Part 3 out of 6
"I myself like Mrs. Stapleton up to a point," I answered, evading the
question. "She is capital company and all that, but--"
"But what?" Dulcie asked quickly, as I hesitated.
"But who is she? And where does she come from? How is it that nobody
about here, and apparently nobody in town either, knows anything at all
about her? Such an attractive-looking woman, young, apparently well off,
and a widow--surely somebody ought to know something or other about her
if she is quite--well, quite all right. It's most singular that she
shouldn't have any friends at all among our rather large circle of
"I shall tell her just what you have said about her," Dulcie exclaimed
quite hotly. "I never thought you were that kind, Michael--never. You
pride yourself upon being broadminded--you have often told me so--and
yet because Tom, Dick and Harry don't know all about poor Mrs.
Stapleton--who her husband was, who her parents were, and where she
comes from--you immediately become suspicious, and begin to wonder all
sorts of horrid things about her."
"My dear Dulcie," I said, becoming suddenly quite calm, so anxious was I
to soothe her at any cost, for I hated our falling out like this, "you
put words into my mouth I never spoke, and thoughts into my mind which
never occurred to me. I have said only one thing, and I shall say it
again. I mistrust Mrs. Stapleton, and I advise you to be on your guard
The door opened at that moment, and Charles, entering, announced:
"Oh, Connie, how glad I am you've come!" Dulcie burst out, jumping off
the arm of the big chair impetuously, and hurrying forward to meet the
widow, who at once embraced her affectionately. "We were just this
instant talking about you. Isn't that strange?"
"And I hope not saying nasty things, as I have reason to believe some of
my 'friends' do," Mrs. Stapleton answered, with a charming smile,
casting a careless glance at me. "But, of course, I couldn't imagine you
or Mr. Berrington saying anything unpleasant about anybody," she added
quickly; "you are both much--much too nice."
This was heaping coals of fire upon me, and I believe I winced as
Dulcie's eyes met mine for a brief instant and I noticed the look of
scorn that was in them. She did not, however, repeat to Mrs. Stapleton
what I had just said about her, as she had threatened to do. Instead,
she slipped her arm affectionately through the young widow's, led her
over to the big arm-chair, made her sit down in it, and once more
perched herself upon its arm.
"Ring for tea, Mike, like a dear," she said to me. Her tone had
completely changed. Once more she had become her own, delightful self.
This sudden _volte-face_ did not, I must admit, in the least surprise
me, for I knew what a child of moods she was, how impulsive and
impetuous, and I think I loved her the more because she was like that.
We now formed, indeed, quite a merry trio. By the time tea was finished
Connie Stapleton's magnetic personality must, I think, have begun to
affect me to some extent, for I found myself wondering whether, after
all, I had not been mistaken in the opinion I had formed that she was a
woman one would be well-advised not to trust too implicitly--become too
"And your jewels, dear!" she suddenly asked, as though the recollection
of the robbery had but at that instant occurred to her. "Have you
recovered any of them? Have the police found any clue?"
"Yes," Dulcie answered at once, "the police have a clue, though, as yet,
none of the stolen things have been recovered."
"Indeed?" I exclaimed. "Why, Dulcie, you never told me. What is it? What
is the clue?"
"I forgot to tell you; at least, I should have told you, but you've been
so snappy all the afternoon that I thought there was no need," Dulcie
answered equivocally. "Well, the clue is merely this. When
Churchill--that's the head gardener, you know," she said to Mrs.
Stapleton--"was sweeping away the snow in the drive at the back of the
house, that narrow drive which leads down to the lane that joins the
main road to Newbury, just by Stag's Leap, he saw something shining on
the ground. He picked it up and found it was a buckle, set in diamonds,
as he thought, so when he brought it to me of course he was tremendously
excited--he made sure it was one of the stolen bits of jewellery. As a
matter of fact, it was one of a set of very old paste buckles which
belonged to my mother, and those buckles were among the stolen things."
"When did he find it?" Mrs. Stapleton asked, interested.
"Why, only a few hours ago--it was just after lunch when he came to me,
and he had then only just found it. You see, the ground has been covered
with snow ever since the day of the robbery; that was the last day
"Did the gardener say anything else? Has he any theory to account for
the buckle being there?"
Again it was Mrs. Stapleton who put the question.
"None, Connie," Dulcie answered. "At least, yes," she corrected, "he has
a sort of theory, but I don't think much of it. That narrow drive is
rarely used, you know; the gate into the lane is nearly always
locked--it was unlocked and the gate set open the day the hounds met
here in order to save people coming from the direction of Stag's Leap
the trouble of going round by the lodge. I don't think, all the same,
that many people came in that way."
"I don't see much 'theory' in that," I observed drily. Somehow I could
not shake off the feeling of irritability that my quarrel with Dulcie
during the afternoon had created.
"Naturally, because I haven't yet come to the theory part," Dulcie
answered sharply, noticing the tone in which I spoke. "I am coming to it
now. Churchill says he happened to come along that drive between about
eleven o'clock and half-past on the morning of the meet--that would be
just about the time when everybody was at the breakfast--and he
distinctly remembers seeing a car drawn up close to the shrubbery. There
was nobody in it, he says, but as far as he can recollect it was drawn
up at the exact spot where he found the buckle this afternoon. Of
course, there was no snow on the ground then."
"Has he any idea what the car was like?"
As Connie Stapleton made this inquiry I happened to glance at her. I
could only see her profile, but there was, I thought, something unusual
in her expression, something I did not seem to recollect having ever
seen in it before. It was not exactly a look of anxiety; rather it was a
look of extreme interest, of singular curiosity.
"Churchill is most mysterious and secretive on that point," Dulcie
answered. "I asked him to tell me what the car was like, if he had any
idea whose it was. He said it was a grey car, but he wouldn't tell me
more than that. He said he believed he had 'hit the line,' and would
soon be on a 'hot scent.' Try as I would, I couldn't get him to say
another word. He asked if he might have this afternoon off, and gave me
to understand he wanted to go into Newbury. I believe he is going to try
to do a little detective work," she ended, with a laugh; "but, as I say,
I don't put much faith in any theory Churchill may have formed."
"Well, my dear Dulcie, if you succeed in recovering your jewellery you
know I shall be the first to congratulate you," Mrs. Stapleton said,
taking Dulcie's hand and patting it affectionately. "It is too dreadful
to think all those lovely things should have been stolen from you,
things of such exceptional value to you because of their long
association with your family. Oh, how stupid of me," she suddenly said,
interrupting herself, "I have forgotten to tell you what I have come to
see you for. I have some friends from town dining with me to-night--some
of them are going to stay the night at 'The Rook,' the others will
return to town in their cars--and I want you and Mr. Berrington to join
us. It's quite an informal little dinner party, so I hope you will
forgive my asking you in this offhanded way and at such short notice.
The fact is, two people telegraphed at lunch time that they wouldn't be
able to come, so I thought that if I motored over here I might be able
to persuade you to come instead. Will you come, dear? And you, Mr.
Berrington? Do say 'yes.' Don't disappoint me when I have come all this
way out to try to persuade you--if I were not really anxious that you
should join us I should have telephoned or telegraphed!"
"Of course--why, I shall love to come!" Dulcie exclaimed, without a
moment's hesitation. "And, Mike will come--I know he will."
"You mean he won't be able to let you be away from him so long," Connie
Stapleton said mischievously, and there was something very peculiar in
her laugh. It flashed across me at that moment that for an instant or
two she looked a singularly wicked woman.
Dulcie smiled self-consciously, but said nothing. I knew that she rather
disliked any joking allusion being made to our engagement.
"May I use your telephone, darling Dulcie?" Connie Stapleton asked
suddenly. "I want to tell the hotel people that we shall be the original
number. I told them after lunch that we might be two short."
Dulcie had a telephone extension in the little room which adjoined her
boudoir, and some moments later Mrs. Stapleton was talking rapidly into
the transmitter in her smooth, soft voice. She spoke in a tongue that
neither of us understood, and when, after she had conversed for over
five minutes, she hung up the receiver, Dulcie called out to her gaily:
"Why, Connie, what language was that?"
'Polish,' she answered. "Didn't you recognize it? Of course, you know
that I am Russian."
"Russian! Why, no, I hadn't the least idea. I always thought you were
not English, although you speak English perfectly. I remember wondering,
the first time I met you, to what nationality you belonged, and I came
to the conclusion that possibly you were Austrian."
"No, Russian," Mrs. Stapleton repeated. "I have a Polish maid who speaks
hardly any English, and I was talking to her. And now, my dear, I really
must be going. What is the exact time?"
It was five minutes past six. Dulcie pressed the electric button.
"Mrs. Stapleton's car at once," she said, when the footman entered.
A few minutes later Mrs. Stapleton's long grey Rolls-Royce was gliding
noiselessly down the avenue, over the snow, its tail lights fast
disappearing into the darkness.
THE BROAD HIGHWAY
Had Dulcie consulted me before accepting Mrs. Stapleton's invitation to
dinner I should have improvised some plausible excuse for declining. She
had not, however, given me the chance of refusing, for she had then and
there accepted for both of us unconditionally, so that I could not,
without being rude, make any excuse for staying away.
"Dulcie," I said, when we were again alone, "I wish you hadn't accepted
that invitation without first of all consulting me. I really am not
keen to go."
"Oh, don't be silly!" she exclaimed joyously, and, putting her arms
about my neck, she gave me three delicious kisses. "We have quarrelled
all the afternoon--you were perfectly horrid to me, you know you
were--and if we mope here together all the evening we shall most likely
fall out again, and that will be absurd. Besides, I feel just in the
humour for a jolly dinner party, and I'm sure any party given by Connie
is bound to be jolly, just as jolly as she is. I _do_ think she is such
a fascinating person, don't you, Mike? Oh, I am sorry; I quite forget
you don't like her."
"I have not said I don't like her--I do like her, Dulcie, in a sense,
and up to a point. But I still hold to the opinion I formed of her when
I met her first--I wouldn't trust her implicitly."
"Never mind, Mike," she cried in high spirits. "We'll set all your
prejudices aside to-night, and try to enjoy ourselves. I wonder who'll
be there. I quite forgot to ask her."
"Probably nobody you know, or she would have told you. She said 'friends
from town,' so there are not likely to be any of our friends from about
here. We ought to start soon after seven, as she said dinner would be at
eight; with the snow as thick as it is it may take us quite an hour to
get to Newbury--twelve miles, remember."
We were the last to arrive, and I confess that the moment we were shown
into the room and I realized who Mrs. Stapleton's other guests were I
mentally upbraided myself for having come, or rather, for having let
Dulcie come. The first to whom our hostess introduced Dulcie was "Mrs.
Gastrell," and directly afterwards she presented to Dulcie "Mrs.
Gastrell's cousin," as she called him--none other than Hugesson
Gastrell, who was standing by. To my surprise Easterton and Jack Osborne
were there, and the widow seemed pleased at finding that I knew them--I
guessed it was owing to Easterton's being there that Jasmine Gastrell
was made to pass as Gastrell's cousin.
With singular formality she made Dulcie and me acquainted with
everybody, which struck me as odd in these days when introductions at
dinner parties, receptions and balls have gone quite out of fashion.
"Mr. Berrington," Mrs. Stapleton said, taking me across the room to two
men engaged apparently in earnest conversation, "I want to make you and
Lord Cranmere and Mr. Wollaston known to one another," and,
interrupting them, she introduced us.
There was nothing striking about the Earl of Cranmere. A man past middle
age, he had, I thought a rather weak face. A small, fair beard, neatly
trimmed and pointed, concealed his chin: as I looked at him I wondered
whether, were that beard removed, I should see any chin at all. The
short upper lip was hidden by a fair moustache; he had also whiskers.
The fair hair, which was rather thin on the top, was carefully parted in
the middle, and plastered down on both sides. His complexion was clear,
the complexion of a man who lives a good deal in the open, and his eyes
were pale blue, with almost golden lashes and eye-brows. He inclined to
stoutness, and spoke with a slight lisp. This then was the man, or
rather one of the men, I thought, as I noted these points about him
while we exchanged remarks, concerning whom Jack Osborne had been so
mysteriously questioned while he lay bound upon the bed in that dark
room in Grafton Street. I knew Lord Cranmere to be a particular friend
of Jack's, though in appearance no two men could have presented a
What mostly kept my thoughts busy, however, was the presence of Hugesson
Since his name had been mentioned by Harold Logan on his dying bed, I
had carefully debated whether or not to tell Easterton, who had let him
his house, what I now knew about him; also whether to tell Sir Roland
Challoner that Osborne and I had actually met Gastrell. Unable to
decide, I had put the case to Osborne, and eventually we had decided to
say nothing, at any rate for the moment, to anybody at all.
"What would be the good?" Jack had argued. "You have the word of a
dying man, and that's all; and what is there that you can prove against
this man Gastrell--at present? Besides, if you say anything, you may
find yourself forced to reveal that you know who the dead man was, that
you know him to have been Lord Logan's son, and you told me that Sir
Roland wants particularly to avoid doing that. No, keep silent and await
developments, that's my advice, as you have asked for it. He'll probably
end by hanging himself if you give him rope enough. I wouldn't tell even
Dulcie, if I were you."
I was thinking of all this again, when my train of thought was suddenly
cut by a voice at my elbow:
"Mr. Berrington, I want to introduce you to Mrs. Gastrell. Come with me,
I turned abruptly. Connie Stapleton was at my elbow, and she spoke in
soft, purring tones.
"She's the woman you asked me if I knew, the other night at Mr.
Gastrell's reception," she went on in an undertone, as we walked towards
the woman. "I was introduced to her a couple of nights later. She is a
cousin of Mr. Gastrell's."
Almost before I had time to collect my thoughts, she had introduced me,
adding, a moment later, with one of her charming smiles:
"And will you take Mrs. Gastrell in to dinner?"
I was debating whether or not to refer to our previous meeting, at
Maresfield Gardens, when Mrs. Gastrell herself solved the difficulty.
"I wonder," she said, her great eyes very wide open, her gaze resting
full on mine, "if you remember that we have met before. It was just
before Christmas. You and Mr. Osborne called in the middle of the night
to ask if Hugesson had lost his purse: we both thought it so kind
I remembered a good deal more than that, but I did not tell her so. I
remembered too that she had seemed to speak sarcastically, almost
mockingly, that night when she had said she thought it kind of Jack to
have come out "all that way" just to inquire if Gastrell had
accidentally left his purse at the club. She appeared now, however, to
mean what she said, and so I only answered:
"How, having met you once, Mrs. Gastrell, could I forget our meeting?
What rather astonishes me is that you should remember me by sight,
seeing that we spoke for a few minutes only."
She smiled in acknowledgment of the compliment, and I found myself
wondering how many men that terribly alluring smile of hers had enslaved
from first to last.
"Would you believe it," she went on almost without a pause, "we were
very nearly burnt in a dreadful fire that broke out in that house on
Christmas Eve. We only just managed to escape with a few of our
belongings; we had not, I am thankful to say, anything very valuable
there, because the house had been sub-let to us, so that the furniture
was not ours."
"You certainly were fortunate, in a sense," I answered, marvelling at
her self-possession, and mentally asking myself if she spoke with
conviction and whether I had, after all, formed a wrong opinion about
her as well as about our hostess. Then I heard Gastrell's voice behind
me, and that brought me to my senses. If such a man were a guest of Mrs.
Stapleton's it seemed quite on the cards that men and women of equally
bad character might also be included among her friends. I had several
reasons for suspecting Mrs. Gastrell of duplicity, and I determined to
remain on my guard.
The dinner, I confess, was excellent. I was glad to see that Dulcie sat
between Jack Osborne and Lord Easterton, and was thus out of harm's way.
We dined at a round table, and almost facing me were two
unintelligent-looking women--I had heard their names, but the names
conveyed nothing to me. These women, both past middle age, somehow had
the appearance of being extremely rich. They sat on either side of
Hugesson Gastrell, whose conversation appeared to be amusing them
immensely. One other woman made up the party of twelve--a dark, demure,
very quiet little person, with large, dreamy eyes, a singularly pale
complexion, and very red lips. She was dressed almost simply, which the
other two women certainly were not, and altogether she struck me as
looking somewhat out of place in that _galère_.
Champagne flowed freely, and gradually we all became exceedingly
vivacious. Once, when I glanced across at Dulcie, after conversing
animatedly for ten minutes or so with the beautiful woman at my side, I
thought I noticed a troubled look in her eyes, but instantly it
disappeared, and she smiled quite happily. Then, turning to her
neighbour, Jack Osborne, she said something to him in an undertone which
made him laugh, and he too looked across at me. It had struck me all the
evening that Jack was in exceptionally high spirits, and more than once
I had wondered if he had some special reason for being so.
It was an extraordinary dinner party. The more I looked about me, the
more astonishing it seemed. A stranger entering the room would have
noticed nothing unusual; he would have seen a number of apparently quite
ordinary men and women dining, and enjoying themselves, people rather
more sociable, perhaps, than the guests at dinner parties often are. And
yet I had reason to believe that among these ostensibly respectable
people three at least there were whose lives were veiled in a mystery of
some sort--I hoped it might be nothing worse. The opinion I had formed
of our hostess is already known. In addition there was that strange
young man, Hugesson Gastrell, who, knowing everyone in London, was, in a
sense, known by no one. For what did anybody know about him? Questioned,
people invariably answered that he came from Australia or Tasmania and
had inherited a large fortune from an uncle. That was all. They knew
naught of his parents or his antecedents; his private life was a
My glance rested on my neighbour's white, well-manicured hands. Several
times already, during dinner, I had observed how graceful they were, and
had noticed the long, slender fingers, the well-shaped, polished
nails--fingers on which precious stones shone and sparkled as the rays
cast down from beneath the shades of the subdued electric lamps touched
them at frequent intervals. Suddenly a thought flashed in upon me, and
involuntarily I caught my breath. The voice of a dying man was calling
to me, was crying a name in my ears as it had done that day I had sat
with Sir Roland Challoner by Harold Logan's bed and watched the fearful
eyes gazing into vacancy.
"Jasmine ... it is all I ask, all I want, my darling woman ... wouldn't
otherwise have killed her ... it was her fault ... oh, no, discovery is
impossible ... black, charred beyond all hope of recognition ... did
right to kill her, dear, I ..."
The sound of the voice--I seemed to hear it distinctly in spite of the
conversation and laughter all around--and the picture which rose
simultaneously into the vision of my imagination, made me recoil. My
gaze was set again upon those pale, graceful hands with their blue
veins, their scintillating gems. As in a dream I heard Jasmine Gastrell
in conversation with Cranmere, seated upon her other side; heard, too,
his silly talk, his empty laughter. Her hands seemed now completely to
hold my gaze. I could not look away. And, as I watched them, the feeling
of revulsion rose.
Conjectures, suspicions, hideous thoughts filled my brain as my eyes
remained riveted. Now the fingers looked like snakes--strange,
flesh-tinted reptiles with eyes emerald green and ruby red, cruel,
sinuous. Now great knots of muscle stood out upon her bare arms. Her
hands were clutching something--what it was I could not see. The fingers
grew twisted and distorted ... they had crimson stains upon them ... the
very nails were shot with blood and I thought I saw--
My train of thought was cut by my neighbour on my right. What she said I
hardly knew, and did not care. Still, I was glad that she had spoken.
The interruption had diverted my attention, and brought my thoughts from
dreamland back into actual life.
Then the thought came to me, What was the object of this dinner party?
Why had Connie Stapleton invited these people down to Newbury? Why, if
she wished to give a dinner party, had she not given it in town? From
the conversation during dinner I had gathered that the guests, one and
all, lived in London. It seemed strange therefore to the verge of
eccentricity to ask them to come fifty miles to dine. True, the
_cuisine_ at "The Rook" was above reproach, the hotel itself excellently
appointed, but none the less--
"Don't you agree, Mr. Berrington?" Mrs. Gastrell exclaimed, laughing as
she turned from Cranmere to me.
"I didn't catch the question," I said with a start, again brought
suddenly to earth.
"Lord Cranmere is of opinion that the man you found in hiding at Holt
must, from the descriptions which have been given of him, at some time
or other have been a gentleman. I say, 'No; that no gentleman could sink
so low as to become a common criminal of that kind.' One can understand
a gentleman, by which I mean a man of education and careful upbringing,
being driven, through force of circumstances, to rob a bank, or even to
forge a signature to a cheque; but for such a man to sink to the level
of a common housebreaker is unthinkable--don't you agree with me?"
Her eyes shone strangely as they rested upon mine. Not until now had the
wonderful intelligence in their purple-green depths struck me so
forcibly. From the orange-tinted lamps before her on the table the light
which shone up in her face seemed to increase their brilliance,
accentuate their expression and their power. It imparted, too, to her
extraordinary complexion a peculiar, livid tint, while the masses of her
burnished, red-brown hair, coiled about her head in great ropes and
dressed low in her neck, was shot with a chestnut shade which greatly
enhanced its beauty.
I paused before answering. For fully ten minutes she had not addressed
me, so deeply engaged had she been in conversation with Lord Cranmere.
Why should she all at once interrupt her talk and put this question to
me? None but Sir Roland Challoner and I were aware of the dead man's
identity; even we had no actual proof that he had been Lord Logan's son,
though our discovery of the locket, considered in relation to certain
facts known to Sir Roland, left no room for doubt. That locket Sir
Roland had appropriated in order that the dead man's identity might not
be traced and the family name tarnished. Jasmine Gastrell must of course
be aware of his identity? Did she suspect that I knew his name, and
could this be an attempt to entrap me into revealing that I knew it?
"That is a question difficult to answer," I said guardedly. "I believe
there are instances on record of men of education, of men even of good
birth, sinking to the lowest depth of degradation when once they had
begun to tread the downward path. It would be interesting to know who
that man really was. He wouldn't tell his name, wouldn't even hint
"So that of course you don't know it."
Again that keen, searching expression in the large, luminous eyes. They
seemed to look right through me. They seemed to read my thoughts and
wrest my secrets from me.
"And you found nothing upon him that might have given you a clue, I
suppose; nothing in his pockets, no marks upon the body, there was
nothing he was wearing that might have put you on the track?"
"Absolutely nothing," I answered, thinking of the locket as I looked
straight into her eyes. Never before had I realized how cleverly I
It was close on midnight when we all assembled in the hall preparatory
to leaving--those of us who were leaving. Hugesson Gastrell had left
long before, in fact immediately after dinner, as he had, he said, an
important appointment in London. Somebody nudged me lightly as he
brushed past, and glancing round I caught Osborne's eye. He made no sign
whatever, yet there was something in his look which made me think he
wanted me, and a minute later I sauntered after him into the room where
the hats and coats had been.
But for us, the room was now deserted. Glancing quickly to right and
left, Jack walked over to a corner where a tall screen stood. There was
nobody behind it.
He beckoned to me, and I approached.
"We are among a set of scoundrels," he said rapidly, under his breath.
"I am glad to see that you too didn't recognize him."
"Recognize whom?" I asked in astonishment, also speaking in a whisper.
"Preston, the ex-detective. I introduced him to you the last time we met
"I remember the man perfectly, but surely he isn't here."
Jack's lips stretched into a grin.
"'Lord Cranmere,'" he said. "That's Preston!"
"Cranmere's own brother was actually deceived when we brought the two
together, as a test," he went on. "Preston is a genius. He doesn't
merely 'make up' to look like someone else; he doesn't, when he is made
up, just impersonate the character; for the time he _is_ the man, he
'feels like him,' he says, he shares his views, he becomes his other
ego. He has the advantage in this case of knowing Cranmere well, and he
has, in consequence, excelled himself to-night. The way he has hit off
Cranmere's lisp is marvellous. Easterton, who meets Cranmere frequently,
is at this moment in the hall arguing with Preston about land taxation
and small holdings, under the impression that he is talking to Cranmere.
It really is rather amusing."
When I had expressed my astonishment, and we had talked for a minute or
two, he suddenly grew serious.
"But remember, Mike," he said, laying his hand upon my shoulder, "nobody
knows this--nobody but you and I. Preston has assured me that the
success of our efforts to run the leaders of this gang to ground--he
tells me he is sure there is a gang working together and playing into
one another's hands very cleverly--will largely depend upon our
discreetness and our secretiveness, also upon our tact and our knowledge
of when to act. So not a word, mind; not a syllable even to Dulcie
Challoner--have I your promise?"
Dulcie and I talked but little as we sped homeward through the darkness.
She seemed depressed, I thought, though she assured me that she had
thoroughly enjoyed herself and was feeling quite well. I must say that
the "mental atmosphere" of that party had affected me unpleasantly,
though I could not have said precisely why.
On and on the car travelled, smoothly, almost noiselessly. Snow was
falling--it had been falling for two hours, the chauffeur had told us
before we started--though not very heavily. The night was quite still.
We had long passed the tiny hamlets a mile or two from Newbury and were
now on the five miles' stretch of winding road between there and Holt
Stacey. Soon we passed the sign-post close to Holt Stacey railway
station. As we sped through the village some moments later the houses
and cottages all wrapped in darkness seemed to spring forward into the
light one after another as though to peer at us as we shot by.
Now Holt Stacey lay behind us, and only four miles remained. From the
time we had left Newbury no vehicle of any kind had passed us, nor any
human being, nor had we overtaken any. Dulcie, nestling close to me in
the warm, comfortable brougham, was more than half asleep. I too felt
drowsy, and I fear that more than once my chin had dropped forward with
a jerk. Suddenly the car swerved abruptly to the right. So tightly were
the brakes applied at the same instant that we were both thrown forward
almost on to the floor. The car lurched, rose up on one side, then as I
instinctively threw my arms about Dulcie to protect her if possible from
what seemed about to be a very serious accident, the car righted itself
and stopped dead.
"Good heavens! What has happened?" I exclaimed, as the chauffeur, who
had sprung off his seat, opened the door. Dulcie still lay in my arms,
trembling with fear, though from the first she had not uttered a sound,
or in the least lost her head.
"Someone lying in the road, sir," he answered, "drunk, I shouldn't
wonder. He was half covered with snow, and I all but ran over him."
"Lying in the snow! Why, he'll die if he's left there," I exclaimed. "Go
and have a look at him, and then come back to me."
Several minutes passed, and the chauffeur did not return. Becoming
impatient, I opened the door of the brougham, and called out. A moment
later the man appeared. The electric torch he carried--one he used when
occasion arose to examine the car in the dark--was still switched on.
The hand that held it trembled a little, and in the light which shone
down inside the brougham I noticed that the chauffeur looked
"Could you kindly step out for a moment, please, sir?" he said in a
Guessing that something serious must be amiss to prompt him to ask me
to step out into the deep snow in my evening shoes, I got out at once,
in spite of Dulcie's entreating me not to do so and get my feet soaked.
When I had shut the car door, and we had walked a few paces, the
chauffeur stopped abruptly.
"Sir," he said in a hoarse voice.
"Well, what?" I asked, also stopping.
"Sir--it's Churchill, the gardener. Poor fellow! It's awful! He's dead,
sir, quite cold. He--he's been killed--_murdered_!"
Coming so soon after the robbery at Holt, the brutal murder of Sir
Roland's head gardener created an immense sensation throughout both
Berkshire and Hampshire--for the Holt Manor estate, though actually in
Berkshire, is also upon the border of Hampshire. The London papers, too,
devoted much space to the matter, the problem they set their readers to
solve being: whether the murder could have any bearing upon the robbery.
Some of the leading journals declared that both crimes must have been in
some way related; others urged that this was most unlikely, and then
proceeded to "prove" the accuracy of their own individual reasoning.
The man had been done to death in a peculiarly horrible manner. He had
been hit upon the back of the head with some heavy implement--probably a
"jemmy" the police said when the wound, with the wounds upon the
forehead, had been examined beneath a microscope. The theory they held
was that some person had crept up unheard behind the victim--as this
could easily have been done with snow so thick upon the ground--stunned
him with a blow upon the back of the head, and then despatched him
outright by blows upon the forehead. No footsteps were anywhere
visible, the falling snow having hidden them.
Churchill's movements during that afternoon had in part been traced.
Directly after taking to Dulcie the buckle he had found and obtaining
her permission to absent himself for the afternoon, he had walked to
Holt Stacey, and there caught the 4:05 train to Newbury. He had
exchanged the time of day with the ticket-collector at Newbury, who had
taken the half of his ticket. The return half had afterwards been found
in the dead man's pocket. Where he had been, or what he had done,
between 4:20--from the time he left Newbury station, on foot--and 6:10,
when he had looked in at the "Dog and Clown" and had a drink and a chat
with the landlord, was unknown. He had not told the landlord why he was
in Newbury, or said anything concerning his movements in that town.
The fact of his having bought a return ticket showed that he had
intended to return to Holt Stacey by train. But he had not gone back by
train. The last train for Holt Stacey left Newbury at 9:11, and at 9:30
he had been seen by a seedsman who kept a shop in the town, and who knew
Churchill well, standing in the High Street talking to an unknown man he
had never seen before. After that, nobody appeared to have seen
Churchill until--just before 10:30, at which time the inn at Holt Stacey
closed--he had come into the inn and ordered a hot drink. Nobody was
with him then. He appeared, so the innkeeper said, to already have drunk
to excess, and this had surprised the innkeeper, who knew him to be a
temperate man, adding that that was the first time he had ever seen him
even partially intoxicated. Incidentally Churchill had mentioned that "a
gentleman had given him a lift from Newbury in his car." He had not said
who the gentleman was--if a stranger or somebody he knew, or where he
was going. Presumably the man in the car had branched off at Holt
Stacey--for he had not put up there for the night. Had he been going on
past Holt Manor he would, it was reasonable to suppose, have taken
Churchill all the way, and dropped him at the gate.
Soon after 10:30 Churchill had left the inn, saying that he was about to
walk home to Holt Manor, a distance of four miles. That was the last
time he was known to have been seen alive. It was snowing when he
Poor Dulcie was terribly cut up. I had always known her to be very
partial to the old gardener, who remembered her as a baby, but until
after his death I had not realized how deeply attached to him she really
had been. What most distressed me was that she blamed herself,
indirectly, for what had happened. Again and again did she declare to me
that, had she not given him leave to take the afternoon off the tragedy
would not have happened. In vain I tried to make her see the fallacy of
her argument--she would not listen to reason.
A fortnight went by, and nothing was discovered. The secret of the
murder remained even a greater mystery than the secret of the robbery.
True, I had my suspicions, but until I had some slight shreds of
evidence to go upon it would, I knew, be futile to make known those
suspicions. And it was because I suspected somebody of indirect, if not
direct, connivance at Churchill's murder, that I became more and more
distressed, indeed alarmed, at Dulcie's daily increasing affection for
the woman Stapleton. Their friendship was now firmly established--at any
rate, Dulcie's feeling of friendship for the widow. Whether the widow's
feeling of friendship for Dulcie was actual or only apparent was, I
thought, quite another matter.
"_Come at once. Urgent_:--_Jack_."
That telegram reached me on this afternoon, exactly two weeks after the
murder, two weeks that I had spent at Holt Manor with Dulcie, during
which time, I am bound to say, Aunt Hannah had revealed herself in quite
a new light, being friendly, even affectionate in the extreme.
"Don't go--oh! don't go, Mike!" Dulcie cried out, suddenly clutching my
arm, after reading the telegram which I had handed to her.
"But I must, darling," I exclaimed. "Jack wouldn't send me that wire if
the matter were not really urgent. It has most likely to do with the
robbery--I have told you that he is determined to find out who committed
it, with the help of that detective friend of his, George Preston. It
may even have to do with the other affair--or possibly with Jack being
kept confined in the house in Grafton Street."
"I don't care what it has to do with--don't go, dearest--please don't, I
ask you as a favour," and, bending over, she kissed me on the lips.
It was horribly hard to resist such an appeal, and yet I felt I should
be a cur if Jack really needed me--and obviously he did--and I failed to
go to him. And what would Dulcie think of me later if, through my giving
way to her entreaty, some serious harm should befall my friend? Much as
I loved her, I could not let her influence me in such a case; even if I
did, it might in the end make her despise me.
"I would do anything in the world for you, sweetheart," I said, kissing
her fondly. "You know that, as well as I do. I would grant you any
"Provided what?" she asked quickly as I paused.
"Provided that my doing so could have no harmful result. Prevent my
going to Jack in such a crisis, and--"
I stopped abruptly. My tongue had, alas, outrun my discretion.
"Crisis? What crisis?" Dulcie burst forth, startled at my tone. "Oh,
Mike, you are keeping something from me, you are deceiving me--don't say
that you aren't, for I know you are!"
"Darling," I exclaimed, taking her in my arms, "I am not deceiving
you--indeed, indeed I am not. I may have been wrong in using the word
'crisis.' What I meant was that, knowing that Jack and a friend of his
are striving tooth and nail to track down the thieves who robbed this
house, and seeing that I have promised to help Jack to the best of my
ability, I feel that this urgent telegram of his means that something
has come to light, that he has heard something or discovered some clue
which makes it imperative that I should go to him at once. And I am
Quickly I released her. Then, fearing that further delay--added,
possibly, to further persuasion on her part--might end by weakening my
determination, I gave her a final kiss, and hurried out of the room.
Again I glanced at the telegram--
"_Come at once. Urgent.--Jack._"
Then I crumpled the paper and tossed it into the fire.
Having arrived at Paddington I went straight to Jack Osborne's hotel.
He had left word that, upon my arrival, I should be told to go to a
house in Warwick Street, Regent Street, and there inquire for him.
It was George Preston's address. I hastened there in a taxi, and, as I
rang the bell, I heard a clock strike six. Preston himself admitted me.
"Mr. Osborne has not yet arrived," he said as, after a word of
explanation, we shook hands, "but I expect him any minute, and he is
expecting you. Will you come in and wait?"
As I had not previously been to Preston's house its appearance surprised
me. One does not associate a police detective, even an ex-detective,
with a taste in things artistic, but here on all sides was evidence of
refinement and a cultured mind--shelves loaded with carefully selected
books, volumes by classic authors; treatises on art; standard works by
deep thinkers of world-wide repute, while on the walls hung mezzotints I
knew to be extremely rare. In addition there were several beautiful
statues, cloisonné vases from Tokio and Osaka, antique furniture from
Naples and from Florence, also treasures from Burma, the West Indies,
and New Guinea.
The door opened, and the maid announced: "Baron Poppenheimer."
"Ah, my dear Baron," Preston exclaimed as he advanced to meet him, "this
is a real pleasure; I didn't expect you so soon, but, as you are here,
come and sit down," and he drew forward a chair. "But first let me
present to you Mr. Michael Berrington, a friend of our mutual friend
"Delighted to meet you--delighted, I am sure," Baron Poppenheimer said,
with a slight accent, extending two fingers--a form of handshake which I
particularly dislike. "Dreadfully cold again, is it not?--hein?
Dreadfully cold, I am sure."
His appearance rather amused me. His was a queer figure. He wore a
thick, dark blue box-cloth overcoat, double-breasted, with large pearl
buttons, and a wide collar of yellow fur, which came well down on the
shoulders; the fur cuffs matched it. His gloves were woolly ones,
lavender-coloured, and the black silk hat which he carried in his right
hand was burnished until it rivalled the shine of his patent boots--the
"uppers" being hidden by spats. He had curly, black hair; black, rather
bushy eyebrows; and a small imperial. While he carried a stout malacca
cane with a large gold head to it, and in his left eye was a gold-rimmed
monocle secured round his neck by a broad black ribbon.
We conversed for a little time, and from his talk I could see that he
was something of a character. He knew many of my friends, and, upon my
repeating my name to him, he seemed to know a good deal about me. I
expressed surprise at this, whereupon he looked up at Preston, who stood
immediately behind me, and observed drily:
"I believe I could tell Mr. Berrington almost as much about himself as I
was able to tell you, Preston; what do you think?"
"Baron Poppenheimer is an extraordinarily clever clairvoyant and
palmist, Mr. Berrington," Preston said. "I place such implicit
confidence in his forecasts that I persuade him, whenever I can, to help
me in my work. Yesterday he took it into his head to read my palms, and
he told me things about myself that staggered-me--I almost begin to
believe in black magic!"
I became greatly interested.
"I wish I could some day persuade the Baron to read my palms," I
exclaimed, "Palmistry has always rather appealed to me."
"So?" Baron Poppenheimer answered. "I will read your palms for you now,
if you will, I am sure."
He took my right hand, flattened it, palm upward, on his knee, studied
it closely for a moment or two, then, after a few moments' silence,
began to talk fluently and rapidly. The things he told me about myself,
things I had done, even things I had only thought, made me almost gape
with amazement. Then he took my left hand, examined both sides of it
closely through his monocle, and continued his disclosures. He told me
to within a day or two how long I had been engaged to be married, and
described Dulcie's appearance to the life; he even went so far as to
tell me exactly how she talked. For some moments I wondered if Preston
could have coached the Baron in my movements; then I remembered that the
Baron had told me things about myself of which Preston knew nothing.
"And that is all I have to tell you, my dear Mike," the "Baron" suddenly
exclaimed in quite a different voice. I sprang back in my chair as I
looked up sharply. Jack Osborne had pulled off his black, curly wig, and
sat laughing loudly. Preston too was considerably amused.
"Yes, George," Jack said at last, "that disguise will do; you certainly
are a marvel in the art of 'make-up.' If I can deceive Mike Berrington,
who is one of my oldest friends, I shall be able to hoodwink anybody.
Now you had better try your hand on Mike. What sort of person do you
propose to turn him into? I have told you that he is an excellent actor,
and can mimic voices to perfection."
Osborne then explained why he had telegraphed to me. Preston had made a
discovery--a rather important discovery. Exactly what it was they would
not tell me then, but Preston had suggested that on that very night the
three of us should visit Easterton's house in Cumberland Place, where
Gastrell's reception had taken place, wearing effectual disguises which
he would attend to, and see for ourselves what there was to be seen. It
was Osborne, I now learned for the first time, who had effected the
introduction between Hugesson Gastrell and "Lord Cranmere"--the actual
Lord Cranmere had been consulted by Jack on the subject of his being
impersonated, and when Jack had outlined to him his plan and told him
why the detective, Preston, wished to impersonate him, Lord Cranmere had
entered into the spirit of the thing and given his consent. He had,
indeed, expressed no little alarm when Jack had told him how the
mysterious, unseen individual at the house in Grafton Street had
cross-questioned him with regard to Eldon Hall, Cranmere's place in
Northumberland, the whereabout of the safe that Cranmere had bought ten
months previously, the likelihood of there being a priests' hiding-hole
at Eldon, and so on.
"The whole idea regarding to-night, and our plan of action, originates
with Preston," Jack said to me. "He believes--in fact, he is almost
sure--that Gastrell and his associates know nothing of him by repute as
a detective, also that they don't know him by sight, or by name either.
He says, however, that they believe they are now personally acquainted
with Lord Cranmere, upon whose property we think they have evil designs.
'Lord Cranmere' is now, in turn, going to introduce to Gastrell and his
associates two particular friends of his. Those friends will be 'Baron
Poppenheimer' and--who is Cranmere's other friend to be, George?" he
inquired, looking up at Preston.
"'Sir Aubrey Belston,'" Preston answered at once. "Mr. Berrington is not
at all unlike Sir Aubrey, in build as well as in feature."
"'Baron Poppenheimer' and 'Sir Aubrey Belston,'" Jack said, "who in
private life are Jack Osborne and Michael Berrington. And if George
disguises you and coaches you as well as he did me, I undertake to say
that nobody will suspect that you are not actually Sir Aubrey Belston."
IN THE MISTS
At a quarter to one in the morning Cranmere's big, grey, low-built car
slid noiselessly along Wigmore Street and drew up at the entrance to one
of the most imposing-looking houses in Cumberland Place.
The imposing footman got down and rang the bell--he pressed the button
four times in succession, as "Lord Cranmere" had told him to do. Almost
at once the door was opened, and from the car window we saw a tall man
in knee-breeches silhouetted, while a little way behind him stood
another man. "Lord Cranmere" stepped out of the car, and we followed
him--"Baron Poppenheimer" and "Sir Aubrey Belston." In point of fact,
the real Sir Aubrey Belston was at that moment somewhere in the Malay
States, making a tour of the world.
"Lord Cranmere" had told the chauffeur that he would not require him
again that night, and I had noticed the man touch his hat in the belief
that this actually was his employer who addressed him, for the real Earl
of Cranmere had lent us his car. I heard the car purr away in the
darkness, and an instant later the door of number 300 Cumberland Place
shut noiselessly behind us.
The footman in knee-breeches and powdered head, who had admitted us, led
us without a word across the large hall, turned into a long corridor
dimly-lit by tinted electric lamps, turned to the left, then to the
right, then showed us into a small, comfortably-furnished room in which
a fire burned cheerily, while in a corner a column printing machine
ticked out its eternal news from the ends of the earth. We waited
several minutes. Then the door opened and Hugesson Gastrell entered.
Like ourselves, he was in evening clothes. He advanced, shook hands
cordially with "Lord Cranmere," saying that he had received his
"These are my friends of whom I spoke," Cranmere said, "Baron
Poppenheimer and Sir Aubrey Belston."
"Delighted to meet you," Gastrell exclaimed. "Any friend of Cranmere's
is welcome here; one has, of course, to be careful whom one admits on
these occasions--isn't that so, Cranmere? Come upstairs and have
We followed him, ascending to the first floor. In a large,
high-ceilinged, well-lit room an elaborate supper was spread. There were
seats for thirty or forty, but only ten or a dozen were occupied. A
strange atmosphere pervaded the place, an atmosphere of secrecy, of
mystery. As we entered, the people at supper, men and women, had glanced
up at us furtively, then continued their conversation. They talked more
or less under their breath.
Gastrell called for a bottle of "bubbly," and about half an hour later
we rose. The room was by this time deserted. Following Gastrell along a
narrow passage, we presently found ourselves in a room larger than the
one we had just left. Here between forty and fifty men and women sat at
several tables. At one _chemin-de-fer_ was in progress; at another
_petits chevaux_; at a third the game which of late years has become so
popular in certain circles--"Sandown Park." On all the tables money was
heaped up, and on all sides one heard the musical chink of gold and the
crackle of bank-notes. Nobody spoke much. Apparently all present were
too deeply engrossed to waste time in conversation.
As I glanced about me I noticed several people I knew intimately, and
four or five I knew only by sight, people well known in Society. I was
on the point of bowing to one woman I knew, who, looking up, had caught
my eye; just in time I remembered that she would not recognize me in my
disguise. Then a man nodded to me, and I nodded back. He looked rather
surprised at seeing me, I thought, and at once it flashed across me that
of course he was under the impression that I was Sir Aubrey Belston, and
probably he had heard that Sir Aubrey was travelling round the world.
Gastrell, after a few minutes' conversation, found us places at a table
where "Sandown Park" was being played. As I seated myself I found,
facing me, Jasmine Gastrell, and for some moments I felt uncomfortable.
I could feel her gaze upon my face as she scrutinized me closely, but
even she did not penetrate my disguise.
"Lord Cranmere" sat upon the opposite side of the table, "Baron
Poppenheimer" on my side, two seats from me. On my right was one of the
unintelligent-looking women I had met at Connie Stapleton's dinner party
at the Rook Hotel in Newbury; on my immediate left a man I did not know.
Connie Stapleton I had looked about for, but she was nowhere visible.
So this was one of the ways Gastrell amassed money--he ran a
gaming-house! I now began to see his object in cultivating the
acquaintance of people of rank and wealth; for I had long ago noticed
that Jasmine and Hugesson Gastrell never missed an opportunity of
becoming acquainted with men and women of position. Also I began to
grasp Preston's line of action. Disguised as the Earl of Cranmere, who
was known to be extremely rich, he had cleverly ingratiated himself with
the Gastrells and led them on to think him rather a fool who could
easily be gulled. Jack had more than once told me how artfully Preston
played his cards when on the track of people he suspected and wished to
entrap, so that I could well imagine Preston's leading the Gastrells on
to ensnare him--as they no doubt supposed they were doing. For that he
would not have been admitted to this gambling den--it evidently became
one at night--unless the Gastrells had believed they could trust him
and his friends implicitly, I felt certain.
My friends tell me that I am a rather good actor, and Preston's coaching
in Sir Aubrey Belston's mannerisms and ways of talking had given me a
measure of self-confidence. When, therefore--I had played for a quarter
of an hour and won a good deal--Jasmine Gastrell suddenly addressed me,
I did not feel disconcerted.
"I mean to follow your lead," she said. "You are so extraordinarily
lucky. How is it you manage to win every time?"
"Not every time," I corrected. "It's quite easy if you set about it in
the right way."
"I wish I knew the right way," she answered, fixing her eyes on me in
the way I knew so well. "Won't you tell me how you do it?"
"Different people must 'do it,' as you put it, in different ways," I
said. "Forgive my asking, but are you superstitious?"
She broke into rippling laughter.
"Superstitious? I?" she exclaimed. "Oh, that's the last thing my enemies
would accuse me of being!"
I paused, looking hard at her.
"And yet," I said seriously, "judging by your eyes, I should say that
you are remarkably psychic, and most people who are psychic are
superstitious up to a point."
I went on looking at her, staring right into her eyes, which she kept
set on mine. She did not in the least suspect my identity--I was now
positive of that. I had spoken all the time in an assumed voice.
"Yes," I said at last, impressively.
"Yes what?" she asked quickly; she was not smiling now. "Why do you say
'yes' like that? What does it mean?"
Apparently our conversation disturbed some of the players, so I said to
her seriously, indicating an alcove at the end of the room:
"Let us go over there. I should like to talk to you."
She made no demur, and presently we sat together in the alcove, partly
concealed by palms and other plants, a small table between us.
"Now tell me how you win, and how I am to win," she exclaimed, as soon
as we were seated. "I should dearly love to know."
I reflected, as I sat looking at her, that she was a consummate actress.
I could not doubt that she ran this establishment in connection with
Gastrell, yet here she was feigning deep anxiety to discover how she
"I don't know your name," I said at last, ignoring her inquiry, "but you
are one of the most amazing women, I would say one of the most amazing
human beings, I have ever met."
"How do you know that--I mean what makes you say it?" she asked quickly,
evidently disconcerted at my solemnity and at the impressive way
"Your aura betrays it," I answered in the same tone. "Every man and
woman is surrounded by an aura, but to less than one in ten thousand is
the human aura visible. It is visible to me. The human aura betrays, in
too many cases, what I would call its 'victim.' Your aura betrays you."
I leaned forward across the table until my face was close to hers. Then,
still looking straight into her eyes, I said, almost in a whisper:
"Shall I tell you what I see? Shall I tell you what your life has been?"
She turned suddenly pale. Then, struggling to regain her composure, she
said after a brief pause, but in a tone that lacked conviction:
"I don't believe a word you say. Who are you? Whom have I the pleasure
of speaking to?"
"Sir Aubrey Belston," I answered at once. "You may have heard of me.
Good God--the things I see!"
I pretended to give a little shudder. My acting must have been good, for
on the instant she turned almost livid. Again she made a terrific effort
to overcome the terror that I could see now possessed her.
"I _will_ tell you what I see!" I exclaimed, suddenly snatching the
wrist of her hand which lay upon the table, and holding it tightly.
Though almost completely concealed by the palms and plants, she strove
to shrink still further out of sight, as though the players, engrossed
in their games, would have spared time to notice her.
My eyes met hers yet again, but the expression in her eyes had now
completely changed. In place of the bold, impelling look I had always
seen there, was a fearful, hunted expression, as though she dreaded
what I was going to say.
"I see a room," I said in a low, intense tone, holding her wrist very
tightly still. "It is not a large room. It is a first-floor room, for I
see the exterior of the house and the two windows of the room. I see the
interior again. Several people are there--I cannot see them all clearly,
but two stand out distinctly. One is Gastrell, to whom I have this
evening been introduced; the other is you; ah, yes, I see you now more
clearly than before, and I see now another man--handsome, fair, about
twenty-eight or thirty--I can see his aura too--his aura within your
aura--he loves you desperately--and--ah, I see something lying on the
floor--a woman--she is dead--you--"
Her thin wrist suddenly turned cold; her eyes were slowly closing. Just
in time I sprang to my feet to save her from falling off her chair, for
she had fainted.
None of the players were aware of what had happened; all were too deeply
engrossed. Without attempting to restore my companion to
consciousness--for, in the face of what I had now learned practically
beyond doubt to be a fact, I had no wish to revive her--I left her lying
in her chair, stepped noiselessly along behind the mass of plants which
occupied one side of the room, emerged further away, and presently took
a vacant seat at a _chemin-de-fer_ table.
I glanced at my watch. It was nearly two o'clock. Thinking over what had
just happened, and wondering what my next move had better be, and what
Jack and Preston intended doing, I stared carelessly about the room.
At all the tables play was still in progress. At some complete silence
prevailed. From others there arose at intervals a buzz of conversation.
Behind some of the lucky players stood groups of interested watchers.
About the sideboard were clustered men and women refreshing themselves,
the majority smoking and laughing, though a few looked strangely solemn.
Among the latter I suddenly noticed a face I had seen before. It was the
demure, dark little woman who at Connie Stapleton's dinner party had all
the evening seemed so subdued. She was dressed quietly now, just as she
had been then, and she looked even more out of place in this crowd of
men and women gamblers, all of whom were exceedingly well-dressed, than
she had looked at that dinner party. "There is only one person I should
be more surprised at seeing here," I said mentally, "and that
The thought of her made me wonder what she would think if she could see
me at this moment, when suddenly my heart seemed to stop beating.
Seated at the table nearest me but one, a table partly surrounded by a
group of excited onlookers, was Connie Stapleton. And close beside her,
engrossed in the game, Dulcie Challoner herself!
THE MODERN VICE
So staggered was I that for the moment I almost forgot my disguise, and
the _rôle_ I was playing, and was on the point of hurrying over to
Dulcie and asking her how she came to be there. That Mrs. Stapleton must
have brought her, of course I guessed.
Fortunately I restrained myself just in time. Dulcie, I saw to my
dismay, was not merely playing, but was deeply engrossed in the game.
"Sandown Park" was the game in progress at that table, a game which to
all intents is a series of horse-races, but whereas at a race-meeting
only half a dozen or so races are run in an afternoon, the players at
"Sandown Park" can back horses in half a dozen races in as many minutes.
Judging by the interest she evidently took in the game, Dulcie must, I
conjectured, have been playing for some time, for she appeared to be
quite _au fait_. Never had she mentioned this game to me, and never had
I known her to take interest in backing horses or in any form of
reckless speculation. Consequently I had reason to suppose that this was
the first time she had played, if not the first time she had seen or
heard of the game.
Did I dare approach her? Would my feelings get the better of me and lead
to my betraying who I was? Though I had not been identified by people
who knew me, would Dulcie's perception be keener and lead to her seeing
through my disguise? These and similar doubts and questions crowded my
brain as I stood there watching her from a distance, but in the end
indiscretion got the better of prudence, and I decided to join the men
and women grouped about the table at which she and her friend sat.
For fully ten minutes I stood there, and during that time I saw her win
seven times in succession. She seemed to play without judgment or
calculation, in fact, with absolute recklessness, and after winning
three "races" in succession she had increased her stake each time. In
the fourth "race" she had backed a horse for ten pounds at four to one,
and won. In the next race she had planked twenty sovereigns on an
outsider, and raked in over a hundred pounds. The next two races had
increased her pile by between three and four hundred pounds. I could see
her panting with excitement. Her lips were slightly parted. Her eyes
shone. Her whole soul seemed centred upon the game.
And then she began to lose.
At first slowly, then rapidly, her pile of gold and notes dwindled. Time
after time she backed the wrong "animal." Now only a few five- and
ten-pound notes and a little heap of sovereigns--twenty at
most--remained. Her face had turned gradually pale. Connie Stapleton
leant towards her and whispered in her ear. I saw Dulcie nod; then,
taking up all the money in front of her, she handed it to the man who
held the bank, and received a ticket in return.
The board with the graduated divisions and the names of the horses
marked upon them spun round once more. Dulcie's brows were contracted,
her face was drawn, her expression tense. Slowly the board now
revolved, slower still. It stopped. I saw her give a little start, and
distinctly heard the gasp which escaped her.
She had lost everything.
Connie Stapleton's hand closed over hers, as though to reassure her.
Again the widow spoke into her ear. A moment later I saw a roll of notes
pushed towards Dulcie. Eagerly she grabbed them.
This was terrible. I realized at once what was happening. The widow was
lending her money. I wondered if the money she had already lost had been
lent to her by her friend. Instantly it dawned upon me that it must have
been, unless, indeed, Dulcie had, before I arrived, been extraordinarily
lucky, for I knew that she had not money enough of her own to gamble
with for such high stakes. She was playing again now--and losing. Once
or twice she won, but after each winner came several losers. I was
gradually getting fascinated. Again the widow lent her money, and again
she lost it all.
At last they rose. Never, as long as I live, shall I forget the
expression that was on my darling's face as, with the widow's arm linked
within her own, she made her way towards the door.
I followed them to the supper room. They stopped, and, standing at one
of the tables, Mrs. Stapleton filled two glasses with champagne. She
gave Dulcie one, and herself emptied the other. She filled her own again
and once more emptied it. Dulcie only half emptied her glass, then
set it down.
Out of the room they went. While they put on their wraps I went in
search of my hat. A few minutes later Mrs. Stapleton and Dulcie were
entering a car which I at once recognized as Connie Stapleton's. As the
car started I saw a taxi approaching, and hailed it.
"Follow that car," I said to the driver. "Keep it in sight, and, when
you see it stop, stop forty or fifty yards behind it."
Right up into Hampstead the grey car sped. It slackened speed near
Southend Road, eventually pulling up at a house in Willow Road. Leaning
forward, I rubbed the frosted glass in the front of my taxi, and peered
out. I saw Mrs. Stapleton alight first; then she turned and helped
Dulcie to get out. Both entered the house. The door closed quietly, and
the car rolled away.
For some minutes I waited. Then I told my driver to pass slowly by the
house and make a note of the number. The number was "460."
That, at any rate, was satisfactory. I had discovered what was,
presumably, Mrs. Stapleton's London address. Only then did I begin to
wonder what Osborne and Preston would think when they found that I had
gone. So engrossed had I become in Dulcie's movements that for the time
all thought of my two companions had passed out of my mind. I thought of
returning to the house in Cumberland Place; then, deciding that it was
too late, I told the driver to go direct to my flat in South
A letter was lying on the table in my sitting-room. I seemed to
recognize the writing, and yet--
I tore open the envelope and pulled out the letter. To my surprise it
was from Dick, who was now back at Eton. "My dear Mike," it ran. "I have
something very important to say to you, and I want to say it at once.
But I don't want to write it. Can you come here to see me to-morrow as
soon as possible, or can you get leave for me to come to London to see
you? I don't want to go home, because if I did father and Aunt Hannah
and Dulcie would ask questions, and what I want to say to you is _quite
private_. Will you telegraph to me as soon as you get this to say what I
can do and where I can see you at once?
"Your affectionate brother-in-law-to-be,
I read the letter through again; then refolded it and put it in a
drawer. The letter, I saw by the postmark, had arrived by the last post.
What could the boy want to see me about? What could he have to say to me
that he wished to keep secret from his family? I could not imagine.
Anyway, I would, I decided, gratify him--I was very fond of Dick. Then
and there I wrote out a telegram to be sent off early in the morning,
telling him that I would come down in the afternoon; I had decided to
try to see something of Dulcie during the morning, also to telephone to
Holt to inquire for her, though without betraying to Sir Roland or Aunt
Hannah that I knew anything of her movements during the previous night.
But Sir Roland forestalled me. Shortly after eight o'clock I was
awakened by the telephone at my bedside ringing loudly. Still half
asleep, I grabbed the receiver and glued it to my ear.
"Had I seen anything of Dulcie? Did I know where she was and why she had
The speaker was Sir Roland, and he spoke from Holt Manor.
"Why, isn't she at home?" I asked, controlling my voice.
"If she were here I shouldn't ask where she is," Sir Roland answered
quite sharply. "Mrs. Stapleton called yesterday afternoon to ask if
Dulcie might dine with her in town and go to the theatre. Of course I
raised no objection"--Sir Roland in no way shared my suspicion
concerning Mrs. Stapleton; on the contrary, she attracted him and he
liked her, though Aunt Hannah did not--"and Dulcie dressed and went off
at about five o'clock. They were to go to 'The Rook,' Mrs. Stapleton
said, where she would dress, and then they would motor to London. Mrs.
Stapleton assured me that she would bring Dulcie back here by about
midnight or one o'clock, and Dulcie took with her the key of the back
door, so that nobody need wait up for her--she told her maid to go to
bed. Her maid has just come to tell me that when she went to awaken
Dulcie, she found that she had not returned. I have telephoned to 'The
Rook,' and they tell me there that Mrs. Stapleton has not been back to
the hotel since yesterday soon after lunch. So I suppose that after
leaving here she decided to motor straight to town, and dress there. I
suppose she has some _pied-à-terre_ in London, though she has never
told me so."
"And you say that Dulcie has the door key with her," I said. "Do you
think it was wise to give it to her?"
"Why in the world not? She has often taken it before. But tell me, have
you seen anything of Dulcie?"
I didn't like telling an untruth, but, questioned in that point-blank
way, I had to prevaricate; otherwise I should have been forced to say
all I knew.
"She has not been to see me," I answered. "Perhaps Mrs. Stapleton's car
broke down and they have been obliged to seek refuge at some wayside
inn. I wouldn't be anxious, Sir Roland," I added, knowing how little it
needed to make him anxious about Dulcie. "You will probably get a
telegram from one of them presently."
We exchanged a few more remarks, and then Sir Roland exclaimed suddenly:
"Hold the line a moment. Hannah wants to speak to you."
Aunt Hannah, who, whatever faults she possessed, rarely lost her head,
spoke sensibly and incisively. She didn't like this affair at all, she
said, and intended to speak very seriously to Dulcie immediately upon
her return. Also she was determined to put an end to this strong
friendship between her niece and Mrs. Stapleton. On Dulcie's side, she
said, it was nothing less than an absurd infatuation. She would not have
minded her being infatuated about some women, but she had come
thoroughly to mistrust Mrs. Stapleton.
I asked her to telephone or telegraph to me the moment Dulcie got home,
and said that if I saw Dulcie in town or heard anything of her during
the morning I would at once ring up Holt Manor. With that we rang off.
"Can I see Mrs. Stapleton?" I inquired, as the door of the house in
Willow Road was opened by a maid with rather curious eyes; I had come
there straight from my flat, no longer wearing my disguise, and it was
nearly eleven o'clock. Just then I had an inspiration, and I added
quickly, before she had time to answer, "or Mr. Hugesson Gastrell?"
An arrow shot at random, it proved a lucky shot, for the maid answered
"Mrs. Stapleton isn't dressed yet, sir; but Mr. Gastrell can see you, I
expect. What name shall I say?"
I was shown into a small morning room, and there I waited for, I
suppose, five minutes. At last I heard footsteps approaching, and in a
moment Gastrell entered.
"Dear me, this is a surprise," he exclaimed cordially, extending his
hand. "I didn't know I had given you this address. Well, and what can I
do for you?"
His tone, as he said this, was rather that of a patron addressing an
inferior, but I pretended not to notice it, and, drawing upon my
"I don't think you did give me this address; it was somebody else--I
forget who--who mentioned it to me the other day in course of
conversation. Really I have come to see Mrs. Stapleton and inquire for
"Miss Challoner? Do you mean Miss Dulcie Challoner, Sir Roland's
An extremely puzzled look came into his eyes, though this he was
probably not aware of.
"But what makes you think Miss Challoner is here?" he inquired quickly.
"She spent the night here with Mrs. Stapleton."
He looked still more puzzled.
"Did she really?" he answered in a tone of surprise which obviously was
"Yes. Didn't you know?"
"This is the first I have heard of it, but I dare say you are right.
Mrs. Stapleton has rooms in this house--it's a little private
establishment of mine--but beyond that I know little of her movements.
I'll go and inquire if you'll wait a moment."
"Clever scoundrel!" I said aloud when he had left the room and shut the
door. "Rooms here," "knows little of her movements," "first he has heard
of it." But I am going to bowl you out in the end, my friend, I ended
mentally as I seated myself and picked up one of the morning papers
which lay upon the table. It was the _Morning Post_. I noticed that
several little bits had been cut out of the front page--presumably
I had scanned one or two pages and was reading a leading article when
"You are quite right," he said, offering me his cigarette case. "Miss
Challoner is here. After supper last night at the Carlton with Mrs.
Stapleton she didn't feel very well, so Mrs. Stapleton persuaded her to
come back and sleep here instead of motoring back to Newbury. She told
her maid to telegraph early this morning to Sir Roland Challoner, in
case he should feel anxious at Miss Challoner's not returning last
night, but the maid stupidly forgot to. She is sending a telegram now.
Miss Challoner is quite all right this morning, and will be down
presently, but I am afraid you won't be able to see Mrs. Stapleton, as
she isn't up yet."
I thanked him for finding out, thinking, as I did so, that certainly he
was one of the most plausible liars I had ever come across; and then for
a few minutes we conversed on general topics.
"You don't remember who it was told you my address?" he presently asked
carelessly, flicking his cigarette ash into the grate.
"I am sorry, I don't," I answered, pretending to think. "It was some
days ago that somebody or other told me you lived here, or rather that
you had an address here."
"Oh, indeed. It's odd how people talk. By the way, how did you come to
know that Mrs. Stapleton and Miss Challoner were here?"
His question was interrupted by Dulcie's entering, wrapped in a great
fur coat. There were dark marks under her eyes that I had never seen
there before, but she seemed in quite good spirits as she came across
the room and greeted me.
"How in the world did you find out I was here!" she exclaimed. "It is
most astonishing. Did you know that Connie had rooms here? I didn't,
until last night. It was so good of her to put me up. I can't think what
it was upset me so last night, but I am quite all right this morning.
Connie has just telegraphed to father to explain my absence--you know
how little it takes to worry him. I've got my evening dress on under
this coat that Connie's lent me. She wanted to lend me one of her day
dresses, but not one of them comes near fitting me."
I gasped. I couldn't answer. It was bad enough to find people like
Gastrell and Jasmine Gastrell and Connie Stapleton perjuring themselves
in the calmest way imaginable; but that Dulcie, whom I had until now
implicitly believed to be everything that was good should thus look me
in the eyes and lie to me--with as much self-assurance as though she had
been accustomed to practising deception all her life.
A kind of haze seemed to rise before my eyes. My brain throbbed. All the
blood seemed suddenly to be going out of my heart. Mechanically putting
out an arm, I supported myself against the mantelpiece.
"Mike! Mike! What is the matter? Are you ill? do you feel faint?"
Her voice sounded a long, long way off. I heard her words as one hears
words in a dream. My mouth had turned suddenly dry. I tried to speak,
but could not.
"Here, Berrington, drink this and you'll feel better."
These were the next words I remember hearing. I was lying back on the
settee, and Gastrell was holding a tumbler to my lips. It contained
brandy slightly diluted. I drank a lot of it, and it revived me to
Still uncertain if I were sleeping or awake, I passed out through the
hall, slightly supported by Dulcie, and clambered after her into the
taxi which awaited us outside.
"Go to Paddington," I heard her say to the driver, as she pulled the
door to. No servant had come out of the house, and Gastrell had
disappeared while we were still inside the hall.
SECRETS OF DUSKY FOWL
To this day that drive to Paddington recalls to mind a nightmare. The
entire confidence I had placed in Dulcie was shattered. Had anybody told
me it was possible she could deceive me as she had done I should, I
know, have insulted him--so infuriated should I have felt at the bare
thought. And yet she clearly had deceived me, deceived me most horribly,
inasmuch as she had done it in such cold blood and obviously with
premeditation. Her eyes, which had always looked at me, as I thought, so
truthfully, had gazed into mine that morning with the utmost coolness
and self-possession while she deliberately lied to me. Dulcie a liar!
The words kept stamping themselves into my brain until my head throbbed
and seemed on the point of bursting. As the car sped along through the
busy streets I saw nothing, heard nothing. The remarks she made to me
seemed to reach my brain against my will. I answered them mechanically,
in, for the most part, monosyllables.
What did it all mean? How could she continue to address me as though
nothing in the least unusual had occurred? Did she notice nothing in my
manner that appeared to be unusual? True, she addressed to me no term of
endearment, which was singular; but so engrossed was I in my
introspection and in my own misery that I scarcely noticed this.
Indeed, had she spoken to me fondly, her doing so just then would but
have increased the feeling of bitterness which obsessed me.
Several times during that drive I had been on the point of telling her
all I knew, all I had seen and heard: the suspicions I entertained
regarding her friend Connie--her abominable friend as she now seemed to
me to be; the grave suspicions I entertained also regarding Gastrell,
with whom she seemed to be on good terms, to say the least--these,
indeed, were more than suspicions. But at the crucial moment my courage
had failed me. How could I say all this, or even hint at it, in the face
of all I now knew concerning Dulcie herself, Dulcie who had been so much
to me, who was so much to me still though I tried hard to persuade
myself that everything between us must now be considered at an end?
I saw her off at Paddington. Mechanically I kissed her; why I did I
cannot say, for I felt no desire to. It was, I suppose, that
instinctively I realized that if I failed to greet her then in the way
she would expect me to she would suspect that I knew something. She had
asked me during our drive through the streets of London who had told me
where to find her; but what I answered I cannot recollect. I made, I
believe, some random reply which apparently satisfied her.
For two hours I lay upon my bed in my flat in South Molton Street,
tossing restlessly, my mind distraught, my brain on fire. Never before
had I been in love, and perhaps for that reason I felt this cruel
blow--my disillusionment--the more severely. Once or twice my man,
Simon, knocked, then tried the door and found it locked, then called out
to ask if anything were amiss with me. I scarcely heard him, and did
not answer. I wanted to be left alone, left in complete solitude to
suffer my deep misery unseen and unheard.
I suppose I must have slept at last--in bed at three and up at eight, my
night had been a short one--for when presently I opened my eyes I saw
that the time was half-past two. Then the thought flashed in upon me
that in my telegram I had promised to go to Eton to see Dick by the
train leaving Paddington at three. I had barely time to catch it. A
thorough wash restored me to some extent to my normal senses, and at
Paddington I bought a sandwich which served that day instead of lunch.
Once or twice before I had been down to Eton to see Dick, though on
those occasions I had been accompanied by Sir Roland. I had little
difficulty now in obtaining leave to take him out to tea. He wanted to
speak to me "quite privately," he said as we walked arm in arm up the
main street, so I decided to take him to the "White Hart," and there I
ordered tea in a private room.
"Now, Mike," he said in a confidential tone, when at last we were alone,
"this is what I want to draw your attention to," and, as he spoke, he
produced a rather dirty envelope from his trousers pocket, opened it and
carefully shook out on to the table several newspaper cuttings, each
three or four lines in length.
"What on earth are those about, old boy?" I asked, surprised. "Newspaper
advertisements, aren't they?"
"Yes, out of the _Morning Post_, all on the front page. If you will wait
a minute I will put them all in order--the date of each is written on
the back--and then _you_ will see if things strike _you_ in the way
they have struck me."
These were the cuttings:
"R.P, bjptnbblx. wamii. xvzzjv. okk.
"Rlxt. ex. lnvrb. 4. zcokk. zbpl. qc.
Ptfrd. Avnsp. Hvfbl. Ucaqkoggwx.--DUSKY
"Plt. ecii. pv. oa. t1vp. uysaa. djt. xru.
przvf. 4.--DUSKY FOWL."
"Nvnntltmms. Pvvvdnzzpn. ycyswsa.
Bpix. uyyuqecgsqa. X. W. ljfh. sc.
"I can't make head or tail of them," I said when I had looked carefully
at each, and endeavoured to unravel its secret, for obviously it must
possess some secret meaning. "What do you make of them, Dick--anything?"
"Yes. Look, and I will show you," he answered, going to the
writing-table and bringing over pen, ink and paper. "I have always been
fond of discovering, or trying to discover, the meanings of these queer
cypher messages you see sometimes in some newspapers, and I have become
rather good at it--I have a book that explains the way cyphers are
usually constructed. I have found out a good many at one time and
another, but this one took me rather a long time to disentangle. I can
tell you, Mike, that when I found it concerned you I felt
"Concerned me!" I exclaimed. "Oh, nonsense. What is it all about?"
"Follow me carefully, and I'll show you. I guessed from the first that
it must be one of those cyphers that start their alphabet with some
letter other than A, but this one has turned out to be what my book
calls a 'complex alphabet' cypher. I tried and tried, all sorts of
ways--I began the alphabet by calling 'b' 'a'; then by calling 'c' 'a';
then by calling 'd' 'a,' and so on all the way through, but that was no
good. Then I tried the alphabet backwards, calling 'z' 'a'; then 'y'
'a'; right back to 'a,' but that wasn't it either. Then I tried one or
two other ways, and at last I started skipping the letters first
backwards, and then forwards. Doing it forwards, when I got to 'l' I
found I had got something. I called 'l' 'a'; 'n' 'b'; 'p' 'c'; and so
on, and made out _bjptnbblx_, the first word in the first cypher, to be
the word 'improving,' and the two letters before it in capitals 'R.P.'
to be really 'D.C.' The next cypher word, _wamii_, stumped me, as the
code didn't make it sense; then it occurred to me to start the alphabet
with 'm' instead of 'l,' skipping every alternate letter as before, and
I made out _wamii_ to mean 'shall.' The next cypher word, _xvzzjv_, I
couldn't get sense out of by starting the alphabet with either 'l' or
'm,' so I tried the next letter, 'n,' skipping alternate letters once
more, and that gave me the word 'settle.' I knew then that I had got the
key, and I soon had the whole sentence. It ran as follows:
"_D.C. improving shall settle all soon.--Dusky Fowl._"
"Still, I wasn't much the wiser, and it never for a moment occurred to
me that D.C. stood for Dulcie Challoner--"
"Good heavens, Dick!" I cried, "you don't mean to tell me that
"Do be patient, brother-in-law, and let me go through the whole thing
before you interrupt with your ejaculations," Dick said calmly. "Well,
four days went by, and then in the _Morning Post_ of February 7th the
second advertisement appeared:
"Rlxt. ex. sroehnel. 28. Zcokk. zbpl. qc.
Ptfrd. Avnsp. Hvfbl. Ucaqkoggwx.--DUSKY
"The code was the same as the first, and I deciphered it quite easily.
Here it is," and he read from a bit of paper he held in his hand:
"_Date is February 28. Shall stay at Mount Royal Hotel,
There was nothing more after that until February 12th, when the third
advertisement appeared, same code,--here it is deciphered:
"_Car will be at Clun Cross two day February 28.--Dusky Fowl_."
"That 'Dusky Fowl' bothered me a lot. I couldn't think what it meant.
Several times I had gone through the names of all the 'dusky birds'
I could think of--blackbird, rook, crow, raven, and so on, but
nothing struck me, nothing seemed to make sense. Then the next
day--yesterday--an advertisement in the same code appeared which
startled me a lot because your name and Mr. Osborne's were in it, and it
didn't take me long then to get at the meaning of 'Dusky Fowl.' Here is
the advertisement from yesterday's _Morning Post_, and directly I had
read it I wrote that letter asking you to come to see me at once, or to
let me come to you."
He read out:
"_Osborne and Berrington suspect. Take precautions. D.C. with me
"'Dusky Fowl' evidently stands for 'rook,' and 'rook' for 'Rook Hotel,'
and 'Rook Hotel' for 'Mrs. Stapleton.' And that being the case, who else
can 'D.C.' stand for but 'Dulcie Challoner'? It's as plain as a
"By Jove, Dick," I said after a few moments' pause, "I believe you are
"I am sure I am," he answered with complete self-assurance.
This clearly was a most important discovery. I decided to take the
cuttings and their solutions to Osborne the moment I got back to town,
and I intended to go back directly after delivering Dick safely back at
"Really," I exclaimed, feeling now almost as excited as the boy, "you
are pretty clever, old chap, to have found out all that. I wonder,
though, why Mrs. Stapleton doesn't telegraph or write to the man or
people these messages are intended for. It would be much simpler."
"It wouldn't be safe, Mike. I read in a book once that people of that
sort, the kind of people Mr. Osborne always speaks of as 'scoundrels,'
nearly always communicate in some sort of cypher, and generally by
advertising, because letters are so dangerous--they may miscarry, or be
stopped, or traced, and then they might get used as evidence against the
people who wrote them. By communicating in cypher and through a
newspaper of course no risk of any sort is run."
"Except when the cyphers get deciphered," I said, "as you have
"Oh, but then people seldom waste time the way I do, trying to find
these things out; when they do it's generally a fluke if they come
across the key. It took me hours to disentangle the first of those
advertisements--the rest came easy enough."
All this conversation had distracted my mind a good deal, and I began to
feel better. For several minutes I was silent, wrapped in thought, and
Dick had tact enough not to interrupt me. I was mentally debating if
Dick might not, in more ways than one, prove a useful associate with
Osborne, Preston and myself in our task of unveiling the gang of clever
rogues and getting them convicted. One thing, which had struck me at
once, but that I had not told Dick, for fear of exciting him too much,
was that Bedlington was the large town nearest to Eldon Hall, the Earl
of Cranmere's seat, the place the mysterious, unseen man in the house in
Grafton Street had asked Jack Osborne about while he lay bound upon the
bed; also that February 28th was the date when Cranmere's eldest son
would come of age, on which day a week's festivities at Eldon would
begin--and festivities at Eldon were events to be remembered, I had been
told. What most occupied my thoughts, however, was the question I had
asked myself--should I make a confidant of little Dick and tell him how
things now stood between Dulcie and myself?
"Dick, old boy," I said, at last, "I wonder if I can treat you as I
would a grown man--as I would treat some grown men, I should say."
"I dare say you could, brother-in-law," he answered. "Why don't you
"Supposing that you were not to become my brother-in-law, as you seem so
fond of calling me, would you be sorry?"
"I jolly well think I should!" he replied, looking up sharply. "But what
makes you say a thing like that? It's all rot, isn't it?"
He seemed, as he looked at me with his big brown eyes which were so like
Dulcie's, to be trying to discover if I spoke in jest or partly
"You are going to marry Dulcie, aren't you? You're not going to break it
off? You haven't had a row or anything of that kind"
"No, not exactly a row," I said, staring into his nice frank face.
"Then why do you talk about not becoming my brother-in-law? If you don't
marry Dulcie you'll jolly nearly kill her. You don't know how fearfully
fond of you she is. You can't know, or you wouldn't talk about not
"I haven't talked about not marrying her," I answered hurriedly. "Tell
me, Dick, is that true--what you say about her being so awfully fond
"I shouldn't say it if it wasn't true," he said with a touch of pride.
"But what did you mean when you said you wondered if you could treat me
as if I were a man?"
I put my arm round the lad, as he stood at the table, and drew him close
"Dick, old boy," I said with a catch in my voice, "I am very unhappy,
and I believe Dulcie is too, and I believe it is possible you may be
able to put things right if you set about it in the right way. But
first, tell me--you have talked to Mrs. Stapleton; do you like her?"
"I have never liked her from the first time she talked to me," he
answered without an instant's hesitation. "And I don't like her any the
better since I have heard you and Mr. Osborne talking about her, and
since I spotted her in that advertisement yesterday."
"Well, Dick," I went on, "Mrs. Stapleton and Dulcie are now tremendous
friends, and I believe that Mrs. Stapleton is trying to make Dulcie
dislike me; I believe she says things about me to Dulcie that are
untrue, and I think that Dulcie believes some of the things she
"What a beastly shame! But, oh no, Mike, Dulcie wouldn't believe
anything about you that was nasty--my word, I'd like to see anyone say
nasty things to her about you!"
"I am glad you think that, but still--anyway, certain things have
happened which I can't explain to you, and I am pretty sure Dulcie likes
me less than she did. I want you to try to find that out, and to tell
me. Will you try to if I can manage to get you a week-end at Holt?"
"Will I? You try me, Mike. And I won't only try to find out--I shall
It was six o'clock when I arrived back at Eton with Dick. Word was sent
to me that the headmaster would like to speak to me before I left. He
came into the room a few minutes afterwards, told Dick to go away and
return in ten minutes, then shut the door and came over to me. He looked
"Half an hour ago I received this telegram," he said, pulling one out of
his pocket and handing it to me. "As I know you to be an intimate friend
of Sir Roland's, you may like to read it before I say anything to Dick."
I unfolded the telegram. It had been handed in at Newbury at five
o'clock, and ran:
"My daughter suddenly taken seriously ill. Dick must return at once. My
butler will await him under the clock on Paddington departure platform
at 7:15, and bring him down here. Please see that Dick is under clock at
7:15 this evening without fail.--CHALLONER."
I read the telegram twice, and even then I seemed unable to grasp its
full significance. Dulcie seriously ill! Good God, what had happened to
her--when we had parted on Paddington platform only a few hours before
she had appeared to be in perfect health. Had this sudden attack,
whatever it might be, any connection with Mrs. Stapleton, or with that
hateful affair that I had witnessed the night before--my darling Dulcie
gambling recklessly and losing, and then borrowing--from a woman I now
fully believed to be an adventuress--money to go on gambling with? Was
it even possible that, beside herself with dismay at the large amount of
money she now owed Mrs. Stapleton, she had in a sudden moment of madness
attempted to take--
I almost cried out as I banished from my brain the hideous thought. Oh,
God, anything rather than that! I must get further news, and without a
moment's loss of time. I must telegraph or telephone to Holt.
The headmaster's calm voice recalled me to my senses.
"It is indeed terrible news," he said sympathetically, struck, no doubt,
at the grief which the news had stamped upon my face. "But it may, after
all, be less serious than Sir Roland thinks. I was about to suggest, Mr.
Berrington," he went on, pulling out his watch, "that as you are, I take
it, returning to London by the 6:25, you might take Dick up with you and
place him in charge of Sir Roland's butler who will be awaiting him at a
quarter past seven under the clock on Paddington platform. If you can be
so very kind as to do this it will obviate the necessity of my sending
someone to London with him. I have given an order for such things as he
way require to be packed, and they should be ready by now. We must
break the news very gently to the boy, for I know that he is devoted to
his sister, so for the boy's sake, Mr. Berrington, try to bear up. I
know, of course, the reason of your deep grief, for Dick has told me
that you are engaged to be married to his sister."
Hardly knowing what I said, I agreed to do as he suggested, and see Dick
safely to Paddington. How we broke the news to him, and how he received
it when we did break it, I hardly recollect. All I remember distinctly
is standing in a telephone call office in Eton town, and endeavouring to
get through to Holt Manor. Not until it was nearly time for the London
train from Windsor to start, did the telephone exchange inform me they
had just ascertained that the line to Holt Manor was out of order, and
that they could not get through.
Anathematizing the telephone and all that had to do with it, I hurried
out to the taxi in which Dick sat awaiting me.
All the way from Windsor to London we exchanged hardly a word. Dick, I
knew, was terribly upset at the news, for his devotion to his sister was
as well known to me as it was to his father and to Aunt Hannah. But he
was a plucky little chap, and tried hard not to show how deeply the news
had affected him. For my part my brain was in a tumult. To think that I
should have parted from her that morning with feelings of resentment in
my heart, and that now she lay possibly at death's door. Again and again
I cursed myself for my irritability, my suspicions. Were they, after
all, unjust suspicions? Might Dulcie not have excellent reasons to give
for all that had occurred the night before? Might she not have been
duped, and taken to that house under wholly false pretences? An uncle of
hers believed to be dead, a brother of Sir Roland's, had, I knew, been
a confirmed gambler. There was much in heredity, I reflected, in spite
of modern theories to the contrary. Was it not within the bounds of
possibility that Dulcie, taken to that gambling den by her infamous
companion, and encouraged by her to play, might suddenly have felt
within her the irresistible craving that no man or woman born a gambler
has yet been able to overcome? And in any case, what right had I had
metaphorically to sit in judgment upon her and jump to conclusions which
might be wholly erroneous?
The train travelled at express speed through Slough, Didcot, and other
small stations. It was within a mile of London, when my thoughts
suddenly drifted. Why had Sir Roland not sent James direct to Windsor to
meet Dick, instead of wasting time by sending him all the way to London?
But perhaps James had been in town that day--he came up sometimes--and
Sir Roland had wired to him there. Again, why had he not sent the car to
Eton to fetch Dick away? That would have been the quicker plan; ah, of
course he would have done that had it been possible, but probably the
car had been sent into Newbury to fetch the doctor. That, indeed, was
probably what had happened, for the telegram had been handed it at
Newbury instead of at Holt Stacey. I knew that Sir Roland's chauffeur
had a poor memory--it was well known to be his chief fault; probably he
had shot through Holt Stacey, forgetting all about the telegram he had
been told to send off there, and, upon his arrival in Newbury,
remembered it and at once despatched it. Sir Roland had, I knew, a
rooted dislike to telephoning telegraphic messages direct to the post
office, and I had never yet known him dictate a telegram through his
telephone. Oh, how provoking, I said again, mentally, as I thought of
the telephone, that the instrument should have got out of order on this
day of all days--the one day when I had wanted so urgently to use it!
Now the train was slowing down. It was rattling over the points as it
passed into the station. Looking out of the window I could see the clock
on the departure platform. A few people were strolling near it, but
nobody was under it--at least no man. I could see a woman standing under
it, apparently a young woman.
Dick's luggage consisted of a suit-case which we had taken into the
carriage with us, and this I now carried for him as we descended into
the sub-way. The clock on the departure platform is only a few yards
from the exit of the sub-way, and, as we came out, the woman under the
clock was not looking in our direction. Somehow her profile seemed
I stopped abruptly, and, catching Dick by the arm, pulled him quickly
behind a pile of luggage on a truck. An amazing thought had flashed into
my brain. As quickly as I could I gathered my scattered wits:
"Dick," I said after a few moments' reflection, trying to keep my brain
cool, "I believe--I have an idea all isn't right. There is no sign of
James, though our train was some minutes late and it is now twenty past
seven--James was to be here at a quarter past, according to that
telegram. But that woman waiting there--I know her by sight though I
have never spoken to her. She might remember me by sight, so I don't
want her to see me. Now look here, I want you to do this. Take hold of
your suit-case, and, as soon as that woman's back is turned, walk up and
stand under the clock, near her, as though you were awaiting someone.
Don't look at her or speak to her. I believe this is some trick. I don't
believe that telegram was sent by your father at all. I don't believe
Dulcie is ill. I think that woman is waiting for you, and that when you
have been there a few moments she will speak to you--probably ask you if
you are Master Challoner, and then tell you that she has been sent
instead of James to meet you, and ask you to go with her. If she does
that, don't look in the least surprised, answer her quite naturally--you
can inquire, if you like, how Dulcie is, though I shall not be a bit
surprised if we find her at home perfectly well--and if she asks you to
go with her, go. Don't be at all frightened, old chap; I shall follow,
and be near you all the time, whatever happens. And look here, if I have
guessed aright, and she does say that she has been asked to meet you and
tells you to come along with her, just put your hand behind you for an
instant, as you are walking away, and then I shall know."
"Oh, Mike, if Dulcie isn't ill, if after all nothing has happened to
His feelings overcame him, and he could not say more.
I moved a little to one side of the pile of trunks, and peered out.
"Now, Dick--now!" I exclaimed, as I saw the woman turn her back to us.
Dick marched up to her, carrying his suit-case, and waited under the
clock, just as I had told him to. He had not been there ten seconds when
I saw the woman step up to him and speak to him.
They exchanged one or two remarks, then, turning, walked away together.
And, as they walked, Dick's hand went up his back and he scratched an
Instantly I began to walk slowly after them. Dick was being taken away
by the dark, demure, quietly-dressed little woman I had seen at Connie
Stapleton's dinner party, and, only the night before, standing among the
onlookers in Gastrell's house in Cumberland Place.
They walked leisurely along the platform, Dick still carrying his
suit-case, and at the end of it passed down the sloping sub-way which
leads to the Metropolitan Railway. For a moment they were out of sight,
but directly I turned the corner I saw them again; they walked slower
now, Dick evidently finding his burden rather heavy. At the pigeon-hole
of the booking-office a queue of a dozen or so were waiting to buy
tickets. The woman and Dick did not stop, however. I saw them pass by
the queue, and then I saw the woman hold out tickets to the collector to
be clipped, and as I took my place at the back end of the queue she and
Dick passed on to the Praed Street platform.
To what station should I book? I had no idea where they were going, so
decided to go to High Street, Kensington, and pay the difference if I
had to follow them further. There were still six people in front of me,
when I heard the train coming in.
"Hurry up in front!" I called out in a fever of excitement, dreading
that I might not get a ticket in time.
"All right, my man--don't shove!" the man immediately before me
exclaimed angrily, pushing back against me. "This ain't the only train,
you know; if you miss this you can catch the next!"
I believe he deliberately took a long time getting out his money.