The Mystery of the Four Fingers
BY FRED M. WHITE
Author of "THE MIDNIGHT GUEST," "THE CRIMSON BLIND," Etc., Etc.
I. THE BLACK PATCH
II. THE FIRST FINGER
III. THE LOST MINE
IV. IN THE LIFT
V. A PUZZLE FOR VENNER
VI. A PARTIAL FAILURE
VII. THE WHITE LADY
IX. A NEW PHASE
X. THE SECOND FINGER
XI. AN UNEXPECTED MOVE
XII. THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR
XIII. THE WHITE LADY AGAIN
XIV. MASTER OF THE SITUATION
XV. FELIX ZARY
XVI. FENWICK MOVES AGAIN
XVII. MERTON GRANGE
XVIII. A COUPLE OF VISITORS
XIX. PHANTOM GOLD
XX. THE PRODIGAL'S RETURN
XXI. THE THIRD FINGER
XXII. "THE TIME WILL COME"
XXIII. SMOKED OUT
XXIV. THE MOUTH OF THE NET
XXV. AN ACT OF CHARITY
XXVI. THE LAST FINGER
XXIX. THIS MORTAL COIL
XXX. A PEACEFUL SUNSET
THE BLACK PATCH
Considering it was nearly the height of the London winter season, the Great Empire Hotel was not unusually crowded. This might perhaps have been owing to the fact that two or three of the finest suites of rooms in the building had been engaged by Mark Fenwick, who was popularly supposed to be the last thing in the way of American multi-millionaires. No one knew precisely who Fenwick was, or how he had made his money; but during the last few months his name had bulked largely in the financial Press and the daily periodicals of a sensational character. So far, the man had hardly been seen, it being understood that he was suffering from a chill, contracted on his voyage to Europe. Up to the present moment he had taken all his meals in his rooms, but it was whispered now that the great man was coming down to dinner. There was quite a flutter of excitement in the Venetian dining-room about eight o'clock.
The beautifully decorated saloon had a sprinkling of well-dressed men and women already dining decorously there. Everything was decorous about the Great Empire Hotel. No thought had been spared in the effort to keep the place quiet and select. The carpets were extra thick, and the waiters more than usually soft-footed. On the whole, it was a restful place, though, perhaps, the decorative scheme of its lighting erred just a trifle on the side of the sombre. Still, flowers and ferns were soft and feathery. The band played just loudly enough to stimulate conversation instead of drowning it. At one of the little tables near the door two men were dining. One had the alertness and vigor which bespeaks the dweller in towns. He was neatly groomed, with just the slight suspicion of the dandy in his dress, though it was obvious at the merest glance that he was a gentleman. His short, sleek hair gave to his head a certain suggestion of strength. The eyes which gleamed behind his gold-rimmed glasses were keen and steady. Most men about town were acquainted with the name of Jim Gurdon, as a generation before had been acquainted with his prowess in the athletic field. Now he was a successful barrister, though his ample private means rendered professional work quite unnecessary.
The other man was taller, and more loose-limbed, though his spare frame suggested great physical strength. He was dark in a hawk-like way, though the suggestion of the adventurer about him was softened by a pair of frank and pleasant grey eyes. Gerald Venner was tanned to a fine, healthy bronze by many years of wandering all over the world; in fact, he was one of those restless Englishmen who cannot for long be satisfied without risking his life in some adventure or other.
The two friends sat there quietly over their dinner, criticising from time to time those about them.
"After all," Gurdon said presently, "you must admit that there is something in our civilization. Now, isn't this better than starving under a thin blanket, with a chance of being murdered before morning?"
Venner shrugged his shoulders indifferently.
"I don't know," he said. "There is something in danger that stimulates me; in fact, it is the only thing that makes life worth living, I dare say you have wondered why it is that I have never settled down and become respectable like the rest of you. If you heard my story, you would not be surprised at my eccentric mode of living; at any rate, it enables me to forget."
Venner uttered the last words slowly and sadly, as if he were talking to himself, and had forgotten the presence of his companion. There was a speculative look in his eyes, much as if London had vanished and he could see the orchids on the table before him growing in their native forests.
"I suppose I don't look much like a man with a past," he went on; "like a man who is the victim of a great sorrow. I'll tell you the story presently, but not here; I really could not do it in surroundings like these. I've tried everything, even to money-making, but that is the worst and most unsatisfactory process of the lot. There is nothing so sordid as that."
"Oh, I don't know," Gurdon laughed. "It is better to be a multi-millionaire than a king today. Take the case of this man Fenwick, for instance; the papers are making more fuss of him than if he were the President of the United States or royalty travelling incognito."
Venner smiled more or less contemptuously. He turned to take a casual glance at a noisy party who had just come into the dining room, for the frivolous note jarred upon him. Almost immediately the little party sat down, and the decorous air of the room seemed to subdue them. Immediately behind them followed a man who came dragging his limbs behind him, supported on either side by a servant. He was quite a young man, with a wonderfully handsome, clean-shaven face. Indeed, so handsome was he, that Venner could think of no more fitting simile for his beauty than the trite old comparison of the Greek god. The man's features were perfectly chiselled, slightly melancholy and romantic, and strongly suggestive of the early portraits of Lord Byron. Yet, all the same, the almost perfect face was from time to time twisted and distorted with pain, and from time to time there came into the dark, melancholy eyes a look of almost malignant fury. It was evident that the newcomer suffered from racking pain, for his lips were twitching, and Venner could see that his even, white teeth were clenched together. On the whole, it was a striking figure to intrude upon the smooth gaiety of the dining-room, for it seemed to Venner that death and the stranger were more than casual acquaintances. He had an idea that it was only a strong will which kept the invalid on this side of the grave.
The sufferer sank at length with a sigh of relief into a large armchair, which had been specially placed for him. He waved the servants aside as if he had no further use for them, and commenced to study his menu, as if he had no thought for anything else. Venner did not fail to note that the man had the full use of his arms, and his eye dwelt with critical approval on the strong, muscular hands and wrists.
"I wonder who that fellow is?" he said. "What a magnificent frame his must have been before he got so terribly broken up."
"He is certainly a fascinating personality," Gurdon admitted. "Somehow, he strikes me not so much as the victim of an accident as an unfortunate being who is suffering from the result of some terrible form of vengeance. What a character he would make for a story! I am ready to bet anything in reason that if we could get to the bottom of his history it would be a most dramatic one. It regularly appeals to the imagination. I can quite believe our friend yonder has dragged himself out of bed by sheer force of will to keep some appointment whereby he can wreak his long nursed revenge."
"Not in a place like this," Venner smiled.
"Why not? In the old days these things used to be played out to the accompaniment of thunder and lightning on a blasted heath. Now we are much more quiet and gentle in our methods. It is quite evident that our handsome friend is expecting someone to dine with him. He gives a most excellent dinner to his enemy, points out to him his faults in the most gentlemanly fashion, and then proceeds to poison him with a specially prepared cigar. I can see the whole thing in the form of a short story."
Venner smiled at the conceit of his companion. He was more than half inclined to take a sentimental view of the thing himself. He turned to the waiter to give some order, and as he did so, his eyes encountered two more people, a man and a woman, who, at that moment, entered the dining-room. The man was somewhat past middle age, with a large bald head, covered with a shining dome of yellow skin, and a yellow face lighted by a pair of deep-sunk dark eyes. The whole was set off and rendered sinister by a small hook nose and a little black moustache. For the rest, the man was short and inclined to be stout. He walked with a wonderfully light and agile step for a man of his weight; in fact he seemed to reach his seat much as a cat might have done. Indeed, despite his bulk, there was something strangely feline about the stranger.
Venner gave a peculiar gasp and gurgle. His eyes started. All the blood receded from his brown face, leaving him ghastly white under his tan. It was no aspect of fear—rather one of surprise,—of strong and unconquerable emotion. At the same moment Venner's hand snapped the stem of his wine glass, and the champagne frothed upon the table.
"Who is that man?" Venner asked of the waiter. His tone was so strained and harsh that he hardly recognised his own voice. "Who is the man, I say? No, no; I don't mean him. I mean that stout man, with the lady in white, over there."
The waiter stared at the speaker in astonishment. He seemed to wonder where he had been all these years.
"That, sir, is Mr. Mark Fenwick, the American millionaire."
Venner waved the speaker aside. He was recovering from his emotion now and the blood had returned once more to his cheeks. He became conscious of the fact that Gurdon was regarding him with a polite, yet none the less critical, wonder.
"What is the matter?" the latter asked. "Really, the air seems full of mystery. Do you know that for the last two minutes you have been regarding that obese capitalist with a look that was absolutely murderous? Do you mean to tell me that you have ever seen him before?"
"Indeed, I have," Venner replied. "But on the last occasion of our meeting, he did not call himself Mark Fenwick, or by any other name so distinctly British. Look at him now; look at his yellow skin with the deep patches of purple at the roots of the little hair he has. Mark the shape of his face and the peculiar oblique slit of his eyelids. Would you take that man for an Englishman?"
"No, I shouldn't," Gurdon said frankly. "If I had to hazard a guess, I should say he is either Portuguese or perhaps something of the Mexican half caste."
"You would not be far wrong," Venner said quietly. "I suppose you thought that the appearance of that man here tonight was something of a shock to me. You can little guess what sort of a shock it has been. I promise to tell you my story presently, so it will have to keep. In the meantime, it is my mood to sit here and watch that man."
"Personally, I am much more interested in his companion," Gurdon laughed. "A daughter of the gods, if ever there was one. What a face, and what a figure! Do you mean to say that you didn't notice her as she came in?"
"Positively I didn't," Venner confessed. "My whole attention was rivetted on the man. I tell you I can see absolutely nothing but his great, yellow, wicked face, and for the background the romantic spot where we last met."
It was Gurdon's turn now to listen. He leant forward in his chair, his whole attention concentrated upon the figure of the stranger, huddled up in the armchair at the little table opposite. He touched Venner on the arm, and indicated the figure of the man who had suffered so cruelly in some form or other.
"The plot thickens," Venner murmured. "Upon my word, he seems to know this Mark Fenwick as well as I do."
The maimed crippled figure in the armchair had dragged himself almost to his feet, with his powerful, muscular arm propping him against the table. His unusually handsome face was all broken and twisted up with an expression of malignant fury. He stood there for a moment or two like a statue of uncontrollable passion, rigid, fixed, and motionless, save for the twitching of his face. Then, gradually he dropped back into his chair again, a broken and huddled heap, quivering from head to foot with the pain caused by his recent exertion. A moment later he took from his breast pocket a silk shade, which he proceeded to tie over his eyes, as if the light hurt him. Watching his every movement with intense eagerness, the two friends saw that he had also taken from his pocket a small silver case, about the same size as an ordinary box of safety matches. Indeed, the case looked not unlike the silver coverings for wood matches, which are generally to be seen in well-appointed households. Then, as if nothing interested him further, he leaned back in his chair, and appeared to give himself over entirely to his enjoyment of the orchestra. In all probability no diner there besides Venner and Gurdon had noticed anything in the least out of the common.
"This is very dramatic," Gurdon said. "Here is a melo-drama actually taking place in a comedy 'set' like this. I am glad you will be in a position later on to gratify my curiosity. I confess I should like to learn something more about this Mark Fenwick, who does not appear to be in the least like one's idea of the prosaic money spinner."
"He isn't," Venner said grimly. "Anything but that. Why, three years ago that man was as poor and desperate as the most wretched outcast who walks the streets of London to-night. And one thing you may be certain of—wherever you dine from now to your dying day, you will be under the roof of no more diabolical scoundrel than the creature who calls himself Mark Fenwick."
There was a deep note in Venner's voice that did not fail to stimulate Gurdon's curiosity. He glanced again at the millionaire, who appeared to be talking in some foreign tongue with his companion. The tall, fair girl with the shining hair had her back to the friends, so they could not see her face, and when she spoke it was in a tone so low that it was not possible to catch anything more than the sweetness of her voice.
"I wonder what she is doing with him?" Gurdon said. "At any rate, she is English enough. I never saw a woman with a more thoroughbred air. She is looking this way."
Just for a moment the girl turned her head, and Venner caught a full sight of her face. It was only for an instant; then the fair head was turned again, and the girl appeared to resume her dinner. Venner jumped from his chair and took three strides across the room. He paused there as if struggling to regain possession of himself; then he dropped into his chair again, shielding his face from the light with his hands. Gurdon could see that his companion's face had turned to a ghastly grey. Veritably it was a night of surprises, quick, dramatic surprises, following close upon one another's heels.
"What, do you mean to say you know her, too?" Gurdon whispered.
Venner looked up with a strange, unsteady smile on his face. He appeared to be fighting hard to regain his self-control.
"Indeed, I do know her," he said. "My friend, you are going to have all the surprises you want. What will you say when I tell you that the girl who sits there, utterly unconscious of my presence, and deeming me to be at the other end of the world, is no less a person than—my own wife?"
THE FIRST FINGER
Gurdon waited for his companion to go on. It was a boast of his that he had exhausted most of the sensations of life, and that he never allowed anything to astonish him. All the same, he was astonished now, and surprised beyond words. For the last twenty-five years, on and off, he had known Venner. Indeed, there had been few secrets between them since the day when they had come down from Oxford together. From time to time, during his wanderings, Venner had written to his old chum a fairly complete account of his adventures. During the last three years the letters had been meagre and far between; and at their meeting a few days ago, Gurdon had noticed a reticence in the manner of his old chum that he had not seen before.
He waited now, naturally enough, for the other to give some explanation of his extraordinary statement, but Venner appeared to have forgotten all about Gurdon. He sat there shielding one side of his face, heedless of the attentions of the waiter, who proffered him food from time to time.
"Is that all you are going to tell me?" Gurdon asked at length.
"Upon my word, I am very sorry," Venner said. "But you will excuse me if I say nothing more at present. You can imagine what a shock this has been to me."
"Of course. I don't wish to be impertinent, old chap, but I presume that there has been some little misunderstanding—"
"Not in the least. There has been no misunderstanding whatever. I honestly believe that the woman over yonder is still just as passionately fond of me as I am of her. As you know, Gurdon, I never was much of a ladies' man; in fact, you fellows at Oxford used to chaff me because I was so ill at ease in the society of women. Usually a man like myself falls in love but once in his lifetime, and then never changes. At any rate, that is my case. I worship the ground that girl walks upon. I would have given up my life cheerfully for her; I would do so now if I could save her a moment's pain. You think, perhaps, that she saw me when she came in here to-night. That is where you have got the impression that there is some misunderstanding between us. You talked just now of dramatic surprises. I could show you one even beyond your powers of imagination if I chose. What would you say if I told you that three years ago I became the husband of that beautiful girl yonder, and that from half-an-hour after the ceremony till the present moment I have never set eyes on her again?"
"It seems almost incredible," Gurdon exclaimed.
"Yes, I suppose it does. But it is absolutely a fact all the same. I can't tell you here the romance of my life. I couldn't do it in surroundings like these. We will go on to your rooms presently, and then I will make a clean breast of the whole thing to you. You may be disposed to laugh at me for a sentimentalist, but I should like to stay here a little longer, if it is only now and again to hear a word or two from her lips. If you will push those flowers across between me and the light I shall be quite secure from observation. I think that will do."
"But you don't mean to tell me," Gurdon murmured, "that the lady in question is the daughter of that picturesque-looking old ruffian, Mark Fenwick?"
"Of course, she isn't," Venner said, with great contempt. "What the connection is between them, I cannot say. What strange fate links them together is as much a mystery to me as it is to you. I do not like it, but I let it pass, feeling so sure of Vera's innocence and integrity. But the waiter will tell us. Here, waiter, is the lady dining over there with Mr. Fenwick his daughter or not?"
"Certainly, sir," the waiter responded. "That is Miss Fenwick."
There was silence for a moment or two between the two friends. Venner appeared to be deeply immersed in his own thoughts, while Gurdon's eyes travelled quickly between the table where the millionaire sat and the deep armchair, in which the invalid lay huddled; and Venner now saw that the cripple on the opposite side of the room was regarding Fenwick and his companion with the intentness of a cat watching a mouse.
Dinner had now come pretty well to an end, and the coffee and liqueurs were going round. A cup was placed before Fenwick, who turned to one of the waiters with a quick order which the latter hastened to obey. The order was given so clearly that Gurdon could hear distinctly what it was. He had asked for a light, wherewith to burn the glass of Curacoa which he intended to take, foreign fashion, in his coffee.
"And don't forget to bring me a wooden match," he commanded. "Household matches. Last night one of your men brought me a vesta."
The waiter hurried off to execute his commission, but his intention was anticipated by another waiter who had apparently been doing nothing and hanging about in the background. The second waiter was a small, lithe man, with beady, black eyes and curly hair. For some reason or other, Gurdon noticed him particularly; then he saw a strange thing happen. The little waiter with the snaky hair glanced swiftly across the room in the direction of the cripple huddled up in the armchair. Just as if he had been waiting for a signal, the invalid stretched out one of his long arms, and laid his fingers significantly on the tiny silver box he had deposited on the table some little time before. The small waiter went across the room and deliberately lifted the silver box from the table. He then walked briskly across to where the millionaire was seated, placed the box close to his elbow, and vanished. He seemed to fairly race down the room until he was lost in a pile of palms which masked the door. Gurdon had followed all this with the deepest possible interest. Venner sat there, apparently lost to all sense of his surroundings. His head was on his hands, and his mind was apparently far away. Therefore, Gurdon was left entirely to himself, to study the strange things that were going on around him. His whole attention was now concentrated upon Fenwick, who presently tilted his glass of Curacoa dexterously into his coffee cup, and then stretched out his hand for the silver match box by his side. He was still talking to his companion while he fumbled for a match without looking at the little case in his hand. Suddenly he ceased to speak, his black eyes rivetted on the box. It fell from his fingers as if it had contained some poisonous insect, and he rose to his feet with a sudden scream that could be heard all over the room.
There was a quick hush in the conversation, and every head was turned in the direction of the millionaire's table. Practically every diner there knew who the man with the yellow head was, so that the startling interruption was all the more unexpected. Once again the frightened cry rang out, and then Fenwick stood, gazing with horrified eyes and white, ghastly face at the innocent looking little box on the table.
"Who brought this here?" he screamed. "Bring that waiter here. Find him at once. Find him at once, I say. A little man with beady eyes and hair like rats' tails."
The head waiter bustled up, full of importance; but it was in vain that he asked for some explanation of what had happened. All Fenwick could do was to stand there gesticulating and calling aloud for the production of the erring waiter.
"But I assure you, sir," the head waiter said, "we have no waiter here who answers to the description of the man you mention. They are all here now, every waiter who has entered the room to-night. If you will be so good as to pick out the one who has offended you—"
Fenwick's startled, bloodshot eyes ranged slowly over the array of waiters which had been gathered for his inspection round his table. Presently he shook his head with an impatient gesture.
"I tell you, he is not here," he cried. "The man is not here. He is quite small, with very queer, black hair."
The head waiter was equally positive in his assurance. Louder rose the angry voice of the millionaire, till at length Venner was aroused from his reverie and looked up to Gurdon to know what was going on. The latter explained as far as possible, not omitting to describe the strange matter of the silver box. Venner smiled with the air of a man who could say a great deal if he chose.
"It is all part of the programme," he said. "That will come in my story later on. But what puzzles me is where that handsome cripple comes in. The mystery deepens."
By this time Fenwick's protestations had grown weaker. He seemed to ramble on in a mixture of English and Portuguese which was exceedingly puzzling to the head waiter, who still was utterly in the dark as to the cause of offence. Most of the diners had gathered round the millionaire's table with polite curiosity, and sundry offers of assistance.
"I think we had better get to our own room," a sweet, gentle voice said, as the tall, fair girl by Fenwick's side rose and moved in the direction of the door. It was, perhaps, unfortunate that Venner had risen at the same time. As he strode from his own table, he came face to face with the girl who stood there watching him with something like pain in her blue eyes. Just for an instant she staggered back, and apparently would have fallen had not Venner placed his arm about her waist. In the strange confusion caused by the unexpected disturbance, nobody had noticed this besides Gurdon, who promptly rose to the occasion.
"You had better take the lady as far as her own rooms," he said. "This business has evidently been too much for her. Meanwhile, I will see what I can do for Mr. Fenwick."
Venner shot his friend a glance of gratitude. He did not hesitate for a moment; he saw that the girl by his side was quite incapable of offering any objections for the present. In his own strong, masterful way, he drew the girl's hand under his arm, and fairly dragged her from the room into the comparative silence and seclusion of the corridor beyond.
"Which way do we go?" he asked.
"The Grand Staircase," the girl replied faintly. "It is on the first floor. But you must not come with me, you must come no further. It would be madness for him to know that we are together."
"He will not come just yet," Venner replied. "My friend knows something of my story, and he will do his best to get us five minutes together. You have heard me speak of Jim Gurdon before."
"But it is madness," the girl whispered. "You know how dangerous it is. Oh, Gerald, what must you think of me when—"
"I swear to you that I think nothing of you that is unkind or ungenerous," Venner protested. "By a cruel stroke of fate we were parted at the very moment when our happiness seemed most complete. Why you left me in the strange way you did, I have never yet learned. In your letter to me you told me you were bound to act as you did, and I believed you implicitly. How many men in similar circumstances would have behaved as I did? How many men would have gone on honoring a wife who betrayed her husband as you betrayed me? And yet, as I stand here at this moment, looking into your eyes, I feel certain that you are the same sweet and innocent girl who did me the happiness to become my wife."
The beautiful face quivered, and the blue eyes filled with tears. Her trembling hand lay on Venner's arm for a moment; then he caught the girl to his side and kissed her passionately.
"I thank you for those words," she whispered. "From the bottom of my heart I thank you. If you only knew what I have suffered, if you only knew the terrible pressure that is put upon me;—and it seemed to me that I was acting for the best. I hoped, too, that you would go away and forget me; that in the course of time I should be nothing more than a memory to you. And yet, in my heart, I always felt that we should meet again. Is it not strange that we should come together like this?"
"I do not see that it is in the least strange," Venner replied, "considering that I have been looking for you for the last three years. When I found you to-night, it was with the greatest difficulty that I restrained myself from laying my hands on the man who is the cause of all your misery and suffering. How long has he been passing for an Englishman? Since when has he been a millionaire? If he be a millionaire at all."
"I cannot tell you," the girl whispered. "Really, I do not know. A little time ago we were poor enough; then suddenly, money seemed to come in from all sides. I asked no questions; they would not have been answered if I had. At least, not truthfully. And now you really must go. When shall I see you again? Ah, I cannot tell you. For the present you must go on trusting me as implicitly as you have done in the past. Oh, if you only knew how it wrings my heart to have to speak to you like this, when all the time my whole love is for you and you alone. Gerald—ah, go now; go at once. Don't you see that he is coming up the stairs?"
Venner turned away, and slipped down a side corridor, till Fenwick had entered his own room. Then he walked down the stairs again into the dining-room, where a heated discussion was still going on as to the identity of the missing waiter.
"They'll never find him," Gurdon muttered, "for the simple reason that the fellow was imported for the occasion, and, in my opinion, was no waiter at all. You will notice also that our crippled friend has vanished. I would give a great deal to know what was in the box that pretty nearly scared the yellow man to death. I never saw a fellow so frightened in my life. He had to fortify himself with two brandies before he could get up to his own room. Gerald, I really must find out what was in that box!"
"I think I could tell you," Venner said, with a smile. "Didn't you tell me that the mysterious waiter fetched it from the table where it had been placed by the handsome cripple?"
"Certainly, he did. I saw the signal pass directly Fenwick asked for a wooden match; that funny little waiter was palpably waiting for the silver box, and as soon as he placed it on Fenwick's table, he discreetly vanished. But, as I said before, I would give considerable to know what was in that box."
"Well, go and see," Venner said grimly. "Unless my eyes deceive me, the box is still lying on Fenwick's table. In his fright, he forgot all about it, and there isn't a waiter among the whole lot, from the chief downwards, who has a really clear impression of what the offence was. If you take my advice, you will go and have a peep into that box when you get the chance. Don't tell me what you find, because I will guess that."
Gurdon crossed over to the other table, and took the box up in his hand. He pulled the slide out and glanced at the contents with a puzzled expression of face. Then he dropped the box again, and came back to Venner with a look on his face as if he had been handling something more than usually repulsive.
"You needn't tell me what it is," Venner said. "I know quite as well as you do. Inside that box is a dried up piece of flesh, some three inches long—in other words a mummified human forefinger."
THE LOST MINE
Gurdon nodded thoughtfully. He was trying to piece the puzzle together in his mind, but so far without success. He was not in the least surprised to find that Venner had guessed correctly.
"You've got it exactly," he said. "That is just what the gruesome thing is. What does it all mean?"
By this time dinner had long been a thing of the past, and all the guests had departed. Here and there the lights were turned down, leaving half the room in semi-darkness. It was just the time and place for an exchange of confidences.
"How did you know exactly what was in that box?" Gurdon asked. "I have read things of this kind before, but they have generally taken the form of a warning previous to some act of vengeance."
"As a matter of fact, this is something of the same kind," Venner said; "though I am bound to say that my guess was somewhat in the nature of a shot. Still, putting two and two together, I felt that I could not have been far wrong. Since I have been here this evening, I have begun to form a pretty shrewd opinion as to where Fenwick gets his money."
"What shall we do with that box?" Gurdon asked.
"Leave it where it is, by all means. You may depend upon it that Fenwick will return for his lost property."
The prophecy came true quicker than Gurdon had expected, for out of the gloom there presently emerged the yellow face of Mark Fenwick. He came in with a furtive air, like some mean thief who is about to do a shabby action. He was palpably looking for something. He made a gesture of disappointment when he saw that the table where he had dined was now stripped of everything except the flowers. He did not seem to see the other two men there at all. Venner took the box from his companion's hand, and advanced to Fenwick's side.
"I think you have lost something, sir," he said coolly. "Permit me to restore your property to you."
The millionaire gave a kind of howl as he looked at Venner. The noise he made was like that of a child suffering from toothache. He fairly grovelled at Venner's feet, but as far as the latter's expression was concerned, the two might have met for the first time. Just for a moment Fenwick stood there, mopping his yellow face, himself a picture of abject misery and despair.
"Well?" Venner said sharply. "Is this little box yours, or not?"
"Oh, yes, oh yes," Fenwick whined. "You know that perfectly well—I mean, you must recognise—oh, I don't know what I mean. The fact is, I am really ill to-night. I hardly know what I am doing. Thank you, very much."
Fenwick snatched the box from Venner's fingers, and made hastily for the door.
"I believe we are allowed to smoke in here after ten," Gurdon said. "If that is the case, why not have a cigar together, and discuss the matter? What I am anxious to know at present is the inner meaning of the finger in the box."
There was no objection to a cigar in the dining-room at this late hour, and presently the two friends were discussing their Havanas together. Venner began to speak at length.
"Perhaps it would be as well," he said, "to stick to the box business first. You will remember, some three years ago, my writing you to the effect that I was going to undertake a journey through Mexico. I don't suppose I should have gone there at all, only I was attracted by the notion of possible adventures in that country, among the hills where, at one time, gold was found. There was no question whatever that gold in large quantities used to be mined in the wild district where I had chosen to take up my headquarters. Practical engineers say that the gold is exhausted, but that did not deter me in the least.
"The first man who put the idea into my head was a half-caste Mexican, who had an extraordinary grip on the history of his country, especially as far as legends and traditions were concerned. He was a well-educated man, and an exceedingly fascinating story-teller. It was he who first gave me the history of what he called the Four Finger Mine. It appears that this mine had been discovered some century or more ago by a Frenchman, who had settled down in the country and married the daughter of a native chief. The original founder of the mine was a curious sort of man, and was evidently possessed of strong miserly tendencies. Most men in his position would have gathered together a band of workers, and simply exploited the mine for all it was worth. However, this man, Le Fenu, did nothing of the kind. He kept his discovery an absolute secret, and what mining was to be done, he did himself. I understand that he was a man of fine physique, and that his disposition was absolutely fearless. It was his habit at certain seasons of the year to go up to his mine, and there work it for a month or two at a time, spending the rest of the year with his family. It is quite certain, too, that he kept his secret, even from his grown-up sons; for when he died, they had not the slightest idea of the locality of the mine, which fact I know from Le Fenu's descendants.
"And now comes the interesting part of my story, Le Fenu went up into the mountains early in May one year, to put in his solitary two months' mining, as usual. For, perhaps, the first time in his life, he suffered from a serious illness—some kind of fever, I suppose, though he had just strength of will enough to get on the back of a horse and ride as far as the nearest hacienda.
"Now, on this particular farm there dwelt a Dutchman, who, I believe, was called Van Fort. Whether or not Le Fenu partially disclosed his secret in his delirium, will never actually be known. At any rate, two or three weeks later the body of Le Fenu was discovered not very far away from the scene of his mining operations, and from the evidence obtainable, there was no doubt in the world that he was foully murdered. Justice in that country walks with very tardy footsteps, and though there was little question who the real murderer was, Van Fort was never brought to justice. Perhaps that was accounted for by the fact that he seemed to be suddenly possessed of more money than usual, and was thus in a position to bribe the authorities.
"And now comes a further development. Soon after the death of Le Fenu, it was noted that Van Fort spent most of his time away from his farm in the mountains, no doubt prospecting for Le Fenu's mine. Whether he ever found it or not will never be known. Please to bear in mind the fact that for a couple of centuries at least Le Fenu's mysterious property was known as the Four Finger Mine. With this digression, I will go on to speak further of Van Fort's movements. To make a long story short, from his last journey to the mountains he never returned. His widow searched for him everywhere; I have seen her—a big sullen woman, with a cruel mouth and a heavy eye. From what I have heard, I have not the slightest doubt that it was she who inspired the murder of the Frenchman.
"She had practically given up all hope of ever seeing her husband again, when, one dark and stormy night, just as she was preparing for bed, she heard her husband outside, screaming for assistance. From his tone, he was evidently in some dire and deadly peril. The woman was by no means devoid of courage; she rushed out into the night and searched far and near, but no trace of Van Fort could be found, nor did the imploring cry for assistance come again. But the next morning, on the doorstep lay a bleeding forefinger, which the woman recognised as coming from her husband's hand. To make identity absolutely certain, on the forefinger was a ring of native gold, which the Dutchman always wore. Please to remember once more that this mine was known as the Four Finger Mine."
Venner paused just for a moment to give dramatic effect to his point. Gurdon said nothing; he was too deeply interested in the narrative to make any comment.
"That was what I may call the first act in the drama," Venner went on. "Six months had elapsed, and Van Fort's widow was beginning to forget all about the startling incident, when, one night, just at the same time, and in just the same circumstances, came that wild, pitiful yell for assistance outside the Dutchman's farm. Half mad with dread and terror the woman sat there listening. She did not dare to go outside now; she knew how futile such an act would be. Also, she knew quite well what was going to happen in the morning. She sat up half the night in a state bordering on madness. I need not insult your intelligence, my dear fellow, by asking you to guess what she found on the doorstep in the daylight."
"Of course, I can guess," Gurdon said. "Beyond all question, it was the third finger of the Dutchman's hand."
"Quite so," Venner resumed. "I need not over elaborate my story or bore you by telling how, six months later, the second finger of the hand appeared in the same sensational circumstances, and how, at the end of a year, the four fingers were complete. Let me once more impress upon you the fact that this mine was called the Four Finger Mine for more than a century before these strange things happened."
"It is certainly an extraordinary thing," Gurdon muttered. "I don't think I ever listened to a weirder tale. And did the Dutch woman confess to her crime? This strikes me as being a fitting end to the story. I suppose it came from her lips."
"She didn't confess, for the simple reason that she had no mind to confess with," Venner explained. "Of course, certain neighbors knew something of what was going on, but they never knew the whole truth, because, after the appearance of the last finger, Mrs. Van Fort went stark raving mad. She lived for a few days, and at the end of that time her body was found in a waterfall close to her house. That is the story of the Four Finger Mine so far as it goes, though I should not be surprised if we manage to get to the last chapter yet. Now, you are an observant man—did you notice anything peculiar in Fenwick's appearance to-night?"
Gurdon shook his head slowly. It was quite evident that he had not noticed anything out of the common in the appearance of the millionaire. Venner proceeded to explain.
"Let me tell you this," he said. "When I married my wife, we were within an easy ride of the locality where the Four Finger Mine is situated. Mind you, our marriage was a secret one, and I presume that Fenwick is still in ignorance of it, though, of course, he was fully aware of the fact that I had more than a passing admiration for Vera. I merely mention this by way of accentuating the little point that I am going to make. It is more than probable that, when I stumbled upon Fenwick and the girl who passes for his daughter, he also was in search of the Four Finger Mine. When he came in to-night he, of course, recognised me, though I treated him as an absolute stranger whom I had met for the first time. You will see presently why I treated him in this fashion. I am glad I spoke to him, because I noticed a slight thing that throws a flood of light upon the mystery. Now, did it escape your observation, or did you notice that Fenwick took the box I gave him in his right hand?"
"Oh, dear, no," Gurdon said. "A little thing like that would be almost too trivial for the typical detective of the cheap story."
"All the same, it is very important," Venner said. "He took the box in his right hand; he made as if to extend his left, then suddenly changed his mind, and put it in his pocket. But he was too late to disguise from me that he had—"
"I know," Gurdon shouted. "He had lost all the fingers on his left hand. What an amazing thing! We must get to the bottom of this business at all costs."
"That is precisely what we are going to do," Venner said grimly. "I am glad you are so quick in taking up the point. When I noted the loss of those fingers, I was absolutely staggered for a moment. If he had been less agitated than he was, Fenwick would have guessed what I had seen. I need not tell you that when I last saw Fenwick his left hand was as sound as yours or mine. The inference of this is, that Fenwick has fallen under the ban of the same strange vengeance that overtook Van Fort and his wife. There is not the slightest doubt that he discovered the mine, and that he has not yet paid the penalty for his temerity."
"I presume the penalty is coming," Gurdon said. "What a creepy sort of idea it is, that terrible vengeance reaching across a continent in such a sinister fashion. But don't forget that we know something as to the way in which this thing is to be brought about. Don't forget the cripple who sat at yonder table to-night."
"I am not likely to forget him," Venner observed. "All the more because he evidently knows more about this matter than we do ourselves. When he came here to-night, he little dreamed that there was one man in the room, at least, who had a fairly good knowledge of the Four Finger Mystery. We shall have to look him out, and, if necessary, force him to speak. But it is a delicate matter, and as far as I can see, one not unattended with danger."
Gurdon smoked in thoughtful silence for some little time, turning the strange thing over in his mind. The more he dwelt upon it, the more wild and dramatic did it seem.
"There is one thing in our favor," he said, presently. "The mysterious cripple is evidently a deadly enemy of Fenwick's. We shall doubtless find him ready to accept our offer, provided that we put it in the right way."
"I am not so sure of that," Venner replied. "At any rate, we can make no move in that direction without thinking the whole thing out carefully and thoroughly. Our crippled friend is evidently a fanatic in his way, and he is not alone in his scheme. Do not forget that we have also the little man who played the part of the waiter to deal with. I am sorry that I did not notice him. A man who could carry off a thing like that with such splendid audacity is certainly a force to be reckoned with."
Gurdon rose from his seat with a yawn, and intimated that it was time to go to bed. It was long past twelve now and the hotel was gradually retiring to rest. The Grand Empire was not the sort of house to cater to the frivolous type of guest, and usually within an hour of the closing of the theatres the whole of the vast building was wrapped in silence.
"I think I will go now," Gurdon said. "Come and lunch with me to-morrow, and then you can tell me something about your own romance. What sort of a night is it, waiter?"
"Very bad, sir," the waiter replied. "It's pouring in torrents. Shall I call you a cab, sir?"
IN THE LIFT
Gurdon looked out from the shelter of the great portico to see the sheets of rain falling on the pavement. Silence reigned supreme but for the steady plash of the raindrops as they rattled on the pavements. To walk half a mile on such a night meant getting wet through; and Gurdon somewhat ruefully regarded his thin slippers and his light dust overcoat. Half a dozen times the night porter blew his whistle, but no sign of a cab could be seen.
"We shan't get one to-night," Venner said. "They are all engaged. There is only one thing for it—you must take a room here, and stay till the morning. I've no doubt I can fit you up in the way of pyjamas and the things necessary."
Gurdon fell in readily enough with the suggestion. Indeed, there was nothing else for it. He took his number and key from the sleepy clerk in the office, and made his way upstairs to Venner's bedroom.
"I'll just have one cigarette before I turn in," he said. "It seems as if Fate had ordained that I am to keep in close touch with the leading characters of the mystery. By the way, we never took the trouble to find out who the handsome cripple was."
"That is very easily done in the morning," Venner replied. "A striking personality like that is not soon lost sight of. Besides, he has doubtless been here before, for, if you will recollect, his attendants took him to the right table as if it had been ordered beforehand. And now, if you don't mind, I'll turn in—not that I expect to sleep much after an exciting evening like this. Good night, old fellow."
Gurdon went on to his own room, where he slowly undressed and sat thinking the whole thing out on the edge of his bed. Perhaps he was suffering from the same suppressed excitement which at that moment was keeping Venner awake, for he felt not the slightest disposition to turn in. Usually he was a sound sleeper; but this night seemed likely to prove an exception to the rule.
An hour passed, and Gurdon was still sitting there, asking himself whether it would not be better to go to bed and compel sleep to come to him. Impatiently he turned out his light and laid his head resolutely on the pillow.
But it was all in vain—sleep was out of the question. The room was not altogether in darkness, either; for the sleeping apartments on that landing had been arranged back to back with a large, open ventilator between them. Through this ventilator came a stream of light; evidently the occupant of the adjoining room had not yet retired. The light worried Gurdon; he asked himself irritably why his neighbor should be permitted to annoy him in this way. A moment or two later the sound of suppressed voices came through the ventilator, followed by the noise of a heavy fall.
At any ordinary time Gurdon would have thought nothing of this, but his imagination was aflame now, and his mind was full of hidden mysteries. It seemed to him that something sinister and underhand was going on in the next room.
Usually, no one would identify the Grand Empire Hotel with crime and intrigue; but that did not deter Gurdon from rising from his bed and making a determined effort to see through the ventilator into the adjoining room. It was not an easy matter, but by dint of balancing two chairs one on top of the other the thing was accomplished. Very cautiously Gurdon pushed back the glass slide and looked through. So far as he could see, there was nothing to justify any suspicion. The room was absolutely empty, though it was brilliantly lighted; and for a moment Gurdon felt ashamed of his suspicions, and turned away, half determined to try and sleep. It was at that instant that he noticed something out of the common. To his quickened ear there came a sound unmistakably like a snore, and pushing his body half through the ventilator he managed to make out the bed in the next room. On it lay the body of a boy in uniform, unmistakably a messenger boy or hotel attendant of that kind. Gurdon could see the hotel name embroidered in gold letters on his collar.
Perhaps there was nothing so very suspicious in this, except that the boy was lying on the bed fully dressed, even to his boots. It was a luxurious room; not at all the class of apartment to which the hotel management would relegate one of their messenger boys, nor was it possible that the lad had had the temerity to go into the vacant room and sleep.
"Something wrong here," Gurdon muttered. "Hang me if I don't get through the ventilator and see what it is."
It was no difficult matter for an athlete like Gurdon to push his way through and drop on to the bed on the other side. Then he shook the form of the slumbering lad without reward. The boy seemed to be plunged in a sleep almost like death. As Gurdon turned him over, he noticed on the other side of the lad's collar the single word "Lift." It began to dawn upon Gurdon exactly what had happened. In large hotels like the Grand Empire there is no fixed period when the lift is suspended, and consequently, it has its attendants night and day. For some reason, this boy had evidently been drugged and carried into the room where he now lay. There was no doubt whatever about it, for it was impossible to shake the lad into the slightest semblance of life. Gurdon crossed to the door, and found, not to his surprise, that it was locked. His first impulse was to return to his room and call the night porter; but a strange, wild idea had come into his mind, and he refrained from doing so. It occurred to him that perhaps Mark Fenwick or the cripple had had a hand in this outrage.
"I'll wait a bit," Gurdon told himself. "It is just possible that my key will fit this door. Anyway, it is worth trying."
Gurdon made his way back to his own room again, to return a minute or two later with his key. To his great delight the door opened, and he stood in a further corridor, close against the cage in which the lift worked noiselessly up and down.
It was absolutely quiet, so that anybody standing there would have been able to carry out any operation of an unlawful kind without observation. Gurdon stood, looking down the lift shaft, until he saw that the cage was once more beginning to ascend. It came up slowly and smoothly and without the least noise, until it was level with the floor on which Gurdon was standing. It was one of the open kind, so he could see inside quite clearly. To all practical purposes, the lift was empty, save for the presence of one man, who lay unconscious on the floor. The cage was ascending so leisurely that Gurdon was in a position to make a close examination of the figure before the whole structure had risen to the next floor. It did not need a second glance to tell Gurdon that the man in the cage was the attendant, and that he was suffering from the same drug which had placed his boy assistant beyond all power of interfering.
"Now what does all this mean?" Gurdon muttered. "Who is there on the floor above who is interested in getting these two people out of the way? What do they want to bring up or send down which it is not safe to dispose of by the ordinary means? I think I'll wait and see. No sleep for me to-night."
The lift vanished in the same silent way. It hung overhead for some little time, and once more appeared in sight, this time absolutely empty, save for a small square box with iron bands at the corners, which lay upon the floor. As the cage descended, Gurdon suddenly made up his mind what to do. He sprang lightly on to the top of the falling cage, and grasped the rope with both hands. A moment later and he was descending in the darkness.
As far as he could judge, the lift went down to the basement, where, for the time being, it remained. There was a warm damp smell in the air, suggestive of fungus, whereby Gurdon judged that he must be in the vaults beneath the hotel. As his eyes became accustomed to the gloom, he could make out just in front of him a circular patch of light, which evidently was a coal shoot.
He had no need to wait now for the full development of the adventure. He could hear whispered voices and the clang of metal, as if somebody had opened the door of the lift. One of the voices he failed to understand, but with a thrill he recognised the fact that the speaker was talking in either Spanish or Portuguese. Instantly it flashed into his mind that this was the language most familiar to the man who called himself Mark Fenwick. Beyond doubt he was quite right when he identified this last development with the actors in the dramatic events earlier in the evening.
"Now don't be long about it," a hoarse voice whispered. "There are two more cases to send up, and two more to come down here. Has that van come along, or shall we have to wait until morning?"
"The van is there right enough," another hoarse voice said. "We have the stuff out on the pavement. Let's have the last lot here, and get it up at once."
Gurdon could hear the sound of labored breathing as if the unseen man was struggling with some heavy burden. Presently some square object was deposited on the floor of the lift. It seemed to slip from someone's hands, and dropped with a heavy thud that caused the lift to vibrate like a thing of life."
"Clumsy fool," a voice muttered. "You might have dropped that on my foot. What did you want to let go for?"
"I couldn't help it," another voice grumbled. "I didn't know it was half so heavy. Besides, the rope broke."
"Oh, are you going to be there all night?"—another voice, with a suggestion of a foreign accent in it, asked impatiently. "Don't forget you have to bring the man down yet, and see that the boy is taken to his place. Now, up with it."
Standing there, holding on to the rope and quivering with excitement, Gurdon wondered what was going to happen next. Once more he felt himself rising, and an instant later he was in the light again. He waited till the lift had reached his own floor; then he jumped quickly down, taking care as he went to note the heavy box which lay on the floor of the lift. A corner of it had been split open by the heavy jar, and some shining material like sand lay in a little heap, glittering in the rays of the electric light.
Gurdon stood there panting for a moment, and rather at a loss to know what to do next. Once more the lift came down, this time with two boxes of a smaller size. They vanished; and as the lift rose once again, Gurdon had barely time to hide himself behind the bedroom door, and thus escape the observation of two men who now occupied the cage. He just caught a fleeting glimpse of them, and saw that one was an absolute stranger, but he felt his heart beating slightly faster as he recognised in the other the now familiar form of Mark Fenwick. The mystery was beginning to unfold itself.
"That was a close thing," Gurdon muttered, as he wiped his hot face. "I think I had better go back to my own room, and wait developments. One can't be too careful."
The lift-boy was still sleeping on the bed; but his features were twitching, as if already the drug was beginning to lose its effect. At least, so Gurdon shrewdly thought, and subsequent events proved that he was not far wrong. He was standing in his own room now, waiting by the ventilator, when he heard the sound of footsteps on the other side of the wall. Two men had entered the room, and by taking a little risk, Gurdon could see that they were examining the unconscious boy coolly and critically.
"I should think about five minutes more would do it," one of them said. "Better carry him out, and shove him in that little sentry box of his. When he comes to himself again he won't know but what he has fallen asleep; barring a headache, the little beggar won't be any the worse for the adventure."
"Have we got all the stuff up now?" the other man asked.
"Every bit of it," was the whispered reply. "I hope the old man is satisfied now. It was not a bad idea of his to work this little game in a great hotel of this kind. But, all the same, it is not without risks, and I for one should be glad to get away to that place in the country where we are going in a week or two."
Gurdon heard no more. He allowed the best part of half-an-hour to pass before he ventured once more to creep through the ventilator and reach the landing in the neighborhood of the lift. Everything looked quite normal now, and as if nothing had happened. The lift boy sat in his little hut, yawning and stretching himself. It was quite evident that he knew nothing of the vile uses he had been put to. A sudden idea occurred to Gurdon.
"I want you to bring the lift up to this floor," he said to the boy. "No, I don't want to use it; I have lost something, and it occurs to me that I might have left it in the lift."
In the usual unconcerned manner of his class the boy touched an electric button, and the lift slowly rose from the basement.
"Does this go right down to the cellars?" Gurdon asked.
"It can if it's wanted to," the boy replied. "Only it very seldom does. You see, we only use this lift for our customers. It's fitted with what they call a pneumatic cushion—I mean, if anything goes wrong, the lift falls into a funnel shaped well, made of concrete, which forms a cushion of air, and so breaks the fall. They say you could cut the rope and let it down without so much as upsetting a glass of water. Not that I should like to try it, sir, but there you are."
Gurdon entered the lift, where he pretended to be searching for something for a moment or two. In reality, he was scraping up some of the yellow sand which had fallen from the box to the floor of the lift, and this he proceeded to place in a scrap of paper. Then he decided that it was absolutely necessary to retire to bed, though he was still in full possession of his waking faculties. As a matter of fact, he was asleep almost as soon as his head touched the pillow. Nevertheless, he was up early the following morning, and in Venner's bedroom long before breakfast. He had an exciting story to tell, and he could not complain that in Venner he had anything but an interested listener.
"We are getting on," the latter said grimly. "But before you say anything more, I should like to have a look at that yellow sand you speak of. Bring it over near the light."
Venner let the yellow stuff trickle through his hands; then he turned to Gurdon with a smile.
"You look upon this as refuse, I suppose?" he said. "You seem to imagine that it is of no great value."
"Well, is it?" Gurdon asked. "What is it?"
"Gold," Venner said curtly. "Pure virgin gold, of the very finest quality. I never saw a better sample."
A PUZZLE FOR VENNER
Venner sat just for a moment or two with the thin stream trickling through his fingers, and wondering what it all meant. With his superior knowledge of past events, he could see in this something that it was impossible for Gurdon to follow.
"I suppose this is some of the gold from the Four Finger Mine?" Gurdon suggested. "Do you know, I have never handled any virgin gold before. I had an idea that it was more brilliant and glittering. Is this very good stuff?"
"Absolutely pure, I should say," Venner replied. "There are two ways of gold mining. One is by crushing quartz in machinery, as they do in South Africa, and the other is by obtaining the metal in what are called pockets or placers. This is the way in which it is generally found in Australia and Mexico. I should not be in the least surprised if this came from the Four Finger Mine."
"There is no reason why it shouldn't," Gurdon said. "It is pretty evident, from what you told me last night, that Mark Fenwick has discovered the mysterious treasure house, but that does not account for all these proceedings. Why should he have taken all the trouble he did last night, when he might just as well have brought the stuff in, and taken the other boxes out by the front door?"
"That is what we have to find out," Venner said. "That fellow may call himself a millionaire, but I believe he is nothing more nor less than a desperate adventurer."
Gurdon nodded his assent. There must have been something very urgent to compel Mark Fenwick to adopt such methods. Why was he so strangely anxious to conceal the knowledge that he was receiving boxes of pure gold in the hotel, and that he was sending out something of equal value? However carefully the thing might have been planned the drugging of lift attendants must have been attended with considerable risk. And the slightest accident would have brought about a revelation. As it was, everything seemed to have passed off smoothly, except for the chance by which Gurdon had stumbled on the mystery.
"We can't leave the thing here," the latter said. "For once in my life I am going to turn amateur detective. I have made up my mind to get into Fenwick's suite of rooms and see what is going on there. Of course, the thing will take time, and will have to be carefully planned. Do you think it is possible for us to make use of your wife in this matter?"
"I don't think so," Venner said thoughtfully.
"In the first place, I don't much like the idea; and in the second, I am entirely at a loss to know what mysterious hold Mark Fenwick has on Vera. As I told you last night, she left me within a very short time of our marriage, and until a few hours ago I had never looked upon her again. Something terrible must have happened, or she would never have deserted me in the way she did. I don't for a moment believe that Mark Fenwick knew anything about our marriage, but on that point I cannot be absolutely certain. You had better come back to me later in the day, and I will see what I can do. It is just possible that good fortune may be on my side."
The afternoon was dragging on, and still Venner was no nearer to a practical scheme which would enable him to make an examination of Fenwick's rooms without the chance of discovery. He was lounging in the hall, smoking innumerable cigarettes, when Fenwick himself came down the stairs. Obviously the man was going on a journey, for he was closely muffled up in a big fur coat, and behind him came a servant, carrying two bags and a railway rug. It was a little gloomy in the lobby, so Venner was enabled to watch what was going on without being seen himself. He did not fail to note a certain strained anxiety that rested on Fenwick's face. The man looked behind him once or twice, as if half afraid of being followed. Venner had seen that same furtive air in men who are wanted by the police. Fenwick stopped at the office and handed a couple of keys to the clerk. His instructions were quite audible to Venner.
"I shan't want those for a day or two," he said. "You will see that no one has them under any pretext. Probably, I shall be back by Saturday at the latest."
Venner did not scruple to follow Fenwick's disappearing figure as far as the street. He was anxious to obtain a clue to Fenwick's destination. Straining his ears, he just managed to catch the words "Charing Cross," and then returned to the hall, by no means dissatisfied. Obviously, Fenwick was intending to cross the Channel for a day or two, and he had said to the clerk that he would not be back before Saturday.
Here was something like a chance at last. Very slowly and thoughtfully, Venner went up the stairs in the direction of his own room. He had ascertained by this time that one part of Fenwick's suite was immediately over his own bedroom. His idea now was to walk up to the next floor, and make a close examination of the rooms there. It did not take him long to discover the fact that Fenwick's suite was self contained, like a flat. That is to say, a strong outer door once locked made communication with the suite of rooms impossible. Venner was still pondering over his problem when the master door opened, and Vera came out so hurriedly as almost to fall into Venner's arms. She turned pale as she saw him; and as she closed the big door hurriedly behind her, Venner could see that she had in her hand the tiny Yale key which gave entrance to the suite of rooms. The girl looked distressed and embarrassed, but not much more so than Venner, who was feeling not a little guilty.
But all this was lost upon Vera; her own agitation and her own unhappiness seemed to have blinded her to everything else.
"What are you doing here?" she stammered.
"Perhaps I am looking for you," Venner said. He had quite recovered himself by this time. "I was in the lobby just now, when I saw that scoundrel, Fenwick, go out. He is not coming back for a day or two, I understand."
"No," Vera said with accents of evident relief. "He is gone, but I don't know where he is gone. He never tells me."
Just for a moment Venner looked somewhat sternly at his companion. Here was an opportunity for an explanation too good to be lost.
"There is a little alcove at the end of the corridor," he said. "I see it is full of ferns and flowers. In fact, the very place for a confidence. Vera, whether you like it or not, I am going to have an explanation."
The girl shrank back, and every vestige of color faded from her face. Yet at the same time, the pleading, imploring eyes which she turned upon her companion's face were filled with the deepest affection. Badly as he had been treated, Venner could not doubt for a moment the sincerity of the woman who had become his wife. But he did not fail to realise that few men would have put up with conduct like this, however much in love they might have been. Therefore, the hand that he laid on Vera's arm was strong and firm, and she made no resistance as he led her in the direction of the little alcove.
"Now," he said. "Are you going to tell me why you left me so mysteriously on our wedding day? You merely went to change your dress, and you never returned. Am I to understand that at the very last moment you learned something that made it absolutely necessary for us to part? Do you really mean that?"
"Indeed, I do, Gerald," the girl said. "There was a letter waiting for me in my bedroom. It was a short letter, but long enough to wreck my happiness for all time."
"No, no," Venner cried; "not for all time. You asked me to trust you absolutely and implicitly, and I have done so. I believe every word that you say, and I am prepared to wait patiently enough till the good time comes. But I am not going to sit down quietly like this and see a pure life like yours wrecked for the sake of such a scoundrel as Fenwick. Surely it is not for his sake that you—"
"Oh, no," the girl cried. "My sacrifice is not for his sake at all, but for that of another whose life is bound up with his in the strangest possible way. When you first met me, Gerald, and asked me to be your wife, you did not display the faintest curiosity as to my past history. Why was that?"
"Why should I?" Venner demanded. "I am my own master, I have more money than I know what to do with and I have practically no relations to consider. You were all-sufficient for me; I loved you for your own sake alone; I cared nothing, and I care nothing still for your past. What I want to know is, how long this is going on?"
"That I cannot tell you," Vera said sadly. "You must go on trusting me, dear. You must—"
The speaker broke off suddenly, as someone in the corridor called her name. She slipped away from Venner's side, and, looking through the palms and flowers, he could see that she was talking eagerly to a woman who had the appearance of a lady's maid. Venner could not fail to note the calm strength of the woman's face. It was only for a moment; then Vera came back with a telegram in her hand.
"I must go at once," she said. "It is something of great importance. I don't know when I shall see you again—"
"I do," Venner said grimly. "You are going to dine with me to-night. Come just for once; let us imagine we are on our honeymoon. That blackguard Fenwick is away, and he will be none the wiser. Now, I want you to promise me."
"I really can't," Vera protested. "If you only knew the danger—"
However, Venner's persistency got its own way. A moment later Vera was hurrying down the corridor. It was not until she was out of sight that Venner found that she had gone away, leaving the little Yale key behind her on the table. He thrilled at the sight of it. Here was the opportunity for which he had been waiting.
Not more than ten minutes had elapsed when, thanks to the use of the telephone, Gurdon had reached the Grand Empire Hotel. In a few hurried words, Venner gave him a brief outline of what had happened. There was no time to lose.
"Of course, it is a risk," Venner said, "and I am not altogether sure that I am justified in taking advantage of this little slip on the part of my wife. What do you think?"
"I think you are talking a lot of rot," Gurdon said emphatically. "You love the girl, you believe implicitly in her, and you are desperately anxious to get her out of the hands of that blackguard, Fenwick. From some morbid idea of self sacrifice, your wife continues to lead this life of misery rather than betray what she would probably call a trust. It seems to me that you would be more than foolish to hesitate longer."
"Come along, then," Venner said. "Let's see what we can do."
The key was in the lock at length, and the big door thrown open, disclosing a luxurious suite of rooms beyond. So far as the explorers could see at present, they had the place entirely to themselves. No doubt Fenwick's servants had taken advantage of his absence to make a holiday. For the most part, the rooms presented nothing out of the common; they might have been inhabited by anybody possessing large means. In one of the rooms stood a desk, carefully locked, and by its side a fireproof safe.
"No chance of getting into either of those," Gurdon said. "Besides, the attempt would be too risky. Don't you notice a peculiar noise going on? Sounds almost like machinery."
Surely enough, from a distant apartment there came a peculiar click and rumble, followed by a whirr of wheels, as if someone was running out a small motor close by. At the same time, the two friends noticed the unmistakable odor of petrol on the atmosphere.
"What the dickens can that be?" Gurdon said. "Its most assuredly in the flat, and not far off, either."
"The only way to find out is to go and see," Venner replied. "I fancy this is the way."
They came at length to a small room at the end of a long corridor. It was evidently from this room that the sound of machinery came, for the nearer they came the louder it grew. The door was slightly ajar, and looking in, the friends could see two men, evidently engaged on some mechanical task. There was a fire of charcoal in the grate, and attached to it a pair of small but powerful bellows, driven by a small motor. In the heart of the fire was a metal crucible, so white and dazzling hot that it was almost impossible for the eye to look upon it. Venner did not fail to notice that the men engaged in this mysterious occupation were masked; at least, they wore exceedingly large smoked spectacles, which came to much the same thing. Behind them stood another man, who had every appearance of being a master workman. He had a short pipe in his mouth, a pair of slippers on his feet, and his somewhat expansive body was swathed in a frock coat. Presently he made a sign, and with the aid of a long pair of tongs, the white hot crucible was lifted from the fire. It was impossible for the two men outside to see what became of it, but evidently the foreman was satisfied with the experiment, for he gave a grunt of approval.
"I think that will do," he muttered. "The impression is excellent. Now, you fellows can take a rest whilst I go off and finish the other lot of stuff."
"He's coming out," Venner whispered. "Let us make a bolt for it. It won't do to be caught here."
They darted down the corridor together, and stood in an angle of a doorway, a little undecided as to what to do next. The man in the frock coat passed them, carrying under one arm a square case, that bore some resemblance to the slide in which photographers slip their negatives after taking a photograph. The man in the frock coat placed his burden on a chair, and then, apparently, hurried back for something he had forgotten.
"Here is our chance," Gurdon whispered. "Let's see what is in that case. There may be an important clue here."
The thing was done rapidly and neatly. Inside the case, between layers of cotton wool, lay a great number of gold coins, obviously sovereigns. They appeared to be in a fine state of preservation, for they glistened in the light like new gold.
"Put one in your pocket," whispered Venner.
"I'm afraid we are going to have our journey for our pains; but still, you can't tell. Better take two while you are about it."
Gurdon slipped the coins into his pocket, then turned away in the direction of the door as the man in the frock coat came back, thoughtfully whistling, as if to give the intruders a chance of escape. Before he appeared in sight the outer door closed softly, and Venner and Gurdon were in the corridor once more.
A PARTIAL FAILURE
"Do you notice anything peculiar about these coins?" Venner said, when once more they were back in the comparative seclusion of the smoking-room. "Have a good look at them."
Gurdon complied; he turned the coins over in his hand and weighed them on his fingers. So far as he could see they were good, honest, British coins, each well worth the twenty shillings which they were supposed to represent.
"I don't see anything peculiar about them at all," he said. "So far as I can judge, they appear to be genuine enough. At first I began to think that our friend Fenwick had turned coiner. Look at this."
As he spoke Gurdon dashed the coin down upon a marble table. It rang true and clear.
"I'd give a pound for it," he said. "The weight in itself is a good test. No coiner yet has ever discovered a metal that will weigh like gold and ring as true. The only strange thing about the coin is that it is in such a wonderful state of preservation. It might have come out of the Mint yesterday. I am afraid we shall have to abandon the idea of laying Fenwick by the heels on the charge of making counterfeit money. I'll swear this is genuine."
"I am of the same opinion, too," Venner said. "I have handled too much gold in my time to be easily deceived. Still, there is something wrong here, and I'll tell you why. Look at those two coins again, and tell me the dates on them."
"That is very easily done. One is dated 1901 and the other is dated 1899. I don't see that you gain anything by pointing out that fact to me. I don't see what you are driving at."
"Well the thing is pretty clear. It would be less clear if those coins had been worn by use and circulation. But they are both of them Mint perfect, and they are of different dates. Do you suppose that our friend Fenwick makes a hobby of collecting English sovereigns? Besides, the man in the frock coat was going to do something with these coins; and, of course, you noticed how carefully they were wrapped up in cotton wool."
"I should like to make assurance doubly sure," Gurdon said. "Let's take these two coins to some silversmith's shop and ask if they are all right."
It was no far journey to the nearest silversmiths, where the coins were cut up, tested, and weighed. The assistant smiled as he handed the pieces back to Venner.
"We will give you eighteen and sixpence each for them, sir," he said, "which is about the intrinsic value of a sovereign; and, as you are probably aware, sir, English gold coinage contains a certain amount of alloy, without which it would speedily deteriorate in circulation, just as the old guinea used to; but there is no doubt that I have just lost you three shillings by cutting up those coins."
Venner smiled as he left the shop. As a matter of fact, he was a little more puzzled now than he had been before. He had expected to find something wrong with the two coins.
"We must suspend judgment for the present," he said. "Still, I feel absolutely certain that there is some trick here, though what the scheme is I am utterly at a loss to know. Will you come in this evening after dinner and take your coffee and cigar with me? My wife is dining with me, but it was an express stipulation that she should go directly dinner is over."
At a little after seven Venner was impatiently waiting the coming of Vera. He was not altogether sorry to notice that the dining-room was filling up more rapidly than it had done for some days past. Perhaps, on the whole, there would be safety in numbers. Venner had secured a little table for two on the far side of the room, and he stood in the doorway now, waiting somewhat restlessly and impatiently for Vera to appear. He was not a little anxious and nervous in case something should happen at the last moment to prevent his wife's appearance. As a rule, Venner was not a man who was troubled much with nerves, though he became conscious of the fact that he possessed them to-night.
Was ever a man so strangely placed as himself, he wondered? He marvelled, too, that he could sit down so patiently without asserting his rights. He was the possessor of ample means, and if money stood in the way he was quite prepared to pay Fenwick his price.
On these somewhat painful meditations Vera intruded. She was simply dressed in white, and had no ornaments beyond a few flowers. Her face was flushed now, and there was in her eyes a look of something that approached happiness.
"I am so glad you have come, dear," Venner said, as he pressed the girl's hand. "I was terribly afraid that something might come in the way. If there is any danger—"
"I don't think there is any danger," Vera whispered, "though there are other eyes on me besides those of Mark Fenwick. But, all the same, I am not supposed to know anybody in the hotel, and I come down to dinner as a matter of course, I am glad the place is so crowded, Gerald, it will make us less conspicuous. But it is just possible that I may have to go before dinner is over. If that is so, I hope you will not be annoyed with me."
"You have given me cause for greater annoyance than that," Venner smiled. "And I have borne it all uncomplainingly. And now let us forget the unhappy past, and try and live for the present. We are on our honeymoon, you understand. I wonder what people in this room would say if they heard our amazing story."
"I have no doubt there are other stories just as sad here," Vera said, as she took her place at the table. "But I am not going to allow myself to be miserable to-night. We are going to forget everything; we are going to believe that this is Fairyland, and that you are the Prince who—"
Despite her assumed gaiety there was just a little catch in Vera's voice. If Venner noticed it he did not appear to do so. For the next hour or so he meant resolutely to put the past out of his mind, and give himself over to the ecstasy of the moment.... All too soon the dinner came to an end, and Gurdon appeared.
"This is my wife," Venner said simply. "Dear, Mr. Gurdon is a very old friend of mine, and I have practically no secrets from him. All the same, he did not know till last night that I was married—until you came into the room and my feelings got the better of me. But we can trust Gurdon."
"I think I am to be relied upon," Gurdon said with a smile. "You will pardon me if I say that I never heard a stranger story than yours; and if at any time I can be of assistance to you, I shall be sincerely happy to do all that is in my power."
"You are very good," Vera said gratefully. "Who knows how soon I may call upon you to fulfil your promise? But I am afraid that it will not be quite yet."
They sat chatting there for some half an hour longer, when a waiter came in, and advancing to their table proffered Vera a visiting card, on the back of which a few words had been scribbled. The girl looked a little anxious and distressed as her eyes ran over the writing on the card. Then she rose hurriedly.
"I am afraid I shall have to go," she said. "I have been anticipating this for some little time."
She turned to the waiter, and asked if her maid was outside, to which the man responded that it was the maid who had brought the card, and that she was waiting with her wraps in the corridor. Vera extended her hand to Gurdon as she rose to go.
"I am exceedingly sorry," she said. "This has been a pleasant evening for me: perhaps the most pleasant evening with one exception that I ever spent in my life. Gerald will know what evening I mean."
As she finished she smiled tenderly at Venner. He had no words in reply. Just at that moment he was filled with passionate and rebellious anger. He dared not trust himself to speak, conscious as he was that Vera's burden was already almost more than she could bear. She held out her hand to him with an imploring little gesture, as if she understood exactly what was passing in his mind.
"You will forgive me," she whispered. "I am sure you will forgive me. It is nothing but duty which compels me to go. I would far rather stay here and be happy."
Venner took the extended hand and pressed it tenderly. His yearning eyes looked after the retreating figure; then, suddenly, he turned to Gurdon, who affected to be busy over a cigar.
"I want you to do something for me," he said. "It is a strange fancy, but I should like you to follow her. I suppose I am beginning to get old and nervous; at any rate, I am full of silly fancies tonight. I am possessed with the idea that my unhappy little girl is thrusting herself into some danger. You can quite see how impossible it is for me to dog her footsteps, but your case is different. Of course, if you like to refuse—"
"I am not going to refuse," Gurdon said. "I can see nothing dishonorable. I'll go at once, if you like."
Venner nodded curtly, and Gurdon rose from the table. He passed out into the street just as the slim figure of Vera was descending the steps of the hotel. He had no difficulty in recognising her outline, though she was clad from head to foot now in a long, black wrap, and her fair hair was disguised under a hood of the same material. Rather to Gurdon's surprise, the girl had not called a cab. She was walking down the street with a firm, determined step, as of one who knew exactly where she was going, and meant to get there in as short a time as possible.
Gurdon followed cautiously at a distance. He was not altogether satisfied in his own mind that his action was quite as straightforward as it might have been. Still, he had given his promise, and he was not inclined to back out of it now. For about a quarter of an hour he followed, until Vera at length halted before a house somewhere in the neighborhood of Grosvenor Square. It was a fine, large corner mansion, but so far as Gurdon could see there was not a light in the place from parapet to basement. He could see Vera going up the steps; he was close enough to hear the sound of an electric bell; then a light blazed in the hall, and the door was opened. So far as Gurdon could see, it was an old man who opened the door; an old man with a long, grey beard, and a face lined and scored with the ravages of time. All this happened in an instant. The door was closed again, and the whole house left in darkness.
Gurdon paused, a little uncertain as to what to do next. He would have liked, if possible, to be a little closer to Vera, for if there were any dangers threatening her he would be just as powerless to help now as if he had been in another part of the town. He walked slowly down the side of the house, and noted that there was a line garden behind, and a small green door leading to the lane. Acting on the impulse of the moment he tried the door, which yielded to his touch. If he had been asked why he did this thing he would have found it exceedingly difficult to reply. Still, the thing was done, and Gurdon walked forward over the wide expanse of lawn till he could make out at length a row of windows, looking out from the back of the house. It was not so very easy to discern all this, for the night was dark, and the back of the house darker still. Presently a light flared out in one of the rooms, and then Gurdon could make out the dome of a large conservatory leading from the garden to the house.