aid me, and the following day he sent the following note from his address in Bruton Street, Belgravia.
Noting your advertisement in the Times, I shall be much obliged if you will furnish me with full particulars of the invention alluded to, as I am quite prepared to find the money required if I am assured that there is a reasonable prospect of the speculation proving a profitable one. Waiting the favour of your immediate answer.
To "Inventor," care of Jubal Halliday, Esq.,
Solicitor, Gray's Inn.
A week passed without bringing a reply, and I began to think that my little plot had miscarried, but on the ninth day Mr. Panton received this letter:
To the Hon. George Panton.
In answer to your favour the advertiser would be glad to see you here, when he will have much pleasure in furnishing you with the fullest particulars with reference to his invention.
Your obedient servant,
On receipt of this Mr. Panton at once telegraphed to me, and I drove out in a cab to his house. We discussed the matter, and I advised him to call on Halliday without delay. So he wrote at once and made an appointment for the following afternoon, and that same evening he called on me and gave me the annexed report.
He saw Mr. Halliday and had a long interview with him, in the absence of one John Sturrock, the inventor, who was compelled to be in Scotland on business. Halliday, however, in his absence, was instructed to furnish all particulars, and make any provisional arrangement. According to the lawyer, Sturrock was an engineer who was a genius in inventing, and many of his inventions had produced large sums of money. Like most geniuses, he seemed to be indifferent to riches; and, in fact, in all his commercial transactions there was a delightful, child-like simplicity, and he had not only been badly treated, but remained a comparatively poor man when he ought to have been a rich one.
The invention which he was now desirous of placing on the market was a domestic oven, so perfect in its construction, so complete in its arrangements, so ingenious in its principles, and withal so economical that housekeepers all over the kingdom would hasten to possess themselves of one of the marvellous ovens, which would cook anything to a turn, from a leg of mutton to a red herring, with little more than a handful of fuel. You had only to put what you desired to be cooked into the oven, and after that you need not concern yourself; the oven did all the rest. It could be fixed by the outlay of a few shillings to any grate, and each oven could be manufactured to be sold at seven and sixpence retail, and leave a handsome profit at that.
Such were the glowing particulars which Mr. Halliday was condescending enough to place before the Hon. George Panton, who, acting his part well, pretended to be very much struck, and inquired what amount would be required from him in order that he might obtain a share in the patent rights of this valuable article, and the lawyer said that a fair half-share could be had for the very modest sum of ten thousand pounds, and for this outlay it was confidently anticipated that in the course of two or three years cent per cent. would be returned. In fact, that was the minimum calculated, as there was no desire to take any exaggerated view of the matter. But, according to the lawyer, a very handsome fortune awaited anyone who would plank down the trifling ten thousand pounds required.
The Hon. George Panton ventured to hint that ten thousand was, after all, rather a considerable sum to risk on an untried thing; whereupon Halliday waxed eloquent, and descanted on the merits of the invention and the magnificent returns that were assured.
"But do you think the oven will sell?" timidly queried the Hon. George Panton.
"Sell!" exclaimed the lawyer, with a toss of his head, as if he was of opinion that anyone who was stupid enough to doubt his word was, to put it mildly, an ass. "Sell!" he repeated, "why, my dear sir, the sale of the article by hundreds of thousands is absolutely assured. Supposing, now, that, out of three millions or thereabouts of householders in London alone, one per cent, of them only bought the oven, think of the wonderful sale we should have. But, then, there are such large cities as Glasgow, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool—but, there, why should I go over the whole list of places that are open to us. But, apart from Great Britain, we are applying for patents in every civilized country in the world."
"And you will obtain them?" asked the visitor.
"Not a doubt about it, sir; not a doubt about it."
"Well, if this oven is as wonderful as you represent it to be," suggested Mr. Panton, "would it not be advisable for the inventor to keep all the rights in his own hands. He would then, according to your own showing, grow rich beyond the dreams of avarice."
"Ah, my dear sir," answered the lawyer with a pathetic sigh, "he cannot do that, for he hasn't the means even to pay the fees."
"Is he an old client of yours?"
"Oh, yes. I have known him for years."
"And you have the most perfect faith in the invention?"
"Would it not be rather a good thing then for you to advance him the money at good interest?"
The lawyer smiled benignly, and replied that lawyers were not speculative as a rule; and, speaking for himself, he was not a money-lender. He was a steady-going family man, born to be a plodder and content to be a plodder; but he was always supremely happy when he could put a good thing in somebody else's way.
Mr. Panton expressed admiration at this disinterested philanthropy, and said he was quite prepared to consider the matter, on being furnished with further particulars, together with the plans, drawings, models, etc, of the truly marvellous oven. These things the lawyer promised to supply, and also arrange an interview with the inventor, and Mr. Panton took his leave. It was pretty clear that Halliday was under the impression he had caught a flat, for two days later he sent the following letter to Panton:
Gray's Inn, London.
Re Patent Oven.
Since my interview with you another gentleman has come forward, and is exceedingly anxious to secure rights in my client's patent, and will pay the money at once. I feel, however, that you have the right to have the first refusal; but you will, of course, admit that my client would not be justified in missing the opportunity that has presented itself, and as the gentleman referred to insists on having a decision by to-morrow at twelve o'clock, as he has other openings for the investment of his capital, I shall be glad to know what you intend to do. If you would permit me to do so I would suggest that you lodge a provisional sum in my hands of one thousand pounds, to be returned to you should the representations made turn out to be incorrect in any way. If you will call on me to-morrow I shall be glad to see you, and by that time I expect Mr Sturrock will be here, as he contemplates leaving Scotland to-night. Kindly telegraph to me if my suggestion meets with your favourable consideration.
Your obedient servant,
When I read this barefaced letter I no longer had the shadow of a doubt that the whole business was a swindle, and this unseemly haste on the part of the needy lawyer to get money in advance showed that he must be in desperate straits, for it displayed such a want of the usual legal caution and legal cunning that the cards were fully exposed. It was somewhat of a compliment to Mr. Panton's powers of acting the part of a greenhorn and a simple young man that the lawyer should try to bleed him at so early a stage; but I need scarcely say perhaps that the Hon. George was not only endowed with high intelligence, but was unusually shrewd and far seeing for one of his years. As he was now thoroughly determined to see the game out, and if possible checkmate the unscrupulous Halliday and his colleagues, if he had any, he acted on my advice, and telegraphed saying he would be at the lawyer's office on the following morning at eleven o'clock, and he hoped that Sturrock would be there also.
True to this appointment, he called on the lawyer, and found a little pock-marked man, with a cast in his eyes, waiting to see him. The little man was introduced as Mr. John Sturrock, the inventor of the most wonderful oven. His volubility proved to be as remarkable as the oven was, and he talked as if he had been wound up by machinery to go for twenty-four hours at a time without stopping. According to his account, the oven was likely to turn out an eighth wonder of the world, and the fortunate owner of the patent rights would be somewhat in the position of the gentleman in the legend who disposed of his immortal soul to the Prince of Darkness on condition that the Prince supplied him with untold wealth. The arrangement worked very nicely for a time, money flowed in upon the gentleman by millions, and he surrounded himself with every conceivable luxury and comfort; then he built chapels, churches, schools, orphan asylums, hospitals, etc, but still the millions flowed in. At last the unfortunate man became satiated with this plethora of wealth; it palled upon him. The splendour of his surroundings was monotonous, and he felt that his incalculable wealth would drive him mad. So he summoned his master, and explained the situation.
"Ah! humph," mused the Prince. "No doubt it is a little monotonous. Have you built churches?"
"Hospitals, schools, and such like?"
"And supplied the missionary societies with Bibles and rum for distribution amongst the savages?"
"Yes, I have done all that."
"Just so. Well, now, let me see. Ah! I have it. Capital idea. Start a big daily newspaper. That will exhaust your exchequer if anything will."
Mr. Panton seemed to be much impressed with the glowing and brilliant prospects of acquiring a colossal fortune which were unfolded to his gaze, and he told the truly-generous Sturrock that if he would call the next day in Bruton Street, at Mr. Panton's address, and bring all his plans and designs with him, they could talk over the matter together, and something might come out of it. The noble John Sturrock expressed the gratification he would have in doing this, but hinted that as he was keeping the matter open for the Hon. George's convenience the Hon. George should pay a preliminary deposit of two hundred pounds. This the Hon. George demurred to, but said if matters were satisfactory a payment might be made on the morrow.
The morrow came, and within a minute of the appointed hour Sturrock drove up in a cab to Bruton Street, and, carrying a large parcel, entered the Hon. George Panton's house, and was at once shown into that gentleman's presence. On this occasion there was a newcomer on the scene, who was introduced as the secretary, the character for the nonce being assumed by the reader's humble servant, the writer of this narrative.
Mr. Sturrock eyed me furtively, and I fancied from his expression that he considered my company de trop, but he did not say so, and plunged at once in medias res. His volubility truly was marvellous; it was impossible to get a word in edgeways, as the saying is. He produced a wooden model of his oven, from which it seemed a commonplace affair enough. The drawings and designs were also produced, together with an elaborate array of figures on a large sheet of paper, whereby the enormous profits that were to be derived were duly set forth.
"Have you patented the invention in Great Britain?" I asked.
"And in other countries?"
"We have applied for patents in America, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal; in fact, I may say, in every civilized country."
The result of this interview was that Mr. Panton expressed himself as being attracted to the scheme, but he considered ten thousand pounds too large a sum to invest, notwithstanding the enormous profits that were to be realized.
For a moment or two the genius seemed disappointed, and he went off into an elaborate argument with a view to showing that ten thousand pounds was but a flea-bite, as compared with the advantages. Nevertheles she was open to an offer—would the Hon. George Panton make one? Whereupon the Hon. George suggested that five thousand might meet the case. Mr. Sturrock looked crestfallen, and said that six was little enough; but as he was much taken with Panton, whom he considered a most desirable partner, and one that he was sure he would get on very well with, he would close with the five thousand, and in order to clench the bargain Mr. Panton would, perhaps, be good enough to write a cheque for five hundred on account. The Hon. George did not quite see his way clear to do that, but suggested that if in a week's time Sturrock presented himself with the agreement properly drafted the business might be settled, subject to the approval of Panton's lawyer.
As he would not budge from this decision, Sturrock expressed himself as satisfied, but pressed very hard for something on account, even if it was only one hundred pounds. This, of course, was refused, and Mr. John Sturrock, looking considerably disappointed, withdrew, and I followed in his track. He drove off in the cab that brought him, and I was in his wake in a hansom, but, of course, all unknown to him. His destination was a house near the British Museum, and as he took his things out of the cab and dismissed it I assumed that the house was where he lived, and this was made evident by his letting himself in with a latch-key. Ten minutes later he reappeared, and following him I found that he went direct to Halliday's office, no doubt to acquaint him with the result of his meeting with the Hon. George Panton. I at once returned to the house where I had traced him to, and pursuing my inquiries found that he lodged there only, occupying two rooms, and that he had lived in the house for about six months. The next day I learnt something more about Mr. John Sturrock. He rented a dingy room in Lower Thames Street, and his name appeared on a board at the door, and it set forth that Mr. John Sturrock was a civil engineer and patent agent.
Subsequently I got a peep into this room. A few old wooden models were lying about, and on the dusty walls were hung a few dingy drawings of mechanical contrivances. A small, pale-faced, melancholy-looking boy was addressing some circulars and he informed me that his master, John Sturrock, was very rarely there except in the morning, when he went to open his letters, of which occasionally he got a great number. On my inquiring of the pale- faced boy if he thought his master's business was flourishing, he grinned after the manner of boys who take a fiendish delight in saying nasty things, and he exclaimed:
"I don't think as how it is, sir."
"Why don't you think so?"
"Because he doesn't pay me my wages regular."
"What wages do you get?"
"Six shillings a week, sir."
"Oh! and he finds a difficulty in disbursing that small weekly expense?"
"Yes; and he doesn't pay his rent either."
"How do you know?"
"'Cos the landlord come down last week and kicked up a jolly row. He said if he didn't get his money in three days he would sue him for it."
Strengthened thus in my opinion that John Sturrock was a common swindler, I cautiously followed up my inquiries, and particularly aimed at finding out what connection there was between him and Jubal Halliday, and, to my astonishment, I discovered that they were cousins. Having now got sufficient evidence to justify me in denouncing Sturrock as a swindler, and endeavouring to obtain money by false pretences, I applied for a warrant for his arrest, and, to his amazement, when he presented himself at the Hon. George Panton's again with a formidable legal agreement I made him my prisoner. When he had recovered somewhat from his surprise he made a piteous appeal to be let off for the sake of his wife and children. But my duty was to march him off to Bow Street.
Subsequent inquiries proved that the oven was a fraud. No patent had been applied for in this or any other country. Other cases were proved against him where he had succeeded in getting money for bogus patents; and as he worked always in conjunction with his cousin, Jubal Halliday, that individual was also arrested, and his guilt was soon made manifest. He and his cousin were in a state of desperate impecuniosity, and were ready to do anything to raise the wind. They were both committed for trial, and evidence of actual fraud and false pretences being forthcoming, they were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment, and at last the Law Society applied to have the black sheep Halliday struck off the rolls. I thus had the satisfaction of checkmating the little game of this precious pair of rascals, and of rendering them harmless for further mischief for some time to come.
I PROPOSE to tell second hand the very remarkable story of what was known as "The Mortlake Cabal." The rising generation will have but little knowledge of this case; and even those whose memories can carry them back for sixty years or more will have scarcely more than a vague remembrance that at that time strange rumours were floating about of something mysterious having occurred, and the names of some very prominent people were mentioned in connection with this "something mysterious."
Before plunging into the subject, it is right that I should preface my remarks by saying that all particulars of the affair were furnished to me by my dear and intimate friend the late Richard Willett Grindle, who died a few years ago at the ripe age of eighty-five. Mr. Grindle was a born detective, and he looked upon the art of tracing evil deeds to the evil doers as an exact science that none but a close student and one burning with zeal for the calling could gain any proficiency in. Grindle was a genius, but so quiet, so unostentatious, so unobtrusive, so modest and retiring that he hid his light under a bushel, and ever blushed if his praise was sounded.
He rendered very great and distinguished service, however, to the Governments of his day, and he was the means of stopping the infamous career of many a shameless rascal by whom honour, truth, and virtue, were unrecognized. It was he who brought the double- dyed scoundrel Tostoni to book. It will be remembered that Tostoni was an Italian, who, being outlawed in his own country, came to London and began to conspire, with a number of other adventurers, to bring about a civil war in France, during which he and the other rascals were to secure as much money as possible, and then make their way to some part of South America where a new Republic was to be founded with Tostoni as its first President, and where every man was to grow rich beyond the dreams of avarice. Needless to say this mad, quixotic scheme never came to anything. But its audacious originator succeeded in getting hold of a good many dupes from whom he obtained considerable sums of money. Fortunately, however, his shameless course was stopped by the efforts and cleverness of my friend Mr. Grindle, and the arch conspirator was handed over to be dealt with by his country. He was ultimately shot while endeavouring to effect his escape from a military prison where he had been interned.
The Mortlake Cabal differed very widely from Tostoni's mad project, but it was no less infamous and wicked, and the possibilities are that its aims and objects would have been accomplished had it not been for the cleverness of Grindle.
In telling the story it is necessary that I should go back along the stream of time to about the middle of the last century, when there was born into the world a male child, the son of John Braithwaite, and Lucy, his wife.
Mr. Braithwaite was at that time a very young man. His family were highly respectable, and had been merchants in the broadest sense in the city of London for generations. John Braithwaite entered the service of the Honourable East India Company, and was sent out to India. He took his young wife and infant son with him, and would seem to have been very happy for a time. But three or four years later Mrs. Braithwaite succumbed to a sudden attack of cholera, and her broken-hearted husband was inconsolable. He had been passionately attached to his young wife, and it was said that after her death he never held his head up again. He survived her rather less than three years, and died in Calcutta after a brief illness, and little John Edward Braithwaite, then between six and seven years of age, was left an orphan, but not friendless.
Mr. Braithwaite had formed a most intimate acquaintance with a gentleman named William Horace Preston, also connected with the great company, which then practically ruled India. Between the two men there had existed a brotherly love, and when John Braithwaite was dying he begged his friend to be a father to the little orphan boy. Preston solemnly promised to respect this request and being a man of high honour and noble principles his word was as good as his bond, and he at once adopted the child as his son.
At this time Preston was about thirty years of age and a bachelor. He held an important position in the company's service, and being very shrewd and far-seeing it was predicted of him that he would achieve eminence and amass wealth. He was in exceedingly good circumstances at the time of his friend's death, and he at once surrounded his foster son with luxury, and he took into his house as housekeeper the widow of a military officer, who had died while on active service in India. This lady was deputed to act the part of a mother to the orphan boy, and train him in the way that he should go. She, it would seem, was a weak and over- indulgent woman, and allowed the boy to have so much of his way that he became self-willed and unruly.
Five years later Mr. Preston married, but his wife did not take kindly to the foster-son, who was a clever, head-strong boy, with capabilities of great things in him. Arrangements were therefore made for the lad to continue under the care of the lady who had brought him up. This was unfortunate so far as the boy was concerned, as he required ruling with a very strong hand, but the lady had come to love him with a mother's love and was as blind as a mother to his faults.
When nearly two years had gone Mr. Preston became a widower and the father of a daughter at the same time, for his wife presented him with a pledge of their union but sacrificed her life in doing so. He was growing very rich at this time and rising to high position, and after his wife's death he seems to have thrown himself even more thoroughly into worldly affairs, as though he wanted something to distract his attention and absorb his thoughts. He took his foster-son and the lady back into his house, and some time after, to the amazement of every one who knew him, he married her, although she was older than he was.
The next few years his affairs prospered amazingly, and having amassed an enormous fortune he determined on returning to England to enjoy it, and ultimately he came home with his wife, his daughter, and his foster-son. He purchased a magnificent estate in Berkshire, and a town house in Belgravia, London, and he attracted around him a large circle of distinguished people, for he was a brilliant man, and a man of unblemished honour.
He had bestowed his own name on his foster-son, so that I will allude to him hereafter as John Preston. The youth had been a source of grave anxiety to Mr. Preston, and had caused a good deal of friction between him and his wife, who appeared to be quite unable to see the lad's weaknesses, and she tacitly encouraged him in his gracelessness. Maude Helen Preston, the daughter, had by this time developed into a very handsome girl, and was passionately attached to her foster-brother, who exercised a great influence over her.
John was sent to Oxford where he remained for a few years, but his conduct did not improve, and at last brought him into such disgrace that his foster-father, who had been tolerant and lenient to a fault, resolved to take very severe measures with a view to bringing the young man to his senses, if that were possible. This action brought about dissension between Mr. Preston and his wife. The unfortunate lady would not admit that John's conduct justified any stringent treatment. She regarded his faults as very venial ones, and so she was morally responsible for helping on the young man's ruin. Thousands and thousands of women have ruined, and are ruining their sons by this very inability to take a serious view of flagrant and dishonourable conduct.
One result of the unhappy state of things in the Preston family was a rupture between Mr. Preston and his wife, and as he was firm and she was obstinate, not to say foolish, a separation took place, and he provided her with an independent establishment, allowing her a handsome income to live on.
Young Preston now left Oxford with no higher distinction than that of having been one of the most graceless spendthrifts and profligates that the classic precincts of the College had ever given shelter to; and having once shaken off the trammels of the collegiate discipline, although he had regarded it but very slightly, he seems to have had no higher ambition than to be looked upon as a man about town.
He would not give his attention to any pursuit whereby he might have benefited himself and his fellowmen, but he became an idle loafer, living on the means which his foster-mother provided him with out of her own ample allowance which she received from a too indulgent husband. The young fellow, however, soon experienced a reverse, for Mrs. Preston died of a disease which had long threatened her, and he soon found himself without an income. For a man as useless as he was this was a serious business. He could not turn his hand to anything that was calculated to bring in an honest livelihood, even supposing he had been so inclined. But as it was he had quaffed at a fatal spring of luxurious idleness.
Mrs. Preston had indulged him in every possible way. When he got into debt she paid his debts. When he wished to gratify some new and extravagant habit, she supplied him with the needful to do so; and whenever he was in the slightest difficulty about money matters he went to her, and she got him out. Now, a man such as that, and, moreover, one without principle, could not have been in a more unhappy position than he found himself in on the death of the silly and indulgent woman, who had done all she could, unintentionally of course, to ruin him.
It never occurred to him, as it would have done to any man of strict honour and integrity, that he should now curb his tastes, retrench his expenses in every possible way, and practise self- denial until he had by honest endeavour won a position and means of his own. He went on in the old way. He contracted debts just as readily, and when his creditors pressed him he complained of being badly treated.
During the time that he had been living with his foster-mother he had kept up a surreptitious correspondence with Miss Preston, who had been always much attached to him, and now in his extremity he began to ask her to lend him small sums of money. She readily did this, as she had no difficulty in getting what she wanted from her doting father; and once when John was imprisoned in a sponging house for debt, she secured his release by paying off the importunate creditor.
At last it would seem to have occurred to the bold mind of this unprincipled young man to make love to Miss Preston, knowing as he did that she would inherit a huge fortune on her father's death. For a time the idea worked well. It was but natural that the poor girl should be drawn towards him by bonds of more than ordinary sympathy, and so her heart went out to him, and the ill- assorted pair managed to have many stolen interviews, and the insidious wiles and dulcet voice of the charmer charmed her all too well; but when he pushed his boldness so far as to endeavour to persuade her to elope with him the limit was reached. To so cruelly deceive the father, whose idol she was, was not to be thought of, and in her dire distress she went heartbroken and tearful to her father, and, confessing all pleaded with the eloquence of love and devotion for her lover.
There is reason to suppose that Mr. Preston was very much shocked, very much cut up. It ended, however, in his sending for his foster-son. What took place at the interview is not known; but this is certain—Mr. Preston told the young man that if he would solemnly promise him to reform, he would exert himself to obtain him an appointment in India under the Honourable East India Company, and that if he conducted himself well for three years and showed a sincere desire to make a good name for himself, he should be allowed to marry his foster-sister, and that on the morning of his marriage there should be paid to him as a marriage portion the sum of fifty thousand pounds.
The inducements thus held out were so strong, the prize so great, that any man with a scintilla of honour in him would never have hesitated to have bound himself solemnly and conscientiously to the contract; and would have rigidly and unswervingly kept it. But young Preston was made of different stuff. His nature was deceitful, his resolution weak. He agreed to the terms; the appointment was procured; his patron behaved handsomely to him, furnishing with a most liberal outfit and ample funds, until such times as the first quarter's salary should fall due.
For one year and no more did John remain away, and during that year his conduct was so offensive, so outrageous that he was ignominiously dismissed from the service, and he returned to London.
It will be far more easy for the reader to imagine Mr. Preston's feelings than it is for me, the writer, to describe them. A man of such probity as he could not fail to be deeply shocked. For the sake of his dear, old, dead friend he had overlooked many faults in that dead friend's son; and had done much to correct his errors; to rescue him from the wrong path; and place him on the road that leads to honour and good report. But all was useless, and the last great effort having failed to secure the object arrived at, he deemed himself justified in abandoning a man so utterly lost to every sense of uprightness and self-respect. And yet there is reason for saying that still a further attempt might have been made to bring young Preston to see the error and wickedness of his ways, had he not at once, on his return, set to work with assiduous artfulness to endeavour to corrupt Miss Preston and induce her to consent to a clandestine marriage. This, fortunately, was discovered in time, and, in order to place her out of the reach of danger, her father set off with her for a long tour through India.
They were absent two years, and during the time they fell in with the young Count Tellucino, who represented a very old Italian family, which had, chiefly through political causes, been reduced in circumstances, until from being one of the wealthiest and most powerful of the Italian families, its power remained in name only, and its wealth was but a very meagre portion of what it had once enjoyed.
Count Tellucino was full of pride of birth, and had a very high regard for that honour which his family had kept unsullied for centuries. Handsome, chivalrous, quick witted, and ready to die to shield his good name, there was little wonder that he was enabled to make a deep impression on Miss Preston and her father. The result of the acquaintance was the Count invited his new- found friends to return home via Italy, where he gave them ample evidence of his honourable character, and the esteem and respect in which he was held.
In return Mr. Preston invited the Count to England, an invitation that was gladly accepted, and the Count found himself in London for the first time. There was no attempt on either side to conceal the motives that actuated each party. The Count was falling desperately in love with the beautiful heiress, and her father was desirous of fostering that love and securing the handsome Italian nobleman for his son-in-law, believing him to be in every way a most desirable husband for Maude who looked upon him with love's eyes, and he became her recognized and accepted suitor.
The prospective man and wife were now very much together, and their love grew as time went on. The high qualities and rectitude of the Count were admitted by every one who came in contact with him, and Miss Preston's many womanly virtues and her rare beauty were matters of such comment that the young couple were regarded as being exceptionally favoured by fortune; for while he would bring a title and an unsullied escutcheon into the Preston family, his beautiful and accomplished wife would bestow wealth upon him.
The affair of the courtship progressed smoothly and satisfactorily up to a certain point. It was a harmonious blending of two natures that, if not perfect, were at least singularly free from some of the blemishes and vices which mar so many, and throw a dark shadow where all should be bright and unsullied. At length the day of the union was fixed, and preparations were begun with a view to making the event one which should do honour and credit to both families.
Mr. Preston was a very liberal man in his expenditure, especially where his daughter was concerned. He thought nothing too good for her, nothing too expensive, and he was determined that the occasion of her marriage should be marked in a way that would prove a lasting memento, and he expressed his wish to endow a number of almshouses, to be called the "Preston Almshouses," where poor and aged men and women of good character might find shelter and comfort in their declining years.
If the position of the respective families themselves had not been sufficient to attract the notice of all society to the coming ceremony, this munificent offer of the bride's father would certainly have done so. But the fact is, the whole of the fashionable world, so called, had been agitated for weeks about the event, and the names of bride and bridegroom had been in everybody's mouth. The papers of the day busied themselves with particulars of the pedigrees of the two families, and speculation was rife as to what the lady's fortune would be. It was well known, or at any rate generally believed, that Mr. Preston was a good deal more than a millionaire; and rumour said that when her father died the lady might, if she outlived him, count upon a couple of millions at least. Perhaps in this case, as in so many others, rumour was greatly at fault; what was patent, however, was that Mr. Preston was certainly a wealthy man, and his only child whom he idolized, and regarded as the apple of his eye, was much to be envied in the worldly sense.
Of course no one ever dreamed for a single instant that any contretemps would occur, or that there would be any hitch in the arrangements; and had any prophet of evil ventured to predict such a thing he would have proved beyond all doubt that a prophet hath no honour in his own country. But there was another proverb to be illustrated in connection with the projected marriage of the Count and Miss Preston: that proverb was—"There is many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip."
It wanted but three weeks to the day fixed for the marriage ceremony when it began to be whispered abroad that the bridegroom was non est. He was to have turned up to accompany his fiancée and a party of friends on an excursion up the Thames. But a punctual man ever as he had shown himself to be, he was not punctual on this occasion; and when more than two hours had elapsed and he had not put in an appearance a messenger was sent post haste to a fashionable hotel in Piccadilly where the Count had been staying; and the messenger, in reply to his inquiries, was informed that the Count had gone out on the preceding evening and had not since returned. This was news indeed, and the messenger galloped back to impart it to his master, who heard it with alarm, and told it to his daughter with great reluctance. But the alarm became terror of the worst kind when three days passed and no tale nor tidings could be got of the lost bridegroom.
Messages were of course sent off with all speed to the Count's relatives in Italy, for it was thought that in some sudden fit of aberration he had returned to his native land. In the meantime no efforts were spared to trace the Count's movements from the hour when he left his hotel, but these efforts were not crowned with success, for no professional detective was employed. The reason of that was the family were exceedingly reluctant to take so decisive a step until replies had been received to the messages sent to Italy.
It will thus be gathered that the family were impressed with a belief that the young man had gone back to his home, and that all would come right in the end. But when the answers did arrive their hopes were speedily dissipated, for no member of his family had the remotest idea of their kinsman's whereabouts. The shadowy fears now became very real, and grew into wild alarm, and as all inquiries had so far failed to get a clue to the Count's whereabouts my friend Grindle was consulted, and he was asked to spare no efforts to trace the missing gentleman.
Of course by this time many days had elapsed, and Grindle felt that he had a difficult task before him, for the wide publicity given to the case not having brought forth any information, in spite of a liberal reward that had been offered, it seemed evident on the face of it that the missing man was either very far away or dead. But, if dead, what had become of his body? The most exhaustive inquiries were instituted with a view to determining if there were any causes, financial or otherwise, which would suggest a theory for the Count keeping out of the way. Nothing, however, could be discovered. Though not wealthy he wanted for nothing, and he had no doubt but what he wanted he could instantly have on demand. All the evidence obtainable conclusively proved that the unfortunate man had looked forward to his marriage with intense delight, and was passionately attached to the young lady.
Of course she was questioned on the hypothesis that there might have been a lover's quarrel to which the Count had attached undue importance, and had taken strongly to heart. But she averred most emphatically that not a word of difference had ever passed between them, and at that last meeting the Count had spoken most hopefully and cheerfully of his forthcoming alliance with an English family of such standing as Mr. Preston's, and he expressed himself as very gratified and proud.
All these particulars made it more difficult to suggest a theory for the disappearance. If he had met with an accident some information ought surely to have been forthcoming, and if he were dead his body should have been discovered. It is true the telegraph and railways had not yet annihilated space, so to speak, and news did not travel as fast as it does nowadays. Nevertheless there had been ample time for any information that might have been gathered to have reached the authorities, even from the remotest corners of the kingdom. But there was silence on the subject everywhere. Although plenty of wild theories were started, no one could furnish a single scrap of reliable detail calculated to afford a clue.
Under the circumstances there was little wonder that Mr. Grindle should feel at fault, like a hound that has lost scent of his quarry, and though he did not think for a moment that the secret would be forever hidden, he confessed to being quite puzzled as to where he should look for a sign that would lead him on to the trail.
In both families there was grave consternation at the failure on the part of those interested to get news of the missing man, and naturally the one opinion was that the Count was most certainly dead, and Miss Preston was for a long time inconsolable, notwithstanding that Grindle seems to have held out hopes to her that he would ultimately restore her lover to her. But these hopes paled and died when six months having elapsed, no tale nor tidings were forthcoming. The Count's family were plunged into a state bordering on distraction, and though for a long time they had refused to believe the Count was dead, they at last put on mourning and wailed for him as one who had passed beyond the sphere of human things.
About this time it came to Grindle's knowledge that Miss Preston was clandestinely meeting a young man who inferentially was a secret lover. There was not the slightest doubt that the young lady's father knew nothing of these meetings, and, therefore, Grindle's suspicions were aroused. He was tempted at first to speak to Mr. Preston on the subject, but on reflections decided that it would be better not to do so, at any rate until he had learnt more than he then knew.
Naturally he was astonished that a lady who had just been mourning for a lost lover, whose fate was shrouded in inscrutable mystery, should within so short a time of that lover's disappearance be granting private interviews to another man. It was suggestive of something very strange, no less than of deception, and in the first instance Grindle directed his inquiries to ascertaining what Miss Preston's financial position was, and was likely to be, and he learned that she not only had ample means then at her disposal, but in a very short time, that is as soon as she was of age, which would be within two or three months, she would be in full possession of an ample fortune which her father had settled on her for her own free use, and on his death all his wealth would go to her with some exceptions. But he made certain stipulations with regard to her marrying, and he had appointed two trustees to see that those stipulations were carried out. The object, of course, was to prevent the girl becoming the victim of some adventurer who wanted her wealth more than he wanted her, and would make ducks and drakes of it as soon as he got it.
Being in possession of these facts, and knowing that the young lady was never without a well-lined purse, he deemed it of great importance to keep a close watch upon her, no less than to ascertain who the man was to whom she was according these stolen interviews.
Her father at this time was an invalid and confined to his bed. He had long suffered from a complaint which had, at last, rendered a severe operation necessary. The operation had not succeeded as it was hoped it would do, and his illness had given rise to grave fears that the issue would be fatal. Having regard to this, and viewed in the light of all the circumstances of the case, Miss Preston's conduct seemed very heartless and unfilial.
My friend Grindle ascertained that she was in the habit of meeting the unknown man at a house in the Hampstead Road. This road at that period was a semi-rural district, and not as now, a wilderness of bricks and mortar and a great artery for trams, 'busses, cabs, carts, and vehicular traffic of all kinds. There were then public gardens in the neighbourhood, where the "cits" of the great city might be found in the evening drinking their wine or beer under the shades of the trees, when the weather was fine, and where the votaries of Terpsichore could gratify their tastes to their heart's content.
The house of meeting was a highly respectable place, and the young man, whose name Grindle ascertained was Walter Sheldrick, rented apartments there; but it did not seem that he had an occupation, nor was anything known about him in the house. He had represented himself as the son of a deceased military officer, and, having a little money to live on, he was not in a hurry to get anything to do, but was considering what profession or calling he should take up. He was looked upon as a very respectable young man. He was exceedingly reticent about himself, and his movements were somewhat mysterious, as he was often away two and three days a week, and he occasionally received male visitors. It had been ascertained that on such occasions he always locked his door as if he was afraid of intrusion.
Although these things did not arouse suspicion in the minds of anyone else, apparently they increased Grindle's suspicions that there was a mystery which it was worth while to endeavour to get at the bottom of; for under any circumstances Miss Preston was deceiving her father; while the man who stood in the position of her secret lover was in all probability an adventurer, and it was this idea which determined Grindle to find out who he really was; for, was it not exceedingly probable that the fellow was trifling with the feelings of the girl, and that his main object was to possess himself with as much of her money as he could extort from her?
Whichever way it was, Grindle resolved to know more about the enterprising Mr. Sheldrick, and the why and the wherefore of Miss Preston's visits to him. For, to say the least, she was woefully imprudent, and Grindle deemed it right in her own interests that she should be warned that her conduct in deceiving her father and countenancing a secret lover was calculated to be productive of a crop of bitter regrets and deep sorrow. So he kept a close watch, and one evening he saw her issue from the house in company with Sheldrick.
It was a very beautiful summer evening, and so warm that no one cared to remain indoors who could be out. The young couple sauntered arm in arm down the Hampstead Road, to what was known as "Kent's Tea and Strawberry Gardens." These gardens were a favourite resort of the people of the neighbourhood in the summer weather, for tea could be drunk and strawberries eaten, and those who preferred it could indulge in something stronger and more exhilarating than mild bohea. There were ranges of little pavilions or summer houses built of light trellis work, and covered with a growth of greenery, and to spooney couples in the sighing and simpering stage these places were veritable bowers of bliss.
Grindle followed Miss Preston and Sheldrick to these gardens, where they took possession of one of the bowers, and ordered a dish of strawberries and a pint of cream. Without being noticed by them, for they seemed quite absorbed with each other, Grindle occupied an adjoining bower, where he could hear and not be seen, and owing to his coign of vantage he overheard the following conversation after the strawberries and cream had been discussed:
"Well, Maudy," said the man, "I wonder how long this sort of thing is to go on?"
"What sort of thing, Jack? Eating strawberries and cream?" asked the young lady.
"No. I mean this fooling about."
"I don't understand you, Jack," said Miss Preston sharply.
"Oh, yes, you do."
"What do you mean?" she demanded in a tone of anger, that was in striking contrast to her pretty face and usually gentle manner.
"Well, look here, dear," said Jack, "don't get angry with me. I am sure I have been patient enough, and you know well enough what I mean, I want to possess you."
"And so you shall some day."
"Some day!" he sighed. "Some day is a long time to an anxious lover."
"Ah, Jack, dear," said the young woman in dulcet accents as she caressed him, "you ought not to talk like that. I give you as much of my company as I can, and I have told you before I must wait."
"Why do you say you must, Maude? You can surely do as you like?"
"No, I cannot. For your sake I have already been very, very wicked, and deceived my father cruelly."
"So far as the deception goes I maintain that it has been justified. Your father shouldn't have set his face against me as he has done."
"But you have offended him deeply."
"So he says; but I say I haven't."
"Well, dear, we won't discuss that point, though you must pardon me for saying that I do think you have not been as good as you might have been. He has been a good father to you."
"A jolly severe one," exclaimed Jack, with a bitter laugh.
"You have brought this severity on yourself."
"Well, don't let us quarrel about that, Maude."
"I don't want to quarrel, Jack, but you began it."
"Very well, dear, I will admit that I did. Now that I have confessed to so much, tell me how much longer I have to wait for you?"
"I cannot tell you. Supposing the Count should turn up."
"Supposing," echoed Jack, in a tone of disgust and contempt. "Supposing he did, you would throw me over, eh?"
"Oh, dear, don't frighten me by speaking so fiercely. I really don't know what I should do. I loved you long before I saw the Count, you know."
"Very well, then, why did you give me up?"
"Because you were a foolish boy. If you had only behaved yourself in India when papa sent you there we might have been man and wife now. But you were wild and foolish and wicked."
"Well, that is what you were told; but you make no allowance for exaggeration, and, you can believe me, that the stories you heard were largely the invention of my enemies."
"But you couldn't say papa was your enemy."
"I can say he was very much prejudiced against me."
"Oh, Jack, dear, I don't like to hear you give expression to such a sentiment. How could papa be prejudiced against you? He was desirous and anxious to give you a position in the world, and he would have consented to our marriage had you been steadier and more appreciative of what was being done for you; but you did offend papa very gravely, and all hope of his ever consenting to my marrying you was at an end when he met the Count."
"Bah, blow the Count!" exclaimed Jack, with an intensity of disgust which he could not conceal. "You are always harping on the Count," he added. "Well, now, look here, it's pretty certain you will never see the Count again."
"How do you know?" asked Maude quickly.
"Because he's dead."
"How do you know that?" she queried again, with an eager anxiety. "Do you suppose now if he were not dead he would have kept out of the way so long? Not a bit of it. The fact is, I should say, he has committed suicide."
"But what has become of his body?" asked the young lady in tearful tones.
"How can I tell you that? Supposing he had thrown himself into the Thames, isn't it a thousand to one that his body would be lost for ever?"
"Perhaps, perhaps," murmured Maude sadly.
"Very well then, since there is no chance of the Count ever turning up again why should you keep me in suspense?"
"But, Jack, dear, what would you have me do?" Maude asked in great distress, and seemingly ready to burst into tears.
"Marry me at once."
"I cannot do that."
"Why not. You are your own mistress."
"Not while papa is alive. It would be a fearful thing to deceive him like that."
"I can't see that it would. And I tell you what it is, Maude, I feel as if I should go mad if I have to wait for you any longer, and I am convinced I shall do something desperate."
"Don't talk like that, dear," she pleaded, as her arms stole around his neck. "I will be yours some day."
"Oh, yes, it's always someday," he said peevishly. "Some day may never come."
"Yes, it will, if you have patience."
"I have had patience, and my patience is almost exhausted. Now, look here, Maude, you know that I love you, don't you?"
"Yes, I think you do."
"You think. You know perfectly well I do. Now, if you love me you will do this. Leave home quietly some morning. Meet me at the steps of St Martin's Church in the Strand, and we will get married. Immediately after the ceremony you can go back to your home as if nothing had happened. I shall then know that you are mine, and that nothing can separate us. If you don't consent to that arrangement I will go abroad, and in the delirium of a reckless life seek oblivion of you, and you shall know me no more."
The poor girl was evidently greatly distressed, and she wept, but he urged her in every possible way to give her consent, and at last she said she would let him know her decision in the course of a day or two. In a few minutes they rose and wandered about the gardens for some time. Then they left, and "Jack" saw her into a hackney coach.
Grindle, it is needless to say, had come to the conclusion that "Jack" was a consummate scoundrel. She called him Jack, and yet he was living at his apartments in the name of Walter Sheldrick. Two days later Grindle had learnt by means best known to himself that "Jack" was in the habit of spending a good deal of his time at a house at Mortlake on the Thames. It was an old mansion, but in a state of dilapidation, and it had been let to a man named Thomas Wheeler, who represented himself as secretary of the Corinthian Boating Club. But the strange part of the thing was—the members of the club never went boating and had no boats.
Grindle found the house in charge of an old man of about seventy years of age, who said that "the gentlemen" met there sometimes, and shut themselves up in a big room, but what they did he didn't know. He himself hadn't been there very long. He was never allowed to go upstairs. On the top of the stairs a large and strong door had been fixed, and it was always kept locked, so that if the old man had wished to gratify his curiosity, he could not have done so. As a matter of fact, however, he was not in the least curious. He was well paid for such service as he rendered, and that was all that he concerned himself about. He seemed indeed to take no earthly interest in anything but his pay, part of which he confessed he spent in drink, part in tobacco, a little in food, and a trifle he hoarded.
Having found out this eccentric and accommodating individual's weakness, Grindle played upon him, and with a guinea or two he tempted him to give him access to the house, unknown to any of the mysterious members of the Corinthian Boat Club who never boated and owned no boats. The result of Grindle's little manoeuvre was that one evening he found himself concealed in a deep, curtained window recess in the meeting room, and from his position he was enabled to both see and hear. This is what he saw—Half-a-dozen dissipated and unwholesome-looking men, including "Jack," seated at a table on which were pipes and jugs of beer, the beer having been procured from a neighbouring tavern. The pipes were speedily filled with tobacco. The men lit the pipes and began to smoke, sending forth such volumes of smoke that a haze was thrown over the scene.
This is what the watcher heard. "Jack" was the speaker:
"Well, chums," he began, "I am happy to be able to report progress."
"That's satisfactory," mumbled a blear-eyed gentleman, who occupied the position of Chairman at the head of the table.
"Yes," pursued Jack, "I think I have brought the girl to her senses, and she will consent to marry me very shortly."
"Hear, hear," exclaimed the company, and somebody added, "Lucky devil."
"It will be a lucky thing for all of us," remarked Jack.
"Of course it will," answered the Chairman; "for every mother's son of us will have a picking out of the girl's fortune."
"Yes," assented Jack, in a tone which seemed to imply that he would rather it were not so. "And we shall be rich, and wax fat, and live at our ease," put in a lanky individual who seemed as if he had never done a day's work in his life.
"Well, here's success to the little plot," so saying he put his lips to a brown stone jug containing beer, and took such a long and deep swig that the Chairman cried out:
"For heaven's sake, Bones, don't stop your breath, for we should have a deuce of a job to get rid of your carcase without exposing our hand."
"Don't trouble yourself, Billy, my boy," remarked the individual addressed as "Bones," as he drew a long sigh of gratification, and restored the jug to the table. "I'm worth a dozen dead'uns yet. The thing is how are we going to get rid of the cove what's up there?" Bones winked his eye and pointed with his thumb to the ceiling.
"Well, we'll have to find some means. A deep hole in the cellar and a few buckets of quicklime and the job's done."
"Yes, quicklime soon does the trick," said a third individual.
"How is he?" asked Jack; by "he," meaning obviously the person alluded to by "Bones," as the "cove what's up there?"
"Well, I should say," answered the Chairman, "that he's nigh his end."
"He's been nigh his end for some time," said Jack, "and the end hasn't come yet."
"No, but it ain't far off," answered the Chairman.
"I suppose there's no fear of him getting away?" queried Jack with a slight expression of anxiousness in his face.
"Getting away!" and here the Chairman laughed ironically as though he thought the question ridiculous. "You go and look at him and see for yourself."
"No, thank you," answered Jack with a little shudder. "I don't want to see him. I'll take your word for it."
"Of course you will," growled the Chairman. "You're the swell, you know, because you're to be the millionaire. It's we what have to do the dirty work. But, then, don't you see, old man, if you hadn't taken us into your confidence, where would you have been?"
"Not here," answered Jack.
"Of course not. You would very likely have been in Newgate."
"Oh, dear no," said Jack, with a toss of his head. "There are other corners of the world besides this, and I'd have found a snug retreat somewhere."
"Of course you would, of course you would," chimed in "Bones" with a chuckle. "A fellow with your wit will never starve. But you see we are helping you to get a fortune, master, and so you'll remember us kindly, won't you? Lor' bless us, when you've got the girl and her money, won't we have high old times of it." Then he added firmly: "But maybe we shall all fall to cutting each other's throats for the lion's share."
"No fear," said Jack, with a decisiveness of manner that was meant to be impressive. "There was a distinct agreement as to how much you were all to receive, and you'll get no more."
The gentlemen exchanged glances full of meaning, as much as to say: "He's a green young fool if he thinks he's going to get rid of us as soon as that." And no doubt their looks fully indicated the bent of their minds. The beer having been all consumed, the tobacco all turned to ashes, and midnight having sounded, the genial company broke up and dispersed.
Then Grindle came forth from his hiding-place feeling that he had made a great discovery, and had learnt the secret of the Corinthian Boat Club. Without a moment's loss of time he proceeded upstairs to the door of which I have spoken. He found it was impossible to open it in the ordinary way, so he sallied forth and procured the services of a local blacksmith. The blacksmith had gone to bed, but Grindle knocked him up, and, when the business had been explained, he provided himself with the necessary tools and went to the house in company with the detective.
The ancient janitor did not seem quite disposed to give them free access, but when he had been threatened with the law, and made fully aware of the serious position he would place himself in if he resisted, he took a different view. So the blacksmith and Grindle proceeded to the upper door, which soon yielded to the device of the worker in iron; and having thus passed the barrier, the two men, carrying dark lanterns, hurried upstairs, where, in a large room at the top of the house, they found a man in what seemed to be a dying state. He was fearfully emaciated, and the pallor of death was in his face. The windows of the room were completely blocked up, and the place presented a horrible and sickening sight. The unhappy prisoner was chained to the bed.
Medical aid was at once procured, and only just in time, for in another few hours the man would have succumbed. As it was, the doctors would not express an opinion about his recovery. Although there was nothing to identify him, Grindle felt sure that the poor sufferer was none other than Count Tellucino, who had been kidnapped by the infamous band in order that John Preston alias "Walter Sheldrick" might induce his foster-sister to marry him, whereby the band would get a share of her fortune.
By the time that daylight had fully dawned Grindle, with the assistance of the local authorities, had swept all the rascals into his net, and had lodged them safely, and the Mortlake Cabal was thus defeated.
Miss Preston and her father were speedily informed of the discovery that had been made, and the young lady's eyes being opened to her folly and the terrible danger she had escaped, she flew to her Italian lover, and nursed him with sweet tenderness back to life, and health, and strength. It was a long process, for he had suffered cruelly, and had come within an ace of learning the grand secret. He had been lured, it appeared, to the house at Mortlake by means of a forged letter, purporting to be written by the lady of his heart. In the house he was drugged, and so conveyed upstairs, and fastened by strong chains to the wall. There had been a suggestion that he should be murdered outright, but this was vetoed, as the rascals feared the consequence of such a hideous crime. And so for a long time the prisoner was fed. But he gradually fell ill through the anxiety and awful suspense he suffered, and then the villains began to neglect him and he was slowly starving to death when Grindle so opportunely learnt the secret of the Corinthian Club.
It only remains to say that all the prisoners, after due and patient trial, were punished in a very exemplary manner, each and all being sentenced to transportation for life beyond the seas.
Mr. Preston recovered from his illness, and lived for four or five years longer, and he had the gratification of seeing his daughter the Countess Tellucino, and of hearing baby voices call him "grandpa." There is no reason to doubt but that the Countess made an excellent wife, and the folly of her girlhood was forgiven and forgotten by her devoted and loving husband.
IN a large theatre of a populous Midland town of England, a man who went by the name of Horace Harland occupied, and had long occupied, the somewhat humble position of property man. Perhaps the reader need scarcely be told that the duties of a property man are to take charge of the furniture and other portable things used on the stage, and provide everything required in the various pieces, such as purses, daggers, pistols, cups, goblets, letters, books, vases, flowers, and articles of a kindred nature.
In a good theatre the property master will have two or three assistants, and in such theatres as Drury Lane and Covent Garden he may have quite a little army of men under him, all of them more or less skilled in the making of masks and other pantomime and burlesque properties. Harland's position, however, was a relatively humble one, for though the theatre was large it was of the third-rate order, and the prices of admission were low. Harland's salary was two pounds ten a week, and his only assistant was a boy of about fifteen years of age named James Joyce, but familiarly known in the theatre as "Jimmy."
On the first blush it may seem somewhat ridiculous to suppose that so humble an individual as a property man in a provincial theatre could be the centre figure in a strange romance, and the chief actor in a tragedy more dramatic, more moving, fuller of human pathos and human woe, than nine-tenths of the dramas that are placed upon the stage.
It was in the days of "stock companies" when provincial audiences were only occasionally favoured with a sight of the dazzling brilliancy of some bright particular star, who, condescending to stoop from his lofty eminence, was good enough to astound the provincial with his magnificence and greatness for a salary of a few pounds a week and a benefit night, when he would take a percentage of the proceeds. These stars—masculine and feminine—were generally very ignorant, very pompous, very arrogant, and very over-bearing, and apt to treat their humbler brother and sister mummers as beings cast in a very inferior mould, who ought to feel themselves blessed by being allowed to appear in the light of stars of such magnitude. Horace Harland had been engaged in the theatre for something like three years, and nobody seemed to know exactly where he came from, or what position he had occupied before adopting the calling by which he was then earning his living. He was remarkable for his extraordinary taciturnity and his refusal to associate with any one. His life was a sealed book to all those who came in contact with him, and he always resented in a very striking way any attempt to interrogate him, or draw from him the secrets which he nursed within his breast. In age he was just turned thirty, with dark complexion and deep set eyes, and a mouth that spoke of a firm, unyielding spirit. In his earlier years he must have been a very good looking man, but at this time his face suggested a soured, bitter, and brooding nature.
He was accounted clever. He had the eye of an artist, the touch of a skilled mechanician, and the faculty of an inventor, and there was nothing that he did, no matter how insignificant it was, that he did not do well. He was known to hold strong views about those people whom he described as "slipshod," and who, having anything to do, would do it any way so long as it was done.
Such a man was not likely to be a cipher in any position in which his lines were cast, but Harland was a man of somewhat refined tastes, which displayed themselves even amidst the reeking smells, the dust, the dirt, the tawdry frippery and shams of the theatre in which the greater part of his life was passed. He would not, as many of the other workmen would do, feed himself with a broad bladed knife from some mess contained in a basin, nor drink his tea from a dirty tin can that was kept constantly near the scene painter's fire in company with the glue and size pots.
A little room out of the chief property repository he had arranged with considerable taste, and here he partook of his meals in an esthetic way, and drank his tea or coffee from a china cup, and used with his food a real silver fork and ivory- handled knife. These little points are merely mentioned en passant, in order that some idea may be gathered of the man's character. These things in themselves would have been sufficient to distinguish him amongst such a motley crowd as that in which he moved and had his being; but he was also a scholar and was held somewhat in awe by people whose education had been neglected, but who, from the exigencies of their position, were forced to use every endeavour to create the impression that they were better informed than they really were. There is a great deal of that sort of thing in the world; but nowhere is it more conspicuous than amongst second and third rate actors and actresses.
On one occasion when a star of the very first magnitude—according to his own idea—had condescended to come to the theatre and show the provincials what acting was, a little scene occurred which is worth repeating. The star was an arrogant fool, who figuratively viewed his own talents, such as they were, through a telescope used in the ordinary way, and which magnified them manifold; but in viewing anybody else he placed the large end of the telescope to his eye, with a result that it is not necessary to explain.
On the occasion referred to, this resplendent being was irritated during a rehearsal of Hamlet, because some of the properties he wanted in the play, and which he insisted on having on the stage during the rehearsal, were not there, and he bawled out in melodramatic and stentorian tones to the property man:
"Here, you fellow—you——ass; how the is it you haven't got so and so here?"
Harland looked at him for a moment, and then asked calmly:
"Who are you addressing?"
"You, you fool," came the response, "verbum sat sapienti."
This lapse into the hackneyed Latin quotation, known to every little schoolboy, was unfortunate for the great luminary. Moreover, it was in this instance misapplied, for having pronounced Harland to be a fool, he added in the same breath that a word to the wise was sufficient. Harland took the measure of his man. He saw that he was a windbag, a pretentious bully, so blown up with his own conceit that he could not even see his own folly, and so the property man, with a sneer of supreme contempt, hurled this thunderbolt at him and smote him into nothingness:
"I will apply to you," he said, "the words of Virgil, used by Salmasius* when speaking of Milton—'Monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens cui lumen ademptum.' In Milton's case they were a shameless libel by a spiteful and little mind, jealous of the great poet. In this case they are more than deserved".
[* Claudius Salmasius was a French writer of unquestionable ability but overbearing arrogance. He was contemporary with Milton, for whom he conceived a remarkable antipathy, probably because Salmasius wrote at the instigation of Charles II. a defence of Charles I., to which Milton rejoined in a powerful work entitled: "Defensio pro populo Anglicano." This seems to have given great offence to Salmasius, who accused Milton of being incapable of Latin composition, and in the Virgilian lines he referred to him as a puny man, a dwarf having a distorted human figure, a being who was nothing but skin and bone, and a contemptible pedagogue who could only claim to be great as a great dunce.]
It is perhaps needless to say that the pompous tragedian was something more than amazed by this outpouring of the property man's vials of wrath. Perhaps the great luminary would have felt less dulled and less sat upon had he understood what had been said. But he was as ignorant of Latin as he was of Greek, and though he divined that the Latin terms used so glibly by his opponent were abusive ones, he did not understand them, and all he could do was to fret and fume and endeavour to keep himself from bursting by rolling forth a string of such oaths as generally pollute the atmosphere of Billingsgate.
After this little passage of arms between the humble property man and the great star, in which the star's brilliancy was unquestionably dimmed, Harland was regarded by the company with keener interest and curiosity. How was it that a man who was so well up in the classics, and able to roll out Virgilian measures with a due regard for the proper quantities, was content to pass his life in the capacity of a humble property man in a third-rate theatre? It was obvious to the meanest intelligence that there was some mystery, and it was but human that those about him should try to pierce the mystery; but they might as well have tried to solve the riddle of the Sphinx.
Harland kept his affairs to himself, and not even the most artful nor the shrewdest member of the company could draw him. It was a disappointment, but what could be done? There was no law making it compulsory on a man to tell the secrets of his life; nor was the manager of the theatre going to discharge Harland for not gratifying the prying curiosity of his company. The property man was too valuable a servant for that. But all unknown to those who were burning with eager desire, Fate, slowly, but surely, was to do what these cunning people could not do. That is, to lay bare in all their nakedness the heart and life of this man, and supply the world with food for reflection on the weakness and folly and pitiableness of human nature.
It was a year after that little incident in which the tragedian came off second best that the "eminent comedian" Mr. Charles Hendrik, and the "talented comedienne" Miss Julia Proudfoot, went down to the theatre on a starring engagement. Miss foot, who was about 30 years of age, was strikingly good looking, with what is termed a most excellent "stage appearance." Charles Hendrik was also a fine-looking man, and was a few years the senior of his companion. Their coming to the town had been well announced by large posters, and as they had made a reputation for themselves their appearance was looked forward to with eagerness. They opened with the "Taming of the Shrew," and on the first night the theatre was crowded from floor to ceiling. The élite of the town had turned out, and the mayor and his satellites were also present.
It was noted afterwards by those engaged behind the scenes that on this particular night Horace Harland, the property man, was very strange in his manner. Usually cool and apparently phlegmatic, he seemed excited and confused now, and he made this strange remark to Jimmy, his assistant:
"Jimmy, you are young and have life before you, and if I thought it would be of any avail I would give you a word of advice. It is this—Shun women as you would shun vipers."
Jimmy was rather tickled at this, and laughed, and he ventured to ask his chief if he had found them vipers. Whereupon Harland sighed deeply, but made no response.
About a quarter of an hour after this Jimmy went into the property room and found Harland there alone, and to the boy's surprise he was engaged in loading a six-chambered revolver.
"What is that for, Mr. Harland?" asked the boy.
"It's wanted, Jimmy," was Harland's response.
"Not to-night," said the boy.
"But the 'Taming of the Shrew' ain't a tragedy, it's a comedy."
"Jimmy," said Harland solemnly, "life begins in comedy and ends in tragedy. This piece may turn out to be a tragedy."
The boy was, of course, rather astonished at this strange answer, no less than at Harland's strange manner; but it never occurred to him to tell any one else of what had passed. Had he done so it is just possible that what followed might have been averted. But he was young and thoughtless, and attached no great importance to his master's words.
The piece was a great success. The principal performers acquitted themselves in a manner that evoked enthusiastic applause; and at the close of each act they were recalled. No such success had been scored in the theatre for a long time. At length the curtain fell on the conclusion of the piece, and then the packed audience manifested in the most unmistakable manner their entire gratification, and they vociferously demanded the reappearance of the favourites of the evening. Then the curtain was drawn on one side, and Mr. Hendrik, leading Miss Proudfoot by the hand, appeared and bowed acknowledgments of the plaudits. The lady was all smiles, and looked charming, and the consentient verdict of the audience was that no finer performance of Shakespeare's splendid comedy had ever been witnessed in that town.
The actor and actress retired, and then the people rose en masse to leave the building, when suddenly they were startled by two pistol shots fired in rapid succession, and a few seconds later the curtain was tugged roughly on one side and a man streaming with blood from a wound in the head staggered before the footlights. It was the actor Hendrik, and raising his hand he asked excitedly:
"Is there a doctor among you?"
Instantly two gentlemen responded, "Yes," and Hendrik requested them to come up on to the stage as an accident had happened, and this request was at once complied with. Necessarily the audience were a little excited, and many and eager were the questions asked. But nobody could give any information; and the attendants made efforts to get the people out, and though curiosity would have prompted many to have lingered, they were not allowed to do so. And soon the front of the house, erstwhile so brilliant and gay with light and colour, was now given over to ghostliness and gloom. Behind the curtain, however, all was excitement, for as Harland had predicted, the comedy had turned into a tragedy, and a very real tragedy too. Miss Proudfoot, who had looked so radiant, so happy, so full of the fire of youth and the vigour of sound health; and who had won the admiration of the young men and the envy of many of the young woman who had witnessed her clever performance, had played her last part on any stage, and was lying dead in her dressing-room. She had been shot through the heart, and her companion had been wounded slightly in the head; but he was not seriously hurt. They had both been shot at as soon as they came behind the curtain again after acknowledging the call of the audience. The shots were fired from the O.P. entrance—that is the entrance opposite the prompt entrance—and the person who fired them was the property man, Horace Harland.
The confusion into which everybody was thrown by the double report, and the sight of the popular actress lying bleeding on the stage where she had just scored such a signal triumph, prevented them from acting with that promptness they otherwise would have done. Hendrik, who did not fall when struck by the bullet, which owing to unsteadiness of aim, or some other cause, only glanced along his forehead, retained his presence of mind, and seeing his unfortunate companion stretched on the stage, he rushed before the curtain and asked for a doctor. Two medical men were at once forthcoming, but in the lady's case they could only pronounce that the comedy had indeed turned to a tragedy, for she was stone dead.
In the meantime where was the murderer?—the "man of mystery," as he had come to be termed. When the people about the stage recovered their presence of mind they set up a hue and cry, and were informed by the stage doorkeeper that Harland had passed out of the theatre, and he—the stage doorkeeper—had not noticed that he was excited or flurried in any way. The doorkeeper, of course, was in ignorance at that moment of the too terribly real tragedy that had been enacted on the boards where oft mimic tragedy had been so successfully performed to the delight of thousands of people. But now there was real blood, real death, and real sorrow; and underlying it all some dark mystery that would have to be cleared up.
Everybody asked everybody else what it all meant. Why had the silent and brooding Harland taken the life of Miss Proudfoot, and endeavoured to take that of Hendrik? Had he been suddenly seized with homicidal mania, or was it the working out of some long- thought-of plan of revenge? The latter seemed probable, from the little information that Jimmy was able to give, for he related how he had seen the property man deliberately loading the pistol, and he repeated the conversation that had taken place between them.
As there was not the slightest doubt that Harland had committed the deed, his capture in the interests of justice was imperatively necessary. If he really intended to attempt to effect his escape the lateness of the hour and the darkness of the night—for it happened to be a particularly dark night—were in his favour. When the crime was reported at the police station no time was lost in sending men to his lodgings. But he had not returned there since leaving for the theatre in the early part of the evening. Inquiries were also made at a tavern which was a favourite resort of the people from the playhouse after the theatre had closed, and where Harland had been in the habit of going nightly after his labours to enjoy a pipe, a glass of ale, and a game of dominoes, for which he had a pronounced liking. But he had not been to the haunt that night and it was to know him no more.
All that could be done during the hours of darkness was done, but nothing came of it, and when the new day dawned vigorous measures were taken to bring about the capture of the murderer, but he was not captured; not a trace of him could be got, and as it seemed unlikely that he could have left the town the opinion became general that he had committed summary execution on himself, and carried his secret with him into the grave.
Five or six miles to the north of the town was a large storage of water, covering many acres, and from which the town supply was mainly drawn. This natural reservoir was romantically situated in a somewhat lonely glen, and many a wretched being—male and female—who had found the riddle of life too much for them had solved the mystery of death in those dark waters. It was therefore supposed, and not without reason, that Horace Harland had chosen that way of exit from a world which, apparently, had used him ill. Means, therefore, were at once taken to put this theory to the test. But after several days' search with drags and other appliances it seemed pretty evident that his body was not there.
"Where was he?"
"Was he living or dead?"
These were questions that suggested themselves to the minds of everyone. But they were perplexing, and in the nature of abstruse riddles, the answers to which were not then forthcoming.
Of course Charles Hendrik was interrogated in the hope that he would be able and willing to throw some light on the mystery. But he either could not or would not, though it was pretty obvious to those who had to deal with him that he held something in reserve—kept something back—though he asserted positively that he knew absolutely nothing of Harland, and to his knowledge had never seen him before in his life until he saw him in the theatre.
A fortnight passed and Harland had not been captured. The mystery was therefore deepened and much astonishment was expressed that he had been able to get away; or if he had destroyed his own life, that his body had not been found.
In the meantime a communication had been sent to me to go down to the town and see what I could do towards finding a solution of the problem. The press had necessarily made a great deal of "good copy" out of the tragedy. Even the great London papers, which are always ready to make capital out of sensation—though if a man writes a sensational story they either treat him with scornful contempt, or refer to him as though he had been guilty of a crime, forgetting or ignoring the fact that life is full of sensationalism—eagerly seized on every scrap of information bearing on the case. Therefore it soon became widely known that my humble services had been retained, and to that publicity, and not to my own efforts, was due the ultimate clearing up of the mystery.
As was my wont whenever I was called upon to take up a case, I endeavoured to learn all that it was possible to learn about the man who was so much wanted. For when one knows something of the life and customs of the individual it helps to suggest a probable motive; and a motive once defined is a primary link. It was due to this investigation on my part that I learnt so much of Harland's manner and habits, and that knowledge left no doubt in my own mind that he had brooded over some wrong, and the deed was a deed of vengeance. It prepared me also to learn that Harland was but an assumed name, and for reasons known only to himself the man had endeavoured—and successfully so—to lose his identity. This idea was greatly strengthened when I found that he had been at great pains to destroy at his lodgings everything likely to be of use in helping one to find out who he was. He had been as reticent with the people with whom he lodged as with everyone else. It was known that he was employed at the theatre, but they did not even know in what capacity. He was regarded as a steady, industrious, respectable person, of more than ordinary intelligence, and with book learning not often possessed by "a working man." He was further described to me as being of a most kindly disposition and exceedingly generous.
Armed with all the foregoing facts I was about to set to work and search for a clue that would lead me to the man's hiding- place, when I received the following brief note. The address given was a quiet, northern suburb of London, and the writing was that of a man who was a thorough penman. Thus ran the note:
To Mr. Dick Donovan,
I see by the London papers that you have been engaged to run me down. In spite of your many successes in that line, I have no doubt that I could, had I felt so disposed, have baffled you; for I managed to quit the town and come up to London without leaving a trace by which I might be followed. But I have no desire to elude justice any longer. Therefore, if you will call here at four o'clock precisely on the day you receive this letter you will find me.
Yours very truly,
P.S.—You must inquire for Nathaniel Wieland Newton.
This was a strange communication, and for a moment or two I was disposed to regard it as a stupid joke. But, somehow or other, when I had read it and re-read it, it struck me as being terribly earnest. I therefore caught the next train back to London and hurried to the address given, but I did not reach it until nearly six o'clock. The people of the house told me in answer to my inquiries that they believed their lodger, Mr. Newton, was in his room, but they hadn't seen him for some hours. He was an exceedingly quiet gentleman, they said, and gave them very little trouble.
The landlady was going upstairs to his room to inform him that somebody wanted him; but I stopped her by saying:
"If you will show me the room I will announce myself." She did this. I half expected to find the door locked, but it was not so. I turned the handle and entered the room, and was quite prepared for the sight I beheld. A man was lying on a sofa at full length as if asleep. That man was the one I wanted, but he was dead. He was lying partly on his side, his left hand bent under him; his right hand hanging down. And from that hand, the fingers of which were now tightly clenched, a phial had fallen to the floor. I picked it up and smelt it. It was empty now, but it had contained prussic acid. On the table in the centre of the room was a large, long, blue envelope, on which my name was inscribed in a bold, clerky hand. It was a somewhat bulky packet, was sealed with sealing wax, and tied round with a piece of red tape, after the manner of lawyers' documents. I picked it up and thrust it into my pocket, then went into the passage, closing the door after me.
I summoned the landlady, and as gently as I could I informed her who her lodger was, why he was wanted, and how he had baffled man's justice. She was shocked, of course. I locked the door, giving the key into her charge, cautioning her not to allow any one to enter the room until the medical and police formalities had been complied with. Next I hurried to the local police station, gave the necessary information there, and a man was immediately sent to keep watch and ward for the time being over the dead man; for, though he was dead, the law had yet to deal with him.
These things done, I proceeded to my own home, opened the packet, and learnt the story of the life of Nathaniel Wieland Newton—that was his real name. It is an old story; commonplace enough, vulgar enough, but none the less pitiable, none the less sad. I will tell the story in my own way, simply prefacing it by the statement that I verified it in most of its details.
Nathaniel Wieland Newton was the son of highly respectable people living in a small country town of Gloucestershire, where he was born. His early education was conducted at home. At the age of twelve he went to a well-known grammar school to prepare for college; but after he had been several years at the school, and before he could enter on his college career, his father died, and it was found then that the family affairs were so involved that it was necessary to abandon the idea of college. He went back to his native town, where he became a pupil teacher in a school, rising shortly to the position of a salaried teacher, and a little later to that of assistant mathematical master.
Ultimately when his mother and only sister died, he accepted an offer to go out to Calcutta, where he was engaged in teaching for a period of nearly four years, and where he married. The lady whom he made his wife was the daughter of a quartermaster- sergeant who had died on active service. She was very beautiful, but vain and somewhat shallow-minded. As Newton's health had suffered from the Indian climate, he came to England with his bride, and obtained a very good appointment in Liverpool, where, to use his own words, he spent "two most happy years." Then a shadow fell upon his life. Differences arose between himself and his wife. He had cause to complain of her conduct. She had a passion for the stage, and cultivated the acquaintance of theatrical people, amongst whom she spent the greater part of her time, neglecting him and his home. Then anonymous warnings were sent to him which reflected on his wife's honour. He would not believe them. He was devoted to her, and his faith in her was strong. For a time this faith supported him. He dare not trust himself to think ill of her who had come to be the sun of his manhood's years. But suddenly, like the crashing of a thunderbolt out of an erstwhile cloudless sky, he learnt the truth. It was conveyed to him in a few brief lines penned by her own hands. She said that she no longer loved him, could no longer stay with him. She advised him not to seek her, for he would not find her, but even if he did she would die before she would return to him. She had given her love to another man, and without him the world would be a hideous desert.
The shock almost shattered Newton. For months he lay on a bed of sickness hovering between life and death, and when he recovered he was no longer the same man. Life had changed its colour; his nature was embittered, his spirit broken, his heart crushed. He no longer had any ambition, any desire to distinguish himself. Like many another sensitive man, he tried to find forgetfulness in strong drink. But against this his soul revolted. Then he changed his name, and went forth into the world to lose himself, and he vowed a vow that if ever he should again come face to face with the woman who had wrecked him, he would kill her.
After some drifting about in an aimless, hopeless way, chance opened the stage door of a provincial theatre for him. He was content with a humble position. He sought not, nor wished for a higher one. He was still trying to lose himself. He wanted to forget that he had been the clever and scholarly schoolmaster, happy and content in loving a woman whom he fondly believed loved him. The iron had burnt into his soul. The wrong he had suffered had warped his nature. Silent and brooding he nursed this wrong, until it took possession of him, as it were.
At length came that fatal meeting between him and his false wife. Years had passed, and so changed him that she knew him not. But he knew her, and he sealed her doom. He determined that the man should die too, but his aim was not true. The reason that he fled from the scene of his crime was that he had no intention of suffering as a common felon. And from this point I cannot do better than quote his own words:
"I had no desire to live. What was life to me now. Its savour had gone, it no longer had any meaning for me. Hushed was the music that had once charmed me; dead the flowers that had bedecked my path.
"I could not cling to life as a mere animal, merely for the sake of living; and death filled me with no terror, caused me no shrinking. But my deed was a deed of justice, a deed of merited vengeance. That will be denied. So be it. But this woman had cruelly, shamefully wronged me; wrenched and torn my heart with the ruthlessness of a brute, and so I slew her. It was my right, my privilege, and I exercised it. Nevertheless, by that act I knew that I had forfeited my own life to the laws of the so- called Christian country in which I lived. But I was resolved to pay the forfeit in my own way. I wished to remain in the world only long enough to let the world know the truth. That done, I would quit it without one sigh, one pang of regret.
"It is all ended now. The revelation is made. The curious will be satisfied, the prurient will have food for reflection. I shall be neither wept nor sung. Distinctions, honours, high position might have been mine, had I not made a frail woman my leaning staff. But women wreck men's lives and laugh. And with the brazen effrontery of a raddled cancaneuse face the world and pose as the incarnation of virtue and truth. It is all very pitiable! It is all very human! It began with the frailty of Eve in the Garden of Paradise, it will only end when the heavens shall be rolled up as a scroll, and the great globe itself shall dissolve away. Laugh, gentlemen and ladies, laugh your loudest lest you might be compelled to weep."
"GIVE a dog a bad name and you might as well hang him," so runs the saw, and it is found to be applicable to many affairs of our everyday life. In the case I am about to relate the house known as the "Grange," situated in a rather lonely spot on the high road running north from Carlisle, and about two and a half miles from that town was a monument to the truth of the adage. The house was a very old one, dating back probably before Queen Elizabeth's time, and it had known many vicissitudes of fortune. It had for a period of something like half a century been in the possession of and tenanted by a somewhat eccentric gentleman and his wife named Shrapston. Mr. Shrapston lived to be nearly ninety, and his wife was eighty when she predeceased him ten years before he was called upon to lay down the burden of life. It appears that he felt her loss very keenly, and after her death he shut himself off from all society, his wants being attended to by an old dame who resided in the neighbouring village.
Mr. Shrapston never had any children, and at his death down swooped a flock of hungering relatives hoping to secure his property, of which he possessed a considerable amount apart from the Grange. He died intestate, and the relatives began to wrangle and jangle, and in stepped the lawyers, for it was too good a pie for them to be indifferent about. Of course they stirred up the strife. It was to their interest to do that, and as the contention waxed obstinate and furious, the property was thrown into Chancery, which is equivalent to saying that it was thrown into a maelstrom, which sucks in everything that comes within its vortex, and gives nothing back except the remnants of wreckage.
And so while the slow moving wheels of Chancery were grinding and pulverizing, the Grange gradually fell into pitiable decay. Its grounds became choked with weeds, and the hand of ruin left its impress upon the whole place. Years and years passed, and every year served but to give a deeper melancholy to the shunned and deserted place. Shunned by the local people because they averred that it was haunted, and deserted because Chancery, like a bird of ill omen, had fixed its beak into its very vitals.
The Grange indeed became an object lesson about the appositeness of the adage of giving a dog a bad name, etc., so that he who ran might read. It got a bad name soon after Mr. Shrapston's death, and it seemed as if nothing would remove the odium attaching to it. Boys and girls coming home from school passed it with a shudder, and at night the yokels when they went by whistled to keep their courage up.
What restless spirit it was that haunted this once peaceful home no one seemed to know, or even made any attempt to define. But people whose veracity was above suspicion, seemingly, averred that they had heard unearthly sounds issuing from the ruined house, and had seen strange forms moving about, and ghostly figures had been known to glide noiselessly through the weed- grown gardens, and then suddenly vanish into thin air.
If anyone had been bold enough to volunteer to take up his residence in that haunted house he would have gladly been allowed to remain rent free for a time until the place was purged of its evil reputation. But no such lion-hearted person was forthcoming, and the haunting ghosts held undisputed sway. So this state of matters went on for years, and as no one thought it his business to interfere, the place assumed a more and more desolate and forlorn appearance. A curse, indeed, seemed to rest upon it; by all the people in the neighbourhood it was absolutely shunned; and for miles and miles round about the country it was known as "the haunted house."
About ten or twelve miles from the haunted Grange, but on the Carlisle and Newcastle Road, was situated "Norman Halt," the seat of Mr. Horace Fanshawe, a very wealthy gentleman, who was connected with the shipping interests in Newcastle-on-Tyne and Sunderland. Mr. Fanshawe was said to be one of the wealthiest men in that part of the country, and he was noted alike for his hospitality, his charity, and his magnificent house.
Norman Hall was an old baronial structure, but had been considerably improved and modernized, and its owner had gradually bought up the surrounding lands until he had a splendid park-like estate, covering an area of nearly a thousand acres. Mr. Fanshawe also had a small estate and a house near Lucerne in Switzerland, and he always went there with his family for a couple of months in the summer. During his absence at this period the greater part of Norman Hall was locked up, the steward of the estate and three or four servants being left in charge. It chanced that on one occasion just before he went away on this annual holiday he had been presented with a magnificent service of plate valued at upwards of two thousand guineas.
He was a very popular man, and had done a very great deal for his native town, both in a public and private character, and on the occasion of his reaching his sixtieth birthday it was resolved that some mark of the universal esteem in which he was held should be bestowed upon him. A committee had therefore been formed, and a sum of money raised sufficient to purchase the service of plate alluded to, and to pay for the painting of his portrait by a well-known artist. These things had been presented to him at a public banquet, and, of course, the event was made much of in the local papers, and so gained wide publicity.
Six weeks later Mr. Fanshawe departed with his family for Switzerland, making the usual arrangements with regard to Norman Hall that he had done for years past. As the place had always enjoyed an immunity from the operations of burglars during Mr. Fanshawe's time, no very extraordinary precautions were taken to defeat the objects of such gentry, should they appear upon the scene; but in an ordinary way the house was considered quite secure.
It was the custom when the family were absent for all the plate and such like valuables to be stored in a large cemented vault in the basement. This vault had originally been used as a wine cellar, but for some reason Mr. Fanshawe had had a new wine cellar built in a different part of the building, and the old one was appropriated as a store-room for the valuables not in use. And in order to render it perfectly secure, as it was thought, a very solid oak door, studded with iron knobs had been put up, and this door was locked by powerful bolts shooting into the solid masonry. As it would have been utterly impossible to reach the vault from the outside except by laborious excavation, which would have occupied a long time, it was considered there was very little risk. The modern burglar, however, is an enterprising fellow, and his skill and cunning have increased in proportion to the increase in appliances for safeguarding property.
Now, it so happened that when the family were away no one slept in that particular section of the building in which the vault was situated, and so at night it was practically deserted. This fact must have become known to certain gentlemen who live by appropriating other men's goods, for between the hours of midnight and six o'clock one August night, while the family were abroad, the house was entered by the kitchen window. This window was protected by iron bars, but two of the bars had been eaten through by the application of some powerful acid, and then removed. Next a pane of glass was taken out with great skill, then a hole was made in the shutters so that the fastenings might be undone; and the clever cracksmen having gained an entrance proceeded at once, apparently to the vault, where they set to work upon the door. With the aid of centre bits of the most approved construction, and watch spring-saws, they cut a piece clean out of the door, the hole being large enough to admit a small man.
Having succeeded in thus breaking into the treasure house, the rest was easy. They cleared off the two thousand guinea set of plate, together with two or three thousand pounds' worth of other plate, and with this valuable swag they made good their retreat.
The robbery was discovered by the servants on coming down in the morning, and the steward was at once apprised. A little examination soon revealed the amount of plunder the thieves had cleared off, and then the steward lost no time in sending information to the local police. Investigation made two points very clear. Firstly, the burglars were old and experienced hands, for amateurs and mere dabblers in the art of burglary could never have displayed the consummate skill that was shown in this case. Secondly, the enterprising cracksmen must have had a pretty intimate knowledge of the plan of the premises, and it was obvious they were fully aware of the difficulties they would have to encounter before reaching the guarded treasure, and so they had provided themselves with working tools of the most improved and modern kind; and the way they had cut through the massive door evinced a mechanical skill and perseverance that it was to be regretted was not applied to a better cause.
The local authorities, having mastered the details as set forth above, expressed a confident hope of being able to capture the rascals before twenty-four hours had elapsed. The rascals, however, proved to be no fledglings, and, the twenty-four hours having expired, they were still at large, and not the faintest trace of their retreat had been discovered.
In the meantime a telegram had been sent to Mr. Fanshawe giving him particulars of the robbery, and he wired back that he would start at once for England, and that neither expense nor effort was to be spared to recover the stolen presentation plate, which had a value for him far beyond money. Every effort was made, but without success, and when the wealthy owner reached his home on the fourth day no tale nor tiding had been obtained of the thieves. Necessarily he was greatly disappointed, and the loss of his presentation service, of which he was very proud, was a great blow to him. He expressed himself dissatisfied with the local authorities, whom rightly or wrongly he blamed for being lax, and he seemed to think that had they displayed greater energy they might have succeeded.
A day or two later he paid me the compliment of asking me to go down from Edinburgh, where I was staying, and see what I could do in the matter, and I lost no time in complying with his request. As soon as I arrived I at once set to work, and made a thorough investigation into all the circumstances connected with the robbery, so far as they were known. As I have already stated, it was clear that the burglars were experts, and no less clear they must have got a pretty accurate knowledge of the house. It seemed to me of the highest importance that I should at the outset make an attempt to discover how this knowledge had been gained, for if I could discover that, an important clue might be afforded.
In cases of this kind one is forced into supposing that necessary knowledge required for a successful operation on such a scale of magnitude is derived from some traitor in the camp. It is well known to the police that when burglars contemplate making a haul on a large scale the first thing they do is to survey the ground so to speak, and get hold of some member of the household, who for a consideration will impart such information as will aid them to successfully carry out their nefarious enterprise.
In every large household where there are many servants kept one or other of them will be found of sufficiently plastic material to be moulded to the cracksman's purpose. In nine cases out of ten it is a female domestic who gives her master or mistress away.
Let it not be supposed that this implies a universal alliance on the part of female servants with the burglaring fraternity. What I mean to say is that domestics of the softer sex are more susceptible to the insidious advances of the young man who has an eye on her master's property, and in the character of a sweetheart he manages to get surreptitious invitations to little entertainments mayhap, and makes the very best use of his opportunity by surveying the difficulties he will have to encounter when he begins the attack on the stronghold; or should he not be invited to the house by the coy maiden, he artfully contrives to exact from her such verbal particulars as are likely to be of use. But whatever way it is done the fact is indisputable, that burglars of the first rank proceed upon very businesslike lines, and by hook or by crook procure the information which they consider desirable for their guidance. It is no infrequent thing to find that in connection with big undertakings cracksmen have had elaborate draughts made of the premises on which they are going to operate.
It may be remembered that some years ago a smooth-faced, oily- tongued rascal named Henry Voules was convicted and sentenced to a long term of imprisonment in connection with a big burglary at a mansion in Gloucestershire. This fellow was known as "The Cracksman's Surveyor." He was respectably connected, and had served his time in an architect and surveyor's office. He robbed his employers, however, and suffered imprisonment. On his release he seems to have abandoned himself to a life of dissipation, and he became the associate of characters of the worst description, and, turning his technical knowledge to account, he made quite a fat living by secretly surveying and making drawings of buildings that were to be entered by gentlemen of the night. He managed this by all sorts of pretexts and artful subterfuges, but in the case of the Gloucestershire mansion, which was stripped of a large amount of valuables, he so closely identified himself with the enterprise that the law was able to lay its iron hand upon him, and he was prevented from doing further mischief for a number of years.
In my interview with Mr. Fanshawe I necessarily plied him with a series of questions with a view to determining, if possible, whether or not his female retainers had followers coming to the house. He knew so little of his domestic arrangements, however, that he was quite unable to tell me, and suggested that the steward would be in a position most likely to aid me. I therefore applied to that gentleman, but with scarcely any better result, for he said that he never interfered with the kitchen arrangements of the establishment.
Consequently I fell back upon the cook. She was a lady with a considerable conceit of herself, and a volubility of speech that was little short of alarming. She was a buxom widow of some forty summers or so, and she had a daughter, named Lucy, in the house, who fulfilled the duties of under chambermaid. With a little finessing and some diplomacy I learned from madam, the cook, that her daughter Lucy was engaged to "a highly-respectable young man" named Robert Arkwright, who had been an assistant in a drapery establishment in Carlisle, but at that period was out of a situation. But that did not concern him, his fiancée, or prospective mother-in-law very much, as it was understood that he had come into some money through the death of an uncle in Australia, and as soon as his rights were fully confirmed he and his lady love were to be united in the holy bonds of matrimony.
This was all very interesting, and seemed feasible and proper enough. Nevertheless I thought it desirable to interview Miss Lucy. I found her to be an exceedingly pretty girl, and she had evidently inherited her mother's gift of speech and self- assurance.
I may premise that she was not aware of what my business was, so that I was able to approach her without raising in her mind any suspicion that I had ulterior views. The opportunity for me to talk to her was afforded by Mr. Fanshawe, and, gathering at once that she was coquettish and vain, I ingratiated myself by paying her compliments in the first instance, and she showed that she was peculiarly susceptible to flattery. After a profusion of compliments, I said:
"Such a pretty girl as you will have numerous lovers, I suppose?"
She tossed her head disdainfully and answered:
"Oh, I could have as many as I liked, I daresay; but I am quite satisfied with the one I've got."
"You have one then?"
"Certainly I have."
"Are you engaged?"
"Of course I am."
"And I suppose your young man comes here to see you?"
"Certainly he does."
"He comes and has dinner or supper sometimes on a Sunday; but what are you asking these questions for?"
"Well—because for the time being I am interested in you."
"I don't see why you should be interested in me," she remarked.
"Surely a gentleman may interest himself in the welfare of a pretty girl?"
She smiled, blushed, and looked demure, and said with a little sigh:
"You are very kind, sir."
I saw I had made an impression, and following up my advantage I asked:
"Has this young man of yours ever been over the house?"
"Oh, yes, I've shown him all over the place when the family were away."
After this admission I did not consider it advisable to pursue the subject farther, and so, making a few commonplace remarks, I left her, and began to wonder whether it was likely that Robert Arkwright had been an accessory to the burglary. My next step was to find out all I could about the young man; but I was careful to so conduct my inquiries that he was quite ignorant of my very existence.
He was a young fellow of about eight-and-twenty, and so exceedingly unattractive—indeed, he was positively ugly—that I marvelled much what it was pretty Lucy saw in him to admire. He had red hair, coarse features, a large mouth, and lips that seemed to have a strong objection to meet each other, and owing to this peculiarity they constantly revealed a very unpleasant set of teeth, upon which the finger of decay had left its impress. It is true there is no accounting for tastes, and what one person objects to another may admire; but it certainly was not an easy matter to determine how Arkwright had succeeded in attracting Lucy. Moreover, he was a very commonplace fellow, and of a moody, sullen, heavy disposition.
For two years he had been in the employment of a draper in a large way of business in Carlisle, but had been discharged because it was discovered that he was much given to betting on horse racing. As the draper did not consider he could be well served by a young man who had a liking for the turf, he discharged him solely on that account, otherwise he would have kept him on, as he had no other complaint to make against him.
Arkwright had been out of employment for six months, but had shown no great desire to obtain any other situation, and a report had spread about—originating, as I was disposed to believe, with him—that he had succeeded to some money. He lived at home with his father and mother, an aged couple much respected in the town. The father had for a period of nearly half a century been in the employment of a Westmorland family as a gamekeeper, and getting too old for work he had been pensioned off. Robert Arkwright was the only son of his parents, but there were four daughters. Three of them were married, and living abroad with their husbands, two being in Australia, the third in Canada, while the fourth was in the household of Lord Basingstoke as a chambermaid.
So much did I gather of the Arkwright family, and so far there was nothing apparently that justified suspicion attaching itself to Robert. Nevertheless I was not satisfied, for, going deeper than the surface, I could not help thinking that there was something in Bob's character which, to my mind at any rate, revealed a flaw, and a grave one too. I could not, for instance, obtain any confirmation from a reliable source of the report that he had succeeded to money, and, on the other hand, I did get indisputable evidence that for months he had been very intimately associated with some of the shadiest of turfites, and had been seen repeatedly in the company of a well-known welsher and blackleg.
It was therefore perfectly obvious that he was not quite the nice young man "his girl" and "his girl's" mother considered him to be, and I came to the conclusion that the probabilities were he could give some information about the burglary had he chosen to speak out, but to what extent he was involved I was not prepared to even hazard a conjecture. The burglars, whoever they were, were experts, and the likelihood was they had found out that Bob was paying his devours to Lucy, and deemed him a fitting subject to practise their arts and wiles upon, and by bribing him they had succeeded in getting from him a plan of the house. This was in substance the theory I worked out, and as it was my habit never to abandon what seemed to be a clue, however faint, I resolved on shadowing Robert Arkwright for a little while, in order to determine if there was anything or not in his conduct which would seem to justify me in my suspicions.
At any rate up to that moment, although I had not been idle or asleep, I had not got the ghost of a trace of anyone else who was at all likely to have had a hand in the burglarious enterprise. The strongly expressed opinion of the local police was that the successful operators on Mr. Fanshawe's strong room were gentlemen from a distance—Edinburgh or London probably—and inquiries were being pushed in both those places with a view to ascertaining if anyone had been attempting to sell plate there. For my own part, while I was quite prepared to admit the strong probability of the burglars having come from a distance, I was pretty certain they would not attempt to sell the plate either in England or in Scotland. As experts, and not mere dabblers in the housebreaking line, they would know quite well the risk they would run if they attempted to dispose of the swag in this country. They would either deal with a fence or carry the metal to Holland or Belgium, where—to the disgrace of the powers that be in those countries—there is a very ready market for the sale of stolen property.
But, while I admitted the probability—even the strong probability—that the rascals were not local men, I stuck to my theory that the clue was more likely to be found in the neighbourhood of Carlisle than elsewhere, and that, inferentially, there was good reason for believing that Bob Arkwright had been utilized as a cat's-paw, and so I clung to him.
Of course, during the time that I was thus occupied I heard the story about the well-known—so-called haunted house. But not being a superstitious man, and having absolutely no faith in the supernatural, I took but little, if any, interest in the story. Under different circumstances, perhaps, I might have been disposed to investigate the cause which had led a good property to get such a bad reputation, and induced hundreds of otherwise intelligent beings to give credence to the stupid stories about ghosts and hobgoblins. But now I was too much absorbed in my work of trying to solve the problem set me to be able to devote any attention to the idle gossip of how children had been terrified into fits, and the hair on the heads of yokels had risen perpendicular, at the sight of ghostly forms flitting about the grounds of the ruined house, and at the sounds that issued from the tumble-down building.
One day—it was about a fortnight after I had commenced my shadowing of Robert Arkwright that I met him in the High Street of Carlisle in company with an individual who, by his low type of face, seemed to belong to the prize fighting, walking, burglaring order of men. He was a singularly unprepossessing individual, with whom a nervous person would not have cared to be alone on a deserted heath, say at night-time, or, for the matter of that, even in the daytime. There was a certain horseyness in his get-up, and in his general expression a suggestion of the bold, bad burglar and smiling murderer type. The low brow, the flat bulgy nose, the small cunning eyes, the thick blubber lips, and the heavy square jaw too surely indicated a cruel, sensual, selfish, wicked nature, and no one with the slightest pretensions to a knowledge of physiognomy would have given that fellow credit for anything good.
It was pretty late in the afternoon when I met them, and watching them narrowly for some time, I saw them disappear in a public-house, and a quarter of an hour later I, too, entered, and found them comfortably ensconced in the bar parlour, where they were smoking cigars and indulging in the extravagant luxury of champagne. This was very suggestive, and I began to think I was on the point of receiving a revelation.
The two fellows spent fully two hours in the room, and having discussed their champagne, they displayed the absence of esthetic taste by following it up with whisky. During this time I could gather nothing of their conversation, for they conversed in very low tones, and seemed peculiarly confidential. At last they rose to go. It was then quite dark outside. A high wind was blowing, and the sky was overcast with dense clouds, threatening rain. Indeed, as we got outside drops did begin to patter down. I say when we got outside, but let it not be supposed from this that I had been admitted into the confidence of the two "gents." They were all unconscious of my presence.
At first they strolled down the street in a southerly direction, and stood for a space of ten minutes at the entrance to a court engaged in close conversation. Then they entered a tobacconist's and purchased some cigars, and, emerging, they walked north, crossed the bridge over the beautiful River Eden, and went off in the direction of the haunted house. Naturally I wondered where they were going and I frankly confess it did not strike me for a moment that their objective point was the home of the ghosts. But when they reached the lonely and decaying place, which could only be discerned in massive silhouette, they paused as if listening for sounds on the road or straining their eyes to assure themselves that they were alone there. All was silent, however, and the melancholy of the surroundings was most impressive. To nervous people there would have seemed something positively eerie about that deserted building with its weed-grown grounds, its mouldering walls, as if a curse had been uttered against it.
The two men, being satisfied that no other human eye was near, got over the wall into the grounds. The iron gate was fastened with a rusty chain and padlock. Then they disappeared in the direction of the house, and in a little while I, too, got over the wall; but by this time the men could no longer be seen, and I felt sure that they had gone inside to fraternize with the haunting spirits of the house. I stood still and listened, but heard no sound save the mournful wailing of the wind through the poplar trees of which there were a great number about.
The night was so dark that it was impossible to discern anything many yards away. Cautiously I crept up to the building and listened again, but nothing but the wind was audible. Going round to the back of the house I came to a window of a lower room that was either boarded up or shuttered. Through a tiny chink, scarcely large enough to admit a fine needle, I detected a ray of light which made it evident that behind those shutters the ghosts were either in consultation or holding revel.
My first impulse was to obtain entry by hook or by crook, and join the spirits of the night. But as second thoughts are said to be the best, I started back for Carlisle, as hard as I could go. Since the days of my youth I don't think I ever went over ground so quickly on foot. Making my way to the head police station, I had an interview with the superintendent and informed him of what I had seen, requesting him at the same time to place a few men at my disposal so that we might make a raid on the haunted house. This he readily did, and in company with six stalwart fellows, and provided with a crowbar and dark lanterns, I started back. When we reached the place inspection proved that the spirits were still in that shuttered room, so, disposing my men tactically, I surveyed the premises with a view to obtaining entrance. But the only way that presented itself was the main door, which I had no doubt the men I had shadowed had opened with a key. But the only key I had was the crowbar. With this I went to work vigorously, and in a few minutes had forced the lock, and accompanied by some of my companions, while the others kept watch outside, I entered the building.
All was silent, and we made our way hastily to the room of which I have spoken. The light had been extinguished, but our lanterns revealed a strange sight. Crowding in one corner were Robert Arkwright and his companion, while the floor was littered with a miscellaneous collection of property, including some of the silver stolen from Norman Hall. For some moments the two rascals seemed dazed and stupid at this sudden and unexpected detection, but then the older fellow rose up and showed fight, but he was speedily overpowered and rendered harmless; and when these two very substantial ghosts were secured we made an inspection of the premises, and discovered an extraordinary amount of most valuable plunder, including Mr. Fanshawe's presentation plate, which, fortunately, was intact. Down in a cellar was a small crucible and furnace for melting gold and silver, and it was found afterwards that some of the proceeds of the Norman Hall robbery had already gone into the melting pot, and the presentation set would, no doubt, have speedily followed suit had I not interrupted the merry little game.
It may be imagined the sensation that was caused the next day when the news spread that the secrets of the haunted house had been brought to light.
Arkwright's companion was soon identified as an individual who had suffered a long term of imprisonment for a robbery with violence in Liverpool. He had been convicted under the name of Henry Slater, but he had a long string of aliases, and was known to be a desperate and dangerous fellow, who was a pest to society and a disgrace to the ranks of men. He was a leader of a band of thieves, and the old house near Carlisle had long been used as a storehouse for the plunder; and, of course, everything possible had been done to foster the belief amongst the ignorant and the superstitious that the place was haunted. The result was the wretches had enjoyed a long immunity, and might have continued to do so had it not been for the Norman Hall exploit.
It was proved that Slater was in the habit of going about the country on the look-out for young men who might be susceptible to corrupting influences, and willing to render aid by giving particulars of houses, et cetera. Arkwright had thus been got hold of. He had first met Slater at the Carlisle races, and had lent a willing ear to the voice of the tempter, and being of a depraved nature and wickedly-inclined he had readily joined the band, and was regarded with peculiar favour by Slater, as a young fellow who would prove of great service in aiding the business.
A VERY curious crime—well, that is to say, it was curious owing to the way in which it was brought home to the guilty person—was once committed at a lonely house a few miles outside the ancient city of York.
The house in question was in the possession of a Mr. John Wenlake, a young unmarried man, who, through his father, came into possession of this house, with something like four hundred acres of land surrounding it. Being very fond of a country life and agricultural pursuits, he settled down as a gentleman farmer, and devoted himself principally to rearing cattle and horses. His house, which was known as the "Priory," was situated half a mile off the highroad between York and Newcastle. It was approached by a lane, which ended when it reached the grounds belonging to the house; but there was a public right-of-way down this lane, and along a pathway across some fields that led to a village some distance off. Anyone coming down the lane, and wishing to get into the field pathway, had to get over a stile, which was something like a hundred yards from the main gateway that gave access to the Priory grounds.
The gate itself was a massive oak structure of somewhat elaborate design, and just inside of the grounds was a lodge, usually inhabited by a man named Thomas Strickland, whose wife had held the position of lodge gatekeeper, and Strickland himself was a sort of handy man, undertaking the duties of gamekeeper, gardener, stable hand, and what not. He had been in the service of the Wenlake family for a great many years, and carried John Wenlake about when he was a little child. Between master and man, therefore, there was a strong feeling of regard, and young John Wenlake reposed great confidence in Strickland, who was a rugged, manly sort of fellow, full of fine feeling in his own rough way, and much respected by everyone who knew him.
Strickland was as true as steel to his master, and watched his interests with a very jealous eye. Nor were his duties onerous by any means; for, apart from the four hundred acres or thereabout that John Wenlake absolutely owned, he rented something like another thousand adjoining his own property, and, as part of this estate abounded in game, which was very carefully preserved, Tom Strickland's time was fully taken up, for practically he was the head gamekeeper; and, as he was a skilled gardener, he, with the assistance of two or three other men, kept the gardens round the house in order.
The Priory was one of the old-fashioned mansions which abound in England, and are more or less closely interwoven with the fortunes and history of the country. The Priory had gone through many vicissitudes, and there was a tradition that Oliver Cromwell had once lodged there during the struggle that waged between the Royalists and Roundheads. Indeed, this was something more than a tradition, for there was documentary evidence of it amongst the family records. Of course, this circumstance has nothing to do with the story I have to tell. It is merely mentioned as an interesting little detail.
About three weeks before the incident occurred which caused such a sensation round that part of the country Tom Strickland lost his wife. She, too, had been in the service of the Wenlake family nearly all her lifetime, and she devoted her attention principally to the dairy work. They were a childless couple, but were said to be the happiest wedded pair in all Yorkshire. Tom considered his wife faultless, and she considered him a model man.
They had for years occupied the lodge, and Mrs. Strickland made it a sort of little domestic paradise, where her husband found perfect domestic bliss after his day's toil. After his wife's death he was inconsolable, and his master wished him to live with the other servants in the house so that he might have company, and thus be prevented, to some extent, from brooding over his irreparable loss. But he opposed this, saying that he very much preferred to continue to occupy the lodge cottage, which was associated with too many happy memories for him to tear himself away from it.
This determination was destined to prove fatal to him as will be presently seen.
Three weeks after Mrs. Strickland's death, Mr. Wenlake was going up to London, when Tom Strickland went up to him and said that he thought the main entrance gate (at the bottom of the lane, already referred to) would be the better for a coat of paint, and his master told him that if he thought so he could paint it by all means.
Tom—as I have stated,—was a handy man, and could turn his hand to almost anything, so having got Mr. Wenlake's permission, he set to work to paint the gate and its supports. It was in the summer time, and, having given the woodwork one coat during the day, Strickland found the next morning that it was covered with thousand and thousands of gnats that had adhered to the paint while wet. During that day he had to give attention to other duties, but in the evening when the twilight had fallen he set to work, assisted by one of the farm hands, and sand-papered the gate, and, having got all the gnats off, he gave it another coat of oak-coloured paint.
When the twilight faded they continued the work by the aid of lanterns, and finished about eleven o'clock. Then Tom went up to the house to have some bread and cheese and ale in the kitchen. His supper over, he lighted his pipe, bade the servants who were there good-night, and started for the lodge. It was then just turned half past eleven. That was the last time he was ever seen alive.
The distance from the house to the lodge was somewhat under an eighth of a mile. That was by the carriage drive, which was bordered on each side by shrubs and trees. There was a slightly shorter way by a path that ran through a copse, and was used principally by the servants and tradespeople. The lodge was connected with the house by a private telegraph wire which Mr. Wenlake had put up, as in the case of burglary or fire the lodge keeper could be advised to go for assistance, and he could also telegraph any message of importance to the house. Mrs. Strickland was very expert in working this telegraph, and her husband also understood it slightly, but after her death he had perfected himself, and was as able to send or receive messages as she had been.
It was a beautiful night. There was no moon, but the stars were shining brilliantly, and the air was redolent of the fragrance of new-mown hay. The stars paled before the dawning day. The sun rose in splendour, flinging his broad beams over the magnificent landscape, and gladdening the hearts of those who earned their living from gathering the fruits of the soil.
When seven o'clock came and Tom Strickland had not been seen by anyone, some inquiries began to be made. Since his wife's death he had been in the habit of going up to the house for his meals, and the kitchen breakfast hour was seven o'clock in the summer. It was considered a little strange that he had not turned up on this particular morning, but the inference was he had overslept himself. So the cook put some tea in a jug, and some bacon and bread on a plate, and sent a boy with it to the lodge for Strickland's breakfast. After a while, however, the lad returned, bringing the things back with him, and he reported that, though he had knocked vigorously at the door of the lodge, he could get no response, and he thought "Maister Strickland must be a-sleeping mighty hard." So he was, but not in the way the lad meant.
As the telegraph wire set an alarm bell in the cottage in motion and rang this bell pretty loudly, the current was turned on, but no response came, and then someone suggested that probably Tom had gone out very early to try and get a shot at a large hawk that had recently been committing depredations amongst some young game birds in one of the preserves. As it was known that he had been trying for several days to shoot this hawk, the suggestion served to avert suspicion of anything being wrong.
Towards noon, however, a feeling of uneasiness became general amongst the servants, with whom Strickland was a great favourite, for he had not been seen by anyone. Two of the farm hands consequently hurried off to the lodge, but they found the house shut, and all their knocking failed to get any response. So they went back to the house again and informed the steward, and by this time real alarm was felt, as it was feared something must be wrong. So the steward, with some of his people, hurried down to the lodge, and he instructed one of the men to climb on to the roof of a coalshed at the back of the house, by which means he could reach a window, and so get into the place. This was done, and the others waited outside in anxious suspense.
In a few minutes the man opened the front door and said that Strickland was not in the house, and his bed had not been slept in. The alarm, of course, soon spread, and inquiries were instituted, but not one scrap of information was forthcoming. A hint was thrown out that he might have committed suicide, as it was known that he had brooded very much over his wife's death. But those who had been with him in the kitchen on the previous night when he had his supper averred that he was then unusually cheerful, and even disposed to joke, for he said that, as he had the paint about, he was going to smarten his cottage up a bit. Whereupon somebody asked him if he was already thinking of a second wife, and he laughingly said he thought it wouldn't be a bad thing for him and the cook to make a match, as the cook was a widow.
These little pleasantries were remembered and advanced as negativing the idea of suicide. Nevertheless, it was deemed desirable to drag a large lake there was on the estate. This was done, but without any result. Of course, the police were advised of the matter, and inquiries were set on foot round about the country, and a search for Strickland was continued on the estate, but when three days had elapsed there was still no trace of the missing man, find the affair assumed the proportions of a "first- class mystery."
Various theories were advanced to account for his disappearance, and that which found most favour was that Strickland's brain had suddenly turned and he had wandered away, and would ultimately be heard of in some distant part of the country. This theory, indeed, was advanced by a medical man in York, who wrote to one of the papers saying that the fact of Strickland having been apparently more cheerful than usual on the night he disappeared strengthened the theory, for people who lost their reason through much brooding over some sorrow often, just before the mind gave way, seemed to regain their former cheerfulness. But this was only a phase of the characteristic cunning which is always associated with insanity of all kinds.
This idea being backed up with the weight of medical authority carried conviction to many minds. But there were some, who, knowing the man well, scouted the idea with scorn, saying that though he had certainly felt the loss of his wife very severely—having been strongly attached to her—he was not weak-brained enough to lose his reason over it. His nature, they asserted, was a strong and rugged one, and though he knew how to sorrow like a man, he was also capable of bearing sorrow as a man should.
Mr. Wenlake was at this time in London engaged on business there, and he was duly informed of the strange disappearance of his favourite servant, and of the failure to get any trace of him. He thereupon came post-haste to me and told me all the circumstances as far as he knew them; and, being very greatly distressed, he begged that I would start with him at once for York. I was much engaged at the time, but he was upset and so anxious about the fate of his man that I yielded to his entreaties, and consented to accompany him down by the next train, which started at noon.
The run to York from London was not made quite so expeditiously in those days as it is now, and it took us nine hours to reach the Priory. Of course it was too late that night to take any active step towards trying to find a solution of the mystery. But I questioned the servants who had been with Strickland on the night he disappeared. My questions being put with a view to elicit if it was known that any one bore him ill- will. It was generally conceded, however, that such was not the case, for he was a man who made himself agreeable with everyone, and was kind and indulgent to a fault.
As I sat that night, however, with Mr. Wenlake in his smoking- room discussing the matter, he told me that about three months before, in his capacity of Justice of the Peace, he had two notorious poachers brought before him by Strickland, they having been caught the previous night trespassing on his own preserves, and doing very considerable damage. He refused to deal with the case, however, as the matter was a personal one, and he told Strickland to lodge information with the police. This was done, with the result that the men, who were brothers, by the name of Potter, were arrested, and as they had long been a terror to the neighbourhood, Strickland gave evidence against them. The consequence was they were convicted of wilful trespass, and were sent to prison with hard labour for a month. On their release a rumour became current that they had vowed vengeance against Strickland, and he was warned to be on his guard. But being a brave and fearless man he treated the matter with contempt.
I must confess that this little episode set me pondering a good deal, and the next morning I began to feel that the probabilities were in favour of the threat of vengeance having been fulfilled. Most certainly I attached no importance to the idea of sudden mental aberration causing the man to wander away; and I inclined irresistibly, as it were, to the belief that Strickland was dead, and had met his death by foul play. But if that was so, where was his body? A human body is by no means an easy thing to get rid of clandestinely, as many a criminal has found to his cost. Therefore, if Strickland was dead his body could not be very far away. Thus I reasoned, and on that reasoning I acted.
Having regard to the lateness of the hour at which the unfortunate man left the house for the lodge, it was not very probable that he would go out of the grounds. By that I mean there did not seem to me any sufficient reason to suppose it likely that he went for a stroll, fine though the night was, for it was a dark night, and the roads round about were unlighted and lonely. If, therefore, my supposition of his death was correct he must have been killed between the house and the lodge, so I went over the ground very carefully with the view of determining the possibility of a dead body being effectually concealed.
The distance, as I have already stated, between the lodge and the house was about the eighth of a mile, very slightly shorter by what was known as "the path through the copse." The chances were that Strickland took that path, so I paced it slowly, and with an eye keenly alert for some evidence that might seem to support my postulate.
Near the lodge I noticed that the branches of some wild shrubs were newly broken off, so this led me to examine that spot very carefully. The ground was simply the turf and moss, and I perceived that it had been much trampled on, and the moss and turf were crushed in by footprints. But I discovered something more ominous than this. There were gouts of blood—dried up now, and blackened by exposure to the air; but blood it was I felt convinced, for leaves, grass, moss, and bits of stick were clogged together. By scrutinizing the ground on my hands and knees, I traced blood-stains for yards, until they led me along the fence of the little garden of the lodge.
The cottage stood at right angles with the main gateway. At the back of the cottage, and extending round the side farthest from the gate was a patch of ground fenced in by an oak paling, and filled with old-fashioned flowers, chief amongst them being sunflowers and hollyhocks. At the back was a wicket gate that gave access to a cleared space of turf used for drying clothes.
Where the clearing ended about twenty-five yards from the fence, which was the boundary of the garden, was a tangled wilderness of undergrowth and bushes, brambles predominating. I discovered that through this undergrowth a passage had been forced, for the branches were crushed and broken, and penetrating into this wilderness by means of the track thus made I came upon a disused well. The well was boarded over, and the windlass had rotted and had broken away. The boarding that masked the mouth of the well, it was plain to see, had been recently disturbed. I lifted it without the slightest difficulty. I dropped a heavy bit of stick down the well, and after a few seconds it struck the water and there came up a dull echoing sound. The well was of great depth, as was proved by the length of time the stick took to reach the surface of the water.
Putting the board in its place again, I hurried back to the house and had an interview with Mr. Wenlake, and he told me that some years ago the well afforded the water supply to the lodge, but it got polluted in some way and he had it closed, and it had never been used since.
"Well, Mr. Wenlake," I said, "my impression is that that well is the temporary grave of your unfortunate servant."
He was quite staggered by this opinion, and uttered the one word:
"Neither impossible nor improbable," I replied. "A crime has been committed—of that I am convinced; and I have seen signs sufficient to justify me in supposing that the criminal or criminals knew of that well, and have used it as a means of hiding the evidence of their dark deed."
It was some moments before Mr. Wenlake recovered from the shock this caused him, and when he did he said the well must be immediately examined.
I told him that was exactly what I wished done, it he could get some men who would undertake to do it. The well was known to be of great depth, therefore the task was not an easy one. And it was also attended with great risk on account of foul gas.
Volunteers from the farm labourers were soon forthcoming for the work; but by lowering naked lights down the shaft of the well we found that the air was so poisonous that no human being could live in it, for the lights suddenly went out before they were half way down; and as the light of life would have gone out in the same way of anyone who had been rash enough to enter that mephitic atmosphere, we resolved on another plan. We constructed a heavy drag with two large hooks, and over a hundred and fifty feet of rope. Then we set to work with this apparatus, and for three long hours we fished away but got nothing, though there were indications that there was something, lying down at the bottom of that noisome shaft.
After a time our patience and labour were rewarded, for the hooks caught and we began to haul up a heavy weight, which when it emerged into the light revealed itself as the body of poor Tom Strickland. We brought it to the bank, and a dreadful sight shocked the onlookers. I will not harrow the reader's feelings by a detailed description of what we were compelled to witness. Suffice to say that Strickland had been foully and brutally murdered, his head being battered to pieces.
It was easy enough to construct a theory as to how the crime had been perpetrated. Somebody who knew the place well, and who knew that he was up at the house, and would presently return to his cottage, had waylaid him, and with a blow from a bludgeon had stunned him before he could offer the slightest resistance. Then he was battered out of semblance to himself, and, his life being destroyed, his poor remains were pitched down the well. It was a shocking and insensate crime, and the only apparent motive was vengeance.
That it was murder no one could for a brief instant doubt, and the problem to be solved was, Who had committed the crime? The man's death being proved, I began to search about for some clue to the perpetrator of the deed.
As already stated, on the night of his death Strickland had been painting the large gate that gave entrance of the grounds. This paint, I noticed, was smeared and streaked in places owing to somebody having touched it while it was wet. And at once it flashed upon me that if those smears had been made by the hands of the man who had murdered Strickland, I might get a clue, and after much searching about I discovered that the top rail of the stile over which one had to get to gain the field path was marked with the hand-print of some one whose hand had been covered with the wet paint of the gate.
The person had crossed the stile, and in doing so had placed his hand on the rail, thereby leaving behind him an extraordinary clue to his identity. The impression of this hand was singularly distinct, particularly the thumb and inner palm part; and extending from the top of the thumb right down to the centre of the palm was a mark that very plainly indicated a scar. There was no mistaking it. There it was, and a child could not have failed to see it. A critical examination of the paint work on the gate revealed the same mark. Now, Strickland did not finish painting the gate until pretty late, so that the person with the scar on his hand must have passed out after the painting was finished.
I deemed it prudent to keep this little discovery to myself for the time being, but I began to make cautious inquiries as to whether there was any person employed by Mr. Wenlake who was known to have a scar on his thumb and palm. But I could find no one who was so marked, and I, therefore, resolved to interview the brothers, John and William Potter, who, it was said, had been heard to utter threats against Strickland.
These young fellows, who were aged respectively twenty-two and twenty-six, lived in a little village about six miles away, and they were employed as brick-makers in a brickfield not far from where they lived. They both had an indifferent reputation, and they were known to be much given to poaching, and to be rather desperate young fellows.
John was the eldest, and he had, as I learned, already suffered imprisonment for a cowardly assault on an old woman who had given information against him in a poaching case, she having seen him coming away from a gentleman's estate with a bag of game in his possession.
I found that these young men had been in the habit of visiting nightly a beer house, known as the Bull and Mouth, in the village where they resided, and to this place I took my way. The place was crowded with the labourers from round about, and they passed their time principally in drinking cheap beer, smoking strong tobacco, and playing dominoes. John and William Potter were both there. They were powerfully-built young men, of a pronounced ruffianly type. Sinews and muscles and bone they had in perfection, but their brains were small, and their facial expression was sullen and forbidding.
It did not take me long to determine that John had a scar on the thumb and palm of his hand, which exactly corresponded with the handprint on the rail of the stile. This, of course, was an important link, but while it proved that he must have been in Mr. Wenlake's grounds on the night the gate was painted and that he got over the stile into the field path, it was hardly sufficient to justify one in denouncing him as the murderer of Strickland.
From inquiries I made the next day I ascertained that John had got the wound in his hand when he was a youth. For a short time he was employed in a butcher's shop, and one day while standing on a step ladder and endeavouring to reach down some meat from a hook the step ladder capsized, and the hook caught in the palm of his hand, and ripped a great gash to the very top of the thumb inside. When this wound healed, it left a ridged scar, as if a piece of cord had been inserted under the flesh, and being so prominent it, of course, made a distinct impression when wet with the paint.
I found that on the night of the murder they were both absent from their home, and did not return until about two o'clock in the morning. This was another link, and I thereupon went to the brickfield where they were at work, and interrogated them as to where they had spent the evening on the night that Tom Strickland was murdered. At first they thought they could brazen the matter out, and they cheekily asked me what business it was of mine; and when it dawned upon them that it was very much my business they grew confused and contradicted each other. And then as the best explanation they could give they said the fact was they had been after some rabbits.
"Where?" I asked.
They fell into confusion again, and said first one place and then another, but when I asked if they had been on Mr. Wenlake's premises they stoutly denied that they had. But their denial carried no weight. It was too unmistakably a lie to deceive anyone. Therefore to their amazement I arrested them both, and they were conveyed over to York, and I lost no time in searching their home, with the result that a suit of clothes was discovered, very much stained with blood, and also a formidable stick with a heavy knob at the end.
In due time, the brothers having been fully committed for trial, were brought up at the York Assizes. They managed by the aid of their friends to secure good counsel to represent them; but the evidence grew, and link by link such a chain was forged that no lawyer, however clever he might be, could possibly break it. It was proved that the two young men had lain in wait for Strickland, and that John Potter struck him down with the stick. Then they both kicked him with their heavy boots, and battered him with the stick until he was quite dead. At first they thought of leaving the body where it was, but William suggested the well and his brother assented.
After a patient and exhaustive trial which lasted two whole days they were convicted and the judge, in sentencing them, characterized the crime as one of the most brutal and horrible that had ever disgraced that part of the country. The prisoners' counsel had made the most desperate efforts to save the younger brother from the gallows, endeavouring by might and main to prove that he had acted under the influence of the elder one. But the judge said that no impartial man could take any other view than that which he took, and that was that they were both guilty in equal degree.
They had gone to the grounds with the deliberate intention of carrying out their murderous project for no other reason than that they felt themselves aggrieved by the course Strickland had pursued against them. It was true that the evidence disclosed that the elder brother struck the first blow, but the younger one was just as ready as his brother to do it. Therefore the guilt rested on both alike, and they were both sentenced to be hanged, and were cautioned to make the most of the short time remaining to them, as there was absolutely no hope for them in this world.
Notwithstanding the clearness of the evidence, some attempt was made to obtain a reprieve on the grounds that it had not been clearly proved that these young men really committed the murder. Happily, this attempt failed, and in due course these two dangerous ruffians were sent out of the world, where, during their short career, they had done so much evil.