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Title: The Man with the Eye-Glass
Author: Fred M. White
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Language: English
Date first posted:  Aug 2014
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The Man with the Eye-Glass

by

Fred M. White

Published in The Star, New Zealand, 16 Sep 1909
This e-book edition: Project Gutenberg Australia, 2014<



I

NIEL JOHNSON laid the book he was reading down for a moment, and pulled at his pipe thoughtfully. He was, above all things, a theorist, and he was devoting the best part of his life to the problems which deal with the intricate subject of crime. He was a solitary man, though by no means a recluse, and he had few friends. Fortunately for himself, he had a sufficient income to permit an indulgence of his favourite study. There was hardly an authority on this subject with which he was not familiar; he had read them all from start to finish, and the more he studied this subject, the more surely convinced he was that the majority of crimes were based upon insanity. There were exceptions to the rule, of course, but on the whole his experience proved that this theory was correct.

From time to time he had investigated a great many mysteries which had puzzled the police. He was fond of tracing these complicated tangles to a practical conclusion; it was his habit to work them subsequently into a narrative, and then to supply the whole to one of the leading daily papers. In this way, the name of Niel Johnson wa becoming known to the public.

He liked to choose his own cases, of course, and the more apparently mysterious the crime, the more attracted he was tp it. He was engaged upon a case just now which had only come into his line of vision within the last few hours. The gist of it lay within th few lines which he had cut recently from an evening paper. He picked up the paragraph now, and read as follows:


STRANGE DISCOVERY AT CHELSEA

"Early this atternoon two lightermen connected with a Thames barge discovered the body of a woman half-hidden under some timber in Chelsea Reach. The corpse proved to be that of a middle-aged lady, and apparently had been in the water for some days. The unfortunate woman was exceedingly well-dressed, and she was wearing some remarkably handsome jewellery, and a silver combined card-case ans purse containing a considerable amount of money. There was nothing in the purse by which the deceased could be identified, with the exception of an original pencil sketch of an elderly man wearing an eye-glass. The mysterious affair is all the more inexplicable seeing that the police have had no inquiries lately relating to any missing person in the same walk of life as the lady in question."


Here was a case, then, after Johnson's own heart. There was nothing to help him, no kind of clue to the problem, and very little encouragement as to the way to proceed. Still, it possessed all the elements of attractiveness, and, indeed, there was something quaintly fascinating in getting to the bottom of a mystery like this, with no clue besides a clever caricature of an elderly old dandy with an eye-glass. Johnson put on his hat presently, and strolled off in the direction of Scotland Yard. He was well known there, and always sure of a welcome. He found himself presently in the office of Chief Inspector Chambers, whom he was informed had the case in hand. The inspector motioned his visitor to a chair.

"I think I can guess what bring you here, Mr Johnson," he said. "You have read the newspaper paragraph about that Chelsea business.

"That's right," Johnson said. "I did read it, and it rather appealed to me. Have you heard anything in connection with it?"

"Not a word up to now," Chambers said, "Oh, yes, the unfortunate woman was a lady right enough. There are no marks of violence upon the body and nothing whatever to lead to identity. Her clothing not marked, either. I expect it will turn out to be a case of suicide."

"Oh, that's possible enough," Johnson said. "And yet, I don't think so. I am acting upon pure supposition, of course, but it is not often that my instinct in these matters leads me astray. Besides, there's one thing you seem to lose sight of. Here is a lady, undoubtedly of good position and of ample means, who disappears for several days, and no inquiry is made by her friends and relatives. Even if she had no friends, and happened to be living alone, her landlady would be naturally anxious. We will put it on even more material grounds than that if you like. It is pretty certain that the aubject under discussion is comfortably off. It is, therefore, pretty certain that she has relatives who would not be averse to stepping into her shoes. Then why haven't some of them come forward and made inquiries?"

"That's plausible enough," Chambers said. "Yes, there's a good deal in what you say, Mr Johnson. Even if you are oorrect and there has been foul play here, somebody will certainly turn up sooner or later to ask questions."

"That's inevitable," Johnson said, thoughtfully. "You know I have made a careful study of these things. You know my views as to the connection between crime and a certain form of insanity. If a criminal has been at work here, it is fairly long odds that he will turn up himself and make inquiries. It is a well-known fact that murderers of a certain sort find it almost impossible to keep away from the neighbourhood in which the crime was committed. You see if this doesn't happen in this case. Now, with your permission, I am going to stay here for a few hours and study the people who come asking questions as to missing relatives."

"That's all right," Chambers said, "but you will be wasting your time here. What you want to do is to go down to Chelsea Police Station. You see, the lady's body is lying in the mortuary there, and anybody who came here would be referred to that station. You had better go down to Chelsea and see Sergeant Farrant, who is in charge there. I think you know him."

A little time later, and Johnson was sitting at a desk in the Chelsea station, much as if he were an official there engaged in his routine duties. He waited doggedly and patiently for the best part of the day, but no one came near the station who appeared to be in anxious search of missing relatives. There had been one or two of those dreadful objects dragged from the darkness of the river lately, but Johnson had no desire to see any of these. It was getting towards seven o'clock before he had any sort of reward for his patience. A half-drunken coster had come and gone, a distracted mother looking for her daughter had gone tearfully away, and following these, just before eight o'clock, there came an elderly-looking, dapper little man with an easy, natural manner and a suggestion of briskness about him. In appearance he was decidedly French, though there was no suggestion of accent in his speech; he was well-dressed, apparently prosperous, and on good terms with the world generally. He was exceedinglv sorry, so he remarked, to give them this trouble, but he had a very unpleasant task to fulfil. It appeared that a friend of his had lost a daughter, whose age was somewhere between nineteen and twenty. The friend was so prostrated with grief and anxiety that he was quite unable for the present to investigate for himself. Of course it was possible that no real harm had happened to the girl, who was known to be exceedingly romantic, and perhaps some love affair was at the bottom of the disappearance. But, on the other hand, the girl might have met with foul play. Of course it was a horrible thing to have to do, but might he be permitted, the visitor asked, to view the bodies lying in the it mortuary.

"The place is open for that purpose, sir," Farraht said. "Would you be so good as to follow me this way?"

As the stranger moved forward Johnson rose from the table where he was apparently busy and came forward with a book and a pen in his hand. He handed these to the little man.

"Will you kindly write your name and address here, sir?" he said, with an official air.

Just for a moment the stranger appeared to be startled. "Is that the usual custom?" he asked.

"It certainly helps us," Johnson said. "You can quite see the advantage it is to us—"

"Oh, certainly, certainly; that had not occurred to me before. If you will give me the book I will sign with pleasure."

He took the pen, and, without hesitation, dashed off a name and address in crisp handwriting. Johnson returned gravely to his desk, whilst Farrant accompanied his visitor into the dark and unutterable beyond. As soon as his back was turned Johnson reached for the London directory, and hastily scanned its pages. He was not surprised to discover that the dapper little gentleman's name and address were entirely false.

Here, then, was the first thread of the mystery ready to hand. He had felt absolutely certain that sooner or later somebody would come to view the body, and the conclusion had proved a correct. The little man came back presently; he had lost a good deal of his jaunty manner, his face had turned to a peculiar green. He shook hia head mournfully and sadly.

"I am very sorry to trouble you," he said. "The poor girl I am looking for is certainly not here. I must go at once and see her father. I will probably look round again in the morning."

The little man vanished, entirely ignorant of the fact that a moment later he was being followed by a detective policeman, who had been told off at a glance from Johnson for that special duty.

"Why did you want him followed?" Farrant asked.

"Oh, that for the present is a mere precaution," Johnson replied. "No, that charming old gentleman was not telling the truth. He has no friend with a missing daughter, and the girl in question does not exist. He struck me as being altogether too plansible. As you saw, it occurred to me to ask him to write down his name and address. He didn't like the suggestion, but he dashed down the particulars without a moment's hesitation. When you were gone I turned up Kelly and found, as I expected, that the address and the name did not exist. Now that in itself is a suspicious circumstance. I am not going so far as to say that this man is connected with the unfortunate lady who was fished out of the Thames to-day, but, at the same time, you will admit that it is possible. But in any case, you are bound to admit that the giving of a false name and address is a little queer. Now, tell me, did anything significant happen when our man was in the mortuary?"

"I didn't think so at the time," Farrant admitted, "but now I come to think of it—well, yes. There were three bodies there; he hardly looked at two of them, but he certainlv appeared to be interested in the third."

"Oh, yes; and I suppose the third happened to be the body of the unfortunate woman who was picked up at Chelsea this morning?"

"Yes. that's quite correct," Farrant said. "He certainly was rather agitated but, then, how many men unaccustomed to such sights would not be? He stopped before that particular body and certainly had a long look at her through his eye-glass."

"Oh, indeed." Johnson exclaimed. "Now, I looked at him very carefully, and I failed to see any eye-glass."

"Ah, that's because he was wearing an overcoat. He fished it out from inside his coat. It was a gold-rimmed single eye-glass on a cord. I noticed it particularly."

"Oh, come, we're fitting on." Johnson said briskly. "The only solitary clue to the identity of the dead woman is a clever pencil-sketch of a smartly-dressed old gentleman wearing an eye-glass. A man answering precisely to the description comes here with an obviously trumped-up story upon which he gains admission to the mortuary. He gives us a false name and address, and it is many odds that we shall not see him here again. It seems, to me that my evening here has by no I means been wasted. That is why I am taking the liberty of having him followed."

II

It was a strange house, that in Audley Lane to which Johnson contrived, in course of time, to trace the little man with the eye-glass. It was a dilapidated kind of a place, though no doubt at one time it had been a fashionable residence. At the present moment it was smothered, more or less, under the dust and litter caused by a large hotel which had been built close by. At the back of the house was an untidy, neglected old garden which did not appear to have had the least attention for a generation at least. But this suited Johnson well enough. It was no difficult matter for him to find his way into the garden and there, night by night, keep a close watch on the house. He knew perfectly well now that he was on the right track; he knew that the solution of the Chelsea mystery was only a matter of time.

As far as the inmates of the house were concerned, they consisted of the dapper little gentleman, together with a maiden lady of uncertain age. There was an old housekeeper too, but she was rarely in evidence, and it did not take long to find out that she was both exceedingly deaf and exceedingly stupid. For the most part, these people lived at the back of the house in Audley Lane; the dining-room looked out onto the neglected garden, and here Johnson did his watching night by night. I was just possible to get a glimpse into the dining-room through the blind, which was worn in places, but Johnson did not feel that he was getting on quite so rapidly as he had hoped. What he wanted to do, and what he meant to do, was to get into the house.

The opportunity came at length, and that when he least expected it. He wondered why he had never noticed the thing before. At any rate, he trod on the edge of a grating outside the dining-room window, and the thing collapsed with a hideous crash under his feet. A moment later, and the dapper little gentleman burst through a French window carrying a candle in his hand. Johnson, back in the darkness, saw that he was in evening dress. The little man did not appear in the least suspicious either; he muttered something to himself as to the necessity of having a carpenter to mend the broken grating. Here was Johnson's opportunity. He slipped boldly into the house, and a moment later found himself in the dining-room.

He could see the dinner was laid out—a cold dinner, save for one or two dishes over spirit-lamps. There was a finely-painted screen in the corner of the room, and Johnson hid himself behind it. He could see into the room through the hinges of the screen, and it was but a moment later that he got his first surprise—for it was not the dapper little gentleman in evening dress that came into the room; it was somebody old and bent and muffled who stood in his place. The stranger had a kind of respirator fitted over nose and mouth; he seemed to have some difficulty in dragging his palsied limbs up to the table. And yet Johnson was prepared to swear that this was the same man. There was something in the carriage of the body that told him so; and then Johnson saw a tall woman with a deathly white face and a pair of gleaming eyes come mechanically into the room.

The woman took her seat at the table with the air of a well-drilled automaton. Johnson saw that she shuddered at the sight of food, to which the muffled man helped her from one of the silver-topped dishes.

"Must eat," he said, in muffled tones. "Must eat, dear Madge. If Lydia had only eaten! Well, she might I have been here now."

The woman seemed to thrill as assuredly as did the spy behind the screen. The muffled man made no show of eating; he gave Johnson the air of an invalid who had previously despatched his bread and milk, and was merely observing the conveniences. Johnson was quivering with the illumination of a great discovery. He watched the woman slowly trying to force food down her throat. The old man coughed and choked, and indicated the silver fountain on the table with a gesture. Then the woman's shaking hand shot out, touched a tap, and immediately a little spray of water trickled in the basin. Johnson could see the fine spray dancing, rainbow-fashion, against the lights.

"That's better," the little muffled voice said, in tones of relief. "That goes to the right place; that takes the pain from my heart. It makes me young again. But you must eat, dear child; you must eat. If Lydia had only eaten!"

"Lydia is dead," said the woman in her curious wooden way. "Lydia will never come back; she could not bear the guilty secret of our house any longer. But why did she not write as she promised?"

"She did write," the muffled voice whispered. "Oh, yes, I know, for I addressed the letter. But the secret was too much for her, and she forgot to post it. She died—"

"Oh, yes, yes. She threw herself into the river. At the spot that she showed me when you first came to see us. The same spot where my mother died. She could bear the guilty secret of our house no longer. Our mother was mad, and our father was mad, and we are all afflicted. In the dark river at Kew, where the tide sucks the body down, down, and it does not come to the surface for days... The same with my mother, and Lydia, and me."

The woman suddenly broke off into a cackle of horrible laughter. The lines disappeared like magic from her eyes; her trembling hands grew firm. She was like the quivering drunkard revived by a long-desired draught of brandy. The whole atmosphere of the room reeked of some trenchant spirit. Johnson was feeling it himself; it was getting into his head. The room reeled round him; it was certainly the feeling of intoxication. What diabolical business was going on here, Johnson wondered.

Not that he was likely to know much about it if that infernal vertigo continued. It was advanced intoxication beyond the shadow of a doubt—Johnson could taste the fumes in his mouth. And, in spite of everything, illumination was coming to him at last. He understood why the figure at the end of the table was muffled; his imagination pierced beyond that mask. The lights reflected the dancing yellow spray of the fountain.

Johnson turned up the collar of his pilot jacket, and crammed his handkerchief to his mouth and nostrils. His head was still humming like a hive, but the signs of intoxication grew no stronger. The woman at the end of the table was laughing and chatting gaily now, but her babble had no meaning in it. It struck Johnson as the forced gaiety of one who is very near to the gallows. The muffled figure at the head of the table sat quietly enough now he seemed to have performed his task. But Johnson ceased to be interested in him any longer; he had made the discovery he was after, and the main thing now was to get away.

It was just possible to creep away. The man at the table was adjusting the shade on one of the candles as Johnson's white face peeked cautiously out. At the same time the woman turned and screamed aloud.

"The face—the face she yelled. "The same face of my dreams—Lydia's face, with the blood on it."

She fled headlong from the room. From the lips of the muffled figure came one hasty curse. The muffled figure darted from the room with a vigour surprising in that enfeebled frame. It was Johnson's chance, and he took it without hesitation. He knew his way now; he could have found the garden blindfold. He could hear the woman screaming as she flew through the rooms of the silent house—how strange the well-appointed table looked in contrast with it all. But there was no time for philosophy.

"Your time of release is at hand," Johnson muttered, as he made his way cautiously along the tangled garden. Another hour or two and yonder rascal will be in the hands of the police. Did ever a clever ruffian hit upon a more ingenious scheme?"

Half an hour later and Johnson strolled into Scotland Yard. He had washed and changed, and looked as if he had come casually to his evening's occupation Chambers welcomed him eagerly. It was a very quiet night.

"Well!" the inspector exclaimed. "Have you got anything for us?"

"Got everything" Johnson said quietly. "I have solved the Chelsea mystery, and a pretty gruesome tragedy it is. I've done some pretty good work for you, but you never heard anything quite so gripping as this."

An hour later, and the inspector, had heard all that Johnson had to say over a cigarette. Chambers looked just a little vague and Johnson smiled.

"You can't quite follow yet?" he said. Here is a well-dressed lady's body, carefully nourished, no signs of violence, found in the Thames. Body has been there for some days. And yet there has been no inquiry for the missing lady. Suspicious to begin with. Evidently the man who knows—there is always a man who knows—in this case had his own reasons for not coming forward. Well, so far so good. Here is your body and here is your pencil sketch of the eye-glass man. As soon as I read the paragraphs I bolted off to the mortuary, knowing that somebody would turn up sooner or later. As a matter of fact, the man who knew turned up sooner. Little dapper old chap with an eye-glass. I felt pretty sure of him as soon as I saw his face. When I, playing the part of an official, asked him to write his address, I was certain. Then I had him followed. My game was to get into the house, and I managed it at last, after camping out in the deserted garden. I got into the dining-room and hid behind a screen. But you know all about that. On the dining-table was a kind of miniature fountain arrangement. The old man asked the woman to turn on the water. At first I thought it was a sanitas, or a telephone, or something of that kind, till saw the fine spray dancing like rainbows against the light, and I tasted the heavy stuff at the root of my tongue, and then I knew better. I was within an ace of falling off into a stupor of intoxication, and I only saved myself by covering my nose and mouth. Chambers, don't you see what the fiend was doing? He was masked against contamination himself, but he was simply drenching that poor girl with a mixed spray of morphia and brandy!"

"There's one thing that seems to have escaped you," Chambers said, thoughtfully, after a pause. And that is, motive. It will be most important."

"Well, I've got that also," Johnson replied. "Thanks to an adjacent barber. I told you that a big hotel was making additions close to 7, Audley Lane. Well, it appears that some of those additions are nearly finished on a piece of ground that the hotel company bought, under the impression that the strip was conveyed to them with another piece of land. That was a mistake, as the strip I allude to belongs to the ladies at 7, Audley Lane. The old fox there let the hotel company erect a fine now block of buildings there and then discloses his hand. The new buildings must either be pulled down or £10,000 handed over instead. It was no use to cry over spilt milk, and the hotel people are going to pay the money. That money the old pentleman means to have. But for my interference he would have got that money, and directly it had passed into his possession the woman called Madge would have died also. She would have committed suicide, and the old gentleman would have been free to enjoy his ill-gotten gains."

"Excellent!" Chambers cried. Past eleven o'clock. Would you mind ringing that bell for me? It's time we began to move in this matter."


THE END

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