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Hushed Up - A Mystery of London
by William Le Queux
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"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 mediaeval 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."

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