E-text prepared by Al Haines
A QUEEN'S ERROR
CAPTAIN HENRY CURTIES
"The Blood Bond" "The Idol of the King" "Tears of Angels" "The Queen's Gate Mystery" "Out of the Shadows" Etc. Etc.
London F. V. White & Co. Ltd. 17 Buckingham Street, Strand, W.C. 1911
I. A STRANGE VISIT II. THE MAN WITH THE GLASS EYE III. THE SECOND VISIT AND ITS RESULT IV. I AM DETAINED V. ARRESTED VI. PUT TO THE TORTURE VII. CRUFT'S FOLLY VIII. SANDRINGHAM IX. THE DUKE OF RITTERSHEIM X. THE PLOT THAT FAILED XI. THE OCEANA XII. HELD UP XIII. DON JUAN D'ALTA XIV. THE CASKET XV. THE ABBOT OF SAN JUAN XVI. THE CONFESSION OF BROOKS XVII. THE STEEL SAFE XVIII. THE OLD GRAVEYARD XIX. THE STRUGGLE IN THE TUNNEL XX. THE DEPARTURE OF THE DUKE XXI. MADAME LA COMTESSE XXII. THE QUEEN'S ERROR XXIII. THE QUEEN'S ATONEMENT
A QUEEN'S ERROR
A STRANGE VISIT
I turned the corner abruptly and found myself in a long, dreary street; looking in the semi-fog and drizzle more desolate than those dismal old-world streets of Bath I had passed through already in my aimless wandering; I turned sharply and came almost face to face with her.
She was standing on the upper step, and the door stood open; the house itself looked neglected and with the general appearance of having been shut up for years. The windows were grimed with dirt, and there was that little accumulation of dust, pieces of straw, and little scraps of paper, under the two steps which tells of long disuse.
She stood on the step, a figure slightly over the middle height, leaning one hand on a walking stick, and her face fascinated me.
It was the face of an old lady of perhaps seventy, hale and healthful, with fresh colour on the cheeks, and bands of perfectly white hair falling over the ears. But it was the expression which attracted me; it was peculiarly sweet and winning.
My halt could only have been momentary. I recollected myself and was passing on, when she spoke to me.
"Would you be so kind as to do me a favour, sir?" she asked.
The voice was as sweet and winning as her expression; though she spoke perfect English, yet there was the very slightest soupcon of a foreign accent. Of what country, I could not tell.
I stopped again as she spoke, and having perhaps among my friends a little reputation for politeness to the weaker sex, especially the older members of it—for I am not by way of being a Lothario, be it said—I answered her as politely as I could.
"In what way may I be of service to you?"
She brought her walking stick round in front of her and leant upon it with both hands as she made her request. She then appeared, in the fuller light of the yellow-flamed old-fashioned gas lamp opposite, to be much older than I first thought.
"I want you, if you will," she said, "to come into this house for a few minutes. I wish to ask a further favour of you which I shall then have an opportunity of explaining, but, on the other hand, the service I shall ask will not go unrewarded."
Prepossessing though her appearance and address were, yet I hesitated.
I took another long look at her open face, white hair, and very correct old lady's black hat secured by a veil tied under her chin. It was just such a hat as my own dear mother used to wear.
"You seem to hesitate," she remarked, noting, I suppose, my delay in answering her; "but I assure you you have nothing to fear."
I took a sudden resolve, despite the many tragedies I had read of in connection with empty houses; I would trust her.
There was something about her face which conveyed confidence.
"Very well," I replied, "if I can be of any use to you, I will come in."
"Thank you," she said, "then kindly follow me."
She turned and held the door for me to pass in; when I was inside she closed it, and we stood almost in complete darkness, except for the glimmering reflected light of the yellow street lamp opposite, which struggled in through the dirty pane of glass over the door.
"Now," she added, "I will get a light."
She passed me and went to the hall table on which stood one of those candlesticks in which the candle is protected by a glass chimney. She struck a match and lighted a candle. "Now if you please," she added, going on before me down the dark passage. I saw now from her tottering walk that she was much older and much more feeble than I had imagined. I followed her and saw signs of dust and neglect on every side; the house, I should say, had stood empty for many years. But as I followed the old lady one thing struck me, and that was, that instead of the common candle which I would have expected her to use under the circumstances, the one she carried in its glass protector was evidently of fine wax. She took me down a long passage, and we came to a flight of stairs leading to the kitchens, I imagined.
"We must go down here," she announced. "I am sorry to have to take you to the basement, but it cannot be helped." Again I had some slight misgivings, but I braced myself. I had made up my mind and I would go forward.
I followed her as she went laboriously step by step down the flight. At the bottom was the usual long basement passage, such as I expected to see, but with this difference, it was swept and evidently well kept.
The old lady led on to the extreme end of this passage towards the back of the house, then opened a door on the left hand and walked in. At her invitation I followed her and found her busily lighting more wax candles fixed in old-fashioned sconces on the walls. As each candle burned up I was astonished to find the sort of room it revealed to me.
It was a lady's boudoir beautifully furnished and filled with works of art; china, choice pictures, and old silver abounded on every side; on the hearth burned a bright fire; on the mantelpiece was a very handsome looking-glass framed in oak. My companion, having lit six candles, went to the windows to draw down the blinds. I interposed and saved her this exertion by doing it myself.
I then became aware that the house, like so many others in Bath, was built on the side of a hill, the front door being on a level with the street, whilst the lower back windows even commanded lovely views over the beautiful valley, the town, and the distant hills beyond.
Below me innumerable lights twinkled out in the streets through the misty air, while here and there brightly lit tram cars wound through the town or mounted the hills. Thick though the air was the sight was exceedingly pretty.
I could now understand how even a room situated as this was in the basement of a house could become habitable and pleasant. The voice of the old lady recalled me to myself as I pulled down the last blind.
"I am sorry to have to bring you down here," she said. "It is hardly the sort of room in which a lady usually receives visitors, but you will perhaps understand my liking for it when I tell you that I have lived here many years."
The information surprised me.
"Whatever induced you to do that?" I asked without thinking, then recollected that I had no right to ask the question. "You must excuse my question," I added, "but I fear you find it very lonely unless you have some one living with you?"
"I live here," she replied, "absolutely alone, and yet I am never lonely."
"You have some occupation?" I suggested.
"Yes," she replied, "I write for the newspapers."
This piece of information astounded me more than ever. I imagined it to be the last place from which "copy" would emanate for the present go-ahead public prints, and the old lady to be the last person who could supply it.
She saw my puzzled look, and came to my aid with further information.
"Not the newspapers of this country," she added, "the newspapers of—of foreign countries."
I was more satisfied with this answer; the requirements of most foreign journals had not appeared to me to be excessive.
"I too am a brother of the pen," I answered, "I write books of sorts."
The old lady broke into a very sweet smile which lighted up her charming old face.
"Permit me to shake hands," she suggested, "with a fellow-sufferer in the cause of Literature."
I took her hand and noted its soft elegance, old though she was.
She crossed to a carved cupboard which was fixed in the wall, and took from it a tiny Venetian decanter, two little glasses, and a silver cigarette case.
"We must celebrate this meeting," she suggested with another smile, "as disciples of the pen."
She filled the two little glasses with what afterwards proved to be yellow Chartreuse, and held one glass towards me.
"Pray take this," she suggested, "it will be good for you after being out in the damp air."
I took the tiny glass of yellow liqueur in which the candlelight sparkled, and sipped it; it was superb.
"Now," she continued, indicating an armchair on the farther side of the fireplace, "sit and let us talk."
I took the chair, and she opened the silver box of cigarettes and pushed them towards me.
"I presume you smoke?" she suggested. "I smoke myself habitually; I find it a great resource and comfort. I lived for a long time in a country where all the ladies smoked."
I took a cigarette, lit a match, and handed her a light; she lit her cigarette with a grace born of long habit.
"Now," she said, as I puffed contentedly, "I can tell you what I have to say in comfort."
I certainly thought I had made a good exchange from the raw air of the street to this comfortable fireside.
"It will not interest you now," she continued, "to hear the reasons which have moved me to live here so long as I have done; that is a story which would take too long to tell you. All the preamble I wish to make to my remark is this; that the favour I shall ask of you is one that you can fulfil without the slightest injury to your honour. On the contrary it will be an act of kindness and humanity which no one in the world could object to."
"I feel sure of that," I interposed with a bow, "you need not say another word on that point."
I was really quite falling in love with the old lady, and her old-world courtesy of manner.
"I will then come straight to the point," she proceeded, taking a curious key from her pocket; it was a key with a finely-wrought handle in which was the letter C.
"I want you to open a secret drawer in this room, which, since its hiding-place was contrived, has been known only to me and to one other, the workman who made it, a Belgian long since dead. Please take this key."
I took it.
"Now," she continued, "cast your eyes round this room, and see if you can detect where the secret safe is hidden."
I looked round the room as she wished, and could see nothing which gave me the slightest clue to it.
"No," I said, "I can see nothing which has any resemblance to a safe."
She laughed, and, rising from her seat, turned to the fireplace and touched a carved rose in the frame of the handsome over-mantel; immediately the looking-glass moved up by itself in its frame, disclosing, apparently, the bare wall.
"Please watch me," proceeded the old lady.
She placed her finger on a certain part of the pattern of the wall paper beneath, and the whole of that part of the pattern swung forward; behind was a safe, apparently of steel, evidently a piece of foreign workmanship.
"Please place the key in the lock, and turn it," she asked, "but do not open the safe."
I regarded her proceedings with much interest, and rose from my chair and did as she asked.
"Thank you," she said, when she heard the lock click and the bolts shoot back, "now will you lock it again?"
I did so.
"Now please put the key in your pocket, and take care of it for me. I give you full authority to open that safe again in case of necessity."
"What necessity?" I asked.
"You will discover that in due course," she answered.
This was about the last thing I should have expected her to ask, but nevertheless I did as she told me and put the key in my pocket.
"Please notice how I close it again," was her next request.
She pushed back the displaced square of the wall paper pattern, which was simply the door of a cupboard. It closed with a snap and fitted so exactly into the pattern of the paper that it was impossible to detect it.
Then with a glance towards me to see that I was paying attention, she touched a carved rose on the frame of the over-mantel on the opposite side to that which had caused the looking-glass to move, and at once the latter slowly slid down again into its place.
I stood gazing at her as this was accomplished, and she noted the look of inquiry on my face.
"There is only one thing now I have to ask you," she said, "and then I will detain you no longer. Will you oblige me by coming to see me here at five o'clock to-morrow?"
I considered for a moment or two, and then recollected that there was nothing in my engagements for the next day to prevent my complying with the old lady's request. My life for the last week had been occupied in taking the baths and the waters at regular intervals, with the daily diversion of the Pump Room concert at three.
"Yes," I answered, "I shall be very pleased to come and see you again at five to-morrow."
Although up to now I looked upon her proceedings as simply the whims of an eccentric old lady, yet I felt some considerable interest in them.
"Then let me fill your glass again with liqueur?" she suggested. Alluring as the offer was I declined it.
I buttoned up my overcoat and prepared to depart, accepting, however, the offer of another cigarette.
The old lady insisted upon accompanying me to the door, and went on in front with a candle, despite my remonstrances, to show me the way upstairs.
She had one foot on the stair when she stopped.
"Do you mind telling me your name?" she asked.
I handed her my card, and she put up her glasses.
"'William Anstruther,'" she read. "That is a coincidence." "I had nearly forgotten one thing," she continued. "I must give you a duplicate latch-key to let yourself in with. I have a habit of falling asleep in the afternoon, and you might ring the bell for half an hour and I should not hear you."
She went back into the room we had left and returned in a few moments with the latch-key, which she gave me.
Despite my endeavours to persuade her, she went with me to the front door, and I felt a deep pity for her when I left, thinking that she was to spend the night alone in that dismal old house.
"Au revoir until five to-morrow," I said cheerfully, as I bowed and left her.
She smiled benignantly upon me.
"Au revoir," she answered.
When the door had closed and it was too late to call her back, I recollected one piece of forgetfulness on my part; I had never thought to ask her name!
THE MAN WITH THE GLASS EYE
I took a note of the number of the house—it was 190 Monmouth Street—and gazed a little while at its neglected exterior before I walked away into the mist towards my hotel.
Over the whole of the front windows faded Venetian blinds were drawn down; it was one of those houses, sometimes met with, shut up for no apparent reason, and without any intention on the part of the owner, apparently, to dispose of it, for there was no board up. It was not until later that I learned that the house belonged to the old lady herself.
I returned to my hotel, that luxurious resort of the wealthy and rheumatic, its well furnished interior looking particularly comfortable in the ruddy glow of two immense fires in the hall. I had left it early in the afternoon, before the lamps were lit, tired of being indoors; the change was most agreeable from the damp, misty atmosphere without.
I betook myself to the smoking-room, and, being a lover of the beverage, ordered tea, with the addition of buttered toast. Delighted with the big glowing fire in the room, and believing myself to be alone, I threw myself back luxuriously into a big, saddle-bag chair.
As it ran back with the impetus of my descent into it, it jammed into one behind, and from this immediately arose a very indignant face which looked into mine as I turned round. It was a dark, foreign-looking face, the red face of a man who wore a black moustache and a little imperial, and whose bloodshot brown eyes simply glared through a pair of gold-rimmed pince-nez. There was something very strange about these eyes.
"I really beg your pardon," I said. "I didn't know you were there!"
The fierce expression of the bloodshot eyes changed to one of somewhat forced amiability.
"Pray don't apologise," he answered, with just the merest touch of a foreign accent in his voice, that sort of undetectable accent which some men of cosmopolitan habits possess, though they are rarely met with.
"I think I must have been asleep," he added, "and the little shock awoke me from a disagreeable dream. There is really so little to do in this place besides bathing and sleeping."
"And water drinking," I suggested, with a smile.
"I do as little of that," he answered hastily, with a grimace, "as I possibly can. By the bye though," he continued, wheeling round his chair sociably beside mine, "do you know that the Bath water taken hot with a good dash of whisky in it and two lumps of sugar is not half bad?"
I took a good look at his face as he sat leering at me through his glasses. From the congested look of it, I could quite believe that he had sampled this mixture, or others of a similar alcoholic nature, sufficiently to give an opinion on the point; his bloodshot eyes also testified to the fact.
But concerning these latter features, the reason of the curious look about them was solved by the firelight; one of them was of glass! I saw that it remained stationary whilst the other leered round the corner of the gold-rimmed pince-nez at me. It was a very good imitation, and was made bloodshot to match the other.
My tea and buttered toast arrived now, and I made a vigorous attack upon the latter.
"The idea of mixing whisky with Bath water," I replied, laughing, "never struck me. It appears novel."
"I can assure you," continued my new acquaintance, "that many of the old men who are ordered here to Bath do it, and I should not be surprised to hear that it is a practice among the old ladies too. Look at their faces as they come waddling down to table d'hote!"
This appeared to me rather a disrespectful remark with regard to the opposite sex, and I answered him somewhat stiffly, "I hope you are deceived."
He was not a tactful person by any means: he made an observation then concerning my tea and buttered toast.
"I really wonder," he said, "how you can drink that stuff," with a nod towards my cup. "It would make me sick; put it away and have a whisky and soda with me?"
I naturally considered this a very rude remark from a perfect stranger.
"I am much obliged," I snapped, "but I prefer tea."
At that moment I put my hand in my pocket for my cigarette case. I thought I would give this man one to stop his tiresome talking; as I pulled it out the key of the safe which the old lady had given me fell out with it. Before I could stoop and pick it up myself the man with the glass eye had got it. He put it up close to his good eye and examined it critically. "What an extraordinary key!" he observed. "Where did you get it?"
Then he saw the letter C which was worked among the elaborate tracery of the handle, and he became greatly agitated.
"Where did you get this from?" he repeated abruptly.
I did not answer; I got up from my seat and took the key out of his hand; he was by no means willing to part with it.
"Excuse me," I said.
Then with the key safe in my pocket and my hand over it, I walked out of the smoking-room, leaving behind me two pieces of buttered toast and perhaps a cup and a half of excellent tea all wasted.
I am a delicately constituted individual, and I preferred smoking my cigarette all alone in a corner of the big hall, to consuming my usual allowance of tea and buttered toast in the society of the glass-eyed person in the smoking-room. I considered that I was doing a little intellectual fast all by myself.
I saw nothing more of my friend of the false brown optic that evening, except that I observed his bloodshot eye of the flesh fixed scathingly upon me from a remote corner of the great dining-room, where he appeared to be dining mostly off a large bottle of champagne.
I sauntered away my evening as I had done the others of my first week's "cure" in Bath, making a fair division of it between the dining-room, the smoking-room and the reading-room. I did not go near the drawing-room; its occupants consisted solely of a few obese ladies of the type referred to by the gentleman with the glass eye, wearing such palpable wigs that my artistic susceptibilities were sorely wounded at the mere sight of them, and my sense of decency outraged.
I went to bed in my great room over-looking the river and the weir, and I lay awake listening to its rushing waters, for the night was warm and almost summer-like, as it happens sometimes in a fine November, and my windows were open.
I suppose I fell asleep, for when I was again conscious, the Abbey clock struck four; at the same moment I became aware that some one was in my room. I could discern the figure of a man in the shadow of the wardrobe near the chair on which I had placed my clothes when I took them off. I leant over the side of the bed and switched on the electric light; the figure turned. It was the dark man with the glass eye!
"What the devil are you doing in my room?" I asked in none too polite a tone.
He was not at all disconcerted, but stood looking at me, replacing his pince-nez.
"Well, really," he replied, "wonders will never cease. I thought I was in my own room!"
I knew he was lying.
"I fail to perceive," I said, sitting up in bed, "in what manner you could have mistaken this room for your own. In the first place the door is locked."
"Just so," remarked my visitor, "that's exactly where it is; I came in at the window."
"The window?" I repeated.
"Yes, the window. I couldn't sleep, so took a stroll up and down the balconies, and when I returned to my room, as I thought, I came in here by mistake."
The excuse was plausible, but I didn't believe a word of it. I was in a dilemma, and sat scratching my head. I could not prove that the man was lying, and therefore had to take his word.
"Very well, then," I said in a compromising tone, "having made the mistake, and it being now nearly five, perhaps you will be able to find your way back to your room and go to sleep."
I thought I was putting the request in as polite a manner as possible, and I expected him to move off at once.
He did nothing of the kind. With a quick movement of his hand to his hip, he produced a revolver and covered me with it.
"Where's that key?" he asked.
He took my breath away for a few moments and I couldn't answer him, then I regained my presence of mind.
"What key?" I asked, though I had a pretty shrewd idea as to the key he wanted.
"The key which dropped out of your pocket this afternoon."
"I don't keep it in bed with me," I replied. "I'll get out and fetch it for you, you are quite welcome to it."
I temporised with him, but I was perfectly determined in my own mind that he should never have it while I lived.
I slipped out of bed and he still held the pistol pointed towards me but in a careless way. I think he was thrown off his guard by my apparent acquiescence.
The clock of the Abbey struck five and he involuntarily turned his head at the first stroke; in that moment I made a sweeping blow with my left arm and knocked the revolver out of his hand; it fell with a crash on the floor. Then I seized him by the throat and tried to hold him. He was, however, like an eel; he wriggled himself free and struck me a heavy blow on the chest which sent me backwards, then he turned and darted towards the window, but as he did so I heard something fall on the floor. For one second his hand went down on the floor groping for it, then, with a curse, he snatched up the revolver, which lay near, and darted out of the window on to the balcony. It all occurred in a few moments, and I followed him as quickly as I could, but when I reached the window I saw him flying along the balcony; he had already cleared several of the little divisions railing off one apartment from another, and I could see it would be useless to follow him.
As I turned and re-entered the bedroom something lying on the floor caught my glance and I stooped and picked it up.
It was the man's glass eye, it had dropped out!
"Now," I said to myself, surveying the bloodshot counterfeit orb as I held it under the electric light. "Now I shall be able to trace him by means of his missing eye and hand him over to justice."
I was fated to be disappointed.
Late the next morning when, having passed the remainder of the night sleeplessly, I came down the main staircase into the hall, almost the first person I met was my friend of the glass eye coming in at the front door. He had apparently just left a cab from which the hotel porters were removing some luggage. He came straight to me, and, looking me in the face, had the impudence to bid me "Good morning."
"Went over to Bristol last night," he explained, "for a ball, and have only just got back. Had awful fun!"
I returned his look for some time without speaking; he had another glass eye stuck in which was the counterpart of the other. I saw now clearly that he had two or more glass eyes for emergencies.
"Bristol!" I repeated. "Did you not come into my room last night and——?"
"And what?" he asked innocently.
"And threaten me?" I added.
He seemed highly amused.
"Do you mean before I went?" he asked.
"No, about four o'clock this morning."
This time he burst out laughing.
"My dear fellow," he said with impertinent familiarity, "at four o'clock this morning I was dancing like mad with some of the prettiest girls in Bristol!"
Liar! It was on the tip of my tongue to ask him whether his glass eye had fallen out during his terpsichorean efforts! It was, however, perfectly evident to me that he intended to deny that he had been in the hotel during the night, and probably had had time to establish some sort of an alibi. I therefore decided to move cautiously in the matter.
I turned on my heel and went into the dining-room to breakfast without another word.
But I made it my business during the morning to inquire of the hall porter, who I found had been on duty up to eleven o'clock on the previous night, whether Mr. Saumarez—for that I discovered was the name he had entered in the hotel visitors' book—had left the hotel on the previous evening.
The porter unhesitatingly informed me that he had to go to a ball at Bristol!
Really, when I left this man I began to wonder whether I had been dreaming, until I recollected the glass eye which was securely locked up in my dressing-case, such things not being produced in dreams and found under the pillow in the morning wrapped in an old telegram as this had been.
I went next to the chambermaid who presided over the corridor in which Mr. Saumarez' room was.
Being a good-looking girl I gave her half-a-crown and chucked her under the chin.
"Look here, Maria," I said, "just tell me whether 340, Mr. Saumarez, was in or not last night. I'm rather curious to know and have got a bet on about it with a friend."
She looked at me knowingly and giggled.
"Why, out, sir, of course," she replied; "he came in at half-past ten this morning with his boots unblacked. We all know that that means."
This evidence to me appeared conclusive. I gave the chambermaid a parting chuck under the chin—no one being about—and dismissed her.
Then, it being a fine morning, I went out for a walk.
I went right over the hills by Sham Castle and across the Golf Links, being heartily sworn at—in the distance—by sundry retired officers for not getting out of the way. But I was trying to have a good think over Mr. Saumarez, his duplicate glass eyes, and the reason why he wanted the key of the old lady's safe.
I so tired myself out with walking and thinking, with no result, that when I got back and had lunched late all by myself in the big dining-room, I went into the smoking-room, which this time was quite empty, and fell asleep in front of the great fire.
My sleep was curiously broken and unrestful, and full of that undefined cold apprehension which sometimes attacks one without any apparent reason during an afternoon nap.
I awoke at last to hear the old Abbey clock striking five, and then I nearly jumped out of my seat, for I recollected my promise to the unknown old lady in Monmouth Street to visit her again that day at that very hour.
I hurried through the hall to the coat room, and, seizing my hat, rushed out and just caught a tram which was gliding past in the direction of the upper town where Monmouth Street stretched its length along the slope of the hill.
It was only three minutes past five when the gaily lighted tram deposited me at the end of my old lady's street, and I set off for Number 190, which was at the other extremity of the long, badly lighted thoroughfare, looking, with its interminable rows of oblong windows, like an odd corner of the eighteenth century which had been left behind in the march of time.
I found the house practically as I had left it; there was no fog that evening, and I had a better opportunity of observing its general appearance in the yellow flare of the old-fashioned gas lamp opposite.
The house on one side of it was to be let, with a large staring board announcing that fact fixed to the railings; the house on the other side was a dingy looking place with lace curtains shrouding the dining-room windows and a notice outside concerning "Apartments."
I drew out the latch-key, blew in it to cleanse it from any dust, then, with very little difficulty, opened the door and entered Number 190.
THE SECOND VISIT AND ITS RESULT
The first thing which caught my attention was the wax candle with its glass shade standing on the raised flap which did duty for a hall table.
I at once lit the candle from the box of matches by it, and then, when it had burned up a little, proceeded at once to the kitchen staircase. The old lady had given me the latch-key with such a free hand that I felt myself fully justified in walking in; in fact, I rather wanted to take her by surprise if possible.
Nevertheless I made a little noise going downstairs to give her knowledge of my approach, and it was then that I thought I heard a window open somewhere at the back of the house.
I walked towards the end of the passage, and there I saw the glow of the fire reflected through the open door of the handsome sitting-room in which I had sat with the old lady on the previous day. It played upon the opposite wall as I advanced with a great air of comfort.
"Ten to one," I said to myself, "that I find the old lady asleep over the fire."
The room I found in darkness except for the firelight. I could see little within it. I paused on the threshold and made a polite inquiry.
"May I come in?" I asked in a tone intended to be loud enough to wake the old lady.
I advanced into the room with my candle and set it on the table, then I struck a match and lit two more of the candles in the sconces.
The room was empty!
This placed me rather in a dilemma. I had no further means of announcing my presence; I could only wait.
I sat down by the fire and began to look around.
Comfortable, even luxurious as the room was with its abundance of valuable knick-knacks and pictures, it had an eerie look about it. The eyes of the figures in the pictures seemed following me about.
I got up and lit two more of the candles in the sconces on the walls. Then I returned to my seat, made up the fire, and waited the course of events.
I waited thus quite a quarter of an hour, during which nothing occurred, and then I heard sounds which almost made me jump from my chair.
The first was a long, gasping breath, followed after an interval by a groan, a long wailing groan as of one in the deepest suffering.
I immediately rose from my chair, and caught a glimpse of my white face as I did so in the looking-glass over the mantelpiece.
I stood for some seconds on the hearthrug, and then the groan was repeated; it came from the direction of a heavy curtain which hung in one corner of the room, and which I had taken, on the previous day, to be the covering of a cabinet or a recess in the wall perhaps for some of the old lady's out-door clothing.
I tore it on one side now and found that it concealed a door. The knob turned in my hand and I entered the room beyond; it was in total darkness, and I at once returned to the sitting-room for candles.
I took two in my hands and advanced once again, with an effort, into the dark room.
The sight that met my gaze there almost caused me to drop them. It was a handsomely furnished bedroom, and in the farther corner was the bed. On it lay the old lady wrapped in a white quilted silk dressing-robe.
The whole of the breast of this garment was saturated with blood!
With the candles trembling in my hands I advanced to the side of the bed, and the poor soul's eyes looked up at me while she acknowledged my coming with a groan.
Looking down at her there could not be a doubt but that her throat had been cut!
I drew back from her horrified, and then I saw her lips moving; she was trying to speak.
I put my ear down close to her mouth and then I heard faintly but very distinctly two words—
I answered her at once.
"I will go for a doctor first, then I will return and open the safe."
At once she moved her head, causing a fresh flow of blood from a great gaping wound at the right side of her neck. She was eager to speak again, and I bent my ear over her mouth.
Two words came again very faintly—"Open—first."
I nodded to show her that I understood what she meant, then giving one glance at her I prepared to do what she asked. There was a look of satisfaction in her eyes as I turned away. I went quickly back into the sitting-room and turned the carved rose on the left side of the frame of the looking-glass in the over-mantel. Then when the glass had slid up I felt for the spring in the wall, touched it, and the door flew open. Without any hesitation I fixed the key in the lock of the steel safe, and, with a slight effort, turned it and pulled the door open.
The first thing I saw was a slip of white paper with some writing on it lying on two packets. This I took up and read at once; the words scribbled on it were in a lady's hand.
"If anything has happened to me take these two packets, hide them in your pockets, and close the safe, cupboard, and looking-glass, and leave it all as it was at first."
I did not delay a moment. I took the two packets, which were wrapped in white paper like chemists' parcels, and sealed with red wax. I saw this before I crammed them into my trousers pockets.
I hastily closed the safe, locked it, fastened the panel, and, by turning the rose on the right-hand side of the over-mantel, caused the glass to resume its place.
Then I turned to leave the room, and—found myself standing face to face with Saumarez, the man with the glass eye, who held a revolver levelled at me.
He did not stay to speak, but fired immediately; I dodged my head to one side just in time and heard the bullet go crashing into the looking-glass behind me.
Before he could fire again I hit him with all my might under the ear, and he fell in the corner of the room like a log. Stopping only to possess myself of his revolver, which had dropped by his side, I rushed up the stairs and out into the street; there I inquired of the first person I met, a working man going home, for the nearest doctor, and he directed me to a Dr. Redfern only about ten doors away.
Within a few seconds I was pausing at this door, and endeavouring to make an astonished parlour-maid understand that I wanted to see her master on a matter of life and death.
A placid-looking gentleman made his appearance from a room at the end of the entrance hall while I was speaking to her, with an evening paper in his hand.
"What's the matter?" he asked casually.
"Murder is the matter," I answered between gasps of excitement, "murder at Number 190, and I want you to come at once."
I gave him a brief account of the old lady with her throat cut. He stood looking at me a moment or two, as if in doubt whether I was sane or not, then made up his mind.
"All right," he said, "just wait a moment and I'll come with you."
He reappeared in about a couple of minutes, wearing an overcoat and a tall hat.
"Now," he said, "just lead the way."
We went together straight back to Number 190, and I think he had some misgivings about entering the house with me alone, but I reassured him by reminding him that an old lady was dying within; as it was he made me go first.
"I had no idea any one lived here at all," he remarked, as I lighted him along the passage to the stairs by means of wax vestas, of which I fortunately had a supply, for there was no candle in the hall. "I always thought this house was shut up. But still I have only been here just over twelve months."
"I think you will find," I said, as we got firmly on the basement floor, and saw the reflection of my candle which I had left on the table in the sitting-room, "that there are a good many surprises in this house."
"Now," I continued as we entered the room, "the old lady is lying in there. I will take this candle and show you the way." I led the way into the room, and held the candle aloft, with a shudder at what I expected to see there.
The bed was empty.
I rubbed my eyes and looked again.
No, there was nothing there; the bed looked rather rumpled, but there was no sign whatever of the old lady.
"Well," remarked the doctor sharply—he had followed closely at my heels—"where is your murdered old lady?"
I looked round the bedroom helplessly.
"I would take the most solemn oath," I said steadfastly, "that I left the old lady lying on that bed with her throat cut, and her clothes and the bed appeared soaked in blood."
The doctor walked to the bed and examined it closely, turning back the bedclothes.
"There is not a spot of blood on it," he remarked savagely, "you are dreaming."
But my eyes were sharper than his.
"Look here," I said, and pointed to a small red mark on the wall on the farther side of the bed, "what do you call that?" He leaned over the bed and looked at the little stain through his glasses as I held the light.
"Yes," he said after a close scrutiny, "that might be blood, and, strange to say, it seems wet."
He looked at his finger which had just touched it, and it had a slight smear of blood on it.
I had told him on the staircase that I had been attacked by a man who had fired at me, and indeed the smell of powder even on the landing above was very apparent.
"Now come back into the next room," I said, "and see the body of the man who assailed me and whom I knocked down."
He followed me into the boudoir, and I went straight to the corner where I had last seen Saumarez lying.
There was nothing there!
I gave a great gasp of astonishment.
"I left the man lying there!" I exclaimed, pointing to the floor.
The doctor took the candle lamp from my hands and held it close to my face, scrutinising me earnestly meanwhile through his glasses; then he leant forward and sniffed suspiciously.
"Do you drink?" he asked abruptly.
Then, noticing my look of growing indignation, he altered his tone slightly.
"Excuse my asking the question," he explained. "But it is the only way in which I can account for your symptoms. Do you see things?"
"Things be d——," I replied hotly. "I would answer with my life that I left that poor old lady lying on her bed grievously wounded not half an hour ago, and the villain who assaulted me insensible in this corner!"
The doctor went to the corner and held the candle in such a way as to shed its light upon the floor.
Then he stooped and picked up something.
"What's this?" he exclaimed, holding it close to the candle. "A glass eye," he continued in astonishment, "a glass eye, as I live!"
"There!" I said triumphantly, "the man who fired at me had a glass eye. Is it not a brown one, shot with blood?"
"Right!" he answered after another glance at it, "a bloodshot brown eye it undoubtedly is."
He handed it to me, and I put it in my pocket.
"You had better take care of it," he said. "But I really don't know what to say about your story."
"Perhaps you will deny the evidence of your eyes?" I asked; "look at this."
I pointed to where the bullet from the revolver had struck the looking-glass over the mantelpiece and starred it.
"No," he answered, "that certainly looks as if it had been smashed by a bullet. There is the little round hole where the bullet entered. And there is another point too," he continued, "you say you left the old lady lying on the bed bleeding, not half an hour ago?"
"Then the bed ought to be warm; let us come and see."
We walked back into the bedroom and examined the bed again.
It was very evident to me that a fresh coverlet had been put on the bed and fresh sheets. How it could have been done in so short a time was a marvel to me.
The doctor put his hand on the coverlet.
"That is quite cold," he reported, "there can be no question of a doubt about that."
"Let me try inside the bed," I suggested; "that may tell a different tale."
I turned down the bedclothes, and put my hand into the bed. It was distinctly warm!
"Now," I said, turning to the doctor, "do you believe me or not?"
He put his hand into the bed.
"Yes," he answered, "it is certainly warm. I don't know what to make of it."
I thrust my hand once more deep beneath the clothes, and this time it encountered something and closed on it. I glanced at it as I drew it out.
It was a lady's handkerchief.
I don't know what moved me to do it, but an impulse made me put it in my pocket, without showing it to the doctor.
"I don't know what to make of it at all," repeated Dr. Redfern, stroking his chin, "but one thing is certain, we must acquaint the police."
"Certainly," I answered. "I think we ought to have done that long ago."
"Well, will you promise me to remain here, Mr.—Mr.—?" he queried.
"Anstruther," I suggested. People in the middle class of life always assume that you are a "Mr." I might have been a Duke!
"Will you promise me to remain here, Mr. Anstruther," he asked, "while I go and telephone the police?"
"Of course," I answered; "what should I want to run away for?"
"Very well, then," he said with a nod and a smile. "I will take it that you won't. I will be back inside a quarter of an hour."
We lit more of the candles on the walls, and then I took the candle lamp to light him upstairs to the front door.
I was standing there watching him going up Monmouth Street towards his house, when a sudden resolve took possession of me concerning the two packets I had in my trousers pockets! I did not know what turn affairs were going to take, and I thought I should like to put those two little parcels in a place of safety.
I had noticed a small dismal post office at the end of the street not fifty yards off. I would go and post them, registered to my lawyers, in whom I had the greatest confidence.
To the taking of this resolve and the carrying of it out, instead of returning to the downstairs room, I always attribute, in the light of subsequent events, the saving of my life. I left the door "on the jar" and ran quickly to the post office. There I demanded their largest sized registered envelope, and they fortunately had a big one.
Into this I crammed the two packets—which I noticed were both directed to me in a very neat lady's hand—and then, as an afterthought, the handkerchief which I had found in the bed. Finally I put the key of the safe in too. With my back to the ever curious clerk, I directed it to myself—
c/o Messrs. BLACKETT & SNOWDON, Solicitors, Lincoln's Inn, London.
Then, slapping it down before the astonished official, I demanded a receipt for it.
This obtained, I hastened back to 190; the door was still as I had left it, but in a few moments the doctor returned, and at his heels a policeman.
"The inspector will be here directly," announced Dr. Redfern. "We had better wait outside until he arrives."
We walked up and down for nearly a quarter of an hour while the doctor smoked a cigarette, and meanwhile the policeman, a person of gigantic stature and a bucolic expression of countenance, eyed me suspiciously.
Presently the inspector arrived, and the doctor and I returned with him to the sitting-room downstairs. There the police official insisted upon my giving a full account of the whole matter, while he stood critically by with a notebook in his hand. I told him the whole truth from the time of my seeing the old lady at the door, to the time of my calling in the doctor, but I suppressed all mention of the two packets and the secret safe. These being confidential matters between me and the old lady, I did not feel at liberty to disclose them.
I saw very plainly from the looks the inspector gave me that he did not believe me; he even had doubts, it was very evident, whether I was staying at the Hotel Magnifique at all, as I had informed him at the commencement of my statement.
Having entered all the notes to his satisfaction, he thoroughly inspected both rooms and made more notes. Then he went outside and bawled up the stairs—
"Sir," came the answer from the bucolic constable on duty above.
"Just step round to the 'Compasses,'" instructed his superior from the foot of the stairs, "and tell my brother I should be glad if he'd come round here for a few minutes. We've got a rather curious case."
"Very good, sir," came the reply, followed by the heavy tread of the man's boots as he went to carry out the orders.
"My brother's down 'ere on a bit of a 'oliday, sir," explained the inspector to the doctor, entirely ignoring me, "and being one of the tip-top detectives up in London, I thought we'd take the benefit of his opinion."
The "Compasses," as it turned out, being only a couple of streets off, we had not long to wait for the coming of the detective luminary from London. His heavy footsteps were soon heard on the stairs; preceded by the constable, he descended the flight with evident forethought and consideration. Emerging from the darkness into the light of the wax candles, he presented the appearance of a prosperous butcher, tall, broad-shouldered, red-necked, and with moustache and whiskers of a sandy hue. His face was very red, and the skin shining as if distended with good living.
"This is my brother, Inspector Bull of the Z Metropolitan Division," explained our inspector to the doctor, once more ignoring me, "down 'ere on a little 'oliday."
As I learned afterwards, this gentleman was one of the Guardian Angels who watched over the safety of the inhabitants of the Mile End Road.
The doctor having shaken hands with him, his brother put another question to him.
"'Ow's Alf?" he inquired.
The newcomer gently soothed the back of his red neck with a hand like a small leg of mutton, and displayed a set of massive front teeth in a gratified smile.
"'E's all right," he answered, "we wos having fifty up when you sent for me."
"You see," explained our inspector, "my brother's got so many friends in the licensed victuallers' line down here, through being a Mason, that it takes him 'arf his 'oliday to go round and see 'em all."
The doctor smiled indulgently but made no answer; then our inspector briefly informed his brother of the state of the case before him, stating the facts as I related them, in such a different light, and with so many evident aspersions on my veracity, that I hardly knew them again.
The two brothers made a further close inspection of the rooms, and then held a consultation on the hearthrug in whispers.
Though the words were unintelligible, the fact that the officer of the Z Division had been partaking liberally of whisky soon became apparent from the all-pervading odour of that stimulant diffused throughout the apartment.
They finished at last, and I heard the London man's final word of advice—
"I should put me 'and on 'im at any rate."
I AM DETAINED
I was the "'im" referred to evidently.
Our inspector buttoned up his blue overcoat.
"Perhaps you'll be kind enough to walk down with us to the station, Mr. . . . er—Anstruther," he said; "we can have a little talk down there and straighten things out a bit."
His subterfuge did not in the least deceive me.
"Do I understand," I asked, "that you propose to detain me?"
The inspector raised his shoulders perplexedly, and his brother smiled a fat smile over his shoulder.
"That'll depend how you explain matters to our chief," he said deprecatingly; "at any rate we'd better get along."
This was a hint I could not disregard. He led the way up the staircase, and his stout brother, through force of habit, closed in behind, far too close to be pleasant, owing to the diffused aroma of a mixture of various brands of inferior whisky, arising from his hard breathing as he ascended the stairs. We walked two and two down Monmouth Street, I with the inspector, the doctor and the London detective improving their acquaintance in the rear.
Two streets off we dropped the officer of the Z Division, who betook himself once more to the "Compasses" to continue his "fifty up" with his friend the landlord, and the doctor joined us. I had the pleasure of listening to his conversation with the inspector, conducted across me, without having the pleasure of being included in it.
We walked all three down into the town, and then straight into the Police Station, only a few doors off my hotel.
The inspector and the doctor went into a private room to confer with some superior official while I was left to sit by the fire in the outer office.
Presently the inspector came out.
"We've decided to detain you, Mr. Anstruther," he said, "until we can find out a little more about this affair. Just come over here."
"Look here, Mr. Inspector," I said, "if you intend to detain me without sufficient reason, you'll find it an awkward matter." The inspector looked a trifle uncomfortable.
"We shall have to take our chance of that," he said, rather sullenly, "we've only got our duty to do, Mr. Anstruther. You can have bail, I should think."
"Bail!" I repeated, "how am I to get bail? I don't know a soul in the town."
The inspector shrugged his shoulders and motioned me into a railed space in the centre of the office.
There was no help for it, so I went and placed myself as he desired in the little dock, and a constable standing there obligingly clamped down a rail behind me to keep me there. Then the doctor, who, it turned out, was some official in the town, gave a garbled version of the whole affair, which I found it useless to try and contradict, as I was told to hold my tongue. The inspector's version of the affair was even more insulting than the doctor's. He did not hesitate to express his opinion that I was a very suspicious person, probably a lunatic at large. When asked if I had anything to say, my remark summed up the situation, tersely, in a few words.
"This is a parcel of d—d rot!" I said.
Then they searched me.
The inspector simply gloated over Saumarez' revolver when I turned it out of my pocket, and this feeling rose to an absolute thrill of triumph when he discovered that one of the chambers had been discharged.
In my heart, I was thankful that I had sent those two packets and the key to my lawyers.
While the inspector was hanging fondly over Saumarez' glass eye, which one energetic young constable had furraged out of the corner of my waistcoat pocket, an idea struck me which ought to have occurred to me before.
I had come to Bath with a letter of introduction to a certain doctor, a Dr. Mainwaring; I would send for him.
"Look here, Mr. Inspector," I said, "when you've quite finished rattling me about, I have two suggestions to make. One is to send some of your men to try if they can find the old lady whose throat has been cut, and the other is to send for Dr. Mainwaring, who knows me. I warn you that if you lock me up you will get into trouble."
At the mention of Dr. Mainwaring, Dr. Redfern, who was still there, pricked up his ears.
"Dr. Mainwaring!" he repeated. "Do you know him?"
"I came here about ten days ago," I answered, "with a letter of introduction to him from Sir Belgrave Walpole. I've no doubt that he will be able to tell you something about me."
He turned to the inspector.
"Don't you think you had better send a man up to Royal Crescent," he said, "to ask Dr. Mainwaring? There may be a mistake, you know. It would be safer."
I could see that the inspector was very unwilling to admit the possibility of a mistake; he was, however, overruled by the man who was writing in the book, and who appeared to be a person in authority.
"Shapland," he said to a waiting constable, "go up to Dr. Mainwaring's and ask if he knows a person of the name of Anstruther."
"You'd better take one of my cards there with you," I suggested, "then he'll know who you mean."
The inspector gave me a scathing look, but gave the man one of the cards out of my case.
I think they were undecided then as to whether they would lock me up or not, but eventually made up their minds on the side of prudence.
I was allowed to sit by the fire.
Within half an hour a motor came puffing up to the police station, and Dr. Mainwaring entered.
"My dear Mr. Anstruther," he inquired breathlessly, "whatever is the matter?"
In a few brief sentences I unloaded the burden of my wrongs.
"Why, there must be some mistake!" cried Mainwaring. "I'll just go off and see the chief constable, he's a particular friend of mine."
When he had gone, the faces of my guardians grew visibly longer; one of them fetched me an armchair out of the office.
The chief constable soon put matters right.
"This gentleman is staying at the Magnifique," he announced, "he is well known to Dr. Mainwaring, and, in fact, the doctor will answer for his appearance; what more do you want, Mr. Inspector?"
The inspector wanted nothing more.
Within five minutes I was sitting by a glorious fire in a private room at the Magnifique, discussing the whole matter with the chief constable and Dr. Mainwaring.
But before I left the station, I put a query to Inspector Bull, junior.
"What have you done about the old lady?" I asked.
The officer assumed some shreds of dignity, even in his discomfiture.
"You may have thought us a bit forgetful, sir," he observed, "but I assure you, both the railway stations have been under careful observation from the time of my being able to touch a telephone."
"Thank you," I said; but it appeared to me that under the circumstances they might just as profitably have watched the Pump Room or the Baths.
Being left to myself after thoroughly thrashing out the whole case with Dr. Mainwaring and the chief constable, who both agreed with me that the circumstances were the most extraordinary they had ever heard of, I sat down to consider matters by myself.
Here was I, a country gentleman of moderate estate, trying to eke out a smallish income by literature, plumped down into the centre of as fine a tangle of mystery as ever came out of the Arabian Nights Entertainments.
I got up and looked at myself in the glass, and saw there a clean-shaven tall man of thirty whose black hair was already turning white at the temples; about my grey eyes, alas, there were already crows' feet, the price I had paid, I suppose, for taking honours at Oxford.
I sat down again and thought deeply.
"Bill Anstruther," I said to myself, "you're in for it. You've consented to receive the confidences of that old lady, who, poor soul, was in the direst need of help and friendship without doubt when she called you in the night before last. You're bound in honour to go through with it, and try to help her, or at any rate carry out her wishes, be she dead or alive."
Thus I reasoned, and in this, it seemed to me, my duty lay. Obviously the first thing to do was to obtain possession of the packets again and ascertain their contents. I knew, of course, that they were directed to me and possibly contained some request of the old lady. I marvelled very much what the connection between her and the man with the glass eye could possibly be, but could form no guess even in the matter. It was very evident that he was a bloodthirsty scoundrel, and I had little doubt in my own mind that it was he who had wounded her, perhaps unto death.
While I thought of it, I decided to go down to the office and make inquiries concerning Saumarez.
I found he had left during the morning.
"Mr. Saumarez went up to town, sir," explained the clerk, "by the twelve-twenty."
"Thank you," I said, and walked away to the smoking-room to have a good think again. Eating for the present was out of the question.
After three cigarettes I arrived at the following conclusions. I would go up to town in the morning, secure the packets, and read them in my lawyers' office.
I would not trust myself to carry them about with me while that man Saumarez was at large. It was very evident that the safe and its contents possessed a great attraction for him; probably with very good reason.
I caught the morning train to London, and arrived in Lincoln's Inn about two o'clock, after lunching early at my club. There Messrs. Blackett & Snowdon's managing clerk handed me the registered packet which I had sent off the evening before from the post office in Monmouth Street, Bath.
With this in my hand I retired to the private office of Mr. Snowdon, who was away from town, his room being placed at my disposal by the managing clerk when I told him I had some important papers to examine.
I sat down at the desk, cleared it of the few papers lying there, then prepared to open my precious parcel.
First I tore off the registered envelope.
Yes, there were the two packets which I had thought so much of in the hours I lay awake during the night. There was the key; there was the handkerchief.
I took this latter up and examined it carefully by the light. It was of the finest cambric, and bore in the corner the letter C.
Then there remained the two packets to examine.
They were both addressed to me in a small, old-fashioned handwriting which I took to be that of the old lady, poor soul! One was heavy, felt hard, and contained evidently a box of some sort, the other was soft and I took it to be composed of papers. I broke the seals—a C—and opened it. My surmise was correct, it contained several sheets of thick correspondence paper, covered with writing. It was dated the day I first met her. When I spread it out this is what I found it to contain—
"DEAR MR. ANSTRUTHER,—I have little doubt but you consider me merely a crazy old woman.
"Perhaps I am, Heaven knows I have had enough trouble in my life to make me so, and the trouble and anxiety I am enduring now is by no means the lightest I have had to bear. That is why I had the resolve to trust you, taking a sudden fancy, as I have done before without regretting it, to a resolute open face.
"I believe that you will carry out what I ask of you to the letter; I believe you will do it honestly and truly, for the reason that you love to be honest and true.
"So much for my trust in you. Now for the object of my appealing to you.
"I am threatened with a great peril, a peril which may cost me my life, I expect it, I do not fear it. I have held my life in my hands for years past.
"But there is something in my case which I value more than my life; this I would preserve at all costs. It is contained in the small box in the second packet which I have prepared for you.
"I think I have thought of every contingency and may reasonably count upon being left in peace until I see you at five to-morrow. I do not doubt for one moment but that you will keep your appointment. Should I, however, have to send you to the safe, instead of handing you these packets, I have prepared even for that.
"The request I am about to make you is, I know, an unreasonable one, yet I believe you will carry it out.
"Upon opening the other packet, which I shall leave you with this, you will find a small carved casket which is locked; with it you will find sufficient money for your journey—of which presently.
"Mr. Anstruther, I want you to take the casket to Aquazilia and to deliver it to the person to whom it is addressed."
"Aquazilia!" I exclaimed, putting down the letter, "why, that is the big Republic the other side of Brazil which once upon a time used to be a Monarchy! That's rather a tall order!" I took the letter up again and went on:—
"I know the journey is a long one, but it will repay you. When you told me you were a writer, I knew at once that such a journey would be one from which you would draw profit both in experience and otherwise. In doing it you will earn my undying gratitude. Go, I beseech you! To you I confide that which is dearer to me than my life. Go, I implore of you. I ask it in the name of Truth and Honour. Go, and earn the eternal thanks of
"D'Altenberg, d'Altenberg," I muttered as I finished. "It seems a familiar name!"
I now turned my attention to the second packet, and opened that. It contained a small wooden box with the lid tied down with string. Upon taking this off, I found within a very beautifully carved oblong casket, made of ebony, inlaid with gold. It was a most finished piece of workmanship, and measured, I should think, about six inches by perhaps two and a half. In raised letters on the lid was carved the letter C as on the seals. On a small parchment label firmly secured to it by silk was:—
"To His Excellency the Senor JUAN D'ALTA, Valoro, Aquazilia."
It was fastened by no less than three locks, all of different sizes, and by its excessive weight, even for ebony, I should say was lined with some metal.
When I had lifted this casket out of the box I found beneath it two ordinary long envelopes both addressed to me and open. On the first I took up was:—
"To William Anstruther, Esq. For the expenses of the journey to Valoro."
I opened it and found it to contain four fifty pound notes. On the other was my name, and beneath it:—
"A slight honorarium by way of compensation for time lost on the journey."
It contained a Bank of England note for one thousand pounds. I sat with the note in my hand for some time; it was the first for that amount which I had ever come across.
However, not without some considerable satisfaction, I admit, I put up the note into its envelope again and packed it with the other into the box. I very carefully replaced the ebony casket after a glance of admiration at its beautifully inlaid workmanship.
I closed the box up as before, and, making free with Mr. Snowdon's stationery, put it in a fresh linen lined envelope and sealed it up again. This time with my own seal. I treated the letter in the same way, packing it up with the hankerchief and the key, then directed the two to myself, care of my lawyers. I intended to leave both in their care as before. I had ample confidence in their strong room. I had barely completed this task and thrown the old wrappers into the fire, when there came a knock at the door; the managing clerk entered with rather a scared look on his face.
"There are two men waiting to see you downstairs, Mr. Anstruther," he announced, "and I rather think they are police officers."
Instinctively as he spoke I thrust the two packets before me into pigeon holes of the writing table I was sitting at, and he saw me do it.
Before I could make any reply, the door was pushed open behind him, and two men entered; the foremost of them walked up to the table.
"Are you Mr. William Anstruther?" he asked.
He was a tall, dark, fresh-coloured man with sharp grey eyes, his companion had the appearance of an ordinary constable in plain clothes.
"Yes," I answered, rising, "I am William Anstruther."
"Then I arrest you, William Anstruther," he said, "on suspicion of causing the death of an old lady, name unknown, whose body was discovered at daybreak this morning on Lansdown, near Bath, with her throat cut. You'll have to come with us down to Bath to be charged."
Here was a terrible development!
My first thoughts were of pity for the poor old lady. How I wished I had been able to save her life.
"Very well," I answered as coolly as I could. "I suppose there is no help for it, and I had better go with you. Perhaps, Mr. Watson," I said, turning to the managing clerk, who was standing by as white as a sheet, "perhaps you will see that this man has proper authority for taking me."
"Certainly, Mr. Anstruther," he answered, then turning to the detective he asked for his papers.
"Show me your warrant, please," he said. "I shall not allow Mr. Anstruther, our client, to leave with you unless you do."
The fresh-coloured officer smiled, and produced from his pocket a blue paper, together with some other documents. These seemed to satisfy Watson.
"There seems no help for it, Mr. Anstruther," he said, with them in his hands. "I am afraid you will have to go with him. This is a proper warrant signed by a magistrate on sworn information."
"Who are the informants?" I asked.
He referred to the warrant and read out the names.
"Inspector James Bull, Frederick Redfern, surgeon, and Anthony Saumarez, gentleman."
"Saumarez!" I exclaimed, "the scoundrel and would-be murderer!"
"You had better be careful what you say," remarked the police officer, "as I may have to take it down, and it will be used against you."
"Yes," confirmed Watson, "you'd better say as little as possible. No doubt the whole matter is a mistake."
I took up my overcoat and the managing clerk helped me on with it; meanwhile, the police officer walked to the desk I had been sitting at and laid his hands on some papers. I looked upon the packets as lost.
Watson, however, stopped him at once.
"You mustn't touch those papers," he said hastily. "They are the property of Mr. Snowdon, a member of our firm."
"Then what is he doing here?" asked the man, with a jerk of his head towards me.
"Mr. Anstruther," replied Watson, "was attending to some business correspondence at Mr. Snowdon's desk, that gentleman being away."
"Where's the correspondence?" asked the detective, with a quick glance at my two packets sticking out of the pigeon holes. I looked the man straight in the face.
"My correspondence is finished," I answered, "and in the hands of this firm."
A little smile about Watson's mouth and a hasty glance at the packets, convinced me that he understood my remark.
"Very well, then," said the police officer, "we'd better come along. Provided you come quietly," he observed to me as I followed him out, "it won't be necessary for me to handcuff you."
That was a comfort I thought, as I went downstairs and through the office, full of astounded clerks, who had all known me well for years.
We got into a cab and were driven to Paddington Station, reaching it about dusk, much to my satisfaction, as I should not at all have appreciated making my appearance in such a place with the two police officers.
We got into a third class compartment all to ourselves right at the end of the train, near the engine, and there I sat between the two men, who hardly exchanged a word the whole way, but who sat trying to read newspapers by the bad light. They would hold no conversation with me.
When we got to Bath they hurried me quickly down the stairs into a fly, and then we drove straight through the town.
As we passed the police station and my hotel—towards which I cast longing glances, for it was not far off dinner time—I asked a question of the tall, fresh-coloured man.
"I understood that you were going to take me to the police station?" I said.
The man shook his head.
"We are taking you to the prison," he said, "for the night. You will be brought before the magistrates in the morning."
I sank back in the corner of the fly thoroughly dejected, and the vehicle drove out by what I knew to be the Warminster Road. We now left the lights of the town behind, and then the journey was entirely between two hedgerows, which bordered the road, with an occasional field gate by way of variety—all else beyond was blank night, for there was no moon.
My two guardians began to show signs of fatigue, not unmixed with a certain disgust, at the length of the journey.
They began yawning and stretching their arms, with very little regard for my comfort.
When at last the fly pulled up with a jerk, after a good deal of bumping over a rough road, the two men were very unceremonious in ordering me to quit the vehicle.
"Now then, Ugly," remarked the fresh-coloured man with a push of his foot, which was remarkably like a kick, "out you get!"
He stepped out himself and I followed, knowing full well it was useless to resist, but I made a mental resolve that I would report him.
Once outside the fly, I found myself apparently at the foot of a tower, a door stood open in front of me, and on the doorstep a man holding a lantern.
I was, however, given very little time to contemplate this scene; the big man seized my right arm, and his companion my left; between them, they rushed me up a flight of steps immediately inside the tower.
These steps constituted a spiral staircase which wound round the interior of the tower; ever and anon as we passed a small window I saw the lights of Bath twinkling in the distance.
Beyond a few walks during the ten days I had spent there—my first visit—I knew very little of Bath or its neighbourhood, therefore I had no opportunity of taking my bearings.
I was urged up this staircase in a manner which I should have thought unusual had I not remembered the men's complaints of the long journey—which they had made twice—in the fly.
Finally we reached a door, and they simply pushed me through it into a large room. It was evidently the top storey of the tower and had windows looking all ways. It was perfectly circular in shape, was fairly clean, and had a fire burning in a grate with a wire screen before it; in one corner was a bed.
The two men released their hold as I looked around, and the dark one went to a corner and picked up a chain.
"Come here!" he shouted to me roughly.
His colleague assisted me by giving me a shove in his direction. Then, in a twinkling, he fixed a steel ring to my left ankle, snapped it there and locked a small padlock on it.
I was chained up like a dog!
Having thoroughly searched me, they prepared to leave; the taller man addressed me.
"I suppose you know," he remarked, as the two moved towards the door, "that if you make any attempt to escape, you'll be shot?"
With this parting caution he closed the door, and I heard a key turn in the lock.
I took one turn round the room, the chain being long enough, with many a yearning look at the distant lights of Bath; then, horrified at the clanking of my fetters, which were fixed to a staple in the wall, I threw myself as I was on the bed in the corner, and there, being tired out, almost immediately fell asleep.
PUT TO THE TORTURE
I awoke with a feeling of intense cold, the fire was out, and I was lying outside the bed without covering.
The day had fully broken, and there was even an attempt on the part of the sun to pierce the heavy mists of a November morning. I looked around out of the windows, and saw the hills topped with cloud in every direction.
Drawing the rough blankets over me, I lay and thought. My first yearning was for something to eat; I had tasted nothing since lunch the previous day; I was fearfully hungry.
I had lain thus perhaps half an hour between sleeping and waking, when a key was put in the door and it opened, admitting a big, dark man with a long, black beard; he bore in his hands a small table which he placed in the middle of the room.
"Now," I said to myself, "this means breakfast."
I was mistaken.
He brought in next a square box, not unlike the case of a sewing machine, and placed it on the table.
"What can this be?" I muttered as I watched him closely.
In a few minutes footsteps were heard on the stairs, and another man joined him. A great strong fellow with a fair moustache. The two of them wheeled a large chair with glass arms to it, which I had not noticed before, from one corner of the room, and placed it on one side of the table.
The preparations now had all the appearance of the commencement of some performance; it only needed the principal actor to appear.
He was not long in coming.
Meanwhile, I wondered why the chair had glass arms to it.
I noticed that the two men, who now stood idly looking out of the windows, did not wear uniforms. They were dressed in ordinary rough-looking clothes of foreign cut; it struck me as very strange. I asked them who they were.
"Are you the warders of the prison?" I said.
"Hein!" the dark one inquired.
"Are you the warders of the prison?" I repeated.
"Find out, verdammt Englander," the man replied.
Then I felt certain I was in no English prison. Where was I?
The question was soon answered, the door once more opened and Saumarez entered. I sat up on the bed and fairly gasped; the whole matter was perfectly unintelligible to me. After the first thrill of astonishment my glance went to his eyes.
They were complete; he had another glass one in the socket, and it exactly matched the real one.
He came towards me with a little bow, and a smile on his red countenance.
"Good morning, Mr. Anstruther," he began, "we seem to be always meeting."
I could not restrain my feelings.
"That is my misfortune," I answered.
He smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
"Perhaps so," he answered casually, "that remains to be seen."
He said some words in German to the two men, which I imperfectly understood, but it seemed to be an order to lift me off the bed, for they immediately did it.
Then one of them unlocked my chain, and the two of them carried me to the chair, and sat me in it.
I now realised that I was in a desperate condition.
"I insist on knowing," I cried to Saumarez, "why I was brought here. It is very evident that I have been tricked."
Saumarez laughed—a low laugh of enjoyment.
"You certainly came here under a false impression," he sniggered; "as for the reason of your coming, you will soon know it. Now, to begin with, where is the key of the safe at 190 Monmouth Street. You have been thoroughly searched and we cannot find it.
"You are not likely to," I answered. "It is in a place where you cannot get at it."
"Indeed!" replied Saumarez. "What place is that?"
"I shall not tell you."
"We shall see," he remarked laconically.
As he spoke, he motioned to the two men to do something with the box on the table.
As they moved towards it, I heard the double report of a sporting gun not far off. Evidently some one was out shooting.
The men went to the table, and, taking off the square lid of the box, disclosed a large galvanic battery!
My blood began to run cold as an awful idea formed itself in my mind.
"Secure him in the chair!" Saumarez said sharply in German.
Before the men could reach me, I darted out of the chair towards the door, but they were too quick for me and caught me before I reached it. They carried me back struggling to the chair, and one held me down in it while the other passed thick straps round me, holding me fast in it, hand and foot. I found, when they had done with me, that my two hands were strapped firmly to the glass arms of the chair.
Lying back in the chair I noticed high up in the roof an old cobwebbed window, the top of which was standing open for purposes of ventilation. It looked as if it had not been interfered with for years.
In the position I was in, I could not very well see what was going on in the room, but the next thing I experienced was feeling my wrists being encircled apparently with wire. I gave one convulsive struggle to get free, but it was useless I knew well now what they were going to do.
They were going to torture me by giving me galvanic shocks, and passing strong currents through my body.
I had heard of the torture being applied in Russia to political prisoners.
I had, when a boy, patronised those machines which professed to try one's "nerve." I had held the two handles and watched the proprietor draw out the rod from the coil to increase the strength of the current. I knew how unbearable that feeling could become even with a weak battery. What would it be with this strong one?
Saumarez' voice broke in upon me.
"Where is the key of the safe?"
I was enraged at the sound of his voice.
"You shall never know, you vile devil!" I cried.
"Give it to him," he exclaimed sharply to the two men in German. As he spoke I heard the sharp report of two sporting guns, one charged with black powder, one, from its quick sharp crack, with smokeless, quite near. There were two sportsmen.
Then—oh my God!—began that awful torture of a strong current of electricity passing up my arms.
I threw back my head and cried with all my strength, directing my voice to the open window far above me in the roof of the tower—
"Help! Murder! Help!"
And immediately, to my great joy, I heard an answering shout!
"Donner und blitzen!" cried Saumarez, "he has attracted their attention! Stop his mouth!"
Immediately I felt a handkerchief being rammed into my mouth, but from far below came the sound of hard knocking on the door of the tower, and men's voices shouting.
Saumarez rapped out a fearful oath, and gave an order to the men.
"You must carry him down below and drop him through the trap door into the vaults," he cried. "You will have plenty of time to do it if you are quick. Unbind him, sharp now!"
The two men commenced to do as he told them and very soon had the straps off me, then they carried me between them towards the door after firmly securing the gag in my mouth.
They had got about half-way down the spiral staircase with me, Saumarez following behind, and I was in an agony of mind that they would succeed in reaching the vaults with me, when I heard the door burst in below, and a cheer from several voices, followed by rapid footsteps on the steps.
"It's no good," cried Saumarez with another oath, "drop him and follow me up to the roof."
They did drop me very roughly on the stone stairs, but before they went I heard one of the men cry out—
"Don't kill him in cold blood!"
Then there came the click of a pistol lock followed by a deafening report, and a bullet struck the step I was lying on about an inch from my temple. There was a scuffling of feet on the stairs above, mingled with words of remonstrance in German; the two men were hurrying Saumarez away.
The report and the impact of the bullet had half stunned me, but I sat up, and my hands being free, tore the gag out of my mouth. At the same time, rapid footsteps came up the stairs, and, in a few moments, I found a very familiar face, with an absolutely astounded expression on it looking down into mine.
"In Heaven's name!" a well-known voice cried, "what are you doing here, Bill?"
It was my cousin, Lord St. Nivel, a subaltern in the Coldstream Guards!
Looking over my cousin's shoulders were two other faces, one covered with rough hair, and evidently belonging to a game-keeper, the other the beautiful face of my cousin, Lady Ethel Vanborough, St. Nivel's sister.
"Poor fellow!" she remarked sympathetically. "What have they been doing to you?"
I could hardly believe my eyes, and passed my hand wearily across my forehead.
St. Nivel turned to the keeper.
"Give me the brandy flask," he said.
The man produced it, and my cousin poured some out in the little silver cup attached to it.
"It's a lucky thing for you, Bill," he observed, while I greedily drank the brandy down, "that I thought of bringing this flask with me this morning. Ethel was against it; she's a total abstainer."
"Except when alcohol is needed medicinally," she interposed in an explanatory tone, "then it is another matter."
I now took a good look at her; she was wearing a short, tweed, tailor-made shooting costume, and carried in her hand a light sixteen bore shot gun.
"You look just about done," continued her brother. "Whatever has happened to you?"
"You would look bad," I answered, "if you had had nothing to eat since lunch yesterday."
St. Nivel was a soldier and man of action.
"Botley," he said to the keeper, "the sandwiches."
"Now," said the guardsman invitingly, when I had ravenously disposed of my second sandwich, "tell us something about it."
I had just opened my lips to speak, when there came a great cry from the roof of the tower above, and a black body shot past the little window near which I was sitting.
We all ran to the window but could see nothing.
Then St. Nivel made a suggestion.
"Let us mount up to the roof," he said, "and see what is to be seen. You, Botley, had better go down to the foot of the tower."
The keeper touched his forelock and commenced his descent of the spiral staircase. Meanwhile, Lady Ethel, her brother and I mounted up to the top.
We passed the room in which I had been imprisoned, and went up a very much narrower flight of steps to the roof, coming out at a little door which was standing open. The roof was flat and covered with lead.
"Take care how you tread," cried St. Nivel. "I expect it is all pretty rotten. In fact, Ethel, I think you had better go inside."
Ethel, however, was not of that way of thinking; she was a thorough sportswoman and wanted to see all the fun.
"All right, Jack," she rejoined cheerily. "You go on, I'll look after myself without troubling you."
It was very evident at the first glance that there had been an accident, a piece of the low stone wall which surrounded the roof was gone. It looked as if it had recently tumbled over. St. Nivel was evidently right when he said the place was rotten. Rotten it certainly was.
Stepping very gingerly we all approached the embattled wall, and, selecting the firmest part, looked over, one at a time. I had the second peep and was just in time to see two men, one limping very much—this I am sure was Saumarez—disappear into a neighbouring wood. A countrified-looking boy was running up from the opposite direction.
At the foot of the tower, however, was another matter; huddled up in a heap was the body of a man, with a coil of rope and some shattered masonry lying all around it.
By the body stood Botley, the game-keeper, scratching his head.
It was now very evident what had occurred.
The three miscreants who had tried to torture me had endeavoured to escape by letting themselves down by a rope from the top of the tower. Two had succeeded and one had been killed. The reason of this was obvious, the rope had been fixed round one of the battlements and it had not been sufficiently strong to maintain the weight of the three men. The two lowest had probably got off with a shaking, the man who had got on the rope last had lost his life. All this was perfectly evident.
"Who is it?" shouted Lord St. Nivel to the keeper below.
"Doan't know, me lord," came back the answer, "he's a stranger to me."
The keeper had now been joined by the countrified boy, and the two turned the body over on to its face. I could see that it was the fairer of the two men who had acted under Saumarez' orders.
"I think we had better go down," suggested my cousin, the Guardsman; "we may be of some service there."
On the way down the winding staircase, a thought struck me.
"What has become of that body," I asked, "that was found on Lansdown yesterday morning?"
"What body?" replied my two cousins together.
"The body of an old lady."
"We have heard nothing of it," replied St. Nivel, "and we ought to have done so. But you have not told us what happened to you."
Going down the old stone staircase, I gave them a brief account of my arrest in London and journey down there, with my imprisonment during the night in the tower.
"Well," remarked St. Nivel, while his sister murmured a few words of sympathy, "I haven't quite got the hang of the thing yet, but you must tell us more at lunch."
We found that the man lying at the foot of the tower was certainly dead; his neck was broken.
We could therefore do nothing hut leave the gamekeeper in charge of the body while we despatched the boy to warn the police and fetch a doctor.
With a shilling in his pocket to get his dinner, the young yokel set off on his journey, and we strolled away.
"I don't think we'll shoot any more this morning, Jack," Ethel said, "this affair has made me feel a bit shaky."
"Then you had better come up to the house with us, Bill," said her brother, slapping me on the back, "and have some lunch. Then you can tell us all your adventures."
I readily agreed, and we had walked some little distance when I heard footsteps running behind us; we stopped and turned. It was the country boy we had sent to the police.
"I forgot to show you this yere sir," he said, opening his hand, in which he held something carefully clasped.
"What is it?" I asked as he addressed me.
"It's this yere heye, sir," he answered. "It don't belong to the dead 'un; he's got two."
I glanced into his open palm and beheld two halves of a brown artificial eye, made of glass, and much shot with imitation blood!
* * * * *
"No," observed my friend, Inspector Bull, "there's been no body found on Lansdown, and I should have heard of it if there had been without a doubt."
The inspector finished a liberal tumbler of Lord St. Nivel's Scotch whisky and soda, and set the tumbler carefully down on the table as if it were a piece of very rare china.
My cousin, who was standing on the hearthrug, laughed heartily.
"That was only another piece of the rogue's plot," he said. "They must have had a clever head to direct them."
"Yes," I put in, "a clever head with only one eye in it, if I'm not much mistaken."
The inspector gave me a doubtful look; then his eye reverted to the whisky decanter upon which it had been fondly fixed. St. Nivel observed it and pushed the whisky towards him.
"Thank you, my lord," said the police officer, helping himself with a look of intense satisfaction; he did not often get such whisky. "It's a curious thing, however, that this man with one eye should ha' been doing all these pranks right under my nose as it were, and I never even heard of him before."
Being aware of his methods, I was not at all surprised.
Even now, knowing that I was respectably connected, he even suspected me, and regarded me as an impostor with rich relatives.
This story of the finding of the body on Lansdown only confirmed his views of my powers of invention.
"As a matter of fact," observed Lord St. Nivel, "I am only a stranger in these parts, having borrowed a friend's house for a week's shooting; but no doubt you can tell me what this tower is, where my cousin was kept a prisoner, and which my sister and I came across by the merest chance."
"Cruft's Folly," replied the beaming inspector, with his whisky glass in his hand. "Cruft's Folly has stood where it does nearly a hundred years. It was built by some gentleman, I believe, a long while ago, to improve the landscape, just like Sham Castle over yonder."
"But does nobody live in it?"
"No, I've always understood it was quite empty and nearly a ruin."
"Then I have little doubt," said my cousin with a chuckle, "that your friends, Bill, simply appropriated it for their own uses."
"I suppose you'll have the place thoroughly searched, Mr. Bull, won't you?" I asked. "There may be something hidden there which will give you a clue to my assailants."
"You may rely upon that, Mr. Anstruther," replied the inspector, rising and slapping his chest, "but we shall have to communicate with the owner first."
Thus through the red-tapism of the law the chance was lost. Had the old tower of Cruft's Folly been searched at that moment the remainder of this history most certainly would never have been written.
When I got back to the comfort of the Magnifique, though my "cure" was but half completed, yet I determined to bring my visit to Bath to a close; it had been too exciting. I would come back and finish the course of water drinking and baths some other time.
At any rate the little twinge of rheumatism in my shoulder which had brought me there was all gone. I think possibly the shocks of electricity combined with my agitation of mind had cured it.
St. Nivel and Lady Ethel, being tired of the "rough" shooting for the time being, and perhaps having a sneaking liking for their cousin, decided to come in to Bath and take up their quarters with me at the big hotel in the town. However, at the end of three days, being thoroughly rested, and nothing whatever having been heard of Saumarez, I decided, finally, on account of the sensation I was creating in the hotel, which was becoming an annoyance, to accept St. Nivel's invitation to put in a fortnight's shooting with him at his place in Norfolk. I had the very pleasantest recollections of it, though I had not been there for two shooting seasons.
"If you behave yourself and are very good," explained Ethel, "perhaps we may take you to one of the big shoots at Sandringham. Jack is going to one, and they are always glad to have an extra gun if he happens to be such a good shot as you are."
I bowed my acknowledgments to my pretty cousin with much mock humility, but in my heart I felt very proud of the prospective honour. I had never yet occupied one of those much-coveted places in a royal shooting party. Besides, I knew that the Sandringham preserves were simply chock-full of pheasants and were, in fact, simply a sportsman's elysium.