THE ASHIEL MYSTERY A DETECTIVE STORY
BY MRS. CHARLES BRYCE
"It is the difficulty of the Police Romance, that the reader is always a man of such vastly greater ingenuity than the writer."
ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON.
When Sir Arthur Byrne fell ill, after three summers at his post in the little consulate that overlooked the lonely waters of the Black Sea, he applied for sick leave. Having obtained it, he hurried home to scatter guineas in Harley Street; for he felt all the uneasy doubts as to his future which a strong man who has never in his life known what it is to have a headache is apt to experience at the first symptom that all is not well. Outwardly, he pretended to make light of the matter.
"Drains, that's what it is," he would say to some of the passengers to whom he confided the altered state of his health on board the boat which carried him to Constantinople. "As soon as I get back to a civilized sewage system I shall be myself again. These Eastern towns are all right for Orientals; and what is your Muscovite but an Oriental, in all essentials of hygiene? But they play the deuce with a European who has grown up in a country where people still indulge in a sense of smell."
And if anyone ventured to sympathize with him, or to express regret at his illness, he would snub him fiercely. But for all that he felt convinced, in his own mind, that he had been attacked by some fatal disease. He became melancholy and depressed; and, if he did not spend his days in drawing up his last will and testament, it was because such a proceeding—in view of the state of his banking account—would have partaken of the nature of a farce. Having a sense of humour, he was little disposed, just then, to any action whose comic side he could not conveniently ignore.
When he arrived in London, however, he was relieved to find that the specialists whom he consulted, while they mostly gave him his money's worth of polite interest, did not display any anxiety as to his condition. One of them, indeed, went so far as to mention a long name, and to suggest that an operation for appendicitis would be likely to do no harm; but, on being cross-examined, confessed that he saw no reason to suspect anything wrong with Sir Arthur's appendix; so that the young man left the consulting-room in some indignation.
He remembered, as soon as the door had closed behind him, that he had forgotten to ask the meaning of the long name; and, being reluctant to set eyes again on the doctor who had mystified him with it, went to another and demanded to know what such a term might signify.
"Is—is it—dangerous?" he stammered, trying in vain to appear indifferent.
Sir Ronald Tompkins, F.R.C.S., etc. etc., let slip a smile; and then, remembering his reputation, changed it to a look of grave sympathy.
"No," he murmured, "no, no. There is no danger. I should say, no immediate danger. Still you did right, quite right, in coming to me. Taken in time, and in the proper way, this delicacy of yours will, I have no hesitation in saying, give way to treatment. I assure you, my dear Sir Arthur, that I have cured many worse cases than yours. I will write you out a little prescription. Just a little pill, perfectly pleasant to the taste, which you must swallow when you feel this alarming depression and lack of appetite of which you complain; and I am confident that we shall soon notice an improvement. Above all, my dear Sir, no worry; no anxiety. Lead a quiet, open-air life; play golf; avoid bathing in cold water; avoid soup, potatoes, puddings and alcohol; and come and see me again this day fortnight. Thank you, yes, two guineas. Good-bye."
He pressed Sir Arthur's hand, and shepherded him out of the room.
His patient departed, impressed, soothed and comforted.
After the two weeks had passed, and feeling decidedly better, he returned.
Sir Ronald on this occasion was absolutely cheerful. He expressed himself astonished at the improvement, and enthusiastic on the subject of the excellence of his own advice. He then broke to Sir Arthur the fact that he was about to take his annual holiday. He was starting for Norway the next day, and should not be back for six weeks.
"But what shall I do while you are away?" cried his patient, aghast.
"You have advanced beyond my utmost expectations," replied the doctor, "and the best thing for you now will be to go out to Vichy, and take a course of the waters there. I should have recommended this in any case. My intended departure makes no difference. Let me earnestly advise you to start for France to-morrow."
Sir Arthur had by this time developed a blind faith in Sir Ronald Tompkins and did not dream of ignoring his suggestion. He threw over all the engagements he had made since arriving in England; packed his trunks once more; and, if he did not actually leave the country until two or three days later, it was only because he was not able to get a sleeping berth on the night express at such short notice.
The end of the week saw him installed at Vichy, the most assiduous and conscientious of all the water drinkers assembled there.
It was on the veranda of his hotel that he made the acquaintance of Mrs. Meredith.
She was twenty-five, rich, beautiful and a widow, her husband having been accidentally killed within a few months of their marriage. After a year or so of mourning she had recovered her spirits, and led a gay life in English society, where she was very much in request.
Sir Arthur had seen few attractive women of late, the ladies of Baku being inclined to run to fat and diamonds, and he thought Lena Meredith the most lovely and the most wonderful creature that ever stepped out of a fairy tale.
From the very moment he set eyes on her he was her devoted slave, and after the first few days a more constant attendant than any shadow—for shadows at best are mere fair-weather comrades. He seldom saw the lady alone, for she had with her a small child, not yet a year old, of which she was, as it seemed to Sir Arthur, inordinately fond; and whether she were sitting under the trees in the garden of the hotel, or driving slowly along the dusty roads—as was her habit each afternoon—the baby and its nurse were always with her, and by their presence put an effective check to the personalities in which he was longing to indulge. It would have taken more than a baby to discourage Sir Arthur, however: he cheerfully included the little girl in his attentions; and, as time went on, became known to the other invalids in the place by the nickname of "the Nursemaid."
Mrs. Meredith took his homage as a matter of course. She was used to admiration, though she was not one of those women to whom it is indispensable. She considered it one of the luxuries of life, and held that it is more becoming than diamonds and a better protection against the weather than the most expensive furs. At first she looked upon the obviously stricken state of Sir Arthur with amusement, combined with a good deal of gratification that some one should have arisen to entertain her in this dull health resort; but gradually, as the weeks passed, her point of view underwent a change. Whether it was the boredom of the cure, or whether she was touched by the unselfish devotion of her admirer, or whether it was due merely to the accident that Sir Arthur was an uncommonly good-looking young man and so little conscious of the fact, from one cause or another she began to feel for him a friendliness which grew quickly more pronounced; so that at the end of a month, when he found her, for the first time walking alone by the lake, and proposed to her inside the first two minutes of their encounter, she accepted him almost as promptly, and with very nearly as much enthusiasm.
"I want to talk to you about the child, little Juliet," she said, a day or two later. "Or rather, though I want to talk about her, perhaps I had better not, for I can tell you almost nothing that concerns her."
"My dear," said Sir Arthur, "you needn't tell me anything, if you don't like."
"But that's just the tiresome part," she returned, "I should like you to know everything, and yet I must not let you know. She is not mine, of course, but beyond that her parentage must remain a secret, even from you. Yet this I may say: she is the child of a friend of mine, and there is no scandal attached to her birth, but I have taken all responsibility as to her future. Are you, Arthur, also prepared to adopt her?"
"Darling, I will adopt dozens of them, if you like," said her infatuated betrothed. "Juliet is a little dear, and I am very glad we shall always have her."
In England, the news of Lena Meredith's engagement caused a flutter of excitement and disappointment. It had been hoped that she would make a great match, and she received many letters from members of her family and friends, pointing out the deplorable manner in which she was throwing herself away on an impecunious young baronet who occupied an obscure position in the Consular Service. She was begged to remember that the Duke of Dachet had seemed distinctly smitten when he was introduced to her at the end of the last season; and told that if she would not consider her own interests it was unnecessary that she should forget those of her younger unmarried sisters.
At shooting lodges in the North, and in country houses in the South, young men were observed to receive the tidings with pained surprise. More than one of them had given Mrs. Meredith credit for better taste when it came to choosing a second husband; more than one of them had felt, indeed, that she was the only woman in the world with an eye discerning enough to appreciate his own valuable qualities at their true worth. Could the fact be that she had overlooked those rare gifts? For a week or so depression sat in many a heart unaccustomed to its presence; and young ladies, in search of a husband, found, here and there, that one turned to them whom they had all but given up as hopelessly indifferent to their charms.
Unconcerned by the lack of enthusiasm aroused by her decision, Lena Meredith married Sir Arthur Byrne, and in the course of a few months departed with him to his post on the Black Sea; where the baby Juliet and her nurse formed an important part of the consular household.
The years passed happily. Sir Arthur was moved and promoted from one little port to another a trifle more frequented by the ships of his country, and after a year or so to yet another still larger; so that, while nothing was too good for Juliet in the eyes of her adopted mother, and to a lesser extent in those of her father, it happened that she knew remarkably little of her own land, though few girls were more familiar with those of other nations. Nor were their wanderings confined to Europe: Africa saw them, and the southern continent of America; and it was in that far country that the happy days came to an end, for poor Lady Byrne caught cold one bitter Argentine day, and died of pneumonia before the week was out.
Sir Arthur was heart-broken. He packed Juliet off to a convent school near Buenos Ayres, and shut himself up in his consulate, refusing to meet those who would have offered their sympathy, and going from his room to his office, and back again, like a man in a dream.
Not for more than a year did Juliet see again the only friend she had now left in the world; and it was then she heard for the first time that he was not really her father, and that the woman she had called "Mother" had had no right to that name. She was fifteen years old when this blow fell on her; and she had not yet reached her sixteenth birthday when Sir Arthur was transferred back to Europe.
"Your home must always be with me, Juliet," he had said, when he broke to her his ignorance of her origin. "I have only you left now."
But though he was kind, and even affectionate to her, he showed no real anxiety for her society. She was sent to a school in Switzerland as soon as they landed in Europe; and, while she used to fancy that at the beginning of the holidays he was glad to see her return, she was much more firmly convinced that at the end of them he was at least equally pleased to see her depart.
She was nineteen before he realized that she could not be kept at school for ever; and when he considered the situation, and saw himself, a man scarcely over forty, saddled with a grown-up girl, who was neither his own daughter nor that of the woman he had loved, and to whom he had sworn to care for the child as if she were indeed his own, it must be admitted that his heart failed him. It was not that he had any aversion to Juliet herself. He had been fond of the child, and he liked the girl. It was the awkwardness of his position that filled him with a kind of despair.
"If only somebody would marry her!" he thought, as he sat opposite to her at the dinner-table, on the night that she returned for the last time from school.
The thought cheered him. Juliet, he noticed for the first time, had become singularly pretty. He engaged a severe Frenchwoman of mature age as chaperon, and made spasmodic attempts to take his adopted daughter into such society as the Belgian port, where he was consul at this time, could afford.
It was not a large society; nor did eligible young men figure in it in any quantity. Those there were, were foreigners, to whom the question of a dot must be satisfactorily solved before the idea of matrimony would so much as occur to them.
Juliet had no money. Lady Byrne had left her fortune to her husband, and rash speculations on his part had reduced it to a meagre amount, which he felt no inclination to part with. Two or three years went by, and she received no proposals. Sir Arthur's hopes of seeing her provided for grew faint, and he could imagine no way out of his difficulties. He himself spent his leave in England, but he never took the girl with him on those holidays. He had no wish to be called on to explain her presence to such of his friends as might not remember his wife's whim; and, though she passed as his daughter abroad, she could not do that at home.
Juliet, for her part, was not very well content. She could hardly avoid knowing that she was looked on as an incubus, and she saw that her father, as she called him, dreaded to be questioned as to their relationship. She lived a simple life; rode and played tennis with young Belgians of her own age; read, worked, went to such dances and entertainments as were given in the little town, and did not, on the whole, waste much time puzzling over the mystery that surrounded her childhood. But when her friends asked her why she never went to England with Sir Arthur, she did not know what answer to make, and worried herself in secret about it.
Why did he not take her? Because he was ashamed of her? But why was he ashamed? Her mother—she always thought of Lady Byrne by that name—had said she was the daughter of a friend of hers. So that she must at least be the child of people of good family. Was not that enough?
She was already twenty-three when Sir Arthur married again. The lady was an American: Mrs. Clarency Butcher, a good-looking widow of about thirty-five, with three little girls, of whom the eldest was fifteen. She had not the enormous wealth which is often one of her countrywomen's most pleasing attributes, but she was moderately well off and came of a good Colonial family. Having lived for several years in England, she had grown to prefer the King's English to the President's, and had dropped, almost completely, the accent of her native country. She was extremely well educated, and talked three other languages with equal correctness, her first husband having been attached to various European legations. Altogether, she was a charming and attractive woman, and there were many who envied Sir Arthur for the second time in his life.
It was not, perhaps, her fault that she did not take very kindly to Juliet. The girl resented the place once occupied by her dead mother being filled by any newcomer; and was not, it is to be feared, at sufficient pains to hide her feelings on the point. And the second Lady Byrne was hardly to be blamed if she remembered that in a few years she would have three daughters of her own to take out, and felt that a fourth was almost too much of a good thing.
Besides, there was no getting over the fact that she was no relation whatever, and was on the other hand a considerable drain on the family resources, all of which Lady Byrne felt entirely equal to disbursing alone and unassisted. Finally, her presence led to disagreements between Sir Arthur and his wife.
The day came on which Lady Byrne could not resist drawing Juliet's attention to her unfortunate circumstances. In a heated moment, induced by the girl's refusal to meet her half-way when she was conscious of having made an unusual effort to be friendly, she pointed out to Juliet that it would be more becoming in her to show some gratitude to people on whose charity she was living, and on whom she had absolutely no claim of blood at all.
The interview ended by Juliet flying to Sir Arthur, and begging, while she wept on his shoulder, to be allowed to go away and work for her living; though where and how she proposed to do this she did not specify.
Sir Arthur had a bad quarter of an hour. His conscience, the knowledge of the extent to which he shared his second wife's feelings, the remembrance of the vows he had made on the subject to his first wife, these and the old, if not very strong, affection he had for Juliet, combined to stir in him feelings of compunction which showed themselves in an outburst of irritability. He scolded Juliet; he blamed his wife.
"Why," he asked them both, "can two women not live in the same house without quarrelling? Is it impossible for a wretched man ever to have a moment's peace?"
In the end, he worked himself into such a passion that Lady Byrne and Juliet were driven to a reconciliation, and found themselves defending each other against his reproaches.
After this they got on better together.
One hot summer day, a few months after the marriage, Juliet, returning to the consulate after a morning spent in very active exercise upon a tennis court, was met on the doorstep by Dora, the youngest of the Clarency Butchers, who was awaiting her approach in a high state of excitement.
"Hurry up, Juliet," she cried, as soon as she could make herself heard. "You'll never guess what there is for you. Something you don't often get!"
"What is it?" said Juliet, coming up the steps.
"No; at least I suppose not; but there may be one inside."
"Inside? Oh, then it's a parcel?" asked Juliet good-humouredly.
She felt a mild curiosity, tempered by the knowledge that many things provided a thrill for the ten-year-old Dora, which she, from the advanced age of twenty-three, could not look upon as particularly exciting.
"No, not a parcel," cried Dora, dancing round her. "It's a letter. There now!"
"Then why do you say it's something I don't often get?" asked Juliet suspiciously; "I often get letters. It's an invitation to the Gertignes' dance, I expect."
"No, no, it isn't. It's a letter from England. You don't often get one from there, now, do you? You never did before since we've been here. I always examine your letters, you know," said Dora, "to see if they look as if they came from young men. So does Margaret. We think it's time you got engaged."
Margaret was the next sister.
"It's very good of you to take such an interest in my fate," Juliet replied, as she pulled off her gloves and went to the side-table for the letter. As a matter of fact she was a good deal excited now; for what the child said was true enough. She might even have gone further, and said that she had never had a letter from England, except while Sir Arthur was there on leave.
It was a large envelope, addressed in a clerk's handwriting, and she came to the conclusion, as she tore it open, that it must be an advertisement from some shop.
"DEAR MADAM,—We shall esteem it a favour if you can make it convenient to call upon us one day next week, upon a matter of business connected with a member of your family. It is impossible to give you further details in a letter; but if you will grant us the interview we venture to ask, we may go so far as to say that there appears to us to be a reasonable probability of the result being of advantage to yourself. Trusting that you will let us have an immediate reply, in which you will kindly name the day and hour when we may expect to see you.—We are, yours faithfully,
"FINDLAY & INGE, Solicitors."
The address was a street in Holborn.
Juliet read the letter through, and straightway read it through again, with a beating heart. What did it mean? Was it possible she was going to find her own family at last?
She was recalled to the present by the voice of Dora, whom she now perceived to be reading the letter over her shoulder with unblushing interest.
"Say," said Dora, "isn't it exciting? 'Something to your advantage!' Just what they put in the agony column when they leave you a fortune. I bet your long-lost uncle in the West has kicked the bucket, and left you all his ill-gotten gains. Mark my words. You'll come back from England a lovely heiress. I do wish the others would come in. There's no one in the house, except Sir Arthur."
"Where is he?" said Juliet, putting the sheet of paper back into the envelope and slipping it under her waistband. "You know, Dora, it's not at all a nice thing to read other people's letters. I wonder you aren't ashamed of yourself. I'm surprised at you."
"I shouldn't have read it if you'd been quicker about telling me what was in it," retorted Dora. "It's not at all a nice thing to put temptation in the way of a little girl like me. Do you suppose I'm made of cast iron?"
She departed with an injured air, and Juliet went to look for the consul.
"What is it?" he asked, as she put the envelope into his hand. "A letter you want me to read? Not a proposal, eh?" He smiled at her as he unfolded the large sheet of office paper.
"Hullo, what's this?"
He read it through carefully.
"Why, Juliet," he said, when he had finished, "this is very interesting, isn't it? It looks as if you were going to find out something about yourself, doesn't it? After all these years! Well, well."
"You think I must go, then," she said a little doubtfully.
"Go? Of course I should go, if I were you. Why not?"
"You don't think it is a hoax?"
"No, no; I see no reason to suppose such a thing. I know the firm of Findlay & Ince quite well by name and reputation."
"Oh, I hope they will tell me who I am!" cried Juliet. "Have you no idea at all, father?"
"No, my dear, you know I have not. Besides, I promised Lena I would never ask. You are the child of a friend of hers. That is all I know. I think she scarcely realized how hard it would be for you not to know more when you grew up. I often think that if she had lived she would have told you before now."
"If you promised her not to ask, I won't ask either," said Juliet loyally. "But I hope they'll tell me. It will be different, won't it, if they tell me without my asking?"
"I think you might ask," said Sir Arthur. "It is absurd that you should be bound by a promise that I made. And you may be sure of one thing. Your asking, or your not asking, won't make any odds to Findlay & Ince. If they mean to tell you, they will; and, if they don't, you're not likely to get it out of them."
"And when shall I go?" cried Juliet. "They say they want me to answer immediately, you know."
"Oh well, I don't know. In a few days. You will hardly be ready to start to-morrow, will you?"
"I could be ready, easily," said Juliet.
"You're in a great hurry to get away from us," said Sir Arthur, with a rather uneasy laugh.
"Not from you." Juliet put her arm through his. "I could never find another father half as nice as the one I've got. But you could do very well without so many daughters, you know." She smiled at him mockingly. "You're like the old woman who lived in a shoe. You ought to set up a school for young ladies."
"I don't believe I shall be able to get on without my eldest daughter," he replied, half-serious. "Still I think it would be better for you if your real parents have decided to own up to you. At all events, if they do not turn out desirable, I shall still be here, I hope; so I don't see how you can lose anything by taking this chance of finding out what you can about them."
At this point Lady Byrne came into the room, and the news had to be retold for her benefit; the letter was produced again, and she joined heartily in the excitement it had caused.
"You had better start on Monday," she said to Juliet. "That will give you two days to pack, and to write to an hotel for rooms. Are you going to take her, Arthur?" she added, turning to her husband.
"I would, like a shot," he replied, "but I can't possibly get away next week. I've got a lot of work on hand just now. I suppose, my dear," he suggested doubtfully, "that you wouldn't be able to run over with her?"
Lady Byrne declared that it was impossible for her to do so: she had engagements, she said, for every day of the following week, which it was out of the question to break. Had Sir Arthur forgotten that they themselves were having large dinner-parties on Tuesday and Friday? What she would do without Juliet to help her in preparing for them, she did not know, but at least it was obvious that some one must be there to receive his guests. No, Juliet would have to go alone. She was really old enough to be trusted by herself for three days, and there was no need, that she could see, for her to be away longer.
"She can go on Monday, see the lawyers on Tuesday, and come back on Wednesday," said Lady Byrne. "The helplessness of young girls is the one thing I disapprove of in your European system of education. It is much better that they should learn to manage their own affairs; and Juliet is not such a ninny as you seem to think."
"I shall be perfectly all right by myself," Juliet protested.
Sir Arthur did not like it.
"Supposing she is detained in London," he said.
"What should detain her," demanded his wife, "unless it is the discovery of her parents? And, if she finds them, I presume they will be capable of looking after her. In any case, she can write, or cable to us when she has seen the solicitors, and it is no use providing for contingencies that will probably never arise."
So at last it was decided. A letter was written and dispatched to Messrs. Findlay & Ince, saying that Miss Byrne would have pleasure in calling upon them at twelve o'clock on the following Tuesday; and Juliet busied herself in preparations for her journey.
On Monday morning she left Ostend, in the company of her maid.
It was a glorious August day. On shore the heat was intense, and it was a relief to get out of the stifling carriages of the crowded boat train, and to breathe the gentle air from the sea that met them as they crossed the gangway on to the steamer. Juliet enjoyed every moment of the journey; and would have been sorry when the crossing was over if she had not been so eager to set foot upon her native soil.
She leant upon the rail in the bows of the ship, watching the white cliffs grow taller and more distinct, and felt that now indeed she understood the emotions with which the heart of the exile is said to swell at the sight of his own land. She wondered if the sight of their country moved other passengers on the boat as she herself was moved, and made timid advances to a lady who was standing near her, in her need of some companion with whom to share her feeling.
"Have you been away from England a long time," she asked her.
"I have been abroad during a considerable period," replied the person she addressed, a stern-looking Scotchwoman who did not appear anxious to enter into conversation.
From her severe demeanour Juliet imagined she might be a governess going for a holiday.
"You must be glad to be going home," she ventured.
"It's a far cry north to my home," said the Scotchwoman, thawing slightly. "I'm fearing I will not be seeing it this summer. I'll be stopping in the south with some friends. The journey north is awful' expensive."
"I'm sorry you aren't going home," Juliet sympathized, "but it will be nice to see the English faces at Dover, won't it? There may even be a Scotchman among the porters, you know, by some chance."
"No fear," said her neighbour gloomily. "They'll be local men, I have nae doubt. Though whether they are English or Scots," she added, "I'll have to give them saxpence instead of a fifty-centime bit; which is one of the bonniest things you see on the Continent, to my way of thinking."
Juliet could get no enthusiasm out of her; and, look which way she might, she could not see any reflection on the faces of those around her of the emotions which stirred in her own breast. It had been a rough crossing, in spite of the cloudless sky and broiling sunshine, and most of the passengers had been laid low by the rolling of the vessel. They displayed anxiety enough to reach land; but, as far as she could see, what land it was they reached was a matter of indifference to them. No doubt, she thought, when the ship stopped and they felt better, they would be more disposed to a sentimentality like hers.
She found her maid—who had been one of the most sea-sick of those aboard—and assisted her ashore, put her into a carriage and ministered to her wants with the help of a tea-basket containing the delicious novelty of English bread and butter. In half an hour's time they were steaming hurriedly towards London. She was to lodge at a small hotel in Jermyn Street; and on that first evening even this seemed perfect to her. The badness of the cooking was a thing she refused to notice; and the astonishing hills and valleys of the bed caused in her no sensation beyond that of surprise. She was young, strong and healthy, and there was no reason that trifling discomforts of this kind should affect her enjoyment. To the shortcomings of the bed, indeed, she shut her eyes in more senses than one, for she was asleep three minutes after her head touched the pillow, nor did she wake till her maid roused her the next morning.
She got up at once and looked out of the window. It was a fine day again; over the roofs of the houses opposite she could see a blue streak of sky. Already the air had lost the touch of freshness which comes, even to London in August, during the first hours of the morning; and the heat in the low-ceilinged room on the third floor which Juliet occupied for the sake of economy, was oppressive in spite of the small sash windows being opened to their utmost capacity. But Juliet only laughed to herself with pleasure at the brilliancy of the day. She felt that the weather was playing up to the occasion, as became this important morning of her life. For that it was important she did not doubt. She was going to hear tremendous news that day; make wonderful discoveries about her birth; hear undreamt-of things. Of this she felt absolutely convinced, and it would not have astonished her to find herself claimed as daughter by any of the reigning families of Europe. She was prepared for anything, or so she said to herself, however astounding; and, that being so, she was excited in proportion. Anyone could have told her that, by this attitude of mind towards the future, she was laying up for herself disappointment at the least, if not the bitterest disillusions; but there was no one to throw cold water on her hopes, and she filled the air with castles of every style of architecture that her fancy suggested, without any hindrance from doubt or misgiving.
She dressed quickly, in the gayest humour, but with even more care than she usually bestowed upon her appearance; a subject to which she always gave the fullest attention.
"Which dress will Mademoiselle wear?" the maid asked her.
"Why, my prettiest, naturally," she replied.
"What, the white one that Mademoiselle wore for the marriage of Monsieur, her papa?" inquired Therese, scandalized at the idea of such a precious garment being put on before breakfast.
"That very one," Juliet assured her, undaunted; and was arrayed in it, in spite of obvious disapproval.
After breakfast they went out, and, inquiring their way to Bond Street, flattened their noses against the shop windows to their mutual satisfaction.
They had it almost to themselves, for there were not many people left in that part of London; but more than one head was turned to gaze at the pretty girl in the garden-party dress, who stood transfixed before shop after shop. This amusement lasted till half-past eleven, when they returned to the hotel for Juliet to give the final pats to her hair, and to retilt her hat to an angle possibly more becoming, before she started to keep her appointment with the solicitors. The next twenty minutes were spent in cross-examining the hotel porter as to the time it would take to drive to her destination, and, having decided to start at ten minutes to twelve, in wondering whether the quarter of an hour which had still to elapse would ever come to an end.
At three minutes to twelve she rang the bell of the office of Messrs. Findlay & Ince.
A gloomy little clerk climbed down from a high stool where he sat writing, and opened the door.
"Oh yes, Miss Juliet Byrne," he said when Juliet had told him her name. "Mr. Findlay is expecting you. Will you walk upstairs, Miss Byrne, please. I think you have an appointment for twelve o'clock? This way, if you please."
He led the way up a steep and narrow flight of stairs, which rose out of the black shadows at the end of the passage.
"Ladies find these stairs rather dark, I'm afraid," he remarked pleasantly, as he held open a door and ushered Juliet and her maid into an empty room. "Will you kindly wait here," he continued. "Mr. Findlay is engaged for the moment. You are a leetle before your time, I believe." He pulled out his watch and examined it closely. "Not quite the hour yet," he repeated, and closed it with a snap. "But Mr. Findlay will see you as soon as he is disengaged."
With a flourish of his handkerchief he withdrew, shutting the door behind him.
Juliet sat down on a hard chair covered with green leather, and told her maid to take another. Her spirits were damped. The sight of Mr. Nicol, as the clerk was named, often had that effect upon persons who saw him for the first time; indeed he was found to be a very useful check on troublesome clients, who arrived full of determination to have their own way, and were often so cowed by their preliminary interview with Nicol as to feel it a privilege and a relief subsequently to be bullied by Mr. Ince, or persuaded by Mr. Findlay into the belief that what they had previously decided on was the last thing advisable to do.
Mr. Findlay frequently remarked to Mr. Ince, when his partner's easily roused temper was more highly tried than usual by some imbecile mistake of the clerk's, that Nicol might have faults as a clerk and as a man, but that, as a buffer, he was the nearest approach to perfection obtainable in this world of makeshifts.
To which Mr. Ince would reply with point and fluency that fenders could be had by the dozen from any shipping warehouse, at a lower cost than one week's salary of Nicol's would represent, and would be far more efficient in the office. Still he did not suggest dismissing the man.
Juliet, as she sat and looked round the musty little waiting-room, felt that here was an end of her dreams of the resplendent family she was to find pining to take her to its heart. She felt certain that she could never have any feelings in common with people who could employ a firm of solicitors which in its turn was served by the man who had received her. Romance and the clerk could never, she thought, meet under one roof. And such a roof! The room in which she sat was so dark, so gloomy, so bare and cheerless, that Juliet began to wonder whether she would not have been wiser not to have come. This was not a place, surely, which fond parents would choose for a long-deferred meeting with their child, after years of separation. She walked to the window, but the only view was of a blank wall, and that so close that she could have touched it by leaning out. No wonder the room was dark, even at midday in August. The walls were lined with bookshelves, where heavy volumes, all dealing with the same subject, that of law, stood shoulder to shoulder in stout bindings of brown leather.
There was a fireplace of cracked and dirty marble with an engraving hung over it, representing the coronation of Queen Victoria. A gas stove occupied the grate, and a gas bracket stuck out from the wall on either side of the picture.
On the small round mahogany table that stood in the middle of the room lay a Bible, and a copy of the St. James's Gazette, which was dated a week back. Juliet took it up and read an account of a cricket match without much enthusiasm. Then she flung it down and wandered about the room once more; but she had exhausted all its possibilities; and though she took a volume entitled Causes Celebres from the shelf, and turned its pages hopefully, she put it back with a grimace at its dullness and a sort of surprise at finding anything drier than the cricket.
She had waited half an hour, when the door opened and the face of Nicol was introduced round the corner of it.
"Will you please come this way," he said.
Telling her maid to stay where she was, Juliet followed him. He opened the other door on the landing, and announced her in a loud voice as, with a quickened pulse, she passed him, and entered the room.
There were two men standing by the hearth. One of them came forward to receive her.
"How do you do, Miss Byrne," he said; "I am glad you were able to come. I am Jeremy Findlay, at your service."
Mr. Findlay was a man of moderate height, with a long pointed nose which he was in the habit of putting down to within an inch or two of his desk when he was looking for any particular paper, for he was very short sighted. It rather conveyed the impression that he was poking about with it, and that he hunted for questionable clauses or illegalities in a document, much as a pig might hunt for truffles in a wood. For the rest, he was middle-aged, with hair nearly white, and small grey whiskers. He beamed at Juliet through gold-rimmed eyeglasses.
"Let me introduce my friend," he said, mumbling something.
Juliet did not catch the name, but she supposed that this was Mr. Ince.
The other man stepped forward and shook hands, but said nothing. He was a thin, pallid creature, rather above the average height, and had the drooping shoulders of a scholar. His face, which was long and narrow, looked pale and emaciated, and though his blue eyes had a kindly twinkle it seemed to Juliet that they burned with a feverish brightness. His nose was long and slightly hooked, and beneath it the mouth was hidden by a heavy red moustache; while his hair, though not of so bright a colour, had a reddish tinge about it. He appeared to be about fifty years of age, but this was due to a look of tiredness habitual to his expression, and, in part, to actual bad health. In reality he was younger.
"Pray take this chair, Miss Byrne," Mr. Findlay was saying. "We are anxious to have a little conversation with you. I am sure you quite understand that we should not have asked you to come all the way from Belgium unless your presence was of considerable importance. How important it is I really hardly know myself, but I repeat that I would not have urged you to take so long a journey if I had not had serious reason to think that it was desirable for your own sake that you should do so. I may say at once that the matter is a family one; but before going further I must ask your permission to put one or two questions to you, which I hope you will believe are not prompted by any feeling of idle curiosity on my part."
He paused, and Juliet murmured some words of acquiescence. Mr. Findlay took off his eyeglasses, glared at them, replaced them, and ran his nose over the surface of the papers on his writing-table.
"Ah, here it is!" he exclaimed triumphantly, pouncing on a folded sheet and lifting it to his eyes. "Just a few notes," he explained.
"We wrote you care of Sir Arthur Byrne," he resumed; "are you a member of his family?"
Here was a disturbing question for Juliet. She had imagined, until this instant, that she was on the point of being told who her family was, and now this man was asking for information from her. Tears of disappointment would not be kept from her eyes.
"I am a member of Sir Arthur's household," she stammered.
"Are you not his daughter, then?" asked Mr. Findlay.
"No, I am not really," Juliet replied.
"Then may I ask what relation you are to him?" said the lawyer.
"I am his adopted daughter," said Juliet. "I have always called him 'Father.'"
"Are you not any relation at all?" pursued Mr. Findlay.
"I believe not."
"Then, Miss Byrne, I hope you will not think it an impertinent question if I ask, who are you?"
"I don't know," acknowledged poor Juliet. "I was hoping you would tell me that. I thought, I imagined, that that was why you sent for me."
"You astonish me," said Mr. Findlay. "Do you mean to say that your family has never made any attempt to communicate with you?"
"And that Sir Arthur Byrne has never told you anything as to your birth? Surely you must have questioned him about it?"
"He has told me all he knows," said Juliet, "but that amounts to nothing."
"Indeed; that is very strange. He must have had dealings with the people you were with before he adopted you. He must at least know their name?"
"I don't know," said Juliet. "He doesn't know either, I am sure. It wasn't Sir Arthur who adopted me. It was the lady he married. A Mrs. Meredith. She is dead."
"But he must have heard about you from her," insisted Mr. Findlay. "He would not have taken a child into his household without knowing anything at all about it."
"His wife told him that I was the daughter of a friend of hers, and begged him not to ask her any more about me. He was very devoted to her, and he did as she wished. He has been most kind to me; but I am sure he would be as glad as I should be to discover my relations. I am dreadfully disappointed that you don't know anything about them. We all thought I was going to find my family at last."
Juliet's voice quavered a little. She had built too much on this interview.
"I am really extremely sorry not to be able to give you any information," Mr. Findlay said.
He turned towards the other man with an interrogative glance, and was met by a nod of the head, at which he leant back in his chair, crossed his legs and folded his hands upon them, with the expression of some one who has played his part in the game, and now retires in favour of another competitor. The pale man moved his chair a little forward and took up the conversation.
"Are you really quite certain that Sir Arthur Byrne has told you all he knows?" he said earnestly, fixing on Juliet a look at once grave and eager.
"Yes," she answered. "I can see that he is as puzzled as I am. And he would be glad enough to find a way to get rid of me," she added bitterly.
"I thought you said you were attached to him," said the stranger in surprise, "and that he had been very kind to you?"
"Yes," said Juliet, "he has, and I am as fond of him as possible. But he has three stepdaughters now; he has married again, you know. And he is not very well off. I am a great expense, besides being an extra girl. I don't blame him for thinking I am one too many."
There was a long pause, during which Juliet was conscious of being closely scrutinized.
"I think I may be able to give you news of your family," said the pale man unexpectedly. "That is, if you are the person I think you are likely to be."
"Oh," exclaimed Juliet, "can you really?"
"Well, it is possible," admitted the other. "I can't say for certain yet."
"Oh, do, do tell me!" cried the girl.
"Out of the question, at present," he replied firmly. "I must first satisfy myself as to whose child you are, and on that point you appear able to give me no assistance. You must wait till I can find out something further about this matter of your adoption. And even then," he added, "it is not certain if I can tell you. You must understand that, though certain family secrets have been placed in my possession, it does not depend upon myself whether or not I shall ultimately reveal them to you."
Juliet's face fell for a moment, but she refused to allow herself to be discouraged.
"There is a chance for me, anyhow!" she exclaimed. "How I hope you will be allowed to tell me in the end! But why," she went on, turning to Mr. Findlay, "did you make me think you knew nothing at all about me. I suppose the family secrets your partner speaks of are the secrets of my family?"
"My dear young lady," said Mr. Findlay, "Lord Ashiel is not my partner. On the contrary, he is an old client of ours, and it was at his request that we wrote to you as we did. We know no more about your affairs than you have told us yourself."
"Oh," murmured Juliet, confused at her mistake. "I thought you were Mr. Ince," she apologized; "I am so sorry."
"Not very flattering to poor Ince I'm afraid," said Lord Ashiel, smiling at her. "He's ten years younger than I am, I'm sorry to say, and I would change places with him very willingly. Now, if you had mistaken me for Nicol, that undertaker clerk of Findlay's, who always looks as if he's been burying his grandmother, I should have been decidedly hurt. What in the world do you keep that fellow in the office for, Findlay? To frighten away custom?"
Mr. Findlay laughed.
"He's a more useful person than you imagine," he said. "Though I must say Ince agrees with you, and is always at me about the poor man. Some day I hope you will both see his sterling qualities."
"I am afraid you must think I have given you a great deal of trouble for very little reason," Lord Ashiel said to Juliet. "But perhaps there will be more result than at present can seem clear to you. I may go so far as to say that I hope so most sincerely. But, if the secret of which I spoke just now is ever to be confided to you, it will be necessary for you and me to know each other a little better. I have a proposal to make to you, which I fear you may think our acquaintance rather too short and unconventional to justify."
He paused with a trace of embarrassment, and Juliet wondered what could be coming.
"It is not convenient for me to stay in London just now," he went on after a minute, "and I am sure you must find it very disagreeable at this time of the year; and yet it is very important that I should see more of you. It is, in fact, part of the conditions under which I may be able to reveal these family secrets of yours to you. That is to say, if they should turn out to be indeed yours. I came up from the Highlands last night. I have a place on the West Coast, where at this moment I have a party of people staying with me for shooting. My sister is entertaining them in my absence, but I must get back to my duties of host. What I want to suggest is that you should pay us a visit at Inverashiel."
"Thank you very much," said Juliet doubtfully. "I should love to, but—I don't know whether my father would allow me."
"Your father?" exclaimed Lord Ashiel and Mr. Findlay in one breath.
"Sir Arthur Byrne, I mean," she corrected herself.
"You might telegraph to him," urged Lord Ashiel. "And I, myself, will write. You might mention my sister to him. I think he used to know her. Mrs. John Haviland. But, indeed, it is very important that you should come, more important than you think, perhaps."
He seemed extraordinarily anxious, now, lest she should refuse.
"Perhaps," suggested Mr. Findlay, "Miss Byrne would like to think over the idea, and let you know later in the day."
"A very good plan," said Lord Ashiel. "Yes, of course you would like to think it over. Will you telephone to me at the Carlton after lunch? Thanks so much. Good-bye for the present."
He seized his hat and stick and darted to the door. "You talk to her, Findlay!" he cried, and disappeared.
Juliet and Mr. Findlay were left confronting one another.
"That will be the best plan," the lawyer repeated. "Think it over, Miss Byrne. I am sure you would enjoy the visit to Scotland. Inverashiel is a most interesting old place, both historically and for the sake of its beautiful scenery. A week or two of Highland air could not fail to be of benefit to your health, even if nothing further came of it, so to speak."
"I should love it," Juliet said again. "But, Mr. Findlay, I don't know Lord Ashiel, or hardly know him. How can I go off and stay with someone I never met before to-day?"
"The circumstances are unusual," said the lawyer. "I fancy Lord Ashiel is anxious to lose no time. He is in bad health, poor fellow. I am afraid he will worry himself a good deal if you cannot make up your mind to go."
"You see," said Juliet, troubled, "I know nothing about him. I don't know what my father—I mean, Sir Arthur would say."
"I am sure your father would have no objection whatever to your making friends with Lord Ashiel," Mr. Findlay assured her. "He is one of the most respectable, the most domesticated of peers. Not very cheerful company, perhaps, but no one in the world can justly say a word against him in any way. He has had a sad time lately; his wife and only child died within a month of each other, only two or three years ago. They had been married quite a short time. Since then, his sister, Mrs. Haviland, keeps house for him; but he does not entertain much, I am told, except during the autumn in Scotland. You need have no hesitation in accepting this invitation, Miss Byrne. I am a married man, and the father of a family, and I should only be too delighted if one of my daughters had such an opportunity."
"Well," said Juliet, "I think I will risk it, and go. I am old enough to take care of myself, in any case." This she said haughtily, with her nose in the air. And then, with a sudden drop to her usual manner, she exclaimed in a tone of gaiety, "What fun it will be!"
"I am sure you will not regret your decision," repeated Mr. Findlay, as she got up to go. "You won't forget to let Lord Ashiel know, will you?"
"No, I will telephone to him at once. But I will telegraph home too, of course."
Excitement over this new plan had almost dispelled the earlier disappointment, and if Juliet's spirits, as she drove back to Jermyn Street, were not quite as overflowingly high as when she had started out, they were good enough to make her smile to herself and to every one she met during the rest of the day, and to hum gay little tunes when no one was near, and altogether to feel very happy and pleased and possessed by the conviction that something delightful was about to happen. She sent off her telegram to Sir Arthur, spending some time over it, and spoiling a dozen telegraph forms, before she could find satisfactory words in which to convey her plans with an appearance of deference to authority. Then she called up the Carlton Hotel on the telephone, and was much put out when she heard that Lord Ashiel was not staying there, or even expected.
It was the hall porter of her hotel who came to the rescue, by suggesting that she should try the Carlton Club, of which she had never before heard.
From the quickness with which Lord Ashiel answered her, he might have been sitting waiting at the end of the wire, and he expressed great pleasure at her acceptance of his invitation. Indeed, she could hear from the tone of his voice that his gratification was no mere empty form. It was arranged that she should travel down on the following night, Lord Ashiel promising to engage a sleeping berth for her on the eight o'clock train. He himself was going North that same evening. He had just been writing a letter to Sir Arthur Byrne, he told her. He hoped she had some thick dresses with her; she would want them in Scotland.
"I am afraid I haven't," she said. "I only expected to stay in London for a day or two, you know."
"Well," said the voice at the end of the telephone, "perhaps you can get a waterproof or something, between this and to-morrow night. I am afraid I don't know the names of any ladies' tailors, but there are lots about," he concluded vaguely.
"I suppose I had better," said Juliet doubtfully. "I wonder if the shops here will trust me. The fact is, I haven't got very much extra money. I think perhaps I'd better wait a day or two till I can have some more sent me."
"My dear child," came the answer in horrified tones, "you must on no account put off coming. Of course you are not prepared for all this extra expense. You must allow me to be your banker. I insist upon it. Your family, in whose confidence I happen to be, would never forgive me if I allowed you to continue to be dependent on Sir Arthur Byrne."
"It is very kind of you," Juliet began. "But suppose I turn out to be some one different. You know, you said—"
"If you do, you shall repay me," he replied. "In the meantime I will send you round a small sum to do your shopping with. Let me see, where are you staying?"
An hour later a bank messenger arrived with an envelope containing L100 in notes. Juliet had never seen so much money in her life, and thought it far too much. "I shall be sure to lose it," was her first thought. Her second was to deposit it with the proprietor of the hotel; after which she felt safer. Then, in huge delight, she sallied forth again with her maid, the alluring memory of some of the shop windows into which she had gazed that morning calling to her loudly; she had never thought to look at those fascinating garments from the other side of the glass. Intoxicating hours followed, in which a couple of tweed dresses were purchased that seemed as if they must have been made on purpose for her; nor were thick walking shoes, and country hats, and other accessories neglected. By evening her room was strewn with cardboard boxes, and on Wednesday more were added, so that a trunk to pack them in had to be bought as well. The shops were very empty; Juliet had the entire attention of the shop people, and revelled in her purchases. Time flew, and she was quite sorry, as she drove to Euston on the following evening, to think that she was leaving this fascinating town of London.
On Tuesday afternoon, when Juliet, having hung up the telephone through which she had been conversing with Lord Ashiel, hurried out to see what Bond Street could provide her with, a little man was sitting writing in a luxuriously furnished room in a flat in Whitehall. He was small and thin, and possessed a pair of extraordinarily bright and intelligent brown eyes, which saw a good deal more of what happened around him than perhaps any other eyes within a radius of a mile from where he sat. He was, in other words, observant to a very high degree; and, what was more remarkable, he knew how to use his powers of observation. There was not a criminal in the length and breadth of the country who did not wonder uneasily whether he had really left the scene of his crime as devoid of clues as he imagined, when he heard that the celebrated detective, Gimblet, had visited the spot in pursuit of his investigations.
For this was the man, who, in a few years, had unravelled more apparently insoluble mysteries, and caused the arrest of more hitherto evasive scoundrels, than his predecessors had managed to secure in a decade. The name of Gimblet was known and detested wherever a coiner carried on his forbidden craft, or a blackmailer concocted his cowardly plans; burglars and forgers cursed freely when he was mentioned, and there was hardly an illicit trade in the country which had not suffered at one time or another from his inquisitive habit of interesting himself in other people's affairs. Scotland Yard officials were never too proud to call upon him for help, and many a difficulty he had helped them out of, though he refused an offer of a regular post in the Criminal Investigation Department, preferring to be at liberty to choose what cases he would take up. Above all things he loved the strange and inexplicable. Gimblet had not always been a detective. Indeed, he often smiled to himself when he thought of the extraordinary confidence which the public now elected to repose in him.
No one was more conscious than himself that he was far from being infallible; in fact, his admirers appeared to him to be wilfully blind to that elementary truth; so that when he failed to bring a case to a successful issue people were apt to show an amount of disappointment that he, for his part, thought very unreasonable. It was, perhaps, in the nature of things that the puzzles he solved correctly received so much more publicity than was given to his mistakes; but he often could not avoid wishing that less were expected of him, and that his reputation had not grown so tropically on what he could but consider insufficient nourishment.
In early days, after leaving Oxford, he had gone into an architect's office and had flourished there; till one day an accident had turned his energies in the direction they had since taken.
A crime had been committed during the erection of a house he was building, and, when the police were at a loss to know how to account for the somewhat peculiar circumstances, the young architect, going his ordinary rounds of inspection, had seen in a flash that there was something unusual in the disposal of a portion of the building material; which observation, with certain deductions following thereon, had led to the detection and arrest of the criminal. From that time on he had been more and more drawn to the fascination of tracing events to their causes, when these appeared connected with deeds of violence and fraud, till of late years he had completely dropped the study of the carrying powers of wood and stone for the more interesting lessons to be derived from the contemplation of the strange vagaries indulged in by his fellow human beings.
He kept, however, a strong taste for art and all that appertained to it; more especially he was devoted to the collection of old and rare bric-a-brac. There was not a curiosity shop in London that did not know him, and he was equally happy when he had discovered some dust-hidden treasure in the back regions of a secondhand furniture shop, or when he was engaged in running to earth some human vermin who up till then had lain snug in his own particular back region of crime, straining his ears, in a mixture of contempt and anxiety, as the sounds of the hunt went by.
Having finished his letter, Gimblet put his stylo in his pocket, and turned round to look at the clock.
"Twenty minutes to four," he said half-aloud. "I wish to goodness people would keep their appointments punctually, or else not come at all."
Five more minutes passed, and he got up and went into the hall.
"Higgs," he called, and his faithful servant and general factotum came out of the pantry.
"I am going out," said his master, taking up his straw hat. "If anyone calls, say I could not wait any longer. Ah, there's the front-door bell. Just see who it is."
He retreated to his sitting-room while Higgs went to the door of the flat. A minute or two later Lord Ashiel was ushered in.
"I'm very sorry I'm late," said he, as the door closed behind him, "but you know what kept me."
"Not the young lady, surely," said Gimblet; "you were to see her at twelve o'clock this morning, weren't you?"
"Yes, but she telephoned to me after lunch. By Jove, Gimblet, I believe you have got hold of the right girl this time." Lord Ashiel's tone was enthusiastic. "If she turns out to be half as nice as she looks, I shall be ever grateful to you for routing her out."
"Indeed, I am very glad to hear it," replied the detective. "And do you observe a resemblance in her to your family; do you feel satisfied that she is your daughter?"
"I can't say I do see much likeness," Lord Ashiel confessed rather reluctantly. "I thought at one moment, when she smiled, that she was like her mother; but otherwise she did not strike me as resembling either of us, I am sorry to say."
"Did she know her history at all?" asked Gimblet. "Did she claim you as father?"
"No, she had never heard of me, as far as I could make out. And she assured me that Sir Arthur Byrne has no idea whose child she is."
"That certainly seems very improbable," Gimblet commented.
"Yes, it does. Still, I feel sure she was speaking the truth. Why, indeed, should she not do so? It seems that Byrne has married again, and that his wife has already three daughters of her own; so, as she says, he would probably be glad enough to get the fourth one off his hands, as they are not well off."
"Yes," said Gimblet. "I knew that. No, there seems no reason why Sir Arthur Byrne should not have told her about you if he knew she was your child. What is odd, is that he should not have known it."
"He had promised his first wife not to make any inquiries, it seems," said Lord Ashiel.
"Well, he is an uncommon kind of man if he kept that promise," Gimblet remarked.
"He was devoted to his first wife, this girl told me," said Lord Ashiel. "You never knew Lena Meredith, Gimblet, or you would not be surprised that people kept their promises to her. She was my wife's friend, as I told you, and I only saw her once, but I don't think I shall ever forget her. It was just after my wife's death, and I was too heart-broken to take much notice of anyone, but she was the sort of woman who sticks in your memory, and I can quite understand a man being infatuated about her, even to the point of curbing his curiosity for a lifetime on any subject she wished him to leave alone. I went to see her, you know, about the baby. I remember, as if it was yesterday, how I told her the whole story. I told her how I had met Juliana two years before, and how, from the first, we had both known we should never care for anyone else. I told her about my old grandfather, from whom I had such great expectations, and who wouldn't hear of my marrying anyone except the cousin, still in the schoolroom, whom he had picked out as my future wife.
"It was his wish that we should be married when I was twenty-five and the girl eighteen; but I was not yet twenty-two, so that there were at least three years of grace before he could begin to try and impose his design upon us. And he was old and ill, and I had heard that the doctors didn't give him more than a year or two, at most, to live. I thought that if Juliana and I were married secretly he would die before the question of my marriage had time to become one of practical politics; and I persuaded her to agree to a private marriage, which we would announce to the world as soon as my eccentric old grandfather was safely out of it. There was no possible obstacle to our marriage except the old man's domineering temper. Juliana Sandfort was my superior in every possible sense, worldly or otherwise; but I came of a good family, was to inherit an old name and title, and a more than sufficient fortune so long as I kept on the right side of the old Lord, and we both knew that there was no objection to be feared from her relations or from any other one of mine. In short, much as she disliked doing things in that hole-and-corner sort of way, and ashamed as I was at heart of asking her to, we neither of us could see much actual harm in the idea, and we were married accordingly at a registry office in London. Everything would have been well, and all would have gone as we hoped, but for the one unforeseen and horrible calamity. My wife died six months before my grandfather, on the day her baby was born."
Lord Ashiel paused, and sat gazing before him, over Gimblet's shoulder. There was a look on his face which showed that for the moment he was blind to the scene that lay in front of him, and that he saw in place of the bureau which stood opposite to him, and of the Oriental china which was the detective's special pride, and on which his eyes seemed to be fixed, some vision of the past which was far more real than the unsubstantial present. Presently he went on talking in a reflective undertone:
"All this I told Mrs. Meredith, and a great deal besides, for I was still in the first violence of bitter, self-reproachful grief. I wanted to be rid of the child, the cause of the catastrophe, whom I hated as vehemently as I had loved its mother, and I begged Mrs. Meredith to help me to dispose of it in such a fashion that, to me at least, the little one should be to all intents and purposes as dead as she was. Babies, I knew, had not a very strong hold on life, and I hoped, as a matter of fact, that it might really die, but this I did not dare to say aloud. Mrs. Meredith was kind to me. I remember well how good and sympathetic she was. She had heard most of the story from Juliana, whose friend she was, and it was at her house that the child was born. We had confided in no one else. She sat silently for a while after I had finished what I had to say, till at last she turned to me and tried to persuade me to alter my intention of disowning the baby. But I repeated doggedly that unless she had some alternative way to suggest of getting rid of it, I meant to leave the little girl at the door of one of the foundling hospitals, and that I would take her that very night.
"At length, seeing that I was resolved, she said she thought she could manage better than that. She had a friend, she said, an elderly Russian lady, who was a widow and childless. This lady was anxious to adopt a little English girl, and had lately written to ask her to find her a baby whom she could bring up as her own child. There was no reason why Juliana's baby should not be the one. She would write at once and suggest it. I was greatly relieved at this idea. Although I had been determined to do as I proposed, whatever opposition I might meet with, my conscience had not been willing to let me leave my child on a doorstep without protesting, and, little though I heeded its condemnation, I was glad to be able to get my own way and at the same time to silence the voice of my inward critic.
"The plan seemed simplicity itself. My wife, as I have told you, had no parents living. Her brothers and sisters, who were all married and living in different parts of the country, had been led to believe that her death was the result of an accident. Mrs. Meredith had even managed to prevail on the doctor to lend himself to this fiction; for, my grandfather being yet alive, there was still every reason not to declare our marriage, while there seemed to be none in favour of doing so, and I shrank from the questionings and scenes which publicity now would not fail to bring upon me. Before I left Mrs. Meredith we had agreed that she should at once communicate with her Russian friend, whose name I refused to let her tell me.
"I have told you before to-day, Gimblet, of all that has happened since. How I took passionately to books as a refuge from my sorrow; how, at my grandfather's suggestion, I had been by way of working for the Diplomatic Service; of how I now worked in good earnest, and in course of time, and after my grandfather's death, found myself attached to our embassy at Petersburg. During the two years I spent there I made the acquaintance of Countess Romaninov. One day when I was talking to her she happened to mention that she had once known an English lady, Mrs. Meredith, and I came to the conclusion that the little girl who lived with her must be none other than my own child. As you know, I could not stand living in the same town as she did, and for that, and for other reasons, I left the Diplomatic Service and returned to England, where I have lived a quiet life on my place in Scotland ever since. Eight years ago, as you know, I married for the second time, and after a few years of comparative happiness, found myself again a widower, my second wife and her child dying within a few months of each other, when my boy was only four years old.
"It is more than a year, now," continued Lord Ashiel, after a pause, "since the girl Julia Romaninov came to my sister in London, with a letter of introduction from our ambassador in Russia. It was not until my sister invited her down to Scotland that I heard anything about her. Not, in fact, till the day before she arrived, for I always tell my sister to ask any girls she pleases to Inverashiel, and she very seldom bothers me about it. You can imagine my feelings when I heard that Julia Romaninov was expected within a few hours, and had indeed already started from London. It was too late to try and stop her, and my first impulse was flight. But on second thoughts I changed my mind, and stayed. Time had dulled the feelings with which I had contemplated her share in the tragedy that attended her birth, and I was not without a certain curiosity to see this young creature for whose existence I was responsible.
"I waited; she came; she stayed six weeks. You know the result. My sister liked her; my nephews, my other guests, every one, except myself, was charmed with her. And I, for some reason, could never stand the girl. I told myself over and over again that it was mere prejudice; the remains of the violent opposition I felt towards her when she was unknown to me; a survival, unconscious and unwilling, of the hatred I had allowed myself to nourish for the baby of a day old, which had made it impossible that she and I should inhabit the same town when she was no more than a child in pinafores. But I could not reason myself out of my dislike, and it culminated a few weeks ago when I found that my sister was anxious to have her with us in the North again this autumn. As you remember, I came to you, and told you the facts. I made you understand how repulsive it was to me to think that this girl might be my child, and begged you to sift the matter as far as was possible, and to find out if there were not a chance that I was mistaken in thinking it was Countess Romaninov who had been Lena Meredith's friend."
"Yes," said Gimblet, "and all I could discover at first was that the two ladies had indeed been acquainted. It is difficult to get at the truth when both of them have been dead for so many years, and when you will not allow me so much as to hint that you feel any interest in the matter. People are shy of answering questions relating to the private affairs of their friends when they think they are prompted by idle curiosity, and in this case it seems very doubtful whether anyone even knows the answers. But in the course of my inquiries I soon discovered the fact that Mrs. Meredith herself had adopted a child, and it certainly seems more than possible that it may have been yours and her friend's. As far as I can find out, both these young ladies are of about the same age, but no one seems to know exactly when either of them first appeared on the scene. If we can only get hold of the nurses! But at present I can find no trace of them, and you won't let me advertise."
"Gimblet, I shall be ever grateful to you," repeated Lord Ashiel. "I had no idea that Mrs. Meredith had adopted a child. I never saw her again, as I have told you, and only heard vaguely that she had married and was living abroad. I purposely avoided asking for news of her. I wished to forget everything that was past. As if that had been possible!"
"I hoped," said Gimblet, "that you would have seen some strong likeness in this young lady to yourself, or to your first wife. That would have clinched the matter to all intents and purposes. But, as things are, I shouldn't build too much on the hope that she is your daughter. It may turn out to be the girl adopted by Countess Romaninov."
"I hope not, I hope not," said Lord Ashiel earnestly. "I have got her to promise to come to Scotland, and in a few days I may get some definite clue as to which of them it is. It is a very odd coincidence that both the girls bear names so much like that of my poor wife's." He paused reflectively, and then added, "In the meantime you will go on with your inquiries, will you not?"
"I will," said Gimblet. "And I hope for better luck."
A silence followed. Lord Ashiel half rose to go, then sat down again. Evidently he had something more to say, but hesitated to say it. At last he spoke:
"When I was at St. Petersburg, twenty years ago, I was aroused to a state of excitement and indignation by the social and political evils which were then so much in evidence to the foreigner who sojourned in the country of the Czars. I was young and impressionable, impulsive and unbalanced in my judgments, I am afraid; at all events I resented certain seeming injustices which came to my notice, and my resentment took a practical and most foolish form. To be short, I was so ill-advised as to join a secret society, and have done nothing but regret it ever since."
"I can well understand your regretting it," said the detective. "People who join those societies are apt to find themselves let in for a good deal more than they bargained for."
"It was so, at all events so far as I am concerned," said Lord Ashiel, "I had, you may be sure, only the wildest idea of what serious and extremely unpleasant consequences my unreflecting action would entail. Withdrawal from these political brotherhoods is to all intents and purposes a practical impossibility; but, in a sense, I withdrew from all participation in its affairs as soon as I realized to what an extent the theories of its leaders, as to the best means to adopt by which to rectify the injustices we all agreed in deploring, differed from my own ideas on the subject. And I should not have been able to withdraw, even in the negative way I did, if accident had not put into my hand a weapon of defence against the tyranny of the Society."
Lord Ashiel paused hesitatingly, and Gimblet murmured encouragingly:
"And that was?"
"No," said Lord Ashiel, after a moment's silence, "I must not tell you more. We are, I know, to all appearances, safe from eavesdroppers or interruption; but, if a word of what I know were to leak out by some incredible agency, my life would not be worth a day's purchase. As it is, I am alarmed; I believe these people wish for my death. In fact, there is no doubt on that subject. But they dare not attempt it openly. I have told them that if I should die under suspicious circumstances of any sort, the weapon I spoke of will inevitably be used to avenge my death, and they know me to be a man of my word. For all these years that threat has been my safeguard, but now I am beginning to think that they are trying other means of getting me out of the way."
"It is a pity," said Gimblet, "that you do not speak to me more openly. I think it is highly probable, from what I know of the methods resorted to by Nihilists in general, that you may be in very grave danger. Indeed, I strongly advise you to report the whole matter to the police."
"I wish I could tell you everything," said Lord Ashiel, "but even if I dared, you must remember that I am sworn to secrecy, and I cannot see that because I have, by doing so, placed myself in some peril, that on that account I am entitled to break my word. No, I cannot tell you any more, but in spite of that, I want you to do me a service."
"I am afraid I can't help you without fuller knowledge," said Gimblet. "What do you think I can do?"
"You can do this," said Lord Ashiel. He put his hand in his pocket and Gimblet heard a crackling of paper. "I am thinking out a hiding-place for some valuable documents that are in my possession, and when I have decided on it I will write to you and explain where I have put them, using a cipher of which the key is enclosed in an envelope I have here in my pocket, and which I will leave with you when I go. Take charge of it for me, and in the course of the next week or so I will send you a cipher letter describing where the papers are concealed. Do not read it unless the occasion arises. I can trust you not to give way to curiosity, but if anything happens to me, if I die a violent death, or equally if I die under the most apparently natural circumstances, I want you to promise you will investigate those circumstances; and, if anything should strike you as suspicious in connection with what I have told you, you will be able to interpret my cipher letter, find the document I have referred to, and act on the information it contains. Will you undertake to do this for me?"
"I will, certainly," Gimblet answered readily, "but I hope the occasion will not arise. I beg you to break a vow which was extorted from you by false representations and which cannot be binding on you. Do confide fully in me; I do not at all like the look of this business."
"No, no," replied Lord Ashiel, smiling. "You must let me be the judge of whether my word is binding on me or not. As you say, I hope nothing will happen to justify my perhaps uncalled-for nervousness. In any case it will be a great comfort and relief to me to know that, if it does, the scoundrels will not go unpunished."
"They shall not do that," said Gimblet fervently. "You can make your mind easy on that score, at least. But I advise you to send your documents to the bank. They will be safer there than in any hiding-place you can contrive."
"I might want to lay my hand upon them at any moment," said Lord Ashiel, "and I admit I don't like parting with my only weapon of defence. Still, I dare say you are right really, and I will think it over. But mind, I don't want you to take any steps unless, you can satisfy yourself that these people have a hand in my death. Please be very careful to make certain of that. My health is not good, and grows worse. I may easily die without their interference; but I suspect that, if they do get me, they will manage the affair so that it has all the look of having been caused by the purest misadventure. That is what I fear. Not exactly murder; certainly no violent open assault. But we are all liable to suffer from accidents, and what is to prevent my meeting with a fatal one? That is more the line they will adopt, if, as I imagine, they have decided on my death."
"If ever there were a case in which prevention is better than cure," said Gimblet, "I think you will own that we have it here. If I had some hint of the quarter from which you expect danger, I might at least suggest some rudimentary precautions. What kind of 'accident' do you imagine likely to occur?"
"That I can't tell," replied Lord Ashiel. "I only know that these enemies of mine are resourceful people, who are apt to make short work of anyone whose existence threatens their safety or the success of their designs. I am, by your help, taking a precaution to ensure that I shall not die unavenged. They must be taught that murder cannot be committed in this country with impunity. And I am very careful not to trust myself out of England. If I crossed the Channel it would be to go to my certain death. Otherwise I should have gone myself to see Sir Arthur Byrne. But in this island the man who kills even so unpopular a person as a member of the House of Lords does not get off with a few years' imprisonment, as he may in some of the continental countries; and the Nihilists, for the most part, know that as well as I do."
Gimblet followed Lord Ashiel into the hall with the intention of showing him out of the flat, but the sudden sound of the door bell ringing made him abandon this courtesy and retreat to shelter.
He did not wish to be denied all possibility of refusing an interview to some one he might not want to see.
So it was Higgs who opened the door and ushered out the last visitor, at the same time admitting the newcomer.
This proved to be a small, slight woman dressed in deepest black and wearing the long veil of a widow, who was standing with her back to the door, apparently watching the rapid descent of the lift which had brought her to the landing of No. 7.
She did not move when the door behind her opened, and Lord Ashiel, emerging from it in a hurry to catch the lift before it vanished, nearly knocked her down. She gave a startled gasp and stepped hastily to one side into the dark shadows of the passage as he, muttering an apology, darted forward to the iron gateway and applied his finger heavily to the electric bell-push. But the liftboy had caught sight of him with the tail of his eye, and was already reascending.
His anxiety allayed, Lord Ashiel turned again to express his regrets to the lady he had inadvertently collided with, but she had disappeared into the flat, of which Higgs was even then closing the door.
Ashiel stepped into the lift and sat down rather wearily on the leather-covered seat.
Although, to some extent, the relief of having unburdened his mind of secrets that had weighed upon it for so many years produced in him a certain lightness of heart to which he had long been a stranger, yet the very charm of the impression made upon him by Juliet Byrne, during his first meeting with her that morning, led him to suspect uneasily that his hopes of her proving to be his child were due rather to the pleasure it gave him to anticipate such a possibility than to any more logical reason.
He was so entirely engrossed in an honest endeavour to adjust correctly the balance of probabilities, as to remain unconscious that the lift had stopped at the ground floor, and it was not until the boy who was in charge had twice informed him of the fact, that he roused himself with an effort and left the building.
Still absorbed in his speculations and anxieties, he walked rapidly away, and, having narrowly escaped destruction beneath the wheels of more than one taxi, wandered down Northumberland Avenue on to the Embankment. He crossed to the farther side, turned mechanically to the right and walked obliviously on.
It was not until he came nearly to Westminster Bridge that he remembered the cipher that he had prepared for Gimblet, and that he had, after all, finally left without giving it to him. It was still in his pocket, and the discovery roused him from his abstraction.
He took a taxi and drove back to the flats. A motor which had been standing before the door when he had come out was still there when he returned; so that, thinking it probably belonged to the lady he had met on the landing, and guessing that if so the detective was still occupied with her, he did not ask to see him again, but handed the envelope over to Higgs when he opened the door, with strict injunctions to take it immediately to his master.
The lady, whose visit to Gimblet dovetailed so neatly with the departure of his other client on that summer afternoon, was unknown to him.
He had scarcely re-entered the room and resumed his accustomed seat by the window when Higgs announced her.
"A lady to see you, sir."
The lady was already in the doorway. She must have followed Higgs from the hall, and now stood, hesitating, on the threshold.
"What name?" breathed Gimblet; but Higgs only shook his head.
The detective went forward and spoke to his visitor.
"Please come in," he said. "Won't you sit down?"
And he pushed a chair towards her.
"Thank you," said the lady, taking the seat he offered. "I hope I do not disturb you; but I have come on business," she added, as the door closed behind Higgs.
"Yes?" said Gimblet interrogatively. "You will forgive me, but I didn't catch your name when my man announced you."
"He didn't say it," she replied. "I had not told him. I am sure you would not remember my name, and it is of no consequence at present."
"As you wish," said the detective.
But he wondered who this unknown woman could be. When she said he would not remember her name, did she mean to imply that he had once been acquainted with it? If so, she was right in thinking that he did not recognize her now; but, if she did not choose to raise the thick crape veil that hid her face, she could hardly expect him to do so.
He wondered whether she kept her veil lowered with the intention of preventing his recognizing her, or whether in truth she were anxious not to expose grief-swollen features to an unsympathetic gaze.
Her voice, which was low and sorrowful, though at the same time curiously resonant, seemed to suggest that she was in great trouble. She spoke, he fancied, with a trace of foreign accent.
For the rest, all that he could tell for certain about her was that she was short and slender, with small feet, and hands, from which she was now engaged in deliberately withdrawing a pair of black suede gloves.
He watched her in silence. He always preferred to let people tell their stories at their own pace and in their own way, unless they were of those who plainly needed to be helped out with questions.
And about this woman there was no suspicion of embarrassment; her whole demeanour spoke of calmness and self-possession.
"I believe," she said at last, "that you are a private detective. I come to ask for your help in a matter of some difficulty. Some papers of the utmost importance, not only to me but to others, are in the possession of a person who intends to profit by the information contained in them to do myself and my friends an irreparable injury. You can imagine how anxious we are to obtain them from him."