a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
Title: The Man Called Gilray Author: Fred M White * A Project Gutenberg Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1000491h.html Language: English Date first posted: September 2010 Date most recently updated: September 2010 This eBook was produced by: Maurie Mulcahy 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 file. 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 http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
MURDER. £500. MURDER.
The above REWARD is offered to any person or persons for such information as will lead to the arrest of Some PERSON unknown believed to be a sailor or shipping hand and directly or indirectly concerned on Wednesday, the 6th inst., with the
of John Gilray. No definite description of the missing man can be given at present. All information may be rendered at any police station in the district.
For the last three weeks the placard had been staring the whole of London in the face. It was a brief document, epitomising one of these extraordinary crimes which from time to time stir England from one end to the other. It had first come to the attention of the public through the medium of the 'Southern Daily Herald,' a popular paper which was published in London by the same firm which are responsible for the 'Southern Weekly Herald.' The latter is a sort of weekly magazine, and enjoys a large circulations throughout the whole of the South of England. Now it so happened that the chief sub-editor on the staff of the Daily was also editor of the Weekly. Philip Temple was a journalist of the smart type, and never lost an opportunity of keeping up his reputation. He also made it a point of being on exceedingly good terms with the police, and by this means he had pulled off many a coup for his proprietors. Therefore it was that about two o'clock on the morning of the murder, he received an urgent telephone message from Inspector Sparrow asking him to go down to the Police Station at once.
"Anything very special?" he asked.
"It looks very much like it," Inspector Sparrow replied. "At any rate, the crime has features out of the common. I should say that it is likely to make a big sensation. I haven't been round to Ponder-avenue myself yet, because I have only just this minute heard what has happened from the sergeant on the beat."
"Murder, of course?" Temple asked.
"Well, at any rate, a fatality which has resulted in a man's death. Oh, it's murder, right enough. The victim is Mr. John Gilray, who lives in one of the flats at Ponder-avenue. I've got practically no details yet, except from a constable who is on duty in that neighbourhood sometimes. He says that he knew Mr. Gilray well enough by sight. From his description I should say that he was a smart-looking man of about fifty. I believe he was a bit of a mystery, though he attracted little or no attention. He must have had money, or else he could not have afforded to live in Ponder-avenue."
Temple nodded approvingly. He knew Ponder-avenue quite well, indeed, he had one or two friends in the immediate neighbourhood. It was a quiet street, but of very desirable houses, semi-detached, and more than one of them having studios. A good many of the better-class of artists and journalists and musicians lived in Ponder-avenue. There were gardens at the back and front of the houses, and altogether they formed a very attractive and respectable class property.
"I think I know what you mean," Temple said. "You mean that the man was of a Bohemian temperament."
"Well, at any rate, that's what the constable said. Mr. Gilray appears to have had very few friends calling upon him, and I should say that he was a very independent type of man. He generally dined out, was exceedingly fond of theatres and concerts, and always came home in a cab. They tell me he was a very well-dressed man, so that he must have been possessed of means."
Once more Temple nodded approvingly. Here was the making of a first class sensation. His journalistic instinct told him that. Here was a lonely man of independent habits and comfortable means who was probably a matter of speculation even to his easy-going neighbours. Possibly a man with a history, of whom nobody knew anything. He seemed to be well-to-do and young-looking, and at fifty years of age he was none too old for a love affair or violent flirtation. Temple was all hot foot now to get at once to the scene of action.
"I suppose I can come with you," he said.
"That's why I sent for you," Sparrow said. "And the sooner we're off the better. We'll have a cab."
Temple desired nothing more. All he had to hope for now was that his paper would have the exclusive news this morning. There was plenty of time yet. He and Sparrow came presently to Ponder-avenue. There was no sign of any excitement on hand, and Number 2, the house where the mysterious crime had been committed, was the only one that showed any lights at all. But here the electrics were turned on, and the whole place was in a blaze. In the hall a policeman was seated, grim and stern, nursing his helmet on his knee. As Temple glanced round the hall, he saw that it was most artistically and daintily furnished. Evidently no money had been spared, and evidently the late unfortunate occupant of the house was acquainted with someone or another who had travelled a great deal. There were trophies of arms on the wall, evidently collected from Southern Africa, and on the floor lay a couple of tiger skins not in the least like the skins which are usually offered for sale in West End shops. Temple saw that the few pictures were good; he also noticed that the profusion of flowers were of the best and most expensive kind. There was no doubt whatever that Mr. Gilray had been in no need of money.
Standing opposite the policeman, white and pale and trembling, stood a woman still in her hat and jacket. Unmistakably she was of the servant class, and had every appearance of the average smart cook-housekeeper on her evening out. Her eyes were full of tears, she bore every evidence of grief and terror.
"I'm glad you've come, sir," the officer said. "This is Mr. Gilray's housekeeper, Jane Martin she calls herself."
"Well, then, perhaps you will tell us all about it," Sparrow remarked. "Try and compose yourself. It's nothing to do with you, you know. I want you to tell us all you know and answer my questions. I should say by your appearance you had just come in. It's rather late to be out, isn't it?"
"I came in at half-past one, sir," the girl said. "I was out by master's permission. You see, I live Cheetham way, and I went home for my brother's birthday. I wasn't expected back till half-past one."
"Did you have a latch-key?" Sparrow asked.
"Oh, no, sir, there's no occasion for that. Mr. Gilray never went to bed before two o'clock at the earliest. He left the front door open, and I walked straight in. I saw a light under the study door, and I went to see if my master wanted anything before I went to bed. And then directly I opened the door and looked into the study—"
The girl began to sob hysterically. It was some little time before she became calm enough to resume her story.
"This is very terrible," she murmured. "The lights were all on, and there was nobody in the study except my master. He was lying on the floor just as you have seen him before the fireplace. There was a dreadful wound in his breast, and I could see at once that he was dead. I went directly and called in the policeman, and that's all I can tell you. It's all to mysterious, that I don't know what I'm doing, hardly."
"I suppose the other servants had gone to bed?"
"There are no other servants," the girl said. "There's nobody but me. I understood Mr. Gilray to say that he didn't like a lot of people about the house. He wanted someone to keep the house tidy and answer the bell in case anybody called. You see, he never got up till midday, and as he mostly had all his meals out, I had quite an easy time. Except that it was a bit dull, I couldn't wish for a better place."
"Now tell me something about your master's habits," Sparrow said, "Had he many friends? And if so, perhaps you can tell us the names of some of them."
"No one has ever called since I've been here," the girl said. "And there's no card tray anywhere."
"What, do you mean to say that no one has ever called during the whole time you've been here?" Sparrow asked.
"Not one," the girl said. "You see, I've only been here about a week."
It was something of a check for Sparrow, and his face fell accordingly. He hadn't expected this.
"In that case, we shall have to look up the last servant in the house," he said. "I dare say you can tell us who she was."
"Well, you see, sir, she died here," Jane Martin said. "I came in to take her place temporarily, and it was arranged the next day that I should stay on."
Once more Sparrow looked a little disconcerted. All this was so utterly unexpected. The mystery was deepening rapidly, and the difficulties were beginning to unfold themselves. Temple, listening carefully, could follow the dramatic points of the case.
"And that is all you have to tell me?" Sparrow asked.
"Indeed it is, sir," the girl said eagerly. She spoke almost as if she expected that she might be accused of having some hand in the tragedy. "I can think of nothing else. And if you want me to stay here—"
"No occasion to do anything of the kind," Sparrow responded. "The house is going to be locked up, so that there is no occasion for anybody to stay here, my good girl. You must give me your name and address, so that I shall know where to send for you when the inquest takes place. You can tidy up just a little, but don't disturb anything here. I may have a question or two to put to you, and if so I'll call you. Make anything out of it, Mr. Temple?"
Temple shook his head thoughtfully He was as utterly puzzled as Sparrow.
"It's quite bewildering to me," Sparrow said. "I've never heard of anything quite like it before. Reminds me of some fascinating story. She is quite conscious of the fact that she has not forgotten a single detail. She may be right. On the other hand she might think of some little matter that she might drop out casually under the impression that it is not worth talking about; all the time it is a clue of the utmost importance. In affairs of this kind there are no such things as trifles—we don't allow them to exist."
"This man Gilray evidently tried to keep his identity a secret," Temple observed. "Do you suppose that Gilray is his proper name?"
"I feel absolutely convinced it isn't," Sparrow said firmly.
"Otherwise we should have no trouble to trace him out. Men don't live in this mysterious fashion under their own names. There's rather a theatrical sound about the name of Gilray. But what's the use of asking questions? I don't mind confessing that at the present moment I'm as much in the dark as you are. I feel in a perfect fog. Not that I'm discouraged. I shall think of something presently. Before I go I should like to have a few more words with Jane Martin."
"I'll go and call her," Temple said eagerly.
Here was a drama that was likely to hold public attention in a fierce grip. There was nothing wanted to make it complete and absolute. And to a practised hand like Temple it was quite evident that all the skill and cunning of the police would be necessary to grapple with the problem. Here was a victim who appeared to know nobody. He had no friends and no visitors, and it was long odds too that Gilray was an assumed name. Mr. Gilray had been that class of person whose relatives are glad to see as little of as possible. Probably he had a good allowance from someone or other on the distinct understanding that he should keep out of the way. It was easy now to call himself an artist, but if he had any sort of reputation, local or otherwise, it was pretty certain that a keen journalist like Temple would have heard of him.
He had palpable evidence to the effect that he was by no means a struggling man, by no means the ordinary type of vulgar adventurer at his wits ends to find the means of livelihood. Evidently the man had been a gentleman—indeed the way his house was furnished published that. Everything was in the best possible taste, there was nothing showy or vulgar: indeed, Temple was rather taken by the surroundings. And the man was not in need of money, either. It was no difficult matter, given a good address and a certain plausible audacity, to get deeply into the debt of any tradesman. But this victim of a strange crime was in the habit of taking all his meals out, and there is no credit to be obtained in the average restaurant.
The crime was all the more fascinating by the initial difficulty in finding out anything as to the habits of the deceased. It looked as if everything conspired to cover up the tracks of the murderer. At the present moment, at any rate, it was absolutely impossible to identify the man in any way with anybody. On the evidence of Jane Martin, not a soul had called at the house during the time she had been in it, and it was quite evident that the girl was speaking the truth. As a matter of fact, she knew little more about her master than Sparrow himself. And the one person who might have offered them some information was in her grave. So far as Sparrow could see at present he would have to look for his initial clue to the relatives of the maid who had preceded Jane Martin at Ponder-avenue. They would probably know something, for the girl would be sure to have written home, and it was inevitable that her letters would contain the usual amount of gossip and scandal peculiar to her class.
"What was the name of the girl that was here before you?" Sparrow asked. "I suppose you know something about her."
"No. I don't, sir, I don't even know what her name was, except that her Christian name was Esme. You see, I never saw her. Once or twice my master mentioned Esme, and it struck me as a strange name for a servant. Now I come to think of it, I did ask one or two questions, and I recollect now that this Esme came with my poor master from Vienna, when he took his flat here about eighteen months ago. But whether she was English or whether she was a foreigner, I don't know any more than the dead."
Sparrow shook his head gravely. Here was another avenue closed. The more he probed the matter the more difficult it proved to be. And at any rate there was nothing further to be gained by the cross-examination of Jane Martin.
"You'd better get back home, my girl," Sparrow said. "I'll send one of my men with you if you like, but you must give me your address because you'll have to be present at the inquest to-morrow. I won't keep you any longer now. And don't you be afraid, and don't you get talking too much. There's nothing for you to worry about if you only tell the truth."
Once the girl had been got rid of, Sparrow and Temple began to make a careful examination of the house. But there was nothing upstairs to give the slightest indication of how this thing had come about. Besides the bed and dressing-room and the servant's room no other apartment was furnished. It was quite evident, therefore, that the dead man had had no friends, and that he had made no provision whatever with an eye to visitors. A most careful search failed to disclose anything in the way of papers or letters, or documents of any kind. There was no safe, nothing of intrinsic value besides a certain amount of jewellery, neatly packed away in cardboard boxes. As to the dead man's wearing apparel, all of it appeared to have been obtained locally. It was a disappointment to Sparrow, who had hoped to find some account or mark which might have led to really useful information.
"This is going to be a big thing, Temple," he muttered. "Anyone would think that the poor man had been expecting something of this kind. He seems to have gone absolutely out of his way to conceal his identity. I should say from what we can see, that at one time, at any rate, he moved in good society. It looks as if I had got a tough job before me. Now let us go downstairs and have a look into the study."
The study was the largest room in the house. It was quite evident that the late unfortunate occupant spent most of his time there. There was no particular sign of any work about. Here were stacks of Bristol board, an easel or two with a clean canvas upon it, and certain paints which looked as if they had not been used for some time. On a big old-fashioned settee was a pile of recent fiction. One of the volumes had fallen open on the carpet by the side of a big lounge chair. On the arm of the chair was a silver cigarette case half filled, and a cigarette about a third consumed, lying on an ash-tray. It looked as if someone had been seated in the armchair, and that the cigarette had been dropped together with the novel at the unexpected intrusion of a visitor.
Near the fireplace lay the body of a man in evening dress. There was a gaping wound in his breast, from which the blood had ceased to flow.
Temple could see that he was a well-groomed, smart-looking man, very neat and refined, and evidently one who had been careful over his personal appearance. There was no suggestion of makeup on the white, still face, the well brushed grey hair was innocent of dye.
"What do you make of it?" Temple whispered.
"Up to the present, I make nothing of it," Sparrow said. "This looks like one of the most difficult cases which ever came into my hands. To begin with, I can see no motive in the crime. Nothing has been disturbed upstairs, and so far as I can judge, nothing is missing here. Now just see for yourself. Look at those beautiful rings on the poor fellow's fingers. They are very slim fingers, and the rings would come off with the greatest ease. And as you know perfectly well, there is no possibility of recognising diamonds once they are taken out of the setting. Whoever the man was who committed this crime, he was no thief. And to make the thing more difficult I should say the unfortunate man is well associated, and is acquainted with the best kind of society. It is possible to see that he was quite all right, and that he had merely quarrelled with his friends. At any rate, he has taken the most extraordinary pains to conceal his identity. I don't like the thing at all, Temple. We've had too many of these lately. I should think there has been a dozen murders the last two years wherein the police have been utterly baffled. And even if they have brought the criminal to justice, it has been impossible to get a conviction."
Temple nodded in sympathy. Nobody knew this better than himself. Indeed, he had written more than one article on the subject. And so far as he could see now, there was nothing more to be done for the present. If he wanted to get an account of this extraordinary affair for to-morrow's paper, he had no time to lose. He turned and made a casual inspection of the room. On a little table under the big window stood a pile of papers, and amongst them a typed sheet or so.
"I wonder if this will help?" he asked.
"I don't think so," Sparrow said, after glancing at the document. "I should say by this that the man had been trying his hand at short story writing or something."
"But who typed it?" Temple asked.
"You will see the answer to that question in the corner of the room yonder. I needn't ask you if you ever saw the case of a Codrington typewriter before. That is evidently the gentleman's machine down there, and you will see for yourself that this particular typed specimen is the work of a Codrington. Besides, it is only one sheet, and literally tells us nothing. I am afraid we shan't do any good to-night, Temple. We shall have an inquest tomorrow, which, of course will be adjourned, and once public interest is roused in the matter it is more than possible that we shall find a witness who knows something which is worth listening to. I suppose you will make a great thing of this?"
"You may be quite sure of that," Temple said crisply. "It will be the big item in to-morrow's paper, and I daresay I can make a couple of columns of it. I'll put it prominently forward, and I shall be greatly surprised if all London isn't talking about this to-morrow night. And now I really must be off, Sparrow. As it is, I shall have to work against time to get this ready before we go to press. Good-night. And many thanks to you. You can rely upon me to do my best."
Sparrow appeared just a little loth to part with his companion.
"Just one moment," he said. "I don't like to lose a chance, however small it may be. I wish you would just run your eye over this typed sheet of MS. again. You're a bit of an expert."
"Well, I think I can make that claim." Temple said drily. "I suppose that I handle some three or four thousand manuscript stories every year—most of them impossible. If this is a story complete—"
"What does it matter whether the story is complete or not?" Sparrow asked. "It may possibly be in the style or by somebody who has tried your office before."
"Upon my word, I had not thought of that," Temple exclaimed. "Different writers have different methods, and one does get to recognise them in time. Let me look again. Of course you must not expect me to deduce very much from one sheet of manuscript, and an odd sheet at that."
"Oh, I don't," Sparrow admitted. "I don't really expect anything. I'm only what you call drawing a bow at a venture. Only I don't like to be beaten, and I don't like to feel that I'm neglecting anything that looks like a chance. You have a fragment of a story in your hand, and it is just possible that the rest of the yarn is somewhere in the flat. If so, perhaps you would like to publish it in your weekly magazine. It should prove a sensation."
Temple regarded Sparrow with a frank admiration.
"Now, that is a really fine suggestion of yours." he exclaimed. "I ought to be kicked for not thinking of this before. Fancy an old hand at the game like myself overlooking such a chance as this! I can advertise the weekly and do good at the same time. I am exceedingly obliged to you for making the suggestion, Sparrow. Give me the paper."
Temple read the page once eagerly, and once again with a puzzled expression. He seemed to know what ought to come next after the end of the page was reached. There were two names here that struck a chord on his memory. He could not for the life of him say where the connection was, but he was quite certain that it existed.
"Can I take this away with me?" he asked after a pause.
"Well, if you like," Sparrow said, none too eagerly. "Only be careful of it. Why do you want it?"
Temple's voice sank to an impressive whisper.
"Because," he said, "because I believe I have the finished story in my office now!"
Few men connected with the press would find it easy to say how they arrive there, and Philip Temple was no exception to the rule. He had drifted into it naturally, for journalism was a gift, and called for no special training. A story or two written at Cambridge, an article here and there, and, before he knew where he was, Temple had joined the ranks of the free lances.
Within two years of the completion of his university career he was in a good position on the 'Southern Daily Herald.' The work was not hard, the pay was good and Temple had means of his own. He might have been quite comfortable without doing anything, but he liked his profession, and took a pride in it.
Two years before things had been different altogether. Then he looked like losing everything for a time. He certainly lost Elsie Gordon, who became Lady Silverdale about that time, and here, therefore, was the tragedy and great unhappiness of Philip Temple's life. The young people had been sincerely attached to one another, their marriage was practically arranged when Sir John Gordon's smash came, and Lord Silverdale came forward to save the situation.
There were people who did not hesitate to say that Silverdale had engineered the trouble. Certainly the man had nothing to recommend himself beyond his money. He was over fifty, too, and had led a life concerning which the less said the better. His brilliant attainment's had been wasted on dissolute habits. At fifty years of age he was tired of the world, and bitterly cynical. He had fallen in love with Elsie Gordon's bright young beauty, and the nameless charm of face and form that made most of her acquaintances her abject slaves. And when Silverdale set his heart upon anything he got it. He had money and brains and a method absolutely unscrupulous, so than there was no great trouble in getting his own way so far as Elsie was concerned.
There was nothing new about the story—the thing had happened before, and it will happen again so long as man desires a certain woman, and he has no conscience. Silverdale's acquaintances averred that he had been born without one. And no sooner was Elsie his wife than he began to neglect her. It was always a grievance that she cared nothing for him, that he could not get behind her barrier of reserve, that never once had she a smile for him. She had paid her price, and he should not get another farthing. And yet she had smiles and tenderness for others; he had seen the proud beauty of her face relax; he had seen the gleam in her eyes.
Well, she should pay for it, and she did. She paid for it by a thousand bitter tortures that Silverdale knew well how to inflict. He was a "Quilp," with a thin veneer of civilisation. There were times when he disappeared for weeks—Lady Silverdale had not the faintest idea where he was. She had to invent excuses. Still, these were breathing spaces, and she was not ungrateful. Otherwise she would never have been able to stand the strain. And Silverdale was away on one of his mysterious excursions now.
Lady Silverdale had dressed—gone out for the evening. There was a garden fete at the Duchess of Harringay's place in Park-lane, and Lady Silverdale had been bidden to it. From the bottom of her soul she had come to hate all these things; she wanted to get away into the country and rest.
But Silverdale would have none of that. He had bought and paid for his lovely wife, and in a way he was proud of her. He liked other men to see her, to covet her beauty, and to revile him for the possession of what he valued so lightly. This was one of the tortures.
Lady Silverdale pushed her way listlessly through the crowded rooms gay with light and flowers in the direction of the garden. Everything at Harringay House was on the most magnificent scale, for the duchess was a dollar princess, and she had come to Harringay with her hands full of millions.
It had seemed to her a pleasant thing to buy herself a duke, and having done so, she proceeded to fall in love with him. He was a fine specimen, of the clean-lived clean-minded athletic animal, and generously fond of his pretty little wife. Lady Silverdale regarded her with a wistful smile. How was it that some people get everything in the world?
"It's real good of you to come," the duchess said heartily. "You don't care for this kind of thing. I'm not quite so sure that I do myself. Only there are some of the girls from the other side and I want to show them that New York is not the only village in the forest. Guess they're sorry for the time when they used to snub Sadie Macgregor—which was me, dearie. Silverdale here?"
"Silverdale is somewhere up in Norway," Elsie said, hating herself for the lie. At the price of her freedom she could not have said where Silverdale was at that moment. "At least I understand that was where he meant to go. But then you see he is a law unto himself and does not consult me."
With a smile she passed on, with a word for one and another until she came to the garden. She sat there a little apart from the rest, regarding the brilliant scene and the shaded lights in the trees. A footman came up presently with a letter on a tray.
"This was left for you, my lady," he said. "There was no answer."
Lady Silverdale thanked the man in her own generous way, though she glanced indifferently at the note in her hand, but her fingers clutched upon it with a sudden blind passion, the blood was singing in her ears. "Am I never to know a moment's peace and happiness?" she asked herself. "Why does that fiend pursue me like this. If he would only show his hand! If he would only give me a chance! If I only dared to tell Phil Temple?"
Just for a moment the brilliant scene about her was forgotten, she was away in a world of her own. Her twitching fingers grew steady. Presently in a languid way she tore open the envelope, and read it with the faint suggestion of a smile on her lips. A score of curious eyes might be regarding her, and it behoved her to be careful. How much heart breaking misery did all the gilded frivolity cover, she wondered? Were some others here as unhappy as herself?
There were two enclosures in the envelope, one a quarter leaf out from a letter, the sight of which brought the blood flaming into Elsie's cheeks. There was no difficulty in recognising the writing, seeing that it was her own. She could remember the exact circumstances in which every word was written. The words had come from her full heart at the moment when, torn between love and duty, she was hesitating as to whether she should marry Silverdale or not. And the letter had been written to Temple.
There was no harm in it, not a word there that caused her to blush. But it was passionate and headstrong, and prudence had been thrown to the winds. In the hands of some clever lawyer, a terrible significance could be placed upon it.
She read the glaring words again without regret. Why should she not write what she felt? The letter was for Phil Temple's eye alone, and he would understand. It was one of a dozen or more, and she had asked Phil to destroy them. Possibly he was under the impression that he had done so; certainly he had not the slightest idea that they had fallen into other hands.
Blackmail! That was the only word for it. Some cunning scoundrel had stolen those letters, and was blackmailing the writer. His method had something of originality. He took a quarter of a letter at the time, and detached it from the context. He sent it in instalments, and asked so much for it. When that was forwarded another portion of the letter followed. And Lady Silverdale was at her wit's ends for money.
The other enclosure was a typed strip of paper, curtly giving instructions where the money was to be sent.
Never mind about the money, it ran, diamonds will do as well. Send some good stones, the same as you did last time. Only I've got to have something to-night. Do as I tell you, and another quarter of this letter will be posted to you to-morrow. As you know, I always keep my word. A ring, a trinket, anything that you have will do. I knew that you were coming here to-night, and that is why I have made this little arrangement for you. As soon as you get this go as far as the end of the garden till you come to a little summer-house with a sun-dial on one side. Place the bracelet or whatever it is by the right hand of the dial, and leave it there. I shall watch till you go away and then get it. This will do to go on with for the next few days, but next week I am in need of a large sum of money. You will get it on your jewels. And in return for that you shall have a whole letter, cara mia. Now go and do as you are told.
The slip was plain type with no signature. If she could only get hold of this scoundrel, if she could but meet him face to face! But he was far too cunning for that. Every time that he wanted money or jewellery he found some new and ingenious method of getting it without the slightest chance of being tracked. Elsie had tried it once, and had been ignominiously beaten.
Why did she not tell Phil Temple? Why did she lack the courage to do so? And, why did she not defy this rascal, and let him carry out his threat of sending the rest of the letters to her husband? She was playing the part of a coward: she was too much afraid of the consequences.
With a miserable sigh for her own weakness, Elsie slipped off a diamond bangle. It was a costly little toy, and would probably keep the blackmailer quiet for a day or two. But at this rate she would very soon have no jewels left. Her husband might come home at any time, and demand to see the diamonds, and what would he say to her then? What a miserable world it was!
One thing appeared to be fairly plain—the man who had the letters had the entre to good society. It was no cunning thief in the way of a servant who had done this thing. It looked as if the man who wrote the letter had the freedom of Harringay House. It was something in the way of a discovery and something further in that direction than Elsie had ever gone before. Perhaps if she followed on his tracks and hid herself carefully she would get at the truth. And if once she did so, she would not be scrupulous as to her methods of revenge. But she abandoned the idea almost as soon as it entered her mind. Her foe would not be taken in like that.
She was frightened—for the first time in her life she was sorely afraid. There was something in the dark and secret methods of this man that set her heart beating fast. The feeling of utter helplessness was terrible. And it was dreadful to know that she had to comply.
She hid the letter away, and rose from her seat. She passed through the idle, chattering crowd, thankful that nobody detained her. Very few of her own personal friends appeared to be near at the moment. In a listless detached kind of way she threaded her way to the lonely part of the garden indicated by the letter. She could see the sundial looming up in the faint light cast by the lanterns. Doubtless the man she feared was even there watching her with eager, greedy eyes.
She stopped in front of the sundial, and pretended to examine it, the bracelet in her hand. As if the antique object interested her she stepped on to the pedestal, and placed the bracelet on the spot mentioned in the letter. She stepped down again presently, her face a little pale, her limbs trembling. Without so much as a backward look she walked towards the house. A little cry escaped her lips as she saw Philip Temple standing there.
She could see that his face was stern, and his lips white.
"It's no business of mine, of course," he said. "But I should very much like to know why you left your bracelet on the sundial."
Lady Silverdale faltered something, she was trying to frame some excuse for her action. Temple turned away just a little impatiently. There was something in his manner that wounded Elsie.
"Philip," she murmured. "Oh, Philip, if you knew how unhappy I am!"
Temple's manner changed instantly. There was no withstanding an appeal like that. He took Elsie's hands in his own, and pressed them tenderly. She could see the glow of love in his eyes.
"We are both unhappy," he said. "Fate has dealt very hardly with us, Elsie. I have kept out of your way as far as possible, but I have been hearing things lately. You can't help people talking. Has—has he been unkind to you again? Has there been any violence?"
A bitter little smile crossed Elsie's face.
"There never was any violence," she said. "There is absolutely nothing that I could prove in a court of law. A man can break a woman's heart, and the world would only laugh at her story. They would say that she was hysterical, neurotic, that she invented things, and they would sympathise with the husband. Oh, you know what I mean, Philip.
"Yes," Temple said gravely. "I know what you mean, dear. I've seen cases like it myself. But they tell me that Silverdale is away. Where?"
"How do I know? He comes and he goes. It may be a day, it may be a month or more. He tells me nothing, and leaves me to make excuses. And there are people who pity Silverdale, because he is tied to a block of ice like myself. They say that I am cold, unfeeling, callous. You know, Philip."
Phil Temple caught his lips in his teeth fiercely. He knew nobody better. His heart was aflame with love and pity, he would have liked to have taken Elsie in his arms and cover her face with kisses.
"I must see you oftener," he said. "I must. The tie between us is more pure and honourable than the legal tie that binds you to Silverdale. But you have a trouble of your own. I came here to see Selby on political business, and we retired to a quiet corner to talk. He left me with a knotty part to think over. And I saw what you left on the sundial. Why?"
Elsie hesitated just a moment. She had often longed for a chance to speak to Temple, and she lacked the courage to do so. And here was fate actually forcing her hand. And Phil had a right to know. It was his property that the blackmailing scoundrel was dealing with.
"I am glad this has happened," Lady Silverdale murmured. "My mind has been made up for me. Phil, do you remember the dreadful days when we first parted. It was at the time when I had to make up my mind what to do. It was a case of love or duty."
"And you chose the path of duty," Temple said sadly.
"There was nothing else I could do, Phil. Upon my word, even now I cannot quite make up my mind whether I regret it or not. I wrote you certain letters which I asked you to destroy. As I was going to marry another man they should have been destroyed. Did you do so?"
Phil looked just a little uncomfortable.
"Well. I didn't," he replied. "They were such precious letters, dearest. They were like words that came from your heart directly into mine. I couldn't destroy them. I had a strange feeling as if I were burning a part of yourself. They were some little consolation to me for what I was losing. I hope you are not very angry with me."
A tender smile trembled on Lady Silverdale's lips.
"These are circumstances in which a woman cannot be angry with a man," she said. "I should be angry, but I like—no, I love you all the better for it, Phil. Where are the letters?"
"Locked away safely, of course. I have not looked at them since your wedding day."
"Then they are no longer in your possession. Oh, you may shake your head. Listen to this. Do you remember the circumstances in which this was written? If you don't, I do."
She took the envelope from her pocket, and produced the scrap of letter. Phil read it eagerly with a perplexed frown on his face.
"This is amazing," he said. "This is part of a reply to a letter of mine after I had learnt something to Silverdale's detriment. I was giving you a warning. I believe that I could repeat every word by heart. I can recollect exactly what I was doing when it reached me. And now it is in your possession. It is not possible that I dropped it anywhere. I am certain that I locked it away with the others at once. And where is the rest of it?"
"The rest of it—and the others—is in the hands of the wretch who is blackmailing me, Phil."
Philip Temple glared at Elsie with a dazed look in his eyes.
"You had better explain," he said. "Begin at the beginning, please."
"It has been going on now for over a year. There came an application for money which I ignored. After that I was threatened. Certain letters of mine were to be sent to my husband unless I complied. I could think of no letters, so I treated the threats with scorn. Then a portion of my first letter to you came, and that startled me. I tried to find the sender, but I failed. The man is too clever for me. I have never found a trace of him. I had to give him money—I did not care to face my husband. You little know how he would have rejoiced to get a whip like that in his hands. Since that time I have been buying your letters, a sheet and half a sheet at a time. The man who has me in his power seems to have a good understanding of human nature. He long ago had all the money at my disposal, and now he is getting my jewellery. You will see from that typed letter what I had to do to-night. And I believe that this man is ostensibly a gentleman!"
"It looks like it." Temple said between his teeth. "It is not possible to believe that we are dealing with one of the duchess's servants. Apart from them nobody but a guest has the run of this garden."
"A most disgraceful thing," Elsie murmured.
"Disgraceful enough," Phil admitted. "But such things have happened before now. Unfortunately society has its scoundrels the same as the lower classes. It makes one's blood boil to think that this fellow might be sitting at the same table, actually in one's own house. My poor child, how you must have suffered! And why, oh, why did you not tell me this before?"
Lady Silverdale sighed helplessly. It was almost impossible to explain.
"I am getting to my wit's ends," she said. "My jewels are going. And Silverdale might take it in his head to ask me any day where they have gone. What am I to do, Phil?"
Temple would have given a good deal for a satisfactory reply to the question. He turned the typed piece of paper over and over in his hand as if trying to find a solution there. He looked into the envelope carefully. Surely there was some kind of a clue to all this! Something seemed to be loose in the envelope, some tiny fragments of material that he shook into his hand. He examined them half idly by the light of the lamps.
"This might help me," he said. "It proves, at any rate, that it is a man who is giving this trouble."
"Of course, it is a man," Elsie said.
"Why, of course? It might be a woman. But I know now that it is a man. I'll put these fragments into the back of my watch. Never mind what they suggest to me. It is a very tiny clue, but it is a clue all the same. The next thing I have to find out is how those letters left my possession. My desk has a patent lock on it, and the key is never out of my possession. An editor like myself is the repository of a great many secrets, and I have to be careful. We'll lay a plot for this rascal, and run him to earth sooner or later, Elsie. The next time you get one of these letters let me have it at once, and I'll devise a scheme. You shall be rid of this trouble at any rate. If the scoundrel moves in good society, as seems probable, he shall be sorry for this."
A shattering mob of women went by at the moment, and one of them hailed Lady Silverdale.
"How nice and cosy you look there," she said shrilly. "Your husband is looking for you, dear."
There was a nasty suggestiveness in the speech that brought the blood flaming to Elsie's cheeks. She was too vaguely alarmed to be indignant for more than a moment.
"I had better go, Phil," she said. "It is so like Silverdale to turn up in this unexpected manner. I—I had better not be seen with you here."
Temple rose and moved off in the shadow of the trees. He had much to occupy his attention. He might be more or less helpless so far as Lady Silverdale was concerned, but at any rate he would protect her against this heartless persecution. There would be plenty of opportunities for discussing the matter with Elsie. And if he could only lay his hands on this blackguard—
Lady Silverdale went her way in the direction of the house. Standing at the top of the long flight of marble steps lending to the garden was Silverdale himself. He looked all his age, despite the wonderful way in which he was turned out. His clothes seemed to fit him to a glove, his grey whiskers and moustache and beard were barbered as if a sculptor had been at work on them. Not a single hair was out of place, the skin line was perfectly defined. It was said that his face had been measured for his beard and been poured into it. As he stood there he was perhaps the neatest man in London—the smile on his face was cynical and sinister.
"Been enjoying yourself?" he asked. "Taking part in these simple pleasures? What it is to have a sunny disposition like yours! Where did you get that happy smile from? Yes, I can see that you are glad to see me again."
Lady Silverdale shivered slightly. "Where have you been?" she asked.
"I've been where I am going again," Silverdale replied. "I'm off to-night. I may be back to-morrow, and I may not be back for three months. Don't look so terribly disappointed. You can tell any amiable and charming lie you like to account for my absence. Get Phil Temple to make up a nice little paragraph for the papers."
Lady Silverdale was discreetly silent. She found silence her best weapon. She must not let this man have the slightest idea how he hurt her, for the more she showed her feelings the more bitter did his tongue become. He stood there grimly still and preoccupied.
"You are going home?" she asked.
"My dear Lady Silverdale, I'm going to do nothing of the kind. All my preparations are made, and I am going off at once. And mind you don't catch cold—don't sit out with that thin dress on. I have the honour to wish you goodnight."
He bowed with a dry smile, and vanished into the house. Outside he paused just for a moment for a taxi to go by. His thoughts seemed to amuse him, judging from his smile.
"Lord, how she hates me," he muttered. "And how much more would she hate me if she knew everything. What would she say if she could only see what is in my pocket!"
The story of the tragedy of Ponder-avenue made the great sensation of the hour. It had all the attributes of what might be called a popular mystery, and on every side it was hemmed in by the most romantic surroundings. Here was a man, apparently wealthy and well connected, and obviously possessing considerable means, who had been done to death in this way by some person who apparently had no motive for such a crime. If it had been a mere vulgar case of robbery, then public attention would not have been gripped as it had been. Clearly the murderer was no ordinary type of criminal, not the class of man, for instance, who had found his way into the study on the off-chance of picking up something valuable. It was quite clear that nothing was missing, and quite clear, too, that the police were at their wit's end to give a plausible reason for the tragedy. Temple had made a prominent feature of the story, which was widely read and discussed at every breakfast table in London next morning. The inquest had been fixed for 10 o'clock, and an hour before that time the room was packed to suffocation. There were hundreds outside who could not get in. There were people there who knew the deceased by sight but not a soul who could give one atom of really useful information.
Meanwhile, Sparrow had not been idle. He had managed to get together some sort of evidence, but though the excited crowd followed every word with breathless interest, nothing was dropped in the course of a two hours' investigation which threw even the slightest light on the life-story of John Gilray. After the coroner had briefly opened the investigation, Sparrow proceeded to call his first witness. This was Mr. James Gilbert, the owner of the house in Ponder-avenue.
"I first came in contact with Mr. Gilray eighteen months ago," he said. "I was introduced to him through a house agent, and he informed me of his desire to take No. 2 Ponder-avenue on a three years' agreement. He made no demur at the rent I asked, and expressed his readiness to undertake the decoration of the house himself. I understood him to say that he was exceedingly particular about this. As he seemed to be a very desirable type of tenant, the agreement was drawn up. Mr. Gilray duly took possession of the house—"
By the coroner: "One moment, please. This strikes me as rather an important matter. I understand from Inspector Sparrow that he has been unable as yet to trace this unfortunate man as to his antecedents prior to his arrival at Ponder-avenue. He gave you some references, of course."
Witness: "No, he didn't, sir. Of course, the point was raised, but Mr. Gilray declined to give anything of the sort. I ventured to suggest that this course was most unusual, but the gentleman was quite firm, and declined to give way. In lieu of references he offered to pay me a year's rent annually in advance. I could see that he was a gentleman, and I understood him to say that he wished to have nothing whatever to do with his friends. At any rate, rightly or wrongly, I accepted the offer, and Mr. Gilray paid me the year's rent the day before he took possession. I may say that he paid a second year's rent six months ago."
By the Coroner: "Did he pay by cheque?"
Witness: "No, sir. He paid me in bank notes on both occasions. They were Bank of England notes, and quite clean. That is, I mean there was no bank stamps on them. I am quite positive of this, because I was naturally curious as to my mysterious tenant, and I looked to see. As a matter of fact, I have only seen Mr. Gilray twice since he entered into possession of the house."
Something like a murmur of disappointment followed as the witness sat down. Most of the audience had expected at any rate, that the landlord of Ponder-avenue would be able to tell them something as to the identity of the murdered man. But public curiosity was stimulated a moment or two later as the manager of a big local bank stepped forward. And again the onlookers were disappointed. The bank manager had very little to say. He had known Mr. Gilray slightly, because he had come to him occasionally to change notes into gold.
By the Coroner: "Were they large notes?"
Witness: "Invariably the same, sir. It was usually a Bank of England note for a hundred pounds."
By the Coroner: "Would this be frequently?"
Witness: "Well, roughly speaking, about once a month. For some reason or another, Mr. Gilray always asked to see me, and naturally I was always ready to oblige. More than once I suggested that he should open an account, but he would not hear of it. This was all the English money I changed for him."
The Coroner: "One moment. You say this is all the English money you have changed. Am I to understand that upon occasions you changed foreign money as well?"
Witness: "Yes. Perhaps fifty or sixty pounds worth every two months. The money generally came in the form of notes issued by an Austrian bank. No, I am afraid I cannot tell you anything definite. You see, in a town like London, we have an enormous amount of foreign money to change, and it would be impossible to remember whence it all comes."
The Coroner: "You keep no account of these foreign notes?"
Witness: "No, sir. It would entail far too much time and trouble. And, besides, nothing would be gained by it."
A few further questions to the witness elicited nothing more. It was just possible, he thought, that one of the hundred pound notes might be traced to the source from whence it came, but after all, it would be pure accident, and might take many months. The interested audience were more mystified than ever, as the bank manager resumed his seat. He was followed by a clerk in a Bakerloo station booking office, who had very little to say, but that little was more to the point than anything which had preceded it. It appeared that the witness knew Mr. Gilray very well by sight. He was in the habit of using his station at such times as he went up west. Most evenings he took a return ticket, and witness noticed that he was invariably in evening dress. But the most important part of the evidence lay in the statement that once a month the dead man took a return ticket to Westminster, almost invariably on a Thursday night, and that he as invariably came back on the Saturday.
The Coroner: "This was quite a regular thing."
Witness: "Yes, sir. After a time I looked forward to it as a matter of course. I always gave the gentleman the ticket myself. He took a first class return."
By the Coroner: "You never spoke to him, I suppose?"
Witness: "Oh, yes, sir, very often. He was a man with a certain dry humour, and I always found him very interesting indeed. He always struck me as being aristocratic and well bred."
"This is rather important," the Coroner said. "It is quite fair to assume that the unfortunate man was in the habit of going up West with a view to drawing money. Now I suppose it is impossible that you should be able to tell us on what date these return tickets were issued."
Witness: "On the contrary, sir, that's quite an easy matter. I could tell you that in the course of the day."
The Coroner: "I should like to know it. You will see my point, Inspector Sparrow. I want to prove, if possible, that within a day or so of Mr. Gilray's return from London he was in the habit of changing these bank notes."
"Quite so, sir," Inspector Sparrow replied. "But they might have come by post. If anybody sent these notes through the post, then the envelope would probably be registered."
"The postman might have given us a clue," suggested the Coroner.
"I have him subpoened, sir," the inspector said. "I thought it quite possible that he might have given us other information, which might be valuable."
Once more public interest stood on tip-toe, but the postman proved to be the most disappointing witness of the lot. He took the four daily deliveries on his round, which embraced Ponder-avenue, and he had done so for the last four years. And during the last eighteen months he could not call to mind a single instance in which he had delivered a letter at No. 2 Ponder-avenue which was addressed to Mr. Gilray.
The Coroner: "Surely you have forgotten? Eighteen months is a very long time."
Witness: "I am quite sure of my facts, sir. When Mr. Gilray first came into my district I used to notice him, because for a month or two he always seemed to be waiting for me to come along. He was either at the door or in the hall and he used to ask me if I had anything for him."
The Coroner: "He seemed to be expecting a letter?"
Witness: "Really I couldn't say, sir. He seemed to be very eager, and when I told him I hadn't got one he appeared relieved in some way. Just as if one's expecting bad news and it doesn't come. No sir this isn't imagination on my part. I haven't thought of this merely since I heard of the tragedy. I've thought so all along, in fact. I have mentioned it to my wife more than once. A postman sees a good many strange things."
The Coroner: "And you are positively certain that Mr. Gilray never received a single post letter during the time he lived in Ponder-avenue."
Witness: "I am prepared to swear to it sir."
The Coroner: "But you are absent occasionally."
Witness: "Sixteen days in two years. And never through illness. I had the curiosity to ask the man who took my place, and he never delivered a letter for Mr. Gilray."
The Coroner shook his head thoughtfully. It was very awkward to see how to proceed. Whichever way the inquiry turned something seemed to end in a blind alley. Usually in cases of this kind, some more or less curious person came forward who had found out something. And in this instance the more they had discovered the less they seemed to know. Again there must be many people in London whose one great anxiety is to conceal their identity, a matter much more easily managed in a crowded town than in a little country place where gossip is rampant.
"All this is very mysterious," the Coroner said. "Really, I don't see that we are getting any further with all these witnesses, Inspector. They make the investigation look hopeless."
Inspector Sparrow looked just a little uncomfortable. Nobody in court knew better than himself how utterly hopeless the case was at present.
"Most of them volunteered to come forward and give evidence, sir," he said. "And I don't think we are altogether wasting the time of the court."
The Coroner admitted the point. All his sympathy was with Sparrow. He had conducted too many of these investigations to be prejudiced.
"Well, I'll hear a little more," he said. "Personally, it seems to me far better to adjourn at this point for a few days so as to give you a fair chance. Was the deceased a healthy man?"
"On that point I can't say anything, sir," Sparrow responded.
"I daresay somebody knows," the Coroner went on. "The hall porter or some chemist in the neighbourhood from whom Mr. Gilray procured his drugs. There are very few of us indeed who from time to time have no need for drugs or a doctor."
Sparrow brightened just a little.
"I am obliged to you for the suggestion, sir," he said "Up to now no information on that hand has reached me. If Mr. Gilray was in the habit of consulting a doctor, the point might be of some assistance to us. Is there anything else, sir?"
But the coroner appeared to have no more questions to ask, and so far as the witnesses were concerned the more they said the more it became apparent that the police were merely on the fringe of a most puzzling and intricate problem. It was quite plain up to now that the dead man had gone deliberately out of his way to conceal his identity and baffle local curiosity. It was quite clear, too, that he had taken extraordinary pains to prevent anyone, even the bank manager, from learning whence he obtained his money.
"It is certainly very puzzling," the coroner said. "One more question, postman, and I have done. Do you mean to say that you never delivered a single letter for eighteen months at 2 Ponder-avenue—nothing whatever?"
Witness: "Well, I can't go quite so far as that, sir. There were a good many circulars, of course—advertisements from local tradespeople. The only letters I ever left in the house were foreign ones, and those were addressed to the servant."
"How do you know they were the servant's?"
Witness: "Because occasionally she took them from me in the morning. I would get there sometimes when she was sweeping down the steps. She would say, 'Ah, a letter for me,' or something of that kind. And occasionally she would open the letter there and then. This would be about once in six weeks."
The Coroner: "Do you remember the servant's name?"
"I am afraid that won't help us much," Sparrow said. "Mr. Gilray only had one servant all the time he was here, and she was a foreigner who came here when Mr. Gilray first took his flat. Besides, she is dead, and was buried within the last fortnight. I've seen the doctor who attended her for her illness, and he can tell us nothing. The woman died of pneumonia, and she was nursed by some friend or another whom I can trace if necessary. Of course, sir, if you like, I will have the doctor called, but it will be merely a waste of time."
"Quite so," the coroner agreed. "But this servant must have had friends. If we could find out who she was we might get on a bit. No matter how mysterious and secretive a man may he, he couldn't have a servant in the house for eighteen months without the latter finding out a deal about him. Now, postman, do you happen to know the name of that servant?"
Witness: "I'm sorry to say I don't, sir. All I know is that her Christian name was 'Esme.' I couldn't make out the surname, which was a strange foreign one, and written in a very peculiar handwriting. This was the only letter that the servant had, and it always bore a foreign postmark."
The Coroner: "A European or an American postmark?"
Witness: "Oh, I couldn't say for certain, sir, but I should think it was somewhere on the Continent. The paper was very thin, and American people very rarely use it."
There were other witnesses to follow the postman, but for the most part they had little to say. There were tradesmen in the district with whom Mr. Gilray had dealings, but he always ordered everything himself, and in no instance did he omit to pay for it on the spot. There were agents for theatres and concert halls who had the same story to tell, and later on they were corroborated by the proprietors of certain hotels where Mr. Gilray was in the habit of dining. He had always dined alone, and he was always correctly dressed, and he never spoke to anybody. His manner was always perfectly quiet and correct, and nobody had ever seen anything to which the faintest exception could be taken. At the end of two hours' hearing the inquest was adjourned for a week, and the spectators filed slowly out, utterly baffled and bewildered, and with a feeling that they knew no more about this matter now than they had done after the perusal of the morning papers. And amongst them was Temple, who, with all his astuteness and knowledge of the shady side of life, was bound to admit that he was as much at sea as the casual man in the street. He turned out and walked along with Sparrow.
"Well, what do you make of it?" he asked.
"Oh, don't ask me!" Sparrow said dejectedly. "I've had some tough jobs in my time, but never anything to equal this. First of all, there is the utter absence of motive, and in the next place we know nothing whatever about this man. He has managed to conceal his identity perfectly, and unless some of his relatives come forward I don't know what to do next."
"Oh, they'll turn up, won't they?" Temple asked.
"Well, to tell the truth, I don't know. Now, this man is evidently a gentleman. He was obviously well bred and born, and used to good society. Possibly he was connected with some very good family indeed. Still, with all his respectability, there is something wrong somewhere. And that is why it is just possible that his relatives will keep silence. By now, this crime has been talked about from one end of England to another, and if the relatives of the dead man come forward, they cannot possibly escape the widest publicity. Therefore, they may deem it prudent to remain in the background. If by any chance they are dragged into the light of day, they will be able to escape any sort of censure by saying that they hadn't the remotest idea that the unfortunate man was any connection of theirs. And they'll be justified in this course by the absolute certainty that Gilray is an assumed name. Indeed, I am taking that for granted. His real name was no more Gilray than it was 'Sparrow.' And you see the poor man had money in the house. He had jewels and a lot of valuable furniture. Therefore, there will be enough, and more than enough, to bury him comfortably. His relatives will argue all this out, and decide to remain silent. Really, there's no reason why they shouldn't. Why should they be dragged into a scandal? Why should they be talked about, when it's a million to one that a disclosure of their identity will not lead us an inch in the direction of the murderer? The more I think of it the less I like it, Mr. Temple. I've had a good deal of experience of this kind of thing, and you mark me if this isn't going to be another of the undiscovered crimes of which the recluse is so frequently the victim. Of course, I will do all I can, and I'm going to have another look round the study now. One never knows how some trifle is going to lead to some important results. Perhaps you would like to come along with me?"
"Can't possibly do it," Temple said crisply. "As a matter of fact, I have wasted a valuable morning already. I am a pretty busy man, as you know, what with my work on two papers. And I shall have to be at it from now till 2 o'clock to-morrow morning making up the 'Southern Weekly Herald' for the week after next. And I've got a heap of manuscript to go through, too."
All the same, it was late in the afternoon before Temple found time to get up to the small office at the top of the big 'Herald' buildings where he edited the weekly edition of the paper. He found a couple of assistants in the outer office up to their eyes in work. The floor was littered with clippings from various exchanges, and the whole atmosphere was redolent of paste and cigarette smoke. He did not sit down to work at once as he usually did. In the ordinary course of things he plunged at once into his task with zeal and enthusiasm. But now he was disturbed in his mind. In the first place he had a pretty good story to write, and he could not quite see his way to the arrangement of the various details. He wished this sensational crime had not happened just now. There were so many other matters to worry him. There was the business of those letters, for instance. The more he thought about this the more the mystery deepened. He was very particular about that desk of his; it was a desk in which he kept every private paper, and this being so, he had been very careful to have a lock upon it that nobody could possibly tamper with. He had been assured by the maker that nobody could pick the lock without betraying the fact that it had been tampered with, in fact it would not be possible to make another key to fit it.
As yet the lock had not been touched. Temple used his desk too frequently to have the smallest doubt on that score. And strange to say, nothing else was missing. Why had these particular letters been picked out, he wondered. There were other things that the thief would have found quite as useful for the purpose of blackmail. Anyway, the letters were gone. And Lady Silverdale was paying a fearful price for her indiscreetness.
It would be necessary to find, without delay, the name of the rascal who was playing upon the feelings of an innocent woman like this. Phil Temple's heart beat faster as he thought of it, the blood tingled to the tips of his fingers.
He pushed his paper away for the moment, and strode into the outer office. No doubt a little later he would be able to compose himself to the work before him. It was a frequent habit of his to stay long after the rest of the staff had gone. His mind was too full of Gilray and the turmoil of the trouble over Lady Silverdale to care much about the manuscript of the would-be novelists that lay like a litter on his desk.
"Anybody been here?" Temple asked.
"Only one visitor," the senior assistant said, "looking after a manuscript. Seems to want to have it back again."
"Oh, I know them," Temple said. "The sort of person who sends in a story the day before yesterday and wants its published the same week, with a cheque by return of post."
"He didn't seem quite like that," the assistant said. "He said that he had sent it here by mistake. I understand that he had a commission for it, and had inadvertantly placed it in the wrong envelope. At any rate, he kicked up a deuce of a fuss because I couldn't find it. I told him that it hadn't been read, and that it was locked up in your desk, with other picturesque fictions of the same sort. He wasn't very nice about it, either. He said he would come here again this evening."
"Oh will he," Temple said. "I hope you stopped that game. I hope that you told him that I make an invariable rule to see nobody after 2 o'clock on Thursdays. What was he like?"
"Oh, cadaverous-looking chap, with a lot of long hair all about his face, and dark spectacles. Sort of unchained poet of about fifty. By the way he carried on anybody would think it was the manuscript of another 'Paradise Lost' that he was after. I told him that it was not the slightest use calling again to-day, and probably he would be able to see you to-morrow morning. In the excitement of the moment I forgot to ask him the name of the precious manuscript, but he left his card. It's on your desk."
A somewhat shabby piece of paste board, which looked as if it had been cleaned with breadcrumbs, lay amongst the litter of papers on Temple's table. The card bore the name of Mr. Edward Seymour Scaff, 99 Sarsenet-street. London. Temple tossed it contemptuously aside, and plunged into his work.
He toiled on till 8 o'clock without intermission, when he rushed out for a hurried mouthful of dinner, intending to return later on and work alone till midnight. He was detained, however, in the editor's office downstairs, and it was nearly 11 before he got back to his labours again. Everybody had left now, and the upper part of the big building was as quiet as the grave. As Temple walked up the stairs, it seemed to him that he could hear someone moving about in the room which was devoted to his own journal. Through the glass door with the black lettering upon it he could see that the light was burning.
"That's very odd," Temple murmured. "I could have sworn that I switched out the electric light. If one of the staff is in there playing a practical joke on me—"
Temple crept along, slowly and grimly. He opened the door quietly and looked in. At the desk a total stranger was rummaging the papers about as if searching for something, furtive, silent, in deadly earnest. Temple stood there waiting.
A grim smile flickered over Temple's face. The idea of anybody attempting a burglary at a newspaper office amused him. It would be the very last place in the world where the midnight marauder had any chance of obtaining any adequate return for his trouble. And then in his mind's eye Temple could see himself making quite an interesting little story out of the incident. He could tell it at the meetings of the Press Club, and later on make a smart special of it for the 'Herald.'
He stood there contemplating the unconscious thief who was searching among the papers with a certain amount of feverish haste. He had turned out two drawers apparently without success, and was now trying to pick the lock of another with something exceedingly primitive in the way of a tool. It needed no practised eye to see that the intruder was an amateur at the game.
So far as Temple could see, the stranger was a man of about fifty years of age, and was shabbily dressed in rusty black, an old-fashioned Inverness cape was about his shoulders, and his hat was the traditional hat of transpontine melodrama. His face was half hidden in a mass of black hair, and his eyes were concealed by spectacles. Then it flashed upon Temple who the man really was. Undoubtedly this was the lunatic who had called at the office earlier in the day in search of his precious manuscript. Temple knew the tribe too well to feel in the least alarmed. He had encountered hundreds of specimens in his time. Sooth to say, he had no great opinion of the average writer of fiction. There were a good many exceptions, of course, but for the most part Temple regarded the craft as a ragged regiment. No doubt this man was no more eccentric than the rest, and possibly he had an exaggerated view of the value of his work. He might, too, be possessed with the idea that there was a conspiracy on the part of the 'Weekly Herald' to rob him of his work of genius.
He was still turning over the papers on the table and trying the drawers. So deeply engaged was he in his work that he quite failed to see that he was no longer alone.
"Not a bit of good," Temple said jocularly, "you won't find anything of the least value in the office unless it happens to be the shears or the stamps which come with the contributors' manuscripts. And as to the manuscripts themselves, I always keep them locked up in the safe. I don't do that because they are in the least valuable, but simply because the writers esteem them so highly. I wonder if yours happens to be amongst the rest?"
All the sarcasm seemed to be lost upon the man at the table. He looked up quickly, and his eyes gleamed behind his spectacles. It was a wild gleam, and just for the moment Temple was serious. He did not like it at all.
After all said and done, strange things had happened in newspaper offices before now, and it was just possible that the intruder was armed. He stood there with his hands on the table glaring at Temple, who discreetly waited the next move on the part of his visitor.
"You are the editor?" the stranger asked.
"It's not generally known," Temple said, "but I am mainly responsible for the paper. And now, what may I have the pleasure of doing for you. You seem to be an original type of genius."
All this had no effect on the intruder. He was in deadly earnest beyond a doubt.
"People say so," he said. "But we needn't go into that now. I called here this afternoon for a manuscript of mine, and your assistants declined to part with it. They made the excuse that they did not know where to put their hands on the story, but that was not true, Mr. Temple. They could have given me the manuscript back if they had liked."
"I hope you told them so," Temple said.
"Ah, it is not a laughing matter. It is a question of life and death for me. Life and death did I say? Well, perhaps it is an exaggeration, but at any rate, it is of the greatest importance. And for those people to declare that they couldn't find the story was absurd. No doubt you would have declined it eventually; the story is so original that the average editor would not understand it."
"Yes, we get so many of them," Temple said. "I should say an average of about three thousand a year. And they are all brilliant, which even their authors admit. You see, there is such a tremendous amount of talent, and my trouble is that I can't find room for it all."
The stranger made an impatient gesture.
"You are trifling with me," he said. "I explained to you why I wanted my story back. I made a mistake, and put the story I intended for you in the wrong envelope."
"That may be possible," Temple said. "But that doesn't justify you in coming here burgling in my office. With a good many people you would find yourself in serious trouble. If I were not a kind-hearted man I should have handed you over to the police."
Once more the wild gleam came into the stranger's eyes. In some respects he looked simple enough. In some respects he was just the ordinary literary crank, the type of which Temple knew so well. But on the other hand there was something sinister about him as if he were a desperate man who had been hunted into a corner and who was not likely to be scrupulous when the pinch came. Temple began to ask himself a question or two.
"You shall have your manuscript back," he said. "If you had come for it in the morning, it would have been all right."
"Have you read it?" the stranger asked.
He put the question in a voice so hoarse and a manner so anxious that Temple was moved by it. He had seen contributors before who come there trembling for the verdict on his side, but for the most part these were people reduced to their last penny, and to whom success meant all the difference between comfort and starvation. It was no pleasing look which the intruder gave Temple now. He leant eagerly forward, and his long, thin hands clutched the end of the table so firmly that the bony knuckles grew white and bloodless. They were strong sinewy hands, too, despite their slimness, and they looked as if they could be applied to a cruel purpose. The man's eyes were staring too, and his lips were grey. He had all the appearance of one about to be found out in the commission of some serious crime. And the question vibrated in Temple's ears.
His curiosity was aroused, too. At any rate, before he parted with the manuscript he would certainly read it. And this man owed him something, too. He must not be allowed to get off altogether scot free.
"I haven't read your story," Temple said. "As a matter of fact, I don't even remember seeing it. Still, if you will give me the title and give me your name I will have a look at it."
The stranger still stood there staring at Temple. He appeared to be on the point of an outbreak, then he checked himself and went on to speak quietly enough.
"What does it matter?" he asked. "What does it matter what my name is or what my story is called?"
"In the ordinary way nothing," Temple said. "But there are flaws in your logic, my good friend. For instance, it would he a very difficult matter for me to pick out your story from a hundred others unless I knew which it was."
"True," the stranger said. "I had not thought of that. But there is no occasion for you to read the story. My name is on the front page. I am called 'Scaff,' and I live at 99 Sarsenet-street. And now, will you pardon this unwarrantable intrusion and give me the story back? I don't mind telling you that I am in pressing need of money. If I have the story to-night I can get the cash for it in the morning."
Temple demurred to this arrangement. His curiosity as to the story was increasing. Doubtless it would be abject nonsense when he saw it, but all the same he meant to see it, and therefore he plunged boldly into prevarication.
"I know all about it now," he said. "I haven't seen the story myself, but one of my assistants informed me that you had called and made a great fuss because you couldn't get your yarn back again. Now, we always pride ourselves in this office on the fact that we never keep anybody waiting. I recollect now that I gave this story to the assistant in question with the instructions to take it home and read it and report to me upon it in the morning. No, I can't tell you where the assistant is now. You see, as he puts in the balance of his time doing reporting work in our daily, I rather fancy he has gone to Croydon to do a big political speech. He may be back to-night, he may not be back till to-morrow morning. But you shall have your story by 10 o'clock to-morrow. Or shall I send it to you?"
Once more the wild eyes gleamed.
"You're lying to me," the stranger said.
"My dear sir," Temple protested. "I assured you that I never lie, except when I am professionally engaged. One must have the chance of telling the truth sometimes, you know. I am very sorry I cannot help you, but you see for yourself that I am doing my best, and if you are going to be nasty, why, I can be nasty too. If you talk to me like that again it will be my painful duty to hand you over to the police, and you will only have to thank yourself for any unpleasant consequences which may follow. And now, as I am very busy and you are very much in my way, I will trouble you to leave. Sorry to speak so plainly."
The stranger gave up the contest. Without another word he put on his hat and walked out of the office. Directly he had gone Temple proceeded to unlock his safe.
Now what did all this mean, he asked himself. Naturally he had some queer people to deal with from time to time, but never anybody more out of the common than his recent visitor. It occurred to him in an uncomfortable way that he had allowed his sense of humour to carry him just a little too far. It was all very well to treat this man with careless good humour, but at the same time he had his employer's interests to consider. It was just possible that the story as to the MS. had been trumped up on the spur of the moment. Possibly the intruder was not quite so eccentric as he had appeared to be. Temple pondered the matter over a cigarette.
"Upon my word, I should have called in a policeman," he told himself. "That fellow had no business prowling about the office at this time of night. But yet he doesn't look like a thief, at any rate not like the ordinary type of thief. A genius, probably. If I were a short story writer I could make a good thing out of this. A little far-fetched the average editor would call it. But this real life is generally far-fetched. I could connect this man with—"
An idea suddenly occurred to Temple that caused him to stop communing in this idle way with himself. He dropped his cigarette on the table, where it lay smouldering amongst a heap of papers till the smell of burning recalled him to danger. There was a smile on his lips that was quite serious in spite of its humour. Temple was a firm believer in what is called coincidence. Life was made up of them. In his professional capacity he fought rather shy of them, but then, fiction was one thing and existence as one finds it quite another.
"At any rate, it has the making of a good plot," he muttered. "And nobody would know but myself. Anyway, I'll have a look and see. If this is so, it will be the most romantic thing that ever happened in a newspaper office, and that is saying a lot. And what a story! All to happen in Fleet-street! Who says that romance is dead?"
With a smile for his folly, Temple began to turn over the offerings contained in his desk. He might find that it was an idle fancy, but he was going on. He was particularly busy just now, he was in arrears in his work and now he was going to waste an hour or so reading some wild rubbish which would not be of the slightest use to himself or anybody else. Undoubtedly his visitor had been a lunatic, and it might have been wise in the long run to have handed him over to the custody of the police. And even in the improbable event of Scaff's story being published, it could not possibly appear in the 'Herald,' for the simple reason that Temple was pledged to return it. Still, the natural curiosity of the journalist spurred him on, and there was just the chance that he might be able to find something decidedly out of the common. He sifted the story presently out of a huge pile of other matter, and sat down to read it.
Really, it was not so bad. The descriptive matter was well done, and the writer showed undoubted powers of observation. Evidently he had seen what he was writing about; and it occurred to Temple that he, too, had been somewhere at one time or other in the same rooms which the writer was describing. This to a certain extent was puzzling, but not unduly so, and the story itself had power. It described the love story of a man and woman who were placed by circumstances in quite different walks of life. Once more Temple had the peculiar feeling that he knew all about this. But he put the idea aside without any question. He had read such a tremendous amount of fiction in his time that doubtless these memories were more or less reminiscent. But presently there came little touches and strokes here and there which caused Temple to push the manuscript aside for a moment and think the matter out. He got a clue, presently, but it was a clue so wild and improbable that he smiled at his own imagination. Once more he began to read, and as he turned over the typed pages the mocking smile died from his lips, and his face grew quite serious.
"By Jove!" he muttered to himself. "Has the impossible really happened? But that would be outside the bounds of even the most sensational fiction. Still, the tale is exact as far as it goes. And then there was that anxiety of the author to get the story back again. He must have had some very powerful motive; evidently he was dreadfully afraid of something, and its value would be the same to-morrow as to-night. Now, I wonder when this story came into our hands. That's rather an important matter. Well, I can find that out in a moment. Where is the manuscript book?"
Temple found the volume in question, and fluttered over the pages. It was a book kept in all well-regulated offices in which the manuscripts received were entered, together with the date of receipt and the name of the author. Temple found the entry presently, and saw for himself that the story had reached the office of the 'Herald' nine days ago.
"Upon my word!" he went on to himself. "My theory is working out very well: and, after all, why shouldn't it be the correct one? Truth is supposed to be stranger than fiction; at any rate, it looks like being so in this case. Now, if that manuscript reached this office nine days ago, my eccentric friend Scaff lied to me when he said it came here by mistake. If there had been a mistake he would have found it out long ago. In fact, he would have found it out at the time. And now he comes here wanting his story back in a very great hurry. Anybody would think he had been forging some bills, and that he was desperately anxious to have them back again before the crime came to light. Now, I wonder what Sparrow would say if he knew what was uppermost in my mind? Probably he would regard me as a lunatic. But then, like all policemen, Sparrow has no imagination. Still, I am wasting my time, which I might be occupying in finishing the story. But there is one thing I can say safely—there is nothing I have ever read so interesting before."
With this compliment on the powers of Scaff, Temple plunged into the manuscript pages again. There was not the slightest doubt now of their absorbing interest. He fluttered one sheet over after another in absolute silence until he came at length to a check. It came almost as a shock to him that one of the pages was missing. There were some fifty pages in all, and the author hadn't taken the trouble to fasten them together. Probably by some oversight or carelessness the missing folio had got tucked away towards the end of the narrative. But though Temple sorted them out carefully, and even went the length of counting them, the lost sheet was nowhere to be found.
"Now, if that isn't exasperating!" Temple muttered. "And as usual in such cases, the story stops at the most enthralling part. I ought to know something about that with all my experience. Still, it all helps my theory, and unless I am greatly mistaken, I shall have a story to tell Sparrow tomorrow which will open the eyes of that astute gentleman. What an extraordinary thing! What an amazing way to come on a clue! If I could only find the missing sheet—why, the whole thing would be as clear as daylight; but until then I must suspend my judgment. I think I'll just glance through the rest of the story—not that that's much good in this incomplete state."
Temple completed his reading presently, then he proceeded to lock up the story again with peculiar care. It was about eleven o'clock the next morning when he went round to the police station with the intention of having a few words with Inspector Sparrow. He found the detective in his office apparently plunged in a condition of the deepest gloom.
"How's the work progressing?" he asked.
"The work isn't progressing at all," Sparrow said dejectedly. "I don't mind telling you, Mr. Temple, that I'm utterly licked. I've been spending the best part of the last twenty-four hours telephoning all over the country. And up to now not a single soul has been near to make any inquiries after the murdered man. It's exactly as I told you. By this time his relatives know all about it, they know just when it happened, and after talking it over they have, of course, made up their minds to lie low. It's any odds that we don't get any help from them."
"But they're not everybody," Temple suggested. "Surely in a big place somebody must have seen suspicious characters lurking about Ponder-avenue. Haven't you had any loafer or passer-by, who saw something the night before last, out of the common?"
"Not a single soul," Sparrow confessed. "Generally in cases like these one is inundated with callers who have all sorts of fairy tales to tell. In nine cases out of ten, they are always lies, or rubbish, still, occasionally, one gets a bit of information which is useful. But on this occasion such callers are conspicuous by their absence. I have absolutely nothing to go upon, Mr. Temple. I haven't even the shadow of a clue. All I can do is to sit here worrying myself and tearing my brain till it is in a state of absolute fog."
"That's bad," Temple said sympathetically. "You found out nothing fresh from the study, then?"
"Absolutely nothing. I'm going down there this morning to have another look round and to form a hope that I might have overlooked some trifle or another."
"Ah, in that case I'll come with you," Temple said briskly. "I couldn't manage it yesterday, but I have a little more time upon my hands now. Let us get there at once and see if I can try my hand at the game. By the way, you haven't destroyed anything, have you? No papers, or anything of that kind?"
"My dear sir," Sparrow said irritably, "we've destroyed nothing; we never do. Not so much as the end of a lucifer match. But you will be able to see that for yourself. But come along, if you are ready. We might just as well be pottering about the study as wasting time here."
Temple smiled discreetly, but said nothing. Once in the study he glanced eagerly at the table. So far, as Sparrow had asserted, nothing had been disturbed, and everything lay exactly as it had been at the time of the discovery of the tragedy.
Temple walked across to the table where the pile of papers lay, and glanced through them eagerly. He smiled presently with the air of a man who has found something to his satisfaction. Then he placed the mass of papers on the table.
"Now, I want you to look through these carefully," he said. "You remember the night before last looking at a typed sheet of paper which was evidently a part of a story, and suggesting that Mr. Gilray had been trying his hand at fiction. Now, unless I am greatly mistaken, you will find that odd sheet of paper with number 46 on the top of it. If that is so, then I've got something important to say. If it isn't, then I must apologise for arousing your unnecessary curiosity."
There was something impressive in the way in which Temple said this, and Sparrow's attention was arrested. Quite anxiously he turned over the papers until he came at length to the odd sheet which Sparrow had mentioned.
"That's right enough," he said. "I don't know what you mean, but this piece of paper is certainly number 46."
Temple's eyes gleamed triumphantly. "Got it," he cried, "I knew I was right. Come round to my office at once. In an hour's time you will go off and arrest Mr. Gilray's murderer."
"Is the man mad?" Sparrow exclaimed.
"Not a bit of it," Temple replied. "I'll tell you the man's name, if you like. He is called Edward Seymour Scaff, and he is to be found at 99 Sarsenet-street, Borough."
Sparrow regarded Temple with a certain bland toleration. The amateur detective was by no means a new genius to him. The idea that Temple had succeeded when he had failed was not to be tolerated for a moment. Temple had some idea of what was passing through his mind. It occurred to him to draw Sparrow on for the moment.
"Are you a believer in coincidences?" he asked.
"No, I'm not, sir," Sparrow said shortly. "This isn't the detective mystery of a book; it's real life. In books something always happens at the critical moment—somebody comes along out of nowhere and puts the matter right. This isn't a book, Mr. Temple. I almost wish it was. But who's this Scaff, anyway?"
"I've just told you," Temple said gravely. "He is Edward Seymour Scaff, and he lives at Sarsenet-street, as I have already told you. By profession he is a writer of fiction, and very good fiction, too. The mystery to me is that I haven't heard of him before. He came to me very late last night more than anxious to secure the return of a story that he had sent to me for consideration. He was so anxious to get it that he actually broke into the office in his eagerness. I wouldn't let him have the story back for obvious reasons—mainly because I had not read it. When I did read it, and found that one, if not two, sheets were missing from the yarn—"
"What has this to do with the murder of Mr. Gilray?" Sparrow asked.
Temple smiled as he lighted a cigarette.
"That is for you to find out," he said. "You asked me to run my eyes over some typed stuff, obviously fragments of a story lying about Mr. Gilray's study. I did so. Beyond all question they are part of the story that Scaff was so anxious to get back from me. Now do you not begin to see the connection between the two?"
An explanation of pleasure and approval came from Sparrow's lips.
"Are you absolutely certain of this, Mr. Temple?" Sparrow asked.
"As certain as one can be of any thing," Temple replied. "Now let me recall the facts for you. In our investigations in Ponder-avenue we came across what appeared to be part of a story. You gave me a page of typed matter to read, and it seemed familiar to me."
"But you hadn't read the story the man Scaff came after at that time, sir."
"Not properly. But I must have what we call 'tasted' it. Probably I had glanced over it and put it aside for further consideration. I have to read so many that I forget. All the same, little fragments remain locked up in some secret chamber of the brain. Anyway, when you asked me to read that stuff at Ponder-avenue it struck a familiar chord. But just for a moment we will put this psychological problem aside. I do read some fragments of a story in Ponder-avenue and it strikes me as familiar. When my mysterious friend called on me in that unorthodox manner last night, positively aching to get his story back, I was naturally curious to see what he had written. I did read it, only to find a page or two missing. Even then just for a moment I didn't connect the events together. It flashed across me suddenly. Depend upon it, this man Scaff could tell us everything."
"It certainly is a most extraordinary clue," Sparrow said thoughtfully. "Just like a book, sir. At the very moment when we are at our wits' end to know what to do next we blunder on a clue that nearly dazzles us. Still there are flaws in it."
"So there are in everything," Temple said impatiently. "What do you mean?"
"Now, don't you get annoyed with me Mr. Temple," Sparrow said soothingly. "I'm greatly obliged to you, and it seems to me that you have done some good work. But that's not exactly the point for the moment. What do you make of this man Scaff?"
"He struck me as being eccentric, a little mad, perhaps. But, then, so many queer people are always in and out of an editor's office. All the freaks in the neighbourhood seem to gather there."
"Not a foreigner by any chance?"
"Oh, I fancy so. The name sounds odd, but the man was Continental all right. He was excitable and over-strung, and decidedly neurotic—just what you might expect from an author or poet."
"And he could have had his MS. back in the ordinary way?"
"Of course he could. He had only to call or write and his story would have been given up at once. Why he tried to steal his own property is a mystery to me."
"Then he didn't show any signs of violence?"
"Not at all. He didn't strike me as a man to be the least afraid of. He didn't even seem to realise that he was doing wrong. When he realised that he couldn't have the story he went off quietly."
"Giving you his name and address, of course?"
"Yes, but I didn't need to ask that, because I knew that it would be on the story, as it was."
"And that is about all you have to say, Mr. Temple?" Sparrow asked.
"Well, yes, I think so," Temple said thoughtfully. "No, by Jove, it isn't. I had almost forgotten one rather important factor in the case. The man lied deliberately when he said that he had deposited the story with us a day or two ago, probably within eight and forty hours. When I came to turn out the MS. I found that it had been in our custody for quite nine days."
Sparrow's eyes glistened. For some reason this information seemed to please him.
"Good," he said softly. "Our man doesn't appear to be such an innocent after all. I suppose you would be able to prove this, if necessary?"
"My dear sir, I can prove it beyond the shadow of a doubt," Temple said emphatically. "Our system for dealing with MSS. is perfect. Every story or article that comes in is entered with the name and address and date in a book, and everything is read in proper rotation. I looked in the book on purpose to see. On this piece of evidence you can rely implicitly."
Sparrow pondered over the reply for a thoughtful moment. Here was something like progress at last.
"In that case Scaff lied deliberately to you," he said. "The reason does not matter for the moment; the lie is sufficient for our purpose. The fellow wanted to blind you to the fact that the story had been in your office for days. Knowing nothing of your business methods, he would imagine that there would be no difficulty in blinding you on this point. A part of the story—a small part, it is true—we find in Mr. Gilray's flat. How it got there, and why, we need not inquire into at the moment. Directly Gilray is murdered this fellow Scaff finds it of vital importance that he should get his story back from your office. Why? Probably he wanted to destroy it. Anyway, the motive was very urgent, or a timid, nervous chap like that would never have risked the role of a burglar. I think on the whole that this in some way connects him with the murder. When I have read that story carefully I shall be able to say more about it. Is it a good story?"
"From the literary point of view, excellent," Temple smiled. "In the ordinary course of things I should most certainly have accepted and published it. Now, what are you going to do?"
"Find out something about this fellow Scaff," Sparrow replied. "Go and hunt him up. It may be some days before I do anything definite. You see what my intention is."
"Oh, quite," Temple said. "You don't want to spoil everything by frightening your man. But there is one rather important detail you have forgotten."
"Is there?" Sparrow asked. "And what is that?"
"That I promised to return the story to Scaff at once. He was evidently under the impression that I was not very suspicious of him, and probably went away with the idea that I had forgiven his conduct. But please to remember that he was sickeningly anxious to get the MS. back. If I don't return it he will be sure to get an attack of nerves. Should this happen you will have a far more difficult game to play. You must see how necessary the return of the story is."
Sparrow admitted candidly enough that he had overlooked the point. In a puzzling and unconventional case like this a slip or two was pardonable. Whatever else happened the fears of Scaff must be lulled to sleep. And yet the retention of the story was all-important.
"I shall have to see it, at any rate," he said. "Could you get a copy for me?"
"Oh, I could get a copy made for you all right," Temple said. "You may be pretty sure that Scaff will destroy the original as soon as it comes into his hands again. But I fancy that I can suggest a better idea than that. Why not send the copy back to Scaff and keep the original?"
Sparrow welcomed the suggestion warmly.
"Really, that is a brilliant idea of yours, sir," he said. "But won't Scaff know?"
'"Why should he know? The story is on ordinary standard typing paper, and is the work of a Codrington. It is amateur work, and there are a good many corrected mistakes here and there, but these can be copied. The forgery can be smeared and soiled here and there and sent back. Scotland Yard ought to be up to a little thing like that. I'll bring the story round to your office this afternoon, if you like."
Sparrow expressed his hearty thanks. He had found Mr. Temple exceedingly useful in this matter: in fact, he was glad of the opportunity to say so. If anything happened in the matter of Scaff he would make it his business to let Temple know. The 'Herald' had helped him in the matter, and he was eager to help the 'Herald' in return. But so far as he could see, there was no likelihood of anything for some little time in the nay of sensational developments. It would probably be necessary to watch Scaff for some time to come.
On the whole, Temple was not sorry to be alone. He had pushed this mystery as far as he could, there was no chance of anything for the 'Herald' out of it for some days to come, and, besides, he had other matters to occupy his attention. Those missing letters from his desk, for instance.
It was idle to speculate as to how they had been stolen. The fact remained that they were stolen, and that Lady Silverdale was being worried to death over them. And Phil was none the less anxious because he was by no means blameless in the matter. He had promised to destroy them, and he had not kept his word. Had he done so all this trouble would have been saved.
Somebody evidently moving in the same set as Elsie Silverdale and himself had stolen the letters and was making the most disgraceful use of them. There was something almost cruelly refined in the way the letters were being returned piecemeal to Lady Silverdale. The whole scheme was worthy of Machiavelli himself. There was one suggestion that Phil dismissed from his mind at once. The man he half suspected had never been inside his room, nor was he ever likely to get a footing there. No doubt some servant had managed to get hold of the letters and subsequently sold them to the blackmailer himself. Phil employed a man to look after his domestic affairs; in fact, he had had several valets the last few years; the difficulty was to get a good one. He turned these over in his mind to try and find the one most likely to have played this trick on him. Some had stayed a mouth or two, others only a week or so. This was little more than idle speculation, and Phil quickly abandoned it.
He had some sort of a clue, although a very faint one. He turned some little scraps out of the envelope that Lady Silverdale had given him, and spread them out on a sheet of tissue paper. From their fragrant odour there was a difficulty in deciding what they were. They were little scraps of flake tobacco that had evidently fallen from a pipe or cigarette into the envelope, no doubt overlooked by the rascally blackmailer in his hurry to get the letter posted.
"This disposes of the theory that the blackmailer is a woman," Phil told himself. "Women who have the entree into society do not smoke pipes, and no one would smoke a cigarette made of such strong tobacco. Only a strong man with good nerves could do it. The ashes came from a cigarette, or they would not be quite so dry and fine. I'll take this to Negretti in Bond-street, and get him to tell me what tobacco it is. He'll know."
As a matter of fact, Negretti did. He gave the ash a name without the slightest hesitation.
"This came from Borneo," he said. "There is no sale for it here, so I may definitely say that it has been specially imported. Oh, yes, the ash came from a cigarette all right. There are very few men who would smoke it without an admixture of something else. The cigarette would be specially made; in fact, we have made some for casual customers."
"Could you give me the names?" Phil asked.
Negretti hesitated just for a moment, and Phil followed up his advantage.
"I am not asking you to betray any secrets," he said. "As a matter of fact, I am looking for somebody who smokes cigarettes made of that particular kind of Borneo tobacco. This is a very important business, Mr. Negretti, and anything you tell me will be treated in confidence."
"I quite believe that, sir," the tobacconist said. "I know you for a gentleman, and a good customer of mine. As a matter of fact, I can't give you the information you want at the moment. Every special order of this kind is entered in a book with the name of the customer for future reference. That's the way we keep in touch with them, and remind them of our existence when they seem to have forgotten us. If you will look in the day after to-morrow we shall he able to give you the information you require, sir."
Phil was content to let it go at that. He had no desire to spoil everything by over-eagerness. He called round to see Sparrow at Scotland Yard later in the afternoon with the MS. of Scaff's story.
"There you are," he said. "You can read it carefully for yourself, and see what you can make of it. Possibly I have formed a theory which I intend to keep to myself for the present. When can I have this back? If the man happens to call for it to-morrow—"
"He won't do that," said Sparrow gravely. "That is the last thing in the world you have to be afraid of. But to make sure, you shall have the copy early to-morrow. But Scaff won't call."
"Why are you so positive about that?" Phil asked.
"Because he dare not," Sparrow responded. "I've had a bit of a set-back, Mr. Temple. I have not had time to go as far as 99 Sarsenet-street myself, but I sent one of my men to make inquiries. It isn't a private house, as we expected, but a little news and tobacco shop where they take in letters. It's quite a tiny place in a back street, and the people are poor and respectable. Nobody named Scaff lives there, and the name is not known at it."
"But the story was sent from there."
"It does not in the least follow. Because the story was to be sent there in case of rejection, it does not stand as a matter of course that Sarsenet-street is a permanent address. People who take in letters at a penny each frequently do not know whom they are for. They have not been previously advised that a letter is coming addressed to a certain person. The postman leaves a letter there, and it is placed on a rack. Presently Jones or Smith walks in and asks for a letter addressed in a certain way. If the letter is there he takes it, pays his penny, and there is an end of it. Some people use the shop regularly, others dodge from place to place. There are hundreds of little tradesmen doing this kind of thing in London in their eagerness to get a living, and a terrible nuisance to Scotland Yard they are. Your man does not seem to be such a fool as he looked."
Temple nodded moodily. He had not expected this.
"But the fellow has to get the story back," he urged. "He has to call for it at Sarsenet-street. It is the only possible way that he can regain possession of his property. If these people are as honest as you say they are, we shall track him easily."
Sparrow responded that he had not overlooked this point. Evidently he seemed to be convinced that he had a very daring and original criminal to deal with. In all probability he would not come for the story at all. He would recognise that the game was up, and make the best of his loss. That he would never show up near Sarsenet-street Sparrow felt certain.
"I'll keep a close watch," he said. "For the present we can do no more. I'll read the story, and you shall have your forged copy early in the morning."
The morning came with the copy of the story so neatly followed as to please even the fastidious eyes of Phil Temple, accustomed as he was to details of that kind. He placed it at once in an official envelope and despatched it to Sarsenet-street without a moment's delay. The rest of the day was a busy one—far too busy to give him an opportunity of communicating with Sparrow even on the telephone. He had wasted the best part of two days, and was slogging hard to catch up with them. Even then he had to stick it late into the evening, and at the office next day before the rest of the staff arrived. He had broken the best part of it by breakfast-time, and was reclining bark in his easy chair smoking a cigarette when Sparrow was announced. For once the genial-looking inspector appeared to be put out.
"What's the matter?" Phil asked. "What's the latest calamity? If you go about looking like that we shall lose all our confidence in Scotland Yard."
"Oh, I keep a smiling face for the public," Sparrow said, grimly. "But I've had a bit of a shock this morning, and I don't mind admitting it to you, sir. It seemed to me that I had foreseen everything in connection with this confounded case, but I'm wrong. You sent that copy to Sarsenet-street?"
"Early yesterday morning," Phil explained. "I posted it myself."
"Well, I'm glad to hear that, at any rate," Sparrow said with a sigh of relief. "The chap who got it will be quite easy in his mind as far as the 'Herald' is concerned, and he will not have the slightest fear that he has aroused your suspicion. And I'll take my oath he will be sure that he's got his original MS. back again."
"But has he got it back again?" Phil asked. "Did he call to-day? And if he did, you have taken pretty good care that he was followed."
"Now that is just where the whole scheme falls to the ground," Sparrow said woefully. "That chap played a game that nobody could possibly have foreseen. He's got his copy back again, and so far as I am concerned I haven't the faintest idea where he is."
"But didn't you follow him, Inspector?"
"My dear sir, he never gave us the opportunity. For a wild genius of the long-haired type he seems to be pretty wide awake. He probably concluded that the story would be posted about the time that your office closed—that is about half-past five. This is the usual course of things?"
"Generally," Phil said. "At least generally with the 'Weekly Herald' letters."
"Just so. You would follow the usual custom. So far so good, sir. Now letters posted about six or so are delivered if they are local the same night. In the ordinary course of things that letter would reach Sarsenet-street about 9 o'clock. It probably did. That would be after the shop was closed. There was the letter waiting for the owner in the morning. But the owner would argue that the policeman would be waiting outside in the morning, and follow him. They were waiting outside in the morning. He would know that they would not pass the night in the chance of seeing him there. That's just where his artfulness comes in. He waits to get the letter at a time when the shop isn't watched."
"Which is quite impossible," Phil murmured.
"Now that is exactly where you are wrong, sir," Sparrow said, with an air of gloomy triumph. "What's the matter with burgling the shop?"
"Burgling the shop!" Phil exclaimed.
"Precisely, sir. Quiet street, shop door none too safe. A skeleton key or two and a jemmy, and there you are. That's exactly what happened, Mr. Temple. The till was taken, with a few shillings in it, but that was all a blind. The same thing happened in the case of one or two trumpery silver purses and the like. Subsequently, found them all not very far off. I went down to have a look in a casual kind of way, because I began to understand just what had happened. The thing might have been a coincidence of course, but it did not occur to me in that light. The whole affair was got up to obtain possession of that letter. I felt pretty sure that it would be there by this time. I couldn't find it, and that's why I came here. Our friend, the genius, has got the story back, and left no trace behind."
Temple had some difficulty in repressing a smile. Apparently they had something more than a genius to deal with here. The wild visionary appeared to be a man of infinite resource. He had baffled the police by this act of unexpected daring, he had got clean away. All the same the situation had its compensations. Scaff was not in possession of his original story, as he firmly imagined, which was something. But why had he taken all these extraordinary pains and risks to regain possession of an apparently innocent story! What was there in the story likely to lead to the discovery of the crime in Ponder-avenue?
"Have you read the tale very carefully?" Phil asked.
"I've read it three or four times," Sparrow confessed. "And I'm bound to admit that I see nothing in it to make all this fuss about. Looks to me as if your genius did not lack courage. I should like to know why he has taken all these risks."
"So should I," Phil remarked gravely. "Look here, Sparrow, you had better let me have another go at the story. I'm an expert at this game, and I may detect something that is hidden from you. You read this story as a story. I shall read it for hidden meaning for the style, and all that kind of thing. You need special knowledge to tackle a problem like this. Can I have it?"
Sparrow was only too pleased to promise the story. It should be sent round to Mr. Temple's chambers by a special messenger that very afternoon.
"And I'll spend the whole evening over it," Phil said. "I've got nothing on to-night, and a quiet evening will be a bit of a change for me. Come and see me again to-morrow."
Temple despatched the rest of his work, and made his way as far as the Lotus Club. He would be pretty sure to find a goodly number of literary men there at this hour of the day, and it was just possible that he could pick up some useful information. It occurred to him that there were other editors who might be better acquainted with the work of Scaff than himself. He nodded genially to a score of men as he dropped into a chair and ordered his tea. The first mention of the name of Scaff drew a ready response from the editor of 'The Weekly Messenger.'
"Not at all bad work," he said. "I'd like some if I could get it."
Phil listened with a certain respect for the speaker's opinion. 'The Messenger' was one of the best and brightest of the weekly panels, and enjoyed an immense circulation. Sutton, the editor, had had the handling of matters there for over twenty years, and he spoke with authority.
"A queer sort of chap, isn't he?" he asked.
Sutton looked up with a frightened expression in his face.
"What do you mean by a chap," he asked. "Made a mistake, haven't you?"
"Well, he was in my office a day or two ago," Phil replied. "He wanted an MS. back. Struck me as being a very eccentric type of genius."
"My dear fellow," Sutton said. "Scaff isn't a man. It's a woman. And a very pretty one at that. I ought to know, seeing that she was in my office once some time ago. It was only once she came, but I have not forgotten her."
It was a staggering surprise for Phil.
It had never occurred to him for a moment that he had not all this time been dealing with the actual writer of the mysterious story. The editor of the 'Messenger' had flooded him with a new light that was absolutely blinding. In its way the information was valuable enough, but at the same time it opened up a field for speculation that seemed limitless. A few more surprises like this and anything like an early solution would be hopeless.
Phil glanced at the successful editor opposite him, hesitating as to whether or not he should tell him everything. The temptation was great, but the necessity for prudence was greater. At any rate he would feel his way more or less carefully. Sutton apparently had no suspicions of any kind he appeared to regard the question as an ordinary piece of 'shop.' As a rule the men at the Lotus talked very little else. A great many reputations were made and marred in the smoking-room there.
"I have always understood that Scaff was a man," Phil said.
"My dear chap," Sutton said confidently. "I have already given you an assurance to the contrary. I am the one editor in London who makes a leading feature of new talent. Most of you people don't take the faintest interest in the individuality of your writers. They come and they go, and you pay them, and there is an end of it. If they drop away from you, you never try to get in touch with them again. Your leading fiction and your serial comes from some popular fictionist at so much a thousand, and there is an end of it. I liked the work of 'E. S. Scaff' from the first. I let him know that I could do with a good deal more of it. He wrote a masculine letter in a business way, but little touches here and there told me that I had a woman to deal with. I laid a little trap for her, and she came to the office."
"She wasn't personating anybody else, Sutton?"
Sutton pulled a little impatiently at his cigarette.
"Of course she wasn't," he said curtly. "Think I don't know? She knew all her own characters by heart. They were her children, and she loved them. You won't understand till you've had my experience, my boy."
"I've got to," Phil laughed. "Go on. I'm really interested."
"Well, we had a long talk. I had published a few of her stories then, mind you. I wanted her to take on a serial, but she did not see her way to it. Said she did not know how long she would be in England, and that her movements were very uncertain. She must have had powerful reasons for declining my offer, for I could see how pleased she was."
"Where did she live?" Phil asked.
"Ah, my boy!" Sutton exclaimed. "You know more than you pretend to know. That was one of the mysteries about the girl. She never had the same address for a month. Each time I wrote her it was to some fresh place—and not particularly good addresses at that. Letter-shops, I should imagine. And she was a lady, too. If you can put me in touch with her again—"
"Well, that's more than possible," Phil said. "I shouldn't wonder if I could. I suppose you never managed to get at her real name?"
Sutton chuckled with the air of a man well pleased with himself.
"I did," he said; "at least partly. I laid a little trap for her, and she more or less fell in it. But she seemed to realise at the last moment what I was driving at, and stopped. Those pretty little foreign ways of hers were very charming."
"Hullo!" Phil cried. "What are you driving at? She's no foreigner. No foreigner would ever have the trick of style that she's got."
Phil spoke in an ocular way mainly to hide his excitement. These casual words dropped by Sutton had given him more light. He was progressing rapidly.
"Foreigner, all the same, my boy," Sutton said solemnly. "Quite a touch of accent. A very clever girl, I can assure you. There are some people who pick up our language wonderfully. And little Esme Edward Seymour Scaff was one of them."
Esme! The name struck Phil like a flash. Why, that was the name of John Gilray's late servant, the one who had come from Vienna. A foreigner! This would account naturally for the finding of that sheet of MS. in Gilray's flat. Here was something to go upon with a vengeance! Phil wondered how much Sutton was guessing. But, apparently, Sutton was guessing nothing, for he lay back in his chair looking up at the ceiling and smoking placidly. Evidently there was nothing at the back of Sutton's mind, indeed, how could there be?
"What was she like to look at?" Temple asked.
"Well, very pretty, slender and fragile and dark—sort of a girl you might blow away with a breath, and yet a girl to stand no nonsense from anybody. You could see that when her eyes flashed. She was the typical girl who succeeds in literature as portrayed by the lady writers in the cheap magazines—rather a favourite character she has been of recent years. Writes a novel to support an aged mother, gets it published in a week, and in a month is a popular favourite."
Phil smiled at the sketchy plot—he knew it so well from experience.
"About twenty-five, I should say," Sutton went on. "I gathered that she had had a bad time through a good deal of trouble. There were times that prevented her from writing regularly."
"I suppose you saw her a good many times."
"Only that once," Sutton explained. "I could never get her to come again. I had no further stories from her, and, so far as I am concerned, the episode is finished."
"I've got a story of hers in my possession now," Phil said.
"Really! Well, that's too bad of her. I treated her very well, and I think that I should have had the offer if she is beginning again. Still, I don't bear any malice, and I'm not jealous. If you ever do get a chance, perhaps you'll remember me kindly to her."
Phil gave the desired assurance. He wondered what Sutton would say if he knew everything. He hesitated just a moment as to whether he might not tell him a little more. But Sutton appeared not to have the faintest idea of the seriousness of the conversation. It was no more to him than a general chat in connection with a subject that formed part of his daily life.
"You keep an eye on that girl," he said. "If she is getting to work in earnest there is no reason why she should not do something big one of these days. At the same time, I don't see why she has left me out in the cold like this. Are you going?"
Phil muttered something to the effect that he had work to do. As a matter of fact, he wanted to be alone so that he could think out this new complication. So far as he could see, there was no reason whatever to doubt a single word that Sutton had said. And Sutton was far too old a hand to be deceived by anyone passing as a literary person with some other writer's work to place. The more Phil turned the matter over in his mind the more certain was he that the writer of the mysterious story was a woman. And granting this argument, who was the wild, excited man who called himself Scaff? And why had somebody gone to the length of burgling the little shop in Sarsenet-street to get the story back?
"Never was there a plot in a novel so complicated as this," he told himself as he made his way slowly and thoughtfully home. "The more I find out, the more puzzled I get. It seems to me that I have established the fact that 'E. S. Scaff' is Esme, the servant who looked after the flat of the murdered man Gilray. That girl's name was Esme, and she comes from abroad. But she is supposed to be dead—she died at Ponder-avenue, and Jane Martin took her place. What a tangle it all is!"
There was nothing for it but to make a sketch plot and put it down on paper. At the end of an hour's careful study, Phil was feeling more fogged than ever. If the girl called Esme was dead, then she could not possibly be the Esme who had written the story. But was she dead? Jane Martin had said so, but her evidence on this point was sketchy. Temple tried to remember exactly what she had said when Sparrow had questioned her on this point. She had not been pressed for any details, because at the time the death of Jane Martin's predecessor did not seem in the least to matter. But now that events had gone so far, and so many amazing facts had come to light, further investigations were vital. Jane Martin had merely said that Esme, whoever she was, had died at the flat, and Martin had taken her place. Had there been a funeral, and did Martin know anything about it? Had she attended the dying girl, and was not there some doctor who could throw light on the darkness?
On the whole it might be assumed, for the sake of argument that Esme had not died at all. There must have been some reason for spiriting her away from the flat in such a way as to baffle pursuit. Such things had happened before now, and there was no reason why they should not happen again. Besides Jane Martin, who was a plain, honest domestic, everybody connected with the flat was mysterious. John Gilray was the centre of a mystery, Esme Scaff—to give her a name—seemed to have taken the most extraordinary pains to keep herself in the background; witness the fact that she had changed what might be called her literary address so often. And the man who called himself Scaff had the same morbid objection to standing out in the daylight. In all the complicated plots that Phil had ever come across he could not remember one so tangled as this.
Well it was no use to sit there idly speculating as to what was on the other side of the blank wall. He would have to make some endeavour to climb it. It was just possible that the story might afford him some kind of inspiration. He lighted his pipe and turned on the electric light, then he took the story from his desk and laid it on the table. He would read it if necessary a dozen times, and if it contained any hidden meaning he meant to find it.
He would go down the next day to Jane Martin's house, a little way out of London, and find out things for himself. He had something to go on now as far as Martin was concerned. It was just possible that she might have something of importance to say. For the present he would keep his most recent discoveries to himself and leave Sparrow to go his own way. The two separate lines of investigation might converge at a critical moment. Sparrow had seemed more specially bent upon getting at the antecedents of John Gilray, in which Phil wished him luck. So far not a soul had turned up to testify to the dead man's past, and it looked as if nobody would. Either Gilray's friends did not know that he was dead or they suspected something and were keeping quiet. On that point Sparrow had been quite cynical, and it looked as if he were right. No doubt there was some scandal behind all this that Gilray's relatives wished to keep quiet.
"Why am I worrying myself about this?" Phil asked himself testily. "All that is in Sparrow's department, and does not concern me at all. I've got quite enough to do here as it is. I hope whoever it is who is ringing the front door bell does not want me."
He spread out the story and began to read, going over one paragraph after another with the greatest care. It was quite good work and fascinating in itself, but it gave Phil a sense of irritation and defeat. He had quite expected to find some hidden meaning here. He read four pages that brought him to the end of the first chapter, which finished it the bottom of one of the typed pages.
"Something seems to be left out here," he muttered. "Just a little careless, I should say. Now if the heroine had really meant what she said, it is impossible—Good heavens! Elsie, is that you?"
"Yes, Phil," Lady Silverdale said quietly, "It is I."
Lady Silverdale stood in the doorway with a suggestion of hesitation and timidity about her. There was a spot of colour on her cheeks, a gleam of surprised excitement in her eyes.
"They told me you were in," she said. "I had to come, Phil. Are you offended with me?"
There was something in the pleading tone of the question that touched Temple. He was very jealous of the woman's good name, he loved her far too well to see her exposed to the faintest breath of scandal. And perhaps she read something of this in his questioning eyes.
"I had to come, dear," she said. "Something strange and unexpected has happened, and—"
"Stop a minute," Phil interrupted. "Did you give your name downstairs?"
"Oh, you need not be anxious about that, dear. I saw the light in your window, and I—I told them that you were expecting me on business. I had my veil down, and did not give my name. If you are angry with me—"
"My dearest girl, as if I could be angry with you." Phil murmured. "I am only jealous for your good name and reputation. And one never quite knows what Silverdale will be up to. You can imagine how he would welcome an episode like this."
"Oh, I know, I know," Lady Silverdale said passionately. "But he is far away. He is off on one of his disgraceful expeditions, and is not likely to trouble us for some time. I had to come, Phil."
"Well, now you have come do sit down, Elsie," Phil smiled. "Are you in any trouble?"
"No, it isn't trouble. It is a mystery that puzzles me greatly. It all arises out of a letter and parcel that reached me by post this afternoon. Here is the letter. Read it."
Elsie Silverdale produced from the pocket of her big coat a letter which she handed over to Temple. It was a sheet of plain business paper without address, having no signature. It was typed, too, which gave it a more cold and formal appearance.
Though you are an absolute stranger to me, except by sight, I have painful evidence to the effect that you are, like myself, a deeply injured and unhappy woman. That you are the victim of circumstances, I am assured. That I also am the victim of circumstances, I want you to believe.
From the bottom of my heart I am sorry for you; if you know my circumstances from the bottom of your heart you would be sorry for me. But our troubles—yours and mine—are nearly at an end, as you will know more or less definitely before you are many days older.
I dare not go into details. I dare not mention names. There is a man at the bottom of it, of course. He is poisoning your life and driving me to desperation. But sometimes the unexpected happens, and freedom is in sight.
You will gather this from the box I send you by the same post that conveys this letter. The time has come when you will no longer have to part with your gems and jewels to an absolute rascal who has not even the poor excuse that he needs the money. That he did not need the money the parcel will show you. He robbed you needlessly, he hoarded what he got from you. And I return this, giving you at the same time the full assurance that the persecution is finished. How, you will know before long.
Think tenderly of me as a woman who has suffered much.
Phil read the letter twice thoughtfully. There was a startled expression on his face.
"What is it, Phil?" Lady Silverdale asked. "Do you discover anything there?"
"No, no," Temple said with a fine show of indifference. "Oh, no. A mere coincidence that has nothing to do with the matter. Truly a strange letter, but one that has a woman connected with it."
"I am quite certain of that, Phil."
"Yes, the writer is assuredly in deadly earnest."
"Can't you guess?" she asked. "An editor of your experience should have divined that at once."
Something like a shout came from Phil's lips. The answer suddenly flashed upon him.
"I know," he cried. "I have no earthly right to leap to such a conclusion, but the writer of that anonymous letter has sent your jewels back. Am I not right, Elsie?"
"You have guessed it, Phil. There is not one single article missing. Not only have the jewels come back, but also all the notes that I parted with—I mean bank notes. I felt quite rich when I laid them out on my dressing-table. Isn't it amazing, Phil?"
Temple responded gravely that it was. But there had been so many amazing happenings the last day or so that he took it calmly enough. Besides, his mind was more or less engaged upon another side of the problem. He looked at the letter again, and suspicion became almost certainty.
"You had better let me take care of this," he said. "It would be a great pity to destroy this letter, especially as it may be of great service later on. May I have it?"
"Why not, Phil? If you think that it would be prudent to preserve it, do so by all means. But I must confess that I should like to meet the writer of this letter. I am quite sure that we should have a great deal in sympathy."
Again Temple was thoughtful and silent. He was seeing many things here hidden to his companion. He had no intention of telling her either. A strange fantastic idea had flashed across his mind—one of these cloudy uncertain plots that came before him so often in the office of the 'Herald.'
"There is just one question that I should like to ask you," he said presently. "You say that all the articles of jewellery that you parted with have come back to you. Are you sure?"
"Quite sure, Phil. There is absolutely nothing missing!"
"Think again, Elsie. Think of the night before last, or the night before that—I have forgotten what it is for a moment. You were at the duchess's garden reception. You were to place something on the old sundial there. You did place something on the sundial—a bracelet."
"Something for my blackmailer, you mean. Yes. Go on Phil."
"Well, that was part of the plunder, positively the last bit of loot that blackguard will ever lay hands on. Have you got that back?"
"I had absolutely forgotten it," Lady Silverdale cried. "That hasn't come back, Phil. When I come to think of it, I am absolutely certain that the bracelet was not returned. What a funny thing that you should ask me the question! Why?"
"Oh, it only just occurred to me," Temple said carelessly. "It came into my mind. You can see for yourself that the question has no practical bearing on the case. It was a little rash on your part, Elsie, to come here this evening, but I'm glad you came. It may be premature to conclude that your blackmailer is dead, but he seems at any rate to have lost his power for ever. All the same I am not going to leave any stone unturned to get to the bottom of the matter."
"Phil, I believe that you have discovered something. You have a suspicion."
"No, no," Temple protested. "A general idea, perhaps, but nothing more. I should be almost afraid to argue the matter out as in my own mind, Elsie. I read so many stories that I am becoming a plottist myself, dear. Anyhow, I'll let you know later on if anything does turn up. And now you really must let me see you as far as a taxi. You should be back home by this time."
"And you are sure that you are not angry with me, Phil?"
"My dearest girl, as if I could be angry with you! I am glad you came. I shall get on all the better with my work for hearing this story. Good night, dear."
He took her hand and kissed it tenderly, he placed her in a cab, and returned to his room. As soon as he was alone he took the letter from his pocket.
"What a day it has been," he murmured. "Fancy striking on all these clues one after the other in this amazing fashion! And every one of them leading to the same conclusion. Upon my word, I don't believe that that wild theory or mine is so fantastic after all. I should not dare to mention it to anybody but myself, but I can't get it out of my mind. Here's the same word misspelt and the same queer twisted letter 'e' in the typed copy. And on the top of it come all those jewels back. I'll postpone reading the story till after lunch to-morrow, and in the meantime I'll go and have a little friendly chat with Miss Jane Martin. She may be able to tell me something."
Phil pitched the letter and the story into his desk and went to bed. He had every reason to be satisfied with the progress that he was making now, so that there was no occasion to toss about half the night thinking over it. And if he was right, Elsie was as good as free. The mere suggestion of this set his heart beating faster, and brought the blood to his cheeks. But it was early yet to speculate on this; he put it resolutely from his mind and went to sleep.
It was no difficult matter to obtain the address of Jane Martin. A telephone inquiry at Scotland Yard elicited the desired information. An hour or so later, Phil was standing outside the door of a neat little cottage asking for Jane Martin. She came after a little delay, looking a little white and anxious, her expression became more painful as her eyes fell on Temple.
"You will probably remember me," he suggested.
The girl wetted her dry lips, her eyes were full of a vague shrinking dread. Phil noted the fact that she was gaudily dressed, more expensively dressed than her station called for. She had a long gold chain round her neck, and some four or five rings on her fingers. It was by no means the kind of jewellery one expects from a general servant, whose wages are twenty pounds a year at most.
"I asked if you remembered me," Phil repeated sharply.
The girl seemed to come out of her dream with a start.
"Oh, yes, sir," she said huskily. "I—I couldn't forget you, sir. You were at Ponder-avenue the other night with that gentleman from Scotland Yard, Inspector Sparrow."
"Quite right. Have you seen Inspector Sparrow since, my good girl?"
"'No, sir. There's no occasion, sir, I told him everything there was to tell, I did indeed, sir. It gave me quite a shock when I saw you coming up the garden path. I do hope—"
"Oh, never mind that," Phil went on. "I came to ask you a few questions. I want to know a little more as to the girl who was at Ponder-avenue before you. Did you know her?"
"Well, in a manner of speaking, I did, sir. Only very slightly. She was very ill all the time I was there, and she never left her bed till she died."
"Then you were in the house at the time?"
"Well, I was and I wasn't in a manner of speaking, sir. I was out pretty well all day. The poor girl died in the afternoon, and when I came back they had taken her to the mortuary."
"What a queer course to take!" Phil said. "What a strange thing! Who was the doctor?"
"That I couldn't tell you, sir, as he never called when I happened to be in. You see I had all the work to do and all the errands to run. That kept me pretty busy at the time, sir. I rather fancy that the doctor had some kind of a foreign name."
"And that is all you can tell me?" Phil asked.
With a gasp of relief the girl said that it was. Phil half turned away, and then faced round upon the girl again. His face was stern and grave.
"Where did you get all that jewellery from?" he asked harshly. "Where did the money come from? I must have the truth, and for your own sake, conceal nothing."
For answer the girl covered her face with her hands and burst into tears.
Temple watched the girl for a moment or two in silence. The matter was certainly in his own hands now, and was only a question of patience. That the girl had a story to tell he felt certain. She had managed to conceal something from the sharp eye of Sparrow, or perhaps this evidence of guilt was the outcome of a guilty conscience suddenly overwrought. Anyway, Phil was determined to get to the bottom of it.
"There is nothing whatever to be afraid of so long as you are candid with me," he said. "I am quite certain that you had no hand in this dreadful business."
The girl dabbed hysterically at her eyes. Temple suppressed a smile to see that with all her agitation she was regarding her rings and chain. Evidently the ordinary type of feeble-headed domestic, he thought, with no mind beyond gossip and the enjoyment of the hour. It would be ridiculous to associate her with anything in the nature of premeditated crime.
"I'll swear that it has nothing to do with me, sir," she said. "God knows I had no hand in it. You can ask me as many questions as you like. Won't you come inside?"
Phil hesitated for a moment. He had no inclination for an interview with a vituperative mother full of anger and her daughter's superior virtues.
"There's nobody in the house except myself, sir," the girl went on.
"In that case we had better discuss the matter indoors," Phil said. "Now, I don't want to do you any harm, my good girl, and I am quite sure that you've everything to gain by telling the truth. Better tell me than have it dragged out of you in a court of law. Is there any way in which you can throw a light on Mr. Gilray's death?"
The girl looked Temple fully and frankly in the face.
"Goodness me, no, sir," she said. "I told the detective gentleman everything. There was nothing that I had to conceal, because everything happened just as I said. If you were to stay here talking for a week I couldn't tell you any more."
"But you could tell me something about your predecessor—Esme, I mean."
Once more the startled expression came over the girl's face.
"Not when you and the other gentleman asked me questions," she protested eagerly. "It was since then."
"As a matter of fact, you don't believe that she is dead?"
It was more or less of a shot in the dark, but it told. Jane Martin's face grew white, the agitation of her limbs was marked.
"I—I think not, sir," she stammered. "I thought it was all right till yesterday. I was up in London to see about a situation at the registry office. And I saw her. She sat opposite me in the railway carriage. There were only us two in the compartment. You could have knocked me down with a feather, I was that upset. And me thinking that she was in her grave, poor girl. I thought I should have dropped into a faint to the floor. But I wasn't any whiter than she was. She looked like a ghost, and spoke in words that you could hardly hear. She must have got right off her dying bed to run away. And I told her as much."
"Then you had some sort of a talk?"
"For about five minutes, sir. She didn't tell me much. Only that she was in awful trouble, and I was never to say that I had met her. And that's all."
"She gave you money to keep you quiet," Phil said. "Don't deny it."
The girl was silent under accusation.
"And you bought those rings and that chain with it," Temple went on. "Well, I am not going to blame you for that, because it is no business of mine. It is just possible that I may be able to keep your name out of the case altogether: if you will help me I will endeavour to do so. We will take it for granted that this girl Esme was very ill. You were in her room sometimes?"
"Only once or twice, sir. She didn't give much trouble, and the nurse only came in for the day. The last two days there was no nurse at all."
"Can you tell me the name of the doctor who attended her?"
"A foreign-sounding name—Musgrave. I know his name was Musgrave because I once had to go to his house for a bottle of medicine. It was somewhere in Weaver-street. I don't remember the number, but there is a plate on the door. A young man with a nervous manner."
Temple asked a few more trivial questions, and left well satisfied with his visit. As a matter of fact he had done far better than he had had any right to expect. This evidence was startling—it gave a fresh turn to the mystery, but the evidence that the girl Esme was not dead was clearly established. And Temple hoped to do a good deal later on with Esme. It was no time now to speculate as to why she had left Ponder-avenue in this mysterious manner, but probably the doctor could throw some light on the mystery. Temple made the best of his way to Weaver-street, where he had no difficulty in finding the residence of Dr. Musgrave. It was close upon luncheon when he arrived, and he was so fortunate as to find the doctor in.
It was a small house, none too well furnished, and had every evidence of being the residence of a struggling man. Musgrave's manner was easy and assured, but there was a certain restlessness about him, a queer look of his eyes that told Temple something. There are few doctors who drink, but there are some who are given to the drug habit, and it seemed to Phil that Musgrave was one of them. Overwork and want of sleep are usually the two demons that tempt the doctor to his fate, and Musgrave had his sympathy.
"I have come to ask you a few questions," he said. "I need not ask you if you are acquainted with the details of the Ponder-avenue tragedy, as you had a patient in the house."
"I had." Musgrave said gravely. "A servant who died there."
"Are you quite sure that she is dead?" Phil asked coolly.
A flame of anger spurted into the doctor's eyes. He rose with every sign of indignation.
"I don't know who you are and what you are driving at sir," he said. "But if you came here expecting to get a lot of information out of me by impudent questions, you are mistaken."
"You haven't found my questions impudent," Temple said. "On the contrary, you may find them very pertinent. For instance, did you see the body of your patient after death?"
Musgrave winced slightly, but his attitude was still unfriendly. "Who the dickens are you to come and pester me with questions?" he asked. "Tell me next, I suppose, that you are an official from Scotland Yard."
"No, but I'll tell you what I am," Phil retorted. "I'm Philip Temple, assistant editor of the 'Southern Daily Herald,' also the editor of the 'Weekly,' and I might have some nasty things to say on the subject of doctors' who give death certificates without seeing the body. I'm told that that sort of thing is a good deal more common than people imagine. I might cite you as a case in point and write a leading article. You wouldn't like that, my friend."
Musgrave climbed down as gracefully as possible.
"Its very often done," he said. "Especially when you are sure of your ground and pressed for time. If you know that a case must have a fatal termination—"
"Did you expect a fatal termination in this case? Be candid, Dr. Musgrave."
"Well, to confess the truth, I didn't," the doctor admitted. "There was pneumonia, and one never knows what form that is going to take. If I took this for granted—"
"That is exactly the point that I am trying to get at," Phil said drily. "Your patient gets suddenly worse, and collapses at a time when you were not able to see her. You got a message to say that she is dead, and you give a certificate in the ordinary course of things."
"Where there are no suspicious circumstances, of course. In a case like Ponder-avenue."
"Precisely. Did you get your information from Mr. Gilray?"
"Yes. He telephoned me. I recognised his voice. He told me that the poor girl was dead."
"But so far as I could see there is no telephone connected with the Ponder-avenue establishment."
"As a matter of fact, there isn't," the doctor admitted. "The telephone message probably came from a call office or some tradesman's shop. There was nothing in it to arouse my suspicion, and a collapse at any time was quite within the bounds of possibility. I gave the certificate."
"Then all I can say is that it is a very disgraceful state of things," Phil said warmly. "Does it not occur to you what an awkward position you would stand in if this was made public?"
"You don't imply that the girl isn't dead?" Musgrave retorted.
It seemed to Phil that he was going a little too far. The last thing in the world he desired was a lot of idle gossip on the subject. He might spoil the whole of his delicately laid scheme if he told Musgrave everything that had happened.
"I am not saying anything of the kind," he replied. "I am only pointing out to you what might happen. You have probably taken a considerable interest in the Ponder-avenue case yourself. It does not take a great deal of discernment to see that Mr. Gilray was a man of strange methods and very shadowy antecedents. I only ask you to admit that you have been very careless in the matter. I am the last person in the world to get anybody into trouble, but—"
"You are quite correct," Musgrave said eagerly. "I beg your pardon, sir. I have been working very hard lately, and I have had a deal of trouble besides. I'm one of those wretched people who can't sleep if they are called up two nights running. If you will oblige me—"
"Oh, I shall say nothing," Phil interrupted. "I have my own reasons for inquiring into this case, and after all the girl has little to do with it. You had better forget all about the incident for the moment. Only if you will do your best to help me—"
"Anything you like," Musgrave replied. "Pray command my services at any time."
Phil was quite content to let it go at that. So far as things had gone, he was more than satisfied. It seemed to him that he was getting at the truth in a way that he had not expected. So far everything had fallen out splendidly. It was very evident that the girl Esme was not dead. The doctor's evidence confirmed this, so that Jane Martin was telling the truth. It had been a very good morning's work on the whole, and he was more than satisfied with it.
Somewhere in London was a girl who would presently tell the whole story. And this girl had been a servant in the employ of John Gilray. Presumably, for some reason or other, Gilray had been a party to her disappearing in this strange manner. He had telephoned to the doctor to say that she was dead, and Musgrave had given the necessary certificate. Why?
At the present moment it was quite impossible to say. The girl's name was Esme, and she also came from somewhere abroad. Were they one and the same? And was one or neither of them in any way responsible for Gilray's death? And who was the man who had tried to burgle the office of the 'Herald' and subsequently had burgled the shop in Sarsenet-street.
"I've got plenty to find out yet," Phil muttered.
Phil went back to his room to dinner fairly well satisfied. He felt quite sure of the fact that he was much further advanced than Sparrow. He had nothing definite to go upon, of course, but he was putting a very pretty theory together. Possibly a further perusal of the story might enlighten him. He read it again with a strange feeling that it was not finished. There were gaps here and there, especially in one place, as if the writer had meant to make it longer, then changed his mind. Clever as it was as a work of art, it lacked balance. At least two more chapters were needed to make it perfect in the eyes of a good editorial critic.
Phil pondered over this with a cigarette in his mouth. He gazed at the sheets with speculative eyes. A pile of ash dropped on the uppermost page, and Temple flicked it off. A tiny fragment seemed to attach itself to the number on the top of the folio and he dusted it off with his finger. It seemed to him that the paper was rather rough and uneven just there. As he made a closer examination under the brilliant rays of the electric light he smiled.
"I've got it right," he muttered. "At this point something has been left out. The chapter numbers here have been altered also. The figures have been rubbed out and retyped. There were words blocked out in the copy, too, and one of them looked like a proper name. I'll get a glass."
Under a strong magnifying glass the evidence of the alteration became still more marked. Up to twenty pages there was no sign of erasure, after it every page numbered had been altered, and the same applied to the numerals at the tops of the chapters. Here and there a name had been blotted out, and by the aid of the glass Phil could see that the name had been Paul Taylor. For some reason or another 'Paul Taylor' had been deleted from the story entirely.
"Now, I wonder where the rest of those pages have gone?" Phil asked himself. "They must have been taken out for some powerful reason. As a matter of fact, the omission has not improved the story at all—on the contrary. So clever a writer must have recognised the fact. Might it not be just possible that the deleted sheets were still at Ponder-avenue? Very few authors throw away matter they have written, and it's long odds the sheets I am after have been kept to form the foundation of quite another story. I wonder if—"
Phil crossed over to the telephone with the intention of getting in touch with Sparrow. It was some little time before he did so, but he managed it at length. Sparrow was just a little dubious.
"You want to have the key of the flat at Ponder-avenue?" he asked. "Well, Mr. Temple, you must know that the request is quite unusual."
"So are the circumstances," Phil retorted. "My dear fellow, I don't want to go there out of anything like idle curiosity. I am more or less acting with you in this matter. I've made what I deem to be an important discovery and I want to verity it. I've picked up some evidence to-day that will fairly startle you when you hear it, old hand at the game as you are. Please don't let any red-tape stand in the way, Sparrow."
"Well, I suppose you must have your own way, sir." Sparrow said, none too eagerly. "You had better not go there in the day time. If you'll come round here to-morrow afternoon I'll let you have the key to the front door."
"That's very good of you," Phil said. "By the way when are they going to bury Gilray?"
"We haven't fixed the funeral yet. The body is still in the house, as you know. Naturally we don't want to have any funeral till we are quite certain that there is no chance of the body being identified by the poor fellow's friends. Say another week. Why?"
"Oh, only a little idea of mine," Phil said. "I'll come round for the key tomorrow."
Temple put up the story and went to bed. If his theory was correct, then everything was going to turn out for the best.
He called the next afternoon on Lady Silverdale on the chance of finding her at home. She was having lunch alone, and pressed him to join her. She looked a shade less anxious than usual, and greeted him with a smile of welcome. They sat over their coffee presently, and Phil was permitted a cigarette.
"There have been no further developments?" Phil asked. "No more anonymous letters?"
"Not since the night at the Duchess of Harringay's," Elsie said. "The mysterious events following that night have occupied a deal of my attention, Phil. The more I think it over the more mysterious it seems. I was wondering if it was not a trap of some kind."
"I don't think so," Phil said thoughtfully. "I should say that the writer was in earnest. She has evidently suffered from the effects of some scandal. By the way, what about that bracelet? Did that come back with the rest of your valuables?"
"No, it didn't," Lady Silverdale said.
"I looked very carefully to see. That is by no means the least strange of the happenings. Why do you ask, Phil?"
Temple evaded the question. He had discovered exactly what he was after, and the fact sufficed. As a matter of fact, he was glad to hear this—it all tended to confirm his theory.
"I quite believe that your blackmailing friend is dead," he said. "Had his death been delayed just a little longer, you would probably have got your bracelet back. He hadn't sufficient time to put it away with the rest of what I call stolen property. Upon my word, it is a strange case, Elsie. One can understand a blackmailer and his methods, but usually he runs his risks for money."
"He had money and jewellery from me," Lady Silverdale said bitterly.
"Yes, but you tell me it has all come back. It looks as if the ruffian had no need for cash. If so, he would not have saved up everything he got from you in that secret and careful manner. Anyway, I am pretty certain that you will not hear from him again."
Lady Silverdale sincerely hoped not. Her troubles recently had been almost more than she could bear. She had heard nothing from her husband, and had not the least idea where he was.
"I am not seeking information," she said, coldly. "I should not get it if I needed it ever so badly. Those strange absences of Silverdale are the one bright spot in my life. If he did not leave me like this every now and then I think that I should go mad. The one drawback is that he may return at any moment. He always keeps me in a constant state of suspense."
Phil muttered something under his breath. It seemed to him a cruel thing that a good and innocent woman should be tortured in this way. Some of these days Silverdale would go a step too far, and then Phil would take the law in his own hands. All he could do for the present was to utter words of sympathy and keep his feelings under control as far as possible.
"It is a strange world we live in," he said. "The fable of the Spartan boy and the fox applies to most of us today as it did centuries ago. You must hope for the best, dear."
"Oh, I do," Lady Silverdale said with a faint smile. "I am almost afraid to think what my hopes really are. How can I expect to be happy so long as Silverdale is alive, Phil? There are times when I could almost pray for his death."
"I don't, but I hope for it," Phil said coolly. "Why is a rascal like that allowed to cumber the earth? He has never done good to a single soul since the day of his birth. He never had a generous instinct or a kind feeling for anybody. And yet he has got health and plenty of money. When Nemesis strikes he will be hit hard."
The clock on the mantelpiece struck three, and Phil jumped to his feet.
"So late as that!" he exclaimed. "I must be going, Elsie. I'd like to come in to-morrow evening if I may at the same time. Perhaps I shall have news for you."
Lady Silverdale shook her head despairingly. There was only one good piece of news that was likely to bring balm to her wounded soul, and that was not likely to come through Philip Temple. She watched him through the curtain as he strode down the street; the tears rose to her eyes.
"I wonder how much longer it will go on?" she asked herself. "How much longer will it be possible to endure such a wretched existence as mine? I daresay there are worse troubles in the world, but it is hard to believe it. Why is the path of duty so hard?"
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Sparrow parted with the key of the flat in Ponder-avenue with none too good a grace. All this was exceedingly irregular, and he did not fail to let Philip know it.
"I dare say I shall get into trouble," he growled. "Just my luck if I do. Anyway, I have made the path as smooth for you as possible. The policeman on duty close by has been told to take no notice if he sees lights in the windows. You have been described to him."
"That is very good of you," Phil said. "Have you done any good?"
"No, sir, I haven't done any good," said Sparrow, with the air of a man who imagines that he has a genuine grievance against Providence. "I'm just as much in the dark as I was eight and forty hours ago. I can't put my hand on even so much as a burnt-out match to build a theory on. I've puzzled over the thing till my head fairly aches. No use asking if you have found out anything?"
"Why not?" Phil laughed. "Don't forget the old refrain that says 'A raw recruit might chance to shoot great General Bonaparte.' And I'm not quite a raw recruit. As a matter of fact, I have done wonderfully well, Sparrow. I don't mind admitting that I've had my share of luck. But I've got facts and I've got theories, and they all fit in together. You'd laugh at my theory if I told it you now, but you won't laugh in a week's time."
"Then you're not going to tell me anything?" Sparrow asked.
"Not at present, Inspector. I may be able to tell you a great deal this time to-morrow, and, on the other hand, I may not. Give me the key, please."
Sparrow handed over the latchkey, and suffered Phil to depart without asking further questions. If there was anything to know he would know it all, in good time, and, at any rate, he could console himself with the reflection that any kudos would be his. Mr. Temple was not in the least likely to expect any public credit so long as he secured something exclusive for his paper.
"Good luck to him," Sparrow said magnanimously. "That's all I can say. I hope he won't come a nasty cropper over this business."
It was a little before 11 that Phil appeared at the flat in Ponder-avenue, and opened the door gently. He did not make the faintest sound as he crossed the hall and felt his way in the study. He had matches in his pockets, but he preferred to put up the shutters before he switched on the light. It was not a pleasant feeling to stand there alone in the dead of the night within a few feet of the place where the murder was committed, but Phil did not allow his mind to dwell on this. He had come here looking for something, and he meant to find it, if he spent the night here.
As he stood in the doorway trying to make out a familiar object or two in the gloom, it seemed to him that he could hear somebody moving in one of the bedrooms beyond. A moment later and his suspicion became certainty. Somebody was about who had a small electric torch in his or her hand. The torch spurted up and Phil stepped forward. His hand fell with a close grip on the slender wrist of a woman.
"Give me that torch," he demanded. "Let me look at your face. I fancy I know who you are. Unless I am greatly mistaken, you are Esme."
The woman looked him steadily in the face.
"Yes," she said quietly. "Esme is my name. Who told you?"
The woman asked the question quite naturally. There was no suggestion of guilt or defiance about her, nothing but an uneasy fear gleaming in her eyes. She looked just like a dog does when he is not quite certain as to his reception at the hand of strangers. From the slender lines of her figure and her quick, easy movements, Temple guessed her to be young. Youth was suggested in every line of her body. Her face was pure oval and very fair to look upon, though it carried a suggestion of pain and suffering which gave it an odd expression of experience and worldly knowledge. It was an honest, open face enough, and Temple admitted its attractiveness. For some reason he felt kindly disposed towards her.
"Will you be so good as to tell me your other name," Phil said.
The girl hesitated just a moment. She did not seem to quite grasp the easy question. The ghost of a smile flitted over her face—there was a tinge of bitterness in it.
"Does it really matter?" she murmured. "There is not much in a name. We are called one thing, then we marry, and we are called another. Will not Esme do?"
"I'm afraid not," Temple explained. "In the circumstances, no."
"You say in the circumstances and not under the circumstances. You are a man of education, monsieur. A gentleman. Therefore I ask you will not Esme do?"
"I am loth to trouble you," Temple went on, "but Esme won't do. I am quite certain that the police would decline to accept an answer like that."
"Yes?" she asked the question with a pretty curiosity that sat well on her. "I thought that I had one name till lately, but I find that I am mistaken. I was called Esme Legarde. That was my father's name. Is there any other information that I can give you, sir?"
"I hope a good deal," Temple said gravely. "Your home was Vienna?"
"Yes. There I was born. You have the advantage of me, monsieur."'
There was dignity in the girl's voice, she spoke more or less as if she regarded Temple as an impudent intruder on her privacy. Was she wholly and entirely ignorant, or was she a wonderful actress? For the life of him, Temple could not answer the question.
"My name is Temple," he said. "Philip Temple. I am the editor of the 'Southern Weekly Herald.' It is just possible that you have heard of this paper."
A responsive gleam came into the girl's eyes. Her smile grew warm and friendly.
"I am very pleased to meet you," she said. "Editors are always interesting people, especially to people who write for them. I am a novelist, monsieur."
"I know it," Phil said coolly. "Your pen name is Edward Seymour Scaff."
A queer little cry came from the girl's lips. She attempted no denial of Temple's statement, she made no protest against it. She was astonished, curious, frightened all at the same time. In a vague kind of way Temple felt sorry for her.
"How did you manage to find that out?" she whispered.
"We will take things in their proper order, if you please," Phil said. "I suppose you know that this house is in the hands of the police. The keys belong to them and they are keeping a close eye on the place. How did you get here?"
"I got here by using my own latchkey," the girl said simply.
"Your own latchkey. Then you live here?"
"I did for eighteen months. Till the other day, in fact. I came back here for something I had left behind me, and you caught me, monsieur. That is all."
"Well, yes, in a way, perhaps," Phil said, suppressing a smile. "But I am afraid the police would not accept your statement in that casual way. A murder has been committed here, and the police are searching everywhere for evidence They are particularly anxious to find a certain Esme, who had been a resident in the house ever since Mr. Gilray came here. The girl in question died about a fortnight before Mr. Gilray's death. And yet, on the face of that, here is somebody who answers to the name of Esme actually in the house at the present moment. She came here in the dead of the night with a latchkey. She appears to be quite familiar with the house. And yet the police are told that she is dead and buried. How do you reconcile these two statements, Miss Legarde?"
"It is precisely as you say," the girl remarked composedly.
"I'm afraid you don't understand," Temple went on, "a most important witness has vanished. She might have explained the whole mystery. You have read the paper?"
"I have done so, monsieur. You are telling me nothing that is news."
"Then, in that case, I will speak a little more plainly. Why did you leave the house in such a way that certain people might regard you as dead? How did you manage to get a doctor's certificate? You would not have done so without somebody to assist you. Why this mystery?"
The girl hesitated a long time before she replied. For the first time Temple had touched her.
"I am in deep and bitter trouble," she said simply, "I am an innocent woman, who has been fooled by a scoundrel. I have but one friend in the world, and he is a visionary, a poor faithful fellow, who does his best in his small way. Sir, you look good and kind—you are a gentleman. You would not like to do a poor girl an injury."
"I should be sorry to do anybody an injury," Phil said, touched by the pleading tone. "That you are in great trouble it is quite easy for anybody to see. And I am inclined to believe you. It may be weakness on my part to confess it, but I am. You came here looking for something."
"I come here looking for something—yes. It is no great matter."
"Not on the face of it," Temple said. "But what you are looking for might have an important bearing on the case if it fell into the hands of the police. Have you found the missing chapter?"
"The missing chapter," Esme Legarde gasped. "How do you know?"
"Well, as I explained to you before there are a great many things that I know," Temple smiled. "Yes,—I have read the story. It was submitted to my paper in the ordinary course of business. I put it aside to read, and should have done so sooner or later, when the thing was thrust upon me in a very dramatic and unexpected manner. Did you send a messenger to get the story back?"
"I told a friend that I wanted it back—yes."
"That is not precisely a reply to my question," said Temple. "Did you try and get it back?"
"Well, I gave somebody authority to do so. Perhaps I may tell you some day why I was so anxious to regain possession of my manuscript."
"Would you mind telling me the name of your friend?"
The girl looked at Temple with troubled, uneasy eyes. It was easy to see what was passing in her mind.
"I cannot help you unless you are perfectly candid with me," Temple said. "Now just let me recall the circumstances to your recollection. A story came to me from somebody called Scaff, of 99 Sarsenet-street. I put the story aside for consideration. A few days later a wild-looking creature comes into the office demanding the story back. He is furious because he can't get it back on the spot. He returns at midnight and forces his way into the office to try and steal the story. He does not know that I am working there late, and so he is taken red-handed. Then he tells me a lie. I was here with my friend Inspector Sparrow on the night of the murder, and I found here amongst other things a sheet of a story typed. That typed sheet actually forms part of the story submitted to me as editor of the 'Southern Weekly Herald'—the very story that your messenger tries to steal. Now, as a clever writer yourself, you cannot fail to be struck by the coincidence. I cannot fail to perceive that there is some very cogent reason for getting the story back. When I read the story I discover that certain chapters have been taken out and the narrative compressed. My training told me that, also I could see now the figures on the pages and the heads of the chapters had been altered. When I knew that you were the Esme that once lived here, and when I knew that you were also 'Edward Seymour Scaff,' it did not need much intelligence on my part to complete the puzzle. Now I also came here to find the missing chapters."
"Why?" the girl gasped. "Why did you do that?"
"Because it occurred to me that they might throw some light on the death of John Gilray. As you lived in the house for eighteen months with him, you must have known something. And just before his death you vanish in the most mysterious manner. How did you do it?"
"Oh, I was not so ill as they had imagined," the girl whispered. "My trouble was more of the mind than the body, though one reacted on the other. There were reasons why I should not remain here—powerful reasons. It was I who imitated Mr. Gilray's voice and told the doctor I was dead. He was a careless doctor, and I knew that he would not trouble to verify the statement for himself. And Mr. Gilray helped me. Quite innocently I had committed a great crime."
"What was that?"
"I had married Mr. Gilray. He was my husband. I married him in England after my mother died. My mother was English, and that is how I came to know the language so well. Mr. Gilray married me, and I came here to keep house for him. I was more like a slave than a wife. He gave me no money, he permitted me only to speak of myself as his servant."
"He seems to have been a nice sort of man," Phil muttered.
"Of all the men I ever met, the vilest and worst," Esme said passionately. "The little money I had I earned for myself by writing stories during the time my husband was away. He left me for days at a time. I assumed the name of Scaff, and I had my letters sent to newspaper shops. A faithful old friend of my father's family helped me—the same man who came for the story. And when my husband tired of me he told me that I had committed a crime against the laws of England, and that if anybody found out I should be most severely punished."
"Indeed!" Phil exclaimed. "And what crime was that?'
"The crime of bigamy. I found out quite by accident that Mr. Gilray had a wife living. He only laughed at me when I taxed him with it and told me I could do nothing. He said that though I was innocent I should suffer if the police got to the bottom of it."
"And you actually believed a statement like that?" Phil exclaimed.
The girl spread out her hands in a helpless gesture.
"What could I do?" she asked. "I have only been in London eighteen months. I have naturally lived the life of a prisoner. It seemed to me just possible that that was one of your laws. We have laws just as cruel and harsh in Austria. I wanted to escape, and my illness helped me. John Gilray was only too glad to get rid of me. He was party to my disappearance. I vanished. It was only after I got news of his death that I thought of the story. There were parts in it that might have been misread if they found their way into other hands. I did get the story back, and so far I was quite—"
"But you didn't get the story back!" Phil said. "It is in my hands at this present moment. What you have is a copy expressly forged for you by the police. Still—"
It was foolish, perhaps, but Temple was inclined to take every word that his companion said at its face value. He could detect no signs of the adventurer here. Had she been more alive to her danger she would never have answered his questions in this candid way.
"You came here to get those missing chapters?" he asked. "Would you mind if I had them?"
"But you have the original of the story," the girl smiled. "Why was all that trouble taken?"
Temple proceeded to explain. He went out of his way to show the girl the danger of her position. Her face grew a little more grave as she listened. She began to see now the trouble that loomed up before her. She looked at Temple imploringly.
"I am sure you are good and kind," she said. "You have kind eyes. You don't—you don't believe—?"
"That you had any hand in Gilray's death? No, I don't. But I am afraid there are a great many awkward questions before you. Your anxiety to get that story back, for instance. And the pains taken to hide your identity. That little burglary in Sarsenet-street, as another example. The attempt to steal the story from my office. If that was your idea—"
"Oh, it was," Esme exclaimed. "I will tell you the truth. When I heard that John Gilray was dead I became frightened. There are incidents in my story that might connect me—"
"I fancy not," said Temple. "Even I, with a pretty intimate knowledge of the facts, can read very little between the lines. If I saw the missing part it might be different. I came here to see if I could find that missing part, and discovered you instead."
"I had almost forgotten," Esme said wearily. "There might have been certain incidents. And I thought it better to get the story back before anybody read it. I told a friend of mine."
"Yes, yes," Temple said eagerly. "The man who called at my office passing under the name of Scaff. Is he the friend you allude to?"
"Yes, he is a fellow-countryman of mine. A musician. What you call an anarchist. I helped him from time to time, and he was grateful. He knew my story, and was ready to assist me. When I heard that John Gilray was dead I sent for him. I told him all about the story, and he agreed that it was far better for me to get it back again. He foresaw trouble for me. He was of opinion that I should take no risks. I can see now that there were no risks. But I am foolish and imaginative, and the thing got on my nerves. My friend undertook to return the MS. to me. He seems to have made a mess of things altogether."
Temple shared the same opinion. The man had been a great deal too clever. And yet he had had the prudence and foresight to feel pretty certain that Temple would set the police on his track, and he had laid his plans accordingly. Evidently a man of simple nature with that thin thread of cunning that so often baffles those whose business it is to deal with crime. "What is the name of your friend?" Phil asked.
Esme Legarde's lips grew firm. An obstinate expression came into her eyes.
"That I am not going to tell you," she said. "Or anybody. He has been a good friend to me, and I will not betray him. He would get into trouble for breaking into the shop. It is impossible for you to make any promises on behalf of the police. I will take all the blame."
"It will be a great deal," Phil said. "You disappear from here in a mysterious manner, and a day or two after Mr. Gilray is found dead here—murdered. And you have a key to the flat. There is a motive for getting rid of Gilray—the motive of revenge. Miss Legarde, you have placed me in a very awkward position."
"You mean that you ought to hand me over to the police?"
Temple winced just a little at the directness of the question. But he could not disguise from himself that that was exactly what it came to. If the evidence now in his possession was communicated to the police it was quite sufficient to justify Sparrow in arresting Esme Legarde on suspicion of being concerned in the murder of John Gilray. And it was his duty to speak. Not that he believed for a moment that the girl had had any hand in the crime. She was far too frank and open for that. But all the same, things looked terribly black against her.
"My position is certainly a grave one," Phil said quietly. "It may perhaps be foolish on my part, but I believe every word that you say. You are a deeply injured woman, Miss Legarde."
The grateful tears rose to Esme's eyes.
"You don't know how it comforts me to hear you say that," she murmured. "Indeed I am."
"You seem to have been the victim of a scoundrel. But you committed no offence. If the truth was known you would have the sympathy of the judge who tried Gilray: indeed, the sympathy of everybody. That rascal lied to you when he told you that you were party to a crime. You will see the necessity of finding out all about him, who are his relatives, and so on. You can tell me."
"Indeed, I can't," Esme cried. "I know nothing whatever about him. We met quite by accident, and at first I liked him. I was more or less alone in the world, and he was kind to me. I know that I mistook gratitude for affection. He married me. It was quite by accident soon after that I discovered that he had another wife alive."
"Did you find out his name?" Phil asked.
"No, monsieur. It was only the fragment of a letter that came out of one of his pockets. He told me that he had not a single relative in the world. He boasted that he had never had a friend. No letters came to him. He conducted all his business alone. After we were married he took me nowhere; he would not keep a servant. I became the drudge of the house. When I rebelled he threatened me with the law and what he called the consequences of my crime. He consented to let me go at last, and helped to prepare the scheme to get rid of me. He knew that I should disappear and never trouble him again. All would have been well if he had not died in that mysterious fashion, and if I had been content to forget my story. In a way it is unfortunate that you should meet me here like this. A few minutes later I should have escaped from the flat, and in a day or two the death of John Gilray would have been forgotten. What are you going to do, monsieur?"
"To be quite frank with you, I don't know," Phil confessed. "You will have to place yourself entirely in my hands, Miss Legarde. I will do the best I can for you. Only you must let me have the chapters deleted from your story."
Esme Legarde raised no objection. A minute or two later she handed the sheets over to Temple. It was quite evident that she trusted him implicitly.
"May I go now?" she asked. "I am very tired."
"Well, yes. Only I must have your address first. And you had better let me look outside just to see that the course is clear. The policeman on the beat knows that I am here, but the same remark does not apply to you, Miss Legarde."
The address was given, and a little later the strangely assorted pair parted at the corner of the street. Phil smiled to himself as he went along. What an extraordinary romance it all was. And how strangely he stumbled on one clue after another. But after all said and done he was not much nearer the solution of the murder mystery. That Esme Legarde had had no hand in it Phil felt certain. And so far as he could see, she had told him everything. Whoever the instrument was, he had certainly done a service to society. He had rid the world of a scoundrel who was not fit to live. Temple lit a cigarette presently, and proceeded eagerly to read the missing chapters of the story. His literary acumen had not been at fault when he decided that the story had been cut down. With the alteration of a few words here and there the chapters filled in perfectly. He could see now what Esme Legarde had had to go through, for the pages were a part of her own life. John Gilray stood out from the story vivid and palpitating. Few people might have connected it with Gilray, but there it was.
"Now, what am I to do with it?" Phil asked himself as he prepared for bed. "Upon my word, I am placing myself in an awkward position. If that girl did have a hand in the crime, then I am undoubtedly an accessory after the fact. I ought to tell Sparrow all this, and sooner or later I must. That poor girl is going to have an awful time of it. Still, I'll go a bit further before I take Scotland Yard into my confidence. But it really is a problem."
Seen the following morning, Sparrow was mysterious. He had lost his despondent air, and conveyed a solemn impression of knowledge denied to the rest of the world.
"I've followed by own line," he said. "And it seems to me that I've got a clue."
"Really!" Phil exclaimed. "You don't say so. Anything you can tell me?"
Sparrow thought not. In the interests of justice he would not be wise in saying much. With every desire to help Mr. Temple he really had to be discreet. All he could say was that surprising developments had taken place during the last few hours. Something was coming out that would set England talking from one end of the country to the other. Nothing like it had happened in the history of Scotland Yard for the last forty years. And the 'Herald' should not be forgotten.
"Is there a woman in the case?" Phil asked.
"So far as we have gone, no," Sparrow said. Phil breathed a little easier. "And we are not attaching the least importance to the man who called on you and tried to get that story. It seems to me that you have made too much of that incident, Mr. Temple. You amateurs always do. And I don't suppose that you have really got any further."
"You might not think so," Phil said modestly. "Still, in my humble opinion I have found one or two useful items of information. Perhaps a little later on you will be glad to have them."
Sparrow smiled in his most professional manner.
"It's just possible that I might, sir," he said. "One never knows."
"No, one never knows," Phil said thoughtfully. "If you're satisfied, I'm sure I am. And now I'll get back to my office and look after my neglected work."
Sparrow plunged into his correspondence again, and Phil made his way back to Fleet-street. But he was not disposed yet to settle down at his desk. He had hardly got his gloves off before an express letter was laid on his desk. He tore the letter open eagerly as he recognised the writing of Lady Silverdale on the envelope.
Dear Phil (it ran),—Will you please come and see me at once. A most extraordinary thing has happened. Of course, you know all about that mysterious murder in Ponder-avenue. A man named Sparrow has just been here in connection with it. He wanted to see my husband, and did not seem satisfied with the way I explained his absence from home. Inspector Sparrow has a warrant for the arrest of my husband for the murder of John Gilray.
Temple gazed at the letter in utter bewilderment. It seemed almost impossible to believe that the thing was true. Surely somebody had been playing a joke on him. But there was nobody who knew the inside facts well enough to do anything of the kind. No, the note was genuine enough, and in any case Phil was too familiar with Lady Silverdale's handwriting to be deceived. No forger could successfully have imitated writing of that kind, dashed off in a hurry as it was. Besides, the gum on the envelope was hardly dry. There it was as plain as anything could be that the police held a warrant for the arrest of Lord Silverdale for the wilful murder of John Gilray.
In all his wildest dreams, Phil could never have connected these two men with one another. They seemed to be as wide apart as the poles. They were the last two men in the whole of London likely to come in contact. And how had they drifted together? It was impossible to say.
Phil stood for a long time trying to fit the pieces of this amazing puzzle. It was sheer waste of time. Far better to go at once and get Elsie Silverdale to tell him everything. Small wonder that Sparrow was averse as to disclosing the facts that he had stumbled upon. He might have been a little less cautious had he known that Temple knew the Silverdales so well. It was very strange, too, that both Sparrow and himself should have found out so much from entirely different sources, and the information should have led them to such widely opposite conclusions.
After all there was no reason why Silverdale should not have known Gilray. The latter was evidently accustomed to good society, and as regards birth and training was a gentleman. The fact that he was a blackguard of the most finished type meant nothing. There are numerous black sheep in every fold, as nobody knew better than Temple. Not to put too fine a point on it, Silverdale was one of them. He naturally gravitated to that type of man—possibly he and Gilray had been friends at one time. Indeed, they might have been intimates quite recently, for nobody knew what became of Lord Silverdale during his mysterious absences from home. So far, therefore, it seemed to Phil that Sparrow had not gone very wide of the mark. Perhaps when they came to tell the story to one another the puzzle might be complete.
"Well, it's no use standing here trying to worry the thing out," Temple told himself. "I'll go along and have a chat with Elsie. It seems likely to be a long time before I get to work again. What a shock this would be in the ordinary course of events. And what a scandal."
Lady Silverdale was expecting Temple. She received him eagerly. There was no sign of any pretence of grief on her face: to pretend anything of the kind would have been sheer hypocrisy.
"This is a terrible business," Temple said.
"I dare say it ought to be," Lady Silverdale replied. "Don't let us have any pretending, Phil. You know perfectly well that Silverdale is quite capable of this kind of thing. He could do nothing worse than I give him credit for. There will be a terrible scandal, and I shall have a dreadful time of it."
"But there is no proof of the accusation as yet."
"So the inspector told me. Still, he must have felt very sure of his ground to take such a step. After all, Silverdale is a peer of the realm with a great position to sustain. I have made up my mind that the thing is true, Phil. It is the crowning humiliation of the last year or two. I want you to help me, dear."
"Is there any occasion to suggest such a thing, Elsie?" Phil asked. "Now, tell me everything. I know nothing beyond your hurried note."
"My dear Philip, there is really very little to tell. A man came here this morning saying that he wished to see me on most important business. He gave the name of Inspector Sparrow, and told me that he came from Scotland Yard. He was very reticent at first, and refused to give me any information. He asked me a good many questions as to Silverdale's movements, and I had to speak plainly."
"It must have been exceedingly unpleasant," Phil murmured.
"Oh, it was. I think that Inspector Sparrow saw that, for he was very kind."
"Sparrow is by no means a bad sort. I have come in contact with him several times. As a matter of fact, we are working together on the same case now. I shall have a strange story to tell you presently, Elsie, but not quite yet. But please go on."
"Naturally, I resented all the questions," Lady Silverdale proceeded. "Finally I refused to answer any more until I knew exactly what the inspector required. At length he told me. He had received information that justified him in applying for a warrant for Silverdale's arrest on a charge of murder. He mentioned the victim as being the John Gilray of that notorious Ponder-avenue case that everybody is talking of just at present. You can imagine my astonishment, Phil. Not that I was particularly surprised, for I should never be surprised at anything Silverdale did. I had to tell the inspector that I could give him no information of Silverdale's movements lately. I had to say that he was frequently away for weeks at a time, and that he never told me when he was going or where. I was asked if he was at home on the night of the murder. Of course, I couldn't say."
"But you could if you had thought for a moment or two," Phil urged, "Silverdale was actually in London on the night of the murder in Ponder-avenue. That was the night of the Duchess of Harringay's garden fete. It was the occasion on which you handed me those letters. You met Silverdale on the terrace as you returned to the house after leaving me."
"So I did," Lady Silverdale exclaimed. "I had quite forgotten that. And I actually told the inspector that my husband had not been in London to my knowledge for weeks. As a matter of fact, I had not seen him for some time till I met him on the terrace. Only a few words passed between us. He said he was going off again, and that is all that happened."
Phil listened with a certain feeling of uneasiness. Sparrow was far too cautious a man to make a move of this kind unless he had some pretty solid foundation to go upon. Temple would have gone a long way to save Elsie Silverdale trouble and annoyance, but he could see a plentiful crop of this before her. It was only futile to speculate as to the advantages of the situation. He put such a thought as this resolutely out of his mind. Elsie would have to go through with it now.
"Did Silverdale return here that night?" he asked.
"I don't think so, Phil. He told me distinctly that he was going off on one of his expeditions. You see he has his own suite of rooms and his latchkey, so that he can come and go at any moment."
"And nobody be any the wiser?"
"No. He liked to pass as eccentric. He liked people to be afraid of him. I have known him to be in his own room sometimes for two days, and we have not known that he was in the house at all. He always kept his suite of rooms locked unless, of course, he was at home for a more or less indefinite period. There must be a touch of madness in his brain."
Temple nodded moodily. Each time he came in contact with Lady Silverdale he learnt something more as to the trouble she had to bear at the hands of this man.
"A brutish idea," he exclaimed. "He may be in the house at the present moment!"
"No, because his suite of rooms is open. If he is away for more than a week he leaves the key in the outer door. It has been there for some little time now."
"And you are quite sure that he has not been back in the meantime?"
Lady Silverdale hesitated just a moment. Phil could see that her face had grown a shade paler.
"I don't know," she whispered. "On that point I can't be sure. I have told you a good deal, Philip, but you do not dream of half that I have had to endure. I have no real friend but you outside my own family, and they are the last people that I should dream of telling. They think that I should be perfectly happy—they say that I have everything I need, and that I am beyond the reach of poverty. In their eyes poverty is the most awful misfortune that could happen to anybody. It would be good, perhaps, if one or two of them could stand in my shoes for a little time. But I did not mean to go into that. You are my friend, Phil."
She held out her hand with an imploring gesture, and Temple pressed the fingers to his lips passionately.
"I am your true lover," he said. "I have never loved any other woman, and you know it. There is nothing in the world I would not do to save you from pain and trouble, Elsie. That blackguard stole you away from me by a trick; you are mine as much as you ever were. And if this terrible scandal becomes public, as it must, then it will be my duty to stand by your side. You have something to tell me, Elsie—you are troubled by some knowledge that you have kept from Sparrow."
"Perhaps," Lady Silverdale answered. "But I am not quite sure. I thought that Silverdale was somewhere on the Continent—that is where he generally goes."
"That is where he tells you he generally goes, which is not quite the same thing."
"Well, you may be right, Phil. I have not the remotest idea where Silverdale passes his time when he is away from home. It is his suggestion that he travels abroad. But I feel quite convinced that he was in the house last night and the night before."
"What, did you actually see him, Elsie?"
"No, but I am pretty sure that I heard him. The key is in the outer door of his suite now as if he were away for some time, but that door was locked last night at eleven o'clock. I wanted to get a book from one of his rooms, and I could not do so. I knocked two or three times, but I got no response. But I think he was there."
"You mean that he refused to answer you?"
"Yes. You see, I could smell his cigarette. He smokes a peculiar kind of cigarette that he has made purposely for him. I could not fail to notice the aroma of fresh tobacco."
Phil turned away for a moment so that his companion should not see the expression of his face. The amazing problem was in his mind again. The thing was utterly absurd, but he could not fight it down. He turned quite suddenly to Elsie Silverdale.
"Could I have a look at those rooms?" he asked.
"Why not?" Lady Silverdale replied. "There is not the slightest reason why you shouldn't. But I'm afraid that a visit there is not likely to help you much, Phil."
She led the way along one of the main corridors that ended in a door in which a key was placed. There were four or five rooms beyond that formed a wing to themselves. To all intents and purposes they were a set of chambers luxuriously fitted with every modern requirement. The sitting-room was lined with French novels of a certain class, the pictures were of the sporting type, with one or two here and there daring to the verge of indecency. On the table was a litter of papers, mostly French, and an ash tray with a few cigarette ends there. Phil took one in his hand.
"Is this his favourite brand?" he asked.
He took one of them and placed it furtively in his pocket.
In a dim kind of way Temple was beginning to discern the connection between his own evidence and the information that had come into Sparrow's possession. They had started at opposite points of the compass, but it looked as if they were likely to come together now, and not before long. Temple walked along thoughtfully until he came to the shop of Negretti, the famous cigarette maker. He took from his pocket the fragment of charred tobacco he had collected from the table in Silverdale's library.
"Have you ever seen anything like that before?" he asked the tobacconist.
Negretti's reply was prompt. He spoke after the most casual inspection.
"Certainly I have, sir," he said. "This is exactly the same tobacco as the sample you brought here the other day. As I told you, we have one or two customers who have that kind of leaf made up purposely for them. I promised to give you a list of the gentlemen."
"You certainly did," Phil said, "and that is why I am here this morning. But you need not trouble about the list—one or two names will do for me. Lord Silverdale is one."
"Lord Silverdale is one, certainly," Negretti smiled cynically. "He was one of the first. I hope you are not going to get me into trouble, sir."
"Oh you may be pretty certain that I am not going to get you into trouble," Phil said. "On the contrary, you are giving me information calculated to save a vast deal of trouble for other people. Did you happen to have as a customer Mr. John Gilray, of Ponder-avenue?"
Negretti looked just a shade uneasy.
"That's rather a delicate question to answer, sir," he said. "You see, Inspector Sparrow—?
"Oh Sparrow has been here, eh?" Phil said grimly. "He seems to have got a little further than I had expected. Now you know me, and you know that in my public position I should not be likely to do or say anything foolish. Was Mr. Gilray a customer of yours?"
"Well, then, sir, he was," Negretti admitted. "I put his name on the list to give you, but after the inspector called today I struck it out. Still, you seem to know so much that I might just as well be quite candid with you."
"Did you know Mr. Gilray by sight?"
"Pretty well, sir. He came here occasionally. A man of good class, quite one of my best type of customers. Good looking man, too, always smartly turned out and shaven. Good set of teeth. He ordered the same kind of cigarettes, and generally had them sent to Ponder-avenue."
"A pretty heavy smoker, I expect?'
"Well, yes, what we might call a chain smoker. The kind of man who lights one cigarette at the end of the previous one."
"Which means a fair amount. By the way, did he ever run an account?'
"Not to any extent, sir. Never more than two or three pounds at a time. He generally paid when it reached that amount, and he either paid me in gold or sent on a post-office order."
Temple looked just a little disappointed.
"He never gave you a cheque by any chance?" he asked.
"Never, Mr. Temple. Now that struck me as rather an odd thing. It occurred to me as a strange thing that a gentleman of position should not keep a banking account. You might say that it is no business of mine, and I dare say you would be right, but it was odd."
Phil was quite prepared to fall in with this view. The information puzzled him, it interfered with the theory gradually forming in his mind, but he began to see that what looked like proving to be a disappointing blank might eventually be the solution of the problem. On the whole he had no occasion to feel dissatisfied. He was armed now with a useful weapon for his interview with Sparrow; indeed, he was looking forward to the meeting with a certain feeling of enjoyment.
Inspector Sparrow was busy at his desk, for he had other matters to occupy his attention besides the Ponder-avenue puzzle.
"You seem to be getting on," Phil said. "You certainly have lost no time."
"In what way, sir?" Sparrow asked.
"Don't you think you had better be candid with me?" Phil suggested. "I am talking, of course, of the Ponder-avenue affair. I am not likely to come here for any other purpose. Have you managed to lay your hands on Lord Silverdale yet?"
Sparrow was startled out of his professional manner. He fairly glared at Temple. How on earth had the latter obtained this information. Naturally he knew nothing of the close relationship between Lady Silverdale and Temple and on that head the latter was going to be grimly silent. That was his own private affair, and had nothing to do with the case. In his ignorance, Sparrow was visibly disturbed.
"Now that is exceedingly strange, sir," he said. "I've never known a Yard secret get out like this before. I suppose I had better tell you everything."
"You will be a fool if you don't," Phil said curtly. "I'm not a police officer anxious for promotion, and any credit that comes out of the affair will be yours. Moreover, I am only too anxious to help you in any way that lies in my power. I know that you have a warrant for the arrest of Lord Silverdale, and I congratulate you upon the clever way you have got on the scent. I feel quite convinced that you are after the right man."
"Then you also had your suspicions, sir?" Sparrow exclaimed.
"I can't quite say that," Phil admitted. "But when I heard that you were after Silverdale, the atmosphere cleared wonderfully. All the same, there's a complication here that you would never dream of. It is a most bewildering romance of crime. You don't know half what I know all the same, Sparrow. Tell me your story and I'll tell you mine. Not perhaps to-day, but eventually. If I'm right, you'll never bring Lord Silverdale to justice."
"You mean that he has fled the country?"
"Never mind what I mean. Remember that I made the prophecy. And now perhaps you would be so good as to let me know how you first came to suspect Lord Silverdale. It was clever of you."
"Well, not quite so clever as you seem to imagine," said Sparrow candidly. "I was fortunate enough to blunder on a clue. I'm not going to take much credit to myself for that. I got one of my men to make a more thorough search of Ponder-avenue than I had done myself. In the drawer at the back of a desk he found certain letters. There were no envelopes to them and no dates, but they were obviously written to Mr. Gilray by Lord Silverdale. Evidently Gilray had had some kind of a quarrel with Silverdale, and was threatening him."
"I know that Gilray was a blackmailer," said Phil quietly. "He made money that way. But all this I shall prove to you in time. Go on."
By way of reply Sparrow produced a bundle of letters from his desk.
"Here they are," he said. "You can read them for yourself. I particularly draw your attention to the last of the series. They are not signed, as you see, but I shall be able to prove that they are in Lord Silverdale's handwriting."
"I can prove that," Phil said. "I know his fist well. These are quite genuine. But it's rather strange that they are not signed."
"Neither are they addressed to any particular person," Sparrow pointed out. "There would be an anonymous suggestion about them were it not for the fact that there is no attempt to disguise the handwriting. But please read the last letter, and let me know what you think of it."
There was not much in the letter, but that little was to the point:—
You are vastly clever, my friend, and doubtless you know a good deal. The Ponder-avenue recluse dares do nothing without consulting me. I hold his future in the hollow of my hand. Ask Gilray, and he will tell you so. If I so much as raise my finger Gilray vanishes into thin air, and the thing is at an end. If Gilray dares to speak I'll have his blood. Murder as a fine art is not sufficiently appreciated in this country of ours. You fool, to threaten me in this way. Still, it is in your hands if you like to go on.
Temple read the letter twice from end to end. There was not much to be made of it.
"So far I have learnt very little," he said. "Doubtless you have information that throws a light on this. In the meantime I can only ask for a little more enlightenment."
"There's plenty of information there," Sparrow explained. "The letters were found at Ponder-avenue. They connect Lord Silverdale, beyond question, with Gilray. Gilray has an enemy, and that letter holds a threat to get rid of him in certain circumstances. Lord Silverdale is known as a man of great determination and violent passions. If certain things happen, Gilray is to be got out of the way. Gilray is got out of the way, murdered in fact. And now I come to a much more serious matter. After finding those letters we make a still more careful search of the house in Ponder-avenue. Concealed in the chimney of the room where Gilray was killed we find a revolver. One cartridge has been fired, and five remain in the chamber. Now, with inquiries as to that revolver we are able to establish beyond question the fact that it belonged to Lord Silverdale."
"God bless my soul," Temple exclaimed.
"A fact, my dear sir, I assure you," Sparrow said coolly. "We have fitted the revolver to a case which contains a similar weapon, and that case we find in Lord Silverdale's bedroom. The seller of the weapon will come forward and give evidence, if necessary. And now you can understand why I applied for that warrant against Lord Silverdale."
Temple went off presently without disclosing any of the information that he himself had obtained. There was no occasion to disturb the equanimity of Sparrow, though Temple could have done so had he chosen. Sparrow had discovered a great deal, but Phil had gone still further. He was going now to call upon Esme Legarde at the address she had given him. He found the spot presently—a small house in a narrow street devoted mainly to the decent poor. Esme was writing at a little table in a small front sitting room. It was the last place in the world for an artist to reside in, and the room suggested that the girl was nearly at the end of her resources.
"You want to see me?" she asked.
"I thought that I would look you up," Phil said. "If you are not too busy."
Esme passed that smilingly with a wave of her head.
"I am writing a story." she said. "I hope the 'Messenger' will take it and pay me for it as they did once before. I have only a few shillings left, and I hate this place. If I could get away into the country now I could do good work."
"Perhaps I may be able to help there." Phil murmured. "But I'd like to ask you just a few simple questions first. Miss Legarde, did you know that John Gilray was writing to Lady Silverdale—that he was blackmailing her, in fact?"
"Certainly I did," the girl said simply. "How did you find it out, I wonder?"
Temple was feeling just a little irritated and puzzled. In her quaint, innocent way this girl seemed to take everything for granted. She made the announcement that she was aware of the persecution of Lady Silverdale by John Gilray as if it had been the most natural thing in the world. There was no confusion or hesitation, just a confession of her knowledge and no more.
It was impossible for Temple to refrain from wondering if she was as innocent as she looked. And yet her gaze was clear and childlike. She looked into his face calmly and steadily. There was no guile about her.
"Really, Mr. Gilray seems to have been a very attractive kind of person," Phil said grimly. "Are there any more episodes in his career that you can enlighten me on."
"He was a very bad man," said Esme. "It was only after I came to know him well that I realised how bad. Why are such people allowed to live, Mr. Temple?"
"Well, really, I don't know," Phil admitted. "Possibly for the sake of novelists like yourself. It is impossible for us poor mortals to follow the workings of Providence. But let us keep to the point. How did you know that Gilray was blackmailing Lady Silverdale?"
"How does one find out these things?" Esme murmured. "It was one of the little incidents of life that makes up its complexities. If Lady Silverdale had done anything wrong—"
"You can make your mind quite easy on that score," Phil interrupted. "Lady Silverdale has not done anything wrong. No purer or nobler woman ever breathed. I have known her for years. She made a very great sacrifice for the sake of other people, and she has suffered for it."
"She seems to be a friend of yours," Esme suggested.
"She is. She is more than a friend. She is the only woman in the world I have ever cared for. I have loved her ever since I was capable of understanding the meaning of the word. The great sacrifice I speak of parted us, and will continue to do so. It is a shameful thing that such a woman should be picked out by a scoundrel for his malpractices."
"And Lady Silverdale could not tell anybody? She had to suffer in silence?"
"Well, she elected to do so. There was not the least reason why she should not have told me. But she preferred to suffer in silence like other proud, sensitive natures. I only found out quite by accident. She allowed me to take the matter up and my investigations point to Gilray. I was not quite sure of my ground, and that is why I asked you."
"And I told you the truth," Esme said quietly. "There were times when Mr. Gilray was careless. Only now and again, but he did sometimes leave things about. He used to use my Codrington."
"Oh, really! I begin to see more daylight. He used your machine to record his messages to Lady Silverdale. And you found one of them?"
"I did. As I explained to you before, it was quite an accident. Many times I wondered how John Gilray lived. He had no letters, no banking account, he kept no books. And yet he was never short of money. Where his money came from and how he received it I have never found out. But when I saw that letter to Lady Silverdale demanding money or jewels I began to understand. My husband was a professional blackmailer, a trader in secrets. It all flashed across me in an instant. Unhappy as I was before, you can imagine my distress then. You can picture how I longed to get away from him. But I was homeless and helpless and fearful of my chances of making a steady income by my pen. I watched and waited. I discovered things. But I never found the secret of my husband's hold on Lady Silverdale."
"He had no hold," Phil said sternly. "Perhaps I had better tell you the truth so as to prevent any misunderstanding on your part. As I said before, Lady Silverdale and myself were engaged to be married. There were very powerful reasons why the match should be broken off and Lord Silverdale accepted instead. There was no concealment of any kind, and Silverdale knew pretty well how matters stood. Certain letters passed between Miss Gordon and myself, for I was not in London at the time. I found out many things about Silverdale, and I warned her. There were certain letters that she wrote to me, which she asked me to destroy. I had not the heart to do so, and that omission on my part was the cause of all the trouble. They were letters that no girl need be ashamed of, but in the hands of a third person they might have been wrongly read. By some means these letters were abstracted from my desk and passed into the possession of John Gilray. The rest of the story is obvious. These letters were cut into parts, and with every application for money one of the fragments was enclosed. It was an ingenious form of blackmail, but it was successful. Lady Silverdale was scrapping herself to the last penny to get her letters back when an accident told me everything. By means of an apparently trivial clue I traced the letters to Gilray, or I fancy I did so."
"You were quite correct," Esme said sadly. "And I have told you the truth. But Lady Silverdale has got everything back, has she not?"
"Well, she has got all her valuables back, if that is what you mean," Phil replied. "But her troubles and sufferings will never be wiped out. Whoever sent that letter which came enclosed with the jewels did a kind action."
A queer little smile played about the corners of Esme Legarde's mouth.
"Haven't you any idea who sent those jewels back?" she asked.
"Well, that is a matter I have not gone into," Phil said. "For the present that is only a detail. But I dare say if you could assist me to find out, Lady Silverdale would be grateful."
"In that case I should be amply rewarded," Esme said. "She is a good and kind woman, and perhaps she would be a friend to a lonely girl like me."
"I am evidently not nearly so clever as I imagine myself to be," Temple exclaimed. "I might have guessed after what you have just told me that you sent the jewels back. Well, you did it very nicely, and Lady Silverdale will know how to express her gratitude when the proper time comes. And I can safely promise that you will find her a good and true friend. How did you get the jewels?"
"You see, I knew where they were hidden. I watched carefully. My husband became to me more of a mystery than ever. He was a blackmailer of the worst type. But blackmailers do not as a rule have collections of gems. What they get they usually turn into money. Why was John Gilray acting in this extraordinary manner?"
"I hope you found out," Phil said.
"Indeed, I did not, Mr. Temple. That mystery will probably never be explained. I had plenty of troubles of my own to occupy my attention. Before I left Ponder-avenue I managed to get possession of those jewels and return them to Lady Silverdale."
"But how did you know where to return them?"
"Oh, that was another accident. In one of the cases was a bill and a letter. It had been stuffed inside, no doubt, for future reference. The letter was from a firm of jewellers saying that they had done their best to match a certain missing emerald, but that they were not quite satisfied with the work. The letter was addressed to Lady Silverdale. And all the cases that came to Ponder-avenue from time to time bore a monogram 'E.S.' which I took to mean Lady Silverdale. And you see my deduction was quite correct. I hope they all arrived safely."
"Oh, they came back all right," Temple hastened to say. "You must let Lady Silverdale thank you herself at the first opportunity. You have behaved very well indeed in the matter. As a novelist, the circumstances must appeal to you."
"Perhaps they may later on," Esme said with an unsteady smile. "But at present—is there anything else that I can tell you, Mr. Temple?"
"No thank you," Phil said thoughtfully. "You have been of the greatest service to me, Miss Legarde. And perhaps you will allow me to say that this is no place for you. With your peculiar temperament it is impossible to do good work here. You want to get away into the country."
"Ah!" Esme sighed. "If I only could!"
"Well, why not? The thing is easy enough. If you will permit me to help you—"
Esme Legarde made a gesture of protest. Temple could see how the colour flamed into her cheeks.
"Let me speak," he said. "I am going to offer you no charity. You submitted me a story for publication in the 'Southern Weekly Herald.' We need not mention the method by which you regained possession, or rather thought you regained possession of it. You were too timid, Miss Legarde. There is not the faintest chance of the story telling anything by publication. From that point of view it has already done its work, and I will make it my business to see that you suffer no unpleasant consequences thereby. In the ordinary course of things I should have accepted your story with pleasure. I am quite ready as a sheer commercial transaction to give you fifty guineas for it, and sign a contract for a serial as well. We always pay on acceptance and if I may be allowed to forward you a cheque—"
"Oh, you are too good, too good altogether!" Esme cried. "You are doing this out of kindness—"
"Indeed I am not," Phil protested. "I like your work immensely. So does Sutton, of the 'Messenger,' and there is no better judge. Instead of doing you a favour I have done a smart stroke for my 'Weekly.' You shall have your cheque in the course of the day."
Esme Legarde wiped the tears from her eyes. It seemed as if Temple were opening the gates of Paradise for her. With this cheque and the promise of a commission, she had no fear for the future. And there was a delightful little cottage out Epsom way where she could get rooms for the summer. Before long she might have a cottage of her own.
"I don't know how to thank you," she said. "I see I was foolish to try to get my poor little story back. Still, it has brought me a friend, and I shall always be grateful. And if there is any other way in which I can help you—"
"Well, there's just one," Phil said. "I should like to meet the friend who took all those risks for you. I mean I the man who tried to steal your MS. from my office, and eventually did kidnap the story from 99 Sarsenet-street. He must be a useful ally in an emergency."
"His name is Paolo Brachi," Esme explained. "He knew my people years ago. He calls himself a teacher of music, but I am afraid that he does not get much work. At one time he was in quite a high position in Vienna, and he is very well connected. Some people say that he is mad, that he has brooded over his wrongs till his reason has given way, but I do not believe it. He would do anything for me."
"I have not the slightest doubt of it," Phil smiled. "May I meet him, Miss Legarde? Will you be so good as to bring us together as soon as possible. It seems to me that your friend will be in a position to give me some very useful information in regard to a matter that is puzzling me very much. May I come to-morrow?"
"To my cottage at Epsom," Esme corrected smilingly. "Directly I get your cheque I shall be gone from here. And would you mind sending some of the money in notes? There is nothing, nothing in the world I will not do for you if I can. It is so good to find such a friend in the time of trouble."
It was late in the afternoon before Temple found time for a hurried call on Lady Silverdale. Tea was just being served in the drawing-room as he arrived quite ready for that refreshing beverage. It seemed to Phil that Elsie Silverdale was looking white and troubled; he could see that her hands trembled as she filled the cups. In happier circumstances she might have been seated opposite him in his own drawing-room. A big footman busied himself about the table; the long pleasant room was full of the scent of roses. It seemed strange that there should be so much aching misery in so luxurious a nest as this.
"Two lumps, I think." Lady Silverdale suggested. "Try that cake. It is something new and excellent. Those chocolate biscuits were sent me from Paris. Do take one."
Phil responded with suitable flippancy during the time the footman was in the room. As the door closed upon him he returned anxiously to his companion.
"Have you any fresh news?" he asked. "Anything to tell me?"
"Absolutely nothing, Phil. I have not heard a single word from anybody since you were here last. And I don't think that a single whisper has got out as to what the Scotland Yard people are doing. The charge seems to me to be absolutely incredible."
"It certainly looks so on the face of it," Phil said. "But there is no getting away from the fact that the police found certain letters of Silverdale's in Ponder-avenue that connect Silverdale very closely with the late tenant of the place. Besides that they found the revolver used, and there is no question that the weapon belonged to Silverdale. When the whole truth comes out we shall find that Silverdale has been leading a most amazing double life. But, then, he never was like anybody else."
"I sincerely hope so," Lady Silverdale sighed. "But you can imagine what this suspense means to me. If I could only communicate with Silverdale and warn him! But I have not the least idea where he is, and when he goes off on these mysterious trips of his he tells me nothing. He might return at any moment, he might walk in here now and be arrested."
"I don't think you need worry about that!" Phil said quietly.
"Why, Phil? Why do you speak in this mysterious manner? Do you know anything?"
"Not if you put it in that definite way, Elsie. I have a theory, but it is too shadowy to put it into words for the moment. Perhaps I shall be able to tell you more to-morrow. But I have made several more or less important discoveries. For instance, I have found out that the dead man, Gilray, was the person who has been blackmailing you all this time."
Lady Silverdale stared at Phil in amazement.
"What are you saying?" she said. "The dead man, Gilray? The mysterious man without friends or relatives who lived so quietly in Ponder-avenue. Absurd, Phil!"
"Yes. I expected you to say something like that. But I assure you it is a fact all the same. It looks to me very much as if this Gilray had been a professional blackmailer. The sort of vile scamp who buys secrets from servants, and then uses them for his own ends. You never know these people or their methods. They delight to strike in the dark. They exercise far more terror over their victims if the latter has no idea as to their real identity, but I am prepared to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that John Gilray was the man who sent you those fragments of my letters."
"But Gilray never appeared in the society we mix with!"
"In the ordinary way, that would be a very strong argument, Elsie. I've never met a man called Gilray or anybody closely resembling him. But he had your jewels, and I have a witness, who is prepared to meet you and tell you so."
"I should require a good deal of evidence to convince me as to that, Phil."
"Of course, you would. But I happen to know that the witness in question is telling the absolute truth. The woman—"
"Oh, it is a woman, then. The thing is a secret no longer!"
"Don't be bitter, Elsie. It is a woman who has suffered a far greater injury at the hands of Gilray than yourself. You will probably meet her in a day or two, and I am sure that you will like her. It was she who wrote you that letter and sent you all your jewellery back."
Lady Silverdale regarded Philip with a certain bewildered admiration.
"You are certainly a most wonderful man," she said. "Here I have been racking my brains for months, to find a clue to the wretch who has so persecuted me. I have laid all sorts of traps for him, but he has seen them every time. And yet in the course of a few hours you find out all these amazing things, Phil. Do you mean actually to say that you have had the story from the girl's lips?"
"Every word of it," Phil smiled. "From all accounts the world is all the better for the loss of such a rascal as Gilray. The whole thing is a veritable romance. Perhaps you are giving me credit for a good deal I don't deserve, certainly luck has been on my side. To-morrow we will go as far as Epsom, and you shall hear Esme Legarde tell her story. Meanwhile, have you anything to tell me?"
"Nothing, except that Silverdale has been back again. I am positively certain that he was in the house late last night. I could not sleep, and towards two o'clock I came down for a book. I could smell the peculiar odour of Silverdale's cigarettes. The door of his suite was closed, but I am positive that I could see the glimmer of light underneath. I knocked at the door, but no reply came. I did not want to make a noise and arouse the servants, so I had to be content to leave it at that."
"You mean that he refused to reply to your call?"
"That is exactly what I do mean, Phil. There was nothing for it but for me to go to bed again."
"Amazing!" Phil exclaimed. "It seems almost incredible. You may be certain that this house is being watched by the police night and day. And yet Silverdale walks in and out as if nothing out of the common had taken place. Now I wonder if he has discovered what is going on. I wonder if he comes here in disguise. It sounds far-fetched, but that is the only explanation I can think of to account for his coming and going in this way without being arrested. Anything more?"
"Yes. To-day one of the servants brought me a latchkey from the front door. The front door is never fastened, as Silverdale comes in at all hours. The footman was under the impression that it was my latchkey and that I had forgotten it. I let it pass at that for obvious reasons, but my latchkey was in my pocket at the same moment. And strangely enough, the latchkey that opens Silverdale's suite was also left in the door. I discovered that and put it away. I am going to give you both those keys."
"What good can I do them?" Phil asked.
"I think you can help me. If Silverdale comes back to-night, I shall telephone for you. I've got an extension instrument to my bedroom. I can call you without anyone here being any the wiser. You are a very late bird, Phil, so I shall have no hesitation in disturbing you. It may be a very unusual course that I am suggesting, but I cannot stand the strain any longer. Come and see Silverdale and explain to him the perilous position in which he stands. Now that you have his special latchkey, you can get at him without making a noise. He must see you then."
Phil listened to the suggestion without any particular enthusiasm. He hardly saw what was to be gained by this intrusion on Silverdale. But one glance at the white misery of Elsie's face and the pleading look in her eyes softened him.
"I'll come, if you like," he said. "It is not a very inviting proposal, Elsie, and may lead to a great deal of trouble later on, but I'll do anything for your sake, dear. Ring me up some time before two o'clock, and I'll come at once. And if there is nothing else you have to say I'll get along. I have got a lot of work in arrears, but I can take it home with me, and have a good go in after dinner."
Phil spoke cheerfully enough, but the more he thought over the proposal before him the less he liked it. He had always hated Silverdale from the bottom of his heart, long before the latter had appeared on the scene as a rival so far as Elsie Gordon was concerned. The man was a black-hearted scoundrel to his finger tips, and nothing but his name and position had kept him where he was. But there were other things to be thought of for the moment, and Phil put the coming trouble out of his mind. After a hearty dinner in his own room he sat down to a huge pile of MSS., reading steadily till the clock struck one. He put the stuff away with a sigh of relief.
"Well, that's done," he muttered. "I'll just have one final cigarette, and then turn in. I don't suppose that Elsie is likely to need anything tonight, and I dare say—Hello!"
The telephone bell in the corner of the room purred quietly. Phil put the receiver to his ear and called.
"Is that you, Phil?" a well-known voice asked. "I hope you are ready for me."
"You can rely upon me Elsie," Phil replied. "Has he arrived?"
"Somebody has. Of course, it must be Silverdale. He has a special latchkey, I know. Everybody has gone to bed. I am telephoning you from my room, as I promised to do. Nobody can hear me. Just one moment, please. Yes, I hear the door of Silverdale's suite close. He will not suspect anything. What? Oh, yes, I think so. And you will warn him."
"You may be quite sure that I shall do all that is necessary, Elsie. Oh, yes. You can make yourself quite comfortable. I will see you in the morning. Yes. Good night, dear."
As a matter of fact, Temple was not feeling so comfortable as he spoke. It was a very delicate mission that he had before him, and there was no telling how Silverdale would take the intrusion. He thought it all over as he strode along the deserted streets till he came to Silverdale's house. The place was all in darkness, and there was not a soul to be seen. There was no hesitation in Temple's mind now—he put the latchkey into the door and entered the house. Quite boldly he turned on the electric light. With no attempt at silence he put the key in the door of the suite and strode in. In the smoking-room study a man stood with his face to the fire. The man moved a hand, and the light vanished, leaving the room in pitch darkness.
Again Phil did not hesitate. He grabbed for Silverdale and caught him by the shoulders. He expected a hard and bitter struggle, but evidently Silverdale was taken by surprise, for he showed very little fight, indeed, his great idea seemed to be a break away from the grip on his throat. It might be possible to drag him as far as the side of the fireplace where the electric switch was fixed, and once the light was on again Phil told himself that his task would be over.
For a moment or two the struggle went on in grim silence. With a certain feeling of relief Phil recognised that he was gaining. He took the risk of relieving one of his arms, and felt rapidly for the little gilt knob of the switch. At the third attempt his fingers touched it and the room was once more flooded with a brilliant dazzling light.
The other wrenched himself free, and staggered back. Phil started in his turn, but with astonishment more than anything else. He was first to regain his composure.
"Well, my friend," he said coolly. "It seems to me that we have met before!"
Temple's opponent swayed to and fro with the violence of his exertions. His breath came thick and fast, his lips were parted in a grin as if his heart had failed him. There was a faint suffusion of purple in his face that testified that his vitality had been strained to the utmost. He did not suggest anger or passion of any kind, nothing more than determined effort to recover his faculties. With a shaking hand he pointed to some bottles on a side table.
"You might give me a little brandy," he whispered. "I seem to need it."
Temple hastened to comply. He wanted nothing in the shape of a tragedy under Lady Silverdale's roof; in fact, it was the one thing he was anxious to avoid. He hoped that the servants had heard nothing of the struggle. The house was still and silent but for the laboured effort of the other man's breathing.
"Certainly I will give you some brandy," he said. "Afterwards we will have a little explanation. As a matter of fact, you owe me an explanation already."
The other man held out his hand for the glass. The knotted veins on his forehead subsided, his hand grew still enough to take a cigarette from the silver box on the table and light it. With an odd sort of smile he turned to Temple, and bowed as if waiting for him to proceed. Evidently there was going to be no more violence. The stranger seemed to understand that too.
"I am ready to hear anything, sir," he said. "Pray go on."
"Now that is exceedingly good of you," Temple replied grimly. "You are going to give me the first word. What would Lord Silverdale say if he saw you here? What would be your position if his lordship walked into the house at the present moment?"
Apparently the question left the stranger unmoved, for he dropped into a chair and took a long pull at his cigarette. There was a suggestion of cynical amusement about him.
"That is not an argument that disturbs me, Mr. Temple," he said. "In the first place there is not the slightest chance of anything of this sort happening."
"You speak very good English for a foreigner," Phil said.
"I do. Some people have the gift of languages. I am one of them. And I have knocked about the world all my life. What you call a soldier of fortune. Once I was simple and trusting and I paid the penalty for these adolescent virtues. Since then my hand has been against most men and their hand has been against me. There has been one exception—a woman."
"I can guess her name," Phil said. "It is Esme Legarde."
"There is no occasion to guess again, Mr. Temple. Please go on."
"Well, you are certainly a cool hand," Temple exclaimed. "A much cooler hand than you were the other night when I caught you trying to burgle my office, Mr. Scaff. I call you Scaff for want of a name, although that is the nom de plume of Miss Legarde. I fancy the lady told me what your real name was. Let me see, oh yes—Paolo Brachi."
"Paolo Brachi it is," the other said coolly. "It is a good name and has had an honourable place in history, Mr. Temple. Again, may I ask you to proceed."
"I am going to," Phil muttered. "What are you doing here?'
"The answer is quite easy. I am looking for something that I cannot find."
"But if you are caught you are certain to be punished. Lord Silverdale is an eccentric man—he comes and goes at all kinds of odd times. If he came here now—"
Brachi waved the suggestion aside carelessly.
"Count that out," he said. "Dismiss it from your mind. If there is one thing in the world that cannot happen it is the catastrophe you mention. Again, proceed."
"It seems to me that it is for you to proceed," Phil suggested. "You are committing an offence against the law by coming here. Lady Silverdale telephoned me that there was somebody in these rooms, and asked me to come and investigate. And that is why I am here—"
"Pardon me," Brachi interrupted politely, "but that is hardly a fair statement of the case. Lord Silverdale appears to have got into trouble—to put it bluntly the police are after him. And Lady Silverdale is anxious to give him due warning. She is under the impression that he has been here the last night or two, and that is why she has attempted to interrupt me in my search. For obvious reasons I made no reply, and she went away under the impression that her lord and master was sleeping. When she heard me here to-night she telephoned, hoping that you would succeed where she had failed. Being a resolute man, you have succeeded. If I had not had a fright last night and forgotten the key of this door you would have failed. There are two sets of keys, and I have them both."
Phil nodded. He was anxious for Brachi to proceed. It seemed impossible to believe that here was the timid intruder who had paid the midnight visit to the 'Herald' office. The change seemed to be almost incredible. He wondered now why Brachi had taken his defeat so easily.
"We will let it pass at that," he said.
"That is wise of you, Mr. Temple, because it is the truth. You are treating me with a good deal of consideration, and I am obliged to you. Some of these days perhaps my strange conduct will be explained. Possibly Miss Legarde has explained a good deal of it already."
"She certainly has given me a hint or two," Temple smiled. "For instance, she has told me a good deal of her history. Also I know why the story was so pressingly needed."
"Are you quite sure of that?"' Brachi asked.
"Well, I think so, at any rate. The publication of it might have led to some awkward questions in regard to the death of John Gilray."
"Ah! I thought you did not know my scheme after all. Still, it does not very much matter, my dear friend. Once the story was recovered in such a manner that the prying police could not follow me and ask inconvenient questions—"
"I fancy that it is my turn now," Phil said. "Are you sure you have the real story?'"
Brachi looked a little disconcerted for the moment.
"You mean that it was a trap?" he asked eagerly. "Yes, it is possible. I had not thought of that. You take a copy of the story and so I regard it as the original. I thank you, Mr. Temple. Perhaps on the whole it would be a wise thing for me to say no more."
"On the contrary, you are going to say a good deal," Phil said drily. "We can't break off the narrative just at this very interesting point, you understand. I have read the story, and I have purchased it for publication in my paper. More than that, I have read the missing chapters, which are not going to be published. I wish to help Miss Legarde as far as possible, and it will be no fault of mine if she does not attain a very high literary position. I know the vile way in which she has been treated by Gilray, and I am sure that rascal met a proper end. But what I want to know is why in your anxiety to help Miss Legarde you are here."
Brachi smiled with an air of management.
"And a very proper question," he said. "Do you mind postponing it for a time? There are still a few sinister points in the Gilray case to be developed, and the development is in my hands. Only I should like to see Miss Legarde first."
Phil hesitated. Possibly if he allowed this man to escape he would not see him again. Brachi seemed to read what was passing through his mind.
"I will give you my word of honour, if you like," he said.
"We will let it go at that," Temple said. "Oh, I am acting foolishly and against my better judgment. Still, there is such a thing as instinct and I am relying on it now. That is how women talk. I hope you will properly appreciate my sentimental point of view, Mr. Brachi."
No answering smile appeared on Brachi's face.
"You have done an exceedingly wise thing, Mr. Temple," he said gravely. "In the case of John Gilray—"
"Which reminds me," said Temple eagerly. "You knew Gilray well, I presume."
"Oh, I knew him—yes." Brachi's face changed, his eyes gleamed with a lurid light, the whole form of the man seemed to alter altogether. "I knew him in Vienna, and I never know a more perfect specimen of a scoundrel than John Gilray. Mind you, there was no occasion for him to be a rascal. He had possession of everything that most men hold dear. There are some people who would prefer to make a little dishonestly rather than a lot by honourable methods, and Gilray was one of them. Before I knew anything of his reputation I read him like a open book. From the first I disliked him. I warned Esme Legarde to send him about his business. But the man held that strange fascination for women that seems to be specially reserved by Providence for the wastrel and the worthless. The more I warned her the more infatuated did she become. She was going to have a good husband and a fine position. On the face of it I ought to have rejoiced on the good fortune that had befallen the daughter of my old friend and colleague Count Legarde. I could do little, for I was bankrupt in estate and reputation, and had barely enough left of my patrimony to live upon. But I would not rest; I followed those people to England. From the first I could see how unhappy the poor girl was. I made it my business to dog that man's footsteps night and day, and at length my patience was rewarded. He knew that I had discovered his secret, and that gave me a hold on him. He was afraid of me. I did not betray this secret and break the poor girl's frail little bark with the remains of her happiness. She discovered the truth for herself."
"She found that Gilray was a married man?" Phil asked.
"She did. And he told her lies. He frightened her with some silly story that the law of England would hold her guilty with himself. She left him in a mysterious manner partly of her own planning—for she is romantic by nature, as you know. Gilray aided and abetted in the scheme, for he was quite willing to see the last of his toy. And then he died."
The last words came from Brachi's lips in a hissing whisper. He drew his tongue over his lips as if looking for some delicious morsel.
"You killed him?" Phil exclaimed.
Brachi laughed silently, a horrible, noiseless kind of mirth.
"I felt sure you would say that," he muttered. "That is the conclusion that most people will come to when they hear the story for the first time. Say that I was instrumental if you like in bringing about the death of that scoundrel, but I did not kill him. A little patience, my friend, and everything will be made quite plain to you. You did not know Gilray?"
"I did not know Gilray. How should I possibly have done so?"
"True! I had forgotten that for the moment. Here is a photograph of him taken in Vienna two years ago. Put it in your pocket, it may perhaps be useful later on. And, now, with your permission, I will go. Esme Legarde will know where to find me when I am needed."
Brachi vanished silently and smartly. Phil heard the door close behind him.
"Well," he muttered, "this is an adventure, indeed! If only Silverdale would put in an appearance now—"
Phil stood there listening intently. The interview with Brachi had got on his nerves. The present would have been a very awkward moment for Silverdale's return. To have forced his way into Silverdale's private room with the excuse—and a good excuse—of warning him of the peril in which he stood, was one thing. To be caught in a burglarious situation was quite another matter. And Silverdale was pretty certain to suspect the very worst. He had always refused to give anybody credit for a really disinterested action, and there would be no occasion for him to reverse his opinion, of human nature.
"I'm sorry I came." Phil muttered. "And yet I feel that I have not wasted any time. Still, Brachi said that Silverdale would not return—he spoke positively on that point. And Brachi seemed to be pretty well posted in the movements of that scoundrel. Anyway, I'll get out of here, and tell Elsie what I have discovered, to-morrow."
He moved towards the door with Gilray's photograph in his hand. He would have one good look at it in a strong light before he went. The features might convey something to him, not that he was in the least sanguine on that point.
He was a man of some thirty odd years, clean-shaven, resolute, and handsome. There was something about the eyes and forehead that suggested a greater weight of years, but then in the case of clean-shaven men who enjoy good health and prosperity it is very difficult to judge. And there was a certain suggestiveness about the features after all. Phil wondered whence the message lay. He looked at it again intently.
"By Jove," he whispered softly. "By Jove! Can it be possible? Upon my word, I have read so many romances in my professional capacity that I begin to doubt the existence of it altogether. And yet this merely tends to confirm what I have had in my mind for days. There have been such cases before and doubtless will be again. Well, we shall know before long. If—"
Phil broke off and listened intently. It seemed to him that he could hear footsteps on the stairs. Was it possible that Silverdale had come back after all? The mere suggestion of such a catastrophe took all the courage out of him. But he was not thinking of himself; all his fears were for Elsie Silverdale. Then the door opened quietly, and Lady Silverdale came in.
She looked pale and anxious, her long hair fell over her shoulders, the white wrap gave her the appearance of some slim white ghost. She glanced at Temple eagerly.
"Has he actually gone and left you here?" she gasped.
"He has not been here at all," Phil replied. "Your visitor was quite another person."
"Is that so, Phil? Another person! A stranger! And what did he come for?"
Phil was utterly at a loss for a reply. He had absolutely forgotten to ask Brachi what he was doing there! It seemed an incredible stupidity on his part, but there it was. In the whole multitude of questions he had asked he had omitted to put the one that really mattered.
"Upon my word, I don't know," Phil stammered. "I dare say you will regard me as a hopeless idiot, but I forgot to ask. You see, I had met this man before. You can imagine my amazement when I found him here tonight. From what I could gather, he seems to have some hold upon Silverdale. Anyway, he knows a good deal of the history of your husband's life. Elsie, you should not be here."
Lady Silverdale waved the suggestion aside impatiently.
"Oh, I know, I know," she cried. "You are thinking of the servants and the gossip."
"Of course I am. Nothing wrong—but people construe wrong and put it into words. I am very jealous of your reputation, Elsie. If anybody knew—"
"They would talk, of course. Let them, Phil. We have nothing to regret. When I heard the front door close I thought it was you gone, and I came to see Silverdale. If I had not imagined that you had left the house I should still be in my room. Now, tell me about the other man."
Phil proceeded to explain at some length. Lady Silverdale seemed to find it an interesting story. There was a genuine sympathy on her face as Phil spoke of Esme Legarde.
"It is so like you to say that, Elsie," Phil replied. "I quite expected you to make the suggestion. As a matter of fact, I hope you will go as far as Epsom with me and see her to-morrow. I shall have the address, and I will meet you at the station if you like. There are a great many more questions I should like to ask. I should like to know, for instance, what is the connection between Gilray and Lord Silverdale. He must have been a connection, or those letters of Silverdale's would never have been found in Ponder-avenue, or the revolver of Silverdale's with which the crime was committed. I want to know if Miss Legarde has ever seen Silverdale in the flat."
Elsie shook her head more or less hopelessly.
"We shall never get to the bottom of it," she declared, "never. The more I think of it the more amazing it becomes. But I should like to see this poor girl if only because of the bond of sympathy between us. Both of us have suffered at the hands of a bad man, though she seems to have been more deeply injured than I have. I think I shall like her."
"I am quite certain you will," Phil said heartily. "You ought to have a great deal in common. I am quite sure that the girl is as well bred and born as yourself. And now, my dear girl, I really must go. It would be a calamity if anybody found me here. Good-night."
Once clear of the house. Phil breathed easier. On the whole he had every reason to be satisfied with the result of his night's adventure. He had foolishly forgotten to ask what Brachi was doing at Lord Silverdale's and to insist upon a definite explanation, but he had learnt a great deal, and moreover, the vague theory that had been in the back of his mind for some time was beginning to assume practical shape. He would wait now till he had seen Esme Legarde again before puzzling his brains any further.
Miss Legarde's address came by the second post immediately after breakfast, and Phil telephoned to Lady Silverdale without delay. She would meet him at the time suggested, and they would go as far as Epsom together. There was an hour or two to spare, and Temple decided to fill in this time by a visit to Sparrow. Possibly the inspector had learnt something fresh in the meantime.
Sparrow did not seem quite so happy as he had done on a previous occasion. There was an absence of his usual assurance of success. He looked a little troubled.
"Anything fresh to report, sir?" he asked.
"Well, as a matter of fact, there is a good deal to report," Phil smiled. "It may be egoism on my part, but it seems to me that I have solved the whole problem. But I am not going to say anything until I can put in one or two of the missing details."
Sparrow smiled with the good-natured tolerance of the professional for the amateur.
"It's the little details that count," he said. "You think you've got it all right then you come up against a wall that destroys the whole scheme, sir."
"Well, are there any walls in your path?" Phil asked.
"Lord bless, you, sir, there are nothing but walls," Sparrow said in a burst of candour. "And Lord Silverdale is the biggest of the lot."
"You have found no trace of him then?"'
"Trace," Sparrow snarled. "Plenty of traces. Nothing else, in fact. Some of the aristocracy are pretty hot stuff, as Scotland Yard would tell you. It's only natural with the temptations and opportunities they get. But out of all the lot there isn't one who can hold a candle to Lord Silverdale. The things we have found out about him the last few hours! The mystery to me is that he has not had his throat cut long before now. He seems to have gone about asking for trouble."
"You are quite sure that his throat has not been cut?" Phil asked.
"No fear, sir. Men of that kind always have a charmed life. It's my belief that he is hiding away in some den in the East End of London. He goes away for weeks at a time in all kinds of queer company. We know that he spent some days in a thieves kitchen in Whitechapel. Mad, sir, that's the matter with him."
"The Silverdales are an eccentric lot," Phil murmured. "Well, I wish you success in your search. And seeing that you are so certain of your ground, Sparrow, I'll make a small wager with you. I'll bet you a sovereign that I find Lord Silverdale before you do. And I'll bet you another sovereign that I lay hands on his lordship within the next four and twenty hours."
"I'll take you, sir," Sparrow said promptly. "And glad of the chance. I'd cheerfully pay two pounds out of my pocket to be certain that I was going to lose my bet."
"In that case we shall both be satisfied," Phil laughed. "I'll phone you to-morrow."
Lady Silverdale was waiting at the appointed time. She had seen or heard nothing of Silverdale in the meantime. It was just possible that he had heard what was in the air and was keeping out of the way purposely.
"It's very dreadful," Elsie murmured. "I have a feeling that I am being watched all the time. I am quite convinced that he knows I am going on this errand with you, Phil."
"I don't fancy so," Phil said soothingly. "And in any case it does not matter. We are doing nothing wrong and everything is entirely open and honourable. Put Silverdale out of your mind for the present, Elsie. Let us try and have at least an afternoon with no clouds in the sky."
Esme Legarde appeared to have achieved her ambitions. It was a charming little old-fashioned cottage where she had taken up her residence, with a big rambling room opening on to the garden filled with flowers. She pushed her writing materials aside eagerly as her visitors entered. The lapse of a few hours had made a wonderful change in her appearance for the better. All the same she looked a little shy and distant as Lady Silverdale advanced with her hand outstretched.
"I am so glad to meet you," Elsie said. "We have a good deal in common, Miss Legarde. I have to thank you for the return of my jewels. Please do not interrupt me for a moment. I shall be glad if I may be permitted to speak plainly to you. Mr. Temple has told me everything."
The deep crimson gradually faded from Esme Legarde's face. There was something in the easy sympathy and generous manner of Lady Silverdale that was gradually melting the ice from behind her heart.
"I have suffered deeply," she murmured.
"That is the bond of sympathy between us," Elsie replied. "I too have suffered deeply. Phil, if you will be so good as to leave me for a little time, I fancy—"
But Temple had already vanished. It was just as well that these two should be alone together for a time. He would stroll about that pretty garden and smoke speculative cigarettes till his presence was needed. There was a little bower of filbert trees here that looked inviting. Seated inside alone, smoking a thoughtful cigarette, was Brachi.
"I saw you coming," the latter said. "You and Lady Silverdale. I like the look of her face. Well, her sufferings are over now. She will be glad to hear the truth."
"What are you speaking of?" Phil asked.
"Then she does not know," Brachi went on. "She has not heard the news. Silverdale is dead."
"Dead!" Phil cried. "Dead! You are joking?"
Brachi smiled as he puffed at his cigarette.
Lady Silverdale regarded her companion with a certain frank curiosity which was not displeasing to Esme Legarde. There was no trace of the society mask over Elsie Silverdale's face now—she was a beautiful and charming woman with the nameless fascination about her that few could resist. She held Esme's hands in hers for a minute or so, gazing intently in her face.
"There should be a bond of sympathy between us," she said. "We have both suffered much in the same way."
"You have learnt to hide your feelings," Esme smiled.
"It is the only lesson the world has taught me," Lady Silverdale replied. "As to the rest, I could do very well without it. I am tired of it all, so tired. One never seems to make friends in these days. And yet you have been a good friend to me, Mrs. Gilray."
The name slipped from Elsie Silverdale's lips before she had time to think. She saw the colour flame into the sensitive face of her companion.
"You must not call me that," Esme whispered. "I am glad that is not my name. And I only did for you what I would have done for anybody else. That man was persecuting you, and you were helpless. Why he tortured you I am at a loss to imagine."
"It is the strangest thing that ever happened," Lady Silverdale exclaimed. "I never heard of the man in my life, so far as I can tell I never even met him. And yet he seemed to have a hatred of me that arrested his mania. He must have watched my every movement. He must have had the most intimate knowledge of my doings. Do you understand how the persecution began?"
"I don't," Esme said. "He seemed to have a hold on you."
"He had. He obtained possession of certain letters of mine to Mr. Temple. Before I married I was engaged to Mr. Temple. I married Lord Silverdale for family reasons—it was as hopeless and miserable a marriage as some of those royal matches we read of. I not only disliked my husband, but I despised and feared him. And there were certain letters that I wrote to Mr. Temple. I am not ashamed of those letters—no good woman would be. They are foolish, perhaps, and they showed my feelings, but Philip Temple appreciated them. They were stolen from him, and by some strange means they found their way into the possession of Mr. Gilray. From that time on he persecuted me. He sent me portions of those letters demanding money for each. If I failed him, my husband was to get the rest of the correspondence. Of course I should have defied that man. Everybody would have advised me to do so. But it is so easy for people to do the right thing—in theory. My life was miserable enough without making it so much worse. I dared not let my husband know. How he would have revelled in that fresh weapon of torture! So I went on till I was stripped of everything."
"I know," Esme murmured. "This man who played that dastardly trick on you was the man whom I regarded as my husband. He was worse than yours."
"It may be possible," Esme explained. "I knew that Gilray was up to something wicked by the way that certain letters he wrote seemed to please him. He used my typewriter for the letters. My machine is getting old, and needs trained handling. If two sheets happen to get into the carrier together it is possible to read the impression of the words on the second sheet. Gilray did not know this, and the fact betrayed him. That is how I found out that he was blackmailing Lady Silverdale. After that I kept my eyes open."
"You mean that you read all the correspondence that way?"
"Well, most of it. In typing on thin paper such as I use—and consequently Gilray used—it is more or less necessary to back one page with another. John Gilray was quite ignorant of the record he was leaving behind him. With the aid of a strong glass I could read a good deal. And after a time I found the place where your jewels were hidden. In one of them was a communication from a jeweller addressed to you by name, and then I knew whom these letters went to. When I came to make inquiries I was more bewildered than ever. People spoke so well of you; your reputation stood so high! And yet that man was in a position to compel you to send him money. Now I can understand why."
"It is nice of you to speak in that tone," Lady Silverdale said gratefully. "So you sent my gems back. How did you manage to do so without John Gilray—"
"But you forget that I sent the gems back after Gilray was dead. I packed them myself. It was the very night that Gilray died. I told you that your persecution was finished, that you would have no trouble with that scoundrel in future."
"But I understood, that you had left the flat," Elsie Silverdale said.
"So I had. I suppose Mr. Temple told you. But even he does not know everything. When I left the flat I was supposed to be dead. It was a deception in which John Gilray aided me. He was absolutely tired of me, and only too anxious to get me out of the way. He told me that my marriage was merely a sham, that the ceremony I had gone through was a mockery. He said that it was a criminal matter, and that I had placed myself within the reach of the law. The mere fact that I had been deceived made no difference. And I believed him: I accepted his statement as gospel. I see now how foolish I was, but I am more or less a stranger in England, and I took the statement as a fact. Than I made up my mind to disappear and never be seen again. I could assume my pen name and live on my earnings. Gilray was so anxious to get rid of me that he fell in with the suggestion. He helped me in every way, and a doctor who was none too careful proved of great assistance. Esme Legarde was dead, and a certain stupid Jane Martin took her place. And there it might have ended; only John Gilray died too."
"He was murdered," Lady Silverdale exclaimed.
"Yes, so it would seem. He, too, appears to have had his enemies. Probably some victim driven to desperation tracked him down and took his life. I was the first to find him."
"You discovered his dead body?" Lady Silverdale whispered.
"Yes. I had my key to the flat. After I had vanished I recollected that I had left certain things behind me that I needed. More or less disguised, I went back for them late at night. And I found Gilray dead. It was a terrible shock, but I managed to do all I needed without betraying myself. I even found and packed up your jewels and wrote that note with them on my Codrington."
"And you have no kind of idea who—"
Esme shuddered. Her face was white and anxious; there was an expression of pain in her eyes.
"Don't ask me," she said. "It is just possible that I may have my suspicions. But I do not dare to whisper them even to myself. Even if I knew they were correct I should say nothing, because I know that the man who rid the world of Gilray did it a service. Some day, perhaps, I shall know the truth, but it will be none of my seeking."
"And you got clean away from Ponder-avenue?"
"Yes. I should never have been heard of in the mystery if it had not been for the story that I sent in the name of Scaff to the 'Herald.' But Mr. Temple has told you all that. Did you ever hear a more remarkable romance?"
"It bewilders me." Lady Silverdale confessed. "I never heard anything like it before. But why were you so anxious to get your story back?"
"Oh, there were certain incidents that might easily have been connected with the mystery of Ponder-avenue. Mr. Temple does not altogether agree with me, and perhaps after all it is more a matter of conscience than anything else. And yet it was all for the best. But for my sending the story to the 'Herald' and Paolo Brachi's attempt to recover it, we should never have discovered all this amazing plot. See how we are guided by Providence in spite of ourselves."
"I suppose so," said Lady Silverdale thoughtfully. "My poor child, how you must have suffered!"
An unsteady smile flickered over Esme's face. Her eyes were glistening with tears.
"Yes," she said, simply. "I seem to have done nothing else but suffer since I was left alone in the world. And when you speak to me in that kindly way I feel like breaking down. Oh, it is all very well to talk about innocence and purity, but in this world of ours they are poor weapons for a lonely girl. Had I known a little more I should never have taken John Gilray at his own valuation. I thought he was different from other men: I held myself fortunate to have won his love. Love! The man did not know the meaning of the word except that it represented a good girl's affection for a worthless scamp. And Brachi warned me, he implored me to be careful. In my madness I declined to listen. Brachi was a croaker, a prophet of evil. I was ready to quarrel with him when he insisted upon following me to England. A month later I was thanking God that he had done so. What I should have done without him I don't know. From the very first I led the life of a slave. I did all the homework, even to the scrubbing and scouring. I was told to consider myself the general servant of the flat, and to pose as such. I was never allowed to have a penny except what I made in secret by my pen. The time came when John Gilray wanted to get rid of me, and I was glad to go. The rest you know."
Lady Silverdale murmured her sympathy. She spoke mechanically, for her mind was far away. She was asking herself questions that answered themselves in a startling fashion. There was something strangely alike between her married life and the mockery of Esme's recent existence. And how strangely were they linked together. Look at it which way she would, the link remained. Brachi had connected them up, and Brachi was the man whom Philip Temple had discovered in Lord Silverdale's private sitting-room. Certainly there was a good deal to be learnt, yet Lady Silverdale was by no means certain that Esme could enlighten her. A horrible suspicion flashed across her mind.
"Is there anything that you are concealing from me?" she asked.
Esme looked at her in innocent surprise. It was impossible to regard that pretty, pathetic face with the black eyes and pleading, piteous mouth, and connect it with guilt.
"I don't know what you mean," Esme murmured.
"I quite see you don't," Lady Silverdale said. "Pray forgive me. A strange suspicion haunted me for a moment. Perhaps Brachi could inform me."
"Brachi," Esme echoed. "What can he possibly tell you?"
"That remains to be seen, my child. But he can tell me something. I have evidence to prove that he is on very familiar terms with my husband. Oh there are many things in common between John Gilray and Lord Silverdale, and Brachi seems to have known the truth. I should very much like to ask your friend Paolo Brachi a few questions."
"You shall," Esme smiled. "He is out in the garden. Shall I call him?"
Esme walked into the garden and softly called Brachi by name. He appeared from the little arbour where he had been seated in earnest conversation with Temple.
"You want me, my dear?" he asked. "If you will pardon me a moment till I have finished with Mr. Temple."
"It is Lady Silverdale who needs you," Esme said. "There is a question she wishes to ask you. She would like to know how long you have been on intimate terms with her husband."
Brachi smiled drily. He turned with an eloquent gesture to Phil.
"You see what comes of taking a woman into one's confidence," he said.
"Lady Silverdale wants to know how long I have enjoyed the blessed privileges of her husband's friendship. That is because she knows of my visit to his lordship's private apartments. Well, no matter, the whole story will be told before long. My dear Esme, present my compliments to her ladyship, and say that I will not keep her waiting a moment longer than it is necessary to do so. It is only a matter of a minute or two. Now, sir."
"Oh, I have practically finished," Phil said. "The problem is solved to my mind. Without claiming any great credit to myself I could see the solution some time ago. In fact, it was the only practical answer to the sum. But who killed John Gilray?"
Brachi smiled as he carefully lighted a fresh cigarette.
"So that is the only question," he said. "All the rest is quite plain. You are a clever man, Mr. Temple, a far more clever man than you give yourself credit for. And all that remains is to tell you who killed John Gilray. Is not that so, Mr. Temple?"
"That is the great thing that puzzles me, Mr. Brachi. You can reply if you like."
"Precisely; I can reply if I like. What is passing through your mind would be plain to the intelligence of the average schoolboy. You think that I killed John Gilray."
Phil was just a little startled by the coolness of the suggestion. He had hardly expected Brachi to take it quite like this. And in truth he could not deny the insinuation. The fact quite uppermost in his mind was that he was sitting face to face with the murderer of John Gilray. Yet Brachi showed no signs of guilt or confusion. He smiled with the air of a man who is amused with the puny efforts of budding intelligence to grasp mental problems beyond its range.
"There is very grave evidence against you," Phil said.
"Oh, there is," Brachi admitted candidly. "Your friend, Inspector Sparrow, would have had me arrested before now had he known as much as you know. It would have been far wiser on his part to do so than to take out a warrant against Lord Silverdale. And Lady Silverdale knows better than that. You will find that she is nearer the truth than anybody else. That is why she has sent for me."
"Then you deny that you—?"
"My dear sir, I deny nothing neither do I admit anything. You might just as well say that I have gone one better and murdered Lord Silverdale as well. He has disappeared—"
"That is nothing new for him. He frequently disappears mysteriously."
"For weeks at a time, leaving no trace behind him. I could tell you more about him than anybody else in London. Does that statement surprise you?"
"No, it doesn't," Phil said coolly. "Oh, I know where Lord Silverdale is."
"Precisely. Only one or two points puzzle you. They shall be made plain to-day. I told you Lord Silverdale is dead, and will convince you of the fact before you are many hours older. Now, there is one set of questions that you seem to have overlooked altogether. You never asked me what I was doing last night in Silverdale's private apartments."
"It was incredibly stupid of me," Temple admitted. "But I did forget. What were you doing there?"
"Well, I was looking for something: in fact, I had been looking for something for the last two nights. I was taking far less risk than you imagine, because I had Lord Silverdale's keys, and I had the best of reasons for knowing that he was the last person in the world or out of it—who was likely to appear and ask awkward questions. The night before last I was interrupted, and had to leave hurriedly. I did not expect to see you, because I did not know that you were on such good terms with Lady Silverdale. We had a dramatic meeting, and you asked me a good many cogent questions. But why I was there, and for what purpose, you never inquired."
"As I told you before, I forgot to," Phil said shortly.
"Quite so. It is easy to see that you are blaming yourself for that remarkable oversight. That is natural. But I was looking for something that was vital to the solution of the mystery. And I found it. I had it in my pocket at the moment when you fell foul of me."
"I was sorry to have to be so violent," Phil muttered.
"Not at all. Your action in the circumstances was perfectly logical and justifiable. And besides, it did not matter to me, seeing I had what I was in search of in my pocket. You shall see for yourself before long what use that same discovery will be put to. It will be a matter of keen enjoyment to me to see Inspector Sparrow's face. You shall see one of your great detectives utterly astonished and bewildered; you shall hear him confess that he has made a ridiculous mistake. And what is to the point, you shall hear how John Gilray died, and why. And thereby hangs a tale."
Phil regarded the speaker intently. It was quite evident that he was not boasting. He spoke with a calm and quiet air that carried conviction with it.
"In that case I will possess my soul in patience," Phil said. "I have my suspicions all the same."
"Of course, you have. Which is proved by the fact that you ask no questions in reply to my statement that Lord Silverdale is no more. You see that I speak with conviction, because I have had the honour of Silverdale's acquaintance for a long time. I may say without boasting that I know more of his life and movements than anybody in London. There is something very fascinating in the study of a scoundrel. And I have studied Silverdale as a naturalist analyses a beautiful but dangerous insect. There has been no phase of his character concealed from me. Upon my word, knowing all I know, the mystery is that I did not destroy him long ago. I could easily have done it, and nobody been any the wiser. I dogged his footsteps everywhere. I learnt where he went and why he went. And when I learnt everything there was to learn, I was patient, knowing that my time would come. The same remark applies to Gilray."
"Yes," said Phil drily. "I know it does. Go on."
"I had to get Esme Legarde out of the way, but that task was saved me by Gilray himself. The last thing I desired was that the poor girl should be dragged into the light of day—I mean as far as legal proceedings were concerned. But for the little slip over that story she would never have come into the picture at all. Still, it is all for the best, Mr. Temple, as you will be the first to own when the story comes to be told."
"How did you get hold of Silverdale's keys?" Phil asked.
"That is also a detail in the main story," Brachi went on. "A very practical question, though. And now let me go and see what Lady Silverdale wants. If you have no objection, I will come back to town with you. When we get there we will call and see Inspector Sparrow. Then we will get him to come with us as far as Ponder-avenue. Yes, the story is nearly finished."
Lady Silverdale had, however, very few questions to ask. She seemed to be strangely silent and thoughtful on the way back to London. Her mind was busy piecing the parts of the puzzle together—there was a deal that she had to say to Phil when once they were alone. But that was not destined to be just yet. Brachi had other views.
"I will ask you to be so good as to place Lady Silverdale in a cab," he suggested. "After that we will get at once to my lodgings and fetch the necessary proofs of what I am going to show you. We will journey as far as Scotland Yard and call on Inspector Sparrow. He will accompany us to Ponder-avenue."
"I think you had better do so, Phil," Lady Silverdale said. "I have got a headache, and I should like to have a rest for an hour or two. You might call on me this evening."
Phil promised eagerly enough. A taxi convoyed them to Brachi's lodgings, and thence to Scotland Yard, where they found Sparrow busy at his desk. From the expression of his face things were not going well with him. He turned an interrogative look on Phil's companion.
"This is Signor Paolo Brachi," Phil explained. "Perhaps you will understand better if I speak of him as Edward Seymour Scaff, the writer of the story we know of."
"Oh, really," Sparrow exclaimed. "This is certainly one to you, Mr. Temple. Perhaps Mr. Brachi will explain that little business in Sarsenet-street. Otherwise I may have—"
"You will kindly drop that tone, Inspector," Brachi said firmly. "You are not dealing with the ordinary type of criminal now. Well, say an extraordinary type of criminal, if you like. The episode of the Sarsenet affair can be told all in good time. In the meantime I am here to tell you how John Gilray came by his death. When I have done so you will drop that warrant against Lord Silverdale and regret that you ever applied for it. You have committed a serious blunder, Inspector Sparrow."
Sparrow flushed indignantly. In his eyes Brachi was a type that appealed to all his professional instincts. To be talked to like this by a mere criminal in his own office was not to be tolerated. A warning glance from Temple checked his coming retort.
"I came here with Mr. Temple to ask you to come down to Ponder-avenue," Brachi went on. "You have to thank Mr. Temple for a good deal more than you imagine. But for him and the way he treated me, the Ponder-avenue mystery was likely to remain an enigma to the police for many a long day to come. As it is, the case is exceedingly simple—when you know everything, as I do."
"We shall know more after we get there," Sparrow said sulkily.
"I am obliged for the reminder, Inspector," Brachi responded. "Will you call a cab, please?"
A few minutes later and the little party reached Ponder-avenue. The blinds were all drawn awaiting the funeral of the dead man, who as yet had not been buried. There was just a longing hope in Sparrow's mind that a relative might come forward at the last moment. Brachi led the way into the bedroom where Gilray lay with the air of a man who is quite at home.
The dead man rested in his coffin, his face grey and ghastly in the subdued light. It was the first time that Phil had ever glanced at those rigid features—on the night of the murder he had scrupulously refrained from doing so. He had no liking for the morbid. The clean-cut, clean-shaven face was like a wax mask. Brachi took something from his pocket, something that looked like a mass of grey hair.
"You will pardon me if I appear to be taking a liberty," he said. "But I shall show you presently that all this is obviously necessary to prove what I have to prove. Turn your backs for a moment, please. Now, Inspector Sparrow and Mr. Temple, have you seen this man before?"
Phil turned eagerly to the face in the coffin. Sparrow gave a hoarse cry of amazement.
"Good Lord!" he gasped, "Good Lord, Mr. Temple, what do you think of that!"
Brachi had made no idle boast. He had promised to give Sparrow the surprise of his life, and he had done so. The whole thing had been accomplished with the neatness and certainty of a conjuring trick. It had been as if Brachi had found the cunning hand of the lightning draughtsman who produces a likeness by a few dashes of charcoal and then by one bold stroke alters the face beyond imagination. As he bent over the coffin the onlookers saw a clean-cut, clean-shaven face quite full and youthful, and yet in the twinkling of an eye, beheld the features of a middle-aged, almost plain-looking man with a neat grey beard and carefully trained moustache. The alteration was amazing. It would have deceived the sharpest pair of eyes that ever attempted to look into a disguise. Sparrow scratched his head in helpless astonishment.
"Well, I never saw anything quite like that before," he said. "It's wonderful!"
Brachi stood there regarding his handiwork critically. He did not appear to be in the least elated. In the coolest possible way he bent down and adjusted the grey mask a little more precisely. There was a look of cold contempt and hatred in his eyes. He had come here prepared to do a certain thing, and he had carried out his promise. He was the coolest of the three.
"What have you got to say, Mr. Temple?" Sparrow asked.
"Well, you see I was more or less prepared for something of this kind," Phil said. "I know that it is an easy matter to be wise after the event, but I had practically solved the problem before I came here. The way in which the thing was done puzzled me, but after all it is astoundingly simple. It is quite evident that Silverdale was one of the dangerously clever type of men who think backwards. Most of our best novelists work in that way—that is, from effect back to cause."
"I don't know anything about that," Sparrow said just a little testily. "I'm no philosopher. The fact that we have found Lord Silverdale is enough for me."
"Also the fact that he did not murder John Gilray!" Temple suggested.
"Well, of course, John Gilray and Lord Silverdale are one and the same person. I'm not going to make any apology for my mistake, Mr. Temple. A dodge like that would have puzzled the best man that the Yard ever turned out. But why did he do it?"
"Because he was a rascal," Brachi said between his teeth. "Because the man was a criminal in the worst sense of the word. He had good health, a great position, and ample means. You'd say that here was the last man in the world to be anything that was not honest and honourable. He'd be a fool to try any other policy. But you see, Silverdale was a born criminal—some malformation of the brain, I suppose. The only way to carry out his designs was to lead a double life. A man like that could not pursue the ordinary methods. He need not go off and disguise himself with the risk of falling into the hands of the police. Once he did so, his disguise was useless. He hit upon the ingenious expedient of being disguised at home amongst his own friends and being absolutely himself when he was off upon one of his expeditions. Probably he absented himself for six months or so in some solitary place, and turned up at the end of that time with a neat beard and moustache. It matters little where he got this from—he did get it. Once he turned his back on his family residence, the beard and moustache were gone. With one motion of his hand he was disguised beyond recognition. He might have served six months in gaol and nobody would have been any the wiser. One cannot but admire the ingenuity of the idea. I fancy I have established the connection between John Gilray of Ponder-avenue and Lord Silverdale."
"Well, there's no doubt about that," Sparrow said. "It's a queer idea, but there it is. Now how did you get to the bottom of this, Mr. Brachi?"
Brachi glanced inquiringly in Temple's direction. If Temple required information on certain points, the Austrian was quite willing to oblige; there would be no great difficulty in keeping Sparrow in the dark.
"Tell him everything," Phil said. "Most of the facts will become public property."
"I will tell you everything on one condition," Brachi said. "You will remember, Inspector, that you made some inquiries here as to the antecedents of a certain servant called Esme, who was supposed to have died in this house. You thought she might have been useful to you."
"I have no doubt of it," Sparrow said. "Servants learn a good deal."
"Well, as a matter of fact, she was not a servant—she was under the impression that she was Gilray's wife. My blood boils when I think of the way she was treated. She did not die here, as a matter of fact she is not dead. She was smuggled out of the place because she was tired of it, and Gilray was only too glad to see the back of her. In fact, he helped to get her away. Her real name is Esme Legarde, and she wrote the story that all the fuss was about."
Sparrow nodded. He was beginning to see matters more clearly now.
"She caused us a great deal of trouble," he said.
"Naturally. But she was in great trouble herself. When she wrote that story and forwarded it to Mr. Temple with a view to its publication, she did not expect that Gilray would die so soon and in such mysterious circumstances. She was afraid that if the story were published it might be in some way connected with the Ponder-avenue business and lead to her undoing. It was rather a foolish idea, but it became fixed in her mind, and I undertook to get the story back for her. I did get it, and I didn't get it, if I may be allowed to say so. It was the various episodes surrounding that story that gave Mr. Temple a pretty good idea what was going on. I am bound to say that he worked out his theory very cleverly—so cleverly that it nearly got us all in trouble. I need not tell you that the poor girl I speak of had not the faintest idea that Gilray and Silverdale were one and the same man. She regarded him merely as a blackmailer—shall I go on, Mr. Temple?"
"The truth had better be told," Phil said. "It will save a deal of scandal in the long run. Look here, Sparrow. Lady Silverdale is a very old friend of mine; in fact, at one time I was engaged to her. For family reasons she married Silverdale, and regretted it ever afterwards. She knew what a blackguard he was when she married him, and so did I. He was cruel, with no feeling for anybody. Certain letters that Lady Silverdale wrote to me before her marriage got into the hands of a blackmailer, who persecuted Lady Silverdale in the most barefaced way. She told me about it at length, and I made inquiries. I found that the blackmailer smoked a peculiar kind of cigarette made from Borneo tobacco, and that the cigarettes were specially manufactured for him. It was a significant fact that Silverdale had the same class of cigarette and doubtless made in the same shop—Negretti's. Knowing Silverdale, I asked myself a question. Now, wasn't this fiendish blackmailing idea just what he would have rejoiced in? Would he not have revelled in the chance at making his wife still more miserable? He was blackmailing his own wife! The more I thought over this the more certain of my ground did I feel. But how was this being done? I take no credit to myself for answering the question, because fortune befriended me in the matter. Everything that Lady Silverdale had been deprived of came back to her in a parcel with an anonymous letter. Mind you, by this time I had begun to connect Lord Silverdale and Gilray in my mind. And when I found that the anonymous letter and the typed MS. of 'E. S. Scaff's' story were written on one and the same machine I saw my way. After that my task was easy. It was Esme Legarde alias E. S. Scaff, who sent back those jewels from Gilray's flat."
"That's all right so far," said Sparrow. "But how did you connect the two together?"
"Ah, that is where I found my stumbling block," Temple smiled. "At first I thought that Gilray and Silverdale were acting in unison. They seemed to me to be congenial rascals. The absolute solution only came to me when I saw the hair mask fitted on Silverdale's face. I am telling you all this, Sparrow, so that you may help me to save scandal as far as possible. I want to keep Lady Silverdale's name out of it. And now that the tragedy has resolved itself into a misadventure—"
"But has it?" Sparrow asked. "We have succeeded in identifying Gilray, of course, and so far the way is getting clear. In the ordinary course of events there would be no occasion to bring the name of Lady Silverdale into the case at all. Let us drop the name of Gilray altogether for the moment. Lord Silverdale is dead—he was found here murdered. Whom by?"
A strange smile flickered over Brachi's face.
"You are thinking of accusing me of the crime," he said. "Well, I shall have a perfect answer to that suggestion before very long. And if I had had a hand in that scoundrel's death, I should hardly have gone out of my way to tell you all this, Inspector."
Sparrow was quite willing to concede the point. All he asked for was more light.
"I am going to give it you," Brachi said. "I am going to prove to you that Silverdale was not murdered at all. You need not worry, Mr. Temple, there is going to be no scandal."
Sparrow smiled openly. Brachi was attempting to prove too much. Still, the man should have every opportunity. So far he had not been without his uses.
"Let me go back a little way," the Austrian said, seeing that the others looked to him to proceed. "Esme Legarde is a friend of mine—her father was my chum in the days when we were both in a good position and the outlook was fair. Never mind how I lost everything and came down to my present humble condition. Esme Legarde regards me as a poor creature who teaches music for a living. She little knows how much fire there is in the old shell still. Anyway, she would not listen to me. She regarded Gilray as one of the best and noblest of men. To marry him was her idea of heaven. Well, she did go through a ceremony with him, only to discover in the course of time that he had a wife already. But I found this out first because I made it my business to follow Gilray and dog his steps night and day. No man was ever watched so carefully before. I discovered who Gilray was, I penetrated the secret of his disguise. Nothing he has done the last two years is hidden from me. That man was a criminal to his finger-tips, and I could have put him in the dock on half a dozen charges. He loved crime for its own sake; he was one of a gang of criminals. He has spent all his money long ago, as you will find presently. I did not tell poor little Esme all this, for it would have been only adding to her misery to do so. At length, by pure chance, she discovered something of it, and that blackguard welcomed the opportunity of getting rid of her. He did get rid of her, and then I had my say."
Brachi paused just for a moment as if expecting a question or two, but none came. The others were far too interested in his narrative to offer any interruption.
"I called and saw Gilray," he went on. "I told him all I had discovered. I told him with a revolver in my hand standing before the fireplace. It was my hour. And I offered him two alternatives—that the police should know everything, or he was to remove himself to another world."
"You mean he was to commit suicide?" Phil exclaimed.
"Precisely," Brachi said calmly. "And that is exactly what did happen. Silverdale shot himself in my presence, and my vengeance was satisfied."
"God bless my soul!" Sparrow exclaimed. "What queer creatures those foreigners are! In that case, how did the revolver with Silverdale's name on get hidden in the chimney?"
"The answer is quite easy," Brachi said coolly. "I put it there. It was one of Silverdale's own revolvers, and, as I subsequently ascertained, came from a case of two which he had in his own house. I hid the revolver in the chimney because I did not care to take it from the house. I might have been taken on the way. I might have got into an altercation with a policeman. One never knows. My idea was to let the mystery solve itself and be forgotten. I might have taken the revolver when Silverdale dropped it. Say that I acted on the impulse of the moment, if you like. I'm glad I did so, because my action has helped Mr. Temple to get at certain missing parts which otherwise might have been overlooked, and so caused anxiety to a certain lady and himself for many a long day to come. And that is the truth."
"I am quite prepared to believe it," Sparrow said magnanimously. "But a coroner's jury—"
"Oh, the coroner's jury will be equally satisfied," Brachi smiled. "If you will let me have the fatal revolver in my hands for a moment I will give you evidence that will convince the most ignorant jury that ever failed to understand a case. Mind you, Silverdale was prepared for trouble. There was always the chance that the truth might come out—there was always the danger of arrest for some crime that carries a long term in prison. It would have been no consolation to him to find himself in gaol under another name so long as he was in gaol. He generally carried a revolver. He would never have hesitated to shoot anybody who stood in his way; he would never have hesitated to shoot himself, either. And he was quite cynically indifferent to what the world would say of him after. The revolver was always fully charged—the first shot for the foe, the second shot for himself, and the third cartridge for—well, you will see what for. Let us go as far as Scotland Yard and see the revolver."
"Certainly, if you wish it," said Sparrow eagerly. "In the whole course of my experience I never listened to a more interesting story than this. If you can prove that this is a case of suicide, then there will be no occasion to drag Lady Silverdale's name into the business at all."
"I have already told you I shall do so," Brachi smiled coldly. "We are merely wasting time here. This should be a good thing for your paper to-morrow, Mr. Temple."
"So it should," Temple exclaimed. "For the moment I had quite forgotten the requirements of the 'Herald.' And, look here, Sparrow. Are you bound to call Mr. Brachi at the inquest?"
Sparrow nodded his head emphatically.
"Don't see how we are going to avoid it," he said. "As a witness of the suicide—"
"Oh, there is yet a better witness," said Brachi. "There will be no occasion to drag me into the business at all. In that case Lady Silverdale will be spared a deal of unhappiness and misery."
"If I could do without you I would," Sparrow promised.
"Then in that case the thing is done," Brachi said cheerfully. "Let us get along to Scotland yard, gentlemen. Within a week this case will be forgotten."
Sparrow locked the flat and a moment or two later the three were proceeding in a cab to Scotland Yard. From his safe Sparrow took out the revolver and handed it to Brachi.
"Now let us hear what you have to say," he suggested.
"It is really very little," Brachi said. "Here is the weapon just as it was used with one chamber exploded. The shell is still in the chamber, the barrel is still black with powder. The second cartridge is intact as you can see for yourselves. Take it out so as to be satisfied that it is a genuine live shell. You have quite made up your minds that there is no deception here. Now look at the third shell in rotation—is not that the word? You will see that the bullet has been extracted and only the powder left. On that shell is a piece of wax that bears the impression of Silverdale's private seal. Extract the contents and see what you get."
Sparrow lost no time in doing so. He was as anxious and eager as a child. From the cartridge he drew a slip of paper tightly rolled up. He flattened it out, and a letter stood revealed. Temple gave a little gasp as he glanced over Sparrow's shoulder.
"It is a letter," he exclaimed. "And beyond all question, in Silverdale's handwriting. Is it a confession?"
"That is what you will find," said Brachi. "Silverdale seems to have been always original in his methods. On one or two of my rare visits to the flat I talked to him. We talked always on the subject of crime. He had a great admiration for a clever criminal. He had books on their methods. And he told me of this scheme for getting out of the world if danger threatened—a dramatic exit, he called it. He had read of it in some chronicle or another. When he shot himself that night, as he did without the slightest hesitation, I knew what I should find in that revolver, I did not even look to see, so sure was I on that point. There is the confession, Mr. Inspector, in the handwriting of the man who took his own life rather than face the consequences of his guilt. And after that, I think that you will find it hardly necessary to call me as a witness. You will get all the credit for solving this mystery, everybody will be satisfied, and Lady Silverdale will escape a deal of trouble. I think there is no more for me to say."
"I am infinitely obliged to you, Mr. Brachi," Sparrow said heartily. "But for you we should never have got to the bottom of this amazing case. You will not be called, and we will make it as easy for Lady Silverdale as we can. But she will have to identify the body. I'll see her to-morrow—"
"There's not the slightest occasion," Phil said hastily. "I think it would be far better to leave it to me to tell Lady Silverdale all that is necessary. I'll prepare her for the ordeal, and if you will see me in the morning at Ponder-avenue at ten o'clock, I'll undertake that Lady Silverdale shall accompany me. And now I really must be off to the office. I have my duty to my paper to consider."
Sparrow was content to let it go at that, and Phil vanished hurriedly. On the whole things had turned out far better than he had anticipated. There need not be any very grave scandal.
People would talk and wonder and ask one another questions. They would want to know what Silverdale meant by leading this double existence, but in a day or two the whole story would be forgotten.
Anyway, he had to put all these speculations out of his mind now, and think only of the 'Herald.' He had a fine story to tell, and it looked like being an exclusive one. At the same time some of the dramatic points would have to be half unwritten for Elsie's sake. At the end of an hour he leant back in his chair with a sigh of mingled regret and satisfaction, and lighted a cigarette.
"Well, that is finished," he said. "Was there ever anything like it before? I wish that to-morrow was over. Anyway, it will be the last unpleasant thing that Elsie will have to do. I would go round to-night if it were not so late."
All the same, Phil was calling on Lady Silverdale betimes in the morning. She had finished breakfast when he got there, and was ready to hear his story.
"You have some news. Phil?" she said. "Something extraordinary has happened—I can see it by your face. Is it good or bad news, I wonder?"
"Well, it's both," Phil confessed. "You will have to be brave, Elsie. But it is for the last time. One more unpleasantness and the path is smooth for the future. Silverdale is dead."
Elsie Silverdale's face grew deadly pale for a moment, but the colour came back to her cheeks.
"I had expected something like this," she said quietly. "I have to go and identify the body?"
"You have guessed it, dear," Phil murmured. "You will have to come with me at once and get the ordeal over. I have so arranged it that there will be practically no scandal. People will talk for a day or two, but the scandal will be very soon forgotten. All the same, you must be prepared—you must not be taken by surprise. In a few words let me give you the whole story—from start to finish."
Lady Silverdale listened to the dramatic story without a word. She followed the whole of it with breathless interest. It was some time before she grasped its full meaning.
"I think I understand now, Phil," she murmured. "At first I could not grasp it at all—I could think of nothing but the fact that I am free. The world seems to be going round and round in my head like a wheel. Of course, I ought not to say this: I ought to pretend to be sorry, but I'm not. Phil: I'm not. I'm glad—I'm so glad that I could go out and tell everybody. How have I managed to pass two years with such a man and yet retain my reason! Phil, you should be ashamed of me."
"That I shall never be," Phil smiled. "And now we must really be going."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The nine days' wonder was gone and forgotten, a score of other and more piquant scandals had trodden it out of the shallow memory of society. Six months had slipped away before Temple realised that they had gone and that Lady Silverdale was back in London again after a long trip in Europe. In that time Esme Legarde had established herself. She had her own cottage now where she lived with Brachi to look after the garden. He appeared to be developing something like a genius in that direction. She was a very different Esme to the girl whom Temple had come in contact with that eventful night in Ponder-avenue.
"And I owe it all to you," she told Temple gratefully. "I did not know that I should ever be so happy again."
"Nothing like work for unhappiness!" Phil replied. "And you are working for me. If you had not come to me there are a score of other editors who would have welcomed you gladly."
"It's good of you to say so," Esme whispered. "Is Lady Silverdale back yet? And when she does come back you will be sure to bring her down here to see me?"
"You can absolutely rely upon that," Phil smiled. "She is back to-day. Tonight I dine with her. She is giving up the house in town and taking a place in the country. She wants me to help her."
Esme looked up with a glad little smile on her face.
"Of course," she said. "I hope the house will be in this neighbourhood. I have so few friends, and Lady Silverdale and myself have so much in common. Mr. Temple, do make it somewhere near here."
And Phil promised that he would if he could.
She was waiting for him dressed as he had seen her last with no vestige of mourning. She came forward with a tender smile on her face, a face so beautiful and happy, youthful, sunny, and fascinating. Phil took her hands in his and drew her to his heart.
"Don't say a word," he whispered. "Kiss me, Elsie—the first time for two long weary years."
She threw her arms about his neck and kissed him tenderly on the lips. And in that moment the shadow fell, and the mists rolled from them for ever.
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia