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Title: Hushed Up! - A Mystery of London
Author: Le Queux, William, 1864-1927
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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HUSHED UP!

_A MYSTERY OF LONDON_

BY

WILLIAM LE QUEUX

LONDON
EVELEIGH NASH
1911



CONTENTS


 PROLOGUE                                                   PAGE

      I  IS MAINLY SCANDALOUS                                 7
     II  CONCERNS TWO STRANGERS                              18

 THE STORY OF OWEN BIDDULPH

 CHAP.

      I  BESIDE STILL WATERS                                 35
     II  TOLD IN THE NIGHT                                   46
    III  THE CLERGYMAN FROM HAMPSHIRE                        58
     IV  THE PERIL BEYOND                                    68
      V  THE DARK HOUSE IN BAYSWATER                         79
     VI  A GHASTLY TRUTH                                     89
    VII  THE FLAME OF THE CANDLE                             99
   VIII  PRESENTS ANOTHER PROBLEM                           107
     IX  FACE TO FACE                                       117
      X  CONTAINS A FURTHER SURPRISE                        125
     XI  WHAT THE POLICE KNEW                               136
    XII  THE WORD OF A WOMAN                                145
   XIII  THE DEATH KISS                                     156
    XIV  OF THINGS UNMENTIONABLE                            165
     XV  FORBIDDEN LOVE                                     175
    XVI  THE MAN IN GOLD PINCE-NEZ                          185
   XVII  THE MAN IN THE STREET                              196
  XVIII  PROOF POSITIVE                                     206
    XIX  THROUGH THE MISTS                                  215
     XX  THE STRANGER IN THE RUE DE RIVOLI                  225
    XXI  DESCRIBES AN UNWELCOME VISIT                       234
   XXII  MORE MYSTERY                                       242
  XXIII  IN FULL CRY                                        253
   XXIV  AN UNFORTUNATE SLIP                                263
    XXV  MORE STRANGE FACTS                                 272
   XXVI "SOME SENSATIONAL REVELATIONS"                      281
  XXVII  A CONTRETEMPS                                      291
 XXVIII  THE FRENCHMAN MAKES A STATEMENT                    298
   XXIX  FURTHER REVELATIONS                                307
    XXX  CONCLUSION                                         313



HUSHED UP!



PROLOGUE

I

IS MAINLY SCANDALOUS


"And he died mysteriously?"

"The doctors certified that he died from natural causes--heart
failure."

"That is what the world believes, of course. His death was a nation's
loss, and the truth was hushed up. But you, Phil Poland, know it. Upon
the floor was found something--a cigar--eh?"

"Nothing very extraordinary in that, surely? He died while smoking."

"Yes," said the bald-headed man, bending towards the other and
lowering his voice into a harsh whisper. "He died while smoking a
cigar--a cigar that had been poisoned! You know it well enough. What's
the use of trying to affect ignorance--_with me_!"

"Well?" asked Philip Poland after a brief pause, his brows knit darkly
and his face drawn and pale.

"Well, I merely wish to recall that somewhat unpleasant fact, and to
tell you that I know the truth," said the other with slow
deliberation, his eyes fixed upon the man seated opposite him.

"Why recall unpleasant facts?" asked Poland, with a faint attempt to
smile. "I never do."

"A brief memory is always an advantage," remarked Arnold Du Cane, with
a sinister grin.

"Ah! I quite follow you," Poland said, with a hardness of the mouth.
"But I tell you, Arnold, I refuse to lend any hand in this crooked bit
of business you've just put before me. Let's talk of something else."

"Crooked business, indeed! Fancy you, Phil Poland, denouncing it as
crooked!" he laughed. "And I'm a crook, I suppose," and he
thoughtfully caressed his small moustache, which bore traces of having
been artificially darkened.

"I didn't say so."

"But you implied it. Bah! You'll be teaching the Sunday School of this
delightful English village of yours before long, I expect. No doubt
the villagers believe the gentleman at the Elms to be a model of every
virtue, especially when he wears a frock-coat and trots around with
the plate in church on Sundays!" he sneered. "My hat! Fancy you, Phil,
turning honest in your old age!"

"I admit that I'm trying to be honest, Arnold--for the girl's sake."

"And, by Jove! if the good people here, in Middleton, knew the truth,
eh--the truth that you----"

"Hush! Somebody may overhear!" cried the other, starting and glancing
apprehensively at the closed door of his cosy study. "What's the use
of discussing the business further? I've told you, once and for all,
Arnold, that I refuse to be a party to any such dastardly
transaction."

"Ho! ho!" laughed Du Cane. "Why, wasn't the Burke affair an equally
blackguardly bit of business--the more so, indeed, when one recollects
that young Ronald Burke had fallen in love with Sonia."

"Leave my girl's name out of our conversation, Arnold, or, by Gad! you
shall pay for it!" cried the tall, dark-haired, clean-shaven man, as
he sprang from his chair and faced his visitor threateningly. "Taunt
me as much as ever it pleases you. Allege what you like against me. I
know I'm an infernal blackguard, posing here as a smug and respectable
churchgoer. I admit any charge you like to lay at my door, but I'll
not have my girl's name associated with my misdeeds. Understand that!
She's pure and honest, and she knows nothing of her father's life."

"Don't you believe that, my dear fellow. She's eighteen now, remember,
and I fancy she had her eyes opened last February down at the Villa
Vespa, when that unfortunate little trouble arose."

Arnold Du Cane, the round-faced man who spoke, was rather short and
stout, with ruddy cheeks, a small moustache and a prematurely bald
head--a man whose countenance showed him to be a _bon vivant_, but
whose quick, shifty eyes would have betrayed to a close observer a
readiness of subterfuge which would have probably aroused suspicion.
His exterior was that of a highly refined and polished man. His grey
tweed suit bore evidence of having been cut by a smart tailor, and as
he lolled back in his big saddle-bag chair he contemplated the fine
diamond upon his white, well-manicured hand, and seemed entirely at
his ease.

That August afternoon was stiflingly hot, and through the open French
windows leading into the old-world garden, so typically English with
its level lawns, neatly trimmed box-hedges and blazing flowerbeds,
came the drowsy hum of the insects and the sweet scent of a wealth of
roses everywhere.

The pretty house in which his host, Philip Poland, alias Louis Lessar,
lived, stood back a little distance from the London road, two miles or
so out of the quiet market-town of Andover, a small picturesque old
place surrounded by high old elms wherein the rooks cawed incessantly,
and commanding extensive views over Harewood Forest and the undulating
meadow-lands around, while close by, at the foot of the hill, nestled
a cluster of homely thatched cottages, with a square church-tower, the
obscure village of Middleton.

In that rural retreat lived the Honourable Philip Poland beneath a
cloak of highest respectability. The Elms was, indeed, delightful
after the glare and glitter of that fevered life he so often led, and
here, with his only child, Sonia, to whom he was so entirely devoted,
he lived as a gentleman of leisure.

Seldom he went to London, and hardly ever called upon his neighbours.
With Sonia he led a most retired existence, reading much, fishing a
little, and taking long walks or cycling with his daughter and her
fox-terrier, "Spot," over all the country-side.

To the village he had been somewhat of a mystery ever since he had
taken the house, three years before. Yet, being apparently comfortably
off, subscribing to every charity, and a regular attendant at
Middleton church, the simple country-folk had grown to tolerate him,
even though he was somewhat of a recluse. Country-folk are very slow
to accept the stranger at his own valuation.

Little did they dream that when he went away each winter he went with
a mysterious purpose--that the source of his income was a mystery.

As he stood there, leaning against the roll-top writing-table of his
prettily furnished little study and facing the man who had travelled
half across Europe to see him, Phil Poland, with clean-shaven face and
closely-cropped hair tinged with grey, presented the smart and dapper
appearance of a typical British naval officer, as, indeed, he had
been, for, prior to his downfall, he had been first lieutenant on
board one of his Majesty's first-class cruisers. His had been a
strangely adventurous career, his past being one that would not bear
investigation.

In the smart, go-ahead set wherein he had moved when he was still in
the Navy opinion regarding him had been divided. There were some who
refused to believe the truth of the scandals circulated concerning
him, while others believed and quickly embellished the reports which
ran through the service clubs and ward-rooms.

Once he had been one of the most popular officers afloat, yet
to-day--well, he found it convenient to thus efface himself in rural
Hampshire, and live alone with the sweet young girl who was all in all
to him, and who was happy in her belief that her devoted father was a
gentleman.

This girl with the blue eyes and hair of sunshine was the only link
between Phil Poland and his past--that past when he held a brilliant
record as a sailor and had been honoured and respected. He held her
aloof from every one, being ever in deadly fear lest, by some chance
word, she should learn the bitter truth--the truth concerning that
despicable part which he had been compelled to play. Ah, yes, his was
a bitter story indeed.

Before Sonia should know the truth he would take his own life. She was
the only person remaining dear to him, the only one for whom he had a
single thought or care, the only person left to him to respect and to
love. Her influence upon him was always for good. For the past year he
had been striving to cut himself adrift from evil, to reform, to hold
back from participating in any dishonest action--for her dear sake.
Her soft-spoken words so often caused him to hate himself and to bite
his lip in regret, for surely she was as entirely ignorant of the
hideous truth as Mr. Shuttleworth, the white-headed parson, or the
rustic villagers themselves.

Yes, Phil Poland's position was indeed a strange one.

What Du Cane had just suggested to him would, he saw, put at least
twenty thousand pounds into the pockets of their ingenious
combination, yet he had refused--refused because of the fair-headed
girl he loved so well.

Within himself he had made a solemn vow to reform. Reformation would
probably mean a six-roomed cottage with a maid-of-all-work, yet even
that would be preferable to a continuance of the present mode of life.

Bitter memories had, of late, constantly arisen within him.
Certain scenes of violence, even of tragedy, in that beautiful
flower-embowered villa beside the Mediterranean at Beaulieu, half-way
between Nice and Monte Carlo, had recurred vividly to him. He was
unable to wipe those horrible visions from the tablets of his memory.
He had realized, at last, what a pitiless blackguard he had been, so
he had resolved to end it all.

And now, just as he had made up his mind, Arnold Du Cane had arrived
unexpectedly from Milan with an entirely new and original scheme--one
in which the risk of detection was infinitesimal, while the stakes
were high enough to merit serious consideration.

He had refused to be a party to the transaction, whereupon Du Cane had
revived a subject which he had fondly believed to be buried for
ever--that terrible affair which had startled and mystified the whole
world, and which had had such an important political bearing that, by
it, the destinies of a great nation had actually been changed.

A certain man--a great man--had died, but until that hour Phil
Poland's connection with the tragedy had never been suspected.

Yet, from what Arnold Du Cane had just said, he saw that the truth was
actually known, and he realized that his own position was now one of
distinct insecurity.

He was silent, full of wonder. How could Arnold have gained his
knowledge? What did he know? How much did he know? The strength of his
defiance must be gauged upon the extent of Arnold's knowledge.

He set his teeth hard. The scandal was one which must never see the
light of day, he told himself. Upon the suppression of the true facts
depended the honour and welfare of a nation.

Arnold Du Cane knew the truth. Of that, there could be no doubt. Did
he intend to use this knowledge in order to secure his assistance in
this latest dastardly scheme?

At last, after a long silence, Poland asked in as cool a voice as he
could--

"What causes you to suspect that Sonia knows anything?"

"Well," replied this crafty, round-faced visitor, "considering how
that young Russian let out at you when you were walking with her that
moonlight night out in the garden, I don't think there can be much
doubt that she is fully aware of the mysterious source of her father's
income."

"Sonia doesn't know Russian. The fellow spoke in that language, I
remember," was his reply. "Yet I was a fool, I know, to have taken her
over that accursed place--that hell in paradise. She is always
perfectly happy at the Hôtel de Luxembourg at Nice, where each season
she makes some pleasant friends, and never suspects the reason of my
absences."

"All of us are fools at times, Phil," was his visitor's response, as
he selected a fresh cigar from the silver box upon the table and
slowly lit it. "But," he went on, "I do really think you are going too
far in expecting that you can conceal the truth from the girl much
longer. She isn't a child, you must recollect."

"She must never know!" cried the unhappy man in a hoarse voice. "By
Gad! she must never know of my shame, Arnold."

"Then go in with us in this new affair. It'll pay you well."

"No," he cried. "I--I feel that I can't! I couldn't face her, if she
knew. Her mother was one of the best and purest women who ever lived,
and----"

"Of course, of course. I know all that, my dear fellow," cried the
other hastily. "I know all the tragedy of your marriage--but that's
years ago. Let the past bury itself, and have an eye to the main
chance and the future. Just take my advice, Phil. Drop all this
humbug about your girl and her feelings if she learnt her father's
real profession. She'll know it one day, that's certain. You surely
aren't going to allow her to stand in your way and prevent you from
participating in what is real good solid business--eh? You want money,
you know."

"I've given my answer," was the man's brief response.

Then a silence fell between the pair of well-dressed cosmopolitans--a
dead, painful silence, broken only by the low hum of the insects, the
buzzing of a fly upon the window-pane, and the ticking of the old
grandfather clock in the corner.

"Reflect," urged Du Cane at last, as he rose to his feet. Then,
lowering his voice, he said in a hoarse whisper, "You may find
yourself in a corner over that affair of young Burke. If so, it's only
I and my friends who could prove an alibi. Remember that."

"And you offer that, in return for my assistance?" Poland said
reflectively, hesitating for a moment and turning to the window.

His visitor nodded in the affirmative.

Next second the man to whom those terms had been offered quickly faced
his friend. His countenance was haggard, blanched to the lips, for he
had been quick to realize the full meaning of that covert threat.

"Arnold!" he said in a hoarse, strained voice, full of bitter
reproach, "you may turn upon me, give me away to the police--tell them
the truth--but my decision remains the same. I will lend no hand in
that affair."

"You are prepared to face arrest--eh?"

"If it is your will--yes."

"And your daughter?"

"That is my own affair."

"Very well, then. As you will," was the bald-headed man's response, as
he put on his grey felt hat and, taking his stick, strode through the
open French windows and disappeared.

Phil Poland stood rigid as a statue. The blow had fallen. His secret
was out.

He sprang forward towards the garden, in order to recall his visitor.
But next instant he drew himself back.

No. Now that the friend whom he had trusted had turned upon him, he
would face the music rather than add another crime to his discredit
and dishonour.

Philip Poland, alias Louis Lessar and half-a-score of other names,
halted, and raised his pale, repentant face to Heaven for help and
guidance.



II

CONCERNS TWO STRANGERS


That night Phil Poland glanced longingly around the well-furnished
dining-room with its white napery, its antique plate, and its great
bowl of yellow roses in the centre of the table between the silver
candelabra with white silk shades. Alone he sat at his dinner, being
waited upon by Felix, the thin-faced, silent Frenchman in black who
was so devoted to his master and so faithful in his service.

It was the last time he would eat his dinner there, he reflected. The
choice of two things lay before him--flight, or arrest.

Sonia was on a visit to an old school-fellow in London, and would not
return until the morrow. For some reasons he was glad, for he desired
to be alone--alone in order to think.

Since the abrupt departure of his visitor he had become a changed man.
His usually merry face was hard and drawn, his cheeks pale, with red
spots in the centre, and about his clean-shaven mouth a hardness quite
unusual.

Dinner concluded, he had strolled out upon the lawn, and, reclining in
a long deck-chair, sipped his coffee and curaçao, his face turned to
the crimson sundown showing across the dark edge of the forest. He was
full of dark forebodings.

The end of his career--a scandalous career--was near. The truth was
out!

As he lay back with his hot, fevered head upon the cushion of the long
cane chair, his dead cigar between his nerveless fingers, a thousand
bitter thoughts crowded upon him. He had striven to reform, he had
tried hard to turn aside and lead an honest life, yet it seemed as
though his good intentions had only brought upon him exposure and
disaster.

He thought it all over. His had, indeed, been an amazing career of
duplicity. What a sensation would be caused when the truth became
revealed! At first he had heaped opprobrium upon the head of the man
who had been his friend, but now, on mature consideration, he realized
that Du Cane's motive in exposing him was twofold--in order to save
himself, and also to curry favour in certain high quarters affected by
the mysterious death of the young Parliamentary Under-Secretary who
had placed to his lips that fatal cigar. Self-preservation being the
first instinct of the human race, it surely was not surprising that
Arnold Du Cane should seek to place himself in a position of security.

Enormous eventualities would be consequent upon solving the mystery of
that man's death. Medical science had pronounced it to have been due
to natural causes. Dare the authorities re-open the question, and
allege assassination? Aye, that was the question. There was the press,
political parties and public opinion all to consider, in addition to
the national prestige.

He held his breath, gazing blankly away at the blood-red afterglow.
How strange, how complicated, how utterly amazing and astounding was
it all. If the truth of that dastardly plot were ever told, it would
not be believed. The depths of human wickedness were surely
unfathomable.

Because he, Phil Poland, had endeavoured to cut himself adrift from
his ingenious friends, they were about to make him the scapegoat.

He contemplated flight, but, if he fled, whither should he go? Where
could he hide successfully? Those who desired that he should pay the
penalty would search every corner of the earth. No. Death itself would
be preferable to either arrest or flight, and as he contemplated how
he might cheat his enemies a bitter smile played upon his grey lips.

The crimson light slowly faded. The balmy stillness of twilight had
settled upon everything, the soft evening air became filled with the
sweet fragrance of the flowers, and the birds were chattering before
roosting. He glanced across the lawns and well-kept walks at the
rose-embowered house itself, his harbour of refuge, the cosy place
which Sonia loved so well, and as his eyes wandered he sighed sadly.
He knew, alas! that he must bid farewell to it for ever, bid farewell
to his dear daughter--bid farewell to life itself.

He drew at his dead cigar. Then he cast it from him. It tasted bitter.

Suddenly the grave-faced Felix, the man who seldom, if ever, spoke,
and who was such a mystery in the village, came across the lawn, and,
bowing, exclaimed in French that the curé, M'sieur Shuttleworth, had
called.

"Ah! yes," exclaimed his master, quickly arousing himself. "How very
foolish of me! I quite forgot I had invited Mr. Shuttleworth to come
in and smoke to-night. Ask him to come out here, and bring the cigars
and whisky."

"Oui, M'sieur," replied the funereal-looking butler, bowing low as he
turned to go back to the house.

"How strange!" laughed Poland to himself. "What would the parson think
if he knew who I am, and the charge against me? What will he say
afterwards, I wonder?"

Then, a few moments later, a thin, grey-faced, rather ascetic-looking
clergyman, the Reverend Edmund Shuttleworth, rector of Middleton, came
across the grass and grasped his host's hand in warmest greeting.

When he had seated himself in the low chair which Poland pulled
forward, and Felix had handed the cigars, the two men commenced to
gossip, as was their habit.

Phil Poland liked the rector, because he had discovered that,
notwithstanding his rather prim exterior and most approved clerical
drawl, he was nevertheless a man of the world. In the pulpit he
preached forgiveness, and, unlike many country rectors and their
wives, was broad-minded enough to admit the impossibility of a sinless
life. Both he and Mrs. Shuttleworth treated both chapel and
church-going folk with equal kindliness, and the deserving poor never
went empty away.

Both in the pulpit and out of it the rector of Middleton called a
spade a spade with purely British bluntness, and though his parish was
only a small one he was the most popular man in it--a fact which
surely spoke volumes for a parson.

"I was much afraid I shouldn't be able to come to-night," he said
presently. "Old Mrs. Dixon, over at Forest Farm, is very ill, and I've
been with her all the afternoon."

"Then you didn't go to Lady Medland's garden-party?"

"No. I wanted to go very much, but was unable. I fear poor old Mrs.
Dixon may not last the night. She asked after Miss Sonia, and
expressed a great wish to see her. You have no idea how popular your
daughter is among the poor of Middleton, Mr. Poland."

"Sonia returns from London to-morrow afternoon," her father said. "She
shall go over and see Mrs. Dixon."

"If the old lady is still here," said the rector. "I fear her life is
fast ebbing, but it is reassuring to know she has made peace with her
Maker, and will pass happily away into the unknown beyond."

His host was silent. The bent old woman, the wife of a farm-labourer,
had made repentance. If there was repentance for her, was there not
repentance for him? He held his breath at the thought.

Little did Shuttleworth dream that the merry, easy-going man who sat
before him was doomed--a man whose tortured soul was crying aloud for
help and guidance; a man with a dread and terrible secret upon his
conscience; a man threatened by an exposure which he could never live
to face.

Poland allowed his visitor to chatter on--to gossip about the work in
his parish. He was reviewing his present position. He desired some one
in whom he could confide; some one of whom he might seek advice and
counsel. Could he expose his real self in all his naked shame; dare he
speak in confidence to Edmund Shuttleworth? Dare he reveal the ghastly
truth, and place the seal of the confessional upon his lips?

Twilight deepened into night, and the crescent moon rose slowly. Yet
the two men still sat smoking and chatting, Shuttleworth somewhat
surprised to notice how unusually preoccupied his host appeared.

At last, when the night wind blew chill, they rose and passed into the
study, where Poland closed the French windows, and then, with sudden
resolve and a word of apology to his visitor, he crossed the room and
turned the key in the lock, saying in a hard, strained tone--

"Shuttleworth, I--I want to speak to you in--in strictest
confidence--to ask your advice. Yet--yet it is upon such a serious
matter that I hesitate--fearing----"

"Fearing what?" asked the rector, somewhat surprised at his tone.

"Because, in order to speak, I must reveal to you a truth--a shameful
truth concerning myself. May I rely upon your secrecy?"

"Any fact you may reveal to me I shall regard as sacred. That is my
duty as a minister of religion, Poland," was the other's quiet reply.

"You swear to say nothing?" cried his host eagerly, standing before
him.

"Yes. I swear to regard your confidence," replied his visitor.

And then the Honourable Philip Poland slowly sank into the chair on
the opposite side of the fireplace, and in brief, hesitating sentences
related one of the strangest stories that ever fell from any sane
man's lips--a story which held its hearer aghast, transfixed,
speechless in amazement.

"There is repentance for me, Shuttleworth--tell me that there is!"
cried the man who had confessed, his eyes staring and haggard in his
agony. "I have told you the truth because--because when I am gone I
want you, if you will, to ask your wife to take care of my darling
Sonia. Financially, she is well provided for. I have seen to all that,
but--ah!" he cried wildly, "she must never know that her father
was----"

"Hush, Poland!" urged the rector, placing his hand tenderly upon his
host's arm. "Though I wear these clothes, I am still a man of the
world like yourself. I haven't been sinless. You wish to repent--to
atone for the past. It is my duty to assist you." And he put out his
strong hand frankly.

His host drew back. But next instant he grasped it, and in doing so
burst into tears.

"I make no excuse for myself," he faltered. "I am a blackguard, and
unworthy the friendship of a true honest man like yourself,
Shuttleworth. But I love my darling child. She is all that has
remained to me, and I want to leave her in the care of a good woman.
She must forget me--forget what her father was----"

"Enough!" cried the other, holding up his hand; and then, until far
into the night, the two men sat talking in low, solemn tones,
discussing the future, while the attitude of Philip Poland, as he sat
pale and motionless, his hands clasped upon his knees, was one of deep
repentance.

That same night, if the repentant transgressor could but have seen
Edmund Shuttleworth, an hour later, pacing the rectory study; if he
could have witnessed the expression of fierce, murderous hatred upon
that usually calm and kindly countenance; if he could have overheard
the strangely bitter words which escaped the dry lips of the man in
whom he had confided his secret, he would have been held
aghast--aghast at the amazing truth, a truth of which he had never
dreamed.

His confession had produced a complication unheard of, undreamed of,
so cleverly had the rector kept his countenance and controlled his
voice. But when alone he gave full vent to his anger, and laughed
aloud in the contemplation of a terrible vengeance which, he declared
aloud to himself, should be his.

"That voice!" he cried in triumph. "Why did I not recognize it before?
But I know the truth now--I know the amazing truth!"

And he laughed harshly to himself as he paced his room.

Next day Philip Poland spent in his garden, reading beneath the big
yew, as was his wont. But his thoughts ever wandered from his book, as
he grew apprehensive of the evil his enemy was about to hurl upon him.
His defiance, he knew, must cost him his liberty--his life. Yet he was
determined. For Sonia's sake he had become a changed man.

At noon Shuttleworth, calm and pleasant, came across the lawn with
outstretched hand. He uttered low words of encouragement and comfort.
He said that poor Mrs. Dixon had passed away, and later on he left to
attend to his work in the parish. After luncheon, served by the silent
Felix, Poland retired to his study with the newspaper, and sat for two
hours, staring straight before him, until, just after four o'clock,
the door was suddenly flung open, and a slim, athletic young girl,
with a wealth of soft fair hair, a perfect countenance, a sweet,
lovable expression, and a pair of merry blue eyes, burst into the
room, crying--

"Hallo, dad! Here I am--so glad to be back again with you!" And,
bending over him, she gave him a sounding kiss upon the cheek.

She was verily a picture of youthful beauty, in her cool, pale grey
gown, her hair dressed low, and secured by a bow of black velvet,
while her big black hat suited her to perfection, her blue eyes
adoring in their gaze and her lovely face flushed with pleasure at her
home-coming.

Her father took her hand, and, gazing lovingly into her eyes, said in
a slow voice--

"And I, too, darling, am glad to have you at home. Life here is very
dull indeed without you."

That night, when seated together in the pretty old-fashioned
drawing-room before retiring to bed--a room of bright chintzes, costly
knick-knacks, and big blue bowls of sweet-smelling pot-pourri--Sonia
looked delightful in her black net dinner-gown, cut slightly
_décolleté_, and wearing around her slim white throat a simple
necklace of pale pink coral.

"My dear," exclaimed her father in a slow, hesitating way, after her
fingers had been running idly over the keys of the piano, "I want to
speak very seriously to you for a few moments."

She rose in surprise, and came beside his chair. He grasped her soft
hand, and she sank upon her knees, as she so often did when they spoke
in confidence.

"Well--I've been wondering, child, what--what you will do in future,"
he said, with a catch in his voice. "Perhaps--perhaps I may have to go
away for a very, very long time--years perhaps--on a long journey, and
I shall, I fear, be compelled to leave you, to----"

"To leave me, dad!" gasped the girl, dismayed. "No--surely--you won't
do that? What could I do without you--without my dear, devoted dad--my
only friend!"

"You will have to--to do without me, dearest--to--to forget your
father," said the white-faced man in a low, broken voice. "I couldn't
take you with me. It would be impossible."

The girl was silent; her slim hand was clutching his convulsively; her
eyes filled with the light of unshed tears.

"But what should I do, dad, without you?" she cried. "Why do you speak
so strangely? Why do you hide so many things from me still--about our
past? I'm eighteen now, remember, dad, and you really ought to speak
to me as a woman--not as a child. Why all this mystery?"

"Because--because it is imperative, Sonia," he replied in a tone quite
unusual. "I--I would tell you all, only--only you would think ill of
me. So I prefer that you, my daughter, should remain in ignorance, and
still love me--still----"

His words were interrupted by Felix, who opened the door, and,
advancing with silent tread, said--

"A gentleman wishes to speak with m'sieur on very urgent business. You
are unacquainted with him, he says. His name is Max Morel, and he must
see you at once. He is in the hall."

Poland's face went a trifle paler. Whom could the stranger be? Why did
he desire an interview at that hour?--for it was already eleven
o'clock.

"Sonia dear," he said quietly, turning to his daughter, "will you
leave me for a few moments? I must see what this gentleman wants."

The girl followed Felix out somewhat reluctantly, when, a few seconds
later, a short, middle-aged Frenchman, with pointed grey beard and
wearing gold pince-nez, was ushered in.

Philip Poland started and instantly went pale at sight of his visitor.

"I need no introduction, m'sieur. You recognize me, I see," remarked
the stranger, in French.

"Yes," was the other's reply. "You are Henri Guertin, chief inspector
of the sûreté of Paris. We have met before--once."

"And you are no doubt aware of the reason of my visit?"

"I can guess," replied the unhappy man. "You are here to arrest me--I
know. I----"

The renowned detective--one of the greatest criminal investigators in
Europe--glanced quickly at the closed door, and, dropping his voice,
said--

"I am here, not to arrest you, M'sieur Poland--but to afford you an
opportunity of escape."

"Of escape!" gasped the other, his drawn countenance blanched to the
lips.

"Yes, escape. Listen. My instructions are to afford you an easy
opportunity of--well, of escaping the ignominy of arrest, exposure,
trial, and penalty, by a very simple means--death by your own hand."

"Suicide!" echoed Poland, after a painful pause. "Ah! I quite
understand! The Government are not anxious that the scandal should be
made public, eh?" he cried bitterly.

"I have merely told you my instructions," was the detective's
response, as, with a quick, foreign gesture, he displayed on his left
hand a curious old engraved amethyst set in a ring--probably an
episcopal ring of ages long ago. "At midnight I have an appointment at
the cross-roads, half-a-mile away, with Inspector Watts of Scotland
Yard, who holds a warrant for your arrest and extradition to France.
If you are still alive when we call, then you must stand your
trial--that is all. Trial will mean exposure, and----"

"And my exposure will mean the downfall and ruin of those political
thieves now in power--eh?" cried Poland. "They are not at all anxious
that I should fall into the hands of the police."

"And you are equally anxious that the world--and more especially your
daughter--shall not know the truth," remarked the detective, speaking
in a meaning tone. "I have given you the alternative, and I shall now
leave. At midnight I shall return--officially--when I hope you will
have escaped by the loophole so generously allowed you by the
authorities."

"If I fled, would you follow?"

"Most certainly. It would be my duty. You cannot escape--only by
death. I regret, m'sieur, that I have been compelled to put the
alternative so bluntly, but you know full well the great issues at
stake in this affair. Therefore I need say nothing further, except to
bid you _au revoir_--till midnight."

Then the portly man bowed--bowed as politely as though he were in the
presence of a crowned head--and, turning upon his heel, left the room,
followed by his host, who personally opened the door for him as he
bade him good-night.

One hour's grace had been given Philip Poland. After that, the
blackness of death.

His blanched features were rigid as he stood staring straight before
him. His enemy had betrayed him. His defiance had, alas! cost him his
life.

He recollected Shuttleworth's slowly uttered words on the night
before, and his finger-nails clenched themselves into his palms. Then
he passed across the square, old-fashioned hall to the study, dim-lit,
save for the zone of light around the green-shaded reading-lamp; the
sombre room where the old grandfather clock ticked so solemnly in the
corner.

Sonia had returned to the drawing-room as he let his visitor out. He
could hear her playing, and singing in her sweet contralto a tuneful
French love-song, ignorant of the hideous crisis that had fallen,
ignorant of the awful disaster which had overwhelmed him.

Three-quarters of an hour had passed when, stealthily on tiptoe, the
girl crept into the room, and there found her father seated by the
fireplace, staring in blank silence.

The long old brass-faced clock in the shadow struck three times upon
its strident bell. Only fifteen minutes more, and then the police
would enter and charge him with that foul crime. Then the solution of
a remarkable mystery which had puzzled the whole world would be
complete.

He started, and, glancing around, realized that Sonia, with her soft
hand in his, was again at his side.

"Why, dad," cried the girl in alarm, "how pale you are! Whatever ails
you? What can I get you?"

"Nothing, child, nothing," was the desperate man's hoarse response.
"I'm--I'm quite well--only a little upset at some bad news I've had,
that's all. But come. Let me kiss you, dear. It's time you were in
bed."

And he drew her down until he could print a last fond caress upon her
white open brow.

"But, dad," exclaimed the girl anxiously, "I really can't leave you.
You're not well. You're not yourself to-night."

As she uttered those words, Felix entered the room, saying in an
agitated voice--

"May I speak with you alone, m'sieur?"

His master started violently, and, rising, went forth into the hall,
where the butler, his face scared and white, whispered--

"Something terrible has occurred, m'sieur! Davis, the groom, has just
found a gentleman lying dead in the drive outside. He's been murdered,
m'sieur!"

"Murdered!" gasped Poland breathlessly. "Who is he?"

"The gentleman who called upon you three-quarters of an hour ago. He's
lying dead--out yonder."

"Where's a lantern? Let me go and see!" cried Poland. And a few
moments later master and man were standing with the groom beside the
lifeless body of Henri Guertin, the great detective, the terror of
all French criminals. The white countenance, with its open, staring
eyes, bore a horrified expression, but the only wound that could be
distinguished was a deep cut across the palm of the right hand, a
clean cut, evidently inflicted by a keen-edged knife.

Davis, on his way in, had, he explained, stumbled across the body in
the darkness, ten minutes before.

Philip Poland had knelt, his hand upon the dead man's heart, when
suddenly all three were startled by the sound of footsteps upon the
gravel, and next moment two men loomed up into the uncertain light of
the lantern.

One was tall and middle-aged, in dark tweeds and a brown hat of soft
felt; the other, short and stout, wearing gold pince-nez.

A loud cry of dismay broke from Poland's fevered lips as his eyes fell
upon the latter.

"Hallo! What's this?" cried a sharp, imperious voice in French, the
voice of the man in pince-nez, as, next moment, he stood gazing down
upon the dead unknown, who, strangely enough, resembled him in
countenance, in dress--indeed, in every particular.

The startled men halted for a moment, speechless. The situation was
staggering.

Henri Guertin stood there alive, and as he bent over the prostrate
body an astounding truth became instantly revealed: the dead man had
been cleverly made-up to resemble the world-renowned police official.

The reason of this was an entire mystery, although one fact became
plain: he had, through posing as Guertin, been foully and swiftly
assassinated.

Who was he? Was he really the man who came there to suggest suicide in
preference to arrest, or had that strange suggestion been conveyed by
Guertin himself?

The point was next moment decided.

"You see, m'sieur," exclaimed Poland defiantly, turning to the great
detective, "I have preferred to take my trial--to allow the public the
satisfaction of a solution of the problem, rather than accept the
generous terms you offered me an hour ago."

"Terms I offered you!" cried the Frenchman. "What are you saying? I
was not here an hour ago. If you have had a visitor, it must have been
this impostor--this man who has lost his life because he has
impersonated me!"

Philip Poland, without replying, snatched at the detective's left hand
and examined it. There was no ring upon it.

Swiftly he bent beside the victim, and there, sure enough, upon the
dead white finger was revealed the curious ring he had noticed--an
oval amethyst engraved with a coat-of-arms surmounted by a cardinal's
hat--the ring worn by the man who had called upon him an hour before!



THE STORY OF OWEN BIDDULPH



CHAPTER ONE

BESIDE STILL WATERS


If I make too frequent use of the first person singular in these
pages, I crave forgiveness of the reader.

I have written down this strange story for two reasons: first, because
I venture to believe it to be one of the most remarkable sequences of
curious events that have ever occurred in a man's life; and secondly,
by so doing, I am able to prove conclusively before the world the
innocence of one sadly misjudged, and also to set at rest certain
scandalous tales which have arisen in consequence.

At risk of betraying certain confidences; at risk of placing myself in
the unenviable position of chronicler of my own misfortunes; at risk
even of defying those who have threatened my life should I dare speak
the truth, I have resolved to recount the whole amazing affair, just
as it occurred to me, and further, to reveal completely what has
hitherto been regarded as a mystery by readers of the daily
newspapers.

You already know my name--Owen Biddulph. As introduction, I suppose I
ought to add that, after coming down from Oxford, I pretended to read
for the Bar, just to please the dear old governor--Sir Alfred
Biddulph, Knight. At the age of twenty-five, owing to his unfortunate
death in the hunting-field, I found myself possessor of Carrington
Court, our fine Elizabethan place in North Devon, and town-house, 64a
Wilton Street, Belgrave Square, together with a comfortable income of
about nine thousand a year, mostly derived from sound industrial
enterprises.

My father, before his retirement, had been a Liverpool ship-owner,
and, like many others of his class, had received his knighthood on the
occasion of Queen Victoria's Jubilee. My mother had been dead long
since. I had but few relatives, and those mostly poor ones; therefore,
on succeeding to the property, I went down to Carrington just to
interview Browning, the butler, and the other servants, all of them
old and faithful retainers; and then, having given up all thought of a
legal career, I went abroad, in order to attain my long-desired
ambition to travel, and to "see the world."

Continental life attracted me, just as it attracts most young men.
Paris, with its glare and glitter, its superficial gaiety, its bright
boulevards, and its feminine beauty, is the candle to the moth of
youth. I revelled in Paris just as many a thousand other young men had
done before me. I knew French, Italian and German, and I was vain
enough to believe that I might have within me the making of a
cosmopolitan. So many young men believe that--and, alas! so many fail
on account of either indolence, or of narrow-mindedness. To be a
thorough-going cosmopolitan one must be imbued with the true spirit
of adventure, and must be a citizen of all cities, a countryman of all
countries. This I tried to be, and perhaps--in a manner--succeeded. At
any rate, I spent nearly three whole years travelling hither and
thither across the face of Europe, from Trondhjem to Constantinople,
and from Bordeaux to Petersburg.

Truly, if one has money, one can lead a very pleasant life, year in,
year out, at the various European health and pleasure resorts, without
even setting foot in our dear old England. I was young--and
enthusiastic. I spent the glorious golden autumn in Florence and in
Perugia, the Tuscan vintage in old Siena; December in Sicily; January
in Corsica; February and March at Nice, taking part in the Carnival
and Battles of Flowers; April in Venice; May at the Villa d'Este on
the Lake of Como; June and July at Aix; August, the month of the Lion,
among the chestnut-woods high up at Vallombrosa, and September at San
Sebastian in Spain, that pretty town of sea-bathing and of gambling.
Next year I spent the winter in Russia, the guest of a prince who
lived near Moscow; the early spring at the Hermitage at Monte Carlo;
May at the Meurice in Paris; the summer in various parts of
Switzerland, and most of the autumn in the high Tatra, the foot-hills
of the Carpathians.

And so, with my faithful Italian valet, Lorenzo, a dark-haired, smart
man of thirty, who had been six years in my service, and who had, on
so many occasions, proved himself entirely trustworthy, I passed away
the seasons as they came and went, always living in the best hotels,
and making a good many passing acquaintances. Life was, indeed, a
perfect phantasmagoria.

Now there is a certain section of English society who, being for some
reason or another beyond the pale at home, make their happy
hunting-ground in the foreign hotel. Men and women, consumptive sons
and scraggy daughters, they generally live in the cheapest rooms _en
pension_, and are ever ready to scrape up acquaintance with anybody of
good appearance and of either sex, as long as they are possessed of
money. Every one who has lived much on the Continent knows them--and,
be it said, gives them a wide berth.

I was not long before I experienced many queer acquaintanceships in
hotels, some amusing, some the reverse. At Verona a man, an Englishman
named Davis, who had been at my college in Oxford, borrowed fifty
pounds of me, but disappeared from the hotel next morning before I
came down; while, among other similar incidents, a dear,
quiet-mannered old widow--a Russian, who spoke English--induced me at
Ostend to assist her to pay her hotel bill of one thousand six hundred
francs, giving me a cheque upon her bank in Petersburg, a cheque
which, in due course, was returned to me marked "no account."

Still, I enjoyed myself. The carelessness of life suited me, for I
managed to obtain sunshine the whole year round, and to have a good
deal of fun for my money.

I had a fine sixty horse-power motor-car, and usually travelled from
place to place on it, my friend Jack Marlowe, who had been at Oxford
with me, and whose father's estates marched with mine on the edge of
Dartmoor, frequently coming out to spend a week or two with me on the
roads. He was studying for the diplomatic service, but made many
excuses for holidays, which he invariably spent at my side. And we had
a merry time together, I can assure you.

For nearly three years I had led this life of erratic wandering,
returning to London only for a week or so in June, to see my lawyers
and put in an appearance for a few days at Carrington to interview old
Browning. And I must confess I found the old place deadly dull and
lonely.

Boodles, to which I belonged, just as my father had belonged, I found
full of pompous bores and old fogeys; and though at White's there was
a little more life and movement now they had built a new roof, yet I
preferred the merry recklessness of Monte Carlo, or the gaiety of the
white-and-gold casinos at Nice or Cannes.

Thus nearly three years went by, careless years of luxury and
idleness, years of living _à la carte_ at restaurants of the first
order, from the Reserve at Beaulieu to the Hermitage at Moscow, from
Armenonville in the Bois to Salvini's in Milan--years of the education
of an epicure.

The first incident of this strange history, however, occurred while I
was spending the early spring at Gardone. Possibly you, as an English
reader, have never heard of the place. If, however, you were
Austrian, you would know it as one of the most popular resorts on the
beautiful mountain-fringed Lake of Garda, that deep blue lake, half in
Italian territory and half in Austrian, with the quaint little town of
Desenzano at the Italian end, and Riva, with its square old
church-tower and big white hotels, at the extreme north.

Of all the spring resorts on the Italian lakes, Gardone appeals to the
visitor as one of the quietest and most picturesque. The Grand Hotel,
with its long terrace at the lake-side, is, during February and March,
filled with a gay crowd who spend most of their time in climbing the
steep mountain-sides towards the jealously guarded frontier, or taking
motor-boat excursions up and down the picturesque lake.

From the balcony of my room spread a panorama as beautiful as any in
Europe; more charming, indeed, than at Lugano or Bellagio, or other of
the many lake-side resorts, for here along the sheltered banks grew
all the luxuriant vegetation of the Riviera--the camellias, magnolias,
aloes and palms.

I had been there ten days or so when, one evening at dinner in the
long restaurant which overlooked the lake, there came to the small
table opposite mine a tall, fair-haired girl with great blue eyes,
dressed elegantly but quietly in black chiffon, with a band of pale
pink velvet twisted in her hair.

She glanced at me quickly as she drew aside her skirt and took her
seat opposite her companion, a rather stout, dark, bald-headed man,
red-faced and well-dressed, whose air was distinctly paternal as he
bent and handed the menu across to her.

The man turned and glanced sharply around. By his well-cut
dinner-coat, the way his dress-shirt fitted, and his refinement of
manner, I at once put him down as a gentleman, and her father.

I instantly decided, on account of their smartness of dress, that they
were not English. Indeed, the man addressed her in French, to which
she responded. Her coiffure was in the latest mode of Paris, her gown
showed unmistakably the hand of the French dressmaker, while her
elegance was essentially that of the Parisienne. There is always a
something--something indescribable--about the Frenchwoman which is
marked and distinctive, and which the English-bred woman can never
actually imitate.

Not that I like Frenchwomen. Far from it. They are too vain and
shallow, too fond of gaiety and flattery to suit my taste. No; among
all the many women I have met I have never found any to compare with
those of my own people.

I don't know why I watched the new-comers so intently. Perhaps it was
on account of the deliberate and careful manner in which the man
selected his dinner, his instructions to the _maître d'hotel_ as to
the manner the entrée was to be made, and the infinite pains he took
over the exact vintage he required. He spoke in French, fluent and
exact, and his manner was entirely that of the epicure.

Or was it because of that girl?--the girl with eyes of that deep,
fathomless blue, the wonderful blue of the lake as it lay in the
sunlight--the lake that was nearly a mile in depth. In her face I
detected a strange, almost wistful look, an expression which showed
that her thoughts were far away from the laughter and chatter of that
gay restaurant. She looked at me without seeing me; she spoke to her
father without knowing what she replied. There was, in those wonderful
eyes, a strange, far-off look, and it was that which, more than
anything else, attracted my attention and caused me to notice the
pair.

Her fair, sweet countenance was perfect in its contour, her cheeks
innocent of the Parisienne's usual aids to beauty, her lips red and
well moulded, while two tiny dimples gave a piquancy to a face which
was far more beautiful than any I had met in all my wanderings.

Again she raised her eyes from the table and gazed across the flowers
at me fixedly, with just a sudden inquisitiveness shown by her
slightly knit brows. Then, suddenly starting, as though realizing she
was looking at a stranger, she dropped her eyes again, and replied to
some question her father had addressed to her.

Her dead black gown was cut just discreetly _décolleté_, which well
became a girl not yet twenty, while at her throat, suspended by a very
thin gold chain, was a single stone, a splendid ruby of enormous size,
and of evident value. The only other ornament she wore was a curious
antique bracelet in the form of a jewelled snake, the tail of which
was in its mouth--the ancient emblem of Eternity.

Why she possessed such an attraction for me I cannot tell, except that
she seemed totally unlike any other woman I had ever met before--a
face that was as perfect as any I had seen on the canvases of the
great painters, or in the marbles of the Louvre or the Vatican.

Again she raised her eyes to mine. Again I realized that the
expression was entirely unusual. Then she dropped them again, and in a
slow, inert way ate the crayfish soup which the waiter had placed
before her.

Others in the big, long room had noticed her beauty, for I saw people
whispering among themselves, while her father, leaning back in his
chair on placing down his spoon, was entirely conscious of the
sensation his daughter had evoked.

Throughout the meal I watched the pair carefully, trying to overhear
their conversation. It was, however, always in low, confidential
tones, and, strain my ears how I might, I could gather nothing. They
spoke in French, which I detected from the girl's monosyllables, but
beyond that I could understand nothing.

From the obsequious manner of the _maître d'hotel_ I knew that her
father was a person of importance. Yet the man who knows what to order
in a restaurant, and orders it with instructions, is certain to
receive marked attention. The epicure always commands the respect of
those who serve him. And surely this stranger was an epicure, for
after his dessert I heard him order with his coffee a _petit verre_ of
gold-water of Dantzig, a rare liqueur only known and appreciated by
the very select few who really know what is what--a bottle of which,
if you search Europe from end to end, you will not find in perhaps
twenty restaurants, and those only of the very first order.

The eyes of the fair-haired girl haunted me. Instinctively I knew that
she was no ordinary person. Her apathy and listlessness, her strangely
vacant look, combined with the wonderful beauty of her countenance,
held me fascinated.

Who was she? What mystery surrounded her? I felt, by some strange
intuition, that there was a mystery, and that that curious wistfulness
in her glance betrayed itself because, though accompanied by her
father, she was nevertheless in sore need of a friend.

When her father had drained his coffee they rose and passed into the
great lounge, with its many little tables set beneath the palms, where
a fine orchestra was playing Maillart's tuneful "Les Dragons de
Villars."

As they seated themselves many among that well-dressed, gay crowd of
winter idlers turned to look at them. I, however, seldom went into the
nightly concert; therefore I strolled along the wide corridor to the
hall-porter, and inquired the names of the fresh arrivals.

"Yes, monsieur," replied the big, dark-bearded German; "you mean, of
course, numbers one hundred and seventeen and one hundred and
forty-six--English, father and daughter, arrived by the five o'clock
boat from Riva with a great deal of baggage--here are the names," and
he showed me the slips signed by them on arrival. "They are the only
new-comers to-day."

There I saw, written on one in a man's bold hand, "Richard Pennington,
rentier, Salisbury, England," and on the other, "Sylvia Pennington."

"I thought they were French," I remarked.

"So did I, monsieur; they speak French so well. I was surprised when
they registered themselves as English."



CHAPTER TWO

TOLD IN THE NIGHT


Sylvia Pennington! The face, the name, those wistful, appealing eyes
haunted me in my dreams that night.

Why? Even now I am at a loss to tell, unless--well, unless I had
become fascinated by that strange, mysterious, indescribable
expression; fascinated, perhaps, by her marvellous beauty, unequalled
in all my experience.

Next morning, while my man Lorenzo was waiting for me, I told him to
make discreet inquiry regarding the pair when in the steward's room,
where he ate his meals. Soon after noon he came to me, saying he had
discovered that the young lady had been heard by the night-porter
weeping alone in her room for hours, and that, as soon as it was dawn,
she had gone out for a long walk alone along the lake-side. It was
apparent that she and her father were not on the very best of terms.

"The servants believe they are French, sir," my man added; "but it
seems that they tell people they are English. The man speaks English
like an Englishman. I heard him, half-an-hour ago, asking the
hall-porter about a telegram."

"Well, Lorenzo," I said, "just keep your eyes and ears open. I want to
learn all I can about Mr. Pennington and his daughter. She hasn't a
maid, I suppose?"

"Not with her, sir," he replied. "If she had, I'd soon get to know all
about them."

I was well aware of that, for Lorenzo Merli, like all Italians, was a
great gossip, and quite a lady-killer in the servants' hall. He was a
dark-haired, good-looking young man whose character was excellent, and
who had served me most faithfully. His father was farm-bailiff to an
Italian marquis I knew, and with whom I had stayed near Parma, while
before entering my service he had been valet to the young Marchese di
Viterbo, one of the beaux of Roman society.

When I reposed a confidence in Lorenzo I knew he would never betray
it. And I knew that, now I had expressed an ardent desire for
information regarding the man Pennington and his daughter, he would
strain every effort to learn what I wanted to know.

The pair sat at their usual table at luncheon. She was in a neat gown
of navy blue serge, and wore a pretty cream hat which suited her
admirably. Her taste in dress was certainly wonderful for an
Englishwoman. Yet the pair always spoke French together, and presented
no single characteristic of the British whatsoever.

Because of his epicurean tastes, the stout, bald-headed man received
the greatest attention from the waiters; but those splendid eyes of
his daughter betrayed no evidence of either tears or sleeplessness.
They were the same, wistful yet wonderful, with just that slightest
trace of sadness which had filled me with curiosity.

After luncheon he strolled along the broad palm-lined terrace in the
sunshine beside the water's edge, while she lolled in one of the long
cane chairs. Yet, as I watched, I saw that she was not enjoying the
warm winter sunshine or the magnificent view of snow-capped mountains
rising on the far horizon.

Presently she rose and walked beside her father, who spoke to her
rapidly and earnestly, but she only replied in monosyllables. It
seemed that all his efforts to arouse her interest utterly failed.

I was lounging upon the low wall of the terrace, pretending to watch
the arrival of the little black-and-white paddle-steamer on its way to
Riva, when, as they passed me, Pennington halted to light a cigar.

Suddenly he glanced up at me with a strangely suspicious look. His
dark eyes were furtive and searching, as though he had detected and
resented my undue interest in his daughter.

Therefore I strolled down to the landing-stage, and, going on board
the steamer, spent the afternoon travelling up to Riva, the pretty
little town with the tiny harbour at the Austrian end of the lake. The
afternoon was lovely, and the panorama of mountain mirrored in the
water, with picturesque villages and hamlets nestling at the water's
edge, was inexpressibly grand. The deep azure of the unruffled water
stood out in contrast to the dazzling snow above, and as the steamer,
hugging the shore, rounded one rocky point after another, the scene
was certainly, as the Italian contadino puts it, "a bit of Paradise
fallen from heaven upon earth."

But, to you who know the north Italian lakes, why need I describe it?

Suffice it to say that I took tea in the big hall of the Lido Palace
Hotel at Riva, and then, boarding the steamer again, returned to
Gardone just in time to dress for dinner.

I think that Pennington had forbidden his daughter to look at me, for
never once during dinner the next evening, as far as I could detect,
did she raise her eyes to mine. When not eating, she sat, a pretty
figure in cream chiffon, with her elbows upon the table, her chin upon
her clasped hands, talking to her father in that low, confidential
tone. Were they talking secrets?

Just before they rose I heard him say in English--

"I'm going out for an hour--just for a stroll. I may be longer. If I'm
not back all night, don't be anxious. I may be detained."

"Where are you going?" she asked quickly.

"That is my affair," was his abrupt reply. Her face assumed a strange
expression. Then she passed along the room, he following.

As soon as they had gone my mind was made up. I scented mystery. I
ascended in the lift to my room, got my coat, and, going outside into
the ill-lit road beyond the zone of the electric lights in front of
the hotel, I waited.

The man was not long in coming. He wore a golf-cap and a thick
overcoat, and carried a stout stick. On the steps of the hotel he
paused, lit his cigar, and then set off to the left, down the
principal street--the highroad which led to the clean little town of
Salo and the southern end of the lake.

I lounged along after him at a respectable distance, all curiosity at
the reason why, in that rural retreat, he intended to be absent all
night.

He went along at a swinging pace, passing around the lake-front of the
town which almost adjoins Gardone, and then began to ascend the steep
hill beyond. Upon the still night air I could scent the aroma of his
cigar. He was now on his way out into a wild and rather desolate
country, high above the lake. But after walking about a mile he came
to a point where the roads branched, one to Verona, the other to
Brescia.

There he halted, and, seating himself upon a big stone at the wayside,
smoked in patience, and waited. I advanced as near as I could without
risk of detection, and watched.

He struck a match in order to look at his watch. Then he rose and
listened intently. The night was dark and silent, with heavy clouds
hanging about the mountains, threatening rain.

I suppose he had waited fully another quarter of an hour, when
suddenly, far away over the brow of the hill in the direction of
Brescia, I saw a peculiar light in the sky. At first I was puzzled,
but as it gradually grew larger and whiter I knew that it came from
the head-lights of an approaching motor-car. Next moment the hum of
the engine fell on my ears, and suddenly the whole roadway became
illuminated, so suddenly, indeed, that I had only just time to crouch
down in order to avoid detection.

Pennington shouted to the driver, and he instantly pulled up. Then two
men in thick overcoats descended, and welcomed him warmly in English.

"Come along, old man!" I heard one of them cry. "Come inside. We must
be off again, for we haven't a moment to spare. How's the girl?"

Then they entered the car, which was quickly turned, and a few moments
later disappeared swiftly along the road it had come.

I stood, full of wonder, watching the white light fade away.

Who were Pennington's friends, that he should meet them in so secret a
manner?

"How's the girl?" Had that man referred to Sylvia? There was mystery
somewhere. I felt certain of it.

Down the hill I retraced my steps, on through the little town, now
wrapped in slumber, and back to the Grand Hotel, where nearly every
one had already retired to bed. In a corner of the big lounge,
however, Pennington's daughter was seated alone, reading a Tauchnitz
novel.

I felt in no humour to turn in just then, for I was rather used to
late hours; therefore I passed through the lounge and out upon the
terrace, in order to smoke and think. The clouds were lifting, and the
moon was struggling through, casting an uncertain light across the
broad dark waters.

I had thrown myself into a wicker chair near the end of the terrace,
and, with a cigarette, was pondering deeply, when, of a sudden, I saw
a female figure, wrapped in a pale blue shawl, coming in my direction.

I recognized the cream skirt and the shawl. It was Sylvia! Ah! how
inexpressibly charming and dainty she looked!

When she had passed, I rose and, meeting her face to face, raised my
hat and spoke to her.

She started slightly and halted. What words I uttered I hardly knew,
but a few moments later I found myself strolling at her side, chatting
merrily in English. Her chiffons exuded the delicate scent of Rose
d'Orsay, that sweet perfume which is the hall-mark of the modern
well-dressed woman.

And she was undoubtedly English, after all!

"Oh no," she declared in a low, musical voice, in response to a fear I
had expressed, "I am not at all cold. This place is so charming, and
so warm, to where my father and I have recently been--at Uleaborg, in
Finland."

"At Uleaborg!" I echoed. "Why, that is away--out of the world--at the
northern end of the Gulf of Bothnia!"

"Yes," she declared, with a light laugh. "It is so windy and cold, and
oh! so wretchedly dull."

"I should rather think so!" I cried. "Why, it is almost within the
Arctic Circle. Why did you go up there--so far north--in winter?"

"Ah!" she sighed, "we are always travelling. My father is the modern
Wandering Jew, I think. Our movements are always sudden, and our
journeys always long ones--from one end of Europe to the other very
often."

"You seem tired of it!" I remarked.

"Tired!" she gasped, her voice changing. "Ah! if you only knew how I
long for peace, for rest--for home!" and she sighed.

"Where is your home?"

"Anywhere, now-a-days," was her rather despondent reply. "We are
wanderers. We lived in England once--but, alas! that is now all of the
past. My father is compelled to travel, and I must, of necessity, go
with him. I am afraid," she added quickly, "that I bore you with this
chronicle of my own troubles. I really ought not to say this--to you,
a stranger," she said, with a low, nervous little laugh.

"Though I may be a stranger, yet, surely, I may become your friend," I
remarked, looking into her beautiful face, half concealed by the blue
wrap.

For a moment she hesitated; then, halting in the gravelled path and
looking at me, she replied very seriously--

"No; please do not speak of that again."

"Why not?"

"Well--only because you must not become my friend."

"You are lonely," I blurted forth. "I have watched you, and I have
seen that you are in sore need of a friend. Do you deny that?"

"No," she faltered. "I--I--yes, what you say is, alas! correct. How
can I deny it? I have no friend; I am alone."

"Then allow me to be one. Put to me whatever test you will," I
exclaimed, "and I hope I may bear it satisfactorily. I, too, am a
lonely man--a wanderer. I, too, am in need of a friend in whom I can
confide, whose guidance I can ask. Surely there is no friend better
for a lonely man than a good woman?"

"Ah, no," she cried, suddenly covering her face with both her hands.
"You don't know--you are ignorant. Why do you say this?"

"Why? Shall I tell you why?" I asked, gallantly bending to her in deep
earnestness. "Because I have watched you--because I know you are very
unhappy!"

She held her breath. By the faint ray of the distant electric light I
saw her face had become changed. She betrayed her emotions and her
nervousness by the quick twitching of her fingers and her lips.

"No," she said at last very decisively; "you must abandon all thought
of friendship with me. It is impossible--quite impossible!"

"Would my friendship be so repugnant to you, then?" I asked quickly.

"No, no, not that," she cried, laying her trembling fingers upon my
coat-sleeve. "You--you don't understand--you cannot dream of my
horrible position--of the imminent peril of yours."

"Peril! What do you mean?" I asked, very much puzzled.

"You are in grave danger. Be careful of yourself," she said anxiously.
"You should always carry some weapon with you, because----" and she
broke off short, without concluding her sentence.

"Because--why?"

"Well, because an accident might happen to you--an accident planned by
those who are your enemies."

"I really don't understand you," I said. "Do you mean to imply that
there is some conspiracy afoot against me?"

"I warn you in all seriousness," she said. "I--well, the fact is, I
came out here--I followed you out--in order to tell you this in
secret. Leave here, I beg of you; leave early to-morrow morning, and
do not allow the hotel people to know your new address. Go
somewhere--far away--and live in secret under an assumed name. Let
Owen Biddulph disappear as though the earth had swallowed him up."

"Then you are aware of my name!" I exclaimed.

"Certainly," she replied. "But do--I beg of you for your own
sake--heed my warning! Ah! it is cruel and horrible that I--of all
women--have to tell you this!"

"I always carry a revolver," I replied, "and I have long ago learned
to shoot straight."

"Be guarded always against a secret and insidious attack," she urged.
"I must go in--now that I have told you the truth."

"And do you, then, refuse to become my friend, Miss Pennington?" I
asked very earnestly. "Surely you are my friend already, because you
have told me this!"

"Yes," she answered, adding, "Ah! you do not know the real facts! You
would not ask this if you were aware of the bitter, ghastly truth. You
would not ask my friendship--nay, you would hate and curse me
instead!"

"But why?" I asked, amazed at her words. "You speak in enigmas."

She was silent again. Then her nervous fingers once more gripped my
arm, as, looking into my face, her eyes shining with a weird, unusual
light, she replied in quick, breathless sentences--

"Because--because friendship between us must never, never be; it would
be fatal to you, just as it would be fatal to me! Death--yes,
death--will come to me quickly and swiftly--perhaps to-night, perhaps
to-morrow, perhaps in a week's time. For it, I am quite prepared. All
is lost--lost to me for ever! Only have a care of yourself, I beseech
of you! Heed what I say. Escape the cruel fate which your enemies have
marked out for you--escape while there is yet time, and--and," she
faltered in a low, hoarse voice, full of emotion, "some day in the
future, perhaps, you will give a passing thought to the memory of a
woman who revealed to you the truth--who saved you from an untimely
end--the unhappy woman without a friend!"

"But I will be your friend!" I repeated.

"No. That can never be--_never_!" and she shuddered. "I dare not risk
it. Reflect--and escape--get away in secret, and take care that you
are not followed. Remember, however, we can never be friends. Such a
course would be fatal--yes, alas! _fatal_!"

Instinctively she put out her tiny white hand in frank farewell. Then,
when I had held it for a second in my own, she turned and, drawing her
shawl about her, hurried back to the big hotel.

Utterly dumbfounded, I stood for a few seconds dazed and wondering,
the sweet odour of Rose d'Orsay filling my nostrils. What did she
know?

Then suddenly I held my breath, for there I saw for the first time,
standing back in the shadow of the trees, straight before me,
motionless as a statue, the tall, dark figure of a man who had
evidently watched us the whole time, and who had, no doubt, overheard
all our conversation!



CHAPTER THREE

THE CLERGYMAN FROM HAMPSHIRE


What was the meaning of it all? Why had that tall, mysterious stranger
watched so intently? I looked across at him, but he did not budge,
even though detected.

In a flash, all the strange warnings of Sylvia Pennington crowded upon
my mind.

I stood facing the man as he lurked there in the shadow, determined
that he should reveal his face. Those curious words of the mysterious
girl had placed me upon my mettle. Who were the unknown enemies of
mine who were conspiring against me?

Should I take her advice and leave Gardone, or should I remain on my
guard, and hand them over to the police at first sign of attack?

The silent watcher did not move. He stood back there in the darkness,
motionless as a statue, while I remained full in the light of the
moon, which had now come forth, causing the lake and mountains to look
almost fairy-like.

In order to impress upon him the fact that I was in no hurry, I lit a
cigarette, and seated myself upon the low wall of the terrace, softly
whistling an air of the café chantant. The night was now glorious,
the mountain crests showing white in the moonlight.

Who was this man, I wondered? I regretted that we had not discovered
his presence before Sylvia had left. She would, no doubt, have
recognized him, and told me the reason of his watchfulness.

At last, I suppose, I must have tired him out, for suddenly he
hastened from his hiding-place, and, creeping beneath the shadow of
the hotel, succeeded in reaching the door through which Sylvia had
passed.

As he entered, the light from the lounge within gave me a swift glance
of his features. He was a thin, grey-faced, rather sad-looking man,
dressed in black, but, to my surprise, I noticed that his collar was
that of an English clergyman!

This struck me as most remarkable. Clergymen are not usually persons
to be feared.

I smiled to myself, for, after all, was it not quite possible that the
reverend gentleman had found himself within earshot of us, and had
been too embarrassed to show himself at once? What sinister motive
could such a man possess?

I looked around the great lounge, with its many tables and great
palms, but it was empty. He had passed through and ascended in the
lift to his room.

Inquiry of the night-porter revealed that the man's name was the
Reverend Edmund Shuttleworth, and that he came from Andover, in
England. He had arrived at six o'clock that evening, and was only
remaining the night, having expressed his intention of going on to
Riva on the morrow.

So, laughing at my fears--fears which had been aroused by that strange
warning of Sylvia's--I ascended to my room.

I did not leave next morning, as my fair-faced little friend had
suggested, neither did Pennington return.

About eleven o'clock I strolled forth into the warm sunshine on the
terrace, and there, to my surprise, saw Sylvia sitting upon one of the
seats, with a cream sunshade over her head, a book in her lap, while
by her side lounged the mysterious watcher of the night before--the
English clergyman, Mr. Shuttleworth of Andover.

Neither noticed me. He was speaking to her slowly and earnestly, she
listening attentively to his words. I saw that she sighed deeply, her
fine eyes cast upon the ground.

It all seemed as though he were reproaching her with something, for
she was silent, in an attitude almost of penitence.

Now that I obtained a full view of the reverend gentleman's features
in full daylight they seemed less mysterious, less sinister than in
the half-light of midnight. He looked a grave, earnest, sober-living
man, with that slight affectation of the Church which one finds more
in the rural districts than in cities, for the black clerical straw
hat and the clerical drawl seem always to go together. It is strange
that the village curate is always more affected in his speech than the
popular preacher of the West End, and the country vicar's wife is even
more exclusive in her tea-and-tennis acquaintances than the wife of
the lord bishop himself.

For a few moments I watched unseen. I rather liked the appearance of
the Reverend Edmund Shuttleworth, whoever he might be. He had the look
of an honest, open, God-fearing man.

Yet why was he in such earnest consultation with the mysterious
Sylvia?

With his forefinger he was touching the palm of his left hand,
apparently to emphasize his words, while she looked pale, even
frightened. She was listening without comment, without protest, while
I stood watching them from behind. Many other visitors were idling
about the terrace, reading letters or newspapers, or chatting or
flirting--the usual morning occupations of a fashionable lake-side
hotel far removed from the strenuous turmoil of the business or social
worlds.

Suddenly she objected to some words which he uttered, objected
strongly, with rapid interruption and quick protest.

But he laid his hand quietly upon her arm, and seemed to convince her
of the truth or justice of his words.

Then, as she turned, she recognized me, and I raised my hat politely
in passing.

Shuttleworth's eyes met mine, and he stared at me. But I passed on, in
pretence that I had not recognized him as the watcher of the previous
night.

I idled about the terrace and the little landing-stage till noon, when
the steamer for Riva came up from Desenzano; and Shuttleworth, taking
leave of Sylvia, boarded the little craft with his two kit-bags, and
waved her farewell as the vessel drew away, making a wide wake upon
the glassy surface of the deep blue waters.

When he had gone, I crossed to her and spoke. She looked inexpressibly
charming in her white cotton gown and neat straw sailor hat with black
velvet band. There was nothing ostentatious about her dress, but it
was always well cut and fitted her to perfection. She possessed a
style and elegance all her own.

"Ah! Mr. Biddulph!" she exclaimed reproachfully. "Why have you not
heeded my words last night? Why have you not left? Go!--go, before it
is too late!" she urged, looking straight into my face with those
wonderful eyes of hers.

"But I don't understand you, Miss Pennington," I replied. "Why should
I leave here? What danger threatens me?"

"A grave one--a very grave one," she said in a low, hoarse whisper.
"If you value your life you should get away from this place."

"Who are these enemies of mine?" I demanded. "You surely should tell
me, so that I can take precautions against them."

"Your only precaution lies in flight," she said.

"But will you not tell me what is intended? If there is a conspiracy
against me, is it not your duty, as a friend, to reveal it?"

"Did I not tell you last night that I am not your friend--that our
friendship is forbidden?"

"I don't understand you," I said. "As far as I know, I haven't an
enemy in the world. Why should I fear the unknown?"

"Ah! will you not take heed of what I have told you?" she
cried in desperation. "Leave here. Return to England--hide
yourself--anywhere--for a time, until the danger passes."

"I have no fear of this mysterious danger, Miss Pennington," I said.
"If these secret enemies of mine attack me, then I am perfectly ready
and able to defend myself."

"But they will not attack openly. They will strike at a moment when
you least expect it--and strike with accuracy and deadly effect."

"Last night, after you had left me, I found a man standing in the
shadow watching us," I said. "He was the clergyman whom I saw sitting
with you just now. Who is he?"

"Mr. Shuttleworth--an old friend of mine in England. An intimate
friend of my father's. To him, I owe very much. I had no idea he was
here until an hour ago, when we met quite accidentally on the terrace.
I haven't seen him for a year. We once lived in his parish near
Andover, in Hampshire. He was about our only friend."

"Why did he spy upon us?"

"I had no idea that he did. It must have been only by chance," she
assured me. "From Edmund Shuttleworth you certainly have nothing to
fear. He and his wife are my best friends. She is staying up at Riva,
it seems, and he is on his way to join her."

"Your father is absent," I said abruptly.

"Yes," she replied, with slight hesitation. "He has gone away on
business. I don't expect he will be back till to-night."

"And how long do you remain here?"

"Who knows? Our movements are always so sudden and erratic. We may
leave to-night for the other end of Europe, or we may remain here for
weeks yet. Father is so uncertain always."

"But why are you so eager that I shall leave you?" I asked, as we
strolled together along the terrace. "You have admitted that you are
in need of a friend, and yet you will not allow me to approach you
with the open hand of friendship."

"Because--ah! have I not already explained the reason why--why I dare
not allow you to show undue friendship towards me?"

"Well, tell me frankly," I said, "who is this secret enemy of mine?"

She was silent. In that hesitation I suspected an intention to
deceive.

"Is it against your own father that you are warning me?" I exclaimed
in hesitation. "You fear him, evidently, and you urge me to leave here
and return to England. Why should I not remain here in defiance?"

"In some cases defiance is distinctly injudicious," she remarked. "It
is so in this. Your only safety is in escape. I can tell you no more."

"These words of yours, Miss Pennington, are remarkably strange," I
said. "Surely our position is most curious. You are my friend, and yet
you conceal the identity of my enemy."

She only shrugged her shoulders, without any reply falling from her
lips.

"Will you not take my advice and get back to England at once?" she
asked very seriously, as she turned to me a few minutes later. "I have
suggested this in your own interests."

"But why should I go in fear of this unknown enemy?" I asked. "What
harm have I done? Why should any one be my bitter enemy?"

"Ah, how do I know?" she cried in despair. "We all of us have enemies
where we least suspect them. Sometimes the very friend we trust most
implicitly reveals himself as our worst antagonist. Truly one should
always pause and ponder deeply before making a friend."

"You are perfectly right," I remarked. "A fierce enemy is always
better than a false friend. Yet I would dearly like to know what I
have done to merit antagonism. Where has your father gone?"

"To Brescia, I believe--to meet his friends."

"Who are they?"

"His business friends. I only know them very slightly; they are
interested in mining properties. They meet at intervals. The last time
he met them was in Stockholm a month ago."

This struck me as curious. Why should he meet his business friends so
clandestinely--why should they come at night in a car to cross-roads?

But I told her nothing of what I had witnessed. I decided to keep my
knowledge to myself.

"The boat leaves at two o'clock," she said, after a pause, her hand
upon her breast as though to stay the wild beating of her heart. "Will
you not take my advice and leave by that? Go to Milan, and then
straight on to England," she urged in deep earnestness, her big,
wide-open eyes fixed earnestly upon mine.

"No, Miss Pennington," I replied promptly; "the fact is, I do not feel
disposed to leave here just at present. I prefer to remain--and to
take the risk, whatever it may be."

"But why?" she cried, for we were standing at the end of the terrace,
and out of hearing.

"Because you are in need of a friend--because you have admitted that
you, too, are in peril. Therefore I have decided to remain near you."

"No," she cried breathlessly. "Ah! you do not know the great risk you
are running! You must go--do go, Mr. Biddulph--go, for--_for my
sake_!"

I shook my head.

"I have no fear of myself," I declared. "I am anxious on your behalf."

"Have no thought of me," she cried. "Leave, and return to England."

"And see you no more--eh?"

"If you will leave to-day, I--I will see you in England--perhaps."

"Perhaps!" I cried. "That is not a firm promise."

"Then, if you really wish," she replied in earnestness, "I will
promise. I'll promise anything. I'll promise to see you in
England--when the danger has passed, if--if disaster has not already
fallen upon me," she added in a hoarse whisper.

"But my place is here--near you," I declared. "To fly from danger
would be cowardly. I cannot leave you."

"No," she urged, her pale face hard and anxious. "Go, Mr. Biddulph; go
and save yourself. Then, if you so desire, we shall meet again in
secret--in England."

"And that is an actual promise?" I asked, holding forth my hand.

"Yes," she answered, taking it eagerly. "It is a real promise. Give me
your address, and very soon I shall be in London to resume our
acquaintanceship--but, remember, not our friendship. That must never
be--_never_!"



CHAPTER FOUR

THE PERIL BEYOND


My taxi pulled up before my own white-enamelled door in Wilton Street,
off Belgrave Square, and, alighting, I entered with my latch-key.

I had been home about ten days--back again once more in dear, dirty
old London, spending most of my time idling in White's or Boodle's;
for in May one meets everybody in St. James's Street, and men
foregather in the club smoking-room from the four ends of the earth.

The house in Wilton Street was a small bijou place which my father had
occupied as a _pied-à-terre_ in town, he being a widower. He had been
a man of artistic tastes, and the house, though small, was furnished
lightly and brightly in the modern style. At Carrington he always
declared there was enough of the heaviness of the antique. Here, in
the dulness of London, he preferred light decorations and modern art
in furnishing.

Through the rather narrow carpeted hall I passed into the study which
lay behind the dining-room, a small, cosy apartment--the acme of
comfort. I, as a bachelor, hated the big terra-cotta-and-white
drawing-room upstairs. When there, I made the study my own den.

I had an important letter to write, but scarcely had I seated myself
at the table when old Browning, grave, grey-faced and solemn, entered,
saying--

"A clergyman called to see you about three o'clock, sir. He asked if
you were at home. When I replied that you were at the club, he became
rather inquisitive concerning your affairs, and asked me quite a lot
of questions as to where you had been lately, and who you were. I was
rather annoyed, sir, and I'm afraid I may have spoken rudely. But as
he would leave no card, I felt justified in refusing to answer his
inquiries."

"Quite right, Browning," I replied. "But what kind of a man was he?
Describe him."

"Well, sir, he was rather tall, of middle age, thin-faced and drawn,
as though he had seen a lot of trouble. He spoke with a pronounced
drawl, and his clerical coat was somewhat shabby. I noticed, too, sir,
that he wore a black leather watch-guard."

That last sentence at once revealed my visitor's identity. It was the
Reverend Edmund Shuttleworth! But why had he returned so suddenly from
Riva? And why was he making secret inquiry concerning myself?

"I think I know the gentleman, Browning," I replied, while the
faithful old fellow stood, a quaint, stout figure in a rather
tight-fitting coat and grey trousers, his white-whiskered face full of
mystery. I fancy Browning viewed me with considerable suspicion. In
his eyes, "young Mr. Owen" had always been far too erratic. On many
occasions in my boyhood days he had expressed to my father his strong
disapproval of what he termed "Master Owen's carryings-on."

"If he should call again, tell him that I have a very great desire to
renew our acquaintance. I met him abroad," I said.

"Very well, sir," replied my man. "But I don't suppose he will call
again, sir. I was rude to him."

"Your rudeness was perfectly justifiable, Browning. Please refuse to
answer any questions concerning me."

"I know my duty, sir," was the old man's stiff reply, "and I hope I
shall always perform it."

And he retired, closing the door silently behind him.

With my elbows upon the table, I sat thinking deeply.

Had I not acted like a fool? Those strange words, and that curious
promise of Sylvia Pennington sounded ever in my ears. She had
succeeded in inducing me to return home by promising to meet me
clandestinely in England. Why clandestinely?

Before me every moment that I now lived arose that pale, beautiful
face--that exquisite countenance with the wonderful eyes--that face
which had held me in fascination, that woman who, indeed, held me now
for life or death.

In those ten days which had passed, the first days of my
home-coming after my long absence, I knew, by the blankness of our
separation--though I would not admit it to myself--that she was my
affinity. I was hers. She, the elegant little wanderer, possessed me,
body and soul. I felt for her a strong affection, and affection is the
half-and-half of love.

Why had her friend, that thin-faced country clergyman, called?
Evidently he was endeavouring to satisfy himself as to my _bona
fides_. And yet, for what reason? What had I to do with him? She had
told me that she owed very much to that man. Why, however, should he
interest himself in me?

I took down a big black volume from the shelf--_Crockford's
Clerical Directory_--and from it learned that Edmund Charles
Talbot Shuttleworth, M.A., was rector of the parish of
Middleton-cum-Bowbridge, near Andover, in the Bishopric of Winchester.
He had held his living for the past eight years, and its value was
£550 per annum. He had had a distinguished career at Cambridge, and
had been curate in half-a-dozen places in various parts of the
country.

I felt half inclined to run down to Middleton and call upon him. I
could make some excuse or other, for I felt that he might, perhaps,
give me some further information regarding the mysterious Pennington
and his daughter.

Yet, on further reflection, I hesitated, for I saw that by acting thus
I might incur Sylvia's displeasure.

During the three following days I remained much puzzled. I deeply
regretted that Browning had treated the country parson abruptly, and
wondered whether I could not make excuse to call by pretending to
express regret for the rudeness of my servant.

I was all eagerness to know something concerning this man Pennington,
and was prepared even to sink my own pride in order to learn it.

Jack Marlowe was away in Copenhagen, and would not return for a week.
In London I had many friends, but there were few who interested me,
for I was ever thinking of Sylvia--of her only and always.

At last, one morning I made up my mind, and, leaving Waterloo,
travelled down to Andover Junction, where I hired a trap, and, after
driving through the little old-fashioned town out upon the dusty
London Road for a couple of miles or so, I came to the long straggling
village of Middleton, at the further end of which stood the ancient
little church, and near it the comfortable old-world rectory.

Entering the gateway, I found myself in pretty, well-wooded and
well-kept grounds; the house itself, long, low, and covered with
trailing roses, was a typical English country rectory. Beyond that lay
a paddock, while in the distance the beautiful Harewood Forest showed
away upon the skyline.

Yes, Mr. Shuttleworth was at home, the neat maid told me, and I was
ushered into a long old-fashioned study, the French windows of which
opened out upon a well-rolled tennis-lawn.

The place smelt of tobacco-smoke. Upon the table lay a couple of
well-seasoned briars, and on the wall an escutcheon bearing its
owner's college arms. Crossed above the window was a pair of
rowing-sculls, and these, with a pair of fencing-foils in close
proximity, told mutely of long-past athletics. It was a quiet,
book-lined den, an ideal retreat for a studious man.

As my eyes travelled around the room, they suddenly fell upon a
photograph in a dark leather frame, the picture of a young girl of
seventeen or so, with her hair dressed low and secured by a big black
bow. I started at sight of it. It was the picture of Sylvia
Pennington!

I crossed to look at it more closely, but as I did so the door opened,
and I found myself face to face with the rector of Middleton.

He halted as he recognized me--halted for just a second in hesitation;
then, putting out his hand, he welcomed me, saying in his habitual
drawl--

"Mr. Biddulph, I believe?" and invited me to be seated.

"Ah!" I exclaimed, with a smile, "I see you recognize me, though we
were only passers-by on the Lake of Garda! I must apologize for this
intrusion, but, as a matter of fact, my servant Browning described a
gentleman who called upon me a few days ago, and I at once recognized
him to have been you. He was rather rude to you, I fear, and----"

"My dear fellow!" he interrupted, with a hearty, good-natured laugh.
"He only did his duty as your servant. He objected to my infernal
impertinence--and very rightly, too."

"It was surely no impertinence to call upon me!" I exclaimed.

"Well, it's all a question of one's definition of impertinence," he
said. "I made certain inquiries--rather searching inquiries regarding
you--that was all."

"Why?" I asked.

He moved uneasily in his padded writing-chair, then reached over and
placed a box of cigarettes before me. After we had both lit up, he
answered in a rather low, changed voice--

"Well, I wanted to satisfy myself as to who you were, Mr. Biddulph,"
he laughed. "Merely to gratify a natural curiosity."

"That's just it," I said. "Why should your curiosity have been aroused
concerning me? I do not think I have ever made a secret to any one
regarding my name or my position, or anything else."

"But you might have done, remember," replied the thin-faced rector,
looking at me calmly yet mysteriously with those straight grey eyes of
his.

"I don't follow you, Mr. Shuttleworth," I said, much puzzled.

"Probably not," was his response; "I had no intention to obtrude
myself upon you. I merely called at Wilton Street in order to learn
what I could, and I came away quite satisfied, even though your
butler spoke so sharply."

"But with what motive did you make your inquiries?" I demanded.

"Well, as a matter of fact, my motive was in your own interests, Mr.
Biddulph," he replied, as he thoughtfully contemplated the end of his
cigarette. "This may sound strange to you, but the truth, could I but
reveal it to you, would be found much stranger--a truth utterly
incredible."

"The truth of what?"

"The truth concerning a certain young lady in whom, I understand, you
have evinced an unusual interest," was his reply.

I could see that he was slightly embarrassed. I recollected how he had
silently watched us on that memorable night by the moonlit lake, and a
feeling of resentment arose within me.

"Yes," I said anxiously next moment, "I am here to learn the truth
concerning Miss Pennington. Tell me about her. She has explained to me
that you are her friend--and I see, yonder, you have her photograph."

"It is true," he said very slowly, in a low, earnest voice, "quite
true, Son--er, Sylvia--is my friend," and he coughed quickly to
conceal the slip in the name.

"Then tell me something about her, and her father. Who is he?" I
urged. "At her request I left Gardone suddenly, and came home to
England."

"At her request!" he echoed in surprise. "Why did she send you away
from her side?"

I hesitated. Should I reveal to him the truth?

"She declared that it was better for us to remain apart," I said.

"Yes," he sighed. "And she spoke the truth, Mr. Biddulph--the entire
truth, remember."

"Why? Do tell me what you know concerning the man Pennington."

"I regret that I am not permitted to do that."

"Why?"

For some moments he did not reply. He twisted his cigarette in his
thin, nervous fingers, his gaze being fixed upon the lawn outside. At
last, however, he turned to me, and in a low, rather strained tone
said slowly--

"The minister of religion sometimes learns strange family secrets,
but, as a servant of God, the confidences and confessions reposed in
him must always be treated as absolutely sacred. Therefore," he added,
"please do not ask me again to betray my trust."

His was, indeed, a stern rebuke. I saw that, in my eager enthusiasm, I
had expected him to reveal a forbidden truth. Therefore I stammered an
apology.

"No apology is needed," was his grave reply, his keen eyes fixed upon
me. "But I hope you will forgive me if I presume to give you, in your
own interests, a piece of advice."

"And what is that?"

"To keep yourself as far as possible from both Pennington and his
daughter," he responded slowly and distinctly, a strange expression
upon his clean-shaven face.

"But why do you tell me this?" I cried, still much mystified. "Have
you not told me that you are Sylvia's friend?"

"I have told you this because it is my duty to warn those in whose
path a pitfall is spread."

"And is a pitfall spread in mine?"

"Yes," replied the grave-faced, ascetic-looking rector, as he leaned
forward to emphasize his words. "Before you, my dear sir, there lies
an open grave. Behind it stands that girl yonder"--and he pointed with
his lean finger to the framed photograph--"and if you attempt to reach
her you must inevitably fall into the pit--that death-trap so
cunningly prepared. Do not, I beg of you, attempt to approach the
unattainable."

I saw that he was in dead earnest.

"But why?" I demanded in my despair, for assuredly the enigma was
increasing hourly. "Why are you not open and frank with me? I--I
confess I----"

"You love her, eh?" he asked, looking at me quickly as he interrupted
me. "Ah, yes," he sighed, as a dark shadow overspread his thin, pale
face, "I guessed as much--a fatal love. You are young and
enthusiastic, and her pretty face, her sweet voice and her soft eyes
have fascinated you. How I wish, Mr. Biddulph, that I could reveal to
you the ghastly, horrible truth. Though I am your friend--and hers,
yet I must, alas! remain silent! The inviolable seal of The
Confessional is upon my lips!"



CHAPTER FIVE

THE DARK HOUSE IN BAYSWATER


Edmund Shuttleworth, the thin-faced, clean-shaven Hampshire rector,
had spoken the truth. His manner and speech were that of an honest
man.

Within myself I could but admit it. Yet I loved Sylvia. Why, I cannot
tell. How can a man tell why he loves? First love is more than the
mere awakening of a passion: it is transition to another state of
being. When it is born the man is new-made.

Yet, as the spring days passed, I lived in suspicion and wonder, ever
mystified, ever apprehensive.

Each morning I looked eagerly for a letter from her, yet each morning
I was disappointed.

It seemed true, as Shuttleworth had said, that an open gulf lay
between us.

Where was she, I wondered? I dared not write to Gardone, as she had
begged me not to do so. She had left there, no doubt, for was she not
a constant wanderer? Was not her stout, bald-headed father the modern
incarnation of the Wandering Jew?

May lengthened into June, with its usual society functions and all the
wild gaiety of the London season. The Derby passed and Ascot came,
the Park was full every day, theatres and clubs were crowded, and the
hotels overflowed with Americans and country cousins. I had many
invitations, but accepted few. Somehow, my careless cosmopolitanism
had left me. I had become a changed man.

And if I were to believe the woman who had come so strangely and so
suddenly into my life, I was a marked man also.

Disturbing thoughts often arose within me in the silence of the night,
but, laughing at them, I crushed them down. What had I possibly to
fear? I had no enemy that I was aware of. The whole suggestion seemed
so utterly absurd and far-fetched.

Jack Marlowe came back from Denmark hale and hearty, and more than
once I was sorely tempted to explain to him the whole situation. Only
I feared he would jeer at me as a love-sick idiot.

What was the secret held by that grey-faced country parson? Whatever
it might be, it was no ordinary one. He had spoken of the seal of The
Confessional. What sin had Sylvia Pennington confessed to him?

Day after day, as I sat in my den at Wilton Street smoking moodily and
thinking, I tried vainly to imagine what cardinal sin she could have
committed. My sole thoughts were of her, and my all-consuming
eagerness was to meet her again.

On the night of the twentieth of June--I remember the date well
because the Gold Cup had been run that afternoon--I had come in from
supper at the Ritz about a quarter to one, and retired to bed. I
suppose I must have turned in about half-an-hour, when the telephone
at my bedside rang, and I answered.

"Hulloa!" asked a voice. "Is that you, Owen?"

"Yes," I replied.

"Jack speaking--Jack Marlowe," exclaimed the distant voice. "Is that
you, Owen? Your voice sounds different."

"So does yours, a bit," I said. "Voices often do on the 'phone. Where
are you?"

"I'm out in Bayswater--Althorp House, Porchester Terrace," my friend
replied. "I'm in a bit of a tight corner. Can you come here? I'm so
sorry to trouble you, old man. I wouldn't ask you to turn out at this
hour if it weren't imperative."

"Certainly I'll come," I said, my curiosity at once aroused. "But
what's up?"

"Oh, nothing very alarming," he laughed. "Nothing to worry over. I've
been playing cards, and lost a bit, that's all. Bring your
cheque-book; I want to pay up before I leave. You understand. I know
you'll help me, like the good pal you always are."

"Why, of course I will, old man," was my prompt reply.

"I've got to pay up my debts for the whole week--nearly a thousand.
Been infernally unlucky. Never had such vile luck. Have you got it in
the bank? I can pay you all right at the end of next week."

"Yes," I said, "I can let you have it."

"These people know you, and they'll take your cheque, they say."

"Right-ho!" I said; "I'll get a taxi and be up with you in
half-an-hour."

"You're a real good pal, Owen. Remember the address: Althorp House,
Porchester Terrace," cried my friend cheerily. "Get here as soon as
you can, as I want to get home. So-long."

And, after promising to hurry, I hung up the receiver again.

Dear old Jack always was a bit reckless. He had a good income allowed
him by his father, but was just a little too fond of games of chance.
He had been hard hit in February down at Monte Carlo, and I had lent
him a few hundreds to tide him over. Yet, by his remarks over the
'phone, I could only gather that he had fallen into the hands of
sharpers, who held him up until he paid--no uncommon thing in London.
Card-sharpers are generally blackmailers as well, and no doubt these
people were bleeding poor Jack to a very considerable tune.

I rose, dressed, and, placing my revolver in my hip pocket in case of
trouble, walked towards Victoria Station, where I found a belated
taxi.

Within half-an-hour I alighted before a large dark house about
half-way up Porchester Terrace, Bayswater, standing back from the
road, with small garden in front; a house with closely-shuttered
windows, the only light showing being that in the fanlight over the
door.

My approaching taxi was being watched for, I suppose, for as I crossed
the gravel the door fell back, and a smart, middle-aged man-servant
admitted me.

"I want to see Mr. Marlowe," I said.

"Are you Mr. Biddulph?" he inquired, eyeing me with some suspicion.

I replied in the affirmative, whereupon he invited me to step
upstairs, while I followed him up the wide, well-carpeted staircase
and along a corridor on the first floor into a small sitting-room at
the rear of the house.

"Mr. Marlowe will be here in a few moments, sir," he said; "he left a
message asking you to wait. He and Mr. Forbes have just gone across
the road to a friend's house. I'll send over and tell him you are
here, if you'll kindly take a seat."

The room was small, fairly well furnished, but old-fashioned, and lit
by an oil-lamp upon the table. The air was heavy with tobacco-smoke,
and near the window was a card-table whereat four players had been
seated. The cigar-ash bore testimony to recent occupation of the four
chairs, while two packs of cards had been flung down just as the men
had risen.

The window was hidden by long curtains of heavy moss-green plush,
while in one corner of the room, upon a black marble pedestal, stood a
beautiful sculptured statuette of a girl, her hands uplifted together
above her head in the act of diving. I examined the exquisite work of
art, and saw upon its brass plate the name of an eminent French
sculptor.

The carpet, of a peculiar shade of red which contrasted well with the
dead-white enamelled walls, was soft to the tread, so that my
footsteps fell noiselessly as I moved.

Beside the fireplace was a big inviting saddle-bag chair, into which I
presently sank, awaiting Jack.

Who were his friends, I wondered?

The house seemed silent as the grave. I listened for Jack's footsteps,
but could hear nothing.

I was hoping that the loss of nearly a thousand pounds would cure my
friend of his gambling propensities. Myself, I had never experienced a
desire to gamble. A sovereign or so on a race was the extent of my
adventures.

The table, the cards, the tantalus-stand and the empty glasses told
their own tale. I was sorry, truly sorry, that Jack should mix with
such people--professional gamblers, without a doubt.

Every man-about-town in London knows what a crowd of professional
players and blackmailers infest the big hotels, on the look-out for
pigeons to pluck. The American bars of London each have their little
circle of well-dressed sharks, and woe betide the victims who fall
into their unscrupulous hands. I had believed Jack Marlowe to be more
wary. He was essentially a man of the world, and had always laughed at
the idea that he could be "had" by sharpers, or induced to play with
strangers.

I think I must have waited for about a quarter of an hour. As I sat
there, I felt overcome by a curious drowsiness, due, no doubt, to the
strenuous day I had had, for I had driven down to Ascot in the car,
and had gone very tired to bed.

Suddenly, without a sound, the door opened, and a youngish,
dark-haired, clean-shaven man in evening dress entered swiftly,
accompanied by another man a few years older, tall and thin, whose
nose and pimply face was that of a person much dissipated. Both were
smoking cigars.

"You are Mr. Biddulph, I believe!" exclaimed the younger. "Marlowe
expects you. He's over the road, talking to the girl."

"What girl?"

"Oh, a little girl who lives over there," he said, with a mysterious
smile. "But have you brought the cheque?" he asked. "He told us that
you'd settle up with us."

"Yes," I said, "I have my cheque-book in my pocket."

"Then perhaps you'll write it?" he said, taking a pen-and-ink and
blotter from a side-table and placing it upon the card-table. "The
amount altogether is one thousand one hundred and ten pounds," he
remarked, consulting an envelope he took from his pocket.

"I shall give you a cheque for it when my friend comes," I said.

"Yes, but we don't want to be here all night, you know," laughed the
pimply-faced man. "You may as well draw it now, and hand it over to us
when he comes in."

"How long is he likely to be?"

"How can we tell? He's a bit gone on her."

"Who is she?"

"Oh! a little girl my friend Reckitt here knows," interrupted the
younger man. "Rather pretty. Reckitt is a fair judge of good looks.
Have a cigarette?" and the man offered me a cigarette, which, out of
common courtesy, I was bound to take from his gold case.

I sat back in my chair and lit up, and as I did so my ears caught the
faint sound of a receding motor-car.

"Aren't you going to draw the cheque?" asked the man with the pimply
face. "Marlowe said you would settle at once; Charles Reckitt is my
name. Make it out to me."

"And so I will, as soon as he arrives," I replied.

"Why not now? We'll give you a receipt."

"I don't know at what amount he acknowledges the debt," I pointed out.

"But we've told you, haven't we? One thousand one hundred and ten
pounds."

"That's according to your reckoning. He may add up differently, you
know," I said, with a doubtful smile.

"You mean that you doubt us, eh?" asked Reckitt a trifle angrily.

"Not in the least," I assured him, with a smile. "If the game is fair,
then the loss is fair also. A good sportsman like my friend never
objects to pay what he has lost."

"But you evidently object to pay for him, eh?" he sneered.

"I do not," I protested. "If it were double the amount I would pay it.
Only I first want to know what he actually owes."

"That he'll tell you when he returns. Yet I can't see why you should
object to make out the cheque now, and hand it to us on his arrival.
I'll prepare the receipt, at any rate. I, for one, want to get off to
bed."

And the speaker sat down in one of the chairs at the card-table, and
wrote out a receipt for the amount, signing it "Charles Reckitt"
across the stamp he stuck upon it.

Then presently he rose impatiently, and, crossing the room,
exclaimed--

"How long are we to be humbugged like this? I've got to get out to
Croydon--and it's late. Come on, Forbes. Let's go over and dig Marlowe
out, eh?"

So the pair left the room, promising to return with Jack in a few
minutes, and closed the door after them.

When they had gone, I sat for a moment reflecting. I did not like the
look of either of them. Their faces were distinctly sinister and their
manner overbearing. I felt that the sooner I left that silent house
the better.

So, crossing to the table, I drew out my cheque-book, and hastily
wrote an open cheque, payable to "Charles Reckitt," for one thousand
one hundred and ten pounds. I did so in order that I should have it
in readiness on Jack's return--in order that we might get away
quickly.

Whatever possessed my friend to mix with such people as those I could
not imagine.

A few moments later, I had already put the cheque back into my
breast-pocket, and was re-seated in the arm-chair, when of a sudden,
and apparently of its own accord, the chair gave way, the two arms
closing over my knees in such a manner that I was tightly held there.

It happened in a flash. So quickly did it collapse that, for a moment,
I was startled, for the chair having tipped back, I had lost my
balance, my head being lower than my legs.

And at that instant, struggling in such an undignified position and
unable to extricate myself, the chair having closed upon me, the door
suddenly opened, and the man Reckitt, with his companion Forbes,
re-entered the room.



CHAPTER SIX

A GHASTLY TRUTH


Ere I could recover myself or utter a word, the pair dashed towards
me, seized my hands deftly and secured them behind the chair.

"What do you mean by this, you infernal blackguards!" I cried angrily.
"Release me!"

They only grinned in triumph. I struggled to free my right hand, in
order to get at my revolver. But it was held far too securely.

I saw that I had been cleverly entrapped!

The man with the pimply face placed his hand within my breast pocket
and took therefrom its contents with such confidence that it appeared
certain I had been watched while writing the cheque. He selected it
from among my letters and papers, and, opening it, said in a tone of
satisfaction--

"That's all right--as far as it goes. But we must have another
thousand."

"You'll have nothing from me," I replied, sitting there powerless, yet
defiant. "I don't believe Marlowe has been here at all! It's only a
trap, and I've fallen into it!"

"You've paid your friend's debts," replied the man gruffly; "now
you'll pay your own."

"I owe you nothing, you infernal swindler!" I responded quickly. "This
is a pretty game you are playing--one which you've played before, it
seems! The police shall know of this. It will interest them."

"They won't know through you," laughed the fellow. "But we don't want
to discuss that matter. I'm just going to write out a cheque for one
thousand, and you'll sign it."

"I'll do nothing of the sort!" I declared firmly.

"Oh yes, you will," remarked the younger man. "You've got money, and
you can easily afford a thousand."

"I'll not give you one single penny," I declared. "And, further, I
shall stop that cheque you've stolen from me."

Reckitt had already seated himself, opened my cheque-book, and was
writing out a draft.

When he had finished it he crossed to me, with the book and pen in
hand, saying--

"Now you may as well just sign this at first, as at last."

"I shall do no such thing," was my answer. "You've entrapped me here,
but you are holding me at your peril. You can't frighten me into
giving you a thousand pounds, for I haven't it at the bank."

"Oh yes, you have," replied the man with the red face. "We've already
taken the precaution to find out. We don't make haphazard guesses, you
know. Now sign it, and at eleven o'clock to-morrow morning you shall
be released--after we have cashed your cheques."

"Where is Marlowe?" I inquired.

"With the girl, I suppose."

"What girl?"

"Well," exclaimed the other, "her photograph is in the next room;
perhaps you'd like to see it."

"It does not interest me," I replied.

But the fellow Forbes left the room for a moment and returned with a
fine panel photograph in his hand. He held it before my gaze. I
started in utter amazement.

It was the picture of Sylvia! The same that I had seen in
Shuttleworth's study.

"You know her--eh?" remarked Reckitt, with a grim smile.

"Yes," I gasped. "Where is she?"

"Across the road--with your friend Jack Marlowe."

"It's a lie! A confounded lie! I won't believe it," I cried. Yet at
that moment I realized the ghastly truth, that I had tumbled into the
hidden pitfall against which both Shuttleworth and Sylvia had warned
me.

Could it be possible, I asked myself, that Sylvia--my adored
Sylvia--had some connection with these blackguards--that she had been
aware of their secret intentions?

"Sign this cheque, and you shall see her if you wish," said the man
who had written out the draft. "She will remain with you here till
eleven to-morrow."

"Why should I give you a thousand pounds?" I demanded.

"Is not a thousand a small price to pay for the service we are
prepared to render you--to return to you your lost lady-love?" queried
the fellow.

I was dying with anxiety to see her, to speak with her, to hold her
hand. Had she not warned me against this cunningly-devised trap, yet
had I not foolishly fallen into it? They had followed me to England,
and run me to earth at home!

"And supposing that I gave you the money, how do I know that you would
keep faith with me?" I asked.

"We shall keep faith with you, never fear," Reckitt replied, his
sinister face broadening into a smile. "It is simply for you to pay
for your release; or we shall hold you here--until you submit. Just
your signature, and to-morrow at eleven you are a free man."

"And if I refuse, what then?" I asked.

"If you refuse--well, I fear that you will ever regret it, that's all.
I can only tell you that it is not wise to refuse. We are not in the
habit of being met with refusal--the punishment is too severe." The
man spoke calmly, leaning with his back against the table, the cheque
and pen still in his hand.

"And if I sign, you will bring Sylvia here? You will promise me
that--upon your word of honour?"

"Yes, we promise you," was the man's reply.

"I want to see Marlowe, if he is here."

"I tell you he's not here. He's across the way with her."

I believe, if I could have got to my revolver at that moment, I should
have shot the fellow dead. I bit my lip, and remained silent.

I now felt no doubt that this was the trap of which Sylvia had given
me warning on that moonlit terrace beside the Italian lake. By some
unaccountable means she knew what was intended against me. This clever
trapping of men was apparently a regular trade of theirs!

If I could but gain time I felt that I might outwit them. Yet, sitting
there like a trussed fowl, I must have cut a pretty sorry figure. How
many victims had, like myself, sat there and been "bled"?

"Come," exclaimed the red-faced adventurer impatiently, "we are losing
time. Are you going to sign the cheque, or not?"

"I shall not," was my firm response. "You already have stolen one
cheque of mine."

"And we shall cash it when your bank opens in the morning, my dear
sir," remarked Forbes airily.

"And make yourselves scarce afterwards, eh? But I've had a good look
at you, remember; I could identify you anywhere," I said.

"You won't have that chance, I'm afraid," declared Reckitt meaningly.
"You must think we're blunderers, if you contemplate that!" and he
grinned at his companion.

"Now," he added, turning again to me; "for the last time I ask you if
you will sign this cheque I have written."

"And for the last time I tell you that you are a pair of blackguards,
and that I will do nothing of the sort."

"Not even if we bring the girl here--to you?"

I hesitated, much puzzled by the strangeness of the attitude of the
pair. Their self-confidence was amazing.

"Sign it," he urged. "Sign it in your own interests--and in hers."

"Why in hers?"

"You will see, after you have appended your signature."

"When I have seen her I will sign," I replied at last; "but not
before. You seem to have regarded me as a pigeon to pluck. But you'll
find out I'm a hawk before you've done with me."

"I think not," smiled the cool-mannered Reckitt. "Even if you are a
hawk, you're caged. You must admit that!"

"I shall shout murder, and alarm the police," I threatened.

"Shout away, my dear fellow," replied my captor. "No sound can be
heard outside this room. Shriek! We shall like to hear you. You won't
have opportunity to do so very much longer."

"Why?"

"Because refusal will bring upon you a fate more terrible than you
have ever imagined," was the fellow's hard reply. "We are men of our
word, remember! It is not wise to trifle with us."

"And I am also a man of my word. You cannot obtain money from me by
threats."

"But we offer you a service in return--to bring Sylvia to you."

"Where is her father?" I demanded.

"You'd better ask her," replied Forbes, with a grin. "Sign this, and
see her. She is anxious--very anxious to meet you."

"How do you know that?"

"We know more than you think, Mr. Biddulph," was the sharper's reply.

His exterior was certainly that of a gentleman, in his well-cut dinner
jacket and a fine diamond stud in his shirt.

I could only think that the collapsible chair in which I sat was
worked by a lever from outside the room. There was a spy-hole
somewhere, at which they could watch the actions of their victims, and
take them unawares as I had been taken.

"And now," asked Reckitt, "have you fully reflected upon the serious
consequences of your refusal to sign this cheque?"

"I have," was my unwavering reply. "Do as you will, I refuse to be
blackmailed."

"Your refusal will cause disaster to yourself--and to her! You will
share the same fate--a horrible one. She tried to warn you, and you
refused to heed her. So you will both experience the same horror."

"What horror? I have no fear of you," I said.

"He refuses," Reckitt said, with a harsh laugh, addressing his
accomplice. "We will now let him see what is in store for him--how we
punish those who remain defiant. Bring in the table."

Forbes disappeared for a moment and then returned, bearing a small
round table upon which stood a silver cigar-box and a lighted candle.

The table he placed at my side, close to my elbow. Then Forbes took
something from a drawer, and ere I was aware of it he had slipped a
leathern collar over my head and strapped it to the back of the chair
so that in a few seconds I was unable to move my head from side to
side.

"What are you doing, you blackguards?" I cried in fierce anger. "You
shall pay for this, I warrant."

But they only laughed in triumph, for, held as I was, I was utterly
helpless in their unscrupulous hands and unable to lift a finger in
self-defence, my defiance must have struck them as ridiculous.

"Now," said Reckitt, standing near the small table, "you see this!"
and, leaning forward, he touched the cigar-box, the lid of which
opened with a spring.

Next second something shot quite close to my face, startling me.

I looked, and instantly became filled with an inexpressible horror,
for there, upon the table, lay a small, black, venomous snake. To its
tail was attached a fine green silken cord, and this was, in turn,
fastened to the candle. The wooden candle-stick was, I saw, screwed
down to the table. The cord entered the wax candle about two inches
lower than the flame.

I gave a cry of horror, whereat both men laughed heartily.

"Now," said Reckitt, "I promised you an unexpected surprise. There it
is! In half-an-hour the flame will reach the cord, and sever it. Then
the snake will strike. That half-hour will give you ample time for
reflection."

"You fiends!" I cried, struggling desperately to free myself. In doing
so I moved my head slightly, when the snake again darted at me like a
flash, only falling short about an inch from my cheek.

The reptile fell back, recoiled itself, and with head erect, its
cruel, beady eyes watching me intently, sat up ready to strike again.

The blood froze in my veins. I was horrified, held there only one
single inch from death.

"We wish you a very good night," laughed Forbes, as both he and his
companion walked towards the door. "You will have made a closer
acquaintance with the snake ere we cash your cheque in the morning."

"Yes," said Reckitt, turning upon me with a grin. "And Sylvia too will
share the same fate as yourself, for daring to warn you against us!"

"No!" I cried; "spare her, spare her!" I implored.

But the men had already passed out of the room, locking the door
securely after them.

I lay back silent, motionless, listening, not daring to move a muscle
because of that hideous reptile closely guarding me.

I suppose ten minutes must have passed--ten of the most awful minutes
of terror and disgust I have ever experienced in all my life--then a
sound broke the dead stillness of the night.

I heard a woman's loud, piercing scream--a scream of sudden horror.

Sylvia's voice! It seemed to emanate from the room beyond!

Again it was repeated. I heard her shriek distinctly--

"Ah! No, spare me! Not that--_not that_!"

Only a wall divided us, yet I was powerless, held there face to face
with a terrible and revolting death, unable to save her, unable to
raise my hand in self-defence.

She shrieked again, in an agony of terror.

I lay there breathless, petrified by horror.



CHAPTER SEVEN

THE FLAME OF THE CANDLE


I shuddered at the horrible fate to which those scoundrels had
abandoned me.

Again the cruel flat head of the snake darted forth viciously to
within a single inch of my left cheek. I tried to draw back, but to
move was impossible, held as I was by that leathern collar, made
expressly for securing the head immovable.

My eyes were fixed upon the steady candle-flame. It was burning lower
and lower each moment. I watched it in fascination. Each second I grew
nearer that terrible, revolting end.

What had happened to Sylvia? I strained my ears to catch any further
sound. But there was none. The house was now silent as the grave.

That pair of scoundrels had stolen my cheque, and in the morning,
after my death, would cash it and escape with the proceeds!

I glanced around that weird room. How many previous victims had sat in
that fatal chair and awaited death as I was waiting, I wondered? The
whole plot betrayed a devilish ingenuity and cunning. Its very
character showed that the conspirators were no ordinary
criminals--they were past-masters in crime.

The incidents of the night in London are too often incredible. A man
can meet with adventures in the metropolis as strange, as exciting and
as perilous as any in unknown lands. Here, surely, was one in point.

I remember experiencing a strange dizziness, a curious nausea, due,
perhaps, to the fact that my head lay lower than my body. My thoughts
became muddled. I regretted deeply that I had not signed the cheque
and saved Sylvia. Yet were they not absolute blackguards? Would they
have kept faith with me?

I was breathless in apprehension. What had happened to Sylvia?

By slow, imperceptible degrees the candle burned lower. The flame was
long and steady. Nearer and nearer it approached that thin green cord
which alone separated me from death.

Again the serpent hissed and darted forth, angry at being so near its
prey, and yet prevented from striking--angry that its tail was knotted
to the cord.

I saw it writhing and twisting upon the table, and noted its peculiar
markings of black and yellow. Its eyes were bright and searching. I
had read of the fascination which a snake's gaze exercises over its
prey, and now I experienced it--a fatal fascination. I could not keep
my eyes off the deadly reptile. It watched me intently, as though it
knew full well that ere long it must be victorious.

Victorious! What did that mean? A sharp, stinging pain, and then an
agonizing, painful death, my head swollen hideously to twice its
size, my body held there in that mechanical vice, suffering all the
tortures of the damned!

The mere contemplation of that awful fate held me transfixed by
horror.

Suddenly I heard Sylvia's shriek repeated. I shouted, but no words
came back to me in return. Was she suffering the same fearful agony of
mind as myself? Had those brutes carried out their threat? They knew
she had betrayed them, it seemed, and they had, therefore, taken their
bitter and cowardly revenge.

Where was Pennington, that he did not rescue her?

I cursed myself for being such an idiot. Yet I had no idea that such a
cunningly-devised trap could be prepared. I had never dreamed, when I
went forth to pull Jack out of a hole, that I was deliberately placing
my head in such a noose.

What did it all mean? Why had these men formed this plot against me?
What had I done to merit such deadly vengeance as this?--a torture of
the Middle Ages!

Vainly I tried to think. As far as I knew, I had never met either
Forbes or Reckitt before in all my life. They were complete strangers
to me. I remembered there had been something about the man-servant who
admitted me that seemed familiar, but what it was, I could not decide.
Perhaps I had seen him before somewhere in the course of my
wanderings, but where, I knew not.

I recollected that soon after I had entered there I had heard the
sound of a motor-car receding. My waiting taxi had evidently been
paid, and dismissed.

How would they dispose of my body, I lay wondering? There were many
ways of doing so, I reflected. They might burn it, or bury it, or pack
it in a trunk and consign it to some distant address. When one
remembers how many persons are every year reported to the London
police as missing, one can only believe that the difficulties in
getting rid of the corpse of a victim are not so great as is popularly
imagined.

Speak with any detective officer of the Metropolitan Police, and, if
he is frank, he will tell you that a good many people meet with foul
play each year in every quarter of London--they disappear and are
never again heard of. Sometimes their disappearance is reported in the
newspapers--a brief paragraph--but in the case of people of the middle
class only their immediate relatives know that they are missing.

Many a London house with deep basement and a flight of steps leading
to its front door could, if its walls had lips, tell a tragic and
terrible story.

For one assassination discovered, ten remain unknown or merely vaguely
suspected.

How many thousands of pounds had these men, Forbes and Reckitt,
secured, I wondered? And how many poor helpless victims had felt the
serpent's fang and breathed their last in that fatal chair I now
occupied?

A dog howled dismally somewhere at the back. The men had told me that
no sound could be heard beyond those walls, yet had I not heard
Sylvia's shrieks? If I had heard them, then she could also hear me!

I shouted her name--shouted as loud as I could. But my voice in that
small room somehow seemed dulled and drowned.

"Sylvia," I shouted, "I am here! I--Owen Biddulph! Where are you?"

But there was no response. That horrible snake rose erect, looking at
me with its never-wavering gaze. I saw the pointed tongue darting from
its mouth. There--before me--soon to be released, was Death in reptile
form--Death the most revolting and most terrible.

That silence appalled me. Sylvia had not replied! Was she already
dead--stricken down by the fatal fang?

I called again: "Sylvia! Sylvia!"

But there came no answer. I set my teeth, and struggled to free myself
until the veins in my forehead were knotted and my bonds cut into the
flesh. But, alas! I was held as in the tentacles of an octopus. Every
limb was gripped, so that already a numbness had overspread them,
while my senses were frozen with horror.

Suddenly the lamp failed and died out, and the room was plunged in
darkness, save for the zone of light shed by the unflickering flame of
the candle. And there lay the weird and horrible reptile coiled,
awaiting its release.

It seemed to watch the lessening candle, just as I myself watched it.

That sudden failure of the light caused me anxious reflections.

A moment later I heard the front door bang. That decided me. It was as
I had feared. The pair of scoundrels had departed and left me to my
fate.

The small marble clock upon the mantelshelf opposite struck three. I
counted the strokes. I had been in that room nearly an hour and a
half.

How did they know of Jack Marlowe and his penchant for cards? Surely
the trap had been well baited, and devised with marvellous cunning.
That cheque of mine would be cashed at my bank in the morning without
question. I should be dead--and they would be free.

For myself, I did not care so very much. My chief thought was of
Sylvia, and of the awful fate which had overtaken her because she had
dared to warn me--that fate of which she had spoken so strangely on
the night when we had talked on the hotel terrace at Gardone.

That moonlit scene--the whole of it--passed through my fevered,
unbalanced brain. I lived those moments of ecstasy over again. I felt
her soft hand in mine. I looked again into those wonderful, fathomless
eyes; I heard that sweet, musical voice; I listened to those solemn
words of warning. I believed myself to be once more beside the
mysterious girl who had come into my life so strangely--who had held
me in fascination for life or death.

The candle-flame, still straight and unflickering, seemed like a
pillar of fire, while beyond, lay a cavernous blackness. I thought I
heard a slight noise, as though my enemies were lurking there in the
shadow. Yet it was a mere chimera of my overwrought brain.

I recollected the strange bracelet of Sylvia's--the serpent with its
tail in its mouth--the ancient symbol of Eternity. And I soon would be
launched into Eternity by the poisonous fang of that flat-headed
little reptile.

Thoughts of Sylvia--that strange, sweet-faced girl of my
dreams--filled my senses. Those shrieks resounded in my ears. She had
cried for help, and yet I was powerless to rescue her from the hands
of that pair of hell-fiends.

I struggled, and succeeded in moving slightly.

But the snake, maddened by its bond, struck again at me viciously, his
darting tongue almost touching my shrinking flesh.

A blood-red mist rose suddenly before my eyes. My head swam. My
overwrought brain, paralyzed by horror, became unbalanced. I felt a
tightness in the throat. In my ears once again I heard the hiss of the
loathsome reptile, a venomous, threatening hiss, as its dark shadow
darted before me, struggling to strike my cheek.

Through the red mist I saw that the candle burned so low that the edge
of the wax was on a level with the green silk cord, that slender
thread which withheld Death from me.

I looked again. A groan of agony escaped me.

Again the angry hiss of the serpent sounded. Again its dark form shot
between my eyes and the unflickering flame of the candle.

That flame was slowly but surely consuming the cord!

I shrieked for help in my abject despair.

The mist grew more red, more impenetrable. A lump arose in my throat,
preventing me from breathing.

And then I lapsed into the blackness of unconsciousness.



CHAPTER EIGHT

PRESENTS ANOTHER PROBLEM


When, by slow degrees, I became aware of things about me, I found
myself in total darkness, save that, straight before my eyes, some few
feet away, showed a thin, narrow line of light.

Next second, a flood of the most horrible recollections surged through
my brain. I dare not move a muscle, fearing that the reptile was
lurking near my face. My senses seemed dulled and dazed, yet my
recollections were quite clear. Every detail of those moments of awful
terror stood out clear and fearsome in my mind.

Slowly, so slow, indeed, as to be imperceptible, I managed to turn my
head aside, and glance at the small table. But it was in darkness. I
could distinguish nothing. To my surprise, I discovered, however, that
though I still remained in that position, my legs higher than my head,
yet the arms of the chair had unclasped, and my bonds had been freed!

What had happened?

In fear of bringing the watchful reptile upon me, I moved slightly.
But there was no movement from that table in the darkness.

I waited, dreading lest I should be suddenly attacked. Then,
summoning courage, I suddenly sprang out of the chair on the side
opposite the table, and dashed across to where showed that narrow
streak of light.

I saw that it came through the lower crevice of the heavy wooden
shutters. With frantic haste my hands slid over them. I found an iron
bar, and, this unlatched, I threw them back, and let in the broad
light of day.

For a moment my eyes were dazzled by the sunlight.

Then, on looking behind me, I saw that upon the table the candle had
burned itself to its socket, while on the floor, near by, lay the
small black reptile stretched out motionless.

I feared at first to approach it. To its tail the cord was still
attached, but it had been severed. I crept towards it, and, bending
down, realized with great relief that it was dead.

The leathern collar which had secured my head had been loosened and
the mechanism of the chair reversed, allowing me my freedom. I looked
around the room in wonder. There stood the littered card-table and the
empty glasses of the previous night, while the air was still heavy
with the odour of stale cigars.

Making quite certain that the reptile was dead, I turned my attention
to the chair, and noted how cleverly the devilish mechanism had been
hidden. It could, as I had suspected, be worked from without. The
victim, once seated there, had no chance whatever of escape.

In the light of day, the room--that fatal apartment wherein more than
one innocent man had, no doubt, met with a horrible end--looked very
shabby and dingy. The furniture was cheap and tawdry, and the carpet
very dirty.

There, upon the card-table, stood the ink, while the pen used by
Reckitt lay upon the floor. My wallet lay open near by. I took it up
quickly to glance through its contents. As far as I could discover,
nothing had been taken except the cheque I had written out, believing
I was to assist Jack Marlowe.

Eagerly I glanced at my watch, and found it was already a quarter past
ten.

The scoundrels had, no doubt, already been to the bank, cashed my
cheque, and were by this time clear away!

Remembering Sylvia, I drew my revolver, which still remained in my
hip-pocket, and, finding the door unlocked, went forth to search for
her. The fact that the door was now unlocked showed that some one had
entered there during my unconsciousness, and released me. From the
appearance of the snake, it seemed to have been killed by a sharp blow
across its back.

Some one had rescued me just in the nick of time.

I entered the front room on the same floor, the room whence those
woman's screams had emanated. It was a big bare drawing-room,
furnished in the ugly Early Victorian style, musty-smelling and
moth-eaten. The dirty holland blinds fitted badly and had holes in
them; therefore sufficient light was admitted to afford me a good view
of the large apartment.

There was nothing unusual there, save upon a small work-table lay some
embroidery work, where apparently it had been put down. An open novel
lay near, while close by was a big bowl filled with yellow roses. Yet
the apartment seemed to have been long closed and neglected, while the
atmosphere had a musty odour which was not dispelled by the sweet
perfume of the flowers.

Had Sylvia been in this room when she had shrieked?

I saw something upon the floor, and picked it up. It proved to be a
narrow band of turquoise-blue velvet, the ornament from a woman's
hair. Did it belong to her?

In vain I looked around for a candle--for evidences of the same
mediæval torture to which I had been submitted, but there were none.

In fear and trepidation I entered yet another room on the same floor,
but it was dusty and neglected--a kind of sitting-room, or perhaps
boudoir, for there was an old-fashioned high-backed piano in it. Yet
there was no sign that anybody had entered there for weeks--perhaps
for months. In the sunlight, I saw that there were cobwebs everywhere.
Surely it was a very strange house. It struck me that its owner had
perhaps died years ago, and since then it had remained untenanted.
Everywhere the style of furniture was that of sixty years ago, and
thick dust was covering all.

On entering the previous night I had not noticed this, but now, in the
broad light of day, the place looked very different. I saw, to my
surprise, that the windows had not been cleaned for years, and that
cobwebs hung everywhere.

Revolver in hand, I searched the place to the basement, but there was
no evidence of occupation. The doors of the kitchens had not,
apparently, been opened for years!

Upstairs, the bedrooms were old-fashioned, with heavy hangings, grey
with dust, and half hidden by festoons of cobwebs. In not a single
room was a bed that had been slept in. Indeed, I question if any one
had ascended to the second floor for several years!

As I stood in one of the rooms, gazing round in wonder, and half
suffocated by the dust my footsteps had disturbed, it suddenly
occurred to me that the pair of assassins, believing that I had died,
would, no doubt, return and dispose of my body. To me it seemed
certain that this was not the first occasion that they had played the
dastardly and brutal game. Yes, I felt positive they would return.

I searched the place to find a telephone, but there was none. The
bogus message sent to me had been sent from elsewhere.

The only trace of Sylvia I could find was that piece of velvet
ribbon, the embroidery which had so hastily been flung down, and the
bowl of fresh roses.

Why had she been there? The book and the embroidery showed that she
had waited. For what? That bowl of roses had been placed there to make
the room look fresh, for some attempt had been made to clean the
apartment, just as it had been made in the room wherein I had suffered
such torture.

Why had Sylvia uttered those screams of horror? I recollected those
words of hers. I recognized her voice. I would, indeed, have
recognized it among the voices of a thousand women.

I returned to the drawing-room, and gazed around it in wonder. If, as
it seemed, Reckitt and Forbes had taken unlawful possession of an
untenanted house, then it was probable they would not return to get
rid of my remains. The whole affair was incomprehensible. It seemed
evident that Sylvia had not fallen a victim to the vengeance of the
pair, as I had feared, but that perhaps I had owed my life to her.

Could it be that she had learned of my peril, released me, killed the
venomous reptile, and escaped?

Suddenly, as my eyes wandered about the dingy old room, I caught sight
of something shining. A golden bangle of curious Indian design was
lying upon the mantelshelf. I took it up, and in a moment recognized
it as one I had seen upon her wrist one evening while she sat at
dinner at Gardone.

I replaced it, stood for a moment deep in thought, and then, with
sudden resolve, returned to the chamber of horror, obtained my hat,
and, descending the stairs, went forth into Porchester Terrace.

I had to walk as far as Bayswater Road before I could find a taxi. The
sun was now shining brightly, and there were many people about in the
streets. Finding a cab at last, I told the man to drive with all speed
to my bank in Oxford Street.

It was just eleven when I went up to the counter to one of the paying
cashiers I knew, and asked him breathlessly if a cheque of mine had
been paid to a person named Reckitt. He saw by my manner that I was in
hot haste.

"I've cashed it not a moment ago, Mr. Biddulph," was his reply. "Why,
you must have passed the man as you came in! He's only this moment
gone out."

Without a word I dashed back to the swing-doors, and there, sure
enough, only a few yards away, I caught sight of Forbes, in a smart
grey flannel suit, entering a taxi. I shouted, but the taxi man did
not hear me. He was facing westward, and ere I could attract his
attention he was slowly moving in the direction of the Marble Arch.

The quick eyes of Forbes had, however, detected me, and, leaning out,
he said something to his driver. Quickly I re-entered my cab, and told
my man to turn and follow, pointing out the taxi in front. Mine was
open, while that in which the assassin sat was closed.

In his pocket the scoundrel carried over a thousand pounds of my
money.

My first impulse was to stop and inform a police-constable, but if I
did so I saw that he must escape. I shouted to my driver to try and
see the number of the cab, but there was a lot of traffic, and he was
unable to see it clearly.

I suppose I must have cut a sorry figure, dishevelled as I was by my
night's weird experience, and covered with the dust of that untenanted
house. What the bank-clerk must have thought, I know not.

It was an exciting chase. For a moment we were held up by the police
at Regent Circus, for there was much traffic, but only for a brief
space; then we tore after the receding cab at a pace which made many
passers-by stare. The cab in which Forbes was, being closed, the
driver did not see us, but I knew that the assassin was watching us
from the tiny window in the back, and was giving his driver
instructions through the front window.

My man had entered fully into the spirit of the chase.

"That fellow in yonder taxi has just stolen a thousand pounds!" I told
him.

"All right, sir," replied my driver, as he bent over his wheel; "we
shall catch him presently, never fear. I'm keeping my eye upon him all
right."

There were many taxis coming into the line of traffic from Bond Street
and from the other main thoroughfares crossing Oxford Street--red
taxis, just like the one in which Forbes was escaping. Yet we both
kept our eyes fixed upon that particular one, the driver of which
presently bent sideways, and shot back a glance at us.

Then he put on speed, and with marvellous dexterity threaded in and
out of the motor-buses and carts in front of him. I was compelled to
admire his driving. I could only suppose that Forbes had offered him
something handsome if he got safely away.

At the Marble Arch he suddenly turned down Park Lane, where the
traffic was less, and there gaining upon us, he turned into one of the
smaller streets, through Upper Grosvenor Street, winding in and out
the intricate thoroughfares which lay between Grosvenor Square and
Regent Street. Across Hanover Square and along Hanover Street we sped,
until, passing out on to the opposite side of Regent Street, the
driver, evidently believing that he had outwitted us, slowed down, and
then pulled up suddenly before a shop.

Ere the fugitive could escape, indeed ere the door could be opened, we
had pulled up a few yards away, and I dashed out and up to the door of
the cab, my revolver gripped in my hand.

My driver had descended also, and gained the other side of the cab
almost as soon as I had.

I opened the door, and met the fugitive boldly face to face.

Next second I fell back as though I had received a blow. I stood
aghast.

I could utter no word. The mystery had, I realized in that second,
been increased a hundredfold.



CHAPTER NINE

FACE TO FACE


On opening the door of the taxi I stood amazed to find that the
occupant was not a man--but a woman.

It was Sylvia!

She started at sight of me. Her countenance blanched to the lips as
she drew back and sat erect, a cry of dismay escaping her lips.

"You!" I gasped, utterly dumbfounded.

"Why--Mr. Biddulph!" she cried, recovering herself in a moment and
stretching forth her small gloved hand; "fancy meeting you like this!"

What words I uttered I scarcely knew. This sudden transformation of
the scoundrel Forbes into Sylvia Pennington held me bewildered. All I
could imagine was that Sylvia must have been awaiting the man in
another cab close to the bank, and that, in the course of our chase,
we had confused the two taxis. Forbes had succeeded in turning away
into some side street, while we had followed the cab of his companion.

She had actually awaited him in another cab while he had entered the
bank and cashed the stolen cheque!

My taxi-driver, when he saw that a lady, and not a man, occupied the
fugitive cab, drew back, returning to his seat.

"Do you know!" exclaimed the girl, with wonderful calmness, "only
yesterday I was thinking of you, and wondering whether you were in
London!"

"And only yesterday, too, Miss Pennington, I also was thinking of
you," I said meaningly.

She was dressed very quietly in dead black, which increased the
fairness of her skin and hair, wearing a big black hat and black
gloves. She was inexpressibly smart, from the thin gauzy veil to the
tips of her tiny patent-leather shoes, with a neat waist and a figure
that any woman might envy. Indeed, in her London attire she seemed
even smarter than she had appeared on the terrace beside the blue
Italian lake.

"Where is your father?" I managed to ask.

"Oh!--well, he's away just now. He was with me in London only the
other day," she replied. "But, as you know, he's always travelling."
Then she added: "I'm going into this shop a moment. Will you wait for
me? I'm so pleased to see you again, and looking so well. It seems
really ages since we were at Gardone, doesn't it?" and she smiled that
old sweet smile I so well remembered.

"I'll wait, of course," I replied, and, assisting her out, I watched
her pass into the big drapery establishment. Then I idled outside amid
the crowd of women who were dawdling before the attractive windows, as
is the feminine habit.

If it had been she who had rescued me from death and had released me,
what a perfect actress she was. Her confusion had only lasted for a
few seconds. Then she had welcomed me, and expressed pleasure at our
re-encounter.

I recollected the bow of ribbon-velvet which reposed in my pocket, and
the Indian bangle I had found. I remembered, too, those agonized,
terrified cries in the night--and all the mysteries of that weird and
silent house!

When she came forth I would question her; I would obtain from her the
truth anent those remarkable happenings.

Was it of that most ingenious and dastardly plot she had warned me?
Was her own conviction that she must suffer the penalty of death based
upon the knowledge of the deadly instrument, that venomous reptile
used by the assassins?

Could it be that Pennington himself--her own father--was implicated in
this shameful method of obtaining money and closing the lips of the
victims?

As I stood there amid the morning bustle of Regent Street out in the
broad sunshine, all the ghastly horrors of the previous night crowded
thickly upon me. Why had she shrieked: "Ah! not that--_not that_!" Had
she, while held prisoner in that old-fashioned drawing-room, been told
of the awful fate to which I had been consigned?

I remembered how I had called to her, but received no response. And
yet she must have been in the adjoining room.

Perhaps, like myself, she had fainted.

I recalled her voice distinctly. I certainly had made no mistake. She
had been actually present in that house of black torture. Therefore,
being my friend, there seemed no doubt that, to her, I owed my
mysterious salvation. But how? Aye, that was the question.

Suddenly, as I stood there on the crowded pavement, I became conscious
that I was attracting attention. I recollected my dusty clothes and
dirty, dishevelled face. I must have presented a strange, dissipated,
out-all-night appearance. And further, I had lost a thousand pounds.

Up and down before the long range of shop-windows I walked, patiently
awaiting her reappearance. I was anxious to know the truth concerning
the previous night's happenings--a truth which I intended she should
not conceal from me.

I glanced at my watch. It was already past eleven o'clock. Morning
shopping in Regent Street had now commenced in real earnest. The
thoroughfare was lined with carriages, for was it not the height of
the London season?

In and out of the big drapery establishment passed crowds of
well-dressed women, most of them with pet dogs, and others with male
friends led like lambs to the slaughter. The spectacle of a man in
silk hat out shopping with a lady friend is always a pitiable one. His
very look craves the sympathy of the onlooker, especially if he be
laden with soft-paper parcels.

My brain was awhirl. My only thought was of Sylvia and of her strange
connection with these undesirable persons who had so ingeniously
stolen my money, and who had baited such a fatal trap.

Anxious as I was to get to a telephone and ring up Jack, yet I could
not leave my post--I had promised to await her.

Nearly an hour went by; I entered the shop and searched its labyrinth
of "departments." But I could not distinguish her anywhere. Upstairs
and downstairs I went, inquiring here and there, but nobody seemed to
have seen the fair young lady in black; the great emporium seemed to
have swallowed her up.

It was now noon. Even though she might have been through a
dress-fitting ordeal, an hour was certainly ample time. Therefore I
began to fear that she had missed me. There were several other exits
higher up the street, and also one which I discovered in a side
street.

I returned to her taxi, for I had already paid off my man. The driver
had not seen his "fare."

"I was hailed by the lady close to Chapel Street," he said, "and I
drove 'er to Oxford Street, not far from Tottenham Court Road. We
stood at the kerb for about ten minutes. Then she ordered me to drive
with all speed over 'ere."

"Did you see her speak with any gentleman?"

"She was with a dark, youngish gentleman when they hailed me. She got
in and left 'im in Chapel Street. I heard 'im say as we went off that
he'd see 'er again soon."

"That's all you know of her?"

"Yes, sir. I've never seen 'er before," replied the driver. Then he
added with a smile, "Your man's been tellin' me as how you thought I
had a bank-thief in my cab!"

"Yes, but I was mistaken," I said. "I must have made a mistake in the
cab."

"That's very easy, sir. We're so much alike--us red 'uns."

Sylvia's non-appearance much puzzled me. What could it mean? For
another half-hour--an anxious, impatient, breathless half-hour--I
waited, but she did not return.

Had she, too, cleverly escaped by entering the shop, and passing out
by another entrance?

Another careful tour of the establishment revealed the fact that she
certainly was not there.

And so, after a wait of nearly two hours, I was compelled to accept
the hard and very remarkable fact that she had purposely evaded me,
and escaped!

Then she was in league with the men who had stolen my thousand pounds!
And yet had not that selfsame man declared that she, having betrayed
him, was to meet the same terrible fate as that prepared for me?

For a final five minutes I waited; then annoyed, disappointed and
dismayed, entered the taxi, and drove to Wilton Street.

On entering with my latch-key, Browning came forward with a puzzled
expression, surprised, no doubt, at my dishevelled appearance.

"I've been very anxious about you, Mr. Owen," exclaimed the old man. I
was always Mr. Owen to him, just as I had been when a lad. "When I
went to your room this morning I found your bed empty. I wondered
where you had gone."

"I've had a strange adventure, Browning," I laughed, rather forcedly I
fear. "Has Mr. Marlowe rung me up?"

"No, sir. But somebody else rang up about an hour ago, and asked
whether you were in."

"Who was it?"

"I couldn't quite catch the name, sir. It sounded like
Shuffle--something."

"Shuttleworth!" I cried. "Did he leave any message?"

"No, sir. He merely asked if you were in--that's all."

As Sylvia was in London, perhaps Shuttleworth was in town also, I
reflected. Yet she had cleverly made her escape--in order to avoid
being questioned. Her secret was a guilty one!

I called up Jack, who answered cheerily as usual.

"You didn't ring me up about one o'clock this morning, did you?" I
inquired.

"No. Why?" he asked.

"Oh--well, nothing," I said. "I thought perhaps it might have been
you--that's all. What time shall you be in at White's?"

"About four. Will you be there?"

"Yes."

"Right-ho! Good-bye, old man," and he rang off.

I ascended to my room, changed my clothes, and made myself
respectable. But during the time I was dressing I reflected whether I
should go to Scotland Yard and relate my strange experience. Such
clever fiends as Reckitt and Forbes deserved punishment. What fearful
crimes had been committed in that weird, neglected house I dreaded to
think. My only hesitation, however, was caused by the thought that
perhaps Sylvia might be implicated. I felt somehow impelled to try and
solve the problem for myself. I had lost a thousand pounds. Yet had I
not fallen into that trap in utter disregard of Sylvia's warning?

Therefore, I resolved to keep my own counsel for the present, and to
make a few inquiries in order to satisfy my curiosity. So, putting on
a different suit, a different collar, and a soft felt hat which I
never wore, in a perhaps feeble attempt to transform myself from my
usual appearance, I went forth again.

My first visit was to the bank, where I saw the manager and explained
that the cheque had been stolen from my pocket, though I did not
expose the real facts. Then, after he had condoled with me upon my
loss, and offered to send the description of the thief to the police
at once, I re-entered the taxi, and drove back to Porchester Terrace,
alighting a short distance from Althorp House.



CHAPTER TEN

CONTAINS A FURTHER SURPRISE


It was nearly one o'clock, and the sun was high, as I walked beneath
the dingy brick walls which separate each short garden from the
pavement. In some gardens were stunted trees, blackened by the London
smoke, while the houses were mostly large and comfortable, for it is
still considered a "genteel," if somewhat decayed neighbourhood.

Before that house of horror I paused for a moment. The dingy blinds of
yellow holland were drawn at each of the soot-grimed windows,
blackened by age and dirt. The garden was weedy and neglected, for the
grass grew high on the patch of lawn, and the dead leaves of the
tulips and daffodils of spring had not been removed.

The whole place presented a sadly neglected, sorry appearance--a state
of uncared-for disorder which, in the darkness of night, I had, of
course, not noticed.

As I looked within the garden I saw lying behind the wall an old
weather-beaten notice-board which bore the words "To be let,
Furnished," and giving the name of a well-known firm of estate agents
in Pall Mall.

The house next door was smart and well kept, therefore I resolved to
make inquiry there.

Of the tall, thin, old man-servant who answered my ring, I inquired
the name of the occupant of Althorp House.

"Well, sir," he replied, "there hasn't been an occupant since I've
been in service here, and that's ten years last March. An old lady
lived there, I've heard--a rather eccentric old lady. They've tried to
let it furnished, but nobody has taken it. It is said that the old
lady left instructions in her will that the furniture was to be left
just as it was for twenty years after her death. I expect the place
must be fine and dirty! An old woman goes there once every six weeks
or so, I believe, just to open the doors and let in a little air. But
it's never cleaned."

"And nobody has been over it with a view to renting it?"

"Not to my knowledge, sir."

"There's never been anybody going in or out--eh?"

"Well, I've never seen them, sir," was the man's reply.

"But there have been people coming and going, have there not?"

The man hesitated for a moment, apparently slightly puzzled at my
question.

"Well, sir, to tell the truth, there's been a very funny story about
lately. It is said that some of the old woman's relatives have
returned, and they've been seen going in and out--but always in the
middle of the night."

"What sort of people?" I asked quickly.

"Oh! two men and a woman--so they say. But of course I've never seen
anybody. I've asked the constables on night duty, and they've never
seen any one, or they would, no doubt, have reported it."

"Then who has seen them?"

"I really don't know. I heard the gossip over in the Royal Oak. How it
originated, or whether it had any foundation in fact, I can't find
out."

"I see the board has fallen down."

"Yes, that's been down for a couple of months or more--blown down by
the wind, I suppose."

"You haven't heard cabs stopping outside at night, for instance?"

"No, sir. I sleep at the back, and should therefore not hear."

I could see that he was a little uncertain as to the reason of my
inquiries, therefore I made an excuse that having been struck by the
appearance of the house so long neglected my curiosity had been
aroused.

"You've never heard of cabs stopping there at night?" I asked, a few
moments later.

"Well, this morning the cook, who sleeps upstairs in front, funnily
enough, told me a curious story of how in the night a taxi stopped and
a gentleman got out and entered the house. A few minutes later
another man came forth from the house, paid the taxi-driver, and he
moved off. But," laughed the man-servant, "I fancy cook had been
dreaming. I'm going to ask the constable when he comes on duty
to-night if he saw any strangers here."

I smiled. The man whom the cook saw had evidently been myself.

Then, after a further chat, I pressed half-a-crown into his ready palm
and left.

My next visit was to the estate agents in Pall Mall, where, presenting
myself as a possible tenant, the clerk at whose table I had taken a
seat said--

"Well, sir, Althorp House is in such a bad, neglected state that we do
not now-a-days send clients to view it. Old Mrs. Carpenter died some
thirteen years ago, and according to her will the place had to be left
undisturbed, and let furnished. The solicitors placed it in our hands,
but the property until the twenty years have elapsed, is quite
untenantable. The whole place has now gone to rack and ruin. We have a
number of other furnished houses which I will be most delighted to
give you orders to view."

In pretence that I wanted a house I allowed him to select three for
me, and while doing so learnt some further particulars regarding the
dark house in Porchester Terrace. As far as he knew, the story of Mrs.
Carpenter's relatives taking secret possession was a myth.

The caretaker had been withdrawn two years ago, and the place simply
locked up and left. If burglars broke in, there was nothing of value
for them to take, he added.

Thus the result of my inquiries went to confirm my suspicion that the
ingenious pair of malefactors had taken possession of the place
temporarily, in order to pursue their nefarious plans.

There was a garden at the rear. Might it not also be the grave wherein
the bodies of their innocent victims were interred?

That afternoon, at four, I met Jack Marlowe in White's, and as we sat
in our big arm-chairs gazing through the windows out into the sunshine
of St. James's Street, I asked him whether he would be prepared to
accompany me upon an adventurous visit to a house in Bayswater.

The long-legged, clean-shaven, clean-limbed fellow with the fairish
hair and merry grey eyes looked askance for a moment, and then
inquired--

"What's up, old man? What's the game?" He was always eager for an
adventure, I knew.

"Well, the fact is I want to look around a house in Porchester
Terrace, that's all. I want to search the garden when nobody's about."

"Why?"

"In order to satisfy myself about something."

"Become an amateur detective--eh, Owen?"

"Well, my curiosity has certainly been aroused, and I intend to go to
the house late to-night and look round the garden. Will you come?"

He was one of the best of good fellows, overflowing with good humour
and good nature. His face seemed to wear a perpetual smile of
contentment.

"Of course. But tell me more," he asked.

"I will--afterwards," I said. "Let's dine together somewhere, and turn
in at the Empire afterwards. We don't want to get to Bayswater before
midnight, as we mustn't be seen. Don't dress. I'll bring an electric
torch."

"I've got one. I'll bring mine also," he replied, at once entering
into the spirit of the adventure. "Only you might tell me what's in
the wind, Owen," he added.

"I'll tell you afterwards, old chap," I promised.

And then we separated, agreeing to meet at eight at a well-known
restaurant which we often patronized.

That night, when the curtain fell at the Empire, we both went forth
and strolled along to St. James's Street to get a drink at the club.
The later we went forth on our nocturnal inquiry, the better.

I recollected that look of terror and astonishment on Forbes's
countenance when his gaze had met mine outside the bank--a look which
showed that he had believed me to be safely out of the way. He had
never dreamed I was still alive! Hence it seemed to me certain that
the pair of malefactors, having secured the money, would at once make
themselves scarce. How, I wondered, could they have known of Jack
Marlowe, unless they had watched us both in secret, as seemed most
likely.

That they would not return again to that house of horror in Bayswater
seemed certain.

Towards one o'clock we took a taxi off the stand outside White's and
drove to Porchester Terrace, alighting some distance from our
destination. We passed the constable strolling slowly in the opposite
direction, and when at last we gained the rusty iron gate we both
slipped inside, quietly and unobserved.

The street lamp in the vicinity lit up the front of the dingy house,
therefore fearing observation from any of the servants next door, we
moved noiselessly in the shadow of the bushes along the side of the
premises, past a small conservatory, many panes of glass of which were
broken, and so into the darkness of the small back garden, which
seemed knee-deep in grass and weeds, and which, from its position,
hemmed in by blank walls, could not be overlooked save from the house
itself.

All was silence. The scene was weird in the extreme. In the distance
could be heard the faint hum of the never-ceasing traffic of London.
Above, showed the dark windows of that grim old place wherein I had so
nearly lost my life.

"I want to examine this garden thoroughly," I whispered to Jack, and
then I switched on my torch and showed a light around. A tangle of
weeds and undergrowth was revealed--a tangle so great that to
penetrate it without the use of a bill-hook appeared impossible.

Still we went forward, examining everywhere with our powerful electric
lights.

"What will the people say?" laughed Jack. "They'll take us for
burglars, old chap!"

"The place is empty," I replied. "Our only fear is of the police. To
them we would be compelled to make an explanation--and that's just
what I don't want to do."

For some time we carefully searched, conversing only in whispers. My
hands were scratched, and stung by nettles, and Jack had his coat
badly torn by thorns. The garden had been allowed to run wild for all
the years since old Mrs. Carpenter's death, and the two ash trees had
spread until their thick branches overshadowed a large portion of the
ground.

Beneath one of these trees I suddenly halted as an ejaculation escaped
me. Near the trunk, and in such a position that it would not be seen
even from the windows of the house, yawned a hole, and at its side a
mound of newly-dug earth.

"Ah!" I cried. "This is what I've been in search of!" The discovery
revealed a ghastly truth. I shuddered at the sight of it.

"What, that hole?" asked Jack, in a low voice as we approached and
peered into it. I judged it to be about three feet or so in depth.
"What a funny thing to search for!"

"That hole, Jack, was intended for a man's grave!" I whispered
hoarsely, "and the man intended was _myself_!"

"You!" he gasped. "What do you mean, Owen?"

"I mean that that grave yonder was dug in order to conceal my dead
body," was my low, meaning answer. "And I fear--fear very much--that
the remains of others who have met with foul play have been concealed
here!"

"You mean that murder was actually intended!" he exclaimed in
astonishment. "When?"

"Last night. I was entrapped here and narrowly escaped."

"How? Tell me all about it," he urged.

"Later on. Not here," I said. "Let us see if there is any further
evidence of recent digging," and together we examined the ground
beneath the second tree.

Presently Jack in the course of searching about, came to a spot where
the ground seemed perceptibly softer. My stick sank in, while in other
parts the ground seemed hard. Beneath the trees the weeds and grass
grew thinly, and I presumed that the miscreants could work there under
the canopy of leaves without fear of observation.

I bent down and carefully examined the surface, which, for about four
feet square, bore plain traces of having recently been moved.

Something had evidently been interred there. Yet tiny fresh blades of
green were just springing up, as though grass-seed had been sprinkled
over in order to obliterate traces of the recent excavation.

"What do you think of it?" I inquired of my companion.

"Well, perhaps somebody has really been buried here--eh?" he said.
"Don't you think you ought to go and tell the police at once?"

I was silent, in bewilderment.

"My own opinion is, Owen, that if a serious attempt has been made upon
you, and you really suspect that that hole yonder was prepared to
receive you, then it is your duty to tell the police. Others may fall
into the trap," Jack added.

"Not here," I said. "The assassins will not return, never fear. They
know of their failure in my case, and by this time they are, in all
probability, out of the country."

"But surely we ought to examine this spot and ascertain whether the
remains of any one is concealed here!" exclaimed my old friend.

Yet I still hesitated, hesitated because I feared that any exposure
must implicate that sweet little girl who, though my friend, had so
ingeniously escaped me.

At the same moment, however, our ears both caught a slight movement
among the tangled shrubs under the wall at the extreme end of the
garden. Instantly we shut off our lamps, and stood motionless,
listening.

At first I believed it to be only the scrambling of a cat. But next
second Jack nudged my arm, and straining my eyes I saw a dark figure
moving stealthily along, half crouching so as to be less conspicuous,
but moving slowly towards that side of the house which was the only
exit.

Fearing discovery there, our examination being so thorough, the
intruder was slowly creeping off, endeavouring to escape observation.

For an instant I remained motionless, watching the dark, crouching
figure. Then, drawing my revolver, I made a dash straight in its
direction.



CHAPTER ELEVEN

WHAT THE POLICE KNEW


As I pushed my way through the tangle of weeds and undergrowth, Jack
followed closely at my heels.

The dark figure leapt away in an instant, and dashed round the corner
by the ruined conservatory, but I was too quick for him. I caught him
up when he gained the front of the house, and there, in the light of
the street-lamp, my eyes fell upon a strange-looking object.

He proved to be a ragged, hunchbacked youth, so deformed as to be
extremely ugly, both in face and figure. His hair, long and lank, hung
about his shoulders, while his dark eyes stood out in terror when I
ordered him to halt, and covered him with my shining weapon.

His was the most weird figure that I had seen for many a day. I judged
him to be about eighteen or nineteen, though he looked older. His legs
were short, his head seemed far too big for his crooked body, while
his arms were long and ape-like, and his fingers thin, like talons.

"Now then, what are you doing here?" I demanded in a firm, commanding
voice.

But he only quivered, and crouched against the wall like a whipped
dog.

"Speak!" I said. "Who are you?"

He gave vent to a loud, harsh laugh, almost a screech, and then
grinned horribly in my face.

"Who are you?" I repeated. "Where do you live?"

But though his mouth moved, as though he replied, no sound escaped
him.

I spoke again, but he only laughed wildly, his thin fingers twitching.

"Ho! ho! ho!" he ejaculated, pointing back to the neglected garden.

"I wonder what he means!" exclaimed Jack.

"Why, I believe he's an idiot!" I remarked.

"He has every appearance of one," declared my companion, who then
addressed him, with the same negative result.

Again the weird, repulsive youth pointed back to the garden, and,
laughing hideously, uttered some words in gibberish which were quite
unintelligible.

"If we remain here chattering, the constable will find us," I
remarked, so we all three went forth into the street, the ugly
hunchback walking at my side, quite tractable and quiet.

Presently, unable to gather a single intelligible sentence from him,
Jack and I resolved to leave him, and afterwards follow him and
ascertain where he lived.

Why had he pointed to the garden and laughed so hilariously? Had he
witnessed any of those nocturnal preparations--or interments?

At last, at the corner of Bishop's Road, we wished him farewell and
turned away. Then, at a respectable distance, we drew into a gateway
to watch. He remained standing where we had left him for some ten
minutes or so, until a constable slowly approached, and, halting,
began to chat to him.

Apparently he was a well-known figure, for we could hear the policeman
speaking, and could distinguish the poor fellow laughing that queer,
harsh, discordant laugh--the laugh of the idiot.

Presently the constable moved forward again, whereupon I said--

"I'll get on and have a chat with the policeman, Jack. You follow the
hunchback if he moves away."

"Right-ho," replied my friend, while I sped off, crossing the road and
making a detour until I met the constable.

Having wished him good-night, I inquired the identity of the deformed
youth.

"Oh, sir," he laughed, "that's Mad 'Arry. 'E's quite 'armless. 'E's
out most nights, but we never see 'im in the day, poor chap. I've
known 'im ever since he was about nine."

"Does no work, I suppose?"

"None. 'Ow can 'e? 'E's as mad as a hatter, as the sayin' goes,"
replied the constable, his thumbs hitched in his belt as he stood.

"A kind of midnight wanderer, eh?"

"Yes, 'e's always a-pryin' about at night. Not long ago 'e found
burglars in a 'ouse in Gloucester Terrace, and gave us the alarm. We
copped four of 'em. The magistrate gave 'im a guinea out o' the
poor-box."

"Ah! so he's of use to you?"

"Yes, sir, 'e's most intelligent where there's any suspicious
characters about. I've often put 'im on the watch myself."

"Then he's not quite insane?"

"Not on that point, at any rate," laughed the officer.

"Where does he live?"

"'Is father's a hackney-carriage driver, and 'e lives with 'im up in
Gloucester Mews, just at the back of Porchester Mews--I don't know if
you know it?"

I was compelled to confess ignorance of the locality, but he directed
me.

"Are you on night-duty in Porchester Terrace, constable?" I asked a
few moments later.

"Yes, sir, sometimes. Why?"

"You know Althorp House, of course?"

"Yes, the 'aunted 'ouse, as some people call it. Myself, I don't
believe in ghosts."

"Neither do I," I laughed, "but I've heard many funny stories about
that place. Have you ever heard any?"

"Lots, sir," replied the man. "We're always being told of strange
things that 'ave 'appened there, yet when we 'ave a look around we
never find anything, so we've ceased to trouble. Our inspector's
given us orders not to make any further inquiries, 'e's been worried
too often over idle gossip."

"What's the latest story afloat concerning the place?" I asked. "I'm
always interested in mysteries of that sort."

"Oh, I 'eard yesterday that somebody was seen to get out of a taxi-cab
and enter. And 'e 'asn't been seen to come forth again."

"That's curious," I said. "And haven't you looked over the place?"

"I'm not on duty there. Perhaps my mate 'as. I don't know.
But, funnily enough," added the officer, "Mad 'Arry has been
tellin' me something about it a moment ago--something I can't
understand--something about the garden. I suppose 'e's been a-fancyin'
something or other. Everybody seems to see something in the garden, or
at the windows. Why, about a week ago, a servant from one of the
'ouses in the Terrace came up to me at three o'clock in the afternoon,
in broad daylight, and said as how she'd distinctly seen at the
drawin'-room window the face of a pretty, fair-haired girl a-peerin'
through the side of the dirty blind. She described the girl, too, and
said that as soon as she saw she was noticed the inmate of the place
drew back instantly."

"A fair-haired girl!" I exclaimed, quickly interested.

"Yes; she described her as wearin' a black velvet band on her hair."

"And what did you do?" I asked anxiously.

"Why, nothing. I've 'eard too many o' them kind o' tales before."

"Yes," I said reflectively. "Of course all kinds of legends and
rumours must naturally spring up around a house so long closed."

"Of course. It's all in people's imagination. I suppose they'll say
next that a murder's been committed in the place!" he laughed.

"I suppose so," I said, and then, putting a shilling in his hand,
wished him good-night, and passed along.

Jack and the idiot had gone, but, knowing the direction they had
taken--for the youth was, no doubt, on his way home--I was not long
before I caught up my friend, and then together we retraced our steps
towards the Bayswater Road, in search of a taxi.

I could not forget that curious statement that a girl's face had been
seen at the drawing-room window--a fair-headed girl with a band of
black velvet in her hair.

Could it have been Sylvia Pennington?

It was past three o'clock in the morning before I retraced my steps to
Wilton Street. We were unable to find a cab, therefore we walked down
Park Lane together.

On the way Jack had pressed me to tell him the reason of my visit to
that weird house and the circumstances in which my life had been
attempted. For the present, however, I refused to satisfy his
curiosity. I promised him I would tell him the whole facts of the
case some day.

"But why are you at home now?" he asked. "I can't really make you out
lately, Owen. You told me you hated London, and preferred life on the
Continent, yet here you are, back again, and quite settled down in
town!"

"Well, a fellow must come here for the London season sometimes," I
said. "I feel that I've been away far too long, and am a bit out of
touch with things. Why, my tailor hardly knew me, and the hall-porter
at White's had to look twice before he realized who I was."

"But there's some attraction which has brought you to London," he
declared. "I'm sure there is!"

It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him how cleverly the two
scoundrels had used his name wherewith to entrap me on the previous
night. But I refrained. Instead, I asked--

"Have you ever met two men named Reckitt and Forbes, Jack?"

"Not to my knowledge," was his prompt reply. "Who are they? What are
they like?"

I gave him a minute description of both, but he apparently did not
recognize them.

"I suppose you've never met a fellow called Pennington--eh? A
stoutish, dark-haired man with a baldish head and a reddish face?"

"Well," he replied thoughtfully, "I've met a good many men who might
answer to that description. What is he?"

"I don't exactly know. I've met him on the Continent."

"And I suppose some people one meets at Continental hotels are
undesirables, aren't they?" he said.

I nodded in the affirmative.

Then I asked--

"You've never known a person named Shuttleworth--Edmund Shuttleworth?
Lives at a little village close to Andover."

"Shuttleworth!" he echoed, looking straight into my face. "What do you
know of Edmund Shuttleworth?" he asked quickly.

"Very little. Do you know him?"

"Er--well--no, not exactly," was his faltering reply, and I saw in his
slight hesitation an intention to conceal the actual knowledge which
he possessed. "I've heard of him--through a friend of mine--a lady
friend."

"A lady! Who's she?" I inquired quickly.

"Well," he laughed a trifle uneasily, "the fact is, old chap, perhaps
it wouldn't be fair to tell the story. You understand?"

I was silent. What did he mean? In a second the allegation made by
that pair of scoundrels recurred to me. They had declared that Sylvia
had been in a house opposite, and that my friend had fallen in love
with her.

Yet he had denied acquaintanceship with Pennington!

No doubt the assassins had lied to me, yet my suspicions had been
aroused. Jack had admitted his acquaintance with the thin-faced
village rector--he knew of him through a woman. Was that woman Sylvia
herself?

From his manner and the great curiosity he evinced, I felt assured
that he had never known of Althorp House before. Reckitt and Forbes
had uttered lies when they had shown me that photograph, and told me
that she was beloved by my best friend. It had been done to increase
my anger and chagrin. Yet might there not, after all, have been some
foundation in truth in what they had said? The suggestion gripped my
senses.

Again I asked him to tell me the lady's name.

But, quite contrary to his usual habit of confiding in me all his most
private affairs, he steadfastly refused.

"No, my dear old chap," he replied, "I really can't tell you that.
Please excuse me, but it is a matter I would rather not discuss."

So at the corner of Piccadilly we parted, for it was now broad
daylight, and while he returned to his rooms, I walked down Grosvenor
Place to Wilton Street, more than ever puzzled and confounded.

Was I a fool, that I loved Sylvia Pennington with such an
all-absorbing passion?

It was strangely true, as Shuttleworth had declared, the grave lay as
a gulf between us.



CHAPTER TWELVE

THE WORD OF A WOMAN


A week went by--a week of keen anxiety and apprehension.

Jack had spoken the truth when he had declared that it was my duty to
go to Scotland Yard and reveal what I had discovered regarding that
dark house in Bayswater.

Yet somehow I felt that any such action on my part must necessarily
reflect upon my fair-haired divinity, that sweet, soft-spoken girl who
had warned me, and who, moreover, was my affinity.

Had you found yourself in such a position, how would you have acted?

Remember that, notwithstanding the veil of mystery which overspread
Sylvia Pennington, I loved her, and tried to conceal the truth from
myself a hundred times, but it was impossible. She had warned me, and
I, unfortunately, had not heeded. I had fallen into a trap, and
without a doubt it had been she who had entered and rescued me from a
fate most horrible to contemplate.

I shuddered when I lived that hour of terror over again. I longed once
more to see that pale, sweet, wistful face which was now ever in my
dreams. Had not Shuttleworth told me that the grave lay between my
love and myself? And he had spoken the truth!

Jack met me at the club daily, but he only once referred to our
midnight search and the gruesome discovery in the neglected garden.

Frequently it crossed my mind that Mad Harry might have watched there
unseen, and witnessed strange things. How many men reported to the
police as missing had been interred in that private burying-ground of
the assassins! I dreaded to think of it.

In vain I waited for Mr. Shuttleworth to call again. He had inquired
if I were at home, and, finding me absent, had gone away.

I therefore, a week later, made it an excuse to run down to Andover
and see him, hoping to obtain from him some further information
regarding Sylvia.

The afternoon was bright and warm, and the country looked its best,
with the scent of new-mown hay in the air, and flowers everywhere, as
I descended from the station fly and walked up the rectory garden to
the house.

The maid admitted me to the study, saying that Mr. Shuttleworth was
only "down the paddock," and would be back in a few minutes. And as I
seated myself in the big, comfortable arm-chair, I saw, straight
before me, in its frame the smiling face of the mysterious woman I
loved.

Through the open French windows came the warm sunlight, the song of
the birds, and the drowsy hum of the insects. The lawn was marked for
tennis, and beyond lay the paddock and the dark forest-border.

I had remained there some few minutes, when suddenly I heard a quick
footstep in the hall outside; then, next moment, the door was opened,
and there, upon the threshold, stood Sylvia herself.

"You!" she gasped, starting back. "I--I didn't know you were here!"
she stammered in confusion.

She was evidently a guest there, and was about to pass through the
study into the garden. Charming in a soft white ninon gown and a big
white hat, she held a tennis-racket in her hand, presenting a pretty
picture framed by the dark doorway.

"Sylvia!" I cried, springing forward to her in joy, and catching her
small white trembling hand in mine. "Fancy you--here!"

She held her breath, suffering me to lead her into the room and to
close the door.

"I had no idea you were here," I said. "I--lost you the other day in
Regent Street--I----"

She made a quick gesture, as though she desired me to refrain from
referring to that incident. I saw that her cheeks were deadly pale,
and that in her face was an expression of utter confusion.

"This meeting," she said slowly in a low voice, "is certainly an
unexpected one. Mr. Shuttleworth doesn't know you are here, does he?"

"No," I replied. "He's down in the paddock, I believe."

"He has been called out suddenly," she said. "He's driven over to
Clatford with Mrs. Shuttleworth."

"And you are here alone?" I exclaimed quickly.

"No. There's another guest--Elsie Durnford," she answered. "But," she
added, her self-possession at once returning, "but why are you here,
Mr. Biddulph?"

"I wanted to see Mr. Shuttleworth. Being a friend of yours, I believed
that he would know where you were. But, thank Heaven, I have found you
at last. Now," I said, smiling as I looked straight into her
fathomless eyes, "tell me the truth, Miss Pennington. I did not lose
you the other morning--on the contrary, you lost me--didn't you?"

Her cheeks flushed slightly, and she gave vent to a nervous little
laugh.

"Well," she answered, after a moment's hesitation, "to tell the truth,
I did. I had reasons--important ones."

"I was _de trop_--eh?"

She shrugged her well-formed shoulders, and smiled reproachfully.

"But why?" I asked. "When I found you, it was under very curious
circumstances. A man--a thief--had just cashed a cheque of mine for a
thousand pounds, and made off with the proceeds--and----"

"Ah! please do not refer to it, Mr. Biddulph!" she exclaimed quickly,
laying her slim fingers upon my arm. "Let us speak of something
else--anything but that."

"I have no wish to reproach you, Miss Pennington," I hastened to
assure her. "The past is to me of the past. That man has a thousand
pounds of mine, and he's welcome to it, so long as----" and I
hesitated.

"So long as what?" she asked in a voice of trepidation.

"So long as you are alive and well," I replied in slow, meaning tones,
my gaze fixed immovably on hers. "In Gardone you expressed fear for
your own safety, but so long as you are still safe I have no care as
to what has happened to myself."

"But----"

"I know," I went on, "the ingenious attempt upon my life of which you
warned me has been made by those two scoundrels, and I have narrowly
escaped. To you, Miss Pennington, I owe my life."

She started, and lowered her eyes. Apparently she could not face me.
The hand I held trembled within my grasp, and I saw that her white
lips quivered.

For a few seconds a silence fell between us. Then slowly she raised
her eyes to mine again, and said--

"Mr. Biddulph, this is an exceedingly painful subject to me. May we
not drop it? Will you not forget it--if you really are my friend?"

"To secure your further friendship, I will do anything you wish!" I
declared. "You have already proved yourself my friend by rescuing me
from death," I added.

"How do you know that?" she asked quickly.

"Because you were alone with me in that house of death in Bayswater.
It was you who killed the hideous reptile and who severed the bonds
which held me. They intended that I should die. My grave had already
been prepared. Cannot you tell me the motive of that dastardly
attack?" I begged of her.

"Alas! I cannot," she said. "I warned you when at Gardone that I knew
what was intended, but of the true motive I was, and am still,
entirely ignorant. Their motives are always hidden ones."

"They endeavoured to get from me another thousand pounds," I
exclaimed.

"It is well that you did not give it to them. The result would have
been just the same. They intended that you should die, fearing lest
you should inform the police."

"And you were outside the bank with Forbes when he cashed my cheque!"
I remarked in slow tones.

"I know," she answered hoarsely. "I know that you must believe me to
be their associate, perhaps their accomplice. Ah! well. Judge me, Mr.
Biddulph, as you will. I have no defence. Only recollect that I warned
you to go into hiding--to efface yourself--and you would not heed. You
believed that I only spoke wildly--perhaps that I was merely an
hysterical girl, making all sorts of unfounded assertions."

"I believed, nay, I knew, Miss Pennington, that you were my friend.
You admitted in Gardone that you were friendless, and I offered you
the friendship of one who, I hope, is an honest man."

"Ah! thank you!" she cried, taking my hand warmly in hers. "You have
been so very generous, Mr. Biddulph, that I can only thank you from
the bottom of my heart. It is true an attempt was made upon you, but
you fortunately escaped, even though they secured a thousand pounds of
your money. Yet, had you taken my advice and disappeared, they would
soon have given up the chase."

"Tell me," I urged in deep earnestness, "others have been entrapped in
that dark house--have they not? That mechanical chair--that devilish
invention--was not constructed for me alone."

She did not answer, but I regarded her silence as an affirmative
response.

"Your friends at least seem highly dangerous persons," I said,
smiling. "I've been undecided, since discovering that my grave was
already prepared, whether to go to Scotland Yard and reveal the whole
game."

"No!" she cried in quick apprehension. "No, don't do that. It could
serve no end, and would only implicate certain innocent
persons--myself included."

"But how could you be implicated?"

"Was I not at the bank when the cheque was cashed?"

"Yes. Why were you there?" I asked.

But she only excused herself from replying to my question.

"Ah!" she cried wildly a moment later, clutching my arm convulsively,
"you do not know my horrible position--you cannot dream what I have
suffered, or how much I have sacrificed."

I saw that she was now terribly in earnest, and, by the quick rising
and falling of the lace upon her bodice, I knew that she was stirred
by a great emotion. She had refused to allow me to stand her friend
because she feared what the result might be. And yet, had she not
rescued me from the serpent's fang?

"Sylvia," I cried, "Sylvia--for I feel that I must call you by your
Christian name--let us forget it all. The trap set by those
blackguards was most ingenious, and in innocence I fell into it. I
should have lost my life--except for you. You were present in that
house of death. They told me you were there--they showed me your
picture, and, to add to my horror, said that you, their betrayer, were
to share the same fate as myself."

"Yes, yes, I know!" she cried, starting. "Oh, it was all too
terrible--too terrible! How can I face you, Mr. Biddulph, after that!"

"My only desire is to forget it all, Sylvia," was my low and quiet
response. "It was all my fault--my fault, for not heeding your
warning. I never realized the evil machinations of those unknown
enemies. How should I? As far as I know, I had never set eyes upon
them before."

"You would have done wiser to have gone into hiding, as I suggested,"
she remarked quietly.

"Never mind," I said cheerily. "It is all past. Let us dismiss it.
There is surely no more danger--now that I am forearmed."

"May they not fear your reprisals?" she exclaimed. "They did not
intend that you should escape, remember."

"No, they had already prepared my grave. I have seen it."

"That grave was prepared for both of us," she said in a calm,
reflective voice.

"Then how did you escape?" I inquired, with curiosity.

"I do not know. I can only guess."

"May I not know?" I asked eagerly.

"When I have confirmed my belief, I will tell you," she replied.

"Then let us dismiss the subject. It is horrible, gruesome. Look how
lovely and bright the world is outside. Let us live in peace and in
happiness. Let us turn aside these grim shadows which have lately
fallen upon us."

"Ah!" she exclaimed, with a sigh, "you are indeed generous to me, Mr.
Biddulph. But could you be so generous, I wonder, if you knew the
actual truth? Alas! I fear you would not. Instead of remaining my
friend, you would hate me--just--just as I hate myself!"

"Sylvia," I said, placing my hand again tenderly upon her shoulder
and trying to calm her, and looking earnestly into her blue, wide-open
eyes, "I shall never hate you. On the contrary, let me confess, now
and openly," I whispered, "let me tell you that I--I love you!"

She started, her lips parted at the suddenness of my impetuous
declaration, and stood for a moment, motionless as a statue, pale and
rigid.

Then I felt a convulsive tremor run through her, and her breast heaved
and fell rapidly. She placed her hand to her heart, as though to calm
the rising tempest of emotion within her. Her breath came and went
rapidly.

"Love me!" she echoed in a strange, hoarse tone. "Ah! no, Mr.
Biddulph, no, a thousand times no! You do not know what you are
saying. Recall those words--I beg of you!"

And I saw by her hard, set countenance and the strange look in her
eyes that she was deadly in earnest.

"Why should I recall them?" I cried, my hand still upon her shoulder.
"You are not my enemy, Sylvia, even though you may be the friend of my
enemies. I love you, and I fear nothing--nothing!"

"Hush! Do not say that," she protested very quietly.

"Why?"

"Because--well, because even though you have escaped, they----" and
she hesitated, her lips set as though unable to articulate the truth.

"They what?" I demanded.

"Because, Mr. Biddulph--because, alas! I know these men only too well.
You have triumphed; but yours is, I fear, but a short-lived victory.
They still intend that you shall die!"

"How do you know that?" I asked quickly.

"Listen," she said hoarsely. "I will tell you."



CHAPTER THIRTEEN

THE DEATH KISS


Sylvia sank into a chair, while I stood upon the hearth-rug facing
her, eager to hear her explanation.

Her hands were clasped as she raised her wonderful blue eyes to mine.
Yes, her beauty was perfect--more perfect than any I had ever seen in
all my wandering, erratic life.

"Why do those men still intend that I shall die?" I asked. "Now that I
know the truth I shall remain wary."

"Ah, yes," she responded. "But they will take you unawares. You do not
know the devilish cunning and ingenuity of such men as they, who live
upon their wits, and are utterly unscrupulous."

"Well, what do they now intend?" I asked, much interested, for it
seemed that she knew very much more than she would admit.

"You have escaped," she said, looking straight into my face. "They
naturally fear that you will tell the police."

"I shall not do that--not at present, at least," I replied. "I am
keeping my own counsel."

"Yes. But cannot you see that while you live you are a menace to their
dastardly plans? They dare not return to that deserted house in
Bayswater."

"Where are they now?"

"Abroad, I believe. They always take care to have an outlet for
escape," she answered. "Ah! you don't know what a formidable
combination they are. They snap their fingers at the police of
Europe."

"What? Then you really admit that there have been other victims?" I
exclaimed.

"I have no actual knowledge," she declared, "only suspicions."

"Why are you friendly with them?" I asked. "What does your father say
to such acquaintances?"

"I am friendly only under compulsion," she answered. "Ah! Mr.
Biddulph, you cannot know how I hate the very sight or knowledge of
those inhuman fiends. Their treatment of you is, in itself, sufficient
proof of their pitiless plans."

"Tell me this, Sylvia," I said, after a second's pause. "Have you any
knowledge of a man--a great friend of mine--named Jack Marlowe?"

Her face changed. It became paler, and I saw she was slightly
confused.

"I--well, I believe we met once," she said. "His father lives
somewhere down in Devonshire."

"Yes," I said quickly. "What do you know of him?"

"Nothing. We met only once."

"Where?"

"Well--our meeting was under rather curious circumstances. He is your
friend, therefore please pardon me if I do not reply to your
question," was her vague response.

"Then what do you anticipate from those men, Reckitt and Forbes?" I
asked.

"Only evil--distinct evil," she replied. "They will return, and strike
when you least expect attack."

"But if I do not go to the police, why should they fear me? They are
quite welcome to the money they have stolen--so long as they allow me
peace in the future."

"Which I fear they will not do," replied the girl, shaking her head.

"You speak very apprehensively," I said. "What is there really to
fear? Perhaps it would be best if I went to the police at once. They
would then dig over that neglected garden and reveal its secrets."

"No!" she cried again, starting wildly from her chair as though in
sudden terror. "I beg of you not to do that, Mr. Biddulph. It would
serve no purpose, and only create a great sensation. But the culprits
would never be brought to justice. They are far too clever, and their
conspiracies are too far-reaching. No, remain patient. Take the
greatest care of your own personal safety--and you may yet be able to
combat your enemies with their own weapons."

"I shall be able, Sylvia--providing that you assist me," I said.

She held her breath, and remained silent. She evidently feared them.

I tried to obtain from her some details of the occurrences of that
night of horror, but she refused to satisfy my curiosity. Apparently
she feared to incriminate herself. Could it be possible that she had
only learnt at the last moment that it was I who was embraced in the
next room by that fatal chair!

Yet it was all so puzzling, so remarkable. Surely a girl with such a
pure, open, innocent face could not be the accomplice of dastardly
criminals! She was their friend. That much she had admitted to me. But
her friendship with them was made under compulsion. She urged me not
to go to the police. Why?

Did she fear that she herself would be implicated in a series of dark
and terrible crimes?

"Where is your father?" I inquired presently.

"In Scotland," was her prompt reply. "I heard from him at the
Caledonian Hotel, at Edinburgh, last Friday. I am staying here with
Mr. Shuttleworth until his return."

Was it not strange that she should be guest of a quiet-mannered
country parson, if she were actually the accomplice of a pair of
criminals! I felt convinced that Shuttleworth knew the truth--that he
could reveal a very remarkable story--if he only would.

"Your father is a friend of Mr. Shuttleworth--eh?" I asked.

She nodded in the affirmative. Then she stood with her gaze fixed
thoughtfully upon the sunlit lawn outside.

Mystery was written upon her fair countenance. She held a dread secret
which she was determined not to reveal. She knew of those awful
crimes committed in that dark house in Bayswater, but her intention
seemed to be to shield at all hazards her dangerous "friends."

"Sylvia," I said tenderly at last, again taking her hand in mine, "why
cannot you be open and frank with me?" She allowed her hand to lie
soft and inert in mine, sighing the while, her gaze still fixed beyond
as though her thoughts were far away. "I love you," I whispered.
"Cannot you see how you puzzle me?--for you seem to be my friend at
one moment, and at the next the accomplice of my enemies."

"I have told you that you must never love me, Mr. Biddulph," was her
low reply, as she withdrew her hand slowly, but very firmly.

"Ah! no," I cried. "Do not take offence at my words. I'm aware that
I'm a hopeless blunderer in love. All I know, Sylvia, is that my only
thought is of you. And I--I've wondered whether you, on your part, can
ever entertain a spark of affection for me?"

She was silent, her white lips pressed close together, a strange
expression crossing her features. Again she held her breath, as though
what I had said had caused her great surprise. Then she answered--

"How can you love me? Am I not, after all, a mere stranger?"

"I know you sufficiently well," I cried, "to be aware that for me
there exists no other woman. I fear I'm a blunt man. It is my nature.
Forgive me, Sylvia, for speaking the truth, but--well, as a matter of
fact, I could not conceal the truth any longer."

"And you tell me this, after--after all that has happened!" she
faltered in a low, tremulous voice, as I again took her tiny hand in
mine.

"Yes--because I truly and honestly love you," I said, "because ever
since we have met I have found myself thinking of you--recalling
you--nay, dreaming of happiness at your side."

She raised her splendid eyes, and looked into mine for a moment; then,
sighing, shook her head sadly.

"Ah! Mr. Biddulph," she responded in a curious, strained voice,
"passion may be perilously misleading. Ask yourself if you are not
injudicious in making this declaration--to a woman like myself?"

"Why?" I cried. "Why should it be injudicious? I trust you,
because--because I owe my life to you--because you have already proved
yourself my devoted little friend. What I beg and pray is that your
friendship may, in course of time, ripen into love--that you may
reciprocate my affection--that you may really love me!"

A slight hardness showed at the corners of her small mouth. Her eyes
were downcast, and she swallowed the lump that arose in her throat.

She was silent, standing rigid and motionless.

Suddenly a great and distressing truth occurred to me. Did she believe
that I pitied her? I hoped not. Any woman of common sensibility would
almost die of shame at the thought of being loved out of pity; and,
what is more, she would think none the better of the man who pitied
her. The belief that "pity melts the heart to love" is an unfounded
one.

So I at once endeavoured to remove the wrong impression which I feared
I had conveyed.

What mad, impetuous words I uttered I can scarcely tell. I know that I
raised her soft white hand to my lips and kissed it fervently,
repeating my avowal and craving a word of hope from her lips.

But she again shook her head, and with sadness responded in a low,
faltering tone--

"It is quite impossible, Mr. Biddulph. Leave me--let us forget all you
have said. It will be better thus--far better for us both. You do not
know who or what I am; you----"

"I do not know, neither do I care!" I cried passionately. "All I know,
Sylvia, is that my heart is yours--that I have loved only once in my
life, and it is now!"

Her slim fingers played nervously with the ribbon upon her cool summer
gown, but she made no response.

"I know I have not much to recommend me," I went on. "Perhaps I am too
hulking, too English. You who have lived so much abroad are more used,
no doubt, to the elegant manners and the prettily turned compliments
of the foreigner than the straight speech of a fellow like myself. Yet
I swear that my only thought has been of you, that I love you with all
my heart--with all my soul."

I caught her hand and again looked into her eyes, trying to read what
response lay hidden in their depths.

I felt her tremble. For a moment she seemed unable to reply. The
silence was unbroken save for the drowsy hum of the insects in the
summer heat outside, while the sweet perfume of the flowers filled our
nostrils. In the tension of those moments each second seemed an hour.
You who have experienced the white heat of the love-flame can only
know my eager, breathless apprehension, the honest whole-heartedness
of my declaration. Perhaps, in your case, the flames are all burnt
out, but even now you can tell of the white core and centre of fire
within you. Years may have gone, but it still remains--the sweet
memory of your well-beloved.

"Tell me, Sylvia," I whispered once more. "Tell me, will you not break
down this strange invisible barrier which you have set up between us?
Forget the past, as I have already forgotten it--and be mine--my own!"

She burst into tears.

"Ah!" she cried. "If I only could--if I only dared!"

"Will you not dare to do it--for my sake?" I asked very quietly. "Will
you not promise to be mine? Let me stand your friend--your champion.
Let me defend you against your enemies. Let me place myself beside you
and defy them."

"Ah, no!" she gasped, "not to defy them. Defiance would only bring
death--death to both of us!"

"Your love, Sylvia, would mean life and happiness, not death--to
me--to both of us!" I cried. "Will you not give me your promise? Let
our love be in secret, if you so desire--only let us love each other.
Promise me!" I cried, my arm stealing around her narrow waist.
"Promise me that you will try and love me, and I, too, will promise to
be worthy of your affection."

For a moment she remained silent, her handsome head downcast.

Then slowly, with a sweet love-look upon her beautiful countenance,
she raised her face to mine, and then for the first time our lips met
in a fierce and passionate caress.

Thus was our solemn compact sealed.



CHAPTER FOURTEEN

OF THINGS UNMENTIONABLE


I remained in that cosy, book-lined den for perhaps an hour--one whole
hour of sweet, delightful ecstasy.

With her fair head buried upon my shoulder she shed tears of joy,
while, time after time, I smothered her white brow with my kisses. Ah!
yes, I loved her. I closed my eyes to all. I put away all my dark
suspicions, and lived only for the present in the knowledge that
Sylvia was mine--_mine!_

My hot, fevered declarations of affection caused her to cling to me
more closely, yet she uttered but few words, and those half-incoherent
ones, overcome as she was by a flood of emotion. She seemed to have
utterly broken down beneath the great strain, and now welcomed the
peace and all-absorbing happiness of affection. Alone and friendless,
as she had admitted herself to be, she had, perhaps, longed for the
love of an honest man. At least, that is what I was egotistical enough
to believe. Possibly I might have been wrong, for until that moment I
had ever been a confirmed bachelor, and had but little experience of
the fantastic workings of a woman's mind.

Like so many other men of my age, I had vainly believed myself to be
a philosopher. Yet are not philosophers merely soured cynics, after
all? And I certainly was neither cynical nor soured. Therefore my
philosophy was but a mere ridiculous affectation to which so many men
and women are prone.

But in those moments of ecstasy I abandoned myself entirely to love,
imprinting lingering, passionate kisses upon her lips, her closed
eyes, her wide white brow, while she returned my caresses, smiling
through her hot tears.

Presently, when she grew calmer, she said in a low, sweet voice--

"I--hardly know whether this is wise. I somehow fear----"

"Fear what?" I asked, interrupting her.

"I fear what the future may hold for us," she answered. "Remember I--I
am poor, while you are wealthy, and----"

"What does that matter, pray? Thank Heaven! I have sufficient for us
both--sufficient to provide for you the ordinary comforts of life,
Sylvia. I only now long for the day, dearest, when I may call you
wife."

"Ah!" she said, with a wistful smile, "and I, too, shall be content
when I can call you husband."

And so we sat together upon the couch, holding each other's hand, and
speaking for the first time not as friends--but as lovers.

You who love, or who have loved, know well the joyful, careless
feeling of such moments; the great peace which overspreads the mind
when the passion of affection burns within.

Need I say more, except to tell you that our great overwhelming love
was mutual, and that our true hearts beat in unison?

Thus the afternoon slipped by until, of a sudden, we heard a girl's
voice call: "Sylvia! Sylvia!"

We sprang apart. And not a moment too soon, for next second there
appeared at the French windows the tall figure of a rather pretty
dark-haired girl in cream.

"I--I beg your pardon!" she stammered, on recognizing that Sylvia was
not alone.

"This is Mr. Biddulph," exclaimed my well-beloved. "Miss Elsie
Durnford."

I bowed, and then we all three went forth upon the lawn.

I found Sylvia's fellow-guest a very quiet young girl, and understood
that she lived somewhere in the Midlands. Her father, she told me, was
very fond of hunting, and she rode to hounds a good deal.

We wandered about the garden awaiting Shuttleworth's return, for both
girls would not hear of me leaving before tea.

"Mr. and Mrs. Shuttleworth are certain to be back in time," Sylvia
declared, "and I'm sure they'd be horribly annoyed if you went away
without seeing them."

"Do you really wish me to stay?" I asked, with a laugh, as we halted
beneath the shadow of the great spreading cedar upon the lawn.

"Of course we do," declared Elsie, laughing. "You really must remain
and keep us company, Mr. Biddulph. Sylvia, you know, is quite a
stranger. She's always travelling now-a-days. I get letters from her
from the four corners of the earth. I never know where to write so as
to catch her."

"Yes," replied my well-beloved, with a slight sigh. "When we were at
school at Eastbourne I thought it would be so jolly to travel and see
the world, but now-a-days, alas! I confess I'm already tired of it. I
would give anything to settle down quietly in the beautiful country in
England--the country which is incomparable."

"You will--one day," I remarked meaningly.

And as she lifted her eyes to mine she replied--

"Perhaps--who knows?"

The village rector returned at last, greeting me with some surprise,
and introducing his wife, a rather stout, homely woman, who bore
traces of good looks, and who wore a visiting gown of neat black, for
she had been paying a call.

"I looked in to see you the other day in town, Mr. Biddulph," he said.
"But I was unfortunate. Your man told me you were out. He was not rude
to me this time," he added humorously, with a laugh.

"No," I said, smiling. "He was profuse in his apologies. Old servants
are sometimes a little trying."

"Yes, you're right. But he seems a good sort. I blame myself, you
know. He's not to blame in the least."

Then we strolled together to a tent set beneath the cedar, whither the
maid had already taken the tea and strawberries, and there we sat
around gossiping.

Afterwards, when Shuttleworth rose, he said--

"Come across to my study and have a smoke. You're not in a great hurry
to get back to town. Perhaps you'll play a game of tennis presently?"

I followed him through the pretty pergola of roses, back into the
house, and when I had seated myself in the big old arm-chair, he gave
me an excellent cigar.

"Do you know, Mr. Biddulph," he said after we had been smoking some
minutes, "I'm extremely glad to have this opportunity of a chat with
you. I called at Wilton Street, because I wished to see you."

"Why?" I asked.

"Well, for several reasons," was his slow, earnest reply. His face
looked thinner, more serious. Somehow I had taken a great fancy to
him, for though a clergyman, he struck me as a broad-minded man of the
world. He was keen-eyed, thoughtful and earnest, yet at the same time
full of that genuine, hearty bonhomie so seldom, alas! found in
religious men. The good fellowship of a leader appeals to men more
than anything else, and yet somehow it seems always more apparent in
the Roman Catholic priest than in the Protestant clergyman.

"The reason I called to-day was because I thought you might wish to
speak to me," I said.

He rose and closed the French windows. Then, re-seating himself, he
removed his old briar pipe from his lips, and, bending towards me in
his chair, said very earnestly--

"I wonder whether I might presume to say something to you strictly in
private, Mr. Biddulph? I know that I ought not to interfere in your
private affairs--yet, as a minister of religion, I perhaps am a
slightly privileged person in that respect. At least you will, I
trust, believe in my impartiality."

"Most certainly I do, Mr. Shuttleworth," I replied, somewhat surprised
at his manner.

"Well, you recollect our conversation on the last occasion you were
here?" he said. "You remember what I told you?"

"I remember that we spoke of Miss Sylvia," I exclaimed, "and that you
refused to satisfy my curiosity."

"I refused, because I am not permitted," was his calm rejoinder.

"Since I saw you," I said, "a dastardly attempt has been made upon my
life. I was enticed to an untenanted house in Bayswater, and after a
cheque for a thousand pounds had been obtained from me by a trick, I
narrowly escaped death by a devilish device. My grave, I afterwards
found, was already prepared."

"Is this a fact!" he gasped.

"It is. I was rescued--by Sylvia herself."

He was silent, drawing hard at his pipe, deep in thought.

"The names of the two men who made the dastardly attempt upon me were
Reckitt and Forbes--friends of Sylvia Pennington," I went on.

He nodded. Then, removing his pipe, exclaimed--

"Yes. I understand. But did I not warn you?"

"You did. But, to be frank, Mr. Shuttleworth, I really did not follow
you then. Neither do I now."

"Have I not told you, my dear sir, that I possess certain knowledge
under vow of absolute secrecy--knowledge which it is not permitted to
me, as a servant of God, to divulge."

"But surely if you knew that assassination was contemplated, it was
your duty to warn me."

"I did--but you took no heed," he declared. "Sylvia warned you also,
when you met in Gardone, and yet you refused to take her advice and go
into hiding!"

"But why should an innocent, law-abiding, inoffensive man be compelled
to hide himself like a fugitive from justice?" I protested.

"Who can fathom human enmity, or the ingenious cunning of the
evil-doer?" asked the grey-faced rector quite calmly. "Have you never
stopped to wonder at the marvellous subtlety of human wickedness?"

"Those men are veritable fiends," I cried. "Yet why have I aroused
their animosity? If you know so much concerning them, Mr.
Shuttleworth, don't you think that it is your duty to protect your
fellow-creatures?--to make it your business to inform the police?" I
added.

"Probably it is," he said reflectively. "But there are times when
even the performance of one's duty may be injudicious."

"Surely it is not injudicious to expose the methods of such
blackguards!" I cried.

"Pardon me," he said. "I am compelled to differ with that opinion.
Were you in possession of the same knowledge as myself, you too,
would, I feel sure, deem it injudicious."

"But what is this secret knowledge?" I demanded. "I have narrowly
escaped being foully done to death. I have been robbed, and I feel
that it is but right that I should now know the truth."

"Not from me, Mr. Biddulph," he answered. "Have I not already told you
the reason why no word of the actual facts may pass my lips?"

"I cannot see why you should persist in thus mystifying me as to the
sinister motive of that pair of assassins. If they wished to rob me,
they could have done so without seeking to take my life by those
horrible means."

"What means did they employ?" he asked.

Briefly and vividly I explained their methods, as he sat silent,
listening to me to the end. He evinced neither horror nor surprise.
Perhaps he knew their mode of procedure only too well.

"I warned you," was all he vouchsafed. "Sylvia warned you also."

"It is over--of the past, Mr. Shuttleworth," I said, rising from my
chair. "I feel confident that Sylvia, though she possessed knowledge
of what was intended, had no hand whatever in it. Indeed, so
confident am I of her loyalty to me, that to-day--yes, let me confess
it to you--for I know you are my friend as well as hers, to-day,
here--only an hour ago, I asked Sylvia to become my wife."

"Your wife!" he gasped, starting to his feet, his countenance pale and
drawn.

"Yes, my wife."

"And what was her answer?" he asked dryly, in a changed tone.

"She has consented."

"Mr. Biddulph," he said very gravely, looking straight into my face,
"this must never be! Have I not already told you the ghastly
truth?--that there is a secret--an unmentionable secret----"

"A secret concerning her!" I cried. "What is it? Come, Mr.
Shuttleworth, you shall tell me, I demand to know!"

"I can only repeat that between you and Sylvia Pennington there still
lies the open gulf--and that gulf is, indeed, the grave. In your
ignorance of the strange but actual facts you do not realize your own
dread peril, or you would never ask her to become your wife. Abandon
all thought of her, I beg of you," he urged earnestly. "Take this
advice of mine, for one day you will assuredly thank me for my
counsel."

"I love her with all the strength of my being, and for me that is
sufficient," I declared.

"Ah!" he cried in despair as he paced the room. "To think of the irony
of it all! That you should actually woo her--of all women!" Then,
halting before me, his eye grew suddenly aflame, he clenched his
hands and cried: "But you shall not! Understand me, you shall hate
her; you shall curse her very name. You shall never love
her--never--I, Edmund Shuttleworth, forbid it! It must not be!"

At that instant the _frou-frou_ of a woman's skirts fell upon my ears,
and, turning quickly, I saw Sylvia herself standing at the open French
windows.

Entering unobserved she had heard those wild words of the rector's,
and stood pale, breathless, rigid as a statue.

"There!" he cried, pointing at her with his thin, bony finger. "There
she is! Ask her yourself, now--before me--the reason why she can never
be your wife--the reason that her love is forbidden! If she really
loves you, as she pretends, she will tell you the truth with her own
lips!"



CHAPTER FIFTEEN

FORBIDDEN LOVE


I stood before Shuttleworth angry and defiant.

I had crossed to Sylvia and had taken her soft hand.

"I really cannot see, sir, by what right you interfere between us!" I
cried, looking at him narrowly. "You forbid! What do I care--why,
pray, should you forbid my actions?"

"I forbid," repeated the thin-faced clergyman, "because I have a
right--a right which one day will be made quite plain to you."

"Ah! Mr. Shuttleworth," gasped Sylvia, now pale as death, "what are
you saying?"

"The truth, my child. You know too well that, for you, love and
marriage are forbidden," he exclaimed, looking at her meaningly.

She sighed, and her tiny hand trembled within my grasp. Her mouth
trembled, and I saw that tears were welling in her eyes.

"Ah! yes," she cried hoarsely a moment later. "I know, alas! that I am
not like other women. About me there have been forged bonds of
steel--bonds which I can never break."

"Only by one means," interrupted Shuttleworth, terribly calm and
composed.

"No, no!" she protested quickly, covering her face with her hands as
though in shame. "Not that--never that! Do not let us speak of it!"

"Then you have no right to accept this man's love," he said
reproachfully, "no right to allow him to approach nearer the brink of
the grave than he has done. You know full well that, for him, your
love must prove fatal!"

She hung her head as though not daring to look again into my eyes. The
strange clergyman's stern rebuke had utterly confused and confounded
her. Yet I knew she loved me dearly. That sweet, intense love-look of
hers an hour ago could never be feigned. It spoke far more truly than
mere words.

Perhaps she was annoyed that I had told Shuttleworth the truth. Yes, I
had acted very foolishly. My tongue had loosened involuntarily. My
wild joy had led me into an injudicious confession--one that I had
never dreamed would be fraught with sorrow.

"Mr. Shuttleworth," I said at last, "please do not distress yourself
on my account. I love Sylvia, and she has promised to be mine. If
disaster occurs, then I am fully prepared to meet it. You seem in
close touch with this remarkable association of thieves and assassins,
or you would hardly be so readily aware of their evil intentions."

"Ah!" he responded, with a slight sigh, "you are only speaking in
ignorance. If you were aware of the true facts, you would, on the
contrary, thank me for revealing the peril in which love for this
young lady will assuredly place you."

"But have I not already told you that I am fearless? I am prepared to
meet this mysterious peril, whatever it is, for her sake!" I
protested.

A curious, cynical smile overspread his grey, ascetic face.

"You speak without knowledge, my dear sir," he remarked. "Could I but
reveal the truth, you would quickly withdraw that assertion. You
would, indeed, flee from this girl as you would from the plague!"

"Well," I said, "your words are at least very remarkable, sir. One
would really imagine Miss Pennington to be a hell-fiend--from your
denunciation."

"You mistake me. I make no denunciation. On the other hand, I am
trying to impress upon you the utter futility of your love."

"Why should you do that? What is your motive?" I asked quickly, trying
to discern what could be at the back of this man's mind. How strange
it was! Hitherto I had rather liked the tall, quiet, kind-mannered
country rector. Yet he had suddenly set himself out in open antagonism
to my plans--to my love!

"My motive," he declared, "is to protect the best interests of you
both. I have no ends to serve, save those of humanity, Mr. Biddulph."

"You urged Miss Pennington to make confession to me. You implied that
her avowal of affection was false," I said, with quick indignation.

"I asked her to confess--to tell you the truth, because I am unable so
to do," was his slow reply. "Ah! Mr. Biddulph," he sighed, "if only
the real facts could be exposed to you--if only you could be told the
ghastly, naked truth."

"Why do you say all this, Mr. Shuttleworth?" protested Sylvia in a
low, pained voice. "Why should Mr. Biddulph be mystified further? If
you are determined that I should sacrifice myself--well, I am ready.
You have been my friend--yet now you seem to have suddenly turned
against me, and treat me as an enemy."

"Only as far as this unfortunate affair is concerned, my child," he
said. "Remember my position--recall all the past, and put to yourself
the question whether I have not a perfect right to forbid you to
sacrifice the life of a good, honest man like the one before you," he
said, his clerical drawl becoming more accentuated as he spoke.

"Rubbish, my dear sir," I laughed derisively. "Put aside all this cant
and hypocrisy. It ill becomes you. Speak out, like a man of the world
that you are. What specific charge do you bring against this lady?
Come, tell me."

"None," he replied. "Evil is done through her--not by her."

And she stood silent, unable to protest.

"But can't you be more explicit?" I cried, my anger rising. "If you
make charges, I demand that you shall substantiate them. Recollect all
that I have at stake in this matter."

"I know--your life," he responded. "Well, I have already told you what
to expect."

"Sylvia," I said, turning to the pale girl standing trembling at my
side, "will you not speak? Will you not tell me what all this means?
By what right does this man speak thus? Has he any right?"

She was silent for a few moments. Then slowly she nodded her head in
an affirmative.

"What right has he to forbid our affection?" I demanded. "I love you,
and I tell you that no man shall come between us!"

"He alone has a right, Owen," she said, addressing me for the first
time by my Christian name.

"What right?"

But she would not answer. She merely stood with head downcast, and
said--

"Ask him."

This I did, but the thin-faced man refused to reply. All he would say
was--

"I have forbidden this fatal folly, Mr. Biddulph. Please do not let us
discuss it further."

I confess I was both angry and bewildered. The mystery was hourly
increasing. Sylvia had admitted that Shuttleworth had a right to
interfere. Yet I could not discern by what right a mere friend could
forbid a girl to entertain affection. I felt that the ever-increasing
problem was even stranger and more remarkable than I had anticipated,
and that when I fathomed it, it would be found to be utterly
astounding!

Sylvia was unwavering in her attachment to myself. Her antagonism
towards Shuttleworth's pronouncement was keen and bitter, yet, with
her woman's superior judgment, she affected carelessness.

"You asked this lady to confess," I said, addressing him. "Confess
what?"

"The truth."

Then I turned to my well-beloved and asked--

"What is the truth? Do you love me?"

"Yes, Owen, I do," was her frank and fervent response.

"I did not mean that," said Shuttleworth hastily. "I meant the truth
concerning yourself."

"Mr. Biddulph knows what I am."

"But he does not know who you are."

"Then you may tell him," was her hoarse reply. "Tell him!" she cried
wildly. "Tear from me all that I hold sacred--all that I hold most
dear--dash me back into degradation and despair--if you will! I am in
your hands."

"Sylvia!" he said reproachfully. "I am your friend--and your father's
friend. I am not your enemy. I regret if you have ever thought I have
lifted a finger against you."

"Are you not standing as a barrier between myself and Mr. Biddulph?"
she protested, her eyes flashing.

"Because I see that only misfortune--ah! death--can arise. You know
full well the promise I have made. You know, too, what has been told
me in confidence, because--because my profession happens to be what it
is--a humble servant of God."

"Yes," she faltered, "I know--I know! Forgive me if I have spoken
harshly, Mr. Shuttleworth. I know you are my friend--and you are
Owen's. Only--only it seems very hard that you should thus put this
ban upon us--you, who preach the gospel of truth and love."

Shuttleworth drew a deep breath. His thin lips were pursed; his grey
eyebrows contracted slightly, and I saw in his countenance a
distinctly pained expression.

"I have spoken with all good intention, Sylvia," he said. "Your love
for Mr. Biddulph must only bring evil upon both of you. Surely you
realize that?"

"Sylvia has already realized it," I declared. "But we have resolved to
risk it."

"The risk is, alas! too great," he declared. "Already you are a marked
man. Your only chance of escape is to take Sylvia's advice and to go
into hiding. Go away--into the country--and live in some quiet, remote
village under another name. It is your best mode of evading disaster.
To remain and become the lover of Sylvia Pennington is, I tell you,
the height of folly--it is suicide!"

"Let it be so," I responded in quiet defiance. "I will never forsake
the woman I love. Frankly, I suspect a hidden motive in this
suggestion of yours; therefore I refuse to accept it."

"Not to save your own life?"

"Not even to save my life. This is surely my own affair."

"And hers."

"I shall protect Sylvia, never fear. I am not afraid. Let our enemies
betray their presence by sign or word, and I will set myself out to
combat them. They have already those crimes in Bayswater to account
for. And they will take a good deal of explaining away."

"Then you really intend to reveal the secret of that house in
Porchester Terrace?" he asked, not without some apprehension.

"My enemies, you say, intend to plot and encompass my death. Good!
Then I shall take my own means of vindication. Naturally I am a quiet,
law-abiding man. But if any enemy rises against me without cause, then
I strike out with a sledgehammer."

"You are hopeless," he declared.

"I am, where my love is concerned," I admitted. "Sylvia has promised
to-day that she will become my wife. The future is surely our own
affair, Mr. Shuttleworth--not yours!"

"And if her father forbids?" he asked quite quietly, his eyes fixed
straight upon my well-beloved.

"Let me meet him face to face," I said in defiance. "He will not
interfere after I have spoken," I added, with confidence. "I, perhaps,
know more than you believe concerning him."

Sylvia started, staring at me, her face blanched in an instant. The
scene was tragic and painful.

"What do you know?" she asked breathlessly.

"Nothing, dearest, which will interfere with our love," I reassured
her. "Your father's affairs are not yours, and for his doings you
cannot be held responsible."

She exchanged a quick glance with Shuttleworth, I noticed.

Then it seemed as though a great weight were lifted from her mind by
my words, for, turning to me, she smiled sweetly, saying--

"Ah! how can I thank you sufficiently? I am helpless and defenceless.
If I only dared, I could tell you a strange story--for surely mine is
as strange as any ever printed in the pages of fiction. But Mr.
Shuttleworth will not permit it."

"You may speak--if you deem it wise," exclaimed the rector in a
strangely altered voice. He seemed much annoyed at my open defiance.
"Mr. Biddulph may as well, perhaps, know the truth at first as at
last."

"The truth!" I echoed. "Yes, tell me the truth," I begged her.

"No," she cried wildly, again covering her fair face with her hands.
"No--forgive me. I can't--_I can't!_"

"No," remarked Shuttleworth in a strange, hard, reproachful tone, and
with a cruel, cynical smile upon his lips. "You cannot--for it is too
hideous--too disgraceful--too utterly scandalous! It is for that
reason I forbid you to love!"



CHAPTER SIXTEEN

THE MAN IN GOLD PINCE-NEZ


For a whole month our engagement was kept a profound secret.

Only Shuttleworth and his wife knew. The first-named had been
compelled to bow to the inevitable, and for him, it must be said that
he behaved splendidly. Sylvia remained his guest, and on several days
each week I travelled down from Waterloo to Andover and spent the warm
summer hours with her, wandering in the woods, or lounging upon the
pretty lawn of the old rectory.

The rector had ceased to utter warnings, yet sometimes I noticed a
strange, apprehensive look upon his grave countenance. Elsie Durnford
still remained there, and she and Sylvia were close friends.

Through those four happy weeks I had tried to get into communication
with Mr. Pennington. I telegraphed to an address in Scotland which
Sylvia had given me, but received no reply. I then telegraphed to the
Caledonian Hotel in Edinburgh, and then learned, with considerable
surprise, that nobody named Pennington was, or had been, staying
there.

I told Sylvia this. But she merely remarked--

"Father is so erratic in his movements that he probably never went to
Edinburgh, after all. I have not heard from him now for a full week."

I somehow felt, why, I cannot well explain, that she was rather
disinclined to allow me to communicate with Pennington. Did she fear
that he might forbid our marriage?

Without seeing him or obtaining his consent, I confess I did not feel
absolute security. The mystery surrounding her was such a curious and
complicated one that the deeper I probed into it, the more complex did
it appear.

Some few days later, in reply to my question, she said that she had
heard from her father, who was at the Midland Grand Hotel in
Manchester. He would not, however, be in London for two or three
weeks, as he was about to leave in two days' time, by way of Hook of
Holland, for Berlin, where he had business.

Therefore, early the following morning, I took train to Manchester,
and made inquiry at the big hotel.

"We have no gentleman of that name here, sir," replied the smart
reception clerk, referring to his list. "He hasn't arrived yet, I
expect. A lady was asking for a Mr. Pennington yesterday--a French
lady."

"You don't know the name, then?"

He replied in the negative.

"No doubt he is expected, if the lady called to see him?"

"No doubt, sir. Perhaps he'll be here to-day."

And with that, I was compelled to turn disappointed away. I wandered
into the restaurant, and there ate my lunch alone. The place was
crowded, as it always is, mostly by people interested in cotton and
its products, for it is, perhaps, one of the most cosmopolitan hotels
in the whole kingdom. Sick of the chatter and clatter of the place, I
paid my bill and passed out into the big smoking-lounge to take my
coffee and liqueur and idle over the newspaper.

I was not quite certain whether to remain there the night and watch
for Pennington's arrival, or to return to London. As a matter of fact,
so certain had I been of finding him that I had not brought a
suit-case.

I suppose I had been in the lounge half-an-hour or so, when I looked
up, and then, to my surprise, saw Pennington, smartly dressed, and
looking very spruce for his years, crossing from the bureau with a
number of letters in his hand. It was apparent that he had just
received them from the mail-clerk.

And yet I had been told that he was not staying there!

I held my paper in such position as to conceal my face while I watched
his movements.

He halted, opened a telegram, and read it eagerly. Then, crushing it
in his hand with a gesture of annoyance, he thrust it into his jacket
pocket.

He was dressed in a smart dark grey suit, which fitted him perfectly,
a grey soft felt hat, while his easy manner and bearing were those of
a gentleman of wealth and leisure. He held a cigar between his
fingers, and, walking slowly as he opened one of the letters, he
presently threw himself into one of the big arm-chairs near me, and
became absorbed in his correspondence.

There was a waste-paper basket near, and into this he tossed something
as valueless. One of the letters evidently caused him considerable
annoyance, for, removing his hat, he passed his hand slowly over his
bald head as he sat staring at it in mystification. Then he rang the
bell, and ordered something from a waiter. A liqueur of brandy was
brought, and, tossing it off at a gulp, he rose, wrote a telegram at
the table near him, and went quickly out.

After he had gone I also rose, and, without attracting attention,
crossed, took up another paper, and then seated myself in the chair he
had vacated.

My eye was upon the waste-paper basket, and when no one was looking I
reached out and took therefrom a crumpled blue envelope--the paper he
had flung away.

Smoothing it out, I found that it was not addressed to him, but to
"Arnold Du Cane, Esq., Travellers' Club, Paris," and had been
re-directed to this hotel.

This surprised me.

I rose, and, crossing to the mail-clerk, asked--

"You gave some letters and a telegram to a rather short gentleman in
grey a few minutes ago. Was that Mr. Du Cane?"

"Yes, sir," was the reply. "He went across yonder into the lounge."

"You know him--eh?"

"Oh yes, sir. He's often been here. Not lately. At one time, however,
he was a frequent visitor."

And so Sylvia's father was living there under the assumed name of
Arnold Du Cane!

For business purposes names are often assumed, of course. But
Pennington's business was such a mysterious one that, even against my
will, I became filled with suspicion.

I resolved to wait and catch him on his return. He had probably only
gone to the telegraph office. Had Sylvia wilfully concealed the fact
that her father travelled under the name of Du Cane, in order that I
should not meet him? Surely there could be no reason why she should
have done so.

Therefore I returned to a chair near the entrance to the
smoking-lounge, and waited in patience.

My vigil was not a long one, for after ten minutes or so he
re-entered, spruce and gay, and cast a quick glance around, as though
in search of somebody.

I rose from my chair, and as I did so saw that he regarded me
strangely, as though half conscious of having met me somewhere before.

Walking straight up to him, I said--

"I believe, sir, that you are Mr. Pennington?"

He looked at me strangely, and I fancied that he started at mention of
the name.

"Well, sir," was his calm reply, "I have not the pleasure of knowing
you." I noted that he neither admitted that he was Pennington, nor did
he deny it.

"We met some little time ago on the Lake of Garda," I said. "I,
unfortunately, did not get the chance of a chat with you then. You
left suddenly. Don't you recollect that I sat alone opposite you in
the restaurant of the Grand at Gardone?"

"Oh yes!" he laughed. "How very foolish of me! Forgive me. I thought I
recognized you, and yet couldn't, for the life of me, recall where we
had met. How are you?" and he put out his hand and shook mine warmly.
"Let's sit down. Have a drink, Mr.--er. I haven't the pleasure of your
name."

"Biddulph," I said. "Owen Biddulph."

"Well, Mr. Biddulph," he said in a cheery way, "I'm very glad you
recognized me. I'm a very bad hand at recollecting people, I fear.
Perhaps I meet so many." And then he gave the waiter an order for some
refreshment. "Since I was at Gardone I've been about a great deal--to
Cairo, Bucharest, Odessa, and other places. I'm always travelling, you
know."

"And your daughter has remained at home--with Mr. Shuttleworth, near
Andover," I remarked.

He started perceptibly at my words.

"Ah! of course. The girl was with me at Gardone. You met her there,
perhaps--eh?"

I replied in the affirmative. It, however, struck me as strange that
he should refer to her as "the girl." Surely that was the term used by
one of his strange motoring friends when he kept that midnight
appointment on the Brescia road.

"I had the pleasure of meeting Miss Sylvia," I went on. "And more, we
have become very firm friends."

"Oh!" he exclaimed, opening his eyes widely. "I'm delighted to hear
it."

Though his manner was so open and breezy, I yet somehow detected a
curious sinister expression in his glance. He did not seem exactly at
his ease in my presence.

"The fact is, Mr. Pennington," I said, after we had been chatting for
some time, "I have been wanting to meet you for some weeks past. I
have something to say to you."

"Oh! What's that?" he asked, regarding me with some surprise. "I
suppose Sylvia told you that I was in Manchester, and you came here to
see me--eh? This was not a chance meeting--was it?"

"Not exactly," I admitted. "I came here from London expressly to have
a chat with you--a confidential chat."

His expression altered slightly, I thought.

"Well?" he asked, twisting his cigar thoughtfully in his fingers.
"Speak; I'm listening."

For a second I hesitated. Then, in a blundering way, blurted forth--

"The fact is, Mr. Pennington, I love Sylvia! She has promised to
become my wife, and I am here to beg your consent."

He half rose from his chair, staring at me in blank amazement.

"What?" he cried. "Sylvia loves you--a perfect stranger?"

"She does," was my calm response. "And though I may be a stranger to
you, Mr. Pennington, I hope it may not be for long. I am not without
means, and I am in a position to maintain your daughter properly, as
the wife of a country gentleman."

He was silent for a few moments, his brows knit thoughtfully, his eyes
upon the fine ring upon his well-manicured hand.

"What is your income?" he asked quite bluntly, raising his keen eyes
to mine.

I told him, giving him a few details concerning my parentage and my
possessions.

"And what would you be prepared to settle on my daughter, providing I
gave my consent? Have you thought of that matter?"

I confessed that I had not, but that I would be ready, if she so
desired, to settle upon her twenty thousand pounds.

"And that wouldn't cripple you--eh?"

"No, I'm pleased to say it would not. I have kept my inheritance
practically intact," I added.

"Well, I must first hear what Sylvia has to say," he said; then he
added airily, "I suppose you would make over the greater part of your
estate to her, in case of your death? And there are life assurances,
of course? One never knows what may happen, you know. Pardon me for
speaking thus frankly. As a father, however, it is my duty to see that
my daughter's future is safeguarded."

"I quite understand all that," I replied, with a smile. "Of course,
Sylvia would inherit all I could legally bequeath to her, and as for
life assurances, I would insure myself for what sum you suggest."

"You are young," he said. "Insure for ten thousand. The premiums would
be not so very heavy."

"As you wish," I replied. "If I carry out your desires, I understand
that I have your consent to pay my attentions to Sylvia?"

"If what you tell me proves, on inquiry, to be the truth, Mr.
Biddulph, I shall have the greatest pleasure in welcoming you as my
son-in-law. I can't say more," he replied. "Here's my hand," and as I
took his, he gripped me heartily. "I confess I like you now," he
added, "and I feel sure I shall like you more when I know more
concerning you."

Then he added, with a laugh--

"Oh, by the way, I'm not known here as Pennington, but as Du Cane. The
fact is, I had some unfortunate litigation some time ago, which led to
bankruptcy, and so, for business reasons, I'm Arnold Du Cane. You'll
understand, won't you?" he laughed.

"Entirely," I replied, overjoyed at receiving Pennington's consent.
"When shall we meet in London?"

"I'll be back on the 10th--that's sixteen days from now," he replied.
"I have to go to Brussels, and on to Riga. Tell Sylvia and dear old
Shuttleworth you've seen me. Give them both my love. We shall meet
down at Middleton, most certainly."

And so for a long time we chatted on, finishing our cigars, I
replying to many questions he put to me relative to my financial and
social position--questions which were most natural in the
circumstances of our proposed relationship.

But while we were talking a rather curious incident arrested my
attention. Pennington was sitting with his back to the door of the
lounge, when, among those who came and went, was a rather stout
foreigner of middle age, dressed quietly in black, wearing a gold
pince-nez, and having the appearance of a French business man.

He had entered the lounge leisurely, when, suddenly catching sight of
Sylvia's father, he drew back and made a hurried exit, apparently
anxious to escape the observation of us both.

So occupied was my mind with my own affairs that the occurrence
completely passed from me until that same night, when, at ten o'clock,
on descending the steps of White's and proceeding to walk down St.
James's Street in the direction of home, I suddenly heard footsteps
behind me, and, turning, found, to my dismay, the Frenchman from
Manchester quietly walking in the same direction.

This greatly mystified me. The broad-faced foreigner in gold
pince-nez, evidently in ignorance that I had seen him in Manchester,
must have travelled up to London by the same train as myself, and must
have remained watching outside White's for an hour or more!

Why had the stranger so suddenly become interested in me?

Was yet another attempt to be made upon me, as Shuttleworth had so
mysteriously predicted?

I was determined to show a bold front and defy my enemies; therefore,
when I had crossed Pall Mall against St. James's Palace, I suddenly
faced about, and, meeting the stranger full tilt, addressed him before
he could escape.

Next moment, alas! I knew that I had acted injudiciously.



CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

THE MAN IN THE STREET


I had asked the Frenchman, rather angrily I fear, why he was following
me, whereat he merely bowed with the exquisite politeness of his race,
and replied in good English--

"I was not aware of following m'sieur. I regret extremely if I have
caused annoyance. I ask a thousand pardons."

"Well, your surveillance upon me annoys me," I declared abruptly. "I
saw you spying upon me in Manchester this afternoon, and you have
followed me to London!"

"Ah, yes," he replied, with a slight gesticulation; "it is true that I
was in Manchester. But our meeting here must be by mere chance. I was
unaware that monsieur was in Manchester," he assured me in a suave
manner.

"Well," I said in French, "yours is a very lame story, monsieur. I saw
you, and you also saw me talking to Mr. Pennington in the Midland
Hotel. Perhaps you'll deny that you know Mr. Pennington--eh?"

"I certainly do not deny that," he said, with a smile. "I have known
Monsieur Penning-ton for some years. It is true that I saw him at the
Midland."

"And you withdrew in order to escape his observation--eh?"

"Monsieur has quick eyes," he said. "Yes, that is quite true."

"Why?"

"For reasons of my own."

"And you deny having followed me here?"

He hesitated for a second, looking straight into my face in the
darkness.

"Come," I said, "you may as well admit that you followed me from
Manchester."

"Why should I admit what is not the truth?" he asked. "What motive
could I have to follow you--a perfect stranger?"

"Well, as a matter of fact, I'm a bit suspicious," I declared, still
speaking in French. "Of late there was a desperate attempt upon my
life."

"By whom?" he inquired quickly. "Please tell me, Monsieur Biddulph; I
am greatly interested in this."

"Then you know my name?" I exclaimed, surprised.

"Certainly."

"Why are you interested in me?"

"I may now have a motive," was his calm yet mysterious reply. "Tell me
in what manner an attempt has been made upon you?"

At first I hesitated, then, after a second's reflection, I explained
the situation in a few words.

"Ah! Of course, I quite see that monsieur's mind must be filled by
suspicion," he responded; "yet I regret if I have been the cause of
any annoyance. By the way, how long have you known Monsieur
Penning-ton?"

"Oh, some months," I replied. "The fact is, I'm engaged to his
daughter."

"His daughter!" echoed the Frenchman, looking at me quickly with a
searching glance. Then he gave vent to a low grunt, and stroked his
grey pointed beard.

"And it was after this engagement that the attempt was made upon
you--eh?" he inquired.

"No, before."

The foreigner remained silent for a few moments. He seemed
considerably puzzled. I could not make him out. The fact that he was
acquainted with my name showed that he was unduly interested in me,
even though he had partially denied it.

"Why do you ask this?" I demanded, as we still stood together at the
bottom of St. James's Street.

"Ah, nothing," he laughed. "But--well, I really fear I've aroused your
suspicions unduly. Perhaps it is not so very extraordinary, after all,
that in these days of rapid communication two men should catch sight
of each other in a Manchester hotel, and, later on, meet in a street
in London--eh?"

"I regard the coincidence as a strange one, monsieur," I replied
stiffly, "if it is really an actual coincidence."

For aught I knew, the fellow might be a friend of Pennington, or an
accomplice of those rascally assassins. Had I not been warned by
Shuttleworth, and also by Sylvia herself, of another secret attempt
upon my life?

I was wary now, and full of suspicion.

Instinctively I did not like this mysterious foreigner. The way in
which he had first caught sight of my face as I descended the steps of
White's, and how he had glided after me down St. James's Street, was
not calculated to inspire confidence.

He asked permission to walk at my side along the Mall, which I rather
reluctantly granted. It seemed that, now I had addressed him, I could
not shake him off. Without doubt his intention was to watch, and see
where I lived. Therefore, instead of going in the direction of
Buckingham Palace, I turned back eastward towards the steps at the
foot of the Duke of York's Column.

As we strolled in the darkness along the front of Carlton House
Terrace he chatted affably with me, then said suddenly--

"Do you know, Monsieur Biddulph, we met once before--in rather strange
circumstances. You did not, however, see me. It was in Paris, some
little time ago. You were staying at the Grand Hotel, and became
acquainted with a certain American named Harriman."

"Harriman!" I echoed, with a start, for that man's name brought back
to me an episode I would fain forget. The fact is, I had trusted him,
and I had believed him to be an honest man engaged in big financial
transactions, until I discovered the truth. My friendship with him
cost me nearly one thousand eight hundred pounds.

"Harriman was very smart, was he not?" laughed my friend, with a touch
of sarcasm.

Could it be, I wondered, that this Frenchman was a friend of the
shrewd and unscrupulous New Yorker?

"Yes," I replied rather faintly.

"Sharp--until found out," went on the stranger, speaking in French.
"His real name is Bell, and he----"

"Yes, I know; he was arrested for fraud in my presence as he came down
the staircase in the hotel," I interrupted.

"He was arrested upon a much more serious charge," exclaimed the
stranger. "He was certainly wanted in Berlin and Hanover for frauds in
connection with an invention, but the most serious charge against him
was one of murder."

"Murder!" I gasped. "I never knew that!"

"Yes--the murder of a young English statesman named Ronald Burke at a
villa near Nice. Surely you read reports of the trial?"

I confessed that I had not done so.

"Well, it was proved conclusively that he was a member of a very
dangerous gang of criminals who for several years had committed some
of the most clever and audacious thefts. The organization consisted of
over thirty men and women, of varying ages, all of them expert jewel
thieves, safe-breakers, or card-sharpers. Twice each year this
interesting company held meetings--at which every member was
present--and at such meetings certain members were allotted certain
districts, or certain profitable pieces of business. Thus, if
half-a-dozen were to-day operating in London as thieves or receivers,
they would change, and in a week would be operating in St. Petersburg,
while those from Russia would be here. So cleverly was the band
organized that it was practically impossible for the police to make
arrests. It was a more widespread and wealthy criminal organization
than has ever before been unearthed. But the arrest of your friend
Harriman, alias Bell, on a charge of murder was the means of exposing
the conspiracy, and the ultimate breaking up of the gang."

"And what of Bell?"

"He narrowly escaped the guillotine, and is now imprisoned for life at
Devil's Island."

"And you saw him with me at Paris?" I remarked, in wonder at this
strange revelation. "He certainly never struck me as an assassin. He
was a shrewd man--a swindler, no doubt, but his humorous bearing and
his good-nature were entirely opposed to the belief that his was a
sinister nature."

"Yet it was proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that he and another
man killed and robbed a young Englishman named Burke," responded the
Frenchman. "Perhaps you, yourself, had a narrow escape. Who knows? It
was no doubt lucky for you that he was arrested."

"But I understood that the charge was one of fraud," I said. "I
intended to go to the trial, but I was called to Italy."

"The charge of fraud was made in order not to alarm his accomplice,"
replied the stranger.

"How do you know that?" I inquired.

"Well"--he hesitated--"that came out at the trial. There were full
accounts of it in the Paris _Matin_."

"I don't care for reading Assize Court horrors," I replied, still
puzzled regarding my strange companion's intimate knowledge concerning
the man whose dramatic and sudden arrest had, on that memorable
afternoon, so startled me.

"When I saw your face just now," he said, "I recognized you as being
at the Grand Hotel with Bell. Do you know," he laughed, "you were such
a close friend of the accused that you were suspected of being a
member of the dangerous association! Indeed, you very narrowly escaped
arrest on suspicion. It was only because the reception clerk in the
hotel knew you well, and vouched for your respectability and that
Biddulph was your real name. Yet, for a full week, you were watched
closely by the _sûreté_."

"And I was all unconscious of it!" I cried, realizing how narrowly I
had escaped a very unpleasant time. "How do you know all this?" I
asked.

But the Frenchman with the gold glasses and the big amethyst ring upon
his finger merely laughed, and refused to satisfy me.

From him, however, I learned that the depredations of the formidable
gang had been unequalled in the annals of crime. Many of the greatest
jewel robberies in the European capitals in recent years had, it was
now proved, been effected by them, as well as the theft of the
Marchioness of Mottisfont's jewels at Victoria Station, which were
valued at eighteen thousand pounds, and were never recovered; the
breaking open of the safe of Levi & Andrews, the well-known
diamond-merchants of Hatton Garden, and the theft of a whole vanload
of furs before a shop in New Bond Street, all of which are, no doubt,
fresh within the memory of the reader of the daily newspapers.

Every single member of that remarkable association of thieves was an
expert in his or her branch of dishonesty, while the common fund was a
large one, hence members could disguise themselves as wealthy persons,
if need be. One, when arrested, was found occupying a fine old castle
in the Tyrol, he told me; another--an expert burglar--was a doctor in
good practice at Hampstead; another kept a fine jeweller's shop in
Marseilles, while another, a lady, lived in style in a great château
near Nevers.

"And who exposed them?" I asked, much interested. "Somebody must have
betrayed them."

"Somebody did betray them--by anonymous letters to the police--letters
which were received at intervals at the Préfecture in Paris, and led
to the arrest of one after another of the chief members of the gang.
It seemed to have been done by some one irritated by Bell's arrest.
But the identity of the informant has never been ascertained. He
deemed it best to remain hidden--for obvious reasons," laughed my
friend at my side.

"You seem to know a good many facts regarding the affair," I said.
"Have you no idea of the identity of the mysterious informant?"

"Well"--he hesitated--"I have a suspicion that it was some person
associated with them--some one who became conscience-stricken. Ah!
M'sieur Biddulph, if you only knew the marvellous cunning of that
invulnerable gang. Had it not been for that informant, they would
still be operating--in open defiance of the police of Europe. Criminal
methods, if expert, only fail for want of funds. Are not some of our
wealthiest financiers mere criminals who, by dealing in thousands, as
other men deal in francs, conceal their criminal methods? Half your
successful financiers are merely successful adventurers. The
_dossiers_ of some of them, preserved in the police bureaux, would be
astounding reading to those who admire them and proclaim them the
successful men of to-day--kings of finance they call them!"

"You are certainly something of a philosopher," I laughed, compelled
to admit the truth of his argument; "but tell me--how is it that you
know so much concerning George Harriman, alias Bell, and his
antecedents?"



CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

PROOF POSITIVE


I was greatly interested, even though I was now filled with suspicion.

Somehow I had become impressed with the idea that the stranger might
have been one of the daring and dangerous association, and that he had
related that strange story for the purpose of misleading me.

But the stranger, who had, in the course of our conversation, told me
that his name was Pierre Delanne, only said--

"You could have read it all in the _Matin_, my dear monsieur."

His attitude was that of a man who knew more than he intended to
reveal. Surely it was a curious circumstance, standing there in the
night, listening to the dramatic truth concerning the big-faced
American, Harriman, whom I had for so long regarded as an enigma.

"Tell me, Monsieur Delanne," I said, "for what reason have you
followed me to London?"

He laughed as he strode easily along at my side towards the Duke of
York's steps.

"Haven't I already told you that I did not purposely follow you?" he
exclaimed.

"Yes, but I don't believe it," was my very frank reply. He had
certainly explained that, but his manner was not earnest. I could see
that he was only trifling with me, trifling in an easy, good-natured
way.

"_Bien!_" he said; "and if I followed you, Monsieur Biddulph, I assert
that it is with no sinister intent."

"How do I know that?" I queried. "You are a stranger."

"I admit that. But you are not a stranger to me, my dear monsieur."

"Well, let us come to the point," I said. "What do you want with me?"

"Nothing," he laughed. "Was it not you yourself who addressed me?"

"But you followed me!" I cried. "You can't deny that."

"Monsieur may hold of me whatever opinion he pleases," was Delanne's
polite reply. "I repeat my regrets, and I ask pardon."

He spoke English remarkably well. But I recollected that the
international thief--the man who is a cosmopolitan, and who commits
theft in one country to-night, and is across the frontier in the
morning--is always a perfect linguist. Harriman was. Though American,
with all his nasal intonation and quaint Americanisms, he spoke
half-a-dozen Continental languages quite fluently.

My bitter experiences of the past caused considerable doubt to arise
within me. I had had warnings that my mysterious enemies would attack
me secretly, by some subtle means. Was this Frenchman one of them?

He saw that I treated him with some suspicion, but it evidently amused
him. His face beamed with good-nature.

At the bottom of the broad flight of stairs which lead up to the
United Service Club and Pall Mall, I halted.

"Now look here, Monsieur Delanne," I said, much puzzled and mystified
by the man's manner and the curious story he had related, "I have
neither desire nor inclination for your company further. You
understand?"

"Ah, monsieur, a thousand pardons," cried the man, raising his hat and
bowing with the elegance of the true Parisian. "I have simply spoken
the truth. Did you not put to me questions which I have answered? You
have said you are engaged to the daughter of my friend Penning-ton.
That has interested me."

"Why?"

"Because the daughter of my friend Penning-ton always interests me,"
was his curious reply.

"Is that an intended sarcasm?" I asked resentfully.

"Not in the least, m'sieur," he said quickly. "I have every admiration
for the young lady."

"Then you know her--eh?"

"By repute."

"Why?"

"Well, her father was connected with one of the strangest and most
extraordinary incidents in my life," he said. "Even to-day, the
mystery of it all has not been cleared up. I have tried, times without
number, to elucidate it, but have always failed."

"What part did Sylvia play in the affair, may I ask?"

"Really," he replied, "I scarcely know. It was so utterly
extraordinary--beyond human credence."

"Tell me--explain to me," I said, instantly interested. What could
this man know of my well-beloved?

He was silent for some minutes. We were still standing by the steps.
Surely it was scarcely the place for an exchange of confidences.

"I fear that monsieur must really excuse me. The matter is
purely a personal one--purely confidential, and concerns myself
alone--just--just as your close acquaintanceship with Mademoiselle
Sylvia concerns you."

"It seems that it concerns other persons as well, if one may judge by
what has recently occurred."

"Ah! Then your enemies have arisen because of your engagement to the
girl--eh?"

"The girl!" How strange! Pennington's mysterious friends of the
Brescia road had referred to her as "the girl." So had those two
assassins in Porchester Terrace! Was it a mere coincidence, or had he,
too, betrayed a collusion with those mean blackguards who had put me
to that horrible torture?

Had you met this strange man at night in St. James's Park, would you
have placed any faith in him? I think not. I maintain that I was
perfectly justified in treating him as an enemy. He was rather too
intimately acquainted with the doings of Harriman and his gang to suit
my liking. Even as he stood there beneath the light of the
street-lamp, I saw that his bright eyes twinkled behind those gold
pince-nez, while the big old-fashioned amethyst he wore on his finger
was a conspicuous object. He gave one the appearance of a prosperous
merchant or shopkeeper.

"What makes you suggest that the attempt was due to my affection for
Sylvia?" I asked him.

"Well, it furnishes a motive, does it not?"

"No, it doesn't. I have no enemies--as far as I am aware."

"But there exists some person who is highly jealous of mademoiselle,
and who is therefore working against you in secret."

"Is that your opinion?"

"I regret to admit that it is. Indeed, Monsieur Biddulph, you have
every need to exercise the greatest care. Otherwise misfortune will
occur to you. Mark what I--a stranger--tell you."

I started. Here again was a warning uttered! The situation was growing
quite uncanny.

"What makes you expect this?"

"It is more than mere surmise," he said slowly and in deep
earnestness. "I happen to know."

From that last sentence of his I jumped to the conclusion that he was,
after all, one of the malefactors. He was warning me with the
distinct object of putting me off my guard. His next move, no doubt,
would be to try and pose as my friend and adviser! I laughed within
myself, for I was too wary for him.

"Well," I said, after a few moments' silence, as together we ascended
the broad flight of steps, with the high column looming in the
darkness, "the fact is, I've become tired of all these warnings.
Everybody I meet seems to predict disaster for me. Why, I can't make
out."

"No one has revealed to you the reason--eh?" he asked in a low,
meaning voice.

"No."

"Ah! Then, of course, you cannot discern the peril. It is but natural
that you should treat all well-meant advice lightly. Probably I
should, _mon cher ami_, if I were in your place."

"Well," I exclaimed impatiently, halting again, "now, what is it that
you really know? Don't beat about the bush any longer. Tell me,
frankly and openly."

The man merely raised his shoulders significantly, but made no
response. In the ray of light which fell upon him, his gold-rimmed
spectacles glinted, while his shrewd dark eyes twinkled behind them,
as though he delighted in mystifying me.

"Surely you can reply," I cried in anger. "What is the reason of all
this? What have I done?"

"Ah! it is what monsieur has not done."

"Pray explain."

"Pardon. I cannot explain. Why not ask mademoiselle? She knows
everything."

"Everything!" I echoed. "Then why does she not tell me?"

"She fears--most probably."

Could it be that this strange foreigner was purposely misleading me? I
gazed upon his stout, well-dressed figure, and the well-brushed silk
hat which he wore with such jaunty air.

In Pall Mall a string of taxi-cabs was passing westward, conveying
homeward-bound theatre folk, while across at the brightly-lit entrance
of the Carlton, cabs and taxis were drawing up and depositing
well-dressed people about to sup.

At the corner of the Athenæum Club we halted again, for I wanted to
rid myself of him. I had acted foolishly in addressing him in the
first instance. For aught I knew, he might be an accomplice of those
absconding assassins of Porchester Terrace.

As we stood there, he had the audacity to produce his cigarette-case
and offer me one. But I resentfully declined it.

"Ah!" he laughed, stroking his greyish beard again, "I fear, Monsieur
Biddulph, that you are displeased with me. I have annoyed you by not
satisfying your natural curiosity. But were I to do so, it would be
against my own interests. Hence my silence. Am I not perfectly honest
with you?"

That speech of his corroborated all my suspicions. His motive in
following me, whatever it could be, was a sinister one. He had
admitted knowledge of Harriman, the man found guilty and sentenced
for the murder of the young English member of Parliament, Ronald
Burke. His intimate acquaintance with Harriman's past and with his
undesirable friends showed that he must have been an associate of that
daring and dangerous gang.

I was a diligent reader of the English papers, but had never seen any
mention of the great association of expert criminals. His assertion
that the Paris _Matin_ had published all the details was, in all
probability, untrue. I instinctively mistrusted him, because he had
kept such a watchful eye upon me ever since I had sat with Sylvia's
father in the lounge of that big hotel in Manchester.

"I don't think you are honest with me, Monsieur Delanne," I said
stiffly. "Therefore I refuse to believe you further."

"As you wish," laughed my companion. "You will believe me, however,
ere long--when you have proof. Depend upon it."

And he glanced at his watch, closing it quickly with a snap.

"You see----" he began, but as he uttered the words a taxi, coming
from the direction of Charing Cross, suddenly pulled up at the kerb
where we were standing--so suddenly that, for a moment, I did not
notice that it had come to a standstill.

"Ah!" he exclaimed, when he saw the cab, "I quite forgot! I have an
appointment. I will wish you _bon soir_, Monsieur Biddulph. We may
meet again--perhaps." And he raised his hat in farewell.

As he turned towards the taxi to enter it, I realized that some one
was inside--that the person in the cab had met the strange foreigner
by appointment at that corner!

A man's face peered out for a second, and a voice exclaimed cheerily--

"Hulloa! Sorry I'm late, old chap!"

Then, next instant, on seeing me, the face was withdrawn into the
shadow.

Delanne had entered quickly, and, slamming the door, told the man to
drive with all speed to Paddington Station.

The taxi was well on its way down Pall Mall ere I could recover from
my surprise.

The face of the man in the cab was a countenance the remembrance of
which will ever haunt me if I live to be a hundred years--the evil,
pimply, dissipated face of Charles Reckitt!

My surmise had been correct, after all. Delanne was his friend!

Another conspiracy was afoot against me!



CHAPTER NINETEEN

THROUGH THE MISTS


It was now the end of September.

All my fears had proved groundless, and I had, at last, learned to
laugh at them. For me, a new vista of life had been opened out, for
Sylvia had now been my wife for a whole week--seven long dreamy days
of perfect love and bliss.

Scarce could we realize the truth that we were actually man and wife.

Pennington had, after all, proved quite kind and affable, his sole
thought being of his daughter's future happiness. I had invited them
both down to Carrington, and he had expressed delight at the provision
I had made for Sylvia. Old Browning, in his brand-new suit, was at the
head of a new staff of servants. There were new horses and carriages
and a landaulette motor, while I had also done all I could to
refurnish and renovate some of the rooms for Sylvia's use.

The old place had been very dark and dreary, but it now wore an air of
brightness and freshness, thanks to the London upholsterers and
decorators into whose hands I had given the work.

Pennington appeared highly pleased with all he saw, while Sylvia, her
arms entwined about my neck, kissed me in silent thanks for my efforts
on her behalf.

Then came the wedding--a very quiet one at St. Mary Abbot's,
Kensington. Besides Jack Marlowe and a couple of other men who were
intimate friends, not more than a dozen persons were present.
Shuttleworth assisted the vicar, but Pennington was unfortunately ill
in bed at the Hôtel Métropole, suffering from a bad cold. Still, we
held the wedding luncheon at the Savoy, and afterwards went up to
Scarborough, where we were now living in a pretty suite at the Grand
Hotel overlooking the harbour, the blue bay, and the castle-crowned
cliffs.

It was disappointing to Sylvia that her father had not been present at
the wedding, but Elsie Durnford and her mother were there, as well as
two or three other of her girl friends. The ceremony was very plain.
At her own request, she had been married in her travelling-dress,
while I, man-like, had secretly been glad that there was no fuss.

Just a visit to the church, the brief ceremony, the signature in the
register, and a four-line announcement in the _Times_ and _Morning
Post_, and Sylvia and I had become man and wife.

I had resolved, on the morning of my marriage, to put behind me all
thought of the mysteries and gruesomeness of the past. Now that I was
Sylvia's husband, I felt that she would have my protection, as well as
that of her father. I had said nothing to her of her strange
apprehensions, for we had mutually allowed them to drop.

We had come to Scarborough in preference to going abroad, for my
well-beloved declared that she had had already too much of Continental
life, and preferred a quiet time in England. So we had chosen the East
Coast, and now each day we either drove out over the Yorkshire moors,
or wandered by the rolling seas.

She was now my own--my very own! Ah! the sweet significance of those
words when I uttered them and she clung to me, raising her full red
lips to mine to kiss.

I loved her--aye, loved her with an all-consuming love. I told myself
a thousand times that no man on earth had ever loved a woman more than
I loved Sylvia. She was my idol, and more, we were wedded, firmly
united to one another, insunderably joined with each other so that we
two were one.

You satirists, cynics, misogamists and misogynists may sneer at love,
and jeer at marriage. So melancholy is this our age that even by some
women marriage seems to be doubted. Yet we may believe that there is
not a woman in all Christendom who does not dote upon the name of
"wife." It carries a spell which even the most rebellious suffragette
must acknowledge. They may speak of the subjection, the trammel, the
"slavery," and the inferiority to which marriage reduces them, but,
after all, "wife" is a word against which they cannot harden their
hearts.

Ah! how fervently we loved each other. As Sylvia and I wandered
together by the sea on those calm September evenings, avoiding the
holiday crowd, preferring the less-frequented walks to the fashionable
promenades of the South Cliff or the Spa, we linked arm in arm, and I
often, when not observed, kissed her upon the brow.

One evening, with the golden sunset in our faces, we were walking over
the cliffs to Cayton Bay, a favourite walk of ours, when we halted at
a stile, and sat together upon it to rest.

The wide waters deep below, bathed in the green and gold of the
sinking sun, were calm, almost unruffled, unusual indeed for the North
Sea, while about us the birds were singing their evening song, and the
cattle in the fields were lying down in peace. There was not a breath
of wind. The calmness was the same as the perfect calmness of our own
hearts.

"How still it is, Owen," remarked my love, after sitting in silence
for a few minutes. From where we sat we could see that it was high
tide, and the waves were lazily lapping the base of the cliffs deep
below. Now and then a gull would circle about us with its shrill,
plaintive cry, while far on the distant horizon lay the trail of smoke
from a passing steamer. "How delightful it is to be here--alone with
you!"

My arm stole round her slim waist, and my lips met hers in a fond,
passionate caress. She looked very dainty in a plain walking costume
of cream serge, with a boa of ostrich feathers about her throat, and a
large straw hat trimmed with autumn flowers. It was exceptionally
warm for the time of year; yet at night, on the breezy East Coast,
there is a cold nip in the air even in the height of summer.

That afternoon we had, by favour of its owner, Mr. George Beeforth,
one of the pioneers of Scarborough, wandered through the beautiful
private gardens of the Belvedere, which, with their rose-walks, lawns
and plantations, stretched from the promenade down to the sea, and had
spent some charming hours in what its genial owner called "the
sun-trap." In all the north of England there are surely no more
beautiful gardens beside the sea than those, and happily their
good-natured owner is never averse to granting a stranger permission
to visit them.

As we now sat upon that stile our hearts were too full for words,
devoted as we were to each other.

"Owen," my wife exclaimed at last, her soft little hand upon my
shoulder as she looked up into my face, "are you certain you will
never regret marrying me?"

"Why, of course not, dearest," I said quickly, looking into her great
wide-open eyes.

"But--but, somehow----"

"Somehow, what?" I asked slowly.

"Well," she sighed, gazing away towards the far-off horizon, her
wonderful eyes bluer than the sea itself, "I have a strange,
indescribable feeling of impending evil--a presage of disaster."

"My darling," I exclaimed, "why trouble yourself over what are merely
melancholy fancies? We are happy in each other's love; therefore why
should we anticipate evil? If it comes, then we will unite to resist
it."

"Ah, yes, Owen," she replied quickly, "but this strange feeling came
over me yesterday when we were together at Whitby. I cannot describe
it--only it is a weird, uncanny feeling, a fixed idea that something
must happen to mar this perfect happiness of ours."

"What can mar our happiness when we both trust each other--when we
both love each other, and our two hearts beat as one?"

"Has not the French poet written a very serious truth in those lines:
'_Plaisir d'amour ne dure qu'un moment; chagrin d'amour dure toute la
vie_'?"

"Yes, but we shall experience no chagrin, sweetheart," I assured her.
"After another week here we will travel where you will. If you wish,
we will go to Carrington. There we shall be perfectly happy together,
away in beautiful Devonshire."

"I know you want to go there for the shooting, Owen," she said
quietly, yet regarding me somewhat strangely, I thought. "You have
asked Mr. Marlowe?"

"With your permission, dearest."

But her face changed, and she sighed slightly.

In an instant I recollected the admission that they had either met
before, or at least they knew something concerning each other.

"Perhaps you do not desire to entertain company yet?" I said quickly.
"Very well; I'll ask your father; he and I can have some sport
together."

"Owen," she said at last, turning her fair face again to mine, "would
you think it very, very strange of me, after all that you have done at
beautiful old Carrington, if I told you that I--well, that I do not
exactly like the place?"

This rather surprised me, for she had hitherto been full of admiration
of the fine, well-preserved relic of the Elizabethan age.

"Dearest, if you do not care for Carrington we will not go there. We
can either live at Wilton Street, or travel."

"I'm tired of travelling, dear," she declared. "Ah, so tired! So, if
you are content, let us live in Wilton Street. Carrington is so huge.
When we were there I always felt lost in those big old rooms and long,
echoing corridors."

"But your own rooms that I've had redecorated and furnished are
smaller," I said. "I admit that the old part of the house is very dark
and weird--full of ghosts of other times. There are a dozen or more
legends concerning it, as you know."

"Yes, I read them in the guide-book to Devon. Some are distinctly
quaint, are they not?"

"Some are tragic also--especially the story of little Lady Holbrook,
who was so brutally killed by the Roundheads because she refused to
reveal the whereabouts of her husband," I said.

"Poor little lady!" sighed Sylvia. "But that is not mere legend: it is
historical fact."

"Well," I said, "if you do not care for Carrington--if it is too dull
for you--we'll live in London. Personally, I, too, should soon grow
tired of a country life; and yet how could I grow tired of life with
you, my own darling, at my side?"

"And how could I either, Owen?" she asked, kissing me fondly. "With
you, no place can ever be dull. It is not the dulness I dread, but
other things."

"What things?"

"Catastrophe--of what kind, I know not. But I have been seized with a
kind of instinctive dread."

For a few moments I was silent, my arm still about her neat waist.
This sudden depression of hers was not reassuring.

"Try and rid yourself of the idea, dearest," I urged presently. "You
have nothing to fear. We may both have enemies, but they will not now
dare to attack us. Remember, I am now your husband."

"And I your wife, Owen," she said, with a sweet love-look. Then, with
a heavy sigh, she gazed thoughtfully away with her eyes fixed upon the
darkening sea, and added: "I only fear, dearest--for your sake."

I was silent again.

"Sylvia," I said slowly at last, "have you learnt anything--anything
fresh which has awakened these strange apprehensions of yours?"

"No," she faltered, "nothing exactly fresh. It is only a strange and
unaccountable dread which has seized me--a dread of impending
disaster."

"Forget it," I urged, endeavouring to laugh. "All your fears are now
without foundation, dearest. Now we are wedded, we will fearlessly
face the world together."

"I have no fear when I am at your side, Owen," she replied, looking at
me pale and troubled. "But when we are parted I--I always fear. The
day before yesterday I was full of apprehension all the time you had
gone to York. I felt that something was to happen to you."

"Really, dear," I said, smiling, "you make me feel quite creepy. Don't
allow your mind to run on the subject. Try and think of something
else."

"But I can't," she declared. "That's just it. I only wish I could rid
myself of this horrible feeling of insecurity."

"We are perfectly secure," I assured her. "My enemies are now aware
that I'm quite wide awake." And in a few brief sentences I explained
my curious meeting with the Frenchman Delanne.

The instant I described him--his stout body, his grey pointed beard,
his gold pince-nez, his amethyst ring--she sat staring at me, white to
the lips.

"Why," she gasped, "I know! The description is exact. And--and you say
he saw my father in Manchester! He actually rode away in the same cab
as Reckitt! Impossible! You must have dreamt it all, Owen."

"No, dearest," I said quite calmly. "It all occurred just as I have
repeated it to you."

"And he really entered the taxi with Reckitt? He said, too, that he
knew my father--eh?"

"He did."

She held her breath. Her eyes were staring straight before her, her
breath came and went quickly, and she gripped the wooden post to
steady herself, for she swayed forward suddenly, and I stretched out
my hand, fearing lest she should fall.

What I had told her seemed to stagger her. It revealed something of
intense importance to her--something which, to me, remained hidden.

It was still a complete enigma.



CHAPTER TWENTY

THE STRANGER IN THE RUE DE RIVOLI


From Scarborough we had gone up to the Highlands, spending a fortnight
at Grantown, a week at Blair Atholl, returning south through Callander
and the Trossachs--one of the most glorious autumns I had ever spent.

Ours was now a peaceful, uneventful life, careless of the morrow, and
filled with perfect love and concord. I adored my young beautiful
wife, and I envied no man.

I had crushed down all feelings of misgivings that had hitherto so
often arisen within me, for I felt confident in Sylvia's affection.
She lived only for me, possessing me body and soul.

Not a pair in the whole of England loved each other with a truer or
more fervent passion. Our ideas were identical, and certainly I could
not have chosen a wife more fitted for me--even though she rested
beneath such a dark cloud of suspicion.

I suppose some who read this plain statement of fact will declare me
to have been a fool. But to such I would reply that in your hearts the
flame of real love has never yet burned. You may have experienced what
you have fondly believed to have been love--a faint flame that has
perhaps flickered for a time and, dying out, has long been forgotten.
Only if you have really loved a woman--loved her with that
all-consuming passion that arises within a man once in his whole
lifetime when he meets his affinity, can you understand why I made
Sylvia my wife.

I had the car brought up to meet us in Perth, and with it Sylvia and I
had explored all the remotest beauties of the Highlands. We ran up as
far north as Inverness, and around to Oban, delighting in all the
beauties of the heather-clad hills, the wild moors, the autumn-tinted
glades, and the broad unruffled lochs. Afterwards we went round the
Trossachs and motored back to London through Carlisle, the Lakes,
North Wales and the Valley of the Wye, the most charming of all
motor-runs in England.

Afterwards, Sylvia wanted to do some shopping, and we went over to
Paris for ten days. There, while at the Meurice, her father, who
chanced to be passing through Paris on his way from Brussels to Lyons,
came unexpectedly one evening and dined with us in our private salon.

Pennington was just as elegant and epicurean as ever. He delighted in
the dinner set before him, the hotel, of course, being noted for its
cooking.

That evening we were a merry trio. I had not seen my father-in-law
since the morning of our marriage, when I had called, and found him
confined to his bed. Therefore we had both a lot to relate to him
regarding our travels.

"I, too, have been moving about incessantly," he remarked, as he
poised his wine-glass in his hand, regarding the colour of its
contents. "I was in Petersburg three weeks ago. I'm interested in some
telegraph construction works there. We've just secured a big
Government contract to lay a new line across Siberia."

"I've written to you half-a-dozen times," remarked his daughter, "but
you never replied."

"I've never had your letters, child," he said. "Where did you address
them?"

"Two I sent to the Travellers' Club, here. Another I sent to the Hôtel
de France, in Petersburg."

"Ah! I was at the Europe," he laughed. "I find their cooking better.
Their sterlet is even better than the Hermitage at Moscow. Jules, the
chef, was at Cubat's, in the Nevski, for years."

Pennington always gauged a hotel by the excellence of its chef. He
told us of tiny obscure places in Italy which he knew, where the rooms
were carpetless and comfortless, but where the cooking could vie with
the Savoy or Carlton in London. He mentioned the Giaponne in Leghorn,
the Tazza d'Oro in Lucca, and the Vapore in Venice, of all three of
which I had had experience, and I fully corroborated what he said. He
was a man who ate his strawberries with a quarter of a liqueur-glass
of maraschino thrown over them, and a slight addition of pepper, and
he always mixed his salads himself.

"Perhaps you think me very whimsical," he laughed across the table,
"but really, good cooking makes so much difference to life."

I told him that, as an Englishman, I preferred plainly-cooked food.

"Which is usually heavy and indigestible, I fear," he declared. "What,
now, could be more indigestible than our English roast beef and plum
pudding--eh?"

My own thoughts were, however, running in an entirely different
channel, and when presently Sylvia, who looked a delightful picture in
ivory chiffon, and wearing the diamond necklet I had given her as one
of her wedding presents, rose and left us to our cigars, I said
suddenly--

"I say, Pennington, do you happen to know a stout, grey-bearded
Frenchman who wears gold-rimmed glasses--a man named Pierre Delanne?"

"Delanne?" he repeated. "No, I don't recollect the name."

"I saw him in Manchester," I exclaimed. "He was at the Midland, and
said he knew you--and also Sylvia."

"In Manchester! Was he at the Midland while I was there?"

"Yes. He was dressed in black, with a silk hat and wore on his finger
a great amethyst ring--a rather vulgar-looking ornament."

Pennington's lips were instantly pressed together.

"Ah!" he exclaimed, almost with a start, "I think I know who you
mean. His beard is pointed, and his eyes rather small and shining. He
has the air of a bon-vivant, and speaks English extremely well. He
wears the amethyst on the little finger of his left hand."

"Exactly."

"And, to you, he called himself Pierre Delanne, eh?"

"Yes. What is his real name, then?"

"Who knows? I've heard that he uses half-a-dozen different aliases,"
replied my father-in-law.

"Then you know him?"

"Well--not very well," was Pennington's response in a rather strange
voice, I thought. "Did he say anything regarding myself?"

"Only that he had seen you in Manchester."

"When did you see him last?"

"Well," I said, "as a matter of fact he met me in London the same
night, and I fancy I have caught sight of him twice since. The first
occasion was a fortnight ago in Princes Street, Edinburgh, when I saw
him coming forth from the North British Hotel with another man, also a
foreigner. They turned up Princes Street, and then descended the steps
to the station before I could approach sufficiently close. I was
walking with Sylvia, so could not well hasten after them. The second
occasion was yesterday, when I believe I saw him in a taxi passing us
as we drove out to tea at Armenonville."

"Did he see you?" asked Pennington quickly.

"I think so. I fancy he recognized me."

"Did Sylvia see him?" he asked almost breathlessly.

"No."

"Ah!" and he seemed to breathe again more freely.

"Apparently he is not a very great friend of yours," I ventured to
remark.

"No--he isn't; and if I were you, Biddulph, I would avoid him like the
plague. He is not the kind of person desirable as a friend. You
understand."

"I gathered from his conversation that he was something of an
adventurer," I said.

"That's just it. Myself, I always avoid him," he replied. Then he
turned the conversation into a different channel. He congratulated me
upon our marriage and told me how Sylvia, when they had been alone
together for a few moments before dinner, had declared herself
supremely happy.

"I only hope that nothing may occur to mar your pleasant lives, my
dear fellow," he said, slowly knocking the ash from his cigar. "In the
marriage state one never knows whether adversity or prosperity lies
before one."

"I hope I shall meet with no adversity," I said.

"I hope not--for Sylvia's sake," he declared.

"What is for Sylvia's sake?" asked a cheery voice, and, as we both
looked up in surprise, we found that she had re-entered noiselessly,
and was standing laughing mischievously by the open door. "It is so
dull being alone that I've ventured to come back. I don't mind the
smoke in the least."

"Why, of course, darling!" I cried, jumping from my chair and pulling
forward an arm-chair for her.

I saw that it was a bright night outside, and that the autos with
their sparkling lights like shooting stars were passing and repassing
with honking horns up and down the Rue de Rivoli. For a moment she
stood at my side by the window, looking down into the broad
thoroughfare below.

Then, a second later, she suddenly cried--

"Why, look, Owen! Do you see that man with the short dark overcoat
standing under the lamp over there? I've seen him several times
to-day. Do you know, he seems to be watching us!"

"Watching you!" cried her father, starting to his feet and joining us.
The long wooden sun-shutters were closed, so, on opening the windows
which led to the balcony we could see between the slats without being
observed from outside.

I looked at the spot indicated by my wife, and then saw on the other
side of the way a youngish-looking man idly smoking a cigarette and
gazing in the direction of the Place de la Concorde, as though
expecting some one.

I could not distinguish his features, yet I saw that he wore brown
boots, and that the cut of his clothes and the shape of his hat were
English.

"Where have you seen him before?" I asked of her.

"I first met him when I came out of Lentheric's this morning. Then,
again, when we lunched at the Volnay he was standing at the corner of
the Rue de la Paix and the Rue Daunou. He followed us in the Rue
Royale later on."

"And now he seems to have mounted guard outside, eh?" I remarked,
somewhat puzzled. "Why did you not tell me this before?"

"I did not wish to cause you any anxiety, Owen," was her simple reply,
while her father asked--

"Do you know the fellow? Ever seen him before, Sylvia?"

"Never in my life," she declared. "It's rather curious, isn't it?"

"Very," I said.

And as we all three watched we saw him move away a short distance and
join a taller man who came from the direction he had been looking. For
a few moments they conversed. Then the new-comer crossed the road
towards us and was lost to sight.

In a few seconds a ragged old man, a cripple, approached the
mysterious watcher with difficulty, and said something to him as he
passed.

"That cripple is in the business!" cried Pennington, who had been
narrowly watching. "He's keeping observation, and has told him
something. Some deep game is being played here, Biddulph."

"I wonder why they are watching?" I asked, somewhat apprehensive of
the coming evil that had been so long predicted.

Father and daughter exchanged curious glances. It seemed to me as
though a startling truth had dawned upon them both. I stood by in
silence.

"It is certainly distinctly unpleasant to be watched like
this--providing, of course, that Sylvia has not made a mistake,"
Pennington said.

"I have made no mistake," she declared quickly. "I've been much
worried about it all day, but did not like to arouse Owen's
suspicions;" and I saw by her face that she was in dead earnest.

At the same moment, however, a light tap was heard upon the door and a
waiter opened it, bowing as he announced--

"Monsieur Pierre Delanne to see Monsieur Biddulph."

"Great Heavens, Sylvia!" cried Pennington, standing pale-faced and
open-mouthed. "It's Guertin! He must not discover that I am in Paris!"
Then, turning to me in fear, he implored: "Save me from this meeting,
Biddulph! Save me--if you value your wife's honour, I beg of you. I'll
explain all afterwards. _Only save me!_"



CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

DESCRIBES AN UNWELCOME VISIT


Pennington's sudden fear held me in blank surprise.

Ere I could reply to him he had slipped through the door which led
into my bedroom, closing it after him, just as Delanne's stout figure
and broad, good-humoured face appeared in the doorway.

"Ah!" he exclaimed, "Meester Biddulph!" and he bowed politely over my
hand.

Then, turning to Sylvia, who stood pale and rigid, he put forth his
hand, and also bowed low over hers, saying in English: "My
respects--and heartiest congratulations to madame."

His quick eyes wandered around the room, then he added--

"Meester Pennington is here; where is he? I am here to speak with
him."

"Pennington was here," I replied, "but he has gone."

"Then he only went out this moment! I must see him. He is in the
hotel!" my visitor exclaimed quickly.

"I suppose he is," I replied rather faintly; "we had better ask the
waiter. He is not stopping here. He merely came to-night to dine with
us."

"Of course," said Delanne. "He arrived by the 2.37 train from
Bruxelles, went to the Hôtel Dominici, near the Place Vendôme, sent
you a _petit-bleu_, and arrived here at 6.30. I am here because I wish
to see him most particularly. I was in Orleans when the news of my
friend's arrival in Paris was telephoned to me--I have only just
arrived."

I opened the door leading to my bedroom, and called my father-in-law,
but there was no response. In an instant Delanne dashed past me, and
in a few seconds had searched the suite.

"Ah, of course!" he cried, noticing that the door of my wife's room
led back to the main corridor; "my friend has avoided me. He has
passed out by this way. Still, he must be in the hotel."

He hurried back to the salon, and, opening the shutters, took off his
hat.

Was it some signal to the watchers outside? Ere I could reach his
side, however, he had replaced his hat, and was re-entering the room.

"Phew! this place is stifling hot, my dear friend," he said. "I wonder
you do not have the windows open for a little!"

Sylvia had stood by in silence. I saw by her face that the Frenchman's
sudden appearance had caused her the greatest alarm and dismay. If
Delanne was her father's friend, why did the latter flee in such fear?
Why had he implored me to save him? From what?

The Frenchman seemed highly disappointed, for finding the waiter in
the corridor he asked him in French which way the Englishman had fled.

The waiter, however, declared that he had seen nobody in the corridor,
a reply which sorely puzzled Delanne.

"Where is he?" he demanded of Sylvia.

"I have no idea," was her faltering reply. "He simply went into the
next room a few moments ago."

"And slipped out in an endeavour to make his exit, eh?" asked the man,
with a short, harsh laugh. "I quite expected as much. That is why I
intended to have a straight business talk with him."

"He is in no mood to talk business just now," said my wife, and
then--and only then--did I recollect that this man was the associate
of the assassin Reckitt.

This fact alone aroused my antagonism towards him. Surely I was glad
that Pennington had got away if, as it seemed, he did not wish to meet
his unwelcome visitor.

"He _shall_ talk business!" cried the Frenchman, "and very serious
business!"

Then turning, he hurried along the corridor in the direction of the
main staircase and disappeared.

"What does all this mean?" I asked Sylvia, who still stood there pale
and panting.

"I--I don't know, Owen," she gasped. Then, rushing across to the
window, she looked out.

"That man has gone!" she cried. "I--I knew he was watching, but had no
idea of the reason."

"He was evidently watching for your father," I said.

"He was watching us--you and I--not him."

We heard two men pass the door quickly. One of them exclaimed in
French--

"See! The window at the end! It would be easy to get from there to the
roof of the next house."

"Yes!" cried his companion. "He has evidently gone that way. We must
follow."

"Hark!" I said. "Listen to what they are saying! Delanne is following
your father!"

"He is his worst enemy," she said simply. "Do you not remember that he
was watching him in Manchester?"

The fact that he was an associate of Reckitt puzzled me. I felt highly
resentful that the fellow should have thus intruded upon my privacy
and broken up my very pleasant evening. He had intruded himself upon
me once before, causing me both annoyance and chagrin. I looked forth
into the corridor, and there saw the figures of two men in the act of
getting through the window at the end, while a waiter and a
_femme-de-chambre_ stood looking on in surprise.

"Who is that man?" I asked of Sylvia, as I turned back into our salon.

"His real name is Guertin," she replied.

"He told me that he knew you."

"Perhaps," she laughed, just a trifle uneasily, I thought. "I only
know that he is my father's enemy. He is evidently here to hunt him
down, and to denounce him."

"As what?"

But she only shrugged her shoulders. Next instant I saw that I had
acted wrongly in asking Sylvia to expose her own father, whatever his
faults might have been.

Again somebody rushed past the door and then back again to the head of
the staircase. The whole of the quiet aristocratic hotel seemed to
have suddenly awakened from its lethargy. Indeed, a hue and cry seemed
to have been started after the man who had until a few moments before
been my guest.

What could this mean? Had it not been for the fact that Guertin--or
Delanne, as he called himself--was a friend of the assassin Reckitt, I
would have believed him to have been an agent of the _sûreté_.

We heard shouting outside the window at the end of the corridor. It
seemed as though a fierce chase had begun after the fugitive
Englishman, for yet another man, a thin, respectably-dressed mechanic,
had run along and slipped out of the window with ease as though
acquired by long practice.

I, too, ran to the window and looked out. But all I could see in the
night was a bewildering waste of roofs and chimneys extending along
the Rue de Rivoli towards the Louvre. I could only distinguish one of
the pursuers outlined against the sky. Then I returned to where Sylvia
was standing pale and breathless.

Her face was haggard and drawn, and I knew of the great tension her
nerves must be undergoing. Her father was certainly no coward. Fearing
that he could not escape by either the front or back door of the
hotel his mind had been quickly made up, and he had made his exit by
that window, taking his chance to hide and avoid detection on those
many roofs in the vicinity.

The position was, to me, extremely puzzling. I could not well press
Sylvia to tell me the truth concerning her father, for I had noticed
that she always had shielded him, as was natural for a daughter, after
all.

Was he an associate of Reckitt and Forbes, as I had once suspected?
Yet if he were, why should Delanne be his enemy, for he certainly was
Reckitt's intimate friend.

Sylvia was filled with suppressed excitement. She also ran along the
corridor and peered out of the window at the end. Then, apparently
satisfied that her father had avoided meeting Delanne, she returned
and stood again silent, her eyes staring straight before her as though
dreading each second to hear shouts of triumph at the fugitive's
detection.

I saw the manager and remonstrated with him. I was angry that my
privacy should thus be disturbed by outsiders.

"Monsieur told the clerk that he was a friend," he replied politely.
"Therefore he gave permission for him to be shown upstairs. I had no
idea of such a contretemps, or such a regrettable scene as this!"

I saw he was full of regret, for the whole hotel seemed startled, and
guests were asking each other what had occurred to create all that
hubbub.

For an hour we waited, but Delanne did not return. He and the others
had gone away over the roofs, on what seemed to be an entirely
fruitless errand.

"Were they the police?" I heard a lady ask anxiously of a waiter.

"No, madame, we think not. They are strangers--and entirely unknown."

Sylvia also heard the man's reply, and exclaimed--

"I hope my father has successfully escaped his enemies. It was,
however, a very narrow shave. If they had seen him, they would have
shot him dead, and afterwards declared it to have been an accident!"

"Surely not!" I cried. "That would have been murder."

"Of course. But they are desperate, and they would have wriggled out
of it somehow. That was why I feared for him. But, thank Heaven, he is
evidently safe."

And she turned from the window that looked forth into the Rue de
Rivoli, and then made an excuse to go to her room.

I saw that she was greatly perturbed. Her heart beat quickly, and her
face, once pale as death, was now flushed crimson.

"How your father got away so rapidly was simply marvellous!" I
declared. "Why, scarcely ten seconds elapsed from the time he closed
that door to Delanne's appearance on the threshold."

"Yes. But he instantly realized his peril, and did not hesitate."

"I am sorry, dearest, that this exciting incident should have so
upset our evening," I said, kissing her upon the brow, for she now
declared herself much fatigued. "When you have gone to your room, I
shall go downstairs and learn what I can about the curious affair.
Your father's enemies evidently knew of his arrival from Brussels, for
Delanne admitted that word of it was telephoned to Orleans, and he
came to Paris at once."

"Yes, he admitted that," she said hurriedly. "But do not let us speak
of it. My father has got away in safety. For me that is
all-sufficient. Good-night, Owen, dear." And she kissed me fondly.

"Good-night, darling," I said, returning her sweet caress; and then,
when she had passed from the room, I seized my hat and descended the
big flight of red-carpeted stairs, bent on obtaining some solution of
the mystery of that most exciting and curious episode.



CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

MORE MYSTERY


Nothing definite, however, could I gather from the hotel people.

They knew nothing, and seemed highly annoyed that such an incident
should occur in their quiet and highly aristocratic house.

Next day Sylvia waited for news of her father, but none came.

Delanne called about eleven o'clock in the morning, and had a brief
interview with her in private. What passed between them I know not,
save that the man, whose real name was Guertin, met me rather coldly
and afterwards bade me adieu.

I hated the fellow. He was always extremely polite, always just a
little sarcastic, and yet, was he not the associate of the man
Reckitt?

I wished to leave Paris and return to London, but Sylvia appeared a
little anxious to remain. She seemed to expect some secret
communication from her father.

"Thank Heaven!" she said, on the day following Delanne's call, "father
has escaped them. That was surely a daring dash he made. He knew that
they intended to kill him."

"But I don't understand," I said. "Do you mean they would kill him
openly?"

"Of course. They have no fear. Their only fear is while he remains
alive."

"But the law would punish them."

"No, it would not," she responded, shaking her head gravely. "They
would contrive an 'accident.'"

"Well," I said, "he has evaded them, and we must be thankful for that.
Do you expect to hear from him?"

"Yes," she replied, "I shall probably receive a message to-night. That
is why I wish to remain, Owen. I wonder," she added rather
hesitatingly, "I wonder whether you would consider it very strange of
me if I asked you to let me go out to-night at ten o'clock alone?"

"Well, I rather fear your going out alone and unprotected at that
hour, darling," I responded.

"Ah! have no fear whatever for me. I shall be safe enough. They will
not attempt anything just now. I am quite confident of that. I--I want
to go forth alone, for an hour or so."

"Oh, well, if it is your distinct wish, how can I refuse, dear?"

"Ah!" she cried, putting her arm fondly about my neck, "I knew you
would not refuse me. I shall go out just before ten, and I will be
back long before midnight. You will excuse my absence, won't you?"

"Certainly," I said. And thus it was arranged.

Her request, I admit, puzzled me greatly, and also caused me
considerable fear. My past experience had aroused within me a constant
phantom of suspicion.

We lunched at the Ritz, and in the afternoon took a taxi into the
Bois, where we spent an hour upon a seat in one of the by-paths of
that beautiful wood of the Parisians. On our return to the hotel,
Sylvia was all eagerness for a message, but there was none.

"Ah! he is discreet!" she exclaimed to me, when the _concierge_ had
given her a negative reply. "He fears to send me word openly."

At ten o'clock that night, however, she had exchanged her dinner gown
for a dark stuff dress, and, with a small black hat, and a boa about
her neck, she came to kiss me.

"I won't be very long, dearest," she said cheerily. "I'll get back the
instant I can. Don't worry after me. I shall be perfectly safe, I
assure you."

But recollections of Reckitt and his dastardly accomplice arose within
me, and I hardly accepted her assurance, even though I made pretence
of so doing.

For a few moments I held her in my arms tenderly, then releasing her,
she bade me _au revoir_ merrily, and we descended into the hall
together.

A taxi was called, and I heard her direct the driver to go to the
Boulevard Pereire. Then, waving her hand from the cab window, she
drove away.

Should I follow? To spy upon her would be a mean action. It would show
a lack of confidence, and would certainly irritate and annoy her. Yet
was she not in peril? Had she not long ago admitted herself to be in
some grave and mysterious danger?

I had only a single moment in which to decide. Somehow I felt impelled
to follow and watch that she came to no harm; yet, at the same time, I
knew that it was not right. She was my wife, and I dearly loved her
and trusted her. If discovered, my action would show her that I was
suspicious.

Still I felt distinctly apprehensive, and it was that apprehension
which caused me, a second later, to seize my hat, and, walking out of
the hotel, hail a passing taxi, and drive quickly to the quiet, highly
respectable boulevard to which she had directed her driver.

I suppose it was, perhaps, a quarter of an hour later when we turned
into the thoroughfare down the centre of which runs the railway in a
deep cutting. The houses were large ones, let out in fine flats, the
residences mostly of the professional and wealthier tradesman classes.

We went along, until presently I caught sight of another taxi standing
at the kerb. Therefore I dismissed mine, and, keeping well in the
shadow, sauntered along the boulevard, now quiet and deserted.

With great precaution I approached the standing taxi on the opposite
side of the way. There was nobody within. It was evidently awaiting
some one, and as it was the only one in sight I concluded that it must
be the same which Sylvia had taken from the hotel.

Some distance further on I walked, when, before me, I recognized her
neat figure, and almost a moment afterwards saw her disappear into a
large doorway which was in complete darkness--the doorway of what
seemed to be an untenanted house.

I halted quickly and waited--yet almost ashamed of myself for spying
thus.

A moment later I saw that, having believed herself unobserved, she
struck a match, but for what reason did not seem apparent. She
appeared to be examining the wall. She certainly was not endeavouring
to open the door. From the distance, however, I was unable to
distinguish very plainly.

The vesta burned out, and she threw it upon the ground. Then she
hurriedly retraced her steps to where she had left her cab, and I was
compelled to bolt into a doorway in order to evade her.

She passed quite close to me, and when she had driven away I emerged,
and, walking to the doorway, also struck a light and examined the same
stone wall. At first I could discover nothing, but after considerable
searching my eyes at last detected a dark smudge, as though something
had been obliterated.

It was a cryptic sign in lead pencil, and apparently she had drawn her
hand over it to remove it, but had not been altogether successful.
Examining it closely, I saw that the sign, as originally scrawled upon
the smooth stone, was like two crescents placed back to back, while
both above and below rough circles had been drawn.

The marks had evidently some prearranged meaning--one which she
understood. It was a secret message from her father, without a doubt!

At risk of detection by some agent of police, I made a further close
examination of the wall, and came upon two other signs which had also
been hurriedly obliterated--one of three double triangles, and another
of two oblongs and a circle placed in conjunction. But there was no
writing; nothing, indeed, to convey any meaning to the uninitiated.

The wall of that dark entry, however, was no doubt the means of an
exchange of secret messages between certain unknown persons.

The house was a large one, and had been let out in flats, as were its
neighbours; but for some unaccountable reason--perhaps owing to a law
dispute--it now remained closed.

I was puzzled as to which of the three half-obliterated signs Sylvia
had sought. But I took notice of each, and then walked back in the
direction whence I had come.

I returned at once to the hotel, but my wife had not yet come back.
This surprised me. And I was still further surprised when she did not
arrive until nearly one o'clock in the morning. Yet she seemed very
happy--unusually so.

Where had she been after receiving that secret message, I wondered?
Yet I could not question her, lest I should betray my watchfulness.

"I'm so sorry to have left you alone all this long time, Owen," she
said, as she entered the room and came across to kiss me. "But it was
quite unavoidable."

"Is all well?" I inquired.

"Quite," was her reply. "My father is already out of France."

That was all she would vouchsafe to me. Still I saw that she was
greatly gratified at the knowledge of his escape from his mysterious
enemies.

The whole situation was extraordinary. Why should this man Delanne,
the friend of Reckitt and no doubt a member of a gang of blackmailers
and assassins, openly pursue him to the death? It was an entire
enigma. I could discern no light through the veil of mystery which
had, all along, so completely enshrouded Pennington and his daughter.

Still I resolved to put aside all apprehensions. Why should I trouble?

I loved Sylvia with all my heart, and with all my soul. She was mine!
What more could I desire?

Next evening we returned to Wilton Street. She had suddenly expressed
a desire to leave Paris, perhaps because she did not wish to again
meet her father's enemy, that fat Frenchman Guertin.

For nearly a month we lived in perfect happiness, frequently visiting
the Shuttleworths for the day, and going about a good deal in town.
She urged me to go to Carrington to shoot, but, knowing that she did
not like the old place, I made excuses and remained in London.

"Father is in Roumania," she remarked to me one morning when she had
been reading her letters at the breakfast-table. "He sends his
remembrances to you from Bucharest. You have never been there, I
suppose? I'm extremely fond of the place. There is lots of life, and
the Roumanians are always so very hospitable."

"No," I said, "I've never been to Bucharest, unfortunately, though
I've been in Constanza, which is also in Roumania. Remember me to your
father when you write, won't you?"

"Certainly. He wonders whether you and I would care to go out there
for a month or two?"

"In winter?"

"Winter is the most pleasant time. It is the season in Bucharest."

"As you please, dearest," I replied. "I am entirely in your hands, as
you know," I laughed.

"That's awfully sweet of you, Owen," she declared. "You are always
indulging me--just like the spoilt child I am."

"Because I love you," I replied softly, placing my hand upon hers and
looking into her wonderful eyes.

She smiled contentedly, and I saw in those eyes the genuine love-look:
the expression which a woman can never feign.

Thus the autumn days went past, happy days of peace and joy.

Sylvia delighted in the theatre, and we went very often, while on days
when it was dry and the sun shone, I took her motoring to Brighton, to
Guildford, to Tunbridge Wells, or other places on the well-known
roads out of London.

The clouds which had first marred our happiness had now happily been
dispelled, and the sun of life and love shone upon us perpetually.

Sometimes I wondered whether that ideal happiness was not too complete
to last. In the years I had lived I had become a pessimist. I feared a
too-complete ideal. The realization of our hopes is always followed by
a poignant despair. In this world there is no cup of sweetness without
dregs of bitterness. The man who troubles after the to-morrow creates
trouble for himself, while he who is regardless of the future is like
an ostrich burying its head in the sand at sign of disaster.

Still, each of us who marry fondly believe ourselves to be the one
exception to the rule. And perhaps it is only human that it should be
so. I, like you my reader, believed that my troubles were over, and
that all the lowering clouds had drifted away. They were, however,
only low over the horizon, and were soon to reappear. Ah! how
differently would I have acted had I but known what the future--the
future of which I was now so careless--held in store for me!

One night we had gone in the car to the Coliseum Theatre, for Sylvia
was fond of variety performances as a change from the legitimate
theatre. As we sat in the box, I thought--though I could not be
certain--that she made some secret signal with her fan to somebody
seated below amid the crowded audience.

My back had been turned for a moment, and on looking round I felt
convinced that she had signalled. It was on the tip of my tongue to
refer to it, yet I hesitated, fearing lest she might be annoyed. I
trusted her implicitly, and, after all, I might easily have mistaken a
perfectly natural movement for a sign of recognition. Therefore I
laughed at my own foolish fancy, and turned my attention again to the
performance.

At last the curtain fell, and as we stood together amid the crush in
the vestibule, the night having turned out wet, I left her, to go in
search of our carriage.

I suppose I was absent about two or three minutes, but on my return I
could not find her.

She had vanished as completely as though the earth had swallowed her
up.

I waited until the theatre was entirely empty. I described her to the
attendants, and I had a chat with the smart and highly popular
manager, but no one had seen her. She had simply disappeared.

I was frantic, full of the wildest dread as to what had occurred. How
madly I acted I scarcely knew. At last, seeing to remain longer was
useless, now that the theatre had closed, I jumped into the brougham
and drove with all haste to Wilton Street.

"No, Mr. Owen," replied Browning to my breathless inquiry, "madam has
not yet returned."

I brushed past him and entered the study.

Upon my writing-table there lay a note addressed to me.

I recognized the handwriting in an instant, and with trembling fingers
tore open the envelope.

What I read there staggered me.



CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

IN FULL CRY


The amazing letter which I held in my nerveless fingers had been
hurriedly scribbled on a piece of my wife's own notepaper, and read--

     "DEAR OWEN--I feel that our marriage was an entire mistake.
     I have grossly deceived you, and I dare not hope ever for
     your forgiveness, nor dare I face you to answer your
     questions. I know that you love me dearly, as I, too, have
     loved you; yet, for your own sake--and perhaps for mine
     also--it is far best that we should keep apart.

     "I deeply regret that I have been the means of bringing
     misfortune and unhappiness and sorrow upon you, but I have
     been the tool of another. In shame and deepest humiliation I
     leave you, and if you will grant one favour to an unhappy
     and penitent woman, you will never seek to discover my
     whereabouts. It would be quite useless. To-night I leave you
     in secret, never to meet you again. Accept my deepest
     regret, and do not let my action trouble you. I am not
     worthy of your love. Good-bye. Your unhappy--SYLVIA."

I stood staring at the uneven scribbled lines, blurred as they were by
the tears of the writer.

What had happened? Why had she so purposely left me? Why had she made
that signal from the theatre-box to her accomplice?

She admitted having grossly deceived me, and that she was unworthy.
What did she mean? In what manner had she deceived me?

Had she a secret lover?

That idea struck me suddenly, and staggered me. In some of her recent
actions I read secrecy and suspicion. On several occasions lately she
had been out shopping alone, and one afternoon, about a week before,
she had not returned to dress for dinner until nearly eight o'clock.
Her excuse had been a thin one, but, unsuspicious, I had passed it by.

Had I really been a fool to marry her, after all? I knew Marlowe's
opinion of our marriage, though he had never expressed it. That she
had been associated with a shady lot had all along been apparent. The
terrors of that silent house in Porchester Terrace remained only too
fresh within my memory.

That night I spent in a wild fever of excitement. No sleep came to my
eyes, and I think Browning--to whom I said nothing--believed that I
had taken leave of my senses. The faithful old servant did not retire,
for at five in the morning I found him seated dozing in a chair
outside in the hall, tired out by the watchful vigil he had kept over
me.

I tried in vain to decide what to do. I wanted to find Sylvia, to
induce her to reveal the truth to me, and to allay her fear of my
reproaches.

I loved her; aye, no man in all the world ever loved a woman better.
Yet she had, of her own accord, because of her own shame at her
deception, bade farewell, and slipped away into the great ocean of
London life.

Morning dawned at last, cold, grey and foggy, one of those dispiriting
mornings of late autumn which the Londoner knows so well. Still I knew
not how to act. I wanted to discover her, to bring her back, and to
demand of her finally the actual truth. All the mystery of those past
months had sent my brain awhirl.

I had an impulse to go to the police and reveal the secret of that
closed house in Porchester Terrace. Yet had she not implored me not to
do so? Why? There was only one reason. She feared exposure herself.

No. Ten thousand times no. I would not believe ill of her. Can any man
who really loves a woman believe ill of her? Love is blind, it is
true, and the scales never fall from the eyes while true affection
lasts. And so I put suspicion from my mind, and swallowed the cup of
coffee Browning put before me.

The old man, the friend of my youth, knew that his mistress had not
returned, and saw how greatly I was distressed. Yet he was far too
discreet a servant to refer to it.

I entered the drawing-room, and there, in the grey light, facing me,
stood the fine portrait of my well-beloved in a silver frame, the one
she had had taken at Scarborough a week after our marriage.

I drew it from its frame and gazed for a long time upon it. Then I put
it into an envelope, and placed it in my pocket.

Soon after ten o'clock I returned to the Coliseum, and showed the
portrait to a number of the attendants as that of a lady who was
missing. All of them, both male and female, gazed upon the picture,
but nobody recognized her as having been seen before.

The manager, whom I had seen on the previous night, sympathized with
me, and lent me every assistance. One after another of the staff he
called into his big office on the first floor, but the reply was
always the same.

At length a smart page-boy entered, and, on being shown the portrait,
at once said to the manager--

"Why, sir, that's the lady who went away with the gentleman who spoke
to me!"

"Who was he?" I demanded eagerly. "What did he say? What was he like?"

"Well, sir, it was like this," replied the boy. "About a quarter of an
hour before the curtain fell last night I was out in the vestibule,
when a tall dark gentleman, with his hair slightly grey and no
moustache, came up to me with a lady's cloak in his hand--a dark blue
one. He told me that when the audience came out a fair young lady
would come up to me for the cloak, as she wanted to get away very
quickly, and did not want to wait her turn at the cloak-room. There
was a car--a big grey car--waiting for her outside."

"Then her flight was all prepared!" I exclaimed. "What was the man
like?"

"He struck me as being a gentleman, yet his clothes seemed shabby and
ill-fitting. Indeed, he had a shabby-genteel look, as though he were a
bit down on his luck."

"He was in evening clothes?"

"No, sir. In a suit of brown tweeds."

"Well, what happened then?"

"I waited till the curtain fell, and then I stood close to the
box-office with the cloak over my arm. There was a big crush, as it
was then raining hard. Suddenly a young lady wearing a cream
theatre-wrap came up to me hastily, and asked me to help her on with
the cloak. This I did, and next moment the man in tweeds joined her. I
heard him say, 'Come along, dear, we haven't a moment to lose,' and
then they went out to the car. That's all I know, sir."

I was silent for a few moments. Who was this secret lover, I wondered?
The lad's statement had come as an amazing revelation to me.

"What kind of car was it?" I asked.

"A hired car, sir," replied the intelligent boy. "I've seen it here
before. It comes, I think, from a garage in Wardour Street."

"You would know the driver?"

"I think so, sir."

It was therefore instantly arranged that the lad should go with me
round to the garage, and there try to find the man who drove the grey
car on the previous night.

In this we were quickly successful. On entering the garage there
stood, muddy and dirty, a big grey landaulette, which the boy at once
identified as the one in which Sylvia had escaped. The driver was soon
found, and he explained that it was true he had been engaged on the
previous night by a tall, clean-shaven gentleman to pick up at the
Coliseum. He did so, and the gentleman entered with a lady.

"Where did you drive them?" I asked quickly.

"Up the Great North Road--to the George Hotel at Stamford, about a
hundred miles from London. I've only been back about a couple of
hours, sir."

"The George at Stamford!" I echoed, for I knew the hotel, a quiet,
old-fashioned, comfortable place much patronized by motorists to and
fro on the north road.

"You didn't stay there?"

"Only just to get a drink and fill up with petrol. I wanted to get
back. The lady and gentleman were evidently expected, and seemed in a
great hurry."

"Why?"

"Well, near Alconbury the engine was misfiring a little, and I stopped
to open the bonnet. When I did so, the lady put her head out of the
window, highly excited, and asked how long we were likely to be
delayed. I told her; then I heard her say to the gentleman, 'If they
are away before we reach there, what shall we do?'"

"Then they were on their way to meet somebody or other--eh?"

"Ah! that I don't know, sir. I drew up in the yard of the hotel, and
they both got out. The lady hurried in, while the gentleman paid me,
and gave me something for myself. It was then nearly four o'clock in
the morning. I should have been back earlier, only I had a puncture
the other side of Hatfield, and had to put on the 'Stepney.'"

"I must go to Stamford," I said decisively. Then I put something into
his palm, as well as into that of the page-boy, and, entering a taxi,
drove back home.

An hour later I sat beside my own chauffeur, as we drove through the
steadily falling rain across Hampstead Heath, on our hundred-mile
journey into Lincolnshire.

We both knew every inch of the road, having been over it many times.
As it was wet, police-traps were unlikely, so, having negotiated the
narrow road as far as Hatfield, we began to "let her out" past
Hitchin, and we buzzed on over the broad open road through Stilton
village. We were hung up at the level-crossing at Wansford, but about
half-past three in the afternoon we swept over the brow of the hill
beneath the high wall of Burghley Park, and saw beneath us the roofs
and many spires of quiet old Stamford.

Ten minutes later we swung into the yard of the ancient George, and,
alighting, entered the broad hall, with its splendid old oak
staircase, in search of the manageress.

She related a rather curious story.

On the previous night, about eleven o'clock, there arrived by car two
well-dressed gentlemen who, though English, conversed together in
French. They took rooms, but did not retire to bed, saying that they
expected two friends who were motoring, and who would arrive in the
night. They sat over the fire in the lounge, while the staff of the
hotel all retired, save the night-boots, an old retainer. The latter
stated that during the night, as he passed the door of the lounge, he
saw through the crack of the door the younger of the two men examining
something which shone and sparkled in the light, and he thought to be
diamonds. This struck him as somewhat curious; therefore he kept a
watchful eye upon the pair.

One he described as rather stout, dark, and bald-headed--the exact
description of Pennington--and the other description the man
afterwards gave to me caused me to feel confident that the second man
was none other than the scoundrel Reckitt. What further piece of
chicanery had they been guilty of, I wondered?

"About four in the morning a grey car drove up, sir," went on the
boots, "and a lady with a dark cloak over her evening dress dashed in,
and they both rose quickly and welcomed her. Then, in order that I
should not understand, they again started talking in some foreign
language--French I expect it was. A few moments later the gentleman
came in. They welcomed him warmly, addressing him by the name of
Lewis. I saw the bald-headed man wring his hand heartily, and heard
him exclaim: 'By Jove! old man, you can't think how glad we are to see
you back again! You must have had a narrow squeak! Not another single
living man would have acted with the determination and bravery with
which you've acted. Only you must be careful, Lewis, old man--deuced
careful. There are enemies about, you know.' Then the gentleman said:
'I know! I'm quite aware of my peril, Arnold. You, too, had a narrow
shave in Paris a short time ago--I hear from Sonia.' 'Yes,' laughed
the other, 'she acted splendidly. But, as you say, it was a very close
thing. Have you seen Shuttleworth yet?' he asked. The other said: 'He
met me, in the Ditches at Southampton, two nights ago, and told me all
that's happened.' 'Ah! And Sonia has told you the rest, I suppose?' he
asked; to which the other man replied in the affirmative, adding:
'It's a bad job, I fear, for Owen Biddulph--a very bad job for the
fellow!' That was all the conversation that I overheard at that time,
for they then rang the bell and ordered whisky and sodas."

"And what else did you see or hear?" I asked eagerly, much puzzled by
his statement.

"They struck me as rather a suspicious lot, sir," the man said. "After
I had taken them in their drinks they closed the door, and seemed to
hold some sort of a consultation. While this was going on, two men
drove up in another car, and asked if a Mr. Winton was here. I told
him he was--for the bald-headed gentleman had given the name of
Douglas Winton. They were at once welcomed, and admitted to the
conference."

"Rather curious--to hold a conference in such a manner and at such an
hour!" I remarked.

"Yes, sir. It was a secret meeting, evidently. They all spoke in
another language. The two men who last arrived were no doubt
foreigners."

"Was one of them stout and wore gold-rimmed glasses?" I inquired
quickly.



CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

AN UNFORTUNATE SLIP


"No, sir," the boots replied, "both were youngish men, with dark
moustaches. They wore heavy coats, and were in an open car. They came
from York way, and had evidently driven some distance."

"You saw nothing of what went on at their mysterious meeting?"

"Well, sir, the fact is, when I had had my suspicions aroused, I crept
out into the yard, and found that I could see into the lounge through
the chink between the blind and the window. They were all seated round
the table, the head of which had been taken by the gentleman who had
arrived from London with the lady. He seemed to be chairman, and he
talked in a low, deliberate, and very earnest tone, being listened to
with greatest interest. He evidently related something which amazed
them. Then a map, or plan, was placed upon the table, and each
examined it in turn. Afterwards two photographs were produced by Mr.
Winton and handed around the assembly. Each man looked long and
steadily at the pictures--both were of women. The young lady present
refused to take any part in the discussion, and I noticed that she
passed on the photographs without comment--without even glancing at
them."

"Did she appear to be present there against her will?" I asked
breathlessly.

"No, not exactly. She seemed very friendly with all the gentlemen. The
two foreigners were strangers to her--for she was introduced to them."

"By name?"

"Yes, sir. Miss Sonia Poland."

I bit my lip. Had she already dropped my name, and was now passing
under an alias?

"Sonia Poland!" I echoed. "Was it for the purpose of concealing her
identity from the foreigners, do you think?" I asked.

"No, sir. Because Winton and his companion addressed her as Sonia
Poland when she arrived."

"And you believed it to be her real name?"

"I suppose it is, sir," was the man's reply, for I fear my manner
somewhat mystified him.

"Well, and what further did you see at this early morning
consultation?" I asked, mindful that his curiosity had no doubt been
aroused by sight of something sparkling in the strange visitor's hand.

"The gentleman called Mr. Lewis wrote out a paper very carefully and
handed it round. Every one signed it--except the lady. They asked her
to do so, but she protested vigorously, and the matter was not
pressed. Then the photograph of a man was shown to the two foreigners,
and the lady tried to prevent it. Curiously enough, sir, I caught a
good sight of it--just a head and shoulders--and the picture very
much resembled you yourself, sir!"

"Me!" I cried. "And they showed it to the two young foreigners--eh?"

"Yes, sir. One of them took it and put it into his pocket. Then the
mysterious Mr. Lewis, as chairman of the meeting, seemed to raise a
protest. The two foreigners gesticulated, jabbered away, and raised
their shoulders a lot. I dearly wish I could have made out a word they
said. Unfortunately I couldn't. Only I saw that in Mr. Lewis's face
was a look of fierce determination. They at first defied him. But at
last, with great reluctance, they handed back the photograph, which
Mr. Lewis himself burned on the fire."

"He burned my photograph!"

"Yes, sir. I think it was yours, sir--but of course I can't be quite
positive."

"And what else?"

"Mr. Winton said something, whereupon all of them glanced at the door
and then at the window. One of the foreigners came to the window, but
did not notice that there was a slight crack through which I could
see. Then he turned the key in the door. After he had returned to his
chair, the man who had arrived with Mr. Winton took from his pocket
something that shone. My heart beat quickly. It was a diamond
necklet--the object I had seen in his hand earlier. He passed it round
for the admiration of the others, who each took it and closely
examined it beneath the light--all but the young lady. She was
standing aside, near the fireplace, watching. Now and then she placed
her hand to her forehead, as though her brain were weary."

"And after that?"

"After the necklet had been passed round the elder of the two
foreigners wrapped it carefully in his handkerchief and placed it in
his pocket. Then Mr. Lewis gave them a long address, emphasizing his
words with his hand, and they listened to him without uttering a word.
Suddenly Mr. Winton sprang up and wrung his hand, afterwards making
what appeared to be some highly complimentary remarks, for Mr. Lewis
smiled and bowed to the assembly, who afterwards rose. Then the young
lady rushed up to Mr. Lewis and implored him to do something, but he
refused. She stood before him, pale-faced and determined. Her eyes
seemed starting from her head. She seemed like one horrified. But he
placed his hand tenderly upon her shoulder, and uttered some quick low
words which instantly calmed her. Very shortly after that the party
broke up, and the door was re-opened. The two foreigners hurriedly
swallowed a liqueur-glass of brandy each, and then, passing into the
yard, wished their companions adieu and drove away in their car--in
the direction of London."

"Carrying with them the diamond necklet which the other man had
brought there?"

"Yes, sir."

"And what became of the young lady?" I inquired very anxiously.

"She first had a long and private conversation with the gentleman
named Winton--the bald-headed man."

This, it will be remembered, was the person whose description tallied
exactly with that of her father.

"They went outside together," said the boots, "out into the yard, and
there conversed alone in half-whispers. Afterwards they rejoined the
others. Mr. Lewis seemed very annoyed with her; nevertheless, after a
cup of tea each, about half-past five the four of them got into the
car in which Winton had arrived and drove away in the direction of
Grantham. Winton gave me a sovereign for myself--an unusually generous
gift, I can assure you, sir," he laughed.

"And now what is your own opinion concerning them?" I asked.

"Why, there can only be one opinion, sir--that they are wrong 'uns. I
felt half a mind to tell Mr. Pearson, the police-constable who lives
across in Water Lane, but I didn't like to without consulting
somebody. And I didn't want to wake up the manageress."

"Ah! and it may now be too late, Cross," said the lady in question,
who had been standing by all the time. Then, addressing me, she said--

"The whole affair seemed most mysterious, sir, therefore I went round
and saw the inspector of police this morning, and told him briefly of
our strange visitors. I'm rather glad they're gone, for one never
likes unpleasantness in a hotel. Yet, of course, the fault cannot be
that of the hotel-keeper if he takes in an undesirable."

"Of course not. But what view did the inspector hold?"

"Inspector Deane merely expressed the opinion that they were
suspicious persons--that's all."

"So they seem to have been," I remarked, without satisfying her as to
who I really was. My story there was that I had business relations
with Mr. Lewis, and had followed him there in the hope of catching him
up.

We were in the manageress's room, a cosy apartment in the back of the
quaint old hostelry, when a waitress came and announced Inspector
Deane. The official was at once shown in, whereupon he said abruptly--

"The truth is out, Miss Hammond, regarding your strange visitors of
last night." And he glanced inquiringly at myself.

"You can speak openly before this gentleman," she said, noticing his
hesitation.

"The fact is, a circular-telegram has just been sent out from Scotland
Yard, saying that by the express from Edinburgh due at King's Cross at
10.45 last night the Archduchess Marie Louise, niece of the Emperor
Francis Joseph of Austria, was a passenger. She had been staying at
Balmoral, and travelled south in a special saloon. When the luggage
came to be collected a dressing-case was missing--it evidently having
been stolen in transit by somebody who had obtained access to the
saloon while on the journey. The corridor was open between York and
London, so that the restaurant could be reached, and it is believed
that the thief, or thieves, managed to pass in unobserved and throw
the bag out upon the line to some confederate awaiting it. The bag
contained a magnificent diamond necklet--a historic heirloom of the
Imperial family of the Hapsburgs--and is valued at fifty thousand
pounds!"

"And those people who met here were the thieves!" gasped the
manageress, turning instantly pale.

"Without a doubt. You see, the Great Northern main line runs close by
us--at Essendine. It may be that the thieves were waiting for it near
there--waiting for it to be dropped out in the darkness. All the
platelayers along the line are now searching for the bag, but we here
are certain that the thieves spent the night in Stamford."

"Not the thieves," I said. "The receivers."

"Exactly."

"But the young foreigner has it!" cried the boots. "He and his friend
set off for London with it."

"Yes. They would reach London in time to catch one of the boat-trains
from Victoria or Charing Cross this morning, and by this time they're
safely out of the country--carrying the necklet with them. Ah!
Scotland Yard is terribly slow. But the delay seems to have been
caused by the uncertainty of Her Highness as to whether she had
actually brought the dressing-case with her, and she had to telegraph
to Balmoral before she could really state that it had been stolen."

"The two men, Douglas Winton and his friend, came here in a
motor-car," I remarked. "They had evidently been waiting somewhere
near the line, in order to pick up the stolen bag."

"Without a doubt, sir," exclaimed the inspector. "Their actions here,
according to what Miss Hammond told me this morning, were most
suspicious. It's a pity that the boots did not communicate with us."

"Yes, Mr. Deane," said the man referred to, "I'm very sorry now that I
didn't. But I felt loath to disturb people at that hour of the
morning."

"You took no note of the number of either of the three cars which
came, I suppose?"

"No. We have so many cars here that I hardly noticed even what colour
they were."

"Ah! That's unfortunate. Still, we shall probably pick up some clue to
them along the road. Somebody is certain to have seen them, or know
something about them."

"This gentleman here knows something about them," remarked the
manageress, indicating myself.

The inspector turned to me in quick surprise, and no doubt saw the
surprise in my face.

"I--I know nothing," I managed to exclaim blankly, at once realizing
the terrible pitfall into which I had fallen.

"But you said you knew Mr. Lewis--the gentleman who acted as president
of that mysterious conference!" Miss Hammond declared, in all
innocence.

"I think, sir," added the inspector, "that the matter is such a grave
one that you should at once reveal all you do know. You probably
overlook the fact that if you persist in silence you may be arrested
as an accessory."

"But I know nothing," I protested; "nothing whatever concerning the
robbery!"

"But you know one of the men," said Cross the boots.

"And the lady also, without a doubt!" added the inspector.

"I refuse to be cross-examined in this manner by you!" I retorted in
anger, yet full of apprehension now that I saw myself suspected of
friendship with the gang.

"Well, sir, then I regret that I must ask you to walk over the bridge
with me to the police-station. I must take you before the
superintendent," he said firmly.

"But I know nothing," I again protested.

"Come with me," he said, with a grim smile of disbelief. "That you'll
be compelled to prove."



CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

MORE STRANGE FACTS


Compelled against my will to accompany the inspector to the police
head-quarters in the High Street, I made a statement--a rather lame
one, I fear.

I concealed the fact that the lady of the previous night's conference
was my wife, and explained my visit to Stamford, and my inquiries at
the George, by the fact that I had met the man Lewis abroad, and had
had some financial dealings with him, which, I now suspected, were not
altogether square. So, hearing that he had motored to the north, I had
followed, and had inquired at several of the well-known motoring
hotels for news of him, being unsuccessful until I had arrived at
Stamford.

This story would, of course, not have held water had Miss Hammond, the
manageress, been present. Happily, however, she had not accompanied
me, hence I was able to concoct a somewhat plausible excuse to the
local superintendent.

"Then you actually know nothing concerning these people?" he asked,
regarding me shrewdly.

"Nothing beyond the fact of meeting Lewis abroad, and very foolishly
trusting in his honesty."

The superintendent smiled. I think he regarded me as a bit of a fool.
Probably I had been.

"They are a clever gang, no doubt," he declared. "The Archduchess's
necklace must have been stolen by some one travelling in the train.
I've been on to Scotland Yard by telephone, and there seems a
suspicion because at Grantham--the last stopping-place before
London--a ticket-collector boarded the train. He was a stranger to the
others, but they believed that he had been transferred from one or
other of the branches to the main line, and being in the company's
uniform they, of course, accepted him. He collected the tickets _en
route_, as is sometimes done, and at Finsbury Park descended, and was
lost sight of. Here again the busy collectors came and demanded
tickets, much to the surprise of the passengers, and the curious
incident was much commented upon."

"Then the bogus collector was the thief, I suppose?"

"No doubt. He somehow secured the dressing-bag and dropped it out at a
point between Grantham and Essendine--a spot where he knew his
accomplices would be waiting--a very neatly-planned robbery."

"And by persons who are evidently experts," I said.

"Of course," replied the grey-haired superintendent. "The manner in
which the diamonds have been quickly transferred from hand to hand and
carried out of the country is sufficient evidence of that. The gang
have now scattered, and, for aught we know, have all crossed the
Channel by this time."

"Well," I assured him; "I know nothing more of the affair than what I
have told you. If I were an accomplice I should hardly be here--making
inquiries concerning them."

"I don't know so much about that," he replied, rather incredulously.
"Such an action has been known before, in order to place the police
upon a wrong scent. I fear I must ask you to remain here, in Stamford,
until this evening, while I make some inquiry into your _bona fides_,
sir."

"What!" I cried. "You intend to detain me!"

"There is no indignity," he declared. "You may go about the town where
you will--providing you do not attempt to leave it. I regret, but it
is my duty to ascertain who and what you are, Mr. Biddulph."

I had given him my card, and he, seeing the look of annoyance upon my
face, added--

"I can only express apologies, sir. But you will see it is my duty.
You have admitted knowledge of at least one of the mysterious gang."

"Very well," I replied reluctantly; "make what inquiries you will."
And I gave him the address of my solicitors and my bankers.

Then, walking out of the office, I strolled down the quiet old High
Street into the market place, full of evil forebodings.

Who was this man Lewis--or Louis--with whom my wife had escaped?

He was a blackguardly adventurer, anyhow. He had addressed her as
"dear," and had been solicitous of her welfare throughout! To him she
had signalled from her box in the theatre, well knowing that he was
making secret preparations for her elopement. Indeed, she had written
that note and placed it upon my blotting-pad before we had gone forth
together, she well knowing that she would never again re-cross my
threshold.

Ah! The poignant bitterness of it all had gripped my heart. My cup of
unhappiness was now assuredly full.

How brief had been my joy; how quickly my worst fears had been
realized.

About the quiet, old-world decaying town I wandered, hardly knowing
whither I went. When, every now and then, in the fading light, I found
myself going into the country I turned back, mindful of my promise not
to leave the place without permission.

About six I returned to the George and sat beside the fire in the
lounge--in that selfsame chair where my fugitive wife had sat. I was
eager to renew the chase, yet until I received word from the police I
was compelled to remain helpless.

Old Cross, the boots, became inquisitive, but I evaded his questions,
and ate my dinner alone in the small cosy coffee-room, awaiting the
reappearance of Inspector Deane. I had given my chauffeur liberty till
eight o'clock, but I was all anxiety to drive back to London.

Still, if I returned, what could I do? Sylvia and her companions had
driven away--whither was a mystery.

The Criminal Investigation Department had already issued an official
description of the persons wanted, for while I had been at the
police-office the inspector had been closely questioning the man Cross
and Miss Hammond.

Already the police drag-net was out, and the combined police forces of
Europe would, in an hour or two, be on the watch for Sylvia and her
mysterious companions.

So far as the United Kingdom was concerned sixty thousand officers,
detectives and constables would be furnished with a complete
description of those who had held that secret consultation. The
tightest of tight cordons would be drawn. Every passenger who embarked
at English ports for abroad would be carefully scrutinized by
plain-clothes men. Every hotel-keeper, not only in London, but in the
remote villages and hamlets would be closely questioned as to the
identity and recent movements of his guests. Full descriptions of
Sylvia and her friends would be cabled to America, and the American
police would be asked to keep a sharp look-out on passengers arriving
on all boats from Europe. Descriptions would also be sent to the
police head-quarters in every European capital.

In face of that, what more could I do?

The situation had become unbearable. Sylvia's unaccountable action had
plunged me into a veritable sea of despair. The future seemed blank
and hopeless.

Just before eight o'clock I strolled back to the police-office and
reported myself, as it were. The superintendent expressed himself
perfectly satisfied with the replies he had received from London, and,
with apologies, gave me leave to depart.

"Inquiry is being made along the roads in every direction from here,"
he said. "We hear that the three men and the woman called at the Bell,
at Barnby Moor, and had some breakfast. Afterwards they continued
northward."

"Barnby Moor!" I echoed. "Why, that's near Doncaster."

"Yes, sir. Motorists patronize the place a good deal."

"And is that all that is known?" I inquired eagerly.

"All at present," he said. Therefore I left and, returning to the
garage, mounted the car and, with head-lamps alight, drove out into
the pitch darkness in the direction of Grantham. We sped along the
broad old coach-road for nearly three hours, until at last we pulled
up before an ancient wayside inn which had been modernized and adapted
to twentieth-century requirements.

The manager, in reply to my eager questions, said it was true that the
Doncaster police had been there making inquiries regarding four
motorists--three gentlemen and a lady--who had called there that
morning and had had breakfast in the coffee-room.

The head-waiter who had attended them was called, and I questioned
him. I think the manager believed me to be a detective, for he was
most courteous, and ready to give me all information.

"Yes, sir," replied the tall, slim head-waiter. "They came here in a
great hurry, and seemed to have come a long distance, judging from the
way the car was plastered with mud. The lady was very cold, for they
had an open car, and she wore a gentleman's overcoat and a shawl tied
around her head. The tallest of the gentlemen drove the car. They
called him Lewis."

"Did you hear them address the lady?" I asked eagerly.

"They called her Sonia, sir."

"And you say she seemed very fatigued?"

"Very. She went upstairs and changed her evening gown for a stuff
dress, which was brought out of the car. Then she came down and joined
the others at breakfast."

"They gave you no indication as to their destination, I suppose?"

"Well, sir, I think they were returning to London, for I heard one of
the gentlemen say something about catching the boat-train."

"They may have meant the Harwich boat-train from the north," I
remarked.

"Very likely, sir. One portion of that train comes through Doncaster
in the afternoon to Peterborough and March, while the other comes down
to Rugby on the North-Western, and then goes across to Peterborough by
way of Market Harborough."

"Then they may have joined that, and if so they would just about be
leaving Parkeston Quay by now!"

"If so, the police are certain to spot them," laughed the waiter.
"They're wanted for the theft of a princess's jewels, they say."

What should I do? It was now long past ten o'clock, and I could not
possibly arrive at Parkeston before early morning. Besides, if they
had really gone there, they would, no doubt, be arrested. The man with
the pimply face whose description so closely tallied with that of
Reckitt, was surely too clever a criminal to run his neck into a noose
by going to any port of embarkation. Therefore I concluded that
whatever had been said at table had been said with the distinct object
of misleading the waiter. The very manner in which the diamonds had
been stolen showed a cunning and a daring unsurpassed. Such men were
certainly not easily trapped.

My sole thought was of Sylvia. I could not bring myself to believe
that she had wilfully forsaken her home and her husband. Upon her, I
felt confident, some species of blackmail had been levied, and she had
been forced away from me by reasons beyond her control.

That incident of the photograph--the picture believed to have been of
myself--which the foreigner tried to secure but which the man Lewis
had himself destroyed, was incomprehensible. What had been intended by
the foreigner?

I gathered all the information I could in the hotel, and then, after a
hasty meal, re-entered the car and set out upon the dark, cold return
journey to London.

Where was Sylvia? Who were her mysterious friends? And, chief of all,
who was that man Lewis who addressed her in such endearing terms?

What could possibly be the solution of the mystery?



CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

"SOME SENSATIONAL REVELATIONS"


The days dragged by. The papers were full of the robbery, declaring
that it had been executed so neatly as to betray the hand of experts.

A gang of Continental thieves was suspected, because, as a matter of
fact, a robbery similar in detail had, six months before, taken place
on the night express between Cologne and Berlin. In that case also a
strange ticket-inspector had been seen. The stolen property had, no
doubt, been thrown from the train to accomplices. Such method was
perfectly safe for the thief, because, unless actually detected in the
act of tossing out a bag or parcel, no evidence could very well be
brought against him.

Therefore the police, and through them the newspapers, decided that
the same gang was responsible for the theft of the Archduchess's
necklace as for the robbery in Germany.

Myself, I read eagerly every line of what appeared in the morning and
evening press.

Many ridiculous theories were put forward by some journalists in
working up the "story," and more than once I found cruel and unfounded
reflections cast upon the sole female member of the party--my dear
wife.

This was all extremely painful to me--all so utterly incomprehensible
that, as I sat alone in the silence of my deserted home, I felt that
no further misfortune could fall upon me. The iron of despair had
entered my very soul.

Marlowe called one afternoon, and I was compelled to make excuse for
Sylvia's absence, telling him she was down at Mrs. Shuttleworth's.

"You don't look quite yourself, old man," he had said. "What's up?"

"Oh, nothing," I laughed faintly. "I'm a bit run down, that's all.
Want a change, I suppose. I think I shall go abroad."

"I thought your wife had had sufficient of the Continent," he
remarked. "Curiously enough," he added, as he sat back and blew a
cloud of cigarette-smoke from his lips, "I thought I saw her the day
before yesterday standing on the railway platform at Banbury. I was
coming down from Birmingham to Oxford, and the train slowed down in
passing Banbury. I happened to be looking out at the time, and I could
have sworn that I saw her."

"At Banbury!" I ejaculated, leaning forward.

"Yes. She was wearing a dark blue dress, with a jacket to match, and a
small dark blue hat. She was with an elderly lady, and was evidently
waiting for a train. She gave me the impression that she was starting
on a journey."

"How old was her companion?"

"Oh, she was about forty, I should think--neatly dressed in black."

"It couldn't have been she," I said reflectively.

"My dear Owen, Mrs. Biddulph's beauty is too marked for one to be
mistaken--especially a friend, like myself."

"Then you are quite certain it was she--eh, Jack?"

My tall friend stretched his long legs out on the carpet, and
replied--

"Well, I'd have bet a hundred to a penny that it was she. She wasn't
at home with you on that day, was she?"

I was compelled to make a negative reply.

"Then I'm certain I saw her, old man," he declared, as he rose and
tossed his cigarette-end away.

It was upon my tongue to ask him what he had known of her, but I
refrained. She was my wife, and to ask such a question would only
expose to him my suspicions and misgivings.

So presently he went, and I was left there wretched in my loneliness
and completely mystified. The house seemed full of grim shadows now
that she, the sun of my life, had gone out of it. Old Browning moved
about silent as a ghost, watching me, I knew, and wondering.

So Sylvia had been seen at Banbury. According to Jack, she was dressed
as though travelling; therefore it seemed apparent that she had hidden
in that quiet little town until compelled to flee owing to police
inquiries. Her dress, as described by Jack, was different to any I
had ever seen her wear; hence it seemed as though she had disguised
herself as much as was possible. Her companionship with the elder
woman was also somewhat strange.

My only fear was that the police might recognize her. While she
remained in one place, she would, no doubt, be safe from detection.
But if she commenced to travel, then most certainly the police would
arrest her.

Fortunately they were not in possession of her photograph, yet all
along I remained in fear that the manager of the Coliseum might make a
statement, and this would again connect me with the gang.

Yes, I suppose the reader will dub me a fool to have married Sylvia.
Well, he or she may do so. My only plea in extenuation is that I loved
her dearly and devotedly. My love might have been misplaced, of
course, yet I still felt that, in face of all the black circumstances,
she was nevertheless true to those promises made before the altar. I
was hers--and she was mine.

Even then, with the papers raising a hue-and-cry after her, as well as
what I had discovered regarding her elopement, I steadfastly refused
to believe in her guilt. Those well-remembered words of affection
which had fallen from her lips from time to time I knew had been
genuine and the truth.

That same night I read in the evening paper a paragraph as follows--

"It is understood that the police have obtained an important clue to
the perpetrators of the daring theft of the diamond necklet belonging
to the Archduchess Marie Louise, and that an arrest is shortly
expected. Some highly sensational revelations are likely."

I read and re-read those significant lines. What were the "sensational
revelations" promised? Had they any connection with the weird mystery
of that closed house in Porchester Terrace?

I felt that perhaps I was not doing right in refraining from laying
before the Criminal Investigation Department the facts of my strange
experience in that long-closed house. In that neglected garden, my own
grave lay open. What bodies of other previous victims lay there
interred?

I recollected that in the metropolis many bodies of murdered persons
had been found buried in cellars and in gardens. A recent case of the
discovery of an unfortunate woman's body beneath the front doorsteps
of a certain house in North London was fresh within my mind.

Truly the night mysteries of London are many and gruesome. The public
never dream of half the brutal crimes that are committed and never
detected. Only the police, if they are frank, will tell you of the
many cases in which persons missing are suspected of having been
victims of foul play. Yet they are mysteries never solved.

I went across to White's and dined alone. I was in no mood for the
companionship of friends. No one save myself knew that my wife had
disappeared. Jack suspected something wrong, but was not aware of what
it exactly was.

I went down to Andover next day and called upon the Shuttleworths.
Mrs. Shuttleworth was kind and affable as usual, but whether my
suspicions were ungrounded or not, I thought the rector a trifle
brusque in manner, as though annoyed by my presence there.

I recollected what the man Lewis had told his friends--that he had
seen Shuttleworth down in the Ditches--one of the lowest
neighbourhoods--of Southampton. The rector had told him all that had
transpired!

Why was this worthy country rector, living the quiet life of a remote
Hampshire village, in such constant communication with a band of
thieves?

I sat with him in his well-remembered study for perhaps an hour. But
he was a complete enigma. Casually I referred to the great jewel
theft, which was more or less upon every one's tongue.

"I seldom read newspaper horrors," he replied, puffing at his familiar
pipe. "I saw something in the head-lines of the paper, but I did not
read the details. I've been writing some articles for the _Guardian_
lately, and my time has been so fully occupied."

Was this the truth? Or was he merely evading the necessity of
discussing the matter?

He had inquired after Sylvia, and I had been compelled to admit that
she was away. But I did so in such a manner that I implied she was
visiting friends.

Outside, the lawn, so bright and pleasant in summer, now looked damp
and dreary, littered by the brown drifting leaves of autumn.

Somehow I read in his grey face a strange expression, and detected an
eagerness to get rid of me. For the first time I found myself an
unwelcome visitor at the rectory.

"Have you seen Mr. Pennington of late?" I asked presently.

"No, not for some time. He wrote me from Brussels about a month ago,
and said that business was calling him to Spain. Have you seen him?"
he asked.

"Not very recently," I replied vaguely.

Then again I referred to the great robbery, whereat he said--

"Why, Mr. Biddulph, you appear as though you can't resist the
fascination that mysterious crime has for you! I suppose you are an
ardent novel-reader--eh? People fond of novels always devour newspaper
mysteries."

I admitted a fondness for healthy and exciting fiction, when he
laughed, saying--

"Well, I myself find that nearly half one reads in some of the
newspapers now-a-days may be classed as fiction. Even party politics
are full of fictions, more or less. Surely the public must find it
very difficult to winnow the truth from all the political lies, both
spoken and written. To me, elections are all mere campaigns of
untruth."

And so he again cleverly turned the drift of our conversation.

About five o'clock I left, driving back to Andover Junction, and
arriving at Waterloo in time for dinner.

I took a taxi at once to Wilton Street, but there was no letter from
Sylvia. She gave no sign. And, indeed, why should she, in face of her
letter of farewell?

I dressed, and sat down alone to my dinner for the first time in my
own dining-room since my wife's disappearance.

Lonely and sad, yet filled with fierce hatred of those blackguardly
adventurers, of whom her own father was evidently one, I sat silent,
while old Browning served the meal with that quiet stateliness which
was one of his chief characteristics. The old man had never once
mentioned his missing mistress, yet I saw, by the gravity of his pale,
furrowed face, that he was anxious and puzzled.

As I ate, without appetite, he chatted to me, as had been his habit in
my bachelor days, for through long years of service--ever since I was
a lad--he had become more a friend than a mere servant. From many a
boyish scrape he had shielded me, and much good advice had he given me
in those reckless days of my rather wild youth.

His utter devotion to my father had always endeared him to me, for to
him there was no family respected so much as ours, and his
faithfulness was surely unequalled.

Perhaps he did not approve of my marriage. I held a strong suspicion
that he had not. Yet old servants are generally apt to be resentful at
the advent of a new mistress.

I was finishing my coffee and thinking deeply, Browning having left me
alone, when suddenly he returned, and, bending, said in his quiet
way--

"A gentleman has called, Mr. Owen. He wishes to see you very
particularly." And he handed me a card, upon which I saw the name:
"Henri Guertin."

I sprang to my feet, my mind made up in an instant. Here was one
actually of the gang, and I would entrap him in my own house!

I would compel him to speak the truth, under pain of arrest.

"Where is he?" I asked breathlessly.

"I have shown him into the study. He's a foreign gentleman, Mr. Owen."

"Yes, I know," I said. "But now, don't be alarmed, Browning--just stay
outside in the hall. If I ring the bell, go straight to the telephone,
ring up the police-station, and tell them to send a constable here at
once. My study door will be locked until the constable arrives. You
understand?"

"Perfectly, Mr. Owen, but----" And the old man hesitated, looking at
me apprehensively.

"There is nothing whatever to fear," I laughed, rather harshly
perhaps. "Carry out my orders, that's all."

And then, in fierce determination, I went along the hall, and, opening
the study door, entered, closing it behind me, and as I stood with my
back to it I turned the key and removed it.

"Well, M'sieur Guertin," I exclaimed, addressing the stout man in gold
pince-nez in rather a severe tone, "and what, pray, do you want with
me?"



CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

A CONTRETEMPS


The stout, round-faced Frenchman rose, and, bowing with his irritating
politeness, answered--

"I wish to consult you, Monsieur Biddulph, upon a confidential matter
concerning your wife."

"What does my wife concern you, pray, sir?" I asked angrily.

"Ah! calm yourself, m'sieur," he said suddenly, dropping into French;
"I am here as your friend."

"I hardly believe that," I replied incredulously. "My friend cannot be
the accomplice of my enemies. You are acquainted with Reckitt and with
Pennington--the men implicated in the recent theft of the diamonds of
the Archduchess Marie Louise!"

He started and looked at me quickly.

"What do you know of that?" he inquired, with rather undue eagerness.

"I know more concerning you than you think," was my firm reply. "And I
give you an alternative, Monsieur Guertin. Either you will reveal to
me the whole truth concerning those men Reckitt and Forbes and my
wife's connection with them, or I shall telephone to the police, and
have you arrested as a member of the gang."

"My dear monsieur," he replied, with a good-humoured smile, "I can't
tell you facts of which I possess no knowledge. I am here to make
inquiry of you--to----"

"To mislead me further!" I cried angrily. "You and your friends may be
extremely clever--you have succeeded in enticing my wife away from her
home, and you expect to befool me further. Remember that I nearly lost
my life in that grim house in Bayswater. Therefore at least I can
secure the arrest of one member of the gang."

"And you would arrest me--eh?" he asked, looking me straight in the
face, suddenly growing serious.

"Yes, I intend to," I replied, whipping out my revolver from my hip
pocket.

"Put that thing away," he urged. "Be reasonable. What would you profit
by arresting me?"

"You shall either speak--tell me the truth, or I will hand you over to
the police. I have only to touch this bell"--and I raised my hand to
the electric button beside the fireplace--"and a telephone message
will call a constable."

"And you really would give me in charge--eh?" laughed my visitor.

"I certainly intend doing so," I answered angrily.

"Well, before this is done, let us speak frankly for a few moments,"
suggested the Frenchman. "You tell me that you nearly lost your life
in some house in Bayswater. Where was that?"

"In Porchester Terrace. What is the use of affecting ignorance?"

"I do not affect ignorance," he said, and I saw that a change had
completely overspread his countenance. "I only wish to know the extent
of your knowledge of Reckitt and Forbes."

"I have but little knowledge of your friends, I'm pleased to say," was
my quick rejoinder. "Let us leave them out of the question. What I
desire to know is the whereabouts of my wife."

He shrugged his broad shoulders.

"I regret that I have no knowledge of where madame may be."

"But you have!" I cried, facing him angrily. "She is probably with
Pennington, her father, who seems to be one of your undesirable
fraternity."

"No, she is not with him, most certainly," my visitor declared. "I
know that for a fact. She is probably with Lewis."

"And who is this fellow Lewis?" I demanded.

For a moment he was silent.

"I think you had better ask madame, your wife," he replied at last.

"Do you intend to cast a slur upon her?" I cried, facing him
resentfully.

"Not in the least," was his cool answer. "I have merely replied to
your question."

"And have given me most impertinent advice! Will you, or will you not,
tell me who the fellow is?"

"At present, monsieur, I must refuse."

"Then I shall press the bell, and give you into custody."

"Ah!" he laughed, "that will be distinctly amusing."

"For me, perhaps--not for you."

"Monsieur is at liberty to act as he deems best," said my visitor.

Therefore, irritated by the fellow's manner, and in the hope that he
would at the eleventh hour relent, I pressed the bell.

It rang loudly, and I heard old Browning go to the telephone beneath
the stairs. In a few minutes the constable would arrive, and at least
one member of the dangerous gang would be secured.

"Perhaps you will let me pass," he said, crossing towards the door
immediately after I had rung the bell. But I placed myself against it,
revolver in hand, preventing him and holding him at bay.

"Very well," he laughed. "I fear, Mr. Biddulph, that you are not
acting judiciously. You refuse to accept my statement that I am here
as your friend!"

"Because you, on your part, refuse to reply to my questions."

But he only shrugged his shoulders again without replying.

"You know quite well where my wife is."

"Alas! I do not," the fellow declared emphatically. "It was to obtain
information that I called."

"You cannot deny that you know that pair of criminals, Reckitt and
Forbes?"

"I have surely not denied knowledge of them!"

"Yet you refuse to tell me who this man is who enticed my wife from my
side--the man who presided over that secret council at the George
Hotel at Stamford!"

"I am prepared to be frank with you in return for your frankness,
monsieur," he answered.

But I saw in his evasive replies an intention to mislead me into a
belief that he was actuated towards me by friendly motives. Therefore
my antagonism increased. He had defied me, and I would give him into
custody.

Presently there came a loud knocking at the door, and, upon my opening
it, a police-sergeant stood upon the threshold.

"I give this man into custody," I said, addressing him and pointing to
the Frenchman.

"Upon what charge, sir?" asked the burly officer, whose broad
shoulders filled the doorway, while I saw a constable standing behind
him.

"On suspicion of being associated with the theft of the diamonds of
the Archduchess Marie Louise," I replied.

"Come, monsieur," laughed my visitor, speaking again in English, "I
think we have carried this sufficiently far." And, placing his hand in
his breast-pocket, he produced a small folded yellow card bearing his
photograph, which he handed to me. "Read that!" he added, with a laugh
of triumph.

I saw that the printed card was headed "Préfecture de Police, Ville de
Paris," and that it was signed, countersigned, and bore a large red
official seal.

Quickly I scanned it, and, to my abject dismay, realized that Henri
Guertin was chief of the first section of the _sûreté_--he was one of
the greatest detectives of France!

I stammered something, and then, turning to the sergeant, red and
ashamed, I admitted that I had made a mistake in attempting to arrest
so distinguished an official.

The two metropolitan officers held the card in their hands, and,
unable to read French, asked me to translate it for them, which I did.

"Why," cried the sergeant, "Monsieur Guertin is well known! His name
figures in the papers only this morning as arresting two Englishmen in
Paris for a mysterious murder alleged to have been committed in some
house in Bayswater!"

"In Bayswater!" I gasped. "In Porchester Terrace?"

"Yes," replied the famous French detective. "It is true that I know
Reckitt and Forbes. But I only knew them in order to get at the truth.
They never suspected me, and early yesterday morning I went to the
snug little apartments they have in the Rue de Rouen, and arrested
them, together with two young Frenchmen named Terassier and Brault.
Concealed beneath a loose board in the bedroom of the last-named man I
found the missing gems."

"Then Terassier and Brault were the two men who met the others in
Stamford, and carried the diamonds across to the Continent, intending
to dispose of them?"

"Exactly. There was a hitch in disposing of them in Amsterdam, as had
been intended, and though the diamonds had been knocked from their
settings, I found them intact."

He told me that Forbes was the actual thief, who had so daringly
travelled to Finsbury Park and collected the tickets _en route_. He
had practically confessed to having thrown the bag out to Reckitt and
Pennington, who were waiting at a point eight miles north of
Peterborough. They had used an electric flash-lamp as they stood in
the darkness near the line, and the thief, on the look-out for the
light, tossed the bag out on to the embankment.

"Then my father-in-law is a thief!" I remarked, with chagrin, when the
sergeant and constable had been dismissed. "It was for that reason my
wife dare not face me and make explanation!"

"You apparently believe Arnold Du Cane, alias Winton, alias
Pennington, to be Sylvia's father--but such is not the case," remarked
the great detective slowly. "To his career attaches a very remarkable
story--one which, in my long experience in the unravelling of
mysteries of crime, has never been equalled."

"Tell me it," I implored him eagerly. "Where is my poor wife?"



CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

THE FRENCHMAN MAKES A STATEMENT


"Ah! I regret, m'sieur, that I do not know," replied the Frenchman.
"And yet," he added, after a second's hesitation, "I do not exactly
regret. Perhaps it is best, after all, that I should remain in
ignorance. But, Monsieur Biddulph, I would make one request on your
wife's behalf."

"On her behalf!" I gasped. "What is it?"

"That you do not prejudge her. She has left you because--well, because
she had good reason. But one day, when you know the truth, you will
certainly not judge her too harshly."

"I do not judge her harshly," I protested. "How can I, when I love her
as devotedly as I do! I feel confident that the misfortunes she has
brought upon me were not of her own seeking."

"She very narrowly escaped the vengeance of those two assassins,"
Guertin said; "how narrowly, neither you nor she will ever know. For
months I have watched them closely, both here and in France and
Germany, in order to catch them red-handed; but they have been too
clever for me, and we must rely upon the evidence which that
back-garden in Porchester Terrace will now yield up. The gang is part
of a great criminal association, that society of international
thieves of which one member was the man you knew as Harriman, and
whose real name was Bell--now at Devil's Island for the murder of the
rising young English parliamentary Under-Secretary Ronald Burke. The
murder was believed to have been committed with a political motive,
and through certain false evidence furnished by the man Pennington, a
person named Louis Lessar, chief of the band, was first arrested, and
condemned by the Assize Court of the Seine. Both were sent to Devil's
Island for life, but recently Lessar escaped, and was daring enough to
come to England as Mr. Lewis."

"Lewis!" I gasped. "That was the fellow with whom my wife escaped--the
man who presided over the secret deliberations of the gang at their
assembly at Stamford!"

"Yes. Once a British officer, he had been leader of the great criminal
organization before his arrest. They were the most formidable in
Europe, for they always acted on scientific principles, and always
well provided with funds. Some of their coups were utterly amazing.
But on his arrest and imprisonment the society dwindled under the
leadership of Pennington, a low-bred blackguard, who could not even be
loyal to his associates."

"Excuse me, sir," remarked the sergeant, again shown into the room by
Browning. "Our C.I.D. men have been at work all day in the garden
behind that house in Porchester Terrace. A big hole was found dug
there, and already they've turned up the remains of two persons--a
man and a woman. I ought to have told you that we had it over the
telegraph at the station about an hour ago. Superintendent Mayhew and
Professor Salt have been there to examine the remains recovered."

"Two victims!" I exclaimed. "The open grave found there was prepared
for me!"

"No doubt," exclaimed Guertin. "When I first communicated with your
Scotland Yard, they refused to believe my allegations against Reckitt
and Forbes. But I had had my suspicions aroused by their actions in
Paris, and I was positive. But oh! your police methods are so very
painfully slow!"

Then the sergeant again withdrew.

"But of Pennington. Tell me more of him," I urged.

"He was your worst enemy, and Sylvia's enemy also, even though he
posed as her father. He wished her to marry Forbes, and thus, on
account of her great beauty, remain the decoy of the gang. But she met
you, and loved you. Her love for you was the cause of their hatred.
Because of her affection, she risked her life by revealing to me
certain things concerning her associates, whom she knew were plotting
to kill you. The very man who was posing as her father--and who
afterwards affected friendship for you--told that pair of unscrupulous
assassins, Reckitt and Forbes, a fictitious story of how Sonia--for
that is her real name--had denounced them. This aroused their hatred,
and they decided to kill you both. From what I heard afterwards, they
entrapped you, and placed you in that fatal chair beside the venomous
reptile, while they also tortured the poor girl with all the horrors
of the serpent, until her brain became deranged. Suddenly, however,
they became alarmed by discovering a half-witted lad wandering in the
garden where the bodies of previous victims lay concealed, and, making
a quick escape, left you and her without ascertaining that you were
dead. Eventually she escaped and rescued you, hence their fear that
you would inform the police, and their frantic efforts to secure the
death of both of you. Indeed, you would probably have been dead ere
this, had I not taken upon myself the self-imposed duty of being your
protector, and had not Louis Lessar most fortunately escaped from
Devil's Island to protect his daughter from their relentless hands."

"His daughter!" I gasped, staring at him.

"Yes. Sonia is the daughter of Phil Poland, alias Louis Lessar, the
man who was falsely denounced by Pennington as an accomplice in the
assassination of the young Under-Secretary, Mr. Burke, on the Riviera.
After I had arrested her father one night at the house where he lived
down near Andover, Pennington compelled the girl to pass as his
daughter for a twofold reason. First, because he believed that her
great beauty would render her a useful decoy for the purpose of
attracting young men into their fatal net, and secondly, in order that
Forbes should secure her as his wife, for it was realized how, by her
marriage to him, her lips would be sealed."

"But they all along intended to kill me."

"Of course. Your life was, you recollect, heavily insured at
Pennington's suggestion, and you had made over a large sum of money to
Sonia in case of your demise. Therefore it was to the interests of the
whole gang that you should meet with some accident which should prove
fatal. The theft of the jewels of the Archduchess delayed the
conspiracy from being put into execution, and by that means your life
was undoubtedly spared. Ah! monsieur, the gang recently led by Arnold
Du Cane was once one of the most daring, the most unscrupulous, and
the most formidable in the whole of Europe."

"And my dear wife is actually the daughter of the previous leader of
that criminal band!" I exclaimed apprehensively.

"Yes. She escaped with him because she was in fear of her
life--because she knew that if she were again beneath her own father's
protection, you--the man she loved--would also be safe from injury.
For Phil Poland is a strong man, a perfect past-master of the criminal
arts, and a leader whose word was the command of every member of that
great international organization, the wide ramifications of which I
have so long tried in vain to ascertain."

"Then Poland is a noteworthy man in the world of crime?"

"He is a very prince of thieves. Yet, at the same time, one must
regard him with some admiration for his daring and audacity, his
wonderful resourcefulness and his strict adhesion to fair play. For
years he lived in France, Italy and Spain, constantly changing his
place of abode, his identity, his very face, and always evading us;
yet nobody has ever said that he did a mean action towards a poor man.
He certainly suffered an unjust punishment by that false accusation
made against him by the man who was apparently jealous of his
leadership, and who desired to become his successor."

"Then you are of opinion that my wife left me in order to secure my
protection from harm?"

"I am quite certain of it. You recollect my meeting with her at the
Hôtel Meurice in Paris. She told me several things on that occasion."

"And Pennington very nearly fell into your hands."

"Yes, but with his usual cleverness he escaped me."

"Where is he now? Have you any idea?" I asked.

"I have no exact knowledge, but, with the arrest of four of his
accomplices, it will not be difficult to find out where he is in
hiding," he laughed.

"And the same may be said of Poland--eh?"

"No; on the contrary, while the man Pennington, alias Du Cane, is
hated--and it will be believed by those arrested that he has betrayed
them in order to save himself--yet Poland is beloved. They know it was
Du Cane who made the false charge connecting Poland with Harriman, and
they will never forgive him. The hatred of the international thief is
the worst and most unrelenting hatred existing in the whole world.
Before Poland came to live in retirement here in England at
Middleton, near Andover, his association consisted only of the most
expert criminals of both sexes, and he controlled their actions with
an iron hand. Once every six months the members from all over Europe
held a secret conference in one capital or another, when various tasks
were allotted to various persons. The precautions taken to prevent
blunders were amazing, and we were baffled always because of the
widespread field of their operations, and the large number of experts
engaged. The band, broken up into small and independent gangs, worked
in unison with receivers always ready, and as soon as our suspicions
were aroused by one party they disappeared, and another, complete
strangers, came in their place. Premises likely to yield good results
from burglary were watched for months by a constant succession of
clever watchers, and people in possession of valuables sometimes
engaged servants of irreproachable character who were actually members
of the gang. Were their exploits chronicled, they would fill many
volumes of remarkable fact, only some of which have appeared in recent
years in the columns of the newspapers. Every European nationality and
every phase of life were represented in that extraordinary assembly,
which, while under Poland's control, never, as far as is known,
committed a single murder. It was only when the great leader was
condemned and exiled, and the band fell away, that Pennington, Reckitt
and Forbes conceived the idea of extorting money by means of the
serpent, allowing the reptile to strike fatally, and so prevent
exposure. By that horrible torture of the innocent and helpless they
must have netted many thousands of pounds."

"It was you, you say, who arrested Poland down in Hampshire."

"Yes, nearly three years ago. Prior to Harriman's arrest, I went there
with my friend Watts, of Scotland Yard, and on that evening a strange
affair happened--an affair which is still a mystery. I'll tell you all
about it later," he added. "At present I must go to Porchester Terrace
and see what is in progress. I only arrived in London from Paris two
hours ago."

I begged him to take me along with him, and with some reluctance he
consented. On the way, Guertin told me a strange story of a dead man
exactly resembling himself at Middleton village on the night of
Poland's arrest. Arrived at the house of grim shadows, we found a
constable idling outside the gate, but apparently nobody yet knew of
what was transpiring in the garden behind the closed house. At first
the man declined to allow us to enter, but, on Guertin declaring who
he was, we passed through into the tangled, weedy place where the
lights of lanterns were shining weirdly, and we could see men in their
shirt-sleeves working with shovel and pick, while others were clearing
away the dead rank herbage of autumn.

In the uncertain light I saw that a long trench some four feet in
depth had been dug, and into this the men were flinging the soil they
carefully removed in their progress in a line backwards.

Beneath a tree, close to where was an open trench--the one prepared
for the reception of my body--lay something covered with a black
cloth. From beneath there stuck out a hideous object--a man's muddy
patent-leather shoe!

Even while I stood amid that weird, never-to-be-forgotten scene, one
of the excavators gave an ejaculation of surprise, and a lantern,
quickly brought, revealed a human arm in a dark coat-sleeve embedded
in the soil.

With a will, half-a-dozen eager hands were at work, and soon a third
body--that of a tall, grey-haired man, whose face, alas! was awful to
gaze upon--was quickly exhumed.

I could not bear to witness more, and left, gratified to know that the
two fiends were already safely confined in a French prison.

Justice would, no doubt, be done, and they would meet with their
well-merited punishment.



CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

FURTHER REVELATIONS


If you are a constant reader of the newspapers, as probably you are,
you will no doubt recollect the great sensation caused next day on the
publication of the news of the gruesome find in that, one of the most
aristocratic thoroughfares of Bayswater.

The metropolitan police were very reticent regarding the affair, but
many of the papers published photographs of the scene of the
exhumations, the exterior of the long-closed house, and photographs of
the various police officials. That of Guertin, however, was not
included. The famous investigator of crime had no wish for the picture
of his face, with its eyes beaming benignly through his gold glasses,
to be disseminated broadcast.

The police refused to make any statement; hence the wildest
conjectures were afloat concerning the series of tragedies which must
have taken place within that dark house, with its secluded, tangled
garden.

As the days went by, the public excitement did not abate, for yet more
remains were found--the body of a young, fair-haired man who had been
identified as Mr. Cyril Wilson, a member of the Travellers' Club, who
had been missing for nearly nine months. The police, impelled by this
fresh discovery, cut down the trees in the garden and laid the whole
place waste, while crowds of the curious waited about in the
neighbourhood, trying to catch a glimpse of the operations.

And as time wore on I waited in daily expectation of some sign from
the woman I so dearly loved.

Guertin, who still remained in London, assured me that she was safe in
hiding with her father, Phil Poland.

"And you will, of course, arrest him when you can discover him," I
remarked, as I sat with the famous detective in his room at the Grand
Hotel in Trafalgar Square.

"I do not wish to discover him, my dear Monsieur Biddulph," was his
kind reply. "I happen to know that he has deeply repented of his
wrongdoing, and even on his sudden reappearance at Stamford with the
remaining portion of his once invulnerable gang, he urged them to turn
aside from evil, and become honest citizens. He has, by his wrongful
conviction of murder, expiated his crimes, and hence I feel that he
may be allowed a certain leniency, providing he does not offend in
future."

"But a warrant is out for him, of course?"

"Certainly. His arrest is demanded for breaking from prison. His
escape is one of the most daring on record. He swam for five miles in
the sea on a dark night, and met with most extraordinary adventures
before a Dutch captain allowed him to work his passage to Rotterdam."

"But he will not dare to put foot in London, I suppose. He would be
liable to extradition to France."

"Who knows? He is one of the most fearless and ingenious men I have
ever known. He can so alter his appearance as to deceive even me."

"But the metropolitan police, knowing that Sylvia--I mean Sonia--is
his daughter, may be watching my house!" I exclaimed in alarm.

"That is more than likely," he admitted. "Hence, if you want to allow
madame, your wife, an opportunity to approach you, you should go
abroad somewhere--to some quiet place where you would not be
suspected. Let me know where you go, and perhaps I can manage to
convey to them the fact that you are waiting there."

The hotel at Gardone--that fine lake-side hotel where I had first seen
Sonia--occurred to me. And I told him.

"Very well," he said cheerfully. "I shall return to Paris to-morrow,
and if I can obtain any information from either of the prisoners, I
will manage to let Poland know that his son-in-law awaits him."

Then I thanked the great detective, and, shaking hands warmly, we
parted.

What Guertin had told me regarding the strange discovery of a man who
closely resembled him outside Poland's house on the night of the
latter's arrest held me much puzzled. Even he, the all-powerful chief
of the _sûreté_, had failed to solve the enigma.

Next afternoon Shuttleworth called upon me in Wilton Street, and for a
long time sat chatting.

At last he looked at me gravely, and said--

"I dare say you have been much puzzled, Mr. Biddulph, to know why I, a
clergyman of the Church of England, have apparently been mixed up with
persons of shady character. But now that four of them are under
arrest, and a fifth, we hope, will shortly be apprehended, I will
explain. As you perhaps know, Sonia was the daughter of the Honourable
Philip Poland, who came to live at the Elms, which is close to the
rectory at Middleton. We became great friends, until one evening he
made a strange confession to me. He told me who he was--Louis Lessar,
who had been the leader of a dangerous band of international
thieves--and he asked my advice in my capacity of spiritual guide. He
had repented, and had gone into retirement there, believing that his
sins would not find him out. But they had done, and he knew he must
shortly be arrested. Well, I advised him to act the man, and put aside
the thoughts of suicide. What he had revealed to me had--I regret to
confess it--aroused my hatred against the man who had betrayed him--a
man named Du Cane. This man Du Cane I had only met once, at the Elms,
and then I did not realize the amazing truth--that this was the
selfsame man who had stolen from me, twenty years before, the woman I
had so dearly loved. He had betrayed her, and left her to starve and
die in a back street in Marseilles. I concealed my outburst of
feeling, yet the very next evening Poland was arrested, and Sonia,
ignorant of the truth, was, with a motive already explained by
Monsieur Guertin, taken under the guardianship of this man whom I had
such just cause to hate--the man who subsequently passed as her
father, Pennington. It was because of that I felt all along such a
tender interest in the unhappy young lady, and I was so delighted to
know when she had at last become your wife."

"You certainly concealed your feelings towards Pennington. I believed
you to be his friend," I said.

"I was Sonia's friend--not his, for what poor Poland had told me
revealed the truth that the fellow was an absolute scoundrel."

"And you, of course, know about the incident of a man closely
resembling the French detective Guertin being found dead outside the
door of the Elms?"

"Certainly," was his reply; "that is still a complete mystery which
can only be solved by Poland himself. He must know, or else have a
shrewd idea of what occurred."

As we chatted on for a long time, he told me frankly many things of
which I had not the least suspicion, at the same time assuring me of
Sonia's deep devotion towards me, and of his confidence that she had
left me because she believed being at her father's side would ensure
my own safety.

And now that I knew so much of the truth I longed hourly to meet her,
and to obtain from her--and perhaps from the lips of Philip Poland
himself--the remaining links in that remarkable chain of facts.



CHAPTER THIRTY

CONCLUSION


About ten days afterwards I one morning received by post a brief note
from Guertin, written from the Préfecture in Paris, urging me to go at
once to the Victoria Hotel at Varenna, on the Lake of Como, where, if
I waited in the name of Brown, my patience would be rewarded.

And there, sure enough, six days later, as I sat one evening in my
private sitting-room, the door suddenly opened and my well-beloved, in
a dark travelling gown, sprang forward and embraced me, sobbing for
very joy.

Can I adequately describe the happiness of that reunion. Of what I
uttered I have no recollection, for I held her closely in my arms as I
kissed her hot tears away.

A man stood by--a tall, silent, gentlemanly man, whose hair was grey,
and whose face as he advanced beneath the strong light showed traces
of disguise.

"I am Philip Poland--Sonia's father," he exclaimed in a low voice.
Whereupon I took the hand of the escaped prisoner, and expressed the
utmost satisfaction at that meeting, for he had risked his liberty to
come there to me.

"Sonia has told me everything," he said; "and I can only regret that
those blackguards have treated you and her as they have. But Guertin,
who is a humane man, even though he be a detective, has tracked them
down, and only yesterday I heard Du Cane--the man who made that false
charge against myself, and stepped into my shoes; the man who intended
that my poor girl should marry that young scoundrel Forbes--has been
discovered in Breslau, and is being extradited to England."

"On the night of your arrest, Mr. Poland, a mystery occurred," I said
presently, as we sat together exchanging many confidences, as I held
my dear wife's soft little hand in mine.

"Yes," he replied. "It was only while I was out at Devil's Island that
I learnt the truth. Du Cane, intending to get me out of the way, hit
upon a very ingenious plan of sending a man made up as Guertin--whom I
only knew by sight--to see me and suggest suicide rather than arrest.
This man--a person named Lefevre--came and made the suggestion. He did
not know that Du Cane had written anonymously to the Préfecture, and
never dreamed that Guertin himself would follow him so quickly. On
leaving, he apparently hung about watching the result of his dastardly
mission, when Harriman--or Bell as we knew him--walked up the drive,
in order to call in secret upon me. He espied a man whom he recognized
as Guertin peering in at the window, and, creeping up behind him,
struck him down before he could utter a word. Afterwards he slipped
away, believing that he had killed our arch-enemy, the chief of the
_sûreté_. Presently, however, the body of the unfortunate Lefevre was
found by Guertin himself, who had come to arrest me."

"And Harriman admitted this!" I exclaimed.

"Yes. He admitted it to me upon his death-bed. He died of fever a week
before I made my dash for liberty. But," he added, "Sonia has told me
of that dastardly attempt which those hell-fiends Reckitt and Forbes
made upon you in Porchester Terrace, and how they also tortured her.
But they were fortunately alarmed and fled precipitately, leaving
Sonia unconscious."

"Yes," declared my sweet wife. "When I came to myself I recollected,
in horror, what they had told me concerning the fate to which they had
abandoned you in the adjoining room, and with a great effort managed
to free myself and seek you. I cut the straps which bound you, and
succeeded in killing the snake just in time to save you. Then I stole
away and left, fearing that you might suspect me of having had some
hand in the affair."

"And you saved my life, darling!" I exclaimed, kissing her fondly on
the lips.

Then, turning to Poland, I said--

"The police are hunting for you everywhere. Cannot you get to some
place where you are not liable to be taken back to France?"

"To-morrow, if I am fortunate," he said, with a faint smile, "I
return to the modest little villa I have rented on the hill-side
outside Athens. In Greece one is still immune from arrest for offences
abroad."

"And I shall return to London with you, Owen. Father and I have
travelled to Trieste, and thence here, in order that I should rejoin
you, now that the danger is past."

"Ah! darling," I cried. "I never for one moment doubted you! Yet I
admit that the circumstances once or twice looked very black and
suspicious."

"Alas! I could not prevent it," she declared; "I left you and joined
Dad at the Coliseum, because I went in fear of some further attempt
being made upon us, and I felt you and I would be safe if I were with
him. He had no idea when he met the others at Stamford that Forbes and
Reckitt and Du Cane had effected that _coup_ with the Archduchess's
jewels."

"No. I had no idea of it," said Poland. "My meeting with them was one
of farewell. I had already severed my connection with them three years
ago, before my arrest."

And then, after some further explanations, I clasped my loved one in
my arms and openly repeated my declaration of fervent love and fond
affection.

Of the rest, what need be said?

Sonia is now very happy, either down at Carrington or at Wilton
Street, for the black clouds which overshadowed the earlier days of
our marriage have rent asunder, and given place to all the sunshine
and brightness of life and hope.

No pair could be happier than we.

Twice we have been to Athens as the guest of the tall, grey-haired
Englishman who is such a thorough-going cosmopolitan, and who lives in
Greece for the sake of the even climate and the study of its
antiquities. No one in the Greek capital recognizes Mr. Wilfrid Marsh
as the once-famous Louis Lessar.

And dear old Jack Marlowe, still our firm and devoted friend, is as
full of good-humoured philosophy as ever, and frequently our visitor.
He still leads his careless existence, and is often to be seen idling
in the window of White's, smoking and watching the passers-by in St.
James's Street.

You who read the newspapers probably know how Arnold Du Cane, alias
Pennington, alias Winton, was recently sentenced at the Old Bailey to
fifteen years, and the two young Frenchmen, Terassier and Brault, to
seven years each, for complicity in the robbery on the Scotch express.

And probably you also read the account of how two mysterious
Englishmen named Reckitt and Forbes, who had been arrested in Paris,
had, somehow, prior to their extradition to England, managed to obtain
possession of blades of safety-razors, and with them had both
committed suicide.

In consequence of this there was no trial of the perpetrators of
those brutal crimes in Porchester Terrace.

The whole affair was but a nine days' horror, and as the authorities
saw that no good could accrue from alarming the public by further
publicity or inquiry, it was quickly "Hushed up."

                    THE END

_Richard Clay & Sons, Limited, London and Bungay._



"THE MASTER OF MYSTERY"

WILLIAM LE QUEUX'S NOVELS

Opinions in 1911


 "Mr. William Le Queux retains his position as 'The Master of
 Mystery.' ... He is far too skilful to allow pause for
 thought: he whirls his readers from incident to incident,
 holding their attention from the first page to the close of
 the book."--_Pall Mall Gazette._

 "Mr. Le Queux is the master of mystery. He never fails to
 produce the correct illusion. He always leaves us panting
 for more--a brilliant feat."--_Daily Graphic._

 "Mr. Le Queux is still 'The Master of Mystery.'"--_Madame._

 "Mr. Le Queux is a most experienced hand in writing
 sensational fiction. He never loses the grip of his
 readers."--_Publishers' Circular._

 "Mr. Le Queux always grips his reader, and holds him to the
 last page."--_Bristol Times and Mirror._

 "Mr. Le Queux's books once begun must be read to the
 end."--_Evening News._

 "There is no better companion on a railway journey than Mr.
 William Le Queux."--_Daily Mail._

 "Mr. Le Queux knows his business, and carries it on
 vigorously and prosperously. His stories are always
 fantastic and thrilling."--_Daily Telegraph._

 "Mr. Le Queux is an adept at the semi-detective story. His
 work is always excellent."--_Review of Reviews._

 "Mr. Le Queux is always so refreshing in his stories of
 adventure that one knows on taking up a new book of his that
 one will be amused."--_Birmingham Post._

 "Mr. Le Queux's books are delightfully
 convincing."--_Scotsman._

 "Mr. Le Queux's books are always exciting and absorbing. His
 mysteries are enthralling and his skill is
 world-famous."--_Liverpool Daily Post._

 "Mr. Le Queux has brought the art of the sensational novel
 to high perfection."--_Northern Whig._

 "Mr. Le Queux is so true to his own style that any one
 familiar with his books would certainly guess him to be the
 author, even if his name were not given."--_Methodist
 Recorder._

 "'As good wine needs no bush' so no mystery story by Mr. Le
 Queux, the popular weaver of tales of crime, needs praise
 for its skill. Any novel with this author's name appended is
 sure to be ingenious in design and cleverly worked
 out."--_Bookseller._

 "Mr. Le Queux is always reliable. The reader who picks up
 any of his latest novels knows what to expect."--_Bookman._

 "Mr. Le Queux's admirers are legion, and the issue of a new
 novel is to them one of the most felicitous events that can
 happen."--_Newcastle Daily Chronicle._

 "Mr. Le Queux is the master of the art of
 mystery-creating."--_Liverpool Daily Post._



 A Descriptive List of
 NASH'S
 Two-Shilling
 NOVELS

 The greatest popular success of modern publishing.

 Autumn 1911

 Exactly like 6/- Novels in size
 :: :: quality and appearance :: ::

 Recognisable everywhere by their green cloth
 covers on which are coloured medallions



NASH'S 2/- NOVELS

LATEST VOLUMES


 _An Exchange of Souls_
               By Barry Pain

 _The Arrest of Arsène Lupin_
               By Maurice Leblanc

 _The Perfume of the Lady in Black_
               By Gaston Leroux

 _The Lady of the Hundred Dresses_
               By S. R. Crockett

 _The Silent House_
               By Louis Tracy

 _Hushed Up_
               By William Le Queux

 _Yellow Men and Gold_
               By Gouverneur Morris



NASH'S 2/- NOVELS

 _VOLUMES ALREADY ISSUED_
 MYSTERY & DETECTIVE STORIES


 +The Hollow Needle+                  _By Maurice Leblanc_

    A story of Arsène Lupin, the greatest, most ingenious and
    most daring criminal in modern fiction.

    "A thrilling and fascinating story ... not less exciting or
    less mystifying than its predecessors."--_Liverpool Daily
    Post._

    "Well worthy of its place in the famous set of
    adventures."--_Observer._

 +The Black Spider+                   _By Carlton Dawe_

    "Described as a sensational story of a female 'Raffles' this
    tale ... in every way lives up to its
    description."--_Birmingham Daily Post._

    "Full of thrills from beginning to end."--_Western Mail._

    "An extremely powerful story ... well worked out, and the
    mixture of romance with a story of the 'Raffles' type is well
    calculated to please."--_T.P.'s Weekly._

 +The Window at The White Cat+        _by Mary Roberts Rinehart_

    _Author of "The Circular Staircase," etc._

    "The plot is skilful and the incidents exciting. It is
    something more than a mere detective story: there is
    character in it, and a pleasant love story, and a quite
    refreshing sense of humour."--_The Outlook._

    "We greatly enjoyed the brisk dialogue and the unexpected
    ending."--_Evening Times._

 +The Wife He Never Saw+              _By Max Marcin_

     "A decidedly clever bit of sensation, ... worked out with
     considerable resource. Altogether a fine
     thrill."--_Liverpool Courier._

     "A vigorous and briskly moving yarn--the best thing of the
     kind we have encountered for some considerable
     time."--_Birmingham Daily Post._

 +The Red Symbol+                     _By John Ironside_

     "Enthralling, entertaining and powerful ... clean and
     wholesome, it is one of the most powerful novels we have had
     for a long time ... a fine mystery story most excellently
     told and holding its reader in its grasp from start to
     finish."--_Dublin Daily Express._

     "A love story full of thrilling incidents."--_Country Life._

     "Vigour and swing characterise the book, which has no dull
     pages, and which keeps its alluring secret until near the
     end."--_Glasgow Herald._

 +Raffles+                            _By E. W. Hornung_

     "Hats off to Raffles."--_Daily Telegraph._

 +The House of Whispers+              _By William Le Queux_

     "Mystery--tantalising and baffling."--_The Yorkshire Post._

     "An excellent tale."--_The Daily Telegraph._

     "Full of arresting situations and making a strong appeal at
     every stage to the instinct of curiosity."--_The Pall Mall
     Gazette._

     "Mr. Le Queux will please thousands by this work."--_The
     Morning Leader._

 +Treasure of Israel+                 _by William Le Queux_

     "Another of his wonderful mystery stories."--_Liverpool
     Daily Post._

     "An admirably worked piece of sensationalism ... ought to
     please a host of readers."--_The Sunday Times._

     "Mr. Le Queux keeps his readers fascinated to the
     end."--_The Yorkshire Post._

     "The author is at his raciest; each chapter discloses some
     new phase of the mystery, each page supplies a new thrill of
     excitement."--_The Pall Mall Gazette._

 +The House of the Whispering Pines+  _By Anna Katharine Green_

     _Author of "The Leavenworth Case."_

    "The author has written nothing so good since her famous
    'Leavenworth Case.' The story grips one from the first
    scene.... The book is crammed with incident ... there is not
    a dull page from first to last."--_The Outlook._

     "So ingenious, plausible, dramatic, and well-thought-out a
     plot is a relief after the far-fetched absurdities of many
     tales of the kind. The most austere reader ... will find
     himself consumed with wonder as to whom the guilty man can
     be."--_The Evening Standard._

 +The Man who Drove the Car+          _By Max Pemberton_

     "Excellent and thrilling reading."--_The Morning Leader._

     "The book is excellent reading."--_The Daily Express._

     "Exciting enough to please the most blasé reader of
     sensational fiction."--_North Mail._

     "A thoroughly delightful book, absorbing, and of tense
     interest throughout."--_The Liverpool Daily Post._

                    Humorous & Breezy Books.

 +Stranleigh's Millions+              _By Robert Barr_

     "He is a good fellow, and, like Mr. Barr, invariably
     entertaining."--_Daily Graphic._

     "Very amusing, very delightful."--_The Globe._

 +Sea Dogs+                           _By Morley Roberts_

     "A jolly collection."--_The Evening Standard._

     "Mighty interesting."--_The Daily Chronicle._

     "A bright and breezy book."--_The Daily Mail._

     "Very funny indeed ... the whole book is one good
     laugh."--_The Observer._

     "For wit and humour and invention it would be hard to
     beat."--_The Referee._

 _VOLUMES ALREADY ISSUED_
 :: :: SOCIAL COMEDIES :: ::

 +A Honeymoon--And After+             _By F. C. Philips & Percy Fendall_

     "A really clever novel of modern society life."--_The Dundee
     Advertiser._

     "A well-written and clever novel."--_The Dublin Express._

     "A bright, well-written story that holds the reader till the
     end."--_The Pall Mall Gazette._

     "Owes much of its sustained interest to ruthless pictures of
     life in frivolous West-end circles."--_The Daily Chronicle._

 +Envious Eliza+                      _By Madame Albanesi_

     "Eliza is charming."--_The Standard._

     "Human and genuine throughout."--_The Morning Leader._

     "The reader is carried on to the end with unabated pleasure
     and zest."--_The Bookman._

     "The authoress has the gift of informing her characters with
     life and charm.... The book cannot fail to consolidate the
     position which the authoress has won by her earlier
     works."--_The Daily News._

 +Jack and Three Jills+               _By F. G. Philips_

     _Author of "As in a Looking Glass," etc._

     "An arresting and clever piece of observation."--_Bystander._

     "An entertaining story of legal life.... Jack ... is frank,
     manly, and generally attractive."--_Pall Mall Gazette._

 +The Divine Fire+                    _By May Sinclair_

     "Judged by almost every standard to which a comedy like this
     should be referred, I find her book the most remarkable that
     I have read for many years."--Mr. Owen Seaman in _Punch._

     "A novel to read, and what is more to keep and read
     again."--_Outlook._

 +A Lucky Young Woman+                _By F. C. Philips_

     "Shows us the author at his best."--_Pall Mall Gazette._

                    Yorkshire Life.

 +Mr. Poskitt's Nightcaps+            _By J. S. Fletcher_

     "Excellent ... comic and tragic episodes of Yorkshire life,
     rich in character and dramatic force."--_The Morning
     Leader._

                    A Masterpiece of Fiction.

 +The Nun+                            _By René Bazin_

     "A book which no one who reads it will ever forget."--_The
     Westminster Gazette._

     "It is difficult to speak in measured terms of this
     exquisite story ... a consummate artist, his work eats into
     the heart, and lives in the memory as do but few books from
     modern authors."--_The Daily Telegraph._

     "It is long since we have read a tragedy so intensely moving
     as the story of this innocent peasant girl.... 'The Nun' is
     a masterwork of fiction."--_The Daily Graphic._



TRANSCRIBER'S NOTES:

1. Minor changes have been made to correct typesetters' errors;
otherwise, every effort has been made to remain true to the author's
words and intent.

2. In the advertising pages, titles were in bold font; + has been used
in this text version to indicate that.

3. Following the title page, this edition included a page of magazine
and newspaper reviews of William Le Queux's books. This has been moved
to just before the advertising pages at the end of this e-text.





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