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Title: The Room on the Fourth Floor
Author: Ralph Straus
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0609261h.html
Language:  English
Date first posted: December 2006
Date most recently updated: December 2006

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THE ROOM ON THE FOURTH FLOOR

by

Ralph Straus


John Chester ought never to have gone in for politics. I am quite certain that he should have sat down at a desk and written romances, and become a "best-seller", and built himself a marble house, and married a wife, and hired a press-agent. Instead, as everybody knows, he elected to be returned to Parliament twenty-five years ago, and there he has remained ever since, always upon the fringe of the Government, though never actually entering those extraordinary precincts.

Probably succeeding Premiers have considered that Chester's duties as a raconteur at fashionable dinner-tables must for ever preclude him from undertaking anything else, though, I dare say, he has refused office on his own account. He is just the kind of man to do such a thing—a man too keen about other people to look properly after his own interests.

His appearance, as you know, is military. That white moustache suggests the field-marshal, and his clothes are obviously of the dragoon cut. Also, he has a figure which, to my knowledge has changed not an inch in the last twenty years. Some people call him a phenomenon and expect you to know exactly what they mean, and somehow you do. He knows everyone and goes everywhere. He has more friends than any other man in Europe. And he is the kind of man to whom people, even the discreet people, tell things, which possibly accounts for his amazing stock of stories.

I was dining with him a week or two ago at the House of Commons. A world-famous ex-Minister was sitting in solitary state at the next table. Chester had been unusually silent, and I wondered what was troubling him; but when the great statesman hurried away, my host gave the peculiar chuckle which, with him, is the invariable introduction to some yarn or other.

"The most remarkable man in England," he began, looking in the direction of the now empty table.

"So I am given to understand."

"He is the only man who guessed the Farringham riddle, you know. Guessed it at once, too. Most remarkable man. Yes. And yet...."

He paused and looked at me as though I had contradicted him.

"Sometimes," he continued, twirling the white moustache, "I wonder whether he knew more about the affair than he pretended. He might have heard of it, of course, in his official capacity."

"You mean when he was Prime Minister?"

"Precisely."

"You pique my curiosity," said I.

John Chester emptied his glass. "You have never heard of the Farringham case, then? No, well, in the ordinary way you wouldn't. So many of these things have to be hushed up. Besides, it is thirty years old now."

I lit a cigar and prepared for one of Chester's inimitable yarns.

* * * * *

"Yes," he began, "Mrs. Farringham was a beautiful widow with a passion for travelling in unusual places. She had plenty of money, and she moved from one continent to the next as you or I drive to our clubs. She never took a maid with her; but her daughter, I suppose, did much to fill the maid's place. I met them first in Florence. I remember. The girl must have been about twenty then, Mrs. Farringham nearly forty, though she scarcely looked older than her daughter.

"She was entertaining some Italian prince who wanted to become her son-in-law or her husband—I couldn't make up my mind which, and didn't like to ask—and I was invited to call at her London house. I fully intended to go as soon as I returned home, but—well, you shall hear why I never had the opportunity.

"It was in the year of the great Exhibition in Paris—1900. The Farringhams had been travelling in Russia and Turkey. They had spent a week in Constantinople—a detestable place—and had decided to make a tour through Asia Minor. But apparently for no reason at all Mrs. Farringham suddenly took it into her head that she would like to buy new carpets for her London house, and the Asia Minor trip was indefinitely postponed.

"The ladies visited Thomas Cook, and Thomas Cook in his best English told them how to reach home in the most comfortable manner. Incidentally, he advised a night or two in Paris. The Exhibition had just opened its gates. Now I don't suppose for one moment that Mrs. Farringham cared in the least whether she saw the Exhibition or not, but her daughter had not seen so much of the world as her indefatigable mother, and it was decided that twenty-four hours in Paris would make a pleasant break in a tiresome journey.

"And so it happened that three days later the two ladies, rather tired and rather irritable, arrived at the Paris terminus. It was just eight o'clock in the evening. They had already dined in the train. A porter found their baggage—three large trunks and a green bag which had accompanied Mrs. Farringham from the time she had first crossed the Channel—and, with the help of a cabman, succeeded in placing the four pieces on the roof of the cab. Before driving off, however, the cabman altered the position of the green bag. Apparently he had got it into his head that the green bag was the last straw to break his conveyance, and he put it beneath his feet on the box.

"When they arrived at one of the big hotels—I forgot for the moment which it was—the ladies asked for two adjoining rooms.

"The politest of hotel managers shrugged his shoulders many times. 'Paris,' said he, 'is full. It flows over with tout le monde. It is beyond me to give madame and mam'selle two rooms in the closest adjoinment. But if madame will take an apartment on the fourth floor, and mam'selle an apartment on the fifth floor—of the extreme comfort—it will be well.' His manner implied that only madame's beauty had made such a favour possible.

"The ladies agreed, and signed their names in the visitors' book. One of the hotel porters took charge of the trunks, and a chambermaid showed the visitors to their rooms. Mrs. Farringham's bedroom was not very large, but it looked comfortable. Her daughter's room was exactly above it.

"The porter unstrapped Mrs. Farringham's trunks, and in the politest possible way hoped that the ladies would enjoy their visit to Paris. Then he received a small coin and disappeared. The chambermaid uttered a similar sentiment and followed his example. Mother and daughter were left alone. You follow so far?"

"Perfectly," said I.

John Chester looked up at the ceiling. "Very well, then. Here you have two estimable ladies arriving one evening in a Paris hotel of unimpeachable respectability and being given rooms one over the other. Good.

"For a short while Miss Farringham stayed with her mother and helped her to unpack a few things. Then, feeling tired, she suggested that they should both go to bed.

"'Immediately?' asked her mother. 'It is not yet nine o'clock.'

"'Very well,' said the girl, 'I will lie down for half an hour or so in my own room and then come down to help you undress.'

"And she went to her room on the fifth floor.

"She was feeling particularly drowsy. Nearly two days in a continental train is enough to make anyone drowsy. She just lay down on her bed, dressed as she was, and in a minute or two was asleep."

Again my host paused, this time to refill his glass. "Quite an ordinary story, isn't it?" he asked with a twinkle in his eye.

I knew better than to utter a word.

"Yes," he went on, "the girl lay on her bed and fell asleep. When she awoke it was ten minutes before midnight. She went down to the fourth floor and knocked on the door of her mother's room. There was no answer. She went in. The room was dark. She turned on the electric light. The bed was empty. Indeed, the room was obviously untenanted. It was awaiting the arrival of some visitor.

"Of course she must have made some mistake. She went out into the passage. Her mother's room would be an adjoining one. But on one side of the empty room was a bathroom, and outside the door of the other stood two unmistakably masculine boots. Added to which she was almost certain that she recalled the correct number. She rang for the chambermaid.

"'I am afraid I have made some mistake,' she said. 'I thought this was my mother's room, but—this is the fourth floor, by the way, isn't it?'

"The maid looked at her curiously. 'Yes, mam'selle, this is indeed the fourth floor, but what does mam'selle mean? No lady accompanied mam'selle to the hotel. Mam'selle travelled with herself!'"

* * * * *

John Chester looked at me across the table in much the same way as I imagined the chambermaid had stared at Miss Farringham. It was almost a minute before he spoke again. I had no notion what was coming, but already felt in some vague way that I was no longer sitting in the dining-room of the House of Commons. I leant forward over the table. "Go on, dear man, please!"

"'Mam'selle travelled with herself,'" he repeated. "Yes, that is what the chambermaid said, and Miss Farringham stared at her. 'You are making a very stupid mistake,' she said. 'Why, surely it was you who took in my mother's bag—a large green bag. We came together, about half-past eight.'

"The maid seemed completely bewildered. 'Shall I ring for the porter?' she asked, more or less mechanically.

"Miss Farringham nodded. A feeling of uneasiness had suddenly come over her.

"The porter came up, and the girl recognized him. She repeated her question. The porter allowed his mouth to open to its widest extent, which happened to be his method of expressing the completest surprise. No madame, said he, had arrived with mam'selle. He had certainly taken mam'selle's two trunks to a room on the fifth floor, but what did she mean?'

"And then, I fancy, a tiny pang must have touched Miss Farringham's heart. Yet, obviously, this could only be an absurd mistake. In another moment she would be laughing with her mother. She looked hard at the two servants standing there in foolish bewilderment. 'Call the manager, please,' she said.

"They brought the manager to her. He was, as always, vaguely apologetic. Mam'selle was not comfortable in her room? Was there anything he could do? She had not supped? Some refreshment in her room?

"The girl explained. Her mother had been given a room on the fourth floor. Apparently this had been changed. Where was she now? She asked the questions quite calmly, but her heart was beating at a greater rate than was good for it. On a sudden it seemed to her that something was horribly, immeasurably wrong. You are probably familiar with that feeling yourself.

"The manager's manner changed ever so slightly. His tones were still suave, but a note of incredulity would not be hidden. It was as though he were angry at being summoned to the fourth floor by a possibly mad Englishwoman for no reason at all. 'Mam'selle is joking?' he asked almost coldly.

"It was then that the girl realized how frightened she was. Wherever her mother might be, even though no more than a single wall was separating them, she was at that moment alone in Paris with strangers who were obviously in no mood to believe what she said. 'But my mother and I, we drove from the station. You gave us the rooms yourself. Yes, and you said how sorry you were that we could not have adjoining rooms because the hotel was full. And then—of course, you remember—we wrote our names in the visitors' book.'

"The manager retained his professional politeness. That is the first necessity in a hotel manager. 'I cannot understand mam'selle,' he said quietly. Then he turned to the porter. 'Bring up the visitors' book,' he ordered.

"The visitors' book was produced. You can imagine how eagerly Miss Farringham examined it. Yes, there, four or five names from the bottom of the last page, was her own; but it was sandwiched in between a vicomte and an English baronet. Her mother's name was not there.

"You can picture her dismay.

"'Perhaps mam'selle is tired, and over-wrought after her journey,' suggested the polite manager. English girls, he knew, were often peculiar, and Miss Farringham was undoubtedly pretty.

"'But—my mother!' stammered the girl. 'What does it all mean? I don't understand——

"'There is a doctor in the hotel if mam'selle——'

"She interrupted him. 'Oh, you think I am ill. But I am not. We must search the hotel. Perhaps my mother has found a friend; or she may be in the drawing-room. I am horribly nervous. You must help me.'

"The manager shrugged his apologetic shoulders.

"They searched the hotel."

John Chester handed me his cigarette-case. "Yes," he repeated, "they searched the hotel."

"And they found——"

"Everyone but the mother. In an hour's time, as you can imagine, Miss Farringham had become frantic. The manager did everything he could. As a final recourse he despatched the porter to look for the cabman who had driven the girl from the station. It was a rather forlorn hope, but the girl seemed eager to see him. She was in that state of mind in which things are no longer ordinary or extraordinary, but merely hopeful or hopeless. Fortunately the cabman was found. He was still on duty, as a matter of fact, at the terminus. And at two o'clock in the morning he was standing, hat in hand, in the foyer of the hotel."

"It was the same cabman?" I asked.

"Miss Farringham recognized him instantly. 'You remember me?' she asked eagerly.

"'But yes, mam'selle. You arrived at eight-ten—alone. I drove you to this hotel. Two trunks.'

"'No, no. My mother was with me. There were three trunks and a large green bag.'

"The cabman looked stupidly at her.

"'And don't you remember, you changed the position of the bag as we drove off. Perhaps you thought that it was unsafe on the roof. You put it beneath your feet on the box. Oh, you must remember, you must remember!'

"The cabman was obviously astonished. 'But there was no green bag,' said he. 'I remember precisely. The young lady, I think, must be American or English, or she would not be travelling with herself.'

"Miss Farringham stared wildly about her and fell down in a faint.

"They got her to bed and promised to send a telegram to England. Early next morning she crossed the Channel, just dazed. And she was met at Charing Cross by friends just as mystified as herself. That night she was seriously ill. Brain fever."

"But the mother?" I asked.

"Nothing more," said John Chester, "was ever heard of the mother."

The division bell was ringing, and my host excused himself. "I must vote," he explained. "I shall be back in ten minutes, which will give you just sixty times as long as the ex-Prime Minister took to solve the riddle." He nodded, and hurried away.

I tried to exercise those faculties which the detective of fiction finds so useful. Either Mrs. Farringham had arrived at the hotel in Paris, I argued, or she had not. John Chester had stated distinctly that she had arrived, and therefore....

* * * * *

My host had returned. "A pretty problem?" said he. "Confess yourself completely at sea."

"Completely," said I.

"Come along to the terrace, then," and we walked out and stood looking over the Thames. It was not a warm night, and we were coatless.

"I have often wondered," he began at last, "why Mrs. Farringham had that sudden desire to buy carpets for her London house."

I hurriedly sought for a clue in the carpets, but found none.

"Perhaps," he continued, "it was an excuse. Perhaps she shared in common with most of her sex the desire to practice the gentle art of self-deception. It is just possible, that is to say, that Mrs. Farringham gave up the proposed trip through Asia Minor because she was not in her usual health."

He was silent for so long that I drew his attention to the low temperature.

"Then I'll explain," he said with a smile. "It is all quite simple, and depends on one little fact which may or may not \ have escaped your notice. In France they have a peculiar way of doing things. A logical way, I admit, but sometimes peculiar. Consequently things happen in France, and particularly in Paris, which could not possibly happen anywhere else. The Farringham affair is a case in point. I will tell you exactly what happened, and then you shall come inside to hear the debate.

"Well, then, here, as I said before, you have the fact of two ladies arriving one evening in a Paris hotel. There is no question about that: they both arrived, and Mrs. Farringham was given a room on the fourth floor, the actual room which her daughter found untenanted at midnight. Now I will say at once that there was nothing peculiar about this room; it was just an ordinary bedroom in a big hotel. What was peculiar was the fact that while Mrs. Farringham had been in the room at half-past eight, she was not there, nor indeed anywhere in the hotel, at midnight. Consequently, at some period between these two hours she went out, or was taken out."

"But the manager and the porter...."

"I see you will not let me tell the story in my own way," smiled John Chester. "I was going to show you how you might have solved the riddle. No matter. You shall have the plain sequence of things at once. A few minutes after Mrs. Farringham had been shown to her room her daughter had gone up to the fifth floor and she was alone. Ten minutes later the bell in the room rang. The chambermaid appeared, and to her dismay found madame lying motionless on the floor. She rang for the porter, and the porter, hardly less frightened than herself, fetched the manager. The manager called for a doctor. Fortunately there was one in the hotel. The doctor appeared and made his examination. Mrs. Farringham was dead."

"Dead!" I repeated.

"Dead," said John Chester. "Now the death of a lady in a large hotel is an unpleasant event at all times, but in this case there was something so peculiarly unpleasant that the doctor, instead of notifying the police, called up one of the Government offices on the telephone, and was lucky enough to find a high official still at his post.

"What followed you may think extraordinary, and extraordinary it certainly must have been. In less than an hour's time there had arrived at the hotel a small army of men. Some seemed to be visitors, others workmen. If you had watched them at all, you might have come to the conclusion that a large quantity of furniture was being removed. As a matter of fact it was. In particular, an ottoman might have been seen being carried downstairs and placed in a furniture van, which drove rapidly away. If you had waited about the fourth floor, you might further have seen new furniture brought into the room which Mrs. Farringham had occupied, and you might have been puzzled at a peculiar odour until the manager, whom you would have met casually on the stairs, informed you that a clumsy servant had upset a case of drugs destined for the Exhibition.

"At the same time, if you had been allowed into the manager's own sanctum downstairs you would have seen three or four gentlemen talking earnestly to a chambermaid and a porter, and, at a later hour, to a cabman who happened to have taken up his stand outside the hotel. The porter and the chambermaid incidentally received large sums of money, and the cabman, similarly enriched, was bidden to await instructions. Also several lessons in the art of acting had been given."

"I am more bewildered than ever."

"And yet," said John Chester, "two words whispered over the telephone had been sufficient to cause all these curious events to take place!"

Once again he paused. "Mrs. Farringham had been travelling in the East. Doesn't that suggest something to you?"

"You mean——" I was beginning; but he interrupted me.

"Bubonic plague!"

"But I don't see——"

"At headquarters they were obliged to come to a speedy decision. In the interests of the community, my dear fellow, it was decided—the Government, that is to say, decided—that Mrs. Farringham had never arrived in Paris. Further they were not concerned. That was the only vital point."

"But even then——"

"Do you suppose," asked John Chester, "that anybody would have visited Paris if a case of bubonic plague had been reported? Even if there was no more than a rumour that——"

"No, but——"

"It was a case of one against the many. The Government, being Republican, and also patriotic, made its choice for the many. Also, being French, it did not lack the artistic temperament."

"It's ghastly!" I murmured.

"It was Exhibition year," said my host. "But you are quite right," he added; "it is very cold. Let us go in."

I do not remember what question was being debated that evening.

The End

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