Presently Odinzoff went outside, carrying with him two boards upon which the menu of the "Eight-penny Luncheon! This Day!" was written in scrawly characters, and proceeded to affix them to the shop-front.
This was my opportunity, and quick as thought I moved towards where the unhealthy youth was at work, and whispered:
"I'll give you half-a-sovereign if you'll answer my questions truthfully. Now, tell me, was the cook, the man I've just seen, here yesterday?"
"Was he here the day before?"
"No, sir. He's been away ill for four days."
"And your master?"
"He's been away too, sir."
I had no time to put any further question, for the Russian re-entered at that moment, and the youth busied himself rubbing the front of the counter in pretense that I had not spoken to him. Indeed, I had some difficulty in slipping the promised coin into his hand at a moment when his master was not looking.
Then I paced up and down the restaurant, waiting patiently and wondering whether the absence of Emilio had any connection with the tragedy up in Rannoch Wood.
While I stood there a rather thin, respectably-dressed man entered, and seating himself upon one of the plush lounges at the further end, removed his bowler hat and ordered from the proprietor a chop and a pot of tea. Then, taking a newspaper from his pocket, he settled himself to read, apparently oblivious to his surroundings.
And yet as I watched I saw that over the top of his paper he was carefully taking in the general appearance of the place, and his eyes were keenly following the Russian's movements. The latter shouted—in French—the order for the chop through the speaking-tube to the man Emilio, and then returning to his customer he spread out a napkin and placed a small cruet, with knife, fork, and bread before him. But the customer seemed immersed in his paper, and never looked up until after the Russian's back was turned. Then so deep was his interest in the place, and so keen those dark eyes of his, that the truth suddenly dawned upon me. Mackenzie had telegraphed to Scotland Yard, and the customer sitting there was a detective who had come to investigate. I had advanced to the counter to chat again with the proprietor, when a quick step behind me caused me to turn.
Before me stood the slim figure of a man in a straw hat and rather seedy black jacket.
"Dio Signor Padrone!" he cried.
I staggered as though I had received a blow.
Olinto Santini in the flesh, smiling and well, stood there before me!
No words of mine can express my absolute and abject amazement when I faced the man, whom I had seen lying cold and dead upon that gray stone slab in the mortuary at Dumfries.
My eye caught the customer who, on the entry of Olinto, had dropped his paper and sat staring at him in wonderment. The detective had evidently been furnished with a photograph of the dead man, and now, like myself, discovered him alive and living.
"Signor Padrone!" cried the man whose appearance was so absolutely bewildering. "How did you find me here? I admit that I deceived you when I told you I worked at the Milano," he went on rapidly in Italian. "But it was under compulsion—my actions that night were not my own—but those of others."
"Yes, I understand," I said. "But come out into the street. I don't wish to speak before these people. Your padrone knows Italian, no doubt."
"Ah! only a very little," he answered, smiling. "Have no fear of him."
"But there is Emilio, the cook?"
"Then you have met him!" he exclaimed quickly, with a strange look of apprehension. "He is an undesirable person, signore."
"So I gather," I answered. "But I desire to speak to you outside—not here." And then turning with a smile to the Pole, I apologized for taking away his servant for a few minutes. "Recollect, I am his old master, I added."
"Of course, m'sieur," answered the Pole, bowing politely. "Speak with him where and how long you will. He is entirely at your service."
And when we were outside in Westbourne Grove, Olinto walking by my side in wonderment, I asked suddenly:
"Tell me. Have you ever been in Scotland—at Dumfries?"
"Never, signore, in my life. Why?"
"Answer me another question," I said quickly. "You married Armida at the Italian Consulate. Where is she now—where is she this morning?"
He turned pale, and I saw a complete change in his countenance.
"Ah, signore!" he responded, "I only wish I could tell."
"It is untrue that she is an invalid," I went on, "or that you live in Lambeth. Your address is in Albany Road, Camberwell. You can't deny these facts."
"I do not deny them, Signor Commendatore. But how did you learn this?"
"The authorities in Italy know everything," I answered. "Like that of all your countrymen, your record is written down at the Commune."
"It is a clean one, at any rate, signore," he declared with some slight warmth. "I have a permesso to carry a revolver, which is in itself sufficient proof that I am a man of spotless character."
"I cast no reflection whatever upon you, Olinto," I answered. "I have merely inquired after your wife, and you do not give me a direct reply."
We had walked to the Royal Oak, and stood talking on the curb outside.
"I give you no reply, because I can't," he said in Italian. "Armida—my poor Armida—has left home."
"Why did you tell me such a tale of distress regarding her?"
"As I have already explained, signore, I was not then master of my own actions. I was ruled by others. But I saved your life at risk of my own. Some day, when it is safe, I will reveal to you everything."
"Let us allow the past to remain," I said. "Where is your wife now?"
He hesitated a moment, looking straight into my face.
"Well, Signor Commendatore, to tell the truth, she has disappeared."
"Disappeared!" I echoed. "And have you not made any report to the police?"
"For reasons known only to myself I did not wish the police to pry into my private affairs."
"I know. Because you were once convicted at Lucca of using a knife—eh? I recollect quite well that affair—a love affair, was it not?"
"Yes, Signor Commendatore. But I was a youth then—a mere boy."
"Then tell me the circumstances In which Armida has disappeared," I urged, for I saw quite plainly that his sudden meeting with me had upset him, and that he was trying to hold back from me some story which he was bursting to tell.
"Well, signore," he said at last in a low tone of confidence, "I don't like to trouble you with my private affairs after those untruths I told you when we last met."
"Go on," I said. "Tell me the truth."
After the exciting incidents of our last meeting, I was half inclined to doubt him.
"The truth is, Signor Commendatore, that my wife has mysteriously disappeared. Last Saturday, at eleven o'clock, she was talking over the garden wall with a neighbor and was then dressed to go out. She apparently went out, but from that moment no one has seen or heard of her."
It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him the ghastly truth, yet so strange was the circumstance that his own double, even to the mole upon his face, should be lying dead and buried in Scotland that I hesitated to relate what I knew.
"She spoke English, I suppose?"
"She could make herself understood very well," he said with a sigh, and I saw a heavy, thoughtful look upon his brow. That he was really devoted to her, I knew. With the Italian of whatever station in life, love is all-consuming—it is either perfect love or genuine hatred. The Tuscan character is one of two extremes.
I glanced across the road, and saw that the detective who had ordered his chop and coffee had stopped to light his pipe and was watching us.
"Have you any idea where your wife is, or what has induced her to go away from home? Perhaps you had some words!"
"Words, signore!" he echoed. "Why, we were the happiest pair in all London. No unkind word ever passed between us. There seems absolutely no reason whatever why she should go away without wishing me a word of farewell."
"But why haven't you told the police?"
"For reasons that I have already stated. I prefer to make inquiries for myself."
"And in what have your inquiries resulted?"
"Nothing—absolutely nothing," he said gravely.
"You do not suspect any plot? I recollect that night in Lambeth you told me that you had enemies?"
"Ah! so I have, signore—and so have you!" he exclaimed hoarsely. "Yes, my poor Armida may have been entrapped by them."
"And if entrapped, what then?"
"Then they would kill her with as little compunction as they would a fly," he said. "Ah! you do not know the callousness of those people. I only hope and pray that she may have escaped and is in hiding somewhere, and will arrive unexpectedly and give me a startling surprise. She delights in startling me," he added with a laugh.
Poor fellow, I thought, she would never again be able to startle him. She had actually fallen a victim just as he dreaded.
"Then you think she must have been called away from home by some urgent message?" I suggested.
"By the manner in which she left things, it seemed as though she went away hurriedly. There were five sovereigns in a drawer that we had saved for the rent, and she took them with her."
I paused again, hesitating whether to tell him the terrible truth. I recollected that the body had disappeared, therefore what proof had I of my allegation that she had been murdered?
"Tell me, Olinto," I said as we moved forward again in the direction of Paddington Station, "have you any knowledge of a man named Leithcourt?"
He started suddenly and looked at me.
"I have heard of him," he answered very lamely.
"And of his daughter—Muriel?"
"And also of her. But I am not acquainted with them—nor, to tell the truth, do I wish to be."
"Because they are enemies of mine—bitter enemies."
His declaration was strange, for it threw some light upon the tragedy in Rannoch Wood.
"And of your wife also?"
"I do not know that," he responded. "My enemies are my wife's also, I suppose."
"You have not told me the secret of that dastardly attempt upon me when we last met," I said in a low voice. "Why not tell me the truth? I surely ought to know who my enemies really are, so as to be warned against any future plot."
"You shall know some day, signore. I dare not tell you now."
"You said that before," I exclaimed with dissatisfaction. "If you are faithful to me, you ought at least to tell me the reason they wished to kill me in secret."
"Because they fear you," was his answer.
"Why should they fear me?"
But he shrugged his shoulders, and made a gesture with his hands indicative of utter ignorance.
"I ask you one question. Answer yes or no. Is the man Leithcourt my enemy?"
The young Italian paused, and then answered:
"He is not your friend. I am quite well aware of that."
"And his daughter? She is engaged, I hear."
"I think so."
"Where did you first meet Leithcourt?"
"I have known him several years. When we first met he was poor."
"Suddenly became rich—eh?"
"Bought a fine house in the country; lives mostly at the Carlton when he and his wife and daughter are in London—although I believe they now have a house somewhere in the West End—and he often makes long cruises on his steam-yacht."
"And how did he make his money?"
Again Olinto elevated his shoulders, without replying.
If he would only betray to me the reason he had been induced to entice me to that house, I might then be able to form some conclusion regarding the tenants of Rannoch and their friends.
Who was the man who, having represented the man now before me, had been struck dead by an unerring hand? Was it possible that Armida had been called by telegram to meet her husband, and recognizing the fraud perpetrated upon her threatened to disclose it and, for that reason, shared the same fate as the masquerader?
This was the first theory that occurred to me; one which I believed to be the correct one. The motive was a mystery, yet the facts seemed to me plain enough.
As the young Italian had refused to give any satisfactory explanation, I resolved within myself to wait until the unfortunate woman's body was recovered before revealing to him the ghastly truth. Without doubt he had some reason in withholding from me the true facts, either because he feared that I might become unduly alarmed, or else he himself had been deeply implicated in the plot. Of the two suggestions, I was inclined to believe in the latter.
He walked with me as far as the end of Bishop's Road, endeavoring with all the Italian's exquisite diplomacy to obtain from me what I knew concerning the Leithcourts. But I told him nothing, nor did I reveal that I had only that morning returned from Scotland. Then at last we parted, and he retraced his steps to the little restaurant in Westbourne Grove, while I entered a hansom and drove to the well-known photographer's in New Bond Street, whose name had been upon the torn photograph of the young girl in the white pique blouse and her hair fastened with a bow of black ribbon, the picture that I had found on board the Lola on that memorable night in the Mediterranean, and a duplicate of which I had seen in Muriel's cosy little room up at Rannoch.
I recollected that she had told me the name of the original was Elma Heath, and that she had been a schoolfellow of hers at Chichester. Therefore I inquired of the photographer's lady-clerk whether she could supply me with a print of the negative.
For a considerable time she searched in her books for the name, and at last discovered it. Then she said:
"I regret, sir, that we can't give you a print, for the customer purchased the negative at the time."
"Ah, I'm very sorry for that," I said. "To what address did you send it?"
"The customer who ordered it was apparently a foreigner," she said, at the same time turning round the ledger so that I could read. And I saw that the entry was: "Heath—Miss Elma—3 dozen cabinets and negative. Address: Baron Xavier Oberg, Vosnesenski Prospect 48, St. Petersburg, Russia."
"Did this gentleman come with the young lady when her portrait was taken?" I inquired.
"I can't tell, sir," she replied. "I've only been here a year, and you see the date—over two years ago."
"The photographer would know, perhaps?"
"He's a new man, sir. He only came a month ago. In fact, the business changed hands a year ago, and none of the previous employees have remained."
"Ah! that's unfortunate," I said, greatly disappointed; and having copied the address to which the negative and prints had been sent, I thanked her and left.
Who, I wondered, was this Baron Oberg, and what relation was he to Elma Heath?
The picture of the girl in the white blouse somehow exercised a strange attraction for me.
Have you never experienced the fascination of a photograph, inexplicable and yet forcible—a kind of magnetism from which you cannot release yourself? Perhaps it was the curious fact that some person had taken it from its frame on board the Lola and destroyed it that first aroused my interest; or it might have been the discovery of it in Muriel's room at Rannoch. Anyhow, it had for me an absorbing interest, for I often wondered whether the unknown girl who had secretly gone ashore from the yacht when I had left it was not Elma Heath herself.
Who was this Baron Oberg? The name was German undoubtedly, yet he lived in the Russian capital. From London to Petersburg is a far cry, yet I resolved that if it were necessary I would travel there and investigate.
At the German Embassy, in Carlton House Terrace, I found my friend Captain Nieberding, the second secretary, of whom I inquired whether the name of Baron Oberg was known, but having referred to a number of German books in his Excellency's library, he returned and told me that the name did not appear in the lists of the German nobility.
"He may be Russian—Polish most probably," added the captain, a tall, fair fellow in gold spectacles, whom I had known when he was third secretary of Embassy at Rome. His opinion was that it was not a German name, for there was a little place called Oberg, he said, on the railway between Lodz and Lowicz.
Then, after luncheon, I went to Albany Road, one of those dreary, old-fashioned streets that were pleasant back in the early Victorian days when Camberwell was a suburb and Walworth Common was still an open waste. I found the house where Olinto lived—a small, smoke-blackened, semi-detached place standing back in a tiny strip of weedy garden, with a wooden veranda before the first floor windows. The house, according to the woman who kept a general shop at the corner, was occupied by two families. The "Eye-talians," as she termed them, lived above, while the Gibbonses rented the ground floor.
"Oh, yes, sir. The foreigners are respectable enough. Always pays me ready money for everythink, except the milk. That they pays for weekly."
"I understand that the wife has disappeared. What have you heard about that?"
"They do say, sir, that they 'ad some words together the other day, and that the woman's took herself off in a tantrum. Only you can't believe all you 'ear, you know."
"Did they often quarrel?"
"Not to my knowledge, sir. They were really very quiet, respectable persons for foreigners."
I repassed the house of the dead woman, and then regaining the busy Camberwell Road I took an omnibus back to the Hotel Cecil in the Strand where I had put up, tired and disappointed.
Next day I ran down to Chichester, and after some difficulty found the Cheverton College for Ladies, a big old-fashioned house about half-a-mile out of the town on the Drayton Road. The seminary was evidently a first-class one, for when I entered I noticed how well everything was kept.
To the principal, an elderly lady of a somewhat severe aspect, I said:
"I regret, madam, to trouble you, but I am in search of information you can supply. It is with regard to a certain Elma Heath whom you had as pupil here, and who left, I believe, about two years ago. Her parents lived in Durham."
"I remember her perfectly," was the woman's response as she sat behind the big desk, having apparently at first expected that I had a daughter to put to school.
"Well," I said, "there has been some little friction in the family, and I am making inquiries on behalf of another branch of it—an aunt who desires to ascertain the girl's whereabouts."
"Ah, I regret, sir, that I cannot tell you that. The Baron, her uncle, came here one day and took her away suddenly—abroad, I think."
"Had she no school-friend to whom she would probably write?"
"There was a girl named Leithcourt—Muriel Leithcourt—who was her friend, but who has also left."
"And no one else?" I asked. "Girls often write to each other after leaving school, until they get married, and then the correspondence usually ceases."
The principal was silent and reflective.
"Well," she said at last, "there was another pupil who was also on friendly terms with Elma—a girl named Lydia Moreton. She may have written to her. If you really desire to know, sir, I dare say I could find her address. She left us about nine months after Elma."
"I should esteem it a great favor if you would give me that young lady's address," I said, whereupon she unlocked a drawer in her writing-table and took therefrom a thick, leather-bound book which she consulted for a few minutes, at last exclaiming:
"Yes, here it is—'Lydia Moreton, daughter of Sir Hamilton Moreton, K.C.M.G., Whiston Grange, Doncaster.'" And she scribbled it in pencil upon an envelope, and handing it to me, said:
"Elma Heath was, I fear, somewhat neglected by her parents. She remained here for five years, and had no holidays like the other girls. Her uncle, the Baron, came to see her several times, but on each occasion after he had left I found her crying in secret. He was mean and unkind to her. Now that I recollect, I remember that Lydia had said she had received a letter from her, therefore she might be able to give you some information."
And with that I took my leave, thanking her, and returned to London.
Could Lydia Moreton furnish any information? If so, I might find this girl whose photograph had aroused the irate jealousy of the mysterious unknown.
The ten o'clock Edinburgh express from King's Cross next morning took me up to Doncaster, and hiring a musty old fly at the station, I drove three miles out of the town on the Rotherham Road, finding Whiston Grange to be a fine old Elizabethan mansion in the center of a great park, with tall old twisted chimneys, and beautifully-kept gardens.
When I descended at the door and rang, the footman was not aware whether Miss Lydia was in. He looked at me somewhat suspiciously, I thought, until I gave my card and impressed upon him meaningly that I had come from London purposely to see his young mistress upon a very important matter.
"Tell her," I said, "that I wish to see her regarding her friend, Miss Elma Heath."
"Miss Elma 'Eath," repeated the man. "Very well, sir. Will you walk this way?"
And then I followed him across the big old oak-paneled hall, filled with trophies of the chase and arms of the civil wars, into a small paneled room on the left, the deep-set window with its diamond panes giving out upon the old bowling-green and the flower-garden beyond.
Presently the door opened, and a tall dark-haired girl in white entered with an enquiring expression upon her face as she halted and bowed to me.
"Miss Lydia Moreton, I believe?" I commenced, and as she replied in the affirmative I went on: "I have first to apologize for coming to you, but Miss Sotheby, the principal of the school at Chichester, referred me to you for information as to the present whereabouts of Miss Elma Heath, who, I believe, was one of your most intimate friends at school." And I added a lie, saying: "I am trying, on behalf of an aunt of hers, to discover her."
"Well," responded the girl, "I have had only one or two letters. She's in her uncle's hands, I believe, and he won't let her write, poor girl. She dreaded leaving us."
"Ah! she would never say. She had some deep-rooted terror of her uncle, Baron Oberg, who lived in St. Petersburg, and who came over at long intervals to see her. But possibly you know the whole story?"
"I know nothing," I cried eagerly. "You will be furthering her interests, as well as doing me a great personal favor, if you will tell me what you know."
"It is very little," she answered, leaning back against the edge of the table and regarding me seriously. "Poor Elma! Her people treated her very badly indeed. They sent her no money, and allowed her no holidays, and yet she was the sweetest-tempered and most patient girl in the whole school."
"Well—and the story regarding her?"
"It was supposed that her people at Durham did not exist," she explained. "Elma had evidently lived a greater part of her life abroad, for she could speak French and Italian better than the professor himself, and therefore always won the prizes. The class revolted, and then she did not compete any more. Yet she never told us of where she had lived when a child. She came from Durham, she said—that was all."
"You had a letter from her after the Baron came and took her away?"
"Yes, from London. She said that she had been to several plays and concerts, but did not care for life in town. There was too much bustle and noise and study of clothes."
"And what other letters did you receive from her?"
"Three or four, I think. They were all from places abroad. One was from Vienna, one was from Milan, and one from some place with an unpronounceable name in Hungary. The last——"
"Yes, the last?" I gasped eagerly, interrupting her.
"Well, the last I received only a fortnight ago. If you will wait a moment I will go and get it. It was so strange that I haven't destroyed it." And she went out, and I heard by the frou-frou of her skirts that she was ascending the stairs.
After five minutes of breathless anxiety she rejoined me, and handing me the letter to read, said:
"It is not in her handwriting—I wonder why?"
The paper was of foreign make, with blue lines ruled in squares. Written in a hand that was evidently foreign, for the mistakes in the orthography were many, was the following curious communication:
"My Dear Lydia:
"Perhaps you may never get this letter—the last I shall ever be able to send you. Indeed, I run great risks in sending it. Ah! you do not know the awful disaster that has happened to me, all the terrors and the tortures I endure. But no one can assist me, and I am now looking forward to the time when it will all be over. Do you recollect our old peaceful days in the garden at Chichester? I think of them always, always, and compare that sweet peace of the past with my own terrible sufferings of to-day. Ah, how I wish I might see you once again; how that I might feel your hand upon my brow, and hear your words of hope and encouragement! But happiness is now debarred from me, and I am only sinking to the grave under this slow torture of body and of soul.
"This will pass through many hands before it reaches the post. If, however, it ever does get despatched and you receive it, will you do me one last favor—a favor to an unfortunate girl who is friendless and helpless, and who will no longer trouble the world? It is this: Take this letter to London, and call upon Mr. Martin Woodroffe at 98 Cork Street, Piccadilly. Show him my letter, and tell him from me that through it all I have kept my promise, and that the secret is still safe. He will understand—and also know why I cannot write this with my own hand. If he is abroad, keep it until he returns.
"It is all I ask of you, Lydia, and I know that if this reaches you, you will not refuse me. You have been my only friend and confidante, but I now bid you farewell, for the unknown beckons me, and from the grave I cannot write. Again farewell, and for ever.
"Your loving and affectionate friend,
"A very strange letter, is it not?" remarked the girl at my side. "I can't make it out. You see there is no address, but the postmark is Russian. She is evidently in Russia."
"In Finland," I said, examining the stamp and making out the post town to be Abo. "But have you been to London and executed this strange commission?"
"No. We are going up next week. I intend to call upon this person named Woodroffe."
I made no remark. He was, I knew, abroad, but I was glad at having obtained two very important clues: first, the address of the mysterious yachtsman, Woodroffe, alias Hornby, and, secondly, ascertaining that the young girl I sought was somewhere in the vicinity of the town of Abo, the Finnish port on the Baltic.
"Poor Elma, you see, speaks in her letter of some secret, Mr. Gregg," my companion said. "She says she wishes this Mr. Woodroffe, whoever he is, to know that she has kept her promise and has not divulged it. This only bears out what I have all along suspected."
"What are your suspicions?"
"Well, from her deep, thoughtful manner, and from certain remarks she at times made to me, I believe that Elma is in possession of some great and terrible secret—a secret which her uncle, Baron Oberg, is desirous of learning. I know she holds him in deadly fear—she is in terror that she may inadvertently betray to him the truth!"
STRANGE DISCLOSURES ARE MADE
The strange letter of Elma Heath, combined with what Lydia Moreton had told me, aroused within me a determination to investigate the mystery. From the moment I had landed from the Lola on that hot, breathless night at Leghorn, mystery had crowded upon mystery until it was all bewildering.
It was now proved that the sweet-faced girl, the original of the torn photograph, held a secret, and that, by her own words, she knew that death was approaching. The incomprehensible attempt upon my life, the strange actions of Hornby and Chater—who, by the way, seemed to have entirely disappeared—the assassination of the man who by masquerading as the Italian waiter had met his death, and the murder of Olinto's wife were all problems which required solution.
Had it not been for the mystery of it all—and mystery ever arouses the human curiosity—I should have given up trying to get at the truth. Yet as a man with some leisure, and knowing by that letter of Elma Heath's that she was in sore distress, I redoubled my efforts to ascertain the reason of it all.
The mystery of the Lola was still a mystery along the Mediterranean. At every French and Italian port the yacht's false name and general build was written in the police-books, while at Lloyd's the name Lola was marked down as among the mysterious craft at sea.
Chater was missing, while Hornby was abroad. Perhaps they were both cruising again, with their yacht repainted and bearing a fresh name. But why? What had been their motive?
Stirred by the complete mystery which now seemed to enshroud the unfortunate girl, I set before myself the task of elucidating it. Hitherto I had remained passive rather than active, but I now realized by that curious letter that at least one woman's life was at stake—that Elma Heath was in possession of some secret.
On leaving Leghorn I had given up all hope of tracing the mysterious yachtsman, and had left the matter in the hands of the Italian police. But, without any effort on my own part, I seemed to have been drawn into a veritable network of strange incidents, all of which combined to form the most complete and remarkable enigma ever presented in life. Surely no man was ever confronted by so many mysteries at one time as I was at this moment.
Fortunately I had been careful not to show my hand to anyone, and this perhaps gave me a distinct advantage. On my journey back to London, as the train swung through Peterborough and out across the rich level lands towards Hitchin, I recollected Jack Durnford's words when I had mentioned the Lola. What, I wondered, did he know?
Next month, in November, he was due back in London after his three years' service on the Mediterranean station. Then we should meet in a few weeks I hoped. Would he tell me anything when he became aware of all I knew? He held some secret knowledge. Was it possible that his secret was the same as that held by the unfortunate girl in far-off, dreary Finland?
I called at the house in Cork Street indicated by Elma, and learned from the old commissionaire who acted as lift-man and porter, that Mr. Woodroffe's chambers were closed.
"'E's nearly always away, sir—abroad, I think," was all I could get out of the old soldier, who, like his class, was no doubt well paid to keep his mouth closed.
For two days I lounged about Westbourne Grove watching Ferrari's restaurant. In such a busy, bustling thoroughfare, with so many shop windows as excuses for loitering, the task was easy. I saw that Olinto came regularly at ten o'clock in the morning, worked hard all day, and left at nine o'clock at night, taking an omnibus home from Royal Oak. His exterior was calm and unconcerned, unlike that of a man whose devoted wife had disappeared.
I would have approached him and explained the ghastly truth, had it not been for the fact that the poor woman's body was missing.
Those September days were full of anxiety for me. Alone and unaided I was trying to solve one of the greatest of problems, plunged as I was in a veritable sea of mystery. I wanted to see Muriel Leithcourt, and to question her further regarding Elma Heath. Therefore again I left Euston, and, traveling through the night, took my seat at the breakfast-table at Greenlaw next morning.
Sir George, who was sitting alone—it not being my aunt's habit to appear early—welcomed me, and then in his bluff manner sniffed and exclaimed:
"Nice goings on up at Rannoch! Have you heard of them?"
"No. What?" I cried breathlessly, staring at him.
"Well, my suspicions that those Leithcourts were utter outsiders turns out to be about correct."
"Well, it's a very funny story, and there are a dozen different distorted versions of it," he said. "But from what I can gather the true facts are these: About seven o'clock the night before last, as Leithcourt and his house-party were dressing for dinner, a telegram arrived. Mrs. Leithcourt opened it, and at once went off into hysterics, while her husband, in a breathless hurry, slipped off his evening clothes again and got into an old blue serge suit, tossed a few things into a bag, and then went along to Muriel's room to urge her to prepare for secret flight."
"Flight!" I gasped. "What, have they gone?"
"Listen, and I'll tell you. The servants have described the whole affair down in the village, so there's no doubt about it. Leithcourt showed Muriel the telegram and urged her to fly. At first she refused, but for her father's sake was induced to prepare to accompany him. Of course, the guests were in ignorance of all this. The brougham was ordered to be ready in the stable-yard and not to go round, while Mrs. Leithcourt's maid tried to bring the lady back to her senses. Leithcourt himself, it seemed, rushed hither and thither, seizing the jewel-cases of his wife and daughter and whatever valuables he could place his hand upon, while the mother and daughter were putting on their things. As he rushed down the main staircase to the library, where his check-book and some ready cash were locked in the safe, he met a stranger who had just been admitted and shown into the room. Leithcourt closed the door and faced him. What afterwards transpired, however, is a mystery, for two hours later, after he and the two women had escaped, leaving the house-party to their own diversions, the stranger was found locked in a large cupboard and insensible. The sensation was a tremendous one. Cowan, the doctor, was called, and declared that the stranger had been drugged and was suffering from some narcotic. The servant who admitted him declared that the man had said he had an appointment with his master, and that no card was necessary. He, however, gave the name of Chater."
"Chater!" I cried, starting up. "Are you certain of that name?"
"I only know what Cowan told me," was my uncle's reply. "But do you know him?"
"Not at all. Only I've heard that name before," I said. "I knew a man out in Italy of the same name. But where is the visitor now?"
"In the hospital at Dumfries. They took him there in preference to leaving him alone at Rannoch."
"Of course. Everyone has left, now the host and hostess have slipped off without saying good-bye. Scandalous affair, isn't it? But, my boy, you'll remember that I always said I didn't like those people. There's something mysterious about them, I feel certain. That telegram gave them warning of the visit of the man Chater, depend upon it, and for some reason they're afraid of him. It would be interesting to know what transpired between the two men in the library. And these are people who've been taken up by everybody—mere adventurers, I should call them!" And old Sir George sniffed again at thought of such scandal happening in the neighborhood. "If Gilrae must let Rannoch, then why in the name of Fortune doesn't he let it to respectable folk and not to the first fellow who answers his advertisement in The Field? It's simply disgraceful!"
"Certainly, it is a most extraordinary story," I declared. "Leithcourt evidently wished to escape from his visitor, and that's why he drugged him."
"Why he poisoned him, you mean. Cowan says the fellow is poisoned, but that he'll probably recover. He is already conscious, I hear."
I resolved to call on the doctor, who happened to be well known to me, and obtain further particulars. Therefore at eleven o'clock I drove into Dumfries and entered his consulting-room.
He was a spare, short, fair man, a trifle bald, and when I was shown in he welcomed me warmly, speaking with his pronounced Galloway accent.
"Well, it is a very mysterious case, Mr. Gregg," he said, after I had told him the object of my visit. "The gentleman is still in the hospital, and I have to keep him very quiet. He was poisoned without a doubt, and has had a very narrow escape of his life. The police got wind of the affair, and Mackenzie called to question him. But he refused to make any statement whatever, apparently treating the affair very lightly. The police, however, are mystified as to the reason of Mr. Leithcourt's sudden flight, and are anxious to get at the bottom of the curious affair."
"Naturally. And more especially after the tragedy up in Rannoch Wood a short time ago," I said.
"That's just it," said the doctor, removing his pince-nez and rubbing them. "Mackenzie seems to suspect some connection between Leithcourt's sudden disappearance and that mysterious affair. It seems very evident that the telegram was a warning to Leithcourt of the man Chater's intention of calling, and that the last-named was shown in just at the moment when the fugitive was on the point of leaving."
"Chater." I echoed. "Do you know his Christian name?"
"Hylton Chater. He is apparently a gentleman. Curious that he will tell us nothing of the reason he called, and of the scene that occurred between them."
Knowing all that I did, I was not surprised. Leithcourt had undoubtedly taken him unawares, but knights of industry never betray each other.
My next visit was to Mackenzie, for whom I had to wait nearly an hour, as he was absent in another quarter of the town.
"Ah, Mr. Gregg!" he cried gladly, as he came in to find me seated in a chair patiently reading the newspaper. "You are the very person I wish to see. Have you heard of this strange affair at Rannoch?"
"I have," was my answer. "Has the man in the hospital made any statement yet?"
"None. He refuses point-blank," answered the detective. "But my own idea is that the affair has a very close connection with the two mysteries of the wood."
"The first mystery—that of the man—proves to be a double mystery," I said.
"How? Explain it."
"Well, the waiter Olinto Santini is alive and well in London."
"What!" he gasped, starting up. "Then he is not the person you identified him to be?"
"No. But he was masquerading as Santini—made up to resemble him, I mean, even to the mole upon his face."
"But you identified him positively?"
"When a person is dead it is very easy to mistake countenances. Death alters the countenance so very much."
"That's true," he said reflectively. "But if the man we've buried is not the Italian, then the mystery is considerably increased. Why was the real man's wife here?"
"And where has her body been concealed? That's the question."
"Again a mystery. We have made a thorough search for four days, without discovering any trace of it. Quite confidentially, I'm wondering if this man Chater knows anything. It is curious, to say the least, that the Leithcourts should have fled so hurriedly on this man's appearance. But have you actually seen Olinto Santini?"
"Yes, and have spoken with him."
"I sent up to London asking that inquiries should be made at the restaurant in Bayswater, but up to the present I have received no report."
"I have chatted with Olinto. His wife has mysteriously disappeared, but he is in ignorance that she is dead."
"You did not tell him anything?"
"Ah, you did well. There is widespread conspiracy here, depend upon it, Mr. Gregg. It will be an interesting case when we get to the bottom of it all. I only wish this fellow Chater would tell us the reason he called upon Leithcourt."
"What does he say?"
"Merely that he has no wish to prosecute, and that he has no statement to make."
"Can't you compel him to say something?" I asked.
"No, I can't. That's the infernal difficulty of it. If he don't choose to speak, then we must still remain in ignorance, although I feel confident that he knows something of the strange affair up in the wood."
And although I was silent, I shared the Scotch detective's belief.
The afternoon was chill and wet as I climbed the hill to Greenlaw.
The sudden disappearance of the tenants of Rannoch was, I found, on everyone's tongue in Dumfries. In the smoke-room of the railway hotel three men were discussing it with many grimaces and sinister hints, and the talkative young woman behind the bar asked me my opinion of the strange goings-on up at the Castle.
As I walked on alone, with the dark line of woods crowning the hill-top before me, the scene of that double tragedy, I again calmly reviewed the situation. I longed to go to the hospital and see Hylton Chater, yet when I recollected the part he had played with Hornby on board the Lola, I naturally hesitated. He was allied with Hornby, apparently against Leithcourt, although the latter was Hornby's friend.
What, I wondered, had transpired in the library of that gray old castle which stood out boldly before me, dark and grim, as I plodded on through the rain? How had Leithcourt succeeded in rendering his enemy insensible and hiding him in that cupboard? Did he believe that he had killed him?
If I went boldly to Chater, then it would only be the betrayal of myself. No. I decided that the man who had smoked and chatted with me so affably on that hot, breathless night in the Mediterranean must remain in ignorance of my presence, or of my knowledge. Therefore I stayed for a week at Greenlaw with eyes and ears ever open, yet exercising care that the patient in the hospital should be unaware of my presence.
Mackenzie saw him on several occasions, but he still persisted in that tantalizing silence. The inquiry into the death of the unidentified man in Rannoch Wood had been resumed, and a verdict returned of willful murder against some person unknown, while of the second crime the public had no knowledge, for the body was not discovered.
Time after time I searched the wood alone, on the pretense of shooting pigeon, but discovered nothing. When not having sport on my uncle's property, I joined various parties in the neighborhood, not because Scotland at that time attracted me, but because I desired to watch events.
Chater, as soon as he recovered, left the hospital and went south—to London, I ascertained—leaving the police utterly in the dark and filled with suspicion of the fugitives from Rannoch.
I longed to know the whereabouts of Muriel, hoping to gain from her some information regarding their visitor who had so nearly escaped with his life. That she was aware of the object of his visit was plain from the statements of the servants, all of whom had been left without either money or orders.
One day I called at the castle, the front entrance of which I found closed. Gilrae, the owner, had come up from London, met his factor there, and discharged all the late tenant's servants, keeping on only three of his own who had been in service there for a number of years. Ann Cameron, a housemaid, was one of these, and it was she whom I met when entering by the servants' hall.
On questioning her, I found her most willing to describe how she was in the corridor outside the young mistress's room when Mr. Leithcourt dashed along in breathless haste with the telegram in his hand. She heard him cry: "Look at this! Read it, Muriel. We must go. Put on your things at once, my dear. Never mind about luggage. Every minute lost is of consequence. What!" he cried a moment later. "You won't go? You'll stay here—stay here and face them? Good Heavens! girl, are you mad? Don't you know what this means? It means that the secret is out—the secret is out, you hear! We must fly!"
The woman told me that she distinctly heard Miss Muriel sobbing, while her father walked up and down the room speaking rapidly in a low tone. Then he came out again and returned to his dressing-room, while Miss Muriel presumably changed from her evening-gown into a dark traveling-dress.
"Did she say anything to you?" I inquired.
"Only that they were called away suddenly, sir. But," the domestic added, "the young lady was very pale and agitated, and we all knew that something terrible had happened. Mrs. Leithcourt gave orders that nothing was to be told to the guests, who dined alone, believing that their host and hostess had gone down to the village to see an old man who was dying. That was the story we told them, sir."
"And in the meantime the Leithcourts were in the express going to Carlisle?"
"Yes, sir. They say in Dumfries that the police telegraphed after them, but they had reached Carlisle and evidently changed there, and so got away."
By the administration of a judicious tip I was allowed to go up to Miss Muriel's room, an elegantly furnished little chamber in the front of the fine old place, with a deep old-fashioned window commanding a magnificent view across the broad Nithsdale.
The room had been tidied by the maids, but allowed to remain just as she had left it. I advanced to the window, in which was set the large dressing-table with its big swing-mirror and silver-topped bottles, and on gazing out saw, to my surprise, it was the only window which gave a view of that corner of Rannoch Wood where the double tragedy had taken place. Indeed, any person standing at the spot would have a clear view of that one distant window while out of sight of all the rest. A light might be placed there at night as signal, for instance; or by day a towel might be hung from the window as though to dry and yet could be plainly seen at that distance.
Another object in the room also attracted my attention—a pair of long field-glasses. Had she used these to keep watch upon that spot?
I took them up and focused them upon the boundary of the wood, finding that I could distinguish everything quite plainly.
"That's where they found the man who was murdered," explained the servant, who still stood in the doorway.
"I know," I replied. "I was just trying the glasses." Then I put them down, and on turning saw upon the mantelshelf a small, bright-red candleshade, which I took in my hand. It was made, I found, to fit upon the electric table-lamp.
"Miss Muriel was very fond of a red light," explained the young woman; and as I held it I wondered if that light had ever been placed upon the toilet-table and the blind drawn up—whether it had ever been used as a warning of danger?
As I expressed a desire to see the young lady's boudoir, the maid Cameron took me down to the luxurious little room where, the first moment I entered, one fact struck me as peculiar. The picture of Elma Heath was no longer there. The photograph had been taken from its frame, and in its place was the portrait of a broad-browed, full-bearded man in a foreign military uniform—a picture that, being soiled and faded, had evidently been placed there to fill the empty frame.
Whose hand had secured that portrait before the Leithcourt's flight? Why, indeed, should I, for the second time, discover the unhappy girl's picture missing?
"Has the gentleman who called on the evening of Mr. Leithcourt's disappearance been back here again since he left the hospital?" I inquired as a sudden idea occurred to me.
"Yes, sir. He called here in a fly on the day he came out, and at his request I took him over the castle. He went into the library, and spent half-an-hour in pacing across it, taking measurements, and examining the big cupboard in which he was found insensible. It was a strange affair, sir," added the young woman, "wasn't it?"
"Very," I replied.
"The gentleman might have been in there now had I not gone into the library and found a lot of illustrated papers, which I always put in the cupboard to keep the place tidy, thrown out on to the floor. I went to put them back but discovered the door locked. The key I afterwards found in the grate, where Mr. Leithcourt had evidently thrown it, and on opening the door imagine the shock I had when I found the visitor lying doubled up. I, of course, thought he was dead."
"And when he returned here on his recovery, did he question you?"
"Oh, yes. He asked about the Leithcourts, and especially about Miss Muriel. I believe he's rather sweet on her, by the way he spoke. And really no better or kinder lady never breathed, I'm sure. We're all very sorry indeed for her."
"But she had nothing to do with the affair."
"Of course not. But she shares in the scandal and disgrace. You should have seen the effect of the news upon the guests when they knew that the Leithcourts had gone. It was a regular pandemonium. They ordered the best champagne out of the cellars and drank it, the men cleared all the cigar-boxes, and the women rummaged in the wardrobes until they seemed like a pack of hungry wolves. Everybody went away with their trunks full of the Leithcourt's things. They took whatever they could lay their hands on, and we, the servants, couldn't stop them. I did remonstrate with one lady who was cramming into her trunk two of Miss Muriel's best evening dresses, but she told me to mind my own business and leave the room. One man I saw go away with four of Mr. Leithcourt's guns, and there was a regular squabble in the billiard-room over a set of pearl and emerald dress-studs that somebody found in his dressing-room. Crane, the valet, says they tossed for them."
"Disgraceful!" I ejaculated. "Then as soon as the host and hostess had gone, they simply swept through the rooms and cleared them?"
"Yes, sir. They took away all that was most valuable. They'd have had the silver, only Mason had thrown it into the plate-chest, all dirty as it was, locked it up and hid the key. The plate was Mr. Gilrae's, you know, sir, and Mason was responsible."
"He acted wisely," I said, surprised at the domestic's story. "Why, the guests acted like a gang of thieves."
"They were, sir. They rushed all over the house like demons let loose, and they even stole some of our things. I lost a silver chain."
"And what did the stranger say when you told him of this?"
"He smiled. It did not seem to surprise him in the least, for after all his visit was the cause of the sudden breaking up of the party, wasn't it?"
"And did you show him over the whole house?" I inquired.
"Yes, sir," responded the servant. "Curiously enough he had with him what seemed to be a large plan of the castle, and as we went from room to room he compared it with his plan. He was here for hours, and told me he wanted to make a thorough examination of the place and didn't want to be disturbed. He also said that he might probably take the place for next season, if he liked it. I think, however, he only told me this because he thought I would be more patient while he took his measurements and made his investigations. He was here from twelve till nearly six o'clock, and went through every room, even up to the turrets."
"He came into this room, I suppose?"
"Yes, sir," she responded, with just a slight hesitation, I thought. "This was the room where he stayed the longest. There was a photograph in that frame over there," she added, indicating the frame that had held the picture of Elma Heath, "a portrait of a young lady, which he begged me to give him."
"And you gave it to him?" I cried quickly.
"Well—yes, sir. He begged so hard for it, saying that it was the portrait of a friend of his."
"And he gave you something handsome for it—eh?"
The young woman, whom I knew could not refuse half-a-sovereign, colored slightly and smiled.
"And who put that picture in its place?" I asked.
"I did, sir. I found it upstairs."
"He didn't tell you who the young lady was, I suppose?"
"No, sir. He only said that that was the only photograph that existed, and that she was dead."
"Dead!" I gasped, staring at her.
"Yes, sir. That was why he was so anxious for the picture."
Elma Heath dead! Could it be true? That sweet-pictured face haunted me as no other face had ever impressed itself upon my memory. It somehow seemed to impel me to endeavor to penetrate the mystery, and yet Hylton Chater had declared that she was dead! I recollected the remarkable letter from Abo, and her own declaration that her end was near. That letter was, she said, the last she should write to her friend. Did Hylton Chater actually possess knowledge of the girl's death? Had he all along been acquainted with her whereabouts? What the young woman told me upset all my plans. If Elma Heath were really dead, then she was beyond discovery, and the truth would be hidden forever.
"After he had put the photograph in his pocket, the gentleman made a most minute search in this room," the domestic went on. "He consulted his plan, took several measurements, and then tapped on the paneling all along this wall, as though he were searching for some hidden cupboard or hiding place. I looked at the plan, and saw a mark in red ink upon it. He was trying to discover that spot, and was greatly disappointed at not being able to do so. He was in here over an hour, and made a most careful search all around."
"And what explanation did he give?"
"He only said, 'If I find what I want, Ann, I shall make you a present of a ten-pound note.' That naturally made me anxious."
"He made no other remark about the young lady's death?" I inquired anxiously.
"No. Only he sighed, and looked steadily for a long time at the photograph. I saw his lips moving, but his words were inaudible."
"You haven't any idea of the reason why he called upon Mr. Leithcourt, I suppose?"
"From what he said, I've formed my own conclusions," was her answer.
"And what is your opinion?"
"Well, I feel certain that there is, or was, something concealed in this house that he's very anxious to obtain. He came to demand it of Mr. Leithcourt, but what happened in the library we don't know. He, however, believes that Mr. Leithcourt has not taken it away, and that, whatever it may be, it is still hidden here."
I SHOW MY HAND
On my return to London next day I made inquiry at the Admiralty and learned that the battleship Bulwark was lying at Palermo, therefore I telegraphed to Jack Durnford, and late the same afternoon his reply came at the Cecil:—
"Due in London twentieth. Dine with me at club that evening—Jack."
The twentieth! That meant nearly a month of inactivity. In that time I could cross to Abo, make inquiries there, and ascertain, perhaps, if Elma Heath were actually dead as Chater had declared.
Two facts struck me as remarkable: Baron Oberg was said to be Polish, while the dark-bearded proprietor of the restaurant in Westbourne Grove was also of the same nationality. Then I recollected that pretty little enameled cross that Mackenzie had found in Rannoch Wood, and it suddenly occurred to me that it might possibly be the miniature of one of the European orders of chivalry. In the club library at midnight I found a copy of Cappelletti's Storia degli Ordini Cavallereschi, the standard work on the subject, and on searching the illustrations I at length discovered a picture of it. It was a Russian order—the coveted Order of Saint Anne, bestowed by the Czar only upon persons who have rendered eminent services to the State and to the sovereign. One fact was now certain, namely, that the owner of that tiny cross, the small replica of the fine decoration, must be a person of high official standing.
Next day I spent in making inquiries with a view to discovering the house said to be occupied by Leithcourt. As it was not either in the Directory or the Blue Book, I concluded that he had perhaps rented it furnished, and after many inquiries and considerable difficulties I found that such was the fact. He had occupied the house of Lady Heathcote, a few doors from Grosvenor Square, for the previous season, although he had lived there but very little.
Where the fugitives were in hiding I had no idea. I longed to meet Muriel again and tell her what I had discovered, yet it was plain that the trio were concealing themselves from Hylton Chater, whom I supposed to be now back in London.
The autumn days were dull and rainy, and the streets were muddy and unpleasant, as they always are at the fall of the year. Compelled to remain inactive, I idled in the club with the recollection of that pictured face ever before me—the face of the unfortunate girl who wished her last message to be conveyed to Philip Hornby. What, I wondered, was her secret? What was really her fate?
This latter question troubled me until I could bear it no longer. I felt that it was my duty to go to Finland and endeavor to learn something regarding this Baron Oberg and his niece. Frank Hutcheson had written me declaring that the weather in Leghorn was now perfect, and expressing wonder that I did not return. I was his only English friend, and I knew how dull he was when alone. Even his Majesty's Consuls sometimes suffer from homesickness, and long for the smell of the London gutters and a glass of homely bitter ale.
But you, my reader, who have lived in a foreign land for any length of time, know well how wearisome becomes the life, however brilliant, and how sweet are the recollections of our dear gray old England with her green fields, her muddy lanes, and the bustling streets of her gray, grimy cities. You have but one "home," and England Is still your home, even though you may become the most bigoted of cosmopolitans and may have no opportunity of speaking your native tongue the whole year through.
Duty—the duty of a man who had learned strange facts and knew that a defenseless woman was a victim—called me to Finland. Therefore, with my passport properly vised and my papers all in order, I one night left Hull for Stockholm by the weekly Wilson service. Four days of rough weather in the North Sea and the Baltic brought me to the Swedish capital, whence on the following day I took the small steamer which plies three times a week around the Aland Islands, and then across the Gulf of Bothnia to Korpo, and through the intricate channels and among those low-lying islands to the gray lethargic town of Abo.
It was not the first occasion on which I had trod Russian soil, and I knew too well the annoyances of the bureaucracy. Finland, however, is perhaps the most severely governed of any of the Czar's dominions, and I had my first taste of its stern, relentless officialdom at the moment of landing on the half-deserted quay.
In the wooden passport office the uniformed official, on examining my passport, discovered that at the Russian Consulate-General they had forgotten to date the vise which had been impressed with a rubber stamp. It was signed by the Consul-General, but the date was missing, whereupon the man shook his head and handed back the document curtly, saying in Russian, which I understood fairly well, although I spoke badly—
"This is not in order. It must be returned to London and dated before you can proceed."
"But it is not my fault," I protested. "It is the fault of the clerk at the Consulate-General."
"You should have examined it before leaving. You must send it to London, and return to Stockholm by to-night's boat."
"But this is outrageous!" I cried, as he had already taken the papers of a passenger behind me and was looking at them with unconcern.
"Enough!" he exclaimed, glaring at me. "You will return to-night, or if you choose to stay you will be arrested for landing without a passport."
"I shall not go back!" I declared defiantly. "Your Consul-General vised my passport, and I claim, under international law, to be allowed to proceed without hindrance."
"The steamer leaves at six o'clock," he remarked without looking up. "If you are in Abo after that it will be at your own risk."
"I am English, recollect," I said.
"To me it does not matter what or who you are. Your passport, undated, is worthless."
"I shall complain to the Ambassador at Petersburg."
"Your Ambassador does not interest me in the least. He is not Ambassador here in Finland. There is no Czar here."
"Oh! Who is ruler in this country, pray?"
"His Excellency the Governor-General, an official who has love for neither England nor the pigs of English. So recollect that."
"Yes," I said meaningly, "I shall recollect it." And I turned and went out of the little wooden office, replacing my passport in my pocket-book.
I had already been directed to the hotel, and walked there, but as I did so I saw that I was already under the surveillance of the police, for two men in plain clothes who were lounging outside the passport-office strolled on after me, evidently to watch my movements. Truly Finland was under the iron-heel of autocracy.
After taking my rooms, I strolled about the flat, uninteresting town, wondering how best to commence my search. If I had but a photograph to show people it would give me a great advantage, but I had nothing. I had never, indeed, set eyes upon the unfortunate girl.
Six o'clock came. I heard the steam siren of the departing boat bound for Sweden, but I was determined to remain there at whatever cost, therefore I returned to the hotel, and at seven dined comfortably in company with a German who had been my fellow-passenger across from Stockholm.
At eight o'clock, however, just as we were idling over dessert, two gray-coated police officers entered and arrested me on the serious charge of landing without a passport.
I accompanied them to the police-office, where I was ushered into the presence of the big, bristly Russian who held the town of Abo in terror, the Chief of Police. The officials which Russia sends into Finland are selected for their harsh discipline and hide-bound bureaucracy, and this human machine in uniform was no exception. Had he been the Minister of the Interior himself, he could not have been more self-opinionated.
"Well?" he snapped, looking up at me as I was placed before him. "Your name is Gordon Gregg, English, from Stockholm. No passport, and decline to leave even though warned—eh?"
"I have a passport," I said firmly, producing it.
He looked at it, and pointing with his finger, said: "It has no date, and is therefore worthless."
"The fault is not mine, but that of a Russian official. If you wish it to be dated, you may send it to your Consulate-General in London."
"I shall not," he cried, glaring at me angrily. "And for your insult to the law, I shall commit you to prison for one month. Perhaps you will then learn Russian manners."
"Oh! so you will commit an Englishman to prison for a month, without trial—eh? That's very interesting! Perhaps if you attempt such a thing as that they may have something to say about it in Petersburg."
"You defy me!"
"Not in the least. I have presented my passport and demand common courtesy."
"Your passport is worthless, I tell you!" he cried. "There, that's how much it is worth to me!" And snatching it up he tore it in half and tossed the pieces of blue paper in my face.
My blood was up at this insult, yet I bit my lips and remained quite calm.
"Perhaps you will kindly tell me who you are?" I asked in as quiet a voice as I could command.
"With pleasure. I am Michael Boranski, Chief of Police of the Province of Abo-Biornebourg."
"Ah! Well, Michael Boranski, I shall trouble you to pick up my passport, stick it together again, and apologize to me."
"Apologize! Me apologize!" And the fellow laughed aloud, while the police officers on either side of me grinned from ear to ear.
"Refuse? Certainly I do!"
"Very well, then," I said, re-opening my pocket-book and taking out an open letter. "Perhaps you will kindly glance at that. It is in Russian, so you can read it."
He snatched it from me with ill-grace, but not without curiosity. And then, as he read the lines, his face changed and he went paler. Raising his head, he stood staring at me open-mouthed in amazement.
"I apologize to your Excellency!" he gasped, blanched to the lips. "I most humbly apologize. I—I did not know. You told me nothing!"
"Perhaps you will kindly mend my passport, and give it a proper vise."
In an instant he was up from his chair, and having gathered the torn paper from the floor, proceeded to paste it together. On the back he endorsed that it had been torn by accident, and then gave it the proper vise, affixing the stamps.
"I trust, Excellency," he said, bowing low as he handed it to me, "I trust that this affair will not trouble you further. I assure you I had no intention of insulting you."
"Yes, you had!" I said. "You insulted me merely because I am English. But recollect in future that the man who insults an Englishman generally pays for it, and I do not intend to let this pass. There is a higher power in Finland than even the Governor-General."
"But, Excellency," whined the fellow who only ten minutes ago had been such an insulting bully, "I shall lose my position. I have a wife and six children—my wife is delicate, and my pay here is not a large one. You will forgive, won't you, Excellency? I have apologized—I most humbly apologize."
And he took up the letter I had given him, holding it gingerly with trembling fingers. And well he might, for the document was headed:
"MINISTER OF THE IMPERIAL HOUSEHOLD, PALACE OF PETERHOF.
"The bearer of this is one Gordon Francis Gregg, British subject, whom it is Our will and command that he shall be Our guest during his journey through our dominion. And we hereby command all Governors of Provinces and minor officials to afford him all the facilities he requires and privileges and immunities as Our guest."
The above decree was in a neat copper-plate handwriting in Russian, while beneath was the sprawling signature of the ruler of one hundred and thirty millions of people, that signature that was all-powerful from the gulf of Bothnia to the Pacific—"Nicholas."
The document was the one furnished to me a year before when, at the invitation of the Russian Government, I had gone on a mission of inquiry into the state of the prisons in order to see, on behalf of the British public, whether things were as black as some writers had painted them. It had been my intention to visit the far-off penal settlements in Northern Siberia, but having gone through some twenty prisons in European Russia, my health had failed and I had been compelled to return to Italy to recuperate. The document had therefore remained in my possession because I intended to resume my journey in the following summer. It was in order that I should be permitted to go where I liked, and to see what I liked without official hindrance, that his Majesty the Emperor had, at the instigation of the Ministry of the Interior, given me that most valuable document.
Sight of it had changed the Chief of Police from a burly bully into a whining coward, for he saw that he had torn up the passport of a guest of the Czar, and the consequence was most serious if I complained. He begged of me to pardon him, urging all manner of excuses, and humbling himself before me as well as before his two inferiors, who now regarded me with awe.
"I will atone for the insult in any way your high Excellency desires," declared the official. "I will serve your Excellency in any way he may command."
His words suggested a brilliant idea. I had this man in my power; he feared me.
"Well," I said after some reluctance, "there is a little matter in which you might be of some assistance. If you will, I will reconsider my decision of complaining to Petersburg."
"And what is that, Excellency?" he gasped eagerly.
"I desire to know the whereabouts of a young English lady named Elma Heath," I said, and I wrote down the name for him upon a piece of paper. "Age about twenty, and was at school at Chichester, in England. She is a niece of a certain Baron Oberg."
"Baron Oberg!" he repeated, looking at me rather strangely, I thought.
"Yes, as she is a foreigner she will be registered in your books. She is somewhere in your province, but where I do not know. Tell me where she is, and I will say nothing more about my passport," I added.
"Then your high Excellency wishes to see the young lady?" he said reflectively, with the paper in his hand.
"In that case, it being commanded by the Emperor that I shall serve your Excellency, I will have immediate inquiries made," was his answer. "When I discover her whereabouts, I will do myself the pleasure of calling at your Excellency's hotel."
And I left the fellow, very satisfied that I had turned his officiousness and hatred of the English to very good account.
On that gray, dreary northern coast the long winter was fast setting in. Poor oppressed Finland suffers under a hard climate with August frosts, an eight months' winter in the north, and five months of frost in the south. Idling in sleepy Abo, where the public buildings were so mean and meager and the houses for the most part built of wood, I saw on every hand the disastrous result of the attempted Russification of the country. The hand of the oppressor, that official sent from Petersburg to crush and to conquer, was upon the honest Finnish nation. The Russian bureaucracy was trying to destroy its weaker but more successful neighbor, and in order to do so employed the harshest and most unscrupulous officials it could import.
My fellow-traveler from Stockholm, who represented a firm of paper-makers in Hamburg, and who paid an annual visit to Abo and Helsingfors, acted as my guide around the town, while I awaited the information from the humbled Chief of Police. My German friend pointed out to me how, since Russia placed her hand upon Finland, progress had been arrested, and certainly plain evidences were on every hand. There was growing discontent everywhere, for many of the newspapers had recently been suppressed and the remainder were under a severe censorship; agriculture had already decreased, and many of the cotton-spinning and saw mills were silent and deserted. The exploitation of those gigantic forests from which millions of trunks were floated down to the sea annually had now been suspended, the great landowners were deserting the country, and there was silence and depression everywhere. Finland had been separated for economic purposes from the more civilized countries, and bound to the poverty-stricken, artificially isolated and oppressed Russia. The double-headed eagle was everywhere, and the people sat silent and brooding beneath its black shadow.
"There will be an uprising here before long," declared the German confidentially, as we were taking tea one day on the wooden balcony of the hotel where the sea and the low-lying islands stretched out before us in the pale yellow of the autumn sundown. "The people will revolt, as they did in Poland. The Finnish Government can only appeal to the Czar through the Governor-General, and one can easily imagine that their suggestions never reach the Emperor. It is said here that the harsher and more corrupt the official, the greater honor does he receive from Petersburg. But trouble is brewing for Russia," he added. "A very serious trouble—depend upon it."
I looked upon the gray dismal scene, the empty port, the silent quay, the dark line of gloomy pine forest away beyond the town, the broken coast and the wide expanse of water glittering in the northern sunset. Yes. The very silence seemed to forbode evil and mystery. Truly what I saw of Finland impressed me even more than what I had witnessed in the far-off eastern provinces of European Russia.
My object, however, was not to inquire into the internal condition of Finland, or of her resentment of her powerful conqueror. I was there to find that unfortunate girl who had written so strangely to her old school friend and whose portrait had, for some hidden reason, been destroyed.
On the morning of the third day after my arrival at Abo, while sitting on the hotel veranda reading an old copy of the Paris Journal, many portions of which had been "blacked out" by the censor, the Chief of Police, in his dark green uniform, entered and saluted before me.
"Your Excellency, may I be permitted to speak with you in private?"
"Certainly," I responded, rising and conducting him to my bedroom, where I closed the door, invited him to a seat, and myself sat upon the edge of the bed.
"I have made various inquiries," he said, "and I think I have found the lady your Excellency is seeking. My information, however, must be furnished to you in strictest confidence," he added, "because there are reasons why I should withhold her whereabouts from you."
"What do you mean?" I inquired. "What reasons?"
"Well—the lady is living in Finland in secret."
"Then she is alive!" I exclaimed quickly. "I thought she was dead."
"To the world she is dead," responded Michael Boranski, stroking his red beard. "For that reason the information I give you must be treated as confidential."
"Why should she be in hiding? She is guilty of no offense—is she?"
The man shrugged his shoulders, but did not reply.
"And this Baron Oberg? You tell me nothing of him," I said with dissatisfaction.
"How can I when I know nothing, Excellency?" was his response.
I felt certain that the fellow was not speaking the truth, for I had noticed his surprise when I had first uttered the mysterious nobleman's name.
"As I have already said, Excellency, I am desirous of atoning for my insult, and will serve you in every manner I can. For that reason I had sought news of the young English lady—the Mademoiselle Heath."
"But you have all foreigners registered in your books," I said. "The search was surely not a difficult one. I know your police methods in Russia too well," I laughed.
"No, the lady was not registered," he said. "There was a reason."
"I have told you, Excellency. She is in hiding."
"I regret that much as I desire, I dare not appear to have any connection with your quest. But I will direct you. Indeed, I will give you instructions to a second person to take you to her."
"Is she in Abo?"
"No. Away in the country. If your Excellency will be down at the end of the quay to-morrow at noon you will find a carriage in waiting, and the driver will have full instructions how to take you to her and how to act. Follow his directions implicitly, for he is a man I can trust."
"To-morrow!" I cried anxiously. "Why not to-day? I am ready to go at any moment."
The Chief of Police remained thoughtful for a few moments, then said—
"Well, if I could find the man, you might go to-day. Yet it is a long way, and you would not return before to-morrow."
"The roads are safe, I suppose? I don't mind driving in the night."
The official glanced at the clock, and rising exclaimed—
"Very well, I will send for the man. If we find him, then the carriage will be at the same spot at the eastern end of the quay in two hours."
"At noon. Very well. I shall keep the appointment."
"And after seeing her, you will of course keep your promise of secrecy regarding our little misunderstanding?" he asked anxiously.
"I have already given my word," was the response; and the man bowed and left, much, I think, to the surprise of the hotel-proprietor and his staff. It was an unusual thing for such a high official as the Chief of Police to visit one of their guests in person. If he desired to interview any of them, he commanded them to attend at his office, or they were escorted there by his gray-coated agents.
The day was cold, with a biting wind from the icy north, when after a hasty luncheon I put on my overcoat and strolled along the deserted quay where I lounged at the further end, watching the approach of a great pontoon of pine logs that had apparently floated out of one of the rivers and was now being navigated to the port by four men who seemed every moment in imminent danger of being washed off the raft into the sea as the waves broke over and drenched them. They had, however, lashed themselves to their raft, I saw, and now slowly piloted the great floating platform towards the quay.
I think I must have waited half an hour, when my attention was suddenly attracted by the rattle of wheels over the stones, and turning I saw an old closed carriage drawn by three horses abreast, with bells upon the harness, approaching me rapidly. When it drew up, the driver, a burly-looking, fair-headed Finn in a huge sheepskin overcoat, motioned me to enter, urging in broken Russian—
"Quickly, Excellency!—quickly!—you must not be seen!"
And then the instant I was seated, and before I could close the door, the horses plunged forward and we were tearing at full gallop out of the town.
For five miles or so we skirted the sea along a level, well-made road through a barren wind-swept country whence the meager harvest had already been garnered. There were no villages. All around was a houseless land, rolling miles of brown and green, broken and checkered by bits of forest and clumps of dark melancholy pines. The road ran ever and anon right down to where the cold, green waves broke upon the rocky shore. In a few weeks that coast would be ice-bound and snow-covered, and then the silence of the God-forsaken country would be complete.
After five miles or so, the driver pulled up and descended to readjust his harness, whereupon I got out and asked him in the best Russian I could command:
"Where are we going?"
"How far is that?"
"Sixty-eight," was his reply.
I took him to imply kilometres, as being a Finn he would not speak of versts.
"The Chief of Police has given you directions?" I asked.
"His high Excellency has told me exactly what to do," was the man's answer, as he took out his huge wooden pipe and filled it. "You wish to see the young lady?"
"Yes," I answered, "to first see her, and I do not know whether it will be necessary for me to make myself known to her. Where is she?"
"Beyond Nystad," was his vague answer with a wave of his big fat hand in the direction of the dark pine forest that stretched before us. "We shall be there about an hour after sundown."
Then I re-entered the stuffy old conveyance that rocked and rolled as we dashed away over the uneven forest road, and sat wondering to what manner of place I was being conducted.
Elma Heath was in hiding. Why? I recollected her curious letter and remembered every word of it. She wished Hornby to know that she had never revealed her secret. What secret, I wondered?
I lit an abominable cigar, and tried to smoke, but I was too filled with anxiety, too bewildered by the maze of mystery in which I now found myself. Two hours later we pulled up before a long log-built post-house just beyond a small town in a hollow that faced the sea, and I alighted to watch the steaming horses being replaced by a trio of fresh ones. The place was Dadendal, I was informed, and the proprietor of the place, when I entered and tossed off a liqueur-glass of cognac, pointed out to me a row of granite buildings fallen much to decay as the ancient convent.
Then, resuming our journey, the short day quickly drew to a close, the sun sank yellow and watery over the towering pines through which we went mile after mile, a dense, interminable forest wherein the wolves lurked in winter, often rendering the road dangerous.
The temperature fell, and it froze again. Through the window in front I could see the big Finn driver throwing his arms across his shoulders to promote circulation, in the same manner as does the London "cabby."
When night drew on we changed horses again at a small, dirty post-house in the forest, at the edge of a lake, and then pushed forward again, although it was already long past the hour at which he had said we should arrive.
Time passed slowly in the darkness, for we had no light, and the horses seemed to find their way by instinct. The rolling of the lumbering old vehicle after six hours had rendered me sleepy, I think, for I recollect closing my eyes and conjuring up that strange scene on board the Lola.
Indeed, I suppose I must have slept, for I was awakened by a light shining into my face and the driver shaking me by the shoulder. When I roused myself and, naturally, inquired the reason, he placed his finger mysteriously upon my lips, saying:
"Hush, your high nobility, hush! Come with me. But make no noise. If we are discovered, it means death for us—death. Come, give me your hand. Slowly. Tread softly. See, here is the boat. I will get in first. We shall not be heard upon the water. So."
And the fellow led me, half-dazed, down to the bank of a broad, dark river which I could just distinguish—he led me to an unknown bourne.
THE CASTLE OF THE TERROR
The big Finn had, I found, tied up his horses, and in the heavy old boat he rowed me down the swollen river which ran swift and turbulent around a sudden bend and then seemed to open out to a great width. In the starlight I could distinguish that it stretched gray and level to a distance, and that the opposite bank was fringed with pines.
"Where are we going?" I asked my guide in a low voice. But he only whispered:
"Hush! Excellency! Remain patient, and you shall see the young Englishwoman."
So I sat in the boat, while he allowed it to drift with the current, steering it with the great heavy oars. The river suddenly narrowed again, with high pines on either bank, a silent, lonesome reach, perhaps indeed one of the loneliest spots in all Europe. Once the dismal howl of a wolf sounded close to where we passed, but my guide made no remark.
After nearly a mile, the stream again opened out into a broad lake where, in the distance, I saw rising sheer and high from the water, a long square building of three stories, with a tall round tower at one corner—an old medieval castle it seemed to be. From one of the small windows of the tower, as we came into view of it, a light was shining upon the water, and my guide seeing it, grunted in satisfaction. It had undoubtedly been placed there as signal.
With great caution he approached the place, keeping in the deep shadow of the bank until we came exactly opposite the flanking-tower. In the lighted window I distinctly saw a dark figure of someone appear for a moment, and then my guide struck a match and held it in his fingers until it was wholly consumed.
Almost instantly the light was extinguished, and then, after waiting five minutes or so, he pulled straight across the lake to the high, dark tower that descended into the water. The place was as grim and silent as any I had ever seen, an impregnable stronghold of the days before siege guns were invented, the fortress of some feudal prince or count who had probably held the surrounding country in thraldom.
I put my hand against the black, slimy wall to prevent the boat bumping, and then distinguished just beyond me a small wooden ledge and half-a-dozen steps which led up to a low arched door. The latter had opened noiselessly, and the dark figure of a woman stood peering forth.
My guide uttered some reassuring word in Finnish in a low half-whisper, and then slowly pushed the boat along to the ledge, saying:
"Your high nobility may disembark. There is at present no danger."
I rose, gripped a big rusty chain to steady myself, and climbed into the narrow doorway in the ponderous wall, where I found myself in the darkness beside the female who had apparently been expecting our arrival and watching our signal.
Without a word she led me through a short passage, and then, striking a match, lit a big old-fashioned lantern. As the light fell upon her features I saw they were thin and hard, with deep-set eyes and a stray wisp of silver across her wrinkled brow. Around her head was a kind of hood of the same stuff as her dress, a black, coarse woolen, while around her neck was a broad linen collar. In an instant I recognized that she was a member of some religious order, some minor order perhaps, with whose habit we, in Italy, were not acquainted.
The thin ascetic countenance was that of a woman of strong character, and her funereal habit seemed much too large for her stunted, shrunken figure.
"The sister speaks French?" I hazarded in that language, knowing that in most convents throughout Europe French is known.
"Oui, m'sieur," was her answer. "And a leetle Engleesh, too—a ve-ry leetle," she smiled.
"You know why I am here?" I said, gratified that at least one person in that lonesome country could speak my own tongue.
"Yes, I have already been told," was her answer with a strong accent, as we stood in that small, bare stone room, a semicircular chamber in the tower, once perhaps a prison. "But are you not afraid to venture here?" she asked.
"Well—because no strangers are permitted here, you know. If your presence here was discovered you would not leave this place alive—so I warn you."
"I am prepared to risk that," I said, smiling; at the same time my hand instinctively sought my hip-pocket to ascertain that my weapon was safe. "I wish to see Miss Elma Heath."
The old nun nodded, fumbling with her lantern. I glanced at my watch and found that it was already two o'clock in the morning.
"Remember that if you are discovered here you exonerate me of all blame?" she said, raising her head and peering into my face with her keen gray eyes. "By admitting you I am betraying my trust, and that I should not have done were it not compulsory."
"The order of the Chief of Police. Even here, we cannot afford to offend him."
So the fellow Boranski had really kept faith with me, and at his order the closed door of the convent had been opened.
"Of course not," I answered. "Russian officialdom is all-powerful in Finland nowadays. But where is the lady?"
"You are still prepared to risk your liberty and life?" she asked in a hoarse voice, full of grim meaning.
"I am," I said. "Lead me to her."
"And when you see her you will make no effort to speak with her? Promise me that."
"Ah, Sister!" I cried. "You are asking too great a sacrifice of me. I come here from England, nay, from Italy in search of her, to question her regarding a strange mystery and to learn the truth. Surely I may be permitted to speak with her?"
"You wish to learn the truth, sir!" remarked the woman. "I thought you were her lover—that you merely wished to see her once again."
"No, I am not her lover," I answered. "Indeed, we have never yet met. But I am in search of the truth from her own lips."
"That you will never learn," she said, in a hard, changed voice.
"Because there is a conspiracy to preserve the secret!" I cried. "But I intend to solve the mystery, and for that reason I have traveled here from England."
The woman with the lantern smiled sadly, as though amused by my impetuosity.
"You are on Russian soil now, m'sieur, not English," she remarked in her broken English. "If your object were known, you would never be spared to return to your own land. Ah!" she sighed, "you do not know the mysteries and terrors of Finland. I am a French subject, born in Tours, and brought to Helsingfors when I was fifteen. I have been in Finland forty-five years. Once we were happy here, but since the Czar appointed Baron Oberg to be Governor-General——" and she shrugged her shoulders without finishing her sentence.
"Baron Oberg—Governor-General of Finland!" I gasped.
"Certainly. Did you not know?" she said, dropping into French. "It is four years now that he has held supreme power to crush and Russify these poor Finns. Ah, m'sieur! this country, once so prosperous, is a blot upon the face of Europe. His methods are the worst and most unscrupulous of any employed by Russia. Before he came here he was the best hated man in Petersburg, and that, they say, is why the Emperor sent him to us."
"And he is uncle of this young lady, Elma Heath?"
"Uncle? Ah! I don't know that, m'sieur. I have never been told so. His niece—poor young lady!—can that be? Surely not!"
"Why not?" I asked.
But the woman gave me no reason; she only exhibited her palms and sighed. She seemed to have compassion upon the girl I sought; her heart was really softer than I had believed it to be.
"Where does this Baron live?" I asked, surprised that he should occupy so high a place in Russian officialdom—the representative of the Czar, with powers as great as the Emperor himself.
"At the Government Palace, in Helsingfors."
"And Elma Heath is here—in this grim fortress! Why?"
"Ah, m'sieur, how can I tell? By reason of family secrets, perhaps. They account for so much, you know."