Part 1 out of 6
Produced by Juliet Sutherland, Charlie Kirschner
and PG Distributed Proofreaders
THE FOUR FACES
WILLIAM LE QUEUX
"THE DEATH DOCTOR," "FATAL THIRTEEN"
"LYING LIPS," ETC. ETC.
I. CURIOSITY IS AROUSED
II. THE ANGEL FACES
III. A HAMPSTEAD MYSTERY
IV. IN FULL CRY
V. HUGESSON GASTRELL AT HOME
VI. THE HOUSE IN GRAFTON STREET
VII. OSBORNE'S STORY
VIII. MORE SUSPICIONS
IX. THE SNARE
X. NARRATES A CONFESSION
XI. CONCERNS MRS. STAPLETON
XII. THE BROAD HIGHWAY
XIII. THE BARON
XIV. IN THE MISTS
XV. THE MODERN VICE
XVI. SECRETS OF DUSKY FOWL
XVII. IS SUSPICIOUS
XVIII. CONTAINS ANOTHER SURPRISE
XIX. "IN THE PAPERS"
XX. PRESTON AGAIN
XXI. A CHANNEL MYSTERY
XXII. THE THIN-FACED STRANGER
XXIII. RELATES A QUEER ADVENTURE
XXIV. IN STRANGE COMPANY
XXV. THE GLITTERING UNDERWORLD
XXVI. "THAT WOMAN!"
XXVII. THE FOUR FACES
XXVIII. THE FACES UNMASKED
THE FOUR FACES
CURIOSITY IS AROUSED
"I confess I'd like to know somethin' more about him."
"Where did you run across him first?"
"I didn't run across him; he ran across me, and in rather a curious way.
We live in Linden Gardens now, you know. Several of the houses there are
almost exactly alike, and about a month ago, at a dinner party we were
givin', a young man was shown in. His name was unknown to me, so I
supposed that he must be some friend of my wife's. Then I saw that he
was a stranger to her too, and then all at once he became very confused,
inquired if he were in Sir Harry Dawson's house--Sir Harry lives in the
house next to ours--and, findin' he was not, apologized profusely for
his mistake, and left hurriedly."
"Anyone might make a mistake of that kind in some London houses," the
second speaker said. "What is he like? Is he a gentleman?"
"And for how long have you leased him your house in Cumberland Place?"
"Seven years, with option of renewal."
"And you mean to say you know nothing about him?"
"I won't say 'nothin',' but I know comparatively little about him.
Houston and Prince, the house agents, assure me they've made inquiries,
and that he is a rich young man whose uncle amassed a large fortune in
Tasmania--I didn't know fortunes were to be made in Tasmania, did you?
The uncle died six months ago, Houston and Prince tell me, and Hugesson
Gastrell has inherited everything he left. They say that they have
ascertained that Gastrell's parents died when he was quite a child, and
that this uncle who has died has been his guardian ever since."
"That sounds right enough. What more do you want to know?"
"It somehow seems to me very strange that I should have come to know
this man, Gastrell, without introduction of any kind--even have become
intimate with him. On the day after he had come to my house by accident,
he called to fetch a pair of gloves which, in his confusion on the
previous evenin', he had left in the hall. He asked if he might see me,
and then he again apologized for the mistake he had made the night
before. We stayed talkin' for, I suppose, fully half an hour--he's an
excellent talker, and exceedingly well-informed--and incidentally he
mentioned that he was lookin' for a house. From his description of what
he wanted it at once struck me that my Cumberland Place house would be
the very thing for him--I simply can't afford to live there now, as you
know, and for months I have been tryin' to let it. I told him about it,
and he asked if he might see it, and--well, the thing's done; he has it
now, as I say, on a seven years' lease."
"Then why worry?"
"I am not worryin'--I never worry--the most foolish thing any man can do
is to worry. All I say is--I should like to know somethin' more about
the feller. He may be quite all right--I have not the least reason for
supposin' he isn't--but my wife has taken a strong dislike to him. She
says she mistrusts him. She has said so from the beginnin'. After he had
asked to see me that mornin', the mornin' he called for his gloves, and
we had talked about the house, I invited him to lunch and introduced him
to my wife. Since then he has dined with us several times, and--well, my
wife is most insistent about it--she declares she is sure he isn't what
he seems to be, and she wanted me not to let him the house."
"Women have wonderful intuition in reading characters."
"I know they have, and that's why I feel--well, why I feel just the
least bit uneasy. What has made me feel so to-day is that I have just
heard from Sir Harry Dawson, who is on the Riviera, and he says that he
doesn't know Hugesson Gastrell, has never heard of him. There, read
Seated in my club on a dull December afternoon, that was part of a
conversation I overheard, which greatly interested me. It interested me
because only a short time before I had, while staying in Geneva, become
acquainted at the hotel with a man named Gastrell, and I wondered if he
could be the same. From the remarks I had just heard I suspected that he
must be, for the young man in Geneva had also been an individual of
considerable personality, and a good conversationalist.
If I had been personally acquainted with either of the two speakers, who
still stood with their backs to the fire and their hands under their
coat-tails, talking now about some wonderful run with the Pytchley, I
should have told him I believed I had met the individual they had just
been discussing; but at Brooks's it is not usual for members to talk to
other members unintroduced. Therefore I remained sprawling in the big
arm-chair, where I had been pretending to read a newspaper, hoping that
something more would be said about Gastrell. Presently my patience
"By the way, this feller Gastrell who's taken my house tells me he's
fond of huntin'," the first speaker--whom I knew to be Lord Easterton, a
man said to have spent three small fortunes in trying to make a big
one--remarked. "Said somethin' about huntin' with the Belvoir or the
Quorn. Shouldn't be surprised if he got put up for this club later."
"Should you propose him if he asked you?"
"Certainly, provided I found out all about him. He's a gentleman
although he is an Australian--he told Houston and Prince he was born and
educated in Melbourne, and went to his uncle in Tasmania immediately he
left school; but he hasn't a scrap of that ugly Australian accent; in
fact, he talks just like you or me or anybody else, and would pass for
an Englishman anywhere."
Without a doubt that must be the man I had met, I reflected as the two
speakers presently sauntered out of the room, talking again of hunting,
one of the principal topics of conversation in Brooks's. I, Michael
Berrington, am a man of leisure, an idler I am ashamed to say, my
parents having brought me up to be what is commonly and often so
erroneously termed "a gentleman," and left me, when they died, heir to a
cosy little property in Northamptonshire, and with some £80,000 safely
invested. As a result I spend many months of the year in travel, for I
am a bachelor with no ties of any kind, and the more I travel and the
more my mind expands, the more cosmopolitan I become and the more
inclined I feel to kick against silly conventions such as this one at
Brooks's which prevented my addressing Lord Easterton or his friend--men
I see in the club every day I am there, and who know me quite well by
sight, though we only stare stonily at each other--and asking more
So Lady Easterton had taken an instinctive dislike to this young man,
Hugesson Gastrell, and openly told her husband that she mistrusted him.
Now, that was curious, I reflected, for I had spoken to him several
times while in Geneva, and though his personality had appealed to
Well, there was something about him that puzzled me, something--I cannot
define what it was, for it was more like a feeling or sensation which
came over me while I was with him--a feeling that he was not what he
appeared to be, and that I saw, so to speak, only his outer surface.
The greeting cut my train of thought, and, screwing myself round in the
big arm-chair, I looked up.
"Why, Jack!" I exclaimed, "I had no idea you were in England. I thought
you were bagging rhinoceroses and things in Nigeria or somewhere."
"So I have been. Got back yesterday. Sorry I am back, to tell you the
truth," and he glanced significantly towards the window. A fine, wetting
drizzle was falling; dozens of umbrellas passed to and fro outside; the
street lamps were lit, though it was barely three o'clock, and in the
room that we were in the electric lights were switched on. The sky was
the colour of street mud, through which the sun, a huge, blood-red disc,
strove to pierce the depressing murk of London's winter atmosphere,
thereby creating a lurid and dismal effect.
Jack Osborne is a man I rather like, in spite of the fact that his sole
aim in life is to kill things. When he isn't shooting "hippos" and
"rhinos" and bears and lions in out-of-the-way parts of the world, he is
usually plastering pheasants in the home covers, or tramping the fields
and moors where partridges and grouse abound.
"Had a good time?" I asked some moments later.
"Ripping," he answered, "quite ripping," and he went on to tell me the
number of beasts he had slain, particulars about them and the way he had
outwitted them. I managed to listen for ten minutes or so without
yawning, and then suddenly he remarked:
"I met a man on board ship, on the way home, who said he knew
you--feller named Gastrell. Said he met you in Geneva, and liked you
like anything. Struck me as rather a rum sort--what? Couldn't quite make
him out. Who is he and what is he? What's he do?"
"I know as little about him as you do," I answered. "I know him only
slightly--we were staying at the same hotel in Geneva. I heard Lord
Easterton, who was in here half an hour ago, saying he had let his house
in Cumberland Place to a man named Gastrell--Hugesson Gastrell. I wonder
if it is the man I met in Geneva and that you say you met on board ship.
When did you land?"
"Yesterday, at Southampton. Came by the _Masonic_ from Capetown."
"And where did Gastrell come from?"
"Capetown too. I didn't notice him until we were near the end of the
voyage. He must have remained below a good deal, I think."
I paused, thinking.
"In that case," I said, "the Gastrell who has leased Easterton's house
can't be the man you and I have met, because, from what Easterton said,
he saw his man quite recently. Ah, here is Lord Easterton," I added, as
the door opened and he re-entered. "You know him, don't you?"
"Quite well," Jack Osborne answered, "Don't you? Come, I'll introduce
you, and then we'll clear this thing up."
It was not until Osborne and Lord Easterton had talked for some time
about shooting in general, and about "hippo" and "rhino" and "'gator"
killing in particular, and I had been forced to listen to a repetition
of incidents to do with the sport that Jack Osborne had obtained in
Nigeria and elsewhere, that Jack presently said:
"Berrington tells me, Easterton, he heard you say that you have let your
house to a man named Gastrell, and we were wondering if he is the
Gastrell we both know--a tall man of twenty-eight or so, with dark hair
and very good-looking, queer kind of eyes--what?"
"Oh, so you know him?" Easterton exclaimed. "That's good. I want to find
out who he is, where he comes from, in fact all about him. I have a
reason for wanting to know."
"He came from Capetown with me--landed at Southampton yesterday,"
Osborne said quickly.
"Capetown? Arrived yesterday? Oh, then yours must be a different man.
Tell me what he is like."
Osborne gave a detailed description.
"And at the side of his chin," he ended, "he's got a little scar, sort
of scar you see on German students' faces, only quite small--doesn't
disfigure him a bit."
"But this is extraordinary," Lord Easterton exclaimed. "You have
described my man to the letter--even to the scar. Can they be twins?
Even twins, though, wouldn't have the same scar, the result probably of
some accident. You say your man landed only yesterday?"
"Yes, we came off the ship together."
"Then he was on board on--let me think--ten days or so ago?"
"It's most singular, this apparent likeness between the two men."
"It is--if they really are alike. When shall you see your man again?"
"I have this moment had a letter from him," Easterton answered. "He asks
me to lunch with him at the Café Royal to-morrow. Look here, I'll tell
you what I'll do--I'll say I'm engaged or somethin', and ask him to dine
here one evenin'. Then if you will both give me the pleasure of your
company, we shall at once find out if your Gastrell and mine are the
same--they can't be the same, of course, as your man was in the middle
of the ocean on the day mine was here in London; I mean we'll find out
if he has a twin brother."
"Have you met his wife?" Jack Osborne inquired carelessly, as he lit a
"Phew! Yes. I should say so. One of the most gloriously beautiful women
I have ever seen in my life. She was on board with him, and I believe
everybody on the ship was head over ears in love with her. I know
"Ah, that settles it," Easterton said. "My man is a bachelor."
Osborne smiled in a curious way, and blew a cloud of smoke towards the
ceiling without saying anything.
"Why, what is it?" Easterton asked, noticing the smile.
"Oh, nothing. A little thought that crept into my brain, that's all."
"Tell us what your Gastrell's wife is like," Easterton pursued.
"Like? What is she not like! Think of all the most lovely girls and
women you have ever set eyes on, and roll them into one, and still you
won't get the equal of Jasmine Gastrell. What is she like? By heaven,
you might as well ask me to describe the taste of nectar!"
"Dark or fair?"
"It isn't nonsense, Easterton. She has the strangest eyes--they are
really green, I suppose, but they look quite blue in some lights, and in
other lights deep purple. They are the most extraordinary eyes I have
ever seen; a woman with eyes like that must have tremendous intelligence
and quite exceptional personality. It's useless for me to try to
describe the rest of her face; it's too lovely for anything."
"And her hair?" Easterton asked. "Has she dark hair or fair?"
"Ah, Jack, stop rottin'," Easterton exclaimed, laughing. "What is the
colour of the hair of this woman who has so set your heart on end?"
"It may be auburn; it may be chestnut-brown; it may be red for all I
know, but I am hanged if I can say for certain which it is, or if it's
only one colour or all three shades. But whatever it is it's perfectly
lovely hair, and she has any amount of it. I wouldn't mind betting that
when she lets it down it falls quite to her feet and hangs all round her
like a cloak."
"I should like to meet this goddess, Jack," Easterton said, his
curiosity aroused. "Though you are so wedded to hippos, and rhinos, and
'gators and things, you don't seem entirely to have lost your sense of
appreciation of 'woman beautiful.' Where are she and her
"I've not the least idea."
"Didn't they tell you their plans?"
"They said nothing whatever about themselves, though I tried once or
twice to draw them out. In that respect they were extraordinarily
reserved. In every other way they were delightful--especially Mrs.
Gastrell, though I was greatly attracted by Gastrell too, when I came to
know him towards the end of the voyage."
THE ANGEL FACES
Hugesson Gastrell had accepted Lord Easterton's invitation to dine at
the club, and the three men were seated near the fire as I entered,
Easterton and Jack Osborne on one of the large settees, their visitor
facing them in an arm-chair, with his back to me. I went towards them
across the big room, apologizing for my unpunctuality, for I was nearly
ten minutes late. To my surprise they remained silent; even Easterton
did not rise, or greet me in any way. He looked strangely serious, and
so did Jack, as a rule the cheeriest of mortals.
"I am dreadfully sorry for being so late," I exclaimed, thinking that my
unpunctuality must have given them offence. I was about to invent some
elaborate excuse to account for my "delay," when the man seated with his
back to me suddenly rose, and, turning abruptly, faced me.
I recognized him at once. It was Gastrell, whom I had met at the Hotel
Metropol in Geneva. As he stood there before me, with his back half
turned to the light of the big bay window, there could be no mistaking
him. Again I was struck by his remarkable appearance--the determined,
clean-cut features, the straight, short nose, the broad forehead, the
square-shaped chin denoting rigid strength of purpose. Once more I
noticed the cleft in his chin--it was quite deep. His thick hair was
dark, with a slight kink in it behind the ears. But perhaps the
strangest, most arresting thing about Gastrell's face was his
eyes--daring eyes of a bright, light blue, such as one sees in some
Canadians, the bold, almost hard eyes of a man who is accustomed to
gazing across far distances of sunlit snow, who habitually looks up into
vast, pale blue skies--one might have imagined that his eyes had caught
their shade. He wore upon his watch-chain a small gold medallion, a
trinket which had attracted my attention before. It was about the size
of a sovereign, and embossed upon it were several heads of chubby
cupids--four sweet little faces.
At first glance at him a woman might have said mentally, "What nice
eyes!" At the second, she would probably have noticed a strange
thing--the eyes were quite opaque; they seemed to stare rather than look
at you, there was no depth whatever in them. Certainly there was no
guessing at Gastrell's character from his eyes--you could take it or
leave it, as you pleased, for the eyes gave you no help. The glance was
perfectly direct, bright and piercing, but there could be absolutely no
telling if the man when speaking were lying to you or not. The hard,
blue eyes never changed, never deepened, nor was there any emotion
To sum up, the effect the man's personality produced was that of an
extraordinarily strong character carving its way undaunted through every
obstacle to its purpose; but whether the trend of that character were
likely to lean to the side of truth and goodness, or to that of lying
and villainy, there was no guessing.
All these points I observed again--I say "again," for they had struck me
forcibly the first time I had met him in Geneva--as he stood there
facing me, his gaze riveted on mine. We must have stayed thus staring at
each other for several moments before anybody spoke. Then it was Lord
Easterton who broke the silence.
"Well?" he asked.
I glanced at him quickly, uncertain which of us he had addressed. After
some instants' pause he repeated:
"Are you speaking to me?" I asked quickly.
"Of course," he replied, almost sharply. "You don't seem to know each
other after all."
"Oh, but yes," I exclaimed, and I turned quickly to Gastrell,
instinctively extending my hand to him as I did so. "We met in Geneva."
He still stood looking at me, motionless. Then gradually an expression,
partly of surprise, partly of amusement, crept into his eyes.
"You mistake me for someone else, I am afraid," he said, and his voice
was the voice of the man I had met in Geneva--that I would have sworn to
in any court of law, "It is rather remarkable," he went on, his eyes
still set on mine, "that Mr. Osborne, to whom Lord Easterton has just
introduced me, also thought he and I had met before."
"But I am certain I did meet you," Osborne exclaimed in a curious tone,
from where he sat. "I am quite positive we were together on board the
_Masonic_, unless you have a twin brother, and even then--"
He stopped, gazing literally open-mouthed at Hugesson Gastrell, while I,
standing staring at the man, wondered if this were some curious dream
from which I should presently awaken, for there could be no two
questions about it--the man before me was the Gastrell I had met in
Geneva and conversed with on one or two occasions for quite a long time.
Beside, he wore the little medallion of the Four Faces.
Easterton looked ill at ease; so did Osborne; and certainly I felt
considerably perturbed. It was unnatural, uncanny, this resemblance. And
the resemblance as well as the name must, it would seem, be shared by
three men at least. For here was Lord Easterton's friend, Hugesson
Gastrell, whom Easterton had told us he had met frequently in London
during the past month; here was Jack Osborne claiming to be acquainted
with a man named Gastrell, whom he had met on his way home from Africa,
and who, as he put it to us afterwards, was "the dead facsimile" of
Easterton's guest; and here was I with a distinct recollection of a man
called Gastrell who--well, the more I stared at Easterton's guest the
more mystified I felt at this Hugesson Gastrell's declaring that he was
not my Geneva companion; indeed that we had never met before, and that
he had never been in Geneva.
The dinner was not a great success. Gastrell talked at considerable
length on all sorts of subjects, talked, too, in a most interesting and
sometimes very amusing way; yet all the time the thought that was in
Osborne's mind was in my mind also--it was impossible, he was thinking,
that this man seated at dinner with us could be other than the
individual he had met on board ship; it was impossible, I was thinking,
that this man seated at dinner with us could be other than the
individual I had met in Geneva.
Easterton, a great talker in the club, was particularly silent. He too
was puzzled; worse than that--he felt, I could see, anxious and
uncomfortable. He had let his house to this man--the lease was already
signed--and now his tenant seemed to be, in some sense, a man
We sat in the big room with the bay window, after dinner, until about
half-past ten, when Gastrell said he must be going. During the whole
time he had been with us he had kept us entertained by his interesting
conversation, full of quaint reminiscences, and touched with flashes
"I hope we shall see a great deal of each other when I am settled in
Cumberland Place," he said, as he prepared to leave. The remark, though
spoken to Easterton, had been addressed to us all, and we made some
conventional reply in acknowledgment.
"And if, later, I decide to join this club," he said presently, "you
won't mind proposing me, will you, Easterton?"
"I? Er--oh, of course, not in the least!" Easterton answered awkwardly,
taken off his guard. "But it will take you a good time to get in, you
know," he added as an afterthought, hopeful that the prospect of delay
might cause Gastrell to change his mind. "Two, even three years, some
men have to wait."
"That won't matter," Gastrell said carelessly, as the hall porter helped
him on with his coat. "I can join some other club meanwhile, though I
draw the line at pot-houses. Well, good night to you all, and you must
all come to my house-warming--a sort of reception I'm going to give. I
ought to be settled into the house in a month. And I hope," he added
lightly, addressing Jack Osborne and myself, "you won't run across any
more of my 'doubles.' I don't like the thought of being mistaken for
The door of the taxi shut with a bang. In the hall, where the tape
machines were busy, Osborne and I stood looking at each other
thoughtfully. Presently Osborne spoke.
"What do you make of it?" he asked abruptly. "I am as certain that is
the fellow who was with me on board ship as I am that I am
"And I am equally positive," I answered, "he's the man I met in Geneva.
It's impossible there could be two individuals so absolutely
identical--I tell you it's not possible."
Osborne paused for some moments, thinking.
"Berrington," he said suddenly.
"Yes? What?" I asked, taken aback at his change of tone.
He took a step forward and laid his hand upon my shoulder.
"Berrington," he repeated--and in his eyes there was a singular
expression--"I have an idea."
He turned to a page who was standing near.
"Boy," he said sharply, "what address did that gentleman who has just
gone tell you to give to his driver?"
"He told the driver himself, sir," the boy answered, "but I heard the
address he gave, sir."
"What was it?"
"Three forty, Maresfield Gardens, sir. It's near Swiss Cottage--up
Fitzjohn's Avenue on the right."
Osborne turned to me quickly.
"Come into this room," he said. "There is something I want to ask you.
The place is empty, and we shall not be disturbed."
When he had closed the door, and glanced about him to make sure that we
were alone, he said in a low voice:
"Look here, Mike, I tell you again, I have an idea: I wonder if you will
fall in with it. I have watched that fellow Gastrell pretty closely all
the evening; I am rather a good judge of men, you know, and I believe
him to be an impostor of some kind--I can't say just yet of what kind.
Anyway, he is the man I met on the _Masonic_; he can deny it as much as
he likes--he is. Either he is impersonating some other man, or some
other man is impersonating him. Now listen. I am going to that address
in Maresfield Gardens that he gave to his taxi-driver. I am going to
find out if he lives there, or what he is doing there. What I want to
know is--Will you come with me?"
"Good heavens, Jack!" I exclaimed, "what an extraordinary thing to do.
But what will you say when you get there? Supposing he does live
there--or, for that matter, supposing he doesn't--what reason will you
give for calling at the house?"
"Oh, I'll invent some reason quick enough, but I want someone to be with
me. Will you come? Will you or won't you?"
I glanced up at the clock. It wanted twenty minutes to eleven.
"Do you mean now? Do you intend to go at this time of the night?"
"I intend to go at once--as fast as a taxi will take me there," he
I paused, undecided. It seemed such a strange thing to do, under the
circumstances; but then, as I knew, Jack Osborne had always been fond of
doing strange things. Though a member of Brooks's, he was unconventional
in the extreme.
"Yes, I will," I said, the originality of the idea suddenly appealing to
me. In point of fact I, too, mistrusted this man Gastrell. Though he had
looked me so straight in the eyes when, two hours before, he had calmly
assured me that I was mistaken in believing him to be "his namesake in
Geneva," as he put it; still, as I say, I felt convinced he was the
"Good," Osborne answered in a tone of satisfaction. "Come, we will start
A strange feeling of repressed excitement obsessed me as our taxi passed
up Bond Street, turned into Oxford Street, then to the right into
Orchard Street, and sped thence by way of Baker Street past Lord's
cricket ground and up the Finchley Road. What would happen when we
reached Maresfield Gardens? Would the door be opened by a stolid footman
or by some frigid maidservant who would coldly inform us that "Mr.
Gastrell was not at home"; or should we be shown in, and, if we were
shown in, what excuse would Jack Osborne make for calling so late at
night? I cannot say that I felt in the least anxious, however, for
Osborne is a man who has knocked about the world and seen many queer
sides of life, and who never, under any circumstances, is at a loss
how to act.
I glanced at my watch as our taxi turned into Maresfield Gardens. It was
ten minutes past eleven. At the house indicated half-way up the hill the
taxi suddenly pulled up.
Osborne got out and pressed the electric bell-push. As I looked up at
the windows, I noticed that nowhere was any light visible. Nor was there
a light in the ground-floor windows.
"I believe everybody is in bed," I said to him, when the bell remained
unanswered. Without replying, he pressed the push again, and kept his
finger on it.
Still no one came.
"We'd better call to-morrow," I suggested, when he had rung a third time
with the same result.
The words had hardly left my lips, when we heard the door-chain rattle.
Then the bolts were pulled back, and a moment later the door was
carefully drawn open to the length of its chain.
Inside all was darkness, nor was anybody visible.
"What do you want?" a woman's voice inquired.
The voice had a most pleasant _timbre_; also the speaker was obviously a
lady. She did not sound in the least alarmed, but there was a note of
surprise in the tone.
"Has Mr. Gastrell come home yet?" Osborne asked.
"Not yet. Do you want to see him?"
"Yes. He dined at Brooks's Club this evening with Lord Easterton. Soon
after he had left, a purse was found, and, as nobody in the club claimed
it, I concluded that it must be his, so I have brought it back."
"That is really very good of you, Mr. Osborne," the hidden speaker
answered. "If you will wait a moment I will let you in. Are you alone?"
"No, I have a friend with me. But who are you? How do you know my name?"
There was no answer. The door was shut quietly. Then we heard the sound
of the chain being removed.
By the time Jack Osborne had paid our driver, and dismissed the taxi,
the door had been opened sufficiently wide to admit us. We entered, and
at once the door was shut.
We were now in inky blackness.
"Won't you switch on the light?" Osborne asked, when a minute or so had
elapsed, and we remained in total darkness.
Nobody answered, and we waited, wondering. Fully another minute passed,
and still we stood there.
I felt Osborne touch me. Then, coming close to me, he whispered in my
"Strike a match, Mike; I haven't one."
I felt in my pockets. I had not one either. I was about to tell him so
when something clicked behind us, and the hall was flooded with light.
Never before had I beheld, and I doubt if I shall ever behold again, a
woman as lovely as the tall, graceful being upon whom our eyes rested at
that instant. In height quite five foot nine, as she stood there beneath
the glow of the electrolier in the luxurious hall, in her dinner dress,
the snowy slope of the shoulders and the deep, curved breast, strong,
yet all so softly, delicately rounded, gleamed like rosy alabaster in
the reflection from the red-shaded light above her.
Our eyes wandered from exquisite figure to exquisite face--and there was
no sense of disappointment. For the face was as nearly perfect as a
woman's may be upon this earth of imperfections. The uplift of the brow,
the curve of the cheek to the rounded chin, the noble sweep of delicate,
dark eyebrows were extraordinarily beautiful. Her hair was "a net for
the sunlight," its colour that of a new chestnut in the spring when the
sun shines hotly upon it, making it glow and shimmer and glisten with
red and yellow and deepest browns. Now it was drawn about her head in
shining twists, and across the front and rather low down on the brow was
a slim and delicate wreath of roses and foliage in very small diamonds
beautifully set in platinum. The gleam of the diamonds against the
red-brown of the wonderful hair was an effect impossible to
describe--yet one felt that the hair would have been the same miracle
"Mrs. Gastrell! Why, I didn't recognize your voice," I had heard Osborne
exclaim in a tone of amazement just after the light had been turned on.
but my attention had been so centred upon the Vision standing there
before us that I had hardly noticed the remark, or the emphasis with
which it was uttered. I suppose half a minute must have passed before
anybody spoke again, and then it was the woman who broke the silence.
"Will you show me the purse?" she asked, holding out her hand for it and
On the instant he produced his own and gave it to her. She glanced at
it, then handed it back.
"It is not his," she said quietly. Her gaze rested steadily upon
Osborne's face for some moments, then she said:
"How exceedingly kind of you to come all this way, and in the middle of
the night, just to find out if a purse picked up at your club happens to
belong to the guest of a friend of yours."
In her low, soft voice there was a touch of irony, almost of mockery.
Looking at her now, I felt puzzled. Was she what she appeared to be, or
was this amazing beauty of hers a cloak, a weapon if you will, perhaps
the most dangerous weapon of a clever, scheming woman? Easterton had
told us that Gastrell was a bachelor. Gastrell had declared that he had
never before met either Jack Osborne or myself. Yet here at the address
that Gastrell had given to the taxi-driver was the very woman the man
calling himself Gastrell, with whom Osborne had returned from Africa,
had passed off as his wife.
"My husband isn't in at present," she said calmly, a moment later, "but
I expect him back at any minute. Won't you come in and wait for him?"
Before either of us could answer she had walked across the hall,
unlocked and opened a door, and switched on the light in the room.
Mechanically we followed her. As we entered, a strange, heavy perfume of
some subtle Eastern scent struck my nostrils--I had noticed it in the
hall, but in this room it was pungent, oppressive, even overpowering.
The apartment, I noticed, was luxuriously furnished. What chiefly
attracted my attention, however, were the pictures on the walls.
Beautifully executed, the subjects were, to say the least, peculiar. The
fire in the grate still burned brightly. Upon a table were two syphons
in silver stands, also decanters containing spirits, and several
tumblers. Some of the tumblers had been used. As I sank, some moments
later, into an easy chair, I felt that its leather-covered arms were
warm, as if someone had just vacated it.
And yet the door of this room had been locked. Also, when we had
arrived, no light had been visible in any of the windows of the house,
and the front door had been chained and bolted.
"Make yourselves quite at home," our beautiful hostess said, and, as she
spoke, she placed a box of cigars, newly opened, upon the table at my
elbow. "I am sorry," she added, "that I must leave you now."
There was a curious expression in her eyes as she smiled down at us, an
expression that later I came to know too well. Then, turning, she swept
gracefully out of the room, closing the door behind her.
I looked across at Osborne. For some moments neither of us spoke. The
mysterious house was still as death.
"Well, Jack," I said lightly, though somehow I felt uneasy, "what do you
make of it, old man?"
"It is just as I thought," he answered, taking a cigar out of the box
and beginning to trim it.
"How do you mean--'just as you thought'?" I asked, puzzled.
"Gastrell is an impostor, and--and that isn't his wife."
He did not speak again for some moments, being busily occupied in
lighting his long cigar. Presently he leaned back, then blew a great
cloud of smoke towards the ceiling.
Suddenly we heard a click, like the wooden lid of a box suddenly shut.
"Hullo!" he exclaimed suddenly, "what's that?"
"Why! Look!" he gasped.
His gaze was set upon something in the shadow of a small table in a
corner of the room--something on the floor. In silence, now, we both
stood staring at it, for Osborne had risen suddenly. Slowly it moved. It
was gradually gliding along the floor, with a sound like paper being
pushed along a carpet. Whence it came, where it began and where it
ended, we could not see, for the shadow it was in was very deep. Nor was
its colour in the least discernible.
All we could make out was that some long, sinuous, apparently endless
Thing was passing along the room, close to the wall farthest from us,
coming from under the sofa and disappearing beneath the table.
All at once Osborne sprang towards me with an exclamation of alarm, and
I felt his grip tighten upon my arm.
"Good God!" he cried.
An instant later a broad, flat head slowly reared itself from beneath
the red table-cover which hung down almost to the floor, rose higher and
higher until the black, beady, merciless eyes were set upon mine, and in
that brief instant of supreme suspense my attention became riveted on
the strange, slate-grey mark between and just behind the reptile's cruel
eyes. Then, as its head suddenly shot back, Osborne dashed towards
Once, twice, three times he pulled frantically at the handle with all
"Good God! Berrington," he cried, his face blanched to the lips, "we're
Almost as he spoke, the serpent with head extended swept forward towards
us, along the floor.
I held my breath. Escape from its venomous fangs was impossible.
We had been trapped!
A HAMPSTEAD MYSTERY
With a shriek of alarm I leapt to the further side of the table which
stood in the middle of the room, and at that moment hurried footsteps
Our wild shouts for help had evidently been heard, for someone was
hurrying down the bare oak stairs into the hall.
"Hang this confounded lock--it catches!" we heard a voice exclaim as the
handle turned. Then an instant later the door was flung open, and
Gastrell stood before us.
"I am dreadfully sorry, you fellows," he said apologetically, "that you
should have been alarmed in this way, because I can assure you that my
tame cobra, 'Maharaja,' is quite harmless--look at him now," and we saw
that the horrid reptile had swung round the instant its master had
entered, and was sliding towards his feet. "He's a pet of mine--I
brought him home with me, and he follows me like a dog--no, you needn't
be in the least nervous," he added quickly, seeing that I instinctively
edged away as the reptile passed. "I'm awfully sorry to have kept you
waiting. I must apologize, too, for that confounded door--I myself got
locked in here the other day. My wife told you I was out, but I was not.
I came in by the side door, and she didn't know I was back, because I
went straight upstairs. If you'll wait a moment I'll take our friend
He left the room, and the snake slid rapidly along the floor after him,
almost, as he had said, like a dog following his steps.
"A nice cheerful pet to keep," I remarked, annoyed at my experience; but
at that moment the mysterious Gastrell bustled in alone.
"So sorry," he said, and, after thanking us for coming out so far to
ascertain if he had lost his purse, he pulled up a chair, seated himself
between us, lit a big cigar, and helped us to whiskey from a
"You had better add the soda yourselves," he said. "And now there is
something I want to say to you both. You must have been surprised at my
declaring so emphatically this evening that I had not met either of you
"I can answer for myself," Osborne exclaimed quickly. "Are you going to
admit, after all, that you were on the _Masonic_?"
"Of course! Who else could it have been? Any more," he added, addressing
me, than it could have been someone other than me whom you met
"Then why did you deny it?" Osborne said rather irritably, looking hard
at him with an expression of disapproval and mistrust, while my eyes
wandered to that little gold medallion upon his chain.
"Because I had to,--that is, it was expedient that I should," was his
reply. "I have a reason for not wanting it to be generally known that I
am married,--least of all did I want Easterton, whose house I have just
leased, to know me to be a married man; indeed, I told him some weeks
ago that I was a bachelor--I had to, for reasons which I can't reveal
He stopped speaking, and we watched him narrowly.
"Still," I remarked, "I don't see how you could have been on board ship
in the middle of the ocean, and at the same time in London."
"I didn't say I was. I wasn't. I was in London a fortnight ago, and
spent some hours with Lord Easterton. On the same day I sailed for
Madeira, where I joined my wife on the homeward-bound _Masonic_. Think,
Mr. Osborne," he ended, his curious gaze set on my companion's face,
"think when we first met on board. It was not before the ship reached
Jack Osborne reflected.
"By Jove, no!" he suddenly exclaimed. "How odd I should all along have
thought you had embarked at Capetown with the rest of us. But Mrs.
Gastrell came from the Cape, surely?"
"She did, and the name 'Mr. Gastrell' was also in the passenger list,
because a cousin of mine should have been on board. At the eleventh hour
he was prevented from sailing, and it was upon receipt of a cable from
him that I decided to catch the next boat to the Canaries and there
meet my wife."
I admit that, as he paused, I felt rather "small"; and I believe Osborne
felt the same. We had driven from the club right out here to Swiss
Cottage, and on the way we had conjured up in our imaginations all sorts
of mysterious happenings, even possible intrigues; and now the whole
affair proved to have been "quite ordinary," with a few commonplace
incidents to relieve its monotony--notably the incident of the
True, there was the mystery of the locked door. But then, had it really
been locked? I had not myself tried to open it, and now as I thought
about it, it seemed to me quite possible that Jack Osborne might, in the
excitement of the moment, have failed to turn the handle sufficiently,
and so have believed that the door was locked when it was not. Again we
had Gastrell's assurance that he had found himself locked in one day. As
for his declaration to Easterton that he was not the Gastrell whom
Osborne had met on the _Masonic_, it was clear now that he had some
secret reason for wishing to pass in London as a bachelor, and as
Osborne had told Easterton that the Gastrell on the _Masonic_ had told
him that he had met me in Geneva, naturally Gastrell had been driven--in
order to conceal his identity--to maintain that he had never before met
Our host insisted upon our taking another of his very excellent cigars
before we left,--it was close upon one o'clock when we rose to go. He
rang up a taxi for us, helped us on with our coats, accompanied us to
the door, and shook hands with each of us most cordially.
"What do you make of it, Michael?" Osborne asked, when we had remained
silent in the swift-travelling taxi for five minutes or more, and were
approaching Marlboro' Road Station."
"Nothing," I answered bluntly. "I don't know what to make of it."
"That's just how I feel, and yet--"
"I mistrust him. I don't know why, but I do. I mistrust them both.
There's something queer happening in that house. I am certain there is."
"You can't be certain, as you don't know."
"My suspicions are so strong that they amount to convictions."
"So I think, too. And those dirty tumblers on the tray, and the hot
arm-chair I sat down in--Jack, I believe there were a lot of people in
that house, hidden away somewhere, all the time we were there. I believe
Gastrell admitted his identity only because he was obliged to. Our
calling like that, so unexpectedly, and being admitted by his wife--if
she is his wife--disconcerted him and took him unawares. I can't think
why she admitted us--especially I can't think why she kept us so long in
the dark in the hall before she switched on the light. By Jove! What a
"She is--but crafty. I thought that when I met her on board ship. And
those eyes of hers. Phew! They seem to read right into one's soul, and
discover one's secret thoughts." He stopped for an instant, then added,
meditatively, "I wonder what makes Gastrell keep that horrible cobra
as a pet."
I yawned, and we relapsed into silence. Then gradually my thoughts
drifted--drifted away from London, far from crowds and hustle, the
rumble of motor 'buses and the hootings and squawkings of ears, to a
peaceful, rural solitude.
I was in Berkshire. Down in the picturesque valley into which I gazed
from the summit of a wooded slope stood a Manor house, ivy-grown, old,
very beautiful Facing it an enormous plateau, hewn out of the Down, had
been converted to various uses--there were gardens, shrubberies, tennis
lawns. Lower came terrace after terrace of smoothly mown grass, each
with its little path and borders of shrubs, interspersed with the finest
Wellingtonias in the county, tapering gracefully to heaven,
copper-beeches and grand oaks.
The house itself was very long and low, its frontage white, mellowed
with age, and broken up by old-fashioned, latticed windows which gleamed
blue and grey in the translucent, frosted air. The roof of the Manor
boasted a mass of beautiful red-brown gables, many half hidden from
sight by the wealth of ivy; last summer also by a veritable tangle of
Virginia creeper and crimson rambler, now sleeping their winter sleep.
My thoughts wandered on. They travelled with extraordinary rapidity, as
thought does, picture after picture rising into the vision of my
imagination like the scenes in a kaleidoscopic cinema.
Now I was seated in the old Manor. I could see the room distinctly. It
was a small boudoir or ante-room opening into the large drawing-room--a
cosy, homely place, its low, latticed windows, divided into four,
opening outwards on to garden and terraces, its broad, inviting
window-seat comfortably cushioned. Nearly all the furniture was quite
old, dark oak, elaborately carved--writing-table, high-backed chairs, an
old French "armoury" in the corner; but near the hearth there were two
or three deep, modern armchairs of peculiarly restful character, covered
with exquisite flowered chintzes.
This vision deepened. I started. The door of the quiet room had suddenly
opened, and, humming a gay little French air, a young girl had
entered--fresh, exquisite, like a breath of early Springtime itself in
the midst of Winter. With her deep eyes, so soft and brown, her skin of
a healthy olive pallor, the cheeks just flushed with crimson, and her
nimbus of light brown hair through which the golden threads strayed so
charmingly, she made a perfect picture standing there in her long gown
of sapphire-blue velvet.
The soft contours of her young face were outlined against a tall screen
embroidered gorgeously with silken peacocks, before which she stopped to
lay down upon a small table the sheaf of red and brown and golden
chrysanthemums which she carried in her arms.
My pulses throbbed as they always did in her presence, or when, indeed,
she so much as crossed my daydreams, as at this moment. For this girl
was Dulcie Challoner--the woman who was fast becoming the one woman in
the world to me, and thus had I seen her enter that very room when last
I had spent a week-end at Holt Manor, four miles from the little village
of Holt Stacey--and that happened to have been only three weeks from the
The taxi stopped abruptly, shattering my dreams. We had reached the
club. Some letters were awaiting me. My spirits rose as I recognized the
handwriting on one of them.
Dulcie wrote to say that her father hoped, if I were not "already
booked," I would spend Christmas with them.
I was "already booked." I had accepted an invitation a month before to
dine on Christmas Day with an hysterical aunt from whom I had
expectations. Well, the expectations must take their chance. Then and
there I sat down and wrote a long letter to Dulcie saying what joy the
contents of her letter had given me, and a brief line to my aunt
explaining that "unavoidable circumstances had arisen" which
necessitated my cancelling my promise to come to her, much as I
regretted doing so.
Snow was falling slowly and persistently, as it had done all the
afternoon, when, about ten days later, I arrived at the little station
of Holt Stacey, the nearest to Holt Manor. The motor brougham awaited
my rather late train, and I was quickly installed among the fur rugs in
its cosy interior and being whirled along the silent whiteness of the
narrow lanes between the station and my destination. The weather was
very cold, and I saw through the windows of the car that every branch
and twig had its thick covering of pure white snow, while the thatched
roofs of the tiny cottages we passed were heavily laden. By four o'clock
in the afternoon most of the cottage windows were lit up, and the glow
of the oil lamps shining through tiny panes on to the gleaming carpet of
snow without, produced a most picturesque effect.
Now we were purring up the hilly drive; then rounding the sweep to the
hall door. The man did not have to ring. Before he could get off the box
I heard heavy footsteps leaping down the stairs three at a time and
flying across the hall. The door was flung open, and a wild war-whoop
from Dick announced my arrival to whoever cared to know of it.
"Good old sport!" shouted Dick, snatching the travelling-rug from my
arm, after telling the footman behind him to "take Mr. Berrington's
things to the green room in the west wing," and almost pushing me into
the hall. "Good old sport! You're awfully late. We've all done tea."
I told him we had been quite half an hour after the scheduled time in
starting from Paddington, and that the crowds had been enormous.
"Just what I told Dulcie," he exclaimed. "You don't want to see her, I
suppose? What a beastly long time it seems since you were here! Three
weeks, isn't it, since I was home, ill?"
In vain I endeavoured to quiet Dick's ringing voice as a girlish, lithe
figure appeared between the curtains which divided the stairs from the
hall, a figure clad in soft rosy silk with a little lacy tea-jacket over
it, and with golden-brown hair waving naturally about a broad, white
forehead, with starry brown eyes full of welcome. Taking my hand in hers
quietly for an instant, Dulcie asked me what sort of journey I had had,
and presently led me across the hall to the drawing-room.
"You will like to see father," she said. "He and Aunt Hannah are in the
drawing-room; they've looked forward so much to your coming."
With a heart beating faster than usual I followed Dulcie. Her father I
was always glad to see, and we were exceedingly good friends, having
much in common. Of a good old county family, Sir Roland Challoner had
succeeded late in life to the title on the sudden death in the hunting
field of his father, Sir Nelson Challoner.
Dulcie's mother had died just after the birth of Dick, and Sir Roland
had tried to make up the loss to Dulcie by getting his only and elderly
sister Hannah--"Aunt Hannah" as she was inevitably called by all who
stayed at Holt Manor, and in fact by everybody who had seen her more
than twice--to come and live with him. And there at Holt she had, in her
eccentric way, ever since superintended domestic arrangements and
mothered his beautiful little girl and her only brother, by this time an
obstreperous boy of fourteen, at Eton and on his way to Oxford.
Aunt Hannah was, as Dulcie expressed it, "rather a dear, quaint thing."
But she was more than that, I thought. She had such a pungent wit, her
sayings were at times so downright--not to say acrid--that many stood in
terror of her and positively dreaded her quick tongue. I rather liked
Aunt Hannah myself, perhaps because, by the greatest of good luck, I
happened not to have done anything so far to incur her displeasure,
which she was never backward in expressing forcibly, or, as Dick the
schoolboy brother put it, "in no measured terms." Still, as it is the
unexpected that always happens, I knew there might yet come a day when I
should be called upon to break a lance with Aunt Hannah, and I must say
I devoutly hoped that in the event of so deplorable an occurrence,
heaven would vouchsafe me the victory. Steeped in intrigue up to her old
ears, Aunt Hannah had, I believed, several times laid deep plans
touching her niece's future--plans mysterious to the last degree, which
seemed to afford her the liveliest satisfaction. None of these schemes,
however, had succeeded up to the present, for Dulcie seemed with
delightful inconsistence consistently to "turn down" the admirable
suitors whom Aunt Hannah metaphorically dangled before her eyes. Yet so
cleverly did she do this that, in some wondrous way known only to
herself, she continued to retain them all in the capacity of firm
friends, and apparently no hearts were ever permanently bruised.
As I say, I quite liked Aunt Hannah, and she had afforded me a good deal
of innocent amusement during my not infrequent visits at Holt Manor.
Certainly on these occasions I had managed to adopt, if not actually a
brotherly, at any rate an almost brotherly demeanour towards Dulcie
whenever the sharp-eyed old lady chanced to be in the vicinity. As a
result, after much careful chaperonage, and even astute watching, of my
manner towards her niece, Aunt Hannah had "slacked off" delightfully,
evidently regarding me as one of those stolid and casual nonentities
who, from lack of much interest in anything can safely be trusted
anywhere and under the most trying circumstances.
"Here is a telegram for you, Mike," Dulcie said to me one morning, when
I had been several days at Holt and the slow routine of life was
beginning to reassert itself in the sleepy village after the excitement
created by Christmas. The sight of the envelope she handed to me sent my
thoughts back to London, the very existence of which I seemed to have
entirely forgotten during the past delightful days in this happy,
peaceful spot. My gaze was riveted upon Dulcie, standing there before
me, straight and slim in her dark violet breakfast gown, with its
ruffles of old lace at neck and wrists, the warm light from the fire
turning her fluffy brown hair to gold, as I mechanically tore open the
envelope, then pulled the telegram out.
"You don't seem in a hurry to read it," she exclaimed lightly, as I sat
there looking at her still, the telegram open in my hands.
I glanced down. It was from Osborne, and ran:
"Read report to-day's papers about Maresfield Gardens fire. Write me
what you think about it.
I read it through again, then looked up at Dulcie, who still stood there
"Have the papers come?" I asked.
She glanced up at the clock.
"They won't be here just yet," she answered. "We don't get them before
midday, you know, and during these days they haven't arrived until lunch
time, owing to Christmas."
"You can read it if you like," I said, handing her the telegram, for I
had seen her glance at it inquisitively. "It will interest you
She made a little grimace when she had read it.
"'Interest me enormously,'" she said contemptuously, crumpling up the
paper and tossing it into the grate. For some moments she did not speak.
"What fire was there at Maresfield Gardens?" she inquired suddenly, "and
why does he ask you what you think about it?"
"Ah, so it does interest you a little," I exclaimed, taking hold of her
hand and drawing her towards me, for as she stood there looking down at
me she seemed somehow to magnetize me. "Sit by me, here, and I'll
I told her of the conversation at the club, of Lord Easterton's dinner,
of Osborne's queer suggestion, of our visit to the house at Maresfield
Gardens in the middle of the night, of our being admitted by the strange
woman, including, of course, the incident of the serpent.
When I had finished, she looked at me seriously for some moments without
"I don't think I like that adventure," she said at last.
For a moment she paused.
"Don't go to that house again, Mike," she suddenly exclaimed. "Promise
me you won't."
I was deliberating what reply I should make to this request, though I
did not think it likely I should want to go to the house again, when our
attention was distracted by the footman entering with the morning
papers--we were sitting in the big hall, before the fire of
Dulcie sprang up and snatched the papers from the man, and Dick,
bouncing in at that instant, exclaimed with mock solemnity:
"Oh fie! 'Thou shalt not snatch,' Dulcie, you are 'no lady.'"
"Thank heaven for that," she retorted quickly, then began to tantalize
me by holding the papers just beyond my reach.
At last she gave me two, and Dick one, opened one herself, and sat upon
the rest. They made quite a pile, for Sir Roland was one of those
broad-minded men who like to read both sides on questions of any
I soon found the report I sought. It occupied a prominent position, and
HAMPSTEAD FIRE MYSTERY
BODY FOUND STABBED
The disastrous fire at Number 340 Maresfield Gardens, on Christmas Eve,
has given rise to an interesting sequel.
I had not been aware that a fire had occurred there, and I read on:
It was confidently hoped that no lives had been lost, but about midday
yesterday the charred body of a woman was discovered among the _débris_.
Upon careful examination it was ascertained beyond doubt that the body
had been several times stabbed, apparently with some sharp weapon or
instrument. All the wounds were in the breast, and it is stated that any
one of them might have caused death.
The police are instituting searching inquiries, and a sensational
announcement will most likely be made shortly. The origin of the
conflagration remains a mystery. Apparently nobody occupied the house
when the fire broke out, the sub-tenants, whose identity is veiled in
obscurity, having left some days previously.
"Have you read the account in your paper?" I asked, turning to Dulcie as
I put mine down.
"Yes," she answered, "I have just finished it. Isn't it terrible?"
"I have a theory," a boy's voice exclaimed suddenly. Dick, seated on the
floor, tossed aside the newspaper I had thrown to him.
"That woman whose body has been found may have been stabbed, but I
believe that big cobra had something to do with her death. I don't know
why I think that, but I do. It's instinct, I suppose. Michael, I believe
you were spoofed by that man Gastrell, whoever he is--absolutely spoofed."
"Good heavens, Dick!" I exclaimed in dismay, "how do you come to know
what I have just told to Dulcie in confidence?"
"Oh, ask me another, old sport!" he cried out, and burst into laughter.
"If you will 'exchange confidences'--isn't that the phrase?--with
Dulcie, and be so engrossed that you don't notice me in the room--well,
what can you expect?"
IN FULL CRY
Riding to hounds is one of the few forms of sport which appeal to me,
and I should like it better still if no fox or other creature
On that point Dulcie and I had long been agreed; it was one of many
questions upon which we saw eye to eye, for on some subjects our
"It seems to me grotesque," I remember her saying to me once, "that we
English should hold up our hands in horror at the thought of
bull-fights, while so many of us take pleasure in the hateful business
of the kill in fox-hunting."
In reply I had explained to her that the art of diplomacy lies in seeing
the beam in the other man's eye and drawing attention to it, while
blinding oneself to the mote in one's own, and if possible convincing
the other man that the mote does not exist. Dulcie, however, had her
full share of intelligence, with the result that, in modern slang, she
"wasn't taking any."
"In that case," she had retorted, "you should feel thankful that you are
not a diplomat, Mike. You have your points, but tact and logic are not
among them, you know!"
Sir Roland always mounted me when I stayed at Holt Manor in the hunting
season, and already I had enjoyed two capital days' sport. Pressed to
do so--and it had not needed great persuasion--instead of returning to
town on the second Saturday after Christmas, I had stayed over the
Sunday, for on the Monday hounds were to meet at the Manor House. All
the other guests, with the exception of two cousins of Sir Roland's, had
left on the Saturday, so that we were a family party to all intents; in
secret I was determined that before the dawn of spring I should be a
member of the family in reality.
Mounted on a well-shaped chestnut three parts thoroughbred, Dulcie had
never, I thought, looked so wholly captivating as she did on that Monday
morning; I overtook her, I remember, while the chattering cavalcade
trotted from the meet at Holt Manor to the first cover to be drawn.
The first cover proved to be tenantless. So did a small, thickly
underwooded copse. So did a stretch of bracken. So did a large pine wood
some miles from Holt Manor, which was usually a sure find.
"You may say what you like," Dulcie exclaimed as the notes of the
huntsman's horn warned us that the pack was once more being blown out of
cover, "I maintain still that a drag hunt has advantages over a fox
hunt--your red herring or your sack of aniseed rags never disappoint
you, and you are bound to get a run."
As we turned out of the lane into a broad meadow, then broke into a hand
canter across the soft, springy turf, to take up our position at a point
where we could easily slip forward if hounds should find, I told Dulcie
jokingly that if her father preserved foxes as carefully as he always
said he did, these covers on his estate would not have been drawn blank.
She turned her head sharply.
"Father always says," she exclaimed, "that--"
But what he always said I never heard, for at that instant a piercing
"Tally-ho!" rent the air, and, looking up, we saw a long, yellow,
lean-bodied fox which apparently had jumped up within a hundred yards of
the pack, lolloping unconcernedly towards a hedge near by. He reached
the fence, paused, cast a single glance behind him at the fifteen or so
couple of relentless four-footed pursuers, then popped calmly through a
gap in the fence, and disappeared.
A few moments later hounds had settled to the line, and were streaming
out across the broad, undulating pasture which spread away before us in
the distance, cut here and there by thorn fences, a winding stream
marked by pollards, and several post-and-rails. From all directions came
the field, galloping at top speed for the only gate in the thick hedge,
fifty yards ahead of us, crowding and jostling one another in their
anxiety to get through. Six or eight horsemen had cleared the fence at
the few places where it was jumpable. Others were preparing to follow
them. The music of the flying pack grew less distinct.
"Come along, Mike!" Dulcie called to me, turning her horse abruptly in
the direction of the hedge, "we shall get left if we hang about here."
She was thirty yards from the hedge now--twenty--ten. Timing his stroke
to a nicety her horse rose. An instant later he had cleared the fence,
with a foot or more to spare. I followed, and almost as my mare landed I
saw Dulcie lower her head and cast a backward glance.
Now we were sailing side by side over the broad, undulating pastures
which form a feature of that part of Berkshire. A hundred yards ahead of
us the pack tore ever onward, their sterns and noses mostly to the
ground, their music rising at intervals--a confused medley of sound in
various cadences, above which a single, deep, bell-like note seemed ever
"That's Merry Boy," Dulcie exclaimed as she began to steady her mount--a
stiff post-and-rails was fifty yards in front of us. "I know his voice
well. Dan always declares that Merry Boy couldn't blunder if he
tried"--I knew Dan to be the huntsman.
On and on the pack swept, now heading apparently for a cover of dark
pines visible upon a hill to the left of us, away against the skyline.
In front of us and to right and left horses were clearing fences, which
here were very numerous, some jumping well and freely, some blundering,
some pecking on landing, a few falling. Yet, considering the size of the
field, there was very little grief.
"Who is the girl in the brown habit?" I asked Dulcie, soon after we had
negotiated a rather high-banked brook. I had noticed this girl in the
brown habit almost from the beginning of the run--tall, graceful, a
finished horsewoman, mounted on a black thoroughbred, and apparently
unaccompanied, even by a groom.
"That?" Dulcie exclaimed, bringing her horse a little nearer, so that
she need not speak too loud. "Oh, she is something of a mystery. She is
a widow, though she can't be more than twenty-four or five. She lives at
the Rook Hotel, in Newbury, and has three horses stabled there. She must
have been there a couple of months, now. A few people have called upon
her, including my father and Aunt Hannah, but nobody seems to know
anything about her, who she is or was, or where she comes from. Doesn't
she ride well? I like her, though as yet I hardly know her. She's so
pretty, too, and has such a nice voice. I'll introduce you, if you like,
if I get a chance later."
I remembered that this widow in the brown habit had been one of the
first to arrive at the meet, but she had not dismounted. Dulcie also
told me that she had dined at Holt once, and evinced great interest in
the house. She had brought with her an old volume containing pictures of
the place as it was in some early century, a book Sir Roland had never
seen before, and that he had read with avidity, for everything to do
with the past history of his house appealed to him. Mrs. Stapleton had
ended by making him a present of the book, and before she had left, that
night Sir Roland had shown her over the whole house, pointing out the
priests' hiding-hole--a curious chamber which fifty years before had
come to light while repairs were being made in the great hall
chimney--also a secret door which led apparently nowhere.
"I think my father was greatly attracted by her," Dulcie said, "and I am
not surprised. I think she is quite lovely, though in such a curious,
irregular way; but besides that there is something awfully 'taking'
about her. She doesn't, however, seem to 'go down' very well with the
people about here; but then you know what county society is. She seems
to have hardly any friends, and to live an almost solitary life."
Though I had spared her as much as I could, and though I ride barely ten
stone seven, my mare was beginning to sob. Unbuttoning my coat and
pulling out my watch as we still galloped along, I found that hounds had
been running close on forty minutes without a moment's check.
"Dulcie," I said, coming up alongside her again, "my mare is nearly
beat. Have you a second horse out?"
She told me she had not--that my mount would have been her second horse
had she been out alone.
"Look," she exclaimed suddenly, "they have turned sharp to the right.
Oh, I hope they won't kill! I feel miserable when they kill, especially
when the fox has shown us such good sport."
I answered something about hounds deserving blood: about the way
the farmers grumbled when foxes were not killed, and so on; but,
woman-like, she stuck to her point and would listen to no argument.
"I hope they'll lose him in that cover just ahead," she exclaimed.
"Hounds may deserve blood, but such a good fox as this deserves to get
away, while as for the farmers--well, let them grumble!"
Half a minute later the pack disappeared into the dense pine wood. Then
suddenly there was silence, all but the sound of horses galloping still;
of horses blowing, panting, sobbing. From all directions they seemed
The scream, issuing from the depths of the wood, rent the air. An
instant later it came again:
There was a sound of cracking twigs, of a heavy body forcing its way
through undergrowth, and the first whip crashed out of the cover, his
horse stumbling as he landed, but recovering himself cleverly.
"Have they killed?" several voices called.
"No, worse luck--gone to ground," the hunt servant answered, and Dulcie,
close beside me, exclaimed in a tone of exultation:
I had dismounted, loosened my mare's girths, and turned her nose to the
light breeze. Sweat was pouring off her, and she was still blowing hard.
"Shall I unmount you, Dulcie?" I asked.
She nodded, and presently she stood beside me while I attended to her
"Ah, Mrs. Stapleton!" I heard her exclaim suddenly.
I had loosened the girths of Dulcie's horse, and now I looked up.
Seated upon a black thoroughbred, an exceedingly beautiful young woman
gazed down with flushed face and shining eyes.
It was a rather strange face, all things considered. The features were
irregular, yet small and refined. The eyes were bright and brown--at
least not exactly brown; rather they were the colour of a brilliant
red-brown wallflower, and large and full of expression. Her skin, though
extremely clear, was slightly freckled.
Dulcie had exchanged a few remarks with her. Now she turned to me.
"Mike," she said, "I want to introduce you to Mrs. Stapleton. Mrs.
Stapleton, do you know Mr. Berrington?"
The beautiful young widow, gazing down at me as I looked up at her and
raised my hat, presently made some complimentary remark about my mount
and the way she jumped, then added:
"I noticed her all through the run--she's just the stamp of animal I
have been looking for. Is she for sale, by any chance, Mr. Berrington?"
I replied that the mare was not mine, that she must ask Miss Challoner
or Sir Roland. For the instant it struck me as odd that, hunting
regularly with this pack, she should not have recognized the animal,
for I knew that Dulcie rode it frequently. Then I remembered that some
people can no more recognize horses than they can recognize their casual
friends when they meet them in the street, and the thought faded.
There was talk of digging out the fox--an operation which Dulcie and I
equally detested--and that, added to the knowledge that we were many
miles from Holt, also that our horses had had enough, made us decide to
set out for home.
Looking back, for some reason, as we walked our horses away from the
cover-side towards the nearest lane, I noticed the young widow seated
erect upon her black horse, staring after us. I turned to shut the gate,
after we had passed into the lane; she was still sitting there, outlined
against the wood and apparently still staring in our direction.
Why, I don't know, but as I trotted quietly along the lane, to overtake
Dulcie, whose horse was an exceptionally fast walker, I felt uneasy.
Presently my thoughts drifted into quite a different channel. All
recollection of the day's sport, of the pretty widow I had just talked
to, and of the impression she had left upon my mind, faded completely. I
was thinking of someone else, someone close beside me, almost touching
me, and yet--
Neither of us spoke. It was nearly four o'clock. The afternoon was
quickly closing in. Away beyond the woods which sloped upward in the
western distance until they touched the sky, the sun's blood-red beam
pierced the slowly-rising mist rolling down into the valley where the
pollards marked the winding course of the narrow, sluggish stream. Over
brown woods and furrowed fields it cast a curious glow.
Now the light of the winter's sun, sinking still, fell full on my
companion's face, I caught the outline of her profile, and my pulses
seemed to quicken. Her hair was burnished gold. Her eyes shone
strangely. Her expression, to my eyes, seemed to be entirely
transformed. How young she looked at that instant, how absolutely, how
indescribably attractive! Would she, I wondered, ever come to understand
how deeply she had stolen into my heart? Until this instant I myself
seemed not fully to have realized it.
Presently she turned her head. Her gaze rested on mine. Gravely,
steadily, her wonderful brown eyes read--I firmly believe--what was in
my soul: how madly I had come to love her. Without meaning to, I
started. A sensation of thrilling expectancy took possession of me. I
was approaching, I felt, the crisis of my life, the outcome of which
must mean everything to both of us.
"You are very silent, Mike," she said in a low, and, as I thought,
rather strained voice. "Is anything the matter?"
I swallowed before answering.
"Yes--something is the matter," I said limply.
I caught my breath. How could she look into my eyes like that, ask that
question--such a foolish question it seemed--as though I were naught to
her but a stranger, or, at most, some merely casual acquaintance? Was it
possible she realized nothing, suspected nothing, had no faint idea of
the feeling I entertained for her?
"What is the matter?" she asked again, as I had not answered.
"Oh, it's something--well, something I can't well explain to you under
the circumstances," I replied awkwardly, an anxious, hot feeling
coming over me.
"Under what circumstances?"
"This is our gap," I exclaimed hurriedly, as we came to a broken bank by
the lane-side--I was glad of the excuse for not answering. I turned my
mare's nose towards the bank, touched her with the spur, and at once she
Around us a forest of pines, dark, motionless, forbidding, towered into
the sky. To right and left moss-grown rides wound their way into the
undulating cover, becoming tunnels in the distance as they vanished into
blackness, for the day was almost spent.
Slowly we turned into the broader of the two rides. We still rode side
by side. Still neither of us spoke. Now the moss beneath our horses'
hoofs grew so thick and soft that their very footfalls became muffled.
Ten minutes must have passed. In the heart of the dense wood all was
still as death, save for a pheasant's evening crow, and the sudden rush
of a rabbit signalling danger to its companions.
"What circumstances, Mike?" Dulcie repeated. She spoke in a strange
tone. Her voice was very low, as though she feared to break the silence
which surrounded us.
Taken aback, I hesitated. We were very close together now--my leg
touched her horse. Already, overhead in a moonless sky, the stars shone
brightly. In the growing gloom her face was visible, though
"Why not stop here a moment?" I said, hardly knowing that I spoke, or
why I spoke. My mouth had grown suddenly dry. The _timbre_ of my voice
somehow founded different. Without answering she shortened her reins,
and her horse was still.
Why had we stopped? Why had I suggested our stopping? I saw her, in the
darkness, turn her face to mine, but she said nothing.
"Dulcie!" I exclaimed suddenly, no longer able to control myself.
Without knowing it I leant forward in my saddle. I could see her eyes,
now. Her gaze was set on mine. Her lips were slightly parted. Her breast
rose and fell.
Some strange, irresistible force seemed all at once to master me,
deadening my will, my brain, my power of self-restraint. My arm was
about her; I was drawing her towards me. I felt surprise that she should
offer no resistance. My lips were pressed on hers....
* * * * *
She was kissing me feverishly, passionately. Her whole soul seemed to
have become suddenly transformed. Her arms were about my neck--I could
not draw away.
"Oh, Mike! Mike!" she gasped, "tell me you really mean it--that you are
not just playing with me--flirting with me--tell me you ... oh, I love
you so, dearest. Ah, yes. I love you so, I love you so!"
It was very dark by the time we had made our way through the extensive
wood--a short cut to Holt Manor--and were once more in the lanes, I
felt strangely happy, and yet a curious feeling which I could neither
explain nor account for obsessed me.
Our joy was so great--would it last? That was the purport of my
sensation, if I may express it so. I longed at that moment to be able to
look into the future. What had the Fates in store for me--for us both?
Perhaps it was as well I didn't know.
We had entered the park gates, and were half-way up the long avenue of
tall elms and stately oaks, when I saw a light approaching through the
darkness. It came nearer, and we guessed it must be a man on foot,
carrying a lantern.
Now he was quite close.
"Is that Miss Dulcie? a voice inquired out of the blackness, as the
light became stationary.
"Yes. That you, Churchill?" Dulcie called back.
Churchill was the head gardener. Born and bred on the estate, there were
few things he loved better than to recall to mind, and relate to anybody
sufficiently patient to listen to him, stories and anecdotes of the
family. Of "Miss Dulcie" he would talk for an hour if you let him,
telling you how he remembered her when she was "not so high," and of the
things she had done and said as a child.
"What do you want, Churchill?" she called to him, as he remained silent.
Still for some moments he did not speak. At last he apparently plucked
"There's been sad doings at the house," he said, and his voice was
"Sad doings!" Dulcie exclaimed in alarm. "Why, what do you mean?"
"There's been a shocking robbery, Miss Dulcie--shocking. You'll hear
all about it when you go in. I thought it best to warn you about it. And
He stopped abruptly.
"Good heavens, Churchill!" she cried out in great alarm, "quick, tell me
what has happened, tell me everything. What about Master Dick?"
"He's been served shocking, Miss. Oh, it's a terrible affair. The whole
house looted during the hunt breakfast this, morning, and Master Dick--"
"Treated something crool."
"Dick! They haven't hurt Dick. Oh, don't say they have done him some
The tone of agony in her voice was piteous.
"He's come round now, Miss Dulcie, but he's been unconscious for hours.
They put chloroform or something on him--Sir Roland himself found him in
one of the upstairs rooms, lying on the floor just like dead."
"Oh, heavens, how awful! How is he now?"
"The two doctors are with him still, Miss, and as I come away, not ten
minutes ago, they telled me he was goin' on as well as could be
expected. It was at lunch time Sir Roland found him, and then the
robbery was discovered. Every bit of jewellery's been stolen, 'tis said,
and a whole chest-full of plate--the plate chests were open all the
morning as some of the old silver had been used at the breakfast. The
robbery must have took place during the meet, when the hall and rooms
downstairs was full of people and all the servants as busy as could be.
There was lots of cars there as you know, Miss, and the police think the
thieves must have come in a car and gone into the house as if they were
hunting-folk. But nobody don't seem to have seen any stranger going
upstairs--the police say there must have been several thieves on the
job. Master Dick may be able to tell something when he's hisself again,
pore young gentleman."
We didn't wait to hear more, but set our horses into a smart trot up the
avenue to the house.
HUGESSON GASTRELL AT HOME
A week had passed since Dulcie had promised to become my wife, and since
the amazing robbery in broad daylight at Holt Manor.
I had been five days back in town, where I had some estate business to
attend to. It was the evening of Hugesson Gastrell's house--warming
reception in his newly furnished mansion in Cumberland Place, and the
muster of well-known people was extraordinary.
Peers and peeresses, prosperous City financiers, celebrities of the
drama and of the operatic stage, luminaries of the law, diplomats, and
rich retired traders who had shed the "tradesman" and blossomed into
"gentleman," jostled one another in the rooms and on the stairs. It is
surprising how people will rush to the house of a wealthy man. At least
one Duke was present, a Cabinet Minister too, also a distinguished Judge
and two Archbishops, for I noticed them as I fought my way up into the
room where music was being performed, music the quality of which the
majority of the listeners gauged by the fees known to be paid to the
artists engaged, and by the amount of newspaper publicity those artists'
Press agents had succeeded in securing for them.
Nor were journalists lacking at this "interesting social function," as
some of them afterwards termed it in their papers. In London I move a
good deal in many kinds of society, and now I noticed, mingling in the
crowd, several men and women I was in the habit of meeting frequently,
though I did not know them to speak to--Press representatives whose
exclusive duty I knew it to be to attend social gatherings of this
description. As I edged my way through the dense throng I could hear my
favourite composition, Dvorak's "Humoresque," being played on the violin
by Beatrice Langley, who I had been told was to appear, and for a few
brief minutes the crowd was hushed. To my chagrin the music ended almost
as I succeeded in forcing my way into the room, so that I was in time
only for the applause.
Now the hall and the large rooms where the guests were, were filled with
the buzz of conversation. In two of these rooms supper was in progress,
a supper in keeping with the sumptuousness, the luxury and the general
extravagance noticeable everywhere.
For this house in Cumberland Place which he had rented from Lord
Easterton lent itself admirably to Hugesson Gastrell's distorted ideas
as to plenishing, at which some people laughed, calling them almost
Oriental in their splendour and their lavishness. Upon entering, the
idea conveyed was that here was a man who had suddenly found himself
possessed of a great deal more money than he had ever expected to come
by, and who, not being accustomed to wide means, had at once set to work
to fling his fortune broadcast, purchasing, wherever he went, everything
costly that took his fancy.
For after mounting some steps and entering under a wide portico, one
found oneself in a spacious, lofty vestibule where two flights of warmly
tinted marble steps, shallow and heavily carpeted, ran up to right and
left to a wide gallery on three sides of the hall. The marble was so
beautiful, the steps were so impressive to look upon, that one was
forcibly reminded of the staircase in the Opera House in Paris, of
course in miniature. On the lowest step on either side were carved
marble pillars supporting nude figures of great size and bearing each an
electric lamp gold-shaded to set off the yellow-tinted marble and the
Turkey carpets of gold and of richest blue. In one corner stood a
Mongolian monster, a green and gold dragon of porcelain resting on a
valuable faience pedestal--a bit of ancient Cathay set down in the heart
In their magnificence the reception rooms excelled even this hall,
boasting, as they did, a heterogeneous collection of rare antiques, of
valuable relics, and of _articles de virtu_ from practically the world
over. Everywhere they lay in strange confusion--on the mantelpieces,
tops of cupboards, on shelves, angle brackets, and on almost every
table. Here was a delicate lute of jade, used by Chinese lovers of a
thousand years ago. There stood silver lamps, carved most marvellously
and once trimmed by vestal virgins, lamps from the temples of
Herculaneum, of Rome and of Pompeii. Shadowy gods and goddesses,
dragons, fetishes of more or less hideous mien, glared everywhere at one
another in a manner most unpleasant. Porcelains; wonderful
blue-patterned plates from Pekin; willow-patterned dishes from Japan;
ancient hammered beer tankards from Bavaria and the Rhine; long-stemmed
Venetian glasses of iridescent hues, were scattered everywhere in
bewildering profusion. In an ante-room was a priceless crucifix in three
different woods, from Ober-Ammergau; on the mantelpieces of three of the
reception rooms were old French gilt clocks--the kind found nowadays
only in secluded and old inns of the Bohemian Quartier Latin, inns
which the tourist never sees, and where "collectors" are to all intents
unknown. Set upon this landing of polished oak upon the first floor was
a very ancient sundial, taken from some French château, a truly
beautiful _objet d'art_ in azure and faded gold, with foliated crest
above, borne long ago, no doubt, by some highly pompous dignitary. Here
and there, too, were suits of armour of beaten steel--glittering
figures, rigid and erect and marvellously inlaid with several different
metals. Two rooms of the building, I was told by a guest with whom I had
entered into conversation, were set aside entirely as an armoury.
Hardly had I finished observing all this, and a great deal more besides,
when a voice at my elbow exclaimed:
"Good evening, Mr. Berrington. I wonder, now, if you'll remember
As I turned, I instantly recognized the speaker.
"Of course I recollect you--Mrs. Stapleton," I exclaimed, looking into
her eyes with, I am afraid, rather unconcealed admiration, for I don't
pretend that I am not of a very susceptible nature. "I have met many
people I know, this evening," I continued, "but this is an unlooked-for
pleasure. I was told in Berkshire that you never came to town."
"Were you really?" she exclaimed with a ripple of merry laughter. "They
seem, down there, to know more about one's movements than one
For an instant she paused.
"And how is your lovely and delightful friend--Dulcie Challoner?" she
inquired presently. "Is she here to-night?"
"No," I said, wondering for the moment if she knew or suspected my
secret, for our engagement had not yet been announced. "The Challoners
don't know our host, though, judging by the people here to-night, he
seems to know nearly everybody."
"Do you know him well? Have you known him long?" she inquired
carelessly, letting her gaze rest on mine.
I told her that our acquaintanceship was very slight, that I had made
his acquaintance in Geneva, and met him once afterwards in London.
"I don't know him well, either," she observed, then added with some
emphasis, "He strikes me as being a most charming young man."
Naturally I agreed with her, though I had been unable to make up my mind
whether, upon the whole, I liked him or not. I thought that upon the
whole I didn't, seeing what strange things had happened.
"By the by," I said suddenly, "have you had supper?"
She answered that she had not, and added that she was "starving."
Several people were emerging from one of the supper rooms, and thus it
came that I presently found myself seated _tête-à-tête_ with the
beautiful widow, and at last beginning to enjoy an evening which until
now I had found rather dull.
It was natural that we should presently speak of Berkshire and of Holt
Manor, and soon we were discussing at length the subject of the robbery.
"And have the police as yet no clues?" Mrs. Stapleton suddenly asked.
"None, apparently. I suppose you have heard all about what happened, and
the statements made by Sir Roland's little son, Dick Challoner."
"I know nothing beyond what I read in the newspapers," she replied. "The
papers mentioned that Sir Roland's boy had been chloroformed by the
thief or thieves--that was all so far as I remember."
"Yes," I answered, "he was chloroformed, but he need not have been
according to his own account--and as he is extremely truthful and never
boasts, I think we may believe his story. He had his head and shoulders
in a big oak chest in his father's bedroom, where his father had sent
him to find a hunting apron to lend to somebody, and when he stood
upright again he heard two men talking, upon the opposite side of the
screen which hid the oak chest.
"The voices were those of strangers, and the boy naturally supposed that
the speakers were some friends of Sir Roland's. He was about to show
himself, when he heard one of the men say:
"'She says this drawer has money in it: give me your key.'
"He heard a key being pushed into a drawer lock, the drawer pulled out,
the chink of coin and the crackle of bank-notes. Then he heard the other
man suddenly say:
"'Hurry up. They'll have got the plate by this time and be waiting for
"The boy was awfully frightened, of course, but he didn't lose his head.
Knowing that his presence must be discovered in a moment, he sprang out
from behind the screen, intending to dash past the men and downstairs
and give the alarm. Unfortunately he rushed right up against one of
them, who instantly gripped him and clapped his hand over his mouth
while the other man pressed his hand over his eyes--presumably to
prevent Dick's being afterwards able to identify them. Dick says that
one of the men twisted his arm until he couldn't stir without extreme
pain, then told him that he must show them where the key of Sir
Roland's safe was--a little safe in the wall in his bedroom. Dick knew
where the key was--Sir Roland keeps it, it seems, in a drawer of his
dressing-table--but he refused to tell, though the man screwed his arm
until he nearly broke it--he strained it badly, and the poor little chap
has it still in a sling. Then, finding that they could do nothing with
him, and that nothing would make him 'peach,' as he says--though he says
they threatened to hit him on the head--one of them pressed something
over his mouth and nose, which seemed to suffocate him. What happened
after that he doesn't know, as he lost consciousness."
"What a brave little boy," my beautiful companion exclaimed in a tone of
admiration. "Did he say at all what the men were like?"
"He didn't catch even a glimpse of their faces, they pounced on him so
quickly. But he says that both wore hunting kit, and he thinks both were
tall. One wore pink."
"It was a carefully planned affair, anyway," Mrs. Stapleton said
thoughtfully, as I refilled her glass with Pol Roger. "What was the
actual value of the things stolen?"
"Sir Roland puts it at twelve or fourteen thousand pounds, roughly. You
see, he had a lot of jewellery that had belonged to Lady Challoner and
that would have been Miss Challoner's; most of that was stolen. It
should have been in the safe, of course, but Sir Roland had taken it out
the week before, intending to send it all to London to be thoroughly
overhauled and cleaned--he was going to give it to Dulcie--to Miss
Challoner on her twenty-first birthday; she comes of age next month, you
know. It was in one of the drawers that the thieves unlocked, and they
took most of it. They would have taken the lot, only some of it was in
a back partition of the drawer, and they apparently overlooked it."
"But how did they manage to steal the plate? I read in some paper that a
lot of plate was stolen."
"Heaven knows--but they got it somehow. The police think that other men,
disguised probably as gentlemen's servants, must have made their way
into the pantry during the hunt breakfast, while Sir Roland's servants
were up to their eyes in work, attending to everybody, and have slipped
it into bags and taken it out to a waiting motor. Strangers could easily
have gone into the back premises like that, unnoticed, in the middle of
the bustle and confusion. If Dick had told the men who bullied him what
they wanted to know, Sir Roland's safe would have been ransacked too,
and several thousands of pounds more worth of stuff stolen, most likely.
He is a little brick, that boy."
"He is, indeed. How long did he remain unconscious?"
"Until Sir Roland himself found him, just before lunch. The ruffians had
pushed him under the bed, and if Sir Roland had not happened to catch
sight of his foot, which protruded a little, the boy might have been
left there until night, or even until next day, and the whole household
have been hunting for him."
Mrs. Stapleton sipped some champagne, then asked:
"Is anybody suspected?"
"That's difficult to say," I answered. "Naturally the police think that
one or other of the servants at Holt must know something of the affair,
even have been an actual accomplice--but which? None of the servants has
been there less than four years, it seems, and several have been in Sir
Roland's service ten and fifteen years--the old butler was born on the
estate. Sir Roland scouts the idea that any of his servants had a hand
in the affair, and he told the police so at once. Even the fact that one
of the thieves had, according to Dick, referred to some woman--he had
said, '_She_ says this drawer has money in it'--wouldn't make Sir Roland
suspect any of the maids.