Project Gutenberg Australia
a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership

Title: The Blood-red Cross
Author: L.T. Meade And Robert Eustace
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0800261.txt
Language:  English
Date first posted: March 2008
Date most recently updated: March 2008

Project Gutenberg Australia eBooks are created from printed editions
which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice
is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular
paper edition.

Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the
copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this

This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions
whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms
of the Project Gutenberg Australia License which may be viewed online at

To contact Project Gutenberg Australia go to


Title: The Blood-red Cross
Author: L.T. Meade And Robert Eustace

(from the Strand magazine November 1902)

In the month of November in the year 1899 I found myself a guest in the
house of one of my oldest friends--George Rowland. His beautiful place in
Yorkshire was an ideal holiday resort. It went by the name of Rowland's
Folly, and had been built on the site of a former dwelling in the reign
of the first George. The house was now replete with every modern luxury.
It, however, very nearly cost its first owner, if not the whole of his
fortune, yet the most precious heirloom of the family. This was a pearl
necklace of almost fabulous value. It had been secured as booty by a
certain Geoffrey Rowland at the time of the Battle of Agincourt, had
originally been the property of one of the Dukes of Genoa, and had even
for a short time been in the keeping of the Pope. From the moment that
Geoffrey Rowland took possession of the necklace there had been several
attempts made to deprive him of it. Sword, fire, water, poison, had all
been used, but ineffectually. The necklace with its eighty pearls,
smooth, symmetrical, pear-shaped, of a translucent white colour and with
a subdued iridescent sheen, was still in the possession of the family,
and was likely to remain there, as George Rowland told me, until the end
of time. Each bride wore the necklace on her wedding-day, after which it
was put into the strong-room and, as a rule, never seen again until the
next bridal occasion. The pearls were roughly estimated as worth from two
to three thousand pounds each, but the historical value of the necklace
put the price almost beyond the dreams of avarice.

It was reported that in the autumn of that same year an American
millionaire had offered to buy it from the family at their own price, but
as no terms would be listened to the negotiations fell through.

George Rowland belonged to the oldest and proudest family in the West
Riding, and no man looked a better gentleman or more fit to uphold
ancient dignities than he. He was proud to boast that from the earliest
days no stain of dishonour had touched his house, that the women of the
family were as good as the men, their blood pure, their morals
irreproachable, their ideas lofty.

I went to Rowland's Folly in November, and found a pleasant, hospitable,
and cheerful hostess in Lady Kennedy, Rowland's only sister. Antonia
Ripley was, however, the centre of all interest. Rowland was engaged to
Antonia, and the history was romantic. Lady Kennedy told me all about it.

"She is a penniless girl without family," remarked the good woman,
somewhat snappishly. "I can't imagine what George was thinking of."

"How did your brother meet her?" I asked.

"We were both in Italy last autumn; we were staying in Naples, at the
Vesuve. An English lady was staying there of the name of Studley. She
died while we were at the hotel. She had under her charge a young girl,
the same Antonia who is now engaged to my brother. Before her death she
begged of us to befriend her, saying that the child was without money and
without friends. All Mrs. Studley's money died with her. We promised, not
being able to do otherwise. George fell in love almost at first sight.
Little Antonia was provided for by becoming engaged to my brother. I have
nothing to say against the girl, but I dislike this sort of match very
much. Besides, she is more foreign than English."

"Cannot Miss Ripley tell you anything about her history?"

"Nothing, except that Mrs. Studley adopted her when she was a tiny child.
She says, also, that she has a dim recollection of a large building
crowded with people, and a man who stretched out his arms to her and was
taken forcibly away. That is all. She is quite a nice child, and amiable,
with touching ways and a pathetic face; but no one knows what her
ancestry was. Ah, there you are, Antonia! What is the matter now?"

The girl tripped across the room. She was like a young fawn; of a smooth,
olive complexion--dark of eye and mysteriously beautiful, with the
graceful step which is seldom granted to an English girl.

"My lace dress has come," she said. "Markham is unpacking it--but the
bodice is made with a low neck."

Lady Kennedy frowned.

"You are too absurd, Antonia," she said. "Why won't you dress like other
girls? I assure you that peculiarity of yours of always wearing your
dress high in the evening annoys George."

"Does it?" she answered, and she stepped back and put her hand to her
neck just below the throat---a constant habit of hers, as I afterwards
had occasion to observe.

"It disturbs him very much," said Lady Kennedy. "He spoke to me about it
only yesterday. Please understand, Antonia, that at the ball you cannot
possibly wear a dress high to your throat. It cannot be permitted."

"I shall be properly dressed on the night of the ball," replied the girl.

Her face grew crimson, then deadly pale.

"It only wants a fortnight to that time, but I shall be ready."

There was a solemnity about her words. She turned and left the room.

"Antonia is a very trying character," said Lady Kennedy. "Why won't she
act like other girls? She makes such a fuss about wearing a proper
evening dress that she tries my patience--but she is all crotchets."

"A sweet little girl for all that," was my answer.

"Yes; men like her."

Soon afterwards, as I was strolling, on the terrace, I met Miss Ripley.
She was sitting in a low chair. I noticed how small, and slim, and young
she looked, and how pathetic was the expression of her little face. When
she saw me she seemed to hesitate; then she came to my side.

"May I walk with you, Mr. Druce?" she asked.

"I am quite at your service," I answered. "Where shall we go?"

"It doesn't matter. I want to know if you will help me."

"Certainly, if I can, Miss Ripley."

"It is most important. I want to go to London."

"Surely that is not very difficult?"

"They won't allow me to go alone, and they are both very busy. I have
just sent a telegram to a friend. I want to see her. I know she will
receive me. I want to go to-morrow. May I venture to ask that you should
be my escort?"

"My dear Miss Ripley, certainly," I said. "I will help you with

"It must be done," she said, in a low voice. "I have put it off too long.
When I marry him he shall not be disappointed."

"I do not understand you," I said, "but I will go with you with the
greatest willingness."

She smiled; and the next day, much to my own amazement, I found myself
travelling first-class up to London, with little Miss Ripley as my
companion. Neither Rowland nor his sister had approved; but Antonia had
her own way, and the fact that I would escort her cleared off some
difficulties. During our journey she bent towards me and said, in a low

"Have you ever heard of that most wonderful, that great woman, Madame
Sara? '

I looked at her intently.

"I have certainly heard of Madame Sara," I said, with emphasis, "but I
sincerely trust that you have nothing to do with her."

"I have known her almost all my life," said the girl. "Mrs. Studley knew
her also. I love her very much. I trust her. I am going to see her now."

"What do you mean?"

"It was to her I wired yesterday. She will receive me; she will help me.
I am returning to the Folly to-night. Will you add to your kindness by
escorting me home?"


At Euston I put my charge into a hansom, arranging to meet her on the
departure platform at twenty minutes to six that evening, and then taking
another hansom drove as fast as I could to Vandeleur's address. During
the latter part of my journey to town a sudden, almost unaccountable,
desire to consult Vandeleur had taken possession of me. I was lucky
enough to find this busiest of men at home and at leisure. He gave an
exclamation of delight when my name was announced, and then came towards
me with outstretched hand.

"I was just about to wire to you, Druce," he said. "From where have you

"From no less a place than Rowland's Folly," was my answer.

"More and more amazing. Then you have met Miss Ripley, George Rowland's

"You have heard of the engagement, Vandeleur?"

"Who has not? What sort is the young lady?"

"I can tell you all you want to know, for I have travelled up to town
with her."


He was silent for a minute, evidently thinking hard; then drawing a chair
near mine he seated himself.

"How long have you been at Rowland's Folly?" he asked.

"Nearly a week. I am to remain until after the wedding. I consider
Rowland a lucky man. He is marrying a sweet little girl."

"You think so? By the way, have you ever noticed any peculiarity about

"Only that she is singularly amiable and attractive."

"But any habit--pray think carefully before you answer me."

"Really, Vandeleur, your questions surprise me. Little Miss Ripley is a
person with ideas and is not ashamed to stick to her principles. You
know, of course, that in a house like Rowland's Folly it is the custom
for the ladies to come to dinner in full dress. Now, Miss Ripley won't
accommodate herself to this fashion, but will wear her dress high to the
throat, however gay and festive the occasion."

"Ah! there doesn't seem to be much to that, does there?"

"I don't quite agree with you. Pressure has been brought to bear on the
girl to make her conform to the usual regulations, and Lady Kennedy, a
woman old enough to be her mother, is quite disagreeable on the point."

"But the girl sticks to her determination?"

"Absolutely, although she promises to yield and to wear the conventional
dress at the ball given in her honour a week before the wedding."

Vandeleur was silent for nearly a minute; then dropping his voice he
said, slowly:--

"Did Miss Ripley ever mention in your presence the name of our mutual
foe--Madame Sara?"

"How strange that you should ask! On our journey to town to-day she told
me that she knew the woman--she has known her for the greater part of her
life--poor child, she even loves her. Vandeleur, that young girl is with
Madame Sara now."

"Don't be alarmed, Druce; there is no immediate danger; but I may as well
tell you that through my secret agents I have made discoveries which show
that Madame has another iron in the fire, that once again she is
preparing to convulse Society, and that little Miss Ripley is the

"You must be mistaken."

"So sure am I, that I want your help. You are returning to Rowland's


"And Miss Ripley?"

"She goes with me. We meet at Euston for the six o'clock train."

"So far, good. By the way, has Rowland spoken to you lately about the
pearl necklace?"

"No; why do you ask?"

"Because I understand that it was his intention to have the pearls
slightly altered and reset in order to fit Miss Ripley's slender throat;
also to have a diamond clasp affixed in place of the somewhat insecure
one at present attached to the string of pearls. Messrs. Theodore and
Mark, of Bond Street, were to undertake the commission. All was in
preparation, and a messenger, accompanied by two detectives, was to go to
Rowland's Folly to fetch the treasure, when the whole thing was
countermanded, Rowland having changed his mind and having decided that
the strong-room at the Folly was the best place in which to keep the

"He has not mentioned the subject to me," I said. "How do you know?"

"I have my emissaries. One thing is certain--little Miss Ripley is to
wear the pearls on her wedding-day--and the Italian family, distant
relatives of the present Duke of Genoa, to whom the pearls belonged, and
from whom they were stolen shortly before the Battle of Agincourt, are
again taking active steps to secure them. You have heard the story of the
American millionaire? Well, that was a blind--the necklace was in reality
to be delivered into the hands of the old family as soon as he had
purchased it. Now, Druce, this is the state of things: Madame Sara is an
adventuress, and the cleverest woman in the world--Miss Ripley is very
young and ignorant. Miss Ripley is to wear the pearls on her
wedding-day--and Madame wants them. You can infer the rest."

"What do you want me to do?" I asked.

"Go back and watch. If you see anything, to arouse suspicion, wire to

"What about telling Rowland?"

"I would rather not consult him. I want to protect Miss Ripley, and at
the same time to get Madame into my power. She managed to elude us last
time, but she shall not this. My idea is to inveigle her to her ruin.
Why, Druce, the woman is being more trusted and run after and admired day
by day. She appeals to the greatest foibles of the world. She knows some
valuable secrets, and is an adept in the art of restoring beauty and to a
certain extent conquering the ravages of time. She is at present aided by
an Arab, one of the most dangerous men I have ever seen, with the
subtlety of a serpent, and legerdemain in every one of his ten fingers.
It is not an easy thing to entrap her."

"And yet you mean to do it?"

"Some day---some day. Perhaps now."

His eyes were bright. I had seldom seen him look more excited.

After a short time I left him. Miss Ripley met me at Euston. She was
silent and unresponsive and looked depressed. Once I saw her put her hand
to her neck.

"Are you in pain?" I asked.

"You might be a doctor, Mr. Druce, from your question."

"But answer me," I said.

She was silent for a minute; then she said, slowly:--

"You are good, and I think I ought to tell you. But will you regard it as
a secret? You wonder, perhaps, how it is that I don't wear a low dress in
the evening. I will tell you why. On my neck, just below the throat,
there grew a wart or mole--large, brown, and ugly. The Italian doctors
would not remove it on account of the position. It lies just over what
they said was an aberrant artery, and the removal might cause very
dangerous haemorrhage. One day Madame saw it; she said the doctors were
wrong, and that she could easily take it away and leave no mark behind. I
hesitated for a long time, but yesterday, when Lady Kennedy spoke to me
as she did, I made up my mind. I wired to Madame and went to her to-day.
She gave me chloroform and removed the mole. My neck is bandaged up and
it smarts a little. I am not to remove the bandage until she sees me
again. She is very pleased with the result, and says that my neck will
now be beautiful like other women's, and that I can on the night of the
ball wear the lovely Brussels lace dress that Lady Kennedy has given me.
That is my secret. Will you respect it?"

I promised, and soon afterwards we reached the end of our journey.

A few days went by. One morning at breakfast I noticed that the little
signora only played with her food. An open letter lay by her plate.
Rowland, by whose side she always sat, turned to her.

"What is the matter, Antonia?" he said. "Have you had an unpleasant

"It is from----"

"From whom, dear?"

"Madame Sara."

"What did I hear you say?" cried Lady Kennedy.

"I have had a letter from Madame Sara, Lady Kennedy."

"That shocking woman in the Strand--that adventuress. My dear, is it
possible that you know her? Her name is in the mouth of everyone. She is
quite notorious."

Instantly the room became full of voices, some talking loudly, some
gently, but all praising Madame Sara. Even the men took her part; as to
the women, they were unanimous about her charms and her genius.

In the midst of the commotion little Antonia burst into a flood of tears
and left the room. Rowland followed her. What next occurred I cannot
tell, but in the course of the morning I met Lady Kennedy.

"Well," she said, " that child has won, as I knew she would. Madame Sara
wishes to come here, and George says that Antonia's friend is to be
invited. I shall be glad when the marriage is over and I can get out of
this. It is really detestable that in the last days of my reign I should
have to give that woman the entrée to the house."

She left me, and I wandered into the entrance hall. There I saw Rowland.
He had a telegraph form in his hands, on which some words were written.

"Ah, Druce!" he said. "I am just sending a telegram to the station. What!
do you want to send one too?"

For I had seated myself by the table which held the telegraph forms.

"If you don't think I am taking too great a liberty, Rowland," I said,
suddenly, "I should like to ask a friend of mine here for a day or two."

"Twenty friends, if you like, my dear Druce. What a man you are to
apologize about such a trifle! Who is the special friend?"

"No less a person than Eric Vandeleur, the police-surgeon for

"What! Vandeleur--the gayest, jolliest man I have ever met! Would he care
to come?"

Rowland's eyes were sparkling with excitement.

"I think so; more especially if you will give me leave to say that you
would welcome him."

"Tell him he shall have a thousand welcomes, the best room in the house,
the best horse. Get him to come by all means, Druce."

Our two telegrams were sent off. In the course of the morning replies in
the affirmative came to each.

That evening Madame Sara arrived. She came by the last train. The
brougham was sent to meet her. She entered the house shortly before
midnight. I was standing in the hall when she arrived, and I felt a
momentary sense of pleasure when I saw her start as her eyes met mine.
But she was not a woman to be caught off her guard. She approached me at
once with outstretched hand and an eager voice.

"This is charming, Mr. Druce," she said. "I do not think anything pleases
me more." Then she added, turning to Rowland, "Mr. Dixon Druce is a very
old friend of mine."

Rowland gave me a bewildered glance. Madame turned and began to talk to
her hostess. Antonia was standing near one of the open drawing-rooms. She
had on a soft dress of pale green silk. I had seldom seen a more graceful
little creature. But the expression of her face disturbed me. It wore now
the fascinated look of a bird when a snake attracts it. Could Madame Sara
be the snake? Was Antonia afraid of this woman?

The next day Lady Kennedy came to me with a confidence.

"I am glad your police friend is coming," she said. "It will be safer."

"Vandeleur arrives at twelve o'clock," was my answer.

"Well, I am pleased. I like that woman less and less. I was amazed when
she dared to call you her friend."

"Oh, we have met before on business," I answered, guardedly.

"You won't tell me anything further, Mr. Druce?"

"You must excuse me, Lady Kennedy."

"Her assurance is unbounded," continued the good lady. "She has brought a
maid or nurse with her--a most extraordinary-looking woman. That,
perhaps, is allowable; but she has also brought her black servant, an
Arabian, who goes by the name of Achmed. I must say he is a picturesque
creature with his quaint Oriental dress. He was all in flaming yellow
this morning, and the embroidery on his jacket was worth a small fortune.
But it is the daring of the woman that annoys me. She goes on as though
she were somebody."

"She is a very emphatic somebody," I could not help replying. "London
Society is at her feet."

"I only hope that Antonia will take her remedies and let her go. The
woman has no welcome from me," said the indignant mistress of Rowland's

I did not see anything of Antonia that morning, and at the appointed time
I went down to the station to meet Vandeleur. He arrived in high spirits,
did not ask a question with regard to Antonia, received the information
that Madame Sara was in the house with stolid silence, and seemed intent
on the pleasures of the moment.

"Rowland's Folly!" he said, looking round him as we approached one of the
finest houses in the whole of Yorkshire. "A folly truly, and yet a
pleasant one, Druce, eh? I fancy," he added, with a slight smile, "that I
am going to have a good time here."

"I hope you will disentangle a most tangled skein," was my reply.

He shrugged his shoulders. Suddenly his manner altered.

"Who is that woman?" he said, with a strain of anxiety quite apparent in
his voice.

"Who?" I asked.

"That woman on the terrace in nurse's dress."

"I don't know. She has been brought here by Madame Sara--a sort of maid
and nurse as well. I suppose poor little Antonia will be put under her

"Don't let her see me, Druce, that's all. Ah, here is our host."

Vandeleur quickened his movements, and the next instant was shaking hands
with Rowland.

The rest of the day passed without adventure. I did not see Antonia. She
did not even appear at dinner. Rowland, however, assured me that she was
taking necessary rest and would be all right on the morrow. He seemed
inclined to be gracious to Madame Sara, and was annoyed at his sister's
manner to their guest.

Soon after dinner, as I was standing in one of the smoking-rooms, I felt
a light hand on my arm, and, turning, encountered the splendid pose and
audacious, bright, defiant glance of Madame herself.

"Mr. Druce," she said, "just one moment. It is quite right that you and I
should be plain with each other. I know the reason why you are here. You
have come for the express purpose of spying upon me and spoiling what you
consider my game. But understand, Mr. Druce, that there is danger to
yourself when you interfere with the schemes of one like me. Forewarned
is forearmed."

Someone came into the room and Madame left it.

The ball was but a week off, and preparations for the great event were
taking place. Attached to the house at the left was a great room built
for this purpose.

Rowland and I were walking down this room on a special morning; he was
commenting on its architectural merits and telling me what band he
intended to have in the musicians' gallery, when Antonia glided into the

"How pale you are, little Tonia!" he said.

This was his favourite name for her. He put his hand under her chin,
raised her sweet, blushing face, and looked into her eyes.

"Ah, you want my answer. What a persistent little puss it is! You shall
have your way, Tonia --yes, certainly. For you I will grant what has
never been granted before. All the same, what will my lady say?"

He shrugged his shoulders.

"But you will let me wear them whether she is angry or not?" persisted

"Yes, child, I have said it." She took his hand and raised it to her
lips, then, with a curtsy, tripped out of the room.

"A rare, bright little bird," he said, turning to me. "Do you know, I
feel that I have done an extraordinarily good thing for myself in
securing little Antonia. No troublesome mamma in-law--no brothers and
sisters, not my own and yet emphatically mine to consider--just the child
herself. I am very happy and a very lucky fellow. I am glad my little
girl has no past history. She is just her dear little, dainty self, no
more and no less."

"What did she want with you now?" I asked.

"Little witch," he said, with a laugh. "The pearls--the pearls. She
insists on wearing the great necklace on the night of the ball. Dear
little girl. I can fancy how the baubles will gleam and shine on her fair

I made no answer, but I was certain that little Antonia's request did not
emanate from herself. I thought that I would search for Vandeleur and
tell him of the circumstance, but the next remark of Rowland's nipped my
project in the bud.

"By the way, your friend has promised to be back for dinner. He left here
early this morning."

"Vandeleur?" I cried.

"Yes, he has gone to town. What a first-rate fellow he is!"

"He tells a good story," I answered.

"Capital. Who would suspect him of being the greatest criminal expert of
the day? But, thank goodness, we have no need of his services at
Rowland's Folly."

Late in the evening Vandeleur returned. He entered the house just before
dinner. I observed by the brightness of his eyes and the intense gravity
of his manner that he was satisfied with himself. This in his case was
always a good sign. At dinner he was his brightest self, courteous to
everyone, and to Madame Sara in particular.

Late that night, as I was preparing to go to bed, he entered my room
without knocking.

"Well, Druce," he said, "it is all right."

"All right!" I cried; "what do you mean?"

"You will soon know. The moment I saw that woman I had my suspicions. I
was in town to-day making some very interesting inquiries. I am primed
now on every point. Expect a dénouement of a startling character very
soon, but be sure of one thing--however black appearances may be the
little bride is safe, and so are the pearls."

He left me without waiting for my reply.

The next day passed, and the next. I seemed to live on tenter-hooks.
Little Antonia was gay and bright like a bird. Madame's invitation had
been extended by Lady Kennedy at Rowland's command to the day after the
ball--little Antonia skipped when she heard it.

"I love her," said the girl.

More and more guests arrived---the days flew on wings--the evenings were
lively. Madame was a power in herself. Vandeleur was another. These two,
sworn foes at heart, aided and abetted each other to make things go
brilliantly for the rest of the guests. Rowland was in the highest

At last the evening before the ball came and went. Vandeleur's grand coup
had not come off. I retired to bed as usual. The night was a stormy
one--rain rattled against the window-panes, the wind sighed and
shuddered. I had just put out my candle and was about to seek
forgetfulness in sleep when once again in his unceremonious fashion
Vandeleur burst into my room.

"I want you at once, Druce, in the bed-room of Madame Sara's servant. Get
into your clothes as fast as you possibly can and join me there."

He left the room as abruptly as he had entered it. I hastily dressed, and
with stealthy steps, in the dead of night, to the accompaniment of the
ever-increasing tempest, sought the room in question.

I found it brightly lighted; Vandeleur pacing the floor as though he
himself were the very spirit of the storm; and, most astonishing sight of
all, the nurse whom Madame Sara had brought to Rowland's Folly, and whose
name I had never happened to hear, gagged and bound in a chair drawn into
the centre of the room.

"So I think that is all, nurse," said Vandeleur, as I entered. "Pray take
a chair, Druce. We quite understand each other, don't we, nurse, and the
facts are wonderfully simple. Your name as entered in the archives of
crime at Westminster is not as you have given out, Mary Jessop, but
Rebecca Curt. You escaped from Portland prison on the night of November
30th, just a year ago. You could not have managed your escape but for the
connivance of the lady in whose service you are now. Your crime was
forgery, with a strong and very daring attempt at poisoning. Your victim
was a harmless invalid lady. Your knowledge of crime, therefore, is what
may be called extensive. There are yet eleven years of your sentence to
run. You have doubtless served Madame Sara well--but perhaps you can
serve me better. You know the consequence if you refuse, for I explained
that to you frankly and clearly before this gentleman came into the room.
Druce, will you oblige me--will you lock the door while I remove the gag
from the prisoner's mouth?"

I hurried to obey. The woman breathed more freely when the gag was
removed. Her face was a swarthy red all over. Her crooked eyes favoured
us with many shifty glances.

"Now, then, have the goodness to begin, Rebecca Curt," said Vandeleur.
"Tell us everything you can."

She swallowed hard, and said:--

"You have forced me----"

"We won't mind that part," interrupted Vandeleur. "The story, please,
Mrs. Curt."

If looks could kill, Rebecca Curt would have killed Vandeleur then. He
gave her in return a gentle, bland glance, and she started on her

"Madame knows a secret about Antonia Ripley."

"Of what nature?"

"It concerns her parentage."

"And that is?"

The woman hesitated and writhed.

"The names of her parents, please," said Vandeleur, in a voice cold as
ice and hard as iron.

"Her father was Italian by birth."

"His name?"

"Count Gioletti. He was unhappily married, and stabbed his English wife
in an access of jealousy when Antonia was three years old. He vas
executed for the crime on the 20th of June, 18--. The child was adopted
and taken out of the country by an English lady who was present in
court--her name was Mrs. Studley. Madame Sara was also present. She was
much interested in the trial, and had an interview afterwards with Mrs.
Studley. It was arranged that Antonia should be called by the surname of
Ripley--the name of an old relative of Mrs. Studley's--and that her real
name and history were never to be told to her."

"I understand," said Vandeleur, gently. "This is of deep interest, is it
not, Druce?"

I nodded, too much absorbed in watching the face of the woman to have
time for words.

"But now," continued Vandeleur, "there are reasons why Madame should
change her mind with regard to keeping the matter a close secret---is
that not so, Mrs. Curt?"

"Yes," said Mrs. Curt.

"You will have the kindness to continue."

"Madame has an object--she blackmails the signora. She wants to get the
signora completely into her power."

"Indeed! Is she succeeding?"


"How has she managed? Be very careful what you say, please."

"The mode is subtle--the young lady had a disfiguring mole or wart on her
neck, just below the throat. Madame removed the mole."

"Quite a simple process, I doubt not," said Vandeleur, in a careless

"Yes, it was done easily--I was present. The young lady was conducted
into a chamber with a red light."

Vandeleur's extraordinary eyes suddenly leapt into fire. He took a chair
and drew it so close to Mrs. Curt's that his face was within a foot or
two of hers.

"Now, you will be very careful what you say," he remarked. "You know the
consequence to yourself unless this narrative is absolutely reliable."

She began to tremble, but continued:--

"I was present at the operation. Not a single ray of ordinary light was
allowed to penetrate. The patient was put under chloroform. The mole was
removed. Afterwards Madame wrote something on her neck. The words were
very small and neatly done--they formed a cross on the young lady's neck.
Afterwards I heard what they were."

"Repeat them."

"I can't. You will know in the moment of victory."

"I choose to know now! A detective from my division at Westminster comes
here early to-morrow morning--he brings hand-cuffs--and----"

"I will tell you,' interrupted the woman. "The words were these:--

MY MOTHER, JUNE 20TH, 18--.'"

"How were the words written?"

"With nitrate of silver."

"Fiend!" muttered Vandeleur.

He jumped up and began to pace the room. I had never seen his face so
black with ungovernable rage.

"You know what this means?" he said at last to me. "Nitrate of silver
eats into the flesh and is permanent. Once exposed to the light the case
is hopeless, and the helpless child becomes her own executioner."

The nurse looked up restlessly.

"The operation was performed in a room with a red light," she said, "and
up to the present the words have not been seen. Unless the young lady
exposes her neck to the blue rays of ordinary light they never will be.
In order to give her a chance to keep her deadly secret Madame has had a
large carbuncle on the deepest red cut and prepared. It is in the shape
of a cross, and is suspended to a fine gold, almost invisible, thread.
This the signora is to wear when in full evening dress. It will keep in
its place, for the back of the cross will be dusted with gum."

"But it cannot be Madame's aim to hide the fateful words," said
Vandeleur. "You are concealing something, nurse."

Her face grew an ugly red. After a pause the following words came out
with great reluctance:--

"The young lady wears the carbuncle as a reward."

"Ah," said Vandeleur, "now we are beginning to see daylight. As a reward
for what?"

"Madame wants something which the signora can give her. It is a case of
exchange; the carbuncle which hides the fatal secret is given in exchange
for that which the signora can transfer to Madame."

"I understand at last," said Vandeleur. "Really, Druce, I feel myself
privileged to say that of all the malevolent----" he broke off abruptly.
"Never mind," he said, "we are keeping nurse. Nurse, you have answered
all my questions with praiseworthy exactitude, but before you return to
your well-earned slumbers I have one more piece of information to seek
from you. Was it entirely by Miss Ripley's desire, or was it in any
respect owing to Madame Sara's instigations, that the young lady is
permitted to wear the pearl necklace on the night of the dance? You have,
of course, nurse, heard of the pearl necklace?"

Rebecca Curt's face showed that she undoubtedly had.

"I see you are acquainted with that most interesting story. Now, answer
my question. The request to wear the necklace to-morrow night was
suggested by Madame, was it not?"

"Ah, yes--yes!" cried the woman, carried out of herself by sudden
excitement. "It was to that point all else tended--all, all!"

"Thank you, that will do. You understand that from this day you are
absolutely in my service. As long as you serve me faithfully you are

"I will do my best, sir," she replied, in a modest tone, her eyes seeking
the ground.

The moment we were alone Vandeleur turned to me.

"Things are simplifying themselves," he said.

"I fail to understand," was my answer. "I should say that complications,
and alarming ones, abound."

"Nevertheless, I see my way clear. Druce, it is not good for you to be so
long out of bed, but in order that you may repose soundly when you return
to your room I will tell you frankly what my mode of operations will be
to-morrow. The simplest plan would be to tell Rowland everything, but for
various reasons that does not suit me. I take an interest in the little
girl, and if she chooses to conceal her secret (at present, remember, she
does not know it, but the poor child will certainly be told everything
to-morrow) I don't intend to interfere. In the second place, I am anxious
to lay a trap for Madame. Now, two things are evident. Madame Sara's
object in coming here is to steal the pearls. Her plan is to terrify the
little signora into giving them to her in order that the fiendish words
written on the child's neck may not be seen. As the signora must wear a
dress with a low neck to-morrow night, she can only hide the words by
means of the red carbuncle. Madame will only give her the carbuncle if
she, in exchange, gives Madame the pearls. You see?"

"I do," I answered, slowly.

He drew himself up to his slender height, and his eyes became full of
suppressed laughter.

"The child's neck has been injured with nitrate of silver. Nevertheless,
until it is exposed to the blue rays of light the ominous, fiendish words
will not appear on her white throat. Once they do appear they will be
indelible. Now, listen! Madame, with all her cunning, forgot something.
To the action of nitrate of silver there is an antidote. This is nothing
more or less than our old friend cyanide of potassium. To-morrow nurse,
under my instructions, will take the little patient into a room carefully
prepared with the hateful red light, and will bathe the neck just where
the baleful words are written with a solution of cyanide of potassium.
The nitrate of silver will then become neutralized and the letters will
never come out."

"But the child will not know that. The terror of Madame's cruel story
will be upon her, and she will exchange the pearls for the cross."

"I think not, for I shall be there to prevent it. Now, Druce, I have told
you all that is necessary. Go to bed and sleep comfortably."

The next morning dawned dull and sullen, but the fierce storm of the
night before was over. The ravages which had taken place, however, in the
stately old park were very manifest, for trees had been torn up by their
roots and some of the stateliest and largest of the oaks had been
deprived of their best branches.

Little Miss Ripley did not appear at all that day. I was not surprised at
her absence. The time had come when doubtless Madame found it necessary
to divulge her awful scheme to the unhappy child. In the midst of that
gay houseful of people no one specially missed her; even Rowland was
engaged with many necessary matters, and had little time to devote to his
future wife. The ballroom, decorated with real flowers, was a beautiful

Vandeleur, our host, and I paced up and down the long room. Rowland was
in great excitement, making many suggestions, altering this decoration
and the other. The flowers were too profuse in one place, too scanty in
another. The lights, too, were not bright enough.

"By all means have the ballroom well lighted," said Vandeleur. "In a room
like this, so large, and with so many doors leading into passages and
sitting-out rooms, it is well to have the light as brilliant as possible.
You will forgive my suggestion, Mr. Rowland, when I say I speak entirely
from the point of view of a man who has some acquaintance with the
treacherous dealings of crime."

Rowland started.

"Are you afraid that an attempt will be made here to-night to steal the
necklace?" he asked, suddenly.

"We won't talk of it," replied Vandeleur. "Act on my suggestion and you
have nothing to fear."

Rowland shrugged his shoulders, and crossing the room gave some
directions to several men who were putting in the final touches.

Nearly a hundred guests were expected to arrive from the surrounding
country, and the house was as full as it could possibly hold. Rowland was
to open the ball with little Antonia.

There was no late dinner that day, and as evening approached Vandeleur
sought me.

"I say, Druce, dress as early as you can, and come down and meet me in
our host's study."

I looked at him in astonishment, but did not question him. I saw that he
was intensely excited. His face was cold and stern; it invariably wore
that expression when he was most moved.

I hurried into my evening clothes and came down again. Vandeleur was
standing in the study talking to Rowland. The guests were beginning to
arrive. The musicians were tuning-up in the adjacent ballroom, and signs
of hurry and festival pervaded the entire place. Rowland was in high
spirits and looked very handsome. He and Vandeleur talked together, and I
stood a little apart. Vandeleur was just about to make a light reply to
one of our host's questions when we heard the swish of drapery in the
passage outside, and little Antonia, dressed for her first ball, entered.
She was in soft white lace, and her neck and arms were bare. The effect
of her entrance was somewhat startling and would have arrested attention
even were we not all specially interested in her. Her face, neck, and
arms were nearly as white as her dress, her dark eyes were much dilated,
and her soft black hair surrounded her small face like a shadow. In the
midst of the whiteness a large red cross sparkled on her throat like
living fire. Rowland uttered an exclamation and then stood still; as for
Vandeleur and myself, we held our breath in suspense. What might not the
next few minutes reveal?

It was the look on Antonia's face that aroused our fears. What ailed her?
She came forward like one blind, or as one who walks in her sleep. One
hand was held out slightly in advance, as though she meant to guide
herself by the sense of touch. She certainly saw neither Vandeleur nor
me, but when she got close to Rowland the blind expression left her eyes.
She gave a sudden and exceedingly bitter cry, and ran forward, flinging
herself into his arms.

"Kiss me once before we part for ever. Kiss me just once before we part,"
she said.

"My dear little one," I heard him answer, "what is the meaning of this?
You are not well. There, Antonia, cease trembling. Before we part, my
dear? But there is no thought of parting. Let me look at you, darling.

He held her at arm's length and gazed at her critically.

"No girl could look sweeter, Antonia," he said, "and you have come now
for the finishing touch---the beautiful pearls. But what is this, my
dear? Why should you spoil your white neck with anything so incongruous?
Let me remove it."

She put up her hand to her neck, thus covering the crimson cross. Then
her wild eyes met Vandeleur's. She seemed to recognise his presence for
the first time.

"You can safely remove it," he said to her, speaking in a semi-whisper.

Rowland gave him an astonished glance. His look seemed to say, "Leave
us," but Vandeleur did not move.

"We must see this thing out," he said to me.

Meanwhile Rowland's arm encircled Antonia's neck, and his hand sought for
the clasp of the narrow gold thread that held the cross in place.

"One moment," said Antonia.

She stepped back a pace; the trembling in her voice left it, it gathered
strength, her fear gave way to dignity. This was the hour of her deepest
humiliation, and yet she looked noble.

"My dearest," she said, "my kindest and best of friends. I had yielded to
temptation, terror made me weak, the dread of losing you unnerved me, but
I won't come to you charged with a sin on my conscience; I won't conceal
anything from you. I know you won't wish me now to become your wife
nevertheless, you shall know the truth."

"What do you mean, Antonia? What do your strange words signify? Are you
mad?" said George Rowland.

"No, I wish I were; but I am no mate for you; I cannot bring dishonour to
your honour. Madame said it could be hidden that this"--she touched the
cross--"would hide it. For this I was to pay--yes, to pay a shameful
price. I consented, for the terror was so cruel. But I--I came here and
looked into your face and I could not do it. Madame shall have her
blood-red cross back and you shall know all. You shall see." With a
fierce gesture she tore the cross from her neck and flung it on the

"The pearls for this," she cried; "the pearls were the price; but I would
rather you knew. Take me up to the brightest light and you will see for

Rowland's face wore an expression impossible to fathom. The red cross lay
on the floor; Antonia's eyes were fixed on his. She was no child to be
humoured; she was a woman and despair was driving her wild. When she
said, "Take me up to the brightest light," he took her hand without a
word and led her to where the full rays of a powerful electric light
turned the place into day.

"Look!" cried Antonia, "look! Madame wrote it here--here."

She pointed to her throat.

"The words are hidden, but this light will soon cause them to appear. You
will see for yourself, you will know the truth. At last you will
understand who I really am."

There was silence for a few minutes. Antonia kept pointing to her neck.
Rowland's eyes were fixed upon it. After a breathless period of agony
Vandeleur stepped forward.

"Miss Antonia," he cried, "you have suffered enough. I am in a position
to relieve your terrors. You little guessed, Rowland, that for the last
few days I have taken an extreme liberty with regard to you. I have been
in your house simply and solely in the exercise of my professional
qualities. In the exercise of my manifest duties I came across a ghastly
secret. Miss Antonia was to be subjected to a cruel ordeal. Madame Sara,
for reasons of her own, had invented one of the most fiendish plots it
has ever been my unhappy lot to come across. But I have been in time.
Miss Antonia, you need fear nothing. Your neck contains no ghastly
secret. Listen! I have saved you. The nurse whom Madame believed to be
devoted to her service considered it best for prudential reasons to
transfer herself to me. Under my directions she bathed your neck to-day
with a preparation of cyanide of potassium. You do not know what that is,
but it is a chemical preparation which neutralizes the effect of what
that horrible woman has done. You have nothing to fear--your secret lies
buried beneath your white skin."

"But what is the mystery?" said Rowland. "Your actions, Antonia, and your
words, Vandeleur, are enough to drive a man mad. What is it all about? I
will know." "Miss Ripley can tell you or not, as she pleases," replied
Vandeleur. "The unhappy child was to be blackmailed, Madame Sara's object
being to secure the pearl necklace worth a King's ransom. The cross was
to be given in exchange for the necklace. That was her aim, but she is
defeated. Ask me no questions, sir. If this young lady chooses to tell
you, well and good, but if not the secret is her own."

Vandeleur bowed and backed towards me.

"The secret is mine," cried Antonia, "but it also shall be yours, George.
I will not be your wife with this ghastly thing between us. You may never
speak to me again, but you shall know all the truth."

"Upon my word, a brave girl, and I respect her," whispered Vandeleur.
"Come, Druce, our work so far as Miss Antonia is concerned is finished."

We left the room.

"Now to see Madame Sara," continued my friend. "We will go to her rooms.
Walls have ears in her case; she doubtless knows the whole dénouement
already; but we will find her at once, she can scarcely have escaped

He flew upstairs. I followed him. We went from one corridor to another.
At last we found Madame's apartments. Her bedroom door stood wide open.
Rebecca Curt was standing in the middle of the room. Madame herself was
nowhere to be seen, but there was every sign of hurried departure.

"Where is Madame Sara?" inquired Vandeleur, in a peremptory voice.

Rebecca Curt shrugged her shoulders.

"Has she gone down? Is she in the ballroom? Speak!" said Vandeleur.

The nurse gave another shrug.

"I only know that Achmed the Arabian rushed in here a few minutes ago,"
was her answer. "He was excited. He said something to Madame. I think he
had been listening--eavesdropping, you call it. Madame was convulsed with
rage. She thrust a few things together and she's gone. Perhaps you can
catch her."

Vandeleur's face turned white.

"I'll have a try," he said. "Don't keep me, Druce."

He rushed away. I don't know what immediate steps he took, but he did not
return to Rowland's Folly. Neither was Madame Sara captured.

But notwithstanding her escape and her meditated crime, notwithstanding
little Antonia's hour of terror, the ball went on merrily, and the
bride-elect opened it with her future husband. On her fair neck gleamed
the pearls, lovely in their soft lustre. What she told Rowland was never
known; how he took the news is a secret between Antonia and himself. But
one thing is certain: no one was more gallant in his conduct, more ardent
in his glances of love, than was the master of Rowland's Folly that
night. They were married on the day fixed, and Madame Sara was defeated.


This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia