Part 4 out of 6
Anyway, before I had bought my ticket the train had started. A moment
later I stood upon the platform, watching, in a frenzy of despair, the
red tail-light of the train containing Dick and the strange woman
disappearing into the tunnel.
I felt literally beside myself. What in the world had I done! I had
deliberately let the strange woman take Dick away with her, without
having the remotest idea where she was going or why she had, to all
intents, abducted the boy. It was awful to think of--and I alone was
entirely to blame! Then the thought came back to me that I had told Dick
to have no fear, assuring him that I would be near him all the time.
What would the headmaster say who had confided him to my care? Worse,
what would Sir Roland say when I confessed to him what I had done?
These and other maddening thoughts were crowding into my brain as I
stood upon the platform, dazed, and completely at a loss what to do,
when somebody nudged me. Turning, I recognized at once the man in the
snuff-coloured suit who had told me so rudely "not to shove," and had
then dawdled so while buying his railway ticket. I was about to say
something not very complimentary to him, when he spoke.
"I trust you will forgive my apparent rudeness a moment ago at the
booking-office," he said in a voice I knew quite well, "but there's a
method in my madness. I am Preston--George Preston."
"Good heavens!" I exclaimed, the sudden revulsion of feeling almost
overpowering me. "But do you know what has happened--do you know that
Sir Roland Challoner's son I had charge of has--"
"Don't distress yourself, Mr. Berrington," he interrupted reassuringly,
"I know everything, and more than you know, but I rather feared that
you might see through this disguise. I have been loafing about
Paddington station for nearly an hour. The lady I expected to see
arrived just after seven, and took up her position under the clock. Then
I saw you and the lad arrive; I saw you recognize the woman; I saw you
put yourself out of sight behind the pile of trunks, and talk earnestly
to the lad for a few moments, and I guessed what you were saying to him.
I walked right past you in the sub-way, and intentionally made you miss
this train, because it is inexpedient that you should follow those two.
I know where they are going, and Mr. Osborne knows too; I needn't
trouble to explain to you here how I come to know all this. The thing
you have to do now is to come with me to my house off Regent Street,
where Mr. Osborne awaits us."
Never in my life, I suppose, have I felt so relieved as I did then, for
the mental pain I had endured during these few minutes had been torture.
Indeed, I felt almost indignant with Preston for his having made me
suffer so; but he explained that he had revealed himself to me the
moment he felt justified in doing so. Suddenly a thought occurred to me.
"Do you know," I asked him quickly, "anything of a telegram sent to Eton
this morning, apparently by Sir Roland, saying that Miss Challoner had
been taken suddenly ill, and requesting that his son might be sent home
to Holt at once?"
"Yes, I know, because--I sent it."
"_You_ sent it!"
"Yes--though I didn't write it. Mrs. Stapleton wrote it. She gave it to
her chauffeur, who was in the hall at the Rook Hotel, and when she was
gone he asked me if I would mind handing it in, as I had intentionally
told him I was going to the post office. I was a chauffeur, too, at the
time, chauffeur to 'Baron Poppenheimer,' whom I drove down this morning
in his car ostensibly to see the beautiful widow. 'Baron Poppenheimer'
was, of course, Mr. Osborne. The widow was not at 'The Book' when we
arrived--we knew she wouldn't be, and, of course, you know where she
was, she was at the house in Hampstead where you found Miss Challoner
when you called there this morning; she arrived home about two o'clock,
however, and while 'Baron Poppenheimer' was making himself agreeable to
her--your friend Mr. Osborne is a most splendid actor, and ought to have
been in the detective force--I was making headway with her chauffeur out
in the garage. Yes, Mr. Berrington, you can set your mind at rest--Miss
Challoner is perfectly well. I wonder if by chance you telephoned to
Holt this afternoon."
"I tried to."
"And you couldn't get through? The line was out of order?"
"Good!" Preston exclaimed, his small, intelligent eyes twinkling oddly.
"That is as I thought. One of Gastrell's accomplices set the line out of
order between three and five this afternoon. When the line comes to be
examined the electrician will, unless I am greatly mistaken, find the
flaw at some point between Holt Stacey and Holt Manor--if you should
happen to hear, you might tell me the exact point where they find that
the trouble exists. My theories and my chain of circumstances are
working out splendidly--I haven't as yet made a single false conjecture.
And now come along to my house, and I'll tell you more on the way."
Osborne sat in Preston's sitting-room, smoking a long cigar. He no
longer wore the disguise of "Baron Poppenheimer," or any disguise, and
upon our entry he uttered an exclamation.
"By Jove, Mike," he said, "you are the very man we've been wanting all
day. Where did you disappear to last night?" And turning to Preston he
added, "Were you right? Did he follow the widow and Miss Challoner home
"Yes," I answered for him, "I did. Did you see Dulcie at Gastrell's last
"I should say so--and we saw you gazing at her. You nearly gave yourself
away, Mike; you did, indeed. You ought to be more careful. When we saw
you follow them out of the room, we knew, just as though you had told
us, that you meant to follow them home. And what about the boy?" he
said, addressing Preston. "Did he turn up? And was he met?"
"Yes, just as I expected; but he wasn't met by Sir Roland's butler, of
course. He was met by Doris Lorrimer--you have probably noticed her,
that dark, demure, quietly dressed girl who was at Connie Stapleton's
dinner party at 'The Rook,' and at Gastrell's last night."
"You don't mean to say that she, too, is one of Gastrell's accomplices!"
Jack exclaimed. "It seems impossible--looking like that!"
"I have suspected it for some time. Now I am sure. She has taken Dick
Challoner to Connie Stapleton's house in Hampstead. It's one of the
headquarters of the set, though, of course, the principal headquarters
are at 300 Cumberland Place. How furious Lord Easterton would be if he
knew! He suspects nothing as yet, I think."
"But how do you know that Doris Lorrimer has taken the boy to that
Hampstead house?" Osborne asked quickly; "and why has she taken him?"
"The gang have kidnapped him--it was Connie Stapleton's idea--in order
to get the reward they feel sure Sir Roland will offer for his recovery.
How I know where Doris Lorrimer has taken him is that Connie Stapleton's
chauffeur, with whom I fraternized this afternoon in Newbury, happened
to mention that his mistress had told Miss Lorrimer to be under the
clock at Paddington at seven-fifteen this evening to meet the man with
the parcel,' as she said, and then to take the 'parcel' to her house in
Hampstead! I won't tell you until later how I come to know the
kidnapping was Mrs. Stapleton's idea; I have a reason for not telling
"You certainly are a marvel, George," Jack said, as he blew a cloud
towards the ceiling. "We seem to be well on the way now to running
these scoundrels to ground. I shall be glad to see them
"We are 'on the way'--yes," Preston answered, "but you'll find it a
longer 'way' than you expect, if you are already thinking of
convictions. You don't know--you can't have any idea of--the slimness of
these rogues if you suppose we are as yet anywhere near running them to
ground. Just look how clever they have already been: first there is the
fire in Maresfield Gardens and the discovery of the stabbed and charred
body, for you may depend upon it that fire was meant to conceal some
crime, probably murder, by destroying all traces, including that body
which ought by rights to have been entirely consumed; then there is the
robbery at Holt Manor; then the affair in Grafton Street, with yourself
as the victim; then the murder of Sir Roland's gardener, Churchill--all
these constitute mysteries, undiscovered crimes, and now comes this
business of kidnapping Sir Roland's young son."
We talked at considerable length, discussing past and present
happenings, and arranging our future line of action. Preston was
immensely interested in the cypher messages unravelled by Dick--I had
brought the cuttings with me to show to him and Jack. The reference to
the date of the coming of age of Cranmere's son, considered in
connection with the questions about Cranmere's seat, Eldon Hall, put to
Osborne during his mysterious confinement in Grafton Street, made the
detective almost excited. The unravelling of those cyphers was, he said,
perhaps the most important discovery as yet made. Indeed, he believed
that our knowledge of these messages might simplify matters Sufficiently
to lead directly to the arrest of at any rate some members of the gang
at a much earlier date than he had previously anticipated.
"It is clear," he said, as he put the cuttings into the envelope again
and handed them back to me, "that Gastrell and company contemplate a
coup of some sort either on the day Lord Cranmere's son comes of age, or
on one day during the week of festivities that will follow. 'Clun
Cross.' We must find out where Clun Cross is; probably it's somewhere in
Northumberland, and most likely it's near Eldon Hall. I suppose,
Osborne, that you are invited to the coming of age, as you know
Cranmere so well?"
"Yes, and I mean to go. But Berrington isn't invited; he doesn't know
"He probably knows what he looks like, though," Preston answered,
laughing--he was thinking of his impersonation of the Earl, and his
wonderful make-up. "I am not invited either, professionally or
otherwise, so that Mr. Berrington and I had better go to Bedlington and
put our heads together there, for something is going to happen at Eldon
Hall, Osborne, you may take my word for that. We mustn't, however,
forget that last cypher message: 'Osborne and Berrington suspect; take
precautions.' 'Precautions' with such people may mean anything. I am
firmly of opinion that poor Churchill's assassination was a
'precautionary' measure. It was on the afternoon before that murder,
remember, that Churchill found the paste buckle at the spot where a grey
car had been seen, left deserted, on the morning of the robbery at Holt.
It was on the afternoon before that murder that he brought the buckle to
Miss Challoner, told her about the grey car he had seen, which, he said,
led him to suspect something, and asked to have the afternoon off. It
was on that same afternoon that Mrs. Stapleton happened to motor over to
Holt, and while there was told by Miss Challoner all about the finding
of the buckle, also all about Churchill's secret suspicion about the
car, and his asking to have the afternoon off, presumably to pursue his
inquiries. And what happened after that? Don't you remember? Mrs.
Stapleton telephoned from Holt to the Book Hotel in Newbury and talked
to someone there--her maid, so she said--for five minutes or more,
talked to her in Polish. Now, does anything suggest itself to either of
you? Don't you think it quite likely that Mrs. Stapleton, hearing from
Miss Challoner all about what had happened, telephoned in Polish certain
instructions to somebody in Newbury, most likely one of her accomplices,
and that those instructions led, directly or indirectly, to Churchill's
being murdered the same night, lest he should discover anything and give
information? One thing I am sure of, though--Mrs. Stapleton's
chauffeur is an honest man who does not in the least suspect what is
going on; who, on the contrary, believes his mistress to be a most
estimable woman, kind, considerate, open-handed. I found that out while
associating with him to-day as a fellow-chauffeur."
It was nearly nine o'clock before we went out into Soho to dine. Preston
told us that he had arranged to call at Willow Road for Dick between ten
and half-past. The three of us were to go to Hampstead and represent
ourselves as being instructed by Sir Roland to take the boy away.
Preston himself would, he said, represent himself as being an Eton
master, and Doris Lorrimer was to be closely cross-questioned as to who
had authorized her to meet the boy and take him to Hampstead and--
Well, Preston had thoroughly thought out his plan of action down to the
smallest detail, and during dinner in the little restaurant in Gerrard
Street, to which he had taken us, he explained it to us fully. Briefly,
his intention was to frighten Doris Lorrimer half out of her senses by
threatening instant prosecution if she did not, then and there, make
certain disclosures which would help on our endeavour to bring to
justice the whole gang with which she was evidently associated.
"But supposing," I hazarded, "we don't see Doris Lorrimer. Supposing we
see only a servant, who assures us that we are mistaken, and that Dick
isn't there. Supposing that Mrs. Stapleton, or even Gastrell, should
confront us. What then?"
"I have carefully considered all those possibilities," Preston answered
lightly as he refilled my glass, then Jack's, and then his own. "If
anything of that kind should happen I shall simply--but there, leave it
to me and I think you will be satisfied with the outcome. You must
remember, Mr. Berrington, that I have been at this sort of thing over
twenty years. Well, here's luck to our enterprise," and, raising his
glass, he clinked it against our glasses in turn, then emptied it at
"And now," he said, preparing to rise, "we must be moving. We have
rather a ticklish task before us, though I have no fear whatever as to
its sequel, provided you leave most of the talking to me. In any case
there must be no violence, remember. The only thing I regret is that the
lad will most likely be asleep, so that we shall have to awaken him."
Punctually at half-past ten our taxi drew up outside the house numbered
460 Willow Road, Hampstead.
CONTAINS ANOTHER SURPRISE
Lights were in most of the windows, as though a party were in progress.
Preston rang the bell. It was answered at once by a maid who had
answered it in the morning, and before Preston had time to speak the
maid asked us if we would come in. This time she showed us into a room a
good deal larger than the one in which I had been interviewed by
Gastrell in the morning. Very beautifully furnished, on all sides what
is termed the "feminine touch" was noticeable, and among a number of
framed photographs on one of the tables I recognized portraits of
well-known Society people, several with autograph signatures, and one or
two with affectionate inscriptions. I wondered to whom they had been
presented, and to whom the affectionate inscriptions were addressed.
We waited a few minutes, wondering what would happen next, and who would
come in to see us, for the maid had not even asked our names, though I
saw that she had recognized me. For a moment it occurred to me that we
ought to have changed into evening clothes, and I was about to tell
Preston so when the door opened and Jasmine Gastrell entered,
accompanied, to my amazement, by Dulcie Challoner.
I think even Preston was taken aback--and it took a great deal to
astonish Preston. Osborne, I could see, was dumbfounded. Jasmine
Gastrell was the first to speak, and she addressed me without looking
either at Osborne or Preston.
"Good evening, Mr. Berrington," she said, with one of those wonderful
smiles of hers which seemed entirely to transform her expression; "this
is an unexpected pleasure."
How strangely different she now looked from the way she had looked at me
in Cumberland Place when, disguised as Sir Aubrey Belston, I had
pretended to read her past life! She turned to Jack, and, raising her
eye-brows as though she had only that instant recognized him, "Why," she
exclaimed, "it's Mr. Osborne! I had no idea we were to have the pleasure
of seeing you here to-night--had you, Dulcie?"
Dulcie, who was standing by quite unconcernedly, turned at once to me
without answering Mrs. Gastrell's question.
"Dear old Mike," she said, "how delightful of you to have come. I do
hope you have entirely recovered. You looked so ill when you saw me off
at Paddington this morning that I felt anxious about you all the way
home. What was the matter with you? Have you any idea?"
I was so staggered, first at finding her at this house again, and then
at her addressing me in the calm way she did, that for some moments I
could not answer. Jack and Preston, now in conversation with Jasmine
Gastrell, did not notice my hesitation. At last, collecting my scattered
thoughts, I answered:
"I am quite well, Dulcie. There was nothing really much amiss with me
this morning--I thought you knew that."
I stopped abruptly. What else could I say?
Under the circumstances I could not well speak about the telegram, and
say why we had arrived in this way at such an unusual hour.
"I suppose you have come about Dick," she went on suddenly. "He is
asleep now--he was so tired, poor little chap."
"Dulcie," I burst out impetuously under my breath, casting a hurried
glance at the other three, who, still in conversation, did not appear to
notice us. "Dulcie, what is the meaning of all this? Why are you here?
Why is Dick here? I want to see you--I must see you alone as soon as
possible--there is so much I want to say to you, want to ask you; such a
lot has happened during the past day or two that I can't understand, and
that I want to have explained. Tell me, my darling," I went on
hurriedly, "when and where can we can meet--alone?"
She gave a delightful little laugh, and tapped me playfully with her
fan--she and Jasmine were in evening dress. Then, looking roguishly up
into my eyes, she went on:
"So far as Dick is concerned, everything is easily explained. When I got
home this morning I felt very unwell. I found father terribly anxious at
my absence, and Aunt Hannah in what I call one of her fits of tantrums.
I went to lie down, and, while I was asleep, father came and looked at
me. For some reason he got it into his head that I looked very ill, and
just then Connie arrived in her car--she went to Holt direct from
London, as she wanted to explain to father the reason she didn't take me
home last night, and at the same time make her apologies for the anxiety
she knew she must unintentionally have caused him; father, you know,
likes Connie very much. After seeing me in bed he had jumped to the
conclusion that I was really very ill and ought to see a doctor at
once. Connie said that as she was going straight to Newbury she would,
if he liked, send Doctor Claughton out to Holt. Then father said
something about letting Dick know I was ill, and Connie volunteered to
send a telegram to Eton, signed with father's name, and father said he
wished she would. And that is the explanation of the whole affair."
"Explanation!" I exclaimed. "I don't call that half an explanation. What
about James being told to meet Dick at Paddington and then not
"Oh, that was a mistake of Connie's. James was in town to-day, and
Connie understood father to say that he would telegraph to James and
tell him to meet Dick at Paddington. After telegraphing to Eton in
father's name, from Newbury, she found she had made a mistake, so then
she telegraphed to Doris Lorrimer to meet Dick. After the doctor had
seen me, he told father there was nothing to be in the least alarmed
about; in fact gave father to understand that his imagination had played
pranks with him; so then father telephoned to Connie at the Book Hotel,
and they decided there was no need for Dick to come home, and Connie
suggested Dick's spending the night here and returning to Eton
I did not speak for some moments. At last I said:
"Dulcie, who told you all this?"
"Why, Connie, of course. Father had to attend an important magistrates'
meeting in Newbury this afternoon, and, as I seemed quite well again,
she got father's leave to bring me up to town again to meet some friends
of hers who are here to-night. Now are you satisfied, Mike?"
"No, I am not," I answered bluntly. "Dulcie, have you seen Dick since he
"No, he had gone to bed before I arrived, and Connie said I had better
not disturb him."
"My darling," I said a moment later, "I must see you alone. When can I?"
"Would to-morrow morning suit you, dear?" she asked, looking at me with
her frank brown eyes. As I returned the gaze I found it impossible to
believe that she had wittingly deceived me that morning, or indeed at
any time, and yet--
"Yes. Shall we say at twelve o'clock?" I suggested. "And shall I call
here for you?"
"That will do beautifully. Oh, Mike, my darling," she said quickly,
under her breath, "I hope you still love me just as much as you did; I
don't know why, but somehow I sometimes feel that you mistrust me--even
that you suspect me of something or other, I don't know what."
"Dulcie!" I exclaimed impulsively, and I made as though to seize her
hand, then remembered we were not alone, and refrained. "Dulcie, there
are things I want you to explain to me, mysteries that only you can
clear up. I don't really mistrust you, my own darling; indeed, indeed I
don't; but I mistrust some of the people you mix with and have made
friends of, more than that, I happen to know that some of them are no
better than adventurers, and I want to get you away from them. What
house is this we are in? I mean whose is it and who lives here?"
But at that instant our conversation was interrupted by Jasmine
"Oh, you lovers!" she exclaimed, laughing as she looked across at us.
"What heaps and heaps lovers seem to have to tell each other after being
parted for a few hours. It reminds me of my own young days," she added
archly, for she looked barely seven-and-twenty. "Mr. Osborne has just
told me, Dulcie, that he is asked to stay at Eldon Hall for Lord
Cranmere's son's coming of age, on the twenty-eighth. I have been
invited too; I do wish you were going to be there. Connie has accepted."
Ten minutes later, as the three of us sauntered slowly along Willow
Road, we realized--at least I can answer for myself--that in spite of
our careful scheming, and our complete confidence in the success of our
plan, we had been cleverly outwitted. Not for a moment had Preston, or
Jack Osborne, believed the long story that Jasmine Gastrell had related
to them while Dulcie and I had been engrossed in conversation, a story
it is unnecessary to repeat, though it had been told apparently with a
view to leading them to think that Mrs. Gastrell was shortly to make a
tour round the world. In the same way I had not been deceived by the
ingenious tissue of implications and falsehoods that Connie Stapleton
had poured into Dulcie's ear, and that Dulcie had innocently repeated to
me. What most astonished me, however, was the rapidity with which Connie
Stapleton and Jasmine Gastrell seemed able to concoct these ingenious
and plausible narratives to account for anything and everything that
happened on any occasion. A single discrepancy, for instance, in the
story that Dulcie had just repeated to me would have brought the whole
fabric of what appeared to be true statements--though I believed them to
be false--crumbling to the ground. But there had been no such
discrepancy. Everything that had occurred during the afternoon in
relation to Dick, the telegram sent to Eton, Doris Lorrimer's meeting
him in place of Sir Roland's butler, had been accounted for simply and
quite rationally. And yet I felt firmly convinced the statements must in
the main be a series of monstrous untruths, a belief in which Preston,
with all his experience, concurred. Only two points puzzled me. Neither
Jasmine Gastrell nor Connie Stapleton, nor, indeed, anybody else, could
by any possibility have known that Preston, Jack, and I contemplated
calling at the house in Willow Road that evening. How came it, then,
that everything had been so skilfully arranged with a view to disarming
our suspicions when we did call? That, I confess, was a problem so
complicated that it formed the one and only argument in favour of the
story that Dulcie had repeated to me being in part true. The other
puzzling point was Dulcie's being at that house that night, and her
knowing that Dick was there. Surely if Connie Stapleton and her
accomplices had intended to kidnap Dick for the purpose of extorting
money from Sir Roland, they would not intentionally have let Dulcie know
what was happening. And, arguing thus with myself, I began at last to
wonder if, after all, I had been mistaken; if, after all, Mrs. Stapleton
had not invented that story, but had told Dulcie the truth. I confess
that the more I thought it all over and the harder I tried to sift
possible facts from probable fiction the more hopelessly entangled I
became. Perhaps the strongest argument in favour of my theory that we
were being cleverly and systematically hoaxed lay in Dick's discovery of
the cypher messages in the _Morning Post_. There could, at any rate, be
no getting away from the cypher message which had appeared on the
previous day and that ran: "_Osborne and Berrington suspect. Take
Then I thought again of Dulcie. It was appalling, almost incredible,
that she should be allowed to associate with men and women whom we
practically knew to be adventurers, and who might be not merely
adventurers, but criminals masquerading as respectable members of
Society. Yet I was impotent to prevent her; it was, of course, Sir
Roland's duty to forbid her to mix with these people, but then Sir
Roland, from being powerfully attracted by the young widow Connie
Stapleton, was, as I had long ago guessed, becoming deeply enamoured of
her; so that, far from preventing Dulcie from associating with
her--Dulcie, with her strange infatuation for the woman--he deliberately
encouraged the intimacy. Well, next morning, at any rate, I should see
Dulcie alone, I reflected, with a feeling of satisfaction, and then I
would have it out with her and go into the whole affair thoroughly,
speaking to her with brutal frankness--even at the risk of hurting her
feelings and incurring her displeasure I would tell her everything I
knew and all that I suspected. Something must be done, and at once, to
put an end to her absurd attachment to the widow--I had thought it all
over quite long enough; it was now time to act. And Dick too; I must get
hold of him and question him narrowly to find out if his story of what
happened from the time he left me on Paddington platform and went and
stood beside Doris Lorrimer under the clock, and his arrival at Willow
Road, Hampstead, tallied with the story that Connie Stapleton had told
Dulcie, and that Dulcie had related to me--for I somehow fancied that
the two narratives might differ to some extent, if only in their
We were approaching Hampstead Tube station when Preston, turning to me
from Jack Osborne, with whom he had been in close conversation,
"Has Sir Roland lately said anything to you, Mr. Berrington, that
interested you particularly? Has he thrown out any hint of any sort?"
"Nothing that I can recollect," I said. "Have you reason to suppose that
he has something of special interest that he wants to say to me?"
"I have, but until he speaks it is not for me to make any comment."
We had reached the Tube station. Jack booked to Russell Square; Preston
to Piccadilly Circus; and I took a ticket to Bond Street, those being
the stations nearest to our respective destinations.
"Are you aware," Preston said soon after the train had started, "that
since we left my house and went to dine in Soho, we have been followed?
I wanted to be perfectly certain before telling you, but I see now that
I was right in my suspicion. Look to your left presently, one at a time,
and at the end of the compartment you'll see quite an ordinary-looking
man, apparently a foreigner, smoking a cheroot--the man seated alone,
with a lot of hair on his face."
"You wouldn't notice him if he passed you in the street, would you?" he
said after we had looked, "but I have noticed him all the evening. He
was in Warwick Street when we all came out of my house; he followed us
to Soho; he was in Gerrard Street, awaiting us, when we came out of the
restaurant after dining; he came after us to Hampstead; he has followed
us from Willow Road to the Tube station, and he is in this compartment
now for the purpose of observing us. I want you each not to forget what
he is like, and in a few minutes, when we all separate, I shall be
curious to see which of us he follows--to know which of us he is really
Jack was the first to alight. He bade us each a cheery good night, after
reminding us that we were all three to meet on the following afternoon,
and hurried out. The hairy man with the cheroot remained motionless,
reading his newspaper.
My turn came next--at Oxford Circus station. As I rose, I noticed the
man carelessly fold up his newspaper, cram it into his coat pocket, and
get up. Rather to my surprise I did not, after that, see him again. He
was not with me in the carriage of the train I changed into, nor was he,
apparently, on the platform at Bond Street station when I got out. As I
pushed my latch-key into the outer door of South Molton Street Mansions,
I glanced quickly up and down the street, but, so far as I could see,
there was no sign of the man.
However, a surprise awaited me. Upon entering my flat I noticed a light
in the sitting-room at the end of the little passage--the door stood
ajar. Entering quickly, I uttered an exclamation of amazement. For in
the big arm-chair in front of the fire--the fire burned as though it had
lately been made up--Dick lay back fast asleep, his lips slightly
parted, his chest rising and falling in a way that showed how heavily
Recovering from my amazement, I stood for a minute or two watching him.
How delightful he looked when asleep like that, and what a strong
resemblance he bore to Dulcie. But how came he to be here? And how came
Dulcie to have told me, less than an hour before, that he was in the
house at Hampstead, and asleep there? Gazing down upon him still, I
wondered what really had happened since I had last seen him that
evening, and what story he would have to tell me when he awoke.
My man had gone to bed, for it was now past midnight. Considering where
I had better put Dick to sleep, my glance rested upon some letters lying
on the table. Mechanically I picked them up and looked at the
handwritings on the envelopes. Nothing of interest, I decided, and I was
about to put them down again, unopened, when I noticed there was one
from Holt that I had overlooked. The handwriting was Sir Roland's.
Hastily tearing open the envelope, I pulled out the letter. It was quite
short, but its contents sent my heart jumping into my mouth, and had
Dick not been asleep close by in the chair I believe I should have used
some almost unprintable language.
"Oh, the fool--the silly, doddering, abject old fool!" I exclaimed aloud
as I flung the open letter down on to the table and began to pace the
room in a fury of indignation. "'No fool like an old fool'--oh, those
words of wisdom--the man who first uttered them should have a monument
erected to his memory," I continued aloud; then suddenly, as Dick
stirred in his sleep, I checked myself abruptly.
The letter Sir Roland Challoner had written to me ran as follows:
"My dear Mike,--As you and Dulcie are engaged, I dare say you will be
interested, and you may be surprised, to hear of another engagement. I
have asked Dulcie's beautiful friend, Mrs. Stapleton, to become my wife,
and she has done me the honour of accepting my proposal. Write to
congratulate me, my dear Mike, and come down again soon to stay with us.
"IN THE PAPERS"
Dick was sleeping so heavily that he hardly stirred when I picked him
up, carried him into my bedroom, laid him on my bed and loosened his
clothes; I had decided to sleep on the settee in the room adjoining.
Soon after seven next morning I was awakened by hearing him moving
about. He had made himself quite at home, I found, for he had had a bath
and used my towels and hair-brushes and found his way into a pair of
"I hope you don't mind," he said apologetically, after telling me what
he had done. "And now shall I tell you how I come to be here, Mike?" he
added, clambering up on to my bed and lying down beside me.
I told him I wanted to know everything, and at once, and, speaking in
his rapid, vivacious way, he went on to explain exactly what
It seemed that when he went and stood by Doris Lorrimer under the clock
at Paddington station, she had, as I had told him she probably would,
asked him if he were Dick Challoner. Upon his telling her that he was,
she said that she had been sent to meet him, and asked him to come with
her. She had not told him where they were going, but when she got out at
Baker Street station and he got out after her, a man had suddenly come
up to her and said he wished to speak to her privately. She had told
Dick to wait, and had then walked a little way away with the man, and
for about ten minutes they had stood together, conversing in undertones.
"What was the man like?" I interrupted.
Dick described him rather minutely--he said he had taken special notice
of his appearance "because he was such a hairy man"--and before he had
done I felt practically certain the man who had met Doris Lorrimer was
the foreign-looking man who had shadowed Preston, Jack, and myself the
"I think," Dick went on, "the lady altered her plans after meeting that
man; because for some moments after he had gone she seemed undecided
what to do. Finally she went out of the station, hailed a taxi in Baker
Street, told me to get into it, and then said something to the driver
that I couldn't hear. We went straight down Baker Street, down Orchard
Street--I noticed the names of both streets--then turned to the right
and stopped at a house in Cumberland Place. As you had disappeared, I
was beginning to feel a bit frightened, Mike,--I didn't much like the
woman, who had spoken hardly a word to me all the time,--so just as she
got out of the taxi on the left side, I quickly opened the door on the
right side, popped out while her back was still turned, and ran away as
hard as I could, leaving my suit-case in the taxi. It was very dark, and
I believe that until after she had paid the driver she can't have missed
me, as nobody came after me."
"Well, and what did you do then?"
"As soon as I had got well away, I went up to a policeman and asked him
the way to South Molton Street. He explained clearly, and I came
straight on here and asked for you. Your man, Simon, said you weren't
in, and that he didn't know when you would be, so I asked if I might
come in and wait, as I said I had something important to say to you. Of
course he knew me by sight from seeing me with you sometimes, so he said
'Certainly,' and put me into your sitting-room. It was past eight when I
got here. I was awfully hungry, so I ate all the cake and all the
biscuits I found in the sideboard in your dining-room, and then I sat
down in your big chair to wait for you--and I suppose I then
This report interested me a good deal, and I was still pondering it when
my man came in with my letters and the newspaper, which he always
brought to me before I got up. After reading my letters I picked up the
newspaper, telling Dick to lie still and not disturb me until I had
glanced through it. I had read the principal items of news, when
suddenly my attention became centred upon an article which was headed:
AMAZING SERIES OF ROBBERIES
POLICE COMPLETELY BAFFLED
The article made up nearly a column of closely set type, and ran as
Within a brief period of three months, that is to say since the
beginning of December last, no less than eleven great robberies have
been committed in various parts of Great Britain. Up to the present,
however, no clue of any sort has been obtained that seems likely to lead
to the discovery of the perpetrators of any one of these crimes. The
victims of these robberies are the following:
Here followed a list of names of eleven well-known rich people; the
names of the houses where the robberies had been committed; a brief
description of the method employed by the thieves; and the value,
approximately, of the property stolen in each case. The houses were for
the most part large country mansions situated in counties far apart, and
"Holt Manor, Sir Roland Challoner's seat in Berkshire," figured in the
list. The article then continued:
When eleven such serious robberies, as we may rightly term them, are
committed in comparatively rapid succession, and our police and
detective force, in spite of their vaunted ability, prove themselves
unable to effect a single arrest, what, we have a right to ask, is amiss
with our police, or with their methods, or with both?
Questioned upon the subject, a well-known Scotland Yard Inspector
yesterday informed our representative that official opinion inclines to
the belief that the crimes mentioned have one and all been effected by a
group of amazingly clever criminals working in combination. "How many
members the gang consists of," he said, "how they obtained the special
information they must have possessed to enable them to locate so
accurately the exact whereabouts of the valuables they seized, and how
they succeeded in securing those valuables in broad daylight, we have
not the remotest notion. The theory held at present," he continued, "is
that a number of expert thieves have by some means succeeded in becoming
intimate with the owners of the houses that have been robbed. We
repudiate entirely the theory that servants in the different houses must
have been accomplices in the robberies either directly or indirectly."
The article then proceeded to advance a number of apparently plausible
theories to account for the non-discovery of the thieves, and finally
ended as follows:
If, then, our police and detectives would retain, or rather regain,
their prestige, it is incumbent upon them at once to take steps to
prevent any further outrages of this kind. Otherwise the police of Great
Britain will run a grave risk of becoming the laughing-stock of
Continental countries, where, we make bold to state, such a series of
robberies, all more or less of the same nature, and involving a loss of,
in the aggregate, approximately £50,000, would not thus have been
committed with impunity.
I handed Dick the paper. When he had carefully read the article right
through, he looked up abruptly.
"By Jove," he exclaimed, "I have an idea!"
I waited. For some moments he was silent. Then he continued:
"Do you remember the account of the robbery at Thatched Court, near
Bridport? It's one of the robberies mentioned in this list."
"I can't say I do," I answered. "I don't read the newspapers very
"I happened to read that account, and remember it rather well. The
robbery took place about five weeks ago--the house was entered while
everybody, including some of the servants, was at a race-meeting. Among
the things stolen was a pair of shot-guns made by Holland and Holland."
"But what on earth has that to do with anything? Where does the 'idea'
"It doesn't come in--there. It comes in later. You know that every
shot-gun has a number on it, and so can be identified. Now, if these
thieves are people who are pretending to be gentlemen--how do you put
it? There's a word you use for that, but I've forgotten it."
"Do you mean masquerading as gentlemen?"
"Masquerading--that's the word I was thinking of; if they are
masquerading as gentlemen they'll probably keep good guns like that to
shoot with--they can do that, or think they can, without running much
risk, whereas if they sold them they'd run rather a big risk of being
caught, because I happen to remember that the numbers of the stolen guns
were mentioned in the newspaper account of the robbery. They said the
guns were in a case, and almost new. Now, this is where my idea 'comes
in,' as you put it. I heard you tell Dulcie only the other day that you
wanted a pair of guns by a tip-top maker. Just afterwards I happened to
hear her talking to Mrs. Stapleton about her wedding--by the way, Mike,
have you fixed the date yet?"
"Not yet. But what about Mrs. Stapleton?"
"Well, Dulcie spoke about wedding presents, just casually in course of
conversation, and I heard her tell Mrs. Stapleton that you had said you
hoped among your wedding presents there would be a good gun, 'or, better
still, a pair,' I heard her say that you said. Mrs. Stapleton didn't
answer at once, but I noticed a queer sort of expression come on to her
face, as if she'd just thought of something, and presently she said: 'I
have a good mind, darling, to give him a pair of guns that belonged to
my poor husband. They are quite new--he can't have used them more than
once or twice, if that. They were made by a Bond Street gun-maker he
always went to, one of the best in London.' Mike, is Holland and
Holland's shop in Bond Street?"
"Yes," I answered, "at the top of Bond Street. Oh, but there are several
good gun-makers in Bond Street. Besides, why should Mrs. Stapleton give
me such a present as that? I really hardly know her."
"Wait until I've finished, Mike, you always jump at conclusions so.
Dulcie said almost at once: 'Oh, don't do that, Connie. Mike wouldn't
expect such a present as that from you. He mightn't like to take it; you
see, you hardly know him really'--just what you have this moment said.
Then Dulcie said: 'I tell you what I wish you would do, Connie--let me
buy them from you to give to him. What shall I give you for them?' I
believe that was what Mrs. Stapleton had been driving at all the
time--she wanted to sell the guns without running any risk, for of
course you would never think of noticing the numbers on them, and nobody
would ever suppose that guns given to you by Dulcie, apparently new
guns, were guns that had been stolen. In the end Dulcie said she would
give Mrs. Stapleton eighty pounds for the pair, and that was agreed
upon, so that Dulcie has practically bought them for you, in fact she
may have paid Mrs. Stapleton for them already. Now look here, I'll get
hold of that newspaper that gave the numbers of the guns, and I bet you
when Dulcie gives you those guns you'll find they're marked with the
numbers of the stolen guns."
"Dick," I said thoughtfully, after a moment's pause, "were you
eavesdropping when you heard all this?"
"Why, no, of course not!" he exclaimed indignantly. "I was in the room,
reading a book, and I couldn't help hearing all they said, though they
were talking in undertones."
I turned over in my bed, and looked into his eyes for an instant or two.
"Would you be surprised to hear, Dick," I said slowly, watching to see
what effect my words would have upon him, "would you be surprised to
hear that Dulcie gave me a pair of guns, as her wedding present, only
Dick sprang up in the bed.
"Did she?" he cried out, clapping his hands. "Oh--Mike, tell me, are
they Holland guns?"
Dick jumped off the bed and began to caper about the room.
"Have you got them here?" he exclaimed at last, as his excitement began
"They are in the next room. You shall see them after breakfast."
I had difficulty in calming Dick's excitement and inducing him to eat
his breakfast, and directly breakfast was over I took him into the next
room, produced the gun-case, pulled out the two pairs of barrels, and
together we examined the numbers stamped upon them. Dick wrote the
numbers down in the little notebook he always carried in his trousers
pocket, and a little later we drove down to Fleet Street to look up the
file of the newspaper in which Dick had, he declared, read the report of
the robbery at Thatched Court, near Bridport.
I confess that I had not placed much faith in Dick's theory about the
numbers. I had taken him down to Fleet Street chiefly because he had so
earnestly entreated me to. When, therefore, after turning up the report,
Dick discovered, with a shout of triumph, that the numbers on my guns
were actually identical with the numbers mentioned in the newspaper as
those of the stolen guns, I was not merely greatly astonished, but also
"Dick," I said thoughtfully, when I had to some extent recovered from my
surprise, "I really think we shall have to make a private detective of
you. Would you like me to take you now to one of the most famous
detectives in London--a man who was connected with Scotland Yard for
twenty years, who is helping Mr. Osborne to try to discover who the
thieves are who robbed Holt Manor, and who it was who killed poor
"Do you mean Mr. Preston?" the boy asked quickly, peering up at me out
of his intelligent brown eyes.
"Yes. I suppose you have heard Mr. Osborne and me speak of him."
"Of course I have, and I should love to see him. Are you going to see
"I am going straight to him to tell him of your discovery of these
numbers. He already knows all about your having deciphered the newspaper
cyphers; in fact, he has the cuttings at this moment, and your
translation of them. He told me the other day that he would like to
Preston was at home at his house in Warwick Street, off Recent Street.
In a few words I had explained everything to him, and at once he
"The unfortunate part," he said at last, "is that in spite of this young
man's sharpness in making this discovery, it really leaves us almost
where we were, unless--"
"Unless what?" I asked, as he paused, considering.
"Well, Mr. Berrington, it's like this," he said bluntly. "You are
engaged to be married to Miss Challoner, and she gives you a wedding
present--a pair of new guns; at least they are to all intents new, and
naturally she expects you to think they are, and might be vexed if she
thought you had found out that she picked them up as a bargain. Now, it
all turns on this: Have you the moral courage to tell your _fiancée_
that you believe the wedding present she has given you is part of the
plunder secured in a recent robbery, indeed that you know it is, and
that therefore you and she are unwittingly receivers of stolen goods? I
have never myself been in love, so far as I can recollect, but if I were
placed as you are I think I should hardly have the courage to
disillusion the young lady."
I am bound to admit that until he put this problem to me it had not
occurred to me to look at the matter in that light, and now I felt much
as Preston declared he would feel if he were in my place. Dulcie might
not mind my having discovered that she had picked up the guns as a
bargain--indeed, why should she? But when it came to hinting--as I
should have to do if I broached the matter at all--that I believed that
her great friend Connie Stapleton knew, when she sold the guns to her,
that they had been stolen--Connie Stapleton, who was about to become her
No, I shouldn't have the pluck to do it. I shouldn't have the pluck to
face the storm of indignation that I knew my words would stir up in
her--women are logical enough, in spite of all that the ignorant and
unthinking urge to the contrary, but in this particular case Dulcie
would, I felt perfectly certain, "round" upon me, and, in the face of
evidence, no matter how damning, declare that I was, to say the least,
mistaken. She would go at once to Connie Stapleton and tell her
everything, and immediately Connie Stapleton would invent some plausible
story which would entirely clear her of all responsibility, and from
that moment onward I should probably be her bitterest enemy. No, I
thought; better, far better, say nothing--perhaps some day circumstances
might arise which would of themselves lead to Mrs. Stapleton's, so to
speak, "giving herself away." Indeed, in face of the discovery, I now
decided not to make certain statements to Sir Roland that I had fully
intended to make. After all, he was old enough to be my father, and if a
man old enough to be my father could be so foolish as to fall in love
with an adventuress, let him take the consequences. I should not so much
have minded incurring Sir Roland's wrath, but, knowing him as well as I
did, I felt positive that anything I might say would only strengthen his
trust in and attachment to this woman he had decided to wed. He might
even turn upon me and tell me to my face that I was striving to oppose
his marriage because his marrying must, of course, affect my pecuniary
position--an old man who falls in love becomes for the time, I have
always maintained, mentally deranged.
Preston conversed at considerable length with Dick Challoner, and, by
the time I rose to leave--for I had to call at Willow Street for Dulcie
at noon--the two appeared to have become great friends.
"I shall take you with me to call for Dulcie," I said to Dick as we went
out. "Then we shall drive you to Paddington, put you in the train for
Windsor, and leave you to your own devices."
"I wish I hadn't lost my suit-case," Dick observed ruefully. "I bet
anything it's in that house in Cumberland Place where the taxi
stopped--unless the woman who met me at Paddington intentionally left it
in the taxi when she found I had jumped out and run away. We ought to
inquire at Scotland Yard, oughtn't we?"
We arrived at Willow Road, Hampstead, at ten minutes to twelve. Telling
Dick to remain in the taxi, I got out and rang the bell. The door was
opened by a maid I had not seen before, and when I inquired for Miss
Challoner she stared at me blankly--indeed, as I thought, suspiciously.
"Nobody of that name lives here," she said curtly. Quickly I glanced up
at the number on the door. No, I had not mistaken the house.
"She is staying here," I said, "staying with Mrs. Stapleton."
"With Mrs. who?"
"You have mistaken the house. There's nobody of that name here."
"Well, Mr. Gastrell, then," I said irritably. "Ask Mr. Gastrell if I can
"I tell you, sir, you've come to the wrong house," the maid said
"Then who does live here?" I exclaimed, beginning to lose my temper.
The maid looked me up and down.
"I'm not going to tell you," she answered; and, before I could speak
again, she had shut the door in my face.
I had seen Dick off at Paddington, after asking the guard to keep an eye
on him as far as Windsor, and was walking thoughtfully through the park
towards Albert Gate, when a man, meeting me where the paths cross, asked
if he might speak to me. Almost instantly I recognized him. It was the
man who had followed Preston, Jack, and myself on the previous night,
and been pointed out to us by Preston.
"I trust," he said, when I had asked him rather abruptly what he wanted
to speak to me about, "that you will pardon my addressing you, sir, but
there is something rather important I should like to say to you if you
have a few minutes to spare."
"Who are you?" I inquired. "What's your name?"
"I would rather not tell you my name," he answered, "and for the moment
it is inadvisable that you should know it. Shall we sit here?" he added,
as we came to a wooden bench.
I am rather inquisitive, otherwise I should not have consented to his
proposal. It flashed across me, however, that whereas there could be no
harm in my listening to what he wished to say, he might possibly have
something really of interest to tell me.
"You are probably not aware," he said, when we were seated, "that I
followed you last night from a house in Warwick Street, Regent Street,
to a restaurant in Gerrard Street, Soho; thence to Willow Road, near
Hampstead Station; and thence to South Molton Street Mansions. Two
gentlemen were with you."
"And may I ask why you did that?" I said carelessly, as I lit a
"That is my affair," he replied. "You have lately been associating with
several men and women who, though you may not know it, belong to a gang
of exceedingly clever criminals. These people, while mixing in Society,
prey upon it. Until last night I was myself a member of this gang; for a
reason that I need not at present mention I have now disassociated
myself from it for ever. To-day my late accomplices will discover that I
have turned traitor, as they will term it, and at once they will set to
work to encompass my death," he added. "I want you, Mr. Berrington, to
save me from them."
I stared at him in surprise.
"But how can I do that, and why should I do it?" I said shortly. "I
don't know who you are, and if you choose to aid and abet criminals you
have only yourself to thank when they turn upon you."
"Naturally," he answered, with what looked very like a sneer; "I don't
ask you to do anything in return for nothing, Mr. Berrington. But if you
will help in this crisis, I can, and will, help you. At this moment you
are at a loss to know why, when you called at Willow Road an hour or so
ago, the woman who opened the door assured you that you had come to the
wrong house. You inquired first for Miss Challoner, then for Mrs.
Stapleton, and then for Hugesson Gastrell--am I not right?"
"Well, you are," I said, astonished at his knowledge.
"I was in the hall when you called, and I heard you. Gastrell, Mrs.
Stapleton, and Miss Challoner were also in the house. They are there
now, but to-night they go to Paris--they will cross from Newhaven to
Dieppe. It was to tell you they were going to Paris that I wished to
speak to you now--at least that was one reason."
"And what are the other reasons?" I asked, with an affectation of
indifference that I was far from feeling.
"I want money, Mr. Berrington, that is one other reason," the stranger
said quickly. "You can afford to pay for information that is worth
paying for. I know everything about you, perhaps more than you yourself
know. If you pay me enough, I can probably protect myself against these
people who until yesterday were my friends, but are now my enemies. And
I can put you in possession of facts which will enable you, if you act
circumspectly, presently to get the entire gang arrested."
"At what time do the three people you have just named leave for Paris?"
I asked, for the news that Connie Stapleton and Dulcie were going to
France together had given me a shock.
"To-night, at nine."
"Look here," I exclaimed, turning upon him sharply, "tell me everything
you know, and if it is worth paying for I'll pay."
In a few minutes the stranger had put several startling facts into my
possession. Of these the most important were that on at least four
occasions Connie Stapleton had deliberately exercised a hypnotic control
over Dulcie, and thus obtained even greater influence over her than she
already possessed; that Jack Osborne, whom I had always believed to be
wholly unsusceptible to female influence, was fast falling in love, or,
if not falling in love, becoming infatuated with Jasmine Gastrell--the
stranger declared that Mrs. Gastrell had fallen in love with him, but
that I could not believe; that an important member of this notorious
gang of criminals which mixed so freely in Society was Sir Roland's
wastrel brother, Robert, of whom neither Sir Roland nor any member of
his family had heard for years; and that Mrs. Stapleton intended to
cause Dulcie to become seriously ill while abroad, then to induce Sir
Roland to come to France to see her, and finally to marry him on the
other side of the Channel in the small town where she intended that
Dulcie should be taken ill. There were reasons, he said, though he would
not reveal them then, why she wished to marry Sir Roland on the
Continent instead of in England, and she knew of no other way of
inducing him to cross the Channel but the means she intended to employ.
The man hardly stopped speaking when I sprang to my feet.
"How much do you want for the information you have given me?" I
exclaimed, hardly able to conceal the intense excitement I felt.
He named a high figure, and so reckless did I feel at that instant that
I told him I would pay the amount to him in gold--he had stipulated for
gold--if he would call at my flat in South Molton Street at five o'clock
on the following afternoon.
His expressions of gratitude appeared, I must say, to be most genuine.
"And may I ask," he said, "what you propose to do now?"
"Propose to do!" I cried. "Why, go direct to Willow Road, of course,
force an entrance, and take Miss Challoner away--by force, if need be."
"You propose to go there alone?"
"Yes. For the past fortnight I have somehow suspected there might be
some secret understanding between Mr. Osborne and Mrs. Gastrell--they
have been so constantly together, though he has more than once assured
me that his intimacy was only with a view to obtaining her confidence. I
don't know why I should believe your word, the word of a stranger, in
preference to his, but now you tell me what you have told me I remember
many little things which all point to the likelihood of your statement
that he is in love with Mrs. Gastrell being true."
"I wouldn't go alone, Mr. Berrington," the stranger said in a tone of
warning. "You don't know the people you have to deal with as I know
them. If you would like to come to Paris with me to-night I could show
you something that would amaze you--and you would come face to face
there with Connie Stapleton and Miss Challoner, and others. Be advised
by me, and do that. I am telling you to do what I know will be best for
you. I don't ask you to pay me until we return to England."
I paused, uncertain what to decide. Thoughts crowded my brain.
Supposing, after all, that this were a ruse to entrap me. Supposing that
Dulcie were not going to Paris. But no, the man's statements seemed
somehow to carry conviction.
"If we cross by the same boat as they do," I said suddenly, "we shall be
He smiled grimly.
"Not if you disguise yourself as you did at Hugesson Gastrell's the
other night," he said.
"Good heavens!" I exclaimed, "how do you know that?"
He looked to right and left, then behind him. Nobody was near. Then,
raising his hat, like lightning he pulled off his wig, eyebrows and
moustache, whiskers and beard, crammed them into his jacket pocket, and,
with his hat on the back of his head, sat back looking at me with a
quiet smile of amusement.
"Preston!" I gasped. "Good heavens, man, how do you do it?"
Producing his cigarette case, in silence he offered me a cigarette. Then
he spoke--now in his natural voice.
"I always test my 'impersonations' when I get a chance of doing so," he
said, "upon people who know me well, because if one can completely
deceive one's friends it gives much confidence when one comes to serious
business. Mr. Berrington, all I have just told you is absolute truth. I
have found it all out within the last eleven hours. More than that, I am
myself now one of the gang, and if I 'turn traitor' I shall be done to
death by them just as certainly as I am sitting here. I flatter myself
that I have arranged it all rather cleverly--I have succeeded in placing
in confinement that man who shadowed you last night, without any member
of the gang's knowing anything about his arrest or in the least
suspecting it, and I have literally stepped into his shoes, for these
clothes and boots that I am wearing are his. I believe the end of this
abominable conspiracy is now within sight. To-night you must come with
me to Paris on the boat that Miss Challoner, the woman Stapleton,
Gastrell, and one or two others will cross by. I shall assume the
disguise I have just removed. You will become once more Sir Aubrey
Belston, we shall travel from Victoria in separate compartments, and on
board the boat I shall casually mention to my 'friends' that Sir Aubrey
Belston is on board. In Paris we ought to find out a lot--I have a
friend there named Victor Albeury, who already knows a lot about this
affair--and we shall, unless I am greatly mistaken. Now I must go home
and get some hours of sleep, for I have been busy since we parted in the
'Tube' at Oxford Circus at midnight last night."
"But tell me," I exclaimed, my brain a whirl, "is what you told me
really true: that Osborne has become a victim to the wiles of Jasmine
"Absolutely. I have suspected as much for several weeks, and last night
I discovered it to be an absolute fact. Mr. Berrington, when Osborne
left us last night at Russell Square station he didn't return to his
hotel. Would you believe it, he had an assignation with the woman, and
kept it? But what is more curious still is what you wouldn't believe
when I told it to you some minutes ago--Jasmine Gastrell has fallen
madly in love with Osborne! Isn't it astonishing? To think that an
amazingly clever woman like that should let her heart get the better of
her head. But it's not the first case of the sort that I have known. I
could tell you of several similar instances of level-headed women of the
criminal class letting their hearts run away with them, and some day I
will. But now I really must leave you. Go back to your place, pack as
much luggage as you will need for a week or ten days--for we may be away
that long--write Sir Aubrey Belston's name on the luggage labels in a
disguised handwriting; send it to Victoria by messenger--not by your own
man, as we must take no risks whatever--and come to me not later than
six, and I will then again disguise you as Sir Aubrey Belston. You won't
be followed by any member of the gang, for the man I am impersonating
is supposed to be shadowing you. Connie Stapleton expects Alphonse
Furneaux--that's the man who followed you last night, and whom I am now
impersonating--to meet her at Victoria at a quarter past eight to-night.
You will get there a little later, and of course we must appear to be
total strangers. Keep out of sight of the woman, and of Gastrell, and of
anyone else you may see whom you remember seeing at Cumberland Place the
other night. You can speak to anybody you like once we are on board the
boat, but not before. The train leaves at nine. My! I am disappointed
with Osborne, more disappointed and disgusted than I can tell you. And
to think that if I had not made this discovery about him he might
unwittingly have brought about some fearful tragedy so far as you and I
are concerned! But I must really go," and, with a friendly nod, he rose
and strolled away.
He had spoken rapidly, with hardly a pause, and as I watched him pass
out of the park I wondered how he had managed to ingratiate himself with
this gang of scoundrels. Only a day or two before we had discussed the
advisability of informing Easterton of what was taking place nightly in
the house in Cumberland Place which he had leased to Hugesson Gastrell,
but we had come to the conclusion that no good end would be served by
telling him, for were any complaint to be made to Gastrell he would of
course declare that the people who gambled in the house were personal
friends of his whom he had every right to invite there to play.
I returned to my flat, told my man what to pack, then went out again and
walked aimlessly about the streets. A feeling of restlessness was upon
me, which I could not overcome. Many strange things had happened since
Christmas, but this, surely, was the strangest thing of all, that Jack
Osborne, who had persuaded me to help him in his self-imposed task of
tracking down these people, should actually have come under the spell of
Jasmine Gastrell's beauty and undeniable fascination. I recollected now
his saying, when, weeks before, he had spoken of Jasmine Gastrell for
the first time, that everybody on board the ship had fallen in love with
her, and that he himself had been desperately attracted by her. But I
had thought that he spoke in jest; it had not occurred to me that he
really thought seriously about the woman. Of late, however, his manner
towards her had certainly been different, and I knew that night after
night the two had spent the evening together, ending up with supper at
one of the fashionable restaurants.
Then my thoughts drifted to Dulcie. What had come over her since she had
formed this violent attachment for Connie Stapleton? In some ways she
seemed unchanged, yet in other respects she was completely altered. For
a brief ten days after we had become engaged I had seemed to be all in
all to her. But from then onward she had appeared to come more and more
under the influence of her friend, who seemed, in a sense, to be
supplanting me in her affection. And now Preston had told me that
several times Connie Stapleton had intentionally hypnotized Dulcie, no
doubt for the purpose of obtaining greater control over her and still
further bending her will to hers. I could not, under the circumstances,
wholly blame Dulcie for what I had at first believed to be a change in
her attitude towards me. Far more readily could I blame her father for
his monstrous infatuation for the widow.
And what could be the meaning of this sudden flitting to Paris? Preston
had given the reason, had explained it in detail, but his theory was so
horrible that I refused to believe it. Connie Stapleton might be, and
obviously was, an adventuress, but surely a woman of such beauty, with
such charm of manner and personality, and apparently so refined, could
not actually be the monster Preston would have had me believe. The view
I held was that Connie Stapleton and some of her accomplices for some
reason found it expedient to forsake England for a little while--
Preston had assured me that they meant to remain upon the Continent for
several weeks at least--and that the woman thought that by taking Dulcie
with her she would be better able to persuade Sir Roland to cross the
Channel, a thing he had done only once in his life, and that I had heard
him declare he would never do again, so ill had he been on
One of the first men I saw upon my arrival at Victoria in my disguise
was Preston disguised as Alphonse Furneaux. With him were Connie
Stapleton, Dulcie, Gastrell, and one or two men I did not remember
having seen before. Doris Lorrimer was also there.
Obsequious officials were hurrying about doing their bidding, in
anticipation of generous _largesse_. Here and there little groups of
passengers stood staring at them, obviously under the impression that
they must be people of some importance. Acting upon Preston's
instructions I kept well out of sight until within a minute or two of
nine o'clock, by which time the widow and her companions had entered
their saloon carriage.
I had hardly stepped into my first-class compartment, which was some way
behind the saloon, and settled myself comfortably for the journey to
Newhaven, when a lady, the only other occupant, suddenly exclaimed:
"Aubrey, don't you recognize me, or are you intentionally cutting me?"
I glanced across at her. She was a woman of middle age, obviously a
lady, well dressed, but not good-looking. Hastily recovering my presence
of mind, I answered quickly:
"I beg your pardon. Please don't think me rude; I was worrying about a
trunk of mine that I think has been left behind, and for the moment I
didn't see you"--she was seated on the opposite side, in the corner
farthest from me.
"Of course I don't think you rude, you foolish boy," she exclaimed
gaily. "How could I? And how are you, dear? and where are you going? I
had no idea you had already returned from your travels."
"I got back only last week," I said, feeling my way cautiously. "How
well you are looking. Let me see, when was it we last met?"
She broke into a ripple of laughter.
"Oh, Aubrey," she exclaimed, "what a wag you are! When are you going to
grow up, I wonder. Now, do be serious and answer that question I put to
the last night we were together."
This was awful. The train had only just started, and here I was face to
face with a woman evidently an intimate friend of Sir Aubrey Belston's,
who for aught I knew might insist on talking to me and cross-questioning
me all the way to Newhaven. I decided to take the bull by the horns.
"Look here," I exclaimed, becoming suddenly serious, "don't let us talk
about that any more. The answer I gave you that night was final. I have
thought the whole thing over carefully, and, much as I should like to,
I can't change my mind."
She stared at me, evidently dumbfounded. I thought she looked rather
frightened. Her lips parted as if she were going to speak again, then
shut tightly. A minute or more passed, during which time she kept her
head averted, gazing out into the darkness. And then all at once, to my
horror, she burst into tears, and began sobbing hysterically.
The sight of a woman in tears always affects me strangely. I rose from
my seat and went over to her, and, now seated facing her, endeavoured by
every means I could think of to soothe her.
"Don't cry--oh, please don't," I said sympathetically. "It isn't my
fault, you know; I would do anything I could for you, I am sure you know
that, but what you ask is impossible."
"But _why_ is it impossible?" she suddenly burst out impetuously,
looking up into my face with tear-stained eyes. "Give me a good reason
for your refusal and I won't say a word more."
Oh, if only I knew what it was she had asked Sir Aubrey that night--what
it was she wanted him to do. Never in my life before had I been in such
an awful predicament. And then suddenly it flashed upon me that some day
she would for certain meet the real Sir Aubrey Belston again, and what
would happen then when she referred to this meeting in the train and he
stoutly denied--as of course he would--meeting her at all? What mischief
might I not unwittingly be doing? What havoc might I not be creating? If
only I could discover her name it might in some way help me to get out
of this terrible tangle.
The train was slowing down now. Presently it stopped. We were at
Croydon. The door opened and other travellers entered our compartment.
Putting some of my belongings on to my seat, I passed into the corridor
and entered a smoking compartment.
The man seated opposite me was buried in a newspaper. Some moments after
the train had started again, he lowered it, and I saw his face. At once
he raised his eyebrows in recognition; then, extending his hand, greeted
me most cordially.
I was face to face again with Hugesson Gastrell!
A CHANNEL MYSTERY
Nobody could have seemed more friendly or more thoroughly pleased to see
me again than Hugesson Gastrell as he grasped me heartily by the hand,
expressing surprise at our meeting so unexpectedly.
On the night I had talked to him at Cumberland Place, when I was
masquerading for the first time as Sir Aubrey Belston, I had experienced
a growing feeling of revulsion against him, and now as he took my hand
the same feeling returned and I could not dispel it, for the thought had
flashed in upon me: could it be that I was shaking hands with a man
whose hand was stained with blood? I had, of course, no proof that
Gastrell had committed murder, but in face of what Harold Logan had told
Sir Roland Challoner and myself upon his death bed, added to other
things I knew, it seemed well within the bounds of possibility that--
"And are you crossing to France?" he inquired, cutting my train of
"Yes," I answered mechanically.
"Going to Paris?"
"Why, how capital!" he exclaimed. "You must make one of our party on the
boat, and when we land. Connie Stapleton will be delighted to meet you
again, Sir Aubrey; she is on this train, and so are other mutual
friends. Connie was speaking of you not half an hour ago."
"Indeed?" I said, feeling that I must say something.
"Why, yes. Try one of these cigars, Sir Aubrey," he added, producing a
large gold case from his inside breast pocket.
I had to take one, though I hated doing it. I tried to look him in the
face as I did so, but I couldn't. It was not that I feared he might
recognize me, for I did not--experience had proved to me that my
disguised appearance and voice were most effectual. But there was
something about the man that repelled me, and I hated meeting his gaze.
The noise of the train caused us presently to relapse into silence, and,
picking up my newspaper, I tried to read. My thoughts were too deeply
engrossed, however, to allow me to focus my attention on the printed
page. Could it really be possible, was what I kept wondering, that this
smooth-spoken, pleasant-mannered man was actually a criminal? Again
Harold Logan's dying eyes stared into mine; again I saw him struggling
to speak; again I heard those ominous words, almost the last words he
had spoken before his spirit had passed into Eternity:
"Hugesson Gastrell--don't forget that name, Sir Roland. You may some day
be glad I told it to you."
I shuddered. Then I remembered Preston's warning and the part I had to
play. Up to the present, Gastrell suspected nothing--of that I felt
positive; but let the least suspicion creep into his brain that I was
not the man he believed he had been speaking to--
Instantly I pulled myself together. For Dulcie's sake even more than for
my own I must exercise the utmost care. Her life as well as mine might
depend upon the skill and tact I must exercise during the next few
hours, possibly during the next few days. I felt I would at that moment
have given much to be able to look into the future and know for certain
what was going to happen to me, and, most of all, to Dulcie, before I
returned to England.
Well it was for my peace of mind that that wish could not be gratified.
On board the boat, rather to my surprise in view of what had happened
and of what Gastrell had just said to me, I saw nothing of Gastrell or
of any of his companions, including Preston. Apparently one and all must
have gone to their cabins immediately upon coming on board.
It was a perfect night in the Channel. Stars and moon shone brightly,
and a streak of light stretched away across the smooth water until it
touched the sky Hue far out in the darkness. For a long time I stood on
deck, abaft the funnel, smoking a cigar, and thinking deeply. I had
turned for a moment, for no particular reason, when I thought I saw a
shadow pass across the deck, then vanish. I saw it again; and then
again. Stepping away from where I stood, hidden by a life-boat, I
distinctly discerned three figures moving noiselessly along the deck,
going from me. Curiosity prompted me to follow them, and to my surprise
I saw them disappear one after another down the hatchway leading to the
steerage. As they must, I felt certain, have come out through the saloon
door, this rather puzzled me.
It was past midnight when, at last, I went below. The saloon,
smoking-room and alleyways were deserted and almost in darkness. No
sound of any sort was audible but the rhythmic throbbing of the
engines. The boat still travelled without the slightest motion.
I stopped abruptly, for I had heard a sound--it had sounded like a gasp.
Hardly breathing, I listened intently. Again I heard it--this time more
faintly. It had seemed to come from a cabin on my left, a little
I stood quite still in the alleyway for several minutes. Then, hearing
nothing more, I went on to my own cabin.
But somehow, try as I would, I could not get to sleep. For hours I lay
wide awake upon my bunk. What had caused that curious sound, I kept
wondering, though I tried to put the thought from me. And who had those
men been, those three silent figures passing like spectres along the
deck, and what had they been doing, and why had they gone down into
I suppose I must at last have fallen asleep, for when I opened my eyes
the sea had risen a good deal, and the boat was rolling heavily. Pulling
my watch from beneath my pillow, I saw that it was nearly four--we were
due into port at Dieppe before four. The timbers of the ship creaked at
intervals; the door of my cabin rattled; I could hear footsteps on deck
and in the alleyway beside my door.
"Have you heard the dreadful news, sir?" a scared-looking steward said
to me as I made my way towards the companion ladder half an hour
later--I had taken care to adjust my disguise exactly in the way that
Preston had taught me to.
"No--what?" I asked, stopping abruptly.
"A saloon passenger has hanged himself during the night."
"Good God!" I exclaimed. "Who is it?"
"I don't know his name. He was in number thirty-two--alone."
"Thirty-two! Surely that was a cabin in the alleyway where I had heard
the gasp, not far from my own cabin."
"Are you certain it was suicide?" I asked.
"Oh, it was suicide right enough," the steward answered, "and he must
have been hanging there some hours--by a rope. Seems he must have
brought the rope with him, as it don't belong to the boat. He must have
come aboard intending to do it. My mate--he found him not half an hour
ago, and it so scared him that he fainted right off."
"Have you seen the poor fellow? What was he like?"
"Yes. Most amazing thing, sir," the steward continued volubly, "but it
seems he'd disguised himself. He'd got on a wig and false moustache and
All the blood seemed to rush away from my heart. Everything about me was
going round. I have a slight recollection of reeling forward and being
caught by the steward, but of what happened after that, until I found
myself lying on a sofa in the saloon, with the ship's doctor and the
stewardess standing looking down at me. I have not the remotest
The boat was rolling and pitching a good deal, and I remember hearing
someone say that we were lying off Dieppe until the sea should to some
extent subside. Then, all at once, a thought came to me which made me
feel sick and faint. While I had been unconscious, had the fact been
discovered that I too was disguised? I looked up with a feeling of
terror, but the expression upon the faces of the ship's doctor and of
the stewardess revealed nothing, and my mind grew more at ease when I
noticed that the few people standing about were strangers to me.
I saw nothing of any member of the group of criminals I now felt
literally afraid to meet until the Paris express was about to start.
More than once I had felt tempted to alter my plans by not going to
Paris, or by returning to England by the next boat. But then Dulcie had
risen into the vision of my imagination and I had felt I could not leave
her alone with such a gang of scoundrels--I might be leaving her to her
fate were I to desert her now. No, I had started upon this dangerous
adventure, and at all costs I must go through with it, even though I no
longer had poor Preston to advise me.
"Ah, Sir Aubrey, we have been looking for you."
I turned sharply, to find at my elbow Connie Stapleton and Doris
Lorrimer. The latter stood beside her friend, calm, subdued; Mrs.
Stapleton was in her usual high spirits, and greeted me with an effusive
"Hughie told us you were on board," she said, "and he says you are going
to stay at our hotel. I am so pleased. Now, you must dine with us
to-night--no, I won't take a refusal," she added quickly, as I was about
to make some excuse. "We shall be such a cheery party--just the kind of
party I know you love."
There was no way of escape, at any rate for the moment. Later I must see
what could be done. My desire now was to keep, so to speak, in touch
with the gang, and to watch in particular Dulcie's movements, yet to
associate on terms of intimacy with these people as little as possible.
We had not been long in the train, on our way to Paris, when someone--it
was Dulcie who first spoke of it, I think--broached the subject which
had created so much excitement on board--the suicide of the
"I wonder if his act had any bearing upon this robbery which is said to
have been committed on board between Newhaven and Dieppe," a man whom I
remembered meeting at Connie Stapleton's dinner party, presently
observed--I suddenly remembered that his name was Wollaston.
"Robbery?" I exclaimed. "I have heard nothing about it. What was stolen?
and who was it stolen from?"
"Well," he answered, "the stories I have heard don't all tally, and one
or two may be exaggerated. But there is no doubt about the robbery of
Lady Fitzgraham's famous diamonds, which I have always heard were worth
anything between thirty and forty thousand pounds. She was coming over
to stay at the Embassy, and had them with her, it seems, in quite a
small dressing-bag. I am told she declares she is positive the stones
were in the bag, which was locked, when she went on board at Newhaven;
yet early this morning they were missing, though the bag was still
locked. The theory is that during the night someone must by some means
have forced an entrance to the cabin--they declare the cabin door was
locked, but of course it can't have been--in which she and her maid
slept, have unlocked the bag and extracted the jewels. Lady Fitzgraham
was travelling alone with her maid, I am told," he ended, "but Sir
Aubrey Belston travelled with her part way from London to Newhaven."
"You are talking to Sir Aubrey at this moment," Connie Stapleton said
quickly. She turned to me: "Sir Aubrey, let me introduce Mr. Wollaston."
"I beg your pardon," Wollaston stammered, "I had no idea--I know you by
name, of course, but I have not before, I believe, had the pleasure of
meeting you. It was Hughie Gastrell, whom I expect you know, who told me
he had seen you in Lady Fitzgraham's compartment on the way to Newhaven.
I suppose Lady Fitzgraham didn't, by any chance, speak to you of her
jewels--say she had them with her, or anything of that kind?"
"She didn't say a word about them," I answered. "Is she on this train?"
"Yes. Gastrell has gone to suggest to her that she should stay with us
at the 'Continental,' and--"
"Sir Aubrey has just decided to stay there," Mrs. Stapleton interrupted,
"and I have proposed that to-night we should all dine together."
Conversation then reverted to the suicide and the robbery, and as Connie
Stapleton's friends who shared the private car entered it, she
introduced them to me. They seemed pleasant people enough, and, as the
subject of conversation did not change, one after another they
propounded ingenious theories to account for the way the robbery might
have been committed. I noticed that they spoke less about the alleged
suicide, and that when the subject was broached they confined their
remarks chiefly to the question of the dead man's disguise, suggesting
reasons which they considered might have prompted him to disguise
himself. They ended by deciding there was no reason to suppose that the
suicide and the robbery had any bearing on each other.
The run from Dieppe to Paris by express takes about three hours, and we
were about half-way through the journey when Wollaston, who had been
absent at least half an hour, re-entered our compartment in
conversation with my recent travelling companion, whom I now knew to be
Lady Fitzgraham. She hardly acknowledged my look of recognition, and out
of the tail of my eye I saw Connie Stapleton glance quickly at each of
us in turn, as though Lady Fitzgraham's unmistakable stiffness
Now the train was running at high speed across the flat, uninteresting
stretch of country which lies about thirty miles south of Rouen.
Presently the Seine came in sight again, and for some miles we ran
parallel with it. We had just rushed through a little wayside station
beyond Mantes, the train oscillating so severely as it rattled over the
points that Dulcie, Connie Stapleton and Lady Fitzgraham became
seriously alarmed, while other occupants of the car glanced
apprehensively out of the windows.
"This car wants coupling up," Gastrell exclaimed suddenly. "At our next
stopping place I'll complain, and get it done."
The words had scarcely passed his lips when the swaying increased
considerably. All at once the brakes were applied with great force, the
train began to slacken speed, and a moment later we knew that we had
left the metals.
To this day it seems to me extraordinary that any of us should have
escaped with our lives. We probably should not have done so had the land
not been on a dead level with the rails at the point where the train
jumped the track. As a result, the cars did not telescope, as is usual
on such occasions, nor did they capsize. Instead, the locomotive dashed
forward over the flat, hard-frozen meadow, dragging the cars behind it,
then came gradually to a standstill owing to the steam having been
My first thought as soon as the train had stopped was for Dulcie. As I
crawled along the car--for we had all been flung on to the ground--I
came upon her suddenly. Pale as death, and trembling terribly, she
stared at me with a scared expression, and so great was the wave of
emotion which swept over me at that instant that I all but forgot my
disguise in my wild longing to spring forward and take her in my arms
and comfort her.
"Are you hurt?" I gasped, retaining only with the utmost difficulty the
artificial tone I had adopted from the first, the tone poor Preston had
coached me in until my accents, so he had assured me, exactly resembled
those of Sir Aubrey Belston.
"No--no," came her answer, in a weak voice, "only shaken--but oh, the
thirst this shock has given me is fearful. Is there anything I
I looked about me. On all sides was a litter of hand-baggage that the
accident had hurled pell-mell about the car. Beside me was a large
dressing-bag lying on its side, partly open, the force of the blow as it
was flung up against the woodwork having burst the lock. Thinking there
might be something in it that I could give to Dulcie to relieve her
burning thirst, I set the bag upright, and pulled it wide open.
As my gaze rested upon the contents of that bag, astonishment made me
catch my breath. For the bag was half filled with jewellery of all
descriptions jumbled up as if it had been tossed in anyhow--there had
been no attempt at packing. During the brief moments which elapsed
before I shut the bag, I noticed rings, brooches, bracelets, scarf pins,
watches, hair combs and three large tiaras, all of them, apparently, set
in precious stones--mostly emeralds, rubies and diamonds.
Hastily closing the bag, and fastening the clips to keep it shut, I left
it where I had found it and was about to go in search of water, when the
sight I saw made my heart nearly stop beating.
For at the end of the car, standing motionless, and looking straight at
me, was Alphonse Furneaux! Almost as I returned his dull gaze the truth
seemed to drift into my brain. Furneaux must have escaped from Preston's
house, from the room where Preston had confined him. He must have
discovered that Preston was impersonating him. He must have followed him
from London, followed him on to the boat--
I dared not let my thoughts travel further. Horrible suspicions crowded
in upon me. Could the man standing there staring at me be Preston's
murderer? Was he aware of my identity too, and, if so, had he designs
upon my life as well? Had he told the gang I was now mixed up with of my
disguise, and had they entrapped me in order to wreak vengeance? And
that hoard of jewellery I had so unwittingly discovered--had the man now
standing there before me seen me looking at it?
THE THIN-FACED STRANGER
I pretended not to notice him as I pushed past him and presently
returned with water. Lady Fitzgraham, Connie Stapleton, and several
others also clamoured for water to moisten their parched lips, and when
I had attended to Dulcie I gave them some. For the next two hours
everything was confusion. All the passengers had been severely shaken,
and some were seriously hurt, but fortunately not one had been killed.
Our extraordinary escape I shall always attribute to the fact that we
travelled in a Pullman, a car that has most wonderful stability.
A large crowd had assembled at Gare St. Lazare to witness the arrival of
the special with the passengers who had travelled in our ill-fated
train. Now that I had collected my scattered thoughts once more I was
resolved at the earliest possible moment to inform Lady Fitzgraham of
the discovery I had made, for I had come to the firm conclusion that
some, at any rate, of the jewellery that bag contained must be hers,
some of the jewellery which had been stolen on board the boat.
Upon our arrival at the "Continental" I discovered that Gastrell and
Connie Stapleton's friends numbered no less than twelve, without
counting Lady Fitzgraham or myself, so that in all we were sixteen. Of
the people I had met before, whom I believed to be members of the gang,
only Jasmine Gastrell was absent. What most puzzled me was what the
reason could be they had all come to Paris. Did the London police
suspect them, and were they fleeing from justice in consequence? That, I
decided, seemed hardly likely. Could they be contemplating some _coup_
on the Continent, or had they come over to prepare with greater security
some fresh gigantic robbery in England? That seemed far more probable,
and just then I remembered that in less than a fortnight the
coming-of-age festivities of Lord Cranmere's son would begin--February
the 28th. What complicated matters to some extent was that I had no
means of ascertaining beyond doubt which members of this large party
were actually members of the gang I now knew to exist, and which, if
any, besides Dulcie, Lady Fitzgraham, and myself, also, I fancied, the
man named Wollaston, were honest folk, some of them possibly dupes. Lady
Fitzgraham I knew well by name and repute, and there could be no
possibility of her being mixed up in criminal or even shady
transactions. That the robbery of her famous jewels, by whomsoever it
had been committed, had been premeditated and carefully planned, there
seemed hardly room to doubt.
Next day all the Paris newspapers contained reports of the suicide--as
they evidently all believed it to have been--and of the robbery on board
the boat. The usual theories, many of them so far-fetched as to be
almost fantastic, were advanced, and all kinds of wild suggestions were
made to account for the dead man's having been disguised. Not until
three days later was the sensational announcement made in the newspapers
that he had proved to be George Preston, the famous English detective,
who had retired upon pension only the year before.
We had been four days in Paris, and nothing in the least suspicious had
occurred. I had been unable to tell Lady Fitzgraham of my suspicions
regarding the whereabouts of her stolen jewels, for she had not dined at
the "Continental," nor had I seen her after our train had reached Paris,
or even on the train after the accident. The hotel manager was under the
impression, I had discovered while conversing with him, that we had all
met by accident either in the train or on the boat, as the accommodation
needed had been telegraphed for from Dieppe. He also was quite
convinced--this I gathered at the same time--that our party consisted of
people of considerable distinction, leaders of London Society, an
impression no doubt strengthened by the almost reckless extravagance of
every member of the party.
The robbery and the supposed suicide on board the boat were beginning to
be less talked about. It was the evening of our fourth day in Paris, and
I had just finished dressing for dinner, when somebody knocked. I called
"Come in," and a man entered. Without speaking he shut the door behind
him, turned the key in the lock, and came across to me.
He was tall and thin, a rather ascetic-looking individual of middle age,
with small, intelligent eyes set far back in his head, bushy brows and a
clean-shaven face--clearly an American. He stood looking at me for a
moment or two, then said:
"Mr. Berrington, I think."
I started, for my make-up was perfect still, and I firmly believed that
none had penetrated my disguise. Before I could answer, the stranger
"You have no need to be alarmed, Mr. Berrington; I am connected with the
Paris _Sûreté_, and George Preston was a colleague and an intimate
friend of mine. We had been in communication for some time before his
death, and I knew of his disguise; he had given me details of his line
of action in connection with the people you are with; for he knew that
in impersonating Alphonse Furneaux and associating himself so closely
with this group of criminals he ran a grave risk. Still," he went on,
speaking smoothly and very rapidly, "I believe this tragedy would not
have occurred--for that he was murdered I feel certain, though I have no
proof--had the real Furneaux not succeeded in making good his escape
from the room where Preston had confined him in his own house, a room
where he had more than once kept men under lock and key when he wanted
them out of the way for a while."
As the stranger stopped speaking, he produced from his pocket a card
with a portrait of himself upon it, and the autograph signature of the
Prefect of Police.
"Well," I said, feeling considerably relieved, "what have you come to
see me about?"
"Your life is in danger," he answered bluntly, "in great danger.
Alphonse Furneaux has penetrated your disguise, and I have every reason
to believe that he has betrayed your identity to the rest of the gang.
If that is so, you can hardly escape their vengeance unless you leave
here at once, under my protection, and return to London. Even there you
will need to be extremely careful. Please prepare to come now. It may
already be too late."
"I can't do that," I answered firmly, facing him. "Miss Challoner, the
daughter of Sir Roland Challoner, has unwittingly become mixed up with
these people; she suspects nothing, and as yet I have been unable to
warn her of the grave risk she runs by remaining with them. It is solely
on her account that I am here. I must remain by her at all costs to
protect her--and to warn her as soon as possible."
"You can safely leave that to me, Mr. Berrington," the stranger
answered, with a keen glance. "If you stay here another night I won't be
responsible for your safety--indeed, I don't consider that I am
responsible for it now. Quick, please, pack your things."
"Impossible," I replied doggedly. "You don't understand the situation,
"You don't understand the situation, Mr. Albeury--I am engaged to be
married to Miss Challoner, and I can't at any cost desert her at such a
time. She has struck up an extraordinary friendship with Mrs. Stapleton,
who is staying in this hotel and is mixed up with the gang, and I want
to watch their movements while retaining my disguise."
"But of what use is your disguise," Albeury cut in quickly, "now that,
as I told you, these scoundrels are aware of your identity, or will be
very soon? You have no idea, Mr. Berrington, of the class of criminal
you have to deal with. These men and women have so much money and are so
presentable and plausible, also so extremely clever, that you would have
the greatest difficulty in inducing any ordinary people to believe they
are not rich folk of good social standing, let alone that they are
criminals. If you insist upon remaining here it will be nothing less
"And yet I insist," I said.
The stranger shrugged his shoulders. Then he sat down, asked if he might
light a cigarette, and for a minute or so remained wrapped in thought.
"Supposing that I could induce Miss Challoner to come away," he said
suddenly, "would you come then?"
"Of course I should," I answered. "I have told you it is only because
she is here that I remain here."
Albeury rose abruptly, and tossed his half-smoked cigarette into the
"Wait here until I return," he said.
He unlocked the door, and went out of the room. I heard his footsteps
grow fainter and fainter as he went along the corridor.
At the end of a quarter of an hour, as he did not return, I went out
into the passage, locked the door of my room behind me, and walked
slowly in the direction Albeury had gone. I knew the number of Dulcie's
room to be eighty-seven--it adjoined the bedroom occupied by Connie
Stapleton, which opened into a private sitting-room; this I had
ascertained from one of the hotel porters. As I reached the door of the
sitting-room I heard voices--a man's voice, and the voices of two women.
The man was Albeury. The women, who both spoke at once, were certainly
Connie Stapleton and Dulcie. They were in the room, and by their tones I
judged them to be wrangling with Albeury. I knocked boldly.
Summoned to enter by Connie Stapleton, I walked straight in and faced
them. At once the wrangling ceased.
There was a look in Connie Stapleton's eyes that I had never seen there
before. Hitherto I had seen only her attractive side. When I had
conversed with her she had always seemed most charming--intelligent,
witty, amusing. Now her eyes had in them a cold, steely glitter.
"What do you want, Michael Berrington?" she asked icily. "Don't you
think it's time you took off that disguise?"
The sound of a little gasp diverted my attention. I turned, and my gaze
met Dulcie's. Her expression betrayed fear.
"Yes, I am Michael Berrington," I said quietly, speaking now in my
natural voice, and looking Connie Stapleton full in the eyes. "As you
have discovered my identity you probably know why I am disguised--just
as you most likely know why George Preston was disguised when you, or
some of your gang, strangled him on board the boat."
Connie Stapleton's eyes seemed gradually to resemble a snake's. Her lips
were tightly closed. Her face was livid. For some moments she stood
there, glaring at me. Then she spoke again:
"This man," she said, indicating Albeury, "has been speaking of you. He
tells me that he has advised you to return to England, and I have told
him it is now too late. You won't see England again, Mr. Berrington--I
tell you that quite openly, before this police officer, whom I have
known for many years. I do so with impunity because he knows that if he
betrays me I can reveal something I know about him--and should do so
I was about to speak, when my gaze again met Dulcie's. She had turned
suddenly pale. Now she glanced apprehensively first at her friend, then
at me, and then at the American detective Albeury. Deep perplexity as
well as fear was in her eyes.
"Do tell me what it all means," she implored, looking up at me; for the
first time for many days she seemed to need my help. "So many things
have puzzled me during the past days--I have seen so much and heard so
much that I can't understand." She turned to Mrs. Stapleton. "Connie,"
she cried out impetuously, "why have you suddenly changed? Why have you
turned against me? What have I done or said that has given you offence?"
Before Mrs. Stapleton had time to answer, I spoke:
"Dulcie," I exclaimed, "I will say now what I have wanted for days to
tell you, though I have not had a chance of doing so, and I knew that if
I wrote a letter you would show it to this woman, who would invent some
plausible story to make you disbelieve me. Now listen. This woman is not
what you believe her to be. In her presence I tell you that she is an
adventuress of an odious description, and that, in becoming friendly
with you, also in becoming engaged to your father, she has acted from
the basest motives. Dulcie, you must leave her at once, and come
away with me."
I saw an extraordinary look of repugnance creep into Dulcie's eyes as
she cast a half-frightened glance at Connie Stapleton, seated staring at
her with an unconcealed sneer.
"Connie," she said bitterly, "oh, Connie, don't look at me like that!"
The woman laughed.
"Can't you see I have no further use for you, you little fool?" she
retorted harshly. "Go with him--go with your lover, return to your
doddering old father--if you can get to him--who had the amazing
effrontery to ask me to become his wife--I, who am young enough to be
At that instant I caught the sound of a door being closed carefully.
Something prompted me to step out into the passage, and I came face to
face with Gastrell, who had evidently just left Connie Stapleton's other
room and so must have overheard our conversation, also whatever
conversation with Albeury she might have had before I entered. For some
moments we stood looking at each other without speaking. He appeared to
be calm and wholly unconcerned.
"Do you want me for anything?" he asked suddenly.
"No," I answered. "I have been to see Mrs. Stapleton."
"That's rather obvious, as you have this instant left her room. Is there
anything she can do for you?"
"Do for me?"
He came slowly up to me; then, speaking into my face, he said in a hard
"You have tried to spy upon us--and failed. Your companion, George
Preston, spied upon us--he is dead. By this time to-morrow--"
Without another word he went past me down the corridor. He turned the
corner at the end, and a moment later I heard the iron gates of the lift
shut with a clatter, and the lift descending.
Just then it was that Dulcie rushed out into the corridor. Catching
sight of me, she sprang forward and clung to me, trembling.
"Oh, Mike! Mike!" she cried piteously, "I am so terrified. I have just
heard such dreadful things--Mike, your life is in danger--you must get
away from here at once!"
"That's what I am going to do," I said, with an assumption of calmness I
was far from feeling. "And you must come with me, my darling. What about
your clothes and things? Can you get them packed quickly?"
Still clinging to me, she hesitated.
"I--I am afraid to go back into that room," she exclaimed at last.
"Connie has suddenly turned upon me--I believe she can't bear me
"I'm glad to hear that," I answered, intensely relieved at last. Ah, if
only the woman had "turned upon" her long before, I thought, how much
better it would have been for Dulcie.
"But surely," I said, "you can go into your own room to pack your
This proposition evidently troubled her.
"No," she said after an instant's pause. "Doris Lorrimer is in my room."
"And what if she is? She can't prevent your packing your own things?"
"She can, and she will. Oh, Mike," she continued bitterly, "you don't
know--you can't understand. Doris Lorrimer is under Connie's control,
just as I have been. Connie seems to have some extraordinary power over
her. She does everything Connie tells her to, and Connie has told her
not to let me go--to retain my belongings if I attempt to leave."
"But a moment ago Mrs. Stapleton told you to go--she said she had done
with you; I heard her myself."