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Title: The Empty House
Author: Fred M White
* A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1000331.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: July 2010
Date most recently updated: July 2010

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------------------------------------------------------------------------

Title: The Empty House
Author: Fred M White

*

Published in The Queenslander, 19 June, 1909.

*



Chapter.--I.


"I was sent to you," Mrs. Allardyce explained, "by Lady Moreland, who
tells me that it is part of your business to let houses which are
suffering from an evil reputation. There is 19, Aubrey Gardens, for
instance, the place has now been empty for five years, and I am told
that it ought to fetch at least six hundred a year. With a limited
income like mine the matter is serious."

Mr. Bruce Abbey murmured his sympathy, and intimated that Mrs. Allardyce
could do no better than to give him the details.

"Very well," she said. "The last tenant was a rich young man connected
with the city. He was about to be married, the house was just furnished
when one evening he came back rather earlier than usual, and when he
went to bed, locked the door behind him. The next morning his man could
not make him hear, and burst the door open. To his surprise, the room
was empty, and my tenant has not been seen since. And here comes the
really strange part of the mystery. My tenant's fiancee was discovered
dead in her bed, though there was no suspicion of foul play attaching to
the matter. After this, all sorts of complications arose, and finally we
came to a kind of compromise by leaving the dead man's furniture at No.
19, so that my lawyers might let the house ready furnished. By a strange
coincidence, Mr. Bentley Allen, the actor, and his wife became tenants
of the house--the coincidence being, that they were cousins of my
mysterious tenant. At the end of the week, Mrs. Allen declared that she
would not stay in the house another moment, as she had seen the ghost of
James Hartopp. Unless you can explain all this, I shall never make a
penny out of the place again."

Mrs. Allardyce departed, leaving Abbey to grapple with his facts. In the
course of the day he elicited the information that the missing man was
the son of one George Hartopp, who some years before was head of a
flourishing business in the city. Latterly, the Hartopp connection had
fallen off considerably, so that the young man was hardly justified in
taking a house like 19, Aubrey-gardens. Also, he had been mixed up in
rather a shady set, which tended towards a certain theory which was
shaping itself in Abbey's mind. The first thing was to discover the name
of the lady to whom Hartopp had been engaged. Investigation showed that
she was a certain Selina Snow, only daughter of Mrs. Snow, of
Lexington-crescent, the widow of the notorious Chicago millionaire of
that name. Abbey smiled as he read the letter containing these facts.

"Here, what a slice of luck," he muttered, "Fancy finding Mrs. Snow
again! Evidently she is a cleverer woman than what I took her for. I
think I'll run round and see Mr. Bentley Allen."

The comedian was busy in his flat looking over a new play. He listened
gravely as Abbey stated his business, and professed himself ready to do
anything which would lead to the clearing up of the mystery surrounding
James Hartopp.

"I suppose you want to know all about my wife and her delusion over the
ghost of James Hartopp," he said. "It was on the fifth evening after we
had taken up our abode at Aubrey Gardens, and my wife had gone to her
room to dress for dinner. The bedroom is behind the drawing-room, and I
was in my dressing-room when I heard a fearful scream. I found my wife
terrified and impressed with the belief that she had seen the ghost of
James Hartopp. Of course, it sounded very absurd, but she said that he
was pale and unshaven, and that he was smoking a cigarette. Strange to
say, the place smelt strongly of smoke, and there was a pile of ashes by
the door."

"What do you make of it?" Abbey asked.

"Overwork," Allen said. "We had a very long tour in the South, and my
wife is far from well. I look upon the whole thing as nothing more than
a delusion."

"I don't agree with you," Abbey said, quietly. "I am firmly convinced
that she did see James Hartopp. Now, tell me, what do you suppose Miss
Snow died of--I mean the girl to whom your cousin was engaged?"

"Oh, there was no doubt about that!" Allen exclaimed. "Beyond all
question she was suffering from an old-standing complaint--heart
failure, and all that kind of thing."

"Well, I don't wish to contradict you," Abbey said; "but I am sure that
you are altogether wrong. You may laugh at me, if you like, but it is my
firm conviction that Miss Snow is not dead at all, and I shall be in a
position to prove it to you before many days have passed. This is one of
the strangest cases I have ever handled."

"Well, I wish you luck with it," Allen said. "And now, if I can't tell
you anything else, I shall be glad to be alone again, for I am
exceedingly busy."

Abbey took the hint and departed. By the time he reached his office he
had pretty well worked the matter out. It seemed quite plain. Hartopp
had vanished from his locked bedroom, probably because his creditors
were getting importunate. And Abbey knew a great deal about Miss Selina
Snow and her sudden death. The girl and her mother had come within his
influence in connection with quite another matter, and, this being so,
Abbey saw his way how to act.

It was nearly dark when he left his office and walked in the direction
of Aubrey Gardens. There was no caretaker in No. 19; but Abbey had the
keys in his pocket. With the aid of an acetylene lantern he hoped to
make one or two useful discoveries before long. His first visit was,
naturally, to the bedroom where the ghost had appeared. By the side of
the bed was a small ventilator let into a stained-glassed window some
two feet square. With the aid of a chair. Abbey proceeded to
investigate. The little window looked sheer down into the hall, as the
lane of light in the gulf of darkness clearly showed. Abbey smiled to
himself as he walked on towards the dressing room; he saw that somebody
had dropped some cigarette-ash on the fender. The end of the cigarette
had fallen inside. He picked it up and chuckled.

"Ah," he said. "This is Perique tobacco mixed with Havannah. Corelli and
Co. on the end, Bond-street. Unless I am mistaken, Corelli have only had
a Bond-street branch for a year or so, and this house has been empty
more than twice that time. I wonder if it is possible, that the electric
light has been left connected?"

The light flared out, and yet when Abbey went down in the basement he
found the meter had been cut off. But a bare wire had been attached to
the main close to the back door. A bit of clumsy amateur work, but
enough to show Abbey that the house had been used. A moment later and
Abbey was in Cornell's shop in Bond-street asking questions as to the
cigarette end which he carried in his hand. A very gentlemanly assistant
recognised the brand, but explained that it was never stocked, seeing
that the cigarettes contained opium and were more or less of a sedative.
As a matter of fact, the cigarettes were only made to order, and,
doubtless, the stump that Abbey held in his hand had been one of a lot
recently supplied to a lady who had called only yesterday for a further
supply.

"Would you mind telling me where your customer lives?" Abbey asked,
boldly. "As a matter of fact. I know her and her habits, and that is why
I came here to inquire. I know that my request is somewhat unusual, and
if you object--"

The assistant volunteered the address without hesitation.

Panton-street is quite a respectable thoroughfare, as Abbey well knew--a
street once inhabited by doctors and lawyers and the like, but now given
over to the letting of superior lodgings. A day later, and Abbey was
established on the second floor suite for a more or less indefinite
period, at the outlay of something like twenty-five shillings, payable
in advance. Beyond a pair of blue spectacles, he had no disguise
whatever.

The second day passed and the evening came with no practical results
whatever. It was summer time, and Abbey appeared to have a weakness for
smoking cigarettes in the gardens opposite, what time he wore a pair of
tennis shoes. He was thus engaged on the second evening, when the door
of his temporary lodgings opened and a tall, dark woman emerged. She
pulled a veil over her face, and started as if on some definite errand
up the road.

"My woman for a million!" Abbey murmured. "I felt certain of it. And if
she is not going to 19 Aubrey Gardens, I'll eat my tennis shoes. Nice,
comfortable wear they are for an evening like this, too."

Abbey chuckled as he prepared to follow. It was exactly as he had
expected. The woman in the veil was fairly close to 19 Aubrey Gardens
now. A street hawker selling music of the pirate variety was importuning
the veiled figure to buy. Presently she tossed a coin to the fellow, and
he rammed a few sheets of vilely-printed music into her hand. He turned
away and passed Abbey, whistling as if he had other work to do. Abbey
gave him a quick, suspicious glance as he passed.

"Gustave Markel, the banknote paper thief," Abbey muttered. "I hope the
recognition was not mutual. Ah, there she goes."

Very coolly, the woman in the veil let herself in No. 19 with a
latchkey. The darkness was gathering fast now, and Abbey was conscious
that his heart was quickening. He crossed over to No. 19, and gently
inserted his key in the door. It gave as silently as the grave, and the
next instant Abbey was groping along like a cat in the velvet throat of
darkness.



Chapter.--II.


Bruce Abbey stood there in the midst of the purple shadows. He could
discern very dim outlines here and there, for the shutters were closed,
and there was no gleam of light from without. There was danger here,
too, how great a danger he had not fully realised till he had recognised
the identity of the pseudo vendor of street music. It was four years
since Abbey had come across Gustave Markel, in connection with the
disappearance of certain parcels of banknote paper, and Abbey knew what
a poisonous scoundrel he had to deal with here.

Abbey shut his teeth tightly together, and resolved to see this affair
through personally. There were deeper and more serious matters here than
the mere solution of the mystery of the empty house. The intruder
listened intently for a time, but no sound broke the dumming silence of
his ears. Greatly daring, he produced his acetylene lamp, and flashed a
quick lance of light around. The lambent flame picked out the stairway,
and Abbey took a rapid mental photograph of his bearings. It seemed to
him that he could hear something overhead. Very quietly he crept
upwards. Surely enough somebody was busy in one of the rooms, somebody
else was talking, there was a steady thud like the rattle of a hand
printing-press. But the door of the room was locked as Abbey's nervous
fingers discovered.

How to get those rats to move was the next problem. It would have been
easy to call in the police, but Abbey's first duty was to his client,
and be did not want any scandal if it could be avoided. The little man's
brains were working rapidly. He wanted to disturb those people upstairs,
but he desired to do it by natural means, something in the way of a
plausible accident.

Illumination came at length with the recollection that the locked room
overhead was brilliantly lighted. Abbey had seen that through the
keyhole. Those people upstairs were doing something that required a good
light, hence the way in which the electric wires in the basement had
been manipulated. Why not cut that light off? It only required to remove
a lamp from anywhere in the house, and short circuit the current by the
application of a knife blade to the positive and negative poles in the
lamp socket. This would instantly blow out the fuses and render every
lamp inoperative. There would be nothing here to arouse suspicion.

With the aid of the acetylene lantern. Abbey unshipped a lamp and
applied the blade of his knife to the poles. A second later, and there
came the shuffle of feet overhead, and then footsteps coming down the
stairs. A match scratched, a man's voice quietly swore. Abbey could hear
a woman saying something also.

"Fuses gone," the man muttered.

"I told you they were not strong enough. Anyway, we can soon put that
straight. Wait here till I run round to the nearest ironmonger's and get
some fine copper wire. It is a confounded nuisance, all the same!"

The front door opened and closed quietly, there was pitchy darkness once
more. Quite rigid, Abbey stood by the door of the dining-room; it seemed
to him that he could hear the woman moving about quite close to him. As
he stepped back instinctively, his foot touched a chair that scraped
against the polished surround of the carpet, there was a muttered
exclamation, and a hand touched Abbey on the breast. Instantly he
grasped a supple white wrist, as quickly his arm was about the figure of
the woman.

"I should strongly advise you not to cry out," Abbey said, breathlessly.
"I should have preferred for the present to have remained hidden. But
since you have discovered me--"

"Who are you?" the woman whispered. "Who are you?"

"Who I am is absolutely immaterial--your identity is quite a different
matter. I should advise you not to struggle. I grant you that the
situation is a strange, not to say alarming one, but that is surely
nothing for Miss Selina Snow."

The woman merely gasped, but she was too absolutely astonished to
struggle.

"I know all about you," Abbey went on. "Miss Selina Snow, only daughter
and heiress of the late Ezra Snow of New York. The late Ezra was a
clever man, but he died a little before his time, so that he left
absolutely nothing. But you were too wise to let anybody know that,
otherwise you would not have dragged your mother to England and posed
here as a woman of great wealth. Do I interest you?"

The woman in Abbey's grasp shivered. It was horrible to be there in the
velvet darkness in the grip of this stranger, who seemed to know
everything.

"I do interest you." Abbey resumed. "It was a good time while it lasted,
eh? But even London tradesmen get tired of giving credit. You had to
look about you. You decreed to become the wife of Mr. James Hartopp. You
thought one another rich; when you found out your mistake it was almost
too late. That is why you two hit upon the desperate course of
blackmailing Lord Rentonby, who put the case in the hands of a certain
solicitor. His lordship was young, and having a distinguished political
career before him, he decided to pay. But unhappily for you, the
blackmail game seemed so good that you played it also on Sir Charles
Gavern, who came to the same solicitor. Then to use a vulgarism, all the
fat was in the fire. When Sir Charles discovered what was taking place
he lost his temper, and instead of leaving it to the lawyer he came to
your house and made a scene. He was not satisfied with that, but he must
needs go and call on your lover and confederate, James Hartopp, hence
the disappearance of the latter, hence your unhappy demise."

"Selina Snow was buried, and a proper certificate given," the woman
said, sullenly.

"I do not doubt the certificate," said Abbey. "To my certain knowledge
at least three of your servants were confederates. Long before you had
planned a good and certain way of escape if the police ever wanted you.
Near your house was a doctor whose name has since disappeared from the
'Medical Register.' He was one of the black sheep of a noble profession.
I knew him, and the lawyer who I alluded to just now knew him also. We
saved an innocent young girl's reputation from that scoundrel. And when
I heard that he had given the certificate of Miss Snow's death from
heart failure and that no inquest was necessary, I knew what to think."

"Oh, you are a clever man," the woman said, bitterly. "Go on!"

"Is there any need?" Abbey asked. "I could have opened the eyes of the
police, but really it was no business of mine to do so, seeing that our
clients had got off scot-free. I might have done the same as regards
James Hartopp, but again it was no business of mine."

"Then why are you worrying me now?" the woman asked.

"Oh, now I am acting for a client, the lady who owns this house. She
desires this mystery to be all cleared up, about the ghost that appeared
to Mrs. Allen, and so on. Well, it was easy to guess who the ghost was.
Of course, Hartopp wanted something from the safe in his dressing-room,
and he chose the wrong time to steal into the house. He was smoking a
cigarette at the time, you recollect. Well, that cigarette end
interested me, but not nearly so much as the discovery of the other
cigarette ends made by Corelli and Co., of Bond-street. As Corelli and
Co. have only been in Bond-street for--"

"What a fool I have been!" the woman cried. "I had quite forgotten."

"Of course you had. But you are still wondering. You see, I was the
confidential clerk of Mr. Ashton King, and it was I who interviewed you
for Lord Rentonby. On that occasion you gave me a certain cigarette of
Perique and Havannah tobacco. An soon as I found those stubs
manufactured by Corelli and Co., I saw everything. This house was empty:
it had a bad reputation; Hartopp possessed the key. There was a fine
secret place to carry on any little conspiracy, such as banknote forgery
and the like."

"Ah!" the woman gasped. "You are a fiend! Go on."

"Presently, perhaps. But unless I am greatly mistaken, that is Mr.
Hartopp coming back. Now, I have no sentimental feeling in the case, and
care nothing for your forgery, though I did see Gustave Markel pass you
that bank paper to-night. Do as I ask you, and you are free to leave the
house presently, but understand that I am going to lay Hartopp by the
heels. The production of the pretty rascal is absolutely necessary for
the welfare of my client. Mr. Hartopp is calling you. Please reply."

The woman obeyed without the slightest hesitation. Hartopp wanted a
candle, and he was directed where to find one. A few minutes later and
the light came up once more; a long ray of it shot down the stairs from
the room above. Hartopp ran up nimbly, calling to his confederate to
follow him.

"If I were you," Abbey said, grimly, "I should do nothing of the kind. I
should quietly slide out of the front door and vanish discreetly. Let me
go upstairs."

The woman drew a deep breath as Abbey released the grip on her arm. She
appeared to display no feeling or emotion whatever; she knew quite well
when she was beaten, for her companion in crime she cared nothing. There
was a rustle of drapery, a little puff of cool air, and the front door
opened and closed gently.

"I made no mistake in my judgment of her," Abbey muttered. "Now for my
bird."

Hartopp stood in the centre of a blaze of light examining a sheet of
crisp paper with an air of critical approval.

"I don't think they could be bettered, Selina," he said.

"Really, I don't think they could," Abbey said, coolly. "Miss Selina
Snow has ceased to take an interest in engravings, however valuable,
preferring scenery and travel at present. Now, I am armed, and the
police are not far off. Sit down, James Hartopp, and take it quietly, or
it will be all the worse for you. If you prefer to fight--"

But there was no fight, not an ounce left in the detected criminal. He
listened quietly enough whilst Abbey recited the main heads of his
discoveries, and he ticked them off with frequent raising of his dull
eyes.

"What do you require of me?" he said at length.

"Why, to accompany me to Bow-street." Abbey explained. "Subsequently,
the police can come here and take care of those little efforts of yours.
James Hartopp's sensational story will make fine copy for the papers
to-morrow. Come along. In a few weeks' time from now, Mrs. Allardyce can
pick and choose her own tenants for this house. Curious phase of human
nature, but there it is."

As Abbey had prophesied, the strange case of James Hartopp made a fine
sensation in the cheaper press. Within a few days Abbey was the richer
by a hundred pounds, and Mrs. Allardyce had secured a tenant, in every
way desirable at a rent considerably in excess of any previous amount
paid for that desirable mansion known as No. 19, Aubrey gardens.



The End



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