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Title: The Most Maddening Story in the World
Author: Ralph Strauss
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
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Language:  English
Date first posted: November 2006
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Title: The Most Maddening Story in the World
Author: Ralph Strauss



I



The first man I met in my club was John Chester, M.P. It must have been
some time in the March of 1920, and I was just home from four years'
service in India. And to be candid I was not at all certain that I
altogether appreciated this changed England into which I had come. Some
things I did not at first understand; others I soon discovered would
never be in the least to my liking. But it was good to see John Chester
again, he, I knew well, would not have changed for all the wars in the
world. And to see him there, cool and dignified, in the well-remembered
grey morning coat, was like finding a piece of the old England which for
all those four years had for ever been in my mind.

He stared at me in that curiously magisterial manner of his, and held my
hand in his own for a rather longer time than Englishmen generally give
to the business. Then he took me away to his own particular corner.

"Since you went away," he said, "the powers that be have made many
astonishing discoveries. The one that chiefly concerns us at the moment
has reference to drink. I am sorry to say, my dear friend, that for
years we have all been drinking far too much alcohol. Far too much," he
repeated solemnly, and then smiled. "We are now forbidden to drink
during the hours when a drink is most welcome." He looked at his watch.
"H'm, just an hour and a half to wait. Well, that will be enough for a
short history of India during the Great War, with details of the Hunnish
plots you unearthed, and what the Amir of Afghanistan----"

I was lighting my pipe. "For four years," I told him, "I have been
soldiering after a fashion, and occasionally playing detective. I don't
want to hear another word about the Army or the Police. Both are
excellent bodies, but you can have too much of them. Here I am back in
my club and you're the first person I see. Doesn't that suggest
something to you? Don't you think that after four years away I deserve
something in the nature of a--story?"

"A story?" John Chester repeated the word with the air of a man who has
never told a story in his life. "A story from a man who has spent four
years of his life making crutches very slowly and very badly for
soldiers who had never done him any harm? What sort of a story d'you
suppose _I_ have to tell _you_?" But I could see that he was pleased.
There was that queer little twinkle in his eye--the preparatory twinkle.

"I'm waiting," said I, "and in India I learnt patience."

"There is one story," he went on after a moment's pause, "but I doubt
whether it would amuse you. The war does not venture to intrude, and
that is in its favour, but on the other hand I am afraid it is rather
unsatisfactory. Very unsatisfactory. In fact, I'm not at all sure that
it isn't the most maddening story in the world."

"Exactly what I require."

"But when I've told it to you, you'll never speak to me again."

"We can see about that."

"Very well then."

I settled myself back in the huge easy-chair, and prepared to be
maddened.

"It is not really my story," he began, putting the tips of his fingers
together. "I dare say you may even have heard it before. For myself I
know of at least three different accounts of the strange experience of
Lord Brassington, and rather fancy to have seen a fourth, badly garbled,
in one of the popular magazines. Brassington, as I dare say you know,
was killed on the Somme."

"I remember something----"

"Yes, a very brave man.... But his strange experience had nothing to do
with the war. It happened, I think, in 1910 or the following year, at
the time of the first Commission on Housing. He worked like a Trojan.
You met him once or twice on the Terrace with me--a tall dark man, you
remember, who stooped, and dressed very shabbily indeed. An earnest
person like his father before him. It was the old man who wrote those
two volumes on the _Psychology of Crowds_--a remarkable production which
I commend to your attention. Very well. Brassington overworked himself
and very wisely determined to take a long holiday. For some time he had
wanted to travel about, and he finally decided upon a sort of irregular
pilgrimage throughout Europe. It was typical of him that he should
travel alone and with no settled plans."

"He could certainly have afforded a valet," said I, recalling the square
solidity of Brassington House in Mayfair.

"He could," agreed John Chester. "It is perhaps a pity that he did not.
As it happened, not all the cheques in the world could have made that
pilgrimage a success."

He paused for a moment or two in the old Chester way.

"Yes, it was at Brussels that he met the Comte d'Anoury. He was staying
at one of the smaller hotels at the time. He had dined alone and was
enjoying his coffee in the lounge and wondering whether he would go on
the next morning to Paris or stay and see something of Belgium. Ypres, I
remember was one of the places he wanted to see. He could not make up
his mind. And that, you know, was essentially Brassington's weak point.
He was one of those unfortunate people who so often look to somebody
else to make up their minds for them. On this particular evening it was
the Comte D'Anoury who decided for him.

"A gentleman with one of those square beards which Leopold made so
fashionable, came into the lounge and went straight up to Brassington.

"'Pardon me,' said he with a bow, 'but have I the pleasure of addressing
the Earl of Brassington?'

"'You have,' replied Brassington.

"It then appeared that the Belgian had known the old lord very well, and
had been in repeated communication with him over the publication of the
_Psychology of Crowds_. In fact it was D'Anoury who had been largely
responsible for the French translation.

"You can imagine that the two men soon found much to talk about. The
Comte ultimately invited the son of his old friend to visit his chateau,
an invitation that was at once accepted. And it was in the Chateau
D'Anoury that the fatal card was presented to our friend....

"It seems that Brassington mentioned his proposed European pilgrimage to
his host, who speedily showed himself to be a much travelled man. There
was hardly a good hotel in Europe, Brassington told me, which he did not
know. Information of a kind which falls to the lot of no Cook's tourist
was placed unreservedly at Brassington's disposal. Their relations
became even more cordial, and on the last evening of our friend's stay
at the chateau the card was preferred and accepted.

"Now I must tell you that one of Brassington's weak points was his
ignorance of foreign languages. His French was of the _table d'hte_
order, and his German negligible. Of Russian, Italian, or Spanish he
knew nothing at all. I doubt whether he'd realized that in the
south-eastern corner of Europe over a hundred distinct languages were in
daily use. He was sufficiently insular to imagine that English,
particularly when spoken in a loud voice, and a smattering of French
would carry him through--as they so often do. Well, the Comte D'Anoury
discovered this fact, and in his hospitable way suggested that he might
be of some little assistance. He took out of his card-case a blank
card--exactly similar, I mean, to an ordinary visiting card, but quite
plain. Then he scribbled a few words on it, and handed it over.

"'If you should go to any of the hotels I've mentioned,' said he, 'this
may be of use. Often a stranger is not given the most comfortable room.'

"Brassington thanked him and looked at the writing. He did not recognize
the language, although he was convinced that it was neither French nor
German. It did not seem to be Italian or Spanish, but, as Brassington
told me afterwards, he thought, without knowing why, that it might be
Russian."

"Didn't he inquire?" I asked.

John Chester looked at me. "I was expecting that question. In point of
fact, he was about to inquire when the Comtesse came into the room. He
just put the card in his pocket and forgot all about it. The next
morning he journeyed to Paris and was driven to the hotel of which the
Belgian had spoken. I've forgotten the name, but it was a small,
comfortable sort of place, rather old-fashioned. The guide-books would
have called it select and possibly have omitted to tell you its rate of
charges. Brassington found it entirely to his liking. It was not too
dull, and the proprietor spoke English extremely well. He had been an
hotel manager in London, and was enough of a snob to find pleasure in
having a British peer under his roof. And there was a particular old
brandy in his possession which Brassington greatly appreciated. In fact,
I gather, they drank quite a number of glasses together in the privacy
of the proprietor's own sanctum. Don't think for one moment that
Brassington ever took too much in his life. He didn't. He was the last
sort of man to do anything of the kind. But he liked the old man and he
liked the old brandy, and he was enjoying a holiday.

"He stayed a fortnight at that hotel and had a right joyous time. In
fact, he was in no hurry to continue his pilgrimage. Paris, as you
probably know, has its own fascinations, and Brassington would have been
well content to stay there for months. He went to the play, he heard
fine music, and he went for long walks. And so pleased was he with the
few Frenchmen whose acquaintance he made that he had almost decided to
treat himself to a _pied--terre_ in their capital. He did, indeed, seek
the proprietor's advice on this very point. But the hotel proprietor did
not seem too keen on the proposition. Doubtless he saw no reason why
milord should not continue to put money into his own pocket. And it was
then that Brassington, without knowing why, remembered the Belgian's
card.

"'By the way,' he said suddenly, 'I think you know the Comte D'Anoury.'

"'Monsieur?'

"'A frequent visitor here, surely?'

"The proprietor shrugged his shoulders. 'Possibly,' said he, with no
sign of his usual enthusiasm.

"Brassington, I think, was piqued. He took out the card, and immediately
experienced the curious idea that he was embarking on an adventure
altogether outside his ken. That is how he expressed himself to me when
he told me his story. Well, he took out his card, and handed it over.

"And then something odd immediately happened."





II



"I lay stress," continued John Chester, "on Brassington's feelings at
this moment. He never quite understood why he handed over the card. It
would have been easy for him to have visited an ordinary house-agent
without the proprietor's help. In fact, had he thought about the matter
at all, he would surely have seen that the proprietor would naturally
not be too keen to see the departure of his guest. But he didn't think.
He just took the card out of his pocket and handed it over.

"And then a queer little pang raced through his body, a pang of shame or
horror or--fright. He told me afterwards that before the proprietor
spoke, he was convinced that he'd made the biggest mistake of his life.
And he was angry with himself. But he was also unmistakably afraid, for
it suddenly seemed to him that, to use one of our modern turns of slang,
he was up against _something_ which would render him powerless and
absurd if nothing worse. He tried to pull himself together. What
significance could the mere handing over of a card with some half-dozen
words scribbled on it, possibly have? His commonsense told him none, but
his instinct sent a warning in that tiny pang. And so he just sat there
and waited."

There came another of those little pauses of which John Chester makes
such frequent use. I think he likes to see the mouth of his audience open
a little, awaiting some expression of tense interest.

"You pique my curiosity," I told him.

"Yes, it was certainly rather curious," he continued with irritating
deliberation. "The hotel proprietor behaved so very oddly. As I have
told you, Brassington knew immediately that something was wrong, but
he'd no means of knowing just _what_ would account for the extraordinary
change in the proprietor's manner. For over the man's face there had
come an expression which was interpreted without much difficulty. As
Brassington told me, he looked angry, insulted, and--disgusted. And it
was the man's ill-hidden disgust which he could never forget. 'I felt a
cad,' he said, 'a dirty cad, guilty of all the most horrible crimes you
can think of. And the odd thing was that although I knew I was
absolutely innocent I felt that the man's attitude was--justified. In
some curious way, it did seem to me that I had been guilty of foul
horrors. He handed me back the card, and I faced him shivering like a
criminal in the dock for the first time.'

"That was what our good Brassington felt--a criminal, and the feeling
was intensified when the proprietor with another look of disgust spat on
the floor and walked over to the telephone. And Brassington listened as
in a dream to the conversation that followed. He could not fully
understand, but he knew enough to learn that the police were being
summoned. And still he sat there, unable to move, unable to think.

"Well, they fetched him. They took him away, him and his luggage, in the
middle of the night. He tried to protest. He mentioned our Ambassador,
who happened to be a distant cousin of his mother's. He tried to be
angry. He tried to behave in that rather silly way most Englishmen do
behave when they become unexpectedly involved in a police row abroad.
But he could do nothing.... He was put in a train with three detectives
and escorted to the German frontier, and the three detectives lost no
opportunity of showing what they thought of him. Obviously they hated
their job; obviously they found the mere presence of the Englishman
unspeakably offensive. And he felt more than ever like a criminal. It
didn't occur to him that he could have demanded to know the reason for
his expulsion: he just sat in the train half-dazed."

"But I can't understand----"

"Wait a little," begged John Chester, smiling; "there was worse to come.
Our friend Brassington arrived in Cologne, where, you may remember,
there is an Englishehof, and there under that solemn roof he was able in
some measure to recover. He found the stolid, orderly methods of the
Germans extraordinarily soothing and peaceful after his untoward
experience in France, and although some days passed before he felt able
to walk out in the streets like an ordinary tourist, he succeeded in
persuading himself that the old brandy must have been stronger than he
had supposed, and was in some way responsible for the affair. It was a
poor enough explanation, but it was all he could summon to his aid. The
brandy, he found himself thinking, might have been drugged.... Something
of that sort....

"And then for a fortnight nothing happened. He spent his time exploring
Cologne, where, by the way, there is much that is usually interesting.
He made an effort to learn German. He met in casual fashion two or three
English friends. And once or twice behind locked doors he took out the
Belgian's card and attempted to decipher the words. And here I would
have you notice a curious point. When Brassington looked at the card,
locked up alone in his own room, it seemed harmless and even vaguely
helpful. It was only when it was shown.... But I am anticipating.

"Brassington went on to Berlin, where an uncle of his was in the
Embassy. They spent an enjoyable week together, and no mention was made
of the card. Then our friend crossed the Austrian frontier and
ultimately arrived in Prague. Yes, Prague," repeated John Chester
thoughtfully. "At Prague something else happened."

"He showed the card?" I hazarded.

"Not exactly. The card was asked for. It seemed that Brassington chose
his hotel by the merest chance. At the station there were several hotel
porters waiting. He picked out one of them at random, and had his
luggage placed on a shabby old omnibus which rumbled slowly along the
picturesque streets. Prague, you know, is one of the most romantically
picturesque cities in Europe. I remember in '89...." For a moment he
became vague. "Yes, well, as I was telling you, Brassington chose his
hotel haphazard. He found it on the outskirts of the town, a rather
lonely old pile, once, no doubt, some Czech nobleman's house, but now
disfigured in the usual way by gigantic gold letters. I forget the name
those letters formed, but it was vaguely familiar to Brassington. And
then, when they were showing him to his room, he remembered: the Comte
D'Anoury had mentioned this particular hotel as a favourite resort of
his own....

"Five minutes later a thin fair man in some uniform which Brassington
did not recognize had come into his room. He spoke broken English, and
seemed to be in a very bad temper.

"'You 'ave come from Berlin?' he snapped.

"'Yes.'

"'An' you 'ave ze card?'

"Our friend was horribly startled, not only by the unexpected question,
but also by the look on the man's face. It was a look of devilish hate
and cruelty. But he pulled himself together. After all, it was surely
nobody's business if he chose to carry the damned card. He was an
Englishman travelling for pleasure--with a banking account that would
have roused the envy of every Austrian official, had its full extent
been known. He was not going to be bullied. He attempted to bluster.

"'I don't know what you mean,' he said in a loud voice. 'You've
evidently made some mistake. I am Lord Brassington, a British subject.'

"The man in uniform seemed to be almost trembling with fury. 'Dere are
some men,' he said with incredible bitterness, 'too bad to 'ave ze
nationality. Show me ze card.'

"'I absolutely decline,' Brassington spoke warmly.

"The thin man blew a whistle. Four soldiers appeared, and in another
moment our poor friend was being searched none too kindly. The card of
course was easily found--Brassington still kept it in his card-case--and
handed over to the leader of the party.

"Half an hour later the fifth Earl of Brassington was confined in the
filthiest cell of the prison-fortress of Prague."





III



"Now, if you or I were to find ourselves in such a position we should
know what to do. We should talk very loudly of the mighty arm of
Britannia, and threaten all sorts of personal reprisals. And the
Governor would be gravely polite and full of regrets that he was unable
to help us. And then in some way or other we should succeed in getting a
message through to the Consulate. I don't know myself how one does such
things, but I feel convinced that we should." John Chester smiled.
"Possibly nothing more than a few judicious bribes and nice crisp
English bank-notes. And then, there'd be a coming and going of all sorts
of higher officials, and delays and telegrams, and finally a grovel from
some semi-royal personage. Whereupon we should walk out with our heads
very high, secretly rather pleased with ourselves that the affair had
really occurred. Something to talk about, you understand, on our return
home."

"Quite so," I agreed laughing, "but I can hardly see myself languishing
in a Bohemian jail--at least, before the war--without a pretty good
effort to find out the reason...."

"And yet our friend took no steps at all. He found himself all
unconceivably a prisoner in an Austrian dungeon, which I gather is even
nastier than most other dungeons, unable to eat the appalling food he
was given, quite helpless and stunned. He became, of course, physically
ill. He admitted to me that he more than once began to cry like a child.
And I fancy he must have become light-headed, because he told me that at
the time he could hardly be certain that he was Brassington at all. The
card had been returned to him, and he spent hours with it in his hands,
trying to fathom its mystery. A little piece of pasteboard! Some
half-dozen words! But it might be symbolic? Yet even so how... There
seemed to him to be no solution whatsoever. Moreover, he was by no means
unconscious of the change in himself. He knew that he ought to be
rousing himself to fight against the enigma, whatever it might be; but
he couldn't. As you know, Brassington was ordinarily a strong healthy
man. I remember seeing him box for Oxford. But in the prison at Prague
he could do nothing--nothing at all."

"I should have thought he might have found it advisable to destroy the card."

"My dear man, that was my first question when he told me what happened
in Prague. Why on earth didn't he destroy it? There were two reasons, I
think. In the first place he could never persuade himself when alone
that the card held any undue significance at all. In the second place he
never gave up hope that the day would come when a complete explanation
would appear."

"Of course it did?" I interrupted with some eagerness.

"Lord
Brassington," continued my friend imperturbably, "remained in that
prison-fortress for nearly three weeks. Then one evening when he was so
weak that he could hardly stand up, he was taken away in the Austrian
equivalent of our Black Maria. He told me that this was the most painful
journey he had ever experienced. The roads must have been awful, but
just as he was deciding that he could not stand another yard of jolting,
the Black Maria stopped. He was helped out. A huge grey motor-car stood
there in the moonlight. To his surprise he found that his own luggage
had been placed in the tonneau. The next day he was over the Italian
frontier....

"It is true that Italy had been included in his pilgrimage, and for a
week or so Brassington basked in the sun. He stayed in some small inn,
and for some reason or other gave a false name. He wanted, he told me,
to lose himself entirely--to forget what he had gone through.
Incidentally he came to the conclusion that nothing should make him show
the card to anybody else. True, at Prague they had asked for it, but he
had stayed at half a dozen other places and they had not asked for it.
For some reason he did not think that they would ask him for it in
Italy.

"And then he met the Greek.

"A Greek gentleman came to the little inn: a diminutive, dark,
pasty-faced man, very dapper and polite. Brassington hardly noticed him
at first, but they happened to meet one evening on a bridge outside the
village. The Greek gentleman bowed and spoke of the scenery. Brassington
made some reply, and then found himself listening to an enthusiastic
account of the beauties of Greece. So immeasurably superior, it seemed,
to this flamboyant Italy. Brassington spoke of our English landscapes,
and the Greek appeared extraordinarily interested. For England, he said,
the home of true liberty, he had always entertained the warmest
admiration and respect, and it was while he was giving tongue to these
pleasant opinions that the strange idea about the card came into
Brassington's mind. It suddenly seemed to him absolutely certain that
the words which Comte D'Anoury had so hurriedly scribbled must be modern
Greek. And in his excitement he forgot his resolution.

"'I wonder,' he said abruptly, 'if you would do me a favour?'

"The Greek, it seemed, would be enchanted.

"'I have reason to believe that some words on a card I possess are
written in your language. You could possibly translate them for me.'

"The Greek gentleman would be delighted.

"Now, so far as I can gather, this is what happened. With a strong
feeling that the mystery was about to be solved, Brassington handed over
the card. He experienced no sense of shame or disgust as he did so. The
Greek gentleman, it seemed to him, would just translate, and then they
would continue to speak of the scenery.... The next moment he was lying
on his back in the road with a sharp pain in his side.

"The Greek gentleman had stabbed him and was gone ..."

John Chester
looked at me. "To be frank with you," he continued, "I know very little
about knife-wounds, but this one of Brassington's seems to have been no
more than superficial. He saw his own blood, but seems to have easily
stanched the flow. In any case he was able to stagger back to the inn,
there to learn that the Greek gentleman had suddenly departed. The
people were kind to him. They asked no questions, but sent for a doctor
and helped him to bed. And it was while he was being undressed that he
found the card sticking out of his waistcoat pocket....

"It was a bad shock. Anywhere else I suppose there would have been no
little rumpus, but here nothing was said. The English gentleman had met
with an accident and would be leaving in a few days' time. And leave he
did as soon as he felt well enough. He did not know what he wanted to
do, but he felt he must travel. He debated the idea of an immediate
return to England, but something was preventing it. Ultimately he came
to Naples, nervously apprehensive and yet at the same time convinced
that before going home he must in some way solve the enigma.

"He stayed at the Hotel de Vesuve and almost immediately ran into Archie
Summers and his wife."





IV



"You know Sir Archibald Summers? The cricketer, I mean--one of the
splendidest fellows I ever knew. He got his Brigade early on in the war
and was killed at Loos. Brassington and he were old friends. They used
to meet at White's. Lady Summers was one of those pretty Hemingway
girls, the eldest I fancy. At any rate the two men were delighted to
meet, and Brassington joined their table. He told me that the relief of
finding an old friend here in Naples was extraordinary. At dinner that
night he could hardly believe that anything untoward had happened to
him. And yet barely an hour later....

"I'll tell you, butl want you to understand that Archie Summers was
absolutely loyal, a level-headed man of the world, the sort of man you
naturally went to when in trouble. As I happen to know, he got more than
one youngster out of a scrape. A splendid friend to have. And it is
important you should realize this, because it makes what followed on
their meeting so strange. You have to think of Summers, not as a
narrow-minded saint, but as an honourable man, certainly not unaware of
the seamier side of life, though of course absolutely untouched by it
himself, and unselfishly devoted to his friends. Brassington, I suppose,
was one of his oldest friends, if not his best. Lady Summers herself
once told me how well they had always got on together. And so on this
particular evening it was quite natural that after dinner the two of
them should forgather over their liqueurs for an intimate chat.

"Archie, it seemed, was bound ultimately for a long stay in Egypt, where
his brother was stationed. They were going slowly eastwards. And then
when he asked for details of his friend's travels, it seemed to
Brassington that here was an admirable opportunity for unburdening
himself.

"'I've a mighty queer story to tell you, Archie,' he said.

"'Fire away.'

"'But you may----' Brassington hesitated. A moment before, it had seemed
simple to tell his friend of the strange affair of the card, but now
there crossed his mind the possibility that even Archie Summers might
find something sinister in the business. 'It's very silly of me,' he
continued, 'but I've had rather a shock, rather a bad shock, to tell you
the truth.'

"Archie showed his solicitude. 'Why, man, you look upset now.'

"'I am,' admitted Brassington. 'It's quite absurd----'

"'Have another brandy and tell me the yarn,' suggested Archie Summers,
and they filled up their glasses.

"And then Brassington gave a plain account of what had occurred. He
looked sharply at his friend as he finished and was enormously relieved
to see him laughing outright.

"'It strikes me you must have been doing yourself very well, old man.'

"'You don't believe me?'

"'Oh, certainly I do. I believe you've been locked up and all the rest
of it, but I can't believe that half-a-dozen words on a card caused all
the trouble.'

"'I might,' continued Brassington, nervous again, 'show you the card.'

"'Do, by all means,' laughed the other, 'but if you expect me to be
disgusted and horrified and angry, you're quite mistaken.'

"'You swear that?'

"'Swear? Good God, man, what's come over you? Some damned nonsense on a
card--what on earth is there to swear about? You don't think a few words
could turn me into a raging lunatic ready to stab an old pal or send him
to jail?'

"'No, old man, but somehow----'

"'Show me the card,' said Archie Summers, laughing again, 'and if I can,
I'll translate it for you. I'm not bad at languages. And if it's very
awful,' he added with mock seriousness, 'mum's the word.'

"In silence Brassington handed over the card. Archie Summers glanced
almost carelessly at it, and for a moment it looked as if the spell had
been broken. Then he saw that Summers had gone very white. He had got up
from his chair and was pacing excitedly up and down the room. He did not
look at Brassington. For a while he was angrily muttering to himself,
and Brassington watched him as some wretched bird might watch a snake.
Then came words which he could not easily forget.

"'You'll have to resign,' said Archie Summers in a queer strained voice.
'Your clubs, I mean. At once. We have been friends, I know, and I shall
say nothing myself. Nothing. That goes without saying, but if you ever
dare to show your face again in decent society, I'll--And my wife here
too!' He had turned now towards the wretched man. 'How _dare_ you,
Brassington,' he shouted. 'My God, if I'd ever thought....' He couldn't
say any more, but threw down the card and rushed from the room.

"Half an hour later the very polite hotel-keeper was regretting the fact
that the signor's room would be wanted the next day. An old
customer...."





V



"He seems to have got almost as far south as Messina, but could tell me
little enough about that time. There was no mistaking the menace of
Archie Summers's words, and as he worried and groped, his fears
increased. He began to imagine things. His thoughts became stranger and
stranger. He found himself afraid to go to bed. Fearsome dreams would
cause him to wake up in an agony of fear. And then he noticed that he
was making excuses to himself for not going out into the streets. Once
he tried to write a letter to D'Anoury, but could find no words.

"There came, you will understand, a general nervous breakdown.

"And still the card reposed in his case.... though Brassington could no
longer bring himself to look at it. Once or twice he felt minded to
fling it away, but always something came to prevent him. But no longer
did he particularly wish to have its meaning explained to him. A heavy
languor was setting upon him. And little gaps appeared in his memory. It
seemed to him that he would remain, for all time unnoticed and alone, in
this corner of Italy.

"Then one night he had a bad fright. I'm not quite clear as to what
happened. Possibly he had some sort of fit--what the doctors call the
night-terrors in children--and in the morning he felt so ill that he was
unable to leave his bed. He was staying in a little farmhouse now, and
for some weeks he lay there, tended very lovingly by the farm-people.
The local doctor visited him and could find nothing organically wrong.
He gave one piece of good advice. The Englishman ought certainly to
return to England to consult his own physician.

"For some time Brassington debated that admirable suggestion. The whole
thing, he tried to think, might be nerves. Why not rush home to see
Aylmer? He need not even mention the card. No one need know he had
returned to England, and if necessary he could recross the Channel
almost at once. And so, one day, he took his courage in his hands and
came home.

"I don't know Dr. Aylmer myself, but I've always heard that he's a
first-class man. Neurologist at Guy's for some years, and now in Harley
Street. Brassington hired him from Dover, asking for an immediate
appointment. Luckily Aylmer was at home and saw him at once. He was
shocked at the change in Brassington's appearance. Told him he looked
like a haunted man and wanted to know what frightful concoctions he had
been trying to eat. I gather that Brassington himself was so exhausted
that for some time he could hardly speak. The doctor was seriously
worried, and soon diagnosed one of those distressing phobias which seem
to be so common to-day.

"'Just tell me everything quite slowly and coolly,' he said, 'and when
you come to the unpleasant parts, remember I'm a doctor who hasn't been
shocked since Derby Day of 1896.'

"And Brassington somehow managed to tell his story. To his surprise
there was no detail which seemed to cause Dr. Aylmer any astonishment at
all: he just listened and occasionally nodded his head.

"His attitude was undoubtedly the right one, for Brassington seemed no
little relieved.

"'You've been through a considerable strain, you see, Lord Brassington,'
he told him. 'We shall have to go thoroughly into the whole matter.
Probably I have heard only half at the moment. So far as I can see, your
unfortunate adventures have somehow grouped themselves round some words
on a card. Very well, the first thing to do is to solve the mystery of
those words. I am particularly interested in such things. Let me see
it.'

"'But that's the one thing, Doctor, that I don't feel I have courage
enough to do.'

"Aylmer smiled. 'The doctor's consulting-room....' he began.

"'Oh, I know, I know, but what can I think when Archie Summers, one of
my oldest friends....'

"'Shall I tell you what I think, Lord Brassington? I think that on the
evening when you met Sir Archibald you were not at all well.'

"Brassington put up a hand to his forehead. 'I sometimes do forget
things,' he muttered, 'but I swear I remember every incident of that
evening.'

"'No doubt,' agreed Aylmer, 'Just give me the card, then, and we'll see
what can be done.'

"Brassington was painfully hesitating.

"'I believe you can't even trust your own doctor,' said Aylmer,
laughing. 'You ought to know by this time that a doctor is accustomed to
hear many things which the average layman doesn't usually speak about.'

"'I know, I know, but you see, if you fail me....'

"'My dear sir, there is not a chance I shall fail you, for the simple
reason that I'm almost positive I have already solved the mystery.'

"'You believe....'

"'Show me the card, and I promise that not a human soul shall be told
anything about it.'

"'Your word of honour?'

"'My word of honour.'

"Brassington took out his card-case.

"'Here it is,' he said, and held out the card.

"The doctor took it up and examined it carefully. He turned it over and
held it up to the light.

"Then he smiled. 'Exactly what I expected to find,' he said.

"'You mean.... I....' Brassington sat down and stared at him. 'I don't
understand....'

"'_There is nothing on the card_,' said Dr. Aylmer. 'Both sides are
quite blank.'"

"But," I exclaimed, "I don't understand either. There must have been
something...."?

"I told you," said John Chester, "that this was the most maddening story
in the world, and you mustn't ask me any more questions. I can only tell
you that when the doctor saw the card it was blank, but whether it had
always been blank-----Hullo, the old General has obtained his drink!
Waiter, you may bring us two whiskies-and-sodas."


THE END




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