Title: The Silent Dead Author: Arthur Gask * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1203081h.html Language: English Date first posted: Aug 2012 Most recent update: Dec 2020 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy, Colin Choat and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of 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 of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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A young and beautiful wife, happily married, is hiding two secrets of which she is determined her husband must never learn. The one man who discovers these secrets and threatens exposure meets with death under mysterious circumstances, and she is suspected of murder.
Then Gilbert Larose, Scotland Yard's most famous detective, intervenes. But, although Larose becomes convinced of the innocence of a courageous woman and dramatically learns the truth about her past, even he is unable to unmask the killer. It is not until the very end of this most ingenious of Arthur Gask's many thrillers that the identity of the murderer is revealed.
I HAVE just seen my babies put to bed and made cosy for the night. I know I could not have two better nurses looking after them, but my own childhood was so hard and lacking in affection that I am perhaps over-anxious to be sure that my own children do not want for love and tenderness. My dear husband laughs at me, but I know it pleases him that, with all my social duties, the children always come first.
Today is my twenty-eighth birthday and I know I shall never be able to take in as fully as I should what wonderful things have happened to me from my early teens onwards. Still, all my life has been wonderful, as it can be little short of a miracle that, with the truly dreadful promise of my early days, I should have come to my present very prosperous and happy position.
Certainly I am a most fortunate woman, as life could surely be giving me no greater happiness than it is giving now. I have a husband who loves and respects me as much as any husband could love and respect his wife, I have two lovely children, and we are happily situated, socially and financially. Last year I had the thrill of being presented at Court.
If, too, I am not by any means a beautiful woman, I am grateful for other qualities which are equally desirable. My husband declares that I possess the rare gift of charm, derived, he says, half seriously, half whimsically, from the French family of the ancien régime from which I am supposed to be descended.
Yet—I was born in a London slum, my mother had been a general servant and my father was, and indeed still is, a keeper in one of the animal houses of Max's Menagerie.
My so humble origin is one of the two deeply buried secrets of my life, and my dear husband, least of all, must never learn them. Thank Heaven, he never will now, as all save one who could give me away are dead. Strangely enough, this one who still lives is my own father, but he has quite forgotten me and probably does not even imagine that I any longer exist.
For a long time, however, he was a great anxiety to me, as there was always the nagging fear at the back of my mind that one day we might meet somewhere, perhaps in the street, and he would stop me and call out, "Hullo, you're my daughter, Polly, aren't you?" Oh, how awful it would have been and in time the very thought of it so came to haunt me that at last I determined I would put it to the test.
I went to the Menagerie to see if he were still there and found that he was. Though all those years had passed and he was much altered, I recognised him at once. I did not dare then to approach him close, but kept well away. Still, I knew I should have no real peace of mind until I was sure he would not recognise me, and so, a few days later, made a little party of friends and we went to the Menagerie to see the big African lioness, whom we had read in the newspapers had just had twin cubs.
Going into the Lions' House, I saw my father standing in front of one of the cages and, with my heart beating painfully and my legs shaking under me, forced myself to go up to him and ask if we could see the new cubs. He looked at me uninterestedly and, nodding curtly, took us round to the back of the cages and shewed them to us. After we had duly admired them, I gave him a half-crown as a tip and he thanked me with a blank look of no recognition. Oh, how relieved I was! Since then I have never given him another thought, and he doesn't deserve one either, as he was a bad father to me and an even worse husband to my mother.
Still I am quite sure that were everything known about me many would say that I have been both bad and wicked myself, but I do insist that with all my faults I have never wilfully brought pain or sorrow upon anyone. Wherever, too, I have sinned against the conventions of our times, it is I who have been the sufferer and no one else. Speaking there, however, it is not for nothing that woman has been always called the weaker sex. As long as time was she has been the natural prey of Man and if, in temptation, it has happened she has been strong enough to resist her inclinations—then to most people that very strength will have detracted not a little from those endearing qualities which are both the crown and glory of her sex.
My life-story is an unusual one.
I was born in Rocker Street, a dreadful squalid little street in Camden Town, upon July the tenth, nineteen hundred and three, and I was known as Polly Wiggs. Our house was the poorest and most mean-looking of all the miserable ones there, and as a child, I remember we had very little furniture, with what there was being so worn-out and shabby that even in my very early years I was always ashamed for anyone to come inside.
Directly I was old enough to take notice of things I came to realise what a disgrace my father was to us. Upon his weekly 'off days' when he was not wearing his keeper's uniform he went about unshaven and unwashed and with no collar or tie. I don't think he ever washed anywhere except his hands or face; the smell of the animals he looked after at the Menagerie always clung to him. Upon entering our house I could always tell whether he was at home or not by the smell in the passage. He drank a lot and spent most of his wages in the public-house. As I grew up he took no interest in me except to slap me hard whenever he could make out that I had done something wrong, and I came to hate and avoid him as much as possible.
My poor mother was a most unhappy woman, always tired and always complaining. She had good cause for complaining, as with my father's drinking habits we were always short of money, always in debt and with the landlord continually threatening to turn us out.
Before her marriage she must have been pretty in a dolly sort of way, but worry, chronic ill-health and an almost annual child-bearing had aged her very early and, taking no pride in her appearance, at thirty she looked many years older than she really was. Happily, perhaps, for my little brothers and sisters, they never lived long, infantile diseases generally taking them off in the first year. Such mortality was not unusual in Rocker Street and was symptomatic of the conditions of life for so many of the poorer classes in the early years of this century.
So, when I was about twelve years old and my mother stopped having babies, I was the only child, and I remember so well what I looked like then. As I went to and from school every day I used always to take a glimpse at myself in the big mirror in the window of the barber's shop, and saw a pale-faced, skinny, weedy-looking little horror, with hollow cheeks and eyes seeming to occupy the greater part of her face.
Still, as I came to realise later, if I were indeed weedy-looking, there must yet have been something of the vitality of the strong unwanted weed about me, as I flourished while so many of the other children in the street sickened and died. Croup, measles, scarlet fever and other children's ailments passed me by and, ill-nourished as I undoubtedly was, diseases of malnutrition got no hold upon me. I remember, I was proud, too, that while so many of the other children had warped and crooked little bodies mine was as straight as a willow.
Certainly, no one would have called me pretty then, but the woman at the sweet-shop where I used to spend a very occasional 'halfpenny' told me once over a small wrapping of acid drops that, when I grew up and my face filled out, my eyes would be lovely. She said, too, the shape of my face would one day make a lot of girls envious. I came to be quite a favourite with her and sometimes, when I had nothing to spend and she saw me looking at the good things in her window, she would darkly beckon me inside and give me a farthing sugar-stick. Then I thought she was the kindest woman in all the world.
At the Board School I attended I didn't get on as well as I should have done, as I was generally not interested in much which they taught me. Still, with any effort, I could always beat all the other girls in poetry and reading. I remember one of the teachers saying once that when I like I could be as sharp as a weasel, but I was too what she called apathetic to bestir myself. She didn't take in that I was always hungry and my poor little stomach never more than half-filled. Often for breakfast, all I had was a slice of bread and a scrape of dripping on it, and a cup of almost milkless tea. Milk by itself was a very rare treat.
With the other girls at the school, I was very unpopular, as I kept myself as aloof as possible and made no friends. It was not that I would not have liked to have friends, but, with the cruelty of children, they were always jeering at me about my shabby clothes. Certainly my clothes were dreadful. Always of the cheapest and poorest quality they would become in time so patched and darned that it was a wonder they held together. Then, when at last as a matter of dire necessity I had to have something new or be unable to go to school, my father always quarrelled with my mother about it and would slap me angrily for having, as he insisted, played so roughly that no clothes would stand the resulting wear and tear.
Altogether, my school days were most unhappy ones and I slunk through them an unhappy, unwanted and ostracised little leper. Even now, I shudder when I think of my miserable childhood, and wonder its cruelty did not leave its mark upon me all my life. Looking back, I really think I was saved from that by my becoming so callous to the wretchedness of my surroundings that I let it pass over me like the proverbial water on a duck's back.
At any rate, better times were coming to me and at fourteen, just half my number of years now, I started upon a new life, the turning-point, as I realise now. I left school and went out as a daily girl at, what was considered then a good wage, eighteen pence a day to a childless widow who ran a small newspaper business and 'tuppenny library' in the Camden Road.
From the beginning she was very kind to me and, out of pity I am sure, at once took a great interest in the gawky, awkward and uneducated girl whom she was now employing. She had been a school-teacher once and, with nice gentle manners, always spoke most grammatically and in refined and educated tones.
"But, my child," she said to me when I had only been with her a day or two, "why do you talk so horribly? There's no need to. You've got a nicely-modulated voice if you use it properly and from your face I can tell you are something of a little actress, too. So, try straightaway to improve yourself or you'll never get on in life."
Anxious to do everything she wanted, I did try, at first almost as a joke, but very soon I was taking a great pride in it and she became so very pleased with me. After a few weeks with her, to talk quietly and pronounce my words correctly without dropping any aitches became quite the natural thing. Even my father noticed it. "Play-acting now, are you?" he scowled. "Then the way we brought you up ain't good enough for you?" but my mother bade him be quiet and said that if I spoke nicely it would mean more money coming in. That silenced him, as some of my weekly money always went his way for beer.
My employer became particular, too, about my hands and, telling me they were pretty ones and might easily belong to an artist, made me take care of them and see they never became rough and red. Also, making out it was a sort of uniform to serve in the tuppenny library, she bought me a new dress of, to me at all events, amazing quality. She accompanied it with the gift of a pair of shoes.
Making my father's acquaintance once when he called me to the shop door one evening to get some money off me, she was so shocked at his general appearance that the next day she suggested I should come to 'live in' with her. I was to have food and lodging and £26 a year. I jumped at her offer and, accordingly visited our squalid home only for a short time on Sunday afternoons.
By now everyone was noticing my so altered appearance and the girls who had been at school with me had taken to calling after me in the street as 'the duchess.' Sex was raw in Rocker Street and my mother said that some of them were even suggesting I was being kept by a man. Boys now tried to catch my eye, but thank Heaven I had no interest in them and my nature was to remain cold and unresponsive for many years after.
When I had been with the widow about eighteen months no one would have recognised in me the scraggy girl who had first come to her. With the so-much better food and the happy surroundings my face and figure had filled out and I was no longer thin and pale. Attending upon the customers, too, had given me confidence and altogether I was feeling a very important young woman.
Again, the books I read, and my employer made me read every new one she bought so as to be able to advise the borrowers which one to choose, opened up a new world to me and I started day-dreaming and building castles in the air, situated very far away, however, from Camden Town.
Still, all this happiness was not to last, as my poor mother died suddenly from heart failure and my father said I must come back home and keep house for him. My mother's death came as a terrible shock to me, for though I had never loved her very much and there never had been any real confidences between us, of late years I had been feeling intensely sorry for her in the dull and dreary life she lived.
I should have fought hard against returning to Rocker Street except for two things. The first, my father insisted that as I was under sixteen I could not leave him without his permission, and threatened me with the police if I did not do as he ordered. I was very frightened of the police, always associating them in my mind with the struggling and shouting that ensued when they descended upon Rocker Street to arrest a fighting drunk.
The second thing, my grief at leaving the library was mitigated a lot by learning that in any case my benefactor and I would have had to part. She was selling the business to go to live with a brother of hers in Aberdeen who had just lost his wife. For a parting present she gave me five beautiful golden sovereigns, with the stern injunction that I was not on any account to let my father get hold of them.
A fortnight back in Rocker Street proved as much as I could put up with, and I made up my mind to run away. I told myself that, at any rate to begin with, I would take the first situation offered me and go anywhere where the police would not be able to find me.
So, one morning, leaving a note for my father to read when he came home at night, saying I had heard of a good place in Scotland, I took a train going almost in the very opposite direction and arrived at Torquay, in the West of England, the same afternoon. With my heart beating a little faster at the thought that for the first time in my life I was now alone, I walked boldly into a cheap temperance hotel and enquired the price of a room. I was told it would be half a crown including breakfast.
Out early the next morning to buy a newspaper, I saw an advertisement in the Western Morning News that a girl was wanted for general housework in the country and, to my great joy, application for the situation was to be made at an address in Torre, a suburb of Torquay. Within an hour I was being interviewed by the advertiser whom I found was a Colonel Jasper, an amiable and pleasant-looking old gentleman of a much better class than any I had up to then been brought in contact with.
He asked me a lot of questions and, it struck me he seemed pleased I had come from London only the previous day and knew no one in Torquay. I fibbed that both my parents were dead and I had no relations at all. Also, I put my age on two years and told him I was nearly eighteen. Asked what references I could give, I said none at all, as my previous employer who had kept a small lending library had died just recently.
After staring at me for quite a long minute, he seemed satisfied and said he would give me a trial. "But I must tell you," he added, "that on Dartmoor where you will live it is very lonely. You will find no Town amusements there, no pictures or anything like that, and you won't see many people either. Still it is very healthy and the scenery is very wonderful. Your wages will be £18 a year." I was delighted. This was exactly what I wanted. However long the arm of the police, I thought it could hardly reach me there.
It was arranged I should meet him the next morning at nine o'clock upon the platform of Torre Railway Station and we were to take the train to Bovey Tracey, a small town about fourteen miles up the line close to where the road starts to climb up on to the moor. I found him waiting for me and took good stock of him again. He was wearing breeches and leggings which were anything but new, and a leather motoring overcoat which from the oil-stains upon it had evidently seen good service.
When the train drew in it was nearly full, with us having to occupy the last vacant seats in a carriage. Accordingly, no conversation took place between us on the journey and I was not sorry for it, as I was interested in a book he had bought for me at the station bookstall. It was all about Dartmoor and I was thrilled at learning to what a mysterious place I was going.
The book said the moor was all that remained now of a once mighty volcano which millions of years ago had heaved up great masses of molten rock to remain as the tors of today. With a circumference of under fifty miles, it rose abruptly from the surrounding country to heights varying between two and three thousand feet above sea-level. It was studded nearly all over its wide expanse with these big tors whose clefts and crannies were the last home of the deadly viper, the one remaining poisonous snake of the British Isles. Less than two hundred years ago, too, wolves were to be seen roaming on its uplands.
The book went on to state that for many centuries the moor had had something of an evil reputation, as history recorded that human sacrifices had once been offered up upon the tors. Even today it was believed by many of the superstitious dwellers round the countryside that the ghosts of the violent dead still haunted the moor, and upon nights when the moon was full would creep out from their hiding-places under the tors and attack human beings who had been unwary enough to come their way.
In summer, it said the moor was well-favoured by picnic parties and tourists, but, even then straying far from the only two roads crossing it its many stretches of dangerous bog-land always constituted something of a menace to the unwary as they were deep and treacherous, with their surfaces easily mistaken for solid ground. From time to time wandering cattle and moorland ponies had been actually seen to disappear in them within the course of a very few minutes. The danger of walking into those bogs was all the greater because of sudden mists and fogs which, even upon a bright summer day, might sweep down, apparently from nowhere and quickly blot out all visibility beyond a few yards.
Such was what I had been reading and in a way, I was quite sorry when the train reached Bovey Tracey and I had to put the book down. Colonel Jasper said he wanted to go into the town to make a few purchases as well as pick up his car, but I was to wait for him in the small hotel near the railway station. He took me in there by the private door and I sat down in the hall to wait until he was ready. He went out again by the same door through which we had entered.
I was expecting to be very bored by the waiting, but, as it happened, the chair I had chosen was close to a door which was slightly ajar and hearing voices very near to me, I peered cautiously round to find I was looking straight into the hotel bar. Besides the barman, there were two customers, young fellows in the late twenties with all the appearance of returned soldiers about them, and I guessed that the motor-cycling outfit I had noticed standing outside the hotel belonged to them. They looked very different from the barman who was a round-faced simple-looking man of middle age.
All at once I heard Colonel Jasper's name mentioned. It was the barman speaking in his soft Devonshire drawl. "Yes, as you say, he looks," he remarked, "an eccentric character. For one thing he lives in a lonely old place in the very heart of the moor miles away from anywhere."
"You mean he's got a shack there," asked one of the young fellows, "a sort of holiday home?"
The barman guffawed. "Shack be damned! Why, it's a big stone house of two stories with a fenced-in yard and plenty of out-buildings. It was built by the Government some fifty to sixty years ago. They had some cracked idea of sinking shafts all round to discover—well Heaven only knows exactly what. However, they soon dropped the idea and the house was shut up and left to go to wrack and ruin."
"Does he live there alone?" asked the other.
"No, he's got two Indian servants with him, an old man and his wife." The barman laughed. "All old codgers up there, and we call it the old folks home."
"But how on earth does he pass the time?" asked the motor-cyclist curiously.
"Writes books about old gold coins," replied the barman, "and we've heard tell he got one of the finest collections of them in the kingdom. Then he goes fishing a lot, and watches the stars. Oh, yes, he's got plenty of money. Last year he had a big telescope built into the roof of the house and three men came all the way from London to fix it."
"But isn't he afraid of being robbed?"
"Not he," laughed the barman. "He's been a big-game hunter all over the world and is afraid of nothing. He's a tough old guy. Besides, he's got a couple of big savage dogs up there with him, Alsatians, and they keep everybody away."
All the time I was seeing and hearing everything exactly as if I were in the bar itself. One of the motor-cyclists had changed his seat, so that while he was talking, he could keep his eye on his motor-cycle through the window. This had brought him so near to me that by stretching out my hand I could almost have touched him. However, the dim light in the little narrow hall made me feel quite safe and I was thrilled at learning anything about my employer. Of the conversation which followed, too, even after all these years I can recall almost everything which was said, as it seemed so much like a fairy tale to me that it left its lasting impression upon my mind.
Suddenly I saw the other young fellow move up to the bar counter. "Here, Gov'nor," he said, "have a pint with me, and tell us more about those dogs and the old gentleman. I'm quite interested as I'm a newspaper man and might make a good story out of it."
The barman drew himself a pint, and filled the other's glass. They chin-chined together and the journalist asked, "Has the old chap been there long?"
"Four or five years," said the barman, "and before him there was an artist fellow, but he didn't last long. When he rented the place from the Government he told everyone all he wanted was peace and quiet." He banged his fist upon the table. "By hell, he got it, too, as one day he disappeared and not a blooming trace of him was found afterwards. Some think he slipped into Fowler's Bog, near by, but we round here believe the warlocks got him and, carried him away."
"Warlocks!" exclaimed the journalist, looking very puzzled. "What are they?"
The barman nodded darkly. "Evil spirits which haunt the moor, ghosts of those poor devils who were killed as sacrifices on the tors those hundreds and hundreds of years ago."
"But you don't mean to tell me," frowned the journalist, "that there are actually people who believe in such things now?"
"My oath, I do," exclaimed the barman emphatically. "There are lots of us round here who believe in them, just as our ancestors did long generations back. It's in the moorland blood and we can't drive it out of us." He laughed.
"Oh, yes, we may go to church on a Sunday and sing hymns and pray and say our prayers and all that, but you offer us a fiver to go to certain places on the moor when the moon is full and you just see how we'll look at you. You'll have to put your fiver back in your pocket every time."
"And you've got this moorland blood yourself," asked the journalist. "You wouldn't take the fiver if I offered it?"
The barman shook his head. "No, I just wouldn't." He flushed up a bit. "I know I've never seen one of those bad spirits myself, but my old grandfather did. He died a couple of years back at ninety-seven and I've many a time heard him tell how one of them nearly got him when he was a young chap."
"You mean he actually saw it?" asked the journalist.
"Actually saw it!" exclaimed the barman. "Why, man it almost seized hold of him and it was touch and go that he escaped. It had taken the form of a dark man, with a long white face and black hair right down on to his shoulders. My grand-dad says it glared at him and its eyes seemed to pierce right through him."
He spoke so earnestly that, although I thought it all nonsense, yet I could feel my legs shaking. I saw the journalist wink at his companion. "And where did all this happen?" he asked.
"On the main road right on top of the moor," said the barman, "just before you turn off to where this old colonel lives. My grand-dad said it was all bad luck, as he was caught out late just as it had got dark and the moon rose. His pony had gone lame and he couldn't ride it. So he was walking beside it, when all of a sudden this dark man sprang out of the ground and stretched out his hands which my grand-dad says were like claws."
The barman seemed quite affected by his story and there was a catch in his breath as he went on. "Grand-dad knew what he was up against at once, and fortunately kept his head. He made the sign of the cross with his forefinger and ran for his life. He ran all the way until he got home and then it took half a bottle of old brandy to revive him."
"But couldn't this evil spirit run faster than he did?" asked the journalist, as if wanting to draw him on.
The barman pounded again with his fist upon the counter. "Yes, of course it could, but my grand-dad's pony saved him! The spirit stopped to drain his blood. My grand-dad heard the poor brute's dying screams. No one ever saw the pony again."
"But how is it?" asked the journalist sarcastically, "that this old colonel and his servants can live up there unharmed with these evil spirits haunting round so close to them as you say?"
"We think, for one thing," said the barman earnestly, "it's because these two servants of his may be something of bad spirits themselves. They're not Christians and keep to the heathen gods where they come from. One of these gods is a snake and called Siva, the Destroyer."
"Goodness gracious!" exclaimed the journalist, looking very amused. "How did you find out that?"
"Jan Hedden, who used to live here," said the barman, "told us all about it. You see, he was a tradesman in this town, and one day just afore Christmas he went up to 'The Grey House'—that's the name of the colonel's place—to mend a leak they'd got in the roof. While he was having his dinner, a darned good one with plenty of cider, he said, the old woman started to talk to him and she talked to him a lot. She's a sorceress, right enough!"
"A sorceress!" exclaimed the journalist. "That's funny, isn't it?"
"It's more than funny," scowled the barman. "It's damned wicked. She read his future for him and told him he hadn't long to live. Jan laughed at her, as we all did when he told us, because he was as healthy as a trout and could down a gallon of cider in about ten minutes." He nodded very solemnly. "But Jan died three weeks later. He got pneumonia from digging out a fox one cold Monday afternoon and the parson buried him on the Sunday following."
"Dreadful, dreadful!" exclaimed the journalist. "And you think she made him die?"
"Certain of it," nodded the barman. "She did it to show her power." He shook his head savagely. "And if the law had allowed it we'd have gone up in a mob and burnt her as a witch. Jan was a fine fellow and well liked."
"But speaking quite seriously," said the journalist, "and not wanting to laugh because we Londoners don't understand such things, are there really many round the moorside who believe as you do? Now tell me straight."
"There are many," said the barman with the utmost seriousness, "but generally we don't talk about it, and I oughtn't to have done so now. I tell you it's in our blood and we can't help it."
Evidently to keep things going, the journalist here suggested another pint of beer, but this time the barman said he'd prefer a double brandy, as talking about evil spirits had made his stomach queer. The brandy was downed in one gulp and the journalist went on with the conversation.
"You say these dogs the old man's got are very savage?" he asked.
"Yes, very," said the barman, "and we know they're sheep killers. All the farmers round here would just love to have the law put on the colonel and get a magistrate's order to have the dogs destroyed, but the devil of it is that, though so many of them have had sheep killed in the night, they've never yet managed to get the actual proof that his dogs were the killers. A couple of weeks ago Harry Baker was sure he had got it at last, but the evidence, once again, all fizzled out."
"And how was that?" asked the journalist. "It'll fit in well with my story."
"It was early on a Sunday morning," said the barman, "and, just as it was beginning to get light, Harry—he's a farmer up Lustleigh way just a couple of miles from here—was woke up by hearing his dog starting to bark like fury. He whipped on his trousers and boots and ran out to loose his animal off the chain. It was a misty morning and in the half light he couldn't see far, but he swears he caught sight of a big brute of a dog just vanishing out of sight. He unchained his own dog and it picked up the strange scent at once and was off like an arrow. Then to Harry's great uneasiness, everything went quiet again and his dog didn't come back. Daylight came on in a few minutes and, the mist clearing a bit, what do you think he saw?"
"One thing, for sure," nodded the journalist, "his own dog was dead."
The barman nodded back. "With its throat almost torn out. Then, within a hundred yards or so, he saw five of his best ewes had been served in the same way. Now Harry's always a quick worker and, within ten minutes, he had routed out the local policeman, taken him to see the slaughtered sheep and, with him in his car, was racing like blazes up to 'The Grey House.'"
"And what happened?" asked the journalist, because the barman had tantalisingly stopped speaking.
"Nothing," he grinned, "except that they found both the Alsatians there with the colonel giving them their breakfast of bread and milk. Neither of them showed any signs of sweat or blood and it was certain they had not left the place all night."
The journalist laughed and, looking at his watch, rose up to go. "Thanks for the story, old chap," he said, "and here's half a dollar for it. We must be off. Goodbye."
I was disappointed to see them go but another customer immediately took their place. "Two journalists from London," remarked the barman to the newcomer, as the motor-cycle was being ridden away.
"Journalists, my eye!" commented the other. "They come from London right enough, but they're street bookies in Whitechapel Road, and I had a bet or two with them when I was up there last month. I recognised them at once. The good-looking one with the moustache is called Tod Bellamy and his reputation's not too good. They say he's been in quod for burglary, only a little while ago."
I didn't hear any more of the conversation as at that moment the hall door opened and Colonel Jasper beckoned me out.
FOLLOWING upon my coming to the house on the moor, it was some weeks before I settled down into a contented frame of mind and felt happy in my surroundings. It was not that my employer and two fellow-servants from the very first did not do their best to make me comfortable, as it was obvious they were intending to be most kind to me. The work, too, was light and I had plenty of spare time to myself; the food was good and there was a cosy, homely atmosphere in the big kitchen where we three had our meals. Another thing, I had a nice comfortably furnished room in the upper story and, the weather being cold—it was November when I arrived—I could have as big a fire as I wanted in the huge old-fashioned grate.
Yet—I could not shake off the feeling that an evil spirit brooded over the place. There was something so gloomy and sinister in the great loneliness of our surroundings, and it seemed to suggest to me tragedy of a mysterious and unknown kind. As I expected from what I had heard at the hotel in Bovey Tracey, we were miles and miles from anywhere, with no other habitations in sight, no road near us and, week after week, no human beings passed by. We might, I thought, be the last people left alive in all the world, destined to live and die and meet no fellow creatures again.
The house was situated about halfway down a sort of big saucer in the moor and surrounded on all sides in the near distance by the huge grey tors. Though of anything but a nervous disposition, I used sometimes to sit at my window at night and imagine there were hundreds of unfriendly eyes watching the house. When the moon was up I was quite sure I could see dim and ghostly figures flittering round among the rocks at the foot of the tors.
Amusingly enough, to some extent I had got upon a confidential footing with my master at once, almost indeed before I had been in the house a couple of hours. We had hardly finished the midday meal when he appeared at the door of the kitchen and beckoned me out.
"I want you to get accustomed to the dogs," he said, "and the sooner the better, because, seeing so few people, they are inclined to be unfriendly with strangers. I hope you are not afraid of dogs."
I told him I certainly was not, though up to then my acquaintance with dogs had been confined to the patting of the few mongrel strays that were always hanging about Rocker Street. He led me into the yard and two magnificent-looking Alsatians sidled up and eyed me suspiciously. "These are our children, mine and my servants," he said with his voice dropping to gentle and affectionate tones, "Jupiter and Juno, the much-loved children of three old people. We dread the time when one day we shall have to lose them. No, don't be afraid. They'll be quiet as long as I am here with them."
But I wasn't in the least bit afraid, and at once started to pat them. At first they just tolerated my attention, with their huge, fierce eyes fixed intently upon my face. Then, however, their tails began to wag ever so slightly which made my master seem rather surprised. "That's splendid!" he exclaimed. "You've evidently got a way with animals. Some people have, but it's a gift born in them and can never be acquired. Yes, they'll soon be friends with you and, once they are, they'll be faithful unto death. Now I'll show you another dog, but he won't take to you so easily. He's of a wild breed and you must never go too near him. First, I'll chain these two up. They've never got over their jealousy of Sakao. That's the other dog's name."
He led the way across the yard to a big shed and, opening the door, I saw it contained a good-sized cage, heavily barred. The front of the cage faced away from us and looked out on to the open moor. I sniffed hard and an unpleasant chord of memory stirred in me. I was back in our horrible little house in Rocker Street again.
"But you've not got another dog here," I exclaimed. "I can smell the smell of a wolf."
My master turned on me with a start. "No, no," he said sharply. "It's an Indian dog. He came from near Tibet."
A dark blackish shape darted out from the shadows at the far end of the cage and, standing on its hind legs, thrust its muzzle against the bars, at the same time wagging its tail violently.
I laughed merrily. "But it is a wolf, sir," I said, "an Alaskan wolf, and it's only half-grown as yet. It'll be twice that size one day."
My master's pleasant face turned to one of great sternness. "What makes you think that?"
"Oh, I know for certain," I said confidently. "You see, you see—" I hesitated for a few moments to gain time, "I had an uncle once who was a keeper in Max's Menagerie and he had charge of the wolves there. As a little girl, he used often to take me behind the cages and show me their cubs. That's how I recognise this wolf here."
His face was a study. He looked most embarrassed and uneasy, and, indeed almost angry. Then suddenly his whole expression altered and his face broke again into its usual pleasant lines. "Then I see it's going to be no good trying to deceive you," he said with a smile, "but I didn't want to frighten you. Yes, it is an Alaskan wolf and only half grown, as you said."
A sudden thought came to my mind. "And did he then get out and kill those sheep that Sunday morning," I asked, "those belonging to that farmer at a place called Lustleigh?" and a second later I could have kicked myself for being such a little fool to say I knew anything about what I heard had happened.
My master's face had become very stern again and he glared with angry suspicion at me. Still, he spoke very quietly, "And how, pray, do you come to know anything about it?" he asked.
Now as can be well understood, up to then I was only a very ill-educated young girl who had practically had no experience of the world, but I always take something of a pride in remembering how, after my so tactless and foolish admission that I was in possession of a secret he would certainly want no outsider to know, I yet collected my wits so quickly again and spoke quite as quietly and casually as he had done.
"Oh, I heard all about it this morning," I replied, "when I was waiting for you in the hotel," and I told him what the barman had said, adding quickly, "But you needn't be afraid, sir, that, if you do not wish it known, I shall never tell anyone you have a wolf here. I'm not a girl who talks and know when to hold my tongue. You can quite trust me."
His face had cleared while I was speaking and he smiled quite nicely again. "Yes, I think I can," he said. He shrugged his shoulders. "You see this poor beast has become something of a worry to me. When only a few weeks old he was smuggled here to me by a sea-captain friend of mine who thought he was giving me a wonderful present. I didn't want him, but I've gradually grown quite fond of him. He's a terrible one for getting out of his cage. That's twice he's done it now and the farmers would murder me if they knew I'd got him here."
"But how did you get him back after he'd killed those sheep?" I asked wonderingly.
"He came back by himself and I found him whimpering outside his cage. The poor beast had become frightened and wanted to get back to his home."
I took a great liking for my master at once and, in return, he evinced quite a fatherly interest in me. I always think it might have been because he had never married and had no children of his own. So the fact of having someone young about him appealed to him now in a novel sort of way. Another thing, too. With all his many interests, his collection of gold coins, his books and his writing at times he must have been lonely and wanted someone to talk to. His man, Rahm, was rather deaf and, accordingly, difficult to carry on a conversation with, and between him and Mrs. Rahm—I learnt the two of them had been in his household for upwards of thirty years—there was always something of the barrier of natural awe which I understand every Indian woman has for her Sahib. At any rate, with all her strength of character, Mrs. Rahm, I soon perceived, always seemed shy and meek when in his presence.
So, apart from helping in the housework for which I had been engaged because of Mrs. Rahm's advancing age and rheumatics, I speedily became as well something of a companion to my master. I carried his things for him when he went trout fishing in the little stream about half a mile from the house and accompanied him as well when he went out with his gun after plover on the moor. Of an evening, too, when I had soon become quite an expert with his typewriter, I typed while he dictated slowly a book he was writing about his so prized collection of gold coins.
And, oh, as it turned out in time, how fully I was to be repaid for every service I did for him! The three years I was associated with him were to make all the difference in the world to me in my after-life, as when we eventually parted I was altogether a changed girl from the raw and ignorant one who had first come to him.
When I had been with him only a few weeks, always of a kind and in a general way most conscientious disposition, it seemed suddenly to dawn upon him how unfair it was for him to have brought a girl of my age into such a lonely place where no chance would be given her of developing her character. So one day he told me smilingly that, as my mind was so virginal—of course he meant I was so ignorant of everything—he felt it his duty to give me some sort of education.
Accordingly, he started to awake my interest in everything generally. He talked to me of the countries he had been to, of history, of science, of the religions of the world, of the great men living and dead, of the great books that had been written, of art and even music.
His knowledge, as I came to realise later, was encyclopaedic and he had a way of imparting it that impressed it forcibly upon my memory. My memory was good and, naturally quick and sharp, he found me an apt pupil. He accompanied his teaching, too, with a reference to the hundreds and hundreds of books he had in his library.
Soon he was making me give a good part of each day to study, and if he had not stirred my ambitions I should certainly have regarded him as something of a hard taskmaster. However, I had become as enthusiastic as he was and never gave him any cause for complaint. I thought him one of the kindest and best of men and a real affection sprang up between us. I was not the only one either who thought the world of him.
His two Hindu servants idolised him, and everything he did, in their eyes, was right. Watching him like a faithful dog, his man, Rahm was always alert to do him any service he could.
Rahm and his wife were unlike any Hindus I had ever read about, as they both ate anything, and Rahm himself smoked quite a lot. Also whenever my master went into Bovey he always brought back a bottle of beer for him. I never had much to do with Rahm, as he was a quiet and reserved man who spoke very little. While he seemed to me to have little religion at all, his wife appeared to have lots of different kinds. Indeed, my master told me laughingly once that, though her people in India were of the Brahman or priestly class, she generally picked up something of a new religion wherever she went.
From the very first I was most interested in her, as she was a very unusual woman and so very clever and capable in so many ways. Of medium height, she was stout, with a big heavy face and huge dark eyes. She cooked beautifully and was one of the best dress-makers I have ever known. Of an evening when all the work was done, she would appear in a beautiful silk gown, and wearing big earrings and big bracelets of solid gold. She had beautiful brooches and rings of sparkling stones, too, and would bind her head round in a rich-looking scarf of most lovely colours. When later I had got to know her quite well I told her laughingly that she looked like a picture I had once seen of the favourite wife of an enormously wealthy Rajah. She was very pleased with what I said and gave me a stately bow. She could speak English perfectly.
About her religion, and I never could get out of her exactly what it was, but it was certainly of a funny kind. While she never admitted saying any prayers, at night she would burn incense sticks in her bedroom before several beautifully-carved little ivory statues she had upon a shelf there. One, in particular, always intrigued me. It was that of a squatting bull richly caparisoned, and she told me it was an exact reproduction of the Giant Bull of Siva in the city of Mysore. She had another one, the head of a fearsome-looking hideous snake with big amber eyes, and she said he was 'Siva the Destroyer' himself.
I asked her once if she believed in God and she replied, very solemnly, "Yes, and in more than one, in many." She went on to tell me she was a student of the Occult, "That which we don't see," she said, dropping her voice into a low whisper, "that dark world which lies all around us, but where the spirits move only in the mystery of the night." Her arm shot out towards the window looking out on to the moor. "At nights when the moon is full spirit men and women move along those tors, and if it is warm and not too bad for my rheumatism I go out and walk among them."
"But don't they ever harm you?" I asked, pretending to be very astonished.
She shook her head. "They would do if they dared, but they know I am myself of the spirit world with them, and accordingly protected. So, while they might do dreadful things to you if you went among them, they leave me alone."
Of course, while it certainly gave me a deliciously creepy feeling listening to her, I didn't believe a word she said. Still I asked curiously, "But how is it you are like this, so different from other people?"
She became very serious. "By long years of meditation. I am well over sixty now, and for more than forty years I have been training myself." She held up one fat and bejewelled hand warningly. "Do you know that when I look in one of those crystals I have shown to you I can see into the future as well as the past? I could see into some of yours if I tried, but the Sahib has forbidden me to do anything to you, and I bow to him as I would to any gods." She laughed softly. "Why, I could throw you into a sleep if he would let me and strip you bare of all your secrets. Oh, yes, girl, you have secrets, though they are not bad ones. Still, you have not told the Sahib all the truth. I had a spirit dream about you the other night and a rough-looking man asked me about you, but I would not tell him, and he went away. He will never trouble you any more."
Remembering what I had heard the barman say about her powers, I felt really uneasy now and was glad to think she was so friendly with me. After all, I told myself, it was impossible for anyone to read the future, though for all that I resolved to get my master's permission one day and let her tell me what she could of all that was going to happen to me.
Now, while undoubtedly this Indian woman talked a lot I considered rubbish about things I could not understand, of things I could grasp, as I have said, I found her a very clever woman.
One day she had a bad headache, with so much pain that she said she could hardly see. She suggested I should massage her head and neck for her and explained to me how I should do it. "But you must concentrate," she said sternly, "and be confident you are going to do me good." I did as she directed and almost at once she declared her pain was passing. "You have the gift of healing, my child," she exclaimed excitedly. "It is stronger in you than in me. You have the power of giving something of your youth and strength to others."
After that she gave me many lessons in massage, not, as she said, the mere kneading of the muscles, but acting also upon the nerves and transmitting curative properties all over the body. At any rate, when later my master had a bad attack of neuritis in one of his shoulders it was found I could take away the pain almost at once, and he was very grateful to me. "So, there's some good after all in that old lady," he laughed. "I told you she was a remarkable woman."
Mrs. Rahm was very proud of what she had discovered in me and, sending down to Plymouth for some of the best quality tweed, made me a costume which I was to learn afterwards was as beautifully cut as if it had come from the workshop of a designer in Mayfair.
And now I come to the beginning of a happening which years later was to occasion me much anxiety before its reverberations were silenced and died down for ever, Thank Heaven, now some time ago!
It started upon a horrible wet evening in the March after I had arrived at the Grey House. The morning had been fairly fine, but towards noon the mists began to roll over the moor and a drizzling rain set in. So far from clearing in the afternoon as it often did, the rain became worse and, with darkness setting in it was raining heavily. It was bitterly cold, too, and there was all the promise of a dreadful night.
I was in the big living-room, laying the table for my master's evening meal, while he was reading in an armchair before the bright fire. The two Alsatians were sleeping on a big rug beside him.
Suddenly, the dogs stirred uneasily and, sitting up, began to growl ominously. My master turned to me with a frown. "They heard something, Polly," he said and, as he spoke, the growls turned to snappy barks and then, even as we stood listening, there came a loud knocking upon the front door.
My heart began to beat painfully. All the months I had been upon the moor no one had ever come to the house after the night had fallen and, with the windows and doors heavily barred and the two big dogs to protect us, I had always felt so secure from any harm or danger. Now, however, the coming of someone, upon such a dreadful night, too, when the rain was lashing against the windows sent a chilling fear into me and I could feel my legs shaking under me. From the expression upon my master's face I could see he was not wholly undisturbed, either, and that made me feel even worse.
I always remembered that barman at the hotel having said the Colonel was afraid of nobody and nothing, but I had long since came to realise that the man was mistaken there. Fearless of everything in the ordinary way, I had learnt my master had yet one great anxiety and that was his collection of gold coins. They were more than three hundred of them and, very valuable, they would have tempted any thief to get hold of them. I know I had made his anxiety worse, too, by so tactlessly telling him, as I had done, that his possession of them had been discussed openly that morning over the bar in the Bovey Tracey hotel.
Now he sprang quickly to his feet. "Tell Rahm," he ordered me sharply, "to light the lantern and bring it to me upstairs. I am going to open the window over the front door and see who is knocking."
Obeying his orders and seeing Rahm run up with the lantern, I stood trembling at the bottom of the stairs to listen to what was going on.
I heard the window opened and my master call out, "Who are you, and what is it you want?"
"I've lost my way," called back a man's voice. "How far is it to Princetown, please?"
"Ten miles," was the reply, "but you'll never get there on a night like this. Who are you?"
"A holiday-maker from London. I've walked from Okehampton today."
"Extremely foolish," snapped my master. "You ought to have had more sense."
"Well, if I can't get to Princetown as you seem to think," said the man outside, "could you let me sleep in a stable or some barn tonight. I've got some sandwiches with me, and shan't trouble you for any food. I'm a returned soldier and accustomed to roughing it."
Now I knew my master to be very kind-hearted and would not allow that with all his disinclination to let a stranger come into the house. So, I was not at all surprised when I heard him say, "No, I'll have to let you come in," and then he added sharply. "But, first, are you carrying any firearms? You're not? Still, you'll have to let us search you to make sure. We are old people here and can't afford to take any risks. Wait where you are, and I'll come down and open the door."
A minute or two later the front door was opened, to bring within the rays of a lantern a young fellow, looking drenched from top to toe. With one hand my master held up the lantern and with the other restrained the snarling dogs whom he was holding by their leashes.
"Stand quite still," ordered my master, "or I shan't be able to keep in these dogs. Hold your hands above your head and my man will search you. I'm sorry, but we must be quite sure."
The stranger submitted smilingly to the search and then, unbuckling his knapsack from his shoulders, exposed the contents. No weapon being found there, my master led him into the house and ushered him into the big room where the fire was burning. "Now we'd better introduce ourselves," I heard him say. "I am Colonel Jasper, late of the Indian Army."
"And I'm Baxter Smith," returned the other, "at one time Lieutenant in the Second Kents and now an officer in the London branch of the Consolidated Bank." He held himself every erect and spoke in educated tones. "I am sure it is most kind of you to take me in. I am most grateful to you."
My master, repressing the annoyance he must have felt, at once became the courteous host. "My man is getting a room ready for you," he said graciously, "and, directly the fire is burning, you shall go upstairs and get rid of your wet things. I'm afraid an old dressing-gown is the best I can do for you while they are drying." Then, noticing his guest was looking at the growling dogs, he went on. "You needn't worry about them as long as I'm here, though they're always inclined to be unfriendly with strangers."
In the meantime I was going on laying the table, now, however, arranging for two. Covertly having a good look at the guest-to-be, I felt almost ashamed with myself for having been such a little fool and so frightened at his knocking upon the door. He appeared to be just what he said he was, an innocent holiday-maker who had lost his way, and one could not help feeling sorry for his drenched condition. Obviously, he was soaked to the skin.
Still, for all my sympathy there, I was not too much taken with his appearance. Certainly, he was not bad-looking, but I thought the expression of his face was an overbold and insolent one, and it was not made any better by his hard and glittering eyes. I judged him to be about seven or eight and twenty.
For the meal which followed, with his wet clothes taken away by Rahm to dry, he came to the table in the promised dressing-gown and pyjamas. I waited upon them, and it was a very nice meal, grilled trout, a cold duck and Stilton cheese. He stared at me quite a lot, almost, I thought disgustedly, as if he were trying to catch my eye. He was most respectful, however, to his host.
"But how is it?" asked my master, "if you were travelling from Okehampton to Princetown by compass as you say, that you were so much out in your reckoning, quite ten miles in a comparatively speaking short journey?"
The young fellow shrugged his shoulders. "Well, I had to keep on avoiding what I thought were bogs and I expect that put me out a bit. You see that damned mist closed down upon me about noon and I could see absolutely nothing after that until a narrow streak of it lifted for about two minutes about half an hour before I knocked on your door. Then I found I was almost banging into that big tor you've got close near here."
"I don't understand," said my master, looking very puzzled. "You mean to tell me you've been walking blind over the moor since midday to-day."
"Except for my compass. I was holding it in my hand almost all the time."
"And the first thing you saw was this big tor near the house?"
The other nodded. "Yes! Another five yards and I should have walked head-on into it. But that lift in the clouds came just in time and I saw the light of this house, too. I was so done up by then that, though the rain had started to come down in torrents, after taking the bearings of your lights, I had to sit down for a bit of a breather." He laughed. "I think I was lucky to see the lights here."
"Lucky!" exclaimed my master. "I should just think you were. Why, that's Black Tor you nearly ran into and it's surrounded on three sides by Fowler's Bog, the deepest and most dangerous bog on the whole moor. Two men are known for certain to have lost their lives there and, coming the way you must have done, you were walking within a few feet of it for two or three hundred yards. Why, it's dangerous for anyone who doesn't know every inch of the ground to walk there even in broad daylight."
At that moment the conversation was interrupted by Rahm coming into speak to Master and a short conversation followed. They spoke quickly in Hindustani and there was no particular expression upon their faces. Of course, at the time I didn't understand a word of what they said, but later that evening I learnt what the talk had been about.
"This man, Sahib," had said Rahm, "is a liar. He had had a pistol on him somewhere, most likely in one of his boots. He hid it in the bed before he handed out his wet clothes for me to dry. I saw the sheet had been disturbed and looked to see why. The pistol is fully loaded. Should I take the cartridges out and put the pistol back."
My master had replied quite quietly, "Ah, now we know where we are! No, don't touch the cartridges, or, directly he handles the pistol, he'll know they are gone. Get that piece of carborundum out of my drawer and file away the nipple on the trigger of the pistol. Be sure you file away enough, so that it won't strike the cartridges, and then put the pistol back. We'll lock him in his room tonight." Then, as Rahm had been leaving the room, he had turned apologetically to his guest. "I am sorry I can't give you coffee from freshly-ground berries, as my man tells me our little grinder has gone wrong. So, it's only coffee essence I can offer you," and he resumed the conversation where it had been interrupted.
At nine o'clock to the minute my master rose to his feet. "I don't want to appear inhospitable," he said, "but we always retire at the same time here and so, if you don't mind, I'll get you to go up to your room now." He laughed. "We shall be locking you in, too, for as I told you we old people cannot afford to take any risks. Besides, if you happened to walk in your sleep during the night it might turn out to be very dangerous for you, as the dogs run loose in the house after dark and, as I've told you, they're savage with strangers."
The next morning the lieutenant's door was unlocked very early and my master, accompanied by Rahm with the dried clothes, came into the room.
"Your good fortune is still holding," he said briskly, "for the rain has cleared off and it's going to be a fine day. When you are dressed you can find your way down yourself, as my little dogs are now out in the yard. Breakfast will be ready in twenty minutes."
However, our guest was quicker even than that, as when I was carrying some breakfast things into the big living-room to my great annoyance I found him already there by himself. He was holding a book of Shakespeare's Plays in his hand, and I guessed he must have taken it haphazardly out of the bookshelf. As it happened, it was one my master had recently given me for my lessons in English literature and he had written my name on the fly-leaf.
The young fellow looked up when I came into the room and greeted me unpleasantly. "Hullo, Polly," he exclaimed in cheeky and familiar tones. "So, the Polly of last night is Miss Polly Wiggs, is she?" He grinned. "Well, the surname's not half nice enough for such an elegant young lady as you are, and I think it a great shame, too, your wasting all your prettiness up here, so far away from the boys who'd like to make a fuss of you."
I felt myself colouring up hotly at his impudence. I had heard all about the pistol from Mrs. Rahm and was detesting him for the lies he had told my master. So it was something of an annoyance to me now that he had come to learn my name. Certainly, it seemed only a small thing then, but, had I only known it, his chance finding it out was to cast a dark shadow over my life in later years and, at any rate for a time, fill me with the chilling fear of dreadful consequences.
He was saved from the sharp retort I was about to make by the appearance of my master, and the two sat down to the meal. Directly it was over, my master lost no time in speeding him upon his journey. Having bidden him goodbye, he returned into the room where I was now clearing away the breakfast things.
"A bad character that young man," he remarked impressively to me, "and I am wondering now if it were a trick his arriving here last night in the pouring rain. It seemed to me that, during our little dinner when he wasn't watching you, he was looking very hard at my coin-cabinet, as if he had been expecting to find some such piece of furniture here." He smiled. "Yes, and he had the impudence to ask from where you came, saying you looked a London girl. When I didn't tell him immediately—I had no intention of doing it at all—he went on he was sure you were not one from Devonshire, as in that case you wouldn't have come to live up here."
"How did he make that out?" I asked sharply.
"Because Devon people, he said, believed this part of the moor was haunted and he told me a ridiculous story about someone he'd met a little while ago, whose grandfather had been attacked one night on the moor road not far from Bovey Tracey by an evil spirit in the form of a man with long hair, and he'd only managed to escape by leaving him to drink the blood of his pony. I told the young man I was astonished at his being so credulous."
A sudden chord of memory had stirred in me as my master was speaking, and then all suddenly I recollected what it was. "Oh, Colonel Jasper," I exclaimed, "then I've seen this man before and know who he is. I'm sure of it now. Several times last night his face puzzled me and I was wondering of whom he was reminding me. Now I know."
"Then who is he?" asked my master sharply, because I had stopped breathlessly.
"He's one of those two men," I said, "whom that barman at the Bovey Hotel, as I told you the first day I came up here, had been telling about Sakao killing those sheep. He must be, because afterwards I heard the barman tell him that same story you've just been telling me about the evil spirit drinking a pony's blood. The barman said it was to his grandfather it had all happened."
Another thought struck me and I felt my voice shaking in my dismay. "Oh, and it was to him the barman went on to tell a lot about you and how you had a valuable collection of gold coins. Worse than that, too, though the young fellow told the barman he was a journalist on a newspaper, I heard the man who came into the bar directly after he had left say he recognised him as a street-bookmaker from Whitechapel called Tod Bellamy who had a very bad reputation as he had been put in prison once for breaking in and stealing from someone's house."
My master looked troubled. "Then it seems almost certain," he said, "that he did come here to spy things out, and no wonder he seemed so interested in my cabinet." His face brightened and he spoke quite cheerfully, probably, I thought, to comfort me. "But at any rate, we needn't worry. It he does come we'll always be ready for him and, with the dogs here, we'll always know in plenty of time when there are any strangers about."
For many days afterwards, however, I was feeling intensely nervous and, at night, for hour after hour would lie awake listening for the dogs to start barking. My nervousness, too, was not made any better when Mrs. Rahm whispered darkly that she had been looking into her crystal and had seen blood in it, streams of blood, she said, and it meant evil was boding for someone. In her dreams, too, she said she had seen the black-winged angel of death flying round the tors, and she was sure it would not be very long before he would swoop down and bring death to someone.
Of course. I knew it was all nonsense, but for all that it frightened me. Still, weeks going by without anything happening, I at length lost all my fears and could sleep soundly once again. Then, all suddenly, like the bursting of a bomb, something worse than anyone could ever have imagined actually did happen and we were plunged headlong into terrible tragedy.
It was upon a Sunday morning and about half an hour after the dogs had been let out of the house, that Rahm came rushing into his master in a great state of consternation to say the dogs had been poisoned. Jupiter was not so very bad, for he was vomiting fiercely and getting rid of much of the poison, but Juno was in a pitiable state. Lying upon the ground, with her eyes almost bursting from her head, her outstretched body was arched horribly and jerking in convulsive spasms of agony. She was covered in sweat, as if she had been lathered with a shaving brush.
My master went white as death but, all prepared for such an emergency, lost not a second in trying to save the poor animal. She was given copious draughts of salt water to make her sick, the veins inside her ears were cut and cut until she was bleeding like a stuck pig and, when the spasms seized her, the two men held her down with all their strength to keep these spasms from tearing her to pieces, while to me was given the task of holding a chloroform-soaked sponge a few inches from her mouth and nostrils to render her as deeply unconscious as possible.
At first, with the awful spasms following so quickly upon one another, it seemed impossible she could be saved, but gradually they came less frequent and their strength weakened. Finally, they passed off altogether and we could see her agony was ended and that she was going to live. She lay limp and exhausted, but she was saved. Dosed with brandy and wrapped in a blanket, she was carried into the house and laid before the kitchen fire.
In the meantime, Jupiter was much better. He had had no very bad spasms, but, limp and sweating profusely, he looked a dreadfully sick animal. Given brandy, too, he was also blanketted and laid before the fire alongside of his mate.
It was not difficult to be quite certain how the poison, which my master said had been strychnine, had been picked up by the dogs, as Rahm found the remains of two pigeons lying in the yard. He brought them to his master who, after one quick glance at them, without a word disappeared into the house and I heard him going up the stairs to the upper story. In all my life, never before nor since have I seen such cold fury upon anyone's face. I knew he must have been sharing every spasm of the agony of his so-loved Alsatians, and I thought he looked like a madman controlling himself only with great difficulty.
A very few minutes later he came quickly into the kitchen where Rahm, his wife and I were looking after the dogs, and issued a sharp peremptory order in Hindustani to Rahm who nodded understandingly and at once left the room. Then he turned to me. "You stay where you are, Polly," he said curtly. "Through the telescope I've seen two men hiding behind those rocks under Black Tor and I am going out to deal with them."
But with his following after Rahm, I felt I must see what was going on and, disregarding Mrs. Rahm's insistence I should obey her master's order, ran up to the roof to look through the telescope myself. It was housed in a glass-walled dome-like structure, half sunk in the roof itself which was flat at that end of the house. Even at a short distance away the dome was not very conspicuous, though it allowed the telescope to be swung round in every direction upon its tripod. As my master had left it, the telescope was now pointing direct on to Black Tor and took in very clearly the line of rocks at its foot he had referred to. They were about breast high and I stared hard and breathlessly at them. However I could pick out no movement of anyone behind them.
My attention, however, was soon drawn to much nearer the house, and there was no longer any need for me to look through the telescope. In one direction I saw Rahm striding along with a rifle upon his shoulder. In another, also with a rifle upon his shoulder, my master was walking quickly and, to my horror, I saw he had got Sakao with him. The wolf was wearing his big collar and straining hard at the attached chain.
It was no wonder I felt scared, for I knew that if Sakao were loosed he would savage anyone, and I was fearful that in the mood my master then was, with the thought of the agony his loved Alsatians had gone through so upper most in his mind, there was no knowing to what length of punishment he would go.
I very soon took in what it was intended should happen. With my master going one way and Rahm the other, whoever were hiding behind that line of rocks would soon in one direction or the other be exposed to the fire of their rifles. Even if the hidden men were armed with pistols, they would be helpless against rifles, as they could be picked off long before their attackers came within pistol range.
What was flashing through my mind must have come too to the two hiding men. At any rate I knew suddenly that Rahm must have seen something, as, dropping upon one knee, he uplifted his rifle and I heard two reports in quick succession. Obviously, however, he hadn't succeeded in hitting either of them, as the next moment two figures darted from behind the rocks and began racing away.
Then what happened is almost too horrible to describe, and for years afterwards the memory of it haunted me. Sakao, the wolf, had broken away and was going after them like a streak of lightning, with his long dark body stretching close to the ground. I turned quickly to the telescope again and just caught him as the hindermost of the two men whipped round to deal with him. The telescope brought them close to me as if they were only a few feet away and I could see so plainly the man's ghastly face and terror-stricken eyes. His right arm shot out and I could glimpse the pistol in his hand, but however quickly he fired he must have missed the wolf and, in a matter of seconds, the big animal had got him by the throat and was shaking him from side to side in a way horrible to see.
Then everything which followed seemed to happen like lightning. The man who had been running in front stopped and ran back to help his companion whom Sakao had now pinned to the ground and was continuing to worry like a terrier with a rat. I heard the faint sounds of several pistol shots and, as the wolf instantly crumpled up, was sure he must have received a mortal wound. Then for perhaps two seconds the man who had shot him bent once over his friend, before turning round again and racing off at his utmost speed to disappear over a rise in the ground.
I saw my master arrive upon the scene of the ghastly struggle of which I had been such a fascinated but trembling spectator. From his attitude as he stood over the two bodies it was evident both the man and the wolf were dead. Rahm ran up quickly and a short conversation ensued. Then Rahm came back to the house and, going into one of the sheds reappeared quickly carrying a tarpaulin with him. I saw the two bodies, those of the wolf and the man, laid upon the tarpaulin and then it was dragged out of sight to behind Black Tor. I guessed what was probably going to be done. The bodies were to be thrown into Fowler's Bog.
Nearly an hour passed before my master, accompanied by Rahm came back to the house, and I went in to the big room at once to speak to him. He looked very strained and white and was mixing himself a brandy and soda.
"A bad business this, Polly," he said. "Sakao killed one of those men and—"
"I saw it all through the telescope," I interrupted, "and you've thrown the bodies in Fowler's Bog, haven't you?"
My master nodded miserably. "Yes, and I realise already that I have been much too hasty. It was very foolish as when the police come I shan't be able to deny what's happened. The other wretch will point out to them where his companion was killed and—" he shrugged his shoulders "—I don't know what will happen to me."
"Nothing will happen to you," I said sharply, "for the police won't be coming here and they'll never learn anything about it. When the man who escaped ran back to shoot Sakao I saw his face quite plainly. He was the man who came here that night for shelter from the rain, the man called Tod Bellamy, a Whitechapel bookmaker. I recognised him without the shadow of a doubt. Then, remember I heard them say at the hotel that he's been put in prison for house-breaking. So, he'll not dare to go to the police. How would he account for his being up here hiding among those rocks, and, another thing, to explain that he had shot Sakao he'd have to admit he was carrying a pistol. That would make things look very black for him as a one-time convict."
My master certainly appeared relieved at what I said, but for all that he spoke hesitatingly. "But he'll want his revenge," he said. "Of the bold character we know him to be, he's not the type of man to sit down tamely under all that's happened."
"But he'll have to," I insisted. "He's clever enough to realise he can't hurt you without hurting himself as well. No, I'm sure we shall not have any police coming up here. We shall hear nothing more about it."
And I proved to be quite right. Certainly we were all very worried at first, but with the days and weeks and even months passing and nothing happening, our fears gradually died down and in time we became quite certain we were safe.
Two years and longer passed by. My education had long since become a real obsession with my master, a greater one even than his collection of gold coins. He was tireless in instructing me and, awakening in me, as I have said, a lively ambition to become a really educated woman, I worked my hardest to do him credit.
"You're a clever girl, Polly," he said one day to me, "and, from what you tell me, you can only be getting most of your cleverness from your mother."
As can be well understood I had told him little of the truth about my parentage, fibbing that my mother had been a schoolteacher and my father a verger in a church. He was not at all curious about my parents and never doubted I was speaking the truth. Associated so much with him, he at length decided I should take my meals at his table. "And you're not to call me Master any more," he smiled. "I no longer look upon you as my servant. We are friends and companions and I am treating you almost as my adopted daughter. So, it's Colonel Jasper you are to call me now—" he regarded me affectionately "—and perhaps one day it may even be 'Father.'"
The Rahms were not at all jealous and, as the changes were the wishes of their so dearly-loved sahib, they accepted them as a matter of course.
"But you're not a girl who will spoil," Mrs. Rahm said to me once, "as you're much too sensible for that." She smiled knowingly. "Still, as I've told you before, I know you are something of a little story-teller and I certainly don't believe all you've told us about yourself. The other night I looked into one of my crystals and learn't quite a lot about you. Your ship will have to go through some great storms, but it will live through them and one day come safe into harbour." She nodded. "And it was quite a big ship I saw, with nothing small or shabby about it."
"Then when it comes in," I laughed, "you shall have one of its best cabins and I'll take you and Mr. Rahm for a lovely voyage."
She shook her head sadly. "But we shan't be here then, Polly dear," she sighed. "When I whisper to my crystal about myself, it always refuses to tell me anything. It goes very dark then and I see nothing but black and heavy clouds." She smiled brightly. "Still, I don't worry about it, as whatever Fate has ordained will happen to us, and we can only bow to her decisions and accept them uncomplainingly."
I had been at the house upon the moor for getting on for three years when a letter came from my master's sister in India, saying she was coming home for a few months stay and would arrive only a short time after her letter. I was most interested as I had heard quite a lot about her both from my master and Mrs. Rahm.
A Mrs. Arundel, and four and twenty years younger than my master, her husband was an important official in the Indian Civil Service. A highly-educated woman and a graduate of Cambridge University, she was something of a star in Indian social circles. So, as can be well understood I was not a little nervous as to exactly what she would think of me and the position I now held in her brother's household.
However, directly she arrived I realised that any fears I had been entertaining were quite groundless, as I found her a charming and broad-minded woman. She smiled when my master told her proudly of the education he had given me, but when she came to try me out—which she did very thoroughly—she became quite as enthusiastic as he was.
"I wouldn't like to say, with a little coaching, Polly," she said, "what examinations you could not pass. At any rate you certainly seem to have a wider general knowledge than I had at your age. Now what are you going to be when you leave my brother?"
My master answered for me. "I'm going to find her a place that will lead to something good," he said. "What she needs most now is a knowledge of the world. I have given her a good foundation and she must go to people of a good class who will help her on."
Mrs. Arundel looked amused. "But I don't think it will matter much what career you map out for her, James," she said, "as I'm quite sure she won't continue in it for long." She nodded smilingly to me. "You'll get married, won't you, Polly? With a face like yours, dear, to be someone's sweetheart is what you were made for."
She certainly made things much more lively for us from the first minute she entered the house. She was full of jokes and humour and poked a lot of good-natured fun at Mrs. Rahm for her crystal-gazing and belief in the Occult World.
"You take me out with you one night," she laughed, "and we'll meet some of these spirit friends of yours among the tors. I'm sure I could interest them as India is supposed to be cram-full of spirits like them," but Mrs. Rahm looked very serious and said it was never wise to joke about such matters.
However, if I greatly enjoyed Mrs. Arundel's company and the breath of new life she had undoubtedly brought into The Grey House, I was nevertheless soon to realise she was about to bring another crisis into my life, as after a lot of argument, she persuaded my master to give up living upon the moor and return to India with her, at any rate for a time.
She insisted Dartmoor was no place for old people, for directly she had seen them she said she had been shocked how they had all aged. The cold moorland air was too strong for them and they would certainly contract fatal illnesses if they didn't get away from it. My master at first resisted strongly, but ultimately gave in and it was arranged they should all return to India with her the following April.
My master wanted to take me with them but I was not too keen upon it and Mrs. Arundel thought, too, that it would not be in my best interests. "If you do come with us, Polly," she said, "you won't profit as much from all my brother has taught you as if you stay on in England. Now I have some old friends, French-Canadians, who are staying in Plymouth and I'll go and find out if they'd like to have you as a companion for their daughter Madeline. They are very nice people and I'm sure you would be happy with them."
She was gone for three days and returned triumphant. "They'll be delighted, Polly," she said, "and you're to be taken as one of the family. As I've told you, there are only three of them, this Mr. Charles de Touraine, his mother, a very old lady, and his daughter, Madeline, a pretty young girl and, funnily enough, something very much like you."
Taking me aside, she whispered, "I had to tell them a fib or two about your parents, as the old lady is a bit snobby and very proud of their descent from one of the French kings of Navarre. So, I told them your mother had been at Girton College with me when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, and I said your father had been a clergyman. After all, as your dad was a verger, he was something to do with a church, wasn't he?" She looked amused. "Quite excusable fibs and it doesn't do anyone any harm. You speak nicely and you'll look the part anyhow, and I think it rather a joke."
Things happened very quickly then and less than a month later I said goodbye to them all. My master was obviously very upset and gave me £50 as a parting present. Mrs. Rahm was in tears and, greatly to my surprise, gave me two of her belongings, both of which I knew she prized greatly, one of her mysterious crystals and a gold bangle with peculiar markings upon it. She said the bangle was given her by a monk in one of the Lamaseries in Tibet and the markings meant she had been accepted into the Outer Circle of workers in the World of the Occult.
I left them only a few days before they were due to sail from Tilbury and went straight to my new place in Plymouth. Then, to my intense horror and unutterable grief, I read in the newspapers the following week that the boat they were on had foundered in the Bay of Biscay, with everyone on board being lost. It was surmised the boat had struck a floating mine, an aftermath of the Great War.
I FOUND my new family very much what Mrs. Arundel had said they would be, except that the old lady was rather eccentric and inclined to be very outspoken in her remarks. She told me at once she did not like my surname and that to outsiders I should always be referred to as Miss Polly and not Miss Wiggs. She told me, however, that she approved of my appearance which, she smiled, was a good thing as she could never bear to have people who looked plain or common about her. At seventy-five, she said I must excuse any little irritability she might show as she had a bad heart and it often troubled her.
Her son, Mr. Charles de Touraine was a handsome aristocratic-looking man with a Vandyke beard, and reminded me very much of the pictures I had seen of Charles the Second. An artist by profession, or rather I should say to occupy his time as he was well-off enough not to care whether he sold his paintings or not, he was a good-natured, easy-going man who never seemed to mind much what anyone else did. As with his mother, he suffered from a bad heart, in his case brought on by rheumatic fever in his youth.
The daughter, Madeline, or to give her her full name Madeline Marie Louise de Touraine, I liked the first moment I saw her. My own age within a few days, she was certainly not unlike me, with eyes, colouring and shape of face very similar. Also, our height and figures were much the same. She was a bright vivacious girl, full of the joy of life, but of a much shrewder nature that would appear upon the surface. In fact I saw at once I must be most careful not to make any slip lest she would learn how I had deceived Colonel Jasper in the matter of my parentage and upbringing.
In passing, I may say my conscience had never troubled me there. I took the view, and indeed have taken it all my life, that my secrets are my own property, and deception is quite permissible unless it be practised for a wrong and disgraceful purpose. After all there are different kinds of untruths and, upon occasions, the blurting out of a truth may be both unwise and cowardly—unwise because it may cause pain to others and be of no benefit to anyone, and cowardly because the utterer of the untruth has not the courage to take the risk of keeping silent and being found out. I did not forget the very mild deception Colonel Jasper and his sister had practised upon the de Touraine family by making out I had come to The Grey House in the first instance to be trained for the position of secretary. Nothing had been told them of my being an ordinary maid.
How justified I had been in my estimation of this shrewdness of Madeline de Touraine came home to me long after, when I read what she had written about me in the diary which she so scrupulously kept and was so careful always to lock away in her leather despatch case. I remembered it ran something like this. "Polly Wiggs has now been with us a month and we all like her very much. She is a pretty girl of a stately and dignified appearance. She has far more book-learning that I have, but in many ways she is as innocent as a little child. It is easy to see that all she knows of the world she has learnt from books. She is much more reserved than I and I think no one will ever quite get to the bottom of her character.
"She is certainly a perfect little lady, but sometimes I fancy she hasn't yet quite succeeded in ironing out some trace of commonness one of her parents must have had. Of course, that may be all imagination on my part, but it seems to me that she is always upon her guard to make sure she shouldn't trip. Still, her disposition is a very kind one and I feel I could always trust her in everything. Really, I think if I told her I had committed a murder she'd keep it secret as a matter of course. She is very unconventional in her ideas and it would take a lot to shock her."
So that's what Madeline thought of me and in one way at any rate she wasn't far wrong. I was always upon my guard and, as I say, I kept off the subject of my parents as much as possible. Still, we got on very well together, and she was most interested in what I told her about Mrs. Rahm and her Theosophical views. We got out some Theosophical books from a library and spent a lot of time reading it up. Mr. de Touraine was interested, too, being of the opinion there was undoubtedly 'something in it.'
The crystal which Mrs. Rahm had given me was a great source of interest as well, and we three spent many an evening gazing into it, sometimes imagining we could really see things there. Once Mr. de Touraine made us girls shudder by declaring positively that he could see a large ship going down in a storm and that it must be the one on which all my former friends had all been drowned.
For another amusement, Madeline started teaching me French. She spoke it as well as she did English and, with her putting all her energy into the lessons, I found her every bit as hard a taskmaster as Colonel Jasper has been. However, I soon became very interested, too, and, a good mimic, started right-away with a good appreciation of the correct accent.
These lessons soon turned out to have been a splendid thing for me, as Mr. de Touraine suddenly took it into his head that he would go to stay in Paris to be under a great heart specialist there. Accordingly, barely six months after I had come to them in Plymouth, we were all established in a furnished apartment in Boulogne-sur-Seine, a suburb of Paris, with Mr. de Touraine setting up a studio there as if he were intending his stay should be a long one.
There followed for Madeline and me a very happy time, for surely there can be no city in the world where there is so much to see as in Paris. With our time all our own, we spent day after day in the Louvre and the Palace of Luxembourg, enthralled with gazing upon the renowned paintings and sculptures they contained. We wandered in the lovely gardens of the Tuileries, and up and down the famous streets, feasting our eyes upon the treasures the shops contained. We explored the Latin Quarter and had delightful little meals at the cheap restaurants frequented by the students there.
Then on Sunday mornings we would occasionally go to one of the fashionable churches and hear the Mass sung, with the music so glorious and the incense and the beautiful surroundings so appealing to the senses that it was often a greater treat to me even than a visit to the Opera.
We went to the Opera only when escorted by Mr. de Touraine and then our visit there was always preceded by dinner at some expensive restaurant. The meals of rich food brought seemingly from all parts of the world were a revelation to me and, watching the other diners with the wonderful gowns of the women and their jewels of an unsurpassed beauty, would leave me almost spell-bound in my delight.
Mr. de Touraine had always been most kind to me, but in time his kindness became a little embarrassing, as he started upon a sort of mild flirtation with me. He made a head study of me, saying I made an ideal model, as, very different from Madeline, I could keep so still for such a long time. Then he said he would like to paint me as Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love rising from the sea, adding laughingly, that, if he did, of course I should have to sit for him in the nude. He said I had a beautiful figure for it.
Madeline was very amused, but greatly to my relief old Mrs. de Touraine put a damper upon the idea at once. "You stick to landscapes, Charles," she said sharply. "They're what you can paint best, and don't go bothering about the figures of young girls."
We had been just a year in Paris when tragedy came once again into my life and made me almost think that it was destined I should bring disaster upon everyone with whom I became associated. Madeline and her father both died within a few days of each other, she from typhoid fever and he from heart failure.
It was a dreadful time for me and took me many, many months before I felt anything like myself again. I had grown to love Madeline, quite as much I was sure as I would have ever loved a sister, and not only was there the grief at losing her, but also the most uneasy worry as to what was now to become of me. I was then still under twenty and—quite reasonably not taking Mrs. de Touraine into account—had not a friend in the world to turn to. What was going to become of me I did not know.
It was well indeed that I was not relying in any way upon Mrs. de Touraine, as the very day after the second funeral was over she began making preparations for leaving Paris straightaway and returning to Canada. Her only relation was a sister in Montreal who was almost as old as she was.
Strangely enough, the two deaths of those so near to her, seemed to have affected her very little. Rather, they seemed to draw upon some unsuspected resources of strength, for she became more active and full of energy than I had ever known her before. Fortunately, when they had come from Canada, the de Touraine family had brought few things over with them and, living in furnished apartments both in Plymouth and Paris, there were only personal effects to be considered and disposed of.
All her son's belongings, his clothes and his painting things, she gave away to a charitable institution, and to me, greatly to my surprise, she gave everything Madeline had possessed.
"You can have everything, dear," she said. "I have no one else to give them to. You're a good girl and Madeline loved you. So take everything you want in remembrance of her, and what are not likely to be of use to you will go with my poor boy's clothes to the institution."
She was so preoccupied in making arrangements for getting everything finished up quickly for her getting away that it seemed only as an afterthought that she asked what I was intending to do. I told her that to begin with I should go to a women's hostel I had heard of in Montmartre and from there look out for a situation as a secretary.
"And I'll give you the best of references," she said, and she immediately sat down to write one. "But what a pity you've got such an unpleasant-sounding name like Wiggs," she went on. She smiled. "If you don't marry soon and change it that way, if I were you I'd alter it by a legal deed. It can be done, you know, quite easily."
The night before she and I were both going to leave the apartment at Boulogne-sur-Seine, when she was in bed and asleep, I completed my packing. I came upon Madeline's leather despatch-case. It was locked but I found the key among the trinkets in her jewellery case. Examining the contents of the case, for a moment my brain was too numbed to be greatly interested. In turn I picked up her diary, her English Identity Card and her passport with the photograph upon it not too clear.
Then a folded paper turned out to be her birth certificate and I read that Madeline Marie Louise de Touraine had been born in Montreal, in Henri Street in the parish of St. Joseph, upon Friday, July the twelfth in the year nineteen hundred and three.
I sighed heavily. Born just two days after me and what pretty names she had! How different must the names of Polly Wiggs have looked upon my birth certificate! And then I wondered if I had ever had any birth certificate at all. Certainly, I had some hazy recollection of once having heard the ten-shilling midwife who was usually called in by my mother to preside over the births of her other babies, saying something about my father risking a fine if within so many days he didn't notify some office or other that another Wiggs child had come into the world. However, I was well aware that in Rocker Street Government rules and regulations did not carry much weight, and so I guessed that quite as likely as not my father had never troubled to register the births of any of his children. So, that being so, I sighed again to think that, if ever I should want a certificate of birth, there would not be one to be found.
Then, as I stood holding Madeline's certificate in my hand, a sudden thought flashed into my mind and I felt my face flushing in my excitement. Why—why shouldn't I take Madeline's certificate to be my own, and change my name to hers straightaway? What was there to prevent it? It would be quite safe! Not a soul in Paris had known me as Polly Wiggs, and when on the morrow I quitted our present apartment I could go as Marie de Touraine—I preferred Marie to Madeline—and no one would know there had been any change of name. Surely, I told myself, I should get on better in life as Marie de Touraine than under the ugly-sounding names of Polly Wiggs? Oh, if only I had the courage to make the change!
Hardly daring to breathe, I tip-toed out in the the passage to Mrs. de Touraine's door. It was ajar and I could hear her snoring gently. She was the only danger. Suppose, the next morning she suddenly remembered about Madeline's private papers, and asked me for them? I should have to give them up! I couldn't say I had not found them! Oh, what a lot was depending upon the next few hours!
That night I slept very badly. Indeed, I think I hardly slept at all, but the next morning I was up early and getting the old lady's breakfast. She was brisk and lively and talked of nothing but herself and the delights of the wonderful voyage in front of her. It almost seemed she had already forgotten the so recent deaths of her son and grand-daughter. To my intense relief she said nothing about Madeline's despatch case and the private papers. Still, I was so scared she might suddenly recollect about the birth certificate that it was not until I had finally seen her train leaving the Gare de St. Lazare that I felt absolutely safe. She waved as excitedly as a little child from the window of her carriage as the train drew out. I was confident I should never see her again, as, with her heart in the condition the doctors had told her it was, I knew the poor soul could not have much longer to live.
By noon that same day I was installed in the Women's Hostel in Montmartre, with a quickly-beating heart having registered there as Mademoiselle Marie de Touraine. I was devoutly hoping Polly Wiggs had disappeared for ever.
Now although I am by nature anything but a timid disposition, and never for one moment regretting having assumed Madeline's name, it speaks volumes for my state of mind in those first early days when I was in Paris all alone that it was nearly three weeks before I could bring myself to make use of it in applying for a situation.
Mademoiselle de Touraine seemed so high-sounding and I was sure it would focus attention upon me at once. Not that I did not feel confident I would not disgrace the part. I knew I was quite nice-looking and was well, if quietly dressed. All Madeline's clothes fitted me as if they had been made for me. Whenever I went into any restaurant or shop I noticed women always looked at me well up and down and from their expressions did not find anything wrong in me. The men of course were interested in me, too, and seeing I was by myself apparently thought it quite permissible to give me a good ogle. In particular, the elder men were a nuisance and when I sat upon a seat in any of the public gardens, generally it was not very long before one of them would come to the same seat and try to start a conversation.
However, I never gave any encouragement, and indeed never troubled to take any notice of an opening remark. Still, some of them were persistent and once I had to catch a passing gendarme's eye and ask him to deal with a well-dressed elderly offender. "This man is annoying me, Monsieur," I said. "I don't know him. Will you please tell him to leave me alone."
Then it was most gratifying to watch the gendarme's response. Of small stature, he yet bristled with rage and blew himself out like a turkey-cock. He grabbed the man roughly by the shoulder and dragged him a good ten yards away before dismissing him with a not over-gentle kick. Returning to me, he was most apologetic. "I am sorry, Mademoiselle," he said, "but I'm sure he won't annoy you again." He nodded in the direction of my admirer who was slinking away as quickly as he could. "The old rooster! He's probably got a wife and half a dozen children at home. The older they get, the worse they are," and he left me with the nicest of smiles and a most courtly bow.
The three idle weeks I gave myself I looked upon as a sort of holiday, to recover from the shock of Madeline's and her father's deaths and to acquire confidence in myself, not only as Mademoiselle de Touraine but as a young girl who had been so suddenly thrown upon her own resources to fight the world alone.
I returned again and again to many of the places I had visited with Madeline, but it was the Louvre which always fascinated me most and hardly a day passed without my going there to have a look at the glorious paintings and sculptures it contained. How I wished I could become an artist myself! I had grown to love beautiful things and to be able to create them myself I thought must be one of the greatest joys that life could give.
The days quickly passing, I realised I must delay no longer and start in earnest about getting something to do. Though I had been receiving £6 a month all the time I had been with the de Touraines, I had not saved a single penny of it, as I had always been very scrupulous to pay my share of all the outings Madeline and I had had together. Still, I was not as yet in any way short of money, as I had kept intact the £50 Colonel Jasper had given me. Also, if things ever came to a pinch I had little pieces of Madeline's jewellery which Mrs. de Touraine had given me. However, Madeline had never been fond of jewels and, except for her wrist-watch which was a very expensive one of gold with a diamond-studded case and platinum chain, the money I should obtain from their sale would not last me very long. One other thing of a little value I certainly did have and that was the gold bangle Mrs. Rahm had given me. It was solid and heavy and even to my inexperienced eye, looked good.
With my first attempt to obtain work I thought I had landed a good position very easily. Seeing an advertisement in Le Soir for a confidential typist, I went to interview the advertiser. I found his office in a building in a good-class locality just off the Boulevard Germain and I saw by the notice painted up that he was an Exporter and Importer. At once I was of the opinion the omens were good, as my English would be most useful. I now spoke and read French fluently. In the outer office I noticed two elderly women clerks. Shown into the advertiser, I found him a smartly-dressed man about forty. He asked me a number of questions and everything seemed to be going well. I was to start working for him the following week. Finally, he suggested I should come out to lunch with him when we would continue the conversation.
He took me to quite a good restaurant and over a good meal, and a bottle of Burgundy which, of course, I in part shared with him, he became most confidential. He asked me a lot of questions about myself and seemed surprised I was living alone in Paris. Presently I felt his foot pressing mine under the table and, thinking it was an accident, drew my own away. However, his came back against mine at once and I knew this time the movement was intentional.
I know I got very hot, for it was as if a bomb had burst suddenly in my mind, and I was disgusted both with myself as well as with him. So that was the sort of man he was and, as I looked at his bold and sparkling eyes I thought what a little fool I had been not to have summed him directly I saw him! Why, if he started becoming as familiar as this after less than an hour's acquaintance what would he be expecting of me after a few days' employment in his office? Oh, what a lot I had to learn if I was to take proper care of myself!
And then the humour of it struck me and I wanted to laugh. Evidently the beast must be thinking he had made an immediate conquest of me! I smiled as if in amusement and now let my foot remain where it was. At any rate I was having an experience and a nice meal at his expense! Also, before getting up from the table I let him buy me a large-sized packet of expensive English cigarettes.
We parted, apparently, upon the most friendly terms and then, having given him as I thought enough time to get back to his office, I phoned up there and gave a curt message to the girl who answered that she was to tell her employer the situation would not suit me. Thinking of the good English cigarettes he had bought me I hoped I had taught him a lesson. I congratulated myself that he had forgotten to ask me for my address.
My meeting with this man greatly depressed me and brought home to me the seriousness of the warning Mr. de Touraine had so often given us two girls when we had been setting out upon our almost daily wanderings round the city. He said it was well recognised that of all the highly emotional Latin countries, France led the way in their worship of sex. Sex with them was the lodestar of life with its pursuit coming before everything else in the world. "That's why," he would wind up, "their Governments are so unstable. To get any favour out of a politician you must not go to him or his wife, but must approach his mistress, as he is sure to have one. Through nearly all the histories of their important public men illicit love has been a prominent factor of their lives," and he would shake his head warningly at us as he watched us go out.
My next attempt, however, to obtain a situation was a very prosaic and matter-of-fact 'turn-down,' because I had no knowledge of shorthand. It was a woman who interviewed me this time and I wasn't with her three minutes.
A few mornings later, with my spirits at rather low ebb, I found myself in the Louvre again, standing before the painting I loved best there, that of the mighty de Vinci's famous masterpiece Mona Lisa. Painted all those hundreds of years ago, the secret of the haunting smile upon the woman's face had continued to intrigue the millions who had come to gaze upon it, with its mystery remaining as impenetrable and insoluble as ever. I thought with a deep sigh that no one would ever learn what was in the artist's mind when he painted her.
Then suddenly the idea swept into my mind that, while I could certainly never create anything artistic myself, was it not possible I might yet help others to do so? Why should I not become an artist's model? Mr. de Touraine, no poor artist himself, had so often said that with my good figure I had all the necessary qualifications to become an ideal one.
I remembered, too, what had happened once when we were dining, of course at Mr. de Touraine's expense, in one of the most fashionable and expensive restaurants of the city! A beautiful and exquisitely gowned woman of a proud and even haughty bearing had swept in the salon, and the aristocratic Maitre of the restaurant had at once proceeded to bow her reverently to one of the best tables.
"Look, look," had whispered Mr. de Touraine in an excited manner that was quite unusual with him, "that's Etienne Ramoutier, the great artist's model." He sighed deeply. "Isn't she a lovely woman?"
"And she looks quite respectable, too," had commented Madeline.
"Respectable!" had scowled her father. "I should think she is respectable! Why, she's as conventional and chaste as any woman can be. The king of a great country—it's not wise to mention his name—has made several passes at her for her favours, but she's turned him down as if he were the lowest kitchen-boy in some disreputable hotel." He had seemed quite angry. "Let me tell you, young lady, an artist's model may be quite as, what you call, respectable as any Archbishop or Prince of the Church."
Full of my idea, that morning to think with me was to act at once, and within an hour I was interviewing Monsieur Thiery the proprietor of a big artist's supply store which I had once heard Mr. de Touraine say was patronised by the tip-top of the profession.
Monsieur Thiery was a kindly fatherly-looking man in the middle forties and at once showed his interest in me. "So you want to become a model, do you?" he said. "Oh, you've had some experience, have you?" He regarded me critically. "Well, you certainly seem to me to have all the requirements." He smiled. "Quite a good-looking face and, what is more important, a very nice figure. I'll see what I can do for you."
He left me for a few minutes and I heard him speaking energetically upon the phone. Returning to me, his face was a beaming one. "You are fortunate, Mademoiselle," he exclaimed. "I've just been having a word with an old friend of mine, Monsieur de Vallon, the Principal of the de Vallon Art Academy. He's a painter himself and has taught many of our rising artists. It happens he's wanting a model and you are to go to him tomorrow morning at ten o'clock for an inspection. He's a charming man, but don't be disappointed if he doesn't take you, as I warn you he's a very, very particular man."
I thanked him warmly and the following morning, with my heart beating quickly, arrived at the de Vallon Academy. It was quite a good-sized building off the Boulevard Montparnasse. I was interviewed first by his secretary to whom I gave a small card upon which I had written my name. I was kept waiting a few minutes and was then ushered into Monsieur de Vallon's private office.
He was a small man about Monsieur Thiery's size with a large head, white hair and very big shrewd eyes under very big brows. He looked very active and the personification of energy. He bowed politely. "Ah, Mademoiselle de Touraine," he exclaimed looking down at my card which he held in his hand. "A good name! Then of course, you are descended from the Navarres?" he nodded, "You look as if you might be, too."
He motioned me to a seat in front of his desk and for a long minute stared very hard at me, his eyes wandering up and down from my figure to my face and then to my figure again.
"Stand up, please, Mademoiselle," he ordered. "Drop your hands to your sides and keep quite still," and the scrutiny continued. He rose from his own chair and walked round so that he could take in everything about me in profile. Then he made me stand upon a weighing machine, and after that took my height from a measurement upon the wall. He made a note upon a card which he had taken out of his desk. Finally, he touched the bell upon his desk and his secretary reappeared.
"Help this young lady to undress," he said curtly, "everything to the waist, vest and brassieres." He took a tape measure out of a drawer and laid it upon his desk. "The measurements, too, please; the thigh, halfway up above the knee; the leg from the hip-joint to the sole of the foot, the hips, the arm from the shoulder to the wrist and the wrist to the tip of the forefinger," and he turned to a small wash-basin in the corner of the room and proceeded to wash his hands.
Bare to the waist, strangely enough I did not feel a bit ashamed or even shy and I am sure there was no heightened colour upon my face. The whole matter was being carried on in such a business-like way that it might almost have been that I was only going to have a photograph of my face taken, in an ordinary photographer's studio.
His hands washed and dried, Monsieur de Vallon put down on the card the measurements his secretary had called out and then turned to me. "Now, Mademoiselle," he said very quietly, "you seem to be quite a sensible girl and are realising that your body is no more to me than a piece of furniture. You have come to me asking to be employed as a model for my pupils and I am just ascertaining if you are symmetrical enough." He moved up close to me with the tape measure in his hand. "So, now I am going to take the measurement of your bust. It is most important and I always do that myself. Stand up and keep quite still, please. Don't strain yourself to be unduly erect. Just stand naturally and breathe as shallowly as you can."
He cupped each of my breasts in turn with his hand and nodded. "Firm as they should be. The typical virgin bust!"
He was most careful in his measurement, passing the tape round me several times before he was satisfied. Then he motioned me back in my chair and went through all the measurements noted on the card. For the first time he smiled, a warm congratulatory smile. "An almost perfect bust, Mademoiselle," he exclaimed. He tapped the card. "Falling into accord with the other measurements here, it is within a few millimetres of absolute perfection. How old are you?"
I certainly flushed now at his enthusiasm. "Not quite twenty yet, Monsieur," I replied. "I shall be twenty in July."
He frowned slightly. "Then you must be careful of yourself, Mademoiselle," he exclaimed, "very careful, as you have come to this condition of, almost perfection nearly a year earlier than might have been expected. Your danger is that of becoming too plump. Keep off too much sugar and rich cakes." A thought struck him. "You are not betrothed?" he asked. "Good! Then have you some fortunate bel ami? No! Then better still! You keep away from les jeunes messieurs and then the better for the symmetry of your bust." He sighed. "The good God has given to woman the loveliness of her form to attract and then when the attraction has done its work "—he shrugged his shoulders—"it has been particularly at the expense of the symmetry of the bust. Marriage and maternity spell disaster in that respect."
He spoke in brisk and business-like tones. "Yes, I shall be delighted to engage you for my pupils. Two mornings a week to begin with and you can start on Monday at nine o'clock. I will pay you fifty francs an hour for your services."
"But I shan't have to sit in the complete nude?" I asked a little timidly.
He shook his head. "No, at any rate not at first. That may come later for the advanced pupils and then your remunerations will be greater. The standing position is very tiring."
He rose to his feet and shook hands with me. "So goodbye for the present and now you go into the next room with my secretary and she will give you a little advice as you re-dress yourself."
Alone with the secretary, I said how delighted I was Monsieur was going to take me. "But do models," I asked, "sit for a whole hour without moving?"
"They do when they get used to it," she replied, "though at first they certainly find it rather tiring. Anyhow, Monsieur will break off for a few minutes if he sees you are tiring. He's most considerate with all his models." She laughed. "He's very shy, too, with all the mesdemoiselles and that's why he wants me to tell you to shave under your arms before you come on Monday. I'm sure that's what he meant by saying I was to give you advice."
I crimsoned up in mortification at my ignorance. I had never as yet worn a sleeveless gown and was disgusted to think what an inexperienced girl Monsieur de Vallon must have thought me. I was still flushing when I went out into the street.
IT might have been thought I should have been feeling very nervous as I approached the Art Academy upon the following Monday morning, but no—I took it all in my stride and went on to the platform to face the sea of upturned faces as if I had been accustomed to doing it all my life. Certainly, Monsieur de Vallon who was the only one present there who knew it was my first experience as a model, was a great encouragement to me with his business-like manner and yet kindly smile.
As his secretary had told me he would be, he was most considerate with me, taking care when I was upon the platform it was sufficiently warm. I had a tall screen behind me and a radiator at my feet. Upon the screen was pinned a thermometer and he saw to it that the temperature did not fall below seventy-five.
"That is the right temperature," he whispered to me, "for you unclothed as you are. A chill is what a model should be always most careful to guard against."
Then, after a quarter of an hour he gave me a few minutes' rest and, when the sitting was finished, he took me into a little room and shared some hot coffee and biscuits with me.
"Nothing very formidable about it, is there," he smiled, "and you need never meet any of the pupils afterwards. I should keep myself quite aloof from them if I were you." He shook his head sagely. "They say Paris is a wicked city, but all places in the world can be wicked for young people if they do not place a proper value upon themselves. We know that in these days chastity is supposed to have lost its halo, but the wise young ladies will never forget they can be only maiden once." He smiled again. "I am speaking to you as I would to my daughters, because I can see you have not had much worldly experience yet, and when private artists offer you work as they certainly will do—" he hesitated just a few moments, "—I should like you to understand I shall always be most happy to advise you if it be wise for you to go to them."
I thanked him warmly and, looking back in after years, realised what a good friend I had made in him.
As he had said, I soon had offers of more work, and indeed in a few months had as much as I could do and was able to pick and choose from whom I should accept employment.
The private artists paid much better than the Academy did, particularly those ones whose paintings were selling well, and I would often get from these latter the equivalent of two to three English pounds for a few sittings upon different days. The nude was nothing new to me now and, as Monsieur de Vallon told me once when I was spending a Sunday with him and his wife and family at their home—he had a charming wife with three very pretty grown-up daughters—absolute nudity was a far greater protection to a woman than when she was wearing scanty clothes. "There is nothing left to the imagination then," he smiled, "and it is the imagination which always plays such a large part in the stirring up of the emotions to a dangerous pitch."
With my rapidly increasing earnings, I felt quite safe in leaving the Hostel and renting a flat in Passy, only a few miles distant from the city. The flat was very small and consisted only of two rooms, a kitchenette and a bathroom, but, as I had all along set my face against making friends, it was quite big enough for me, receiving as I did no visitors.
Certainly my life was a lonely one, but for all that it was quite a happy one. I read a lot, I went to concerts, to the Opera, to cinemas and the theatres and, when I did not dine out, cooked myself delicious little meals. Apart from the de Vallons and those I had met at work, I had practically no contacts with anyone.
And now I come to the most humiliating part of my life, the very memory of which can, even after all these years, make me grow hot in shame whenever I recall it. It is a dreadful confession, for I had always considered myself as immune to all the weaknesses of my sex and able to protect myself from everyone.
With no real thought for what I was doing and with hardly any fighting against it, I yielded up my chastity as wantonly as any little slum girl in Rocker Street might have discarded hers for sixpenny-worth of chocolates and a few hot kisses snatched in some dark corner. My downfall came about in this way.
Turner Meynall of middle age, well-known English artist and an Associate of the Royal Academy, had set up a studio in Paris, because, as he said the atmosphere there was more congenial for inspiration, and he was painting me as Vesta, the Goddess of Fire, attended by her maidens in the temple. It was a painting in the nude, but I never had the slightest misgivings at being alone with him, as in every way a gentleman he always treated me with the utmost deference. Of a reserved disposition, he spoke very little to me, but always greeted me with a charming and encouraging smile.
A nephew of his, Anton Meynall, arrived to share the studio with him and I could see that he was interested in me from the very first. Twenty-six years old, he looked younger than that and I took him to be a nice, happy clean-living boy. Standing in great awe of his uncle, he never spoke much to me when he was there, but when, as it sometimes happened, we were alone for a few minutes he opened out at once and was very bright and chatty, talking about art in general but managing to get in a few compliments about what a beautiful goddess I made.
Certainly, I came to like him. He was good-looking and full of fun, but he never stirred the slightest emotion in me and his compliments only amused me. I felt rather sorry for him, too, as he was a poor artist and even I could see he would never meet with any success.
Encountering me in the street one afternoon, apparently by chance, though I was to learn later he had been on the look-out for me to pass by, after a few casual remarks he suggested we should go to Rumpelmazer's for tea. Rumpelmazer was a great patisserie chef and renowned the world over for his delicious cakes. I had not been to his place as yet, mainly because everything was so excessively dear, costing twice and even three times more than at everywhere else.
At first I laughingly refused, but as he really seemed so eager about it I ultimately gave in and went. We spent a very pleasant hour together and I remember I ate so much that I cooked no dinner for myself that night.
The ice broken, with some little uneasiness at doing so, I went with him to a few concerts and twice to the Races at Chantilly upon a Sunday afternoon. I was very lucky there upon both occasions, the second time winning more than a thousand francs at the Pari-Matuel, about £14 in English money at the then rate of exchange.
All the time his uncle knew nothing about my going out with him, Anton being quite as anxious as I was that he should learn nothing of it. Anton said Mr. Turner Meynall was cold as a fish and would not understand, while I took the view that, with him never unbending enough to speak of anything but the work he was engaging me for, I would be as equally reticent about myself.
Then one Sunday morning when sitting upon a seat in the Luxembourg Gardens, to my amazement Anton suddenly asked me to marry him. When I had got over my surprise, I treated his proposal as a joke. "Why, I know nothing about you," I laughed, "and, besides, I'm sure I'm not the kind of girl who'll ever marry anyone. I don't feel for men in that way."
"What, you've never been in love?" he asked in great surprise.
"No, I'm never likely to be," I said.
"But I should make you such a good husband," he pleaded. "I've got a nice little private income and we should be so happy together."
"I don't think so," I laughed. "I'd make a horrid wife, as I'm as cold as the fish you say your uncle is," and I warned him that if he ever asked me again it would be the end of our outings together.
He did ask me twice more, but each time appeared to accept my refusal as so final that I did not carry out my threat of coming out no more with him.
Then came the fatal night. He had often taunted me that he did not believe I could really be the good cook I was making out I was and so, out of bravado, I said he could come to supper at my flat and he would see what I could do.
He was taking me to the Opera that evening and the divine melodies of Wagner's Lohengrin thrilled me through and through. Never before had I realised how stirring and arousing sensual music could be. Afterwards, going home in the taxi I allowed him to hold my hand without demur. Up to then I had never allowed him to touch me except in the briefest of handshakes.
He had brought a bottle of champagne with him and that alone should have warned me of the red lights. I was accustomed to only the very lightest of wines and, though I did not know what was happening, I experienced at once its releasing effects. I was thirsty and drank glass for glass with him.
It was a simple but dainty little meal I had prepared for him, salmon mayonnaise, a galantine of chicken, potato salad and some delicious little cakes. All of a sudden, however, I seemed to have lost all appetite for food and I saw it was the same with him. In the perfect health of youth, alas! it was more than food we wanted, though I, at least, was not realising it.
He helped me wash up and we were very silent as we did so. Then he said sadly, "And I suppose it's good-bye now. Anyhow, I've had a lovely evening and I'm sure that you'll be sweet enough to give me just one kiss before I go."
I made no reply, but I know I was smiling at him and so he took consent for granted. He put his arm round my waist and pulled me gently to him. He tilted up my chin and kissed me upon the mouth.
The kiss was a long one and I felt myself shuddering. I had never been kissed by any man before and the sensation loosed in me a terrible wave of passion. He repeated his kiss, a much harder one this time and I kissed him back. He put my arms round his neck and I closed them spasmodically. My knees were trembling under me and, lifting me in his arms, he sank back into an arm-chair with me upon his knees. I felt weak as water and I knew it was all over with me. In my then abandonment I could refuse nothing to him.
He did not leave my flat until dawn was breaking and then it was he who said he must go before anyone in the building was about and saw him.
No, I didn't cry when he had gone and for the time being felt no remorse. In those few short hours all my outlook upon life seemed to have altered and the thrill of my awakened womanhood was still stirring in me! He was a dear boy, I told myself, and, of course, I loved him! If I did not I comforted myself, as a decent girl I should certainly have not yielded him as I had done. Now I should settle down happily to a full life of wifehood and motherhood. After all, could there be anything more wonderful in all the world than holding one's own baby in one's arms?
Unhappily for my peace of mind this mood did not last very long and, reaction setting in, before night had come I was upbraiding myself as the worst of abject little fools for having spoilt my whole life for a few short moments of passion. I did not love the boy I told myself. I had only liked him, with my main feeling for him being one of amusement that he had been so persistent in wanting me to become his wife upon so short an acquaintanceship.
I did not see him for two days. He did not come near his uncle's studio on the Monday or the Tuesday, because, I was sure, he was ashamed of what he had done. By then I was becoming very worried and angry with him. He must marry me at once, as I might be going to have a baby, and I had certainly no intention of letting people point scornfully at me as a girl who had given herself up to her lover in pre-nuptial days.
With his keeping out of my way, which I was now certain he was doing purposely, I thought with horror how undignified it would be if I had to go and search him out at his uncle's private apartment where I knew he was living. Still, I was determined to do it, at whatever cost.
However, I was saved the shame there, as I found him waiting for me in the street on the Wednesday afternoon at the time when he knew I should be leaving the studio. Certainly, though appearing to be rather shy, he seemed so genuinely pleased to see me that all my anger melted at once. He accounted for his not meeting me before by explaining he had got soaked to the skin when walking home in the rain in the early hours of that Monday morning and it had brought on a bit of a chill. However, he said he was quite all right again now and asked if he might accompany me home as there was so much which had to be talked over.
"But you're going to marry me?" I asked sharply.
He looked very hurt. "Of course, I'm going to, darling," he said, "and I'm the luckiest man in the world to have won you for my wife."
Greatly relieved, after I had bought some cutlets for our evening meal, which he insisted upon paying for, we went home on the top of a tram and he squeezed my arm so affectionately and talked so gaily of our future prospects, that I felt very ashamed of myself for having doubted him.
Over the meal he said he was going to put up the banns in the morning at the English church in the Rue de Guise and we would be married in three weeks. He said he would not buy me the engagement ring yet, because I would not be able to wear it openly, as it would be wiser, in both our interests, that his uncle should learn nothing until we were actually man and wife.
"Of course, he would be against it," he laughed, "as he has always preached I must not think of marrying until I have been more successful with my painting."
After the meal he stayed on, and at once started making love to me again. Reluctantly at first, I was soon responding to his mood. I knew I was now so completely in his power that I must give in to please him in every way he wanted. I thought sadly of the so vaunted equality of the sexes. Her feet once placed upon a certain path, how difficult, and indeed at times how impossible, it was for a woman to retrace her steps. She had given and there can be no taking back of her gift. She had sold, and woe-betide her if she had not seen to it that she has been paid the price before-hand.
So, for the ensuing ten days we continued on as lovers, and of an evening, after we had been out to dine somewhere or had gone to a show, he would come back home with me to my flat as a matter of course. As the time when we were to be married came nearer I thought more than once that he was uneasy about something, but put it down to what he was anticipating his uncle would say when he learnt we had done everything without his knowledge. I knew his uncle had done a lot for him and no doubt it did seem rather ungrateful to be keeping him in the dark.
Then at the end of the next week I was rather surprised and a little uneasy that I saw nothing of Anton either upon the Saturday or the Sunday. In my precarious position as an unwedded wife anything unusual in any way tended to make me feel nervous and I was always fearful of his meeting with some accident which would postpone or even prevent our being married.
On the Monday morning I went to Turner Meynall's studio as usual and nothing happened until the sitting was over and I was about to bid him good-bye. Then he said sharply, "Oh, by-the-bye, I saw you in the Rue de Rivoli with my nephew on Friday evening and, if you are becoming friendly with him, I don't think it quite the right thing." He eyed me curiously. "Has he told you he's a married man?"
For the moment I could not take in what he had said, and then I went cold in consternation and horror. My tongue clove to the roof of my mouth and I felt choking as if I could not breathe. I just stared at him and made no reply. Evidently he saw how he had upset me, as he tactfully turned round and busied himself with putting his brushes away.
"Yes," he went on casually, "he's married, though he's not living with his wife. She might divorce him, as he's given her plenty of cause to, but she won't do it because she's a devout Catholic and instead, very sensibly, she gives him an allowance to keep away from her. She's well-off, but he has nothing. The rascal only married her for her money."
He was looking at me again now and spoke with the utmost kindness. "In any case he won't bother either of us any more. On Saturday I gave him a sharp talking to for paying you attention and yesterday packed him back to England by plane. We are both well rid of him, the young blackguard."
And all the time I had not spoken. What I should have said or done I never like to think over, as I am sure I should have broken down and burst into tears. Happily, at that moment a brother artist arrived at the studio and, on their warm greeting to each other, I managed to slip away, just pulling myself together enough to say a quick good afternoon to Mr. Meynall.
I reached the street in the grip of a dreadful terror, as only that very morning I had realised I was probably enceinte.
Two days later I received a letter from Anton. It was postmarked London, but had no address and he had not even signed his name. It had no preamble and ran to only five lines. He wrote,
I am the vilest of all the vile men God ever made. I won't ask you to forgive me, for you never can. It is no excuse that I was crazy with love of you. I would kill myself if I dared. All I pray now that I may be punished mercilessly in this world and the next.
I read it only once and then thrust it into the fire. What a mad woman I had been, but, at any risk, I told myself, I would not bear his child.
I never knew how I managed to endure the misery of the few weeks which followed, as there was soon no doubt that I was going to have a child. The one bright spot was that Monsieur de Vallon was away. With the strain of his work threatening a nervous breakdown, he had gone for a long holiday to South Africa. Otherwise, with him there, I should never have dared to sit at the Academy again, for with his eagle eyes upon me, I was sure he would have at once noticed a difference in my bust. I remembered so vividly how he had said that even sweethearting would affect its symmetry, and in a pregnant woman—God! he would have seen the change the moment I sat myself before his pupils.
Now I was not despairing of being able to keep my shame from the world. With the confident assurance of one who really knew nothing of what she was talking about, it was in my mind how Madeline had once told me that in cases such as mine it was wise to wait a few weeks before trying to get help. So I would wait, I told myself, until the following month before consulting any doctor. Then I would consult the best women's physician that I could hear of. I didn't expect he himself would do what I wanted, but with Romance making such a strong appeal to every Frenchman I felt confident he would recommend me to someone else who would.
However, as if at last Fate were repenting for the evil she had brought upon me, she dealt me the ace of trumps from the pack and the whole matter was put right for me in a totally unexpected way.
Paris was in the grip of a bad and wide-spread epidemic of influenza and one morning, after having had all the preliminary symptoms the previous day, I found myself feeling so wretchedly ill that it was all I could do to summon the conciérge of the building and ask him to send his wife to me.
She was a kind, motherly woman and telephoned for a doctor at once. He turned out to be younger than at first sight I would have liked, apparently being still only in the twenties, but he seemed so clever and capable that in a very few minutes I had complete confidence in him. He told me I had more than an attack of influenza, as I had a pneumonic patch upon both lungs. He said I must go into hospital without delay. He recommended a private one where I should receive the best treatment, and went down to the conciérge's lodge to telephone and make all arrangements.
He returned to my apartment to be with me until the ambulance should arrive and, learning I had no relations in Paris who would look after me, showed himself to be of such a kind and sympathetic nature that, giving way to tears, I choked out the dreadful trouble I was in.
I told him everything and how the man who was responsible for my condition had turned out to be already a married man and left me without a word. I asked him if, later, when I had recovered from the pneumonia would he help me.
He listened very solemnly to my story, but, when I had finished his only comment was, "One thing at a time, Mademoiselle. We will see."
In the days which followed I know I was a very sick girl, indeed I learned afterwards that for three days my condition was so critical that it was not expected I would live. Happily, I knew nothing of what was happening then, as I was mercifully unconscious for most of the time. However, a strong constitution pulled me through and soon I was taking an interest in life again. Looking back, really I think one of the most joyful moments of my life came when the young doctor whispered to me that I need worry no more as I was out of all my trouble now.
That was all he had need to tell me. My dreadful illness had proved a blessing in disguise. He was one of the most tactful men I have ever met and, finding out from me in a roundabout way that I was in good funds and had no need to consider expense, he kept me in the hospital as long as possible and until I was well into a good convalescence. Then he insisted I must take a long holiday and suggested my going to the Riviera.
"I know a splendid little pension in the old part of Nice," he said, "that would just suit you; quiet, yet not dull, as it is in the heart of everything that is going on. The food is excellent, as the proprietor is an old chef."
So to Nice I went, and I found the pension was all my nice young doctor had said it would be, beautifully run and with food as good as that of any hotel. It was not one patronised much by visitors, because of its unfashionable position in the old town, the guests being nearly all 'permanents,' good solid business men and women of middle-age.
With my health getting better every day, whatever attractions I had had before by illness soon returned, and the men would have liked to make quite a fuss of me. One old gentleman, well up in the sixties, in particular, paid me a lot of attention. It happened that he sat next to me at meals and he was always pressing me to share his bottle of wine.
He was an Englishman, a Mr. Robert Chapel, and he confided in me that for many years he had been in the diamond business in Hatton Garden, but was now partly retired, giving only expert advice to the big jewellery firms upon the Riviera.
"You see, Mademoiselle," he said, "handling precious stones as I have been doing for half a century and longer they are now in my blood and—" he bowed gallantly, "—except for the face of a beautiful woman, the most lovely things in the world to me."
Laughing at his compliment, I asked, "But can there be much demand for such expert advice as yours among the jewellers here in the Riviera? They don't deal with the same quality of jewellery that you see in the Paris shops, do they?"
He looked shocked. "My dear Mademoiselle," he said, earnestly, "at the height of the season here jewels of great value change hands without any remark, almost day by day. Why it is nothing for my great friend, François Bethune upon the Boulevard Charlemagne here to sell a necklace or other piece of jewellery priced at two hundred thousand francs or even more. His house is as well-known as Manton's in the Rue de Rivoli in Paris." He smiled. "Somehow I must manage to get you taken over his atelier and have you shown some of the glorious pieces he turns out. He is a famous goldsmith, as well as famous as a dealer in precious stones. I have known him for over forty years. Yes, I'll find an opportunity for him to show you his treasures."
And he found the opportunity very soon, when I had been staying at the pension for about six weeks. Monsieur Bethune's place of business was more like a salon for the gathering of notable people than a place where things were bought and sold. Situated in the best part of Nice, it was beautifully appointed, with rich carpets, valuable paintings and etchings upon the walls, and elaborate and expensive art furniture. Monsieur himself was a distinguished-looking old gentleman of benign and artistic appearance, far more like, I thought, some fashionable physician than a trader, no matter how beautiful might be the things he was trading in. He appeared not to be in the best of health and carried one arm in a sling.
He took us into his private room and from a big safe brought out parcel after parcel of precious stones, as beautiful to me as any I had seen upon the lovely Society women in Paris. He let me handle them and explained exactly what made one more valuable than another.
"And I suppose, Mademoiselle," he smiled, "that, as with so many of your charming sex, you think there can be no stone as beautiful as a diamond." He shook his head. "Still, I don't quite altogether agree there as, if you take away its sparkle, the diamond is by no means so much more beautiful than all other stones."
"I think so, too," I nodded. I laughed. "Of course, I've never possessed or even actually handled one, but I like a big ruby best, but it must be a striking carmine red one."
"Ah, then I'll show you something," he exclaimed with enthusiasm and, turning back to his safe, he brought out the usual tissue-wrapped little packet and unfolded it. "Now here are rubies of a very fine quality," he went on, "real, what we call, pigeon-blood rubies. They come from a deep valley, more than four thousand feet above the sea, near to as dirty and evil-smelling a little town as you could find anywhere, Magok in Upper Burma. As you see they are very beautiful, so beautiful that I wonder why the two biggest here were not kept to adorn an idol in some Buddhist temple there."
I handled them with becoming awe: their colour, that of the richest blood, fascinated me.
"And it's funny the tricks old Mother Nature plays upon us," laughed Monsieur Bethune, "for these glorious rubies are first cousins to the common emery stone—the emery powder which we use to polish our knife blades and other steel things. In a way, it is just that the ruby is transparent and the emery is not."
He made a grimace of pain and explained apologetically that he was suffering from one of the bad attacks of neuritis he so often got. "Last night I was walking the floor nearly all night."
"Have you ever tried massage?" I asked.
He nodded. "But it makes it worse. I think the masseur was rough."
"Well, sometime ago," I said, "I used to massage an old gentleman friend and it did him no end of good. In fact it took away all his pain."
Monsieur Bethune was most interested. "Then you are a masseuse?" he asked.
"Not a professional one," I said. "I'm really an artist's model by profession, and I am down here on the Riviera for a long holiday after an attack of pneumonia. No, I've had only private lessons in massage, but I learnt from an old Indian woman who was splendid at it. Some of her relations had been Yogis in Tibet and she believed that all ills of the body could be cured by deep breathing and the human touch. That's why she taught me how to massage."
Monsieur Bethune had become quite excited. "Then will you see what you can do to me?" he pleaded. "I should be so grateful if you will take away my pain."
I hesitated at first, saying I was out of practice, but then, mainly to please Mr. Chapel, my pension friend, I consented, and that afternoon Monsieur Bethune's sumptuous car took me up to his private residence. It was a magnificent place and, as with his reception rooms upon the Boulevard Charlemagne, everything was beautifully appointed, with no expense having been spared. Remembering Mrs. Rahm's teaching that all health treatments should deal with the mind as well as the body, I made quite a solemn and important business of the massaging.
I asked for the room to be only dimly lighted and enjoined there should be no talking while I was at work. I said far more was demanded of a good masseuse than the mere physical handling of any sufferer. She must concentrate and by sheer power of will endeavour to impose some of her own well-being upon the sick person.
As I intended they should be, Monsieur Bethune and his wife and daughter were very impressed, and the two latter watched everything I did with great interest. To everyone's delight the patient's pain was eased off at once and, later, he had a splendid night's rest. I gave him more massage upon the three succeeding days and he declared it was a long, long time since he had felt so fit. His gratitude was quite embarrassing.
Then, upon his bewailing that I was only a visitor to Nice and asking what he should do when his next attack came on, which he was sure would happen with any cold wind, I suggested giving his daughter some lessons. She was an intelligent, but very plain-looking girl in the late twenties, and seemed delighted with the idea.
Accordingly, Madame Bethune, many years younger than her husband, became a patient. She was worried a lot with insomnia, but, rather to my surprise, the massage appeared to do her as much good as it had done her husband and she began to sleep better straightaway.
I gave the daughter about a dozen lessons and at the end was quite proud of my pupil. She was very keen about the will-power part and, feeling very tired after each massage, was sure she was imparting something of her strength to her mother. Her mother believed so, too, and thought there was something quite romantic about it.
Then, as I had been disagreeably expecting all along, came the question of remunerating me and, one evening after I had been dining with the family, Monsieur Bethune smilingly held out to me a sealed and rather bulky envelope. "Just a little token of our regard," he said, "but not that it is in any adequate way relieving us of our obligations to you."
I know I got very hot, but I refused to take the proffered envelope. "No," I said emphatically, "I don't want any reward, and I won't take it, though I thank you very much for offering it to me. It's been a great pleasure to me to help you."
Somehow I didn't think he seemed surprised, or even disappointed, when after a few moments' hesitation he put the envelope back in his pocket. "Then, all right," he said, "and when you leave us, it will afford us great pleasure to present to you some little token of our appreciation." He smiled. "I dare say that among some of the old junk I have in my little shop I shall be able to find some little trinket or other to please a lady."
I remained in Nice about a month longer and the Bethune family made a great fuss of me, calling at the pension almost every day to motor me to some place of interest. Several times, too, I went to his place of business again to watch his men at work in the atelier.
Monsieur Bethune was very sad about his business. Although it had not been made public yet, he had only recently sold it to an American firm and they were to take over very shortly.
"I hate having to retire," he said, "but my medical man tells me that unless I do—" he made a grimace, "—I may soon be where there is no buying or selling of my so-loved stones." He regarded me with obvious affection. "If I were not retiring, Mademoiselle, I would have suggested your coming to me to train as a saleswoman. With those beautiful hands of yours and your so chic appearance you would make an ideal one." He smiled. "Why, you would charm all the messieurs who came into my salon and they would take anything you offered them."
"For some things I would have liked it very much," I said, "but for others I would have felt I must go back to Paris." I smiled. "You see, Monsieur, my heart is there."
He mistook my meaning and smiled knowingly. "Ah, that's it, is it?" he said. "Well, he's a lucky man." He sighed again. "Youth! What a wonderful heritage it is, but alas! none of us appreciate its glory fully enough until it is gone!"
The evening before I was leaving Nice I went up to dine with him and his family. With the meal over they all gathered round, and with sparkling eyes, Monsieur Bethune gave me the parting present he had spoken about.
When I opened the little morocco case I saw it was a brooch of a single stone set in a big platinum claw and the stone was one of the pigeon-blood rubies I had so much admired!
My eyes welled up in tears at the magnificent present, as I know it was worth many thousands of francs.
When I showed it the next morning to Mr. Chapel at the pension his eyebrows went up in surprise. "A great gift!" he exclaimed with enthusiasm. "The gift of a king to his queen! Why, a necklace of them would be worth a fortune in English pounds!" He spoke warningly. "Never wear it in a crowd, Mademoiselle, though it will be some safeguard for you that no ordinary thief will think it is real." He laughed. "It is a jewel that, ordinarily, would go with sable coats and a big silver Rolls Royce car."
The morning I arrived back in Paris was a day of bitter cold, with dull clouds overhead and deep slush in the streets, I thought with a shudder of some of the cold draughty studios I had sat in, and the dread of another pneumonia loomed up large into my mind. The young doctor had warned me very earnestly against risking a second attack, lest the dreaded tuberculosis might follow, as it so often did in young girls.
The next week I was busy moving into another little flat I had found in Autueil. Then I thought of the card I must send round to my former patrons notifying them that I had resumed work, but every time I sat down to draw it up nothing eventuated. Somehow I felt I simply could not return to my old calling. If I did, for one thing I knew I must break with my good friend, Monsieur de Vallon. I dared not offer to sit for his Academy again, as although I saw no difference in my bust, I was sure he would, and I could visualise the pained look with which he would regard me. The thought preyed upon my mind. Added to that, I felt I had lost confidence in myself. I dreaded the cold and, even with the studios kept warm enough for my comfort, the going out afterwards into the chilling air frightened me.
I was in this state of mind, when one afternoon, taking my usual walk, I stopped to look in the window of Louis Manton's big jewellery shop in the Rue de Rivoli. I knew it had a world-wide reputation and certainly it was bigger and from the outside looked more imposing than that of Monsieur Bethune's. Glancing through the revolving door, the interior seemed beautifully appointed. The window had a magnificent display, but with a thrill of pride I noticed among the rubies there was no stone which surpassed or even equalled mine in beauty.
Suddenly, I made up my mind. I would interview the proprietor and see if he would take me on as a saleswoman. Accordingly, the next morning, dressing myself very carefully with the best of everything I had and wearing my ruby brooch, I walked boldly into the big shop and asked to see Monsieur Manton. After some short delay, as he was engaged for the moment, I was taken into his private room and found myself in the presence of a very smartly-dressed and youngish-looking man whom I took to be well under forty.
I stated confidently upon what errand I had come and he regarded me very intently, his eyes falling, I noticed several times upon my ruby brooch. I told him something about myself, how I was born in Montreal, but had lived most of my life in England and for the last three years in France, how my father who was dead had been an artist and how, for getting on for two years, I had made my living as an artist's model.
Asked why I now wanted to give up that occupation, I explained how I had been very ill with pneumonia, with my doctor strongly advising me not to risk the danger of a recurrence by coming out from the heated studios into the cold air.
He was most polite and I could realise from his manner that my general appearance had certainly not made a bad impression upon him. "It is true," he said, "that I could do with another assistant, but in your case the great drawback is that you have had no experience." He considered for a few moments and then asked, "What references can you give me?"
"Only those from Monsieur de Vallon of the de Vallon Academy of Art," I replied, "and some of the artists for whom I have sat."
"And how far do those go back?" he asked quickly.
"For a little longer than a year and a half," I said.
He shook his head frowningly. "But they would be no good to me," he said at once, "no good at all." He spoke emphatically. "You must understand, Mademoiselle, that in a business such as mine I have to take the utmost precautions, and to know everything about those I employ, even to their family histories. Working for me, you would be hourly handling articles, small portable articles at times of very great value. On your own or with a confederate you would have many opportunities of robbing me and——"
"But I hope, Monsieur," I interrupted in heat, "that I don't look a person like that."
"Certainly you don't, Mademoiselle," he said smilingly. "On the contrary, you look a very charming young lady who would be a great asset to my establishment." He bowed gallantly. "Those beautiful hands of yours were made to handle beautiful things and that so shapely neck would show to great advantage any necklace you put on to tempt my client, but—" he shrugged his shoulders, "—as the hard-hearted man of business I take myself to be, I could not let such things for one moment weigh with me in the absence of proper references."
"Then I suppose it's quite hopeless for me," I said sadly.
"Quite, I'm afraid," he replied. He went on. "You see, Mademoiselle, between us jewellers and the underworld of this great city a battle of wits is always going on. They use every trick and artifice to rob us and, in return, we do everything to baulk them. They employ demoiselles almost as elegant and attractive as you yourself, and the more appealing they are the more we are upon our guard." He threw out his hand. "Why, not a fortnight ago, here in this very shop, we caught red-handed a young girl of all seeming innocence and with the face of a Madonna trying to palm back upon us a good imitation for the valuable diamond she had just been looking at. It was a splendid piece of sleight-of-hand and she would have got away with it if her imitation stone had not happened to pick up some of the perfume from her scented fingers, and also if the assistant who had been serving her had not, as a non-smoker, had a keen sense of smell. As it was he became suspicious at once, and we caught her out, so to speak, red-handed."
A thought seemed to strike him, and he asked, "But what first put the idea of your getting employment in a business such as mine?"
"When I was convalescing after my illness, upon the Riviera," I said, "a few months ago I happened to get very friendly with a jeweller there and often went to his atelier to watch his assistants at work. Then, for a service I was able to render him and his family when they were ill—" I put my hand upon my ruby brooch—"he gave me this as a parting present and—"
"I've been admiring it," broke in Monsieur Manton. "It is a very fine imitation."
"Imitation!" I scoffed indignantly. "Why, it's a genuine Burmah stone! I'm quite sure Monsieur Bethune would have nothing imitation upon his premises."
The jeweller's eyebrows went sky-high. "Bethune!" he exclaimed, as if in great surprise. "François Bethune of the Boulevard Charlemagne in Nice?"
"The same," I said, and I saw the ghost of a smile steal into Monsieur Manton's face and he looked down his nose. "Oh, these French!" I thought. "Their minds for ever running in the same groove," and I felt my face getting hot. However, I said quite calmly, "Yes, and it happens I had a letter from Madame Bethune only this very morning," and, opening my bag, I took it out and showed it to him. I handed it across the desk. "You can read it if you like."
He did like and read it through carefully. It was a very short one, but warmly affectionate. She wrote how they all missed me and that I was to remember how delighted they all would be when, according to my promise, I came to stay with them. In a fortnight her husband was to relinquish the business for good and he was very upset about it. She had signed herself "Always your dear friend, Lucille Bethune." Below that, Monsieur himself had added, "And you take good care, ma petite, as Monsieur Chapel has told me he has warned you, never to wear that little brooch we gave you when you are going to mix in a crowd. If you lose it I shall be very angry and have to give you another one."
"The postscript is Monsieur Bethune's," I said. "That is his handwriting."
"I am quite aware of it," smiled the jeweller, handing back the letter. "Monsieur Bethune was a great friend of my father's and I, too, have met him. I had heard he was giving up business, but did not know it was going to be so soon."
"Yes, and but for that," I said, "I should have gone as an assistant with him. He said how much he would have liked to have me."
"And that Monsieur Chapel he mentions," asked the jeweller, "is he by any chance an Englishman, a Mr. Robert Chapel at one time of Hatton Gardens? Ah, he is, is he? And another friend of yours." He laughed, "And you said you had no references!"
He asked to look at my brooch and I took it off and handed it to him. "A magnificent stone," was the verdict. "Not as large as some I have seen, but in every way as lovely."
I thought some explanation was necessary. "And he gave it to me," I said, "because I had been able to do him and his family a service." I shrugged my shoulders. "Not to merit such a present as that, but all the same I had been able to help them."
"I'm sure you had," he nodded smilingly, "and now I intend to help you. Of course I shall write to Monsieur Bethune as a matter of routine, but you can start work here at once. As you have had no experience, to begin with I shall give you three hundred francs a week, but if you prove a success, as I feel sure you will, you shall soon receive more than that. I can afford to pay my employees well."
And I am sure that before long they did realise that I was going to be a success. Of course, at first mostly all I did was to look on and keep an eye out for light-fingered customers who were hoping to pick up something with no payment at all. When, after a few weeks, I did start as a saleswoman, I was put among the silver articles, where not so much experience was needed and where there was less risk of my making any mistakes.
Strangely enough, before I had been with Monsieur Manton for even a month I was able to do him a great service and it was a great feather in my cap.
One Monday morning, to everyone's amazement it was found there had been a break-in during the night, down through the floor above where a costumière carried on her business. The thieves had made a hole obviously only big enough to admit the very small man who had dropped down into the shop in a corner right at the back, in the shadows. Everything had been cleverly thought out, with a long grey sheet having been first lowered through the hole to screen whoever had been dropped down from lights in the shop window which were always kept burning all night.
Apparently, the thieves had become frightened as they had not managed to take much, but for all that they had got off with a number of valuable rings which they had obtained by cutting through the plate glass protecting the tray which contained them.
Detectives swarmed all over the place, but we carried on as usual, though with hushed voices and rather scared faces. In the course of the morning a sudden recollection came to me and I went at once to speak to my employer. I was told he was engaged with one of the inspectors of the Sûrété, but for all that I knocked boldly upon his door.
Bidden to enter, directly he saw who it was, he frowned, "I am busy," he said curtly. "I cannot be disturbed."
"But I have something to tell you that may be very important," I said, and I told him quickly what I meant. About a week previously I had been going out to lunch when I passed a car stationary upon the other side of the road. It was a closed one about twenty yards away and a man was sitting in the driving seat. As I drew level with the car, I distinctly caught sight of someone else huddled in a corner at the back with a camera in his hands. He was taking a snap, and it had struck me at the time that the camera was pointed towards our building. Almost the very moment I had gone by, hearing the car start and move away, I turned round to notice that a rug or something which had been obscuring the back window was being pulled away.
"What was the man like who was using the camera?" snapped Monsieur Manton's visitor, who was of course the inspector from the Sûrété.
"I didn't see his face," I replied, "as his head was bending down, but I remember now I got the impression at the time that he might have been a boy. He seemed so small and slight."
"And the man in the driving seat?" went on the inspector. "Can you describe him?"
"Better than that," I smiled, "I can tell you who he is. I was at the races at Chantilly on Saturday and his horse, La Belle Rose, won the third race. I happened to come upon him in the paddock directly after the race and some friends were congratulating him and shaking his hand."
The inspector frowned. "But how did you come to remember his face so well," he asked, "when, as you tell us, you had seen him for only those few seconds as you went by the car."
"Because," I replied emphatically, "he reminded me so exactly of one of the attendants in the picture gallery at the Louvre. In fact, for a moment I thought it was he. He had the same type of face and the same peculiar-shaped nose. The great difference was that this man in the car, from what I could see of him sitting down, gave me the impression of being very smartly dressed."
Monsieur Manton jumped to his feet and, with no comment left the room, returning, however, in a minute or so with that morning's copy of Le Matin in his hand. Re-seating himself, he turned to the racing news and in a few moments read out, "La Belle Rose, owned by Monsieur Jules Bernier."
The inspector whistled. "Mon Dieu," he exclaimed, "we know him well at the Sûrété. He's a very shady customer. He runs a second-rate night-club in the Rue Boisonnier and we have had several brushes with him. He's a real bad egg." He turned smilingly to me. "Thank you, Mademoiselle. What you have told us may turn out to be of great value," and I left the room feeling very pleased with myself.
Late that afternoon I was summoned to Monsieur Manton's room. The inspector was there with him and they were both smiling. Spread out upon a paper on the table were the stolen rings.
"Not one missing, Mademoiselle," said the inspector. "We raided that Monsieur Bernier's flat an hour ago, and I am sure he was the most surprised man in the world. No wonder you thought the man with the camera was of small size and might have been a boy. He was the jockey, Patten, who had just managed to squeeze through the small hole they had made in the ceiling." He laughed. "You wait until you see the newspapers tomorrow morning. They will acclaim us messieurs of the Sûrété of Paris as the best detectives in the world, but, unhappily, will not ever learn we owe all our success to the very charming Mademoiselle de Touraine. We shall have to keep that dark to mystify those other blackguards of the underground."
After that, I ranked very high in the estimation of my employer and was gradually entrusted with the sale of the more valuable pieces of jewellery. I have good reason to remember always the first big sale I made. It was that of a diamond necklace costing a hundred and fifty thousand francs or about eighteen hundred English pounds. The buyer was an Englishman, a Mr. Temple Fane, and he bought it for his wife who came with him. Both of them I judged to be not far off forty, but while he was a gentle, reserved man of charming manners, she was a very unpleasant woman, bad tempered, and most difficult to please. She seemed almost mental to me and was very rude and overbearing. I could see how uncomfortable she made her husband.
They came several times to the shop before the purchase was actually made, and then afterwards I was sent up to their hotel because she complained the catch on the necklace was not satisfactory. She was in bed with lumbago when I saw her and was even more querulous and exacting than ever. I found there was nothing wrong with the catch, and that the trouble was because she had not been managing it properly.
Before they left to return to England—they lived in London—Mr. Fane came into the shop by himself and gave me the most lovely box of chocolates I had ever seen.
I was three years with Monsieur Manton and, though I loved my work there, I don't think I was ever really happy or contented. I didn't know what was wrong with me. It didn't seem to be a lover I wanted, as I had never got over my one experience with Anton Meynall. It had sickened me of men, and I was regarding myself again as a naturally cold type of woman. I could have had plenty of lovers had I wanted them, and it came to me in time that even Monsieur Manton himself would not have been averse to some encouragement upon my part, had I shown myself at all predisposed that way.
However, I turned him and all the others down and, without giving any offence, made them understand quite clearly that sex was of no interest to me. Looking in a long mirror one day I summed myself up and considered what exactly it was that attracted men to me.
I knew I dressed well and had acquired the French flair of wearing exactly what best suited me. Light blue was my favourite colour and the other girls used to say I always looked what the French called chic. I made the most of my good figure by going to the best dress-makers for my costumes.
Certainly I was not beautiful, but I had many good points, which taken altogether gave me a dainty appearance. My colouring was very good and my complexion without a blemish. I always looked clean and fresh. My face was oval-shaped, I had nice violet-coloured eyes and my artist patrons had often told me what a pretty mouth I had. When I smiled I showed good teeth which had never needed any dentist's care. I was very proud of them.
Yes, I told the mirror ruefully, my appearance was not unattractive, though I was not allowing it to get me anywhere. My temperament did not incline me to matrimony and yet—what prospect was there for a girl in my position except a good marriage?
I laughed a little sadly. What a queer girl I was! Here was I sailing under false colours with a name which did not belong to me, and telling any amount of untruths to keep up that deception and yet—at heart no one was more conventionally inclined than I. I scorned the idea of becoming the mistress of any man, however wealthy he might be, and, in little things, I was most scrupulous in every way. I was dead honest, would never cheat anyone of a penny and, strangely enough, I never told lies.
A little over six months before I left Monsieur Manton's I got a great shock, for coming home to my flat one evening the wife of the conciérge of the building told me a man had been round that morning making enquiries about me. He had given her fifty francs not to let me know, but she came knocking at my door before I had been home five minutes. The enquirer had wanted to know if I were married or betrothed or if I went about with any particular man friend. Indeed, she said he had been most interested in everything she could tell him about me, declaring many times, however, that his enquiries meant no harm to me. The description she gave me of him was that he was young, very respectable in appearance and looked as if he might be a clerk in some office.
As can be well imagined, I was terribly upset. In fact, when I was by myself again I literally shook with fright.
Who on earth could it be who was now coming after me in this dreadful secret way? Was it that by some evil chance old Mrs. de Touraine had heard from some traveller returning from Paris that a Mademoiselle Marie de Touraine was living there and, knowing she and her sister were the last of their name, the old lady was now wanting to find out who this strange woman was?
Naturally very ignorant about all matters relating to the Law, I now asked myself fearfully if, in taking Madeline's name as I had done, I had committed some dire criminal offence for which I could be punished and put in prison. At any rate I was sure the position was very serious for me, as it was not for nothing money was being spent to track me down to where I lived.
However, I was determined to baffle whosoever was after me there and, within a week, had moved off to another flat in a quiet little street off the Boulevard St. Germain, quite a distance away. I paid a week's rental in default of any notice, and was gone within an hour, leaving no address to where I could be followed.
Then week after week went by without my learning of any more enquiries being made about me and, gradually I became confident that whomsoever had been the man who had called at my flat in Passy I had successfully shaken him off. Then, about six months later, coming home as usual one evening, to my horror I learnt that someone had been round, asking much the same questions as before. From the description given me, the enquirer was the same one as before.
It was one of the cleaners of the building who told me this time, and I was filled with a terrible feeling of foreboding. It was evident someone was determinedly keeping watch upon me and whatever they were intending to do—my guilty conscience frightened me they would assuredly do in their own good time.
The very mystery added to my fears and very soon I was realising there was going to be no peace of mind for me until I left Paris and buried myself far away where there would be no beginning of any track to be picked up and followed.
Unhappily, however, I could not do that for nearly a whole month, as, when after a short probation Monsieur Manton had taken me on as a permanent assistant, I had signed an agreement for three years and the time would not expire until then. Had I been inclined to leave him without notice, straightaway, all apart from such shabby treatment to one who had been so kind to me, there was another reason why I should stay on to fulfil the contract to the end. An annual bonus of a fairly substantial nature and amounting to five thousand francs would be due to me then and, with little money saved, I certainly could not afford to lose it.
Still, in a week or two now I should have to tell him I was leaving and—I dreaded doing it.
ONE evening about three weeks before my time with Monsieur Manton would be up I left the Rue de Rivoli in a very disconsolate frame of mind. I still had said nothing about leaving, very cowardly putting off from day to day the breaking of the news to my employer. I knew so well how annoyed he would be, as I was now reckoned his most valued saleswoman, with most of the big deals, particularly if it were thought some considerable persuasion would be needed, being almost invariably handed over to me.
The season, too, was now approaching when the usual crowd of American and other wealthy visitors would be pouring into Paris and I could not be resigning my position at a more awkward time. All along Monsieur Manton had been so consistently kind to me that I realised how ungrateful it would seem thus leaving him in the lurch. I must give him a good reason, too, for going off so abruptly to obtain a satisfactory reference from him.
Added to these thoughts was another one which worried me not a little. If I changed my occupation, what new one was I going to take up? Whatever decision I made there, it must be made quickly, as I should have very little money behind me. As I have said before, I had practically saved nothing, for though I received a good salary, I had lived up to it. I had dressed well, always priding myself that none of the other assistants dressed better. Then I spent a lot upon amusements, worst of all undoubtedly, as an habitual race-goer, losing many hundreds of francs at Long-champs and Chantilly.
So, as can be well imagined, altogether I was feeling very depressed and preoccupied as that evening I was making my way to catch my usual tram home, indeed so preoccupied that I almost walked straight into a man standing on the pavement before me.
"Good evening, Mademoiselle," came a pleasant, cultured voice to break into my thoughts. "I am afraid it is too much to hope you will remember me?"
I glanced up with a frown to see a well-dressed man, apparently of about middle age, regarding me smilingly. His whole appearance was so much in his favour that even in those first moments of surprise it never entered into my mind that he was some enterprising stranger trying to pick up an acquaintanceship. Somehow, too, his face seemed vaguely familiar.
"But, of course, you won't," he went on with a laugh, "seeing it must be more than two years since we last met. You were at Monsieur Manton's here in the Rue de Rivoli then and sold me a diamond necklace. I was with my wife. My name is Temple Fane."
With a slightly heightened colour I did remember. He was the customer with the unpleasant wife, and it was he who had afterwards given me that lovely box of chocolates. I took the hand he held out and smiled back. "Of course, I do remember," I said. "Your wife was not well at the time and I went up to the hotel to attend to her. How is she now?"
His face clouded. "I lost her a little over six months ago," he said. "Poor soul! She had a long illness and we knew she couldn't get better." He regarded me intently. "You haven't altered at all. You look just the same as when I first saw you." He spoke most respectfully. "You are going home, are you? Then may I walk a little way with you?"
We walked on at first chatting about nothing in particular. He said how he had always loved Paris and thought it the most lovely city in the world. I agreed with him, and then he went on that with all its fascination it was a lonely place to be in by oneself, and he was finding that so now. Instinctively I sensed what was coming and was not a bit surprised when he asked me if I could come out to dinner somewhere with him that evening.
"It would be such a kindness, Miss de Touraine," he said earnestly. "I am here for a few days and feel so lonely."
For just a few moments I hesitated. As I have said I was feeling very worried, and I would much rather have spent the whole evening at home considering what I would have to do. Then I thought suddenly that if I went out with him, it would at any rate mean a nice meal, with of course the usual champagne. There would be music and gaiety, too, and for the first time I could pack all my troubles away. So, saying how nice it was of him to ask me, I agreed to come.
He looked very pleased and flushed up like a boy. "And I'll come and call for you in a taxi," he said. "We'll go to Pradelli's. You get a very good meal there."
It was a happy evening for me and I enjoyed every moment of it to the full. The food was delicious and the champagne drove all my worries back into their dark holes. I knew I was as well-dressed as any other woman there, and my ruby shone out compellingly like a big red star against my cream velvet gown.
Aware that Mr. Fane had been looking many times at the stone, I remarked smilingly, "It's a lovely one, isn't it, a real Burmese ruby? It was given me by a gentleman-friend of mine some years ago when I was on the Riviera convalescing from a bad attack of pneumonia," and then, noticing the shadow which had fallen across my new friend's face, I added casually. "He's a dear old man and when I first came to know him, he was in the jewellery business himself. He gave me such an expensive present because I had been able to do a service to him and his family. I go to stay with him and his wife every year. They and the principal of the Art Academy here—a Monsieur de Vallon—" I laughed, "another old gentleman, are really the only friends I have."
Mr. Fane's face had cleared. "But you lead rather a lonely life, don't you," he asked, "with only old people for your friends?"
"Perhaps I do," I said, "but I've got accustomed to it." I smiled back. "You see, I am getting an old maid now and the young people seem too empty and frivolous for me."
He told me quite a lot about himself. He was upon the Board of Management of several companies in London and his life was rather a busy one, though of late, with no children of his own he was finding it very monotonous. He had a house in Lowndes Square, which was much too big for him, but he had been born in it and, accordingly, did not get rid of it because of its associations. His only close relation, was a sister who had married a cousin, a one-time Colonel in the Coldstream Guards and they had no children either. This sister was very kind to him, but he did not see as much of her as he would have liked to, as she was very occupied with social duties. She was a woman of tireless energy and lately had taken up Spiritualism and was rather keen about it.
In return for his confidences I told him something about myself, with many reservations of course, and how I had no relations at all. He frowned slightly when I told him about my artist's model days, but commented with a smiling bow that he could quite understand anyone wanting to paint me. He was very interested in my career at Monsieur Manton's, remarking there, with another smile that I ought to be wearing beautiful things instead of selling them.
In parting, it was arranged I should go out with him the following evening and I said goodbye with my brain in something of a whirl. I should have been very simple indeed if I had not taken in he was greatly attracted by me and my heart beat quickly when I considered to where it might lead. I realised instinctively that he was not the kind of man to be paying such attentions to me, as he had been trying to make out, just as it were only to pass the time away. Even after such a short acquaintance the idea was forming in my mind that if I gave him tactful and not over-forward encouragement, a real friendship might ensue which, in the end, might lead to anything. Always of a sanguine disposition, though I was half laughing to myself at the idea, I could almost already see myself as the second Mrs. Fane.
That night it was many hours before I could drop off to sleep, with thought upon thought rioting through my mind.
To begin with I asked myself tremblingly what would marriage with Mr. Temple Fane mean, and the answer came instantly. Why, everything! He was of the type of perfect Englishman! He was good-looking and, I could see, of the kindest possible nature! He would make any normal woman happy and—he must be very well off.
Then about myself. If my past could be wiped out and I were to start life all over again I was sure I could make him a good wife. I was presentable, I was a decent woman, and no one who had ever known me could have ever said my disposition was not a nice one.
Ah, but could my past be wiped out?—and my heart beat uncomfortably when I considered if, under any circumstances, I should be justified in marrying a man like Mr. Fane without first disclosing to him the secrets of my life.
Nothing could wipe out the fact that I had been someone's mistress, certainly for only a few short weeks and then under circumstances which were not as discreditable as it would make the bare statement seem. Still, I should not be coming to him as I was sure he would be imagining, in the untouched maiden state. If, however, I confessed to nothing, I was confident he would never learn it for himself as I could judge from everything about him how ignorant he really was about sex. He would be easy to deceive and, with him making love to me, the part of a woman with no experience would not be difficult to play.
I thought long and hard about it, but in the end satisfied my conscience that my brief association with Anton Meynall did not unfit me to become Mr. Fane's wife. It was a chapter of my life finished and done with and no one would read its pages again. It was my own personal secret and, certainly did not brand me as a bad or unworthy woman. So much for that.
However, my passing myself off as Marie de Touraine was quite a different matter, as it was not one which could not be closed down but must now continue for the whole of my life. Still, I reasoned I was hurting no one by my deception there and, indeed, was myself benefiting only in a sentimental way. As old Mrs. de Touraine had impressed upon me so strongly, had I so wished I could have changed my name to any other in a perfectly open and legal way. Instead, with such a favourable opportunity presenting itself to me, I had chosen to do it secretly, but with no one being in any way the worse by my so doing.
Comforting myself that it was another secret which was nobody's business but mine I dropped off to sleep at last.
I went out with Mr. Fane both the next evening and the one following. He could not have been more kind and attentive and I was sure that by now he had quite made up his mind about me. However, each time we went out I could see the more and more clearly that he had had very little to do with women—indeed, I was to learn later that his dead wife was the only sweetheart he had ever had—and was so obviously nervous how to approach me. I was sure it was not that he was nervous about committing himself, but nervous only because, as a man of his age, he was wanting a girl of mine to become his wife and was wondering what I should say to it. He was afraid to venture to ask me.
On the third day, the Sunday, after we had been to the races at Chantilly and dined afterwards at a fashionable restaurant I determined to bring things to a crisis. He accompanied me as usual to the block of buildings in which my flat was situated and then I suggested if he should come in and have a cup of coffee.
I had not asked him in before and I could see how pleased he was. Inside my little flat, which after the great spacious restaurants he had taken me to seemed smaller even than a small cupboard, he helped me off with my cloak. Then, upon turning round, I saw his tie was a little bit askew. "Let me put it right," I said, and at once proceeded to do so.
My face was very close to his and I knew that my bare arms smelt nicely of some new scent I was trying, and my warm fingers came up against his neck. It was more than the poor man, with all his ordinary restraint, could put up with and, just as I was putting the last finishing touch to his tie, he flushed hotly and, laying hold of my fingers, pressed them hard against his lips. I let him have them for a few moments and then pulled them gently away.
"You're a bad boy," I smiled, "and I can see young girls are not as safe with you as I thought."
"I couldn't help it," he stammered. "Your hands smelt so delightful." His voice shook a little and he seemed most contrite. "But you're not angry, are you?" he asked.
"Of course, I'm not," I said. "After all," I laughed, "what is a kiss on the hand in this country? It's only politeness, isn't it?"
"But it wasn't just politeness with me," he said with his voice more unsteady than ever. "It meant far more than that," and, taking courage, as I intended him to from the smiling way in which I was regarding him, he suddenly reached out and, pulling me to him, kissed me full upon the mouth. It was a warm and passionate kiss and by no means a short one. Then for a few moments he stopped to lift up his head and look into my eyes before kissing me passionately again. This time I kissed him back.
"Then you'll marry me, darling," he exclaimed chokingly, "for all that I'm such an old man?"
"You're not old," I reproved sharply. "You're in the very prime of life. Yes, dear, I'll marry you," I went on in pretended resigned tones, "as you seem to want me to." I smiled. "What else could a decent girl do after she'd let a man kiss her the way you've been doing?"
"Then we'll be married straightaway," he exclaimed delightedly. "Where shall it be?" and he started kissing me again. "Do you know, darling," he said, "I have loved you from that first day I saw you nearly two and a half years ago?"
"Well, let me make the coffee now," I said, "and then we'll sit down and talk everything over."
It was nearly two hours before he left me and then I had almost to push him out, pointing out laughingly that the conciérge of the building had seen us come in and my reputation would be lost if it became known I had been entertaining a gentleman friend until the small hours of the morning.
We had decided to be married at an English church in Paris in three weeks. In the meantime he would go back home and get things ready. We would have a ten-day honeymoon in Switzerland.
When at last he had left me I drew in a long breath. Only three short weeks and I should be safe! Of whatever anyone was suspecting me it could not be anything that would take a husband from me and, even if he found out I had married him under a name which was not my own, in the full tide of his passion for me I was sure that as my husband he would forgive me. I knew the marriage would be quite valid in any case.
It was very amusing when my husband-to-be, or David as I will henceforth refer to him, bought the engagement ring the next morning. I had told him exactly how I stood with Monsieur Manton and he agreed with me that to buy the ring from him would be as tactful a way as possible of breaking the news that I was leaving him.
I had already picked out the ring I would like best. It was a rather expensive one and would cost twenty-four thousand francs, or at the then prevailing rate of exchange about £300 English money. Still my fiance had said the sky was to be the limit.
When he came into the shop it happened Monsieur Manton himself had come forward to attend to him and, learning what he wanted, had laid upon the counter a tray of our most valuable rings. Repressing my amusement at the unfolding of the little comedy we had arranged, I was standing only a few yards away. David just glanced casually over them and then said, "But, if you have no objection, Monsieur I think I'll get your Mademoiselle de Touraine here to choose one for me. With those pretty hands of hers she should be a good judge."
Monsieur Manton looked rather surprised, but beckoned to me to approach. I pretended to consider for a few moments and then picked up the one I had set my mind upon. I put it on my engagement finger and held it for David to inspect. "A very good choice, Mademoiselle," he said. "No, don't take it off. Leave it where it is." He turned to my employer. "And the price, Monsieur? Ah, twenty-four thousand francs! Then I'll write you a cheque at once."
Monsieur Manton frowned. Of course he had forgotten David and, with no idea who he was, it went contrary to all his business principles to accept cheques from a perfect stranger. However, before he had time to make any comment David went on smilingly, "Oh, the cheque will be quite all right and, besides, the ring will not be leaving your premises here before you have had ample time to cash it, as Mademoiselle will be wearing it all the time." He laughed happily. "Which is one way of telling you that you will be losing her services in less than three weeks. She will become then Mrs. Temple Fane," he bowed—"my wife, Monsieur."
For a few moments Monsieur Manton looked the very picture of astonishment. Then he congratulated us warmly. However he shrugged his shoulders rather sadly. "But in one way I do so, Monsieur Fane, with the greatest of regrets, as I am losing one of the most efficient young ladies I have ever had."
After arranging to meet me for lunch, David left the shop and my employer turned to me with a knowing smile. "Well, you've certainly done very well for yourself, Mademoiselle," he said. "I recall everything about Monsieur Temple Fane now. He's a friend of Milord Rashleigh of the Embassy here and a very wealthy man. As I expect you know, he's on the board of management of several big companies in England."
I had three days with David before he went back to England and getting leave from the Rue de Rivoli went about with him everywhere. He wanted to buy me everything he saw in the shops for my trousseau, but I insisted I could myself provide all I needed. Still, I could not prevent him buying a very expensive moleskin coat. He said I was sure to be glad of it in Switzerland.
It was strange, to note the great change which had come over him. Instead of the shy and nervous man he had been in the preceding few days, he was now masterful and with no hesitation about how he wanted anything done. I could so easily visualise him as the successful man of business Monsieur Manton had told me he was.
The three days having passed, he returned to England, not intending to come back until the eve of our marriage. Looking back in after years, I can realise what a worrying fortnight then followed for me. So near to the wonderful time it would be for me when I was actually his wife, I was expecting every day that something terrible would happen, and the cup of happiness be dashed from my lips even at the last moment.
Every night when I returned home I thought someone connected with the building would come knocking at my door again and that I should learn more enquiries had been made about me. It filled me with apprehension and I passed broken nights.
However, nothing happened and upon the appointed day I was married in the English church in the Rue de Guise. There were only a few casual spectators present, and I was married in my travelling dress. Monsieur de Vallon gave me away, and one of the attaches at the British Embassy, an old friend of David's was the best man. We left by the night express for Geneva. The train was very crowded and, owing to the attache having very carelessly applied for the reservation in the wagon-lit so late, we were separated from each other on the journey.
Reaching our hotel the next morning, when we were at last alone together in our room and I was hiding my nervousness by starting at once to unpack. I received what was certainly one of the surprises of my life. Taking me in his arms, so that we could exchange our first wedding kiss, after we had both said how happy we were, he went on with a sly smile, "Now I believe, darling, it is customary for all newly-married couples to confess to each other everything that they've done." He smiled fondly. "I am sure, sweetheart, you have nothing to tell me, but I'm not quite as innocent as that and I do so hope you won't be angry when you've heard what I've got to say."
With my guilty conscience stirring in me at once, my mouth went dry in apprehension and my knees shook, as I wondered if his confession meant something he had found out about me. However, I had not time to work myself up into a fright, as he went on quickly, "Now, darling, don't you just imagine in your pretty head that it was by chance only that I met you in the street that afternoon when you had left Monsieur Manton's to go home. There was no chance about it as I had come over to Paris on purpose to see you and ask you to marry me."
I stared at him blankly, for the moment hardly able to take in what he had said. However, realising from the affectionate way in which he was regarding me that I had frightened myself for nothing, as he stopped speaking I forced myself to what I was sure must have sounded a rather nervous laugh. "I am flattered," I said, "but how did you know I was no longer a single girl?"
"Ah, that's my confession, darling," he laughed back. He spoke very solemnly. "I knew you weren't married or even engaged, because for many months, all unbeknown to you I had from time to time been having enquiries made to learn all about you."
"Making enquiries about me!" I choked. "Where?"
"At your flats," he replied. "I employed an agent and he used to follow you home from the Rue de Rivoli to find out where you were living. Then the next day he went there and made the enquiries I wanted, so tactfully, however, that he assured me you would never learn from anybody that they had been made."
Oh, the relief I felt! So all my worries had been for nothing, and how many broken nights I might have spared myself had I only known!
David went on. "As I told you, I fell hopelessly in love with you that very first day I saw you when we came to the Rue de Rivoli to buy that diamond necklace and when my poor wife died—and before that when I knew her death was only a matter of months—you were always in my thoughts. An old fool you may think, me, but——"
"I don't think you an old fool," I burst out indignantly, "I think—" but a feeling of such great thankfulness was stirring in me that I did not finish my sentence and, instead, put my arm round his neck and buried my face in his shoulder to keep back the tears which would have come so easily. When he lifted up my face to kiss me I kissed him back, and after that, never at any time could he have had any cause to complain of my coldness.
We had a very happy honeymoon, and if he were masterful in the ways with others, with me he could not have been more gentle or more grateful for any favours that I gave him. I often wondered what his former wife could have been to him as he had very inexperienced ways of making love. I thought she must have been a very cold and unresponsive woman, and with me becoming really very fond of him so much of our mutual happiness must have been something of a revelation to him.
I was feeling very nervous, when, with the happy days of the honeymoon over, we started back for London, in my inexperience of all household management dreading having now to take up my position as the wife of an important business man. I was wondering, too, what his sister would think of me. Of course she would be very curious, and I thought rather apprehensive as well as to what 'the shop-girl' her brother had married was like. David had told me she would be at the house in Lowndes Square to welcome us, and had arranged to stay there for a few days to put me in the way of things.
My ordeal commenced when we were met at Victoria Station by a liveried chauffeur in the big Bentley car. I saw the man give me a quick appraising look, but then was very relieved when his face broke into a bright smile. Driving up to the house, a smartly-dressed woman of about middle age, whom I realised instantly was David's sister, appeared almost the moment after the butler had let us into the hall. She, too, gave me one sharp intent glance and, then approached quickly, kissed me warmly upon both cheeks. She seemed a bright vivacious woman of a kind and happy disposition.
"Welcome home, dear," she exclaimed heartily. "I hope you had a pleasant crossing!" then, turning to her brother, she went on, "Now, David, whilst you are looking at your letters—there are a lot waiting for you—I'll show Marie over the house."
She led me first into our bedroom for me to take off my things and then, with the door closed, said laughingly. "Now, let me have a good look at my new sister-in-law."
And she certainly did have a good look, taking me in from top to toe. I know I was blushing furiously. "Why," she exclaimed after a few moment's scrutiny, "you're a regular little beauty and I can certainly teach you nothing in the way of dress. You look a nice-natured girl, too, and David is a very lucky man to have——"
By now, however, I had quite recovered my composure and as she hesitated broke in laughingly, "Picked me up! That's what you were going to say, wasn't it?"
It was now her turn to blush. "No, no, dear," she said sharply, "chosen was the word I was going to say." She went on quickly. "Of course I was a little bit anxious about you, as I'm very fond of dear old David and he really knows nothing at all about women." She nodded viciously. "Your predecessor was a horrid creature, a real Tartar, and it was a mercy for everyone when she was gone."
I soon settled down into my new surroundings. Clara, Mrs. Robert Hume, was kindness itself and took no end of pains to tutor me not only in household affairs, but also into the ways of the social life into which as David's wife I was so abruptly thrown.
Approaching fifty years of age and a woman of strong and resolute character, she was full of energy and excelled in everything she undertook. An enthusiastic golfer, she was equally good at tennis, she rode to hounds and was an excellent shot. A keen race-goer, she had two good jumpers of her own and superintended not a little of their training herself. Attending spiritualistic seances as I already knew, was another of her hobbies.
With a small flat in Earl's Court, her real home was yet in Eastbourne where she had a big residence known as Mead's Court, abutting right on to the Downs leading up to Beachy Head. The house stood in its own beautiful grounds and was absurdly large for a childless couple such as were she and her husband, but it had been left to her by an uncle and she said the idea of disposing of it had never entered into her mind.
"My husband likes company," she explained, "and, entertaining a lot as we do, the place is really not too large for what we want."
Her husband, the Colonel, was a peppery old gentleman some fifteen years older than she was and very eccentric in many ways. However, he thought the world of her and tolerated her spiritualistic leanings in an amused contemptuous sort of way. When she was having a seance at the Court, he was generally present, always on the look-out for trickery upon the part of the medium and hoping to catch him or her one day.
Clara and I soon became great friends, with her never ceasing to express her gratitude to me for having made her brother such a happy man. "You are making him so happy, dear," she said once, "that if you were the ugliest and commonest girl in all the world I would still love you."
In other ways, too, she said she could not possibly be more pleased with me than she was, always declaring I was a genius for management and was the most adaptable girl she had ever met. She added she was very proud of me whenever, in our social world, we went anywhere together.
Our house in Lowndes Square was full of beautiful things and, when I looked round upon them sometimes, I almost choked in emotion on the realisation that as David's wife they were all mine. Still, in those first days of marriage when under my sister-in-law's guidance I was taking my place in Society and mixing with the best class of people, the fear was always with me that someone would one day bring up my relationship with the de Touraine family in Montreal. However, it comforted me not a little in remembering that the de Touraines with whom I had lived had been the last of their line and, as Madeline had often told me, had mixed very little with other people. No one ever did mention them to me and so the fear gradually died down.
I often wondered if old Mrs. de Touraine were still living and one day, passing a Canadian Shipping office in the city, I went in and asked if they would very kindly allow me to see a recent directory of Montreal. To my relief the name of de Touraine did not appear in it.
I had been married a bare ten months when my son was born, and David was thrilled that, in his forty-fifth year, he had become the father of such a lovely baby. My cup of happiness seemed full to the brim, as I was getting the more sure that now no shadow of the past would fall across my life. However, just when the baby was about a year old and I was expecting another one, I was to realise with a shock that the ghosts of the past are not so easily laid. One of my secrets came dangerously near to the surface.
One morning I was sitting in my own private little sitting-room doing some sewing when Chalmers, our very solemn butler, came in to tell me that a man had arrived from the registry office about the situation of chauffeur. Our then-chauffeur was leaving us very shortly to migrate to some relations in Australia.
The engaging of a chauffeur was really in my husband's province, but I felt quite capable of dealing with it and so ordered Chalmers to show the man in. It happened I was putting some coal upon the fire when he entered and so did not glance round at him until I heard the click of the closing door. Then I turned and, to my horrified amazement, saw Anton Meynall, the man who had so wronged me, standing gaping before me.
It was nearly six years since I had seen him and, though he had aged and altered and was looking in poor health, I recognised him instantly, and my heart bumped painfully. From the startled expression upon his face it was obvious the recognition was mutual and for a few moments we stood staring at each other without saying a word. He recovered first.
"You are Mrs. Temple Fane?" he gasped incredulously, and, when I bowed icily, he exclaimed with some animation, "Well, that's the brightest spot of news I've heard since I last saw you." His voice shook. "It's taken a great load off my mind, as I've often wondered if——"
"You never need wonder anything about me," I broke in sharply, "as I never wonder about you." I spoke with the utmost contempt. "To me you don't exist."
"And that's how it should be," he nodded slowly. "You'll never meet with a viler blackguard than I was, however long you may live."
"Exactly!" I snapped, and I regarded him stonily.
He went on. "I know I can never atone for the wrong I did you, though I'd do anything I could for you, even to committing a murder if you asked me to."
"Then if you can talk so glibly about killing people," I said, "why didn't you kill yourself?"
He shook his head. "No, I could never do that," he said. "My religion wouldn't let me."
"Religion!" I exclaimed disgustedly. "Has a creature like you got any religion? You, you—" but the dreadful word blackmail flashed up before my eyes and I stopped what I was intending to say. I thought it wisest not to infuriate him.
"Is your wife still keeping you," I said.
"And, pray, who told you she ever had been?" he asked. He scowled. "Ah, that precious uncle of mine, of course!" He shook his head. "No, I haven't heard of her for years, and I don't want to either." He laughed bitterly. "As you see, I am now supporting myself." He made a grimace. "I didn't turn out as I thought to be a budding Michelangelo with my painting, and so took to the only occupation I could make a bit of money by driving other people's cars." He grinned in his old boyish way. "I think, it would hardly do for me to take on the position here."
I did not think it necessary to reply to his question. "But I will pay you for your out-of-pocket expenses in coming here," I said, "What are they?"
"Fourpence," he replied with another grin. "Tuppence each way by bus."
I took in again how shabby and frail he looked and, for the first time since he had betrayed me all those years ago, a certain feeling of pity came to me. I reached out for my bag upon the desk and producing a £5 note held it out to him. He gave just one look at the note and his face reddened in anger.
"I said fourpence," he snarled, "not £5. Do you think I'd want to blackmail you for threatening to tell people I know you've got that pretty little mole above your right knee?" His eyes blazed. "No, thank Heaven I've been a blackguard only where women were concerned and in other ways still continue to behave as much like a gentleman as I can." His voice rose. "So, keep your £5 and your four-pence as well, and be damned to you for judging my character so badly that you offered them to me," and, as I put out my hand to ring the bell for Chalmers to come to show him out, he turned and opened the door himself.
"Good morning," he said curtly, "and you can comfort yourself you'll never hear of me or see me again."
The whole interview could have barely lasted five minutes, but it had left me feeling as limp as a rag. Still, after that first agonising thought of blackmail, the idea that he would ever persecute me passed altogether out of my mind. Strangely enough, as he had said, in some ways he would always be what the world called a gentleman, and it was quite clear to me that he was abidingly penitent for what he had done.
He had said I should never see him again, but about a year later I did see him when I was upon a visit to my sister-in-law in Eastbourne. He was driving the delivery van of a provision store and I was sure he had seen me, too, but he turned his eyes quickly away and passed on.
I WAS not really worried that Anton Meynall had found work in Eastbourne, though it was certainly rather annoying, because I spent quite half of my time at Mead's Court. Clara was always so very pleased to have me and it gradually came about that she never liked to throw a party, and certainly she threw plenty of them, without my being present to help her in the entertaining. It suited David quite well, too, for he loved Eastbourne every bit as much as I had come to, and was glad of the excuse to spend long week-ends there. When, again, business took him away from London, he said it always comforted him to know I was in such bright and happy surroundings. As with his brother-in-law the Colonel, he was amused at the seances, having no belief at all in them, but regarding them as a mildly exciting form of entertaining everyone.
In the main, social life in Eastbourne centred round retired Service people and at most gatherings colonels and admirals were very much to the fore. We had a fair sprinkling, too, of other local retired professional men, but at week-ends the Court was an open house to everyone, some drawn from Town itself, with literary and theatrical circles being well represented.
As I have already mentioned, my sister-in-law was a great racing enthusiast and, with my inclinations there being every bit as strong as hers, we seldom missed a race-meeting at either Lewes or Brighton. They were a great joy to me at the time, but it is well the future is hidden from us, for, as it turned out, they were to bring another dreadful crisis into my life where, however, by good fortune more than by anything else I came through everything unharmed. When peace at last came to me again I was confident the dark chapters of my life were closed from the prying eyes of the world for ever.
One Saturday afternoon when Clara and I were in the paddock at Lewes together she suddenly clutched my arm in great excitement. "Look, look, Marie," she exclaimed, "see that clever-looking dark man with the beard, there is the great Caesar Sturm, the most successful medium we have now in England."
I was as interested as she was, for everyone who dabbled ever so slightly in spiritualism had heard something about Caesar Sturm. Upon the right side of forty, he had recently taken London spiritualistic circles by storm. A foreigner, he was something of a mystery to everyone and there was no doubt he purposely cultivated this mystery as a great asset for him. He would never speak about himself and no one knew from what country he came. Known to speak Hindustani, however, it was generally believed he must be of Oriental origin. He spoke English perfectly, but with a slight accent.
As a professional medium he was certainly a great success, for at his seances he would nearly always get good and, at times, even striking results. He charged high fees for his services and was particular to whom he gave them. Insisting that spiritualism was a religion to him, he would never submit to any tests, declaring that, with hardened scoffers present, it was hopeless to expect the dead would ever leave their spirit homes.
Many attempts had been made to catch him out in trickery, but they had never met with any success. Sceptics said one reason for that was because before starting upon any seance he would exact from all present a solemn promise to on no account flash a torch or bring light into the room in any way. If he had any doubt about anyone in particular he would approach that person personally and demand a specific assurance upon his or her word of honour that the conditions he demanded would be religiously observed.
Of course, many people had no belief in him and gave it as their opinion that he was a fraud, but he took no notice of them. He was evidently making plenty of money as he was always in good request. A bachelor, he rented a very nice house in St. John's Wood and ran an expensive car. He employed two maids and a secretary. This latter accompanied him everywhere and acted as his chauffeur as well.
This then was the man Clara was so excited about. I knew she had been at several seances where he was the medium and wondered now if she were going to speak to him. However, she soon settled any doubts there.
"Come on, Marie," she said with enthusiasm. "You've never met a medium of his importance before and I'll introduce him to you. He's very expensive, but I really feel I must get him to give us a seance or two."
Waiting her opportunity to catch him alone, she buttonholed him and, mentioning where they had met before, introduced him to me. At close quarters he was certainly not undistinguished looking, with his big piercing eyes and neatly pointed black beard. He wore his hair rather long. He stared so long and hard at me from behind his strong and slightly tinted glasses that I began to feel quite embarrassed.
"A beautiful little racecourse, this, Mrs. Temple Fane," he said in a rich deep voice, waving his arm round the encircling hills, unusually pretty for a course in England. "In this country the accommodation for the betting crowd seems always to be the main theme, but in France, for instance, the authorities cater for lovers of the beautiful as well."
"And I am sure my sister-in-law will agree with you there," broke in Clara smilingly, "as she is always so enthusiastic about Longchamps and Chantilly."
Mr. Sturm's eyes which had never left my face were more piercing than ever. "Ah! then you have lived in France and know Paris?" he exclaimed animatedly. He bowed gallantly. "The first moment I saw you I thought you had something of the tone of that beautiful city about you!"
"Yes, I lived there for several years," I replied, and he at once proceeded to draw me into a discussion about the many glories of Paris and its surroundings.
Not wanting, however, to monopolise all the conversation with him and seeing some friends I knew, I excused myself and went off, leaving Clara to talk to him. For some reason which I could not explain I was feeling rather annoyed at the bold and familiar way in which he had been regarding me.
When, a few minutes later Clara left him to rejoin me, she announced with some pride that we had prevailed upon him to come down to Mead's Court upon the following Thursday week and, staying over until the Sunday, giving a seance both on the Thursday and Friday nights.
"And I shall have to pay him sixty guineas," she sighed, "but I'm sure it'll be worth it. We'll have the same people at both the seances, so that they can give him a good try-out." She laughed. "And he was so extraordinarily interested in you, Marie, that it's evident you've made quite a conquest of him at once. He wanted to know all about you, whom you were before you married David, how many children you'd got and where you lived."
Fond as I was of Clara, her gossiping ways always annoyed me, and I was really angry now when she went on to say she had told him I had been a Mademoiselle de Touraine, descended from the royal house of Navarre.
"But you shouldn't have told him that," I said crossly. "He'll only be thinking what a lot of snobs we are."
"No, he won't," she laughed. "I could see he was greatly impressed. He said anyone would know at once you were an aristocrat as you were so dainty and such a beautiful-looking woman." She nodded merrily. "But you be careful, Marie dear, as he's got something of a bad reputation with his conquest of us poor women. That's one of the weaknesses and there's been quite a lot of scandal about him."
"Well, he'll make no conquest of me," I scoffed, "as I wasn't at all taken with him. I didn't like his manner. It's too oily and familiar for me. I wouldn't trust him a yard."
Clara considered, "And you may be right, dear," she said slowly. "I think I know what you mean. When he was staring so hard at you just now it came to me that he was not a man I should care to have as my enemy. I should say he'd be horribly bitter and spiteful to anyone who had offended him." She laughed. "Never mind—it's only as a medium that we have to consider him."
It happened David was upon the Continent on business and would probably be away for three weeks. So, in his absence, I had brought the children and their two nurses to the Court. In a way I was glad David would not be present for the séances, as they would have only bored him. Both séances were to be preceded by a dinner party. Only twelve guests were to be invited and in the days which followed, Clara gave a lot of thought about whom to pick as guests.
The first two to be invited were Dr. Frank Burton and his attractive young wife. A decidedly clever man in his early thirties, the doctor had a good private practice in Eastbourne as well as being the surgeon attached to the police. His house was the next one to Mead's Court and Colonel Hume was a patient of his. Always excellent company, we were very disappointed the doctor said he could not come, as it happened a medical congress was meeting in Eastbourne that week and he had engagements upon both nights. However, his wife was delighted to come and that was a great load off Clara's mind, as Mrs. Burton was an accomplished pianist and would take on the music during the séances.
The next two chosen were Admiral Peacock and his wife. The Admiral was a merry old soul and accepted at once. "And I shall have a nice little job for that medium chap," he laughed, "which will fairly test him out. I heard last week that that butler of mine who went off with my old silver two years ago has just died, and if this medium can raise up his spirit I shall be greatly obliged, as the rascal can then tell us what he did with the forks and spoons. You remember he denied having taken them, but I'm quite certain he had, though what became of them was never found out."
"I'm ashamed of you, Admiral," said Clara in mock reproof, "If Caesar Sturm knew of the base uses to which you are intending to put his spiritualistic powers he would have a thousand fits. Remember, he says his calling up the spirits of the dead should be regarded as solemnly as any religious ceremony in a church."
An elderly maiden lady, a Miss Hunt had been next asked to come. An old friend of Clara's she said she had never been to a séance before, but stated she was open to believe anything. She was hoping both to see and hear a much beloved sister who had been dead for many years. "But directly he speaks," she said plaintively, "I shall know if it is really she, as she always lisped slightly."
Another guest was to be Professor Rattery. Up to a few years ago he had filled the Chair of Physical Science at a University. Rattery, too, had never been to a séance and was an aggressive sceptic about the whole thing, giving it as his opinion that men like Caesar Sturm were out and out frauds who should be prosecuted by the authorities, or shot privately by some public-spirited individual who had courage enough to take the risk of being found out.
Then came old Major Button who had spent many years of service in India, and in his time been a noted slayer of man-eating tigers. Just recently had written a very successful book about his exploits. He was a bluff light-hearted old gentleman and a great favourite with everyone.
A half-believer in the mysteries of the Occult World, he admitted he had seen some wonderful and quite unexplainable things done in India, but, he would add, only by men who denied themselves everything and lived lives of great austerity. Not by those of the type of Caesar Sturm who was known to smoke expensive cigars, drink plenty of whiskies and sodas and ride about in big motor cars. The moment he set eyes upon the man he said he would be able to determine at once whether or not he was a humbug.
The only really interested guests-to-be were an old retired judge and his wife and two Varsity girls from Cambridge. The judge said he was quite prepared to sentence Caesar Sturm to ten years penal servitude without going through the formality of a trial, while the girls were pretty and flippant, looking forward to enjoy a good dinner and have a good laugh afterwards. They both hoped Clara would put them to sit next to a good-looking young man when the darkness of the seance was on.
"A nice lot to be going to sit under Caesar Sturm," sighed Clara despondently, "and I told him that, though some of those present would not be actual believers, still they would be favourably inclined that way."
"Well, whatever happens," I said, "they won't be rude to him, if only for your sake."
"I'm not so sure about that," she frowned! "You don't know Navy people and it's old Admiral Peacock that I'm most afraid of. He swears dreadfully at times. He's only a grown-up child in some ways and if he doesn't hear anything about that previous butler who stole his silver spoons, it's quite likely he may start swearing at Mr. Sturm. Those sailor people are so blunt and forthright in what they say."
"But don't worry," I laughed. "They'll all be so full up with champagne when the séance starts that they'll be quite amiably disposed. If the waiting in the dark is at all long I shouldn't be at all surprised if the Admiral didn't drop off to sleep. I don't think I've ever known him come here of an evening without having a bit of a snooze when no one's looking and he's dropped out of the general conversation."
On the Sunday before the Thursday when Caesar Sturm was due to arrive he rang up Clara, asking who were going to be present at the stance. "I always like to have some idea of what kind of people I am going to meet, as when it's known I'm coming anywhere certain enemies of mine often try to wangle an invitation to make themselves nuisances and put me out of my stride."
"They're all local people and quite harmless," said Clara. "I think only two of us will have ever taken part in a séance before," and she proceeded to rattle off the names. Whereupon Sturm seemed quite satisfied and rang off.
"But I shouldn't be at all surprised," Clara laughed to me, "that as I've told him they are all local people, he'll have a few enquiries made about them in the town, to see if he can find out anything which he'll use to make them imagine they are hobnobbing with spirits when the lights are turned out."
"You know, Clara," I commented, "somehow it always strikes me that you are not much of a believer yourself."
Clara smiled. "I am and I am not. Of course I know the whole thing can so easily lend itself to trickery and yet—yet I've been present at séances when quite genuine people have most solemnly declared that they have seen the spirits of those who have passed on. I can't get over that."
"But have you seen the spirits, too?" I asked.
She shook her head. "No, I've seen nothing. No one I have concentrated upon had condescended to appear." She laughed. "Still, I've always found séances very interesting, as I expect you know, they give you a delicious creepy feeling that something exciting may happen any moment."
The eventful Thursday arrived and an hour or so before dinner most of those who had been invited were having cocktails in the lounge when Caesar Sturm and his secretary were announced. The latter was a well-groomed young fellow about seven or eight and twenty. He had a pleasant humorous face with shrewd grey eyes, and it struck me at once that he did not at all look the type of man who would have spiritualistic leanings. Both he and his employee took a quick glance round upon all of us gathered there.
Sturm shook hands with Clara and Colonel Hume and then, ignoring most rudely I thought the former who was starting to introduce him to those standing near her, made a bee-line right across the lounge to speak to me. "Ah! the very charming little Mrs. Temple Fane!" he exclaimed with animation, and he held out his hand to me with so knowing and familiar a look that I was sure everyone would think we were old friends. Of course I had to take the proffered hand, but my annoyance mounted when he proceeded to squeeze mine tightly and was so obviously in no hurry to let it go. I felt myself getting hot at his impudence and, finally dragging my hand away, turned half round and took no notice of what he went on to say to me.
With some apparent reluctance he went back to Clara, but evidently had no idea I had meant to snub him, as a few moments later he brought his secretary up to me to be introduced.
"Mr. Eric Danvers," he exclaimed with his voice booming through the lounge, "another admirer all ready to fall at your feet, Eric," he went on, "this is Mrs. Temple Fane, that little friend I've spoken to you about whom I met at Lewes races the other day."
"Friend!" I exclaimed loudly, and determined to let everyone in the lounge know upon what footing we stood. "Why, that was the first time I'd met you."
"Of course, of course it was," he said in great good humour. He looked amused. "But then I make friends easily when the friendship promises to be a pleasant one."
Clara saw he was annoying me and came up to lead him away then, seeing I was going to take no notice of him as I had turned quickly to speak to Admiral Peacock, the secretary took himself off after his employer.
"A regular bounder that Sturm," commented Admiral Peacock who was standing near me, "and I'd like to bet any money he's been spotting on the drive down. He just reeks of spirits. You can smell him miles away."
And Clara, too, remarked upon his smelling so strongly of drink when later she sort of apologised to me for the man's persistence. "I am sorry, dear," she said, "but that's the worst of men like Caesar Sturm when they get up in the world. They imagine every pretty girl they see is going to fall in love with them at once." She laughed. "Still, I think you let him see plainly enough that there's going to be none of that with you and I don't expect he'll bother you any more."
However, he did start annoying me again when he came into the lounge just before dinner was due to be announced. I saw his eyes wandering round and, picking me out at once, he came over and plumped himself down next to me upon the settee where I was sitting.
"Well, young lady," he asked, "and have you been backing any good winners lately. I myself have been having a rather——"
But with no hesitation I rose sharply to my feet. "But I mustn't monopolise you, Mr. Sturm," I said coldly. "There are others here who want to speak with you." I beckoned to old Miss Hunt who was interestedly watching us from only a few yards away. "Miss Hunt," I called out smilingly, "Mr. Caesar Sturm would like to have a little chat with you," and I motioned her to the seat I had just vacated.
There was no doubt now that Sturm had taken the snub, and his eyes blazed with such a horrid look that for the moment I felt really frightened. Clara had been noting everything from the other end of the lounge and, happening to meet me in the corridor just before the dinner gong sounded, said she didn't think she had seen such concentrated venom in anyone's face before.
"You keep out of his way, dear," she enjoined. "He's a most unpleasant type of man and I'll never have him here again." She laughed. "Now here's something prophetic and you see if I don't turn out to be right. Miss Hunt buttonholed that secretary just now and I heard her telling him all about her sister. Of course, he'll pass it on to Caesar Sturm and it's pretty certain one spirit will arrive tonight. Won't the poor old thing be pleased?"
During dinner it was evident to me that I was well and truly in the medium's bad books, as I saw him glancing several times in my direction and each time he scowled. Colonel Hume was most annoyed with him, not for that, as I don't suppose he noticed it, but because Sturm's manner was so generally bumptious and overbearing, letting everyone see he thought himself a most important man. Another thing. While he hardly addressed a word to any of the men guests, during nearly the whole course of the meal he was talking animatedly across the table to the two Cambridge girls and Dr. Burton's pretty young wife. He seemed to take no notice at all of his host or hostess. Some of the stories he told, too, were rather verging on the coarse side, and I could see an angry scowl upon Colonel Hume's face. I knew him to be most particular about what stories were told in front of our sex.
"But I'm not in my best form with my stories tonight," he said presently, "or I'd be remembering some more funny ones." He looked troubled. "I'm rather worried, because upon Friday and Saturday nights there'll be no one looking after my house in Town. My two maids are sisters and they will be away up North at their mother's funeral."
"And you're afraid of burglars, Mr. Sturm?" asked Miss Hunt a little nervous at addressing the great man.
"Yes, I am rather," nodded Sturm.
"Then have you anything valuable they could take?" grunted old Major Button.
"Not valuable that they could sell again," replied Sturm, "but there are the records of every séance I have presided over, my diaries and a few presents given me when I was staying at a monastery in Tibet."
"Charms, eh?" queried the Major, looking amused.
Sturm hesitated a few moments. "Well, I suppose you might call some of them that. One is a small crystal specially dedicated to me in a solemn ceremony by the monks. At ordinary times it sparkles and glistens, but when I am in any danger it loses all its lustre and goes almost black."
"And you really do put trust in it?" scoffed the Major.
Sturm nodded. "Yes, I do now," he replied very solemnly, "though I admit I didn't when it was first given me. Two years ago when I was in India I was about to take a certain long journey by train when the crystal suddenly went black. I hesitated quite a long while about postponing the journey as it was a very important one, but I eventually did." He looked very grave. "That night the train I should have travelled upon met with a dreadful accident. It ran off the line when going at a high speed and a number of the passengers were killed." He shrugged his shoulders. "Had I gone I might have been among them."
A short silence followed and then the Admiral asked dryly, "And did you happen to look at the crystal before you started to come down here this afternoon?"
Sturm shook his head. "No, I was in a hurry and forgot to see if there was any warning of possible danger coming." He looked round laughingly. "So I must be sure and give you good measure at the séance tonight, or I may, perhaps, be getting a bullet in my head before I go back to Town on Sunday. One can make a lot of enemies in my calling, you know, unbelievers and others who are jealous of what I can do. I have always to be upon the lookout."
"A clever rogue," whispered the Admiral who had taken me in to dinner, "and I don't believe a word he says. Still, we may get some fun out of him."
The meal over, we all adjourned to the library where the séance was to be held. Sturm appeared very hopeful and was sure it was going to be a very successful one. It was a heavy sultry night, with thunder about, and he said it would all help to draw the spirits from their actual homes. Privately, though for another reason, I thought things were propitious, too, as if any of the guests were at all spiritualistically inclined, as I had told Clara, from the amount of champagne which had been drunk at dinner, they would certainly be in a happy enough frame of mind to believe anything. Rather to everyone's surprise, Sturm suddenly announced that his secretary would not be present at the stance. "To assure you all," he said laughingly, "that there shall be no collusion between us." Eric Danvers looked rather puzzled. The decision was evidently a surprise to him, too, and it seemed he couldn't understand it.
We were all seated at a round table, with each one of us clasping tightly to the hand of our neighbour on either side. All our hands were resting upon the edge of the table and fully exposed to view. I was seated between Clara and the old judge. As I have mentioned, Mrs. Burton, was to be in charge of the piano, and, during the whole continuance of the seance, was to play soft and gentle music.
Before switching off the lights, Sturm proceeded to issue the usual instructions. On no account, even for one moment, were we to break the circle of our clasped hands, or all contact with the spirits would be prevented. No one but him was to speak and we were all to keep perfectly still. We were not to cough or fidget, and were to breathe as quietly as possible. Religiously keeping to these orders, we were to concentrate our thoughts hard upon someone whom we had once known and whom had now passed into the spirit world.
"Please all of you take in," he finished impressively, "that it is not I who summons the spirits to appear. The call comes direct from you, and my part is only to open the doors of the spirit world so that they may be freed to come down among us."
The lights were switched off and in the darkness a dead, deep silence filled the room, until very softly there came up upon the air the strains of Chopin's March Funèbre, and the glorious melody stirred even sceptical me to anticipatory awe.
Minute after minute went by. A delicious Nocturne followed the Funeral March and, soothed by the music in some mysterious way, my thoughts began wandering back upon my life. I recalled the dreadful little house in Rocker Street and the big lonely one upon the moor. I saw my beloved master, the two Hindu servants, Sakao the wolf and the big fierce-eyed Alsatians. Then—but the voice of Sturm broke in at last.
"I hear rustling sounds!" he hissed sharply. "I feel a draught of chilling air! A spirit has come among us! It is hovering near! Concentrate, concentrate, or it may leave us again!"
He stopped speaking and for a long minute only the soft and opiate strains of a cradle lullaby were heard. Sceptics though they might be, all seated at the table seemed to be holding in their breaths, and my heart beat painfully.
Then came Sturm's voice in an excited whisper. "I see a thick cloud before me! It is taking shape! It is that of a woman! I see her plainly! She is elderly and has grey ringlets and her hair is parted in the middle."
Miss Hunt's voice broke in, weak and all shaking but we could all hear her. "It is Emma," she choked, "the sister I loved so dearly!"
"Hush! Hush!" came very sternly from Sturm. "Her face is drawn and pale, but she looks happy. She is glancing round among us! Her lips are moving! She is trying to speak! No, no, she is fading away! She has gone!"
Poor old Miss Hunt started to cry softly, but upon a sharp "Hush!" from Sturm she pulled herself together and, save for the soft music, the room was in silence again. Notwithstanding what Clara had told me of the old lady's talk with the secretary, my scepticism was in part waning, as the description of the dead sister was so exact. Miss Hunt had once shown me her photograph. She did wear old-fashioned ringlets and her hair was parted in the middle! I could not help feeling impressed.
For a long time nothing more happened, except that I thought I had been a true prophet, as I was almost certain I could hear Admiral Peacock starting to snore quietly. Then, just as I was expecting Sturm to declare the stance was finished and he could do no more for us that night, he suddenly warned us hissingly that another spirit had come into the room. For minute after minute, however, he left us in suspense until he began excitedly to describe this new spirit in minute detail.
He said it was that of a tall and turbaned man who was dark and swarthy and had big, flashing eyes. He was moustached and bearded and was wearing gold earrings. To my great disappointment that was all Sturm could tell us before the form of the spirit faded gradually away.
"Damn," swore Major Button quite audibly, betrayed into speech in his amazement, "but that was devilishly like old Abdul Khan, my head beater in Johore. He must have—" but Sturm in some anger called for silence, and the séance went on.
Another silence followed, but not nearly so long this time and then, all in a few short moments I was plunged into feelings of horror and consternation.
In intense but subdued excitement Sturm announced the coming of another spirit and, when the cloud of mist had taken shape, he went on in his hissing whisper that it was that of an old man of commanding and martial appearance.
"He looks as if he had been a soldier once," he breathed. "He has white hair and a closely clipped white moustache. He has big eyes and big bushy brows and there is a scar on one side of his forehead. His face is very sad and his hair is damp and matted over his forehead."
Oh, how amazed I was! I struggled to fight against it, but I was sure the spirit was that of my old master, Colonel Jasper, whom he was describing! The scar upon the forehead made it so certain! His hair, too, was damp and matted, because it must have been so when he had been drowned that dreadful night in the Bay of Biscay! I felt I wanted to be sick.
Sturm went on sibilantly. "He is looking round upon everyone in this room! Oh, his gaze is fixed upon someone here! His lips move! He is saying something but his speech is so faint that I cannot catch what it is. Let whoever here has called him, concentrate, concentrate, so that his voice may gather strength! Ah, he is going! He is fading away! He is gone!"
I almost choked in fright. It must be that we had really been in the presence of a spirit from the dead! I had thought of my poor old master and my thoughts had brought him to me! It seemed incredible and yet—but Sturm was whispering again and the whispering was more intense than ever.
"Another spirit is here," he warned us, "and is that of a young man! He has come so quickly that he must be linked up with that last one! They have travelled together from the spirit world! Oh, I can see him so plainly now! He looks white and terrified and there is blood upon his face! There is blood, too, upon his hands which are clutching to his throat as if he is trying to protect it! His eyes are horror-struck, as if he knows he is facing some dreadful form of death! His head rocks to and fro! Oh, he is fading, fading! He has passed from my sight!"
I choked back a scream. The medium had been describing the man whom Sakao, the wolf, had killed that dreadful morning by the house upon the moor, and he described him exactly as I had seen him in those awful last moments of his life. My heart seemed to almost stop beating, a black mist rose up before my eyes and I had just time to tell Clara what was happening to me when everything went blank. I heard afterwards that Clara had had the séance stopped at once and the lights turned on. I was carried into another room and laid upon a sofa. When I came to I was put to bed with a big dose of brandy and two hot-water bags.
It can be well imagined in what a dreadful state of turmoil my poor brain was. One thing, I was a sceptic no longer. What I had believed to be absolutely incredible was undoubtedly true. Caesar Sturm, sensual and drunken beast though he was, did possess the power of calling up spirits from the dead. It must be so, as there could have been no trickery about it. Then a terrible thought struck me and made my blood run cold. What if he raised the spirit of Colonel Jasper again at the next seance and my old master actually spoke and called to me by name? What if—but no, I would not be present at the next séance. I would keep away as far as possible from Sturm, the medium, as I was intending to keep away from Sturm, the man!
One consolation I did have, I told myself. Neither Sturm himself nor any of the others who had been present at the séance would be aware that those two particular spirits had come from my thinking about them and had anything to do with me.
It was hours and hours before I finally dropped off to sleep, but when I did I slept deeply until the morning and was very pleased with myself that, upon Clara's coming in to see what sort of night I had had, I was feeling really quite well. She told me it was generally considered the séance had been quite a success and everyone was looking forward to the one that evening.
Intending to face the music boldly and not let Sturm, above all people, know how upset I still was, I insisted upon getting up for breakfast. Sturm came into the meal, but we just exchanged a curt good morning and I did not join in any conversation he was taking part. I noticed he gave me not a few quick glances and was rather puzzled; they seemed not only spiteful but also, in some subtle way, triumphant ones, as if he thought he had succeeded in paying me out for my snubbing him the previous evening.
I didn't see him again before lunch, but heard later he had been in the billiards-room with Eric Danvers and, greatly to Colonel Hume's annoyance when he learnt about it, had made the butler bring him in a large bottle of champagne soon after they had started their games.
At lunch I was puzzled again by the amused and, I thought, almost sneering looks with which he kept regarding me. However, soon after the meal was over, the mystery there was cleared up in a horrible and ghastly manner, and all in a few moments I found myself in as desperate a position as I have ever been, before or after, in all my life.
Sturm caught me alone and told me he knew I had once been a servant girl known as Polly Wiggs!
In the Court grounds, at the bottom of the garden there was a narrow lane running between two tall privet hedges, parallel with the road outside, and with a five-barred gate opening out on to it. Sheltered from the winds in every direction, the lane was a favourite place of mine, and I used often to sit in a small summerhouse there and either sew or read. Everything was so peaceful and I used to enjoy listening to the birds.
So, not very long after lunch, still feeling very upset by the séance of the previous night, I took myself off to the summerhouse, quite sure then I should be left by myself and not be bothered with having to talk to anyone. I had heard it mentioned casually at lunch that Sturm and his secretary were going for a long drive over the Downs and would not be back until evening. So I was confident there would be no annoyance for me from that quarter.
However, I had badly miscalculated there, as Sturm, waiting outside for Danvers who had gone round to the garage to fetch the car, happened to catch sight of me entering the lane and immediately proceeded to follow after me. The first I knew of anyone being near me was when, just approaching the summerhouse, I heard footsteps behind me and turning quickly to see who it was, to my dismay I saw it was Sturm. He came up in quick purposeful strides and my heart beat uncomfortably when I noted the sneering smile with which he was regarding me.
"Here, young woman," he said sharply. "I want to have a good talk with you on the quiet before I leave here on Sunday and you've got to arrange it somehow"—he leered horribly—"even if it means you coming into my room at night when everyone else has gone to bed." He laughed scoffingly. "No, no, you can't put on any of your grand airs with me, as if I choose I can be as dangerous as a bomb to you." He looked round to make sure there was no one near and went on quickly. "The other day at Lewes you were recognised by a friend of mine who knew you years ago, and you were then"—for a long moment he held my eyes with his—"a little servant girl to a Colonel Jasper who was living in Devonshire upon Dartmoor."
I stood as if thunderstruck. It had all come so suddenly and his words were striking at me like a dreadful blow. I could not breathe and I knew my face must have gone white as death.
He regarded me exultingly. "Ah, I can see that's hit you," he exclaimed with gleaming eyes. "A bit sudden, isn't it? But it makes you realise how I've got you so completely in my power, doesn't it?" He went on sneeringly, "You were no Marie de Touraine then, descended from the great Kings of Navarre! You were just plain little Polly Wiggs, as I say, a servant in that house upon the moor!"
I could not speak. My tongue was cleaving to the roof of my mouth. All my world was tumbling about me and the worst I had so dreaded had happened at last.
He dropped his voice to conversational tones. "It's quite simple how I found out all about you," he said. "You will remember that stormy night when you were at Colonel Jasper's and a holiday-maker had got lost and came knocking upon the old man's door. Well, that holiday-maker was the friend of mine who recognised you at Lewes races the other day, and he told me that Colonel Jasper, after he and his nigger servant had searched him for a pistol, gave him something to eat and a bed." His arm shot out accusingly. "And it was you who waited upon them at the meal—yes! you, the little slavey, known then as Polly Wiggs," and he paused for a long moment to let his words sink in.
In the meantime, the numbness of my poor brain was passing off and I was beginning to think again, and think hard, too. In spite of the terror I was in, memory after memory was forcing itself into my mind—until suddenly a great light came.
Oh, what a fool I was and how easily I had been taken in! I saw everything so clearly now! No spirits had been raised from the dead the previous night, and no vision of Colonel Jasper or the man whom Sakao, the wolf, had killed had come into the room! All that this wretch now standing before me had made out had been revealed to him in the séance, he had known before, as he had been the lost holiday-maker himself. He—but my fury at having been so deceived overwhelmed all my prudence and my fears and, not realising the danger I was bringing upon myself, I burst out fiercely, "And you were the holiday-maker himself, you swindling cheat! You were no grand-sounding Caesar Sturm then, but just a common Whitechapel street-bookmaker who had been put in prison once for breaking into a house." My anger rose. "Your real name, you blackguard, is Todhunter Bellamy! Yes, and you were the companion of that man the wolf killed, that morning when you had both been giving poison to our dogs! Oh, you wretch!"
There was no doubt that I had returned him a stunning blow, as his jaw dropped, his eyes opened very widely, and for a few moments he looked the very picture of consternation.
However, he pulled himself together quickly. "Then you admit," he snarled, "that you were Polly Wiggs? You don't deny that?"
Too late I realised that I had fallen into the pit I had dug myself, but my anger was still strong and it sharpened my wits. "You fool, you poor fool," I retorted sharply, "Polly Wiggs was the name of affection Colonel Jasper had given me. It came out of a book we had both read."
But the man was a fighter, too, and he rapped out like bullets from a gun, "That's a lie, a silly lie if ever there was one!" His eyes glared venomously. "But I have more against you than that. As well as enquiries about you last week in Devonshire, I made plenty in Paris as well. Your sister-in-law told me when you were married. From there I traced you to the shop in the Rue de Rivoli and, before that, to your life as an artist's model in the nude"—his eyes gloated—"in the nude, mind you, and that would be a nice thing for your husband to hear about, wouldn't it?" He pretended to look amused. "I understand Mr. Temple Fane is very prim and proper in all his ideas about women and I don't fancy he'll much relish the disclosure of his charming little wife having been mauled about upon such a grand scale before he married her. What do you think about it, eh?"
I regarded him scornfully, but he went on leeringly, "Ah, you were a gay young woman then, weren't you with plenty of lovers coming to your flat? I've got the names of several of them written down at home, in case I have to show the list to your husband." He smiled a horrid smile. "Still, I don't think it'll come to that. You've been a devilish sharp girl to have impressed so cleverly upon everyone as you have done up to now, and I'm sure you'll quickly see upon which side your bread is buttered and join in a sensible partnership with me."
Still—I made no comment, and he changed to an ingratiating tone. "Come, come, it seems we both have something against each other, and so it won't pay either of us to quarrel. I know when to hold my tongue and besides, I really feel very sorry for you at being found out. Still, business is business, and it'll be most useful for me to have for a friend a young woman who's got a husband as wealthy as yours." The horrid smile came again. "Don't worry! I won't be hard on you. I'm never hard on pretty girls and—" but we heard Danver's voice shouting for him and he turned to go. "Think it over," he commanded sharply, "and I'm certain we'll see eye to eye." He gave me a last menacing look. "But you make no mistake, young lady. Find that opportunity for us to discuss things together, here on my return at quarter past six or else"—he nodded viciously—"you'll see how nasty I can make myself. I swear I'll go to your husband and tell how he has married an impostor and a bad woman at that. Under French laws I don't think the marriage was a legal one."
With a mocking wave of his hand he started to run quickly away, in his haste not noticing that his big silver cigarette case had fallen from his pocket on to the ground.
I sat down upon the garden seat outside the summer-house and, covering over my face with my hands, began to sob bitterly. What I had so dreaded had happened and the happy little world about me was falling into pieces! Everything seemed hopeless! I could do nothing!
Then rage as well as grief possessed me, and hardly a minute could have passed before I began to start to pull myself together. I would never give in to him, I told myself. Far rather, I would tell my husband everything and throw myself upon his mercy. But the first thing now was not to let anyone learn I had been crying. I must get indoors as quickly as possible without anyone seeing me, and bathe my face.
I was proceeding to mop my eyes with my handkerchief when, hearing a sound behind me, I turned sharply to see a man, whom I recognised instantly as Anton Meynall, striding up towards me. I gasped in mingled fright and astonishment as he came quickly to my side.
"Marie. Mrs. Fane," he said hoarsely, "what are you crying about?"
"Go away," I cried angrily. "Get out of this, You've no business here, you know you're trespassing."
But he stood his ground. "I was passing slowly here in my van," he said, "and I heard loud voices in this lane. I stopped to listen and recognised yours. Through the hedge I saw that man with the black beard and he seemed to be threatening you about something. Was he?"
"Go way," I reiterated. "It's no business of yours. Go away and leave me alone." More tears began to well up, and so that he should not see them, I sprang to my feet and started to move away. Then in a sudden paroxysm of rage and fear I turned to face him again. "You said once," I choked, "you would commit a murder for me if I asked."
"And I would, too," he nodded. He smiled grimly. "The offer still holds good."
I shot out my arm in the direction he must have seen Sturm go. "Then murder that fiend with the black beard," I cried wildly. "You are right. He was threatening me."
"Who is he?" he asked.
"He calls himself Caesar Sturm, but that's not his real name. He is a spiritualist and is staying here at the Court to hold some séances. He leaves again on Sunday." I was calmer now and spoke less passionately.
"What's he threatening you about?"
My voice shook. "He's intending to blackmail me over something I've never done. I'm to meet him here at a quarter past six. He says he has been to Paris and found out I was a woman of evil life before I married and"—but for a moment I stopped speaking before bursting out—"My God, my God, perhaps he found out about you and me and is going to tell my husband!"
"But he shall never tell him," said Anton savagely. "I'll see to that. I'll fix him, and I won't be caught doing it, either. Don't you worry," and before I could stop him he went back along the way he must have come, to the gate at the end of the lane.
I dried my eyes and making myself look as usual as possible went back towards the house. I was hoping to slip unseen into my room, but to my dismay I ran into Clara in the corridor and, linking her arm in mine, she asked me to come into her room as she had something to tell me.
I knew quite well that from my tear-stained face she must have seen I had been crying, but to my relief and surprise she made no remark about it. She drew me into her room and closed the door behind us. Then she rapped out sharply, "Marie, directly that man Sturm gets back from his motor ride I am ordering him to leave the Court at once. Cook has been up to tell me that just before lunch he caught little Betty in the corridor and started kissing her. She struggled, but the beast tried to drag her into his bedroom. The servants are furious and Cook says none of them will wait upon him any more!"
For the moment I forgot my own trouble in my surprise, and stood open-mouthed before her. "Yes," she went on, "Robert is so angry that I've had great difficulty in persuading him to let me deal with the brute. He wanted to take a horse-whip to him." She shrugged her shoulders. "The trouble is Sturm had been drinking, but that's no excuse. He's got to go and he shall go. I shall tell him that the moment he enters the house. I've ordered Benson to go into his room now and pack his suitcase, so that there'll be no delay." She was quite fierce. "So that's that."
Suddenly then, her whole expression altered and, linking her arm in mine again, she drew me over to a sofa and we sat down together.
"Now, Marie dear," she said gravely, "we are real friends aren't we, you and I? Yes, of course we are! And you would trust me, just the same as I always trust you—in anything and everything?" She regarded me with the utmost affection. "Then tell me what you've been crying about? When you were crossing the lawn just now I saw you from the window and, even from the way you walked, I knew something was upsetting you. So, tell me what it is, dear?"
My tears were still very near the surface, but I replied carelessly, "Oh, nothing much. Clara, I've just got a headache—that is all."
She shook her head unbelievingly, "But that's not trusting me, dear," she said. "You are not speaking the truth now. It happened that I was by my window, too, about twenty minutes ago when you went into the privet lane and I saw Caesar Sturm hovering about the front door. Tell me truthfully—did he come after you? If he did, then I am sure it's he who's been upsetting you."
I tried in vain to keep back my tears, but knew they would come and, as Clara drew me to her, I buried my face into her and sobbed quietly. "You poor child," she said. "Have your cry out and then tell me what's wrong. I'm certain it's that beast who's been making you cry, but, thank goodness, you need never see him again."
Oh, I was so thankful for that brief respite! I thought hard what I should tell her. Of course, now she must learn one of my two secrets and it didn't take me long to decide which one to tell her. It was going to be dreadful to have to confess about Anton Meynall, but I was sure that telling her about him would not be anything like as bad as telling her about my lowly origin and how I had been deceiving everyone then, including her so dearly-beloved brother, David.
As a woman herself, and a broad-minded one at that, I was sure she would condone my one moral lapse with Anton much more readily than she would forgive my deceit about my name and origin.
With her coming from one of the best families in the land and saturated as she had been all her life in the prejudices of the so-called 'better classes,' it was possible she might never forgive my imposture then. Every time she looked at my children, instead of regarding them, as she did now, as the little aristocrats descended from the Kings of Navarre—visions might come up to her of their grandfather, the common animal keeper, and their grandmother, the one-time uneducated little general servant.
Her voice broke into my thoughts. "Now, darling," she said, "you just tell me everything." She regarded me with great intentness. "First of all, had you ever met that Caesar Sturm before I introduced him to you at the races?"
I hated telling her an untruth, but felt there was no help for it. "No, no," I cried, "and when he came up to speak to me he didn't try to make out he had ever seen me before that afternoon. He said it was a friend of his who had recognised me then, and this man, he says, declares he saw me years ago in Paris, when"—my voice trembled—"I was making my living as an artist's model in the nude."
"And that is all he has against you, Marie?" she asked slowly. "Don't be afraid, dear. Tell me truthfully. You won't find me a hard judge." She sighed. "I was young and passionate myself once and, if they knew all about me, lots of people would say that I haven't always been a good girl."
I hesitated. I knew I must take the plunge, but dreaded doing so. Noting my hesitation, she smiled a sad smile, and, with a shrug of her shoulders went on, "Then, I suppose I'll have to help you to tell me your story."
She spoke with the utmost kindness. "Now, with you as David's wife, dear, and me as his sister, we must regard each other with the greatest possible affection"—she nodded, "as I thank Heaven we do. Not only that, but with the coming of your babies we are bound together by a much greater tie, as there is now a bond of blood between us." She laughed. "So, as this is the time for confessions, to show my trust in you, I'll give you one of mine, one I have given before to no one except my mother, not even to my husband or dear old David."
She went on in matter-of-fact tones. "Yes, it may help to give you courage to keep back nothing of your trouble when I tell you"—she paused a long moment to regard me smilingly—"that I made a bad slip myself once and, as an unmarried girl, had a baby before I was seventeen." She sighed. "What do you think of that?"
I knew I gasped. She had said it all so casually, as if it were a matter of small importance which might have happened, as a matter of course to any girl.
"No, we were not even engaged, the baby's father and I," she went on calmly, "and I don't think we were even really in love. It was just a boy and girl affair and we had only known each other a few days." She shrugged her shoulders resignedly. "He was passionate and so was I. I was curious, as well, and it just happened. That was all."
"But the father, Clara," I exclaimed. "He——"
"Never learnt anything about it," she smiled. "He was a midshipman in the Navy, and his ship was off to the China Station before I had any suspicion that anything was wrong. I didn't panic, but told my dear mother at once and she took it grandly. She said there was to be no scandal, and so took me abroad for my baby to be born in Switzerland."
She laughed at my horrified face. "Oh, yes, the father is still alive! He's an elderly, pot-bellied Rear-Admiral now, with a whole tribe of grown-up sons and daughters. I met him at a dinner party last year and he appeared to have quite forgotten everything." She made a grimace. "So, I didn't think it worth while to jog his memory, and please, dear, don't ever jog mine by bringing it up again."
She spoke frowningly. "Now, Marie, tell me all the hold this man Sturm has over you."
"But, as far as I can make out, he really has no hold at all upon me," I exclaimed. "I'm sure he's making everything up, as he brought nothing definite against me, but he says that, before I married David, he has a lot of evidence I was leading a dissolute life."
"No one who gave one glance at you," snapped Clara, "would believe that. You are not a woman of that type."
"But he suspects something," I went on chokingly. "As last week he went over to Paris to make enquiries about me, of course only to try to find out something so that he could blackmail me. You had told him at Lewes when I had been married in Paris, and from the English Church he traced me back to the Rue de Rivoli and then, before that, to my artist's model days. He made out he had found out a lot of bad things about me and got them all written down on a paper and in a diary he's got locked up in his safe at home. He hadn't time to tell me anything more then as we heard Mr. Danvers shouting for him and he went off, daring me not to find an opportunity to have a long talk with him before he left here on Sunday even if I had to have him in my bedroom when everyone else was asleep."
"The brute!" scowled Clara. "But did he say why he had been taking all this up against you. Did he ask you for any money?"
"Not definitely," I replied, "but he leered horribly how nice it was for him to have a woman-friend whose husband had such a lot of money, particularly when the woman had got a pretty face."
Clara regarded me with a stern, intent look. "But tell me frankly, Marie," she said and she spoke very slowly, "if Sturm has found out everything about you there is to be found out—is there anything in your life you would not like David to know?"
I nodded miserably and, hesitating no longer, poured out the whole story of my association with Anton Meynall, keeping very little back. "But I never loved him," I said tearfully. "It was only in a mad moment after the music and champagne that I forgot my decency and let myself go."
Clara was sympathy itself. "I understand, dear," she said gently. "When our emotions are stirred we women are weak as water, and, with the opportunity coming, so often we don't seem to be able to defend ourselves. You didn't have a baby? No! Then you were fortunate. Now, tell me who was the man?"
"His name is Anton Meynall," I said. "His uncle is Turner Meynall, a Royal Academician now."
"I've heard of him," she said. "He had two pictures hung in the Academy last year. And this Anton—have you seen him since?"
"Yes, about eighteen months ago," I told her. I had to smile. "He applied for the situation with us as chauffeur," and I went on to relate all about the interview and how angry Anton had been at my offering him the £5 note.
She was amused, too. "And, if it could only be broadcast," she said, "what a lesson it would be to every girl that if they must go wrong—then, every time, let it be with a gentleman."
She became serious. "Now, when I have my little talk with the wretch when he comes back from his drive this afternoon, I don't think I'll say anything about you. I shall tell him simply he's being sent off because of his attempted assault upon Betty this morning. I shall make out the matter is most serious as her father says he is going to the police and if he does it'll bring a horrible scandal upon us all at the Court." She nodded viciously. "I'll frighten him and he'll be wanting to get off as quickly as possible."
She was a great comfort and I felt a hundred per cent better. "And I don't think," I said, "that he can really have found out anything about Anton, or he'd have brought up his name at once."
"Of course he would," agreed Clara. She nodded. "If he did hear something about you, he's certainly not been able to link it up with any particular man. Don't you worry. He'll never dare approach David, and this scandal here will have made him so frightened for himself that you'll never hear anything more of him."
Considering all I had been through, I spent quite a happy afternoon in the nursery with the children. Mrs. Robinson, the Vicar's wife and her sister arrived unexpectedly and, both ardent amateur photographers, took quite a number of snaps of them. Indeed, they did not desist until the light was getting too poor. Just as they were getting ready to leave Clara appeared, and it was she who took them downstairs to see them off from the front door.
Coming back upstairs, she took me into her room. She looked very grim and stern. "Well, this afternoon I've been phoning all round," she said, "putting all the dinner-party off. I've told them Sturm is not feeling well and going back to Town at once. Now, I'm going to tell him. He's just come back, as I saw Mr. Danvers driving the car round to the garage, but before speaking to Sturm I thought I'd first come up and reassure you that your name is not going to be dragged in. I tell you I shan't mention you."
"You are very sweet to me," I said. "I feel a different woman since I've spoken to you." I kissed her cheek. "But Clara, dear, aren't you hating to have to tell him he's to go off at once?"
"Not a bit," she replied. "In fact, knowing what a beast he's been to you, I shall rather enjoy it." She turned to leave the room and then went on laughingly, "And, perhaps, it's a good thing for him he's going off, as old Major Button is furious with him and told me over the phone just now that he was going to play havoc with his constitution when he saw him again tonight. From the description Sturm gave him of the Johore beater at the séance, the old chap really believed he had called up his spirits from the dead. Now he remembered there was a photo of this beater in his book 'Tiger Hunting' which was published last season, and he swears Sturm must have got hold of the book and seen it there. I tell you he is furious about it and, quite as likely as not, he might have brought his gun with him tonight and given Sturm the fright of his life."
We were both laughing at what she had told me, when suddenly the door opened sharply and Gertrude, one of the parlourmaids burst in.
"Mistress, Mistress," she cried with a face as white as death, "George wants you to come at once. He says Mr. Sturm has met with a fearful accident in the privet lane and is lying on the ground there, with his face all covered in blood. George is quite certain he is dead."
A DREADFUL shiver ran down my spine and I gasped for breath. I knew it was no accident that had happened. Anton Meynall had killed him deliberately, but I was the real murderer as he had only done it because, in my wild rage, I had implored him to. Oh, how terrible it seemed that I was bringing such tragedies into people's lives and—
But my eyes happened to fall upon the clock on the mantelshelf and, after perhaps two seconds of dazed surprise, I gave a start and gasped again, this time, however, in relief.
It could not be Anton who had shot him! I had told Anton I would arrange for Sturm to meet me by the summerhouse at a quarter past six and now—it was barely twenty-five minutes past five! Oh, Heaven, then it might really have been an accident after all!
I glanced wonderingly at Clara to see how she was taking it. Her face was pale but singularly composed, though it seemed to me that long moments passed before she spoke.
"You haven't told anyone but me, Gertrude?" she asked hoarsely.
"No, Mistress," replied the frightened girl. "I've come straight up to you at once. George has not told anyone either. He said you must be the first one to know. He's waiting for you now by the back kitchen-door."
"All right," snapped Clara, "and you wait here until I come back, so that you can't tell anyone either," and, with a curt nod to me, she hastened from the room.
As can be well imagined, the waiting which followed was agony to me. Much as I was relieved that so-called Sturm could threaten me no more and that it could not be Anton who had killed him, I was now most fearful as to where the enquiries about his death might lead. With my imagination leaping from one stepping-stone to another, I was shuddering that, unless it did turn out clearly to be an accident, in groping for some reason for his murder, the police might somehow stumble upon what he had found out about me.
With my poor brain in its then numb and bewildered state I was regarding all detectives as supermen who could pick up tracks and trails where none actually existed and, from sheer intuition alone, run any criminal to earth.
As it happened, only the previous week Colonel Hume had met Sir Basil Bartley, the Chief Constable of Sussex out at lunch somewhere and had come home with some extraordinary story. Sir Basil had told him about a wonderful young detective called Gilbert Larose who had come lately to Scotland Yard. This new master in the detection of crime was supposed to be gifted with an extra sense, so much so that it was said that, when a murder had been committed, he could put himself in the murderer's place and travel back by the exact way the criminal had come. It was believed by some of his admirers, too, that he could reason backwards as quickly as other people reasoned forwards, with his imagination reaching out like tentacles and drawing to him discoveries of which no one else would have ever dreamt.
So, although now I was so thankful that my enemy was dead, I was yet filled with a dark foreboding that his death by no means meant peace and security for me.
It was longer than an hour before Clara came back and then, dismissing the parlourmaid with a curt nod, she turned to me, looking very troubled, "Yes, he's dead," she said, "and it's a terrible thing to have happened. It'll mean a dreadful scandal for us here, though to you and me it may seem a veritable act of God. He was hit with something in one of his eyes and must have been killed instantly. The police think it was an accident from a stray bullet from one of some boys who were said to have been after rabbits in the quarry just across the road this afternoon. Still, there's so much blood about that Dr. Burton says nothing is certain until he's made the post mortem. He says it might even have been a stone from a big catapult that pierced his eye."
She went on to tell me that, after George had taken her to where the body was lying, she had immediately sent him to find his master and waited there until he came. He had told her to get Dr. Burton whom he had just seen passing in his car and who would therefore certainly be at home.
She had caught the doctor who had come back with her at once and, after one glance at the body had run indoors and called up the police. The Superintendent had come himself with two plainclothes men, and two policemen with the ambulance. After the usual photographs which had been taken with flash-lights, the body had been carried away, and Dr. Burton was to make the post mortem the first thing in the morning. The inquest would follow in the afternoon.
"Of course," she said, "the police could get no footmarks of anyone who had been in the lane today as the ground is much too hard."
"And I suppose now," I choked, "there will be detectives arriving to ask us all sorts of questions."
Clara shrugged her shoulders. "Well, we must put up with it, dear. It can't be helped. At any rate, as far as you are concerned his death is a great mercy, as he can persecute you no more." She regarded me intently. "From the clotting of the blood Dr. Burton says he could only have been dead about ten minutes before George found him, and that means he must have gone straight into the privet lane the moment he got home from his drive in the car." She spoke very slowly. "If I did not implicitly believe every word you have told me, Marie, I should almost be thinking he was expecting to find you waiting there to meet him."
"No, no, Clara," I exclaimed warmly, a little bit annoyed that the idea had ever entered into her head, "I think he must have gone back there to look for the cigarette case he had lost," and I told her how I had seen it lying upon the ground after he had gone.
"Then, of course, that was it," she said. She looked a little bit uncomfortable. "No, dear, it wasn't in my mind that you had told him you would be there, but I was thinking he might have been believing he had given you such a shock that you would be still hiding yourself away from everyone to recover from it"—she nodded—"so that no one should see you had been crying." She drew me to her and kissed me on the forehead. "No, Marie, I know you have told me nothing but the exact truth."
Her demonstration of affection so touched me that I took a sudden resolution. "But I haven't been as open with you as I should," I said miserably, and I am sure I looked as guilty as I felt. "I have told you nothing but the truth, but I have not told you all of it. Anton Meynall did come to me to apply for the situation as chauffeur, but that is not the last I have seen of him. I have seen him several times since, as he is driving a grocer's delivery van here in Eastbourne. Still, I had not spoken to him again until this afternoon and then"—my voice shook—"I asked him to kill that wretch Sturm for me," and I went on to tell her everything which had happened after Anton had appeared so unexpectedly in the privet lane.
"But as Dr. Burton is sure Sturm must have been killed before a quarter past five," I said, "and Anton was not likely to be at the summerhouse until a quarter past six—it could not possibly have been he who had anything to do with the killing."
"Of course it couldn't have been," agreed Clara at once. "So you can put that altogether out of your mind." She smiled. "If Anton did go into the lane about six, he'd have been greatly astonished at what he saw was going on there, as the police would hardly have finished with their flash-lights and have taken the body away by then."
She comforted me quite a lot and in a few moments I was feeling much more hopeful again. Then she said very seriously, "But, Marie, there's one trouble we shall have to deal with." She held my eyes with hers. "Have you thought what it is?"
I hesitated. "You mean that diary of his and those papers about me which he said he'd got locked up in his safe at home?" I was feeling most uncomfortable again. "But I was hoping that was all bluff and that he'd only made it up to frighten me."
"It may have been," she nodded, "but all the same I don't think we ought to run more risks than we can help. If the police take it into their heads to go back into his private affairs to see if he'd got any enemies, they are certain to go through any papers he left and if they find your name in them they may ask you questions which will be very awkward for you to answer."
I shrugged my shoulders. "But there's nothing I can do to prevent it," I said. "If they do come questioning me about everything that's happened to me in my life—surely I shall be quite justified in refusing to discuss them? They'll know I couldn't have had anything to do with the shooting, as I never left the nursery all the afternoon and there are four witnesses to prove it, the Vicar's wife and her sister and the nurses."
"And they certainly can't get behind that," agreed Clara. She hesitated for a few moments. "But it'll be better, dear, if you have to make no mystery about anything and it happens there is a way to save you from that." She went on quickly. "You remember what Sturm told us at dinner last night about his house having no one to look after it from this evening until Sunday. Well, do you feel equal to running up to Town tomorrow and taking any papers he's got about you from his safe?" She thrust her hand into the pocket of her cardigan and with some triumph drew out a bunch of keys. "See, here are all his keys!"
"But, but," I asked very astonished, "how did you get them?"
"I took them out of his pocket," she nodded, "after I'd sent George running off his find his master. I thought of them at once."
"Oh, how splendid of you to think of them," I exclaimed warmly. I was quite excited. "Yes, yes, of course, I'll go. All the servants here know I've been talking about going up to Town to see how those decorators are getting on in Lowndes Square. So they won't think there's anything extraordinary about it." A thought struck me, "But what about the police here?" I asked. "Won't the Superintendent want me here, in case they want to ask any questions?"
"Not if he's already spoken to you," she said. "He's with the servants now, getting a list of all who were in the house about the time Sturm was killed and finding out if any of them heard a rifle shot, but he says there'll be no thorough questioning of anyone until after the inquest tomorrow and it is known definitely how he died. Now you wait in the nursery and I'll go and bring him up so that he can speak to you and the nurses all together."
In a very few minutes she came back with the Superintendent and introduced him to us. He was very polite, and I told him how we had all been in the nursery, along with our two visitors all the afternoon.
"And none of you heard the report of a rifle being fired?" he asked, taking in the two nurses with his questioning. The girls shook their heads and I said, "I hardly think we should have taken any notice of it if we had, though one of the windows was open all the time. The cars and motor-cycles make such a noise going by in the road that we are quite accustomed to them."
He seemed satisfied and went off as quickly as he had come, while back in Clara's room she and I proceeded to discuss my journey on the morrow. "And I'll leave very early," I said, "to get to Town before the traffic rush, and, perhaps, be back here before lunch."
"The earlier the better," she said, "so that I can put the keys in the bedroom, as if he was accustomed to leave them there. The Superintendent has had his room locked up and taken the key away with him, but I have a duplicate one and so there'll be no difficulty then. Oh, do you know where Cedar Road is in St. John's Wood?"
"Yes, I think I do," I nodded, "but I shall want to know what the number is."
"I'll get that out of Eric Danvers tonight at dinner," she said. "Of course, the Superintendent wants him to remain here until after the inquest tomorrow and, he says, perhaps even longer than that."
We were a small party at dinner that night, Clara, the Colonel, Eric Danvers and myself. Upon closer acquaintanceship, the secretary showed himself a most pleasant companion, and several times it struck me what a nice face he'd got. It was not only that it was good-looking and kind, but it was a clever one as well, and I told myself the young fellow deserved much more of life than to have been hanging about a swindler such as the so-called Caesar Sturm had been. With the servants waiting upon us, no reference was made to the dreadful tragedy which had taken place, but when the meal was over and we had all adjourned to the lounge for the usual coffee Clara opened her questioning at once by asking Danvers if his late employer had had a nice house in St. John's Wood.
"Yes, quite a nice one," he replied, "but to my thinking it was spoilt when he had the outside painted a flaming red. It made it the most conspicuous house in the whole road, like a Fire Brigade Station, I told him."
Clara flashed me a quick glance. She had got all the information she wanted without asking for it. Painted in that way it would be easy for me to pick it out. She turned again to Danvers and asked hesitatingly, "Is it painful for you, Mr. Danvers, to talk about your late employer?"
The secretary seemed amused, "Not a bit," he replied. "Why should it be? I've known him for only a few months and we were just employer and employee. We were not friends. He didn't particularly like me, and I certainly didn't like him. In fact, at times I was very ashamed of him, as when this morning he started kissing that little maid of yours. I told him afterwards about it and said we should get kicked out of the house. He was furious and threatened to give me the sack."
"Then you don't mind my asking you some questions about him?" said Clara.
Danvers shook his head. "Now he is dead it can't hurt him, and besides, a lot of discreditable things about him are bound to become public property in the course of the next few days."
"Then were Caesar Sturm his real names?" asked Clara.
Danvers laughed. "No, neither of them were. He must have chosen Caesar for the Christian one, because he thought it gave him importance." He nodded. "The police have known for some time who he really was and, though he was quite unaware of it, have been keeping watch upon him."
"Did you know it," asked Clara.
Danvers only nodded and being obviously disinclined to discuss the matter further then, Clara did not press him. Instead, she asked, from what country Sturm came.
Danvers laughed again. "From here in England," he said. "He was an out-and-out Cockney. That trace of foreign accent he used to drop into was part of his stock-in-trade. He always argued that mystery was what the public wanted and so he gave them as much as he could of it."
"But his dark skin—" began Clara very astonished.
"Was artificial tan," smiled Danvers. "He had big bottles of it at home and put it on every morning."
"But he must have lived in India," she said, "if what he told us was the truth."
"Oh, yes, he had, but I believe only for a few months. Still, he'd read up a lot about it from a number of books he'd got. He was an educated man and very well informed. Theosophy was one of his hobbies and he made good use of his studies there."
"Had he ever married, do you know," asked Clara.
Danvers looked amused again! "Not that I know of, and I don't think so. He was always chasing the other sex, but it seemed to be a different one every time."
"Do you know anything about his people," asked Clara, "his relations, I mean."
Danvers shook his head. "I don't know if he's got any. I told the Superintendent that a little while ago when he asked me with whom he should communicate to let them know what had happened to him." He spoke emphatically. "You see, Mrs. Hume, though I've been for about three months now employed by him, he's never told me anything of his private life. He was very secretive and kept everyone from me. From nine to six were my ordinary hours and, unless I was on some special job for him, out of them I was supposed to know nothing of what was going on."
"Did you do much secretarial work for him?" asked Colonel Hume.
"Quite a bit arranging the séances," said Danvers. "He had worked up a good connection there. Besides that and attending to the car, I was general factotum, errand-boy and sometimes private detective. Every now and then I was sent to make private enquiries about different people, for what reason I often never knew. I had to prepare reports for him and then, as far as I was concerned the matter generally ended."
"He told us," fibbed Clara, "that he himself went to Paris last week."
"Oh, did he?" exclaimed Danvers who didn't seem much interested. "I expect he had friends there."
Clara spoke casually. "But is it really true that his house has been left without anyone in it this week end?"
Danvers nodded. "And the only reason I can think of to have made him mention that was to make out how important his literary work was." He laughed. "The champagne he'd drunk had loosened his tongue."
"But did he really think his writing was very important?" asked Colonel Hume.
"Hardly, I should say from what I've typed for him," said Danvers. "It's been mostly a record of the séances he's held, with the names of the people who were there. He was always particular about that, because it said it helped him a lot if he happened to meet the same people at séances again."
"And was his work as a medium," said the Colonel, "as really a religion to him as he made out."
Danvers shook his head. "No, it was just a way of making money that was all. He considered himself as a sort of public entertainer who earned every penny he got."
Clara appeared to be very shocked. "Then don't you think it a very wicked thing for him to have imposed upon people in the way he did?"
"He didn't think so," smiled Danvers. "He's often said it was the people at the séances who imposed upon themselves. Sometimes he was astonished at what they declared they saw."
"Then, being the kind of man you tell us he was," frowned the Colonel, "he must have often resorted to trickery at the seances he held?"
Danvers shook his head. "No, very seldom, sir. He wouldn't run the risk of being found out." He spoke earnestly. "You see, it takes a very shrewd and clever man to be the successful medium Caesar Sturm had become. He was a very good judge of character and could realise at once when it wouldn't be safe to step one hair's-breadth over the line. He never attempted any tricks, as you call them, when there were any professional men present. Then, a good actor, he would work up the excitement and, as he said, let the séance take care of itself. Nearly always there would be at least one person present, nearly always a lady and generally an elderly one at that, whose emotions were so stirred that she would be thinking she really did see what she wanted to."
"And what tricks did he do," asked the Colonel, "when he did go, as you call it, over the line—make chairs move about and the table go up and down."
"No, nothing as clumsy as that," laughed Danvers, "but he was a good ventriloquist, at any rate good enough to make some people imagine there was a strange voice floating over the room."
"And that spirit of Major Button's beater he called up last night," said Clara, "was—"
"All due to you, Mrs. Hume," laughed Danvers. "You had told him the Major was the well-known tiger killer and he guessed that being well-known he must have written a book about it. So he sent me to the library of the British Museum and I found the book and told him about the photograph and you saw he made use of it at the séance."
"But come now, Mr. Danvers," frowned Colonel Hume, "don't you think it very dishonourable for him to have imposed upon us like that, and dishonourable, too, on your part to have been helping to do it?"
Danvers shook his head. "Not exactly, sir," he said. "As with Sturm I regarded the séances as a sort of entertainment, just as are fortune-telling with the cards and conjuring tricks. Nearly all people have a love of mystery and the marvellousness and derive a real pleasure in being knowingly deceived. When, for instance, they go to an exhibition of conjuring they expect to be taken in by the skill of the conjurer in his sleight-of-hand and clever tricks. Then, the greater their deception the greater they are pleased. So, I take it, with all people of ordinary intelligence and powers of reasoning, the calling up of the spirits of the dead is—or should be—regarded in the same light, as a form of entertainment only. Their common-sense must tell them it can't really be done."
Of course Colonel Hume did not agree with his reasoning, but, as with Clara and me, censure of Eric Danvers was to some extent mitigated by the amusing frankness of the man. Certainly there was no hypocrisy about him.
Of one other matter Colonel Hume was curious and he asked Danvers why it was that if he, Danvers, as he declared, never took part in any trickery at the actual séances—Sturm always insisted he should be present at them. Danvers explained this by telling us that upon a few occasions Sturm had been called a fraud and actually threatened with physical violence and he had had to protect him. He added that he couldn't understand why he had not been allowed to be present at the séance the previous night.
The next morning well before six o'clock I started upon my adventurous journey to try to get hold of the papers Sturm had made out he was holding against me. I remember how nervous I was feeling, but on the other hand the risk I realised so well I was running filled me with a sort of pleasurable thrill. Still, the thrill was not without its great anxiety, as if I were caught in the house, rack my brains as I did, I could think of no excuse I would be able to offer to explain my being there. I told myself I must just chance my luck, and that was all.
As it proved, good fortune was certainly with me, though for a few minutes it seemed I was in very grave danger. Apart from that, too, I was careless about one little thing, though thinking it over later I did not see how it could do me any harm.
I found Cedar Road with no difficulty. It was a quiet side one and, passing along it in my car, the red-painted house was easy to pick out. I went by it slowly, without stopping, and parked my car round a corner three or four hundred yards away.
Walking briskly back, I pushed upon the gate of the little garden fronting the house, with my heart beating wildly. I had already picked out from the bunch of keys the one which looked as if it belonged to the front door, and was just about to try it in the lock when I heard the garden gate click behind me and, turning sharply in a terrible fright, saw a man coming into the garden after me.
For the moment my guilty conscience made me sure it was someone who had been posted to watch the house and that I was caught red-handed. However, my relief was unbounded when I realised it was only a bent old man with things to sell who had followed me in. Over his shoulder were three or four brooms and he was carrying a big basket on his arm. I waited breathlessly for him to come up.
"Want a nice broom, lady?" he asked in a weak and quavering voice. "Very nice quality and very cheap." Then, when I shook my head emphatically, he went on, "Strong clothes-pegs, lady? Best quality, too!" and, putting his basket down upon the ground, he took out a peg to show me.
Anything to get rid of him as quickly as I could, I said I'd take a dozen. A shilling was the price he asked, but I found the only silver I had was a sixpence and a half a crown. He made out he had no change and so I said he could keep the half a crown. Slowly counting out the required number of pegs, he was profuse in his thanks and started to tell me all the circumstances. However, I cut him short quickly, saying I was in a great hurry and watched impatiently as he walked slowly back up the garden path.
Inserting the key into the lock, to my intense relief I realised I had picked the right one out, as the door opened at once and in a few seconds I was standing in the hall. The blinds of the house were drawn and for a full minute I stood motionless until my eyes were accustomed to the dim light.
Then, opening the first door I came to, I found myself in a room which I was sure at once was the very one I wanted, as it had all the appearance of being used by Sturm himself. A spirit tantalus was upon the sideboard, a box of cigars upon the big roll-top desk before the window and a good-sized safe in one corner.
For a few moments I stood hesitating. The whole house was as silent as the grave. Not a sound of any outside traffic was to be heard, not even that hum of the great city which is said to be never stilled. The air in the room was chilling and my teeth chattered with the cold.
However the need for urgency stirring in me, I tip-toed softly across the room to the safe. Instantly all my hopes of being able to open it were dashed to zero. The safe was a modern one with a combination lock! Wasting no time, I turned next to the desk. The key to that was easy to pick out and, quicker even than it takes to tell, I had unlocked it and rolled back the top.
With no searching about, my eyes at once fell upon two papers spread out in the open desk. One was typed, consisting of a single page of foolscap, and headed in big lettering:
REPORT UPON COLONEL JASPER AND THE GREY HOUSE ON DARTMOOR.
The other was handwritten and consisted of only about twenty lines, with the first one reading, "Madeline Marie Louise de Touraine, married to David Temple Fane, St. George's Church, Rue de Guise, Paris, July the eleventh, nineteen hundred and twenty- seven."
A mist rose up before my eyes and I read no more. I folded up the two papers and thrust them into my bag. Now for the diary, I thought and I opened drawer after drawer to find it. However, I saw no sign of it anywhere and, anxious to get out of the house as quickly as possible, pulled down the roll-top and re-locked the desk.
I was giving one quick glance round the room in the desperate hope that he might have left his diary lying somewhere about, when to my horror I heard the sounds of a car being pulled up outside and, as I stood listening, there followed the bang of a car door being slammed to, and the voices of men growing louder as they came up the path towards the house.
Darting to the window, with my heart beating like a sledge-hammer, I peered round the corner of the blind and saw two men, big and tall, and with all appearance of belonging to the police. They passed out of my sight and then came a resounding ring at the front door.
I crept into the hall. A few moments' silence and then the bell sounded again. "No, evidently no one's at home," I heard a voice say, "but now we're here we may as well have a look round. We'll try at the back. As likely as not we'll find an unbolted window there. It there isn't, well I expect we'll be able to unbolt it for ourselves," and I could follow the sounds of their footsteps as they moved away.
Oh, the agony of those next two or three minutes! Crouching in the passage, I heard them rattle window after window until one of them said, "Here, this one'll do. The bolt looks flimsy enough. Give us the screwdriver," and there came a scraping, rending sound of the screwdriver being pushed in hard.
Faced with the awful predicament in which I found myself, strange to say my terror had calmed down and my brain was working like lightning. It was one of the kitchen windows they were forcing and my first thought was to go out boldly through the front door. Fortunately, I remembered just in time that the front door was in line with the window they were forcing and, if either of them happened to look round, they would catch sight of me at once.
I altered my plan instantly and, darting across the kitchen, hid myself behind the scullery door only just in time, however, before I heard the window go up and the bumps of two heavy men alighting into the room.
As I had expected they would, they took little interest in the kitchen and at once moved up the passage to investigate the other rooms. I waited just long enough for them to be safely away before climbing out of the window. Holding my breath in my excitement, I walked very quietly up the garden path, congratulating myself that I had managed everything so cleverly.
However, another shock was in store for me. The car the two men had driven up in was parked in the road just opposite to the garden gate and to my consternation I saw there was a uniformed policeman in the driver's seat. He was reading a newspaper and was evidently very interested in its contents, so much so that my appearance upon the garden path had obviously not yet caught his eye.
For a few moments I stood stock still, but, realising there was no help for it and that I must go on, I started moving on again, but now so slowly that my walk was almost a creep. I got nearer and nearer to the gate until, at last reaching it, I lifted the catch very softly and, knowing that no longer could I hope to proceed unseen, flung it wide open and like a flash was walking up the road, with my head turned sideways so that the man in the car would not be able to get a look at my face.
It was all over in a couple of seconds at most, and I was yards up the road before I heard the sound of the gate banging to behind me. It had all been done so quickly that I was quite confident the man in the car would never be able to recognise me if he saw me again. My only anxiety now was that I had left the clothes-pegs I had bought upon the table in the study.
Long afterwards I heard the sequel and, of all people from the great Gilbert Larose himself—Larose, a deadly enemy when he was upon anyone's track, but a charming companion when he was sporting a feather of the dove of peace in his cap.
He told me laughingly that it was quite correct that the two men who had got into the house were from the police, as they were detective-inspectors from Scotland Yard. When a few minutes later they had returned to their car and were being driven back to the Yard, one of them had remarked conversationally to the driver, "A disappointment, Bob! The cage was empty and there were no birds upon the perch! Not a soul was in the house. We shall have to come again later."
Whereupon the driver had remarked, "No birds upon the perch! But what about that one with the fine feathers who came out through the garden gate, not very long after I heard you ringing the front-door bell?"
"What bird?" had asked the inspector sharply.
"A young female one," had replied the driver, "very fashionably dressed. I didn't see her face as she was too nippy in getting away. She seemed in a bit of a hurry," and in the conversation which followed, the inspectors to their great annoyance knew they had been tricked.
I couldn't possibly have been in the garden when they went in, they argued, they would have seen me at once, as the garden was small and there were no bushes or trees behind which I had been hiding. So I must have been in the house all the time. Then why was it I hadn't answered their ring and what was I doing there with all the blinds drawn? Why had I kept so quiet, too, while they were opening the window, and how had I managed to slip out when they themselves had managed to get inside? It couldn't have been through either of the doors or they would certainly both have heard and seen me.
No, directly their backs had been turned I must have gone through the very window by which they themselves had entered. It had been a smart bit of work and the whole thing looked very suspicious. Only a few hours back the owner of the house had met a violent form of death and, with his body barely cold, a woman who had obviously no business to be upon the premises had made her way there. Not only that, but she had evidently been in possession of a key to the front door. She could not have come through the back one as that was bolted as well as locked.
At that particular moment when the two inspectors were debating with each other about me, I was congratulating myself that all danger to me had passed. However, I was to learn later that the driver of their car having seen me coming out of the garden of the house was to prove a most unfortunate occurrence for me, as it immediately brought Scotland Yard into the enquiry about Sturm's death. But for that it might probably have been left to the Eastbourne police as a purely local matter, particularly so if nothing definite had come to light, with the only reasonable explanation of the tragedy being then the medium had died as the result of an accident from a bullet fired by some boy who had been rabbiting in the nearby quarry.
Arriving at our house in Lowndes Square, I went breathlessly through the two papers I had taken from the roll-top desk. They were both very soon read. I guessed that the typed one was Danver's, the report of his mission down into Devonshire.
It recorded that he had duly made his enquiries in the little village of Bovey Tracey, about a Colonel Jasper and his household, but had found out very little. The Colonel had left the house upon the moor some years previously to go back to India where, apparently, he had spent most of his life, but he had been drowned when the boat he was upon had foundered with the loss of everyone on board, in the Bay of Biscay when only three days out from England. During the later years of his stay upon the moor it was remembered that, besides two Indian servants, there had been a young girl there, but what her name was no one seemed to know. Also, while some people thought she had been just a servant, others believed she was some relation of the old man. No one remembered what she was like, as she had only been seen about a few times and then when she was in a motor car. It was not known if she had been upon the ship when it went down.
Danver's report went on that the house had been untenanted since Colonel Jasper left. It belonged now to some distant relation of his who was living in India and had never been to see it. However, a firm of Estate Agents in Torquay had been given charge of it and, visiting it occasionally, were supposed to make sure that it remained in a proper state of repair. He, Danvers, according to his instructions, had been to look at it, but had not been able to get inside, because the two very substantial doors were locked and all the windows upon the ground floor well-shuttered. However, looking through the cracks of these shutters, he had seen some apparently worthless pieces of furniture had been left there and in one room there were quite a number of books and papers lying about. The house was in a very lonely part of Dartmoor many miles from any other habitation, and was supposed to be haunted by evil spirits.
Upon the other paper, which I took to be in Sturm's own handwriting, was put down when and where I had been married to David in Paris, that I had been employed at a jeweller's in the Rue de Rivoli for three years and that prior to that I had earned my living as an artist's model, sitting in the nude. It went back to the days when I had started at Monsieur de Vallon's Academy of Art. It had also got the address of the last flat in which I had lived.
Also, somehow he had managed to get hold of the names of some of the artists for whom I had worked and, among them, to my great annoyance, I saw that of Tudor Meynall. However, I smiled to myself that, with all the trouble he had been put to, he had evidently not been able to trace me a day farther back than my first employment at the de Vallon Academy of Art.
Wasting no time, I was back in Eastbourne in time for lunch. Danver's report of his enquiries in Devonshire I burnt at once, but Sturm's paper I showed to Clara. Of course, she was very interested to hear how I had got on, but was rather disturbed I had been seen by the driver of the police car. Also, she was worried that I had not been able to lay my hand upon any diary, but took hope in the idea that, seeing the paper about me had been preserved, he might not perhaps have written up his diary to date.
I saw her and Danvers start off for the inquest which was to be held at two o'clock. They were both wanted to identify the body. Back much sooner than I expected, Clara gave me a detailed account of all that had happened.
After the Superintendent of the Eastbourne Police had told briefly of their being called to the body the previous evening, Dr. Burton had stepped into the witness-box.
He stated the post mortem had revealed that the deceased had met with his death from a .22 bullet which had penetrated through the eye and orbit wall into the brain, and the bullet he had taken from there was produced by the police. It had been fired either from a .22 pistol or a small rook rifle. He could not say from what distance it had been fired. It might have been from five yards or even fifty. Certainly the injury could not have been self-inflicted. He added that the contents of deceased's stomach smelt very strongly of alcohol.
Asked how long death had taken place before he had seen the body, he replied, that from the condition of the clotted blood, probably about twenty minutes, certainly less than half an hour, which, as he had arrived just before half past five, meant that deceased had been shot somewhere a little short of ten minutes past the hour.
The doctor's evidence completed, the inquest was adjourned to a date to be fixed later.
Rather to our surprise, the Superintendent, accompanied by two plain-clothes men, arrived at the Court even while Clara was talking to me. He asked at once if anyone among us was in possession of a pistol or small rifle firing a .22 bullet. Clara said she had one, and I thought she looked rather uncomfortable when she went on to say that at the present moment it was behind the door in the summerhouse in the garden.
The Superintendent's eyes opened very wide. "What, in that summerhouse we saw in the privet lane, close near to where the body was found?" he exclaimed, and I thought instantly that he spoke to Clara more like the brusque policeman he undoubtedly was than he had shown himself before.
Clara coloured up. "Yes, lately," she said, "I have been keeping it there, as it was a handy place to have it when I was trying to shoot some crows who have been coming after my chickens. The hedge is a favourite place with the crows."
"But why didn't you tell us that at once," he asked sharply, "when you knew someone had been shot close by?"
"I didn't happen to remember it until this morning," she said calmly, "and then I thought I'd wait until Dr. Burton had found out exactly what had killed him. Remember—last night the doctor said it might have been a stone from a catapult." She nodded. "Of course, I was intending to tell you now," and she went on to explain that in the ordinary way the rifle was kept in a small room near the butler's pantry. Besides firearms, the room contained fishing rods, tennis racquets and other sporting articles.
The Superintendent was frowning heavily, "But wasn't it very unwise to leave it," he asked, "so near to the road when it could be so easily have been stolen."
She shook her head. "We've never lost anything from there yet, though more things beside the rifle have occasionally been left there, such as books and even my little camera at times."
"Was it known to anyone in the house," asked the Superintendent, "that you were accustomed to leave this rifle there?"
"I don't think so," said Clara, "as I've only lately, as I've just mentioned to you, taken to doing it. You must understand, Superintendent," she explained, "that crows are very cunning birds and seem to know at once what anyone approaching them has got in their hands. If they see it is a gun or a rifle and not a walking stick they fly well out of range at once. So, having the rifle ready there, I have a much better chance of getting a shot at them."
"Are you the only person who uses this rifle?" asked the Superintendent and, upon Clara nodding, he said, "well, if you please, we'll go and get it now," and they all went off together.
A horrible fear leapt instantly in my mind. Could it be Clara who had shot Caesar Sturm? Had she been waiting in the lane for those crows when he had come there to look for his cigarette case? If she had ordered him to leave the Court at once, high words might have passed between them! Then, with the rifle ready in her hands, upon the impulse of the moment she might have threatened him and the rifle gone off when she wasn't intending it to! I knew she was hasty and impulsive and not the person to put up with intimidation from anyone! I felt sick with apprehension at the thought.
It seemed quite a long time before they came back and then I saw Clara was looking very worried. The rifle was nowhere to be found! She was certain she had left it behind the door three nights previously, and now it was gone! A box of cartridges which she had also left there was still upon the summerhouse floor, but the Superintendent had not allowed her to pick it up, as he said they must examine any finger-marks upon it. He had added that he took a very grave view of the rifle being missing, declaring that if it were not found it would change the whole complexion of everything and bring suspicions upon everyone who had been about the Court at the time of Sturm's death.
At once proceeding to question us one by one, though the rifle was well-known by sight to us all, as it had been a present to Clara from her husband and had her monogram in big letters upon the butt, the Superintendent soon learnt that no one remembered having seen it lately. Also, an intense search in every place where it was likely to have been put brought no result.
The Superintendent looked very grim and announced curtly we must all now give a precise account of where we had been the previous evening during those fatal minutes just after five o'clock. Fortunately, the time to be accounted for was a very short one, as there was ample evidence on hand, apart from the supporting statement of Dr. Burton at the inquest, that Sturm had been shot between a few minutes after five and a quarter of an hour past.
From his questioning the Superintendent drew out that at exactly five o'clock when the Town Hall clock was striking the hour, Benson, the Court butler, had come into the lounge to draw down the blinds there and switch on the lights, and had seen Sturm and Danvers arriving back in their car. The car had pulled up right in front of the hall door where Sturm had got out. Sturm had not come into the lounge and Benson did not know where he went, but he heard Danvers driving the car round to the garage, and a minute or two later, when he was in the dining-room, heard someone whom he took to be him going up the stairs.
George, the gardener had also heard the chimes as he was taking in some bunches of grapes from one of the hot-houses into the kitchen. He had stayed there only just long enough to weigh the bunches and enter their weights in a book kept in the kitchen for that purpose. He was very proud of his grapes and to record their weight was a routine act with every bunch he brought in. He said his master was very particular about it, as the growing of the grapes was one of his hobbies.
Then his day's work being over, making a remark or two to the butler who had stood watching him roll a cigarette, he had gone straight across the garden to one of the sheds where he kept his bicycle, lit his lamp and blown up one of his tyres which he had noticed was rather low, and started for home.
By then it had been nearly dark, but there was a bright half moon showing and, across the wide lawn, he had seen his mistress saying goodbye to two ladies at the hall door. He had distinctly recognised one of them as Mrs. Robinson, the vicar's wife. He knew her quite well.
Entering the privet lane to get on to the road by the gate at the end, of which he always carried a key, after cycling about half way along, he had seen the body of a man lying upon the ground. Jumping from his machine and propping it against a tree, he had bent over the body and, though one side of the face was much obscured in blood, had recognised it instantly as being that of the Mr. Sturm who was staying at the Court. He had ventured to touch his cheek and found it to be quite warm, though from the pool of blood upon the ground he felt sure Mr. Sturm was dead.
Not losing a second, he had run to the house and came upon the parlourmaid, Gertrude at the back kitchen door and told her to fetch her mistress at once. He had taken Mrs. Hume to where the body was lying and then, upon her orders, had run back to the house for his master.
He had felt so faint and ill he went on that he had been violently sick, but for all that his mind was quite clear about everything which had happened and, from the time when he had heard the chimes striking five in the lounge-hall to when he was speaking to Gertrude at the back kitchen door, only between ten and fifteen minutes could possibly have elapsed.
Apparently, satisfied with what George told him, the Superintendent proceeded to question all the staff. However, they could all be accounted for. My alibi, too, supported by the two nurses was unassailable; Clara was accounted for by her having been seen by George with the Vicar's wife just before he had come upon the dead body; Colonel Hume had been in the smoking room from about four o'clock until the butler had run in with George's message from his mistress that he, the Colonel, was to come at once. At the moment of the summons Colonel Hume had been wearing his carpet slippers and, lying back in an armchair, had been half dozing before the fire.
I was very relieved to notice that Clara seemed to have thrown off her uneasiness about the rifle not being able to be found.
"I don't see, Superintendent Hanson," she said emphatically, "that the fact of my rifle having been taken by someone, in any way, as you seem to think, throws any suspicion upon anyone in the house. If any of us had shot Mr. Sturm with it, what reason should we have had in hiding it? Surely—rather we should have wiped the finger marks off it and put it back to where it had been." She answered her own question. "No, it looks to me now as if at last we have had a thief coming into the grounds, someone who had got in from the road and taken the rifle any moment after those three afternoons ago which was the last time I used it."
"But how would anyone but someone in the Court have known it was there?" queried the Superintendent doubtfully.
"He mayn't have known it was there," snapped Clara. "Trespassing in the lane, he may have come upon it by chance. If he had come on purpose why didn't he take the box of cartridges. They were just under his eyes." She spoke as if very annoyed. "I think the whole thing was an accident. Boys are always shooting in the quarry just across the road, and probably it was a stray bullet which hit him."
"But we can't learn of any boys being there yesterday," rejoined the Superintendent. "No one that we can find out heard of any shots being fired."
"Still they may have been fired for all that," countered Clara. She added scornfully: "One must have been fired to have killed Mr. Sturm, but no one heard that."
The following day was Sunday and we saw nothing of the police or detectives. The Sunday papers had a lot to say about the tragedy and, to Colonel Hume's great annoyance, all day long sightseers were strolling up and down the road looking at the house. In the evening one of the maids brought in some rather disturbing news. A woman from a house about two hundred yards away had gone to the police and told them that she remembered having seen on the Friday a man climbing over the gate leading into the privet lane. She thought he had come back to climb over from a lorry farther up the road. She gave a poor description of the man but believed she would recognise him if she saw him again. She couldn't remember exactly what time it was, but she had an idea it was early in the afternoon.
Eric Danvers was still staying with us. The Superintendent had told Clara they would be greatly obliged if she would put up with him for a day or two longer as they might want to ask him some more questions about his dead employer.
On the Monday we still saw nothing more of the detectives, but Colonel Hume was so upset by everything that he had a slight heart attack and Clara called in Dr. Burton to attend to him. The doctor brought in some rather startling news that he had been told on the quiet by a policeman whose wife he was attending.
It appeared that for some time the police had been very interested in Sturm and keeping an eye upon him. They knew who he really was and were certain his work as a medium, though it brought him in quite a lot of money, was really only a blind to cover other activities. They knew he was an important member of a ring handling forbidden dangerous drugs in a large way. However, though they have gathered plenty of evidence against him as yet they had made no arrest, hoping, through him, to uncover the other ringleaders of the gang. His finger-prints were recorded at Scotland Yard as, years ago, he had served a term of imprisonment for another offence.
Danvers was good company and Clara was quite agreeable he should stay on at the Court. However, after dinner on the Monday evening, she said to me suddenly, "Do you know, Marie, I rather think that this entertaining young man has something to do with the police. He's been called to the telephone cabinet four times today, and twice, when I happened to pass by when he was inside, I noticed that when he was listening to whomsoever was speaking he turned right round as if to make sure no one was near the cabinet to overhear what was being said. It struck me both times that his precaution was most marked. Another thing, when the Superintendent was last up here he seemed much more friendly in his manner towards him than he was towards us." She nodded darkly. "I'm going to keep a sharp eye upon him. I can't make out what's up."
And then Clara did what I thought at the time was a very foolish thing, at any rate it meant her telling the police a lot of stories later. Upon the Monday morning, in a spirit of morbid curiosity to look round the place where the medium had been shot, she went into the privet lane and was just passing the gate at the end when she saw a Hickson Provision Store van coming slowly up the road with a man whom she guessed rightly was Anton Meynall driving it. Upon the impulse of the moment she waved to him to stop and come over to the gate to speak to her. With a scowl he complied with her request.
"I am Mrs. Hume of the Court here," she said quickly, "Mrs. Temple Fane's sister-in-law, and you are Anton Meynall, aren't you?"
He nodded a curt assent. "And what about it?" he asked.
She went on in a whisper. "Now did you come into the Court grounds again that Friday evening?"
He stared at her blankly. "I don't know what you mean," he said.
"Oh, yes, you do," she retorted. "Now did you come back here? It's quite safe your telling me. I tell you I'm Mrs. Fane's sister-in-law."
He shook his head. "I don't know either of you," he said. "I've never heard of you. Good afternoon. I've got my work to do and I've no time for gossip," and without another word he went back to his van and drove away.
"A very discreet young fellow," commented Clara, telling me about it. "No one will ever get anything out of him."
So things were up to the Tuesday morning and then the Superintendent rang up Clara quite early, asking her please to be sure that she, Colonel Hume, Danvers and I would be at home about eleven o'clock when he was intending to call.
"Most annoying," said Clara crossly as she came away from the phone. "What more can they want to ask us?"
At eleven sharp the Superintendent arrived when we four were all together in the lounge. He had driven up in an imposing big police car, accompanied by a stout and rather heavy-looking middle-aged man who had policeman written all over him and whom he at once proceeded to introduce.
"This gentleman," he said, "is Chief Detective-Inspector Charles Stone and he's come down from Scotland Yard to help us." He laughed. "He's really not half as frightening as he looks. Indeed, he's a very gentle and kind-hearted man. I know him well, as he and I joined the Force together."
NOW I am quite sure that, if I had been warned beforehand that so important an officer as a Chief Detective- Inspector of Scotland Yard was going to be sent down to find out at whose hands the medium had met his death, I should certainly have been quaking in my shoes and filled with a sickening terror as to what was going to happen next.
Now, however, having actually been confronted with him, my state of mind was not by any means a terrified one, for in appearances he was very different from the grim suspicious accuser I had imagined all detectives who had worked themselves up to a high position must be.
Although undoubtedly there was that about him which, as I say, would make one think at once of a policeman, he yet looked fatherly and kind-hearted, and with nothing of a bully about him. Certainly, he seemed very capable and I guessed those shrewd and big ox-like eyes under their shaggy brows would never at any time miss anything of what was going on.
The Superintendent explained who we were and the Inspector bowed smilingly, not, however offering to shake hands. He took us all in with a quick appeasing glance, but I somehow thought he regarded Eric Danvers with a harder look than he gave anybody else.
"A most worrying business this for everyone," he boomed in a big deep, voice, "but we'll try to make it as less unpleasant as possible." He took a sheaf of papers out of his breast pocket. "Now Superintendent Hanson has provided very full notes for me about you all. Still to some extent I'll have to go over the same ground again and so, if you don't mind, I'll go on to take you one by one."
"Certainly," said Clara who had been expecting that and had prepared for it. "You shall have the library to yourselves."
I say Clara had prepared for it, but hardly in a way the Inspector would have approved of, had he only known. It happened that her uncle, a childless widower who had bequeathed Mead's Court to her, had been an eccentric old man who for many years had been at work upon a book dealing with the history of the religions of the world. In his later years his writing had been the obsession of his life, and day after day for many hours on end, he would shut himself in the library, giving the strictest orders then that on no account was he to be interrupted in his work.
To such extremes was this order carried out, that between the library and the adjoining room he had had a dumbwaiter built into the wall, so that his mid-day meal could be served on it, without his being disturbed. When upon his death Clara had come into possession of the Court, she had let the dumb-waiter remain, but, to do away with what she considered its unsightly appearance in the library, had had it made into a shelf there to carry some rows of more books.
The result was that in the library there was no sign of the dumb-waiter being there, while in the little adjoining room, if you opened the door of this dumb-waiter, you could plainly hear every word of any conversation in the library itself. Also, by a little manipulation of the books and pushing them slightly apart, you could actually see what was going on.
So, while by arrangement Colonel Hume was regaling the two police officers and Eric Danvers with a whisky and soda before any questioning began, Clara and I had slipped off to take up a position by the dumb-waiter in the little room. Clara was certain it would be quite safe, as the dumb-waiter opened in a corner of the library well away from any window and where the light was poor.
Inspector Stone had mentioned that he would question Danvers first, and Clara was delighted she would speedily know whether her suspicions about the latter were correct and if he indeed had been roped in by the police to find out anything he could about us all at the Court.
"Be prepared for a surprise, dear," she whispered as we crouched down by the opened dumb-waiter door. She smiled. "We may hear something unpleasant about ourselves."
In a minute or two, the library door opened and we saw Benson show the three men in. However, with the door closed behind them, to our amazement, for a long minute not a word was spoken. Instead, they all stood stock-still, looking smilingly at one another, while the Inspector had got one fat forefinger pressed warningly against his pursed-up lips. Then, suddenly the last named darted back to the door and, turning the handle sharply, threw the door wide open and peered up and down the corridor.
"No one there," he said, re-closing the door. "Quite O.K., but we can't be too careful." Then, with his outstretched arm indicating Eric Danvers, he went on with a chuckle to the Superintendent, "Let me introduce you, sir to the new star who's just begun to twinkle at the Yard"—he bowed in mock respect—"Detective Gilbert Larose."
Clara gripped my arm so tightly that I wanted to cry out with the pain, and I am sure it was only the dire consternation into which I had been plunged which enabled me to control my feelings.
So this supposed secretary of the dead man was the dreaded Gilbert Larose, and leaving him planted among us as they had done for three whole days, could surely only mean that in some way the police were gravely suspicious of us! Then of whom and why were they being suspicious?
My thoughts raced like lightning through me. Of the actual shooting they could only be suspecting Clara, but of me they might suspect several other things—that I had known the medium before, that for some reason I had wanted his death and, oh! Heaven, that I had been the woman who, almost before his body was cold, has rushed up to his house in Town, most probably to get hold of some document or paper which in some way incriminated her and which she knew was in his possession. Of course they would have guessed this, as Gilbert Larose would have told them that I had been absent from the Court in my car from so very early on that Saturday morning until just before lunch was being served. They would have guessed, too, I had got the keys to get into the house, as they had not been found in Sturm's pockets when his body had been taken to the mortuary, and of course Larose would have told them his employer always carried them about with him upon his person.
But for the moment I could give no further time to my agonising thoughts because of what was then happening in the library under my very eyes.
The Superintendent was shaking Larose warmly by the hand. "Very pleased to meet you, Mr. Larose," he said. "When they told me you were one of us I had no idea whom I was being privileged to work with." He looked very puzzled. "But how on earth was it, that you had managed to get taken on as that rascal's secretary?"
"Ah, but that was almost a miracle!" explained Stone. "One of the small fry in the dope gang had ratted and it was upon his recommendation that Bellamy engaged Mr. Larose. A few more weeks with him and our friend here would have uncovered the whole lot who were peddling in those drugs"—he shrugged his shoulders—"but of course it must happen Bellamy ran up against that rifle bullet last week and so, for the time being, we are again almost at a dead end."
Larose shook his head. "No, no, a long way from that, Charlie," he said. "I found out who three of them are and they should lead us to the others. We are not quite as much in the dark now, as we were when I started."
"Yes, that's true, Gilbert," agreed Stone. "As far as you went, you certainly made a good job of it." He seated himself down in a big armchair and went on. "Well, what do you make of things here?"
"Bad! bad!" exclaimed Larose frowningly. "The whole business just reeks of blackmail. If that blackguard was not killed accidentally, then whoever brought about his death has my utmost sympathy. He was a vile man."
"Then if it were a case of deliberate homicide," pressed Stone, "who would you be inclined to make out was the killer?"
"Clara, that Mrs. Hume, would be my first choice," replied Larose with a smile. "She is a woman of strong character, a brave woman and she is protecting that young sister-in-law of hers, the little Marie Temple Fane, to whom she is devoted and for whom she is acting like a mother."
A dreadful fear surged through me as I felt Clara so close beside me, was trembling. I did not turn to look at her, but reached down and grasped her hand. It was icy cold and I held it tightly. I felt I could hardly breathe. However, Larose's next words were reassuring and I began to breathe easier at once.
"But mind you," he was saying earnestly, "if she did do it I don't think it will ever be brought home to her, as there are certain things to me which suggest her complete innocence."
"And what are they?" asked Stone.
"Ah, but wait a minute before we consider the actual killing," said Larose. "Let us first be quite certain that there was a strong reason for someone wishing Bellamy dead and then following it up with a deliberate murder. If there was—then the whole thing must have started and been rushed to its dreadful climax all in the course of three to four hours. At lunch Bellamy was a more or less honoured guest at the Hume table, but by a few minutes after five the Superintendent here and I were wanting to make out that one or other who had been sitting at that table with him had brought about his death."
"Putting it that way," commented Stone with a frown, "it doesn't look like deliberate murder, but rather suggests an accident. Now doesn't it?"
"That's what I think," agreed Larose. "Ordinary normal people, such as those women are we've just been talking to, don't get their passions stirred up to fever heat so quickly. So let us now consider the background of the whole matter."
Quite a long silence followed before Larose continued slowly. "I think that blackguard had somehow got hold of some secret of that younger woman, though she had no idea of it until the very afternoon he was killed. I feel sure she was not aware she had ever met him before her sister-in-law introduced him to her at that race-meeting in Lewes a fortnight ago last Saturday. She may have been wrong then, as he certainly knew a lot about her, but I believe he only started threatening her that Friday afternoon just after lunch."
Stone tapped the Superintendent's memorandum, which he still was holding in his hand. "But from these notes here she could not have shot him, as her alibi is absolutely watertight."
"Of course, she had nothing to do with it," agreed Larose instantly, "though, mind you, she wouldn't put up with any nonsense from him, for she's as game as a pebble." He laughed. "That first evening when we arrived here and he started upon his slimy sex advances to her, it was a real treat to watch the way she snubbed him. She did it so openly, too, that he soon realised she was making him a laughing-stock before everyone, and, accordingly, he was venomously furious with her. He stopped speaking to her and didn't take the slightest notice of her, while she just ignored him as if he wasn't there."
"Then she didn't appear afraid of him?" queried Stone.
"Not in the least," replied Larose, "and that's what makes me sure he didn't unmask his guns until he got her alone in the privet lane just before we started for that motor drive, that last afternoon."
"You are certain he had a talk with her then?" asked Stone.
"I didn't actually see them together," replied Larose, "but everything pointed to it. You must understand he and I had arranged to go for that drive soon after two. We came down to the front door together and I left him standing there, while I went round to the garage to bring out the car. I was away longer than he would have been expecting me to be, as I had to put water in the radiator. When I got back to the front door he was gone. I shouted out for him several times and, after three or four minutes or so, he came running up a bit breathless and jumped into the car."
"Did he say anything?" asked Stone.
"Not a word, but I remembered afterwards I had noted subconsciously that he had got that leering, gloating look which he always put on when he was thinking about women."
"And how could you know," grunted Stone, "when he was thinking about them?"
"When he spoke his thoughts aloud to me," smiled Larose, "and actually told me what they were. For instance, when driving down here in the car on the Friday he referred several times to the beautiful young Mrs. Temple Fane whom we were going to meet, and I quite thought from the way he talked that she was very sweet on him. He was leering quite a lot then and I felt very sorry for the girl. Still, I wasn't much interested, as he was always gloating about some woman or other. He was an unpleasant sexy man."
"And about Clara and the missing rifle," asked Stone. "What do you make of that?"
Larose shook his head. "I can't make anything," he said. "I was with the Superintendent here when we found it had gone and I am positive she was genuinely surprised." He turned to the Superintendent. "Didn't you think so, too?"
The Superintendent nodded. "Yes, I did. If she was acting, she was doing it devilish well and certainly took me in for one."
"And she probably was acting," frowned Stone.
"I don't think so," commented Larose instantly. "Her face went quite pale, and no actress, however talented, could manage that. Besides, she looked intensely annoyed."
Clara here pinched me hard. "And so now, Marie, you won't suspect me any more," she whispered. "I know you've been doing so."
I grimaced at her and squeezed her hand. I certainly had been more than half suspecting her and now felt very relieved.
The Superintendent was speaking. "But Mrs. Hume's alibi is not too good," he said. "When I was having a word yesterday with Mrs. Robinson, the Vicar's wife, she let out that she and her sister were just about to leave the nursery when Mrs. Hume came in, and she thinks it could have only been two or three minutes at most before Mrs. Hume started to come downstairs with them to show them out at the front door. So, if George, the gardener is right and he saw them making their good-byes just before a quarter past five—then from five o'clock until ten minutes past, these very fatal ten minutes, we have nothing to go upon expect Mrs. Hume's own words to tell us where she really was. She declares that except when she was upon the phone putting off all the dinner-party guests, she was in her own room from three o'clock in the afternoon until she went up to the nursery only a minute or two after five."
A long silence followed and, crouching so close to Clara, I could hear the beating of her heart. I could not help it, but I felt uneasy again. I remembered clearly how very, very short the time had been after Clara had come into the nursery before she had started to take Mrs. Robinson and her sister downstairs.
It was Larose who broke the silence. "But against that, Superintendent," he said thoughtfully, "I put the disappearance of her rifle, as that to me is a most important happening. Surely, if she had shot the man, say by accident or in a sudden burst of temper, as a shrewd and far-seeing woman she would have grasped instantly that to hide the rifle away would have been the worst thing for herself that she could do. It would at once suggest her as being the guilty party. No, what any guilty person would have done would have been to wipe away his or her finger marks and put the rifle back where it had been. Then everyone would have been baffled."
"Well, Gilbert," said the stout inspector, "we'll leave her alone for a minute." He eyed Larose most intently. "Now you are quite sure in your own mind, are you not, that if indeed it was a definite case of murder, we shall be able to produce strong circumstantial evidence that he was killed because he was attempting to blackmail that little Mrs. Temple Fane?"
Larose shook his head. "I don't say we shall be able to produce that evidence, Charlie, but I believe it's there. I think Marie has some well-hidden secret in her life and that now-dead blackguard got very close to finding it out."
"What kind of secret?" frowned Stone.
Larose laughed. "Why a sex one, of course! What other kind would you expect of a pretty woman? She's not likely to have been a pick-pocket, or a counterfeiter, or a spy in the Great War, is she? No, probably she had a lover in her pre-nuptial days and Bellamy knew something about it at the time." He spoke impressively. "But does not every one of Bellamy's actions of the last fortnight suggest blackmail? He is introduced to Marie at the Lewes race-meeting as Mrs. Temple Fane, the wife of a well-known wealthy city man, and he recognises her as someone he knew years ago. He gets busy at once and puts himself to no end of trouble spending three days in Paris enquiring about her past life."
"Four days," corrected Stone, "as we saw on that diary he had got in his safe."
"Oh, his diary!" exclaimed Larose, "and of course, it was for that Marie rushed up to his house on the Saturday morning. He must have told her about it." He went on. "And not content with those enquiries in Paris, he sent me racing down into——"
But to my intense relief, as I was trembling in fright that Clara was about to hear about Colonel Jasper and the house upon the moor and would start wondering at once if it had anything, of which I had not told, to do with me—we heard a knock upon the library door and Benson entered to tell us the Superintendent was wanted upon the phone.
"And I'll go out, too," whispered Clara, as the Superintendent left the room, "in case I am wanted for anything. It would be dreadfully awkward if Benson came looking for me here."
With the Superintendent away, Larose went on to tell Stone about his enquiries in Devonshire. "But what they had to do with this Marie here, of course I don't know. That they had something I should certainly think, as she went off with my report as well as that paper about herself when she was Miss de Touraine, which were lying open in Bellamy's desk. I had noticed them both there just before we left the house to drive down here. I had got a squint of Bellamy's notes when he was out of the room."
The Superintendent was back very soon. "A bit of luck!" he said smilingly. "We know now who that man is who got over the gate in the privet lane that afternoon. The same woman who saw him then recognised him in the road here again a few moments ago, and rang up the Station to tell us. She says there is a lot she can tell us about him. He drives the delivery van for Hickson's, a grocer in Terminus Road. We'll pick him up and question him when I get back from here, though I think we had better have a talk with the woman first, as she lives so close to the Court."
"Splendid!" exclaimed Stone. "We're getting on slowly." He turned back to Larose. "Now what about the husband here, old Colonel Hume?"
"Of course, he's got no proper alibi," said Larose, "but I can't see him taking the law into his own hands and shooting anybody. He's a most conventional man and loathes all kind of publicity. He would never be the means of bringing any scandal upon his own house. Certainly, he was furious with Bellamy for interfering with that young housemaid and, directly he heard of it, insisted his wife should cancel the dinner-party and everything and pack Bellamy off the moment he came in. Still, rather than suspect him I'd suspect others who were present at the séance the previous night, that Major Button, for instance."
Stone scanned down the names in the Superintendent's notes. "Oh, the tiger-killer!" he exclaimed. "Why him in particular?" and Larose at once related how the old man had found out he had been hoaxed about the spirit of his Johore beater appearing at the seance and was thirsting for the medium's blood.
"And it's not impossible to imagine," he laughed, "that he did saunter round here with his rifle that afternoon—he lives only a few hundred yards up the road—to give Bellamy a fright if he caught sight of him. He's a very hot tempered old gentleman."
"Ah, one moment!" exclaimed Stone. "Going back to that Mrs. Hume again. During that Friday afternoon I understand she'd been busy phoning up to put off all those people who would have been coming to the Court that night, and so I should say she would have worked herself up into a fine state of annoyance by the trouble she'd have been put to. So, when Bellamy got back from his drive and went straight into the privet lane—if she happened to be there after those crows, as she makes out, and ran into him unexpectedly, isn't it quite likely that in her disturbed state of mind, she upped with her rifle and, with no thought of what she was doing, gave him a bullet at once?"
Larose shook his head. "I don't think so. I'm sure she wouldn't have denied herself the pleasure of first lashing out at him with her tongue and, knowing the fine gentleman as I so well do by now, it's pretty certain he would have hit back with language which would certainly have not been over-choice. He was full up to the neck with Scotch, as he had made me pull up at almost every pub we had come to that afternoon. He was a foul-mouthed brute when he was in a rage and got fairly going."
A short silence followed before Stone said, "Well, we must get on with our enquiries, and I've got a good idea. So that you can remain here to listen all the time I'll tell Mrs. Hume I've roped you in to take short-hand notes. I'll explain I thought the Superintendent here would be able to do it, but find he can't write shorthand and you can.
"That'll be all right," nodded Larose. "As the dead man's one-time secretary, that'll appear quite the natural thing."
"Good!" exclaimed Stone. "Then I think we'll take Marie first." He hesitated a few moments. "Now should we put down our good cards straight away and bounce her into admitting that Bellamy was threatening blackmail and that it was she who rushed up to Cedar Road on Saturday and stole those papers from his desk?"
"No, no, don't do that," said Larose instantly. "For the moment don't let it come out that we have good reason to believe anyone is benefiting by the man's death. Leave out the matter of blackmail altogether and just concentrate upon finding out what everyone was doing at the time it happened. Then they'll be less upon their guards and may make a slip somewhere. In particular, deal tactfully with Marie for, while we are certain she cannot be the actual killer, if the killing was a premeditated one she is sure to know who did it because the killing was done to save her."
Stone shook his finger at Larose. "But there's going to be no sentiment here, Gilbert," he said very sternly. "If there was a murderer we're out to get him or her, and no face, however pretty, is going to stand in our way."
"Of course not, of course not!" agreed Larose readily, but all the same he gave the Superintendent a sly glance of amusement.
"Then while we are on personal matters," smiled the Superintendent, "what about yourself, Mr. Larose? I didn't put down anything about you in those notes of mine Mr. Stone has got there!"
"There was no need for you to," smiled back Larose. He turned to the Inspector, "I was alone in the garage, Charlie, from the moment I drove in the car until I came out to see Mrs. Hume and the man, whom I learnt afterwards was Dr. Burton, striding over the lawn in a great hurry. From their haste I was curious as to what was up and followed after them to see."
"But why so long in the garage?" frowned Stone.
"I fancied the car had been running sluggishly and looked to see if there was any dirt in the carburettor. There was and I took it out. Then——"
"Here, I say, there's something wrong there," broke in the Superintendent. "That butler told me he heard you come into the house very soon after you had dropped Bellamy at the front door and driven off to take the car into the garage."
A short silence followed and Stone whistled. "Then it wasn't you, Gilbert, whom he had heard come in and go up the stairs." He looked very grave. "In all probability it was the very party we want."
"Then we'd better start questioning Benson again straight away," said the Superintendent.
"And after him the other members of the staff," said Stone. Then as the Superintendent rose to his feet and moved to the door he added, "And explain to Mrs. Hume, please, how it happens"—he grinned—"Mr. Eric Danvers is going to be present at the questionings."
"Quick, Marie, quick," whispered Clara who had long since returned to my side, "we mustn't be caught here," and she hurried me out of the room and into the lounge where the Superintendent found us and explained how they were to make use of Mr. Danver's shorthand knowledge.
When he had left us Clara regarded me quizzically to see how I was taking it all. Then the troubled and uneasy expression upon her face changed to one of some amusement. "But wasn't it funny," she laughed, "to hear ourselves turned inside out? That Gilbert Larose is a very clever man and we shall have to be much more careful in our replies to him than if the Superintendent were questioning us."
"But how mean of him," I said hotly, "that he asked for your hospitality here so that he could spy upon us to find out anything about us he could."
"Well, as you've just heard," said Clara confidently, "he didn't find out much. He made a lot of guesses and some of them were very clever ones." She nodded, "One thing, we didn't make an enemy of him, and another, he has no sympathy for that wretched Sturm, or Bellamy, as I suppose we must call him now."
I looked Clara straight in the face. "But tell me honestly," I asked with a little quiver in my voice, "was it you who deliberately shot that man?"
"Certainly not," she replied instantly. She laid her hand affectionately upon mine. "And you take this in Marie dear, whatever they may find out about me and wherever this smart Gilbert Larose may perhaps catch me tripping in some little things"—she spoke most impressively—"they can never bring anything home to me. So, if you are ever worried about me, remember I have told you I haven't the very slightest fear for myself. I shall have a perfect answer to everything"—she nodded—"in the end."
I felt myself shaking. "But you frighten me, Clara," I said. "You make me think you are in great danger."
"But I'm not," she said emphatically. "I am in no danger at all." She frowned. "Still, I can see that Inspector Stone suspects me"—her frown changed into a half smile—"and he may suspect even more before he has done with me." She spoke quickly. "And one thing more, Marie. I can see now that, if they ask you about it, you mustn't deny that brute followed you into the privet lane and had a talk with you. After what we've just heard Mr. Larose say it will be wisest for you to admit at once. We mustn't tell more untruths than we are obliged to and so give them more chances of catching us out."
"All right," I nodded, "I know what to say."
Now how all the servants came out of the gruelling questioning they had to submit to at the hands of the Chief-Inspector Stone we learnt from Mabel, Clara's own particular maid, and some part of it was certainly disturbing. It was not only that the butler was mistaken in his evidence that he had certainly heard someone come in by the front door and go up the stairs a very few minutes after five, but Betty, the under-housemaid was positive she had seen someone, whom in the fallen dusk she had taken to be her mistress, cross over the lawn somewhere about the same time.
The questioning by Inspector Stone was many times more thorough and lengthy than that of the Superintendent's had been. Benson was examined at once, but Betty's evidence was not taken until the afternoon.
"But you say, Mr. Benson!" said the Inspector, "that when you were in the very act of switching on the lights and pulling down the blinds in the lounge hall you heard the Town Hall clock striking five?"
"That is so, sir," said Benson.
"And after attending to these lights and the blinds," said the Inspector, "you went straight away into the dining-room and then you heard someone come in through the hall door."
"No, not quite straight-away, sir," said Benson. "I did a little tidying up in the lounge, first. I straightened up the cushions upon the chairs and settees and put some coals upon the fire and swept up the hearth. Then I folded up some newspapers lying about and put them in the rack. Also, I emptied the ash-trays and put the ashes in the fire. After these little duties it was then I went into the dining-room and attended to the blinds and fire there."
"And when you were performing these last duties," said Stone, "you heard someone opening the inner front door?"
The butler hesitated. "It mayn't have been the opening but I'm not sure. At any rate, without thinking about it I certainly got that impression, perhaps because I didn't see anyone pass the open dining-room door or hear him moving about anywhere downstairs."
"Well, then you heard whoever it was who had come into the lounge go upstairs?" said Stone.
The butler hesitated again. "I may have done so, sir, I heard, sir," he said, "but it was probably the clicking of its being shut to. It always does make a click as the door handle is not a gentle one to turn."
"And how long do you think it was before the door clicked after you had heard the striking of those Town Hall chimes?"
Benson shook his head. "I couldn't say, sir. Certainly not ten minutes, I am sure." He smiled. "I am always pretty brisk in all my movements."
The questioning of the staff went on and, as it appeared obvious it was going to take some time, Clara sent word into the library that she would be pleased if they would come into lunch, which accordingly, at one o'clock they did.
Now, certainly, as the Superintendent had said, Inspector Stone did not seem a very formidable person and he and Clara, in particular, were soon chatting amicably together as if they were quite old friends, indeed monopolising most of the conversation at the meal.
"And when you are upon an enquiry such as this one," asked Clara with an assumption of great innocence, "do you find that most people generally tell you the truth?"
The Inspector looked amused. "Oh, yes, I think so," he said, and then he added quickly, "that is, of course if they have nothing to hide?"
"But if they have," went on Clara, "can you tell when they are speaking untruths?"
"We've a pretty good idea," nodded Stone. "That's where our training and experience comes in."
"Then it seems to me," frowned Clara, "that the dice are loaded against any poor guilty creatures directly he or she comes into the room. If you can tell at once that they are story-tellers then they haven't a chance."
Stone laughed merrily, "Oh, no! It isn't as easy as that. We may be quite sure they are untruthful, but we can't always bring it home to them. They may be too clever for us. That's the snag!"
Clara looked troubled. "And do you think it is always wrong, Mr. Stone, when sometimes people don't speak the truth?"
"Of course, it is," said the Inspector firmly. "Why, that's perjury, isn't it?"
"But suppose, of course unbeknown to your wife," said Clara, "you have a sweetheart—would you feel bound to tell the truth if someone asked you about her?"
Stone made a grimace. "Ah, but you are getting too subtle for me now," he said. "In a matter such as that there would be a lot of pros and cons to consider." He spoke sharply. "As an educated woman you know quite well that truth and untruth in such matters have always been considered upon an entirely different plane to ordinary affairs." He threw out his hands disgustedly. "But who would want a fat old man like me for a sweetheart? I am stones and stones too heavy for romance. Just look at me now. One Stone by name, but many, many stones too many by nature."
Everybody laughed, but Clara evidently had not finished with the stout Inspector yet, as she asked next, "And I suppose, Mr. Stone, it must be very difficult to work your way up to be a tip-top detective."
"Not at all," smiled Stone. "All that anyone wants is to have a good-looking face and slim figure like our friend Mr. Danvers, here, and success is assured. Then you'd float up to the top like a cork?"
Clara nodded. "Yes, I think he'd make a good detective. In fact I've been thinking that in many ways he and you might be blood-brothers now. In the short time you've been together here in the house I've noticed several things that you have together in common. You smoke the same brand of cigarettes, you both use the same kind of pencils and from the seller's names on the bands inside your hats I see you both go to the same shop for them." She seemed interested. "That's very remarkable as Alfred Perkins in the Vauxhall Bridge Road can't be a very well-known hatter."
I would have loved to have had a good laugh. So that was what Clara had been working up to? She had been pulling the Inspector's leg with a vengeance and letting him see quite plainly that it would be no timid yes-and-no miss he would be questioning later.
I took a quick glance at Larose. He was looking down his nose and, I thought, suppressing a grin. However, the Inspector rushed manfully into the breach.
"Oh, but Alf Perkins, is a very well-known hatter," he exclaimed volubly, "and I've been going to him for years. Indeed, I don't think now I should be comfortable in any hat but his," and he went on to expatiate upon their good quality and the long time they lasted him.
The meal over, the interrogation of the staff was renewed, but it was not until they had the very last of them before them, the little under-housemaid, Betty, that any grist came to their mill. Then what she told them was very startling and certainly brought Clara strongly under suspicion.
Stone was asking her the usual questions—what exactly was she doing that Friday afternoon just after five and, remembering she had seen George the gardener bringing the hot-house grapes into the kitchen when he had knocked off work at the usual time of five o'clock, she was able to tell him quite accurately. She seemed to be enjoying the importance of being questioned. She said she had gone straight up from the kitchen to her bedroom to make herself tidy and shut the window and pulled down the blind. She had heard no sound of any rifle going off, but was sure she would have done had one been fired, as her window looked out upon the drive and across the lawn to the end of the privet lane.
"Then you saw and heard nothing?" smiled Stone, apparently about to dismiss her.
"No, sir," she smiled back, no doubt thinking what a nice gentleman the great detective was, and then she added as an afterthought, "except that I saw Mistress coming up to the front door."
Stone took her up at once. "Oh, you saw your Mistress, did you, coming up to the front door?" he asked sharply.
"Well, I think it was Mistress," she replied, "though, as it was practically dark then, I couldn't see her very plainly, but I judged it was her by the way she walked."
The girl said afterwards that the detective seemed very interested and repeated the question several times in different ways before dismissing her.
So that was how the position was when immediately after Stone had finished with Betty, Eric Danvers, or Gilbert Larose as we now knew him to be, came into the drawing-room to look for Clara. We guessed afterwards that he had been sent to fetch Clara as quickly as possible before she had heard what the under-housemaid had said.
Clara rose up to follow him, when suddenly an idea came to me. "And I'll come, too," I said. "It will be all right for us to come together, won't it, Mr. Danvers?"
I thought Larose's eyebrows went up ever so little, and for the moment it seemed as if he were going to say something, perhaps, I thought to raise some objection, but, of course, as the supposed Danvers he could have no say in the matter and so, he just smiled, and we walked into the library together.
The Inspector who had risen to his feet as we came in frowned when he saw us both. "But it was Mrs. Hume I wanted to question first," he said. "If you don't mind, Mrs. Fane, I'll take you afterwards."
"I don't mind that at all," I said, speaking as sweetly as I could, "but I want to be present to hear what my sister-in-law says, first"—I laughed—"so that we shan't contradict each other." Then, as the Inspector appeared to be most suspicious at my frankness, I went on still laughingly, "And it can't possibly upset any schemes or traps of yours, Mr. Stone, as we are intending to speak only the exact truth, just like some of those innocent people we were speaking of at lunch who have nothing to hide."
For a few moments the Inspector regarded me with a frown, but then his heavy face broke into a reluctant smile and with an air of mock resignation he motioned to us both to sit down. "And now for one small matter which we think it best to clear up at once," he said. "I shall have to ask your pardon for a harmless and quite accidental little piece of deception." He indicated Larose smilingly. "This gentleman, whom so far you have known only as the secretary of that so-called Caesar Sturm, happens also to be an esteemed colleague of mine at Scotland Yard, Detective Gilbert Larose and——"
"You say he is a detective at Scotland Yard!" gasped Clara with a fine assumption of amazement. She turned angrily to the Superintendent. "And you, Mr. Hanson prevailed upon me to let him stay on here as an honoured guest, when all the time you knew he was acting as a spy!"
"No, no, Mrs. Hume," exclaimed the Superintendent looking very uncomfortable, "at first, I was quite as much in the dark as you were and——"
"But, please, Mr. Hanson," broke in Larose smilingly, "If I may, let me make the explanation, as I am the real culprit if there is one," and he went on to tell us—as we had already overheard—that all the time while he had been working as the medium's secretary he had been acting for the police.
"And you see," he finished up with, "when this Caesar Sturm's death occurred we thought it would bring less talk and scandal upon the Court if I remained on here as the secretary for a few days, rather than go away and return as an officer from Scotland Yard."
Clara appeared mollified. "Well, you didn't get anything from staying on here," she scoffed, "and it appears I found out more about you than you did about us."
"You certainly did," laughed Larose. "Those little matters about the cigarettes, the pencils and the hats was a really smart piece of work."
The Inspector turned briskly to me. "Well, Mrs. Fane, I think I'll take you first." He looked down at the Superintendent's notes. "You say you were in the nursery all the afternoon and that Mrs. Hume arrived there just as your visitors were getting ready to take their leave and stopped chatting with them for quite five minutes before she took them downstairs to see them out of the house." He looked up quickly. "Can you add anything to that now?"
I shook my head. "It must have been quite five minutes, because they discussed the babies and had time to talk about the Vicar's health."
He eyed me intently. "Now Mr. Larose here," he went on, "tells me that when he was acting as that Mr. Sturm's secretary it seemed to him that you and Mr. Sturm did not appear to get on very well together."
"I wouldn't have called it a matter of getting on," I said sharply. "The man's manners were too familiar and I daresay I showed I didn't like them," I nodded. "At any rate I intended to show that and I think I did because eventually he left me alone."
"And you kept out of his way as much as possible?"
"Yes, I did."
Stone then asked and I thought he spoke with studied carelessness. "And when did you last see him?"
My answer was prompt and ready. "A few minutes after lunch. He saw me go into that little privet lane where he was afterwards killed and followed after me."
"And you had a conversation together?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "A sort of conversation, though the talking was nearly all on his side. I told him plainly I didn't want to have anything to do with him."
"But what did he have to say to you?" asked the Inspector.
"He declared he had met me some years ago when I was living in Paris," I said, "but I told him I had no recollection of it." I spoke warmly. "It is no secret, Inspector Stone, that I earned my living as an artist's model once, but he wanted to make out there had been something disgraceful about it and that it would be best for me if I remained on friendly terms with him, as then he would not tell anyone about it."
"Then he threatened you?" frowned the Inspector.
"Yes, in a way, but I let him see instantly that I wasn't the least bit afraid of anything he might say."
"Then you think he was intending to blackmail you?"
"Oh, I don't exactly think that," I said, "but he was looking at me in that disgusting leering way his type of men do when they are alone with a woman."
"And how did the conversation end?"
"He heard Mr. Larose calling for him and he went off."
"Then he didn't say he must talk to you again? He didn't want you to arrange some further time and place of meeting him?"
"Good Heavens, no!" I exclaimed indignantly. "I wouldn't have dreamed of such a thing."
"And you went back into the house," suggested the Inspector, "and told Mrs. Hume everything straight away."
"Not exactly, straight away," I said, "because she had something to tell me, first. He had been behaving offensively with one of the maids and she said she was going to have him packed off at once directly he returned from his motor drive. Of course she was very much upset, as that meant cancelling all arrangements for the second séance which was to have been held that night, and, for the moment, the annoyance I was feeling about the man passed out of my mind. However, I told her in a minute or two."
"And what did she say."
"How well it fitted in with him going to be sent away from the Court at once. I should be spared all further annoyance from him."
"Thank you, Mrs. Fane," said the Inspector. "That's all I want of you. Now, Mrs. Hume for the few little questions I want to ask you."
"Ask away," smiled Clara. "I'm all ready for you."
"I expect you are," smiled back the Inspector. "I take you to be one of those ladies who would always be a hard nut to crack." He became serious. "Now, I won't go over all the ground the Superintendent has taken you, but there is one thing that strikes me. Now, of course you would have been very much upset at having to send that Caesar Sturm away in such disgrace. You would have been thinking it an unpleasant business to be got over as speedily as possible, would you not?"
"I was," agreed Clara, "but still it had to be done."
"Oh, by-the bye," said the Inspector, apparently going off on a tangent, "did you happen to know Mrs. Fane had got visitors in the nursery?"
"Yes, I saw them come," nodded Clara.
"Then why," asked Stone, with his question asked as quickly as the dart of a snake, "admitting as you have just done to us that you wanted this unpleasant interview with Sturm to be got over as quickly as possible"—he raised his fat forefinger impressively—"why did you waste any time by first going up to the nursery to have a chat with Mrs. Fane's visitors? You told the Superintendent that you knew Sturm had come home—so why didn't you go to deal with him at once?"
Clara was quite ready for him. "Because I wanted to wait until those visitors had gone," she replied instantly. "I knew they would have to leave through the lounge where I expected Sturm would be and I didn't want them to be witnesses of any unpleasantness which might have been going on. I wanted as little scandal as possible."
"Oh!" exclaimed Stone, and it was evident he was disappointed with her answer. However, he recovered himself very quickly and asked, "Then why did you waste more time by going back again to the nursery to speak to Mrs. Fane?"
"Just to reassure her," replied Clara calmly, "that in my interview with Sturm I was not going to bring up her name, so that Sturm could have no excuse to make out he was being sent away because he had told her he knew something discreditable about her."
"Oh!" exclaimed Stone again and he went off at once on to something else. "Now about this girl, Betty, who complained Sturm had been molesting her. Are you certain she wasn't exaggerating things or, perhaps even making them all up?"
"Quite certain," said Clara sharply. "She's a girl of good character and not given"—she spoke scornfully—"to exaggerating or making things up."
"Then Mrs. Hume," said the Inspector, slowly, and solemnly, "if she tells us that on that Friday afternoon a few minutes after five, at a time you declare you were in your room, she saw you from her window coming up to the front door"—he hesitated a long moment—"would you say she was reliable witness or not?"
"Ask me that again, please," said Clara frowningly. "No, no, I don't want time to think, but if she says she saw me then she is mistaken, that is all. Remember, it would have been dusk and at that time faces and even figures are hard to pick out."
The Inspector shook his head. "It was not by your face or figure that she says she knew you, but by your walk and, if it were dusk as you say, you do the remembering now and remember there was a good moon shining that afternoon. It was just after five o'clock."
"And that side of the house Betty was looking out upon would have been in the shadows," smiled Clara, "until long after five o'clock. Another thing, too, Inspector, if you had asked Betty about her sight, which I hardly think you would have thought to do, she could have told you she is very short sighted. As it happens, only yesterday she was at the optician's having her sight tested for a pair of glasses and was very amused at his telling her that at almost only a few yards she was a blind as a bat." She laughed merrily. "No, Mr. Stone, you haven't caught me yet."
At that moment there was a hurried knock upon the door, and, without waiting to be told he could come in, Benson brandishing a small rifle, burst into the room.
"It's found, Mistress," he exclaimed excitedly, "your little rifle. It was in the gun-room after all. Betty found it a moment or two ago. It had slipped down behind Master's golf-bag."
The Superintendent sprang to his feet. "Put it on the ground, man," he cried. "Keep your hands off. Your paw-marks will be all over it," and Benson laid it on the carpet as quickly as if it were a bar of red-hot iron.
Larose picked it up gingerly by the end of the barrel and laid it down again upon the desk before the Inspector, where the three police officers bent over it.
"It is yours, Mrs. Hume?" asked Stone.
"Yes, it's mine," replied Clara, and rather to my surprise, I saw a look of intense relief upon her face. She pointed to the monogram upon the butt and then, noticing Larose had taken a small magnifying glass from his pocket and was minutely inspecting the barrel, she turned sharply to Benson. "Fetch that photograph, please, from the billiard-room," and the butler left the room at once.
The Superintendent was frowning hard. "But it wasn't in the gun-room," he said, "when we looked on Saturday, I'll swear to that."
"No, it wasn't there then," corroborated Larose. He handed his magnifying-glass to the Inspector. "And it looks as if it had been hidden somewhere in the ground. See those traces of earth lodging between the barrel and the butt?"
"And there are precious few finger-marks upon it," commented Stone, "with those there are being probably Benson's or Betty's."
The butler came back with a framed photograph of about ten inches square. "This is an enlargement of a photograph from The Sketch," said Clara, "taken some years ago when I won the Women's Championship Cup at Lewes. Oh, yes, it's the same rifle I am holding then, as you tell if you use your magnifying-glass from the scratches and dents on the butt. Also, on the barrel there near the end you'll notice that deep graze at the side where a waggon-wheel nipped it as it was lying upon the ground. I had lent it to a woman friend and the careless creature dropped it just in front of a heavy waggon as it was going by."
"Yes, it's the same rifle, right enough," agreed Stone. He leant back in his chair and regarded Clara intently. "Now what do you make of it, Mrs. Hume, this first hiding the rifle and now putting it back."
She shrugged her shoulders. "I can make no more of it than you can," she replied. "It all seems so senseless to me. If I had fired the shot which killed the man"—she smiled—"as you gentlemen seem inclined to think, what earthly reason could I have for monkeying about with the rifle like this, first hiding it away and then putting it where it would be found?"
"But someone had a reason," said Stone sternly, "and someone obviously connected with the house, as no outsider could have had the opportunity to put the rifle back to where it has just been found." He threw out his hands. "Just visualise how the matter appears to us. A man is shot and within a few yards where he met his death was a rifle the very type of which might have killed him. Not only that—but it is known to us that this man was of such a character that his death would certainly not have been deplored by at least two people in this house, you whose hospitality he had outraged by his attempted assault upon one of your domestic staff and Mrs. Fane here whom he had insulted with his disgraceful insinuations about her pre-nuptial life." He shrugged his shoulders in his turn. "Then I ask you—what are we to think?"
"It's not what you are to think that counts," commented Clara dryly. "It's that of which you have absolute proof that matters." She smiled sweetly. "You must be very sure, mustn't you, before you issue a warrant for my arrest?" She looked amused. "Why, you don't even know yet if it were actually a bullet from my rifle which killed the man."
"Oh, we'll soon know that," exclaimed the Inspector grimly, "but I don't think there can be any doubt there."
And then to my astonishment Clara seemed to drop her defiant attitude and become all at once meek and almost resigned to whatever was going to happen to her.
"Well, I suppose, Inspector," she said with something of a sigh, "that, as an experienced officer of the law, you'll think very carefully before you take any drastic step which would do irreparable harm to me and, besides that, if it did not prove later that you had been justified in taking it, might altogether ruin your career at Scotland Yard."
"Oh, yes, Mrs. Hume," said the Inspector quite kindly, "I'll be thinking of you as well as myself. The law may often seem hard to us, but we have to do our duty."
"And you, Mr. Larose," she asked, "what do you think?"
"I think," said Larose in an equally kind tone, "that through no fault of your own, you have been forced into a very awkward situation, probably as the result of an accident. So, if you are really deeply involved, don't go to great pains to prevent us proving it. Far better admit what you have done and then you will be no longer an accused facing her accusers." He smiled. "It will be so much less public interest and excitement."
Clara smiled back. "Thank you so much for the loophole, Mr. Larose," she said, "but I don't need it for, as far as I am concerned, there has been no regrettable accident."
Larose shook his head disappointedly. "Then in that case, Mrs. Hume," he said, "I am afraid it is you pitting your wits against ours until either you or us have been proved to be in the wrong."
A few minutes later the three of them took their departure bidding us quite cordial good-byes and saying nothing about coming up to the Court again.
I was surprised at Clara being so bright and lively that evening. It was as if with the finding of the rifle a great load had been taken off her mind.
"But I am very puzzled," she said to me. "I can't think who could have meddled with it. All along, in spite of his denials to me, I have been believing it was Anton Meynall, but, after its having been put back in the gun-room, of course I have to give up all that idea, as he couldn't possibly have done it without help from someone here and that is altogether unthinkable."
"Besides," I said confidentially, "where I was concerned I am sure he wouldn't lie. His remorse is real. Now don't you think so?"
"It should be at all events," replied Clara, "but I wonder how far he really would have gone with his promise to you to kill that man. Probably, we shall never know."
"Don't talk about it," I said with a shudder. "It makes me wince every time when I think of my having egged on anyone to commit a murder. I really don't believe when it came to the point that I should have dared to actually lure that dreadful man to his death in the privet lane."
"If I had been in your place," said Clara calmly, "I should have dared it, as judge after judge has said blackmail is the very worst of crimes."
Now Clara was quite wrong in thinking we should never know how far Anton would have gone, as we were to learn all about it the very next morning. Not very long after breakfast Clara and I were in the drive just outside the hall door enjoying a glorious burst of winter sunshine, when, rather to our consternation, we saw the big police car come racing up and the Inspector and Larose jump out of it.
"I'd like a word with you, please, Mrs. Hume," and his tone was very grim and cold.
"Of course," said Clara. "We'll go into the library. You come, too, Marie," she added. She laughed brightly. "You may as well be in at the death."
With us all seated in the library, the Inspector wasted no time and came straight to the point. "This is going to be a final show-down, Mrs. Hume," he said sternly. "We are going to put down all our cards and advise you it will be wholly in your best interests to deal frankly with us"—he eyed her very intently—"for the first time."
"Splendid!" exclaimed Clara flippantly. "Let us see how many aces and trumps you hold."
The Inspector's words came like a bullet from a gun. "Exactly what are your relations," he asked, "with this Anton Meynall, one of the men who drive the delivery vans for Hickson, the provision merchant in Terminus Road, in connection with the death of that man in the grounds of the house last week?" He spoke very sternly "Now, please don't wait to think out any prevarications, as we have ample evidence there has been something going on between you two."
"What, a crime of passion at my age!" exclaimed Clara as if scornfully surprised. She shook her head. "No, I am long past that, and besides, to my knowledge I have never had any acquaintance with this delivery-van gentleman."
The Inspector's eyes blazed. "Listen!" He spoke slowly and impressively. "Upon the afternoon of last Friday, the day of the trouble here, this man, Meynall, was seen to enter these grounds here by way of the privet lane, and remain out of sight of the party who saw him enter for some minutes. In the early evening of the same day he was seen here on another part of these grounds, but without doubt to avoid being questioned by the police officers who had caught sight of him, he took himself off in a great hurry leaving behind him a motor-tyre lever and, we believe, a packet of pepper." The Inspector paused here for a few moments to let the significance of his words sink in. He went on, "Then on Monday, the day before yesterday, he was seen in earnest conversation with you by the gate at the end of the privet lane"—he spoke very slowly—"again that privet lane!" He lifted an accusing finger and rapped out almost menacingly, "Then do you mean to tell me these three incidents had no connection with one another and you intend to go on denying you know the man?"
With a great effort I had managed to suppress a gasp and make my expression one of supposed perplexity and surprise. So, after all Anton had come to the rendezvous with murder in his heart! Good God! And he had been intending first to blind Caesar Sturm with the pepper and then batter him to death with the tyre-lever! And it was I who would have been responsible for this ghastly crime! I felt sick with remorse.
I was glad the eyes of Larose were bent intently upon Clara and not upon me. There was no need for her to assume any expression of horror and surprise, for she was now undoubtedly expressing both these emotions. To shoot a man might have been a clean way of murder, but to blind him with pepper and then make of his head a bloody pulp would surely always strike some dreadful chord of disgust in the mind of the most callous person!
"Well, Mrs. Hume," asked the Inspector grimly, "and what have you to say to that?"
"Nothing," said Clara curtly. "It is all double Dutch to me! Haven't I already told you I know nothing of this mysterious strange man." She spoke angrily. "Do you mean to imply—and of course you do—that, failing by getting an opportunity to murder Caesar Sturm with my rifle, I had arranged with this other man to be upon the spot and carry on for me?"
The Inspector ignored her question. Instead, he went on, dropping his voice now to quiet and even tones. "Now, would not all these three happenings taken together suggest to any reasoning person that between you and him there existed some bond of conspiracy, a conspiracy that was not for the well-being of this man you knew as Caesar Sturm."
"You make me tired," said Clara scornfully. "Yesterday you were asking me to confess that I shot him accidentally and now——" she shrugged her shoulders.
"The charge takes on a graver aspect," said Stone finishing the sentence for her, "And you must realise now where our duty lies." He shrugged his shoulders. "As the enquiry has proceeded everything about you has stood out in a clearer and clearer light." He enumerated his points upon his fingers. "You met that so-called Caesar Sturm when he was alone in the lane just as dusk was falling—at the moment you were filled with animosity against him—you are by nature a hasty and impetuous woman and no doubt hot words passed between you. Then——"
But there was a knock upon the door and Benson glided in quickly. "Inspector Stone," he said, "You are wanted upon the phone, sir. Some gentleman says he has a message for you."
With some irritation at being interrupted, the Inspector turned to Larose. "You take it for me," he said. "Tell whoever is ringing that I am very busy for a few minutes," and, with Larose at once leaving the room, he went on with what he had been going to say to Clara.
However, it appeared he had lost the thread of his argument, and he could not pick it up again until he had gone over once more the points he had been making against Clara.
"But I tell you I deny having met Caesar Sturm that evening when he had returned in the car," persisted Clara angrily. "I deny——"
"Well, for the sake of argument," broke in Stone grimly, "supposing that you had met him. You would have been very angry with him would you not, and when you ordered him to leave the Court at once you would have told him what you thought of his conduct? Then, most probably he would have been insulting to you and, as we believe, with your rifle in your hand, in a sudden burst of rage you might have——"
"Oh, that poor little rifle of mine!" exclaimed Clara petulantly. "If I hadn't said anything about it, which I need not have done, you would never have had any suspicions about me. As it is you are building up your whole case upon it."
"Exactly," nodded the Inspector, "and does it not follow all reason that we—" but Larose was back in the room and handing him a slip of paper. From where I was sitting I could see there were only a few words on it, but their perusal brought a frown to Stone's face, though it seemed to me that the expression upon that of Larose was a half-smiling one.
Quite a long silence followed before, looking up at Clara, the Inspector spoke again, and then I thought his tone was a much milder one than before. "But, however strongly you may deny it, Mrs. Hume," he said, "it seems abundantly proved to us that you did have that conversation with the provision delivery-van man at the privet lane gate. The woman in the house just over the road who gave us the information is certain it was you talking to him, and what reason would she have for making it up? She knows you quite well by sight and——"
But the library door was flung open and Colonel Hume burst unceremoniously into the room. "Inspector Stone," he exclaimed, in great excitement, "I have just had a ring from my friend, Sir Basil Bartley, the Chief Constable, and he tells me information has come through this moment from Scotland Yard that their ballistic experts there say the bullet found in Caesar Sturm's head was not fired from my wife's rifle. They declare emphatically that it is quite impossible."
FOR a few minutes, following upon Colonel Hume's dramatic announcement that the ballistic experts at Scotland Yard had given out that by no possibility could the bullet which had killed the so-called Caesar Sturm been fired from Clara's rifle a dead silence prevailed in the room. The expression upon Clara's face was one of mingled triumph and intense relief, while the Inspector showed no surprise at all. Indeed, if the latter were disconcerted by this so sudden upsetting of all his calculations, he was determined not to allow anyone to see it. It was he who broke the silence at last.
"Yes, so I was informed a minute or two ago," he remarked casually and as if the matter were after all of no great importance. "Mr. Larose brought in a phone message for me, direct from Scotland Yard. So, for what it is worth, we can accept the experts' opinion as final, as they are not in the habit of making mistakes in matters such as this." He nodded grimly to Clara and his voice rose. "But you please take in, Mrs. Hume, that what we have just learnt about your rifle by no means clears up everything as far as you and the others in this house are concerned."
He spoke with the utmost sternness. "We still want to know who was hoping to defeat the ends of justice by hiding that rifle away. Obviously a conspiracy of some kind has been going on here, with certain of you banding yourselves together to prevent us learning how that man you knew as Caesar Sturm came to meet his dreadful death." His voice boomed. "Yes, there are conspirators among you and we are determined to find out who they are."
And then, to everyone's amazement, Colonel Hume leapt into the limelight again and dropped a veritable bomb among us all. "But there has been no conspiracy in this house," he exclaimed with a very red face. "A conspiracy means more than one person and it is I alone who have been mixed up in this. I am terribly ashamed to have to admit it, but it was I who first hid the rifle away and then, the night before last, took it back into the gun-room where I was sure it would soon be found." He spoke emphatically. "Until this moment no one knew anything about what I had done."
The Inspector's eyes boggled and his jaw dropped, while I thought Larose was again inclined to look rather amused. Clara moved over to her husband and placed her hand affectionately upon his arm. "But you dear old boy," she asked with a choke in her voice, "why did you do it? Look at the suspicion and mystery you have caused," and she repeated her query. "Why did you do it, Robert?"
"Because I was a fool, Clara," he replied gruffly, and his voice seemed to be choking as was hers. "I know you can be a very hasty woman and I was terrified it might have been you who had shot that man in a moment of anger. I thought that, perhaps, you had come across him accidentally when you had the loaded rifle in your hand and, intending to frighten him, the damned thing had gone off when you didn't intend it to.''
"But Robert, dear," she went on plaintively, "you should have seen what a silly thing it was to do?"
"I see it now," he said, "but, on the spur of the moment, I didn't see it then." He regarded her reproachfully. "I had no idea you were going to be so foolish as to tell the Superintendent you had got a rifle at all and that you often left it in the summerhouse." He shook his head. "If only you had said nothing we should have been spared this worry and annoyance."
"And where did you hide the rifle?" asked the Inspector very sternly.
"Not half a dozen feet away," said the Colonel. "I pushed it under the foundations of the summerhouse outside. I wonder those who were looking for it didn't find it at once. It was almost under their very eyes."
"When did you put it there?"
"The next morning after the man's death, almost directly after breakfast. I had been thinking about it all night."
"And it was you who wiped all the finger-marks away?"
The Colonel nodded. "But not until I was taking it into the gun-room the night before last. Then, of course, I didn't want my own to be found upon it."
The next question was one of the Inspector's quick ones, like a bullet from a gun. "What did you use to wipe them off with? Quick, please, no stopping to think."
The Colonel scowled at the abrupt way the question had been asked and, in reply, whipped a large silk handkerchief from his pocket. "With this," he said sharply. "My wife is a particular woman and the rifle was always kept clean. So you see the handkerchief was hardly soiled at all, at any rate not enough for me to change it at once for a clean one."
The Inspector and Larose bent over it and, after a moment's scrutinising, the latter pointed to what we learnt later was a small trace of oil.
"All right," snapped Stone, "we'll believe you there," and he went on with some sarcasm, "And how, pray, Colonel Hume, after suspecting your wife of having been a murderer, did you come to the conclusion that your suspicions about her were not justified?"
"For one thing," replied the Colonel, "because I saw how genuinely upset she was because the rifle could not be found and, for another, because I realised that, if she were really guilty of the shooting, she was much too clever a woman to have admitted so readily to the Superintendent that a loaded rifle of hers had been all handy, within a few yards of the very spot where the man was killed."
"And does not it come home to you, Colonel Hume," asked Stone very solemnly, "that, when believing your wife to have been the perpetrator of a dreadful crime, you hid her rifle to prevent her being found out, you became in part guilty yourself and, in the eyes of the law were an accessory after the fact?"
Colonel Hume nodded. "I know it," he said gloomily. "It was the most foolish thing I have done in my life." He shrugged his shoulders. "My only excuse is that I am an old man and I was so upset at the time that I couldn't reason properly."
The two detectives left presently, both of them quite smiling and pleasant in their good-byes. Still for all that it was obvious Inspector Stone was a very deflated man, with all his case against Clara having flattened out like a punctured balloon.
"And what they found out about you, dear," said Clara to me when we were alone, "they'll never be able to use. So we need worry about that no more. However much, too, they may suspect you were the woman who took that paper from Sturm's house they have no actual proof and there again they are at a dead end." She sighed. "Now my only anxiety is what is happening to Anton Meynall. Unhappily we have no means of finding out."
However, to her great surprise, she came upon him two days later in a quiet by-road at the back of Meads, driving his van as usual. He saw her at once, but evidently would not have stopped to speak to her if she had not planted herself in the road right before the van and forced him to pull up. He looked up and down the road and, seeing no one in sight, turned to her and asked with obvious irritation, "Why are you bothering me again? Haven't you the sense to leave me alone?" Though there was no one near them, he lowered his voice to a whisper and asked hoarsely, "Which of you killed that man? Did she do it herself?"
"We neither of us did it," said Clara sharply. "Both of us had perfect alibis. It is believed now it was an accident from a stray shot fired by some boys rabbiting in that quarry." She spoke in a whisper in her turn. "The police have been suspecting you?"
He nodded. "But what of it? They've been suspecting everybody. They have nothing against me. It was proved to them I was working in the shop that evening until knocking-off time at half-past five."
"But we have heard you were seen in the Court grounds later that evening," she said. "You were recognised before you ran away."
"I didn't run," he scowled. "I went off on my bicycle. I had seen several men about in the lane and a lot of torches flashing and wanted to find out what was going on. They caught sight of me and I had to get away quick."
"And you dropped a tyre-lever and a packet of pepper," said Clara.
"The tyre-lever was mine," he said, "and I couldn't deny it as I knew they would have found my finger-marks upon it." He half smiled. "But I denied everything about the pepper and I knew they could prove nothing there, as the paper it had been wrapped in had become sodden from the rain and there were no finger-marks upon it. It wasn't found until the next morning."
"And how did you account for your being in the grounds?"
"Quite simply," he grinned. "I had followed a big squirrel going into the lane in the afternoon and in the evening had come back to try and find where its nest was. I wanted a baby-squirrel if I could get one." He grinned again. "The tyre-lever was to knock the mother on the head if she came for me. They are vicious little brutes."
"And they questioned you about talking to me by the gate on Monday?" asked Clara. "The same woman who had seen you climb over into the lane on the Friday afternoon recognised you again."
"I know," he scowled, "but I denied it. I denied I knew you. I denied I had ever heard of Mrs. Fane, and I shall go on denying it. They had me up to the police station three times to question me, but could prove nothing and now they are leaving me alone." He let in the clutch and started to move off. "So you just leave me alone, too," he called out in parting, "and don't even stop me to speak again. You'll be a fool if you do."
That was the last we were to hear of Anton for a long time, but two days later, to my great consternation, his uncle, the artist, rang me up. As I had been fearing, Caesar Sturm had entered in his diary all the details of his visit to Paris and, going through it, the detectives had come upon the mention of Tudor Meynall's name, with him as being one of the artists for whom I had worked in Paris in my model days. Inspector Stone had pounced upon it at once, guessing that Tudor would probably be some relation of the Anton who drove the Eastbourne delivery van.
Tudor Meynall spoke now with the utmost kindness. "I have always been interested in you," he said, "and of course, I read of your marriage in the papers. I got the address of where you are now staying from the housekeeper in Lowndes Square. How are things going with you?"
Wondering almost uneasily what had made him ring me up, I, however, choked down my fears and spoke as brightly as I could. "Very well, thank you, Mr. Meynall," I said. "I am very happily married and have two lovely little boys."
"That's splendid," he said, "and with a mother such as you are I am sure they are lovely." He spoke casually. "What I've rung you up to tell you is this. Yesterday I had a visit from Scotland Yard who had come enquiring about you when you sat for me in Paris those years ago. No, don't be alarmed. They said they meant no harm to you and that their enquiries were only to round up officially those they had been making about that medium, Caesar Sturm, whom they recalled to me had met with that mysterious accident those few days ago. They asked me if I knew you had met him any time when you were in Paris."
"Oh, those detectives!" I exclaimed irritably. "They made a great nuisance of themselves here, trying to ferret out things that could have had nothing whatever to do with the man's death. I told them I had never met him in Paris and that he was a perfect stranger to me until he came down here." I spoke curiously. "But what on earth made them come to question you?"
"That's what I asked them," he said, "and they were very evasive in their replies. They wanted to know next if you knew that rascally nephew of mine"—he laughed—"but they got nothing out of me there, as I told them it would be news to me if you did. I shut them up sharply, saying I knew nothing whatever about your private life. You were just a model to me and that was all. I did add, however, that you were a young lady of the highest reputation, respected by everybody."
I came away from the phone, thinking what a perfect gentleman Tudor Meynall was. He probably guessed there had been something on between me and Anton, but he didn't intend I should even be aware of any suspicions he had about me.
Then I thought how dangerous those detectives were. Of course they were realising perfectly well now that my life and that of Caesar Sturm had crossed somewhere, but when and how they had no idea. They had no proof of anything and all the information they had gathered was of no use to them, as it lead them nowhere.
However, I had another shock the day before I was leaving Eastbourne. Old Major Button called in in the afternoon for a cup of tea when, fortunately, Clara was out. He was very full of a meeting he had had the day previously with Larose. They had run into each other in the Strand and gone into a hotel to have a drink, and Larose had twitted him about the way he had been fooled at the séance when the medium had made out he had raised the spirit of Abdul Khan, the Johore beater, from the dead.
"I admitted I had been fairly hooked in there," laughed the Major, "but, still, I told him the whole séance had been a piece of amusing play-acting with some nice little dramatic touches to make it go down. He hadn't heard of you going off in a dead faint, and when I told him about it and what it was had made you feel ill, he started questioning me like any detective would. He wanted to know everything Sturm had said about the military drowned-looking old man."
I felt myself grow cold with a horrid feeling of uneasiness stirring in me at once. Had not Larose in his notes about those who had been living in the house upon the moor put down that, besides the young girl Sturm had wanted to know about, there had been a Colonel Jasper who had afterwards been drowned. Then if he connected him in any way with my attack of fainting, wouldn't he have guessed at once that I had been the mysterious unknown girl who had been living there at the same time and so of course had known the drowned-looking old man?
However, I was to hear worse than that of what he had told Larose, as he had related to him next all about the next spirit whose throat was all bloodied and torn.
"Oh, yes," ambled on the Major, "he was most interested in that second spirit and said it was enough to make anyone feel ill."
Thinking over everything after the Major had gone, I felt quite sure that whatever doubts Larose might have had before about my path and that of Tod Bellamy having crossed before, earlier in our lives—he could have no doubt about it now. That we had met he would be quite certain, but I comforted myself greatly with the thought that that knowledge could be of no use to him at all. He would be curious and that was all.
The next day my visit to Eastbourne was over and I returned to Lowndes Square quite confident that the matter of the medium's death was closed. About a week later Clara phoned me up that the adjourned inquest had been held and, upon the direction of the coroner, the jury had returned an open verdict. The man known to them as Caesar Sturm had met his death from a bullet fired from a rifle, but by whom and under what circumstances it was not known.
I was quite confident it never would be, and the consideration of it troubled me no more. It might have been thought it would have been the same with both the two great secrets of my life. However, unhappily it was not exactly so there, as my mind often harked back to that report Larose had made after he had paid that visit to the house upon the moor.
I was always remembering how he had written that when looking through the windows he had seen what looked like papers and old exercise-books lying about in one of the rooms and I knew some of them must have been mine. So, I told myself there would be plenty of evidence connecting my handwriting with that of the Polly Wiggs of all those years ago. I knew that the chances of anyone ever using it against me were many millions to one, but still that the evidence was there was always at the back of my mind and it haunted me in an uneasy sort of way. I resolved that if ever I got the opportunity I would return there for an hour or so and get rid of all the papers in the kitchen grate.
I knew I should have no difficulty in getting into the house as, when an adventure-loving girl I had often in fun climbed on to the flat roof where the telescope had been and knew where the cover of a small skylight close near could be lifted up. The screws of the hinges there had rusted in the wood and I remembered the cover itself used to be quite loose.
I never expected to get the opportunity of revisiting the house, but strangely enough it came to me in the late spring of that same year. My husband was intending to take a few weeks' fishing holiday and accepted the loan of a friend's bungalow near Exmouth. So down there we all went, but a week later my husband was called away to Aberdeen upon important business. He would be away three days and my heart beat excitedly when I realised my opportunity had come. Less than thirty miles separated us from the moor house and I could do everything with plenty of time to spare during the course of one single day.
So I set off the morning after my husband had gone, telling the maids I was going to visit some friends in Torquay and they were to expect me back when they saw me. I left about ten o'clock and, to general appearances there was all promise of a fine day, though I was a little apprehensive to note that the glass was falling slowly.
I was thrilled with the thought of the adventure. It was getting on for nine years since I had left the moor house and I was intensely curious as to how it would appear to me now. However, my feelings were not all quite pleasurable ones. Certainly I had had a lot of happiness in my three years there and the education I had received had opened the gates to a new and wonderful life for me. But for that education I realise so well that I should not be where I was, with the best of husbands, two lovely children and indeed everything I could want in the way of money.
Still with all my happy and grateful memories of the Grey House, I had yet something of a grudge against it as I was now regarding it in a sinister light. It held that dark secret of my life and if its old walls could have spoken what a downfall would be mine. I should be unmasked as an impostor and in the eyes of the world be regarded as a bad woman, which I was sure I certainly was not.
Well, now I told myself I was going to destroy that last remaining evidence against me and after that, search as they might down all the happenings of the years, nothing could ever be brought up against me.
All went all right upon my journey until I arrived at Chudleigh, only about six or seven miles from my destination, and then my clutch began to slip badly. I pulled into a garage to see what could be done. The man there told me it would be quite a simple matter to be put right, but that it would take a couple of hours. So, I wandered about the little town while the repairs were being done, and bought some biscuits and chocolate and a bag of apples to have a picnic meal later on.
At one o'clock I was upon the road again, though I could not say my car was running at its best. It pulled badly and I had to drop into bottom gear to climb the steep hill up on to the moor. Then, when only a few hundred yards from where I was to turn off on to the ill-defined track leading to the house I struck trouble again.
I was upon the wide open road when I came upon a man sitting by the roadside having a meal and, with only a casual glance at him as I approached nearer, made up my mind instantly that I would not give him a lift even if he asked for one. He looked a tramp and a very unprepossessing one at that. I was about to pass him with a wave of the hand when to my disgust there was a loud bang behind me and I knew I had got a blow-out in one of my back tyres.
Of course I had to pull up at once and, jumping out, stood ruefully regarding the offending tyre. I should have to change the wheel and it was a dirty business I always hated. The tramp was most interested and came up with part of a loaf and a large knife in his hand and stood beside me. He looked more horrible and dirty than ever, so much so that I regarded the lonely road a little nervously. Obviously a foreigner, he was dark and swarthy with a ragged unkempt beard and long hair reaching down to his shoulders. He was wearing gold earrings and was clothed in very dirty blue overalls. I thought he looked about forty.
"Good afternoon," I said after a moment's hesitation, "can you change this wheel for me?"
He shook his head. "Spanish, no Inglish," he said, but when I tried him in French his eyes opened very wide and he started to speak volubly. No, he knew nothing about cars, he said, but he could undo any nuts if I showed him what I wanted. He leered familiarly, he was always delighted to do anything for the ladies, indeed his manner was so objectionable that for some reason I felt afraid of him at once and wished I hadn't let him know I spoke French so that we could carry on a conversation.
I got out the jack and propped up the wheel, with him making no attempt to render any assistance. A noisy charabanc, crammed full with what I supposed were tourists, came rumbling by and apparently to give his passengers a good eyeful of us, the driver slowed down to almost a walking pace in passing.
The passengers gave us a cheer and one of the men blew me a kiss, and my companion was delighted. "They think we are sweethearts," he grinned horribly, "and perhaps even that you are my little wife and we are upon a honeymoon together."
Now more afraid of him than ever, I made no comment and handed him the spanner to undo the nuts. He couldn't have been slower about it, talking the whole time with his eyes more upon me than what he was doing. His glances roved up and down all over me, taking in everything about me many times, my legs and figure in particular appearing to interest him. He looked at my wrist-watch and my rings, too, and it made me the more uneasy that he kept peering up and down the road as if to see if any other cars were coming.
"The car which has just gone by," he remarked with his horrid grin, "is the only one I have seen all day. This must be a very lonely road."
Then he started telling me about his private affairs, that he was a seaman, a Spanish South American and had recently come off a ship in Plymouth, and was walking to Bristol, where he had got a brother, to get another one. He had got a young wife in Rio de Janeiro, he added, but she was a bad woman and he knew she went with other men while he was away. Then he became very curious about me and wanted to know where I was going and if I should be returning this way, to both of which queries I told him sharply they were my private affairs.
I was very relieved when at last the wheel was fixed, but when I opened my purse to pay him for his services I found I had only a shilling and sixpence in silver and so had to give him a ten-shilling note. I saw his eyes sparkle when he saw the little roll from which I had taken it. He thanked me profusely and, thrusting himself so close to me that I could smell the sour, rank smell of his body, declared that all his life long he had found pretty women the easiest to deal with. For the ugly ones he said he had no time. I cut the conversation off sharply and made to get back into the car, but he deliberately planted himself before the door and, bending down his head to a level with mine, with that horrible leer upon his face, opened and shut his lips several times, as if inviting me to kiss him.
I was so furious that, forgetting all my fears I thrust my arm forward and pushed him away. Rather to my surprise, he took it all in good part and, moving to one side let me get into the car and bang the door behind me.
"I like a little spirit in a woman," he laughed, "and so off you go before you tempt me any further."
I drove off in great relief, thinking it a most unpleasant encounter and regarding the man as nothing short of a sexual maniac. With his horrible gloating face, he was the most animal-like man I had ever met. When a few hundred yards farther on I turned off the road into the track leading to the Grey House, glancing half round, I was not too pleased to see him standing still, watching me.
The nearly two miles of track took much longer to negotiate than I had anticipated, as the going was very heavy and I was most uneasy in speculating as to what its condition would be like if even a little more rain came, and it certainly did not look as if the fine weather would continue much longer.
Arriving at length at the lonely squat house set in the basin between the surrounding tors, I thought with a pang that things could not look more gloomy. By now the sky had become black and overcast and the house looked most uncared-for and unhospitable. However, running the car into one of the open sheds, I set about what I had come for as quickly as possible.
As I had anticipated I had no difficulty at getting into the house by way of the flat roof and I tiptoed down the stairs on to the ground floor with my heart beating painfully. Obviously the whole place was being terribly neglected, as there were many places where the roof was leaking badly, indeed the big kitchen and the passage beyond it seemed the only part of the house where the flooring was perfectly dry.
In the darkened rooms with the light filtering eerily through the shuttered windows the whole atmosphere of the place was most depressing and I shuddered, though it was not from cold. The barring shutters looked too complicated to undo, but I threw wide open both doors to let in some fresh air.
Practically all the furniture had been removed, but some comparatively worthless articles were still there, some kitchen utensils, four or five plain chairs, the heavy kitchen table and the old-fashioned dresser. Looking quickly round, in Colonel Jasper's study I came upon the papers and books which Larose had seen through the window, a whole pile of them which almost filled one corner of the room. Newspapers, old magazines, books with damaged covers and old discarded exercise books of mine. I held my breath in consternation at the amount of evidence there was that once one, Polly Wiggs, had been living there.
Upon the outside of more than one exercise-book I had written my name in the bold sprawling handwriting of a young girl and, most damning of all, upon the cover of one was gummed a snapshot taken of me upon one of the very rare occasions when I had been to Plymouth with Colonel Jasper.
I had forgotten all about it, but I remembered now it had cost a shilling and been taken by an itinerant photographer upon the Hoe. Underneath the snap, my old master had written in his crabbed handwriting, "Our Polly, July 16th, 1921."
Tears welled up into my eyes. How kind he had been to me and with what affection he had worked so hard to give me an education that would raise me up from the drab little servant girl I had been when I had first come to him. I sighed heavily. If he were looking down from some far-off spirit land and knew everything, I asked myself uneasily exactly what he would be thinking of me now. Would he be proud of the way I had profited by his kindness and loving care, or would he be grieving that I had put them to a base use and was living, as I would have to live all my life now, as an impostor?
But I pulled myself up sharply. It was not time for speculating and sentimental memories. I must get rid of all these books and papers. I would burn them on the huge old-fashioned kitchen hearth which was quite spacious enough to have roasted an entire sheep on the spit, and I realised it was going to be a race against time, as the afternoon was waning and there were all signs that one of the so-dreaded moorland mists was rising.
And I soon saw the burning was not going to be a simple easy matter, as the top layers of the papers were damp, and it was quite an appreciable time before I could get a good fire started. Then I could not throw everything on in armfuls, but had to separate all the papers and old books and give them one by one to the flames.
Every few minutes, too, I kept running backwards and forwards to the open door of the house to note what the weather was like. However, there was nothing heartening there as the sky looked more black and gloomy than ever and the mist was certainly getting thicker. I grew more fearful than ever that it would deepen to a fog and blot everything out.
I hurried feverishly, but it was well past four o'clock before I had got the last of the papers burning. By then there was a huge pile of ashes on the hearth, but I stirred them well with an old broom handle and at last was confident there were no pieces large enough for anyone to make out any handwriting.
Then, just as I was looking round to make sure I had burnt everything—my blood froze in my veins and I gasped in terror at the sound of heavy footsteps coming up the passage from the direction of the front door. Paralysed in my fright, I could not move hand or foot, but just stood stock still as immovable as a graven image.
The footsteps came nearer and nearer, the kitchen door was flung wide open and, to my dire consternation, I saw the dark-faced seaman whom I had met upon the road now entering the room. He was grinning, with his usual horrible leering look.
"Ah, I was sure it would be you," he exclaimed with a chuckling laugh. "A man I spoke to after you had left me told me there was a short cut over the moor here and, hoping I should see you again, inclined me to take it." His eyes roved round. "Whose house is this? Is no one living here?"
With a supreme effort I pulled myself together and found my voice. "This house is private," I said hoarsely. "You are trespassing. The gentleman it belongs to may arrive any minute. You had better not be found here."
He grinned evilly. "But I'm doing no harm, am I? The track leads onto Okehampton and I'm going there."
"There is no further track," I said sharply. "It stops here and leads nowhere. You had better get back on to the main road as quickly as you can. There's a fog coming and if you're not quick you won't find your way."
"The fog's come already," he said. "Outside you can barely see twenty yards before you, and this is as far as I'll go tonight." He unbuckled the knapsack from his shoulders and threw it down on to the floor. He grinned his evil grin again. "If that gent you are expecting don't come quickly he'll never be able to find the house." He regarded me impudently. "Any wood about, do you know? We shall want some to keep that fire going. It's going to be bitter cold tonight."
The horror of the implication of his words struck at me like a blow and I stared blankly at him.
"I asked you if there was any wood about," he said roughly. "Don't you know?"
"No, I don't," I replied sharply, "and if there is you've no business to use it." I tried to hide my mounting terror and spoke as casually as I could. "Well, I'm going off now and, when that gentleman I told you about arrives, please tell him I thought I'd better not wait," and I moved off towards the door.
The man's face was a study. He was scowling hard and obviously in two minds what to do. That he was half intending to stop me I was sure, but on the other hand he was not quite certain as to whether I had been bluffing or not when I had said I was expecting someone else to arrive any moment, and so for the moment did not dare. At any rate he made no attempt to interfere with me and let me pass, contenting himself with following closely after me as I went outside.
Then—oh, the terror that surged through me again when I saw what the conditions outside were like. Even in the last few minutes they had greatly worsened. The mist had deepened and clung so thickly to the ground that I could only just make out my feet as I hurried over to the shed where I had left my car. With a fearful pang I knew that if it got any worse I should have the greatest difficulty in keeping to the long track leading on to the high moor road and, in places, the slightest deviation from it would be disastrous.
Mine must have been the only car which for months had passed along it and it would be my own wheel ruts which I should have to follow. There were several quite long stretches along the track where the ground on either side of it was dangerously boggy and Heaven help me if I ran the car into them. I knew there would be no hope of my getting out of them by myself.
However, determining with a brave effort not to meet my difficulties until I came to them, I hoped for the best, my only thought now, being to get away from this dreadful seaman. Anything, I told myself, rather than remain in his company.
Reaching my car, I sprang on to the driver's seat and pressed upon the self-starter. Nothing happened. It did not turn over the engine. A little apprehensive I tried again. Still nothing! Next, I pressed for quite a long time and a dreadful fear filled me when not only did the engine not start but I felt the current from the self-starter weakening and actually beginning to die away. I waited a full minute before trying again. It was just the same. The battery was almost dead.
And all the time the man had been standing as close to the car as he could get, with his head half projecting through the window and his eyes intently watching every movement I made. Upon my third unsuccessful attempt to start the car, I imagined he drew in a deep breath of satisfaction. He stepped back a pace or two and an oily smile replaced the frown upon his face. He eyed me again in his horrible would-be possessive way.
Now I always take credit that in that dreadful moment of my life I did not give way to panic and that my expression gave no indication of the terror I was in, though I was quite aware of the deadly peril which was now facing me.
There was I with night coming on, in as desolate a place as anyone could imagine, miles from any other house, alone with a man whom every womanly instinct in me told me was no whit better than an animal where his inclinations were concerned. And what chance was there of any help coming to me? None at all! Even if anyone were aware of the peril I was in, no one could come to save me, for, with the fog closing down, it would be impossible to reach the house, and in a few minutes it would be as if the man and I were cut off from everyone else in the world.
However, I certainly had one hope left. It might be the car could yet be started with the handle. I knew I could not swing it myself, but it was possible the man could and, at any rate, I would try to bribe him to attempt it.
I jumped out of the car and getting the handle from the back held it out to him. "Here," I ordered peremptorily, "you start it with this. It's quite easy and I'll show you how to do it. I'll give you ten shillings if you do." I spoke quite casually. "I want to get away quickly now."
But he shook his head and refused to take the handle "Not I," he scoffed. "I've heard of its breaking a man's arm." He spoke with obvious sarcasm. "You'll have to wait until your friend arrives."
I made no attempt to press him, knowing it would be quite useless. Instead, I jumped on to the driver's seat again and pressed upon the self-starter once more. It was deader than ever, and I gave it up at once. I sat on where I was—considering. The one and only hope now of escaping from my enemy was to take him off his guard and vanish into the fog before he could catch me. With the fog, as it was, growing denser and denser, I reckoned a dozen yards start and he would not be able to see to follow me.
There was one thing, too, greatly in my favour. I knew exactly where the track began and he didn't. All just round the house the ground was hard and stony, and the wheel marks of the car could not be picked up until a good twenty and more yards away.
I looked at the man out of the corner of my eyes. Certainly, he was lithe and agile looking, but then I knew seamen were never good runners and that I had another advantage over him there.
I got out of the car. "I'm going into the house," I said. "I shall wait for my friend there. It's getting much too cold and damp here." He followed me as close almost as my shadow.
Pulling up one of the chairs I seated myself before the still smouldering fire, while he took another one and sat and watched me. We neither of us spoke and in a few moments even the silence became so unnerving that I wanted to scream. I could feel his eyes upon me all the time and was sure that if I turned round I should find him regarding me with that horrible gloating look. The room began to get darker and darker, and a very few minutes were as much as I could stand. The time had now come to put everything to the test.
With a yawn I said as casually as I could. "You had better go and get something to put on the fire. There are some pieces of wood in the room at the end of the passage. Also you'll find two hurricane lamps there. Bring them in and see if you can light them. There is probably some oil left in them."
But he made no attempt to move. "Plenty of time yet," he smiled, "and then you can come with me and show me where everything is. It is still quite warm here and—" but he suddenly stopped speaking and turned his head round in the attitude of one who had heard something.
For the moment I heard nothing and then upon my startled and amazed ears fell the faint sound of the chug-chugging of a distant motor bicycle. My heart almost stopped beating. It was impossible! It could not be one!
The seaman was as incredulous as was I, and with his mouth opened wide and his eyes almost bulging from his head, sat still as death to listen.
The chugging stopped for a few seconds, but came on again and continued in jerks. There was no doubt about it. It was a motor bicycle and the rider was evidently coming very slowly to keep to the track.
Oh, the exultation in my heart! It was like being reprieved from a most horrible form of death. I sprang to my feet and ran, followed closely as before by the seaman, to the open door. The chugs were much louder now. Louder and louder they came and then through the fog, to me like an angel from Heaven, burst the muffled and be-goggled figure of a man upon his machine.
He caught sight of us at once and riding straight up to us, pulled up and dropped the motor-cycle on to its stand. Next, with a flourish he pulled off his goggles and with one hand brushed away the moisture from his eyes. Looking up at last, his eyes met mine and I gasped in amazement.
The man was Gilbert Larose.
NOW if I were astonished at the so dramatic appearance of Larose, his face was the very picture of amazement, too.
"You, here?" he asked incredulously, "It's really you."
"Yes, it's me!" I choked. "It's really me!"
He was evidently about to ask further questions, but apparently seeing I was upon the verge of tears, turned tactfully to the seaman who was standing beside me. "Good afternoon," he said, "or considering how late it is, perhaps I had better make it good evening!"
The man's face was as black as thunder. "No, Ingleesh," he scowled, shaking his head vigorously, whereupon Larose turned back to me. "Who is he?" he asked curiously.
With a great effort I steadied my voice. "He's a Spanish seaman just off a Plymouth boat," I said. I went on hurriedly. "He's a horrible man. I met him on the road this afternoon and he followed me here. My battery has run down and he wouldn't help me start the car, so that—" I was trembling like a leaf—"I should be compelled to spend the night alone with him. I am terrified of him."
The face of Larose hardened. "Oh, that's it, is it?" he said. He nodded. "Well, you'll be all right now."
"But you look out," I went on breathlessly. "Don't let him get behind you. I'm sure he's dangerous. I'll tell you everything presently."
"Good," said Larose. "I'll watch him,"—he made a motion with his arm to the man to precede him into the house—"but first, I'll bring this machine of mine into the passage. This dampness will be doing it no good." He turned to look at the fog. "Whew, isn't it thick now? I only got here just in time."
"Yes, only just in time," I said brokenly. "In another few minutes I was going to rush out to try to escape somehow." I shivered. "Anything rather than be alone with this man any longer."
Larose looked at me compassionately. "Poor girl," he smiled, "you seem to have been having a bad time, but don't worry. It's all over now." Entering the big kitchen, he became practical. "But this is awful," he said. "Can't we unearth some sort of light anywhere?"
"There are two hurricane lanterns in a room up the passage," I said, "and they may have some oil in them. Then there are several broken packing-cases and we can get the wood to put on the fire. There may some coal left, too, in the cellar."
"Ah, the fire!" he exclaimed. He pointed to the big heap of ashes and smiled. "That's your work, I expect, burning all the books and papers that were here?"
"Yes, I was here alone by myself for a long time before this man came," I said. I turned the conversation. "But let's go after those lamps and that wood before it gets quite dark. We must take the man with us to help carry them. I tell you I'm sure he's dangerous and you mustn't let him out of your sight for one second. He must be furious that you've come." My voice began to choke again. "He was so positive that he'd get me in his power and——"
"Never mind about that now," broke in Larose. "You can tell me about it later." He looked back at the seaman. "But it'll be a job to make him understand what he's got to do, won't it?"
I shook my head. "No, he speaks French and so do I," I said, and I turned to the seaman and told him what he had to do. To my surprise, he was now all smiles and amiable and readily agreed to help us. So the wood and lamps were brought in and to my delight we found there was plenty of oil left in the containers of the latter. I sent the man down into the cellar to look for coal and he returned with a good armful. "Plenty more there," he grinned, "enough to last us a month or two."
With the lamps burning and a good fire blazing up, the kitchen soon began to take on a more cheerful outlook. "But," asked Larose with a sly smile, "how long do you think this fog may last?"
I made no pretence of having no opinion, but replied readily enough. "If it were winter," I said, "it might last for a week, but at this time of the year it is quite likely to have all cleared off by the morning. But still, that's only guess-work, for one can never be certain of anything up here."
"Well, about food," said Larose. "I've got a few things in my carrier, as I'm really upon a camping-holiday. I've got some bread rolls, a little butter, some cheese and two tins of corned beef." He looked as happy as a schoolboy. "Also, I dare say it will please you that I've got condensed milk, tea and a good old Australian billy to brew it up in."
"And I've got biscuits," I said, "some chocolate and a bag of apples."
"Good," said Larose, "then we can have quite a satisfactory meal." He looked towards the seaman. "But what about our ugly-looking friend here?"
"Oh, at any rate he's got bread and cheese," I said, "as he was having a meal off them when I first met him. Also, he must have some spirits in his knapsack, as he smells horribly of them."
So the food was brought out and we had quite a merry meal, with the seaman sharing one of the tins of beef. Also, the latter produced a good-sized flask of rum nearly full, and offered it round. However, it was declined with thanks and so he himself proceeded to drink generously.
The meal over, Larose said smilingly, "Now, I think Mrs. Fane, that you owe me some explanation. Don't you think so, too?"
"What about?" I asked innocently.
"Firstly," he replied, "why you told us an untruth when you said you had never met that Caesar Sturm before you met him at the race-meeting at Lewes; and secondly, why are you so anxious that no one should know you lived in this house at the time when that Colonel Jasper was here, and thirdly, why you thought it necessary to make the long journey to here just to destroy all those old papers."
"And why do you want to know all these things?" I asked. "They can have nothing whatever to do with how that man came to meet his death. You know quite well I could have had no part in that."
"I know that," he agreed, "but still"—he shrugged his shoulders—"well, I suppose it was mostly curiosity that prompted me to break my journey here this afternoon. As I've just said I am upon holiday now and, crossing over the moor, I thought it worth while to come a little out of my way to see what I could find out." He laughed. "You see I hate being beaten, Mrs. Fane, and you know you and Mrs. Hume have certainly beaten us in more than one thing, so much so that my good friend Inspector Stone is still like a bear with a sore head whenever he thinks of either of you."
"And if I tell you," I asked, "how are you going to use your knowledge?"
"I'm not going to use it at all," he said quickly. "As far as Scotland Yard is concerned, I promise you the whole matter of the medium's death is closed. Against all our instincts to the contrary, we are now regarding it as having been an accident from the shooting of one of those undiscovered rabbiters." He spoke with the utmost earnestness.
"So, anything you tell me now, upon my honour, I assure you is quite off the record."
"Then part of what you want to know I'll tell you," I said. "I spoke the truth in telling you that when I was introduced to Caesar Sturm at Lewes I had no idea we had ever met before. But that afternoon when he followed me into the lane to speak to me I learnt I was wrong. When I was living here—I'll have to admit that—he arrived one night and was given shelter in a storm. He knew that Colonel Jasper had a valuable collection of gold coins and a few weeks later he came to steal them. He tried first to poison some savage Alsatian dogs we had here, but it didn't come off and he had to bolt for his life when that Colonel Jasper went after him with a rifle."
"Oh, that's it, is it?" commented Larose. "And you must have been quite a young girl then?"
"Just over sixteen," I nodded.
"But why are you so anxious no one should know you lived here," asked Larose, "and why was that so-called Caesar Sturm so wanting to find out what had been your position in the household?" He eyed me very intently. "Tell me, strictly between ourselves, was Colonel Jasper your father?"
I had to laugh and I think Larose realised my laughter was genuine. "Certainly not," I said, "though I don't think he would have been fonder of me if he had been." I spoke pleadingly. "Look here, Mr. Larose, I want my little secret there to remain mine only and I assure you that if I told you everything you would only be amused."
"Very well, then," smiled Larose. "I'll let it go at that, but now about your adventures in Paris? What had he found out about you there?"
"Really, actually nothing," I said, "but he had somehow stumbled upon a half-truth and might have made my life a misery by the blackmail he was threatening me with, if he had lived to carry out his threat. I admit frankly that it was a mercy for me that he died when he did."
"Now one more question," said Larose and he spoke with the utmost sternness. "On your honour, have you any idea how that man came to die? Did your sister-in-law have anything whatever to do with his death?"
I spoke as solemnly and emphatically as I could. "Upon my honour, no, Mr. Larose. She was as horrified as I was at the scandal and suspicion which fell upon us all. I am positive she is as much in the dark as we all are."
"All right," said Larose. "I believe you." He smiled a rather sly smile. "But, another thing. Does your husband know you were coming here today?"
I know I must have looked horrified at the idea. "No, no," I cried, "he doesn't know anything about it and though I know he would never believe anything wrong about me, I am sure he would feel very hurt if he came to learn I was keeping anything back from him. The family and I happen to be staying about thirty miles from here, but he has had to go up to Scotland and will not be with us again until tomorrow evening. Then, in a foolish moment, I thought I would come here and burn all these papers. If I get back before tomorrow evening everything will be all right and he will never know."
"And you'll be back by then," said Larose confidently. "I'll see to that." He turned the conversation. "And now about this new friend of yours who's been staring so hard at us all the time we've been talking. I certainly don't like his looks, but why does he so frighten you?"
I told Larose about our meeting on the moor road and how he had scared me from the very first moment. "He began looking at me at once in a horrible way," I choked, "my legs, my body and every part of me. He kept on thrusting himself so close to me, too, that every moment I was terrified he was going to catch hold of me. I hadn't been with him for five minutes either before he leered at me that he loved pretty girls and petted them every time he got the chance. Every instinct in me told me he was a man it was unsafe for any woman to be alone with and he kept looking up and down the lonely road in a way that made me feel sick with fright. Except for that one charabanc nothing passed us all the time."
"And when he came here," frowned Larose, "he didn't actually attempt to molest you?"
"No, because I had told him I was expecting a friend to arrive every moment," I said, "and he didn't quite know whether to believe me or not. But, when the fog was getting thicker and thicker every minute and he saw I couldn't start the car, he refused to help me and looked so gloating and triumphant about it that I felt as I were going to faint in my fright. Then I—-" but suddenly I felt ashamed of myself and asked falteringly, "But do you think I was a fool imagining everything?"
Larose shook his head. "No, I don't," he said very gravely. "On the contrary I think you were in as dreadful a position as any woman could be. I know this fellow's type well. We see such a lot like him down at the London Docks, hot-blooded Latin-Americans who are all what you say. Sex-starved upon their long voyages, they are like animals when they get on shore. They are always getting into fights, too, about their women. Life's cheap where they come from and, upon very little provocation, they whip out their knives." He looked at the Spaniard out of the corner of his eyes. "I'll bet he's got one tucked away somewhere."
"He has," I said fearfully, "and its like a dagger. He was cutting his bread with it when I first met him."
"But don't be frightened," said Larose. "He won't get up to any tricks now I'm here. As a rule, his class of men are not dangerous until their tempers are roused."
We talked on for a long while and I found Larose a most agreeable companion, realising, too, that he was one of those men whom you can trust absolutely. I thought that of all the men I knew I couldn't wish for a better protector than I had now. When he decided it was about time for us to try to get some sleep, he fetched the seat from my car and, with the big rug which I always took about with me from there, too, made me quite a comfortable-looking bed in the passage.
"You shall sleep here," he said, "and the man and I will be in the kitchen. I'll make a bed on two chairs and he'll have to pass me to get at you. So you'll be quite alright." He frowned, "I don't think I shall attempt to go to sleep, as the fine gentleman seems to be rather funny tonight. He's been too quiet for my liking. He's evidently been thinking a lot." He nodded, "I wonder what about."
I laid down and, making myself as comfortable as I could, closed my eyes, not expecting, however, to get any sleep. I had been through so much anxiety during the day and my nerves were in such a state of tension that I thought sleep would be quite impossible.
I heard the others in the kitchen getting ready, as I thought for bed; on Larose's part a scraping of the chairs and on the seaman's the plumping down somewhere of the heavy boots he announced earlier to me that he was going to take off to ease his aching feet. Then a deep intense silence filled the house. From where I was lying I could not see into the kitchen, but the flickering shadows upon the wall of the passage told me the fire was still burning well. Larose had said he was not certain how long the oil in the hurricane lamps would hold out and so was going to keep a bright fire to enable him to keep a good watch upon his companion.
The minutes passed and I began to feel drowsy, my thoughts became the less and less coherent and, hours sooner than I had expected, I dropped into a heavy and coma-like sleep.
As I learnt later I must have slept nearly three hours, and then a dream came into my sleep, as dreadful and vivid a dream as I ever remember, before or since.
Sakao, the wolf, was chasing me, and as when too exhausted to run a step further, I turned to face him, I saw he was about to spring at my throat. The fur upon his neck was bristling, his eyes were shining like balls of fire and with his mouth wide open and dripping froth I saw the huge fangs which were about to tear the life out of me.
I gave a shrill scream of terror and it was my own scream which woke me.
Then with all my senses still half-drugged from sleep, upon my startled ears came a succession of crashing sounds from the kitchen. It seemed that chairs were being flung about, that the hurricane lamp had been thrown on to the floor and more horrifying than all, I heard a cry from Larose, followed by a snarling shout of triumph which I knew could have only come from the seaman.
For only a very few seconds did I seem to lose my presence of mind and then I threw off the rug which covered me and darted like an arrow into the kitchen. The room itself was half in darkness as the hurricane was lying extinguished somewhere upon the floor and there was only the flickering light of the fire which enabled me to see what was happening, but what I did see made me feel sick with terror.
With all his watchful intentions, I realised Larose must have fallen asleep to be awakened by my scream and find himself in deadly peril. I took in everything in a lightning glance.
Larose was prone upon his back on the floor. The seaman was astride his chest, with one hand pinioning his right arm to the floor and with the other endeavouring to plunge the large and dagger shaped knife into his throat. But Larose had caught the man's wrist there and was holding it away, though it was only an inch or two from piercing the flesh.
I did not hesitate an instant, but spring forward seized the seaman's long hair with both my hands and tugged fiercely to pull his head back. The muscles of his neck were like bars of steel and I did not quite succeed in my effort. Still, the fury of my tugging undoubtedly unbalanced him, as Larose was able to slant the dagger away from menacing his throat. Then with a lightning movement of his wrist he twisted the man's arm right round until the dagger point now threatened him.
Some spasmodic gasps on both sides and then, still grasped convulsively in the man's own hand, with a mighty effort Larose forced the dagger upwards to plunge deeply into the man's own throat.
It was all over in a few seconds. The man gave a dreadful gurgling squeal and the blood gushed in torrents from the wound as he crumpled up like a limp rag. Larose flung the body away from him and sprang to his feet. His first thought was for me.
"Don't look," he ordered hoarsely. "You get out of this. Go back into the passage," and I obeyed him instantly. I flung myself down on my improvised bed, and for a minute or two was sure I was going to be violently sick. My heart was beating like a sledge hammer, and I pressed hard upon my eyes with fingers to shut out what I had seen.
However, gradually I calmed down and was able to take in what was going on in the kitchen. Larose had succeeded in relighting the lamp, and I could hear him moving softly about the room. I heard him go out into the other passage and, as he trod heavily and slowly I guessed he was taking the body of the seaman away. I had no doubt about the man being dead.
Next I heard a splashing of water in the sink—Larose seemed to be quite a long time there—and then came a long silence. At last Larose put his head round the kitchen door. "You can come in now, Mrs. Fane," he said gently. "There's nothing to distress you. I've taken it away."
I walked unsteadily into the kitchen, where the fire was burning brightly again. Larose came up close to me, and feeling for my hand, took it and held it, looking down at me very intently with eyes that I guessed were moist with tears.
"Thank you, so very much, Mrs. Fane," he said softly. "I won't say more, but I know you will understand." He pressed my hand tenderly, but then let it go with a jerk and turned his eyes away and sighed.
Tears welled up into my eyes. I wanted to cry and, much as I loved my husband, would have liked to have buried my head on Larose's shoulder. I am sure he sensed the emotional stress I was in, for he reached out again and took my hand. He lifted it to his lips. "My first and last kiss, Marie." He bowed. "From now on always your most devoted slave. You are one of the bravest women I have ever met," and he dropped my hand again as abruptly as he had done before.
"But I'm not really brave," I said, "I think it was temper more than anything that made me seize his hair. I was furious to think that he had got the better of you."
"And, indeed, he had," said Larose solemnly. "It was a dreadful thing my going off to sleep." A thought struck him. "But how on earth did you come to give me that warning scream. From where you were lying you couldn't have seen into here."
"I didn't," I said and I told him what had happened.
"Well, it came exactly at the right moment," he said, "as it gave me that split second to roll off my chairs before he was upon me." He laughed. "And your pulling his hair was a master stroke. You could have done nothing better. No kicks or blows such as you could have given him would have been any use." He pointed to a chair. "Now you sit down and we'll talk things over. First, here are what I found in his pockets."
"That's the ten shilling note I gave him," I said with a shudder at the recollection of my meeting him on the high moor road.
"Well, that and these few shillings were all the money he had," said Larose, "So we can understand why he was interested in the roll of notes you let him see in your bag. Now, here's a discharge in Plymouth from the steamer Janeeta exactly a week ago of a fireman Carlos Vasco, so we can be pretty sure that was his name. And here's another name, Philip Vasco, of 17, River Lane, Bristol. That of course is the fisherman brother whom he told you he was going to see."
"Oh, burn everything," I said impatiently, "so that his body will never be able to be identified."
Larose shook his head. "I'm afraid we can't hope that, Mrs. Fane," he said. He spoke very solemnly. "We are in a very awkward position, for it looks as if there is going to be a lot of publicity about the death of this man. I hate to tell you, but I don't see how you can escape being brought into it, too."
"Why—why," I exclaimed with a dreadful fear beginning to surge up into me, "I was certain that you'd leave him here to be discovered by the next person who came to the house, which mightn't be perhaps for years and years. No one could ever learn then who'd come here with him."
Larose shook his head again. "But I'm afraid it's not going to be as easy as that," he said, and he took a key out of his pocket and held it up for me to see. "Yesterday I went to the house-agent in Torquay and, as a possible purchaser, borrowed this to look over the place. Worse even than that, the man said he himself was coming out here very shortly to see how the roof was standing up to the rough weather." He made a grimace. "So you see that anyhow I am in it up to the neck, and will have to tell the police."
His words broke upon my astounded ears like a thunderclap. My mind had been so filled with relief at the thought that the seaman was dead that I had given no thought at all about anything else. Now the awful possibilities of what might be going to happen made me gasp in my dismay.
"Then my husband and everyone will learn that I came here?" I exclaimed wildly. "This secret of mine which I want no one to know will become known everywhere and broadcast in the newspapers."
I burst into tears at last. "I would rather that vile man had killed me."
Larose was obviously upset at my distress. "You know I'd make any sacrifice I could," he said earnestly, "if it would be the slightest good to you in any way"—he frowned—"even if I had to perjure myself, but I can't think of anything I could say or do to help you."
"But couldn't you leave me out altogether," I wailed, "and make no mention of having seen me here?"
"I could," he replied at once, "but the police won't do it. Directly they learn of the way this man met his death they are bound to want to question you, as probably the last person except me to see him alive. Then, when they see your wheel-marks to and from this house, they'll be intensely curious to know what you were doing here in this lonely place all by yourself, if you gave the man a lift here or if he followed you against your wishes. If we make any mystery of anything they'll suspect something at once."
"But how will they ever be able to learn," I asked petulantly, "about me ever having set eyes upon the man at all?"
"You forget the charabanc of tourists," he said very gravely, "which went by when he was helping you to change your wheel, and aren't both of you people to be remembered?" He smiled sadly. "Beauty and the beast! You, a prepossessingly young woman all by yourself with your fine-looking expensive car and he a repulsive mahogany-faced foreigner with earrings and long hair! Why, directly the story of the horrible form of death a Scotland Yard detective had to give him to save his own life becomes known—the story will be red-hot news for the sensational newspapers and everyone will be talking about it. Then don't you think some of those charabanc people will go rushing to the police and say, 'Oh, yes, I saw him talking with a pretty girl in her car not far from the house where that detective must have stabbed him?'"
"But how will they find me?" I quavered. "I left no traces coming here that they can pick up."
"My dear Mrs. Fane," said Larose with a deep sigh, "you began to leave the clearest of traces in the first village you passed leaving Exeter. As I have said, a woman such as you in a car such as yours would be remarked upon everywhere when you were on the road, particularly in the comparatively slack time in the middle of the week." A sudden thought seemed to strike him and he asked sharply. "What about Chudleigh? You say your car was in the local garage there for upward of two hours, then was there anything in it that would give any clue as to whom you are, even if they didn't take the car number which they usually do?"
My stomach heaved over in my fright. "My driving-licence was in one of the pockets," I faltered, "and I think I had left some of my visiting-cards in a pigeon-hole on the dashboard."
Larose made no comment and went on, "Then, when they take the finger-marks in these rooms they'll find hundreds of yours, many many more than you can find now and wipe away. They'll see they're a woman's at once and, directly they have identified them as yours, they'll know you passed a long, long time in the house, and guess, probably that you stayed the night here." He shrugged his shoulders despondently and asked. "So what can I do? If I attempt to leave you out I should create a mystery and that will make the whole trouble a hundred times worse."
Then to Larose's obvious astonishment, he could see that all of a sudden I was smiling. Still, he would have thought that the smile was a forced one, as my hands were shaking like a gambler who was about to make his last throw with the dice.
"Mr. Larose," I said quietly, "I take you to be a brave man and, more than that, one who is not afraid to take risks."
Larose frowned. He told me afterwards that he wondered what on earth was coming. However, he made no comment.
I went on speaking quickly because I was upon tenterhooks to get over what I had to say. "Now there is quite an easy way out of all this," I said, "quite a simple one which was tried once many years ago and proved quite successful." I held his eyes with mine. "But, first, I shall have to be more frank with you than I have been up to now and keep nothing back. I have told you that, when that man I was to know later as Caesar Sturm came here after Colonel Jasper's gold coins, he didn't succeed in getting them, as the Colonel drove him away with a hail of bullets from his rifle."
"And that was true?" asked Larose, because I had stopped speaking to get my breath.
"Quite true," I nodded, "but I should have added that he came with another man who was not so fortunate in getting away. He did not return home and is still here?"
"What?" queried Larose with his eyes opened very widely.
I shook my head. "No," I said with my voice trembling, "he had his throat torn out. Unbeknown to anyone in the district, Colonel Jasper was keeping a pet wolf here and he set him on to him. Caesar Sturm ran back to try to save him, but he was too late, though he killed the wolf."
"And you saw it all?" asked Larose with horrified eyes. "What a dreadful secret for a young girl to have to keep!"
"Yes, and I was not much more than sixteen at the time," I said, "and that wretched Sturm brought everything up so vividly at the séance I thought it was the genuine spirit of the dead man which had come into the room. Do you wonder it upset me?"
In reply Larose reached his hand across the table and laid it gently upon one of mine. The kind and sympathetic smile which accompanied this action made it easier all at once for what more I was intending to say.
"Well," I began in matter of fact tones, "Colonel Jasper found himself then in exactly the same difficulty we are in now. Living in this lonely house so far away from all help, he dreaded the publicity his valuable gold coins would get and how it might suggest to others to come after them. And another thing—he knew the fearful censure which would fall upon him for having, in a farming district like this, kept a tame wolf here. The animal had escaped upon several nights from his cage and killed quite a number of sheep. He had been seen by lots of people but they had never been close enough to recognise him as a wolf. So, with these difficulties confronting him, Colonel Jasper——"
"Did what you are now going to suggest I should do," broke in Larose with an ominous shake of his head—"say nothing to the police and give this man's body a private burial somewhere in a lonely part of the moor, trusting to good fortune the place may never be discovered." He frowned. "But I don't like these private burial grounds, Mrs. Fane, as all the annals of crime tell us that when a killer gives the body of his victim to the earth she has so often proved a most unwilling ally. So many times she has seemed to be on the side of the Law and——"
"But I am not going to suggest anything as clumsy as burial," I broke in in my turn. "No, Colonel Jasper just threw the body into an almost unfathomable bog near here and it disappeared for ever. This bog is Fowler's Bog and it's the deepest and most dangerous on the whole moor-side. It never gives up anything that gets into it. The man who lived in this house before the Colonel slipped into it and was never seen again. Lots of moor ponies all known to have been lost there and some have actually been seen sinking down."
Larose looked incredulous. "And you mean to tell me," he asked, "that bodies falling into it disappear at once and never rise to the surface again?"
"No, not at once," I said. "They take from twenty minutes to half an hour for the bog to finally close over them and then they lie hidden deep down under the mud and peat for ever and ever."
"But it's against all reason," objected Larose. "When they putrefy the gases of putrefaction must force them to the surface again."
"But they don't putrefy," I said sharply. "It is well known that peat has some preservative qualities and no gasses are formed."
"And how big is this bog?" asked Larose thoughtfully.
"More than half a mile long and some hundreds of yards broad and this end begins just behind Black Tor, a huge tor which when the fog clears you'll see about a quarter of a mile away from here. A wide ledge of the tor hangs over the bog for about ten feet and that's where the bodies were dropped over. The man's body and that of the wolf went together. I'll show you the exact spot tomorrow. About a year later one of the big Alsatians, too, became so sick that Colonel Jasper had to shoot it and it was thrown in at the same spot. The Colonel was so overcome with grief that he couldn't wait to see it disappear, but I did and, as I say, it took about twenty minutes."
Larose considered for quite a long time and then said, "But one thing I don't understand. About that man the wolf killed—why didn't his companion, go at once to the police and tell them what had happened?"
"He daren't," I replied, "and we knew we were quite safe there. When he had come here the first time, that night of the storm when he had lost his way, after he had gone I remembered him as a man whom I had overheard someone in the village of Bovey Tracey say had recently served a sentence of penal servitude for burglary. Then if he had gone to the police what account could he have given them for he and his companion having been up here to throw poison to our dogs in the dead of night? No, we didn't expect any trouble and it followed we didn't get any either."
"Yes, yes, of course," nodded Larose, "I was forgetting all about Bellamy being known to the police."
A long silence ensued and then I asked anxiously. "Have you any scruples about getting rid of the body in that way, if you don't think it will be found out?"
"None whatever," he smiled, "as it would do nobody any harm and that's how I would always judge matters like that. I was only considering if the idea were really feasible and I must think it well over before I decide anything." He looked at his watch. "But come, we'll sleep on it, young lady. We can have a good two hours, and then, with the first breaking of the dawn, if our good fortune is in and the fog has cleared a bit, you shall take me to this dreadful bog and I will make up my mind at once."
And the fog did clear and soon after dawn the high gaunt pile of Black Tor was visible from the house. I led Larose to behind it and pointed out the exact spot where the bodies had been thrown in. For a long minute he regarded the black oily surface of the bog and then, to my immense relief, exclaimed cheerfully, "Yes, I'll risk it, though the consequences will be terrible if you've misled me and the body doesn't disappear as completely as you say."
We went back to the house and he set me clearing up as far as possible, all traces of our having been there. With the seaman's body he would allow me to have nothing to do, and indeed I never would set eyes upon it again. Finding a derelict old wheelbarrow in one of the sheds he made use of it to cart the body away. He was gone a good hour and the sun was beginning to come through the mist when he returned.
"All right so far," he announced, "it disappeared in just over the twenty minutes you gave it."
He made short work of starting my car and on his motor-bicycle preceded me up the track towards the high road. "I'll go first," he said, "to make certain the road is clear. Then I'll go Bovey Tracey way, while you'll turn in the opposite direction. Make a wide detour round and don't go through any of the villages you passed when coming here. Get into Exeter by the Okehampton road."
"And how can I get in touch with you later on?" he asked. He grinned impishly. "As a fellow criminal, I can keep you wise as to anything moving in Scotland Yard."
"You can always phone me," I said, "my husband is not the least bit inquisitive and never wants to know who is ringing me up?"
"Good," he said, "and I'd like to meet him one day if we can arrange it somehow." He smiled all over his face. "It would be interesting to see the lucky man who owns this lively piece of goods who holds so many secrets in her pretty little head."
We shook hands warmly in parting and in an assumption of affection called each other by our christian names. Obeying his instructions, I made a wide detour round and reached home in plenty of time to meet my husband who arrived by the afternoon train.
In one way I felt very ashamed of myself and, in another way, I didn't. My love was all for my husband and the great deception of my life in no way detracted from my worthiness as his wife. So, I would forget it all, I told myself, and harrow my conscience no more about it.
And now I come to what I am sure I shall always regard as the very greatest surprise of my whole life, and it was avalanched upon me without a second's warning. It came about six months after my dreadful adventure with the Spanish seaman. David and I had accepted a very short notice invitation to dinner from Clara. We were in Town and she rang up from her flat.
"Frank and his wife are coming," she said, "and we want you two to make up a table for bridge. You know she doesn't play and so I shall sit out with her."
Frank was the Eastbourne Dr. Burton and I had noticed she always made a great fuss of him. I liked him very much, too, for he was always such a bright-natured young fellow and so full of fun. Indeed, I had once said laughingly to Clara that if only it had happened I had met him before I had her brother I would probably have become Mrs. Burton, and she had commented that it was quite likely, as anyone could see he was half in love with me now.
She told me over the phone to be sure and come early as she had something very important that she wanted to tell me before the others arrived. Accordingly we arrived in good time and she took me into her own little room and rather shocked me by announcing abruptly that Anton Meynall was dead.
Three days previously she had a message from him from the Eastbourne Hospital to ask her to go to see him. He was in the last stages of leukaemia, that dreadful incurable disease, and knew his death could be only a matter of days. He had wanted to express to her for the last time his great grief at the way he had behaved to me.
The news was certainly a shock, but I did not for a moment pretend that I was sorry, for the haunting thought had always been with me that one day he and David might have somehow met and he, in an uncontrolled agony of contrition have burst out something which might have started David questioning me.
However, now I discussed Anton's death very shortly with her, just saying what a relief it always was to my conscience that he had not been able to carry out the dreadful crime I had been urging him to.
"And what another great relief to me it would be," I went on, "if we could only be sure that the death of that wretch in the lane was the accident we all think it to be. I am always a little bit afraid that one day Inspector Stone will come jumping round with something else he's found out about you or me."
"No chance of that, Marie, dear," said Clara smilingly, "as there is nothing more to be found out."
"Oh, isn't there?" I said sharply. "What about who fired the actual shot? Can you tell me that?"
All on the instant the smile passed from Clara's face and she regarded me with the utmost solemnity. "Yes, I can," she said, speaking very slowly, "though I'd never dare to tell anybody else. But I'm not afraid of telling you and many times have thought of doing so." She looked round to make sure the door was closed before almost whispering her next words. "I killed him and it was only through Dr. Burton that I was saved. He changed the bullets at the post-mortem and gave the police a different one which could not have been fired from my rifle."
I stood aghast. Clara a murderess! And she had sworn to me so solemnly that she had not killed him! Clara whose word I had thought, too, that I could always rely upon as never being anything but the truth!
She coloured up and reached impulsively for my hand. "No, Marie, darling, I did not lie to you when you asked me if I had deliberately shot the man and I assured you solemnly I had not. The quibble was about the word 'deliberate' which you had used. My killing him was not deliberate. It was purely accidental. He was menacing me. I was holding the rifle in defence and it seemed to go off by itself. I'd swear I never pressed on the trigger." She pointed to a chair. "But sit down, dear, and I'll tell you everything quickly. I must be quick as the others may be here any minute now."
I sat down as ordered and she went on. "That afternoon, directly Sturm returned from his drive he came running up the lane looking about everywhere for his cigarette case, just as I had got a big crow before the sights of my rifle, and that made me angrier than ever with him. I ordered him to leave the Court instantly, as an unwholesome sexual beast. He was furious and said it was not because of that girl I was wanting to get him into trouble, but because you had come sneaking to me about what he had found out about you. He called you a vile word and said that by shielding you I was probably one, too. Then he advanced close and I pointed the rifle at him in self-defence—and it went off."
Her voice shook. "Imagine the state of terror I was in, as like a flash of lightning, I realised everyone would say I had done it on purpose. Then, as in another flash of lightning, all my terror passed from me when I heard the report of a rifle being fired in that quarry across the road. If I said nothing it would be thought he had been killed by that rifle over there! Then it would be considered his death had been an accident. I calmed down instantly and putting my rifle back in the summerhouse, walked as casually as I could back into the house."
She smiled wanly. "I felt quite safe until those few minutes later, upon my husband's orders I had run for Dr. Burton and stood panting before him. Then I realised for the first time what a fool I was, as of course the police would be able to tell that the bullet which killed Sturm had come from my rifle. I blurted out everything to Frank in a fierce rush of words and he was terribly shocked. Then, as we were running back to the Court, he ordered me to admit everything immediately, as the longer I put it off the worse it would look for me. Then I sobbed out that you might be dragged into a horrible scandal, too, as Sturm had been making out he knew something dreadful about you, and people would say I had shot him on purpose to close his mouth. That seemed to upset Frank more than ever. Then, to my amazement, just as we came in sight of where Robert was waiting for us by the body, he said sharply, 'No, continue on saying nothing, I will make things quite safe for you. I shall be doing the post-mortem tomorrow and I'll change your bullet for another one I have. It's in a hare which the Vicar gave me. He shot it yesterday with a rifle the same size as yours!'"
Clara smiled brightly. "And that's why, Marie dear, I've always felt so safe. I was so sure nothing could ever be brought home to me."
"But Clara," I asked incredulously, "how was it Dr. Burton was willing to take such a risk for you. If it had been found out the consequences would have been dreadful for him. Of course I know you are great friends but——"
"We are far more than great friends," she said earnestly. She dropped her voice again to a whisper and her whisper was a very solemn and tender one. "He is my dearly beloved son, Marie, the child of that slip I told you I made when I was only sixteen."
"My God," I exclaimed, more astounded than ever, "does he know it?"
"You old goose," she laughed, "of course he does, and so would do anything for his foolish old mother." She lifted a hand warningly. "But hark! There goes the bell! They've arrived!" She patted me affectionately upon the cheek. "Now never you worry any more about Inspector Stone. He can harm neither of us now." Her face was all smiles. "And, after what you know Frank did for us, you be extra nice to him tonight. He's going to take you in to dinner."
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